Yorkshire Sculpture Park, October, 2018.

October 23rd, 2018

Stones


The weather forecast was for a freakishly warm day with unbroken sunshine and judging by the business of the Yorkshire Sculpture Park car park that Wednesday morning, many of the visitors believed they were in for a cracking day.

Mitch had arranged to meet his friend Bill outside the gift shop entrance with the suggestion of spending a leisurely day walking around the splendid grounds of the park.

Mitch arrived first. He decided to wait just outside the entrance to the main building so that he could enjoy the sunshine. He sat on a bench opposite the car park and kept an eye out for Bill. He wasn’t too concerned about keeping a constant look out because he was sure if he didn’t see Bill, Bill would spot him. Mitch was not easily missed. He was a large man: six feet four inches tall and weighing nearly sixteen stones. He was dressed in a horizontally striped, blue and white rugby shirt, salmon pink trousers and light brown deck shoes. His thick grey hair sprouted like unruly cauliflower on his head. A pair of tiny but expensive binoculars hung around his neck.

Within a couple of minutes he heard his name being called – Bill had arrived. Mitch turned and saw a man walking towards him who was wearing thick-framed, dark glasses and a black Stetson hat. His most distinctive feature was his handlebar moustache: it grew so thickly on his upper lip that it seemed to flow out of his nostrils in a flood of bristles and could easily be mistaken for a fake one that he’d clipped to his nose. Mitch assumed that the moustache was carefully dyed every month because a sixty-year old man sporting such uniformly black facial hair seemed unlikely. In their long friendship he’d never thought to ask him if he did dye it. Bill’s black headgear was matched with a beautifully tailored black shirt, a black leather waistcoat, black jeans and black boots. A blood-red neckerchief set off the whole ensemble. All that he was missing to be the archetypal bad guy from a Western movie was a six-shooter hanging from his hip.

There was a firm handshake between the men; arthritis hadn’t attacked either of their hands yet.

Mitch said, ‘I suggest we go anti-clockwise today, just for the hell of it.’ Bill shrugged his shoulders in a carefree manner and they commenced their walk around the park.

The first new piece of sculpture they encountered consisted of three piles of sandstone blocks, stacked in such a way as to form rectangular structures.

‘Oh dear,’ said Mitch.

‘What’s up?’ asked Bill.

‘I feel a rant coming on.’

The massive structures towered above them as the two men strolled around the artworks. Each block of stone varied from the size of a washing machine to a double bed. The stone was not worked in any way other than being cut roughly into rectangles by big machines and drills. The one response it did evoke in the men was a childish urge to climb the structures using the easy handholds and footholds offered by the gaps between the blocks but a prominent sign instructed visitors to resist such a temptation and just in case they couldn’t read, a thin rope around the sculptures created a border of forbidden territory.

‘Is this art?’ asked Mitch.

Bill stroked his moustache in a dastardly manner. ‘There’s no such thing as art, as you well know, Mitch, only artists.’

‘As a child I grew up near a sandstone quarry which I often explored on boring Sunday afternoons. This…’ and he waved his arms vaguely at the blocks, ‘could be lifted straight from that quarry. In fact, you’d get more appreciation of stone by standing at the foot of the rock face in the quarry where they’d been cutting the slabs off than by standing in front of these things. What is this supposed to do for the viewer?’

Bill offered, ‘Maybe the art is contained in putting the stone here in this open field miles away from any quarry and then stacking the blocks into a geometrical design?’

‘Okay, but how is this different from standing at the foot of the cliffs on the Jurassic Coast with the sea behind you and observing all the different layers of rock? In fact, how is it any different from admiring a dry stonewall – the exact same criteria apply: stones in a field, stacked geometrically in a pleasing pattern. The wall even has a bloody purpose!’

‘So the wall can’t be art then. Isn’t it playing on the standing stones idea from ancient times? Shall we read the notes?’ Bill looked around for the plaque or sign that would probably explain the inspiration for the piece. Or not.

‘Sod that! You know my policy – if I have to read a great long thesis to understand what’s going on, I’m not interested.’ And as if to emphasise the point he cried, ‘Come on, let’s go!’

They walked up the gently sloping field towards the Long Gallery discussing the state of modern art when Mitch had a thought: ‘I’m beginning to suspect that the human race is starting to outgrow the idea of art.’

Bill burst out laughing. ‘You can’t be serious,’ he managed to say between guffaws. ‘The human species is defined by its creativity. We’re the only species that creates art.’

‘I’m not denying that but what if art is becoming a useless appendage, like a human appendix? It would naturally atrophy and drop off. We’re still evolving as a species – maybe art is at a transitional stage?’

‘And what would it be transitioning into?’

‘I’m not too sure, into something more contemplative, more thoughtful. Like Zen.’

Long Gallery

When they reached the Long Gallery there was another installation they hadn’t seen before erected on the grass bank by the corner of the building. It consisted of sheets of metal stacked on top of each other as you might find in any steel fabrication warehouse that was run by a foreman with bad OCD.

‘Oh dear,’ said Mitch. This time Bill didn’t ask what the problem was, he already knew. They had a look around the Long Gallery but Bill felt the need to hustle Mitch out of it as soon as possible as the artworks were having a deleterious effect on his mental health.

They walked up onto the ridge of the hill known as Oxley Bank that commanded a splendid view of the old Bretton Hall and the surrounding countryside. From one angle they could make out the M1 in the distance with ant-like vehicles crawling backwards and forwards along a black line in the landscape. Both men sat on the bench that had been positioned to take advantage of the vista and looked on in silence. Bill took off his Stetson, untied the red neckerchief from around his neck and wiped his sweating forehead with it. The climb and his black clothes in the burning sunshine had made him sweat profusely and his clothes felt uncomfortably clammy. Mitch peered through his binoculars at the horizon at nothing in particular; he just liked the power of being able to see into the distance.

