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the database problem revisited

I am very indebted to my friend Rob Walters, a computer telephony engineer and author, for telling me all about the 'database problem'. Indeed it is one of the founding laws of creating databases: there shalt only be ONE database. You have a calendar in your office and one at home. You update them both, kind of, but sooner or later one slips ahead...and then you get real problems. Neither database becomes absolutely reliable. Things start getting stressful...

Multiple access points for communication are a form of database problem. You have the mobile, you have the home phone, you have twitter, facebook and email- and maybe instagram, linked in and pinterest too. Each one allows communication. Of course you can keep everything on your mobile and keep checking through all of them- kind of like having four calendars on the wall all next to each other- still overkill and still room for missing things.

Many people I know have given up having a home phone and the mobile becomes the main portal for everything. The problem is- it's never off. And there is no hierarchy of communication. Everything from the utterly trivial to earth shattering is 'normal' for it. Noise increases. Stress increases.

Always aiming for one database is an ideal worth striving for. Unattainable perhaps, but all steps in this direction are useful. Communication technology 'uses us' more than we 'use it' when we service multiple databases, wasting our time keeping them all updated.


What robot wars can teach us about design

Robot wars is hard to resist. A bunch of engineers and fabricators of machines compete to build a robot that can kill all other robots. What’s interesting is to see the evolution of design- which is part determined by the robot arena and partly by the opposing robots.

The arena is a caged off zone- maybe the size of a squash court with a few tethered house robots that are larger than the competers but fairly predictable. They stick to their patch so it’s important not to break down within their ambit. There are various hazards- a hole that appears- which once you are in is very hard to extricate yourself from.

But the major design influence is the opposing robot.

At first the robots looked cool and robot like. This changed over time as top heavy robots proved easy to flip. So new ones became flip friendly- able to right themselves or even run when upside down. They became sleek and wedge shaped with hidden wheels – and all had wheels- none have legs which I guess would make it too hard to be an evenly matched game.

The robots defeat each other either by smashing, cutting, flipping or electrocuting the opposite machine. For a while no technology prevailed then it became apparent that a bit of each didn’t work. Your robot had to commit to one tactic or another. Hammer wielding smashers worked for a while. Then wedge powered flippers were the rage. Then a team looked at the rather feeble circular saws on some robots and built a spinning rotor- like a mower rotor- out of turbine steel. It was lethal and virtually unbreakable. Just getting the tip of your robot caught by this killer device could result in it being spun out of the arena.

Of course you need speed, manoeuvrability, armament and the ability to react to being flipped- but at the end of the day you need unstoppable firepower that is fast. A hammer or even a taser is a bit slow. A rotating blade is like a gatling gun- devastating. Momentum is what halts another object- Mass multipled by velocity. Mass is not enough. And speed is not enough. Thinking about devices that raise both of these easily (things that spin rather than oscillate, stop-start) is a good way forward.

Even when designing other products think about its momentum, think about ways of making it spin so as not to need constant inputs of energy to keep starting it again. Think of a book, instead of being launched (with the inevitable return to earth), being put in a series of low orbits that just keep rising. What a ‘low orbit’ would be or what form this spinning would take would obviously differ for each product.


the return of the cheapskate adventurer

I was in my bikeshop today, I mean the local one, not one I own and the owner was trying to persuade me not to buy puncture proof mountain bike tyres. The thing is, the trails in my neck of the woods are puncture paradise. I don't really care if the tyre is heavy and hard as long as I don't have to wheel home a beast on rims. But the puncture proof tyres are a tad pricey...and it made me think about when I was a kid and doing adventures for the absolute minimum of cash. In fact pretty much everything was determined by what I could find in my dad's shed or in my pal's garage. We built a coracle and covered it in the trailer cover. We used his dad's ex-army aluminium outrigger canoe to go down the river stour. We built shelters from groundsheets and built treehouses from wood found in a dump. I was a real cheapskate when it came to victualling my boyhood expeditions too. On one, my stingy control of finances led to a mutiny when two tins of meatballs were purloined and eaten in protest at my meagre rations. 

Being a cheapskate, though, is a good way to get things moving. Too often we hold back for exactly the right kit. Go with what you've got. Now I know that really cheap kit can be worse than useless- unless you bodge it into shape. I did a 350 km hike with a rucksack with no frame carrying initially a 25kg load- killer! But I made a frame from sticks and cord and it worked pretty well. If you're not in too much of a hurry cheap skate adventuring can be fun.

