Coming Back To Life

Time goes by fast. This year marks ten years of painting, for me. Before then, I didn’t paint at all, but since then, I have painted reasonably consistently, despite the ups and downs that life has thrown at me. I feel very lucky to have kept going, often against the odds. It would have been very easy to quit for good, at several points. Progress is sometimes frustratingly slow and the cost has been a factor.

With so little recognition and reward for your work, you often wonder what the point of it is. When I settled on the purpose of painting being to get better at it and to immerse myself in it, to escape other pressures and stresses for a while, I felt better. Colour is it’s own reward.

I have some favourite go-to brushes which always seemed to be in my kit and fitted my hand best, whenever I was trying to paint something. These workhorses have seen some action. They’ve clocked up most of those ten years of painting. Unfortunately, they were beginning to get a bit tired.


Ten years of painting means ten years of acrylic paint buildup on my workhorse brush bristles. They were stiff and becoming difficult to paint with. It was like painting with sticks. As diligently as you try to clean your brushes, there always seems to be just enough paint left near the ferrule to dry and harden. It lurks between the bristles. Eventually, there is enough of it built up that it works its way inexorably toward the tips of your brushes. This is what causes them to lose their spring and resilience. Painting with them begins to be a chore, rather than a pleasure.

It was long past time to try to clean them deeply.

A few years ago, I bought some brush cleaner and restorer, with good intentions of using it, before the brushes became unsalvageable. Whatever the chemical is, in this brush cleaner, it deforms it’s own plastic bottle, over time. What is that noxious clear liquid?


The manufacturer’s web site says: “For dried acrylic, oil, and alkyd colour, this is a non-toxic, biodegradable, non-flammable, non-abrasive, low vapour product that safely and easily cleans both natural and synthetic brushes without damage to the brush head. It is not recommended for use on painted or varnished surfaces; contact with brush handles should be avoided. Not for use with polycarbonate or other plastic surfaces.”

Here’s the link: http://www.winsornewton.com/na/shop/oils-mediums-varnishes-and-solvents/artists-care-range/brush-cleaner-restorer-4oz-bottle-bottle-3230895

I wondered why contact with brush handles was to be avoided. That seemed to be a strange and possibly irrelevant piece of information. Surely they wouldn’t catch fire or become toxic! I filed it deeply in the back of my brain and promptly forgot about it.
I was curious to find out what could possibly sit in its own plastic container and, over time, gradually deform it. A bit more searching on the web revealed these two links:

https://uwaterloo.ca/fine-arts/sites/ca.fine-arts/files/uploads/files/windsor-newton_brush_cleaner_and_reconditioner_0306081.pdf

http://colart.s3.amazonaws.com/assetfiles/91e75e8b-d2f7-4645-b632-8cf0270489ec.pdf

The active ingredient, the solvent, seems to be mainly ethanol. Vodka may work as well, if true. I’ve not tried the vodka alternative, so I don’t know for sure and anyway, it would be a terrible waste of vodka.

It was time to give my poor old brushes a good soak. The label indicated that acrylic paint needed up to twenty four hours in the solvent, so given the extent of the paint residue on my brushes, I left them in for forty eight. That pristine clear liquid eventually turned a muddy brown. Clearly something was coming out of my brushes.


I was quite careful to put only enough solvent in the bottle to cover the bristles and part of the ferrule of my brushes. However, I also felt compelled to work the bristles into the fluid, to try to release the trapped paint.


This was probably a mistake, as while manipulating the bristles, I tipped the bottle sideways and inadvertently contaminated the base of the handles with the solvent. Again, I didn’t think too much about this at the time. The action of the solvent seemed quite slow and gentle, on the bristles. A few splashes on the handle shouldn’t be problematic, or at least that was what I thought.

So what was the result?

Well, my brush bristles are softer and cleaner, but slightly splayed. This is more than likely due to the abuse the bristles were getting as I was trying to force them to bend even a little, while applying paint to canvas. The staining of the bristles also stubbornly remained.

Here is a picture of the newly cleaned bristles. Notice anything bad?


Ah, you spotted it. The lacquer on the handles softened and came off! Completely! I was down to the bare wood. The ferrules also didn’t look too good. This may have been due to the solvent fumes, but more likely my own fault, due to accidental contamination of the handles by the solvent when I was trying to work the paint out of the bristles into the solvent. I just wasn’t careful enough to heed the warning about the solvent acting on the varnish of the handles.

You live and learn.

These sad old brushes are still usable in a pinch, but the handles now feel nasty to hold and the bristles never quite came back to the state they were in, when new, if for no other reason than ten solid years of use and wear.

Being a realist, I had an insurance policy. I was aware that restoring my old brushes may have been in vain, as they might have been too far gone. For that reason, I ordered their exact equivalents, just in case.

Compare with new brush equivalents with the worn ones. You can see that many of the bristles are worn by a good few millimetres in length. What used to be filberts are now shaggy dogs and the fine tipped point of my round brush is more like a dome, now.

My big filbert (a number 6) wasn’t too bad, but not like new:


The wear on this flat brush is obviously apparent:


A long flat has a lovely chisel edge, for making nice linear marks and edges. My old brush had lost its edge:


There’s foreshortening and then there’s just plain gone:


No wonder I couldn’t see the point, some days:


Poor old filbert:


I also bought some nice new rigger brushes, for fine line work. I didn’t have any of these before. For experimentation, I also bought a curved edge long flat brush, which is half-way between a regular long flat and a filbert. That will be fun to try out.


What did I learn? It’s worth the time it takes to keep your brushes clean. Deep clean them in brush cleaner, from time to time, but use less solvent. Don’t let it build up for years, like I did.

Also, when it says the solvent is bad for the handles, they’re not kidding.

Here’s to the next ten years of painting. Maybe.

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Creative Tensions

Everything seems to be in tension, lately. Creating always involves a form of high wire balancing act, without a net. They tell you there is one right way to solve all your creative difficulties, but is there?

