AI – where might we be going?

This blog is based on my observation of AI since I first came across the idea working at the Royal Blind Society in the early 80s – although what AI was then and what it is now are very different beasts. Thinking about developments for the next decade, I settled on the term ‘Sentience’, which deliberately avoids the term AI (although as a loose umbrella term it can be read in), to choose a word reflecting a more modest level of machine capability. This ‘sub-intelligence’ if you like is conceivable from the intersection of a number of network and ICT trends / technologies emerging by the start of the decade (i.e. 2020). It seems to me that ‘sentience’ might best be described in terms of being surrounded by, embedded in, environments that are in some way aware of the individual and their context – various relationships to things, information and other people. It will not be complete but its emergence seems likely to be a dominant theme for the next decade, a logical inheritor of the consequences from digitalisation, convergence and then network developments, with the same kind of wide ramifications for culture and society.

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I have been interested in the interaction of humans with technology since my initial university studies in anthropology and sociology.  We are not defined by our tools, but our tools have functioned as an extension of ourselves and as facilitators of interaction with our environment. Over the past millennia they have produced an accelerating transformation of the shape and pace of human society.

This post is shaping to be a two part blog: the first exploring my thoughts and experience with Artificial Intelligence (AI) technology – broadly defined – and the second next week looking at the discussion about the implications of this technology for the world and future of work.

I first came across AI when I was working at the Royal Blind Society (RBS) in the early 80s, although what AI was then and what it is now are very different beasts.  At the time I was completing my Master of Commerce, in which I had pursued my interest in technology in various topics ranging from Information Systems Design to Industrial Relations.  It was in the latter that I engaged with the ideas of sociologist Daniel Bell and the notion of the ‘post-industrial society’.

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It is interesting that the term ‘convergence’ had been much discussed in the seventies. It was a product of the Cold War – the idea that industrial economies would converge in their structure and organisation and that essentially Russia (then the USSR) would come to resemble the US and Europe. There is a whole thesis waiting to be explored in figuring out what happened to that idea in the vortex of history – too much to go into here.

The key learning for me was that the complexity and interrelatedness of technological innovation and change with economic and social factors such as:

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  • Factors of production
  • Technological interdependencies and linkages
  • Organizational structures
  • Sectional, regional and individual distribution of income and wealth. International interdependencies
  • Public and private demand

 

I applied this learning at the RBS when researching the impact of technological change on the employment context and prospects for visually impaired people.  It was a time of considerable technological excitement as the personal computer began to penetrate the mass market – a signature moment was when TIME Magazine nominate the PC as ‘machine of the year’ for 1983.

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One element of technological change which played into these investigations was machine vision: while wildly futuristic at the time, it was also becoming almost imaginable and at the apparent rate of change and innovation seemed possible in a foreseeable future. It turned out that machine vision, particularly ‘in the wild’ was actually much harder than might have been apparent and is something that is only now (2017) starting to find wide spread use in things like self-driving vehicles – and so far as I know has yet to find practical application in the everyday lives of visually impaired people.

However this sparked my general interest in the whole field of computers mimicking or emulating human cognition or perception. Expert systems were an area of market enthusiasm, one that I found particularly interesting. I actually crafted and experimented with my own primitive expert system shell, written from scratch using turbo Pascal which involved delving into the arcane and technical worlds of generative grammars and token parsing as well as algorithmic inference processing.

But ultimately both for myself and the world at large expert systems proved to be a dead end. This this was primarily due to the issue of knowledge capture that is the sheer effort required to manually encode knowledge into decision tree type language. The other limiting factor was the limited processing power and memory storage available on their computers off at the time.

The general interest in AI peaked by the end of the decade – the cover of this Economist 1992 special feature would not have been out of place today, but the discussion is much more about the limitations and cumbersome nature of the technology than grand horizons.

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Increasingly the view came to be that any particularly advanced or clever piece of coding was seen as intelligent while it was a novelty, but rapidly became ‘part of the furniture’ and thence became part of the ‘dumb’ and rather pedestrian reality of IT which came to dominate our working lives.

During the course of the 90s the word ‘convergence’ at least in tech circles changed and came to be much-discussed in terms of the coming together of the traditional silo platforms of broadcasting, telecommunications and print. Pervasive digitalisation  broke the legacy nexus between the shape of content and the container which carried it – a voice call was no longer solely defined by being carried on a plain old Bakelite telephone network; a TV show no longer solely by arriving via a transmission tower and home receiver (the same for radio shows); music spread rapidly beyond the domains of the vinyl record, compact cassette and CD – it got ‘shared’ online; and the Internet carried news much further and faster than a newspaper.  This meant that commerce and regulation constructed on the premise that content could be priced and controlled by how it was delivered increasingly lost its force, both in logic and in practice.

Then over the first decade of the 21st century (the ‘noughties’), IP-based networks and then social networks came to play an ever more important role.  This has meant content became non-linear, interlinked and ‘uncontained’ while people increasingly expected to connect and communicate seamlessly – anywhere, anyhow, anytime. Entire new and massively successful network businesses emerged in the second half of the decade – Google and Facebook to name the most obvious.

‘Silos’ was the convenient way to describe the pre-convergence arrangements and ‘Layers’ was an important alternative way to look at the way the technological environment was changing, as a way to describe the actuality of what was called convergence.  Layers had been in common technical use for a decade or two before this, but it around at this time the general utility of the concept more generally became apparent, since it is native to the way in which networks are constructed and the Internet works.

As the noughties wore on, it also became apparent that ‘layers’ as such could not ultimately and successfully grapple with all the developments in the marketplace.  The ‘bright lines’ between layers are blurring under the impact of virtualisation and software emulation.  An example of virtualization is the way in which several physical computer servers can emulate a single large (virtual) computer OR a single large physical computer can emulate several (virtual) computer servers. This has been extended beyond the enterprise and is essentially the basis for cloud computing – the customer buys the computing and storage they need as virtual resources from the supplier who takes care of the physical requirements.  Multiple, inter-networked free-scale networks which can configure to emulate many other network forms better explain the complexity and rapid adaptability of the market in the current decade, whatever we decide to call it (the ‘tweenies’?).

