Thursday 30 December 2021

Get Back (1969)

What Brain Eno calls scenius emerges within human groups who share a common space and understanding of how to make a particular type of artefact. They share traditional knowledge, but are not limited by this tradition. The group uses the tools and techniques which their wider peer group also use, but they push at the boundaries and one or more of the individuals in the group begin to modify and change what they have inherited. 

From my own experience of innovation in science and technology, Eno’s idea of scenius rings true, and others with hands-on experience of innovation will also recognise what Eno describes. Whilst in the midst of making an innovation there is chaos and frustration, but also a palpable energy, and a feeling that something useful and new is in the process of emerging. The group responds positively to these attempts to change a shared tradition, and a creative energy is unlocked. The peer pressure acting within the group is not constrictive, acting to keep everyone within the bounds of traditionally accepted norms, but expansive. 

In Eno’s letter about scenius, he describes a set of ethnographic observations he would like to make: ‘...I would love to be involved in making something to explore this idea - to support my thesis that new ideas come into being through a whole host of complicated circumstances, accidents, small incremental contributions made in isolation (as well as gifted individuals, of course) that in total add up to something qualitatively different: something nobody has ever seen before and which could not have been predicted from the elements that went to make it up’.

It is only with the development of film and audio recording technology that this idea of Eno’s has been possible. One unusually well documented example of the innovations made by a mature scenius was recorded early in 1969. The Beatles had decided to create and rehearse 14 songs to play in front of a live audience for a TV special. They planned to record the whole process on film and began on 2nd January 1969. The original deadline for the TV special was 24th January. The filmmaker they worked with, Michael Lindsay-Hogg, recorded extensive film and audio footage of this period of work by the Beatles, which he used for his 1970 documentary Let It Be. The full archive of more than 60 hours of film and 150 hours of audio tapes has recently been remastered and edited into an 8 hour long 3-part documentary called Get Back by Peter Jackson. This film is a remarkable document of the interpersonal dynamics of creativity and innovation within the scenius that surrounded the Beatles. 

The rehearsal sessions began at Twickenham Studios on 2nd January. After a few days of desultory progress, early on the 7th January, we see a seated Paul McCartney in a yellow sweater begin to strum his bass guitar as if it was a six string rhythm guitar. George and Ringo are sitting very close to him, and John Lennon has yet to arrive for the rehearsal. While McCartney is playing the riff, he is tapping his left foot to keep time, and he then starts to accompany himself with a vocal melody made up of indistinct, and maybe nonsense lyrics. In response to what McCartney is doing, Ringo looks bemused and George yawns. Around this tight inner circle of three Beatles, studio technicians, the band’s road manager and roadies are wandering about plugging in equipment. 

After a minute and a half of strumming and warbling, Paul pauses for a few bars whilst he keeps his foot tapping, and then he restarts the riff. He now begins to sing that in hindsight sound like one of the early verses in their song Get Back. George Harrison begins to tentatively play along. Over the footage, we hear George commenting on what Paul has been doing: ‘Yeah it’s good, it’s you know, musically man it’s great’. 

Within two minutes of Paul starting, Ringo begins clapping along and George more enthusiastically strums his guitar. Just then, Paul begins singing ‘get back, get back to where you once belonged’. Moments later, Ringo begins to harmonise and George is now adding guitar motifs in time with Paul’s riff. The footage cuts to what seems to be just a few moments later. Ringo is now playing a beat on the drums and George is adding guitar stabs. At that point, John Lennon arrives at the rehearsal in a fur coat, jeans and tennis shoes, sits down and begins playing along. All of a sudden, as observers we realise that surprisingly we have just witnessed the very first stages of the spontaneous composition of Get Back

Later that January, after they have moved rehearsals to a makeshift studio in the basement of the Apple corporation building in Saville Row, we see Lennon and McCartney iteratively develop the lyrics of the song. They incorporate elements of nonsense, play with different phrasing, modify the guitar accompaniment, include a protest song element as a response to a speech by Enoch Powell's. Yet the core of the song remains the same. One of the takes from these sessions is included on the Let it Be album and released as a single, on 11 April 1969. 

Remarkable as it is to see Get Back conjured from thin air, the band also either freshly composes or substantially develops more than a dozen songs in the three weeks work that is documented on the Get Back film. These songs include 11 that are on the Let it Be album, songs on their Abbey Road album and songs on solo albums by each of the individual Beatles. The Get Back footage also shows that the Beatles’ working milieu included a wider set of influences. It included the pianist Billy Preston who dropped in to say hello, and stayed to play on many of the tracks, the engineer Glyn Johns, their long term road manager Mal Evans, the roadie Kevin Harrington, their regular producer George Martin, and their partners Yoko Ono, Linda Eastman, Pattie Harrison and Maureen Starkey. 

There has been much written about this period in the Beatles’ history. Yet what this film shows is the incredible creativity and productivity of a band that was both close to splitting up and with a mature, almost familial set of relationships. It is a masterclass in how scenius can lead to innovation. 

Videos of the emergence of Get back can be found HERE and HERE

An excellent article about this documentary by David Remnick is in The New Yorker HERE.



Monday 27 December 2021

After Dark (2021)


Keita Morimoto is a Japanese painter. He recently held an exhibition of his night time paintings at Kotaro Nukaga in Tokyo. More HERE.

Friday 24 December 2021

Wordle (2021)

Wordle (HERE) is a simple interactive word game. You have six attempts to guess a 5 letter word. Ideal for the 2021 Xmas break.  

