I've found myself thinking a lot recently about the concept of urgency. Covey's 7 Habits famously divided tasks into important/not important and urgent/not urgent. His observation was that we do the important and urgent things first, but then tend to move on to the urgent and not important, rather than the important and not urgent.
This describes a particular kind of externally-imposed urgency, the urgency of deadlines, fire alarms or ringing phones. But what about tasks where the urgency is up to you? Nobody's telling you that you have to work on your novel right this second with a gun to your head, at least unless you're Stephen King.
You could argue that anything self-directed is necessarily not urgent. But if it's not urgent, and it's never going to become urgent, when do you do it? You could start your novel today, you could start it tomorrow, the day after... In the grand scheme of things it doesn't really matter which you choose. What pushes you to say "no, I need to start now"? That's urgency, but it's urgency you've constructed.
One way of getting there is arbitrary deadlines. You can just say "I want to finish my novel by next year, which means I need to start now". But you know you just made that deadline up, and there are no actual consequences for failing to meet it. And who knows if it's even meetable? Even experienced authors have difficulty predicting how long writing will take them, at least unless they're Stephen King. The arbitrary deadline is just a facade; you know it's not real, so it can't really give you anything beyond how much you believe in it.
To create some real basis for your urgency, you can create real consequences. Public embarrassment is a good one, but I've seen people use money or other punishments. I've even seen a system with a big jar full of as many marbles as you have weeks of life remaining, and each week you move one marble into another jar. It builds a sense of urgency by reminding you that your life is slipping away week by week. This stuff gets pretty masochistic.
To me it seems like this is all trying to simulate that external urgency rather than embracing its absence. Maybe what you're doing doesn't have to be finished soon. Maybe it doesn't have to be finished at all. Maybe nobody, up to and including you, will suffer any serious consequences if you just find something else to do instead.
But the point is you decided to do this thing, and you did that because of its importance to you. Not because it had to be done, but because you wanted it to be done. Its importance is defined purely in terms of your values, and so too can be its urgency.
Then the question goes from "what happens if I don't do this right now?" to "what happens if I do do this right now?" It's not urgency caused by a fear of consequences, but by a desire for them. Sure, you could do it any time, but now is sooner than later. It's a low-pressure kind of urgency, more impatience than crisis.
And which things bring you the best consequences? If you have your values screwed on right, none other than the ones that are most important. Covey's two scales are only needed when urgency is out of your control. If you get to decide, then there's only one scale, from unimportant stuff with no urgency to important stuff to do as soon as possible.
Need is as I defined it previously: something beyond a want. Something that can't be satisfied by a decent attempt, a good try, or anything short of actual success. Something that's necessary for me to live, either because I wouldn't be alive without it, or because what's alive wouldn't be me.
Beautiful is, in some sense, just my subjective sense of aesthetics. But I also believe in objective beauty. Something can be beautiful in function by achieving its purpose so well that it becomes an ode to the platonic ideal of that purpose. And something can be beautiful in concept by bringing together ideas and connections in such a profound way that experiencing it gives you a new understanding, even enlightenment.
A thing is an object that exists outside of myself, with some kind of tangible, reality-based nature. A balloon animal is a thing, but an idea for a new video game is not a thing. An idea for a new video game that you write down is a thing, but the thing is the writing, not the idea. And, of course, it's the plural: not one thing, but many things; enough that you don't think of them individually, but rather as an awesome mass of stuff rolling together and picking up speed as it goes.
I've been thinking about this for a while; different wordings, different concepts, different qualities that could make the cut. But I keep coming back to this one. I think if there's anything that's defined my work, not just over the last few years, but back as early as I can remember, it's this. I need to create beautiful things.
What do you need? Food and shelter? Friends? Relationships? And what makes these needs as opposed to just wants?
The first and most obvious difference is consequence. When you can't find shelter, that's a lot bigger problem than when you can't find a decent cafe. If you run out of ice cream, you might be sad, but you won't starve. Measured that way, needs are just the wants with the highest stakes. But that doesn't tell you how much consequence you need for a need.
And as soon as you get beyond purely physical needs, consequence becomes tricky to define. Eating is high-consequence, sure, but what about a relationship? You might be deeply unhappy without it, sure, but you won't die. And if you set deep unhappiness as the bar, then getting to see your favourite football team is a need too. We'd be unhappy to miss out on anything we want, but that just puts us back at the question of, well, how unhappy is unhappy enough?
I think a better way to look at it is to work backwards from behaviour. How do you act when you want something vs when you need it? If you want to eat, you might check the fridge, realise there's no food, find that the restaurants are closed, and then give up. But if you need to eat something, you don't stop there. You go to the supermarket. You check if the neighbours have food. You go door to door. You beg on the street. Needs don't permit giving up.
