Journal tags: creativity

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FF Conf 2019

Friday was FF Conf day here in Brighton. This was the eleventh(!) time that Remy and Julie have put on the event. It was, as ever, excellent.

It’s a conference that ticks all the boxes for me. For starters, it’s a single-track event. The more I attend conferences, the more convinced I am that multi-track events are a terrible waste of time for attendees (and a financially bad model for organisers). I know that sounds like a sweeping broad generalisation, but ask me about it next time we meet and I’ll go into more detail. For now, I just want to talk about this mercifully single-track conference.

FF Conf has built up a rock-solid reputation over the years. I think that’s down to how Remy curates it. He thinks about what he wants to know and learn more about, and then thinks about who to invite to speak on those topics. So every year is like a snapshot of Remy’s brain. By happy coincidence, a snapshot of Remy’s brain right now looks a lot like my own.

You could tell that Remy had grouped the talks together in themes. There was a performance-themed chunk right after lunch. There was a people-themed chunk in the morning. There was a creative-coding chunk at the end of the day. Nice work, DJ.

I think it was quite telling what wasn’t on the line-up. There were no talks about specific libraries or frameworks. For me, that was a blessed relief. The only technology-specific talk was Alice’s excellent talk on Git—a tool that’s useful no matter what you’re coding.

One of the reasons why I enjoyed the framework-free nature of the day is that most talks—and conferences—that revolve around libraries and frameworks are invariably focused on the developer experience. Think about it: next time you’re watching a talk about a framework or library, ask yourself how it impacts user experience.

At FF Conf, the focus was firmly on people. In the case of Laura’s barnstorming presentation, those people are end users (I’m constantly impressed by how calm and measured Laura remains even when talking about blood-boilingly bad behaviour from the tech industry). In the case of Amina’s talk, the people are junior developers. And for Sharon’s presentation, the people are everyone.

One of the most useful talks of the day was from Anna who took us on a guided tour of dev tools to identify performance improvements. I found it inspiring in a very literal sense—if I had my laptop with me, I think I would’ve opened it up there and then and started tinkering with my websites.

Harry also talked about performance, but at Remy’s request, it was more business focused. Specifically, it was focused on Harry’s consultancy business. I think this would’ve been the perfect talk for more of an “industry” event, whereas FF Conf is very much a community event: Harry’s semi-serious jibes about keeping his performance secrets under wraps didn’t quite match the generous tone of the rest of the line-up.

The final two talks from Charlotte and Suz were a perfect double whammy.

When I saw Charlotte speak at Material in Iceland last year, I wrote this aside in my blog post summary:

(Oh, and Remy, when you start to put together the line-up for next year’s FF Conf, be sure to check out Charlotte Dann—her talk at Material was the perfect mix of code and creativity.)

I don’t think I can take credit for Charlotte being on the line-up, but I will take credit for saying she’d be the perfect fit.

And then Suz Hinton closed out the conference with this rallying cry that resonated perfectly with Laura’s talk:

Less mass-produced surveillance bullshit and more Harry Potter magic (please)!

I think that rallying cry could apply equally well to conferences, and I think FF Conf is a good example of that ethos in action.

The Lost Lemonworld

When the always-excellent Radiolab podcast turned its attention to the subject of creativity and motivation in an episode called ‘Help?’, they spoke to Elizabeth Gilbert who reminisced about interviewing Tom Waits on this topic:

He was talking about how every song has a distinctive identity that it comes into the world with, and it needs to be taken in different ways. He said there are songs that you have to sneak up on like you’re hunting for a rare bird, and there are songs that come fully intact like a dream taken through a straw. There are songs that you find little bits of like pieces of gum you find underneath the desk, and you scrape them off and you put them together and you make something out of it.

And there are songs, he said, that need to be bullied. He said he’s been in the studio working on a song and the whole album is done and this one song won’t give itself over and — everyone’s gotten used to seeing him do things like this — he’ll march up and down the studio talking to the song, saying “The rest of the family is in the car! We’re all going on vacation! You coming along or not? You’ve got 10 minutes or else you’re getting left behind!”

