Monday, 30 July 2007

The Not So Simple Life

I don’t know who it was who first said "Oh, the simple life for me!" I don’t think it was Diogenes, who as American soldiers would say, walked the walk rather than just talked the talk. In other words, he lived the life, rather than just talking about it as a desirable future ‘alternative’ lifestyle.
The phrase seems to have come from its use in popular song, a cry of discontent that is natural and attractive when your life is hopelessly complicated.
The fantasy version comes in two flavours: one, where you live totally alone – like Robinson Crusoe; the other, as a group, like the Swiss Family Robinson. Living an "unworldly" life became part of Western Christian culture early on, as early Christian fathers took to living in the desert, in caves, in woods, when it was an unofficial, persecuted religion. The Celtic-Irish monastic movement that was a later communal extension of this which still allowed for hermits, called anchorites.
Later, Romantic poets indulged the notion of personal retreat as an attractive dream, like Yeats in his ‘The Lake Isle Of Innisfree’: I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,/ And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:/ Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honeybee, And live alone in the bee-loud glade./ And I shall have some peace there… Back when most people had rather primitive lifestyles anyway, it wasn’t so glamorised. There’s a Celtic poem about the original Merlin, Myrddin Wyllt (the Wild), going to live in the woods with only a piglet for company. He had fled there after giving bad advice as a court bard, leading to seeing his king defeated in battle, and the horror had driven him mad. This is an essential springboard in many actual cases, the retreat to recuperate from some disaster. (The author Nikolai Tolstoi, who was bankrupted in a lawsuit, became fascinated with Merlin The Wild and wrote a book on him as a genuine historical figure.) Such figures suffering from the experience of some catastrophe that made it impossible for them to carry on with a normal life still exist. In America, the designation "Bush Vets" describes Vietnam or subsequent-war veterans who could not re-adjust to ‘civilised’ life and so went to live in cabins in the woods. Even the original of Robinson Crusoe, Alexander Selkirk, after his return retreated from the possibilities offered by his new celebrity and went to live in a hut he built at the bottom of his parents’ garden before escaping back to sea.
Shack in mountains

The modern notion that living the simple life in a cabin or on a desert island is a solution to the psycholigical and spiritual problems of modern life grew as society itself became more materialistic. Again, the early proponents here were religious types whose world-view repudiated materialism, a fact which much contributed to the founding of America via agrarian communes. The later westward drive by desperately poor immigrants from European cities led an entire generation to live for a time in covered wagons, sod houses, and log cabins. (For an example of a pioneer memoir, see Laura Ingalls Wilder’s 1935 Little House On The Prairie.) This ‘pioneer experience’ was venerated by their descendants, and soon the notion of being raised in a log cabin soon became something politicians like Abe Lincoln would boast of as the lifestyle itself became less common. (You can read all about this process in Henry Nash Smith’s classic study Virgin Land: The American West As Symbol and Myth
Today, The Simple Life is an attractive idea for the world-weary, but as we become accustomed to material comforts like central heating and electronic communications, more difficult to adjust to. The generation I grew up with in the Sixties adopted Thoreau’s account of his "experiment in simple living" Walden Or Life in the Woods as a sort of lifestyle ‘bible.’ Thoreau’s simple life involved building himself a cabin outside Concord, Mass., and living a contemplative life there for two years in the 1850s, writing about marching to the beat of a different drummer, etc. This ‘dropout’ lifestyle included being jailed for not paying his poll tax, in line with his earlier essay – admired by Gandhi – On Civil Disobedience. For in the late Sixties and early Seventies, over a hundred thousand Americans became social outcasts when they fled the prospect of service in the Vietnam War. Mainly they heading north to Canada, where they set up house in county communes or in log cabins in the woods, until the government repealed the old ‘Homestead’ Act. Many others drifted back to civilisation, disillusioned. (You can read about this stressful time in The Eden Express, by novelist Kurt Vonnegut’s son Mark, who suffered the fate of too many who abandon civilisation - descent into mental illness.) Nevertheless a whole counter-culture mythos grew up around the experience, popularising expressions such as sustainable living, voluntary simplicity, and downshifting.
Of course the notion of The Simple Life remains an attractive vicarious fantasy, much played up in the media, most recently in wilderness-survival TV shows, either with groups of amateur ‘castaways’ or celebrity experts. But disillusion can set in as soon as you look behind the scenes. This week we had press exposes how British survival expert Bear Grylls stayed in luxury hotels while demonstrating onscreen how to survive with only a knife and a flint. Even with Thoreau, his cabin was relatively close to town, his sister bailed him out after he spent a night in jail for not paying his tax, and so on.
Also this week, BBC Digital radio has been repeating the classic Tony Hancock episode "The Wild Man Of The Woods" where he announces he is forsaking civilisation to live as a hermit. It turns out his hermitage is a bus shelter on the Common, "so I’ll be near the shops." And he finds the simple life is not so simple after all, due to the fascination others have with the lifestyle. I found listening to this on cassette particularly memorable during my own formative writer’s retreat living in a snowbound wilderness cabin. For in most ‘civilised’ countries it is difficult to find true wilderness where one can live in isolation, and so two traditions of The Simple Life have evolved, the Arcadian and the Bohemian (which I’d tried earlier on).
The ‘arcadian’ approach is where you find a rural paradise which will support you in your chosen lifestyle. One thing you learn if you live in a cabin is that 9-5’ers think you don’t ‘work’ for a living – idly imagining living off the land involves no effort. In fact it is difficult to arrange and sustain. Such paradises also never last, as the occupants themselves bring the seed of destruction with them. (On this, see Alex Garland’s bestseller The Beach or the 1970s Robert Redford film Jeremiah Johnson.)
Thus we also have a ‘bohemian’ tradition of leading a simple, dropout lifestyle in an urban setting. Diogenes, hanging about the Corinth marketplace, seems the first known example of this. The Beats or Beatniks of the post-WWII era and the hippies of the Sixties are the best-known recent examples. Earlier there was a smaller but influential group, the post-WWI ‘Lost Generation’ of writers who had survived the war but couldn’t face going home, and stayed on in France as expatriates. For it’s a lifestyle pursued by many a writer wanting to keep his life uncomplicated while he gets his writing together, living anonymously in a city outside the ‘bourgeois’ conventions of career and marriage from which he feels alienated. (Sartre’s 1930s writer’s-journal novel La NauseeNausea - is a prime example of this.) Yet the Bohemian approach has only a narrow appeal, pursued by those unable to realise the arcadian version favoured by the Romantic writers like Wordsworth and Coleridge.
This is increasingly popular today as a consumerist daydream: polls indicate that up to a third of the British population wants to emigrate – perhaps retreat to some still-undeveloped Spanish Costa, or build that crumbling ruin of a dream farmhouse in Provence or on a Greek island, just like they’ve read about in the books of Peter Mayle, or Gerald or Lawrence Durrell. The reality is most people can only pursue the simple life at certain times - youth, old age, or while on holiday activities such as hiking and camping. (The Arcadian and the Bohemian worlds uniquely co-mingle in the English enthusiasm for spending summers in beach huts on the fringes of conurbations.) Yet even if it can only be indulged for a short time, it remains a useful tonic. This month, the Boy Scout Movement celebrates its 100th anniversary, of the very first Scout camp on Brownsea Island, an international event endorsed by some surprising examples of celebrityhood (like rock stars), who testify how their own youthful camping-out experiences changed their lifelong outlook to a more self-reliant one.

