Playing the hand you’re dealt

I’ve been thinking a lot about Assemblage. It’s been prompted by Anab’s inclusion of it in her More-Than-Human-Politics manifesto, pointedly positioned against Systems (“Assemblages are diverse, indeterminate and precarious… Acknowledging the entanglements without the desire to have the ‘full overview’”).

It also took me back to some of the thinking I originally did around Artefact Cards specifically, and more recently working with information particles generally, and a few other conversations and pieces I’ve been working on in the background.

This week, I started playing with a short explanation, which felt worth sharing:


An assemblage is like being dealt a hand of cards for the first time, in a game you don’t know the rules for.

You have these five cards in your hand, of a mix of suits and numbers, and you have to work out what to play, and how to do it. When the time comes, you play some cards as best you can, but you lose that first hand. Yet you saw what was going on, and figure that you might have a better chance at working out the overall game come the next hand.

Except when you are dealt your new hand, it contains a new suit you’ve never seen before, and a number that you didn’t know existed. You’re not sure what the new suit means (is it more senior than other suits? Equal?), and from what you know of numbers, you try and establish where this one might fit in a ranking. Additionally, the previous work you put in to trying to establish the rules of the game is now potentially of lower value, though it’s hard to let go of answers you think you’ve worked out.

You play, and of course you lose that hand as well. But again you learn more about how to sort through the cards you’re likely to be holding in the next round.

So when the third hand arrives, containing another unfamiliar suit, moderately taxing algebra, a postcard from a relative, and some cheese and pineapple on a stick, you’re at least a bit more prepared for the possibility that different things will turn up that don’t fit in with your expectations.

Thinking in systems asks that you work out the rules of the game.

Thinking in assemblages helps you become better at playing the hand you’re actually dealt.


Postscript: There’s a lot of diverse and interesting debate and discussion around what Systems Thinking actually is, of course, but I’m blithely operating under the following rule of thumb for now – “If you mean constantly moving and changing things, maybe you shouldn’t use the word ‘system’?”

Firing Korben Dallas

There’s been a lot of attention paid to a comment that Jes Staley, CEO of Barclays, said on Wednesday 29th April 2020 in comments to reporters.

“…the notion of putting 7,000 people in a building may be a thing of the past.”

The emphasis of that statement is about the infrastructure itself, and the notion of a centralised office.

Yet we were playing through some future scenarios earlier this week for a client project, and started wondering if there’s an underlying, pointy realisation that emerges for this business and others like them in two to three years time.

What if it’s not so much the building they don’t need, but the 7,000 people instead?

And if everyone works from wherever they just happen to be, is it just easier to let people go automatically, discreetly. You can’t storm into the HR office if there is no HR office.

You might get fired like Korben Dallas…

Towards Leastmodernism; Mr Prosser’s Bulldozer

I was at my second International Futures Form (IFF) breakfast this morning. On Zoom, naturally*.

One of the conversation threads in our breakout group was about clutter. We’re spending much more time in our homes, and so undoubtedly eyes and activity will turn to the things we’ve accumulated over the months and years. What to keep, what goes.

Another person drew a lucid picture of great tension point; we’re being told that the economy must restart again, which is basically a veil for increased consumption.

Hence the cunning wheeze of extending Sunday shopping hours, which feels like a doomed trick from the eighties economic playbook. If you really think people aren’t confident in spending because the shops aren’t open long enough on Sundays, I have some miraculous hair oil I want to talk to you about.

It made me remember an idea, a word, a loose concept I’ve had floating around since I talked at dConstruct in 2015.

The theme that year was about Designing the Future, and whilst I was uncomfortable in claiming or assuming that it was our future to design (which still remains my view), as part of the metadesign stance I talked about, a word popped into my head the day before the conference… it often happens the night before, as you’re sweating over the slides.

Leastmodernism.

I don’t have a crunchy description of exactly what it is. I referred to it again in a talk called The Oliver Twist at the RCA, but it’s an idea that every so often creeps up on me then I wonder what exactly to do with it, or how to articulate it.

Leastmodernism is about trying to harness a similar energy around solving societal problems that existed round modernism (for all its flaws), in a way that focuses efforts on what we are not doing, rather than what we are. It happens in pockets perhaps, and certainly can find allied concepts in parts of things like the Green New Deal.