So the term ‘silo’ was useful shorthand to describe the pre-nineties technological environment, ‘convergence’ summarized the nineties, ‘layers’ was useful for the noughties and ‘networks’ is perhaps most apt for our current decade, which as you may have noticed, is drawing to a close.

This ‘progression’ is reflected in the movement in the discussion of the technological environment from ‘convergence’ to the ‘networked society’ and ‘connected life’.  This shift does not suggest that the transition to the ‘networked society’ is complete, but rather that the concept of the ‘network’ better describes and encapsulates the current dominant movement and theme at work and influencing society during the decade.  Having remarked on this progression, the obvious question is to ask: what is likely to be the concept that fulfils this role in another decade’s time?

My stab at it a few years ago was ‘Sentience’.  I was deliberately avoiding the term AI (although as a loose umbrella term it can be read in) and chose a word that reflected a more modest level of machine capability. This ‘sub-intelligence’ if you like is conceivable from the intersection of a number of network and ICT trends / technologies emerging by the start of the decade (i.e. 2020).  It seems to me that ‘sentience’ might best be described in terms of being surrounded by, embedded in, environments that are in some way aware of the individual and their context – various relationships  to things, information and other people.  It will not be complete but its emergence seems likely to be a dominant theme for the next decade, a logical inheritor of the consequences from digitalisation, convergence and then network developments, with the same kind of wide ramifications for culture and society.

What is different now in the contemporary explosion of interest and practical utilisation of AI is both the remorseless contribution of Moore’s law and the breakthrough in the algorithmic understanding of machine learning and its application in what is called deep learning. This is the technique which led to the victory by AlphaGo (the Google Deep Mind app) when it played the human Go master, Lee Sedol. It is also evident in everyday examples ranging from face-recognition, language translation, predictive text and enhanced search algorithms – things that in the eighties would have been dubbed AI are everywhere!

I am not particularly married to the precise term ‘sentience’ – numerous others exist. For example Shivon Zilis, an Investor at Bloomberg Beta surveyed every artificial intelligence, machine learning, or data related startup she could find (her list had 2,529 of them to be exact).  She addressed the labeling issue of using “machine intelligence” to describe how “Computers are learning to think, read, and write. They’re also picking up human sensory function, with the ability to see and hear (arguably to touch, taste, and smell, though those have been of a lesser focus) … cutting across a vast array of problem types (from classification and clustering to natural language processing and computer vision) and methods (from support vector machines to deep belief networks).”

She noted that:

I would have preferred to avoid a different label but when I tried either “artificial intelligence” or “machine learning” both proved to too narrow: when I called it “artificial intelligence” too many people were distracted by whether certain companies were “true AI,” and when I called it “machine learning,” many thought I wasn’t doing justice to the more “AI-esque” like the various flavors of deep learning. People have immediately grasped “machine intelligence” so here we are.

And I landed on ‘sentience’ – it is important to note that it does not indicate an ‘end state’ but rather flags a way to discuss a possible dominant theme of its decade (say 2020-2030). Another theme will arise and it is relevant to consider what sentience would not describe: to establish the boundary conditions for the concept and think about what may remain ‘undone’ by 2030-ish.  Thinking beyond that boundary may in turn give clues about the shape of the decade and those to follow … noting that such a shape is impossible to discern beyond broad conjecture.

One direction for such conjecture might be about the emergence of ‘machine autonomy’. It can be useful (in terms of imagined scenarios) although increasingly dangerous (due to the temptations and risks of predictive hubris) to speculate even beyond the rise of autonomy to further phases, perhaps the realization of fully conscious artificial intelligence, perhaps the emergence of essentially incomprehensible ‘alien’ machine-based intelligence:

  • 2030s – ‘machine autonomy’?
  • 2040s – AI ‘awareness’?
  • 2050s – ‘Alien’ intelligence?

It occurs to me that perhaps this is where the fruits of ‘convergence’ as mentioned in this blog have come full circle.  It seems that the developments which can loosely be pulled together under the umbrella term AI are genuinely flagging the arrival of ‘post-industrial’ society, that the world Daniel Bell conjured with is emerging in front of our eyes, even if we do (can) not accurately perceive it.  However the shapes we can discern are certainly the source of some anxiety, particularly as related to the world of work – and that will be the topic for my next blog post …

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A reflection on resilience

Resilience is about mastering the control and release of energy. One of the core elements of resilience is not letting events blow you off course. Exercising the discipline of ‘strategic patience’ means you can conserve your energy, refine your plans and then act rapidly and resolutely when the moment comes. Strategic patience positions you for resolute action.

Well, I actually had a different blog topic in mind for today, but yesterday, neatly book-ended by two unrelated groups with similar messages changed my mind to report on these and share reflections  about resilience – let me tell you why …

Yesterday morning I felt a bit ‘flat’ and since it was Monday  if I was working fulltime I would have shrugged it off as Monday-it is – but now Monday  as such shouldn’t make much difference to me. I suspect I was probably still recovering from the exertions of my participation over previous days in the Association Croquet Silver Brooch tournament.

There had been a lot of cat and mouse play between evenly matched opponents – not always pretty but quite entertaining at times. 3 games in the first day had left me feeling a little less than upbeat, but eventually over the full 2 days everyone won 2 out of 4 games, and I came 3rd on nett points. Further on the positive side of the ledger I actually beat both of the other place getters in my games with them, and ended up with 6 additional points in my handicap index.  I will come back to that idea of positive framing shortly.

So in that slightly Monday-ish mood I set off for my third 9am Tai Chi class.  The teacher, Master Alex emphasises relating your mental state to the physical movements.  He talked about the importance of balance, breathing and purposeful, smooth movement when walking.  We followed his lead into the increasingly familiar routine and I am starting to get an understanding of how the dots might join. In fact for a brief moment I started to get some flow experience going and for about 5 seconds actually felt the beauty of the thing … more to come with practice I hope! The fundamental proposition seems to be about mastering the control and release of energy and by the end of the session my energy levels and my mood had lifted substantially.

A day of household chores and shopping then pretty much flew past and I set off to attend my first Sydney Facilitators Network meeting in, oh let’s see, probably 15 years … as I observed in a previous blog I had recently discovered the group was still in existence. Typically it meets on the second Monday of the month and each meeting features a guest facilitator who conducts a session to showcase or test ideas of techniques.  I went simply with the notion of checking-in to see what there was to see – so it was pot-luck.  As it happened the topic was ‘The Art of Resilience’ and about 30 people had turned up to participate.

