Wednesday, 20 September 2017

How to prevent terrorism on the tube

Could the Parsons Green bomber have been stopped by citizen action? Quite possibly.

We could widen our attention as little children do and probably spies do, too.

We all like to lose ourselves in our mobile phones or books on the usually uncomfortable tube ride to work. So if someone gets on the tube with a bomb and then leaves it there we are unlikely to notice it. What if we all took notice of our surroundings? Not necessarily all the time but just at stations, and note who gets on, what baggage they are carrying, and who gets off and whether they have forgotten their bag.

If only ten percent of us did this then the risk of a repeat incident on the tube would be much less.

I have the number of British Transport Police listed on my phone under BTP. Thus it would take at most six keystrokes to call them (phone - contacts - BTP - call). The number is 61016. If you commute in London, put it on your phone now, and stay alert at stations.

This also gives us opportunities to come into the present moment and out of the mist of imagination in which we dream into work.

Saturday, 16 September 2017

Jane Austen on the banknotes, as predicted by Milton Marmalade

As predicted on page 198 of my magnum opus, A Mermaid in the Bath, as of 14th September there will be a picture of Jane Austen on the ten pound note.

This is a further demonstration of the inspired nature of my oeuvre.

From page 198 of the paperback edition:

...Half way through Milton addresses himself to you with the words ‘gentle reader... .’ Who does he think he is, Jane Austen? Anyway I hope they put her picture on the banknotes as it’s about time we had a woman on there. Mind you the Queen is on all of them isn’t she? Talking of Jane Austen, that would have been a good name for a car in the heyday of the British Motor Corporation, instead of the Austin Cambridge, like. Then the Morris Oxford would have been Jane Morris. As you no doubt know, Jane Morris was the muse of the Pre-Raphaelites. It must be nice being a muse and getting all that male attention.

Goodness, this Argentine wine is good! I’m feeling quite inspired now. Perhaps I’ll write that bodice-ripper myself and then I can ask Milton to help me with it while I snuggle up to him. Once I’m back in England. And I’m not living in a shed at the back of the Co-op. He’ll have to get a proper house.

Thursday, 7 September 2017

The mysteries of cryptocurrencies

You can buy this mermaid print using Bitcoin

Is the electronic currency Bitcoin the borderless currency of the future?

From time to time I may share with you my understanding, such as it is, of Bitcoin and alternative digital currencies, sometimes called cryptocurrencies. You can take this as a starting point for your own enquiries if you wish, and whether you agree or not with what I write, if you have something to add to the discussion you are very welcome to comment.

Bitcoin is a digital currency on what is called a distributed ledger. This means that the record of who owns what and all transactions are held electronically on computers all over the world. There is no central banker. The system is designed for peer-to-peer transactions, that is, ordinary folk buying from and selling to each other without banking interference and across borders. Also if, for example, you lose your virtual wallet (for example, you own Bitcoin in your smartphone and your smartphone is lost), as long as you have your code words you can get your money back.

Currently the UK, USA and most if not all countries of the world use fiat currencies, that is, money not backed by precious metals. The USA left the gold standard in 1971 (Mervyn King, The End of Alchemy, Abacus 2017 p.73) as did Britain temporarily in 1797 when at war with France and permanently in 1931 (ibid. pp.75-6). Fiat currencies allow governments to print money whenever it seems useful to do so, whether to fund a war or to get the country out of economic difficulty.

One problem with fiat currencies is that if they get out of control, hyperinflation can occur, rendering money virtually worthless, as happened during the Weimar republic and more recently in Zimbabwe. In such times people who hold gold can do well, because gold holds its value as the supply is limited. Limited supply is also a feature of the digital currency Bitcoin.