My new maxim: go with what you've got. If you haven't got it, check the pound shop first. And only ebay as a last resort...


micromaster a pop song

Many moons ago with the help of my pals Juggles and Dan I made a pop single entitled 'Jim Morrison lives'. Despite recording the vocals in the shower in the best traditions of home brewed success it didn't get very far. The A and R woman at polydor- a vague sort of connection- said politely it 'wasn't her bag' which was better than nothing. Anyway time moves on and I was thinking make a pop single- why not? Could this be another intriguing micromastery? What are the entry tricks? Here's one from former Noseflutes lead singer Martin- know how to make good sounds. Collect good sounds and tape them...anymore wlecome


micromastery buddy club

When you see something you want to get into it helps to have a buddy doing it with you. But sometimes, often you're all alone. I include myself! Today I was looking at a book on wargaming I bought a while back and it looked such a huge subject I thought the classic 'I'll never be able to get into that- it's too vast'. That's the trouble with lots of introductions- well meant in their own way- they just serve to put you off. After you bought the eye candy, in my case the book. But what if a buddy could explain a war gaming micromastery to me? That would help. I am thinking some kind of micromastery buddy club. People are already reaching out (sorry) and sharing micromastery stuff together. Maybe it could be welded together- or maybe it will be about small self-supporting groups. One thing it won't be is the MAIN event in your life. I'm thoroughly sick of every platform- patreon, facebook, instagram trying to ensnare people and make them devote their lives to what is in many cases merely half-baked exhibitionism. Nope micromastery is just a part of life, but still a darned good part all the same! Keep on learning!


Micromaster the bacon sandwich- or is it roll?

The mighty and ubiquitous bacon sarnie is something ripe for micromastery. As a lover if not a connoisseur of this delicacy I have every motive to pursue greatness in its construction. And so another delicious micromastery takes place. This is very often my favourite place to be- right at the beginning when the (micro)obsession takes hold. I'm relishing just experimenting right now using what I know/have learned plus one piece of chef's advice from ten years ago. On such slim beginnings any micromastery can grow. Reading and yioutubing too soon spoils things. As Micromaster Alexander Hopkins taught me- sometimes you just have to make a stab at a thing first THEN read the manual/book/last word on the subject...

So, what I know for sure: a) the bacon must be dry cured, or, if wet cured, must have a minimum of that white mucus-like sludge that boils out of crap bacon. The bacon should not be streaky (at least that is my current belief) - it should be back-bacon and medium thick. to thin and crispy and its all frying that you taste, too thick and chewy and its...too thick and chewy. Sourcing eco-friendly super delicious hand reared and fettled bacon is probably my next objective but right now I'm making do with Co-op's finest...b) (yes still going with this list) the bread is not super important. Processed white bread is just about OK except the bacon fat can melt through it. A too-thick and crispy bun is useless- all you taste is bread. Lovely homemade bread likewise- it usually has too much character....and c) don't add mushrooms.

I added a lot of mushrooms on the first experiment today. Watery and mushroomy flavoured bacon sarnie- NO! Bacon and mushroom and cheese toppings have their place- but not in the classic bacon sandwich. Come to think of it, the bacon sarnie is a true icon of venacular cookery, overlooked by every tradition bar that of the greasy spoon. Truly below the radar, it is probably just waiting to become elevated like craft beer and gourmet coffee.

I digress. What kind of oil? I suspect dripping but I make do with olive oil. The key thing is to get the bacon crispy brown in places but not dried out in the middle. This is probably the rub/pat barrier. Should one 'prime' the bun with a quick fried-bread style soak/fry in the hot pan. Not sure, probably not. Prime the sandwich with a smidgin of butter- that works too. The only sauce is Lea and Perrins- can't really over do this either. Brown sauce and ketchup overwhelm the bacon too much.

In summary- so far the perfect bacon sandwich is in an oridnary bun, not too thick and certainly not very 'crusty'. The bacon is back-bacon and well fried (not grilled). The sauce is Lea and Perrins. Eat when hot.


Some thoughts on Original Thinkers

I believe any concept that only applies to the famous, to people deemed special through being prominent is fatally flawed. If your pool of talent only includes the well known then it is hopelessly limited. As Paul Valery’s Monsieur Teste remarked: the genius who is known is always less than some unknown genius who has not wasted half his effort on becoming known.

But it’s hard to rid oneself of celebrity-focused-rosetinted-spectacles. I’ve even experienced it myself. The day after you are on national radio even people who know you well listen to your (sometimes half-baked) comments with rapt attention. A few weeks later and they treat you just like before…

Original thinking isn’t found that often in books, in academics and, as mentioned, certainly not among famous celebrities. But it isn’t likely to be found in the mad, outcasts and dossers either.