It was a fun and useful couple of hours of guided group and individual interaction and sharing on the theme of resilience. The leader and guest facilitator Lina Mbirkou used the ideas of Jon Kabat-Zinn summed up as: “You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf” and we explored questions like how to develop the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties? How to strengthen our ability to deal with challenges? Is it really possible to build resilience?

She started by going round the group asking each person to say their name and in one word how they were feeling – my response was ‘energised’, as I realised I was still drawing on the Tai chi session early that morning. There were an interesting number of contact as she spoke about the importance of breathing and purposeful movement when walking.

As the group worked and shared I also found myself drawing on my croquet playing experiences.  I have found that playing a competitive sport for the first time in late middle-age incredibly interesting.  In my Zone of Opportunity blog I mentioned ‘double loop learning’.  Essentially the concept is that as well as learning the simple linear skill, you also observe and think about how the learning itself is happening, and make adaptive changes to that process as is useful.

One thing I have observed in myself has been the development of greater resilience in the face of competitive and performance pressure. One very useful tool which I shared with the Facilitators group has been the Reflect, Relax, Refocus (RRR) approach.  When something goes wrong with your game, you need to own it and understand it (Reflect) before trying to put it away. Then let it and the feelings it has created go – forget about it because you have learned any lesson (Relax). Finally, get back into the game with a clear head, back with your game plan (Refocus).

To me this is one of the core elements of resilience – not letting events blow you off course.  This can be as short-term as a passage of play in a croquet game, when the RRR sequence might take a matter of a few seconds. Or it might be something that plays out over weeks and months, like say for instance planning a career change … or retirement.

In any event, the Tai Chi-like thinking about the control and release of energy seems integral, again applicable across the same time-scale. Exercising the discipline of ‘strategic patience’ (a useful phrase I first heard recently used in relation to the current crisis on the Korean peninsula) means you can conserve your energy, refine your plans and then act rapidly and resolutely when the moment comes.  Strategic patience positions you for resolute action – yin and yang perhaps?

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Building resilience is also a key concept in contemporary management practice, the key to fostering innovative, agile and relevant organisations as we all confront an environment of constant change.  When we are confronted with novel and complex environments the need for resilience increases exponentially.  This challenge was nicely expressed by Douglas Rushkoff in his book Present Shock, subtitled, ‘When Everything Happens Now’.   He suggested:

A simple visualization is to think of time as a river flowing at a certain pace. Below a certain threshold, the movements of things on the river are fairly linear and predictable. … This is historical progress as we have come to know it over the millennia.  But when the speed of the flow increases beyond that threshold, the river becomes turbulent, non-linear, unpredictable. Such is the state of time in 2012.

… and there are few signs that things are slowing down or becoming less complex as we wind down 2017!   For an interesting riff on this take a look at this Forbes piece from 2012 – ‘Douglas Rushkoff’s Present Shock: The End Of Time Is Not The End Of The World’. The resilient conclusion is:

Most importantly, the end of time as we have known it is not the end of the world. It is a new world that we can assert control over in new ways. So get over your doomsday hangover and get to work!

Resilience is the necessary organisational capacity to perceive relevant facts from emerging trends, adapt to change, and bounce back from setbacks.  One useful approach I have found (used in our ACMA transformation program) is to think in terms of the four ‘muscles’ of resilience (spiritual, intellectual, physical and emotional).  Each “muscle” contributes to different forms of organisational capability, in the following way:

  • Physical – applying scarce resources to maximise leverage and outcomes
  • Intellectual (Mental) – generating alternatives and reflecting on legacy approaches
  • Spiritual (In Spirit) – nurturing genuine commitment to shared values, beliefs and goals
  • Emotional – promoting self-awareness and considered responses.

Through the purposeful creation of a context that values spiritual endurance, intellectual agility, physical dexterity and emotional maturity, these four “muscles” can be developed and strengthened in each individual and therefore for the whole organisation that they are part of.

Perhaps the most challenging element is that of emotional maturity. Emotional maturity in an organisational context requires a high level of self-awareness (of both the external position and the internal organisational dynamics), as well as the ability to manage feedback constructively.  I prefer the term emotional ‘agility’ to the perhaps more popular term ‘emotional intelligence’, sometime shortened to EQ … it captures more accurately for me the fact that it is a skill that can be acquired, rather than perhaps being seen as an innate quality.  I found this statement in a recent HBR article provides a succinct summary:

Effective leaders don’t buy into or try to suppress their inner experiences. Instead they approach them in a mindful, values-driven, and productive way—developing what we call emotional agility. In our complex, fast-changing knowledge economy, this ability to manage one’s thoughts and feelings is essential … Recognize your patterns; label your thoughts and emotions; accept them; and act on your values.

There is no way I would claim to have perfect resilience for myself, and ultimately events can stretch and exhaust the resources (the ‘resilience musculature’) of any individual or organisation.  However I am always looking for tools, communities and perspectives to build those muscles as best I can, knowing that they will likely be tested by only real constant in life and history: the unexpected!

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Life cycle analysis

The life cycle concept is a useful tool for systems analysis and design thinking – by adding the fundamental idea of renewal to what might otherwise be seen as linear processes. This then captures a more dynamic view of systems, accepts change, favours flexibility and explicitly accommodates feedback into design. The life cycle idea is also closer to the general dynamic of social relationships and can have a powerful personal resonance, which can help bring design closer to people. However, does the pace of change and the rate of innovation that simply will not slow perhaps have implications for the lifecycle of humanity itself, connecting the current shape of change with the deep development of human language, technology and society? Maybe we are coming to the inflection point where we might contemplate the historic end of the ‘life cycle’ over the next couple of decades, at least as far as human society is concerned.

This was a tricky blog to get started – the topic opened so many doors to dense topics it was hard to get the sense of a thread to join them.  So I went for a run instead and after the quiet reflection that such activity induces I had the beginning and the end … now all I need to do is navigate between them.  I hope you can stay with me for the ride.