Holding gold is difficult, partly because it has to be stored somewhere and at some cost and partly because it has somehow to be converted into fiat currency in order to spend it. Bitcoin can be held securely in a number of ways including on a smartphone and can also be held off-line and so secure from hackers. It can be converted into many fiat currencies on-line, and a very small number of businesses world-wide will accept it. Its value in terms of most (but not all) fiat currencies suffers from extreme volatility, but on average its value as measured against fiat currencies has trended very much upwards up until now. (Where it will go next is not something I'd like to predict, because I wouldn't want to get the blame if it all goes wrong.) Interestingly Bitcoin is much less volatile when measured against currencies in crisis, such as the Venzuelan bolívar.

What effect the large-scale adoption of Bitcoin would have on the world economy is difficult to imagine. It would allow borderless transactions between ordinary people without going through a bank and without having to pay currency conversion and transmission charges.

One thing that is holding it back now is that a little bit of research is needed for an ordinary person to understand exactly what Bitcoin is, and storing it requires a little bit of technical know-how. Another thing holding it back is lack of sufficient speed in the system to support the number of transactions that major card companies do every day (a complex topic which is covered elsewhere) and a third problem is the lack of charge cards or debit cards that can be used to pay with Bitcoin.

If it were possible to have a charge card that would convert the Bitcoin held on it into the local fiat currency on the fly (that is, without the intermediary of a bank) to pay for goods at a contactless or chip-and-pin checkout then I believe Bitcoin would take off.

There are a large number of debit or charge cards available that claim to be able to let you pay with Bitcoin, but as I understand it for the most part these cards require you to convert Bitcoin into fiat currency in order to load them up, and they cost money to use. Therefore this leads to the same old bank charges for cash withdrawal and currency conversion. I cannot see the point of them.

A true Bitcoin card would do currency conversion via an on-line Bitcoin exchange. The only contactless Bitcoin payment system I've found that comes close to a true peer-to-peer system doesn't actually exist yet: it will be an app that you have on your smartphone. In this case you send as much in Bitcoin as you want to spend that day to the address on the app. The Bitcoin is converted to your local currency using a peer-to-peer trading network and is then available to spend using your smartphone for contactless payments. It remains to be seen whether you will be able to change your preferred fiat currency easily within the app (for example when travelling). This is not a product recommendation but it certainly looks interesting. If I were to use it I'd only put as much on it as I was likely to use in a day or so, since funds held on-line are at least in theory vulnerable to hacking or the system organisers closing down and running off with the money, not that I have any reason to suspect that particular organisation.

Anyway, as an experiment I have created a page on OpenBazaar (a peer-to-peer alternative to eBay - perhaps one day) to sell some artist's prints in exchange for payment in Bitcoin (see illustration at the top of this post). So far I have not become rich (or actually sold anything) but it's early days. My next hurdle is to set up an old computer to be a server so that I can have my page on-line all the time.

All comments and questions welcome.

[Disclaimer: I am merely passing on my own understanding and hoping to start a debate. I do not claim to have expert knowledge and no-one should base any financial decisions on what I have written, nor do the links provided necessarily imply a recommendation (except that Mervyn King's book, which is not about Bitcoin, is very good).]

Thursday, 31 August 2017

The European dream

I imagine most people are getting fairly fed up with the topic of Brexit. So my 2p will be short.

Our local German bakery and deli has come up with a new biscuit. It is called the Europäischer, and it is round with blue icing and decorated in a circle with yellow stars. There is as yet no picture on the internet but I'm sure you can imagine it.

I didn't buy one as it looked a bit too biscuity and sugary, but it's a sweet little gesture of defiance. I like our local German bakery, it's a small island of quality in an otherwise slightly depressing line of shops. I try to order stuff in German as my own contribution to European solidarity.

Hardly a week goes by without some aspect of Brexit being potentially watered-down. We won't suddenly tell all the Poles, Germans, Lithuanians and others to up sticks and go, because we actually need them. We might continue to pay into the EC budget in order to keep tariff-free trade within the EC. We will probably keep the border between Eire and the six counties open. We shall have to retain in some form legal arrangements for deciding jurisdictions in cross-border legal matters, and we'll probably have to be subject to the European Court of Justice at least insofar as matters pertaining to trade with Europe are concerned. I don't know, I'm just repeating what is in the news.