‘Do you want to take a look?’ he asked Bill.

‘There’s nothing much to see, the heat is making the horizon too fuzzy.’ They both stared at the view in silence again. Mitch gave a satisfied sigh before he said, ‘Beautiful. Let’s continue.’

As they made their way through the trees along the ridge, Bill said, ‘Hang on, I want to have a look at the Goldsworthy piece,’ and he walked down a short little path that led to the boundary wall adjacent to a field. Jutting out from the wall was an enclosure built in the same style as the wall. When Mitch joined him and they looked over the enclosure wall they could see a deep pit about ten feet in depth and suspended in the void was a tree trunk lying horizontally. It was held up from the ground by being built into the surrounding stonework as if it were growing through the walls in an unnatural manner. The piece was old now and the tree trunk was starting to rot heavily which detracted from its weird configuration.

Tree with stones around it.

‘Look,’ said Mitch, ‘again; we can see this allusion to nature. I know Goldsworthy works with natural materials anyway but why do artists refer to the natural world? Is it because most people are becoming so divorced from nature that they need to be reminded of it?’

‘It’s funny,’ said Bill. Mitch looked at Bill in an expectation of a conclusion to this statement but none came. Bill noticed Mitch’s puzzled look and said, ‘I mean, this configuration is like a funny joke, an elaborate joke that makes me think: “huh?”’

‘I sometimes think that about life,’ said Mitch.

They came to the end of the ridge and started the slow descent that led down towards the lake. A familiar artwork greeted them in the trees: Speed Breakers by Hemali Bhuta.

Speed Breakers

‘Oh dear,’ said Mitch.

Both men stared at the bronze tree roots poking out of the ground.

Mitch continued: ‘these were probably quite funny when they were installed—and I’m going by your definition of “funny’, Bill, because shiny, bronze coloured tree roots would look odd. But these are so dirty now they’re indistinguishable from real roots so lots of people wouldn’t even notice them, they might even trip over them and not realise they’re supposed to be art.’

‘Lots of people do get tripped up by art,’ Bill quipped and looked pointedly at Mitch who noticed the look and said, ‘I’m serious – art has lost the plot.’

A hundred yards further along Mitch became animated and his voice boomed through the trees. They’d come across ‘Seventy-one Steps by David Nash: an artwork that did exactly what it said on the tin.

Seventy One Steps

‘This one gets me every time! Remind me, Bill, what is the one definition of art we can all agree upon?’

Bill sighed and resigned himself to the little exchange they always had when descending these wooden steps: ‘Art should be useless.’

‘Exactly! So how can this be art? They’re steps aiding a descent down a hill.’ He suddenly froze and his expression went into ‘screensaver’ mode then he burst into animation again by patting his pockets and muttering: ‘I’ve had an idea, I need to make a note of it and I’ve forgotten my notebook.’

‘Use your phone.’

‘I left my phone in the car.’

‘Use mine,’ and Bill produced his smart phone from his jean pocket.

Mitch hissed and made the sign of the cross with his two index fingers. ‘Keep your devil works away from me. I only interact with dumb phones. Serves me right for not remembering my notebook. What sort of writer forgets to carry a notebook at all times? I’m going to trust my memory, I’m not senile yet,’ and he gave up looking for any writing materials.

‘What’s the idea?’

‘Good thinking, Bill, it will help me remember the idea later by talking about it now.

‘It’s occurred to me that contemporary art came into being as a revolt against representation. Human forms and shapes from nature were out and abstract concepts and shapes were in. It was fun for a while – making jokes and puzzles but now contemporary art has run out of ideas, it’s cycling round to return to representation. What has happened is that the natural environment is becoming rare. People in cities have forgotten what trees looks like and how wonderful they are so artists are now trying to remind them of it. As more of the natural environment is built upon and lost, the art we will go to admire will be real flowers and trees that will be “exhibited” in places like this park. I mean, look at that Penone piece over there…’ They stared at a distant sculpture that looked just like a dead tree with a boulder stuck in its branches. ‘That’s a very good reproduction of a tree. It begs the question, why not just have a living tree there instead that’s even more realistic than the artwork?’

As they crossed over the bridge above the weir at the end of the lake, Mitch was vocally exploring the ramifications of his thoughts in a stream of consciousness – he was enjoying himself. On the climb back up the open grassy hill to the main building they came across another new piece of sculpture.

Metal Box

‘Oh dear,’ said Mitch. ‘Oh dear, oh dear.’

They were looking at a large sculpture of rusty metal framework about the size and shape of a HGV. The interlocking, square-sectioned steel beams resembled the skeleton of a high-rise building before any floors or walls are attached, except in the sculpture, none of the beams made any engineering sense. It was more like a giant puzzle.

Bill considered the piece. Finally he said, ‘Well, it must be art because it’s definitely useless.’ All that Mitch could do was mutter, ‘oh dear, oh dear’ over and over again.

As they walked back to the gift shop Mitch told Bill about a strange incident he witnessed the previous summer in the park.

‘I was walking by the lake at the other end and there was a young chap protesting. Here’s the funny thing though, he was dressed all in black with a polo neck jumper, black beret and dark glasses. He looked like a typical French avant-garde artist from the sixties. He had a placard that said “THIS IS NOT ART” and he had a scarlet rope pegged up to run completely around himself so the public knew they weren’t allowed to interact with him – except he interacted with them by shouting philosophical questions at them. I’ve never seen so many park wardens in one place with all their walki-talkies crackling at the same time. Judging by their unease I guessed it was some kind of unofficial stunt – probably by a performance art student. It was a good joke though and it got me thinking: I’m not the only one who thinks contemporary art has become a parody of itself.

