Monday, 12 June 2017

THE POLITICAL LANDSCAPE

All maps are political. Right now, there's only one political map that counts for UK citizens, and after Thursday, that map looks something like this:
Map courtesy Guardian UK

The map above was created by the Guardian and typifies that newspaper's high standards of graphical communication. At a glance, and following a brief explanation of the UK political system, the uninitiated are able to assess the political geography of the United Kingdom. The blue team are stronger in the South and rural areas; the red team in the North, Wales and metropolitan areas. Both teams are struggling to make in roads in Scotland, where the yellows hold sway... and Northern Ireland does its own thing.

Such was the case when one of my Vietnamese colleagues took an interest in the colourful map upon my screen, making those precise observations above. What the map does not display is how it has changed. The story of this most recent election is not told in one image, it is a series of images, a series of maps of as many elections as one would wish. 

So whilst there is so much to talk about- the decimation of moderate parties in Northern Ireland; the declining fortunes of capital "L" Liberalism; the growth of regional nationalism- this is not really the place for such things, but an opportunity to reflect on the limitations of the map. 

No graphic is capable of displaying data equivocally. The politics is in the selection of which data to display. But beyond that, maps are limited by the constraints of their dimensions. A 2D image may be able to display 3D data, but that fourth dimension is trickier to pin down.  Thus maps show us only a snapshot of history, a moment frozen in time, devoid of any context apart from geography. 



Thursday, 1 June 2017

THE GREAT SILENCE



Recently, I have been listening to a lot of podcasts. Most recently, an episode of This American Life grappled with the issue of loneliness, starting at a cosmic level. Given that I listen to podcasts principally out of a kind of loneliness (living and working in a non-English speak environment), it was amusingly apposite. In a very short time, however, my amusement gave way to a feeling of existential dread.

The programme bore the title “Fermi’s Paradox”, and used the conundrum of cosmic loneliness to springboard into the more general topic of loneliness. For the uninitiated, Fermi’s paradox is the contradiction presented by the apparent likelihood of intelligent life existing in our Galaxy and the complete lack of visible evidence that this is the case. In Fermi’s words, “Where are they?” (“they” being technology advanced aliens).

For the show’s producer, David Kestenbaum, the possibility that humans are alone in the visible universe made him feel profoundly sad. I do not share this feeling: perhaps when there are fewer things to feel sad about within human civilisation I will start to grow melancholy at the silent universe. I did allow myself to consider Fermi’s paradox yet again, however, and this led me to a darker place.

The predominant hypothesis concerning the apparent absence of intelligent life is quite simple: there are no aliens. The Rare Earth Hypothesis states that the conditions necessary to create life, even in its most simple form, are exceptional. Technologically sophisticated, culturally complex civilisations such as humanity are therefore beyond an oddity: the evolutionary coincidences that have led to our development amount to probabilities of trillions-to-one, we are alone in the Universe. This was what rendered Kestenbaum so upset. The universe, within which our tiny planet is barely a pinprick, is teeming with death: it is a cold, desolate, empty expanse, which will ultimately consume all human endeavour.

The show was a journey of reconciliation- allowing Kestenbaum to come to terms with his feelings of cosmic isolation. Part of this process seemed to focus on gently mocking his sensitivity, and allowing him to recognise that there are far more pressing things to worry about in the world. Additionally, other reasons for the Great Silence were touched upon, suggesting that Fermi’s Paradox need not preclude the existence of alien life.

One of the reasons explored was the so-called “Zoo Hypothesis”: the existence of alien civilisations is being deliberately kept from us so that our cultural and biological evolution can follow its own course, without external influence, presumably for similar reasons to those of conservationists preserving endangered species in their natural habitat. It was a thought I’d had before, but had not pondered for some time… least not since the Simulation Hypothesis had been re-popularised by Elon Musk. It was putting these two ideas together that sent me into my own existential tailspin.