How do you starting building an economic model around it, though? There’s something about drawing the connections between the thing, the creator, the customers, the money and the brand. We can take a stance that money is just a construct, as are brands. These two constructs float around the actual thing ‘made’ in the middle. Then a lot of the connections circumvent the actual thing in the middle:

Which perhaps opens up an opportunity to think about what you might do to replace that thing. Is it possible that money can flow from customers to creators, building a shared sense of what the brand means as a connection between people, but without the impact (or better still, negative impact) in the middle?

This might be the year to start thinking and articulating this more, but for the time being, the proxy I’m using is Mr Prosser’s Bulldozer.

Mr Prosser, of course, is the man from the council in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, who is trying to knock down Arthur’s house. Arthur is lying in front of the bulldozer, preventing it from doing so.

Then Ford Prefect, in order to whisk Arthur away, comes up with a cunning ruse… well, you might as well just read it for yourself:

(Except taken from NPR)

Ford looked across to Mr. Prosser, and suddenly a wicked thought struck him.
“He wants to knock your house down?”
“Yes, he wants to build . . .”
“And he can’t because you’re lying in front of his bull-dozer?”
“Yes, and . . .”

“I’m sure we can come to some arrangement,” said Ford. “Excuse me!” he shouted.
Mr. Prosser (who was arguing with a spokesman for the bulldozer drivers about whether or not Arthur Dent con- stituted a mental health hazard, and how much they should get paid if he did) looked around. He was surprised and slightly alarmed to see that Arthur had company.
“Yes? Hello?” he called. “Has Mr. Dent come to his senses yet?”
“Can we for the moment,” called Ford, “assume that he hasn’t?”
“Well?” sighed Mr. Prosser.
“And can we also assume,” said Ford, “that he’s going to be staying here all day?”
“So?”
“So all your men are going to be standing around all day doing nothing?”
“Could be, could be . . .”
“Well, if you’re resigned to doing that anyway, you don’t actually need him to lie here all the time do you?”
“What?”
“You don’t,” said Ford patiently, “actually need him here.”
Mr. Prosser thought about this.
“Well, no, not as such . . .” he said, “not exactly need . . .”

Prosser was worried. He thought that one of them wasn’t making a lot of sense.
Ford said, “So if you would just like to take it as read that he’s actually here, then he and I could slip off down to the pub for half an hour. How does that sound?”

Mr. Prosser thought it sounded perfectly potty.
“That sounds perfectly reasonable . . .” he said in a re- assuring tone of voice, wondering who he was trying to reassure.
“And if you want to pop off for a quick one yourself later on,” said Ford, “we can always cover for you in re- turn.”
“Thank you very much,” said Mr. Prosser, who no longer knew how to play this at all, “thank you very much, yes, that’s very kind . . .” He frowned, then smiled, then tried to do both at once, failed, grasped hold of his fur hat and rolled it fitfully round the top of his head. He could only assume that he had just won.
..

Now, the obvious problem in drawing this parallel is whilst Mr Prosser doesn’t knock Arthur’s house down immediately, he does eventually.

Therein lies the trick. How do you hold back Mr Prosser’s Bulldozer indefinitely?


*Yes, the breakfast is a welcome space to connect, it’s not a room though. Off the back of another participant describing the rooms in her house, I realised how much I miss walking into rooms. Rooms that I don’t know, know barely, or know well. Subconsciously scanning, sitting down or leaving.

I’m looking forward to walking into other rooms again.

What does good thinking look like?

Earlier this week, I posted up the four images above on a twitter poll and on instagram, and asked the simple questions; A, B, C or D? No context, just that – of the four images, which would you choose. I’d said I’d explain a bit about it, but first though, what were the results?

Twitter folks go for D, then A:

Instagram folks are kinda similar, though it’s a much smaller sample size. The reactions, when people sent some additional thoughts, are also really interesting, but in particular I’m going to draw attention to Richard‘s comment here:

The real extremes in the test are A and D, to my mind.

The former is a solid, simple structure that’s trying to do one thing. All the colours are aligned, all the gradients are consistently directed. As Fraser said in his response, “a designer’s designer would say A“.

The latter, D, has a whole lot of things going on.

At first, it just feels a bit like random chaos, especially in context with the others. But then as you scan it a bit more, looking more closely, or holding it at arms length, it starts revealing different things. Richard’s idea about it making the mind feel ‘kaleidoscopic’ is bang on, I think.