‘No, I’m going to feed off the decaying carcass of modern art by writing a story about it. When we get to the shop I’m going to find a scrap of paper or promotional leaflet and scribble this idea down using a pencil that’s for sale in the gift shop – they can be hoist by their own petard!’

Eventually they reached the main building and on a counter Mitch found a white leaflet printed on matt cartridge paper with lots of blank sections. Inside the gift shop he found some pencils for sale and borrowed one to write his idea down for the story. As he scribbled, his thoughts seemed to tumble in on themselves and, as if in a hall of mirrors, they reflected back into infinity. He thought about the graphite in the pencil: he knew from history that at one time, it was only available from two places in the world, one of which was in England. Then he thought about the wood encasing the pencil – wood that came from a living tree that has been sculpted into a hollow case to hold the graphite. He marvelled at the thought that some people might buy the pencil and then sketch trees with it on paper that was produced from dead trees. How ironic and perfect would that be, how useless an activity?


The Revenant

March 1st, 2018

I finally got round to watching this magnificent film.

And watching it is pretty much all you can do because the dialogue is so incoherent that it might as well be just another layer of noise in the astonishing soundscape. I don’t know if Tom Hardy (playing Fitzgerald) was attempting to hide an atrocious American accent or what, but he’d buried it deeper than the grave he digs for Glass.

The absolute star of this film is without doubt the landscape. Shot in ultra wide angle, you genuinely get a sense of the pitiless beauty and scale of it.

As much as I enjoyed the visual journey through the landscape there were too many attendant aspects about the film that irritated me along the way like so many biting mosquitoes. In fact they drove me so mad I had to write this blog post.

I’ll ignore any historical inaccuracies depicted because they won’t bother any viewer who is unfamiliar with them. What I will cover are the obvious stupidities in the story.

Cold is a killer. Anyone who has experienced snow knows how insidious it is, an hour in it is usually enough. If you fall into a freezing river you have minutes before you succumb to hypothermia and die.

In the film, Glass crawls out of a frozen river still suffering from his life threatening injuries sustained during a bear attack but he still manages to make a small fire and dry himself out and the bear skin cloak.

I was particularly amazed by all the handy gas burners conveniently situated just below the ground in various locations. At least that’s what I guessed they were because you don’t get a bright, dancing flame a foot high from a few small twigs. The only other possible explanation is that he was burning animal fat – but where did he acquire that in the wilderness and as a starving man surely he would have eaten it first?

In one scene, Glass is laying by a campfire that seems to be burning inside a snowdrift. All around him is a treeless flat plateau of snow. Where did the wood come from? And remember, this is a man who is supposed to be so injured he can barely walk.

The incident with the disembowelled horse forced me to put acro props under my disbelief to keep it suspended. The process of eviscerating a horse with a small knife must require as much effort as it does to build a shelter. The idea of the horse still being warm is absurd. Once the animal is dead, the heat would escape its body at the same rate as any cooked meat. So spending a night in it, naked (this symbolism of him being reborn was a touch too strained here) would produce hypothermia within hours.

The climax of the film contained the worst abuses.

Upon hearing of the possible survival of Glass, the captain of the fort orders a dozen men to go out into the wilderness and search for him at night using torchlight. Seriously?

Miraculously, they find Glass. The captain is furious at Fitzgerald and on returning to the fort they discover he has vanished after ransacking the safe.

Now, a safe is supposed to keep valuable things ‘safe’ so it’s usually difficult to get into. If any passing stranger can open the safe and take whatever they want from it then it’s not a safe, it’s a cupboard.

So we now have a vicious, remorseless man, heavily armed and desperate, loose in the wilderness. How many men does the captain muster to hunt him down? Er, two – himself and the barely recovered Glass. Bit odd that, why take a dozen men to search for a harmless survivor but only two to hunt down an armed desperado?

Inevitably, the two pursuers split up as they near their quarry and Fitzgerald murders the captain. Now it’s Glass, the expert guide and survivalist, versus Fitzgerald the mercenary.

Glass allows himself to be shot as he rides his horse through open territory. Fitzgerald approaches the body to investigate it whereupon Glass pops up from the other horse that carried the dead captain.

So a construction that needed to be strong enough to support a dead body in an upright position on a walking horse can be knocked over by a single bullet fired from a distance?

It gets worse.

After a struggle, Fitzgerald runs off and Glass gives chase but at one point is unable to decide which way he went. His tracking skills that formerly allowed him to follow footsteps in virgin snow to see where a quarry went have suddenly deserted him and he has to guess on the direction.

Iñárritu, the director of the film clearly wasn’t going to be distracted in his direction; he wanted a film about one’s man’s revenge against another man in all its stripped down brutality and he wasn’t going to let anything get in the way of it, especially the laws of physics or common sense.

It’s still a film worth watching though.


Toilet door handles

February 16th, 2018
Photo: Clem Onojeg

Photo: Clem Onojeg

After I’ve been to the toilet I always wash my hands. Data shows that most food poisoning is self-inflicted by handling food with contaminated hands.

After washing my hands in a public toilet I’m invariably confronted by one (but often two) doors that need to be pulled to open them.

Knowing that many people don’t wash their hands after going to the toilet (irrespective of how dirty they might have been) I’m always loathe to soil my freshly cleaned hands on aluminium handles that are no doubt harbouring harmful bacteria.

