Have you wasted enough time today?

Publication date: 29 August 2011
Originally published 2011 in Atomic: Maximum Power Computing
Last modified 03-Dec-2011.

 

I cannot speak too highly of mucking around.

Unproductive twiddling. Buggering about. Playing.

I'm partly in favour of frivolous activity because a life without fun isn't much of a life. But mucking about is also an absolutely essential component of the creative process, and a life without creativity is also not much of a life.

The kind of mucking about that leaps most easily to the mind of people reading this Web site is, probably, video games, and there's considerable room for creativity in at least some of those. Physics games, god games, Minecraft, any game where you can make your own maps, creative griefing (from drive-by carpentry in Ultima Online to Team Roomba's TF2 quiz show...), oddball MMOs like A Tale in the Desert and Second Life; the list goes on.

You're probably not nurturing your creative soul if you play CODBLOPS or Dead Space, but everything from puzzle games to Conway's Life definitely qualifies, as did my friend at school who delighted in making Lode Runner levels that anticipated the utterly unfair manic brutality of I Wanna Be The Guy.

Computers offer many other kinds of ineffectual activity. "Fritterware" that lets you spend a week getting your computer so slickly set up that you'll make back the setup time in only 140 years. UV-reactive water-cooling gear that lets you run your CPU 4% faster than air cooling did. Endless incomprehensible BIOS options that offer an even smaller performance gain.

(If anything, computers and their various input-output devices make so many kinds of creativity so very accessible that choice paralysis can set in, even if all you want to do is muck about. Photography? Music? 3D object design and animation, now with ever-increasing ways to turn your creations into real-world physical objects? Multiplayer games? A modern computer's about as dangerous an open-ended creativity jungle as parents who're totally supportive of their child's artistic ambitions and unconventional life choices.)

The tools of the electronics workshop are even better.

See how yellow you can get a red LED to turn, if you submerge it in a spraycan-lid of furiously boiling freezer spray! Raise the voltage and try for blue! (You'll probably need liquid nitrogen for a really dramatic change, though.)

I'd also mention my experiments with liquid butane here, except there's apparently some silly legal issue, involving encouraging teenagers to make flaming whoomp-puddles in their bedrooms. Also, children, Just Say No to making even a little bit of thermite, even though it will absolutely definitely instantly make you the most popular kid in school.

Oh, and my 31-volt, 5-amp current-regulated bench power supply is far more useful than my old 15V, thirty-amp totally-NOT-current-regulated one. But that old one is what I turn to when a paper clip needs to be used to illuminate my office, or experiments concerning spot-welding tin cans with a pencil lead must be performed.

And when a drain blocks, I always seize the opportunity to mix caustic soda into a bucket of cold water until the water starts boiling, and then dump the terrifying concoction down the likeliest-looking plughole. I do not do this not because I have any real expectation that it'll help (NaOH can do some good against greasy clogs and slowly destroy other organic matter, but the odds are not fantastic). It's just so much fun to don the eye protection and stir up a bucket of hot liquid death.

And, the other day, I bought an electric cattle prod.

I have no cattle.

I am not into S&M.

But it now occurs to me that I probably should have bought two of them, so party-guests could have sword fights.

Getting back to computers, it's becoming easier and easier to fritter and waste your hours in an offhand way, and almost accidentally end up making something quite impressive. The best example of this today is user-friendly music software that comes with a whole library of synthesised and sampled instruments, and doesn't require a MIDI keyboard or any ability to read music.

Tiresomely, though, mucking about is usually necessary, but not sufficient, for useful creativity. Bands that, like, totally had to be high when they made that record, dude, almost always weren't. (The above-quoted Pink Floyd is a prime example.) And painters and sculptors and writers and photographers may start out just mucking about whittling a log or trying to take fisheye photos of insects, but they all have to knuckle down and actually work if they want to bring a project to completion.

People who quote Einstein about imagination being more important than knowledge seldom remember Joubert's earlier observation that he who has imagination but no knowledge has wings, but no feet. Just mucking about is, generally, no more likely to lead to an impressive creative work than eating far too much is likely to lead to a championship Sumo career.

I think it's still valid, however, to note that the history of humanity is littered with idle experiments that led to great things.

(And, as Kurt Vonnegut said, "We are here on Earth to fart around. Don't let anybody tell you any different.")

Probe around with a wire on a silicon carbide crystal to see whether it makes diodes like galena does; accidentally invent the LED.

Or, a geological eyeblink earlier: Hold a piece of cord in your teeth, stretch it tight and twang it; accidentally invent stringed musical instruments.

The exact forms of messing around available change as the years pass; chemistry sets have been sadly neutered, but kids can make robots now.

If you're afraid to fiddle with things with no clear goal in mind, you're a bit like people who're afraid to do anything new on their PC in case they get a virus or format C or something.

So, do something freeform and aimless today. If you've no particular goal, you can't fail.

And you may learn something. Or make something. Or both.

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