How does a clock tick? image

How does a clock tick?

October 27, 2016

Have you ever taken a moment to consider how it is that a watch, something so small, just a pebble on your wrist, can make so much noise?  Well, have you?

“If I ever saw your moron ass on the streets I would kick your ass!”

What does perfection really look like?

So many questions.  I’m sorry, but again what is perfection? It’s a simple question but who knows? Is it when nothing more can be added, nothing more can be taken away.  That sounds right.  That’s what I read in a book once I think, anyway it’s the sort of definition I’d be happy to sign off on.  Perhaps this is the question?  The meaning of life, the universe and everything???

But what does it look like, I need to know? The problem is perfection is the ultimate goal of all of us, us humans, not the rest, to be like God, and yet we’d not know would we?  Without being certain what perfection looks like maybe we balls-it up, keep adding paint, write one word too many, eat one more slice of heaven cake and end up getting sick.  What if the most perfect moment in our lives has passed us by when we weren’t paying attention?

But what if perfection is not what we think it is, not perfect at all, what if our personal God, the one we have inside, was really a psychotic clown with really bad taste, likes James Blunt’s music, is as sophisticated as Viennetta?  What if true perfection and zen mastery are to total and utter acceptance of imperfection?

As the blog posts, this week have shown, below the surface of a man eager to be liked, retweeted, shared and followed, really there’s someone who wishes to be hated, to be the anti-hero, a provocateur, not happy unless he’s rubbing the wrong way, his thoughts and ideas abrasive, in search of edge and spike.  It’s a good thing to acknowledge this, to own it even, and also good to know that such an agenda is apposed to what lies deeper still, that tick-tock of my DNA - most animal DNA: to be loved, to fit in, to be accepted in the group, the herd, the tribe. But why would someone go against this primal driver?  Well any psychologist will tell you such behaviour to engender hate is born from a twisted need for attention, that a child who cannot feel normal love will seek the anger or violence of a parent, or from society, as the next best thing, and so in some fucked up way know they exist (‘I hurt therefore I am’ etc).  I’d take it a little further, that perhaps much of what such people do is self-sabotage, and so is a form of control.  It puts you in charge, makes you the God of your rejection.  You get to choose.  You pull the trigger not them.

I’m talking about me here of course (this blog is not about me, but this is just a segue into a blog about something else).  So the question is can such a person love, a gun at their temple? Of course, you can, especially if you’re aware of such a fault line.  You can have real love and friendship, but it’s on your terms, based on your strength, not on your weakness.  Empty love and non-friendship is like clicking ‘accept’ on Facebook when unknown friends ask to be such, making up the numbers, like fucking everyone, rather than just ‘the one’.  This little bit of self wisdom about myself means I’m very choosy of who I decided who’s worth the effort of really loving and being loved by, no doubt some admittance to past betrayal, or many (betrayal of me, and me of people I loved).

Again this blogs not about this.

And so, this rejection of love and the sandpaper character of some of these blogs is in a way invitation to be hated, self-destruction in some way, that proves I don’t need the charity of love.  Also as an ‘artist’ (defined as someone who’s compelled to do something that’s finically illogical), I know I must be hated by some (to be hated is some sort of victory when you wish to rob people of love). 

What better way to weigh a creative life than by its ability to engender strong opinion, only this engenders a passion for the positive and the negative and makes what could lie dead in the centre slosh one way or the other (everything in the universe is in balance, right?).  To be loved by all is to be loved by no one, but to be loved and hated by a few, and for the rest to be in play, the slosh, now there’s a thing, exhibit number one: Justin Bieber, and number two: Kanye West.

For the lowest tide, there must be an equal high. 