No doubt there are some areas for which it will be pleasant to have sovereignty. We could sell jam (as defined in the UK) in pound jars, for instance. Less irksome bureaucracy would be nice. Less trivially, we could open up trade with countries such as Australia which suffered from trade barriers with us when the UK entered the EC. We can continue to avoid the problems inherent in the Euro currency as we have so far.

What is overlooked in all this is the European dream that I suspect underlies the whole European project. That is, the idea that a group of countries united by a common interest will not go to war with each other. People in power now had parents of the generation that lost relatives in the 1939-45 war (my uncle's headstone read that he was 'un aviateur Anglais qui mort pour la France'), and of course there has been brutal war and genocide on European soil in much more recent times. Perhaps because we live in an island that has not been successfully invaded (leaving aside the Battle of Medway) for almost 2000 years we as a nation are a bit complacent.

On the positive side there is something rather wonderful about acquiring a European and ultimately and international identity that celebrates unity in diversity. We as a mongrel nation from the earliest times should be able to understand that, what with our Royal Family having from time-to-time been French, Scottish, Dutch, German and even a bit Greek.

Anyway, my prediction is that when all's said and done we'll still be eating pizza and chorizo and we'll still have German bakeries and Polish shops and we'll still drink French wine and Kronenbourg and Guinness and play Mozart and read Yeats and we'll still be speaking our great mongrel language, absorbing and transforming foreign influences with hardly a blink as we always do.

Thursday, 24 August 2017

Thumbnail sketches for the imagined frontispiece
of Sir Henry Herring's account of St Doris Island

In A Mermaid in the Bath the hero, Lionel, discovers a sixteenth century book containing many clues about his missing mermaid and about mermaids in general. The book is by Sir Henry Herring who travelled with Sir Francis Drake on the voyage in which St Doris Island was discovered and claimed for the English Crown. I have asked Martin Dace, the illustrator of A Mermaid in the Bath to recreate the frontispiece to this book.

The picture described by Lionel shows a view of St Doris Island together with Francis Drake's ship the Golden Hinde, and in the foreground "a triumphantly naked mermaid." The intention is to carry out the design as a linocut, since the limitations of the medium should to some extent emulate the kind of woodcut that would have been used in such a book.

Above are the thumbnail sketches and below is the preliminary working sketch from which the lino print will be produced. With the thumbnails it became clear that putting the Golden Hinde together with the view of the island would produce an unbalanced picture with unused space at one side. When the pose of the mermaid became more dynamic it was obvious that the mermaid had to take pride of place in the middle, then Drake's ship and the island could be placed on either side.

Mermaid, ship and island
Working sketch for the frontispiece to St Doris Island
That still left space to either side of the mermaid, which was easily filled with flying fish and a sea monster, and the empty space on the rock on which she sits will be decorated with seaweed and a scallop shell. As always I remind readers of delicate sensibilities and prone to apoplexy at the sight of nipples that mermaids only wear cockle shell bras when on Disney and otherwise they glory in the natural state in which God created them.

I shall post the print when it is available. Limited edition artist's prints will be on sale on Etsy and on OpenBazaar, as will inexpensive electronic download versions.

Thursday, 17 August 2017

Technology: taking back control

Somehow I can't do without my mobile phone, which packs as much computing power as a roomful of kit in the '70s. It helps me not get lost, enables me to read books or check the etymology of a word on the go (geeks simply migrate to available technology), check the weather forecast, share a calendar, pay for car parking without getting out of the car, buy stuff without even going outdoors, even video-phoning which in Dan Dare's future was still a phone attached to a wall.

The problem is that this thing can easily take over one's life, what with messages, emails and apps. One can get sucked into the phone screen and lose minutes or hours in some parallel universe of dreamlike disconnectedness, emerging later like some bewildered time-traveller. Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy? - to quote the late great Freddie Mercury. It can drain energy if one is not careful.

