Archive for the 'Ideas' Category

MY LIFEHACKS #3

4 March 2013

THIS IS ANOTHER PHOTOGRAPHY LIFEHACK.

At one time, life was simpler; there would be just one family camera, and it would take all the pictures of the children growing up, the holidays, the life events.

But now, things are considerably more complicated because we can take pictures with a range of devices. In our household at the moment, my daughter can take pictures with her pink camera, her phone, and her Nintendo DSi. My son has a blue camera, a DS, and an underwater camera.  We still have a family camera that takes videoclips as well as jpg files, and of course, we have smartphones, videocameras and probably more things if we really thought about it!

Each device labels each photograph and video file in an unhelpful way – something like 023456IMG.jpg – and we would rather not spend time renaming and tagging all this stuff – so what’s the best way to organise our data? What is the best way to manage photographs and video clips?

[Picture of irfanview logo]Well, for us, the answer is to use a free program called IRFANVIEW. This may be downloaded from irfanview.com.

Put a batch of pictures and clips in a folder, download and install irfanview, then select a picture (a *.jpg) in Windows Explorer – right click and select “Open with…” then pick irfanview.

When the picture opens in irfanview’s viewer, type in the letter “b” from the keyboard to do a batch rename. There is a special code that converts the filename into a date and timestamp, regardless of what device was used to take the picture or clip.

The code is:
$T(%Y%m%d_%H%M%S)
This is year, month, day, hours, minutes and seconds, it is very unlikely that two photographs would be taken at exactly the same time, so it is a great way to rename all your files from all your devices – it sorts them all chronologically, but the EXIF information (the data about the camera used etc) remains intact.

batchscreenshot

[Click on this image to enlarge for detail if required]

Simply “Add all” and let the batch run. All the files are renamed!  Simple.

[Picasa logo]

If tagging is important (hidden – but searchable – data about the location, who is in the photo, etc), then the long-term quickest way, I think, is to use Google’s picasa program. It’s free to use, download it from picasa.google.co.uk.

Once downloaded and installed, let it look through all your pictures. It will recognise human faces and offer them to you to tag. That is not as laborious as it sounds; it learns who the person is (somehow), so when you tag a face once, it looks through every picture you have to find and tag that person’s face wherever it finds it. Brilliant!

Of course, there will be times when it is not sure, so it will ask you to confirm that the face it thinks is someone is actually correct.

Now, once the program has done all that, it can display groupings. You can see a group of pictures containing a particular person. You can then select all of them and add that person’s name as a tag.  A proper image tag. A tag than can be uploaded to flikr or read by anyone’s device.

In Windows 7, you can tag pictures in Windows Explorer, so you can add a tag for a holiday batch or whatever you fancy.

CHOOSE LIFE

I like to get computers to do the work; I have a life.  That is what computers are supposed to be for, isn’t it?

I use irfanview to rename all my files chronologically and uniquely.  I use picasa to recognise people and group them for tagging.  I use a python flikr uploader script (see My Lifehack#2) to take the pain out of uploading loads of files to flikr.  I use flikr to organise, group into sets and collections, to share and to back-up all my stuff to the cloud.

It is all completely free of cost too. Free and easy. Takes no effort nor time once set up; the computer does all the hard work for you. And that’s how it should be; it lets you get on with more fun things in life. Enjoy!

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MY LIFEHACKS #2

2 February 2013

WE JOINED FLIKR BACK IN 2005 JUST AFTER IT WAS ACQUIRED BY YAHOO!

[ logo Flickr wordmark.svg]My wife and I both enjoy photography – she studied it properly, and I have had a darkroom all my life. It has to be said that the darkroom got used less and less over the years as digital photography has increased.

In recent times, we’ve all changed. The world has changed.

  • Flikr has changed considerably; they offer a free terabyte of cloudspace for videos and photographs;
  • We all have mobile devices and wifi almost everywhere;
  • We have faster broadband;
  • We all want to share, but keep ownership rights and privacy controls (so instagram, facebook etc are no good);
  • We have loads of photos and videoclips of the children growing up that we need to back-up to somewhere safe;
  • Other members of the family have also been taking pictures and videos of their children, and more.

I recalled that my parents used to have a big cardboard box full of loose black-and-white photographs, small, square Polaroids, wallets with sets of pictures and nagatives in a flap-sleeve.  It was heaving with originals taken at countless birthdays, Hogmanays, holidays, Christmasses, Christenings and weddings. Where this box has gone, where these photographs are, I will never know.

I suppose many families have similar scenarios.  Someone gets the albums, and everyone else loses out.

In a photograph of two people, unless a copy is made, one person loses out.  This is why sites like flikr.com are so important – a picture uploaded there can be accessed by all the people in the picture anytime.  It can be downloaded and printed or saved as desired or required – or merely accessed on a device whenever and from wherever. This is a wonderful development to my mind.

The internet and computing in general is often annoying; there are  a lot of drawbacks, but when it all can help people, when it can enrich real lives, and record family history and events, then I am all for it.

Although I can’t see old pictures of myself and my family, I can certainly make sure that my children and my family can access every picture and videoclip ever taken of them by us from the moment they are born.

All anyone has to do is join flikr for free at flikr.com you can sign up or sign in with a facebook,  yahoo! mail or gmail account – it’s pretty easy.  Then upload some pictures and videoclips.  You can drag and drop to upload.

Then you can organise the pictures into sets.  You can rotate the pictures, and you get the picture converted into all sorts of sizes and from all sorts of formats.  You can even manipulate them online – remove red eye etc. It is very cool, and all free.

You can upload from phones and tablets and more besides.

UPLOADING – PROBLEMS AND SOLUTION

The biggest problem I found was uploading for the purposes of backing-up. Archiving thousands of pictures and clips was painful – the rate of upload, verification, conversion, and publishing was excrutiatingly slow – and often  would fail.  I got the official desktop uploader, but that was the same.  I tried a few other apps, and was about to either forget it or resign myself to uploading each video one by one over months… when I came across a program written in python that is wonderful.