The answer of course is simple – make the doors on exit Push instead of Pull then hygienic users can use their shoulder or elbow to push open the door. The reason they’re not configured this way is because if they were, they would invariably open into a corridor and the door would then present a hazard to anyone walking along it. Most architects obviously think a case of campylobacter is preferable to an accidental injury that could result in litigation.

But I have an answer to this dilemma: two handles.

The usual grab rail handle can be placed in the normal position for comfortable leverage by the user – roughly at shoulder height. The second handle however is set much lower down so that it requires a slight crouching position to reach it. This would mean someone using the second handle would have to exert some effort in its operation. If a person is so lazy that they can’t even be bothered to wash their hands then they are extremely unlikely to use the lower handle.  This means only conscientious people will use it and so lessen the risk of harmful bacteria collecting on it.

You’re welcome.

Where Ideas Come From

December 3rd, 2017
fuyong-hua-Ideas

FuYong Hua from Unsplash.com

It’s logical to assume that someone somewhere must have once had an original idea. Today it is said that no ideas are original; our exposure to creative content is so great these days that it’s incredibly difficult to state with any conviction that a new idea is entirely original.

Plagiarism however, is more readily identified. The worst cases involve writers who copy and past entire novels, change a few details and then declare the work to be their own and try to sell it online for profit.

In-between these two extremes is a muddy area. Here is a recent case in point.

Jack Strange is a friend of mine from decades ago. He recently had a novel published titled Celebrity Chef Zombie Apocolypse. I read the novel and although the genre of fantasy horror was not to my liking, I was still happy for his achievement – writing novels is tough.

In fact, his achievement encouraged me to have a go at doing some creative writing myself and I wrote several short stories. One of them I posted on this site.

The inspiration for the story was very clear to me. Last summer Chris Olley and his wife, Karen, visited me. Chris had spent some time in Wakefield before moving to Nottingham where he formed the band Six.BySeven and with which he enjoyed considerable success.

We were sitting in the café of M&S where Chris was regaling me with stories from his colourful past. I was amazed he knew Bill Hicks and had corresponded with him. One of his other stories involved a well-known Rock Star who Chris was friendly with but who had a reputation in the music business of being incredibly unreliable.

Now, I’ve long been fascinated by the development of powerful technologies and especially algorithms that are set to take away everyone’s jobs so I joked with Chris that one day soon, this celebrity won’t be needed to introduce other acts as virtual reality will be convincing enough to fool an audience into thinking he’s really there.

After we’d riffed on this concept for a while I told Chris that there was enough material to write a short story about it. The result was Lazarus Corps.

I showed the story to a few people and one of them informed me that it wasn’t so much science fiction as science fact and told me about the Star Wars film where the character of Christopher Lee ‘acts’ even though he had been dead for some time. I hurriedly posted the story online before it became outdated.

Then Jack Strange came across it and accused me of plagiarizing his novel Celebrity Chef. I must say I was surprised by this allegation. The genesis of the story was clear in my head – it was that day in the café of M&S.

However, I reflected on his points: in his novel he has an invention called The Lazarus Engine that is used to resurrect a long dead TV chef (whose rotting corpse has to be physically dug up out of the ground).

In my story, the company that specialises in programming the algorithms to create the dead (and sometimes still living) celebrities from existing video footage of them is called Lazarus Corps.

Had Jack invented the name Lazarus and told a story about him being raised from the dead, I would have no defence and I would indeed be a plagiarist. But Lazarus is a story from the bible and has been invoked many times in creative works (Lazarus Raised by Peter Gabriel from 1989, for example).

Who has claim on the name of ‘Lazarus’?

If I had named the company in my story ‘Frankenstein Corps’ would that have been acceptable or would the estate of Mary Shelley be accusing me of stealing her original idea (or was she herself borrowing from the Lazarus story)?

The development of sampling technology brought this issue into sharp focus. Here, musicians were lifting actual samples of records to incorporate into their own ‘original’ works. Often, the samples only lasted for a few seconds but anyone familiar with the original work would recognise it.

Sampling is fine if the artists acknowledge the source and pay royalties if money is made from any creation but in this example the artists can identify precisely where their samples came from.

The creative process itself though, is not so clear-cut.

Here is an example.

I write comedy routines to perform live. As I develop the routines I make a habit of running the ideas past several trusted friends. More often than not, they comment and supply me with additional lines of exploration that I had overlooked or would never have thought of because my mind doesn’t work the way theirs does. Their interpretation of the content often sparks new ideas I can apply to my creative process.

Here is another apposite example.

Chrystal Roe posted a comment about Lazarus Corps being a possible jumping off point for a much longer story. This idea had never occurred to me, I just saw it as a complete short story but the comment has made me consider the idea. If I were to write the longer story, how much credit do I give Chrystal Roe?

This is even before we consider the area of subconscious appropriation. Music is a minefield for this. I’ve lost count of the number of lawsuits concerning plagiarised tunes. I’m pretty certain that the musicians involved often had no idea they had lifted chord progressions or melodies from old songs that they may have heard in the background at some point.

So when Jack brought his comparison to me I thought deeply about this – do I owe him a debt of gratitude?

With regard to appropriating any story lines, I don’t honestly know. If I do, then he will simply be in a long line of other storytellers I must have knowingly or unknowingly borrowed from.

But for the record, one thing I can acknowledge for sure (as evidenced by this lengthy post) is that Jack Strange has encouraged me to sit down and write.

Lazarus Corps

August 7th, 2017
Photo: John Pratt from Unsplash

Photo: John Pratt from Unsplash

The ten thousand strong crowd had been waiting nearly an hour for the show to start. Most of them were absorbed in their phones, staring vacantly at glowing screens that threw an eerie light onto their faces.