Beyond playing with delights of isometric shapes and gradient effects though, I did promise to explain a bit more about what it’s for though.

Last year, various streams of work and teaching the Innovation & Future Thinking course at IED in Barcelona made me start wondering about revisiting the underlying tools and frameworks of Smithery’s work (Strategy, Prototyping, Culture, Design, Innovation… etc), and how all of those things connect. The last time I’d done this was back in 2014, when a month of blogging every day produced a set of theories and practices which formed the backbone of the following five years’ work.

Back in January, in ‘the before’, I gave a talk called “A Blacksmith Makes Their Own Tools“, which set the seeds of the reading and reflection on our work so far since starting in 2011. Then these past couple of months have provided a brilliant opportunity to get torn into that work properly, and start to shape a few early parts of the new work, of which the images are part.

What I’d been working on was a graphic representation of a basic information process, from sensing what’s out there in the world, through to the actions people take as a result. It pulls on a few pre-existing models already (Boyd’s OODA loops, some of Boisot’s information space) as well as some other reading I’ve been doing, and it’s not finished as yet. As a basic general framework, it’s a fairly useful starting point for me at the moment, and would already serve as a useful tool in asking questions of clients or students (Where do we get information from? How do we process it? What filters can we identify that prevent some information getting it?) in order to identify intervention points and practices to deploy.

I’m not going to dwell on it a lot now, but come back instead to the “A versus D” thing from above, as to which best represents the ‘in here’ part of the model. In short, what does the processing of information look like internally, be it as an individual (the things in your head) or an organisation (the knowledge we hold)?

Now, if I’d framed a question around this (perhaps ‘which of these represents thinking?’ or something similar), and presented people with the four images, I would imagine the answers would be very different. We are aware of the unstructured nature of our own minds as much as we are of the information and knowledge that resides inside the organisations we populate.

I would argue though in this context, the neatness and perfection of A is likely not what we’re looking for in these terms; the Sisyphean task of organising all our ideas and workflows into perfect order, I think, will remain forever beyond the grasp of people. Which opens up the question; if striving for perfection in structure is a futile goal, then what should we be aiming for instead? What does good thinking look like?

Anyway, that’s the next couple of months of thinking and writing sorted – pursuing the above and the themes obliquely sketched out below. I’ll be sharing more as soon as it is ready (and maybe an additional post on why it’s not following the same process as a month’s worth of blogging from the last time). Thanks to everyone who played along with the picture experiment.

Pond life

There’s a giant tadpole in our pond, the amphibian Jaws of suburban Sussex.

I started wondering if it had just had a head start out the frogspawn, and so did some research. In a way, it probably has had a leap ahead, but from last year, not this. It turns out that if the conditions aren’t right to turn into a frog (too much competition for food, weather, etc), some tadpoles just stay as tadpoles during the winter. Waiting, feeding, growing. Then when the spring conditions come round again, they’re first out the gate, and become bigger than average frogs.

This is perhaps a year to live in the pond, and become a stronger frog when spring comes around again.

Table View: a video call hack

During the first virtual Cardstock meetup on Friday, we (the collective group) mentioned we’d play around with different ways of making the ‘card method’ work for us all online, and report back. I was going to find this, a prototype made from an Ikea desk lamp and a webcam, from five years ago, and see if I could get it working again.

One day later, after our friends suggested finding a way to play a board game with our two families over a video call, I dusted it down, and it was very effective in setting up a game of Diamant across our two houses.

I’ve upgraded it a bit.

A better Logitech 1080p webcam, and now attached with a Joby GorillaPod to the main desk lamp piece, means a sharper, higher-res image with more flexibility in positioning and set up.

And running through the laptop (with sound off and mic muted) as one call into whereby, and then using an iPad as the device for the main room camera, means everyone can see and hear you, as well as the muted feed that shows you the table.

Home Cured Bacon

No, not the usual kind of Smithery post… but these are strange times, no? Helen and the kids bought me a bacon curing course for my birthday a few years back, and since then I have regularly made some bacon we’re feeding lots of people (Christmas, half-terms, camping trips, etc). I offered to share the recipe on twitter, and so a few folks put their hands up. Here you go…

WHAT YOU’LL NEED

Cure mix 

There are various types of bacon cure you can buy online – try:

https://www.weschenfelder.co.uk/bacon-curing/curing-salts/supracure-dry-cured-bacon.html

…which is a 5% cure, meaning for a 1kg piece of pork, you will use 50g of cure (5%)

Different cures have different ratios – ALWAYS follow the instructions that comes with a specific cure mix.

