A rough draft at introducing the base concepts for machine learning and image recognition.
Early unmanned space exploration vehicles took images of the moon with film cameras. These photographs were automatically developed using chemicals, dried, scanned and transmitted back to Earth as radio waves. A photograph was not data, but it could become data by measuring how light reflected off small areas of its surface from the top left to the bottom right. If it does, send a beep, if it doesn't, send silence. On or off, 1 or 0. Then, at another time and place, those beeps, or lack of them, are used to fill in some, not all, of the areas of a grid and the image appears. Not identical, missing some of the analogue nuance, but good enough.
Before too long it was possible to bypass the chemicals and simply measure the light inside the camera using a sensor. A self-contained, theoretically portable digital camera was produced by a Kodak engineer in 1975. It weighed 3.6kg, recorded 10,000 black and white pixels and stored them on magnetic tape, and all consumer and professional digital cameras pretty much follow its process, albeit at somewhat higher resolutions.
At first, digital photographs were functionally the same as analogue ones, they just didn't look as good. They had their uses, like taking photos of distant planets, but photographers and publishers tended to prefer the high quality of film which could be scanned into a computer system at a later date if needed. But then around the mid 2000s, the quality increased to the point that, when combined with convenience, analogue film became a luxury, discarded by both professionals and consumers. In 2011, 36 years after starting this revolution, Kodak went bankrupt.
We now live in a world ruled by digital images. The vast majority of people carry a digital camera with them at all times which is capable of publishing its images to the internet where the vast majority of people are able to see them. These photographs exist only as microscopic magnetic switches on hard drives and storage cards. You cannot look at them in the same way you cannot hear music by looking at the grooves on a vinyl record. In order to see a digital image is has to be processed, translated from encoded data to light up areas of a screen with different colours. Each screen or device translates the data slightly differently depending on its size or operating system. And different apps might use different interpretations depending on their requirements. When I look at a photograph on my computer and then send it to you to look at on your phone, we are looking at different interpretations of the same data. We are not looking at the same data.
On the surface this doesn't really matter. The whole act of looking itself introduces enough psychological and emotional variables that any subtle differences in rendering are pretty much moot. And, of course, the medium is the message, meaning that the fact of your looking at the photo in Facebook on your phone on the bus is way more important to your understanding of it and any actions you might take due to it than the contents of the image itself. Data is just the raw material. And as long as everyone's getting the same data then at least we can try to control the mediums that are translating it, say by regulation of monopolies and encouraging a plurality of platforms.
But once we dig a bit deeper, this fundamental nature of digital images – that they do not exist as images until they are interpreted as such by software – starts to matter quite a bit.
We think of a JPEG file as an image, but it isn't. It's a data format, a way of storing information, which lends itself to be interpreted as an image by software. It can also be turned into sound. When you play JPEG data as sound it mostly sounds like static noise, but it's still sound. Some people like to manipulate images by imported them into audio editing tools and saving them back as images. If you've ever wondered what a photograph would look like when put through an echo filter, wonder no more.
What's kinda fascinating is it looks just like an image that's been put through an echo filter.
Digital data is a sequences of switches, some of them on, some of them off. When we take a photograph we translate the light that comes through the lens into millions of switches, on and off. The same thing when we record sound digitally – millions of switches. Or when we save a word processing file, or a CAD drawing, or a web page. Everything that we call "digital" is a sequence of switches. On and off. 0s and 1s
In order to experience these recordings, these creations, these pieces of media, we have to translate them from their stored state into something we can perceive. Most of the time this is pretty linear. Photo software turns JPEGs into images. Music software turns MP3s into sound. Word processing software DOCs turn into text. Just as record players turn vinyl into music or printing presses turn metal type into newspapers. But it doesn't have to be.
Years ago, when home computers were new and most households had record players, computer data was, very very occasionally, distributed on vinyl records. You would play the record and send the audio not to the speakers but to the computer which would interpret the different tones as 0s and 1s. Of course this isn't news to anyone who had a ZX Spectrum or some other home computer which loaded software from cassette tapes. Games came on exactly the same kind of tapes as albums did. Part of the nostalgia for that era is the sound of the software playing in a tape deck.
A similar aural nostalgia can be had for the "boing boing" sounds produced by a computer modem connecting to the internet over a phone line. For those of us online at home in the 1990s and early 2000s, this was the anthem of the 'net, a digital conversation between two computers rendered as a song for us to sing along to. There was no good reason for it to be audible to humans, but in doing so it neatly illustrated the neutrality of the digital signal. By design this was code to be interpreted by the modem's circuitry. But it was also music. Which can be then turned into a visual graphic. Same data, different results.
I've been thinking about how I can run my websites to best serve my writing. They've been a bit all over the place in recent years, and that's OK. I admire people who have managed to run their blog in the same way for the last couple of decades, but that's not me. My needs shift and it's good to shift the medium around with them, where possible.
