Temporarily derailed…

Hello, treasured readers of this blog! I have not forgotten about writing here; far from it.

I’ve not posted for a while because I’m dealing with a family emergency that’s been ongoing since March. It’s taking up all of my free time, and I just don’t have the energy or spare hours at the moment to do anything creative. It’s the longest I’ve gone for ages without spending time in my music studio, and it feels really weird to be this out of practice. I’m even starting to lose the guitar calluses on my finger tips! I also missed the whole of NaPoWriMo, which was a shame because I’d specifically marked it in my calendar for April.

Anyway, nevermind! There’s important work for me to do right now. I’ll get back to creative things as soon as I can.

Human 1, Machine 0

(Or – “yes, actually, it IS art”.)

I think it’s time to tell you about the rabbit hole I fell down this week.

As you might know if you’ve seen some of my other blog posts (e.g. here and here), I’ve been playing around recently with low poly art, having found a tutorial on YouTube. As someone who doesn’t really think of themselves as an artist, but is quite handy with a computer, this seemed like a nice, easy way in – I just pick a nice photo to work from, click around for a bit, fill in some polygons and – hey presto! Look, I made art!

Except…did I? I mean, it’s kind of formulaic, isn’t it, all that clicking around? Isn’t art meant to be all about passion and inspiration – cutting off your own ear, taking naps with heavy keys in your hand to access a hypnagogic state etc.? Surely a machine could do that clicking just as well as me? What artistic input do I even have here, anyway?

To answer this question, I thought I’d write a bit of code that would let me compare my efforts with those of a machine. Allow me introduce you to my model for this test: Floss, the border collie:

Aw! Those eyes…butter wouldn’t melt…

The quickest part of the process to automate seemed to be the colouring-in part, where I select the fill colour for each polygon by sampling the pixels in the underlying photo. I’d often thought that my sampling was a bit random, and I sometimes caught an area of the polygon that wasn’t representative of the overall colour. So for starters, I figured I’d write code that simply averaged all of the pixels underneath each polygon.

The results? Well, the human took this round fairly conclusively, I think. My manually-filled effort is on the left, and the code-generated image is on the right:

Averaging the pixels didn’t give great results (with hindsight that should maybe have been obvious). Increasing the contrast of the colours helped a bit (below), but there’s just a clarity missing from these code-filled images:

Upping the contrast…Nope, human still wins.

I’ll probably take this a bit further and tweak the code to pick out the dominant colour, rather than the average colour. Or maybe to consider just the pixels near the centre of the polygon, and ignore the outer parts. Plus there’s the whole fun of triangulation algorithms – generating the polygons to start with!

But – for now, at least – my little human brain did a better job than I originally gave it credit for, and I formally declare my efforts to be ART.

So there.

Who wants to be normal anyway?

I’ve had a productive first week of FAWM (February Album Writing Month). Three new songs written and demo-ed, all of which I’m pretty pleased with, plus three new library instrumental tracks sketched out.

Based on the evidence so far, I seem to be going for maximum whimsy this year.

I’m pleased with my haul so far! I’ll probably need to woah up a bit next week while I work on recording those instrumentals, but it’s nice to get a few songs under my belt first.

January: up and running!

One month into my challenge to create 100 things in 2021; how am I doing so far?

In January, I made:

I’m pretty pleased with my creative efforts this month, and I’ve learned a bunch of new things along the way. If I count all of the above items individually, that’s 25 creations for the month of January. So now I am wondering…

HAVE I MADE THE RULES OF THIS GAME TOO EASY?

See, this is why relaxing is a struggle for me – nothing is ever enough! Well, I guess I can worry about what to do next once I’ve made it to 100.

Oh – and about the T-shirt designs; I’ve not been posting them all here, because this blog is supposed to be a record of a creative challenge, not a glorified advert for a Redbubble store. And also because there’s only so much low poly art anybody wants to see. But I’ll share just one more for now, because it’s my favourite so far. This is called Home brew:

Speaking of making beer, that reminds me – that’s another thing I want to try at some point…

Hark! February approaches…

February is just around the corner. And in this house, that means only one thing…

February Album Writing Month!