This program not only uploads both pictures and videos, but it uses the folder path in Microsoft Windows to create folders in flikr. easy. It doesn’t care if the connection is slow, or if it you are disconnected; it carries on regardless and in the background. This is a game-changer, and really does make flikr a place you can upload an archive’s worth of files. I ran a little test first to get confidence, the feeling I got when I saw that it worked was something, let me tell ya. You have to edit an ini file – just tell it where the stuff is really. This is what it looks like when you open the file downloaded:

////start of code////

[DEFAULT]

#
# Location to scan for new images (no trailing \)
#
imagedir=d:\pictures <– I CHANGED THIS TO h:\photographs
#
#   File we keep the history of uploaded images in.
#
history_file=history

#visible 1, invisible 0
public= 0
friend = 1 <– I CHANGED THIS TO 0
family = 1

#set this to true if name of the auto generated flickr sets should be only name of the last sub folder e.g. Crete when folder is d:\testpictures\holidays\Crete\123img.jpg
only_sub_sets  = false <– I CHANGED THIS TO TRUE

#Start from scratch! If you want to delete first everything you have in your Flickr account then set this to true
#This is handy if you messed up your uploads before or just want to start from the begining.
#Once everything is deleted turn this feature off so you wont keep deleting your pics in your cron job!
#WARNING!!! IF SET TO true THIS WILL DELETE EVERYTHING (pictures and videos) FROM YOUR FLICKR ACCOUNT
#SO BE 100% SURE YOU WANT TO DO THIS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
#NOTE: The tool will not start uploading pictures unless this is set to false in order to prevent delete-upload-delete-upload loops

remove_all_pics_first = false
////end of code////

That was pretty easy (you do not have to be a computer genius programmer or anything). Anyway, if you have thousands of files you want to upload and organise on flikr, you get this program from here: http://code.google.com/p/folders2flickr/wiki/Instructions

It’s all free of charge, and nothing bad can happen, so enjoy!

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MY LIFEHACKS #1

5 January 2013

[Picture of Fisher Space Pen Silver Bullet]OVER 15 YEARS AGO, I got chatting with Paul Billington about design ideas and lifehacks, and he told me that he always carried with him a small pencil from Ikea, or one of those small pens from the bookies, and one of those small square Post-It Note pads.

This was genius to me.

I was so convinced that I immediately started this habit, and have thanked him ever since.

My pen is a Fisher Silver Bullet Space Pen – one that is small (94mm) but good quality; it doesn’t feel cheap. It’s always in my right side trouser pocket. Always. It has a great form factor or fiddle-with quality — that in itself is a bonus de-stress device.  This pen writes underwater, upside down and onto surfaces that are no good with ordinary everyday pens.

I don’t feel right without this pen, and I have lost a couple over the years. Those periods without having my pen on me are so weird – and very short due to my impatience to return to normality.

[Picture of 3in square Post It Note Pad]The partner  to the Silver Bullet is the square Post-it pad. Butternut is the colour apparently. These are brilliant, and the sticky section makes then far better than diaries or bound notepads like Filofaxes.  Brand new pads are too thick to carry around, so I usually pull off a thinner pack.

So what do I do with this pen and paper combo? — Well, really, the question is what would I do without them on me at all times. I have walked around, snagging jobs, scribbling notes and comments and sticking them right where the problem is. I have even decorated houses in Sweden by sticking notes about colours to paint walls, and other instructions.

In traffic incidents, I have left notes on windscreens. If I visit someone who is out, I leave a sticky message saying I called. Notes to neighbours, memos to the self. I take orders for drinks (and food) at bars and restaurants. Really, this is so useful – I’ve even scribbled “Out of Order” for things I come across, just to help the next guy along.

I developed a system at work for recording jobs and tasks allocated to people. These could be unstuck and repositioned to reflect urgency and priority.  I have used the wall behind my desk, and I have used an A4 sized notepad to stick in tasks, notes and messages – and rearrange them as I wish.

At home I carried on with this office notepad system, such that if I post a  note to remind me of a refund I am expecting (for example), I can unstick and carry it forward each day and onto each page until the matter is resolved. I don’t always throw them away – just score through to show they are resolved. I have notebooks full of them as a record.

My habit is to date the note at the top with a completed date on bottom. I have experimented with different coloured post-its in the office, but ended up with different coloured pens. It has helped me keep track of the schedules of my children and when bills are due. It is such a simple and easy way to get organised.

These days I use a lot of features and apps on my phone and other devices – but I still have to rely a lot on my pen and post it system.

Everyone knows I always have them on me, especially my children – who have always loved drawing little pictures when bored.

Everyday I thank Paul for this idea that really did change my life for the better.

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WEBSITES TODAY

24 September 2012

[Graphic of social site logos]AS A SNAPSHOT of time, I thought I would ramble on about blogs and those parts of the internet I find useful or interesting. Why not, it could be fun looking back someday!

Social sites were probably kicked-off by Friends Reunited. Soon, came Bebo aiming at younger users. Music and kids combined on MySpace (which has undergone a revamp recently). It is probably fair to say that social sites now are dominated by Facebook, and the professional version of this would be Linkedin.

I have to say that I have not really been interested in any of these social sites; they just seem crass to me — they suck effort and time and give little back. They also have a worrying lack of privacy, and with tie-ins to various personal devices seem to invite identity theft or even “cyberbullying”.

[Graphic - twitter]I do not mind Twitter because you can follow interesting people you will never meet, and you can participate in many ways, to whatever level you are comfortable with — and do so anonymously. If you use Twitter, you might find Twimemachine good for searching historical tweets, and Splitweet for managing different accounts.

There are other sites that can sort-of be considered “social sites”, but are less about sharing your life’s minutiae and more about sharing the good stuff.

Unique to the medium is the hyperlink — and the site for sharing links and sites  you like would be  Stumbleupon, I used to use this a lot via the browser toolbar, but it quickly tried to become Facebook, and workplaces put it on the banned list, so it was back to sending links by e-mail and IM!

Tip: to shorten long URL links, I use Tinyurl.com (or the browser add-on button version).

Because the internet is an image-biased medium, I guess social sites really kicked off with digital photographs. I’m thinking here of Flikr, Pinterest, and Tumblr. and recently I’ve seen the rise of Instagram and Backspace for sharing pictures taken with smartphones. Again, though, they’re not really for me.