A strong opinion is rampant these days, but it’s sort of ejaculatory, a Facebook post or tweet bringing it on, intense, but soon fading.  People click like, maybe take time to write a comment that will never be read, but sort of mops up that feeling before you move on to the next.  I’m guilty of this myself, of being an attention seeker, a strong negative reaction better than non.  “The world has too much empathy” starts a fight with one of my best mates, battling backwards and forwards, but although it feels tooth and nail, it’s harmless fun usually, like a playground scrap, this stuff of arguing, where at the end both sides stand panting unsure why they felt it worth the fight. 

But every now and then I do get a brick through the window, in emails, tweets and on Facebook, someone taking the time to post shit through my letterbox, unaware such a delivery is more welcome than a bunch of flowers, that it’s proving a point I’ll make later, here, that someone’s anger will be recycled to prove a very source of their anger.

Here is that message which I got this month:

“Steven Seagal films are funny? Steven Seagal is a great actor and a great martial artist you little prick! Go fuck yourself! If I ever saw your moron ass on the streets I would kick your ass! His movies are great you dumb little prick cunt faggot pile of lowlife shit!”

Smell those roses.  I guess you’re asking yourself what I’d done to earn the ire of such a strong opinion?  Is this what this blogs about? Do you really want to know?  Well if you do I’m going to take you down a winding trail, one that begins with the American B29 bomber.

If you were to ask what was the biggest industrial-military project of the second world war most informed people would come up with the Manhattan Project, the weaponisation of the atom, but they’d be wrong.  In fact the most expensive project was the development of the B29 Superfortress high altitude bomber.  The US military realised they needed a heavy bomber early in the war, one that could bomb from high altitudes beyond the range of anti-aircraft weapons and fighters, plus one with a much greater range.  And so the B29 was rapidly developed, both to attack Germany and Japan.  Although no money was spared the bomber came too late for the European theatre, but soon enough to devastate Japan with both conventional bombs, incendiaries and two atomic bombs (which killed far less than incendiaries).  As an aside, it was here, in the war with Japan that we first really understood the jet stream, where these high altitude bombers found they got nowhere, even under the full power of their Pratt & Whitney engines, once up in the opposing jet stream (another reason why high altitude winter climbing on 8000-metre peaks has never taken off, the jet stream dropping down below 8000 metres in winter). 

The B29, along with the atomic bomb, won the war against Japan, the first destroying the cities as well as the ability to fight (but not to die fighting), the second removing the noble delusion of mass suicide and honourable slaughter (anyone who’d fought against the Japanese, or been defeated by them, no doubt found Obama’s apology for dropping ‘The Bomb’ a gross misreading of the logic of its use, the death of many expedient to the death of all, such an apology as gross to the dead as begging an SS prison guard for forgiveness by allowing his murder by his inmates on their release).  And so it goes.

During the war against Japan, Stalin’s Russia remained neutral, his war against Germany was enough, Japan is well known as a formable and dangerous foe by the Russians.  And so Stalin offered no harbour to American bombers, forcing the American to carry out raids from Indian and China, some of the longest and most dangerous raids of the war (the Americans also developed the B39 bomber, designed to attack Germany from the US if the UK was to fall, the Germans doing the same with their Amerika bomber project, actually flying a bomber from Belgium to New York to check the feasibility of dropping a German atom bomb). 

Stalin knew of the B29 program and asked to be given these aircraft several times under US military aid programs, but each time was refused, the B29 the state of the art in terms of military and aviation technology (what won the war for Russia was probably nothing less high tech then the robust deuce and a half truck). 

Spies in the Manhattan project had given Stalin plans for the atomic bomb, but the B29’s complexity was beyond stealing, being almost beyond even Boeing at the time, who were still grappling with such an advanced aircraft.  Stalin could see beyond the war with Germany, that the war would continue after the fall of Germany, that his allies would quickly become his enemies, the war simply a break in the greater struggle, that the very reason for the rise of Nazi Germany being America, France and Britain’s hope that Hitler would check Stalin (General Patton and many others pushed for the allies to defeat an exhausted Russia as soon as Germany was defeated, knowing they would never again have so many men under arms in Europe). 