February Album Writing Month – or FAWM, as it’s known to devotees – is a songwriting challenge where participants aim to write 14 new songs during the 28 days of February. People from all over the world come together online to make music, encourage each other and collaborate in one giant, month-long fiesta.

If, by the end of February, you’ve made it to the target of 14 songs, then great; bask in the glow of your achievements! If you write just one or two songs during February – also great! You’ve made something new that would otherwise never have existed, and that’s worth celebrating. Especially if you managed to do it around a day job/child care/a stressful pandemic!

FAWM is the most supportive and least competitive community I’ve ever found on the internet, and honestly it’s a joy to be a part of. I stumbled across it by accident a decade ago and I’ve been hooked ever since.

FAWM is almost certainly the reason this blog exists, too. Before I started taking part, finishing a song was A Really Big Thing for me. If I was lucky, I might finish 5 songs per year. But somehow, in my first FAWM, I wrote 17 of them. And that kind of killed the old way of doing things for evermore. Thanks to FAWM, I discovered the power of a good creative challenge to get me rolling!

So expect to see some FAWM-related updates here next month as I dive in to the 2021 edition. And if you’re curious, hit the link above and come join us! It’s free to take part, you can participate as much or as little as you like, and frankly – it’s awesome.

Yes, we write an extra half song in leap years!

Hot-headed lies!

Seems I lied about not doing any more low poly art. This chap just popped out:

He still took me a while, but not as long as the sheep. There was an initial burst of an idea – playing around with arrangements for the chillies etc – followed by quite a long period of fairly mindless clicking. More productive than watching TV though, I guess. (Probably more chance of RSI as well, though.)

Also – chili or chilli? Apparently “chili” is the preferred spelling in the US, while “chilli” is more common in the UK. I’d never even noticed that before!

I can cartoon?!

I don’t know what possessed me. [A strange challenge, perhaps, involving making 100 creative things this year and blogging about them?]

Last night I sat down for half an hour before bed with a sketchpad and some pencils, which is something I remember doing on only one other occasion, about 10 years ago. To my surprise, after a bit of tinkering in Inkscape, this little guy popped out:

Oh! He’s kind of fun, I thought. The next day he got himself some buddies:

Not exactly what I was intending to make this week, but OK!

I enjoyed these so much that I decided to make a Redbubble page and stick them up there. I think I’ll order myself a t-shirt or two so I can strut around feeling like the best-dressed kid in town. (Plus you never know – there might be someone else out there with a sense of humour as childish as mine and a credit card within reach.)

I’ve never used Redbubble before, but I think my favourite part of using the site might be how excited their models look about wearing my stuff. Look at these guys! I think I made their day! I bet mine is their favourite T-shirt they’ve ever modelled!

By the way – I don’t want to worry you, but after this week I’ve decided that I am now officially an artist. And I have ordered a set of 72 watercolour pencils with which to demonstrate my mastery. (Hopefully I can figure out the correct end to draw with.)

First song on the board

Hello! Just popping up briefly to share my first song demo of 2021.

I’m a member of a songwriting group on Facebook called GYAWS (Get Your Ass Writing Songs). Every week there’s a new songwriting prompt, intended to spark ideas. Usually the prompt is something relatively sensible and open to interpretation – something that can potentially be taken in multiple directions. This week the prompt was “friends”.

I therefore took this prompt and…wrote a song about vampire cornflakes:

I mean, who among us has never wondered whether their breakfast secretly wants to kill them?

I don’t yet know what the prompt for next week will be, but I can feel a song coming on about people-sized squirrels.

Thankfully, those lovely GYAWS people haven’t kicked me out of the group. (Yet.)

Thanks to my buddy Stewart for the title suggestion on this one!

Fighting the Details Monster

I’ve been quiet for a few days, but don’t worry; I’ve been busy!