[Graphic - WordPress]Having said that, I have used blogging providers, like Blogger and WordPress, and my wife has tied in Flikr to share our  photographs, but it’s easier to just use the blog as it keeps things private yet easy to see/download by the folk that matter.

[Graphic Reddit Alien]Over the years, when I have fancied a chuckle, I have headed over to Fark or Reddit. Reddit has an image site that is a lot of fun too — Imgr. If you like Reddit, a really handy tool for searching is Searchreddit. Couldn’t live without it.

With broadband’s growth, videos have taken off, particularly with Youtube and Vimeo. These are the big guys because of the bad press they attract, pop artists launch music promos there, and because people upload illegal things, like TV shows or clips from films.

Other sites cater more specifically for personal videoclips these days, Flikr, Videobam, Dropshots and the like. These are handy for linking to from blogs (but because WordPress allows you to upload directly so these types of site may be mainly for non-bloggers).

If you have big files to share (too big and unwieldy for e-mail), you might need Big File Swapper, Box, or File Factory. But they tend to cost. I therefore prefer blogs as a good free way to upload files that you want people to download. The posts can be secured with a password, or you can give permission levels to the blog.

Very popular a few years ago was eBay. Everyone seemed to be on it, buying and selling.

Tip: we use Fat Fingers to search eBay for bargains that people put on with mistakes or mis-spellings.

Other sites are not really anywhere as near popular as eBay (eBid, Craigslist etc). We sometimes use gumtree for services, buying, selling or giving stuff away. A lot of folk use Amazon to read reviews, download music, or get inspiration.

If  Cowboy Trades worry you, forget Rated People – it was good for a while, but it seems to be getting less trustworthy these days. My Builder is better. I haven’t used Top Tradesmen so far, but it looks pretty good.

Tip: the Government Trustmark scheme is always the best first step though, pop in your postcode and what trade you need and it comes up with pukka certified tradesmen.

For streaming live BBC telly you can’t beat the simulcast.  I’d first check the TV listings for the UK.

[Graphic: iplayer symbol]On demand telly is good too – BBC iPlayer is a favourite, there’s an ITV player too (STV too), Channel Four’s 4oD, and Channel Five have one as well. Of course you can get channels on Youtube as well.

LIVE Radio is also available on-line to the smartphone or laptop easily enough – BBC Radio One, BBC Radio Two, BBC Radio Three and BBC Radio Four. Classic FM, Clyde 1 FM, Smooth radio, and loads more are available. A good resource is Shoutcast’s directory, or Window’s Guide to Internet Radio.

[Graphic: crotchet]Streaming music share sites are popular. This is My Jam is a share site for what you are listening to. It connects with Spotify as well. Rivals to Spotify would be Playlist, GroovesharkRadio, Soundcloud, Last FM, Jango, Rhapsody, and sites like Blip FM. My wife loves mash-ups, so the Music Mash-Up Charts is a great site. CD Baby is cool too.

Searching music facts is easy with Everyhit, and The song tapper finds songs simply from what you tap in.

I have liked Live Plasma for years, especially good for finding links on music and musicians. A nice graphic searchy thing… lovely.

Some of my old favourite blog search sites have died, but Global Voices is still going, and is really good if you need world news that is not media generated. Wired is always worth a lunchtime check to catch up, as is the famous SlashDot. Or even The Register; I’m a bit techy-geeky at times.

My wife loves The Daily Mail site,  and while I check that too, I also scan HuffingtonUK and Drudge. WorldNews and BBCNews are good, but if the news matters to you, the best thing to do would be to check out PressDisplay – nothing else compares, although The PaperBoy tries, and What the Papers Say does a little bit. Every UK newspaper and magazine is listed at Media UK, the Glasgow results are this. You can then contact them directly or visit the paper’s site.

I adore The Art Loss Register — a website that tracks stolen works of art, so you can find out what’s been stolen and what’s been recovered. To me, this is fascinating. I also use Reference sites — such as The Internet Book List, Literature.org is cool too. Oxford Dictionary is always worth a check. I use the Douay-Rheims Catholic Bible site, Sacred Texts site and The Bible Gateway has been handy over the years.

  • A good site to track down three letter abbreviations is the Acronym Finder.

Google has great stuff – Translate, Maps, Shopping, Image Search, and the Android app store (Play). People still use Google to search for celebrities when there is a dedicated search engine out there called Valebrity. Then again, there is the International Movie Database (if you must).

Tip: a cool search engine is FactBites – you type in a search, like you do at Google, and the results are facts about the subject — not links to websites.

When I get an e-mail at work that tells a tall tale, I check it against Snopes.  Usually it turn out to be yet another urban legend. I tend not to trust Wikipedia, preferring to use it as a quick guide rather than as a proper authority source.

When I have to telephone a company with an expensive premium rate number, I use GetHuman’s website to track down their normal rate landline number, and call them on that instead.

It is easy to check what broadband speeds, services and providers are available to your postcode – check Sam Knows before doing anything. Checking the ping time, the upload and download speed and keeping a record for reference is freely provided by Speedtest.net.

Checking what drugs have been prescribed is easy enough with RxList or Local Health/ Better Medicine.

Tip: as a responsible parent, I have to check the age rating/ classification of DVDs, games and cinema movies, so I just pop the title into the search box at the BBFC site.

That’s enough for one crazy post. I have managed to avoid holiday, flights, ferries, travel, cooking and lots more… maybe another post another time.

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WILLIAM S BURROUGHS

26 June 2012

Burroughs“People often ask me if I have any words of advice for young people.
Well here are a few simple admonitions for young and old.

Never interfere in a boy-and-girl fight.

Beware of whores who say they don’t want money.
The hell they don’t.
What they mean is they want more money. Much more.

If you’re doing business with a religious son-of-a-bitch,
Get it in writing.
His word isn’t worth shit.
Not with the good lord telling him how to fuck you on the deal.

Avoid fuck-ups.
We all know the type.
Anything they have anything to do with,
No matter how good it sounds,
Turns into a disaster.

