Sunday Pot-pourri #2

Every Sunday I publish a pot-pourri of interesting things I came accross in the past week plus some suggested material.

  • Reading #1: Artificial intelligence (more specifically, deep learning) is now able to automatically translate not i) rare and ii) previously unknown languages. It is an astonishing feat because deep learning techniques usually need i) loads of data, and ii) previous examples to yield good results. A caveat though is that this new technique needs prior knowledge of the progenitor language. Future AI research in this area will probably focus on rare and unknown languages from unknown progenitors. More here.
  • Reading #2: “To see the world in a grain of sand and ..”, wait William! how much sand is there on earth? Surely we must know since glasses and chips are all around us, right? It turns out that no-one knows how much there is or how much is being mined. And this is a problem: we need sustainable sand extraction. More in this Nature comment.
  • Reading #3: I thought I knew what stretching was and why I was doing it … until I read this eye-opener: Stretching has almost no measurable benefits.
  • Lecture: A great lecture about Marcus Aurelius and the meaning of stoicism (before it was cool.) Lots of insights. No eye candies. No fluff.
  • Music: I’ve recently watched the excellent film-documentary Maria by Callas. Naturally, the music of the week is her wonderful interpretation of Bellini’s Casta Diva aria (from Norma.)
  • Cooking: Salmon & Vegetables in (cast-iron) skillet. Warm up your skillet to medium to medium-high heat (or use your oven if you feel like it); coat it with olive oil; then add the salmon fillets. Resist the temptation to move them around. After about 5 minutes, arrange the vegetables (your choice) around the salmon. Sprinkle with sea salt, and black pepper. Add rosemary at the end if you like. Eat with rice on the side. Simple and nutritious.
  • Video: an inspiring artistic vision of humanity’s expansion into the Solar System

Previous Pot-pourri

How to make good art?

I’ve came across a 2012 beautifully written and read commencement speech by Neil Gaiman. I confess that I’ve never read him but his speech resonated so well with me that I intend to read some of his work soon. He offers many ideas and insights on creative processes, and artists. This post focuses on the former.

While he direct his advices to graduates starting a new career, I believe that these insights can be applied to any artistic project, at any point in one’s career. I’d summarize his advices regarding the creative process in 3 points:

  • When you start out on a career in the arts you have no idea what you are doing;
  •  If you have an idea of what you want to make, what you were put here to do, then just go and do that;
  • Follow your vision (which he calls metaphorically a mountain) and make your art.

I’ve written about how to start out new creative processes in my previous post (which I plan to develop further in the coming weeks). The gist of that post is that when starting a new creative project you should:

  • Avoid the paralyzing projections by reminding yourself that any creative task is an exploratory process.
  • Focus on the practice itself and on realizing as many ideons as possible.
  • Have a broad vision, follow your intuition, and keep working.

These points parallel nicely the insights offered by Neil Gaiman. With the notable difference that he says them a way that made bow in reverence.

Continue reading “How to make good art?”

How to start a new creative adventure

I love to read a good prose and I would love to be able to write some. But I’m not good at it. I’ve tried different strategies throughout the years but they were all inefficient and lead to much frustration. Strategies that worked with theoretical physics and photography failed miserably when applied to writing.

I do not have an inate talent as a writer so the only solution is to keep practicing to reach a decent level. It then occured to me recently that paying for a virtual space devoted to writing could be a good commitment to practice regularly and improve my skills. I could write about anything as much as I kept doing it. It sounded like a good plan, so I purchased this space.

However, instead of writing I started imagining the future of this blog and all the articles I’ll be publishing. All the topics I’ll address. All the ideas I develop. This paralysis–due to some cognitive bias in my flawed brain–wasn’t resented and I even felt good about it. As good, in fact, as having the imagined posts published already. The strong initial commitment produced the opposite of the desired effect: it justified my procrastination.

I’ve encountered variants of this effect (intertia after a strong initial commitment) at various stages in my life. Everytime I commit to a new creative project there’s a period of pure projections void of any action. The harder the project, the more work it requires, and the longer the inert period. With time I learned to shorten these periods—but not to eleminate them.

I don’t know if that it’s an issue for anybody other than me, but here are some lessons I learned along the way about starting new creative adventures:

Have a broad vision, follow your instinct, and keep working. Get your ideas out into the world. The most important think is that you keep working on your ideas. Sometimes it’s a simple statistics game: the more you work and try out ideas, the higher the probability of finding what you’re really after.

Initial quality and content don’t matter. Every creative process worth pursuing is exploratory by nature. You’re not supposed to know where you’re heading. And skills need time to develop.

Every general idea for a creative work is composed of smaller ideas. I call these atomic ideas ideons. An ideon has little value by itself but is important for the work as a whole. For instance an ideon could be a plot twist in a fiction work, a single photograph from a photobook, a character’s gaze in a painting, an equation in a physics article, etc.

The only relevant metric to gauge your success is the number of ideons you’ve realised. The more ideons you realize the more you can extract; you build on what you have already made manifest. It is a slow iterative process. Ideas evolve and blossom when the process moves smoothly into the future—one ideon at a time.

Ignore projections: Focus on the next ideon, not the final product. Projections are discontinuous jumps into hypothetical futures; they carry the illusions of the present and skip the gap where all the evolution takes place. There’s no flow in them. No ideons. They remain unattainable because they are atemporal. Ignore them as much as possible.

What matters then is to get the process started, to focus on the next idiom, and use instint as a guide.