Any brief survey of Medium.com will reveal a slew of mutually contradictory advice articles on how to succeed at everything and anything. For every author exhorting you to do one thing, there is another equally emphatically encouraging you to do the exact opposite. What are you supposed to do?

Oddly, I subscribe to the belief that you have to do a bit of both. You also have to neither, sometimes. 

Here are some mutually contradictory arguments I’ve seen made:

  • Between going fast and slow
  • Between new and old
  • Between innovation and tradition
  • Between procrastinating and diving straight in
  • Between what you know well and faking it until you make it
  • Between pleasing everybody or pleasing yourself
  • Between fear and courage
  • Between brazen, outward self-confidence and authentic, shameless vulnerability
  • Between refined, edited, perfected, polished work and raw, unadorned, unapologetic, warts-and-all, first draft works
  • Between fitting in and being outstanding
  • Between contemplation and immediacy
  • Between disrespect and acclaim
  • Between obscurity and notoriety 
  • Between fasting and feasting
  • Between connection and isolation
  • Between solitary effort and collaboration
  • Between certainty and bafflement
  • Between clarity and confusion
  • Between lofty goals and unfulfilled ambitions

These contradictions seem to apply to productivity hacks, product management processes, making art, in your career, life, you name it. For every advocate there seems to be an equal and opposite iconoclast. Dissent and consent go hand in hand. Somehow, out of this confusing antonymic soup, we still manage to create things, miraculously.
It’s always a compromise and a balance. Think of it as a multi-dimensional spectrum. There is no guaranteed recipe. Sometimes, one thing works best; other times its very opposite is just the ticket. You almost never know which it will be.

Once you realise this, you might have a moment of epiphany, where you experience profound sonder. Here’s the definition of sonder: https://en.m.wiktionary.org/wiki/sonder

Your mental model, that you’re the only one clueless and struggling, against unique challenges, while being denied the secrets that would ensure your unopposed triumph, which you are certain everybody else already knows, is replaced by the certain knowledge that this is everybody’s experience of their lives. The suffering is universal and nobody has the magic spell, despite appearances to the contrary on their Instagram account. Everybody wrestles with the same creative tensions. 

You’re not special, but you’re not alone either. Even this is in tension.

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Intellectual Inactivity

Not everyone reads books or listens to music actively. Some never visit museums and art galleries. Quite a lot of people don’t dance or sing, or play an instrument. They don’t design, craft or make anything. They have no relationship with tools and never apply their minds to research or investigation. There are a lot of people for whom intellectual curiosity isn’t a vivid, engaging, vibrant, indispensible part of their life. 

It took me quite some time to realise that not everybody did the sorts of things I do in my spare time and in my working life. I used to think that everybody was fundamentally interested in improving themselves intellectually. It was impossible for me to conceive of an existence where you didn’t pursue interesting questions for the sheer joy of finding out, or exercise possibilities in your mind, just so that you could imagine alternative outcomes. I no longer think that’s the case. Some people make precious little effort to do anything purposeful with their brains. We live among virtual zombies. They breathe and move, but their imaginative life is all but lifeless.

Sure, they entertain themselves. They pass their time. They might even engage in a wide variety of activities, but not the kind that exercises their intellect. Some people just don’t make much effort to upgrade the quality of their thoughts, add to their knowledge, seek out learning opportunities or revise their beliefs. Analogous to people that don’t exercise their bodies, these people don’t exercise their minds.

It’s funny that, as a society, we frown upon those that don’t exercise their bodies and judgementally pronounce that they deserve all the ill health that accompanies physical inactivity. We say it’s their own fault for not putting in the effort and adjudicate them indolent. Yet, when it comes to intellectual inactivity, that’s almost a badge of pride. They wear their chosen ignorance defiantly, as if they have discovered some magic secret of life denied to “over thinkers”. We don’t wag fingers at them and suggest that their life chances and the political regime they must toil under is a deserved consequence of their failure to develop their ideas and minds. There are no personal trainers for intellectual exercises, only for physical exercise.

Intellectually inactive people have a relationship to art that is passive, not active. They consume, rather than produce. There is precious little analysis or understanding of the art they encounter. Rather, their reaction to it is visceral and often based on prejudice. If it doesn’t conform to a very narrow vision of what art ought to be like, they reject it out of hand as stupid. Adolf Hitler’s “degenerate art” fits this description. Because he had no intellectual grasp of art, he was both a lousy artist and a lousy art interpreter, blind to genius because he couldn’t grasp it or fit it into his dogmatic ideological framework.

Intellectual inactivity is corrosive to humanity and breeds obedience. If you don’t learn to think critically and develop that skill, as one develops any other skill, through diligent practice and consistent application, over a long period of time, then you can be told anything by anyone and you’re likely to believe it. Your gullibility is increased because your thinking facilities are weak and flaccid. You have no capacity for intellectual self-defence because your thinking habits have lain fallow and have become flabby and out of shape. 

Ask somebody intellectually lazy to come up with a new idea or do something creative and it exhausts them, because they have not built up the stamina, through vigorous and regular exercise of their faculties, to engage with the task at hand and see it through to its conclusion. Inspiration escapes them, because their imaginations have not been fed with ideas and concepts. The creative centres of their brain are effectively malnourished.

I recently watched a rather disturbing video of a rock star’s abandoned Oxfordshire mansion. It hadn’t been inhabited (or maintained) for eleven years, when the video was made. Two housebreakers (who call themselves “urban explorers”) broke in and took a video of the interior of the house. It was as if time had stopped. Board games were left in mid play. Pool tables still had their balls in place on the table, as they had rolled, after the previous shot. A chess game was left half-completed. Pictures still hung on the walls, white goods were still there, bed clothes were strewn about bare mattresses and the crockery and trinkets were all where they had been left, in cupboards, on sideboards and on mantle shelves. There was a coffee machine that had made its last cup of coffee some eleven years ago, when the mansion was last occupied. A small portable television stood silently in one of the bedrooms. Place settings were still on the dining table.

