Game, Set and Match

As the Australian Tennis Open gathers way it was appropriate that I just finished reading an omnibus edition of Len Deighton’s spy trilogy Berlin Game, Mexico Set and London Match.

Written and set in the very early 80s, it is a well written, enjoyable yarn that explores treachery and betrayal in commendable depth. It is also very much of its time, both in terms of the idiom it uses (I’m thinking here particularly of the role of women, the consumption of alcohol and the use of cigarettes) and the technology employed – this was at the dawn of the computer age with dedicated computer room facilities dominated by printouts and of course radio telephone equipped cars!  I did note a moment of technological foresight when the narrator comments at one point that nothing gets forgotten in the computer age.

However overall I found the book sufficiently well-written to be readable as essentially historical rather than dated – it is recording the times, in the voice of the times.  The setting in Berlin, divided by the Wall, is now very much a matter of history, but of course also has its contemporary resonance as the world grapples with that other great legacy of the Cold War, the divided Korean peninsula.

I also clearly recall those times, which reminds me that you know you’re getting older when period dramas are set in decades you lived through and remember. I’m thinking here of Mad Men, set in the 60s and a less successful 2008 show called Swingtown, set in the 70s, with very true-to-life sets and costume. I know coz I was there – now that was close to home – the decade, not the swinging!

Coincidentally we have just recently been watching a contemporary television spy series called Berlin Station on the SBS streaming service. Pretty watchable stuff; taut, complex and dark. It stars Richard Armitage, who was a lead player as Lucas North a main character in the seventh, eighth, and ninth seasons of the BBC espionage television series Spooks as something of a spy story tragic I must admit to watching the complete DVD set ;).

While in no way derivative of Deighton’s work, there are obvious parallels and echoes that cannot escape notice having just read his initial trilogy. The contemporary adversary is the Islamic State rather than the Soviet Union. But the dynamics and the imperatives are much the same – and one has to hope that the relatively peaceful resolution exemplified in Berlin can be repeated both on the Legacy Cold War border of Korea and in the contemporary Islamic “wall” extending through the Middle East and beyond.

I’ve been making good progress with my street photography retrospective on Instagram, now being a quarter of the way through the 60 digital photographs of street edited posters and graffiti style images collated in the past decade or so. It has been an interesting and rewarding exercise so far, learning to fine tune my hashtags to put the images in front of as broad a potential audience as possible.

It’s a bit like playing digital Pooh sticks, tossing the images into the virtual river of Instagram and then seeing which emerges as the leader from the resultant likes and comments. The current leader is this 2008 image of mine, which I have titled Confection, described with the comment “Laughing as the sweet image of reality cracks, twists and tears into a bizarre confection”.

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I have been curating a collection of the images on a special page of this blog and if you want to see the next tranche on Instagram, I am posting as charlessixdotzero using the hash tag #csdzsixty2018 for the collection.

 

 

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The Dancing Harlequin

I just finished my first painting in more than a decade – back into the paint pot at last!

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For my subject I was inspired by the image produced as I conjured with my digital dreamscape of photographs, editing tools, and filters as I mentioned in my previous blog.

We now live in a world of endless ephemeral images – photographs flick past our fingertips pretty much at the speed of thought: contents assessed, reaction registered, like / not like, move on. Occasionally we pause to comment to engage and very occasionally a conversation ensues. Don’t get me wrong, I am as enthusiastic a participant as the next person but I do recall that a decade or so ago UK Baroness Professor Susan Greenfield was very concerned that the new technologies of social media media and the like meant we would all end up just as a kind of ‘reactive sponge’, just saying “yuk and wow, yuk and wow” to the things flashing across our social radar.

It may indeed be in the nature of digital technologies to reduce things to something of a binary nature – however binary processing underpins of our increasingly virtual world and what I, for one, find marvellous is the apparently almost inexhaustible capacity of the human brain to use the digital building blocks to construct previously inconceivable things at speeds we could only dream of in decades, let alone centuries, past.

However in this blog I am reporting how I have spent quite some time thinking and working with just one single image – the dancing Harlequin.  I captured my original photograph of a tattered paste-up under an inner city freeway overpass on an iPhone 4 back in 2013.

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At the time it captured a spirit of joyous persistence in a harsh grey environment.

At more or less the same time and place I also noticed and took this shot of an installation of a forest of light trees under that same freeway. You may have noticed it in the background of some of my other photo experiments – presents quite a surreal landscape.