Do not offer sympathy to the mentally ill.
Tell them firmly:
I am not paid to listen to this drivel.
You are a terminal boob.

Now some of you may encounter the Devil’s Bargain,
If you get that far.

Any old soul is worth saving,
At least to a priest,
But not every soul is worth buying.
So you can take the offer as a compliment.
He tries the easy ones first.
You know like money,
All the money there is.
But who wants to be the richest guy in some cemetary?
Money won’t buy.
Not much left to spend it on, eh gramps?

Getting too old to cut the mustard.
Well time hits the hardest blows.
Especially below the belt.
How’s a young body grab you?
Like three card monte, like pea under the shell,
Now you see it, now you don’t.
Haven’t you forgotten something, gramps?
In order to feel something,
You’ve got to be there.
You have to be eighteen.
You’re not eighteen.
You are seventy-eight.
Old fool sold his soul for a strap-on.

Well they always try the easiest ones first.
How about an honorable bargain?
You always wanted to be a doctor,
Well now’s your chance.
Why don’t you become a great healer
And benefit humanity?
What’s wrong with that?
Just about everything.

Just about everything.
There are no honorable bargains
Involving exchange
Of qualitative merchandise
Like souls
For quantitative merchandise
Like time and money.

So piss off Satan
And don’t take me for dumber than I look.

An old junk pusher told me –
Watch whose money you pick up.”

— William S. Burroughs, Words of Advice for Young People

I enjoyed that the first time I read it way, way, back.  I had a friend who could quote Burroughs at length (which I admired), but who did so in a terrible mock-Burroughs accent (which I did not admire at all).

Graham (the friend in this matter), gave me a cassette tape of Burroughs’s. Actually, before he gave me the tape, he played the Mildred Pierce track and spoke over it, word-for-word, perfect inflection. I quite liked the jazzy stuff and took it anyway. Spare-Ass Annie and Other Tales has been a firm favourite ever since.

Yes, Burroughs is an acquired taste, Sardonic wit always is, but the effort is rewarding; he is different. That alone is something. He has his own mind, he speaks casually, yet it is clear that everything he says is considered, and much of his word choices are for shock or another effect to trigger a response, and reveal the reality of the situation.

In that Burroughs has been a BIG influence on me, unfortunately, however, I do not always get offered the same benefit of the doubt, and have often been accused of triteness and over-simplification — and even of being carelessly unfeeling. But then we live in a dumbed-down society, what can ya do?

I have found the lyrics to Mildred Pierce through the wonders of the search engine, here they are for your serious consideration, note the adjectives, the pace and rhythm, and the tone. I swear you can hear Burroughs’s voice even if you have never heard the track…

‘Mildred Pierce reporting:
I was there. I saw it. I saw women thrown down on Fifth Avenue and raped in their mink coats by blacks and whites and yellows while street urchins stripped the rings from their fingers. A young officer stood nearby. “Aren’t you going to do something?” I demanded.

He looked at me and yawned.

I found Colonel Bradshaw bivouacking at the Ritz. I told him bluntly what was going on. His eyes glinted shamelessly as he said, “Well, you have to take a broad general view of things.”

And that’s what I have been doing. Taking a broad general view of American troops raping and murdering helpless civilians while American officers stand around and yawn.

“Been at it a long time, lady. It’s the old army game from here to eternity.”

This license was dictated by considerations taken into account by prudent commanders throughout history. It pays to pay the boys off. Even the noble Brutus did it…

Points with his left hand in catatonic limestone.

“The town is yours soldiers brave.”

Tacitus describes a typical scene… “If a woman or a good looking boy fell into their hands they were torn to pieces in the struggle for possession and the survivors were left to cut each others’ throats.”

“Well, there’s no need to be that messy. Why waste a good-looking boy? Mother loving American Army run by old women, many of them religious, my God; hanging Amercian soldiers for raping and murdering civilians…”

Old Sarge bellows from here to eternity.

“WHAT THE BLOODY FUCKING HELL ARE CIVILIANS FOR?

SOLDIERS’ PAY.”‘

Burroughs is communicating beyond writing, and this is, to me, the perfect way to get it across.Both Mildred Pierce and Advice are on the Spare-Ass Annie and Other Tales album. Enjoy.

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BEGGARING BELIEF

21 April 2012

[Picture of Shaman]Belief is such an interesting word. Everyone believes that two plus two equals four because that’s rational — yet the word is probably more often associated with the irrational.

I have always enjoyed reading philosophy, religion, and magic, and their historical contexts, so much so that my bookshelves groan under the strain. I was moving some books today and spotted my old copy of  “The Golden Bough” by  Sir James Frazer, and a flip through the pages brought back a lot of memories.

In my post on Cthulhu, I stated:

“But I am also a human, and brought up in a fabulous fantasy world of Santa Claus and the tooth fairy. I am interested in the arts, and cannot deny there is something weird going on — it cannot merely be a collective, collaborative delusion entirely. …

“All I’m saying is that — rightly or wrongly — I have intuitive feelings, gut feelings, traits that reveal the irrational, illogical, and impulsive emotional over-rides.

“I respond to music, to paintings, to love, to food — in partaking, participating and creating. Hard to define, but nonetheless real to me.  Amongst these is the Cthulhu.”

I also mentioned that had been affected by the philosophy of mechanism, and this, together with my natural atheism, may well seem at odds with my talk of intuition, love, gut feelings and even the evil I call Cthulhu.

It’s not such a great paradox actually — at least not for me; I can live with it all. However I do get asked about this, so I’ll try to clear it up here.

[Picture of Red Ballet Shoes]I recall the revelation when reading The Golden Bough, back in my late teens, that things influence us and we influence things.  This is clearly true; we have relationships with everyday objects.  We put on shoes, the shoes change our feet  and our feet change the shoes. The shoes also wear the steps and floor as much as they wear out the shoes.

Wear and tear humanises and personalises things, and we can grow fond of items — have “favourites”.  People like to be surrounded by things that are familiar — but also because they embody some personal meaning. They are heirlooms.

[Picture of Guitar Signed by Elvis]Worth and value are tricky words when ascribed to things that have memories and meanings attached. In antiques and auction rooms, items gain considerably from provenance. Meaning doesn’t even have to be personal, for anything worn or owned by Elvis Presley, for example, is worth more just because of that fact.

