The quest for knowledge

First up, I am going to recommend a book which I am in the process of reading called The Silk Roads by Peter Frankopan and it is the history of civilisation and trade geographically from the Middle East rather than from Western Europe. It is absolutely fascinating. I bought the paperback the other day because to be frank, it is one of the rare text dense books which is worth having a hard copy of rather than loading up to your kindle. By the way I need new bookshelves.

With that said, one of my guilty pleasures lately has been reading below the line on Guardian articles regarding the impact of the UK vote to leave the European Union – I will not call this Brexit – I did not much like the term Brangelina either. The Guardian was broadly in favour of rejecting the referendum to leave and it has a bunch of columnists who are ready to write reams on the impact. So far, they have not yet found any benefits although below the line, there are plenty to say “we got more sovereignty”.

Before the vote, I questioned an online interlocutor based in the UK how he was able to convince himself that voting to leave the EU would gain him in democracy since the Head of State was a hereditary monarch and their second chamber was also unelected and part hereditary. Plus, they have that awful first past the post system which is designed for “stability” but means that they get sea changes rather than stable incremental changes. It was a start, he advised me, pitifully.

I’ve tried to understand his argument, particularly in the context of him favouring the so called Norway Solution where you have to comply with a bunch of EU legal instruments, pay into the EU and allow all four pillars of the single market, specifically freedom of movement of labour being the contentious one in the UK at the moment.

You could write reams on the unintended consequences of the UK referendum result – for me one of the fascinating one is that it has pre-empted a change in views across Europe with EU membership currently gaining in favour in countries like Finland where the True Finns party is now desperately trying to shore up support for a referendum in the face of a population which has looked at the UK, looked at their borders and gone, you know what…things could be a whole pile worse.

Within the UK, though, the comments pages of newspapers are a fascinating reflection of the different facets of British society. Even if you choose not do discuss the geographical differences, there are clear differences in understanding the issues. Because I have friends who work in the academic research sector, I happen to have somewhat more of an interest in the impact on research budgets so I tend to read pieces on that. There have been a few lately because grant proposals are being prepared for Horizon 2020 – a huge European research funding program – and uncertainty about the UK’s position in Europe over the next five years – is causing grant applicants grief. Do we apply with UK based researchers even though they might be out before we draw down funding or start the project? The answer is increasingly “wait and see”.

This was forecast pre vote. Like a lot of forecasts, it was written off as fear mongering.

I do not especially want to talk in detail about the impact on science funding, or the impact on jobs or what will or will not happen with immigration and points systems. These are all details. What has struck me most about reading below the line is the absolute certainty of people who cannot accept that voting in favour to leave the European Union has huge costs associated with it. From the ones who point out that the UK pays more into the EU than it gets back but who still can’t work out that if their economy takes a hit, the money won’t be there to finance the science that historically got money from European budgets – and getting funding from UK research budgets has become increasingly difficult.

This kind of certainty worries me sometimes. It is indicative of people who are far too willing to reject other people’s experience in favour of what they know to be true. Very often it is indicative of a closed mind. One of the biggest problems the Remain campaign had was that explaining reality was generally rejected. Even now, as things are starting to rise to the surface in an none too positive way, there is still a strong desire to reject reality in favour of what people know to be true when in fact, what they know to be true is a) untrue and b) based on some misinterpretation and or misunderstanding.

There is some evidence to suggest that there is a correlation between those who left school early and those who voted in favour of exit. One of the things which interested me – and stunned me – about the UK as I was growing up was that it was more or less common and socially acceptable to leave school at what was then O-level stage, or 16 for the most part. People doing A-levels seemed to be sort of special butterflies.

The UK has recently updated its legislation to make sure that young people stay in full time education or some sort of training until 18 now.

Online discussions become heated because a lot of people – particularly and often on the wrong side of a debate – refuse to take a step backwards and ask “could I possibly have gotten this wrong” whereas people on the right side of the debate frequently do, and frequently own their lack of knowledge, and they also demonstrate that they are willing to add to their knowledge.