What disturbed me was the absence of books, music, tools, crafts, magazines, media of any kind. There was an upright piano, chess board and Scrabble, but scant evidence of a deeper intellectually active life. Instead, there were the accoutrements of pass times, but very little to indicate that the inhabitants valued creativity or intellectual development. The brain food seemed to be missing. It’s true that somebody wedded to intellectual self-improvement might not abandon their tools and information as readily as they would coffee machines, furniture, washing machines, cups, saucers and the other paraphernalia of life, but it’s equally likely there was nothing to abandon.

How do you begin to contribute to popular culture from such a barren intellectual environment, lacking cultural references or the means to explore and create with your mind? Clearly, this rock star had contributed iconic works to the cannon of popular culture, but it was hard to see where they came from, given the lack of evidence of intellectual and cultural stimulation apparent in his abandoned artefacts. I can only hope that he compartmentalises his creative time and engages his mind elsewhere, at other places and times. Maybe travel provided the stimulus Perhaps that’s why he couldn’t stand living in this place any more.

For me, intellectual self-development never ceases. It’s constant. I have something going on in my brain all the time. If I’m not creating, I’m investigating. I find mindless entertainment insufficiently satisfying to hold my attention for long. Instead, my mind wanders and I begin living inside my head once more. I’ve always enjoyed dwelling in my own imagination. To me, the biggest obstacle to physical exercise and travel is making both intellectually stimulating enough to endure. I realise now, though, that this is not the situation for everybody. 

You need knowledge to get inspiration, insight and to make your own unique contribution. If you’re intellectually inactive most of the time, you’re going to struggle to perform at peak levels, when required to create. I may be wrong because I only have my own perspective, but I can’t see how.

Exercise your head as seriously as you do your body.

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How Deep Is The Ocean?

I have a love/hate relationship with music streaming services. I hate the way they compensate artists and songwriters. However, it’s undeniable that they’re a treasure trove of long-forgotten, obscure tracks that would be otherwise unavailable. The other day, I was searching for music by Les Paul and Mary Ford and their 1957 album, “Time to Dream”, came up. 

The reason I was searching was that Les Paul was more or less the reason I became an electric guitar player. His influence on me dates back to when I was very small, listening to astonishing sounds emanating from our valve radiogram, wondering how I could make such music too. I was feeling nostalgic and wanted to see if there were tracks to discover that I had never heard before. In the early sixties, record libraries of working class families were seldom extensive, being eclectic rather than anthological. Chances were good that there were many tracks I had never heard. It took half a century for me to feel this urge to revisit and further explore my musical roots, but this sentimental journey was about to bear fruit.

“Time to Dream” is a remarkable departure from the now familiar Les Paul and Mary Ford formula of multi-tracked guitars from space, overlaid with lush, intimate harmonies. This record, in contrast, is full of slow, moody, bluesy ballads, sung exquisitely, as solos, by the incomparable, rich, warm voice of Mary Ford. It is truly dreamy. The guitar accompaniment is clean, clear, gentle and mostly unadorned. Les’ playing is soulful and delicate. Mary’s singing is so full of longing and melancholy. It’s a big departure from the bright, good-morning vibe of “Mockingbird Hill” and the ever-hopeful post-war tonic, “The World is Waiting for the Sunrise”.

By 1957, when the record was made, rock and roll was just two years old and already displacing many of the former stars of the hit parade. This album seemed to be an abandonment of their previous successful sound, venturing into a brave new aesthetic. History tells us that the very next year, Les and Mary left Capitol records, whose iconic platter-stack headquarters building in Hollywood had been built largely on the back of the success of its glittering roster of recording stars, Les Paul and Mary Ford high up on that list. It seems as if the reception to “Time to Dream” was somewhat underwhelming, commercially, as departures from successful hit-making formulae often are. They signed with Columbia in 1958, but never again enjoyed the success of their Capitol years.

When I was a small boy, my mother loved to sing a song to us, her children, to express the extent of her deep love for us. It used to make us cringe with embarrassment, as small boys often do, in response to overt expressions of affectionate maternal devotion. Our discomfort would make her smile, but we knew that she meant every word. The lyrics were actually a beautiful expression of undying love and affection. She would sing it in a bluesy and melancholy style, which was also strange to our young ears, immersed as we were in the radio music of the mid sixties. We had no idea who had sung the original version of this song. Maybe it was Doris Day. Who knew? It was probably recorded long before I was born (therefore irrelevant).

The song she sang to us was called “How Deep Is The Ocean (How High Is The Sky)”. The lyrics pose questions like “how much do I love you?” and instead of answering, the answer is always in the form of another question, like “How deep is the ocean?”. The analogy between the depth of the ocean (and the height of the sky) and how much she loved us was the point my mother was trying to make to us. It’s a truly beautiful lyric, crafted thoughtfully, and well worth searching for on line.

While listening to the album “Time to Dream”, track 9 came up. “How Deep Is The Ocean” was playing in my car, instantly transporting me back to a time when I was a much-loved young boy with a devoted mother then in her thirties, now sadly departed. The song my mother sung to us was a copy of the Les Paul and Mary Ford rendition of it. When I was a small boy, this song had only recently been released. It was then less than a decade old. To my mother, it was a recent work. Now, the song was playing to me, here, in 2017, still redolent with tragic, intense longing and aching melancholy. I must have gotten something in my eye, because I had to wipe away a tear.

In 1957, Mary Ford was evidently unhappy and grieving. Her first born daughter had died aged four days, after a premature birth, only three years earlier. She had left Les in 1956 and run away to Amarillo, Texas. They must have tried to patch things up and give their marriage another try. Les and Mary would ultimately divorce in 1964. She was reportedly tired of the constant touring and Les’ obsession with fame, success and work. She wanted a family and a more settled life. Les already had children from a previous marriage, but Mary, it seems, wanted children of her own. Les and Mary didn’t adopt a child until 1958, a year after the recording I was listening to was released. The writing was on the wall for their style of music, by this time, with rock and roll sweeping the hit parade. Their glory days of top ten success must have seemed behind them.

