me looking awkward, thanks Mark Little
Last week I attended the UK Systems Research 2021 conference in County Durham, my first conference in nearly two years (since FOSDEM 2020, right on the cusp of the Pandemic). The Systems conference community is very pleasant and welcoming and so when I heard it was going to take place "physically" again this year I was so keen to attend I decided to hedge my bets and submit two talk proposals. I wasn't expecting them both to be accepted…
As well as the regular talks (more on those in another post) there is a tradition for people to give short, impromptu lightning talks after dinner on the second night. I've given two of these before, and I'd been considering whether to offer to one this time or not, but with two talks to deliver (and finish writing) I wasn't sure. Usually people talk about something interesting that they have been doing besides their research or day-jobs, but the last two years have been somewhat difficult and I didn't really think I had a topic to talk about. Then I wondered if that was a topic in itself…
During the first day of the conference (and especially one I'd got past one of my talks) I started to outline a lightning talk idea and it seemed to come out well enough that I thought I'd give it a go. Unusually I therefore had something written down and I was surprised how well it was received, so I thought I'd share it. Here it is:
I was anticipating the lightning talks and being cajoled into talking about something. I've done it twice before. So I've been racking my brains to figure out if I've done anything interesting enough to talk about.
in 2018 I talked about some hack I'd made to the classic computer game Doom from 1993. I've done several hacks to Doom that I could probably talk about except I've become a bit uncomfortable about increasingly being thought of as "that doom guy". I'd been reflecting on why it was that I continued to mess about with that game in the first place and I realised it was a form of expression: I was treating Doom like a canvas.
I've spent most of my career thinking about what I do in the frame of either science or engineering. I suffer from the creative urge and I've often expressed (and sated) that through my work. And that's possible because there's a craft in what we do.
In 2019 I talked about a project I'd embarked on to resurrect my childhood computer, a Commodore Amiga 500, in order to rescue my childhood drawings and digital paintings. (There's the artistic thing again). I'd achieved that and I have ambitions to do some more Amiga stuff but again that's a work in progress and there's nothing much to talk about.
In recent years I've been thinking more and more about art and became interested in the works and writings of people like Grayson Perry, Laurie Anderson and Brian Eno. I first learned about Eno through his music but he's also a visual artist. and a music producer. As a producer in the 70s he co-invented a system to try and break out of writer's block called "oblique strategies": A deck of cards with oblique suggestions written on them. When you're stuck, you pull a card and it might help you to reframe what you are working on and think about it in a completely different way.
I love this idea and I think we should use more things like that in software engineering at least.
So back to casting about for something to talk about. What have I been doing in the last couple of years? Frankly, surviving - I've just about managed to keep doing my day job, and keep working on the PhD, at home with two young kids and home schooling and the rest of it. Which is an achievement but makes for a boring lightning talk. But I'd like to say that for anyone here who might have been worrying similarly: I think surviving is more than enough.
I'll close on the subject of thinking like an artist and not an engineer. I brought some of the Oblique Strategies deck with me and I thought I'd draw a card to perhaps help you out of a creative dilemma if you're in one. And I kid you not, the first card I drew was this one: