Saturday, March 20, 2021

1984 – 37 Years Later

In 1980, I bought a paperback version of 1984, figuring I should read it before the fateful year arrived. Forty-one years later, I’m still carrying that book around and I still have not read it. But this week, I finally picked it up and managed to move beyond its famous opening line:

“It was a bright cold day in April and the clocks were striking 13…”

I’m well into the narrative now and I’m finding it unsettling. I think, if I had read it when I meant to, I might have taken it as a warning of what the world might become. But reading it now, in 2021, I have to acknowledge that most of what Orwell predicted has already come true. And the irony is, we didn’t need a malevolent government to force us into doing those things, we are willingly, and with unbounded alacrity, doing them to ourselves. The government couldn’t stop us if they tried.

The book was written when television was in its infancy, yet Orwell imagined we would have huge screens in our homes, broadcasting propaganda 24-7. It seemed fantastical, impossible, even, but here we are, with 120-inch, Ultra HD Smart TVs in homes, tuned to Fox News or CNN, so they can tell us what to think and to shout our opinions back at us all day and all night.

And we don’t need the Government to mandate the daily Two-Minute Hate, we do that to ourselves—for hours a day—doom-scrolling our Social Media information teat in order to keep our indignation boiling.

In Orwell’s book, the big screen in your home—in addition to telling you what to think—watches and listens to you, and there are microphones hidden around in the outside world to further track your movements and conversations. While most TVs currently can’t hear what you are saying, Alexa, Echo, Siri and Google Home can. And your phone keeps excellent tabs on you—and listens to your conversations—even when you aren’t voluntarily broadcasting your location and activities to the world at large, sometimes with tragic results.

Bill Gates doesn’t need to inject you with a micro-chip so he can track you (spoiler alert: he isn’t), your mobile phone is doing a much better job.

In Orwell’s dystopia, the government forces all these intrusions on the population. In our current society, we buy them ourselves and gleefully integrate them into our lives.

We don’t even need the Thought Police, as we have an army of volunteers who continually patrol the borders of their shattered self-esteem, looking for ways to become offended and, when they find a Tweet or FaceBook post (might be current, but it could be something from long ago) they start a Twit-Storm to make sure that the person who offended them loses their job and is shamed off of social media. That’s as close to being vaporized—the 1984 euphemism for being totally erased from history and society—as you can get without actually employing an army of IT hackers and Blackshirts.

And Winston’s job at the Ministry of Truth wouldn’t be a paid position. Altering the past has become an avocation for weekend culture-warriors. Pulling down statues, banning books, outlawing toys and censoring people (via the aforementioned Twit-Storms) because of a past they’d rather not acknowledge is accomplished by enthusiastic amateurs, not government agents. Additionally, people have been known to alter past writings to make it seem as if they had predicted something when they had not. (I’m looking at you, Dominic Cummings.)

In 1984, the Government wanted you to believe 2+2=5. In 2017, the government wanted you to believe that an inauguration crowd that wasn’t there, did, in reality, exist. And we were encouraged to support this fantasy by believing in “alternate facts.” And many did, voluntarily and without the threat of incarceration. (I do wonder, however, how many people believed that the President of the United States could change the course of a hurricane simply by drawing lines with a Sharpie pen.)

Big Brother, 1984: 2+2=5
Big Brother, 2017: The crowd on the right is bigger

As you can see, the hurricane is heading for Alabama...

But, despite all this voluntary assistance, the government isn’t asleep at the wheel. They are working hard to curtail the right to protest, and are pushing laws through that make it possible to be arrested simply for holding an unpopular opinion. Not far-out-batshit-crazy opinions, either. All you have to do is say something—anything—that another person claims offends them, and you have broken the law. And critics of the new Scottish Hate-Crime Bill, fear it leaves the door open for people to be arrested merely for expressing unorthodox views even in the privacy of their own homes.

1984? It didn’t happen then, but it’s here now.

Watch out for Room One-Oh-One.

 "If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot 
stamping on a human face- forever."

-- George Orwell, 1984


No boot on face, but this is a photo of Metropolitan City Police London violently restraining a woman at a peaceful vigil, which was not a protest but a peaceful coming together of women, to highlight violence against women and to mourn the death of Sarah Everard who was kidnapped and murdered by a serving Metropolitan Police Officer, occurring on the eve of a bill being introduced to Parliament that will substantially increase the power of police to disperse (violently, one must assume) pretty much anyone at any time for any reason, and you couldn’t fit more irony into a sentence if you tried.