It was clear that there were tensions in the marriage. Les, it seems, wasn’t listening to Mary’s needs. He had also built the first eight-track recording studio ever, with pioneering technology, yet was releasing minimalist, simple ballads, with no vocal harmonies to speak of and just a lonesome guitar accompaniment. He must have been itching to see what his new studio was capable of, but Mary evidently had lost interest. There are reports that alcoholism affected Mary’s life. Whether it started about this time is pure speculation, but she died in 1977, aged just 53, from complications related to alcoholism. She spent her last days in a diabetic coma in hospital. In 1957, though she didn’t know it, she had just 20 years left to live.

So, here I am in 2017, listening to this piece of art made sixty years ago by a young couple in the midst of what was a deteriorating situation for them. Releasing it required courage and tenacity and as a piece of art, it is breathtakingly beautiful. How could this couple have known, back in 1957, how many people would be influenced and touched by their work? Could they have imagined that the entire course of people’s lives would change because of what they made together? Would it have even been conceivable that long after their deaths, their art would bring powerful, nostalgic memories flooding back, in a bloke driving around the UK, listening to long-lost music from his youth? They can’t have had the faintest inkling how the song they recorded in their home could have sent ripples forward into time, touching people they would never know or meet, in ways they couldn’t imagine.

This is the point about making art. You feel as though your contribution to the world is a small drop in the ocean, while you are making your art. You can’t foresee the extent of the ripples in time you make with that one small drop in the ocean, as you make it. You never know if your drop will be significant. But think about it: how deep is the ocean? 

Your art could be affecting people you will never know, in ways you couldn’t possibly predict, far into the future. Isn’t that a good enough reason to keep making your art?

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Everything is Not Fine

It’s the complacency that infuriates me most. In academia, you will hear learned, well-read, peer-reviewed, intellectual debate about where ideas come from and why they represent the world as it is: perfect, timeless, constant and immutable. The sheer arrogance behind the notion that every worthwhile thought has already been had and that the present circumstances are the pinnacle of human achievement and endeavour, which can be little improved upon, is breathtaking. Yet, this is widely believed, if only tacitly.

There is precious little understanding of ideology. Most people remain unaware that ideologies are human constructs – games we play. There is nothing inevitable, God-given or natural about any of them. They do not represent any form of natural order. Quite the opposite. They are universally examples of imposed, artificial order, maintained by violence and domination. 

These games are played by two sets of rules at once – the propagated rules we are all supposed to obey, while playing these games and the corrupted, cheating rules played by the inevitable winners.

How are we to address life’s pressing, existential problems with adequate responses if we have no grasp of how the ideas that shape society are originated and transmitted? Without that understanding, the media and it’s audience are happy to parrot government announcements, as if they were gospel truth. Journalists reduce to stenographers for the state. The state can manipulate us according to its will, but whose will does it represent? In our current situation, the state represents a corporatist agenda, doing what those who play the game most successfully want. 

Who are they and what do they want? They are the richest in society, who climbed to the top of the ideological game by being more ruthlessly adept at crushing everybody and everything in their path. They’re the sociopathic rulers of everything, who lay claim to their influence according to the size of the pile of money they have managed to appropriate, through playing by the secret set of rules; not the widely promulgated set. What they want is simple: more.

This, we are told, is the natural order of things – a state of perfection that can only be improved upon by tiny increments. And we buy into this crap.

When people complain about this situation, they’re not doing so because they hate their rulers; it’s because they’re seeing, faster than they are seeing, a change in reality which their rulers are failing institutionally to deal with; and whose risks they are refusing to understand.

To comprehend where society’s prevailing zeitgeist comes from and in order to challenge it, the media or wherever else significant public discourse and debate takes place (Twitter?) needs a theory of ideology, a theory of the state, a critical response to state propaganda and a different policy aimed at promoting class diversity and diversity of life experience in its commentators. 

Today’s mainstream media is comprised of a narrow, homogeneous, privileged slice of humanity, with little understanding of ideology, the state, propaganda or hierarchies of power and domination. They’re carefully selected on that basis. Consequently, they’re uniquely unqualified to comment on the big, existential crises facing us all.

The media and all of us should ask, every day: how do those in power try to use us to create the impression (illusion?) that the existing power structure and distribution of wealth is natural and immutable, and what stories can we create or pursue that resist this? It’s an institutional bias to insist everything is nearly perfect, but just needs a few minor tweaks. Yet, that’s largely what our political parties, on both sides, tend to espouse. It’s their prevailing mental model and framework of understanding of the world. 

Little wonder, then, that they are inept and helpless when reality asserts itself in ways that don’t align with their ideology. They’re baffled and powerless to explain it, or to respond to it. When experience can’t be mapped onto the ideas they hold to be true, inaction results. This is true of everybody that wholeheartedly subscribes to their chosen ideology. It’s failure to explain what is being observed results in intellectual paralysis and denial of reality. Denying reality is a truly stupid undertaking. Widespread, though.

The establishment, by definition the winners of the game constructed from the prevailing ideology, sees its sole purpose as maintaining the establishment, irrespective of the true needs of humanity. That’s the whole problem in a nutshell. Those fully bought into the game would prefer to protect the game itself, in preference to protecting the participants and the environment in which the game is played. Given the aim of the game is to crush, dominate, conquer and vanquish, then anything and everything becomes fair game, provided the game continues to the bitter end. By then it’s too late to save anything and winning is rendered hollow and pointless.

Adherence to the status quo, despite a changing context in reality, is conservatism. It’s the ideological game they’re conserving. Not the economy. Not human well-being. Not the planet. They’re conserving the hierarchy they’ve concocted in their heads and their place within it. That’s all. It’s anti-innovation, but worst of all, it’s an attitude that kills. Omnicidally.

So much that’s so fundamentally broken needs to change soon, or it won’t matter.