This summer my needs seem to be twofold.
I want to take my writing more seriously. I feel like my art practice is moving towards words, and I want to explore that more. So I need somewhere to publish my words that raises them up and presents them well. Not just visually but organisationally. I want to built a website of my word-works (if you will) that is worth exploring and absorbing. I'm not sure exactly how it will work, but I've seen enough of what I don't like so it should be fun figuring it out.
In order to take my writing more seriously I need to do more writing. Importantly I need a space to try new things and fail at them in interesting ways. This is not compatible with having a snazzy platform for my writing that looks great, and it's something I've been aware of for a while. I need the freedom to just write, but when I hit gold I don't want the good stuff to be lost in the dross.
So what I need is two venues. One for the practice of writing, one for the diamonds that emerge from that practice.
The problem is they both need to be public. I taught myself to write for an audience with zines and blogs, and I find I cannot write well if it's not being seen. It doesn't even need to be actually read by anyone – just the potential of an audience that is not me is enough. The words need to be taken away from me and placed in public, then I can see them properly.
The answer is one site, two blogs. Or more accurately, two categories. Most of what I post here will be in the Word Practice category. I'm approaching this as one might an art practice, hence they name. I will try to sit down every day, someone more, sometime less, and write to see what happens when I write.
Occasionally I write something that is worth putting on a pedestal, or I will rework practice posts into more coherent forms, and that will be added to the Featured category. For now these will just be featured on the front page of the site for the casual visitor, but they will also serve to give a sense of what my writing looks like and, more importantly, how I want my writing to be seen. I've imported some key pieces from the last few months of my previous blog and will probably add more from the archives over time.
But for now I'm just hoping my intentions and the platform enable my to put this into practice. Let's see!
After making my video last Autumn, The 1972 Project has stalled somewhat, thanks to something that happened around March. It's also mutated because it comes from my brain, and my brain responds to circumstances, and circumstances have changed. The project was an attempt to make sense of the world as it is today by looking at the world 50 years ago, culminating on my 50th birthday in 2022, and the world today is very much not the world of last Autumn.
But the core idea hasn't left me and I think it still has value. The state of today was born in the early 1970s, just as I was. Of course the seeds of the early 1970s can be found in earlier decades and so on, but for the sake of clarity I'm using my life as a frame of reference and it's proven to be surprisingly fruitful one.
One side-effect of my furlough and lockdown has been the consumption of significantly more big-budget media products, specifically prepared for the television and cinematic industries. Attuned as I am to the concept of the 50 year cycle, I have noticed that I am not the only person exploring it, either explicitly or tangentially.
Mrs America is a high-caliber, talent-heavy television show ostensibly about key US feminists of the 1970s and their campaign to pass the Equal Rights Amendment against a backlash from conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly. But what it's really about is the decline of a post-war consensus where liberals and conservatives sought compromise, and the emergence of the bifuricated political landscape, sparked by the embrace of Christian fundamentalism by the Republican establishment, that has lead, ultimately, to President Trump.
Regardless of its successes or failures, it's a really interesting way to frame a historical drama, to be explicit about how it's really about the now. All historical fiction (and sci-fi for that matter) is about the moment in which it was created, even if it doesn't make it explicit.
A good recent example is the HBO miniseries Chernobyl, which, you might be shocked to hear, is not really about the nuclear reactor disaster. Nor is it really about how the Soviet regime was crippled by dogma and corruption. It's not even about the danger of nuclear energy (which is actually very safe, presumably because everyone thinks it's too dangerous, and could solve the climate crisis, except everyone thinks it's too dangerous).
Chernobyl, the tv series, is about the denial of truth by persons whose power and authority depends on the denial of truth. It is about how uncomfortable realities that do not fit the narrative are swept under the carpet and not dealt with until it's too late.
A year after broadcast the parallels with today are shockingly clear. You can broadly correlate those countries that have dealt best with the pandemic with those that have a healthy relationship to the truth. Those that had pretty much institutionalised reality denial in the years prior are suffering the most. When the pandemic began, Trump had full control of the Republican party while the UK had just elected a Brexit government lead by a man who seems to honestly believe the myth of British exceptionalism, and we won't even start on Brazil. Swap out the reactor for the virus and that period from December to March is disturbingly similar to the last week of April 1986.
It's worth noting that this was not just the individuals in power who refused to take this seriously. As the death-toll grew in China I was on a pub quiz team with the name "Coronavirus with a twist of lime disease" who were beaten by "Wuhan Clan". In January I attended a workshop on risk assessments where the tutor, who had looked at the numbers from China, accurately predicted how the pandemic would play out, and we all laughed him off. Our leaders might have exploited this culture, but the culture was already there. Trump and Johnson are populist, opportunistic politicians after all.