Saturday, 28 July 2007

A Modern Day Diogenes

I was watching the new medical detective series called House. Hailing from our friends across the sea, House is very much an American product, though with an Englishman Hugh Laurie in the title role. He plays the curmudgeonly Dr Gregory House, every bit as much the detective as Holmes, he is presented with a new medical mystery to solve every week.

Much of the series is transparently modelled on Sherlock Holmes, not only is the name House-Holmes a give away but there are other clues too. House, like Holmes is a drug fiend depending on Vikaden for his highs as much as Holmes on his cocaine. He has one constant friend, a Dr Wilson as opposed to Dr Watson with whom he share his thoughts and there is also a bunch of three Baker Street irregulars, junior doctors in the case of House who he sends out to do his leg-work, breaking into houses and scouring for evidence. House too shares Holmes aloofness from relationships of the romantic kind, preferring instead a cynical view of human life. That has changed in recent episodes, probably due to the demands of Hollywood stylism which sees having a love interest as essential to broadening out the appeal. But the essential characteristics are all there. House, the brilliant diagnostician who's brilliance outshines all else with this powers of deduction and and forensic skill.

But there is one aspect of House which is very different from Holmes. And that is his ingrained indifference to convention, custom and tradition. And therein lies his connection with our friend Diogenes. The appeal of the ancient philosopher is in his is total rejection of the conventional and his own assessment of how he should live and what he should do. Once you go back to basics and think it through for yourself you find there are a whole pile of things that people do which have no meaning and no logic. Most of what we do is governed by convention rather than logic. And Diogenes had not time for that. And neither does House. And it is this more than his brilliance as a medical diagnostician that make him a fascination to his fans.

Sunday, 15 July 2007

The Illusion of Time

We were sitting around at the Diogenes Club last night discussing Gordon the Tramp and his astonishing time-telling abilites when I told the club that I am slowly coming to the conclusion that Time does not exist at all.

Now I know that cynics are renowned for systematically doubting pretty well most things, but even in the Diogenes Club this raised a few eyebrows.

Beachhutman, lay back in his comfy armchair and offered the observation that he felt Time was that thing that God invented to prevent everything happening all at once - and consequently Time must exist.

This is a surprisingly powerful argument for the existence of Time. If there is no such thing as Time then why hasn't everything already happend? But I was not to be put off so easily.

One of the things that makes me suspicious of time is the idea that it flows along like a river, immutable and eternal. If that is so, then how fast does it flow? Does it speed up or slow down? And can you measure the flow of time? I don't think you can.

