It is Autumn in Melbourne, and I am already revelling in the steely grey skies, leaf-strewn pavements and regular showers of rain. During Winter last year, I described the darker months as my personal peak seasons of creativity. Today has been relatively warm, but the skies are big over Carlton and they have, to borrow a phrase from The Orb, "little fluffy clouds". So here is a nod to the darker seasons that are coming upon us: I for one welcome them.
I have just finished reading Steven Johnson's "Where Good Ideas Come From", an excellent exposition of a theory of innovation that focuses on the processes, platforms and techniques that support the emergence of creativity and ideas. His ideas are well researched, and in keeping with the subtitle (A natural history of innovation) Charles Darwin makes a sustained appearance in the text. There are far too many exciting ideas embodied in this book to give a comprehensive overview here, so I will focus on one aspect in particular: the concept of the Commonplace Book, its use as a tool of innovation and creativity, and the form it takes in the digital era.
The Commonplace Book was a ubiquitous tool of any Enlightenment scholar and gentleman, and its use extended from Renaissance Italy (the Zibaldone, or 'hodgepodge' book) up to premodern and modern England and America, although the forms varied in subtle and particular ways. The essence of the form was to carry a book that allowed one to capture words and sketches in many diverse and varied forms, types and purposes, creating a singular journal. Nowadays we would call it a personal journal or sketchbook, but the emphasis in Commonplacing (as it was known and taught in Oxford and even Harvard - Thoreau was taught to do this) was to combine quotations and extracts from found material with personal reflections and insights. The older form, the Renaissance 'Zibaldone' was even more diverse, and could include a record of tax rates, payments, debts, doodles, recipes, quotations from the greater and lesser poets, sketches, drawings and just about anything else you could imagine.
Johnson points to the benefits of Commonplacing as a tool of innovation and creativity, and attributes this to its ability to net and trap 'hunches' and subsequently allow the unexpected collision of different ideas. This process takes advantage of what he and others have called the 'adjacent possible'. Indeed, he elevates the humble 'hunch' to the level of proto-concept, an essential larval form of innovative ideas, albeit one that is more likely statistically to be abandoned and wither than bear fruit. As the story goes, we have a lot of hunches, and we need to have a lot, and not lose track of them: some lead us somewhere, but all of them have value. Even the ones we abandon are essential to 'trap', as they may form the seed of further ideas. Personally I prefer the term 'seed' to 'hunch'; to me, 'seed' captures the emergent potential of the stray idea, while acknowledging that it may fall on either barren or fertile ground - amount to something, or nothing at all.
I am no stranger to journal-keeping, nor to the fruitless/fruitful recording of stray hunches, but thanks to Mr. Johnson, I have a clearer view of a personal practice that had been intuitive up until now. He has filled out the creative, utilitarian and historical context to what was in itself a hunch - a desire to keep and maintain a record of thoughts and found materials.
More than this, Johnson was able to put the practice of commonplacing in an up-to-date framework through a discussion about the software tool DEVONthink. Like Evernote, DEVONthink is a personal database tool ideal for capturing words, notes, images, documents, voice recordings, web links and pages, in fact anything that you might wish to place in an imaginative or useful framework for future reference. In essence, they are both commonplacing tools, updated for a web-centric digital age.
The power of DEVONthink, and the advantage that it has over the conceptually similar but simpler Evernote, is embodied in its search algorithm, one that intelligently considers the context and proximity of words and meaning as well as the explicit search terms. It is also capable of intelligently classifying new material in relation to material you have already trapped in the database, a revealing and creative process in itself. With DEVONthink, storing items and ordering the database over time is fruitful, but the act of searching also becomes an active creative process, one that forces possible adjacencies between words and concepts in a way that is just a little unpredictable. And in that unpredictability is a strangely resonant mimicry of the seemingly-random connections between ideas and concepts that can emerge from, or inform, our subconscious and conscious minds. In this way the software acts as an extension and augmentation of our thinking process, if not our mind itself.
I have in the past used Evernote as my de-facto digital commonplacing tool, but I was far too intrigued by the possibilities of DEVONthink's search and classification algorithm to resist it. As a result I spent much of the long weekend transitioning my database of material from Evernote into DEVONthink. This labour-intensive process had the added bonus of allowing me to revisit much of the material I had saved into Evernote, and this in turn presented a range of new connections and concepts, new potentials, new seeds.
I look forward to new taxonomical habits yielding creative new insights, augmented by my newly adopted commonplacing tool.