Criticisms of the historical and scientific accuracy of the Chernobyl series, like Gloria Steinem saying Mrs America misrepresents the equal rights movement are fair but ultimately aren't very interesting. Leaving aside the fact that 100% historical accuracy is both impossible and would make for terrible viewing, the value and purpose of history, beyond telling us what happened, is to help us understand and frame ourselves in the present. And so a piece of historical art should ultimately be judged on that basis. What does it tell us about how we became us?
The most shocking thing about Mrs American was, on a fundamental level, how familiarly it is drawn, how easily you identify with the heroes and villains. I suspect this was deliberate, because it made drawing the thematic parallels between now and then so much stronger. Mad Men, where Mrs America creator Dahvi Waller served as a producer, went to great lengths to show the period, and those living it, as alien to the present. The past was very much shown to be another country, meaning we would laugh in horror at the blatant discrimination and bigotry on display, satisfied that our 21st century society was cured of such ills. We would certainly not behave as Don or Pete might. Mrs America corrects that misnomer by having the lead characters behave and emote like 21st century women. Yes, the past was terrible, but the present is not that different, all told. Don Draper and Phylis Schlafly still walk amongst us.
The interesting thing about these types of shows is that they attempt to illuminate the present moment with a fairly narrow beam. Individually these beams threaten to miss the bigger picture – Trump cannot be explained purely by one bitter woman's war against the feminist establishment. It is, as they say, way more complicated than that. But deep-diving into a niche does give us the tools to explore further. These stories are a curious mix of history and allegory, employing anachronism and modern narrative tropes to place us psychologically in that situation. You, the viewer, are invited to identify with Rose Byrne's glorious, ersatz caricature of Gloria Steinem, to feel what it might have been like to fight her fight, so you can return to the present, as yourself, and apply what you've experienced to the now. It won't give you all the answers but it might arm you with useful questions.
My take on the whole "explaining the present with the 70s", as outlined in my video, has three touchstones. The NASA space program, the back-to-the-land counterculture movement, and the state of the modern corporate Internet. You can connect these three things through Stewart Brand, but as always the charismatic individual is less interesting than the ideas their work channels and the narrow beam it throws on history. Stewart Brand defined our present moment to the same degree Phyllis Schlafly, which is to say enough to be of note, but only partially.
(As an aside, I'm not the only one to make this connection. I was both delighted and daunted to see Joanne McNeil, a writer I admire, articulating what I thought were my ideas here and here. And of course there's Fred Turner's From Counterculture to Cyberculture, the perfect roadmap for this journey.)
The point is there are many ways to skin this cat. All eras are a bit puzzling when you're in them, but ours seems particularly opaque and swampy. When pondering the 1972 project in the innocent spring of 2019 I was very aware that I did not want to "do an Adam Curtis", notice a bunch of things and present my tenuous, half-baked conclusions in a compelling and definitive voice (cf). But I also kinda admire Curtis and like the way his films spark thoughts, even while they seem to deny the complexity and simply blame individuals. The Power of Nightmares was a transformative work for me and I owe it a lot, even though I came to reject his simplistic methodology.
Which nicely brings me to the reimagining of the 1972 project. I realised I'm less interested in exploring the last 50 years as I am in exploring how the last 50 years are being explored. And when I explained this to Fiona she was "well of course you are" which nicely settled it.
I think I'm mostly going to use the essay as my medium for this. I like it and it's not like the arts venues are particularly viable at the moment. Words on screen and potentially on paper – that'll do for now. I think the first piece is going to be a review of Spaceship Earth, the recent documentary about Biosphere 2 which touches on so many relevant things it's almost too much. Hell, the story pretty much bookended by the Whole Earth Catalogue and a young Steve Bannon and references the 1972 film Silent Running. Let me at it.
Get off the Internet
I'll meet you in the street
Get off the Internet
Destroy the right wing
Le Tigra, 2001
Fiona was telling me about an acquaintance who has build up a reasonable five-figure social media following which augments their business in an "influencer" kinda way who had run into some nonsense after posting something related to Black Lives Matter. Amongst other things a pile-on had occurred when someone questioned something in a way that triggered… ah, you know the drill. A scene that has been positive, constructive and supportive suddenly switches into an accusative, defensive shitstorm. It doesn't matter what the subject matter was or who was involved. It just happens again and again on social media platforms.
Back in the day we used to talk about "context collapse" where something posted to Twitter can be taken wildly out of context so your attempt at sarcastic humour makes you look like a racist or a terrorist. See also John Mulaney on jokes read out in court.
But there's also something else going on. The social media platform to which you are posting is not a neutral thing. It takes whatever you were attempting to communicate and it weaponises the shit out of it. When you type your words their meaning is perfectly clear. But when you hit post they combine with the social media machine and that meaning mutates into a monster beyond your control.