Now, obviously, this is all airy-fairy rubbish. A guitar played by a dead rock star is still just a guitar, a watch passed down from father to son, is still just a watch. Yet it isn’t, somehow.

If you remove gods from religion, if you dismiss the afterlife and other such irrational beliefs, you are left with rituals.

I find this interesting; there is something in humans that needs ritual for the evidence of it is all over the world and throughout history.

I recall playing with my school friends, and a massive part of my childhood was about inventing and adapting games. We would play by the rules until it got easy or boring, then we would up the ante, until the rules were pretty elaborate. It was probably more about setting rules, defining boundaries, negotiation and dealing with consequences than merely playing games.

Society has rules, too, driving about is commonplace, but the rules and rituals are pretty complex when you think about it. We all know when to start work, what is expected of us, where the boundaries are, what we can and cannot do.

The Big Idea is about being able to repeat the process to get the same end. Reliability depends on doing it the same way every time to get the same result every time.

But this creates a new thing – the system, the process itself becomes a subject of study; the scientific method, and in the workplace even today, we try to refine workflow. We need to know what things  in the chain of events are the ones that matter, so then the procedures are analysed and imposed.

[Diagram of a machine]We are mechanised and do our part in the process. Method Statements and QA are about the stages and steps involved in carrying out a task to get a predictable result.

It’s not just at work either; we practice playing our musical instruments to get better and better in order to play the tune without mistakes. Playing a tune is a process of playing chords or notes one after the other to get the desired result. Sports science is all about refining training to get better results.

All this is so much a part of our lives that we have irrational and personal versions — from trinkets for good luck, to routines to get us to sleep at night.  Everyone has heard of being OCD and how comforting rituals and routines can be for certain groups. Religion has ceremonies and rituals, and I call all of these irrational because they are not analysed and improved, and they are not very good at reliably predicting or producing the desired result.

Voodoo dolls, rain-dancing, wedding vows, Christenings, Ramadan fasts, praying, healing, levitation, horoscopes, exorcisms, witch burning — and many, many more — have a role in culture and in history, yet are ostensibly bizarre and don’t actually work reliably, if at all.  It would seem that they are either used willingly as a comforting ritualistic belief, or else used by the unscrupulous to dominate the gullible for their own ends.

Throughout my life I have met people who have told me that they were healed at Lourdes, by prayer, by reiki, or that they can only play winning golf with that “special” club. I’ve heard miracle stories, and tales of people who can predict the future. And I cannot call any of them liars or delusional because the fact is that they are telling the truth. It’s just that the truth doesn’t prove anything; it could be a lucky break, coincidence, or random chance.

It is somehow very attractive to human beings to believe in a karma connection, to see the mystical and the wonderful. The German word, Geist, means more than ghost. There is the Poltergeist, the Geistlos, the Zeitgeist, the Weltgeist (see Hegel), Geisteskrank, and so on — including the Holy Spirit and Guardian Angels. My favourite is the ghost in the machine, I know well that you can build two machines, two cars, guitars, or whatever — in exactly the same way from the same parts, and they will not be the same at all. Once assembled, they get a life, a personality, and it is that geist with whom you have a relationship.

[Photograph of John Ruskin]I quite liked Ruskin’s idea of allowing artisans creative freedom, that their skill and love in making something could somehow be contained within the resulting artefact, and that a mass-produced (or machine produced) item was “soul-less”.

A lot of people throughout history have been called witches because they have done things that were actually good, kind and helpful for everyone. They didn’t merely pray, they used herbs or some routine that worked reliably, and as such it was neither religion nor science — so it had to be witchcraft.

Witchcraft and magic have religious aspects (irrational rituals, spells/prayers) but also scientific aspects (they can get repeatable results). All that science did was analyse the process and call it medicine.

I have always liked the fact that something is magic until it is understood, then it becomes science.

[Artist's impression of God]This is how I came to understand the term, “God”. In primitive cultures, if crops failed, they claimed it was because of God (or a god), if you do the trick of replacing the word “God” with “The Unknown”, then it is clear that the crops failed because of the unknown. In other words they have no idea why their crops failed, or why the rain didn’t come.

From this, it is clear that as knowledge increases, the less unknowns we have — and that means the less God. This is self-evidently true; we know God didn’t make the crops fail as soon as we know why they failed.

Just like something is magic until we understand it, something is unknown until it is known, and the more we know, the less we have a need to have an intervening God.

I do believe in love-at-first-sight, I do have relationships with buildings, furniture, clothes, and animals. I have gut feelings and intuition. I don’t know everything. I like routine, and have my ways of doing things. I cannot explain them all rationally… and I don’t want to either; part of being human (perhaps the most human part of being human) is irrationality.

This is my attempt to celebrate that aspect of our natures.

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CTHULHU

18 March 2012

[Picture of Cthulhu "coming to get you"]Straight away, I will say that this is a strange one.

I have always pronounced Cthulhu as kloo loo (I don’t know why). However, I have recently heard that it has an “official pronunciation” of  kath who loo (which I think is weird, but anyway).

The Cthulhu is a nightmare creature. A monster, trapped and waiting to get us. It has a tentacled octopus head, a fish-scale body, wings, and is a sort of chimera — part human, dragon, and octopus. A grotesquely malevolent creature. Pure evil. A living gargoyle. An alien.

This THING is from the twisted imagination of HP Lovecraft, and it first appeared in a short story published in 1928, “The Call of Cthulhu”. The Cthulhu is imprisoned in an underwater city in the South Pacific called R’lyeh, and this is a source of constant anxiety for mankind at a subconscious level.

Lovecraft developed the character from this story thereafter, and it has been developed further after his death.

HP Lovecraft reckoned that human beings, with their limited faculties, would never be able to fully understand the universe — particularly as it was meaningless and purposeless, and that humans were unimportant in the grand scheme of things.

Humans have a tendency to try to find meaning or purpose, and to put their existence as special , significant or central. This was my introduction to the philosophy of mechanism –  metaphysical doctrines known as universal mechanism and anthropic mechanism. I was 17 at the time, and the world was a pretty bleak place, with a disastrous outlook for the future.

Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page had been reported to have bought a house in Loch Ness that was once owned by Aleister Crowley, and Crowley was considered the most evil man who ever lived. So there was all sorts of daft articles going about. Even Eric Clapton’s (or rather Derek & The Dominoes’) Layla was connected to Crowley (Leila Waddell). My sister was an avid reader and paperbacks by the likes of Lovecraft and Dennis Wheatley were all around the house. The 70s was a great period of cross-cultivation in cultures, and everything was merging and overlapping at the time.

The science fiction genre spilled into heavy metal music, album covers and book jacket art bled onto biker’s jackets, tattoos and graffiti.  Fantasy novels depended on things like alternative realities, drug trip type experiences, life on alien worlds or set in the future or distant past. Crowley had created his own religion, so why not science fiction writer, L Ron Hubbard (Scientology)?

It was all a bit mind-blowing and overwhelming for me at times back then. I did not understand enough to have confidence in my beliefs to be thought-through cohesively, and although I was searching around for sense in this, I also searched for inspiration, entertainment and amusement.

Occasionally my searching would bring up something that didn’t “sit right”, something that I disliked instinctively. All of that, all of those things, for me, became embodied in the Cthulhu.

To see why, we have to go back to Crowley.

I read Lovecraft and Crowley in the same period of time. Crowley was interesting and amusing for a while — But I liked his concept of True Will for example. This resonated in me at the time. It basically means do what you want, what you really want. And while that sounds a bit like do anything you want, it doesn’t; it ties in your inner will with a destiny aspect — you have to do what you are gifted at or meant to do.  The trick is finding yourself so that you can live a superior moral life according to your True Will. It’s an attractive religious idea, well grounded in the catechism and conscience, but is the cornerstone of his own religion.

  • But then you find out that he was all a bit odd, mixed up in drugs and ritualistic homosexuality, secretive black magic societies, Freemasonry and more — all of which gathered inside me an anxiety and a dread — and that’s the Cthulhu.

Ever since, and throughout my life, when I have suffered really bizarre and dreadful nightmares, I think of the Cthulhu, and wonder if it is any closer to getting free from its shackles under the sea.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I am not and never have been a follower of The Beast 666, nor have I a real belief in any mythology, Greek, Roman, Norse, Tolkein or Lovecraft. I did get right into the philosophy of mechanism for a long time, and there remains much of that in me to this day.

But I am also a human, and brought up in a fabulous fantasy world of Santa Claus and the tooth fairy. I am interested in the arts, and cannot deny there is something weird going on — it cannot merely be a collective, collaborative delusion entirely.  Perhaps it’s mood-changing chemicals in the brain?  These are weird and wonderful explorations for each of us to take. All I’m saying is that — rightly or wrongly — I have intuitive feelings, gut feelings, traits that reveal the irrational, illogical, and impulsive emotional over-rides.

I respond to music, to paintings, to love, to food — in partaking, participating and creating. Hard to define, but nonetheless real to me.  Amongst these is the Cthulhu.

The Cthulhu is real for me.  I once thought of it as a stomach ulcer in me, I even briefly thought it could be a cancer, but these notions were soon dismissed in favour of the Cthulhu being external to me.

It’s like a sixth sense. When I begin to feel anxious, I am reminded of the threat to my healthy, happy, state is out there — the Cthulhu is waiting, calling, screaming, plotting, scheming. It’s that feeling that someone’s out to get you — for no other reason than badness and pure evil, or immoral self-interest.

It doesn’t have to be directed to me, however. For example, if  I see a photograph of an electric chair or read about the holocaust, that dark churn in the pit of my stomach, that scare, the horror of evil and the sense of its power — that’s the Cthulhu. Dread Full.

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PHILIP K DICK

19 February 2012

[Photograph of Philip K Dick]Throughout my adult life, Philip K Dick’s work has popped up from time to time to delight me. He truly was different.

It’s too easy, I think, to simply put him down as just a SciFi author.

I have nothing against Science Fiction, and his work is closely related to that genre, but Dick does more than set a story in the future and he does more than fantasise about the future, about space and aliens; he gets into the mind and how it works.

It was in 1982 that I heard about Philip K Dick from a pal. Dick had just died, so there were obits and newspaper columns to ignite interest. On top of that was the movie, Blade Runner.

I loved this film, from Vangelis’s soundtrack to the mash-up of the old Dashiel Hammett and Raymond Chandler “hard-boiled gum shoe”, pulp fiction detective novel with the science fiction future of android robots. It was very stylish, beautifully directed, edited and the acting was quality.  It is a film that lives with you afterwards.

Blade Runner was based on Philip K Dick’s short story, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? My pal gave me a bunch of his short stories, and I remember that I read, enjoyed and returned them, and that was that. Only it wasn’t.

I couldn’t tell you the names of his stories, nor any one that stood out more than others.  I do, though,  recall being impressed and perhaps somewhat overawed; it is a lot of new ideas all in one go.  Maybe it was too much in one sitting. I must have read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? — but all I can recall is Blade Runner. Although this might seem to be more about Hampton Fancher’s screenplay than Dick’s short story, Dick was closely involved in the making of this film with Ridley Scott and Fancher.

The story is genius. In the future android robots are so life-like, it takes detectives and tests to spot the difference, and even the androids don’t know they are not real humans. The story is about what happens when an android does find out he’s not “real” — and that he has an expiry date.  This is a man-made organic machine suddenly faced with mortality.  The robot’s quest is to come to earth, track down his maker and try to avoid death.  That is just a marvellous idea. The small group of androids are being hunted down by a Blade Runner — and that’s the detective part of the story.

I later got a loan of  the amazing The Man in The High Castle — this is  actually recognised as creating an entire literary genre of its own – the alternative history genre. I was quite tickled by the thought of Japan running California, and The Germans own new York. Dick has quite an original imagination, but also the skill to write convincingly. This was a what-if story — and I’d not come across that before either.

