2014 review of the year

Trite as it may be, the end of the year offers an opportunity to review our deeds, and plot future (mis)adventures. Herewith, a review of my year of aesthetic experimentation, 2014.

The year started with messing with the media of political discourse. Both David Cameron, our Prime Minister, and Ed Miliband, the leader of the opposition, released ‘New Year’ messages. The blandification of British politics was laid bare by the similarities between the men and the vacuous messages. I’ve algorithmically blended politicians before, but this time I (mis)used the marvellous Echonest API to literally put their words into each other’s mouths.

I crashed my bike in February, getting knocked out, breaking some bones and being saddled with Trochlear Nerve Palsy. I subsequently spent 5 months with an eyepatch, inciting pirate jokes wherever I went. Not much art was produced for a while as a result, and I had to learn to paint with one eye. I did manage to speak at #pydata, whilst still somewhat concussed.

Inspired by the lies and clickbait which seem to make up much of the internet, I released a lying twitterbot. @factbot1 makes up facts, finds a suitable image, and posts them online every 4 hours. The account is still running, and as I write this has just produced it’s 1,500th lie.

Then there was @hipsterbait1 – an experiment in algo-commerce. Could a bot produce a work, and offer it for sale through a third party, automatically, without any human intervention? The bot produces t-shirts that mash up images and references, primarily in the domain of band t-shirts. Unfortunately, my plans to retire on my algo-generated fortune were nixed when Zazzle quickly refused to actually print them.


June brought one of the more sophisticated bots of the year, @bffbot1, an algorithmic stalker who aimed to be your best friend, writing you poems and spotting you in the street. She was very popular, particularly with the Turkish (not sure why) until she was killed by Twitter in October.

September was filled with curating and producing The New Sublime at Brighton Digital Festival – a fantastic group show of some of the finest artists working with digital technology.

It was a busy month where I finished a series of 13 paintings called ‘pissed off primates‘, and embarked on a brief international speaking tour which took me to Canada, London and Bournemouth.

At the end of October I produced another bot which also fell foul of Twitter – a simulation of social infection called @algobola

I also knocked up a bot with all the answers, painted Rik Mayall and Chris TT. I got some robots to perform Waiting for Godot, built systems to scrape folk fan art from twitter, compress great works of fiction, and most recently excise the face of Nigel Farage.

So that’s my 2014 in a nutshell, expect more of the same in 2015 – follow me on Twitter and be amongst the first to know…

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As I mentioned previously, I recently fell off my bicycle, onto my head. This had a number of negative effects, a broken arm and a severe concussion amongst them. Though by far the most troubling (and currently persisting) injury has been to my Trochlear Nerve. I’d never heard of it before, and I suspect neither have you, but it is a nerve which travels from the back of the brainstem to control some of the muscles of the eye.

trochlear nerve

It’s long and thin and easily damaged by a blow to the head. It’s the only nerve which comes out of the back of the brainstem, an evolutionary ‘feature’ which can be traced back to the first vertebrates about 525 million years ago. A ‘feature’ which is fine if you’re a fish, but less so if you’re a large-brained, bipedal primate, who likes to ride a bicycle.

The practical result is that my eyes no longer converge properly, producing a form of double vision known as tortional diplopia.

It has a non-medical name as well.


The first definition is pretty accurate, both eyes are awry, tilted, misaligned. The second is a bit less flattering and better describes my post-concussive state, rather than the effect on my vision. The etymology of the word is unclear, though one can understand how someone with their eyes pointing outwards (in extreme cases of trochlear nerve damage) may look like a cockerel. Perhaps it’s the association of a blow to the head with the confusion of concussion which leads to the second definition. Spinning, non-aligned eyeballs certainly feature heavily in the lexicon of cartoons, a visual shorthand for the effect of being struck in the head.


In practice it means the information being delivered by my eyes together is unusable.

Basically, this:

becomes this:

So, I’ve taken to wearing an eyepatch, which, aside from granting me licence to become a pirate, introduces a number of practical difficulties.

In the land of the blind...
In the land of the blind…

Firstly, it significantly reduces my field of vision from nearly 180 degrees, down to about 90.

Normal Vision
With eyepatch

This means my daughter, who is frequently at my side, has become invisible. It’s only since blocking one eye that I’ve become aware of how often I glance down to check on her.

We are training each other to swap sides.

I am also experimenting with a pair of ‘broken hipster’ glasses, with one lens painted black. They’re quite effective, but I’ve yet to wear them outside the house.


Obviously, the biggest problem with losing the use of an eye is the loss of depth perception. In the last few weeks, I’ve certainly bumped into a few things, and mis-judged the distance when pouring a glass of wine, but my mistakes are becoming less frequent.

The real difficulty lies with the accurate alignment of objects at the <1cm range - fine motor control problems like threading a needle, or painting a picture...

the last millimetre

The last few millimetres between brush and canvas are crucial, misjudge it and you end up with a splodge where you wanted a delicate line.

I’m re-training myself as a (hopefully temporarily) one-eyed painter. It’s forcing me to slow down, to consider that interface between paint and canvas a little more carefully, to read the sensation through my fingers as much as my eye.

It’s early days, but I’ve tried a couple of canvases, and strangely, I’m quite pleased with both the process and the results. I’ll keep you posted.

The prognosis of the condition is irritatingly vague – ‘most people spontaneously recover within about 10 months’, so hopefully it will resolve, but in the meantime I must be patient and enjoy looking at the world with a fresh eye.

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