The main thing I’ve been working on is a bunch of instrumental cues I’m hoping to submit to a music library. I’m not going to be able to share those here, unfortunately.

BUT what I will share here is something I made last night – my first little software project inspired directly by this blog.

For the past year or so, I’ve been thinking quite a lot about productivity. My time for doing creative stuff is more limited than I’d like, and I’ve often found myself wondering about ways to make more of the time I do have. I can’t bear the feeling of getting to the end of the day having not achieved much, and knowing I’ll have to wait a few days for my next opportunity. That makes me so grumpy!

Over the past year I’ve immersed myself in a bunch of podcasts and books about productivity, in an effort to find “The Best Way To Get Stuff Done”. Turns out there are a LOT of different tools and schemes out there. I had no idea there were so many productivity fanatics in this world.

One of the first things I tried was an app for my phone called Goodtime. It’s a simple Pomodoro timer, giving you 25-minute chunks of time for work, interspersed with 5-minute breaks. I found that worked pretty well for open-ended, monotonous tasks like data entry. But, actually, when it came to anything else, it was pretty annoying. It seemed like every time I’d just gotten into what I was doing, the bell would chime and distract me. And the same in my breaks!

Call me strange – many do – but I also resented being bossed around by my phone, telling me when I was allowed to step away from my laptop, and when I must return. I’m not generally a fan of routine or structure, so maybe Pomodoro was never going to work for me.

Sometime after that, I disappeared down the rabbit hole of Getting Things Done and other related methodologies. Lists appeared on my phone of every project I’ve been carrying around in my head (about eighty, it turns out), along with next actionable steps, responses awaited etc. I put weekly reminders in my calendar to review which tasks I should tackle next, and every evening I set myself a daily to-do list for the following day to make it all happen.

And I hated it.

For me, there’s a particular deflation that comes with waking up in the morning and seeing the list of 8 things that I’m supposed to achieve that day. No flexibility…no control…no room for better ideas that only just entered my head…just plough on through that list like a machine.

It seems not only do I resent being bossed about by my phone; I also resent being bossed about by my past self! Not to mention that I was always wildly over-ambitious with my to-do lists and rarely finished everything on them, which never felt good.

I don’t mean to hate on any of the methodologies or tools I’ve mentioned. I found it useful to take regular breaks, and it was definitely handy to have a list of all the projects I’d been carrying around in my head and see them all in one place. But I hadn’t found a tool to address what was actually holding me back the most from being more productive: the Details Monster.

What is the Details Monster? Well, as I’ve mentioned previously, I’m a recovering perfectionist. I see the details in EVERYTHING, and they drive me up the wall. And, of course, once I allow myself to engage with some of the details, I start noticing others as well.

So if I’m recording a song, and my drum part isn’t perfectly in time at the end of the first chorus, I might set off to edit just the bar where it’s the most noticeable – which should be a 5-minute job. But before I know it, I’ll have edited all of the instrumental parts for the whole song, spending the whole evening chopping and aligning (and probably changing the EQ settings on the snare 32 times, just for good measure).

I’ll start something, and then I’ll get lost in the details, and re-emerge hours later with a poor return for my efforts. That’s the Details Monster, grasping me in its claws. And that’s where my new tool comes in.

So here it is; it’s pretty basic:

Still Working On That? is essentially my new nagging device to keep me focused on the task at hand. It reminds me periodically what I’m supposed to be doing…so I can check whether the Details Monster is in the room with me.

I enter a description for whatever task I want to work on next, and I set a timer for how long I think it ought to take me. When that time is up, I get a reminder:

If I’m not finished yet, I can extend the time (and contemplate why that was necessary, if I feel so inclined!):

Then, when that task is finished, I decide what my next priority should be, and off I go again.

So far it’s working a treat; I had a super productive morning in the studio using this tool. I’m sure I’ll be making a few edits after I’ve used it for a while, though.

Hooray for coding! It’s time to fight back against that pesky Details Monster.