So when your carefully thought out post about civil rights hits the eyeballs of another human being, especially someone you don't have a personal connection with, it means something completely different. It's not that the context has collapsed – the context has been thoroughly augmented by a fucktonne of other stuff that you have no idea about.
And then that person, who you barely know, leaves a reply on your post. And you're confused because their reply seems to willingly miss the point of what you wrote. Not only that but they seem to be taking what you wrote personally, despite it being sent to tens of thousands of followers, and so now you're taking their reply personally, so you reply.
This reply of yours highlights the exchange to your followers, but they're also seeing it weaponised through the augmented context machine so they see something completely different again and before you know it everyone's angry with everyone else about something you'd all probably agree on if you'd just stop trying to have nuanced conversations about important issues on an image-sharing social network.
It happens all the time and it's depressing, not just because of the waste of time and effort but because it's distracting good people from fighting the real battles. The far-right is laughing at us. Trump and Farage are the canaries in the coal mine. For the last few years we have been on the cusp of a fascist resurgence as good people are radicalised by those who understand how this weaponisation works really well for them. Brexit was the prelude and if we're not very careful Covid could well tip us over the edge.
Let's take the trans-rights vs feminism debate. As a straight white man I've watched this over the years with my head in my hands. I'm sure there are important issues to shake out in the overlap of women's rights and transexual's rights and I would never want to dismiss or diminish them. But for fuck's sake there are more fundamental battles going on.
This was illustrated quite strikingly by the latest shit-storm to engulf JK Rowling. Battle lines were drawn, all the progressives chose a side, and then The Sun gave Rowling's abusing ex-partner the front page to tell his side. For a wonderful moment everyone was united against Murdoch's foul rag, although Murdoch had effectively taken control of the narrative and put an abusive man in the middle of it.
Divided we are nothing. Together we are stronger. We know this. We know how to do this. So what's going wrong?
The tools we use to share our ideas and opinions are broken. Twitter, Facebook and Instagram are weaponised for attention and clicks. They need you to be at the extreme ends of your emotions, be that delighted or outraged. React, react, react. Don't think, don't pause, don't contemplate.
A photo on Instagram is radically different to a photo in on a blog post or in an email. Sometimes it's better, sometimes it's worse, but it's always different. The problem is we don't see this because we were never taught media literacy.
Have you ever had that thing where you write something in a word processor and you're happy with it, but when you publish it somewhere, on a website or in a booklet, it seems… different? I always go back and tweak my blog posts once they've been published because I need to read them in that context in order to properly judge them. Being "out there" changes something in intangible but fundamental ways. The words go from being mine to being… ours?
I did a bit of Media Studies at 6th form and it was quite the eye-opener. It turned out that when something is broadcast or printed in the media its meaning is changed. And the people who control that media also control what the meaning becomes. The medium, as the man said, is the message.
In the 90s that was interesting and all but in the 2020s, when our conversations and debates take place through media that is owned by insanely large companies, it's absolutely essential that we all know this. And not in an "oh, I know that" kind of way. Know it in a useful, practical, thorough way.
We need to be taught how to read the social media critically so we can use it effectively. Right now we're blundering through it like monkeys in an orchestra pit.
Digital literacy, especially for adults, needs to get away from the short-term practical stuff and start teaching the theory in a way that makes sense to normal people. Otherwise we will continue to fight amongst ourselves like rats in a cage while the far-right mop up.
Park your differences, get the fuck off the corporate internet, I'll meet you in the streets.
That Boris Johnson is a fool hiding under the cloak of intellectualism is not in dispute, but sometimes he utters a nonsense that is actually worth interrogating. Take his defence of statuary and condemnation of the very concept of maybe removing some of them.
We cannot now try to edit or censor our past. We cannot pretend to have a different history.
Let me tell you a story.
My grandfather, who died long before I was born, was the sort of person I'd imagine Johnson would admire. He was awarded a medal for bravery in the First World War. In the Second he slept in the factories of Birmingham as an ARP Warden, on the front line of the Birmingham Blitz. Between the wars he established Ashton & Moore a metal finishing company with a wealthy business partner which still trades in Birmingham today.
Like I say, I never knew him. The Ashtons lost their share of the company when I was a young boy and the Moores were bought out in 2004 so I have as much connection with the business as I do with the totally unconnected Ashton Engineering in Digbeth. It's technically part of my history but it doesn't affect me in any way. I wasn't brought up in Birmingham – that I live here as an adult is purely coincidence and nothing to do with family.
Ashton & Moore was based for a long, long time on Legge Lane in the Jewellery Quarter. After the buyout in 2004 the company moved to Hockley and the building lay empty, waiting its turn on the regeneration roundabout. This finally started a couple of years ago, and here's where it gets interesting.
The building where my paternal family made its living through most of the 20th century has been turned into residential flats. Like many such developments they have taken the historic use of the building as their cue in naming it. The new development is called, drumroll please, The Million Pen Building.