H.G.Wells touched on this in one of his lesser known works "The New Accelerator" which involves a chemist who invents a new potion. The potion has a remarkable affect on anyone who drinks it. They find that every bodily process is speeded up a thousand fold - heartbeat, movement, thinking, everything. This enables a person to perform any task a thousand times faster than normal. However for the one drinking the magic liquid the only observable effect is that the world has slowed down to almost a stopping rate. Holding out a glass at arms length and letting it fall sees the glass seemingly suspended in mid-air. It is infact falling, but a thousand times slower than before.

This raises the question, what would happen if time did slow down? Slow down for everyone. What if the rate at which time flowed was halved or brought to one thousandth of its normal rate. The question is, would we notice it? I think the answer is that we would not. If everything was slower, including our thoughts and perceptions then it would all be seen as normal. It's just as if you record at double-speed a tape running at double-speed -it would come out normal.

That is what makes me suspicious. If we can't detect whether time is moving slower or faster, if in principle it can't be measured, then does it exist? I think not.

Beachhutman interjected with a comment, which I think he thought might bring the whole discussion to a timely close. He was, he said, reminded of something his local vicar once told him. "There are three mysteries in this world; space, time and existance - and we will never understand any of them."

Maybe he's right. Undaunted, I pressed on. "Let's take the thought-experiment a stage further - what if the rate of time flow varied continuously so that one moment it was slow the next it was fast? Could we notice that? Would it change anthing?"

Beachhutman stroked his chin thoughfully, and looked about to speak.

"There is no way," I said, "that we can determine that the length of one hour is the same as the length of another hour at another time. Nor that the length of an hour in one place is the same as the length of an hour in another place. " I got that from Poincare - so it must be right.

Kevin, the newest member of the Diogenes Club, threw into the conversation, the idea that time is irrevocably linked to relative movement. The consequence of which is that if you have a universe with only one particle, there can be no time in that universe. Now that is quite profound and took some of us no little while to get out heads around it. Of course it means that whatever Time is, it is not absolute - running on in the background without reference to anything else.

Pridian keenly observed that without time, there can of course be no time travel. The time-traveller, the morlocks, Weena - or their equivalent would have no existance outside of an H.G.Wells novel. Was I prepared to close the door on this mainspring of science fiction plots - to rule out for all time a whole genre of literature and film? Perhaps the price is too high to pay for a philosopical attitude?

Time-travel has to be a suspect kind of idea anyway, and there is one argument, a kind of modification of the Fermi Paradox, that has never been answered. Enrico Fermi, famous physicist, while sitting at lunch one day dissmissed the idea that there are aliens on other planets by the simple question, "If they exist, why has no-one seen them?" Given the extreme age of the universe and the vast number of stars, there should be plenty of them. But we see none. The same can be appled to time-travel. Given the infinite length of time before us, why do we see that no one has yet invented a time machine and travelled back to see us? The only conclusion must be that they can't. Time-travel is not possible.

But Pridian had a more sophisicated argument in favour of time to present. Quoting the time-traveller he reminded us that time is the fourth dimension. You can't have two objects occupying the same space at the same time. But they can be in the same place at different times. So time definitely exists. If you don't have a time dimension then things couldn't move and they couldn't swap places - which we know happens from time to time.

Mmmm..... This whole appeal to Special Relativity and four dimensional Minkowski space is not so clear cut it seems to me. Albert Einstein's best friend had a look at this. This is the one and only Kurt Godel, more famous for his incompletness theorems, but also a bit of a closet expert in time and space. Albert and Kurt used to take long walks around Princeton every afternoon and chat about Life, the Universe and Everything. Einstein said that the only reason he bothered turning up for work was so that he could chat with the genius Kurt Godel. And Kurt, after many walks and talks, also came to the conclusion that the flow of time is an illusion. In a short little paper he proved that if both special and general relativity are correct then our perception of time (what McTaggart called the A series) is an illusion.

"But what do you really measure when you measure Time?" I persisted. Not Time itself, that's for sure. All you measure is the passing of hands on a clock face, or the swings of a pendulum or the movement of the sun in the sky. None of these is Time. Time is an inference you draw from the movement of one thing against another. Movement is what you have. Cause and Effect is what you have. Time you have to construct from these things.

Nevertheless, I suspect that Time has more to do with the workings of the mind than the workings of the universe. The brain constructs its own timeframe to try to help sort out things into some kind of order. It is based on cause and effect. One event causes another, a moving snooker ball hits another and starts it moving. And the brain builds a framework from that, by seeing that one event causes another, it creates a framework of before and after and puts all the events it sees into the framework by inference.

I can't say that many of my fellow diogenists were convinced about the non-existant of Time. Beachhutman grunted, slid further back in his chair and said he would need some time to think about it.

The truth of this was not lost on any of us.