It's easy to give up on wants because often you just want to feel like you tried. Well, couldn't find a good cafe, but I had a look around. Couldn't buy ice cream, but I checked the shop. This is the minimum effort required to show that you did something that could feasibly have resulted in your goal. Who's going to criticise you when, clearly, you put some work in? But you can't say, look, stomach, I tried to find food so don't get hungry at me. A need doesn't care about effort, only results.
So I think there are more things that we can recognise as needs. Food and shelter, sure, you're always going to do everything you can to get them. But what about things where the consequence isn't starvation, but a slowly growing sense of dissatisfaction? What about the things you need, not so that you stay alive, but so that being alive is meaningful?
Letting your dreams be wants rather than needs – saying that you want to make music or write novels or raise chimps in Zimbabwe – is to say that you'd be okay if you gave them a shot and they didn't work out. But are you really okay with that? Would you be satisfied, looking back on your life, knowing that, well, it was worth a try?
If not, then what you have there is really a need. And it's worth thinking, what would you do for that need? Quit your job? Ask people for help? Move countries? Leave a relationship? If you'd do those things for food and shelter, why not do them for a dream?
2017 was a strange year for me. I started the year in retreat from my goal of writing every day and I don't think I really found my feet again. Since I began this part of my life in 2015, my posts here have acted as my monologue, my stage directions, and at times as my Greek chorus. I set out realising that the paths laid down by others weren't working for me, and resolved to make my own. I spent the last few years on a quest for meaning, and storytelling is a way to pull meaning from the chaos of real life. I deeply regret having stopped.
I had a lot of unconsummated plans in the last year. I began the Conventional Wisdom Project which, appropriately enough, ended on Better Late Than Never, which I never finished. I started looking for ways to commercialise my creative output, which resulted in somesuccess, but mostly I floundered on that front. I began a residency with the intention of producing an exhibition at the end, but I had an unforeseen family health crisis that ate the end of the year when it would have happened.
I did manage a few projects I was particularly happy with, Automata by Example and Cardiograph, but all told I would call my creative output for the year pretty lacking. Instead, it was really a year for introspection. I realised that I need to take the commercial side of my work much more seriously, that I need to make a concerted effort to define and promote myself and what I'm doing, and that my main letdowns have been lack of execution and lack of ambition. I realised that I can't achieve extraordinary goals by ordinary means, and that pride, humility, restraint, reasonableness and moderation are all ways of being ordinary.
So my aim is for this to be a year where I aim higher, push harder, and make more noise while I'm doing it. That starts, as is tradition, with this site. I'm going to spend some time writing about who I am, what I do, what I want and what I have to offer.
Most importantly, I'm going back to writing every day. I may need to change the way I write to make it work, but I can tell now that this means more to me than just a creative outlet; it's me telling the story that I'm living. Or maybe vice versa.
Today I'm releasing Starboard, a fun demo I made to recreate the sound of Bag Raiders' sleeper internet hit Shooting Stars using Web Audio.
This was an interesting one to make, because the code was actually not that difficult, but trying to recreate a specific synth sound turned out to be way beyond my expertise. I originally intended it to be a 1-day project but it took a whole week to finish, of which around one day was spent writing most of the code, another papering overgaps in theWeb Audio API, and one more making it work in Safari. The rest of my time was just fiddling with parameters over and over again trying to get it to sound right.
I tried a bunch of different effects, filters, EQ, compression, etc, but in the end the thing that sounded the best was just the basic synth, a bit of vibrato, and some reverb. It still doesn't quite have the thin cheesy sound of the original, but that may actually be for the best; a couple of times I had something that sounded close when I played it with the real track, but when I listened to it without any of the bass or backing synths it just came out hollow. In the end, I think just focusing it on making it sound good and letting go of exact reproduction was what I needed to do to get a sound I was happy with.
Most of the internals proceeded fairly normally, though this was the first time I'd had to write an actual sequencer (as opposed to, say, the node-based scheduling code in Markov Technology). I just used timeouts, which was basically fine, except that the scheduler loses time under heavy CPU load, which can happen pretty easily on mobile. I was, however, really pleased with how I represented notes internally; I'd previously used frequencies or scientific pitch notation (like A4), but this time I used MIDI numbers and everything suddenly became way easier.
But the one thing I think I'm most proud of is the way I did the starfield animation. In Markov Contact I started trying something I think of as deterministic animation, where every frame is a pure function of time and a (usually random) initial state. I cheated for a few of the animations back then, but this time I really nailed it. The code is super small, loops seamlessly and, even better, if you hide and show the starfield (like I do a bunch), the stars "keep moving" even when the animation isn't running.
So all up, this was a bit of fun, and a good chance to refine some existing audio & animation techniques and re-remind myself of how hard audio production is. If you'd like to check out the code, it's on GitHub.