I suppose this is where I am getting down to the crux of the matter. Where do people learn to step back and question their own knowledge, and where do people engage in certainty so certain that demonstrating to them that they are wrong has no impact?

It seems to me that people who have a greater knowledge are more open to a) adding to that knowledge and b) updating that knowledge than people who have a lesser knowledge. You see this in any debate online although a few generate a lot more heat than others.

If I had one question for the world today, it would be: how do we get people interested in learning more and recognising the limits of their knowledge (and then pushing them back) rather than hiding in their comfort zone of certainty.

It’s not a question of making information and sources available there – this is already done although sorting valid sources from invalid sources is increasingly hard – but it’s something in education and something in media. What is fascinating is that…it works for some people. And it doesn’t work for some people.

How do we get people on a quest for knowledge that changes attitudes and dogma in this way? In my opinion, if the UK is to respond effectively to its decision to leave the European Union, it needs to do this for its population as a whole because it otherwise will not develop the agility to respond to its new place in the world order.

In the meantime, The Silk Roads was number 2 in the UK non-fiction chart last week. That desire for knowledge does already exist. Harnessing it now…that’s the next question.

Hyperrealistic drawing

Or, photorealistic drawing.

I am not saying I fully aspire to it (currently I aspire to “vaguely accurate”) but I came across a discussion online (where all the best/worst discussions take place) in which the skill required to do a hyperrealistic pencil drawing in graphite or charcoal (I’m equally bad at both) was basically denigrated as not being art.

I love drawing. I love painting. While I was in London lately I bought more pencils to draw more dragons with, and more paints because they were good paints with a near 80% discount (always welcome). I remain completely impressed at people who can do the whole hyperrealistic thing because they clearly have very strong drawing and value skills.

I sometimes wonder if denigrating people who apply their skills in that way is based on envy more than anything else.

Nice is news

Late last night before I went to bed I saw a worrying headline in my social media feeds to suggest some sort of tragedy had happened in Nice. I like Nice. I’ve been there on holidays a couple of times. Some gorgeous buildings. The city is colourful. Not a big fan of the somewhat stony beach mind, but the prom is lovely.

And today it is in mourning because someone decided to drive a truck through a crowd. There is no valid justification for doing any such thing deliberately, no matter what your political stance is, no matter what your purported religious faith is. It’s a stupid, ungodly, evil thing to do.

I cannot watch the news and I don’t want to see the papers. Far too often I’m waking up of a morning and the world is a little bit stranger than it used to be the night before when I went to bed.

Funding for science

One of the core concerns raised prior to the referendum in the UK on 23 June related to funding for scientific research. In a way, it was one of many aspects of exit which was either ignored by the greater part of the population, or simply did not exist for them. Since the referendum, anecdotally, researchers are finding that they are less likely to be included in new applications for EU grant funding for large scale research projects. Projects which may have budgets of over a million euro. We are not talking about fiddly little projects.

The response in the UK to this has been sadly rather illuminating. There are some people who just see the EU as an amorphous blob and assume that reports of funding opportunities at EU level dropping off is the fault of the EU (rather than the fault of the UK for voting a desire to be out). There are some people who saw this coming and are irate that they were ignored in the run up. What is said is that there are people who just don’t want to hear when they are wrong.

What the EU are doing, they declare, is illegal. This is evidence that they do not know what the EU are doing anyway, which, in this case, is nothing. People putting projects together are less likely to include British based researchers because Britain’s position in the EU over a time frame of 5 years is now extremely unclear. This is hardly the EU’s fault, nor is it the fault of the researchers putting projects together. They are dealing with reality here.

I find it extraordinary that people who want to be out of the European Union are complaining bitterly about things happening that are on their road to being out of the European Union.  What did they think was going to happen? That nothing much would change, that they would retain every facet of their lives currently only that the gold starred blue flag would go away and that they’d get all the benefits of being part of the European Union without actually having to contribute to it?