Because it turns out the building that Messers Ashton and Moore purchased "was originally built in 1893 as a steel pen manufactory for George W. Hughes, the creator of The Million Pen." It's a nice story and certainly more appealing that referencing a business which dunked metal in baths of toxic chemicals, but it does seem to, I dunno, erase something.
To be clear, I find this amusing and a nice illustration of how the heritage industry, in an effort to preserve history, can quite successfully erase it. Victorian buildings seem to have an authenticity and glamour that 20th century ones lack, presumably due to it being far from living memory. And the irony of the social evils of Victorian society being cleaned up by 20th century progressives to the point where their descendants can enjoy Victorian romanticism at remove while erasing the history of said progressives, is nice and chewy.
Johnson is one of those people who thinks the Victorian era and the British Empire weren't all that bad. And I'm prepared to blame his sheltered upbringing and intellectual laziness over any inherent evil on his part. He just doesn't understand how history works.
It is a matter of record that Winston Churchill, in his youth and middle age, was a fucking dick. It's very fair for people who were colonised and people who were fighting for workers rights at home to see him as a villain. It is also a matter of record that Winston Churchill played an important and essential role in defeating fascism in Europe. He also, to his credit, did not dismantle the nascent socialist welfare state when he came back to power in the 1950s and was an enthusiastic supporter of European Union. Whether this was due to populist opportunism or educated enlightenment is not for me to judge but, like many significant figures in history, he was complicated.
I personally think that, if we are to have statues of dead leaders, it is reasonable and good to have a statue of old-Churchill outside Parliament. I think it is also good that we, as a society, develop a more nuanced understanding of where this man who helped save democracy from tyranny came from and why many people would consider young-Churchill a very bad man. To paraphrase the poet Chuck D's appraisal of Elvis Presley:
Churchill was a hero to most
but he never meant shit to me you see.
Straight up racist that sucker was.
Simple and plain.
Motherfuck him and David Livingstone"
To mark something or someone with a simple statement or monument is to literally edit and censor the past. History is complicated. Statues are not. When you name a street or building after someone you are pretty much saying the conversation is over. It's a statement so loud and clear that it drowns out any dissent.
Again, this is not necessarily a bad thing. As a society we need to be held together by loud and clear statements. Without them we dissolve into partisan, atomised units unable to function as a whole. You know, like you see on Twitter.
The trick is to balance the power of these statements with the reality of the society they're supposed to be unifying. Because if they're not doing that job then it's probably time to retire them. Just as the Victorians retired what came before them to better reflect the reality of an imperial power, there's a good case for retiring aspects of the Victorian era to better reflect out post-imperial, progressive reality.
I'm a bit torn on Gillian Wearing's A Real Birmingham Family, a sculpture which uses the language of classical statuary to explore civic identity and challenge preconceived ideas of family. I applaud it's aims but, as I often do, I think a better solution would be to have no statues at all. Wearing has replaced one dogmatic idea with another, because statues can only be dogmatic. I think this does some damage to a position that needs to be flexible and fluid. Statues are a tool of dogma. Better to fight dogma with a different tool, maybe?
But I am probably wrong and I can see what her sculpture is trying to do. It is a statement which reflects Birmingham's reality. It reflects us more than the other statues in that area might. It is, above all, a good thing. If we are to have statues then they should be in this spirit. The only real problem with A Real Birmingham Family is that it stands alone.
The problem isn't that history is edited and censored. In many ways the very purpose of history is to edit and censor, to manage the raw materials for the manufacture of myths that hold nations together. The problem is that a disturbing number of people don't seem to realise that our history has been edited and censored and don't realise that they can be part of that process. Indeed how important it is for them to be part of that process.
It is good and healthy that we find ourselves having national and local debates about the statues in our cities. Some of them have probably outlived their purpose and need to go to the museums where we look after all the other artefacts that have lost their purpose. Others have not. We have to decide this for ourselves, as a society. And if that decision process is not permitted, or worse, not open to all, don't be surprised when one of them ends up in the river.
Connecting the current #BLM protests with marches since the 1960s. (On the Walkspace blog)
I review the Weird Walk zine by looking how the concept of "weird" has been used to explore this country. (On the Walkspace blog.)
Six weeks into lockdown, or whatever it was a week ago, and things were still weird. In some ways they were weird because they were still weird. Surely after a while the weird becomes normal? But no, still weird.
I am fully furloughed and locked down. I can't legally work for Loaf while receiving my 80% wage subsidy from the government, and I've put Photo School on hold until the Autumn at the earliest and offered all ticket holders a refund. I basically have nothing to do.
I could, of course, volunteer for stuff. I'm healthy and have a car. Or I could use this enforced isolation to do some of the art things I've been planning once I get some time, because time is all I have right now.
But I don't because I'm exhausted. Tired all the time. I can't think deeply about anything and my concentration is fucked. I feel like I've been through the mill even though I haven't really done anything. It's weird.