And yet, it doesn’t and it won’t.

I could write a long litany of what’s broken and why it needs to be fixed urgently, but while the primary concern of humanity is how to play the Capitalism game, or the oligarchy game, or the kleptocracy or totalitarian dictatorship games, the details don’t matter. The obsessive fixation on winning at these ideological games fully saturates our thoughts, leaving no cognitive capacity to recognise or process the real dangers.

We keep giving our money to people we don’t agree with. That’s how we keep these ideological games in motion. We defer to their power, voluntarily. We submit, comply and obey. We enrich the winners and empower them. It’s us, not them. We keep the game in play. We want it to keep going, because we’re addicted to the drama and conflict the game brings. We’re the enablers.

Regrettably, those calling the shots in these games have a universal paucity of vision for humanity, because they believe everything is essentially fine. But they’re wrong. Everything is not fine. Somebody else ought to be calling the shots.

The dissident journalist, Chris Hedges, comments: “The corporate state has made it very hard to make a living if you hold fast to this radical critique. You will never get tenure. You probably won’t get academic appointments. You won’t win prizes. You won’t get grants. The New York Times, if they review your book, will turn it over to a dutiful mandarin like George Packer to trash it—as he did with my last book. The elite schools, and I have taught as a visiting professor at a few of them, such as Princeton and Columbia, replicate the structure and goals of corporations. If you want to even get through a doctoral committee, much less a tenure committee, you must play it really, really safe. You must not challenge the corporate-friendly stance that permeates the institution and is imposed through corporate donations and the dictates of wealthy alumni. Half of the members of most of these trustee boards should be in prison!”

“Speculation in the 17th century in Britain was a crime. Speculators were hanged. And today they run the economy and the country. They have used the capturing of wealth to destroy the intellectual, cultural and artistic life in the country and snuff out our democracy. There is a word for these people: traitors.”

Rogue journalist, Caitlin Johnstone, notes: “What do most people do with the majority of their free time? Do they spend it collaborating, creating, cuddling, playing and making beauty, or do they spend it on conflict and competition? When you turn on the TV or go to the movies, how many stories will you see in which there is no conflict? Virtually none. Conflict and drama are what the average human mind gravitates toward — in our entertainment, in our social media, in our conversations, and in our routine mental behavior. It’s what we find interesting.”

“Humanity’s addiction to drama is so consistently and reliably used to manipulate us into supporting the status quo. Any movement away from the omnicidal trajectory of the ruling elites who have seized control of our world is quickly neutered and nullified by the way so many of us are so easily sucked into fist-shaking us vs. them opposition.”

Seeing that everything is not fine makes you a outcast. You will be punished. Your career will be harmed. That’s how they play the game currently operating. They crush dissent, so that the game may continue unimpeded. The outcomes are not considered important; only the game play.

But once you see the reality that everything is not OK, you can’t unsee it. And you can’t say nothing. Nor can you go back to playing by the official rules. Once you step outside the game, every human instinct prevents you from stepping back in. You’re stuck on the outside, looking in – horrified. You’re screwed.

So, you make art out of your dissent and isolation. You get used to the derision and the obscurity. You see being unacknowledged and unappreciated as situation normal. You can’t stop the game, single-handedly, nor can you participate in it, without full awareness of your own duplicity. You’re left making signposts to reality in the hope that some of those still playing their competitive game might notice.

And when you respond to the desperation of it all by putting your heart into everything you do, with absolute commitment, you’re punished and ostracised for trying too hard. That’s also how the game is played. Those signposts to reality have to be torn down, defaced and painted over; airbrushed out of any evidence that they ever existed. Crush the dissent.

It takes its toll.

We’re at the crossroads, as a species. We can wake up from the ideological games we’re immersed in, sense reality and respond positively to it, or else we can continue to protect the game play, until we’ve laid waste to everyone and everything. It’s a clear and stark choice.

The last comment belongs to Caitlin Johnstone: “If we want to evolve, we’re going to have to really want this thing, and get rid of our old vestigial conditioning patterns which behave as though we’re still a bunch of howling apes trying to claw our way up the food chain. We won’t survive the hurdles we face in the near future unless we change our way of thinking in a very big way. Paradise will be right here for the taking as soon as we’re truly ready for it, and getting internally ready for it is one of the most important things that an individual can do to help bring it about.“

Evolve or die. 

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A Better Way to Compete

They tell me that the best thing about Capitalism is that it’s best at creating fierce competition, as if that’s the only way to make anything good. They claim this is the only way to cause progress. I don’t think the evidence is wholly supportive of this proposition.

The downside of unfettered competition is corner-cutting, cheating, dirty tricks, manipulation, deception, bullying, illegitimate power structures, abuse, domination, conquest, vanquishing and a general suspension of morals and ethics. Even hugely destructive behaviours are sanctioned, so long as you can win some arbitrary competition. 

The costs of tolerating competitive behaviours, as defined under Capitalism, are approaching unbearable.

Here’s a better way to compete:

  • Was this the best you could do? Did you fully apply yourself, or can you do even better?
  • Are you improving? Are your goals and preferences becoming clearer?
  • Did you learn anything new, lately and did you apply it?
  • Do you care about what you do and how you serve? Could you care more? Could you serve more and better?
  • What did you give and share today? Could you improve on that tomorrow?
  • Who have you helped? Can you help more people in better ways?
  • Are you making progress against you goals? Are you getting better at reaching them?
  • Can you get yourself out of a rut and unstick yourself, when you’re stuck?
  • Have you contributed to the ability of people and the environment to thrive?
  • Does your work lead to creating good lives for all?
  • Are you doing work that has purpose and meaning?
  • Can you follow your curiosity even further?
  • Are you a better, wiser person now than say a year ago?
  • Are your ideas any better or clearer? Is the quality of your thought improving?

The only person you can meaningfully compete with is yourself.

There are plenty of ways to compete that don’t cause damage, destruction and harm, which also don’t require that other people or the planet lose. 