I am determined to start 2012 off in a positive frame of mind. I recently met a charming Australian woman who had lived in Portland, Oregon for several years. She reminded me of that most endearing of American traits - of American people, that is, not American popular culture - an unbridled and vibrant capacity for positivity and enthusiasm, and a corresponding lack of the cynicism and pessimism that is so prevalent in Australian culture.
It would be easy to be cynical about this - which is I suppose the point - but instead, I have decided to be inspired and wide-eyed. This doesn't come easy to a Melbourne pseudo-intellectual, but I am giving it a go. So rather than looking at the glass half full, as I seemed to be doing for much of 2011 (everything was problematic), I am beginning the new year by counting the positives and moving on from there. Things are good. Uncertainty is a fact, but I am learning to live with it.
On this basis, I hereby declare that 2012 is my year of 'YES'.
To help you understand what I am currently feeling about my iPhone - and just how insignificant and ridiculous such a state of mind is - I have found this blog post from almost exactly one year ago that PERFECTLY sums the matter up. Speaking quite literally, I couldn't have expressed it better. Check it out here. Thanks to the author.
It is unlikely that many of us will be famous, or even remembered. But not less important than the brilliant few that lead a nation or a literature to fresh achievements, are the unknown many whose patient efforts keep the world from running backward; who guard and maintain the ancient values, even if they do not conquer new; whose inconspicuous triumph it is to pass on what they inherited from their fathers, unimpaired and undiminished, to their sons. Enough, for almost all of us, if we can hand on the torch, and not let it down; content to win the affection, if it may be, of a few who know us and to be forgotten when they in their turn have vanished. The destiny of mankind is not governed wholly by its “stars."
- F. L. Lucas
Stepping around the gender exclusivity, I found in the quote above much to consider, and reassurance to be found. It seems to me that a necessary condition of the 'inconspicuous triumph' is to aspire to stardom, but it is somehow heartening to be reminded of the enormous value of cultural work, independent of fame and fortune. It would seem important to know and to value those 'few who know us', and to avoid taking them for granted. Of course, the corollary to this is to make a mark on the world - to leave a record of progress, of the process of maintaining the 'ancient values'.
This is a kind of immortality, or at least endurance beyond our short allotted span. I am drawn to this sort of thing, and I have in my possession two documents, one written in 1451 and one written in 1494. (My documents are archivally framed, and difficult to photograph; the image above is of an English document a century older, but the handwriting is similar.) I am yet to have my documents translated, but I know one to be a letter of recommendation for a young man, and the other is a passport, the documentation required to cross the feudal borders of 15th Century Italy. I love these documents, I love that they have survived intact and legible on their tough parchment, and I find them inspiring. Certainly, the handwriting - small and tight, yet flowing and lyrical - brings the presence of the scribe close to the surface of the document.
I aspire to this kind of endurance, this modest form of immortality: it seems far less fleeting, and more achievable, than 'stardom', to use Lucas' terminology. This also lies at the root of my fondness for good paper, bottles of ink and fountain pens. I will continue to write, transcribing my thoughts and aspects of my mundane, workaday world, and we shall in time see what comes of it.
I was wondering if this is a shared feeling. I can post about all manner of things here, but what is really essential? What really rocks my world, and might rock yours? When I started this blog I described it as a slow blog, with the intention to post only when I have something to say or an observation of real interest to share. I think that the phenomenon of extraneous posting is rife in the blogosphere, and all it does is contribute to the deafening informational cacophony we are all engulfed in. I hesitate to contribute more noise to the mix.
Despite my reticence, I remain enamoured of, and inspired by the tools in the bloggers kit. The notebooks, the pens, the paper, the cameras, my ipad, its little wireless keyboard, my voice recorder: all of these things seem to vibrate with potential, waiting to be tapped. To me they are like a blank canvas to a painter, challenging and exciting and confronting all at once. All I need now are compelling subjects: but I am careful not to tempt fate, and wish too hard. History has a habit of intervening with momentous events just at the point where it seems nothing much is going on, and people are beginning to complain about things essentially being good. The war correspondent is never really short on subject matter, but I wouldn't want my life and times to become quite that interesting.
All of which is merely to announce that I am relaunching the site with an excellent new template. The old template was austere, which appealed to me, but in retrospect I think it was a little too stripped out - a little too restrictive. It was excellent at focusing the reader on the written word, but it didn't handle photographs particularly well, and aflawedmind.com is at least half visual. Enter Graph Paper Press (graphpaperpress.com), an excellent wordpress template outfit geared at creative publishers with a heavy emphasis on visuals. I have decided to trial the Base template - it is perhaps the most 'bloggy' and text-friendly of the GPP templates.
Let me know what you think of the new threads.