I loved Total Recall as soon as I heard it was based on Philip K Dick I got tickets — and again, for me, it was the movie, rather than the short story that stuck in my mind. This would be in the early 1990s and it was billed as an action film first and a science fiction film second. At that time the big deal was action and action heroes — and the rivalry among Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis and Silvester Stallone (and a few others too).

Total Recall was based on We Can Remember It for You Wholesale, and is also highly original. I would reckon that Dick might have come up with the story simply by trying to remember a holiday.  It’s so true that, not very long after we have returned from a vacation, memories fade — and we end up remembering what was filmed or photographed, the souvenirs and a handful of anecdotes.

Perhaps if we did not have these mementoes, we could forget we went on holiday altogether. When you think about it, people do suffer amnesia and dementia, so what is reality? Could we be hypnotised to believe we had gone on holiday somewhere?

In Blade Runner, the androids were created fully adult, but with pre-programmed memories of a fake childhood, mementoes, cards, photos, diaries, toys and keep-sakes. All fake.  In Total Recall, the concept is a business that offers a cheaper alternative to going on holiday — an implanted memory of the trip and fake keep-sakes and souvenirs. Dick is dealing with the same theme — what is real?

In Total Recall, the story takes this to another level — a man wants a holiday to Mars (it is science fiction after all), but cannot afford it, so he opts for the memories to be implanted — however, it turns out that the chap was a spy who had been to Mars, and the government had erased the memory of his spying and Martian activities, and turned him out with a new identity and life. The attempt to implant the fake Mars trip opened up a can of worms as the erased memories started to come back  — making this man a danger for what he knows. Good stuff, eh.

Minority Report, The Adjustment Bureau, and A Scanner Darkly are all fantastic films based on Philip K Dick’s short stories. They are clever, work on different levels and, despite being about the perception of reality, morality, memories and other internalisations, they seem to be extremely cinematic. In the end, the stories are futuristic and therefore good for exploiting special effects. I often wonder if they can operate on a straight action film only level — or if action film fans leave the cinema inspired or in a philosophical mindset.

I remember wondering if the fact that Dick was a twin affected his outlook, and I looked him up once and found that he was married five times — that would certainly affect the mind and sense of deja-vu and mixed up memories!

The themes that Dick brought to my attention are never far from my mind.  So much of what I do for a living depends on virtual reality — I see things built before they are built.

Anyone today can go on Google maps and wander through the streets of any city or town. My phone can track me and help me identify buildings and statues, music and more simply by holding the phone up and pressing a virtual button.  How could Philip K Dick not be far from my mind; we seem to be living in his.

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HOWARD HUGHES

19 November 2011

[Photograph of Howard Hughes]I was not even a teenager when there was a massive media buzz about an autobiography of the Billionaire recluse Howard Hughes. It was supposed to have been ghost written or co-written by some chap called Irving, but it was a huge hoax. My first media hoax.

It ignited in me an interest in this eccentric man.  Hughes apparently was obsessive about hygiene (as I was, although not to the same degree as Howard Hughes). Legend had it that he walked about with his feet in cardboard boxes! I was not quite as bad as THAT.

A mate of mine at school had loaned me a copy of Harold Robbins’s sixties’ novel, “The Carpetbaggers“, saying that it was really about Howard Hughes, and I was hooked.

Hughes died a few years later — just when I was thinking about my own future and what I might do for a living or might aspire to achieve.  The television and newspapers reflected on the amazing life of this man, and I was impressed.  I will admit that traits attributed to Hughes impressed me enough for me to include them in forming my own adult persona: Hughes was one of my role models even though his was such an alien world, such an impossibly different lifestyle.

Hughes inherited unbelievable wealth at the age of just 19.  He immediately dropped out of university studies and went to Hollywood to make movies.

I could identify with that (I could envy that too) — but the historical aspect was not lost on me; Hollywood was in its infancy, so was aviation and even driving cars.  It reminded me of The Great Gatsby. Hughes had no predecessors in all that he was interested in, from aviation to financial matters. Howard Hughes was a pioneer, a creative, thoughtful and considerate man. These were days before “celebrity”.

The satirists went to town after he died — especially with regard to his Will. All sorts of people, friends, relatives illegit children and whatnot appeared out of the woodwork to claim their right to millions of dollars.  This was mainly because of what happened with Melvin Dummar a petrol station attendant.

What happened was this – in ’67 Melvin found a man lying on the road. The man was dirty, said he was Howard Hughes, and asked for a lift to an hotel. Melvin gave him a lift and a few days later one of Hughes’s men dropped off a manilla envelope containing his Will — in which Hughes left Melvin 156 million dollars! Melvin put the Will in a safe with the Mormon Church in salt Lake City.

There was no profit for the Mormons in the Will, but the Will was rejected after a 7 month court case, and Melvin got nothing, and Howard Hughes was declared to have died without any Will whatsoever. The Billions were carved up later.

A lot of people said Hughes was like that, and more suggested that he’d left them other Wills — and it was all very amusing. Of course, it was not all plain sailing (see what I did there?);  a man walked in front of Hughes’s car and was killed. This was big headlines in its day, as one could imagine; of Hughes’s first four films, three had Oscar nominations, and his second film actually won the Academy Award.

A few years after, in the early 1980s, Hughes’s “Scarface” was remade, and that refreshed interest in Hughes. Just like the character in The Carpetbaggers novel, Hughes designed a bra — for Hollywood A-list pin-up Jane Russell.

Howard Hughes inherited wealth, then made financially successful and critically acclaimed Hollywood big-budget films. He dated all the world’s loveliest women, and designed a bra. Wow – what’s not to admire?

But it doesn’t stop there; Hughes was very interested in aviation.  He was an pilot, and started to win awards for that, setting records and winning races. This was early days for the industry, and Hughes was very interested in engineering and design, and with his funds, his contribution to the development of the airline industry is second to none.

A little detail caught my eye in the obits: in the UK people get recognised with a knighthood, an OBE or an MBE, that sort of thing, but in the USA they get a Congressional Gold Medal. Hughes got a special one – didn’t even bother going to the White House to receive it from the President! In the end President Truman had to pop it in the post.  Brilliant.

This resonates with me; I never go to awards ceremonies, and never will. I respected Woody Allen for never bothering to go to the Oscars.