An extension of the Zoo Hypothesis posits that in their efforts to conceal the rest of the universe from us humans, the advanced alien civilisation(s) have somehow isolated our world and its immediate astral environs, surrounding them with an incredibly sophisticated simulation of the rest of the universe, which has been created bereft of other sentient beings. For me, Fermi’s paradox naturally dovetails into the Simulation Hypothesis: our entire reality is a digital simulation that has been created to observe how a human civilisation might develop in a universe lacking any other sentient beings.

Imagine those early pioneers of agriculture, trading the uncertainty of the foraging lifestyle for the relative security of sedentary life. These men and women ultimately set in motion an unprecedented revolution in culture and technology, culminating after tens of thousands of years in the exploration of space.

Along the way they have created hierarchy, religion and war. To facilitate their industrious exploitation of their planet’s resources, they have poisoned their own environment against them. Whilst they have made progress in reversing the inequality that has sprung up over the centuries of cultural evolution, it is unclear as to whether this progress is sustainable given the scale of the environmental problems and capacity to annihilate themselves over political disagreements.

Cue intervention by an interstellar civilisation. Detecting the emergence of a technologically advanced civilisation within range of their spacecraft, said civilisation decide to introduce themselves. They are dismayed to find that Homo sapiens has been unable to resolve its social differences in spite of its huge leaps forward technologically. They issue dire warnings to the terrified denizens of earth, having witnessed this behaviour in previous civilisations. Almost universally, world leaders surrender to the superior beings and follow their recommendations, in order to steer humanity from its path to destruction. Not all of earth’s citizens are so eager to comply, resulting in a bloody war.

Reluctantly, the aliens assist earth’s leaders in the suppression of the global insurrection, but in doing so they reinforce support for the rebel forces. The whole planet is in the throes of a bitter, bloody civil war. The aliens have failed utterly, and after much discussion, decide that their only option is to intercede directly: follow our road map to peace and prosperity, or face annihilation- annihilation at their hands.

The threat is enough to at least get the leaders of the significant parties to agree to meet. The dividing line is clear and stark. On the one hand, the establishment opinion holds that humanity will be destroyed unless the aliens’ instructions are followed. On the other hand, insurrectionists argue that it was the aliens who created this situation in the first place, are now threatening the earth directly, and better to die fighting for freedom than to continue living with no control over their fate.

The divisions and arguments are predictable, but the alien civilisation is able to steer a way through the debate with their trump card: simulated realities. They have the power to create incredibly accurate hologrammatic simulations, and are capable of demonstrating the outcome of actions on a galactic scale by tweaking the simulation’s parameters. Hundreds of these simulations are run, each demonstrating that if humanity was simply left to their own devices, the only possible outcome is increased misery and suffering and ultimately, the extermination of all biological life.

Naturally, the insurrectionists suggest that these computer models are weighted in favour of the extra-terrestrials preferred outcome. As a measure of good faith, the aliens induct the top computer scientists and programmers from the insurrectionist side into the inner workings of simulation construction. Across earth, an uneasy truce reigns.

After several years, the insurrectionists are convinced by the civilisations validity, but this does not put an end to the conflict. The debate turns to the age-old issue of individual agency and the greater good, the Platonic/Aristotelian dialectic that has plagued public discourse since the dawn of civilisation. However, faced with annihilation, the wider populace overwhelmingly choose life as well fed slaves than hungry free me. A new world government begins to institute the aliens’ original programme for cultural and environmental recovery.

Naturally, pockets of resistance still exist across all continents. Though they can no longer count on the same levels of popular support as before, they are still able to interrupt the recovery programme and cause misery, pain and suffering. For some, this is the price of progress, and anticipate on the remaining insurrectionists slowly dying out. For others, it is unnecessary and hideous, and are dismayed by the establishment’s inability to stamp it out completely.

Once again, the aliens manage to steer a path through the fog. Human leaders are urged to reach out to the remaining extremists and offer amnesty: not in return for seizing their actions, but for the opportunity to negotiate and discuss once again. The aliens are desperate to understand the desires and motives of these men and women, and to do what they can to end what they see as unnecessary suffering. Amongst the myriad demands and aspirations lurked something curious: it wasn’t that the insurrectionists wanted the aliens to just go away, they wanted them never to have arrived.