Melbourne is settling into a brooding late Autumn mood today, and it makes me glad. I am a gothic at heart, and as such I like it when the sky is low, the sun is blacked out by a blanket of towering clouds, and a cold rain is falling. This has very little to do with being an 'indoors' person, as I find that it is a fine thing to be tucked up indoors under a blanket, or out stalking the streets wrapped in coat and scarf and beneath a large umbrella.
I find this weather, this season, conducive to both idle contemplation and diligent thought. I can imagine more, and more effectively, when it is cold and grey outside. This time of year is all about closing down - about people scurrying off into their homes, and the summer things being shut up and battened down for the cold time to come. Spring and Summer are all about the body: Autumn and Winter are all about the mind. In short, these seasons are my seasons.
Late last year I did some work with a creative studio, thinking through roles, techniques for writing and presentation, and generally brainstorming their creative trajectory as a working organisation. This work was done under the banner of my private consultancy, Archimentor (www.archimentor.com.au). I puzzled over this work to some extent, as I seem to have launched Archimentor without knowing precisely what it is or does. All I did know for sure was that the work was fascinating, the results satisfying and the process of 'following my nose' quite rewarding. This was due in no small part to the head of the studio in question, who was tremendously supportive, inquisitive and a creative powerhouse of formidable abilities.
Recently things have come into focus somewhat, and I think I am now in a position to pin down exactly what we were up to, all of us together. I think we were engaging in a process of design thinking, the application of the techniques of design to a business context, coupled with building the design skills and capacity of the team as applied to what was perhaps less familiar territory: their work processes and roles, rather than their commissions. Writing and taking the design initiative were two topics that received some attention in our sessions.
Design thinking is undoubtedly a buzz phrase at this time. Nevertheless I can see its potential, and I can also see the seeds of something enduring amongst the hype. The techniques of design represent a potentially powerful method of problem definition, resolution or solution. Design thinking can establish pathways for alternative and unexpected types of investigation, and yield results that are equally unexpected and well-suited to their application.
I can see how businesses of all types could benefit from the techniques of design thinking, but I don't want to get carried away with definitions at this formative stage. Strangely, I have enjoyed the organic and slightly shambolic evolution of my consulting sideline to date; it forms a smaller subset of my own creative practice in architecture and design, and I am yet to bring the many strands together. In the meantime I would like to see my strange sideline continue to evolve, and I am not in a hurry to pin it down. At least, not yet.
Check out www.archimentor.com.au for some more clues. Comments and insights are welcome.
I cannot repeat the entirety of his argument here, of course, but it is compelling, drawing on neuroscience as much as history and current behavioral research.
Carr and others he quotes describe the internet as a 'distraction machine', and he delves into the questions of cognitive load and the relationship between distraction and comprehension and memory. The argument is so compelling that I have been prompted to rethink how I do a lot of different activities, spanning both work and leisure, and after a quick audit of my own habits I can definitely say that I have been exhibiting the symptoms Carr describes.
My first reaction to this has been to read Carr's book thoroughly, and I have about a quarter of the volume left to go. This can be contrasted with the habit of skimming that I had picked up over the last few years, where I would skim and drop a book, rather than allow myself time and effort to read it deeply, as I would have done in the past. Last Saturday I read Carr's book for about six hours in a single sitting. It is a long time since I had experienced this - Carr himself points to the lost art of 'losing oneself in a book' - and it was a great pleasure rediscovered.
The second habit I am rethinking is email. I have set my email client to retrieve mail only once every hour, and I might restrict it further subject to the findings of my trial. I am consciously not visiting the email app to see 'what's come in', and trying to focus deeply on the task at hand, whatever that may be.
That just leaves a persistent Facebook and Twitter feed, chiming away on my iPhone. The phone also buzzes lightly whenever I receive an email. All of these distractions must be mastered.
In the spirit of de-cluttering and winding back the distraction potential of my own little corner of the internet, I have redesigned my website using this simple, low-distraction format. I am also going to rely a little less on imagery in future posts. This might make the site less visually appealing at first glance, but I think the benefit is that there will be no extraneous illustration, and more focus on the contents of my writing. I think the new format is also easier to read, which I am coming to appreciate more as my eyesight ages in a far-from-graceful manner.
In all of this, Carr acknowledges the benefits the internet brings. He is no Luddite, and agrees that there are indisputable positives. More than this, he accepts that there is no going back. Nevertheless, the issues he raises are of such significance that I feel we should all hear what he has to say, and devote a bit of deep thinking to the problem.
I am hearing Nicholas Carr speak tomorrow night. I hope he is as cogent and thought-provoking in person as he is on the page. I will report back forthwith.
