Sam Gentle.com

Impulse

An ECG with 'Δp' above the P wave

There's a funny thing about starting something. Sometimes it seems like you just decide what to do, sit down and do it. Other times, it seems like just about everything else in the world has to happen first. You go to start, but you check your email first, and then you remember you should really respond to a friend who wrote to you a while ago, and then you remember you have some chores to take care of, and because you don't really want to do them you go check Facebook or whatever...

I think it's worth analysing this notion of the time or effort between deciding to do something and actually doing it, which I've been thinking of as impulse. Having a high impulse means you can almost immediately go from thinking about something to doing it, and having a low impulse means it tends to take a long time or a lot of effort.

Low impulse is often caused by intrinsic things. For example, if you tend to think of ideas and then shut them down, eg "that'll be too hard", "it won't be good enough", "I should do other things instead" and so on, then it's easy to build an association between thinking about things and not doing them. If you're easily distracted, you can have the opposite problem, where you think of something but before you do it you start thinking about something else. Or if you're disorganised or busy you might get too used to responding to external impulses and forget to make use of your own.

External causes of low impulse often look like interruptions, where in between thinking of something and doing it, someone bothers you with their own needs. Alternatively, if you have a long list of stuff you should be doing, then that tends to intrude in the space between thinking and doing. Similarly, if your tasks are highly dependent on each other then before you start on one thing you have to think about its consequences on everything else, leading to an enormous amount of inertia.

I firmly believe we naturally exist in a high-impulse state, but we add complexities that drag our impulse down and make us less creative and more hesitant. The solutions then, are mostly about recognising the things that decrease your impulse and removing or restructuring them. In the case of the intrinsics, that means reducing distractions and building more positive connections between thinking and doing. In the case of the extrinsics, it's mostly about decreasing these forms of interdependence and state that restrict our actions.

None of which is to say that high impulse is always the stated goal. After all, if you're in the middle of a righteous writing marathon and you have a stray idea, it's probably best to just note it down and leave it for later. That said, I think there's always a risk of putting our ideas off too much and ending up in a low-impulse mindset, starved of the vital creative connection between thought and action.

Mechanical advantage

A flexed arm with springs and pulleys inside

There's a lot of silly rhetoric around technology sometimes, and at its heart I think is an essential misunderstanding about what technology does. It's not magical pixie dust you can sprinkle on problems to make them disappear, nor it is it a dangerous evil to be contained. It's simply a power multiplier.

The earliest machines, so called simple machines, were things like levers and pulleys. These machines don't increase mechanical power, they just allow you to trade distance with force. Even today's machines, sophisticated as they are, still can't create energy from nothing, they can only move it around. However, by doing so they amplify a more abstract kind of power: one person can move a heavy rock with nothing but their own body and a length of wood. That person is more powerful in the sense that they have more ability to affect the world around them.

Of course, technology as a whole goes back far before simple machines, and includes wheels, fire, stone tools, and even some tools that predate humanity. What these technologies have in common is that they allow their users to do things they couldn't do before, or do them better. Every one of them allows us to use our finite energy more efficiently, or recruit other sources of energy to amplify our own. By doing so they increase our power, both collectively and individually.

Today, I can compose a piece of music on my computer, upload it to the internet, put it on an online marketplace, and (if it's good) become a successful musician. I can write my opinions somewhere and, if they're good enough, they will become popular, spread, and change the way people think. I can create software which, if it's useful enough, could be an important part of the way other people work. None of these things would be possible to do on my own if not for the enormous increase in power brought by all these forms of creative technology I have access to.

There's nothing essentially good about this, or essentially bad. If I want to help people, I can help way more people today than I could have thousands of years ago. If I want to hurt people, it's certainly possible to do that at a much larger scale than at any other time in history. It's not the technology that's causing these things, it's us. Both the best and the worst of us have become far more powerful.

It's for this reason I am somewhat nervous about the idea that technology will deliver us from our social problems. Sure, perhaps at some point we will become so powerful that we are impervious to harm. But won't the power of others to harm us increase as well? If anything, social solutions seem like they will only become more important as the people in society become more powerful and the consequences of social problems become more severe.

Dacelo novaeguineae

Dacelo novaeguineae

Where is the art?

Where's Wally rendition of Van Gogh

It's easy to dismiss electronic music if you're used to live acoustic or classical music. When you see a skilled musician on stage, you know they have spent thousands of hours learning every nuance of their instrument, practicing and refining until their bodies are, themselves, instruments. To see all that exercised in front of you is art. Electronic artists basically come on stage and press a few buttons. Where's the art in that?

Of course, electronic music fans know that the art isn't when you press the buttons. It happens much earlier, in the hours upon hours spent in production, carefully arranging and tweaking each sound in a way that is impossible when you're working in real time with ultimately fallible performers. The lack of art in performance enables the art of production.

Hip-hop has less harmonic complexity than, say, jazz or classical music. Even sophisticated hip-hop relies on relatively simple instrumentation and arrangement. In fact, most classic hip-hop is just drum loops and repetitive samples. But that's not where the art is. You have to listen to the complex percussive patterns of the beats and the vocals and the way they play off each other. That focus on the structure of the sounds rather than their tone allows for a different and powerful kind of expression it's hard to find elsewhere, with the possible exception of beat poetry.

You won't find art in comics if you're looking for life-like detail, complex brushwork, or a challenge to the limits of visual abstraction. You will find it if you're looking for extreme stylisation and larger-than-life depictions of action and emotion. You won't find art in videogames if you're looking for narrative storytelling (books do it better), character development (TV does it better) or spectacular visuals (movies do it better). The art in games is in the way they make you the storyteller, inviting you to create an experience for yourself that nobody else could give you.

And you won't find art in code by looking for animations or music or lights that blink on and off. Those things might be art, but they're animation art, musical art, or blinkenlight art. The art in code comes from exploring the nature of code itself, the way it abstracts action, the way it recursively and fractally explains itself, and the way it universally claims all computation as its own.

Art is ultimately the rendition of creativity, wherever it can be found. If something appears to be not art, perhaps it isn't, but perhaps you're looking in the wrong place. New kinds of art often look a bit like old kinds of art, so if you get too used to looking in the same place, you may find yourself falling victim to misdirection. You're trying to figure out what's going on in the magician's hand, when really the place to look was their sleeve.

Chroicocephalus novaehollandiae

Chroicocephalus novaehollandiae