There is a view about in the UK that this will lead to the loss of a lot of researchers who will choose to move where things interest them rather than remain in the UK where there has been a lot of messing with local funding for academic research. Equally, there are views around that researchers are bleeding the country dry and not doing real work (not like those private sector employees). In all of this, I wonder where we lost the ability to recognise that sometimes, we don’t know (when you have people who do no scientific research at all screaming that senior scientists do not know what they are talking about when it comes to scientific funding, there’s a serious problem with the inability to recognise the limits of your own knowledge).

Even if the UK are to make a reasonable success of having to create links with all those countries they already had links with, I do not know how we fix society such that people listen and learn rather than listen and scream back.

As it happens, I spent a year at university in the UK. I am reasonably sure that people will adapt and cope. But you know, adapting and coping with a self inflicted injury is somehow harder than avoiding the injury in the first place. The UK is on a journey, now very much without a map I suspect.

How to draw dragons

I drew a dragon yesterday evening and you can see her here:

 

#dragon #coloredpencils #dailysketch #carandache #pablopencils #craftpaper.

A photo posted by Me (@wnbpaints) on

It has shown me two things 1) I have gotten better at drawing in the last 2 years or so, and 2) I’ve a bit to learn about coloured pencils. Either way, I am not here to talk about how to draw dragons directly, but more…metaphorically.

Most days when I am talking to people, we talk about stuff with a small s and Stuff with a big S. Rarely, however, do I get a 10 minute speech from any friend along the lines of “You have to listen to this for 10 minutes because It Will Change Your Life”. But lots of my friends post such screeds to me. Yesterday, I had some time tossing up between doing housework and drawing dragons. I find drawing challenging. I wasn’t really taught how to do it properly as a child and we tend to assume the ability to draw is innate rather than a teachable skill. I can only hope this is changing. Anyway, the net result is that I’m often wanting to draw something but too terrified to start. Every time I lift a pencil or pen, it takes an enormous amount of motivation. I liken it to the motivation required to starting to get exercise.

Since I started doing this, and since I started summoning up the courage required to try and, probably fail at something, I have seriously started to question the reasons why certain things go viral, why many of the advice pieces on making your living blogging and related items seem to focus not on creating something, or even teaching someone to create, but on telling someone how to live their lives, and to explain to them, they’re really not happy.

I’m really not happy about a lot of things but a ten minute video exhorting me to think about someone else isn’t the solution. This morning’s one – before I bailed on it (it helpfully had subtitles so I did not have to listen to it) went on about being caught by your dreams and risking all for it. Like many of these things, it ignores circumstance and has an unspoken message of if you’re unhappy, it’s your fault.

In a way, it’s part of the trend we have of over simplifying life. This guy was prancing around some nice landscapy place and the overwhelming message I was getting was that we were sheeple who hadn’t seen truth the way he had, and frankly, we should all be living our dreams. It is the sort of message that I look at and think, you know, this guy has no idea how privileged he is. I used to use the word “lucky” there but I’m not sure how much luck has to do with it in the end.

The thing is, the dragon turned out (in my opinion) quite a lot better than I expected. It’s not getting loads of social media love but I’m coming to the conclusion that’s not why I do this anyway. The key point is that while it is far from perfect, it is far less of a failure than it might have been 12 or 18 months ago. I’m not in favour of the try/fail paradigm of making progress particularly as it frequently doesn’t include the bit that goes try/fail/learn. In the tech work, the whole try/failure thing is often presented as a success in itself. It becomes party of the myth and narrative of successful founders.

I find that just a little bit toxic. The whole try/fail thing really doesn’t work unless it’s try/fail/learn and I suspect any founder who eventually makes it would probably agree.

Anyway, back with the dragon. I spend a lot of time looking at other people’s art, and especially, decomposing what they do into lines because I can draw lines and the whole problem for me is drawing lines together successfully. Sometimes, I wonder, if we do take enough time to decompose what other people are doing, when they are doing something we want to do. The whole

  1. idea
  2. ??
  3. profit thing

really does not work with drawing dragons. But I will say this. It’s a metric tonne easier if you have a battery operated eraser for dealing with those little slip ups.