Wednesday, February 10, 2021

By the Numbers

All of my working life, I had a dream: when I retired, I was going to take up painting. It was a dream that sustained me through many long years of gainful employment, thinking about what I could accomplish once I no longer needed to earn a living.

And so, one happy day, I retired, and my dream immediately foundered on the rocky shores of reality. Not only did I lack the time, I also found myself bereft of talent, or any noticeable desire. After all those years, it turns out I didn’t really want to paint a picture. My feelings about art, instead, mirrored those of the many who say, “When I retire, I’m going to write a novel,” which is to say, I wanted to have painted a picture.

Many happy years have come and gone since then, and my determination to not paint has served me well. Painting takes up space, and the more you do it, the more space it takes up. We might live in a small flat, but no amount of writing is going to fill up my tiny office the way even a casual interest in acrylics might.

However, shit—as they say—happens, which, in this case, takes the form of Lockdown Number Three. Being shut up inside for six weeks and counting (again) had me looking around for some additional diversion. For Christmas, my wife had given me, as a sort of joke, a dot-to-dot book for adults (not to be confused with Adult Dot-to-Dot; Google carefully) and I found that to be a soothing diversion. So, when I finished it, I looked around for something to fill the time it used to take up and, somehow, I came to the notion that there ought to be paint-by-number sets for adults (not to be confused with Adult Paint-by-Numbers; Google carefully) and, sure enough, there are. (Suggested motto: Paint-by-Numbers, because real art is hard.)

Be careful how you Google.

Having memories of the paint-by-number sets of my youth, I was slightly skeptical, but these new, more mature sets, really tick the boxes. They are not, as I feared, the rigid,10x12 inch boards that I remember. These are 16x20 inch canvases that come rolled up, along with little plastic containers of the necessary paint, and three brushes. They take up little room and, when you are done, you can toss the whole thing in the bin.

That is the best bit. You don’t have to worry about where you are going to hang your masterpiece because, when you finish, you’re more likely to find that your efforts look less like the Mona Lisa and more like someone tied paint brushes to a terror of toddlers (that is the collective noun for toddlers, isn’t it?) and let them roll around on the canvas. But the point isn’t the finished product, it’s the zen-time spent dabbing paint on a brush and trying to stay inside the lines. You can do that perfectly (spoiler alert: you won’t) and you’ll still end up with something you really should hide away somewhere.

The problem is the way they are made, which is also the great thing about them. The canvases are printed by a computer program that scans a real painting, recognizes color and pattern and translates it onto a canvas. As with many automated tasks, however, the outcome is only as good as the software, and sometimes this translates to an overcast sky you are instructed to paint lime-green, or distant objects that disappear. The upside is, this makes these sets inexpensive enough that you won’t mind chucking them out (or at least rolling them up and stuffing them behind a bookcase) when you finish.

What the detail in the picture looks like          what the detail on the canvas looks like

Admittedly, my experience is limited. I’m only on my second picture and both have come from the same company. There may be others that have better software but, as I’ve noted above, that is hardly the point.

Even so, when I order more, I may go with another, more expensive, company to see if there is an upgraded version of the software that might render a picture more accurately. But until then, I’m content painting my skies green, and doing what I can to fill in the gaps.

So if, like me, you find yourself at a loose end this lockdown, you could do worse than try a paint-by-numbers kit. Unless, of course, you are really working on that novel.

Hmm, I wonder if the world is ready for a novel-by-numbers kit.

Thursday, January 14, 2021

You Learn Something New Every Day

I have decided that 2021 is the year to put that bit of folk wisdom to the test. The challenge, however, is not merely in the learning.

For example: on the first day, I learned that scenes from the 1947 film Black Narcissus were filmed at Leonardslee Gardens, which is just down the road from where we live. This gave me unexpected delight and prompted me to begin this year-long odyssey.

The second day, I learned something, then forgot what it was. Later, through great mental effort, I managed to recall it. Then I forgot it again. So, that day, I learned that I cannot rely on my short-term memory.

And this is what I believe the benefits of the exercise will be, the simple act of remaining open to new knowledge and experiences and committing them to memory (and then to a spreadsheet; I have no illusions about my ability to retain 365 tidbits of esoteric information for instant recall).