Wednesday, 11 July 2007

Of Course, We're All Bohemians Now

There's a news story been doing the rounds of print, TV and online sources, what they call a human interest story, albeit a media-contrived one. A Facebook webpage created by a Bournemouth University student devoted to a local ‘tramp’ who can tell time accurately has become a hit.
Facebook being more a student networking site than just a web host, students around the world have picked up on this 'trick' as amusing, or even amazing. The "Gordon The Tramp" appreciation group now has thousands of subscribers and he is described onsite as 'possibly the most famous person in all of Bournemouth' (though this is not saying a lot). Followers arrange "Gordon the Tramp" dress-up parties. He's now a "global superstar." Google lists 12,000 hits for 'Gordon+Tramp' These are apparently all news stories or blog items rehashing the same Press Association story, originally from a local agency outlet.
Gordon seems to be bearing his new celebrity with good grace, posing with groups of student "revellers". (I'd guess this is how he was discovered, when one of them, out late, asked him the time.) This is despite the fact the site's home-page design patronisingly has his head in the centre of a Looney Tunes circular logo (you remember, where Daffy or Bugs or Porky Pig would say 'That's all, folks.') Another page shows him wearing a Photoshopped-on crown. In interviews, he seems uncomprehending at this online fame, understandable if he's probably not had much to do with the web in his life. However he did tell Meridian TV news (YouTube clip online) he is annoyed at the label tramp.
Gordon The TrampThe students must have got this obsolete term from some literary source like a prewar Just William story. It meant someone who tramps, or travels on foot, around the country as an itinerant beggar. The reality until recently was that this lifestyle was enforced by local officials, who would have the police 'move on' homeless men (e.g. drive them to the edge of town and tell them not to come back, sometimes giving them a bag of chips as a consolation). Gordon is not homeless but has lived in the same house for fifty years. The reality of the life of tramps can be found in books like Orwell's Down & Out In Paris And London, or Autobiography Of A Super-Tramp by W.H. Davies. If this latter name sounds familiar from school days it's probably because he also authored the frequently-anthologised poem Leisure – “What is this life if, full of care, we have no time to stand and stare."
The term has been hijacked by the student party set in names like Tramp's Nightclub and Brit progressive rock band Supertramp (one of whose founders, Richard Palmer - Palmer-James actually - was from Bournemouth). Tramps in the traditional sense were homeless men also known in America as hobos or bums. There, calling a female a tramp meant something else entirely - a Mickey Spillane style derogatory term for a type of woman, as in the song The Lady Is A Tramp. Disney adapted this title for their 1955 animated feature, where Tramp is the streetwise male mongrel. This US provenance may be the source of the nightclub name - there is a Tramp's in NYC as well as London.
The same thing has happened to the idea of Bohemianism. It’s now a fashion accessory expressing a bit of token non-conformism, like wearing T-shirts with slogans Bohemian originally referred to the ‘ethnic’ quarter of a European city, then to the middle-class people who took up residence there to live as what in the Sixties were called ‘drop-outs’. The legacy of this is that Bohemian has since become a fashion-oriented consumerist label. These days, councils vie to be more 'bohemian' than their rivals. Brighton claims to be more bohemian than Bournemouth (or 'BoMo' as some would have it). And they're not boasting they have more down-and-outs, but more upmarket 'alternative lifestyle' cafes and clubs. In fact, when a place becomes officially bohemian, house prices rise and anyone not upmarket enough is sooner or later forced out. (The eventual fate, I have no doubt, of Boscombe.) The process is similar to what happened after Culloden and the Highland Clearances, when the Royal Family and aristocracy dressed up in the clan tartans and other finery while the bulk of the population was forced overseas.
It's rather like Diogenes' name being used for The Diogenes Club in the Sherlock Holmes stories. Rather than live as cynics in the original sense of like dogs (Greek cyn-, as in canine) as Diogenes argued everyone should, the exclusive Diogenes Club is run by Sherlock's corpulent, indolent brother Mycroft, who basically lives there in gentlemanly comfort while using it as a government front. (He was physically better represented on screen by Bournemouth-born Charles Gray in The 7% Solution rather than Christopher Lee in The Private Life Of Sherlock Holmes.)
The source material is already buried beneath the media blitz of this nine-day wonder. Most of the news stories don't provide a link to the Facebook page. Newspapers online rarely offer links the way academic works offer citations to sources. The Facebook site, whose traffic first peaked in the wake of the Virginia Tech Uni students shootings in April, when many online news stories linked to the site, is now the world's 2nd most visited. Yet it has no links on google to specific pages, neither is the site searchable from its home page, for it's a members-only club. Until recently, it was restricted to those with a college or university email address, leading to protests when the site was opened up to anyone. A few videos of Gordon telling time sans watch have been posted on the public web, on YouTube. Though sites like the Mail have removed the link with a warning of 'rude language' (good on you, Gordon), you can access them using this search link
On the videos, when asked the time, Gordon looks at his wrist – as if consulting an invisible Rolex - and gives the time exactly. (I was reminded of this last month when approached by a shopper who asked me the time and was irritated when I simply bared my watch-less wrist. "You've got a mobile phone on you, don't you?" he snapped. No, I said honestly. I didn’t bother telling him I have a pocket digital pedometer with chronometer built in.) It's hard to tell if Gordon's self-described 'fan club' are genuinely amazed at his ability to tell time, or are just patronising him regardless as a sort of local mascot. (Rather like the ragged old busker, now dead, who would stand by the Square and endlessly twang a guitar he couldn’t play – though he would hit people who made fun of him.)
They may be genuinely unaware most people throughout history have had to be able to tell time. Students are of course notorious for poor time management. I remember in first-year Psych, our lecturer told us the ability to tell time was the sign of a well-adjusted person. Uh-oh we thought, for we were often late for classes. You often hear someone say when late they had 'lost track of time.' The expression correctly implies you normally have a time-awareness sense. It's not a special trick (what Crocodile Dundee did was a trick), but part of our dormant survival intuition-skillset. Early clock-time keeping was peculiar anyway, for when the 24-hour system was adopted, the ancients first divided (using a graded candle or water jug etc.) day and night into 12 hours each. The catch is the length of the hour would vary as days got longer or shorter. Most of the time, the day hours would be shorter or longer than the night hours, so you had alternating time scales. The problem wasn’t so obvious at first nearer the equator, but gets worse as you travel farther north (Homer comments on this in The Odyssey.)
People who didn't have clocks need to be able to tell time to pace their activities through the day. Gordon is 78, so was born in 1929. In the 1930s, most homes had at best a rather inaccurate wind-up mantelpiece clock, which might have to be pawned if times got tough. Wristwatches were popularised by their WWI issue to officers (you will recall in war films where they synchronise watches). More common were windup ‘fob’ watches, now no longer seen, that you wore with a chain through the buttonhole of your waistcoat. One of the main duties of the police in this era was telling people the time. If you were one of the lucky few with a phone, you could dial T-I-M and get the time signal, long a popular GPO service. You could also correct your time-pieces from the BBC radio time-signal ‘pips’ or the bongs of Big Ben with the 6’oclock news. You can actually regain the ability to tell time, as I discovered when I went off to live in a cabin in the North American wilderness for two years. If you're without clocks for long, you acquire this sense, just as your night vision sharpens up after ten minutes even in the pitch-black of the country night, which is not seen near civilisation due to light pollution.
I’m not sure what Diogenes, the original drop-out, what would have made of all this. He was famous for decrying societal rewards for endeavour like wealth and fame as mere baubles. What comes to mind is the Roman practice when holding an official Triumph, of having a slave stand behind the hero in his chariot whispering in his ear a reminder, that "all glory is fleeting." The la dolce vita uni set will soon become bored and move on to another fad. The story's already been around for over a week, the web equivalent of Andy Warhol's legendary 15 minutes of fame or celebrity, which he argued is all most people can expect.
It's later than you think, Gordon.