Rancid, the PR intern from the production company organising the show, was standing near the stage and looking at his own phone, monitoring the social media comments being posted by the crowd. They were using the #malariadeathring hashtag – and most of the audience were clearly becoming pissed off at the delay but were trying to be amusing about it in their comments.

The delay in the start of the show was being stage-managed. With high overheads and punitive financial penalty clauses in the venue contract should anything go awry, the entire show was designed to run like clockwork. It was Rancid’s job to gauge whether the ‘rebellious’ attitude of the tardy band was returning any dividends. A debrief after the show would discuss the efficacy of the tactic and decide whether to continue with the practice or not at future events.

Rancid checked the time on his phone, the show was going to start about…now!

The background music yielded to a swelling bass tone of menace that got louder until it was at concert hall level and reverberated in Rancid’s chest. He looked up from his phone at the vast stage, empty of people but festooned with equipment poking through the shallow layer of dry ice like skyscrapers piercing cloud cover. A column of light was falling onto the stage like a biblical portent. The audience, as one, raised their phones into the air to video the moment.

From the side of the stage emerged a lone figure walking towards the spotlight. It was a young man with long dark hair as lustrous and bountiful as a woman in the prime of her reproductive years. He was wearing a loose-fitting white poet shirt tucked into brown leather trousers that were accessorised with an ornate buckle belt – the aficionados in the audience immediately recognised it as the silver Zuni Navajo Concho belt made famous by its wearer.

The figure reached the pool of light drilling into the stage and as he stepped into its beam the audience could clearly see Jim Morrison. He stood silently for a few seconds allowing the audience to take in the extraordinary detail of his clothes, hair and belt. A huge screen above the stage relayed the live moment. Then he spoke to the crowd in a husky drawl, “Ladies and gentlemen… Malaria Death Ring” and with that he turned and walked off the stage the same way he had come.

To the cheers of the audience, the members of Malaria Death Ring emerged from the centre of the stage on a hydraulic riser. They were face-painted and costumed so exotically that they made Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band from their acid days of the ‘60s, look like a team of bank clerks on their first day at work. A distinctive intro chord was struck and the show began in earnest.

oOo

Countless months before the show, the production team had their regular meeting at the record company headquarters. They sat around the clear glass, boardroom table.

“Siobhan, who do we have introducing the band on the 5th?”

Martin asked this question while scrolling through his digital tablet. Siobhan was on the other side of the table flicking her dyed hair away from her face. The others at the table all looked at her.

“We’ve currently got the President of the United States as the introducer.”

“Which one?” asked Martin.

“Donald Trump,” answered Siobhan.

“Isn’t he getting a bit…clichéd?” interrupted Hugh, a young, handsome man sitting next to Siobhan “I mean, how often can he say ‘this is the best band, you’re going to see the best show’ before it gets too predictable? Besides, I’m reliably informed that Donald Trump is going to be introducing ‘Horse Blood’ on the same night in Birmingham. Surely we want to be a bit more exclusive than that?” He looked at Martin for support. Martin continued to peer at his tablet.

“Who told you that?” asked Martin still looking at his tablet.

“Peter Pinkjacket,” said Hugh.

“Pinkjacket! He’s a coke-head; you can’t trust anything he says!” yelled Siobhan.

Martin quickly looked up from his tablet sensing a time-wasting spat between his two team members. He addressed the five people at the table. “Reliable or not I think it’s worth looking at other options anyway. This is a big gig for Death Ring as it’s the album launch so it might be worth exploring something… unusual. Andy, do you know of anything being developed that we might be able to use?”

Andy was the technical expert with his finger on the digital pulse of innovation.

“I hear Jim Morrison is going to be available soon,” he suggested.

“Whooa! He would be cool!” said Mike, the creative executive.

“Really? Any idea how much he would be?” asked Martin.

“It wouldn’t be that much more than Donald Trump, but there would obviously be a premium for exclusivity. The downside is the quality wouldn’t be quite as good as Trump, as the archive footage is so poor. Comparatively.” Andy added.

Mike said, “But it’s been so long since anyone saw him in the flesh it wouldn’t matter. To the people in the audience he would be real enough. And, as we own The Doors back catalogue it could generate sales from curious onlookers who haven’t heard of him.”

“I’m liking the idea of Jim Morrison more than Donald Trump,” said Martin as he glanced at Siobhan, “Morrison has more…gravitas than Trump and Mike is right, we need to consider the trade off between the extra cost of the avatar and the possible revenue from fresh sales. See if you can fix that up, would you?”

Siobhan made a note on her phone.

Later, at around midnight, Siobhan made a video call to Leee from Lazarus Corporation.

“It looks like we’re going to run with Jim Morrison, Leee, do you know if the avatar will be ready for the 5th? We just need him to say ‘Ladies and gentlemen, Malaria Death Ring!’”

Leee was suitably rock ‘n roll; with a shaven head and dark glasses. He responded from his sunlit office in LA, “Yep, he’s just about ready for a trial run and he looks beautiful. We’ve rendered him in his prime at about age twenty-two. You’ll be the first to have him.”

Yeah, after some American outfit uses him first, thought Siobhan.

“Fabulous” said Siobhan “consider this confirmation. I’ll send the official request through in about fifteen minutes.”

oOo

In the old days, living celebrities would open a show for a band in person but this entailed so many problems with egos, riders, and reliability issues that an exasperated executive came up with a novel idea.

He got the idea from a development first seen at conferences. A speaker, who was many thousands of miles away, would be projected onto a stage during a live event. To the audience it looked pretty much as if this speaker was in the room, not in a studio on the other side of the world. They could even conduct a Q&A session with them and still maintain the illusion of reality.