Over this year, I hope to gather a mix of surprising facts along with learned skills. I do not count things I simply found out, such as, “I just checked my Twitter feed, and it turns out Jason is a right Muppet.” No, it would have to be a more uplifting bit of actual knowledge, such as the fact that when you climb Mt. Everest, you are required to return with a load of at least 30 pounds, consisting of your shit, anyone else’s shit you run across, and other miscellany you find strewn about. This is to help with the effort to keep Everest shit-free and de-cluttered. If you fail to do this, you forfeit your $4,000 deposit. I feel I’m a better person for knowing that.

The trick to this, as well as the benefit, is simply remembering what you did learn. Many lessons come to us every day, but they are often lost in the maelstrom of daily life, so I find being continually on the lookout for something that may enriched my knowledge base helps me look forward to the day. And on that note, I originally thought that 2021 might be the worst year to attempt such a thing, seeing as how there is very little stimulation at the moment, but then I realized this is the optimum time, because it not only helps you appreciate the slower pace of life, but it reaffirms the notion that you are always learning, no matter what else might (or might not) be going on.

Such as: despite common belief, only 4% of the content on the Internet is porn. Don’t ask me how I know this.

I do wish I had more skills on the list, such as “Learned to play Edelweiss on the piano” (alas, I have not) but, so far, all I can claim to have learned is that, if I just stuff my jeans into the socks I wear with my wellies, it feels fine.( I had been neatly wrapping my jeans around my ankles and carefully pulling the socks over them. This took time and the result always caused a pressure point on my ankle. Just pulling them on saves time and doesn’t end up annoying me on the walk.) It’s a little thing, but it does add to my quality of life.

Not everything does, however. I also learned that there is such a thing as a Vampire Finch. It’s a variety of finch (duh) that lives on a remote volcanic island. They are too small to get off (they likely got there on the winds of a storm) and there is nothing for them to eat so they survive by drinking the blood of the other sea birds there. The strangest thing is, the sea birds don’t seem to mind. This still gives me nightmares.

The Vampire Finch, the stuff of nightmares.

Although this has enhanced my knowledge, it is not as beneficial as this nugget: When one computer in your home is used to buy something, or even browse something, all other Internet-connected devices in your home—phones, laptops, tablets, the microwave—will get ads for that item in their FB feed or on Google. This is because all of them share the same IP address, which is associated with the router, not the individual devices. And that really is handy to know. (See the 4% item above.)

Some items are multi-faceted, allowing you to learn several things at once. Such as this historical oddity: The unique typeface of Dove press, after an acrimonious court battle, was destroyed by one of the owners (Thomas Cobden-Sanders) who secretly threw the punches into the Thames over the course of several months, in late 1916 and early 1917. (The reason this took so long is that the total weight of the punches was 2,600 lbs—this wasn't digital type.) 100 years later, Robert Green, who was working on a project to recreate the typeface, hunted for, and located 150 pieces.

Some of the recovered Dove Typeface.

This is fascinating, not only from the archaeological angle, but the fact that anyone cares enough about a typeface to go through all that, and that, back in the day, a typeface was not to be taken lightly (see what I did there?). They were carved and moulded and cast in metal and were worth enough that it caused the two men who developed this one to fall out over the money.

While admittedly enlightening, the above is not as potentially useful as the fact that it is perfectly legal to buy and possess a flamethrower in forty-nine of the fifty states (Maryland is the only state where you cannot).

The photo was stolen from an article titled:
You can buy a flamethrower online, and it's legal

My most recent acquisition, however, has proved to be—thus far—the most useful, because it put to rest something that has been on my mind of late.

I’m over here, gathering my information about world events through my media of choice. I think they are good choices, I think they tell me enough of the truth to allow me to make my mind up about what I believe. And I think I’m right. But there are others, who have their own information streams and who also think they are right. They think they are right as strongly as I do. So, who is right? I truly did wonder about this, but then I discovered a way to tell: If you are unsure about which side you're on, next time you are at a gathering of your group, look around. Do you see Nazis? If so, then you are on the wrong side.

The final benefit of this undertaking is: despite all that is going on in the world, I am looking forward to finding out what each new day can teach me. It’s a good way to get through the year, even if I never do learn to play Edelweiss on the piano.