Monday, 9 July 2007

The Auto-Icon of Jeremy Bentham

If you ever find yourself in London, travel by underground to Euston square station, turn left out of the exit and walk down Gower street for around 150 yards. On your left you will see the impressive portico building and dome of University College London. Walk in through the wrought iron gates and head past the porter's lodge straight across the quad towards the dome. You can enter by a side door on the left and find yourself in an imposing pair of corridors known as the cloisters. Turn right and go along to the end of the cloister and there you will find a large, finely crafted wooden box. Most days this is open to reveal, sitting for perpetuity, the Auto-Icon of Jeremy Bentham.

Although you might not realize it at first sight, the auto-icon is one of UCL's more grisly mementos, for underneath the neatly pressed clothes of the image before you is the preserved skeleton of Jeremy Bentham sitting inside the glass cabinet, stuffed and mummified for all the world to see.

When he died in 1832, the father of Utilitarianism and inventor of the Panopticon left instructions that his corpse remain permanently on display as an "Auto-Icon" or self-representation. And there he sits staring out at everyone who passes by. The head is merely a wax effigy implanted with his own hair. His real head used to be kept in a box over an adjoining door but it proved too much of a temptation to rival Kings College students who would regularly filch the head during rag week and would only offer it back on payment of a suitable ransom.

If you want to know why any one would want to have themselves stuffed and mounted for public display in this way you can read Bentham's spirited defence of auto-iconism in his aptly named pamphlet, "Auto-Icon: Or, Farther Uses of the Dead to the Living", of which only 20 copies were printed, presumably as not too many people fancied this particular form of immortality.

When I was a mere student, I used to walk by Bentham's box every day, and gave a passing nod to the old gentlemen who saw me through three years of a physics degree. Bentham besides coming up with a new moral imperative ("Act so a to increase the greatest happiness of the greatest number "- a truth for which he might well have been awarded the Nobel Prize if there had been such a thing in his day) he also invented, as I have said, the panopticon - a penal device to allow all prisoners to be observed 24/7 without them knowing it.

The panopticon is something which is only just beginning to reach its zenith in our modern surveillance society. It has been suggested that soon, probably within the next decade, we'll be living in a world where everything we see, everything we hear and everything we say will be recorded wherever we go.

Few things will go unnoticed. Our day-to-day lives will be archived and saved. And all this will be available over the net for analysis.

