by Thomas Beutel

Starlings in a meter box

Down the street where I live there is an old electrical meter box about 10 feet up on a telephone pole. It used to meter a cable box, bit it’s now unused and the round meter part is gone so it’s just an open hole with the plugs where the meter would plug in. I guess when it was decommissioned it was not worth the cost of taking it down.

But just because it’s not used for electrical metering doesn’t mean it’s not useful. For the last few years it been occupied by nesting starlings. They are back again this year. The nest is really just the right height off the ground, and the starlings raise a successful brood every year. I always enjoy seeing them around this time of year on my daily walk.

Summer of Love

I had a nice evening with the family, first eating a delicious bowl of poke and then viewing the Summer of Love exhibition at the de Young. The displays were interesting, but it all felt somewhat strange. The energy and vibrancy of the cultural revolution barely trickle out of the posters and clothes on display, and everything has a definite taxidermy feel to it. It’s as if you have walked into a dusty Egyptian tomb, not the exuberant celebration I expected. The profusion of black and white photographs don’t help. They did have color photography back then, didn’t they?

One of the things that did pique my interest was the poster making process. There was a nice explanation of all the elements that go into doing offset printing. Another nice demo showed how artists like Bill Ham created light shows using liquid dyes and overhead projectors.

I was only six in 1967 and lived far enough away from the panhandle that I have no memory of what was happening. But I certainly have an appreciation of what the Summer of Love gave us. I know that some of the cultural freedom I experience today was born in that year, right here in San Francisco.

Why is Context So Hard?

When giving commands to my Amazon Echo, I can say “play my classical playlist” and then once it is playing I can say “turn on shuffle mode”. So Echo already has a limited sense of context. It knows what shuffle mode means when it is already playing something.

But I can’t say “play my classical playlist and turn on shuffle mode”.* This is clearly a limitation of the voice interface. Turning on shuffle mode does not make sense until the player is already playing. In general, understanding context at the command level is much harder than understanding context when Echo is already doing something.

Context in free form text is still one of the hardest computing problems. Computing still requires highly regularized and categorized text. Context however requires a large knowledge base of the world with its relations and interactions.

Some services such as OpenCalais already offer limited contextual services. But a true context service would identify not only the who and what of entities, but also relationships. And it would be able to answer queries and make predictions about the relationships of entities.

I can see a context service being used in documents analysis as well as enhancing Amazon Echo. It could tell Echo exactly what discrete actions a compound command is asking to do, relative to Echo’s capabilities. My guess is that someday context processing will be offered as an easy-to-use service (i.e. AWS Contextualizer).


*After I wrote this post, I found out that I can say “play my classical playlist with shuffle mode” and it works. From what I have read, Echo will only respond if the command variation has been preprogrammed. In other words, Echo is only as smart as the number of variations that the programmer can think of. It won’t make an attempt to understand if your command does not match one of the templates.


It is one of my favorite modeling techniques. Basically, I get a kit and throw out the instructions. The kit parts become raw materials to make something new and different, or to make a model of something from the real world that is not available in kit form. Sometimes I’ll combine two or more kits to get what I want.

Here I took a brewery kit and modified the walls and roof to make a winery warehouse.

The original brewery kit from AHM. Note the 1960’s price.

Kitbashed winery warehouse on the Redwoods and Pacific Railroad

The fun part is to look at kits in a catalog and imagine something different. Once I have a rough idea, I take the major kit parts and photocopy them. I’ll take the paper copies, cut them and recombine them until I figure out how my recombination will fit together. Then I’ll go and do the actual cutting and glueing.

Legos of Love

Lego kits nowadays are pretty specific. They are made to be put together in a specific way to make a specific model. But the underlying premise of Lego is interchangeable parts. With these kits, it is still possible to put things together in different ways.