20170905_161507I first came across the idea of the ‘life cycle’ as a formal tool for analysis and design in the early eighties when I picked up managing the new DEC VAX computer system while working at the Royal Blind Society, and subsequently broadened my Master of Commerce degree studies at UNSW to encompass Information Systems Management (ISM).

I took to the concept immediately, firstly because I am something of a natural systems thinker, and secondly perhaps because of my engagement with biology as a subject at high school – it was my enthusiasm for social biology that drove my initial interest in studying sociology at university.  In the early seventies sociology was a new kid on the block at NZ universities – in fact it wasn’t available to first year students when I commenced at Auckland, dictating an initial stint with Anthropology and Psychology instead.  But I digress …

I explored the lifecycle topic quite extensively in an ISM essay from around 1986, which I unearthed in that front room filing cabinet. I noted:

A ‘System Lifecycle’ notion is often used to describe the development, planned or unplanned, of information systems based on computing tools. Although “there are many different methods for representing the lifecycle … all contain essentially the same components” (7, P.13) and these components can be viewed in a simple linear sequence. But when generalizing to the information systems activities of an organization or sizeable organizational unit, a more sophisticated understanding is necessary.

For organizations in the ‘real world’, the stability in simple linear models of change does not exist. A simple linear model would ignore the fundamental characteristic of information systems that they age and wear out like most other assets, and renewal must be part of the planning process. Therefore, as a first complication, we must accept “the complete life cycle of a system, from its initial conception to its ultimate disposal.”

An even broader sense of discontinuity to further complicate planning scenarios is pointed to by Buss when he suggests that “Complete uniformity across all IS projects is likely to be impossible because organizations will be at different stages in their use of … various technologies.”

I have chosen those paragraphs because they continue to ring true for the task of managing information technology today (the language and technology have changed, the challenges remain almost exactly the same! They also capture the essence of how the life cycle concept contributes to analysis and design – by adding the fundamental idea of renewal to what might otherwise be seen as linear processes.  This then captures a more dynamic view of systems, accepts change, favours flexibility and explicitly accommodates feedback into design.

The life cycle idea is also closer to the general dynamic of social relationships and can have a powerful personal resonance, which can help bring design closer to people. This was exemplified for me as I wrote the words to celebrate my eldest sons’ marriage a few years ago, where I commented on the family pattern of ‘building up, letting go and welcoming in’ – a pattern that has been continued and confirmed by the most welcome birth of our first grandchild.  I have appended the notes for that brief speech, which to my surprise was the subject of a number of favourable remarks, at the end of the blog (lightly edited to protect privacy).

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I found the idea of a ‘life cycle’ to be useful well outside the narrow world of IT systems.  For example I used it as a consultant in the late nineties to create a model of Neighbour Aid service delivery, identifying possible benchmark events for these Services. That model was built around the various activities and processes of groups of stakeholders (community management committee, service coordination, clients, and volunteers), reflecting what might be called their ‘life cycle’ in the organisation. The model then neatly provided a starting point to detail functions which Neighbour Aid services might usefully benchmark between themselves.

Single Code Customer Life Cycle

The concept then found applicability in my work as a consumer advocate at CHOICE in the noughties.  In 2003 I advocated that a Customer Life Cycle perspective would provide a useful structure for a Single Telecommunication Consumer Protection Code.  The code surfaced almost a decade later and rather than explicitly use that framework assembled various existing codes into chapters – thereby inevitably covering a number of customer lifecycle event but without that overarching logic.

 

 

 

I also used the idea to describe how advocacy worked, which found utility in the work of a consumer focus group convened by the Australian Communications Authority in 2004.  It had the objective:  “To improve the effectiveness of consumer input and influence to the regulation and governance of the communications industry.”

CDC Representational Cycle

We gave ourselves the label Consumer Driven Communications and we established a powerful logic in drafting our work into the ‘Strategies for Better Representation’ Issues Paper by combining what we dubbed (and rather crudely illustrated) as the Representational Cycle with our version of the Regulatory Pyramid (a whole other discussion probably for further blog post sometime).

CDC Reg PyramidCDC Matrix

 

This produced a matrix of 36 topics which extensively covered the field of consumer engagement with the telecommunications industry and governance – a little too comprehensive for the appetites of some in the end perhaps. The group produced an extensive discussion document and then generated a final report with numerous recommendations, all of which pretty much disappeared under the tides of history, as the Communications Authority merged with the Broadcasting Authority to produce the ACMA in 2005.   Digital archaeology on the project is difficult – Google will only unearth scattered, mostly cached results.  Such is life, as many famous advocates have said.

 

Nevertheless, as I hope I have demonstrated, the ‘life cycle’ is powerful and persuasive tool – it doesn’t fit every situation, but when it does apply it can deliver coherence and insight – both useful for analysis and design.

There is a distinct sense today of technological acceleration, and certainly in the IT world we seem to be seeing ever shorter life cycles, as we move from products and services dependent on hardware to those defined by software, and now to offerings crafted from data analysis by machine learning and AI.

It certainly seems clear that the pace of change and the rate of innovation will not slow: as one group with a real-world interest in understanding technological change (the Office of the [US] Secretary of Defense’s Rapid Reaction Technology Office NeXTech project) suggested that “… in the period the team is actually supposed to be planning for, the strategic horizon of the next 25 years, we will see technologies literally one billion times more powerful than today.”

Some draw a conclusion relevant to the lifecycle of humanity itself, connect the current shape of change with the deep development of human language, technology and society. This line of thinking is illustrated by a reviewer’s summary of the thesis in Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari:

For the first half of our existence we potter along unremarkably; then we undergo a series of revolutions. First, the “cognitive” revolution: about 70,000 years ago, we start to behave in far more ingenious ways than before, for reasons that are still obscure, and we spread rapidly across the planet. About 11,000 years ago we enter on the agricultural revolution, converting in increasing numbers from foraging (hunting and gathering) to farming. The “scientific revolution” begins about 500 years ago. It triggers the industrial revolution, about 250 years ago, which triggers in turn the information revolution, about 50 years ago, which triggers the biotechnological revolution, which is still wet behind the ears. Harari suspects that the biotechnological revolution signals the end of sapiens: we will be replaced by bioengineered post-humans, “amortal” cyborgs, capable of living forever.