Stalin knew that only through military strength could he keep the western powers at bay after the fighting ended, and so a heavy state of the art bomber was crucial for his defence, giving him time to rebuild and renew a primitive and devastated industrial base.

Luckily for Stalin B29 pilots were told that in an emergency they could attempt to reach Vladivostok and land there, and three B29’s did just this during the final months of the Pacific war.  In each emergency landing, the pilots were interned and the aircraft impounded, with neither being returned when requested by the Americans (the pilots were eventually allowed to ‘escape’ to Iran). 

With these three aircraft, the Russians begun the most complex and audacious reverse engineering project ever (unless we did snag a UFO in Roswell, I guess it remains so), dismantling and copying an entire aircraft, perhaps the most complex machine of its time, containing not just state of the art manufacturing technology, but also the most advanced targeting and gunnery computers yet made. 

Russia’s strength then, and still now, lay in a very tough, utilitarian and practical approach to design problems, creativity born from necessity, the T34 tank a war-winning design that in no way approached the sophistication of the German panzers, but which did not break down, and could be made in the tens of thousands.  To be handed these aircraft and told to copy them was like handing an iPhone to a blacksmith and told to produce and manufacture an exact copy and competitor, by next year, and on pain of death. 

And so with no choice, one aircraft was slowly dismantled, one was used as a reference to the mountain of parts, while the third was used to test the aircraft in flight (an English speaking pilot had to re-label every knob, button and switch into Russian). 

The problems involved were immense, the most basic being that the Russians were working in metric while the US worked in imperial, a small problem you’d think, but not when every single available item from nuts and bolts, to wiring and sheet metal and slide scales were all out.  Each and every part would need to be weighed, measured, mapped out, drawn, blueprints made, then tools and new methods created to make them, even simple things like a plexiglass window being far beyond anything ever seen in Russia. Another issue was the wide use of aluminium, something not easily found in Russia, leading to needing to create a whole new industry in alloys (Russia did have most of the world’s titanium at the time).  Many parts of the aircraft were far beyond anything seen by soviet engineers, including computer bomb sighting and guns (which were remote controlled), each and every tiny fuse, transistor and circuit requiring a monumental degree of engineering (perhaps finding a UFO on the Steppe would have been an easier operation?).

Throughout the project, which involved hundreds of thousands of people and all areas of industry, failure was treated as treason, a firing squad or a trip to the Gulag for anyone who could not see their part through.  Of course, the Americans knew that the Russians would attempt to steal as much technology as they could, but a whole aircraft?  Such a thing was impossible, and yet, just as the CIA believed the piecing together again of documents shredded as the US embassy fell in Tehran in 1979 was impossible (it wasn’t), again here they underestimated their foes will, as well as their brutal approach to the solving of an impossible task. 

Then, on the afternoon of 3 August 1947, as American diplomats stood around a sombre red square as the annual parade of tanks filled past, they heard a somewhat familiar drone.  Looking up as primitive Russian fighters passed over, out of the gloom came a flight of TU-4 bombers, the ‘Bull’, a copy of the B29 so perfect that in the end, it weighed just 350kg more than the original. 

I love this story.  I love it for many reasons.  It’s a fable for our age, but for me, it’s a story about the power of dismantling the complex in order to create something that is both a copy, but also something new.  But what’s it got to do with Steven Seagal or perfection?

I joked the other day that I don’t believe in dyslexia anymore, half-joking.  The reason is that when people know that’s part of your USP they always bring it up, like you’re in the club, but not in a MENSA way, but more in a wooden leg way.  But I don’t see it like that, I see it more in that MENSA way, that we’re so lucky, not afflicted, something that maybe robs some of a little of their identity, like telling a black man that he’s not black at all, but only has a skin pigment condition, and is actually white, or a feminist she’s really always been a man who’d someone got a little confused about such things (she has a dick and balls).  And so for me, dyslexia is a blessing (I would dearly like to kick the person who thought up the word in his nuts… assuming it was a man… as it was clearly designed to be utterly unspellable by anyone with such a ‘disorder’). 