It was only a small step to imagine a pre-recorded message given by a celebrity being projected onto a stage but this still involved getting the cooperation of the celebrity in the first place and pandering to their narcissism.

Then some digital artists armed with fast computers and lots of start-up funding took it one step further. They had seen the online videos that mocked certain politicians with mashed-up broadcast footage of their old speeches. Fast and clever editing made the politician say or sing outrageous things that the public understood to be nearer to the truth of what they meant.

What these digital artists did was to create a believable hologram of a living celebrity purely from footage that was available online. A hugely sophisticated algorithm could visualize new scenarios based on the known mannerisms of the subject. A programmer could then feed in any body movements and dialogue that they wanted into the programme to generate a convincing hologram of the celebrity on a stage at a live event. The result was the current fashion of having a big name introduce an act. The day of the indistinguishable avatar from the real celebrity (at least viewed from a distance) had arrived. Algorithms had revolutionised the entertainment industry. Real celebrities were a pain in the arse. Avatars were the future.

The celebrities on offer were growing by the month – alive or dead. However, the older the celebrity the more expensive they tended to be as the processing power needed to resurrect them was higher due to the paucity of material and the poorer quality of recordings.

Having a celebrity introduce an act with the line “Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome x” was just the right length to make the process commercially viable for medium sized acts. And once they had been generated, smaller acts could purchase a licence to use the same file but with a slight alteration for whatever name they required the avatar to speak.

Of course, the first time this stunt was pulled, the celebrity in question was outraged at the appropriation and lawsuits were quickly filed but once the lawyers started to look into the case many loopholes and omissions were revealed. The technology was too new for the old law. The originators argued that they weren’t pretending that the actual celebrity was opening the show; they were completely upfront that a counterfeit was being displayed. The lawyers weren’t even sure if the image fell under the legislation designed for artworks or not, it was a lawless frontier.

Such were the vagaries of the case that it was quickly thrown out of court and the celebrities suddenly realised what it must feel like to be a production worker in a factory and witness the introduction of a tireless robot that could do your job far more efficiently. Overnight, celebrities got increasingly shy about appearing on any media that could record them walking, talking or even cutting a ribbon with a pair of scissors. Old media started to get deleted from video sites and lobby groups were putting pressure on the legislators to protect the rights of the unfortunate celebrities.

But by that time the innovators had already banked terabytes of data ready to analyse and render into their new compliant ghosts.

It wasn’t too long before filmmakers started to look at the costs of creating a full-length movie using digitally reproduced actors based on real actors – but these new actors wouldn’t throw a tantrum, get coked up in their trailers or even age over time.

Some gossip columnists enjoyed the shadenfraude of celebrities losing status and earnings due to the avatars. Writers felt especially smug; they were in a position of renewed status as the spoken lines that the avatars delivered became more important than the celebrity.

That didn’t last long however as the ‘deep learning’ algorithms managed to become creative and start churning out copy that humans found amusing, dazzling or moving based on what the audience had previously found amusing, dazzling and moving. The algorithms even learned to apply context and topicality to their output.

Then Bill Hicks got his own show. It was a brand new show and completely written by algorithms. The show even used the name of Bill Hicks as the owners of his estate realised it was useless fighting the onslaught of new technology and they might as well take a slice of the pie through licencing agreements rather than go hungry.

The show was a smash. The persona of Bill Hicks lent itself beautifully to some of the surreal imagery that the algorithm conjured up out of its mathematical processes and it even managed to come up with a routine that included some self-referential jokes about artificial intelligence being too clever by half for dumb humans.

All the creativity in the show was machine generated and the only thing left for humans to do was to market it and consume it.

Had he been alive, Bill Hicks would have got high on the irony.

Colston Hall should be renamed

May 7th, 2017

Slave coin

Colston Hall is to be renamed. Some people in Bristol objected to the former slave trader being honoured for his contribution to the city.

Other people in Bristol think there is nothing wrong with a former slave trader being remembered with a building dedicated to culture.

Edward Colston was a slave trader and philanthropist. The problem I have is that these two terms are mutually exclusive – you cannot be both. The only exception is where the slave trader has an epiphany and then spends the rest of his life fighting the slave trade no matter what the cost to himself. As far as I can tell, this does not apply to Colston.

Anyone who can countenance the idea of making money from the suffering of other human beings has absolutely no regard for the rest of humanity (it should also be noted that Colston was a devout Christian).

Sometimes human suffering is a by-product of the final manufactured item but with slave trading the product starts with the suffering of human beings, this fact cannot be disputed.

The profits from slave trading were spectacular. It is no surprise therefore that many traders had more money than they knew what to do with. After the building of stately homes, philanthropy was another obvious self-aggrandizing solution to this dilemma.

The broad definition of a philanthropist is someone who considers the greater good. This suggests empathy and compassion, a regard for those less fortunate than themselves. A slave trader does not have these qualities.

What then, motivates a slave trader to give his money away?

Narcissism.

They will be remembered for their charity, helping the less fortunate enjoy the benefits of his or her success. They will have buildings named after them so their name will linger in history as a force for good. Statues will be testament of this.

But the motivation for this generosity is utterly selfish. The money is hardly ever bequeathed anonymously, far from it, the more public fanfare of the donation, the better – hence the naming of buildings after them.

This is a crime of vanity. The crime of slave trading is therefore compounded by this second crime. As perpetrators of misery they then amplify their crime by boasting of it. This is unacceptable.

The right thing to do is to erase the names of such criminals from public buildings and to destroy their statues. The various gifts they bestowed upon society should be given the names of the slaves they exploited or if none can be found, simply renamed Slave House or Slave Park etc.