So: in order to demonstrate at least some degree of compliance, the aliens agreed to run a simulation in which they never came to earth. In fact, they agreed to run a simulation of the universe entirely devoid of other sentient life forms. They hoped this would demonstrate the hopelessness of the remaining insurrectionists’ cause. I cannot speculate on the outcome, because I believe that this is the simulation in which we now live.

I snapped out of my reverie in a manner similar to Dhasa in the Glass Bead Game: I found myself back in the present, doing something completely mundane, having lived through not just one life time but tens of thousands of years of parallel history. Like Dhasa I was by water, pouring from a shower head not a gently babbling forest stream. My heart rate felt higher than usual and I was aware of a great deal of chatter in my head. I resolved to practice some mindfulness, in an effort to return myself to normality.

Inhale, exhale: as long as you are breathing, there’s more right with you than wrong with you.

I felt the cold, wet torrent immerse my head and body.

I looked at the soap bubbles forming between my fingers.

I observed the complexity of the iridescence on the surface of each bubble, each one, containing within it its own universe.

What kind of technology would simulate this? Even at a level observable by the human senses, what power would be required to simulate something so complex, so convincingly?

It looks so real. It feels so real.

But then again, it’s all we’ve ever known. How do we know that this is what wetness feels like?

Embrace the matrix. There is no way out.


You can listen to the podcast that inspired my melancholy here.

Saturday, 27 May 2017

A SPIRAL

Round like a circle in a spiral like a wheel within a wheel...

Aeonium tabuliforme courtesy wikimedia commons

 Above, a detail of the succulent Aeonium tubuliforme, one of many examples of the golden ratio/ Fibonacci sequence found in nature. Recently, I've been considering the potential for the revival of scared geometry in landscape and urban design (in truth, in an effort to make my own designs more interesting), remembering a project that my friend Fergus Channon was involved with some years ago, at Manchester University Hospital.

One of the many projects in which Fergus was involved was the courtyard at the Eye Hospital. Working alongside friend and long time collaborative artist artist Richard (Rick) Dickinson, the pair created a number of life-sized deer sculptures, consisting of copper-mesh hide stretched over a skeletal frame of tubular copper. The astonishingly lifelike, yet somehow alien animals, sit amid a landscape designed in collaboration with landscape architect Jane Parker.

So what does this have to do with sacred geometry? It's all part of the plan...

Although I had no involvement in the design process of this scheme, I was fortunate to watch as it unfurled, like the fronds of a sacred fern, from germination to full realisation. In the beginning, Jane Parker and Fergus Channon were exchanging ideas online, and Fergus kinda got sucked into a Fibonacci rabbit hole (or vortex, which would be more appropriate I suppose). He showed me an incredible site, one which I have sadly been unable to find, connecting cyclones and ammonite shells to why propellers appear to go the wrong way when they caught on film.

In the end, the site plan consisted a central glass pool, with several arms spiralling out from the centre: 

Picture courtesy https://ferguschannon.wordpress.com/
So it's been my mind much of late, and in an attempt to see where it might lead, I thought I might draw myself a spiral. You start with squares, of course.

The Snail, Henri Matisse, Courtesy Tate http://www.tate.org.uk/art/images/work/T/T00/T00540_10.jpg
Not like that, though... more like this:



Using some arbitary unists, this square measures one by one. Then you add one the same size above it:

So, two squares each measuring one by one, followed by another square measuring  2 x 2:

Following the Fibonacci sequence: 1, 1, 2 .... then 3...

Each time, the square's edge is equal in length to the sum of the preceding two squares, following the Fibonacci sequence but also fitting snugly alongside the preceding squares with no overlap. Of course, this means the next numbers in the sequence are 5, 8 and 13:



Finally, two further squares are drawn, measuring 21 x 21 and 34 x 34:

The Fibonacci spiral is then constructed by drawing a series of quarter-circle arcs, beginning in the bottom right of the first square, using the top right of the same square as its centre. Each new arc begins where the previous one left off, but with a centre point on the perimeter of the new square.