Yesterday I had to conduct some business in the country, dealings with a real estate agency that has been trading continuously in the same location since 1921. The building they occupy was built to house an earlier real estate agency in 1876. This means that I stepped into a building where real property assets had been traded for more than 134 years, dating back to the early years of the colony of Victoria in southern Australia. The staff who work inside this building do so in the most extraordinary of settings, the private office.
I know that this is apparently still reasonably common, but I was still surprised by my reaction. Stepping into a small room containing a desk, a filing cabinet and three chairs - only large enough for a single worker - seemed eccentric at best, and perversely isolating at worst. The room had a door that I sincerely hope is seldom shut, as the cell was not equipped with a window.
Of course, having no window in a room is an undesirable thing, but the truly remarkable part was the social dynamic of doing business in such a room. It was all a bit off-balance somehow, as if there might be something vaguely illicit or inappropriate about being cloistered away from other people. I sat opposite the agent, and this seemed to be alright until a third person entered the room behind me, stepping in momentarily to meet me. There was barely enough room to move, and we shuffled around in about one square metre, right on the threshold, discussing the weather and the drive up from Melbourne. As you do.
It was all vaguely comical, but I didn't feel like laughing.
Architects who work in offices generally occupy open plan studios, and so does much of the office-working world by now. To my eye, window or not, it all seemed very strange, and tradition aside I am glad I have not been sentenced to life in a private office.
The room just beneath the battlements is a tiny circular chamber, accessed by a thick timber door from the terrace, positioned beneath the steep little iron stair that takes you up onto the battlement proper. The room contained a writing desk and a chair, and it had small lead-lined windows looking out and down to the River. I opened one, and saw some boats steaming along in the current many hundreds of feet below. The room felt suspended in mid air, between heaven and earth, and its austerity and simplicity impressed themselves upon me. Apparently Kaiser Wilhelm II had used that very room to write in, and while he is not my favourite historical personage I cannot fault his taste in 'perches' for writing. Overlooking the Rhine placed the room on one of the principal arteries of industry and trade, and one of the signature natural features of Germany. The castle behind provided a psychological security, and yet the room itself was tiny.
Basically, I want one.
Have a look at these paintings of St Jerome in his study: they each contain at least one idea that I will use to create my 'headspace'. In the frescoe below I see a pleasant homely clutter of writing and study implements including scissors, books and sheafs of paper. I am particularly interested in the overhead shelf.
The painting below shows the Saint in a more contained, closet-like carrol. It is not hard to imagine this 'study' as a box-like room of sorts, or at least an alcove. This painting is a delight, with the Saint's attendant lion stretching its paw up towards his hand. Again with the pleasing clutter of the man of letters.
This painting introduces a spatial relationship of particular interest: the study or carrol as a timber element you climb onto, in the corner of a larger room, positioned beneath a window. Again with the clutter.
The final painting elaborates the theme: platform of timber, corner of the room, positioned with a window integrated into the joinery. The Dutch style of side lighting is also important.
So that's the inspiration. Watch this space to see where I go with it. It is shaping up to be my most eccentric project to date: good times.
The studio is quiet this week, people are hushed and the phones generally aren't ringing. I was drawing, using the computer to copy ethereal digital circles of pale green, when the roll of yellow tracing paper sitting on my desk slowly unfurled in my peripheral vision. It made a tiny noise, a kind of scratchy wheezing as the edge of the trace was drawn across a piece of creased bond paper on my desk.
It happened in one of those fleeting micro-moments of sudden stillness, and due to the meditative nature of the drawing exercise I was immersed in this strangely drawn-out, tiny, sudden movement startled me. This was a personal moment, a tiny sliver of time of about three seconds, and yet I felt my perception suddenly shift as if the floor had dropped out beneath my feet.
Call me odd for saying so, but I like that sensation. It is the diametric opposite of being in control, and I only ever experience it when I am relaxed. I don't think the insignificance of the experience (for it is certainly insignificant) disqualifies it from consideration. It is a cliché to say that life is made up of such moments, but it remains true nonetheless: just hanging around and being is quite a rich experience, if we can tune our senses to its subtleties.
Of course, most of the time I, and I imagine you, are far too busy to smell such invisible roses. While we are on that topic, and speaking of clichés, have you ever stopped to smell the roses? It has become something of a superstition that I must do this whenever a rose presents itself. It’s true: I really do. This obsessive little habit has rules, though – cut roses do not invoke the reaction, and going to a rose-garden would also not satisfy the conditions of the act, as it would be far too obvious. However, if I am on site, or wandering out in the world, and I unexpectedly come across a rosebush, I almost always stop to smell it.