I think that these kits are a good analogy for how we are put together temperamentally. The interesting thing is what happens when we meet someone else. Do we insist on keeping our kit the same, the way we have always been, they way it seems we were put together? Or are we willing to rearrange ourself a bit?

The beauty of being in love is that we now have two kits and we are free to combine those kits in creative ways. As interesting and unique as we are as individuals, the relationship we build together will always be even more interesting and unique. But only if we free ourselves of the justness of our own kits and be willing to build something new in combination.


Ducks in the parking lot

We went shopping at Safeway yesterday and saw something unusual again – two mallard ducks, a male and a female sitting on the asphalt in one of the parking spots. I had seen this particular pair before a couple weeks ago, so they seem to like it here. You would think that this spot is about the least attractive place for ducks to hang out. Lots of cars and people, all concrete and asphalt, and at least a mile away from any lake or golf course or other wild area.

But here’s the thing… the ducks were sleeping. Their eyes were closed until we approached to take pictures. They must feel pretty comfortable to be sleeping with cars and people going by.

I have a hunch. This is a perfect place to snooze if you want to stay away from predators. I’ve seen a coyote a few months ago climbing a hill on Brotherhood Way, not too far from Safeway. So predators are around and they’re not just house cats. With all the people and traffic, the Safeway parking it probably the last place you will see a coyote.

I’m thinking those ducks are pretty clever.


Automata at the Exploratorium

A few months ago Eli and I went to the Exploratorium to see an exhibit on automata. I find they tickle my brain in a curious way, which I guess is what they are supposed to do. It was great to see automata from well known artists like Paul Spooner and Keith Newstead. One thing that stood out for me was how small Spooner’s works are. I had seem them in pictures and they seemed to be much larger. Some of Spooner’s works are downright tiny.

The Exploratorium had a fairly comprehensive collection on display, with a variety of materials represented – wood, wire, paper. Almost all automata artists leave their mechanisms exposed so you can see them. The mechanisms take nothing away from the visual story of the works. Here are a few pictures I took.


Contraband Cat, by Keith Newstead

Sit Up Anubis, by Paul Spooner

Sit Up Anubis, by Paul Spooner


Wire Automata at the Exploratorium

Being in the water

In 2014 I made a decision to fish more often. In years past, I fished maybe 4 or 5 times in the year. And it seemed to me that for as much as I really enjoy fishing, 4 to 5 times a year is not nearly enough.

All that changed in 2014. I discovered Crissy Field which I had been long aware of but had only opened to the public in 2001. It was not on my fishing radar until I started reading about it at The nice thing about Crissy is that it is only a 15 minute drive. It is much calmer than Ocean Beach which I have mostly avoided because of the strong currents and waves.

I started going about once a week from March through September. Now it’s just part of what I do. And I’ve even caught a few fish here and there, although I also discovered that catching is not the only reason to be fishing. Just being out in the fresh air is its own reward.

My standard way to fish has been to stand at the edge of water and take care not to let the waves splash over my boots. I was mostly successful but there were many times when I came home with wet socks. That’s okay, it’s all part of the deal.

A few months ago I was showing a friend some pictures of me at Crissy and he blurted, “I would have thought you would use waders!” You know, sometimes it takes a friend to point out the obvious. And I own two pairs of waders!

I have often float tubed on lakes fishing for bass. There is something wonderful, something revealing about being in waders in the water when you are fishing. It does bring you closer to the fish, and it’s not just a matter of proximity. It’s a bit hard to express unless you’ve done it yourself.

So I took my friend’s blurt to heart and started going to Crissy in waders. And it is really different. Really nice. Better. Being in the water as it swirls and moves and breaks is nice. I stand about knee high in the waves. Any higher and the waves tend to push you off balance. But knee high is just right.

If you see me at Crissy now, I’ll be in the water.

The Bite on Replay

This morning I tried out a new toy, a Polaroid Cube+ clipped to my waders. I wasn’t sure what to expect but I’m pleased. The quality is better than I expected. And I got about 1 hour and 45 minutes of record time before the battery gave out.