My lockdown didn't exactly start smoothly. Getting Loaf's online shop working in a week was the most intense I've worked on anything for a long time. And then Bunminster, our eight year old rabbit, had to be put down, which felt like a final straw. We'd been expecting it for a long time so it wasn't a surprise but on top of everything else it hit me harder than I expected. 8am vet visits also fucked my already fragile sleeping pattern, resolving at fully nocturnal.
And then I had a revelation. Nothing I do at the moment matters. I can't let anyone down because I'm not doing anything. No-one needs me. So I resolved not to beat myself up about my failures. If I sleep in when I was determined not to, that's OK. If I can't get the pressure washer to work, that's OK.
This simple act of forgiveness, of letting myself off the hook, worked wonders, and within days I was on the verge of actually being useful again. My brain was still wading through sludge but I didn't feel like a useless shit. And people who don't feel like useless shits are much nicer to be around than people who do.
And then I started the jigsaw.
At the start of lockdown Fiona had ordered, on a whim, a 1000 piece Cold War Steve jigsaw puzzle featuring nice famous people on the beach (as opposed to his jigsaw of evil people in hell). We spent a few days working on it and it was a lot of fun.
In the obituary for Indian movie legend Irrfan Khan I found reference to his last English language film, Puzzle, co-staring Kelly Macdonald as a housewife whose life radically changes when she discovers she's very good at jigsaws. We watched it as a laugh but it's really good and introduced us to the concept of competitive team jigsawing.
Hearing of this new obsession, a friend lent Fiona another jigsaw, this one of sweets from the 1980s which we completed as a team in 90 minutes, because it was 500 pieces and really easy. I needed more so I started searching for jigsaw shops. I made two discoveries.
1) Jigsaws are suddenly really popular. All the online shops were covered in noticed warning of low stock and long deliveries. They were disconcertingly similar to the warnings on the Suma food wholesale website we use a Loaf. Jigsaws are a thing, so much so The Guardian just published a blooming article about them.
2) Jigsaws are mostly, and there's no other way to say this, an aesthetic car crash. I was expecting twee landscapes and puppies but, my god, there isn't enough irony in the world to get me to do some of these. (Of course, the websites only show puzzles they have in stock, so the decent looking ones were probably sold out, but as a first impression it was not good.)
Eventually I found a jigsaw I could happily spent £15 plus postage on – an Edward Gorey illustration of a cat looking at another cat in an insanely over-furnished bedroom. I've always liked Edward Gorey's work (if you're not familiar, start here) and it certainly looked detailed enough (the Cold War Steve puzzle had far too much blue sky) so I placed an order.
It arrived a week later. In my nocturnal state I cleared the dining table and spent the night doing the edges, as task that took longer than usual because all the pieces in this jigsaw are basically the same. Fiona had a go the next day and pronounced it to be not up her alley in the slightest, so I carried on.
It should be a nightmare jigsaw, the worst kind. You can't easily sort the pieces into more than three or four broad piles (I ended up with mostly white, flowers, leaves and scribbles). You have to take each piece, find its unique squiggle on the cover guide and then place it roughly where it belongs. Soon you find two pieces that fit together and then you're off.
I should have set a timer but I think it took me 30 hours to do this jigsaw, mostly between the hours of midnight and 6am.
I started off listening to podcasts. Then music. And then I found myself working in the 4am silence, acutely aware of the humming of the lightbulb. One night I'd set the dishwasher going and totally tuned in to its cycle, the way it clunks and whirs over 110 minutes. All the while I'm picking up a piece, trying to find it on the cover and, if I do, placing it on the board.
While this was happening I found myself losing interest in the things that had been distracting me. I no longer binged on movies and box sets. I stopped doomscrolling the news sites. I barely opened my laptop. All that mattered was the jigsaw, one piece at a time.
Now it's done I thought I'd feel empty, bereft of my task, but I feel cleansed. I don't even think I need another jigsaw to do. This wasn't an addiction or a habit. It was a winding down, a turning off of unnecessary and unhealthy functions through focussed attention.
I've never found calm through meditation, exercise or any of the recommended methods. Sure, I've probably never tried properly, but then I wasn't trying to do jigsaws properly. I just fell into it. And it worked.
My Autistic Traits, diagnosed a couple of years ago, are a funny thing to properly understand. I don't have medical Autism, which is how the NHS decides whether they are the right agency to help you. And I don't think I have learning difficulties, and even if I did I'd have to be in education to get support. I'm certainly the definition of "high functioning". But my psychology, my personality, has certain traits. Usually they are passive or at best quirky. They mean I'm an artist and explain my interest in philosophy. I think in a certain way that defines me, and that's groovy.