Perhaps this is, as the reviewer remarks, “exaggeration and sensationalism”: but maybe we are coming to the inflection point where we can contemplate the historic end of the ‘life cycle’ over the next couple of decades, at least as far as human society is concerned.

Do you agree?

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Meanwhile on a more immediate & personal note, celebrating my son’s wedding I said:

I have often said that if I had known how great it was

to have kids, I would have started a lot earlier …

but of course then I wouldn’t have been able to

do it with my wife …

and it wouldn’t have been anywhere near as

great or as much fun.

I have personally learnt heaps,

and grown a lot, from being a parent .

By and large I reckon I have got more out of the

 parenting deal than my kids have

… so I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.

As time has gone on, one of the things I have learned

is that the toughest job of parenting is not:

The missed sleep and 24/7 demands of the early years;

Nor the school concerts and soccer matches of the middle years;

Nor the taxi / linen / reserve banker services of later years.

No … those nurturing tasks are comparatively easy … because,

although they can be emotionally demanding

and sometimes physically draining,

you are in control.

I think the truly tough job of parenting is …

the letting go,

acknowledging you are no longer in control.

This was brought home to me when J***** set off on

his first long solo drive.

He was taking himself and his brother T*****

to a St John’s training camp in the Blue Mountains

…  all I (we) could do was wave goodbye and then

trust that he (and T*****) would arrive in one piece.

However what we were trusting was not good luck –

we were trusting that J***** had learnt well

and that he would navigate safely and

independently to his destination.

And of course he did.

And he has been travelling well ever since, working hard,

making good choices and getting good results.

And today J***** is continuing his life’s journey

joining with J##### to build what will be the most

important asset they can possess between them

– a happy and productive partnership.

An old friend once remarked that the investment

he most valued was his marriage – something I have

always remembered –

I always say I have 3 super funds to maintain:

Firstly – my marriage;

Secondly – my fitness / health; and

Thirdly and only then – any actual super account dollars

–  because without the first two,

money alone has little meaning or usefulness.

Growing value in a partnership is about

the opposite of letting go –

it means letting someone else in,

trusting, sharing and learning how to fit together.

What I have found to be quite miraculous about

creating a family is how that unit can grow

and extend.

I remember that when we were expecting T*****

(two and a half years after J*****)

 I expressed some concern to my wife that

I loved J***** so much

I wondered how could love

another child as much.

What I discovered was that the envelope of

family love extends easily and

T***** immediately had a huge place in our hearts.

So families are about welcoming in

as well as being about letting go,

While today marks for us a continuation

of letting J***** go,

we are also happy and proud

to welcome J##### to our family,

and to the extended family,

who over the last decades

have extended such a warm welcome

to me – one for which I am very grateful .

So, welcome J##### –

 there is always room for one more.

We wish you and J***** all the best

on your journey together,

and as you craft your own pattern of:

building up;

letting go; and

welcoming in.

 

 

Trusting the process

I have always found fostering ’emergence’ to be a very useful approach to explore unstructured problems, undertake genuine consultation, seek innovative solutions and set an initial frame for collaboration.  When the going has got sticky in any of those endeavours (and believe me it does) I have always borne in mind this wise counsel:  trust the process (and implicitly therefore the ability of the group to self-organise) to resolve uncertainties, to gain a productive direction and reach conclusions meaningful to at least most of the participants.

In the mid-nineties (after Pancon Mining and before CHOICE) I had time out of the workforce, looking after the kids and supporting my partner as she re-established herself in the workforce.  After a year or so I realised I needed to keep up connections with the outside world, and happened on a group called the Sydney Facilitators Network. This had been established in 1992 by Richard and Maria Maguire and functioned as a loosely coordinated self-organising group with no formal membership – everyone was welcome. I was impressed that it is still functioning today! I went along regularly back then and had many interesting conversations and picked up quite a lot of facilitator folklore.

For example they promoted as an innovation for group work something called Open Space Technology (OST). The distinguishing aspect of this technique is that participants create the agenda for the work themselves, stemming in part from the realisation that the best part of many conference or workshop events is the coffee breaks, when participants self-organise to learn what they want/need from who they can network best with.

These days OST has been pretty well absorbed into the average facilitators’ toolkit and this style is perhaps eye-rollingly familiar to those who have worked on the corporate sector or public service.  It might call to mind seemingly endless planning days and numerous ‘training’ sessions, about which there is often a predictable air of cynicism.

But back in the nineties it was actually pretty radical stuff … and since then has continued to inform my views about the powerful phenomenon of ‘emergence’ in human affairs – at work, for creative endeavour and individual thinking. These ideas were confirmed and reinforced in the intensive leadership development course I did in 2010-11 at the Mt Eliza campus of University of Melbourne’s Melbourne Business School, as mentioned in my Zone of Opportunity blog.

A phrase repeated in our Facilitators Network meetings was to ‘trust the process’, relating primarily, but not exclusively, to OST, because, particularly to start with, the approach can be very challenging. People want to know what direction to head in, why they are there, who is in charge etc.  OST and related emergence-centred approaches reflect those questions back to participants – and that can create significant discomfort. It is not a perfect or magic solution, is not suitable for all situations and does not necessarily always deliver. But it is also worth contemplating the alternatives that cynical detachment can imply, such as:

  • Just tell me what to do
  •  Just do as I say
  •  Get an expert
  •  The answer is obvious, let’s just get on with it

If any of those proposition are actually true or work then there wouldn’t be any need to be having the discussion. But often they mask feelings of powerlessness or ‘learned helplessness’ which more collaborative and open approach can address … not necessarily without discomfort or even conflict.

However I have always found fostering emergence to be a very useful approach to explore unstructured problems, undertake genuine consultation, seek innovative solutions and set an initial frame for collaboration.  When the going has got sticky in any of those endeavours (and believe me it does) I have always borne in mind that wise counsel:  trust the process (and implicitly therefore the ability of the group to self-organise) to resolve uncertainties, to gain a productive direction and reach conclusions meaningful to at least most of the participants.

It was demonstrated to me as recently as last week – in my blog I noted I am involved with a UTS Creative Cluster workshop group, UTS Journalism PLUS – we are about halfway through a planned program of weekly gatherings to conceptualise and design prototype solutions to help journalists and their readers to face contemporary media challenges.  Last week we did some small group design thinking work, which compressed a process of questioning, idea generation, user identification and initial prototyping into a ninety-minute window. A demanding agenda, but I was delighted at the conclusion of the exercise to hear one of my colleagues unself-consciously observe that we had reached a really good landing, but that when we started he had no idea of what we were doing – he had implicitly trusted and worked with the process … and valued what emerged.