Condoning and celebrating ruthless greed is not the mark of a civilised society.


What is MSM?

February 25th, 2017
Hulme Crescents

Original Tweet by Neil Claxton

On social media, MSM is usually short for Mainstream Media and refers to national TV news programmes like the Ten o’clock news and ‘red tops’ – tabloid newspapers available throughout the country.

Some journalists refuse to acknowledge this term as they think it too vague and simple as a concept to serve any purpose. Some even deny that ‘mainstream news’ exists at all. They consider its use pejorative.

If anyone is guilty of simplifying concepts and using pejorative language, it is journalists. If anyone is guilty of being biased and manipulative, it is journalists. They are now being hoist by their own petard and they are outraged that someone else has the temerity to use such devices.

Take, for example, this story from today’s Guardian website*. Several questions need to be asked:

  1. Why is this a story?

  2. Who decided it was a story?

  3. Whose interests does it serve?

  4. Why was this photograph chosen to illustrate it?

  5. What is ISIS?

The only reason I took note of the story was because Martin Bryant, a journalist who knows Manchester, commented on his personal Twitter account that the building in the photograph no longer exists and that the area is a lot more pleasant today.

If this was lazy journalism by The Guardian (we don’t have the staff to do a proper picture search on the internet) it could be partly forgiven but this is not lazy journalism, this is a deliberate attempt to mould the story into a particular shape. The journalist was working the raw material of the story—like a sculptor working on a lump of clay—into an effigy of some kind.

The journalist however is working under the guidance of his or her mentor, the editor, who likes works to conform to certain aesthetic standards, ones that invariably are to the liking of their ultimate patron – the owner of the media outlet. The editor might even have told the journalist to create this effigy from somewhere because the media outlet had some interest to serve.

Some journalists might genuinely believe that they are working without supervision from their boss but as Peter Oborne found out when he tried to write critically about HSBC this is an illusion.

So what is ISIS? How is this different to using MSM?

The slightest research into the situation in Syria reveals a complexity of factions and forces that goes way beyond the patience of MSM consumers. ISIS is a meaningless term in reality but it’s useful in giving a bit of detail to a similarly meaningless term – ‘enemy’.

Donald Trump is a useful Geiger counter for highlighting what is dysfunctional in society. His contempt for the media is a sure sign that there is something fundamentally wrong with the way it operates and that he can exploit it for his own gain.

Of course there are some journalists who are hard working and conscientious but they are like the ‘hard-working taxpayers’ mentioned in so many Tory missives; they don’t really figure in the grand scheme of things and can be safely discounted.

* they have since changed the photograph

Stop Trying To Change The World

January 14th, 2017

Thruscreen

Step out of your comfort zone.

This is advice we hear all the time. If you’re a motivational speaker then this will be your core message. The fact that businesses pay huge sums of money to motivational speakers to drive home this message with their workforce suggests it’s safe to assume that this position is beyond question. Clearly, this is how humans were meant to improve themselves.

But is it? I’m not so sure.

GraphA

Look at graph A. The y-axis represents the highs and lows of life from the extreme high (say winning the lottery or achieving a lifetimes goal) to the extreme low (say being diagnosed with a terminal illness or losing everything due to war). The line in the middle is the mean and 0 represents the perfect level of comfort – however you wish to define that.

The mean should not be derided – we wouldn’t be here if the universe didn’t have a comfort zone. Planet earth exists on this mean line – neither too hot nor too cold, a miracle really considering the unimaginable extremes of the universe.

As human beings, we understand the environment through comparison – to our touch fire is too hot, ice is too cold and blood temperature is just about right. For every positive, we compare it to a negative and everything exists on this continuum.

Let’s go back to graph A. The motivational speaker encourages the audience to achieve goals that attain these spectacular ‘highs’ on the positive side of the mean. What is rarely mentioned is that for every move higher there will potentially be a corresponding move lower in emotional response, and the higher you go the lower you can go too. This has to be the case. If you’ve set your heart and soul on achieving a particular goal (how great it will be to achieve this!) and you fail to achieve it, your disappointment will be proportional to the desire you had in wanting to achieve it. If your disappointment is not too great then the logic dictates that you couldn’t have wanted it that badly in the first place.

Hence, any idea of living your entire life in the positive side of the mean is an illusion because we can only make sense of the world through comparison so the mean in the graph would have to be shifted upwards and the graph recalibrated so that 0 appeared higher on the y-axis so that some experiences fell into the negative half.

GraphB

Most people live their lives similar to graph B where the peaks and troughs are minimised (I’m making this extrapolation from the existence of an industry that actively encourages a pursuit of the bigger peaks and troughs) whereas the ‘special’ people— for example, risk-taking cave divers or mountain climbers, live their lives similar to graph C.

GraphC

Which is the preferred graph?

The thing we definitely don’t want to experience is a flat line – the undeviating line of the mean itself. In medical circles ‘flatline’ is a sign of death. If you were perpetually comfortable, your body and mind would protest. Sensory deprivation is anathema to our brains – it needs some stimulus thus it’s easy to see where the idea of stepping out of our comfort zones originated—doing so provides stimulus for our brain.

So being perpetually comfortable is practically impossible. Before long, it would become uncomfortable through lack of stimulus.

Most people however, don’t require an enormous amount of stimulus. If you look at graph C and consider it in terms of food intake, it doesn’t look very attractive; imagine many days of fasting followed by uncontrollable binges. It could be argued by a motivational speaker that the longer the fast, the more out of your comfort zone you are (is that a good thing?) and that when you do eventually eat, the food will taste better as a result of your extended fast. Presumably, this is ‘living life to the full’ and should be advocated by life coaches but as far as I’m aware, it’s not often on their agenda. Why is this? Is it because it is probably healthier to be more moderate with your food intake?