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Fast forward to a month or so ago and in the midst of my Snapseed app photomontage experimentations it occurred to me to combine the two images, which produced an interesting result. Risking what might have been a step too far I then ran a Prisma app filter or two over the image, one of which produced the striking result which inspired my selection of it to re-engage with the acrylics.

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I built the canvas in a series of steps moving from light to dark, broad stroke to greater definition.

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I am reasonably happy with the result and to declare it finished, although in one last insight into the image I was fascinated to notice the effect of back lighting the final canvas rendition which heads this blog post, producing this image. It is like applying a filter to the painting, except that it is the painting itself doing the filtering … but I think that’s enough, it’s done!

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It has been an interesting journey for the Harlequin.  ‘Which image is the definitive one?’ is, in some respects, an open question. It could be the original wall art, it might be the Prisma filter outcome or maybe the final acrylic version I will hang on the wall. Each defines its own milestone on that journey, which I think shows the multidimensional possibilities offered by the intersection of virtual and real realities and takes us far from the simple world of “yuk and wow”.

The original street shots will be released in due course as part of a collection of some 60 digital photographs of street edited posters and graffiti style images I am progressively releasing using Instagram, also curated on this blog page. You can see it unfold on Instagram where I am posting, perhaps unsurprisingly, as charlessixdotzero.

 

A wrap for Christmas 2017

Well that’s a wrap for Christmas 2017 then. Back to work for some, and back to the business of Charles 6.0 for me. First order of business – finishing and hanging out the post-festive washing!  Next, record some of the thoughts and upcoming plans for things to do in the New Year here in the Charles Six Dot Zero blog.

It’s been nearly 6 months since I left the ACMA and I have made some 25 blog posts in fulfillment of my commitment to make one a week for the year. At some point I intend to write a mid-action review post, but that is not today.

In addition to the blog posts in that 6 months, I have also won a couple of croquet competitions, which is seen my handicap drop by an index point or two, engaged a little with Tai Chi, rediscovered a facilitators network from long ago, spent some time with technology and communications thinkers at UTS, and re-engaged with my artwork using photography and drawing, yet to get back into the painting – something for next year.

Another one of the things I have enjoyed has been getting time to read more books, although there has not been as much of that free time as one might have imagined.  Oddly enough, I found the festive season ‘shut down’ of a number of the things I had been engaged with enlarged my reading window much as it had when I was working full-time.

I finished the last (The Hydrogen Sonata) of the second-hand Iain M. Banks books that were the fruits of a lunchtime walk back in July, of which I boasted on Facebook at the time … six for $14!

20170718_145412.jpgFor those unfamiliar, he was a brilliant writer, who’s SF was interspersed among his other literary work – he died an untimely death in 2013, aged 59.

They were pretty much all in his Culture series and I have read them in publication order. My respect for his work is undiminished. It’s the sort of writing where sometimes I want to make notes, but on the other hand want to hurry on, to see where he is taking us. He combines a splendid narrative gift with an informed exploration of many contemporary intellectual or scientific dilemmas / imponderables. Are we indeed just living in an all-encompassing simulation? What are the moral and ethical issues when we can effectively create sentient life forms? What are the limits when those limits we currently encounter as environmental, technological or resource scarcity simply cease to exist?

He depicts the galaxy spanning Culture as massively powerful in a post-scarcity environment which has solved many of our contemporary day-to-day frustrations and inadequacies, with well evolved ways to manage conflict and interaction between deeply alien species. However, within that environment he manages to import very human elements of politics, nastiness, vanity, skulduggery and judiciously applied mega-violence! I have it in mind to re-read, and indeed take notes, because the Culture edifice is an intellectual Tour De Force and I am interested in understanding it more deeply. That’s a deep project for the future.

More immediately I enjoyed conjuring this iteration of the dancing tattered harlequin image from my digital dreamscape of photographs, editing tools, and filters.

IMG_20171224_174031_processed.jpgIt is now my project to re-render that image onto canvas using acrylic paints – I’ll keep you posted …

On the subject of digital dreamscapes I also came across a collection of some 60 digital photographs of street edited posters and graffiti style images I had collated a while ago for some reason that I don’t recall particularly. However it occurred to me that it is a curated collection I might progressively release using Instagram, with judicious reference in Facebook (I am thinking maybe 1 in ten), backed perhaps by a page on this blog. A few finishing touches, without over-thinking it, and that project will be ready to roll.  For those not already familiar, you could see it unfold on Instagram where I am posting as, perhaps unsurprisingly, charlessixdotzero, and will use the hashtag #csdzsixty2018 for the collection .