I suppose the lesson I’m hoping to give away for free here is “use the best tools you can get, and use them properly”.

For my next trick, there will be more lighthouses.

 

The small joy of tidying as you go.

Sunday’s go far too fast. I’ve already been outraged at least twice today and I have had breakfast and written a bunch of other blog entries and it’s already 10am.

I came across a couple of the Marie Kondo books in Easons the other day while trying to find their art section – the bit that wasn’t 100% colouring books. They didn’t have a techniques section (Hodges Figgis moved Art around as well and now Art Techniques is not near Art which made that trip interesting) but they had both Marie Kondo books on sale for around 16E.

I love bookshops but I’m not sure I want the Marie Kondo books for that much money. Anyway, I remain astonished that she, or indeed anyone else, makes money out books which are essentially about house keeping.

But then, I get surprised by many people in the world. When nearly every “Tips to keep your house uncluttered” starts with “It sounds crazy but if you make your bed…”

I used to live in student accommodation when I was a student. As I lived, worked and drank tea in the same 10 square metres for months at a time, and eventually lived in small studio apartments, I worked out fairly sharpish that no matter what clutter was on the floor or strewn on my desk, the world looked a lot better if I at least made the bed. It is not in me not to do it now. Even in hotels I make some effort at order.

Anyway, I suspect the issue for a lot of people is the inability to make a decision. My small piece of advice for life in general – and let’s be honest, I don’t always manage it myself – is “do it now if it means your life will be easier later”.

No one wants to have to make their bed before they get into it. Ergo, do it in the morning when you get up. Wash the breakfast dishes in the morning and come home to a reasonably uncluttered kitchen.

Make your life easier by doing it now. I can’t spin it into 160 pages to sell in its millions but that’s the way I see it.

Also, try and figure out why you buy stuff. For me, half the time it’s because getting some stuff in Ireland is hard.

Advertising is not the answer

In the grand scheme of things, the biggest two internet business are basically advertising agencies. We really need to think about that for a while.

I’m thinking about this because the number of promoted tweets arriving in my timeline is going through the room. And during the week, my google now, which is semi like an organiser software, had ads for Uber in it. This made me angry and since Google’s journey prediction times for Dublin on public transport are hilariously way wide of the mark, I’m looking at how I can set my life up to use software provided by people who allow me not to have to run the gauntlet of advertising. I’m willing to pay for it provide it works on my desktop and my mobile devices. Google are not doing this.

The ongoing battle over adblockers misses a salient point. No one minds advertising if it’s not too intrusive. Unfortunately, as far as advertising is going, the Americans don’t actually know how to cope with the idea of “not too intrusive”. As a result, they shove ads in everywhere, and because that’s what they are used to, they think the rest of the world copes with it. We don’t. I mean, RTE has ads but not that many. The advertising went down the quantity line. They could get more money for their online ads if there were far less of them polluting the average punter’s experience.

Pinterest hasn’t worked out how to annoy my feed with advertising yet. When they do, that’ll be another one gone.

Deceptively spacious

From among the pile of email newsletters I subscribe to came one describing the redecoration of an apartment in Dublin. The apartment, to be fair, they had managed to do quite a lot with. I went through a phase of wanting to buy my own place (fortunately I could not then afford one and now know I am safe from any bad news stories) so I’ve seen quite a lot of the smaller apartments in Dublin.

There is very little you can do to a small apartment to make it bigger. Loads of storage does not exist in a 60sqm appartment and a room which is maybe 15 square metres and which is living room, dining room and kitchen will never bee a big room. Ever.

And it is not going to get any better.

Blavet

My mother spent years trying to get me to paint and I think she had oil paints in mind. When push came to shove, I went for water colours instead and now I have discovered that actually, art supplies are a much greater problem in my life than camera gear ever was.