The first step towards the panopticon society came with the mobile phone. This now ubiquitous little device that sits inside all our pockets and handbags and which we take with us wherever we go, contains an increasing number of remarkable electronic gadgets and wizardry. Not content with simply making a simple phone call or two, most phones now have built in cameras and often video cameras at that. Youtube provides the outlet for our personal recodings, but what you may not realize is that the mobile phoine in your pocket is tracking every move that you make and the phone companies are recoding this minute by minute data and keeping it for years.

This was revealed clearly by a recent news report of a judge being convicted of stealing a Rolex watch. Apparently the judge took the watch in for cleaning, the serial number was checked and watch had been reported as stolen two years before. The Judge claimed that he had bought the watch from a second hand store but was found to be rather economical with the truth. And this is where our friend the panopticon societycomes into the story. The judge was revealed to be telling a plate of porkie pies by his mobile phone. It appears that the lady who lost the Rolex was in her local Tescos at the time. The judge was discovered to have been in the same Tescos, in the same aisle just fifteen minutes earlier. And how did they prove this? Mobile phone records. Everywhere the lady went her mobile phone went and her movement were tracked and recorded, down to the last 10 feet. Unfortunately for the judge he too had his mobile on him and he was tracked to exactly the same spot.

And all of this happened two years earlier.

Think of the number of records being stored of the movement of every mobile phone user, every minute of the day across every square foot of the country for year after year. The scale of it is mind boggling. The intrusion into private life more so.

Of course it doesn't stop there. There is now available a new peice of software called Flexispy, which when loaded onto some unsuspecting person's phone, allows you not only to track them via a special website, but also allows you to turn on the mobile's microphone so that you can listen in to everything they say. There's no need to plant bugs on people if they are already carrying one around in their pocket.

And its not only mobile phones. Google is keeping a record of all searches that pass though its engine. And they are linking them to individual users so that they know every thing you, and everyone else looked at. It's all on record for the last 24 months. Then there are emails. Almost everyone knows by now that all emails are being intercepted by the USA and read by software robots who search key words in the hope of trapping terrorists and anyone else the state may consider undesirable.

Of course many will see more benefit than harm in all this. After all it helped to catch the judge with the Rolex watch. The same kind of people are those who also say things like "if you have nothing to hide then you have nothing to fear." These by the way are some of the most frequently used words in any police state and ones which would have echoed in the ears of Jews in Nazi Germany and communists in Macarthy's America and whether they had anything to fear I leave up to you to decide.

Prisoners of the state we might not be, but prisoners of the Bentham's panopticon we most certainly are.

The Game is afoot... (7th July 2007)

"Stories from the Diogenes Club" seems like a useful vehicle for a blog. But adding postings or comments is a bit like "pushing the bus you are riding upon" as I think sociologists Berger and Luckmann wrote in their book "The Social Construction of Reality".

The idea seems to be all the effort has some purpose, some sort of journey is undertaken and you are the better for it. Maybe others riding the same wave we surf will also be the better for it.
But the idea that wrongs may be righted is a little optomistic.

However, words have a potency to achieve truth and justice, to dismiss error and ignorance. If a blog has any utility at all let that be it. In the realm of ideas. Whatever codswallop is spoken about eternal verities.
Sir Isaac Newton said, "I do not know what I may appear to the world; but to myself I seem to have been only like a little boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in it, now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me."
This was a scientist who manipulated his data to fit his theories, but a man is a man for all that.
One pretty pebble I have found on the shore, whilst gazing at the great ocean before me (that is my internet screen) is a site that has the potential to solve a mystery in a manner that by passes the age of great Sherlock Holmes or Mycroft.
I am talking about distributed detective work. It is now, with the internet, the age of the anthill...of micro production and micro consumption working to a remote purpose. Not with some great need for survival of the individual at stake, but with the solution to a problem for others. It is task that can be taken on as a hobby, as a leisure pursuit. If it leads nowhere, no matter, otthers will stand on our shoulders and solve the problem if we are true to the facts.
Maybe others in this Diogenes Club of ours are alert to crimes and even opportunities for crime not yet in the public domain. It seems a shame this is yet to be shared on line.
Another Diogenes Club in another incarnation has come to the conclusion it should use the internet to try to solve unsolved crimes. And is using the now world famous abduction of little Madeline in Portugal as a test case.
It is not just the police who should be crawling all over the case. Ants show us the way, just like web-crawling robots.
See the Madeline/Mycroft/Diogenes efforts here at:
Another Holmes, Oliver Wendell Holmes, said "Truth is tough. It will not break, like a bubble, at a touch; you may kick it about all day, like a football, and it will be round and full at evening."
At the end of a meeting of this Diogenes Club, (Stories from the Diogenes Club) we can all go home with a full stomach and the taste of fine beverages on our lips, and the sport of the evening has harmed no-one. But has it done any good?
How much braver to follow Diogenes example and puncture the bubble of falsehood. We should be drawing attention to civil and criminal wrongs and the enslavements of others. And doing so man cannot turn all the stones over on the beach to see what creatures lurk underneath. Hundreds may.