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Intention Discovery Emergence Capture

Thoughts about the creative interplay between what you intend to do, what you discover as you do it, what emerges from what you’re doing and the creative outcome you capture.

It famously been said that a picture is worth a thousand words – well on my bike ride this morning I realised that this week’s blog had more or less written itself and that the 900-odd words below indeed flowed from the evolution of a single image.

As I rode into a fresh southerly wind along the Cooks River cycle path I thought about the creative interplay between what you intend to do, what you discover as you do it, what emerges from what you’re doing and the creative outcome you capture.

Before leaving for the ride I had completed the image which headlines this blog. I hadn’t directly or initially intended to produce that particular image, but my work/play had led me to make it and my creative judgement said ‘Stop, that’s it’. I like it – it speaks to me and hopefully it will also speak to others. But it was produced / emerged in a process which I will share in this blog.

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It started with a pencil sketch on paper: my simple intention was to achieve reasonable modelling of light and shade, while capturing a sense of proportion from an interesting but difficult pose. I discovered a few interesting things about rendering facial features and was pleased with what emerged from my effort – certainly not perfect but advance to the point where further work would have detracted from rather than enhanced the result.

 

 

And that is the essence of creative capture: knowing when to stop!

20171212_083638.jpgEarlier in the week I had stopped on my way back from the bike shop with freshly maintained my e-bike to take this image of a peeling wall with a little light graffiti. My intent: to capture a resource image which could be combined with other photographs or drawings.

The day after completing my pencil sketch it occurred to me I should do exactly that. That was an emergent intent: I hadn’t specifically taken this background shot for that pencil sketch, but something told me it would work quite well and I discovered that it did.

20171212_083638-01.jpegThe soft pastel shades, random cracking and gentle curves of the background image merged happily with the hand drawn lines and shading from the pencil sketch. I used various tools in the Snapseed app to experiment and to discover the best way to blend both into a single integrated image I was happy with. Again the trick was in knowing when to stop.

Recently I have discovered that after combining and blending images in this way, running a final filter over the ‘finished’ image can usefully integrate it more fully.

 

IMG_20171221_165531_processed.jpgI have been playing with the Prisma app on my phone and thought I would try using it for a final filter pass.  That was my intent: as I played with it I discovered the depths and subtleties of some of the filtering effects, and I particularly liked this image  from the ‘Hunter’ filter.  It has become the image that I have chosen to capture as the ‘end-result’ of my initial intention to make that pencil sketch .

 

 

Which led me to a few ruminations on my bike ride:

Is creation achieved by realising the vision of what you intended or is it recognising/ capturing the vision that has emerged from your discovery in that work? Saying both might be a cop-out?

What is the real artwork: the traditional hand drawn pencil sketch or the much filtered and combined quasi-photographic image?  Someone in my drawing group last month commented that the photo-editing apps were like fake painting, and I agreed; except that, non-defensively, I would take out the word fake – it is unnecessary.   Image making is about manipulating light – paint is a tool to manipulate reflected light. Imaging software manipulates emitted light. Either way an ‘artificial’ visual perception is created.

Perhaps it might be felt that using technology somehow makes creation easier and hence less morally deserving, thus more ‘fake’.  However I am reminded of the ‘cheater’ taunt sometimes thrown at e-bike riders (usually as we sail pass some hapless push-biking soul on a steep hill), to which my usual response is “If being smart is cheating, I’ve been cheating all my life!

Photographs are in some ways are easier to produce than drawings or paintings; digital photographs are certainly easier to produce than chemical photographs; it is easier to use prepared oil paints rather than grind and blend one’s own pigments, and acrylic paints are to some extent easier to use than oils. But any attempt to eradicate technology from creativity leads us back into the caves of Lascaux and the portrayal of bison with the soot of candles and the ochre of the Earth.

The use of technology is inevitable and so the choice of technology would seem essentially discretionary and so either all image-making is fake or basically none of it is. Almost any form of human creativity will be technologically enabled to some extent or another – that would seem to be virtually inescapable.

In any event I enjoyed landing on this ‘final’ image, which builds on, without actually replacing, those which I also captured on the path to its emergence. I also enjoyed the discovery and recording of this constellation of intention, discovery, emergence and capture. It’s all in the timing!