20170825_134048Of course one of the problems which the workshop is grappling is the apparent loss of trust today in many of our macro-processes, embodied in institutions such as democratic governance, mainstream media, science etc. As expressed in the title of a Conversation article by Julianne Schultz, Professor at the Griffith University Centre for Creative Arts Research, there are widespread fears that our systems of governance are “denying fairness, complexity and humanity”.

She suggests a “ ‘war of ideas’ has encouraged mistrust of experts and cynicism about institutions, undermined faith in a shared humanity irrespective of ethnicity or religion, and discouraged questioning of the neoliberal economic orthodoxy.”  In a very noisy world of many voices, or warring ideas, some shouting, others insistently whispering, trust does indeed seem to be a commodity in short supply – and like reputation, it is something easily lost and hard to rebuild.

Amid the chaos and cacophony of modern communications I was interested to read a piece by writer Zat Rana about his adoption of the habit of blocking out a 2-hour period of his day just to think. Rana seeks to remove all possible distractions and basically lock himself in a room with a pen and a notebook.  He notes that “2 hours is a long time, and some of it will feel unproductive and not all of it will be structured, [and that] much of the value doesn’t come out of the routine questions, but from the time I have left after I run out of things to think about.”  Sounds to me a lot like an intuitive and individual application of OST, with an appreciation of the value of emergence as a valuable outcome of free-form thinking.

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Julianne Schultz offers a positive vision, perhaps trusting demographic processes: “Meanwhile, the quiet post-materialist revolution that started in the 1970s has produced generations of people who are more open-minded, tolerant, trusting and accepting of diversity.”

For myself, this week I commenced Tia Chi at Kendrick Park in Tempe – the once-a-week sessions are provided free by the local council.  As an absolute beginner in an established but welcoming group, my initial impression is that there are enough dots to capture my attention.  I am interested to see if trusting the process can join these dots into learning a new skill & way of seeing. I am particularly intrigued to test if there is any application of the emphasis on smooth movement, balance, tension and swift release to croquet play.

Further updates on this front to come I suspect.

Back to basics

Going ‘back to basics’ can be very useful – at work, playing croquet, making art or just in life generally. Sometimes the most productive thing we can do is to deliberately step outside the flow, and allow the resulting discomfort to guide our creativity, learning and/or development in whatever skill set we are trying to excel at.  That may mean a reset ‘back to basics’ – which will ultimately help us find more advanced and refined flow states in future.

A couple of posts ago (The Zone of Opportunity) I mentioned the concept of ‘flow’, coined by psychologist, Mihály Csíkszentmihályi.  Broadly, flow is the mental state that emerges when your abilities match the specific challenge of your activity.  When someone achieves the balance between challenge and ability they experience complete absorption in what they are doing and thereby lose all track of time and sense of their surroundings.

Flow is a state humans seem to find innately pleasant and intrinsically rewarding.  Too much challenge, or too little ability and the task is unachievable and frustrating; on the other hand, too little challenge or too easy a task will likely lead to boredom and disengagement. So to maintain flow we tend to seek increased challenges to exercise increasing skills.  I have sketched this evolution here:

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One role for a coach / teacher / manager is to help you select appropriate challenges and skill development to create a feedback loop which will sustain flow enjoyment of a particular skill. This is what distinguishes a flow state from a simple ‘comfort zone’.

One of the reasons learning something new can be challenging is because it is initially difficult to achieve a flow state with a novel skill.  Re-engaging with something of which you have had some mastery can be more difficult, since you can perhaps recall previous flow states and be impatient to get back there.

20170822_095310For example I have found revisiting the fundamental skill of free-hand drawing with a U3A class a bit challenging – my engagement with this was longer ago than I first thought – I had dated one of these drawing books acquired during that period as 1993 – that’s over 20 years ago, how time flies!   It was hard to find any semblance of flow with new people in a new place, doing something you are not very well practiced at – challenge high / ability low.  But understanding the dynamic, and strongly feeling the need to relearn the basic skills of seeing and constructing images by hand, I will persist.

I have experienced and managed that kind of discomfort at various times in my croquet trajectory – which is far from maxing out the challenge / ability curve and delivering flow in every game!    One thing I have observed of myself and others on the same curve is that in the urge to improve performance or the desire to solve various problems of technique or game tactics can lead to a search for ‘magic’ solutions, a ‘silver bullet’.

The thing is croquet, like much of life, is a mean-reverting probabilistic exercise.  Let me unpack that 😉

Much of what we experience has a significant random element, and we exaggerate the degree of control we have over events.  So any given intervention may coincide with a better result, whether or not it has objectively increased our chance of success.  But if we think it has worked – even once is enough – that intervention can then get cemented into how we play the game (or whatever else we may be doing).

This is illustrated in the idea of the placebo effect associated with minor surgery, discussed in a Guardian piece – When surgery is just a stitch-up.  Andy Carr, a professor of surgery at the University of Oxford is quoted:  “People with arthritis of the knee or recurrent sore knees will have good times and bad times. If you see them at a time when their symptoms are particularly bad, then any time after that their symptoms won’t be as bad. It fluctuates, but people incorrectly associate the surgery as something that caused their pain to get better.”

Placebo effects aside, the fact is that things tend to get better on their own, or given its fancy medical name, regress to the mean. Prof Carr notes that this misapprehension applies to surgeons as much as patients – “Surgery is taught like an apprenticeship … You don’t necessarily learn the scientific method, you don’t necessarily learn about the biases you may form about the effectiveness of a particular operation, and you end up forming the same biases that other doctors and the general public fall for by assuming causation where you see association.”

This mistaken confusion of association for cause is a constant peril in skill acquisition and practice. It is laid out neatly in a blog post I read recently, Critical Thinking By Osmosis by Shane Greenup, a fellow participant in Journalism PLUS, a UTS Creative Cluster workshop group I have been part of recently.  He says:

“Successful critical thinking would include recognising that correlation is not causation” — you know this concept already don’t you? Correlation is not causation. I think that most people know this phrase, but how many times a day do you see it used to call out faulty causation? How frequently do you get to see the tool being used? How often do you get to watch this simple yet valuable tool of critical thinking being used, challenged, championed, questioned, and discussed within an applicable context in day to day life?