Last year the New York Times ran a profile of The National, written while they were still recording the wonderful High Violet—my favourite album of last year. The piece circles around the ongoing problems the band were having trying to tame the song Lemonworld:

Since January they’d done it bright, done it drowsy, done it with violin parts overnighted from Australia by Padma Newsome, done it so many ways Bryce despaired, “It’s a riddle we can’t solve.”

This is exactly what we’ve been going through with Salter Cane. For about a year we had a song that had been defying us, stubbornly refusing to reach that breakthrough moment where it all seems to come together. We took a break from the song for a while and when we came back to it, we tried approaching it as a new piece. That seems to be working. It’s finally coming together.

In the end we realised that we trying to make the song into something bigger than it needed to be. Sometimes it’s okay for a song to be small and simple. That seems to be the case with Lemonworld:

Matt said afterward, “we tried so hard and it always seemed to fail as a rock song. It lost the charm of the ugly little demo. Now it’s the ugliest, worst-mixed, least-polished song on the record, and it took the longest to get there.”

I think that Lemonworld is a strong song. It even stands up to be being butchered by me on the bouzouki.

Lemonworld on Huffduffer

OurSpace

It’s hard to believe that it’s been half a decade since The Show from Ze Frank graced our tubes with its daily updates. Five years ago to the day, he recorded the greatest three minutes of speech ever committed to video.

In the midst of his challenge to find the ugliest MySpace page ever, he received this comment:

Having an ugly Myspace contest is like having a contest to see who can eat the most cheeseburgers in 24 hours… You’re mocking people who, for the most part, have no taste or artistic training.

Ze’s response is a manifesto to the democratic transformative disruptive power of the web. It is magnificent.

In Myspace, millions of people have opted out of pre-made templates that “work” in exchange for ugly. Ugly when compared to pre-existing notions of taste is a bummer. But ugly as a representation of mass experimentation and learning is pretty damn cool.

Regardless of what you might think, the actions you take to make your Myspace page ugly are pretty sophisticated. Over time as consumer-created media engulfs the other kind, it’s possible that completely new norms develop around the notions of talent and artistic ability.

Spot on.

That’s one of the reasons why I dread the inevitable GeoCities-style shutdown of MySpace. Let’s face it, it’s only a matter of time. And when it does get shut down, we will forever lose a treasure trove of self-expression on a scale never seen before in the history of the planet. That’s so much more important than whether it’s ugly or not. As Phil wrote about the ugly and neglected fragments of Geocities:

GeoCities is an awful, ugly, decrepit mess. And this is why it will be sorely missed. It’s not only a fine example of the amateur web vernacular but much of it is an increasingly rare example of a period web vernacular. GeoCities sites show what normal, non-designer, people will create if given the tools available around the turn of the millennium.

Substitute MySpace for GeoCities and you get an idea of the loss we are facing.

Let’s not make the same mistake twice.

Music::Business

The past

These talking machines are going to ruin the artistic development of music in this country. When I was a boy…in front of every house in the summer evenings, you would find young people together singing the songs of the day or old songs. Today you hear these infernal machines going night and day. We will not have a vocal cord left. The vocal cord will be eliminated by a process of evolution, as was the tail of man when he came from the ape.

John Philip Sousa

The present

Slicing the profit pie

Mark Thomas talks about the Digital economy Bill

The future

The International Convention on Performing Rights is holding a third round of crisis talks in an attempt to stave off the final collapse of the WIPO music licensing regime. On the one hand, hard-liners representing the Copyright Control Association of America are pressing for restrictions on duplicating the altered emotional states associated with specific media performances: As a demonstration that they mean business, two “software engineers” in California have been kneecapped, tarred, feathered, and left for dead under placards accusing them of reverse-engineering movie plot lines using avatars of dead and out-of-copyright stars.

On the opposite side of the fence, the Association of Free Artists are demanding the right of perform music in public without a recording contract, and are denouncing the CCAA as being a tool of Mafiya apparachiks who have bought it from the moribund music industry in an attempt to go legit. FBI Director Leonid Kuibyshev responds by denying that the Mafiya is a significant presence in the United States. But the music biz’s position isn’t strengthened by the near collapse of the legitimate American entertainment industry, which has been accelerating ever since the nasty noughties.

Accelerando by Charles Stross