FYI – I have written two previous creativity-related blogs illustrated with other such images:

Creation, line & form which reported my attempt to do at least one drawing each day, focused on the most basic drawing technique using black charcoal on paper.

Image Consciousness which looked at 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.

 

 

 

Creative AI – maybe not quite yet …

Can AI get creative? I have been thinking and writing about creativity since the nineties. The current state of play seems to be that collaborative creative AI can deliver elements of ‘technical excellence’, with context and creative judgement uniquely provided by humans. But as we co-create with our ever more intelligent, useful and responsive machines there will be potentially profound effects on the human creative process – just as we shape our machines, so they shape us.

Apparently the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority wants to introduce so-called robo-marking next year of NAPLAN assessment, arguing that there is evidence that automated marking “met or surpassed” the quality of human markers. I was intrigued the other day to see reports that the NSW education minister said it was “preposterous” to suggest computers could do a better job of marking assessments than teachers.

Followers of this blog (thank you very much for your time) will be aware that I have recently paid a fair amount of attention to AI and its implications (AI – where are we now and how did we get here?, AI and future of work, & Thinking about education, work & AI). From that familiarity I would say that it is far from preposterous that suitably tuned AI software could reliably assess writing assignments, particularly those designed to give standardised comparative outcomes. In fact given the vast data sets that would be generated from testing all school children in Australia it would probably be an almost perfect environment for data driven algorithms.  Indeed one does not have to look too far to find examples of AI actually writing similarly ‘algorithmic’ texts – one chosen more or less at random notes that:

The Washington Post started using its homegrown artificial intelligence technology, Heliograf, to spit out around 300 short reports and alerts on the Rio Olympics. Since then … in its first year, the Post has produced around 850 articles using Heliograf.

Frankly I find it preposterous that an education minister should be quite so ignorant!

Just as I was about to publish this blog, in a moment of serendipity and confirmation that this is indeed a current topic of interest, a news email from consultants McKinsey & Company arrived in my email feed – the title: AI in storytelling: Machines as cocreators! It details recent research by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Media Lab investigating the potential for machine–human collaboration in video storytelling using machine-learning models that rely on deep neural networks to “watch” (not just the plot, characters, and dialogue but also more subtle touches, like a close-up of a person’s face or a snippet of music) small slices of video—movies, TV, and short online features—and estimate their positive or negative emotional content by the second.

They concluded:

Machines can view an untagged video and create an emotional arc for the story based on all of its audio and visual elements. That’s something we’ve never seen before – machines that could identify common emotional arcs in video stories.

My incredulity was further heightened when last Wednesday I attended what was styled as ‘The Great Debate: Humans, Data, AI & Ethics’ organised by the UTS Connected Intelligence Centre.  Using a classic debate format two teams presented the positive and negative cases for the proposition that:  ‘Humans have blown it: it’s time to turn the planet over to the machines’.

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It was both entertaining and informative stuff. The negative team, that is the pro-humans, (that’s not them in the photograph!) had a convincing win. They presented well-argued humanist propositions that humans are indispensable and hence perhaps would seem to be on the side of the good minister. However the subtle difference was that these folks are well versed in the algorithmic data-driven world of today – they well accepted that the world of the future is one of human-machine collaboration and possibly even partnership.

The critical and unique contribution from humans was argued to be creativity, which machines cannot recreate.  It is a fascinating area of contention as to whether that will always be the case. To some extent at least it depends on what you define as creative. It is something I have been thinking and writing about since the nineties. I noted back then as a challenge in considering creativity that a lot of traditionally artistic activity isn’t necessarily all that ‘creative’, in the sense of producing something novel or unexpected. How come?  Because much painting, drawing, poetry making and creative writing are functioning at a technical level, where skill is important: blissful flow states are achievable; beautiful works can be created. And indeed these ‘merely technical skills’ are what AI is being aimed at, with increasing success. But this is often not technical skill, as such, that marks out ‘more’ creative artists at work.

The suggestion here would be that it is that these people are pushing the ‘grammar’ or patterns of their field, inventing whole new worlds or universes of discovery and discourse. That is why Picasso is a genius, if not a prodigy working exceptionally high in the stack, where he opened and explored entire new universes of artistic expression. The question is not usually his technical skill although his draughtsmanship and painterliness cannot seriously be questioned. His gift was that he introduced modern art (among others) the art of Africa, Surrealism and the unconscious, Cubism. He was always changing and exploring further. David Bowie is perhaps another more contemporary example of artistic invention and reinvention.