Sunday, 8 July 2007

The Strange Beasts on Bishop Bell's Tomb

While reminiscing on Old King Canute's bones recently, I was reminded of another saintly old codger who stirred up a mess of trouble with his tomb. This one is situated in that normally uninteresting town of Carlisle. If you find your way to the city's great cathedral and walk up the central aisle, you will find the elegant tomb of Bishop Richard Bell.

Like many tombs of its age this one has splendid brass work and would make a good subject for brass-rubbing enthusiasts. The brass strips are pleasantly decorated with all manner of animals, some easily recognizable and some not. And it is one of the unrecognized animals that has caused all the consternation up there in Carlisle.

Along one of the brass strips, if you look carefully, you can see two animals. The one on the left is obscured by the one on the right that looks suspiciously pre-historic. It clearly has a long tail, an even longer neck and head. With a neck like that we might have been tempted to think giraffe if it were not for the four thick-set legs and large rounded body. It is for us, of course, a classic image that every school child would immediately recognize. However the one animal that it cannot possibly be is a dinosaur. That of course is quite impossible.

Dinosaurs as we all know were not discovered until 1840 and this tomb was constructed in 1496. No one even knew that there were dinosaurs 500 years ago, never mind what they looked like. So it can not be a dinosaur. QED. However, as if to tease us a little further, there are other similar pictures of "dinosaur-like-creatures" along the brass strips of Bishop Bell's tomb for us to contemplate - as if to say that this was no slip of the engravers tool.

I would suggest that you go up to Carlisle Cathedral someday when you are passing and have a look for yourself. Unfortunately that is not so easy these days as the whole thing is covered with a thick carpet apparently to avoid wear and tear. Those who have tried lifting the carpet to get a peek at the strange engravings have been met with a stern rebuke by the Verger who is not at all keen for these brasses to be displayed. If you want to see them you will have to get permission in writing - something not so easy to do it seems, as the Dean does not condone the 'telling of the tale of dinosaurs' on one of his tombs. He has made it clear that the very suggestion of dinosaurs on the tomb discredits the cathedral. It is not a dinosaur, then - the dean has said so. So that's an end of the matter.

Of courses this is not the first time that inconvenient things have been hidden under the carpet. Take for example another ancient picture - The Nile Mosaic of Palestrina. This is considered one the wonders of the second century, and it depicts scenes from the Nile in Egypt all the way to Ethiopia. The whole work is remarkable and if you want to see the full picture you can catch it here. At the top right there is a depiction of African animals hunted by warriors. They are pursuing what appears to be some type of large creature - in any case it is certainly larger than they are. This too is not a dinosaur. We know this for certain because the picture tells us what the strange creature is. The Greek letters above the reptilian animal spell out the word: KROKODILOPARDALIS which is literally Crocodile-Leopard.

Exactly what a crocodile-leopard is, no one knows. What we do know, is that it is not a dinosaur. We do however have a picture of one, and if that picture strikes an amazing similarity with a dinosaur then that is pure coincidence. Other pictures on the mosaic are standard stuff like crocodiles and hippos. This is the only one that we can't place, and I would guess that those who put the mosaic together couldn't place it either. It's likely they just didn't have a word for it, so stuck two words together to capture it for our imagination. Just why they should choose crocodile and leopard is the question, unless it reminded them of a dangerous fast moving reptile. But we will never know as the crocodile-leopard has evaded all efforts of capture.

It is said that Alexander the Great once asked Diogenes what the most cunning of animals was. His reply was, "The one you haven't seen yet." Yet more cunning is the animal you can't even believe in. Charles Fort had a name for such data as this. He called them "The Damned" as they were damned to obscurity by a scientific community that had no room or no explanation for such things.

If you brush things under the carpet you just have to hope that they go away.