I attribute this to the notion that much of my inner life is lived in language, and a phrase ‘stop and smell the roses’ is something of a provocation or challenge, as well as being a well-worn cliché. I experience a tiny moment of reflective pleasure when I am able to make physical and real a concept with a meaning so debased and diluted that it scarcely conjures the image of a real rose when said aloud. It is as if the act strips the phrase of its cliché, if only for a moment – and the words are recharged with descriptive power. Don’t you think that is fascinating? In a similar vein, there have been days when I have left a lunch appointment and said ‘back to the drawing board’, and meant it quite literally.
Like most of the things that fascinate me, I have no idea what this means. Yet still, I like it.
Welcome. This is it, post one of A Flawed Mind, the blog I am dedicating to the deceptively simple phrase 'I've been thinking...'
I am a thinker by habit, but it has not necessarily always been a comfort. In fact I was recently told by a friend that I tend to 'think a bit too much'. This is undoubtedly true, and in the past I suffered from a far more obsessive strain of thought than I currently enjoy. There were dark times, and I occasionally wished that my head would explode and be done with, at least in a figurative sense.
Despite the shadows, happily somewhat distant now, I continued to prize thinking highly. Thinking, and its more casual cousin 'reflection', are central to my job, or jobs, which have become a personal vocation. I am in the creativity business, working right now as an architect and an itinerant freelance journalist. Both crafts require a surprising amount of reflection, or at least they do the way I practise them. Up until recently I was also a design teacher at an architecture school. That too required a great deal of thought before, during and after contact with students.
Now entering the third year of a self-imposed sabbatical from teaching, I find that I have a great deal of extra time in the week, and I am keen to use this time to lead a richer life. To help make this happen I have been slowly re-engineering my life (and my lifestyle) to include more time and space for reflection. Reducing my daily total commute to (literally) about three minutes is a great improvement on the previous record of three hours a day, and this too has liberated my body and mind for many more hours each week.
Thinking and reflection (I might use these terms interchangeably in this blog, but not all the time) are only possible, of course, if they are nurtured and fed regularly. This requires a commitment to reading, looking, listening, photographing, writing and drawing on a regular basis. I am trying to dedicate more of each day to these activities. Fortunately may day job includes most items on the list.
Private reading and listening are particularly important, and I can generally do both every day. I am indebted to two quintessentially American and quintessentially 'new economy' business ideas for the enrichment of both activities. For reading, in addition to the many physical books I purchase I have just got my hands on an Amazon Kindle. This is an interesting device, and I have already subscribed to the MIT Technology Review, Salon and the Times Literary Supplement, just to kick things off. In fact the Christmas shopping season just ended saw digital books for the first time outsell physical books on Amazon: could the oft-predicted e-book revolution finally be upon us?
For listening purposes I rely on one of the most successful internet startups of all time, Audible.com. This fantastic subscription service for audiobooks and other listening goodies has managed to secure $US20 of my personal funds each month for about three years now, and I have enjoyed interacting with an online business that actually does create new value where none previously existed. The whole adds up to more than the sum of the parts.
On a domestic front Radio National remains the stimulation source of choice. Chafing at its perceived intellectual authority I recently tried to pen a polemic entitled 'Why we must turn off Radio National and start thinking for ourselves'. Good soundbite, but in the process of researching it I increased my listening time, and came to the conclusion that Radio National actually is generally good for my brain.
In case this is all sounding a little too highbrow (and on second reading of the above, it is) let me hasten to introduce you to the soft, stripy underbelly of these more intellectual habits. The 'underbelly' is where I attend to the workings of the subconscious or unconscious minds, and for reflection to occur these 'other' minds need their own kind of feeding and love. The techniques I prefer all have these things in common: they are apparently trivial, superficially time-wasting, gently distracting and largely harmless. Three such techniques are 1 - mindless television crime drama in general; 2 - watching endless repeats of The Simpsons; and 3 - driving in the country while recording rambling, unfocused monologues grounded in stating the obvious. These all serve a purpose, and that purpose is to occupy the conscious mind so the unconscious, or subconscious, can go to work. This is the reason that you always remember a forgotten name when you have stopped trying to think about it directly. But you knew that already, I suspect.
And what sterling work the subconscious can do if it is only left alone for a spell, every now and then. This leads us of course to the thorny issue of creative problem solving - but that, as they say, is a whole different kettle of poisson. And it is a kettle that we will stir together many times as this blog evolves. Thinking keeps my dog and cat in expensive imported dry vittles, and me in sparkly drinks and party pies, but it's not all work. Ultimately it is quite fun to spend your time thinking about stuff and working things out. I recommend it as an ideal vocation.
So that's it: post one. Join me again for the next instalment, all in good time.