A contrast can perhaps be made with Salvador Dali, who, while consummately competent at his Surrealist paintings, stuck with these until they were a genre, and he its epitome. Once he was established in that grammar he stayed in it, working in established patterns rather than making new grammars. Jackson Pollock also produced singular work but in one frame after which he tragically and sadly flamed out.

I recently read a similar observation in a review of the Hyper Real exhibition at the National Gallery of Australia (thanks for sharing Loes), which noted that “manual dexterity, so valued only a generation ago, is growing increasingly redundant. As in most good art, it is the conceptual framework that is of higher value than the virtuosity of the execution and, as a matter of fact, many of the hyperreal artists leave the manufacture of their work to technicians.”

I also found interesting resonance with this topic in a presentation about the work of Hubert Dreyfus and his model of skill acquisition at last month’s facilitators’ network meeting. This model proposes five stages of skill acquisition ranging from novice to expert. There is a pretty good Wikipedia page on it which I can leave you to peruse but the key take-away in this context is the way in which the expert can transcend reliance on rules, guidelines, and maxims and instead rely on an intuitive grasp of situations based on deep, tacit understanding. It is this deep tacit understanding that can then lead the expert to become a domain innovator and inventor of frameworks of novel rules, guidelines etc.

It is also interesting that Dreyfus as a philosopher was a long-standing critic of artificial intelligence, particularly the philosophical naive and mathematically formulated versions attempted in the last century. I suspect the deep learning, neural based, data driven approaches common today would be less susceptible to his humanist objections – the topic for another day perhaps, interesting to me since his philosophical approach used thinking I explored extensively in writing my Sociology Master’s thesis in the late seventies.

However to my mind there is much more to the currently unique human creative capacity than that of expert skill mastery… for example I identified a paradox of creativity in my previous thinking, which was that in some ways the more familiar you become with a particular field of work, the less creative you become. Specialists may take choices early in the mastery of the discipline, and rarely if ever revisit the taken for granted aspects of the practise, forgetting or never realising that some of their basic assumptions are actually choice based.  As skill and mastery increases, one makes conscious reference to the domain framework less and less ad certain skills become wholly automatic and habitual – no thought required. Great skill perhaps, but at the same time the creative envelope has narrowed. The best expert in Dreyfus is scheme can and do achieve innovative thinking but it is manifestly not easy. Breaking through and recovering creative naivety toward acquired and mastered subjects can be very difficult.

One solution is to recruit and teach neophytes, and to observe them carefully as they learn. It is a commonplace observation that people new to a field can often offer significant innovations and insights, although they may lack the ability to fully realise them.  As we cover the elementary ground that specialists left behind years before, we make observations and explore directions which emerge early in the problem space of the discipline, and may have being laying fallow.  A non-altruistic reason to pass on your skills and to be patient with learners! Working out what you do well enough to teach it to others can force a re-evaluation sufficient to jolt insight.

The other thing here is that as we learn a new subject or revisit a current domain from first principles, we can cross over previously acquired knowledge and generate novelty from that collision – something I touched on in my blog about the specialist generalist.

This ‘crossing over’ was something I demonstrated for myself in a modest way when I combined my recent charcoal sketches from the U3A drawing group with various photographs of flowers and street art – e.g.

 

The drawings have been essentially for practice and the photographs relatively run-of-the-mill – neither particularly creative in themselves. However integrating and overlaying the individual images has generated results which I have found to be genuinely creative, the emergent consequence of combining two different skill sets and impulses.

I recall there was a discussion at a UTS Hatchery AI meeting about the social dimension to creativity, that AI technology, like other technologies, can help a person (human) deliver ‘better’ more technically polished work.  This resonates with the conclusions of the MIT work reported above, which said:

These insights will not necessarily send screenwriters back to the drawing board—that would be like asking George Orwell to tack a happy ending onto 1984 to cheer things up. But they could inspire video storytellers to look at their content objectively and make edits to increase engagement. That could mean a new musical score or a different image at crucial moments, as well as tweaks to plot, dialogue, and characters. As storytellers increasingly realize the value of AI, and as these tools become more readily available, we could see a major change in the way video stories are created. In the same way directors can now integrate motion capture in their work, writers and storyboarders might work alongside machines, using AI capabilities to sharpen stories and amplify the emotional pull.

That is the collaborative dimension of creative AI – the essential ingredients provided by the human are context and creative judgement, which will perhaps remain uniquely human.