My main goal was to get footage of my catches but those are really few and far between. But I did get a couple of bites. Bites are usually very fleeting and are more felt than seen. So it was interesting to be able to replay the bite. What registered to me as small bite was actually a bit more than I thought when I watched the video. It’s interesting how the mind remembers or doesn’t remember an event.

I look forward to using the Cube now on my morning fishing expeditions. And I’m looking forward to actually getting a catch on video.

Things I Do to get Unstuck

I get to be creative every day in both my work and play and for whatever reason I sometimes lose that creative energy and get stuck. Being creative over many hours can be difficult, so over the years I’ve learnt variety of methods to unstick myself.

Imagine starting

This one is very effective for starting a project. Instead of focusing on the whole project or the end result of a project, I focus just on starting. Often that will get me over the hump, especially if I’m in an uncreative procrastinating mood.


I find this one particularly effective at the beginning of large daunting project. For me large projects can be intimidating and lead to a deer-in-the-headlights type of procrastination. So I think about the project, make a short list of specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-limited steps. The keys for me are specific and achievable.  The more specific a step is and the more achievable it is, the easier it is to start. Often this technique is a great substitute for the imagine starting method because creating the SMART list is starting.

Mind Maps

I use mind mapping specifically to invite my right brain in and shut down my inner editor. I start with a core word or phrase that represents the thing I’m trying to get unstuck at, and then I let all the ideas flow onto the map with lines, circles, lists, boxes, whatever. Nothing gets left out or edited. At the end of the process, I notice which things that I put down have the most juice for me. More often than not, it lets me proceed with whatever creative work I was trying to do. Mind maps also have this amazing ability to surface ideas that I did not know I have. Because the rule is to not leave anything out, I allow myself to explore things in a way that my left brain would not normally consider.

Pacing (as in walking up and down the hallway)

I think this one falls under the general idea that getting your body into a different state. Pacing, walking, taking a shower, etc. helps the brain unlock ideas or make associations that you wouldn’t if you just continue to sit and think about being stuck. I believe that the additional sights, sounds and sensations that you get from these activities allow your brain to open up.

Listen to Music

For some reason, I find listening to my favorite music very helpful. I do have a quirk though and that is that the music can’t have lyrics, or at least it can’t have words that I can understand. I listen to a lot of instrumental music – like the Piano Guys doing covers of pop songs, and Bollywood hits, which are great because I can’t understand a word.

Imagine High Fives

I use this one occasionally. I imagine running through a gathering of all my friends giving me high fives and encouraging me. It sounds a bit silly but it is actually quite uplifting. By the way, feel free to give me a high five when you see me.


This actually isn’t a specific method I use for getting unstuck, but I mention it here because it is part of my daily practice and I’m sure that it helps me stay creative. Many aspects of being stuck relate to being distracted or anxious and meditation helps me moderate and modulate those feelings.

Rubber Ducking

This one is somewhat specific to programming, but the idea is to try to explain being stuck to a rubber duck or other toy (mine is a hedgehog plushy). The act of explaining will forces me to get into some detail to explain my project, my code or whatever I’m stuck on, and the details will often reveal the solution.

Work on a different project

Many creative problems that I encounter just need to gestate on their own. Working on a different project allows my mind to use different circuits, and lets the other neurons relax or work in the background.

Taking a break

This is a simple one. I take a break and don’t work on anything. Maybe I watch ACT III of Star Wars or Rogue One. Or I watch a fishing video on Youtube. I peruse eBay. Yes, this gets dangerously close to true procrastination, but sometimes it’s the only thing that will help.

Sleep on it

This is really a longer term variation of taking a break, particularly if it is later in the day.  I find that starting again the next day allows me to apply a fresh look and so often the fresh look is so much simpler and elegant than any thought that I had the day before.

Let me know what techniques you use to get unstuck in your creative work.