Have you wasted enough time today?

Publication date: 29 August 2011
Originally published 2011 in Atomic: Maximum Power Computing
Last modified 09-Jun-2016.


I cannot speak too highly of mucking around.

Unproductive twiddling. Buggering about. Playing.

I'm partly in favour of frivolous activity because a life without fun isn't much of a life. But mucking about is also an absolutely essential component of the creative process, and a life without creativity is also not much of a life.

The kind of mucking about that leaps most easily to the mind of people reading this Web site is, probably, video games, and there's considerable room for creativity in at least some of those. Physics games, god games, Minecraft, any game where you can make your own maps, creative griefing (from drive-by carpentry in Ultima Online to Team Roomba's TF2 quiz show...), oddball MMOs like A Tale in the Desert and Second Life; the list goes on.

You're probably not nurturing your creative soul if you play CODBLOPS or Dead Space, but everything from puzzle games to Conway's Life definitely qualifies, as did my friend at school who delighted in making Lode Runner levels that anticipated the utterly unfair manic brutality of I Wanna Be The Guy.

Computers offer many other kinds of ineffectual activity. "Fritterware" that lets you spend a week getting your computer so slickly set up that you'll make back the setup time in only 140 years. UV-reactive water-cooling gear that lets you run your CPU 4% faster than air cooling did. Endless incomprehensible BIOS options that offer an even smaller performance gain.

(If anything, computers and their various input-output devices make so many kinds of creativity so very accessible that choice paralysis can set in, even if all you want to do is muck about. Photography? Music? 3D object design and animation, now with ever-increasing ways to turn your creations into real-world physical objects? Multiplayer games? A modern computer's about as dangerous an open-ended creativity jungle as parents who're totally supportive of their child's artistic ambitions and unconventional life choices.)

The tools of the electronics workshop are even better.

See how yellow you can get a red LED to turn, if you submerge it in a spraycan-lid of furiously boiling freezer spray! Raise the voltage and try for blue! (You'll probably need liquid nitrogen for a really dramatic change, though.)

I'd also mention my experiments with liquid butane here, except there's apparently some silly legal issue, involving encouraging teenagers to make flaming whoomp-puddles in their bedrooms. Also, children, Just Say No to making even a little bit of thermite, even though it will absolutely definitely instantly make you the most popular kid in school.

Oh, and my 31-volt, 5-amp current-regulated bench power supply is far more useful than my old 15V, thirty-amp totally-NOT-current-regulated one. But that old one is what I turn to when a paper clip needs to be used to illuminate my office, or experiments concerning spot-welding tin cans with a pencil lead must be performed.

And when a drain blocks, I always seize the opportunity to mix caustic soda into a bucket of cold water until the water starts boiling, and then dump the terrifying concoction down the likeliest-looking plughole. I do this not because I have any real expectation that it'll help (NaOH can do some good against greasy clogs and slowly destroy other organic matter, but the odds are not fantastic). It's just so much fun to don the eye protection and stir up a bucket of hot liquid death.

And, the other day, I bought an electric cattle prod.

I have no cattle.

I am not into S&M.

But it now occurs to me that I probably should have bought two of them, so party-guests could have sword fights.

Getting back to computers, it's becoming easier and easier to fritter and waste your hours in an offhand way, and almost accidentally end up making something quite impressive. The best example of this today is user-friendly music software that comes with a whole library of synthesised and sampled instruments, and doesn't require a MIDI keyboard or any ability to read music.

Tiresomely, though, mucking about is usually necessary, but not sufficient, for useful creativity. Bands that, like, totally had to be high when they made that record, dude, almost always weren't. (The above-quoted Pink Floyd is a prime example.) And painters and sculptors and writers and photographers may start out just mucking about whittling a log or trying to take fisheye photos of insects, but they all have to knuckle down and actually work if they want to bring a project to completion.

People who quote Einstein about imagination being more important than knowledge seldom remember Joubert's earlier observation that he who has imagination but no knowledge has wings, but no feet. Just mucking about is, generally, no more likely to lead to an impressive creative work than eating far too much is likely to lead to a championship Sumo career.

I think it's still valid, however, to note that the history of humanity is littered with idle experiments that led to great things.

(And, as Kurt Vonnegut said, "We are here on Earth to fart around. Don't let anybody tell you any different.")

Probe around with a wire on a silicon carbide crystal to see whether it makes diodes like galena does; accidentally invent the LED.

Or, a geological eyeblink earlier: Hold a piece of cord in your teeth, stretch it tight and twang it; accidentally invent stringed musical instruments.