Being aware of and controlling for this is a key ingredient of critical thinking can guide more purposeful and productive interventions – it is not always comfortable, but almost always useful. Prof Carr acknowledges that “to tell a surgeon who has been doing knee arthroscopies for 30 years, and who has seen patients getting better, that they have just been wasting their time is very difficult.”  It can be equally daunting (and futile) to try and tell a croquet player who is performing moderately well that a basic element of their game would benefit from adjustment.

That player may well continue to seek further silver bullets and risk layering into their game further behaviours which at best might be a ‘quirk’ and at worst may become a ‘bad habit’ and set a ceiling on their further development or progress in the game.  Often people expect a coach to be the source of such magic ammunition. Doubtless there are many refinements to be applied and nuances to be mastered, and a good coach will be a store-house of such improving suggestions.

However, it has been my observation that rather than magic tricks, the best players seem to employ the basic skills of the game well … and consistently.   Often the basic cause and effect is quite simple, if demanding in execution, and an excellent coach will know (and be able to communicate) when the bullets and tricks have accumulated to the point of setting ceiling on performance and when it is time to ‘get back to basics’.

In my personal experience recently, teaching and coaching beginner croquet has offered an excellent opportunity to revisit the fundamentals of the game: stance and stroke, the pendulum swing, stalking the target – every time.  Going back to basics has also guided my attempts to sort out a nagging issue such as when sometimes I just can’t seem to hit a ball or run a hoop. The title of a book written and illustrated by the legendary NZ croquet player John Prince has always stuck in my mind – “Practice with a Purpose”.  I couldn’t agree more, so long as your purpose is rooted in a sound grasp of cause and effect, and you are prepared to endure the discomfort of ‘unlearning’ some of the things which you may have thought helped you in the past.

It’s funny how when you pick a topic you start seeing references to it everywhere – reading a random LinkedIn post led me to this commentary by author of “Do The Work”, Steven Pressfield. It is characterized as a book about RESISTANCE and its place in any creative process … I have not yet read the work, but I wanted to share his glimpse of the struggle to achieve creative outcomes.

It occurs to me that what is termed resistance can be seen as loss of flow, and sometimes the most productive thing we can do is to deliberately step outside the flow, and to allow the discomfort of resistance to guide our creativity, learning and/or development in whatever skill set we are trying to excel at. That may mean a reset ‘back to basics’ – which will ultimately help us find more advanced and refined flow states in future.

I will leave you with Steven Pressfield’s words as he struggles with his writing:

By the way, this process that I’m going through now after the collapse of Draft #11 is the process I SHOULD HAVE been doing from Draft #1.

I was lazy.

I was scared.

I didn’t push myself far enough.

That’s why #11 crashed.

That’s what I’m back to Square One, reverting to basics.

That’s okay.

It happens to everybody.

So to recap …

Last week we talked about the first level (for me, at least) of a Ground Up Rewrite.

That level was about genre.

It involved identifying the genre we’re working in (again, a task we SHOULD HAVE done in Draft #1 and even earlier) and defining for ourselves the conventions and obligatory scenes of that genre … then reworking our story to align with those principles.

Level Two, what we’re talking about today, is about doing the same thing, not for Genre, but for Universal Storytelling Principles.

We go back to basics.

Brevity is the soul of (croquet) advocacy

In my experience one of the key attributes of successful advocacy is the ability to be concise, to make the most of what attention-span you may capture from a busy and potentially distracted decision-maker. The one-page election brief drafted on behalf of the Marrickville Croquet Club Committee is an example of the craft.

Well, it is election time for NSW Local Councils, and at the Marrickville Croquet Club (MCC) we decided that the Committee could usefully send an Election Brief to all candidates as part of our management of key stakeholder relationships.  We wanted to remind candidates of the existence and importance of the club locally and more broadly within the expanded municipality, and to seek their active support of the club in future if elected.

In my experience working as a consultant, consumer advocate and then a public servant one of the key attributes of successful advocacy is the ability to be concise – it is often vital to capture your points as briefly and precisely as possible. You need to make the most of what limited attention-span you may capture from a busy and potentially distracted decision-maker.  I think the following one-page brief I drafted on behalf of the Committee hits the mark as an example of the craft (note that the brief did not include the photos in this blog).

As an aside, to illustrate the effort in achieving concision, I was going to quote one of my favourite Mark Twain sayings:  If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.  However a little research, which led me to Quote Investigator, tells me that in fact “Mark Twain who is often connected to this saying did not use it according to the best available research”.

While many variations of the expression have been used by many famous figures, apparently the first English language example was a sentence in translation of work by the French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal.  Indeed I actually like what we are told by wikiquote is the literal translation even more:

I made this one [letter] longer only because I have not had the leisure to make it shorter.

A modern take on the need to be brief is the idea of the ‘elevator pitch’, which basically says you should be able to get your idea/proposal/request across to your intended audience in the time you might have them trapped in a lift … 30 seconds to a couple of minutes max.  In that pitch you need to get the listener engaged, interested and agreeing to your concluding ‘call to action’.

Not a bad thing to be able to do, although it perhaps has a bit of a Mad Men feel to it – I note Wikipedia characterises the series as an American period drama. My reflection is that you know you are getting old when period drama is set in times you can remember – I guess that’s why I get the leisure to write short blogs!

Enjoy, and remember, the opposite of a briefing is a longing 😉

Marrickville Croquet Club

Brief

Local Government Election September 2017

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The purpose of this brief is to acquaint Inner West Council candidates with the existence and importance of Marrickville Croquet Club (MCC) as a community, recreational and sporting resource in the municipality.

MCC is a Marrickville community asset in a number of ways: it offers an inclusive, all-age, low intensity recreation activity in the municipality; it is financially self-sufficient and takes good day-to-day care of the facility maintained by council; it continues to build membership and community engagement, thus increasing utilisation of the facility and contributes to diversity of recreation options.