Flavouring

When you combine other ingredients with the cure to make a rub, what happens is that the meat will be gently flavoured with the other ingredients, as the cure begins to replace the water inside the meat. This is my standard recipe that produces a tasty bacon that doesn’t need smoking – you need allspice, rosemary, black pepper and sugar. But do search online for other ideas.

Pork

Either use pork loin to make back bacon, or belly to make streaky bacon. Get the meat deboned by the butcher before you start, or just buy a piece without bones.

If you can include the bones when you’re curing, in order to get bacon bones for making stock for soup. If you do this, then the meat weight includes the bones when you calculate the amount of cure to use. You can leave the skin on in order to have a rind. If you do, make sure to take a sharp knife and pierce through the skin into the meat in various places, to ensure the cure penetrates well.

Two large ziplock plastic bags

Some folk have vacuum packing machines at home already, but I’ve never found the need for one for bacon.

METHOD

1. Prepare the mix for the rub

Combine the curing salt, sugar, allspice, rosemary and pepper in a bowl, and mix round. The amounts are dependent on the weight of your meat. As a general rule…

1 kg pork
50g of 5% cure (e.g. 5% as the name suggests)
20g sugar (unrefined granulated sugar, brown or Demerara sugar)
4g allspice
4g freshly chopped rosemary leaves

A pinch (0.5g) of crushed black peppercorns

2. Rub the mix all over the pork

First, place the pork in a large ziplock plastic bag. Then tip some mix in on one side of the meat, and rub it in throughly all over. Turn the bag over, and rub it in on the other side of meat, and down the sides. By the end, all the mix should be in the bag with the meat, and you can seal it up, getting as much air out as possible. I then put that bag in a second ziplock bag too, and get the air out again.

3. Cure for 4-7 days

In the bag after the first day or so, you start to see a watery brine forming in the bag, as the water is replaced in the meat. Keep turning the bag over every day or so, and give the meat a little massage when you do – it means the cure will distribute evenly. Don’t empty the brine out of the bag. The longer you leave the meat to cure, the saltier it will become – my personal preference is a 4 or 5 day cure.

4. Rinse and dry

Finally, open the ziplock bags and empty the brine out into the sink. Take the meat out and give it a really good rinse under the tap, or place in a sink of cold water. It’s totally fine to submerse it like this, and leave it in there for a while if you want it to be a bit less salty.

Pat it dry with a tea-towel all over (you’ll probably need two tea towels).

Place on a chopping board covered in baking parchment. You can cut a small slice or two off the end now, just to try what it’s going to be like (I’m not judging you, I never fail to do the same).

But you’ll find (especially if the rind is still on) that it’s a little hard to slice. Leave in the fridge for another couple of days, and it’ll firm up a bit more, the rind is easier to get through, and the joint holds its shape better. Then just slice rashers off with a long sharp knife when needed.

A good trick is to use a second, thick chopping board over the top of the bacon, and slide you knife blade down the edge of it as you cut the bacon below.

If you cured the bones too, just rinse them off too, and make a stock but putting the bacon bones in a large soup pan of water with a few roughly chopped vegetables and maybe a bay leaf. Makes an excellent stock for a pea soup.

And there we go, home cured bacon. It will keep like this, unwrapped, for a good few weeks in the fridge.

If you get to the end, and it’s becoming tricky to slice, just chop into small pancetta style pieces to add to other dishes.

28 Days Later

It’s hard to know whether London is quieter this weekend, or just feels quieter.

A new chapter for “Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds” no doubt.

Interesting to note how quickly a poster information campaign can be everywhere though. The last mass media format.

via Flickr https://flic.kr/p/2iBJqqb

Plant-Based Lifeforms

There’s something quite Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy about the phrase ‘plant-based’ – echoes of the description of humans as ‘carbon-based lifeforms’.

If it persists as a phrase, ‘based’ is a term that might end up doing a *lot* of heavy lifting, in the same way that ‘craft’ does in beer.

via Flickr https://flic.kr/p/2ix52Py