Hughes had a few near fatal airplane crashes, and was so uncomfortable in his hospital bed that he actually designed a new hospital bed — and even though it was not ready for him to use, it has changed the design of hospital beds to what we have today. I marvelled at this. He also took care of people who helped him — including the man who pulled him from one of his crash wrecks.

Howard Hughes received a lot of satirical press; he was a larger than life character.  He managed to get the US government to fund the world’s most massive flying boat. This was hysterical. It was nicknamed “The Spruce Goose”. It didn’t take off (as they say, and in this case, literally).

It struck me as a teenager that this man did not hunger for fame or recognition. He was a talented pilot and engineer, and very astute with financial dealings.  His non-attention-seeking could be taken as a reclusive trait, but I would suspect that such a lifestyle would corrupt even the most down-to-earth, well-adjusted person.  I imagined everybody doing what you wanted, fawning to please. Everyone would be looking for wealth – who would be a genuine friend?

I could understand Hughes being happiest when working with other engineers on projects, especially as he was very precise and particular.  It must have been a joy to work on projects without the usual design constraints and corner-cutting.  But this allowance would develop into an Obsessive-Compulsive mental disorder as it was never restrained by money nor limited by demands of a client.

I learned from Hughes to trust in my own abilities, follow my own path, and pursue things not for awards or financial gain, but because they fascinate.  I also drift about different types of people, different social groups, even different countries. I can’t really say “incognito” because I’m not rich and famous, but I still do it; it gives me a good perspective on people across a broad social cross-section.  Like Hughes, if I do charity work or help someone, I hide it — and I mean, really hide it. I know Hughes did a lot that will never be recognised fully.

A big lesson from Hughes was to run my own life, always be my own boss, and to compartmentalise. It’s OK to have really diverse interests, just keep then separate and clearly distinct. Have friends, sure, but keep them in distinct groups away from each other, hold privacy as sacred.

Controlling social activity is essential. This Hughes-influenced trait means that I can be reclusive (this lets me get work done), and then I can go out and socialise when I want and on my own terms.  I run my life my way.  I got an answering machine before I got a cooker! I hate the idea of always answering the phone when it rings, or of having an unlocked front door allowing anyone and everyone into my life at all hours!

That’s a big influence, but probably the biggest influence Hughes had on me was in trying to overcome my obsessive-compulsive hygiene issues; I didn’t want to end up like he did!

So, yes, Howard Hughes was a big influence on me at a young age. I like that there is a lot we still do not know, a lot of speculation, intrigue and wonder. I am fed up with skeletons in closets, kiss-and-tells, knowing every single thing – which is the norm for famous people these days.  Hughes was not, for example,  a closet homosexual, he was not a Nazi, nor an evil power-hungry politically motivated dictator. Sure, his power and wealth did corrupt, but it only corrupted him, and only in that he got weird about privacy and hygiene. If you are going to have a role model, you could not get much better than Howard Hughes!

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JANE MORRIS

18 July 2011

[Sketch of Jane Morris by Rossetti]Jane Morris is probably the most anonymous famous model ever.

She was born Jane Burden, but married William Morris and flirted and modelled her way into art history as Jane Morris.  Her “relationships” with the Pre-Raphaelites means that her face graces so many of the worlds art galleries, arty coffee table books, art course work plates, posters, carrier bags and more besides.

[Sketch of Jane Morris by Dante Rossetti]The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood were into photographic quality detail and likeness and so Jane Morris is recognisable irrespective of which artist painted her.

For me, she is the face of the Tractarians and the Oxford movement, the face of Pre-Raphalites, the face of the catholic movement in Anglicanism, of High Church, of High Victorian Britishness.

I had posters of her before I knew it was her.  I can see the charm she held over Rossetti — and I can appreciate the resemblance with Elizabeth Siddal and Sarah Cox (Fanny Cornforth)

She certainly has very sculptured features, particularly the “Roman Nose”! She was apparently the epitome of beauty according to the brotherhood.

Personally, I don’t see it quite like that; I see her as a perfect depiction of allegory — the type of artists’ model who would be perfect for representing an ideal, such as “Generosity” or “Chastity” and just about anything else, even “War”.  There is something about Jane and Elizabeth Siddal that makes them seem beautiful in the aesthetic sense, rather than the erotic sense.

For me, and I suspect for most men, Morris is an idealisation, not something to be desired.  More of an archetype really, and that is fascinating!

A mate of mine years ago suggested that Jane Morris was a bit like those strange manly females painted by Michelangelo, the classical nose, the strong limbs, the polished marble complexion. I disagreed because Siddal and Fanny had the amazing red hair, and both, but Jane especially, had the listlessness, the boredom and aloofness of the idealised female, not a bastardised man!

The really fun thing when studying these people and this movement is that there are letters and even photographs available.

[Photograph of Jane Morris] [Photograph of Jane Morris]

This blew me away. Obviously you can compare the paintings with the photographs, but the photographs are of an actual — real — wife and mother, not the painted allegorical or historical figure.

  • If you want to compare paintings and sketches with real photographs of Jane Morris, check out the Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood website — it’s a great place to start looking into this fascinating movement and era.

Rossetti married Siddal and when she died, Fanny moved in as housekeeper/lover despite everyone’s view of her as a common lass.  They both grew tremendously fat together.  Through both relationships, Rossetti had a long-term “relationship” with Jane Morris, but it was a secretive affair because Morris was Rossetti’s social equal and colleague in the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood.

If that little paragraph doesn’t whet your appetite for further research and enquiry, then I don’t know what would do the trick!

The whole thing is fascinating, fascinating ideas in fascinating times.  The high church artistic values of spires and stained glass, against the frugality of the stricter protestant faiths.  The strictness of Victorian moral values with the affairs of the people involved in painting them.

All of this is fabulous, dramatic and well documented.  There are many characters, many perpetrators, many artists, but in the end the face that stands out, the face that represents it all is Jane Morris’s. 

Women may not have been equal in terms of votes and inheritance (etc), but it is absolutely clear from Queen Victoria’s time, that women played a massive part in the various artistic, religious, moral and political movements of the time.

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