One of the many pluses for me at least seems to be the ability to reverse engineer, to unpick the complex: a website such as this, how to be engaging on a stage, how to be loved, how to construct a story that hangs together and take it to pieces, and in so doing put it back together in a way that works for you, has 350kg to prove its you. 

Take this site, for example, a site I coded and fiddle with all the time, as well as the database content management system, not a plug and play site, but one that needed to be built and understood.  No one ever showed me how to make this, explained code: CSS, Jquery, MySQL, instead I clicked ‘view source’ and looked at the code.  ‘What does this mean? What’s the difference between head and body tags, what’s does h1 and hr do, and why are there hr and hr/ tags? Next, I had to work out how databases and CMS worked, and how to unpick the mistakes when my fiddling crash and killed it all.  This curiosity about websites was like dismantling a B29, a process that began in 2006 when I literally copied the then website of Ben Saunders in order to make an expedition site for a trip to Greenland, to now, where ten years later I’d say I know enough to now know what I don’t know. 

This ability to learn by reverse engineering was crucial in learning to write, in that I’d looked hard at the writers I loved (Kurt Vonnegut and James Elroy) and literally look at how many lines they had in a paragraph, where the comas went,  how they paced a story or broke the rules (which actually followed new ones).  I needed to understand how the mind works, how someone would read on when they were not sure where the story was going, how to hold attention (when really the question of ‘where is this going’ the reason people press on).  Sure I could have done a creative writing degree, but what would I learn a second or third-hand understanding?  For me, it’s like reading the description of a human heart on Wikipedia or thrusting your hands into the chest of a living human being.

This ability, willingness and maybe even need in itself, to be self-taught and work back, then forward,  for me is the greatest skill a person can develop and is far from the prescriptive way I was taught in school (perhaps it remains that way still, which is all about what you can remember, not what you understand). 

For my kids I could sit down with them and get them to learn a o-level psychology, and discuss mental health issues, the way societies are constructed and regimented, then give them a test to see if they were listening, or they could watch One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, then spend a week or two thinking, talking and dwelling on it, one film leading to a domino line of other books, films and ideas to absorb.  A child’s mind should not simply be a storehouse of fact.

So deconstruction for me is a great tool to develop, and I like to ask more than tell, to give me kids the map, not the treasure.

The biggest problem with this approach of reengineering is that it can often be hard to identify why something is good, is perfect, it’s perfection hiding the very fact it is perfect.  How many door handles do you turn in on an average day? How often do you think about such a clever but practical design, the complexity and agronomics, how it’s been placed right there, halfway up this adult human-sized swinging wall aperture.  The answer is never probably (unless you hang doors), but replace the hand with a razor blade glued into a toothbrush, and stick it ten inches from the floor and you’d quickly work out just what’s required to be better.  You’d become a little expert on door handles, their shape, design and location through your frustrated and lacerated fingers.   

This idea of deconstruction of the imperfect in order to see the perfect came up recently while in the US as we sat in a coffee shop in Santa Cruz, talking about how it was easier to identify poor coffee rather than good coffee (for me at least). 

We had talked a lot as we drove around California about people who drove us crazy, and the coffee question was aligned with this, people who seemed to have huge social media following, fame, money and some small or large success, but through very little actual ability or talent (I’m sure I fit in this category somewhere).  I guess we’d called these people Starbucks coffee. 

The conversation kept coming back to them, how they had no shame, how they got away with it, which is really a self-indictment that we lack something they have (like we have shame, that we care).  Of course, such thinking, ranting about the quality of Starbucks coffee, why people don’t drink the good stuff, the artisan brands, is to fail to learn the real lessons here.