I claim that this attitude of mind is an even more potent force for progress and innovation than self-serving greed can ever be. This is the true invisible hand.

Are you going to choose to work in enhancement mode, or remain slavishly wedded to depletion mode?

It’s up to you.

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Some Remarkable Similarities Between Art and Engineering

My wife, while reading one of my blog posts, said something I found surprising the other day. She said it was rather sad that I didn’t talk more about my engineering, on this site. In her view, I approach art with the mindset of an engineer, which she feels is both uncommon and interesting. She said that an engineering approach to art has some advantages and that I should write more about those.

Although it’s true that I am an engineer (electrical, electronics and computer engineering, by training, but also mechanical and industrial engineering design, out of personal interest), I hadn’t really thought about how that might affect my art. It just didn’t occur to me as being significant.

I inhabit the one mind, so to me there isn’t a hard distinction between how I feel when I make art and when I do engineering. They’re just different aspects of the same thought continuum, to me. On reflection, though, there must be something to my wife’s observation. Without my noticing it, there probably is something about my engineering and problem solving mind that influences my how I make and appreciate art. It’s probably equally true that my approach to art has an impact on my engineering.

Consequently, I sat down and brainstormed a list of the ways in which art and engineering are similar, at least the way I perceive it. Here is the list:

1. Both involve continuous learning. Learning how to make art and to do engineering are both very iterative process. To become good at either, it’s about suffering and patient mastery, while you continually run up against the limit of your knowledge and abilities. You always need to know more and gaining that knowledge is painstaking, in both fields.

2. Everyone thinks they’re a better artist/engineer than you are. They also think they could have made a better job of your work than you did. This may or may not be true, but these characters are inescapable whether you’re being an artist or an engineer. Everyone is, in reality, a work in progress.

3. Every one of your artistic/engineering rivals thinks they’re special and some of them really are!

4. Both art and engineering require creative, imaginative, inventive and innovative minds. You can get by in both by following the instructions, joining the dots and colouring between the lines, but to do good art or engineering, you have to apply your creative abilities.

5. It’s an alternative way of seeing. In both cases, you’re perceiving the world as it could be, not necessarily how it is and making progress toward realising that vision.

6. Artists and engineers are both acknowledged to be undervalued. People only miss it when it’s gone. While it’s there, people take it for granted.

7. You can be a starving engineer too – both struggle for resources. You can be just as stymied by lack of resources, time and materials in either pursuit.

8. Both fields involve hard work and you have to dig deep, courageously, to produce what you do.

9. Being excellent and fast is table stakes. Brilliance is expected. Journeymen artists and engineers aren’t well-tolerated. 

10. Having a hit is not guaranteed. There are as many “almost successful” and “almost popular” engineering outcomes as there are artistic ones.

11. Your work can be corrupted by commerce. In both cases, your original aims and goals can be subverted and buried by financial imperatives. In both cases, it’s hard to defend and adhere to your values and principles.

12. Your work can be fragile and ephemeral. Everything decays, they need constant maintenance and both artistic and engineering artefacts struggle to find love, when they get old. Archivists, restorers and curators of old engineering are about as rare as those that take care of old art.

13. Once created, you work takes on a life of its own. It is no longer under your sole control. You engineering and your art will find homes and be used in the most unpredictable ways.

14. Patrons think they’re getting ripped off, but are actually getting riches for peanuts. Even the people that fund you think you’re short-changing them, when the truth is that they are often being showered with manifestations of inestimable value. They just can’t see it, except perhaps with hindsight.

15. People who know nothing about it are happy to give you their judgemental critique. If you are an artist or an engineer, everybody is ready to tell you how badly you screwed up, from a position of ignorance and never having attempted to do what you’ve done. Armchair experts afflict both fields.

16. Both pursuits can be solitary and collaborative. Sometimes, you work best alone, realising your own artistic vision. At other times, what gets made wouldn’t be possible at all, unless there were collaborators working in concert.

17. Sometimes, you need to scrap it and start again. There are crucial points in both art and engineering where you have to have the intellectual honesty to admit the work you’re doing is unsalvageable and fit only for scrap. Bravery is required to cut your losses and start afresh.

18. Both artists and engineers are despised while alive; revered only when dead. I’ve never understood why.

19. You carry all the risk on your own shoulders, whether you’re engineering or making art. If you mess up, it’s all on you and your reputation will take the hit. On the other hand, if you create something great, there will be plenty of other people ready to take credit and a large share of the proceeds.

20. There is no substitute for persistence and practice. There are no short cuts to becoming a well-rounded artist or engineer. You’ll have to put in the hours and the sweat.

21. There are fads and fashions. You might imagine that engineering is immune to the vagaries of trends, but that’s not the case. There are definitely periods of time where some approaches and design aesthetics are favoured and others not. Being a practitioner of the out of favour artistic or engineering trend brings obscurity.

22. Too much work in progress is a bad thing. Whether you’re engineering or making art, starting too many projects without finishing them gets you nowhere. Finishing things is also the hard work.

23. Finishing and delivering to your audience trumps perfection. It doesn’t have to be perfect, it has to be available. There are no rewards, other than perhaps the intrinsic ones of joy and mastery, for reworking your engineering and art until it is perfected. Better to ship it, even if a little flawed.

24. It’s hard to find your unique voice and even harder to become a household name. There aren’t many artists that everyone could name, for their sheer originality. That’s true for engineers too.

25. Choosing the right tools and materials is crucial. Working with the wrong stuff the wrong way takes much longer and results in poor artefacts. This is as true for engineering as it is for art.

26. Beauty, simplicity and elegance matter in both.

27. Aesthetic taste matters in both.

28. Both require prolonged deep focus and risky visionary thinking.

29. Both disciplines can be incredibly time consuming, yet immersive. That can make you both physically and emotionally unavailable a lot of the time, which can be very hard on partners, friends and family.