But occasionally they get fed too much of the wrong thing and they loom up and take over my brain. My behaviour changes in subtle ways and often only I can tell something amiss. I expect to be functioning in the usual way but suddenly I can't, and that leads to anxiety and depression. For a long time I thought I was simply suffering from depression, but I've come to realise it's a symptom of this conflab in my brain. This confusion with myself.
These days, thanks to the Autistic Traits diagnosis and the love of a good woman, I've started to be able to spot when the traits kick in. They can be a good thing, helping me to see the wood for the trees or to focus through the noise and see what's going on. (I actually thought Boris Johnson's speech last Sunday made sense on first viewing because I automatically edited out all the nonsense. It was only on watching it again that I realised how confusing it was to everyone else.)
But they can also be a hindrance. I think my state during the first weeks of lockdown is a case in point. I'm usually pretty good at figuring out what's going on in the world. After the Brexit vote most of my friends and colleagues were in shock, but I quickly developed a good-enough understanding of what had happened and why. I remember driving my mother, on a trip from New Zealand, and her German friend into town and explaining what had happened in a detailed way that even surprised myself. I wouldn't necessarily stand by that assessment as much more came to light over time, but it was a good working model.
The Coronavirus has been the opposite. Facts have emerged slowly. The future is not just uncertain, it is practically unknowable. When thinking beyond the next few weeks there is nothing firm to hold on to. I know and accept all this, but my traits find it very hard. I need to build a model, to understand. The immediate political circus is a welcome, if depressing, distraction, but it doesn't salve the ache my brain has for a model. I don't need to know exactly what will happen. I just need a framework to hang things on and file them away. Then I can get on with my life.
I'm sure I'm not alone in this. I think we're all discovering brain traits we didn't know we had, or didn't realise could be problematic. It's a horrible time to be mentally fragile.
The title of this post started as a joke, a play on words, but there's a chunk of truth in there. I don't quite know what I'd have done without that jigsaw.
It's not strictly insomnia as once I get to sleep sometime around dawn I'll likely be out for at least 8 hours, if not more, but insomnia is usually associated with being awake in the wee hours, and that's what I've been over the last month or so. Sometimes I keep myself busy, sometimes I watch all those films I've had queued up, but often I find myself drifting and so I've decided to start writing about whatever's on my mind, for myself, not expecting anyone else to care, though hopefully someone might find some of it useful. Blogging-as-it-was and-should-always-be, in other words.
I've managed to avoid the sound-and-fury outrage circus of late, mostly because there have been far more important and interesting things to pay attention to, so I was a bit confused when I saw Prof Neil Ferguson had resigned from Sage. Ferguson was the scientist most publicly associated with the UK being in lockdown and Sage is the government's Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies. If you wanted to briefly explain why the UK is currently in a holding pattern you could point at him. He is, after all, an epidemiologist of quite high standing and while the actions based on his advice are for the government to decide, his advice is, we can assume, based on some rock-solid research.
Ferguson resigned because his girlfriend travelled from the other side of London to visit him twice during the lockdown. She considered their two households to be one. He considered himself immune having had the virus. But the lockdown said this wasn't the done thing. They broke the rules that he had advised. So he resigned.
I mean, I guess that's OK? We used to have a grand tradition of condemning hypocrites in this country who preach that we should all behave in a certain way then practice the opposite in private. I shed no tear for the populist moraliser caught with his pants down.
But I also had a sense that we'd moved past that. Boris Johnson is a philandering serial liar who exhibits no shame, and he became prime minister with that firmly on the record. If you're a Johnson supporter, being found saying one thing and doing another might generate an eyebrow raise or maybe a quiet word, but it can't be taken too seriously, right?
And yet… the scoop on Ferguson was lead by the Telegraph, Johnson's loudest cheerleader, with the Mail close behind. And what do these two august periodicals have in common? They both think the lockdown might be a bit much.
In short, this was a tabloid hit-job by vested interests in changing government policy. Britain needs to be reopened, no matter the cost. Ignore the fact that most Britons are content with the lockdown continuing until the country is functionally able to deal with it. The ideologues with the money are upset, so something needs to be done. Dig up some dirt on that scientist guy. He's a human so he's bound to have made a mistake, and he's far too busy to be watching his back.
So they found the dirt and they published the dirt and now one of the country's intellectual resources, one of the elements that might help us get out of this reasonably intact, is throw out while the others are feeling the chill.
If I was being hyperbolic, and if you can't be hyperbolic at 2am when can you, I might ask how many people will die because of that tabloid hit-job. The point of Sage is to put all the relevant big brains that the educational establishments of this country have produced in a room so we can figure out how we can stop people dying. That room is now on brain down. Nice one, fuckers.