If this moderate principle applies to food, why is it not extended to other areas of our lives? In fact, why is the desire to experience life to the full with extreme goals seen as healthy at all?

Maybe the entire premise of ‘motivation’ is misguided? When a goal is achieved or a disaster experienced, where is the impact of it most keenly felt? – In the mind. It is our mindfulness that dictates how we experience existence. We feel ‘amazing’ or ‘gutted’ because our minds create the emotion. ‘Motivation’ is an ersatz way of accessing the mind, like viewing the world through a low-resolution screen instead of looking at the real thing unobstructed. Why not focus directly on the mind?

Stop reading now and pay close attention to what you can hear, listen for every nuance of sound, find all the frequencies.

This is as good as it gets. You’re alive! By learning to be more aware of the now, we can appreciate the ‘simple’ things in life (listening to sounds might seem simple but when reflected upon deeply the unimaginable complexity of it becomes apparent).

Action without thought is mindless. We need Mindfulness Speakers more than we need motivational speakers.

Eventually, food banks will have to go bust.

December 12th, 2016

wheatfieldlo

The number of charities, food banks and ‘pay what you feel’ café’s that utilise food that would otherwise have been thrown away is on the increase. At first glance this would appear to be a good thing, but when looked at closely it is not.

According to the data, the UK is the worst country in Europe for food waste. This fact alone should be the main focus of any reform efforts by charities and concerned people. It is an utter disgrace that so much intensive farming (and all the environmental degradation that it entails) goes to waste when food is thrown away. France has already taken the lead in this and has passed a law banning supermarkets from destroying unsold food.

The sheer scale of the food waste was only brought home to me after watching a BBC news article that documented some examples of how food was deemed ‘unwanted’. One example involved packets of dried spaghetti. One packet isn’t such a big deal but when it comes out of a box that has come out of a lorry-load of spaghetti boxes, it does become a big deal. And then when the news item goes on to state that this is merely one lorry out of a fleet of seventeen similarly loaded lorries, the mind starts to boggle.

It is no wonder then that some people are moved to do something about this prodigious waste – hence the springing up of food banks etc. But my argument is that this activity is merely duplicating the waste—albeit disguised in a different form. The volunteers have to get into cars or vans (OK, some may get on a bicycle) and drive to the various supermarkets to negotiate the collection of the food. These vehicles then have to drive around the town or city to drop off the food at various food banks and cafes. This causes pollution and traffic congestion as well as more landfill once the vehicles come to the end of their useful life.

My reasoning is that as the food is already on the premises of the supermarket (which is situated in a central location of a large community) the logic is screaming out that the most efficient way to redistribute the food is for the supermarkets themselves to give the food away directly to those people who need it the most – the end customer.

This however is where capitalism appears to become outraged. If you have free food next to food that has to be bought, which are people going to choose? The obvious answer is the free food every time. This however does capitalism a disservice and underestimates its power – it’s far cleverer than that.

Firstly, the free food would probably be housed in a separate warehouse section so that it doesn’t take up prime floor space in the well-lit, heated supermarket. This means customers have to exit the pleasant area and enter a downmarket one to access the free food. Capitalism says that people respect tiers of status – many people would not allow themselves to be seen in the warehouse section (I’m not judging here, merely observing) so they would never enter it.

Secondly, the food in the warehouse section is less fresh than in the supermarket so again, status would come into play; many people prefer their food to be as fresh as possible.

Thirdly, the free food lacks choice. In the example given earlier, you might have lots of spaghetti on offer but very little else. I don’t know many people who eat spaghetti on its own; they usually want some kind of sauce to go with it. If the ingredients for that sauce are not available in the warehouse section then a lot of people would probably go into the supermarket to purchase those few extra ingredients.

In practice then, the frugal customer could enter the warehouse section first, pick up whatever free foods was on offer and then move onto a consultation point manned by volunteers who could advise them on what meals to make from those foodstuffs. And here’s the crucial bit: by advising them on which added ingredients could make the meal nutritious, the customer could be tempted to go into the supermarket and buy them if the cost is not too prohibitive.

It’s counter-intuitive at first but in the long run this could actually work out to be beneficial for the supermarkets, they might even sell more produce as a result. The supermarket gets rid of its unwanted food as efficiently as possible thereby eliminating food waste and landfill and it potentially sells more food overall. It’s a win-win scenario.

Whichever supermarket adopts this model first will garner enormous media coverage, terrific PR and increase its market share.

The time has come to think beyond the old models. If implemented this could be the first step towards making other radical ideas—like Universal Basic Income—a reality.

*The photograph above is from Unsplash.com, a website that offers high-resolution images to anyone for free.


Planned obsolescence

November 11th, 2016

kettle-switchblog

This is the on/off switch from our electric kettle. When we bought the kettle I could immediately see that the plastic switch was so inadequate for the job that it must have been deliberately designed that way to limit the life of the device.

Sure enough it lasted for about eighteen months which seems to be the industry standard for any small electrical good these days.

I’m now supposed to throw the kettle away and buy a new one so that the relentless process of consumerism can continue.

Can we follow the example of Trump and call it like it is? Why don’t manufacturers honestly admit their strategy of planned obsolescence and insert a chip into a device to stop it working after a certain period of time so we can actually plan for the obsolescence? The date of the failure can even be printed on the packet when we buy it from new.

We could also set up specific recycling depots in our redundant high street shops for the non-functioning devices so a certain amount of sustainability can be built into the insane consumerist model.