 So there you have it, a Fibonacci spiral. What value this represents is anyone's guess, but I've been lazy of late and needed to break my duck. So here you are, some spirals.



Thursday, 9 February 2017

HUE/BECKTON - STRATEGIC VS> TACTICAL [PSYCHO]CARTOGRAPHY (PART THREE)

FINAL PART IN A SERIES OF THREE. READ PART ONE HERE


In the event, i hit a wall. A ten metre fucking thick wall of brick and earth. Then I walked beneath the arch instead of through the wall, which was a more sensible option. Then I hit another wall (pictured). This time there was no massive arch, but an entry fee and tickets and electric vehicles and i wasn't in the mood for any of that.

It was a cool, overcast, February day in Hue, city of walls, and I was at the citadel, the citadel not even noted in Full Metal Jacket, where the rebel army had holed themselves up for several weeks until they were ultimately bombarded out of hiding by American air power. There's not a lot of that in the local histories, nor about the initial atrocities they insurrectionists committed, nor the vicious reprisals they and their sympathisers likewise endured. Instead, the story is focused on Vietnam's Imperial past, the colonial protectorate of the Nguyen Dynasty, the anachronistic monarchy and life at court. I was not in the mood for all of that.

What I was in the mood for, I knew not. Somehow the disparate threads at which I'd been tugging had remained just that- disparate. For once, sticking a map on top of another one didn't really achieve anything other than make a nice picture.  It wasn't even my picture- it was Struan Brown's. The ingredients were there but it wasn't working: the military origins of psychogeography and cartography, the horrors of war aped, in children's play and cinema, but I felt disinclined to pull the pieces together, and I was not quite sure why.

I made a circuit of the inner wall, which amounted to a stroll of just under 2.5 km. This is not long for a walk, but it is long for a wall. As I patrolled the perimeter I tried to put my self in the shoes of one who would have made such a journey before: a guard, most likely, or maybe a penitent. Perhaps a bored concubine looking to sneak back in after attempting to escape palace life, but later having a change of heart. The shoes of the soldier felt small on me, not because soldiers have small feet, but because I'd pretended to wear them as a young boy, under similar circumstances, circumambulating Hadleigh Castle. That magnificent wreck is slowly crumbling into the Estuary after more than seven centuries. Hue's citadel has been around for a much shorter period of time, but it's historical significance is arguably greater.

In Roy Bayfield's book Desire Paths, the author describes: 

"..the finding approach described by Duncan Barford in his blog post  'Inside the Entrances to Hell': "

Perhaps this is what I should have done, instead I wandered around, eyes flitting at materials, looking for something that would make everything fall into place. I didn't find that. Instead I found this:



Friday, 27 January 2017

HUE/BECKTON - STRATEGIC VS> TACTICAL [PSYCHO]CARTOGRAPHY (PART TWO)

PART TWO IN A SERIES OF THREE. READ PART ONE HERE

“Life is a tragedy when seen in close-up, but a comedy in long-shot.”
-Charlie Chaplin


Looking back at the Hue psychocarte from 2014, experiencing disappointment: a pretty picture, but practically useless. A fraction of a battle map, spliced out and blown up, the details blurred and indistinct, all before the overlay… The plan had been to trace a random path through the citadel using the overlay, the route of a drive, but the streets were barely visible.

"All space is occupied by the enemy. We are living under a permanent curfew. Not just the cops — the geometry" -Raoul Vaneigem, The Unitary Urbanism Manifesto


The roots of the dérive (as opposed to its routes) are supposedly in urban warfare: the “aimless drift” was used as a means of reconnaissance. DeBord and the Situationists were engaged in cultural warfare, and via dtournement (cultural re-appropriation and re-purposing) these tactics were being turned back against the state. Like war, psychogeography was a political act. But like the actors portraying Joker and his comrades in Full Metal Jacket, there was also an element of play.