MCC was established in 1926 and is therefore a long-standing entity and reference for the landscape of Marrickville Park. The clubhouse and lawn were recognised in the recently completed Plan of Management as a significant heritage item in the park and MCC operates as an integral part of Marrickville Park with the continued support of council in the maintenance of the facility.

The arrangements for the retention and maintenance of the croquet club in the park have worked well to date and there seems to be genuine efficiency in combining croquet lawn maintenance with that of the park oval and cricket pitch.  With this support, MCC is delighted to curate and help preserve the croquet club as a living contribution to the heritage assets of Inner West Municipality.

MCC also contributes a particular recreational asset for the area: membership is diverse and players participate across age and gender.  Croquet offers an almost unique opportunity for people of all ages to interact in a recreationally competitive environment on an equal basis relatively independent of physical capability. MCC remains enthusiastic to engage with Council as it regains momentum post-amalgamation, and would like to participate in initiatives such as Sport-A-Month and similar programs to develop and encourage community participation in the sport.

MCC is the only croquet club in the municipality, drawing playing members from various corners of the area. With the relatively recent rebuilding of active membership and engagement, the Club now has scheduled play at the facility 5 days a week.  The club is well accepted and supported by the immediate local residents and continues to engage with the broader community such as in recent events with both Petersham after school care students and the Marrickville Heritage Society.

The club is diligent in seeking relevant publicity for the club and croquet in general and is taking advantage of contemporary communication tools to build an online community using Facebook, which now has 286 supporters (increased from 102 in 2013).

We ask you to note that the Marrickville Croquet Club relies on (and is of course grateful for) continued support from Council.   Without that support, MCC would likely cease to function, which would deprive the community of an excellent low-impact, age-inclusive recreational resource, while leaving open the question of preserving the heritage value of the croquet-specific physical infrastructure which has an important place in the park landscape.

We urge you, as a candidate for local election, to publicly commit to the principle that the Marrickville Park croquet facility should be supported and preserved as a functioning and intact entity.  Your confirmation of that commitment by email would be appreciated.

Management Committee of the Marrickville Croquet Club

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Image Consciousness

This blog is quite personal and image-heavy – it stems from my life-long fascination with images and how they can combine, overlay and transform from the naturalistic portrayal of reality as we perceive it, into abstract patterns, which probably better reflect the actuality that surrounds us and then back into images which our senses make coherent again.

From my earliest years I was intrigued by the magic of my father’s camera, as it fixed moments in time – as you can see I still have it.20170724_161414

The sheer cost of chemical photography in those time deterred me from venturing early into photographic practice, but my appreciation and consumption of the world of images continued apace: still, moving, natural, surreal, transforming, dissolving, merging … especially in the world of the cinema and experimental film-makers.

How I wished I could make that magic.  Eventually I could afford an SLR camera of my very own, and again within the meagre budget of a teaching-fellow funded postgrad experimented with framing and capturing the world around me. But the expense, limitations and complexities of analogue chemical photography (not to mention my limited experience and expertise) constrained my ability to engage with the image ‘magic’.

To experiment in that direction I turned to collage in my idle moments after arriving in Sydney, snipping and overlaying images, to allow one to ‘breathe’ through the other and thus to explore serendipitous and fortuitous emergence.  I was also attracted to the way that the street edited the images plastered up on posters and billboards around the inner city – portrayals of contemporary obsessions, randomly overlayed and then stripped back, both by the action of people and the environment. I captured a number of these on Polaroid, but again, not an inexpensive exercise! This was in the days of the rather sterile debate about whether photograph was art – a question rather settled in the affirmative today I think!

 

Eventually it occurred to me that if I wanted to engage with images more fully in this way I could do so by creating the representation from scratch – oh, wait, isn’t that what artists do as a matter of course?  Indeed, but this created the imperative to confront the idea implanted in me at high school that I was not artistic, could not draw or paint.

So I did, largely self-taught, but with a couple of community college course thrown in.  After getting a handle on naturalistic portrayal and figuring out I could indeed draw (passably if not brilliantly) I started to use paints and canvas to create and combine images – looking at the emergence (or is it submergence) of the iconic Marilyn image,

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delving into the Polaroid project for street-edited wall art,

20170808_083011and then into more abstract work with possible self-portrait dimensions …

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Then the miracle of digital happened – and of course photography is now a bit like breathing – commonplace but nevertheless of vital significance!

Firstly image-capture was democratised in the early noughties and I used the technology to document many a street image. I recently posted to Facebook as digital archaeology, after logging in to Flickr for the first time since forever, an image posted there in October 2006, one of the first taken with my then new FujiFilm camera … titled as ‘Face of an Urban Dryad’, I had noted on Flickr that it was: “A gentle spirit – beauty emerging from abrasion and decay”.  2017-08-07_05-33-02

Interestingly at the time such work felt a bit commonplace and at times scarcely worth doing, but over recent years the streets have become much more regularised in what is postered up, where, and the supply of interesting images has dried up considerably. So I value my archives that much more!

And then image-processing software has become widely and cheaply available, while processing power has continued its inexorable Moore’s Law fuelled march, now allowing sophisticated image manipulation in the palm of your hand …

I am reminded of a similar remark by the Tabernacle to Zed towards the conclusion of the 1974 movie Zardoz … oops, sorry, that was a lapse into complete obscurity

… but this is my blog after all 😉

I have the movie on DVD if you’d like to watch it sometime.

 

 

That technology has led me to my most recent experimentation with the ‘blank canvas’.  Using a wonderful but free Google app called SnapSeed it possible to take an entirely tactile approach to photo editing – essentially finger painting!  As examples I have completed the blank canvas with a wall art image captured on the backstreets of Marrickville,20170719_101351-05

and then with an earlier photo-montage piece, ‘Terrigal Rose’, in which I had combined and morphed digital photographs using PC-based tools. You may notice Marilyn looking on …20170719_101351-04

20170801_153030My ambition now, as well as continuing to use the digital tools, is to re-connect with the world of paint and drawing, taking an almost ‘slow cooking’ approach to image construction and re-construction, paying attention to different details and layers.  Using the most immediately available subject I am reacquainting myself with the simple tools (not so simple actually) of pencil and paper, and I am then interested in re-interpreting my Polaroid project image once more, onto a smaller canvas.

Then we will see what might emerge …