Anyway. It’s pouring in Dublin today and I am feeling somewhat lethargic, so I am whiling away the time by occasionally doing some tidying and cleaning, and by reading a new drawing book (which is tempting me to buy even more drawing supplies) and doing some painting and drawing. I do not know how many sketchbooks I have on the go at the moment but I think 6 is not an over estimate.

I usually have no difficulty in identifying things I want to draw or paint when I am driving,. When confronted with a sketchbook and some of my art gear, it’s a different matter. The fear takes me.

For some reason, because I was traveling in my mind, I suppose, I decided to draw (let’s draw first anyway and see how I get on) and possibly paint one of those soul food places. Everyone has them. Mine include the point in Doolin (which was really gorgeous the last time I was down there), the Pointe du Raz at a pointy bit of Brittany and the boat graveyard on the Blavet river outside Lorient. I’d love to give you directions but I absolutely get lost every time I go looking for it. And I can’t remember the last time I was there but I have a nasty feeling it is at least five years.

Lorient is a fine big city so it comes as a surprise that you can be really near it – up the river from it more or less – and be completely immune to the feeling that you are anywhere much near civilisation. The Blavet is very wide at that point, so that probably explains why it became a place to come and scuttle boats. Most of the boats there are wooden and in varying states of decay. For me there is one iconic boat which, at high tide just has its prow sticking up out of the water. This part of the Blavet is also tidal.

Most of the time I’ve been there, I’ve been either on my own, or there has been at most 1 or 2 other persons there. I brought my mother once. There is reasonable amount of parking, and that is probably less to support the beauty spot that somehow, illogically, a dumping ground for boats who have outlived their usefulness (most of the boats if not all were working boats and the tuna fishing fleet was dumped there at the start of the 20th century). Really it should look like a scrapyard, and, somehow it doesn’t. I suspect the reason for that is that the overwhelming majority of the boats are not made from modern ship building materials like metal or fibre glass. There are a few, and yet they seem curiously out of place. The river side hosts an open air theatre and I suspect that is why there is sufficient parking there. It’s in a beautiful location.

I don’t know that we really have places like that, and where boats have been abandoned in harbours, they have often been cleaned up or taken away and broken up.

The boat I elected to draw was the sticky up prow which has a comparatively modern look about it in terms of having a reg number. But like all the others, it’s made of wood for the most part, with some metal that is gradually rusting away. Ironically, when I sketched it, I got the prow wrong (I call these learning experiences) but otherwise…I’m happy with it.

 

Somehow, the fact that it’s still raining in Dublin seems hardly relevant.

Other things I learned today – titanium white in the Sennelier half pan set is not fun to work with. I must see what WN has to offer on that front. I need something that doesn’t turn other colours into what looks like pottery clay.

12 Sketches by Leonardo da Vinci

I always get very disappointed when yet another survey demonstrates that the biggest tourist draw in the country is the Guinness Storehouse. All the more so bearing in mind that we have, in Dublin, a gem of a Museum of Archaeology, and, especially, a gem of a National Gallery.

At the moment, and until mid July, you can go to the National Gallery to see 12 sketches done by Leonardo da Vinci, on loan from the Royal Collection. They are wonderful. Not only are they wonderful, they are inspirational. Some of his drawings make things look so easy. I know they are not (for me at least) easy but…Anyway his sketches of cats are worth going in for anyway and entry is free. There really is no major excuse.

Thursday mornings aren’t mad busy either.

I must confess I loved the cats, I loved the work being done to support other major work he was planning. And in some sense, I found it remarkable to understand that this drawings, on cotton rag paper, have existed for the guts of six hundred years. The average piece of electronics hardly lasts five years lately. These drawings provide a line of communication to a man who is dead for ages and people who were his contemporaries. In a way, they are as much a piece of social history as they are a piece of the history of science and art.

I wish I had been able to see these things when I was 13 years old. I might have started drawing sooner as his lines just make things look very clear and comprehensible.

waves and numbers and stuff