Wednesday 22 December 2021

What are working professionals missing in their AI education? (2021)

Peter Norvig is the co-author of a very widely used AI textbook. HERE is an interview with him about AI, including AI education. 

It includes the following Q&A.

What are working professionals missing in their AI education?

In AI education teachers assign a simple well-defined problem with a given dataset and a pre-defined objective. Students then see their job as building a model that maximizes the objective function. But in a real world project, professionals need to define the objectives and collect or generate the data on their own. You don’t get credit for choosing an especially clever or mathematically sophisticated model, you get credit for solving problems for your users. 

In my own experience, you could take out "AI" and replace it with "Data Analysis", and the statement would remain 100% true. 

Wednesday 15 December 2021

Instead of shaking all over, I read the newspapers. (2019)


Colm Tóibín is an Irish writer. He has a monumental work ethic and has created a slew of best sellers and also won a long list of literary awards since 1993. In 2018 he was diagnosed with testicular cancer, and he got better. HERE is his essay describing his experience. It is a great read.

I blew $720 on 100 notebooks from Alibaba and started a Paper Website business (2021)

 This is a brilliant idea and story - that came from a simple question: Can you build a website from a piece of paper?

Wednesday 8 December 2021

How will the Business of Innovation become Business as Usual? (2013)

Heseltine Institute Fresh Thinking session 15th October 2013

Over the past 25 years I have been lucky enough to have worked on the ‘business of innovation’ and have been paid to do it.

Although I have specialised in technological innovations, what I have learnt is that innovation is not mainly about university science labs or high-technology or patents or start-up companies or venture capital investment. Innovation is mainly about taking seriously what you already do today and believing that: There must be a better way

This thought process can be applied to each and every aspect of your daily life:

  • On a ward in a national health service hospital
  • On a factory floor
  • At the forecourt of a car showroom
  • At a University chemistry lab
  • At a call-centre
  • Whilst greeting a new visitor to the city
  • Whilst visiting an elderly person or their carer in their home in Anfield.

You can define what these places and activities are for your work and home life.

Innovation is about identifying the thing that nags you most and finding a weak link. And once you see this weak link, a way that things really could be better, innovation is about using your native smarts and your networks and their networks to get other people to help you define what that better way is and then making it a reality.

The particular innovation I am now working on is called The Materials Innovation Factory.

This is a hugely ambitious project the University of Liverpool in partnership with the UK government and Unilever believes that there must be a better way of doing materials science that can simultaneously have an academic, commercial and societal benefit. We all believe that Liverpool is the right place to do this.

The project has attracted £55 million in funding and it has a vision that will ensure it can create innovation after innovation over decades. But the existence of this project is itself founded on an innovation.

More than 10 years ago two early career scientists, Andy Cooper and Steve Rannard, believed that there must be a better way to do chemistry. They created a vision on a whiteboard of a new way for a University and commercial organisation to collaborate and they spent about 4 years convincing people that this idea of theirs was the right way to do things. They were right. The Centre for Materials Discovery that they had imagined became a reality and the number and breadth of innovations delivered from that centre have exceeded all the expectations of both Unilever and the University of Liverpool.

The Materials Innovation Factory takes their idea and turbo-charges it. Within this institute about 300 academic scientists and commercial technologists will be mingling together and using the latest robotic equipment and high-tech methods to create a ‘production line’ of innovations. Over the next 10 years Liverpool will become known as one of the key innovation centres for new materials in Europe and perhaps the World.

But no matter how exciting the Materials Innovation Factory and other projects like it appear, they are not the whole answer. Any city or region that believes its future prosperity requires innovation has to create a culture of innovation amongst its citizens. All of its citizens. Not just the people at the Universities or science parks or incubators who declare themselves as innovators.

This is one of the most pressing imperatives I see for Liverpool City Region. How do we make the spirit that motivates innovators into a commonplace?





Individually we each need to look at what we do on a daily basis. Find the things that aren’t great and decide to find a better way. And because most of you in this room are lucky enough to have a big influence, the innovations that come directly from you, or from your instigation, are likely to have a significant impact in Liverpool.

Collectively we have to create an ethos that says the future can be built through innovation. To encourage our young people to see innovation as a way to create their own future and a future for their generation.

To help them understand that they can be an innovator - the kind of person who believes that there must be a better way, and that Liverpool is a place where innovations thrive. This will I believe also allow Liverpool to attract even more innovators, people who want to share with us both the journey and the destination.


2021 Dimbleby Lecture


Sarah Gilbert is a Professor at the Jenner Institute of Oxford University. She leads a team of scientists who have over the past few years developed a vaccine innovation platform that allowed them to very rapidly design a new vaccine against the Covid-19 virus. 

Gilbert gave the 2021 Dimbleby lecture this week (HERE).  It is a wonderful piece of writing, and an even better lecture. Without any slides or visual aids, Gilbert explains with humility, humour and extreme lucidity what she had to do from January 2020 onwards to make the Oxford Astra-Zeneca vaccine in record breaking time. I don't think I have ever seen the human drama and effort that is involved in making a major scientific breakthrough described so well. Gilbert calls out by name those people who made specific contributions to the breakthrough, she highlights the risks and the decisions that were made. She illustrates the contingent, unpredictable and quite remarkable set of conditions that needed to drop into place to achieve what they did. It is also an unaffected, but nonetheless convincing, lesson in the impact that publicly funded University research at its very best can have on the world.   

For those people who feel that they don't understand science, I would recomend listening to Sara Gilbert. I have no doubt they will feel inspired both by the story she has to tell, and by the way she tells it. 

The BBC iPlayer has the talk HERE.