“Things are in the saddle, and ride mankind,” warned Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Emails. No, I don't want a Russian bride and I've no idea what the people are advertising whose emails are entirely in Cyrillic script. I'm considering blocking all emails with a .ru domain. Nor do I know why Chinese companies think I would want to buy bulk raw materials. I don't need Viagra or Xanax and I don't think that a computer program that shorts the stock market will make me rich. Somehow we get onto mailing lists of companies we've never heard of.

The company that hosts my email account blocked 726 spam emails in the last week. That's over 100 a day I'd have to sift through and delete if they weren't blocked automatically. Even of the 10-20 daily that get through there are usually fewer than half a dozen that I actually want to read.

Marking emails as spam is easy on a Mac using Mail, but I have yet to find a way of marking and blocking spam on an iPhone. There are apps that claim to do this, but then you have to give them access to your account details. How do we know we can trust them with our information? That is why I pay my ISP for spam blocking, and I still cannot mark emails that get through on my phone as spam. As for spam blocking, I have blocked the very persistent Anastasiia but now she has been replaced by Oksana. Sorry .ru, if any of my Russian friends want to contact me they'll have to get a gmail account.

Within my lifetime there was no internet and no email. If someone wanted to contact me at work they would have to bleep my pager and then I would have to find a phone and phone in. Needless to say when not at work and out of the house I was uncontactable.

Sometimes I feel a bit of nostalgia for the days when the world was a little less busy. If people wanted to write to me they'd have to write a letter, which meant there weren't that many of them, and the time taken to reply would necessarily slow the whole world down. There is also something soothing about the purposeful movement of an ink pen on paper.

We need to take steps to bring technology under control, so that it serves us rather than driving us. All advice welcome.

Friday, 4 August 2017

Stranger in a strange land - derealisation and realisation

(Somewhere in England) 

It is possible, for example while commuting to work, to entertain the fantasy that one has just this moment been put into this body going about its business, that one has come from somewhere else (perhaps a previous life which one has forgotten).

Luckily this body knows where it is going, and one knows that if one thought about it one would easily remember details such as what one's job is, one's home situation, loved ones and so on. But for the moment one doesn't pursue those thoughts. Therefore there is no need for any anxiety, yet at the same time one experiences the world as a stranger in a strange land.

The current Wikipedia article describes derealisation as "an alteration in the experience of the external world so that it seems unreal." However what I am describing makes the world seem more real. One realises that most of the time one is preoccupied with some thought or other, barely noticing one's surroundings. As a stranger freshly arrived from somewhere else one notices everything.

A similar phenomenon occurs when driving or walking to a new place. Even if the journey is quite short, it seems long, because one has to notice things in order to find one's way. The same journey when familiar seems short, and one remembers few details. It is possible to drive for an hour on a familiar route in perfect safety and remember nothing.

The Wikipedia article goes on to say that derealisation includes "feeling as though one's environment is lacking in spontaneity, emotional colouring, and depth." However with this experiment the world has more depth and colour, and things are generally brighter. If there is beauty, one notices it, sometimes in unexpected places.

Interestingly the Wikipedia article says that derealisation is related to depersonalisation, which is sense of unreality in one's personal self. There may well be an actual psychiatric or morbid condition characterised by this, but it is also of note that psychologists and philosophers have pointed out that the idea of 'self' itself has an unclear meaning, or even, the 'self' does not exist. Am I the same person I was yesterday? The one who decided to get up as soon as the alarm went off is the same as the one who decided to lie in for an extra 15 minutes instead? But this is a topic for another time.

I went in search of the original quotation, 'stranger in a strange land.' It comes from the King James Bible translation of Exodus 2:22 and is spoken by Moses in exile. I was also led to this excellent poem by Rita Dove. At the beginning of the poem Rita Dove quotes Emily Dickinson: "Life is a spell so exquisite, everything conspires to break it." It is by experiments like the one I describe, and others, that we can try to return to the magic of reality.