But I also note that as we co-create in partnership with our ever more intelligent, useful and responsive machines, they will be learning about our context and judgement, perhaps ultimately to appreciate the former and exercise the latter.   As they do so there will be potentially profound effects on the human creative process – just as we shape our machines, so they shape us. Dreyfus was cited at the facilitators’ network meeting as expressing this reciprocity between humans and their technology thus:

“As the carpenter shapes the desk, so the desk shapes the carpenter.”

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Regulating your way into paradise?

We like to think that a sustainable economy will be inclusive and prosperous – some seem to think that somehow an enhanced regulatory intervention is required to tie economic activity to sustainable practice. However for me it is difficult to think of a better mechanism to achieve that than marketplace processes. Only the market, subject to reasonable democratic control, can process the information, generate the wealth, encourage innovation and manage the risk necessary to sustain a complex society. You are never going to produce excellence, originality or innovation just because a regulator thinks it’s a good idea. It may well be that there is a clear dynamic and perhaps necessity for the rewriting of the social contract between corporations, markets and society. It has to be fervently hoped that our democratic institutions and processes are even halfway up to the task.

Over the last couple of weeks focusing on fitness and networking outings has again distracted from blog writing. Usefully so, because balance is critical, something confirmed in the pursuit of Tai Chi.

One networking event / learning opportunity I went to recently was a public forum on ‘Building a sustainable economy’ put on by the Centre for Policy Development. I was pleased to catch up with a couple of people who I had not seen since the early noughties and my time at CHOICE.

High above the city at Level 40 of  Governor Macquarie Tower, in the finely appointed offices of law firm Minter Ellison, we listened to serious people discussing serious issues around the questions of socially inclusive, environmentally sustainable and economically viable futures, seriously. There was talk of the need for re-imagining the social contract for corporations and business in the transition to a sustainable economy, in which the roles of social, environmental and economic capital are recognised and balanced.

It was particularly interesting to hear Geoff Summerhayes, an executive board member of the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority (APRA), speaking about how the transition to a low-carbon economy is in motion, and that local companies can opt to float with the transitional current or fight against the rising tide.

APRA is taking seriously the need for insurers and other custodians of funds to factor in the risks of climate change to their deposit holders. Their foray are into this category of risk was flagged in a February 2017 speech by him: Australia’s new horizon: Climate change challenges and prudential risk.  Apparently this did not meet with universal approval and there was suggestion at the time that APRA may have been moving outside it’s regulatory remit.  A familiar problem for regulators in a difficult space seeking innovative directions.

There was a general sense in the panel discussion of industry and regulators making progress irrespective of, and to a large extent despite, the operation of politics as usual Some of the questions from the folks assembled on the 40th floor suggested that somehow an enhanced regulatory intervention is required to tie economic activity to sustainable practice. It was not entirely clear what regulatory body might be suitable vehicle for such intervention. But of course, that is only a preliminary and quite shallow problem in the proposition, which led me to a couple of reflections which I shared in conversation over drinks and canapes (I do love  a  good law firm hosted seminar!) after the panel discussion and Q&A.

Firstly regulators in today’s world cannot think of themselves as somehow ‘outside’ the system, looking in – that is the conceit of supervision. In an overwhelmingly networked world regulators of any domain a very likely to find themselves embedded within the network; as a privileged node with special resources and a necessary stance of independence but nevertheless interlinked and certainly with no monopoly of knowledge.

Secondly, and related to that final point, however well-intentioned, you cannot effectively regulate what you do not understand.  That takes investment and resources – which tend to be thin on the ground for the average reglator! It also means knowing what you do not know, and many contemporary systems are so complex, and evolving so rapidly, has to be literally beyond comprehension – even by the direct industry participants, let alone supposedly aloof regulators sitting above the fray.

This is not a counsel of despair –  there are effective avenues of intervention available that recognise and draw on the premises of complexity theory.  These go beyond  the simple  proposition of unintended or perverse consequences and recognise the essential primacy of self-organization in complex systems. Hence an emphasis on the importance of self-regulation and the likelihood or perhaps even inevitability of sudden shifts (think Butterfly Effect, cascades and tipping points). It is also evident that complex systems are fragile, and the more complex they are the more fragile they are.  Fragility requires increasingly large investments of information and energy to keep the complex system functioning and to reap the rewards of that complexity a potentially vicious circle for all concerned.