The exact forms of messing around available change as the years pass; chemistry sets have been sadly neutered, but kids can make robots now.

If you're afraid to fiddle with things with no clear goal in mind, you're a bit like people who're afraid to do anything new on their PC in case they get a virus or format C or something.

So, do something freeform and aimless today. If you've no particular goal, you can't fail.

And you may learn something. Or make something. Or both.

Other columns

Learning to love depreciation

Overclockers: Get in early!

Stuff I Hate

Why Macs annoy me

USB: It's worth what you pay

"Great product! Doesn't work!"

The virus I want to see

Lies, damned lies and marketing

Unconventional wisdom

How not to e-mail me

Dan's Quick Guide to Memory Effect, You Idiots

Your computer is not alive

What's the point of robot pets?

Learning from spam

Why it doesn't matter whether censorware works

The price of power

The CPU Cooler Snap Judgement Guide

Avoiding electrocution

Video memory mysteries

New ways to be wrong

Clearing the VR hurdles

Not So Super

Do you have a license for that Athlon?

Cool bananas

Getting rid of the disks

LCDs, CRTs, and geese

Filling up the laptop

IMAX computing

Digital couch potatoes, arise!

Invisible miracles

Those darn wires

Wossit cost, then?

PFC decoded

Cheap high-res TV: Forget it.


Dan Squints At The Future, Again

The programmable matter revolution

Sounding better

Reality Plus™!

I want my Tidy-Bot!

Less go, more show

In search of stupidity

It's SnitchCam time!

Power struggle

Speakers versus headphones

Getting paid to play

Hurdles on the upgrade path

Hatin' on lithium ion

Wanted: Cheap giant bit barrel

The screen you'll be using tomorrow

Cool gadget. Ten bucks.

Open Sesame!

Absolutely accurate predictions

The truth about everything

Burr walnut computing

Nothing new behind the lens

Do it yourself. Almost.

The quest for physicality

Tool time

Pretty PCs - the quest continues

The USB drive time bomb

Closer to quietness

Stuff You Should Want

The modular car

Dumb smart houses

Enough already with the megapixels

Inching toward the NAS of our dreams

Older than dirt

The Synthetics are coming


Game Over is nigh

The Embarrassingly Easy Case Mod

Dumb then, smart now

Fuel cells - are we there yet?

A PC full of magnets

Knowledge is weakness

One Laptop Per Me

The Land of Wind, Ghosts and Minimised Windows

Things that change, things that don't

Water power

Great interface disasters

Doughnut-shaped universes

Grease and hard drive change

Save me!

Impossible antenna, only $50!

I'm ready for my upgrade

The Great Apathetic Revolution

Protect the Wi-Fi wilderness!

Wi-Fi pirate radio

The benign botnet

Meet the new DRM, same as the old DRM

Your laptop is lying to you

Welcome to super-surveillance

Lemon-fresh power supplies


Internet washing machines, and magic rip-off boxes

GPGPU and the Law of New Features

Are you going to believe me, or your lying eyes?

We're all prisoners of game theory

I think I'm turning cyborg-ese, I really think so

Half an ounce of electrons

Next stop, clay tablets

A bold new computer metaphor

Won't someone PLEASE think of the hard drives?!

Alternate history

From aerial torpedoes to RoboCars

How fast is a hard drive? How long is a piece of string?

"In tonight's episode of Fallout 4..."

How hot is too hot?

Nerd Skill Number One

What'll be free next?

Out: Hot rods. In: Robots.

500 gig per second, if we don't get a flat

No spaceship? No sale.

The shifting goalposts of AI

Steal This Education

Next stop: Hardware piracy

A hundred years of EULAs

The triumph of niceness

The daily grind

Speed kings


Game crazy

Five trillion bits flying in loose formation

Cannibalise the corpses!

One-note NPCs

Big Brother is watching you play

Have you wasted enough time today?

The newt hits! You die...

Stuck in the foothills

A modest censorship proposal

In Praise of the Fisheye


The death of the manual

Of magic lanterns, and MMORPGs

When you have eliminated the impossible...

Welcome to dream-land

Welcome to my museum

Stomp, don't sprint!

Grinding myself down

Pathfinding to everywhere

A deadly mouse trap

If it looks random, it probably isn't

Identical voices and phantom swords


Socialised entertainment

Warfare. Aliens. Car crashes. ENTERTAINMENT!

On the h4xx0ring of p4sswordZ

Seeing past the normal

Science versus SoftRAM

Righteous bits

Random... ish... numbers

I get letters

Money for nothing

Of course you'd download a car. Or a gun!

A comforting lie

Give Dan some money!
(and no-one gets hurt)