30. People will copy and steal your best ideas, despite the law. Protecting your ideas will break you emotionally and financially and take up all your waking, productive hours, while keeping you up all night fretting. Your best defence is to make something even better than the thing that was ripped off. Eventually, it becomes obvious where the good ideas are coming from.

31. Your very best ideas? You’ll have trouble selling people on them. Most people can’t tell a good idea from a bad one, even if it bites them. You will spend a great deal of time trying to convince doubters that you’ve made something excellent.

32. You can be fired on a whim. I thought there was job security in engineering, until a couple of start-ups I was in became finish-downs. I was also once fired on a whim, with no valid process or justification, though the law allowed it. The job security of an engineer is, in reality, little different to that of an artist.

33. Knowing how to draw well and write well (and touch type) are crucial to do well in both art and engineering. This is because you will, by necessity, spend a lot of time communicating and also because drawing is sometimes a more succinct and vivid way of communicating than the written word.

34. You play with abstract concepts a lot. Both art and engineering are about grappling with abstractions and turning those into something tangible. You construct a lot of your work in your head, first, before affixing it in some form of physical medium.

35. You have to drag your work out of your heart, guts and brains. Art and engineering come from the same places and nowhere else.

36. Being an artist makes you a better engineer and vice versa. I would say that, wouldn’t I? However, I think it’s true. Knowing how to construct helps your realise art. Knowing how to create beauty leads to better engineering.

37. You can’t pass off garbage as great work. If you can’t get most people to recognise great art or engineering, there is no hope for you with substandard output.

38. Your reputation is always on the line and remains so, even after you ship. You can never abrogate responsibility for what you have brought into the world or disown it. You made it. You did it. It represents you, like an immortal calling card.

39. Both fields are afflicted by an attitude of, “what have you done for me lately?” Employers and patrons alike are dismissive of your previous successes on their behalf. That’s why there are few old engineers and record companies don’t promote old bands. It doesn’t matter how much you made for them, or how big the pay day, you’re only as good and as valuable as your next creation.

40. Consequently, both fields are ageist. Regardless of skill, ability and success, old artists and old engineers are discriminated against.

41. Young hip dudes think they invented everything. They’re blind to the past. They have no idea that many of their fresh, new ideas are things that were made previously, by earlier generations of artists/engineers.

42. It becomes an obsession and takes over your life. Whether you’re an artist or an engineer, you can get so hooked on your own practice and work, that you inadvertently abandon the rest of your life. This is not healthy, but it’s very common. Once you realise the danger, it makes starting a new project feel dangerous and unpleasant, because you are aware that it may hijack your whole being once again.

43. Nobody cares about your struggles. Every day may be agonising, fighting the odds, your own limitations, your own fears and your own privations, to accomplish something in your art or your engineering, but that doesn’t make you special, sunshine. Nobody will be sympathetic to your plight.

44. You’re not permitted to have a bad day. Unless you are producing to the best of your ability, each and every day, you won’t hold down a commission or a job. Forgiveness for the occasional bad piece of work is virtually non-existent, once your quality bar has been established. They’ll want this standard each and every time, with no exceptions.

45. You get type-cast by your highest profile work. It doesn’t matter what else you make, as an artist or an engineer. Your reputation will be bound up with the piece of work you did that people know best. This popular work might not be the best thing you ever did, either.

46. Nobody trusts you to be as good as you are. There is doubt each and every time somebody engages you to make something for them. Whether you’re an artist or an engineer, recommendations and a solid track record are a requirement. Otherwise, the sponsor knows even less about what you’re capable of than their own senses tell them. Earlier, we established that while everyone thinks they know good art/engineering, the truth is that they’re clueless, unless they’ve done it themselves. For this reason, your credentials are vital.

47. Having a vision matters, but so does having an audience. Making art for nobody but yourself is pretty isolating. You need to have a compelling artistic or engineering vision for the things you are attempting to make, but this becomes futile, if nobody wants your products. OK, you might learn a lot and have a lot of fun playing, but this all costs time and money. There has to be some kind of pay-off somewhere down the track.

48. Artists and engineers are equally geeky about their specialist knowledge. Nobody understands or cares what you’re talking about, either. Both artists and engineers can bore an entire room, or bring a casual conversation to a shuddering halt, simply by going too deep into their highly specialised vocabulary and knowledge. However, what they know is cool and actually worth knowing.

49. It never turns out the way you envisioned it. No matter how clear and precise your vision, the finished work will never be a faithful reproduction of it. There will be compromises due to limitations of time and resources, or because your skills can’t realise what you imagine. This can be very equally frustrating, whether you’re an artist or an engineer.

50. People think artists and engineers are a dime a dozen, but great ones are exceedingly rare, valuable and precious. And nobody can tell great from ordinary, as previously mentioned.

51. You change the world routinely and deal with bringing the future into tangible, manifest being. Rather than predicting the future, you actually bring it into actuality. This is all in a day’s work.

52. When you start, you often don’t know if what you imagined can be done. The mind can easily conceive of objects that are impossible or exceedingly difficult to make. Finding a way to make them can turn out to be the bulk of the work and the hardest component of the project.

53. Starting is hard. Finishing is harder. You face the same dread of a blank sheet of paper as you do of a deadline to finish the work. Both take immense courage to overcome. I think that starting and finishing are a form of immovable object that can only be budged by a large force. Momentum is easily dissipated, too, so both fields involve constant resistance and friction. Once the ball is rolling, with a project, you have to keep applying yourself to keep it moving.

54. Blank canvases are equally scary to engineers and artists – making something out of nothing is terrifying. You literally have to bring something into being that never existed before, without the use of magic.

55. You only stick with it because you love it. God knows it isn’t for the money, the acclaim, the rewards or the fame. Remaining interested in making art or engineering products is the result of falling in love with making things. Otherwise, you go into venture capital, become a CEO or something else where art and engineering are not so important.