There was further commentary from the floor of the meeting which suggested an even deeper disillusionment with the viability of corporate moves to sustainability. There was a feeling among some that a sustainable economy was beyond the capacity of markets to deliver and that we were witnessing the failing of capitalism. To some extent these perhaps echoed the views recently reported of the former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis, who has claimed capitalism is coming to an end, in his view because it is making itself obsolete with the rise of giant technology corporations and artificial intelligence.  “And then what happens?” he is reported to have said – “I have no idea”, and of course that’s the thing, isn’t it, none of us do.

It’s fairly easy to conclude that the messy market system is failing because it’s not doing it exactly what you want it to do. At that point people’s thoughts turn inexorably to ‘command and control’ – let’s just tell people what’s good for them and what to do. I’m reminded of a timeless remark by one of the first systems analysts that I worked with 35 years ago: he would say “We wouldn’t have all these politics if people would just do what I say”.

We like to think that a sustainable economy will be inclusive and prosperous – however for me it is difficult to think of a better mechanism to achieve that than marketplace processes, subject to reasonable democratic control. Only the market can process the information, generate the wealth, encourage innovation and manage the risk necessary to sustain a complex society.

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One thing I am certain of is that you cannot simply command yourself to be wealthy. That’s a difficult trick for an individual, let alone a complex society in a global context. It is a rule of thumb for regulators that you cannot create good behaviour by regulatory fiat. Markets can be messy and periodically interventions are required in an attempt to focus the minds of participants on the greater collective good. There need to be  effective mechanisms  to address  complaints  resolve disputes  and settle grievances.  That can certainly include trying to encourage good behaviour through education, guidelines and encouraging best practice – but you are never going to produce excellence, originality or innovation just because a regulator thinks it’s a good idea.  Actually in my experience and from my time spent working and advocating in various regulatory context, regulators are as often moved by markets and the expectations of society and culture in general as the other way around.

Basically the goal to which regulatory energy is best directed is the mitigation of harms – that is stopping bad stuff rather than trying to induce the good stuff.

Those that command usually do just that and that has the real potential to deliver significant adverse distributional effects, far worse than free market excesses (which is why the prevention of monopoly is one unimpeachable goal for regulatory intervention).  In these circumstances, channeling my friend the systems analyst, democracy may well prove inconvenient. Winners have a nasty habit of deciding who prospers, who the losers will be and what penalty they may pay – and indeed probably what counts as ‘sustainable’, and for whom.

This may well be a classic case of be careful of what you wish for, unless perhaps you expect to be an unprincipled winner.  It may well be that there is a clear dynamic and perhaps necessity for the rewriting of the social contract between corporations, markets and society.  It has to be fervently hoped that our democratic institutions and processes are even halfway up to the task, since the zombie which is likely to arise from the grave of capitalism will probably be a pale imitation of that which was joyfully interred, but yet have a potential to be far more fearsome.

Creation: line & form

Take a wander through my creative thinking as I try to complete at least one charcoal drawing on paper each day over the last fortnight or so – and have a look at the results.

This blog post is a little delayed. I enjoy writing and so I have been enthusiastic about keeping my commitment to a Charles 6.0 post every week – doing so has engaged my creative energy more than adequately. But (and there is always a ‘but’ isn’t there) I have found that this work has to some extent been absorbing creative energy from other things I have wanted to pursue.

A specific example is my wish to engage further with drawing – as I noted in an earlier blog, ‘Back to basics’, I have been going along to a U3A drawing group every fortnight for the last couple of months, revisiting the fundamental skill of free-hand drawing.  I noted that I found it a bit challenging – my engagement with this skill was longer ago than I first thought – but that I would persist , strongly feeling the need to relearn the basic skills of seeing and constructing images by hand.  While I have engaged happily with the group now, to improve I really needed to do more.

So a couple of weeks ago I decided to prioritise drawing over blog writing, to try to make time to do at least one drawing each day, with  a view to sharing the results in a blog somehow. I have focused on the most basic drawing technique using black charcoal on paper, using objects scattered about the house, some of which I have used for creative inspiration in the past.  For a number of them I have gone on to use the drawn image in creating digital collage with photographs from the streets, adding a layer of interest and complexity.  Other events have conspired to divert my focus over the last fortnight, but on as many days as possible I have attempted a drawing.  These are what I will focus on sharing in this blog, interspersed with digital play with some of them, and also a few random notes or jottings accumulated on my travels during the couple of weeks -apologies for more or less adequate segues 😉

20171109_090307.jpgSo to my first drawing, of a retro china ballerina figurine which offered the opportunity to explore solid object modelling – a black figure in a pink dress,garnered from a op shop a couple of decades ago.

