Saturday, July 28, 2012

Google Refine

Humans are really good at interpreting data but they aren't fast. They can see the context in disjointed information and find the patterns to make it into a structured and usable whole but if they have to do repeated corrections it can be very labor intensive,

With the recent attention to Big Data, incredibly large datasets produced as a byproduct of worldwide online activity, there is a concern that messy data will be impossible to resolve at that volume.

I've recently seen Google Refine which puts the power of human meaning making into large datasets. It provides the user the ability to find patterns and apply global changes to them to easily create more robust data. 

When I was a computer consultant I was often asked to help clean up dirty data. I knew all sorts of tricks in Microsoft office but they pale in comparison to what I see in Google Refine. I'm going to experiment with it and see where it can be an advantage to Heretics who are looking for Big data as a powerful new tool.

NOTE: Google Refine has been changed to an open source project named Open Refine. You can view the documentation here:

Friday, July 27, 2012

The Erosion of Meaning

My father has always been a big proponent of “common” sense and practicality. He is a very concrete thinker and so as a son/employee and as an abstract thinker, he and I were often at odds with one another. In my frustration as a young artist working in my father’s electrical contracting shop, I latched onto an idea about my father and his business that has stayed with me in various forms since then.

My father was a good and fair businessman and his practicality served him well for the most part. However, there was one place where it broke down. In the shop where he kept his tools and supplies, there was a conflict of my father’s ideas: 1) Don’t throw anything out because it could be valuable at a later date. 2) Keep the men in the field where they produce value instead of in the shop cleaning up.  The result is that the shop was glutted with piles of unorganized tools and materials. What I spotted was that the value that my father was trying to maintain started to quickly erode as the material became inaccessible because of the disorganization. A $5000 coupling used in rare circumstances was on the floor in a pile with $2 coupling used every day. Once the object was placed in storage without regard to its purpose or meaning, it lost its value.

At the time I was studying the Dada movement in art and it resonated with me. The artists at the time were reacting to the horrors of World War I, and how technology had destroyed meaning. They made art out of objects that had specific purposes and then stripped them of that purpose and repurposed them for art. This worked perfectly with my frustration with my father’s monolithic insistence that everything must be of practical use in light of the de-practicalization of his shop. And so I began building abstract sculptures with his materials. The more old and decrepit the object, the better. Sometimes the finished pieces would have some human or animal look to them but that was part of my take on searching for meaning. For the most part, the sculptures purposefully had no meaning.

After time though, I began to run into the same problem that my father had. Since no one saw meaning or value in the sculptures, they began to accumulate in storage and lose their value. Since I couldn’t justify the ongoing resources needed to continue, I threw everything out.

That was 20 years ago. Since then I have had hundreds of notebooks filled with doodles of sculptures. This idea still has a hold on me.

Now I am working on a website that talks about the process of using and questioning tools for the establishment of meaning. I’m feeling the old tug of wanting to contrast the discussion by building things without meaning.

The impracticality of creating large meaningless things has been helped in the last 20 years with the advent of photoshop. We’ll see…

Tuesday, July 24, 2012


Saturday morning, go to Home Depot and watch the line at the register for a while. Then go to the dump and watch what is tossed.

Then find a place where you can scoop up a handful of soil. Think about the countless micro-organisms that have been in there for countless eons converting death into life.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012


Give a group of people PVC pipes of various lengths and instruct them to go to a clearing in a park and to stand off the sidewalk and drop the end of the pipe on a rock. They will serenade any passersby.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The Square-D Game

As a young performance artist who was enamored with Surrealist Games, I created an Infinite Game called Square-D (named for a manufacturer of electrical power panels). Here are the basics:
  • Begin with coins placed in what seems to be a specific pattern.
  • Each player takes a turn making a move.
  • A move can be any action from sliding a coin to moving a player's body part.
  • Each move must be more complicated than the previous one.
  • The goal is to not let the game end.
Gamification is a buzz word now but people need to understand that all games are not the same. Infinite Games like Calvinball have a different dynamic and may have more application in the spreading of heretical ideas.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

A Cool Stuff Store

Here's a fun site to wander around: Inventables

I usually tell people to work on your idea and then find the resources to execute it but sometimes your imagination needs to go play in a cool stuff store.

Monday, July 9, 2012

How to Explain to an 8 year-old Heretic, the Flaw in his Reasoning

Me: "Go get yourself some breakfast"

8 yr-old: "I don't know what I want. "

Me: "OK so you do this every morning and I think I understand what is going wrong. You are a logical person so let me draw a picture of your logic:"
"The rectangle represents all the breakfast food in our house. On the left are the things you know about and to the right of the squiggly line are the things you don't know about. Outside of the box is something that you want that we don't have."

"Now let's put in numbers that represent how much you like these items. Inside the box, there's one at just +1, then there's a minus 8, minus four, and minus infinity. You really hate that one. Lets say the thing you really want is, oh I don't know, how about chocolate chip ice-cream and you like that at +200."

"OK, here's the problem: if you compare the thing you want to what is available, it's no contest. Why settle for +1 when you want +200. But the thing is, that food that you want does not exist in this house, so it doesn't count. When you compare the +1 to the other available options it starts looking a whole lot better."

"Once you stop thinking about the thing you don't have, you might even consider looking around for things you may like that you didn't even know we had?"

There was silence and I figured my kids saw this as further evidence that their father is nuts. Then suddenly they all said:

"Dad, that was the best explanation ever."

The next day, the 8 year old heretic made his own breakfast without a peep. We'll see how that goes.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Just Playing with Prezi

It's important to be able to play...regardless of the outcome. That last part is the most important.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Real Life Heretic: Ben Franklin

(In honor of American Independence day)

Here are the tools that Franklin used:

Reading Books (He didn't have formal education)
Forming Communities of Practice
Controlling the Media (Printer)
Controlling Communications (Postmaster)

This is what he accomplished.

Image: Benjamin Franklin by Joseph-Siffred Duplessis via Wikipedia

Tuesday, July 3, 2012


Buy a magazine and find the ad for the newest technology and the ad with the most beautiful person. Rip them out and without using any other tool besides your fingers, fold, rip and combine the two images in interesting ways. Take a picture of your creation with your smart phone and upload it to Picassa under the tag: #hereticstoolbox

Think about how those ads came to be. What reaction in your brain were they looking for. What message are they sending.

Monday, July 2, 2012

The Opposite Game

I was struggling with my posting schedule for this site and was considering reducing the posts from weekly to bi-weekly. The problem was that I had some more ambitious ideas that I didn’t have time to work on in the tight schedule. Instead I did the opposite of what I planned and what would seem logical. I increased my posting schedule to 5 days per week with a more structured content schedule, and I’ve put off any plan to do large projects. Remarkably this made me more relaxed and confident that I would be able to keep up and get to my ideas. The large projects were the hang up and they were unnecessary. I often play this Opposite Game in order to break through any mental block that I may have. Try it out on something you are stuck on. What is the opposite action to the one you are leaning towards? What would it look like if you tried that approach?

Sunday, July 1, 2012


Sometimes the simplest tools are the most powerful and can open your imagination to more possibilities.

Above is a demo of the "If" function in Google Docs' spreadsheet program. It was created in a very easy screen capture tool called Screenr.

Think of information you wrestle with and how you can use the "If" function to adapt the patterns in the data to suit your needs.