56. Burnout is a constant danger. You can find burnt out engineers and artists aplenty. They work so hard, for so little return, in such a focused and all-consuming way, that their emotional health can suffer. For their part, their employers will conclude that artists and engineers love staying up all night and working weekends to create for them, so they bully them into doing so (or take full advantage of their propensity to overwork, because of the charm of the work). They will believe that these overworked people are happy flogging themselves to death. It isn’t so.

57. Always do your best and when you know better, do better. You can never know enough, at any given moment of your development as an artist or engineer, but when you learn something new, you have a duty to apply it.

58. Imposter syndrome applies to both art and engineering. We all worry about being unmasked as a fraud, no matter how skilled and experienced we become. This is because both artists and engineers are aware there is always so much more to learn and to know.

59. People expect you to be eccentric and socially awkward. Both artists and engineers are poorly understood. When you demonstrate social graces or nuanced empathy, people tend to be shocked. That’s just their prejudice in action. I also suspect artists and engineers have played up to the stereotype for advantage.

60. Being temperamental is always an affectation and a displacement activity. Temperamental artists and engineers are worse than useless, because they stop others from being productive. It’s play acting, to fulfil the stereotype, because they can get away with it. Don’t fall for it.

61. You can actually start with very little, but excellence is costly. In both art and engineering, you can literally start with just pencil and paper. However, bring the creation to life can often be far costlier and involve resources you have no idea how to secure.

62. People that buy your work think they own it and that it makes them smart for owning it. They fail to acknowledge your role in its creation. It’s as if owning it was all it took.

63. Once you show somebody how to do what you do, they think they don’t need you any more, instead of appreciating there’s a lot more to it than they thought. Instead of seeing it’s just the tip of the iceberg, they think they have the whole thing in a single lesson. More fool them.

64. Everybody is self taught because nobody pays for your training. If you want to be either an artist or an engineer, you’re going to have to invest heavily in your own training and education, because nobody else will. They’ll all discriminate, as employers, on the basis of your personal development, but not contribute to it, if it costs money.

65. If you don’t take care of your tools, you lose the ability to work. You’re only capable of executing on your ideas if your tools are available and ready. Lose access to your tools and you can’t be an engineer or artist.

66. If you make a mess of the work, you need to start over. A lot of people are tempted to try to fix it, or disguise the mess they’ve made, but whether you are an artist or an engineer, if you’ve created a disaster, your best option is to destroy it and have another go.

67. You can’t turn a bad idea into a good piece of work, no matter how hard you polish. If you start with a flawed concept, exemplary execution won’t change its fundamental nature. A bad idea is a bad idea.

68. The prizes and profits go to those that sell your work on. Those in your distribution chain will have their hands out and capture most of the money. Some will even speculate on your products and make their profits that way. Being too far away from your paying customers is a bad position to be in. Artists and engineers need to find ways to go more directly to their customers.

69. Both are art and engineering are species of design, with both having emotional impact and often profound effects on humanity. What you make can have a big effect, shaping society and the zeitgeist. Be careful what you make.

70. Both actually require high levels of technical, intellectual and analytical skill. Some think that art is emotional and whimsical and engineering is not. In fact, the more analytical you are, the better you draw, for example. Also, delightful engineering needs to engage people emotionally. The technical versus artistic distinction is a false dichotomy.

71. If it doesn’t enhance life, it’s not worth doing – both art and engineering need purpose.

72. Story telling is a key skill in both art and engineering.

73. You fake it until you make it in both endeavours.

74. Arseholes and egos proliferate in both fields.

75. It’s not factory production line work. Whether you are an artist or an engineer, you constantly face new challenges and have to solve new problems. Employers try to manage/control both art and engineering with production line techniques and metrics, which unsurprisingly fail miserably. You’re not creating identical sausages. Both artists and engineers usually work on something for the first time, every time.

76. Failure is a requirement of learning, but is not tolerated by your funders/sponsors. Imagine that. You need to fail to get any better, but your sponsors won’t allow it. They require you to execute flawlessly, each and every time. The only way you can accomplish this is by taking no risks, meaning you stagnate. So employers want you to stagnate, but are constantly looking for somebody better than you. Is that weird and self-contradictory or what?

77. When you finish a work, you’re on to the next one. There is no rest and no time to appreciate what you’ve just made, fully. You almost have to forget the previous piece of work while you create the next one. It’s easy to lose sight of your accomplishments and development, this way.

78. You can see the flaws while others see perfection. No matter what you make, you are always painfully aware of its shortcomings and of the things you wish you could have done better. Fortunately, most other people are not.

79. Both art and engineering offer insight and visualisation, in the search for truth and what matters. Being this close to creation, you get to see what matters and what doesn’t and your training as an artist or engineer lets you see those things with clarity.

80. In both practices, open-mindedness and inquisitiveness are huge advantages.

81. Both artists and engineers learn to not fear the unknown, preferring leaps to incremental steps. Those leaps turn out to be incremental steps (just very big ones), but the point is you learn to jump into the void and explore the unknown.

82. Artists and engineers both like to make things. I suppose this is self-evident, at this point in the list, but making things is joyful, when done under the right circumstances. There is deep satisfaction to be obtained by creating things.

83. Individuals in both professions share high visual-spatial abilities. This skill turns out to be extraordinarily useful in both art and engineering.

84. You actually bring your whole self and identity to your occupation. There’s no separating your professional self from your private self. You aren’t two different people. I’m not one person at home and another at work. I’m the same person, all the time. In my case, that means I am always an engineer and an artist, as well as a father and husband. I’m not even just one kind of engineer or artist. I am several kinds of engineer and several kinds of artist. These are not disintegrated identities; they’re aspects of a single self. They are the whole me. It’s only employers and CVs that want me to tell the story of just one sliver of my identity, for the convenience of those trying to understand what I can do for them. The reality is that no matter what my role or job title, I bring all of these aspects of my being to the fore, all the time.

85. Whether you are an artist or an engineer (or both), the only way to really fail is to quit doing it. Sometimes, quitting has been very tempting.

So, there’s my list. What do you think?

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