And it's not like he did anything that wrong. I mean, who hasn't broken the lockdown once or twice over the last couple of months? Who amongst us can honestly say they haven't done something that could contravene the restrictions? And that's fine. Doing lockdown correctly 99% of the time is as good as doing it 100%. Less that 90%, then we have a problem, but nearly all the time is fine. The point of a lockdown is not to eliminate the threat. The threat is the same as it was back in February – massive and scary. Lockdown is a tool for slowing it down so we can get ready. It's a fire-break, a pause button. At some point we'll have to unpause, because whatever you think of lockdown it's not much of a life, but unless the testing and PPE and therapeutics and ventilators and everything else we didn't think we'd need until early this year is in place it's going to be a fucking massacre.
But even in a lockdown people are going to catch the virus because there are still opportunities. We need to shop, we need to exercise, we need to talk to someone else at the top of our voices across the park. The point is way way fewer people will catch it.
That's another tedious tabloid trope – binary thinking. The erasure of grey. Either you're a saint, or you're a villain, and I guess there haven't been enough villains for their liking of late. (At least not outside their ideological playground.)
One of the ideologies hiding behind all this is the notion of British Exceptionalism, and it's a particularly nasty and troublesome notion. We've basically lived through 3 years of bullshit fuelled by this notion – the idea that Britain will be fine outside of the EU, not because of any planning or economic modelling or commercial/industrial reality but because we're British. And the British are better at this sort of thing. We are exceptional.
It's certainly true that the British character is different to, say, the French, or the Guyanese, or the good people of Nepal. The communities that spread across our islands have evolved certain ways of thinking which inform certain ways of doing which have outcomes which you might find subtly but significantly different in other countries. But this doesn't mean the British people are somehow immune to sodding huge realities just because enough of them like beer and sarcasm.
There's this nice post by David Eggerton, a historian specialising in science and technology and twentieth-century Britain, titled The Government's Response To Covid-19 And Brexit Are Intimately Connected, because of course they are. The current government was selected specifically to deliver Brexit this year and that mindset is now trying to wrap itself around the coronavirus. But what's interesting is how the notion of British Exceptionalism just fucks everything up.
Remember way back in the mists of March when Great British Businesses were going to rapidly rejig their factories to make ventilators for the NHS?
The current crisis has been an opportunity to illustrate the argument that the UK was a powerful innovation nation that could do very well without the EU. The government launched a programme, the details of which are still murky, to create new emergency ventilators. First off the stocks in the PR blitz was the Brexiter Sir James Dyson, who was teaming up with another Brexiter capitalist Lord Bamford of JCB to make many thousands. This, it turned out was just one of many projects to design new ventilators, and to modify others for mass production. There were lots of allusions to the second world war as if Spitfires had been conjured out of thin air in the heat generated by patriotic enthusiasm. It is telling too that the government decided not to take part in the EU ventilator procurement programme. This had to be a British programme for PR purposes.
Of course, it didn't work at all. It turns out you can't just innovate your way out of a crisis. You need boring stuff like planning, resources, expertise and experience. The sort of things that helped win World War II.
That wartime analogy was deeply misleading – the UK was a world leader in aircraft before the Battle of Britain. It had been making Spitfires since the late 1930s, and had huge long-planned specialist factories making them. What is clear is that we are not in 1940. The UK is not a world leader in ventilator manufacture, far from it. […] Indeed there may be a wartime analogy which could become pertinent. Churchill did attempt to conjure up new weapons in a hurry in the face of expert advice. They included anti-aircraft rockets, spigot mortars, and indeed a trench-cutting machine. They were universally late, did not work well or at all, and represented a huge waste of resources.
I've always thought the whole "We will prevail, because we are British, and British is best" was a joke, poking at the bombastic nonsense of an Empire in terminal decline. From Carry on films to Monty Python to Brass Eye. But as we tailspin through the end-game of post-modernism, the absurd jokes have become policy. Because there's nothing else left.
No country is responding well to Covid-19 because it's literally a slow-motion massacre, but it's arguable that Germany is doing better than most, possibly because Germany is boring and prepares for stuff and is run by a scientist. Britain has embraced the false god of efficiency and used it to justify inflicting austerity the flay the thin flesh from its bones. And we're run by a serial liar who, allowing for the liar bit, seems to actually believe this British Exceptionalism nonsense.
Some of my lefty friends sneer at Kier Starmer because they can't help themselves but my god isn't it nice to have someone speaking in public who's not a fucking moron? PMQs today was like a breath of fresh air. What we need right now, more than anything, are people who are able to think clearly and ask the right questions. People who can tell the difference between useful information and hyperbolic bullshit. Nobody like this has made it to the upper levels of British politics for as long as I can remember, and certainly not this early in their career. You see it someone like Ken Clarke over the last few years but he was as much a chancing bullshitter in the 80s as the cabinet are today. Maybe John Major, if you squint and ignore Back to Basics? Possibly Gordon Brown if he'd caught a break. Note how Major and Brown were hated by the far-right press and their enablers.
That'll do. Boil lanced. See you again tomorrow, maybe.