The next drawing was of a less substantial object, being one of a pair of brass butterflies, with filigreed detail best gestured at rather than precisely rendered.  I like the idea of something as delicate and insubstantial as a butterfly being expressed in a material as solid as brass and I had captured a rather interesting light effect  on the pair a couple of months previously that echoed that thought on transience…

 

On the subject of ephemera, I saw Facebook an “occasional address” from comedian Tim Minchin for a graduation ceremony at his old Uni, The University of Western Australia – gosh, I just noticed that his robe echoes a butterfly!

While witty and amusing, his nine life lessons resonate enormously with me – in summary:

  1. You don’t have to have a dream
  2. Don’t seek happiness (keep busy and make someone else happy, and you may get some as side effect)
  3. Remember, it’s all luck
  4. Exercise
  5. Be hard on your opinions (Identify your biases, your prejudices, your privileges)
  6. Be a teacher (Even you are not a teacher, be a teacher)
  7. Define yourself by what you love (be demonstrative and generous in your praise of those you admire. Be pro-stuff not just anti stuff)
  8. Respect people with less power than you.
  9. Don’t rush (there is only one sensible thing to do with this empty existence, and that is, fill it).

20171109_090522.jpgBut back to the drawings – next I attempted a rendition of a china Buddha figurine which once again I picked up in an op shop a long while ago.

While not formally an adherent, from what little I understand I am sympathetic to many Buddhist tenets, framing the possibility of a joyful embrace of the emergent universe – echoed in Tim Minchin’s riff on our ’empty existence’. Such was the intent of my subsequent digital employment of the sketch …

 

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One lunchtime I went along to  the presentation  by Mark Deuze, Professor of Journalism Studies at the University of Amsterdam. It was an engrossing presentation – an interesting and engaging hour or so well spent. He spoke about journalism start-ups & his forthcoming book, Beyond Journalism, which was the basic theme of his talk.

20171115_111047.jpgHe described the operating environment for journalists as being ‘liquid’, meaning that conditions are changing faster than ways of acting can consolidate into habits and routines.  He was essentially describing the hollowing out of institutional journalism. He described the situation of media workers in terms of precariousness or precarity; that is not knowing and not having control over what will happen next.

There was discussion of the journalist as a DJ, able to mix and match roles and value systems, of portfolio careers and cross subsidised work styles, of journalists as individual brands, of how contemporary media workers are never ‘not at work’.  Coincidentally, the next day the Productivity Commission published a report is called “Shifting the Dial” which looked a range of public services in Australia, but had some damning observations around higher education. While acknowledging the important role universities play in society it also pointed out that the way they are funded and operated is leading to less than ideal outcomes for students.  The report I read noted that:

Only 70 percent of graduates are employed in full-time work. That’s the lowest level since records began in 1982, and we’ve been on a steady decrease for the past decade. Also, nearly one-third of the graduates who are employed are working in jobs that don’t require their degree.

But wait, there’s even more! Graduate starting salaries have been declining when compared to average earnings, which means degrees are becoming less valuable at the same time the cost of study is increasing.

I found this profoundly interesting in the context of Tim Minchin’s address and given the observations I had made in my recent blog Thinking about education, work & AI, with the long story short  view that the world of information (how it is stored, distributed, navigated and utilised) has changed immeasurably over the last couple of decades, and the tertiary sector has struggled / is struggling to keep pace and stay relevant.

I guess we might just have to armour-up … I enjoyed sketching the suit of armour figure that I have treasured as a birthday gift from my eldest son many years ago. If it looks a little robotic, I guess that guys in armour actually did look a bit like robots.

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My next subject perhaps also holds a shield – this was a kitsch china figurine I found by the roadside, which I painted into more basic colours and augmented with other found objects to create a sculptural assemblage that engages enigmatically with time and change.

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I blended the drawn image with a recent photograph of weathered street posters to good emergent effect, while I have used the assemblage in photographic studies from time to time as well …

 

Nearing the end of the report into my adventures with charcoal, I drew this small wooden Balinese bust that I  picked up somewhere on my travels.  Perhaps an earlier photographic study captured something of the calm and reflective air it conveys …

 

… while the experimental combination of the sketch with a image of a dilapidated street poster  produced an image, that for me, somehow provides a powerful abstract summary of what this blog is trying to do and say.

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