And here I put forward my B29 story, but that here the idea was not that first stop, to copy and emulate greatness, but to learn from utter crapness, the Starbucks of this world, that what we needed to do was deconstruct both, the creatively moral and the immoral.  People needed to look at how an utter fool who has nothing to say, who’s done fuck all, can have a million Youtube followers, thirty million pounds in the bank built on lies and half-truth, has sold millions of junk books, is big in Japan. 

Instead of empty hate and frustration (which is really about you, not them), you need to take apart what they do and how they do it and learn from such people, not hate them, to do what you do better (although very often the X factor is that the majority of people are compromised by a lack of taste and that their patronage is not worth the sacrifices necessary to win it).  Maybe the best example of this is how Patagonia, the most moral of brands, actually uses McDonald’s are one of its role models, not in terms of overall quality, but in terms of consistency, supplier relationships, and brand, a much better strategy than say basing such a business on Greenpeace or the business philosophies of Gandhi. 

Not convinced anyone could learn anything from McDonald’s one of the coffee drinkers asked for a solid example.  “Steven Seagal” was my answer. 

If you want to know how to act, how to direct, screen write, edit, do stunts, create convincing sets and costumes, in fact, any part of the process of making a film, you can watch Scorsese, Coppola, Hertzog or Hitchcock, or you can watch Steven Seagal.  Here, laid bare is a masterclass of the imperfect, no not imperfect, but a blow corpses of what a film could be.  Like digging down into a career you start with Under Siege and slowly work down Seagal’s opus.  We begin with films of fair quality, then quickly enter his blue period, straight to video, then to DVD, then download, then Netflix, Youtube, then only Russian and middle eastern WTFtube, and finally the bin.  These films are a gift to the aspiring filmmaker, the very absence of anything, in any department, that could be viewed as being even substandard (there is no standard), is a lesson that would be much harder to learn from a master.  And yet… and yet… they were made that way. 

And so like some message sent by time machine, spurred on by this blog, I got this (let’s read it one more time):

“Steven Seagal films are funny? Steven Seagal is a great actor and a great martial artist you little prick! Go fuck yourself! If I ever saw your moron ass on the streets I would kick your ass! His movies are great you dumb little prick cunt faggot pile of lowlife shit!”

It would have been fun to reply to the message, but the sender blocked me.  If I’d been able to reply I’d have thanked him whole heartily for his words after all really it’s a great piece of writing, and I’m not being ironic, it has weight and magic and spirit, is worth framing, more importantly, it’s ripe for deconstruction.  And so what do I see in its nuts and bolts?  I see the true talent of Steven Seagal, that yes he dresses like Kim Il Jong, has a spray-on head and an ego that could not be digested by even the largest black hole, but yet he invokes violent loyalty.  Would anyone but our mums write such a thing in our defence?  Probably not.  No, Seagal is the zen master, he’s got more ‘slosh’ than most, his world more balanced than most.  Yes, we can smirk and snigger at such clowns, with their macho posturing. Know without a shadow of a doubt he and his ilk and followers are fools, drinkers of Starbucks coffee.  That we are better than him, more perfect.  But it’s us that are deluded, he’s laughing at us, wasting our lives in search for perfection, tinkering and adjusting each component of our reality in search of that perfect balanced copy, while Seagal flies in a fifty-ton travesty to taste. Yet he flies still.

One day, you may wake to find your smug world, so near perfect has such an imperfect and tasteless man in charge.  Imagine that.

Everything can be deconstructed, bit by bit, like this: unscrewed and unhinged, weighed and measured, to see how it ticks.  But first, you need to want to know, to ask the small questions in the hope if the big answers.  This is me writing out such a process of engineering, an aggressive message, taken apart, word by word.  It’s what I like to do. But I’m not that good, as look here, fifty-one words turned to four thousand three hundred and twenty-six. 

But again, how does it tick?

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