It can be defined as ‘thinking for yourself’ rather than being ‘thought through’.

People are ‘thought through’ most often when they are to busy or distracted to be able to ponder something for themselves. Such people are rarely alone and so lose the ability to do some thinking which they then may share with others. The ‘thought through’ just react to whatever is said at the moment they hear it. They can be witty and amusing and over time and build up a repertoire of ripostes that have ‘worked’ but this is different from original thinking. Original thinking comes from a different place.

People are also ‘thought through’ when they build up a platform of ‘the unthinkable’. These act like filters on what they can and cannot think. As you get older ‘the unthinkable’ either gets bigger or smaller. You either learn to have a distance on everything so that more and more is ‘thinkable’ or you don’t. This is connected to empathy, shares some of its characteristics but is different.

Of course you have to have some kind of platform. Before you can try and think ‘new thoughts’ you need to accept that such thoughts are possible. It helps to have a set of ‘mental moves’ or a world view that combined with accurate observation  generates original thought.

In fact accurate observation alone, deep looking, is the greatest source of original thinking there is.

But for all of the above you need to be able to detach from that which you are observing as well as detach from the person who is observing. Many can do the first, don a lab coat and cut up rats. But far fewer can do the second, which is to detach from being ‘them’ or ‘their job’ and become a floating ‘observing self’ who records the act of recording. Takes a step back from the ego involved in the act of watching.

This is why ordinary people (a small number I agree), odd though it may sound, are more likely than famous scientists to be original thinkers. Ordinary folk have less to lose, less on the line, less likely to be vain about being smart and scientific and famous for their work. I mean in the sense of being original in whatever they are interested, not in being original scientists. 

But the majority of ordinary people can also be too distracted, not interested enough and lack the time and space to engage in really looking at something.

So the original thinkers tend to be slight outsider types, slight loners, slight oddballs- but those who haven’t built a replacement big ego based on being a misunderstood genius. ‘In the world but not of the world’ to use a description applied to Sufis, seekers after truth in the mystical Islamic tradition. They may be very gregarious but also have the desire and ability to be very comfortable with their own company.

OK, so much for the theory- which I think may only be useful when read with some examples in mind. The obvious one comes from medicine. I have had the misfortune to have spent time in hospital for various operations. When it came to insight about how to make me feel better (and therefore speed recovery) nurses were better than doctors and orderlies were better than nurses. That is an extraordinary statement when you think about it: that the lowest person knows more than the highest. And of course they couldn’t have performed the operation (though probably they could prescribe the drugs) and I am not saying they could diagnose the illness either. What I’m saying is that their position guaranteed a certain humility, a smaller platform of the ‘unthinkable’ and lots of opportunity for observation, which, in not a few of the orderlies or even cleaners I met resulted in insights denied the nurses and doctors, insights that helped me to heal.

If anyone responds to the above by reacting ‘so we’ll have an orderly look at your brain scan next’ then it should be obvious we have located their platform, the place of their ‘unthinkable thoughts’. For almost every doctor I know it is unthinkable to assume others might know more useful things than they do about healing. I have several doctor friends and several lawyer friends- in the sphere of their work, doctors are almost always more arrogant. They have to be. A lawyer fights cases against another lawyer and arrogance, ie identifying himself with his work can be exploited by a less arrogant lawyer. When someone’s self image involves looking smart and being the best then you can use that to distract and derail them. But a doctor has to look the part all the time – otherwise patients might not believe in him or her. The placebo effect is known to work better when the authority figure giving it is more believable and trustable. But this ‘act’ of knowing everything is very likely to infect how the doctor thinks about medicine. Bizarrely, only a practised con-man or a disillusioned doctor (met some of them) is able to think objectively about various approaches to medical care. One GP (disillusioned type) told me it had taken him YEARS to actually believe, really believe, what the patient told him. He said that for all the lip service paid to interrogating patients doctors are really discounting what is said and simply looking for things that chime in with their training. That’s why it is so easy for people looking to get sick notes from doctors (a benefits cheat told me) because they simply look up the symptoms on wikipedia and then make sure they are embedded in their ‘story’.

Medicine is an emotive subject and very dependent on context. A lighter area for discussing original thinking is outdoor gear manufacture. Most big firms employ ‘design professionals’ to invent and improve their raingear and hiking gear. Yet all innovations, not some, ALL, come from small independent operators or companies. The rucksacks that dominate the shelves of the big camping stores are filled with useless extra bits, are not even that comfortable and always weigh too much. The raingear- always influenced by ‘cool’ climbing and high mountaineering ideas, is always too short and never waterproof enough to withstand HOURS in pouring rain.