The closing chapter of Full Metal Jacket occurs in 1968/86 in Hue/Beckton. A crazed General, Kubrick, has ordered a platoon to wander through the remnants of a gasworks in search of a Vietnamese woman, whom they are to kill. She is the third and final woman, and the only one not to be presented by Kubrick as a sex object, though is equally disposable. The only enemy whose face is seen in close up- feminine, because the enemy must be emasculated. In the end, after a hard day’s play, the lads wander across the burning landscape, singing a song Mickey Mouse. In spite of yourself, you may just feel an incongruous warm glow inside.

Not only was 1968 a big year for Hue (just as 1986 was a big year for Beckton, although it would be made aware of that until long after the event), it was a big year for the Situationists. Increased militancy amongst industrial workers and students, culminating in a series of occupations, protests and a general strike nearly brought the French establishment to its knees. Though there were numerous socio-economic causes for this period of civil unrest, the Situationist International can take credit for providing some degree of leadership, and its writings strongly influenced the political graffiti of the time, which have provided some of the most enduring images of the period. 

Ultimately, the status quo prevailed, state power managed to suppress the protestors, and returned stronger and more resilient. Likewise, in Vietnam, the Tet offensive was ultimately crushed by the combined ARVN and US forces, and the rebel forces were expelled from all the major urban centres they had assaulted. In Europe and the USA, 1968 is often remembered as the last gasp of the counter-culture, a glorious failure. In Vietnam, the Tet offensive was a dress rehearsal for 1975, and victory for the revolutionaries (who, predictably, went on to impose their own repressive regime of state power). Ho Chi Minh’s forces succeeded, perhaps, because there was a coherent strategy in play, one which would outlive its progenitor.

Tet is rapidly approaching, 49 lunar years having passed since the infamous offensive, and the Battle for Hue. 31 years have likewise elapsed since the Battle of Hue was recreated at Beckton gasworks. Both of these are prime numbers. The 49th Boulevard was also the previous name given to Pham Van Dong Street in Hue. The time (and the cosmic numbers) is right for some kind of intervention. Yet without a coherent strategy- in this case, my psychocarte- there can be no opportunity for a successful operation. From the outset, the superimposition of a Hue map atop a map of Beckton (or perhaps the other way around) seemed like the best place to begin.
Sadly, it's been done before: here is Struan Brown's interpretation of Beckton overlaid on Hue. One cannot be startled by the fact that this has been done prior to it being imagined by me, but what is perhaps surprising is that Struan was actually a class mate of mine at the University of Greenwich. We studied together on the Landscape Architecture masters programme in 2014 (both of us had also been Greenwich students in 2013, but during different semesters). I have no memory of seeing this before, but was suddenly beset by a strange fear that I was experiencing cryptomnesia, the phenomenon of experiencing a memory as an original thought. 


Image by Struan Brown via http://struanbrown.blogspot.com/2013/12/beckton-gas-works.html

Perhaps of greater concern was the possibility that, having previously seen this image, the map of Hue had been buried in my subconscious, and that its presence there had subtly compelled me to find its origins. My journey to Hue, less than one year later, was not only on a whim but also somewhat serendipitous. Originally, I had obtained a job (via an agency) as an English teacher in Hanoi. Whilst booking the flights, I discovered it would be much cheaper to fly to HCMC and travel up to Hanoi independently than fly directly. On informing my agency, however, it transpired that this would not be acceptable to my prospective employer (I would have missed some "essential" part of the induction process whilst travelling from HCMC to Hanoi), and a new course of action was decided. Instead of teaching in Hanoi, I was told to meet up with a group of newly-qualified TEFL teachers in HCMC and travel with them to Hue, a city I believed I had never heard of.

It's hard to recall what was influencing my decision making processes at that time, the whole period prior to my departure is a miasmic blur. My memories of this period are a series of weird vignettes, mostly of one-on-one conversations with people who's lives are going to be somehow disrupted by my departure. There's no truth in them, really,: I've spliced and edited them back together too many times, there were filters on the lenses, and they're remakes anyway. 

PART 3 TO FOLLOW

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