Monday, 2 July 2007

The Not So Feral Beast

Mika Brzezinski: journalistic fluff - a burning issue?
At the Diogenes Club meeting Friday evening, we were discussing ways the media is controlled. One approach that didn't really come up, no doubt as it's now so routine, was that used in the Murdoch press and TV empire - the focus on celebrity. This is reminiscent of Orwell's 1984 where there are diversions for the "proles" (proletarian masses) to distract them from serious issues like war. One is reminded of the government PRO who designated 9-11 'a good day to bury bad news' – treating the twin-towers attack not as bad news but as a welcome diversion, a real-life entertainment spectacle. The cult of celebrity also makes journalists and news editors vulnerable to news management by their subjects, producing features with no bite to them. And it makes the subjects in turn lose their grip on reality - as we've now seen with politicians as well as movie stars. Diogenes thought all celebrity a nonsense - when Alexander the Great came to visit the free-living philosopher for his comments, Diogenes simply engaged in clever put-downs of this ‘living god.’ For he saw flattery as a poison to the human spirit. This week’s news of the DNA study how cats evolved as companions while remaining aloof and prepared to bite the hand that feeds them reminds me of his own position. (Though he always identified with dogs rather than cats.) He was once asked what creature's bite is the worst. He replied, "Of those that are wild, a sycophant's ; of those that are tame, a flatterer's".
The approach is also reminiscent of advice I was given by a business type when first producing local articles, to 'keep it light and fluffy' - on the grounds nobody really wants to read anything else. The real reason for this rationale of course is so that people will not be distracted from the accompanying ads - an approach utilised in mainstream US TV and movies. The focus on celebrity has been in place for so long now it seems media graduates now see nothing amiss with it anymore, being too young to know any different. The opposite, traditional approach - lest we forget - is that it's only news if someone doesn't want it published - anything else is just PR. When I started working in local cable TV many years ago in North America, I questioned why we had to cover city council meetings, which made for a boring studio-bound show. The answer was simple: "Because they don't want us to." Live TV coverage means vested council interests can't just push through improper legislation or change the minutes when anything awkward comes up. (Don't hold your breath to see it here.)
For those of us who follow such trends, the Mika Brzezinski incident last week hopefully will prove a turning point in greater media self-awareness of this issue. This was where a 40-year old US cable-TV presenter balked at leading yet another daily newscast with an update of the Paris-Hilton-jail saga. Brzezinski, daughter of a top US political advisor, argued other news was more important. She refused several times to read the Hilton story as a lead item, tried to
burn her copy on-air, then shredded it. Her colleagues taunted her or told her she was unprofessional. It became a ‘TV-presenter flips out’ news story, the sort of quirky item they run at the end of newscasts. Once, that might have been the end of it, but now such stories get picked up online via RSS feeds. If you go to Google News, you get only 109 results for 'Mika Brzezinski' compared to 29,879 for Paris Hilton. But if you go to the main Google search page, you get around 364,000 hits for 'Mika Brzezinski' (with quotes). This is because Google News feeds off mainstream news sources, whereas the main page includes blogs and non-news pages. An off-air recording of the TV newscast was also posted on YouTube, where it got over a million views in three days. The Guardian compared her to the newsreader played by Peter Finch in Paddy Chayefsky's 1976 movie Network, who attracts a cult following when he has an on-air breakdown, popularising the catch-phrase "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore." This would be what worries TV bosses about such incidents - that others will follow. At present the “fluffy” school is actually regarded in war-torn, terror-obsessed America as patriotic, but such incidents can have an emperor’s-new-clothes effect of tearing away the veil of illusion and pretence Diogenes spoke out against. Of course a main-page search on Paris Hilton still gives us 85,700,000 hits, which is how you measure celebrity these days - Google hits in over 6 figures. A Google search for UK-only pages on 'Mika Brzezinski' yields only 608 hits. The fluffy school of journalism isn't confined to the US.
Our local Bournemouth Echo has just devoted a whole page of its weekend edition to the matter, with an item by news editor Andy Martin agreeing with Brzezinski's view the profession has "deserted our post." However he is, as he admits, a minority of one - though he says Gordon Brown endorses a return to seriousness. Presumably this is a follow-on to Blair's departing take on the press as ‘a pack of feral beasts’ who rampage around promoting their own agenda, instead of just reporting government 'news', and thereby promoting widespread cynicism (in the modern sense). Apparently the editor’s colleagues regard him as a "political anorak" for thinking world hunger and planetary changes are more important than a hotel tycoon’s daughter getting jailed for drunk-driving related charges. (The Echo is not really a local paper, being owned by NewsQuest, a subsidiary of the US Gannett corporation, which owns over 300 newspapers.) The page was headlined 'Should This Story Even BE In The Daily Echo?' The marketing people obviously thought so, but presumably the headline question was to prompt readers' online comments. However, when you look at the 'Comment Online' box at page bottom, what readers are invited to comment about is (wait for it) "Why is Paris Hilton famous?"
The biggest item on the Echo page was a photo, not of Brzezinski, but of Paris Hilton as she appeared on a TV show, captioned "Please Release Me." (Whatever happened to "Free The Oppressed Rich"?) This photo was even larger than the photos of Madonna the Echo seems to have a large supply of. (The singer lives on the edge of the Echo's distribution area, near Shaftesbury, and whenever she does something vaguely newsworthy, the Echo runs a story illustrated by a large colour photo of her, just in case we've forgotten what she looks like.) On the reverse of the 'Should-This-Story-Even-Be-In-The-Daily-Echo?' page was a large charity-PR photo. Buried below that was a news story (with the end clipped off for lack of space) that our new Bournemouth Council has definitely withdrawn the plans for the proposed Winter Gardens arts complex. (So much for that long-running saga.)
What did the Echo's weekend edition actually lead with, on its front page? The main news story was a local spin-off of the terror alert story, saying the whole County was on alert due to the bomb scares in London and Glasgow. However quotes from local business types such as "It doesn't worry me in the slightest" and "It's just one of those things," suggested a certain lack of substance here. So as a distraction, top of the page was another lost-cat-comes-home story (I often think the Echo secretly employs a 'Cat News Editor'), about a cat that brought its injured litter-mate home, with the linked-to photo-story inside covering most of another page. Apparently the cat is now something of a local celebrity.
Welcome back, fluffy.