One idea made by a small company was a rain coat that had a bulge in the back that covered your rucksack. This solved two problems. The place where you rucksack straps bite in and create an internal sweat spot (and external leak spot)- that is removed. And a wet rucksack- even if the contents are dry- is still a bugger to have in a small tent. Now the downside of the bulge-coat is that it looks weird if you don’t have a rucksack on. But who cares? Not an original thinker.

I once discovered a kind of diesel motorbike that could do 200 miles to the gallon. But it looked kind of rural and chuggy. It wasn’t that fast. It was perfect for desert exploration but a motorcyclist friend had the honesty to admit he preferred riding a bike that ‘looked cool’. But his bike meant we’d need back up, couldn’t visit as many sites in the desert. For him it wasn’t about reality it was about what people thought, what he thought. In this area the ‘unthinkable’ for him was a crap looking bike even if it did the job.

Strangely enough it was the same friend who gave me the idea for making an extending bike handlebar so that one could wheel a bike with a super heavy load and also not get hit when the peddles went round. He found the idea by remembering a picture of Vietnamese people wheeling bikes loaded with grain. A bamboo pole poking from one end of the handlebars extended out and allowed the walker to keep the bike upright.

So you can be an original thinker in one area but not in another. The object though should be to increase the number of areas where original thinking can take place. This means a certain robustness must attach to the original thinker. I have just read a book about a man who spent years living in the woods in North America living off what he could steal from unoccupied summer cabins. Though some of his insights are original- the strain of fearing capture seemed to paralyse areas of this thinking so much so that he didn’t have the space or time to develop his original thoughts. Paradoxically, though he had acres of time, it was colonised by fear of detection.

This can happen to the mad and the homeless- the sheer pressure of day to day life leaves no mental ‘space’ for thinking, observing, being detached.


Where are original thinkers to be found?

Anywhere people are observing, suspending judgement and comparing using a minimal platform.


The minimal platform

What is meant by the minimal platform is the minimum amount of beliefs/assumptions/ the unthinkable that you need to operate at high efficiency in the world. Sherlock Holmes famously doesn’t know (at least in the early books) that the earth goes round the sun- he doesn’t need to in order to be a great detective. But later Conan Doyle corrects this and makes Holmes a polymath- he realises that it is the vast spread of Holmes knowledge that makes him an effective sleuth.

So what is the minimum? And why does it matter? And am I suggesting self-enforced ignorance as in the case of the early Holmes?

I am not. I see a minimal platform as a very overt acknowledgment that science is a relative form of truth, the best we may have for now, but accepting that ‘now’ is always changing. Therefore one is focused far less on defending theories than looking for holes in them. Which of course is real science anyway. The idea of ‘defending’ Darwinian evolution ‘against’ intelligent design seems as absurd dichotomy to me. One should look instead for evidence that learned characteristics can be inherited- as indeed the vast burgeoning field of epigenetics is teaching us. As it is also showing that the cell rather than the gene is the fruitful place of investigation. This digression is meant to show how backward it is when non-scientists cling to some already outdated theory usually as a form of certainty in a changing world. But science’s main use is as a tool of discovery, not a bulwark for anxious uncertain people seeking metaphysical reassurance.

A final thought on original thinking is a reflection on how discoveries are often made by accident or by amateurs- and then scientific professionals effectively mine that area. In archaeology rumours from locals reach enthusiastic amateur explorers. Their works are read by academics who conduct a thorough study. In paleontology it is a similar situation. 28 of the last 30 T-Rex skeletons have been found by amateurs. One was even discovered by a dog…

My current method to enable more original thought is a return to the earlier point about being overwhelmed by celebrities. One must be aware and outmanoevre this ‘prestige’ effect. Someone tried to convince me the other day that Wall-E the movie was ‘genius’. But compared to Picasso’s handle-bar-and-saddle bull sculpture, Bunuel’s Belle de Jour or the hardly known Steve Micalef’s play ‘The Battle of Salamis’, Wall-E is rather conventional cartoon sci-fi. But Hollywood has all the prestige of money and publicity and this blinds us. The Prestige effect blinds us to the value of our own thoughts (and I’m aware that Picasso also has massive prestige too). It also makes us think that original thinking is somehow ‘inside us’. It isn’t. The main way to be an original thinker is simply to look carefully. If you really look at things with an open and transparent sense of self you’ll be original.


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