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As all that is solid melts to air and everything holy is profaned...

Sunday, July 16, 2006

What we eat, we are


Sun setting about half an hour ago (9.30) -last rays caught in a row of trees, orange/ red on green. A beautiful evening. I wanted to be everywhere at once - down on the Solway shore and up in the high hills and walking along side a river somewhere in between.

Just finished reading through the Old Statistical Accounts (1790) for Galloway, and started on the ‘New’ ones (1840). Got the Third series (1965) still to go. When other sources added in, got 400 years worth of local history to follow through.

Some of it - the early material, is dramatic - a 13 week siege of Threave castle in 1640, the persecution of the Conventiclers and the ‘Killing Times’ (1662-1688). But mainly it is the slow transformation of the landscape.

In places the changes are minimal. About 1500 years ago some Irish monks (no more than ten) built a wooden chapel on Ardwall Island on the edge of Fleet Bay/ Wigton Bay. The physical scene - the sea, the mud/sand flats, the Cairnharrow hills, distant glimpses of the Isle of Man and the Machars peninsula, even the sound of osyter-catchers - remains the same. The modern details - the farmed landscape and holidaymakers on the beach - fade away at sunset.

In the high hills you need to get above and beyond the dark green sea of Sitka spruce and scramble amongst the tumbled granite boulders on the Dungeon range to find the white quartz sands of Loch Enoch. Here - 10 000 years of time, a landscape of moss, grass and heather have re-covered the scars of the last ice age.

In between - a land divided, cut up and intersected by a fine grid of enclosures: stone dykes, hedges, shelter belts , fences and drainage ditches that were once streams; and by a coarser network of roads and tracks, with rivers embanked, bridged and dammed.

A landscape pacified and rationalised- civilised? Take the river Dee (our Galloway Dee). One of the New Statistical Accounts mentions her ‘Lammas spates’, comparing the Dee with the Nile. In late July/ early August summer rain storms in the hills would raise the river’s height by 8ft overnight. The flood waters would sweep away the farmers’ meadow hay and riverside crops. Sometimes the red flood waters would surge past Threave castle and over the marshes to fill Carlingwark Loch and almost re-estbalish her ancient course to the sea at Orchardton Bay.

And the people? Were the Galloway Levellers resisting the ‘pacification through enclosure’ of the land? I can’t make that argument formally (acdemically) -insufficient evidence.

But what followed has been a slow loss of intimacy between land and people. To be fully materialistic, for the 8 to 10 thousand years of deep history, land and people were physically indistinguishable - the physical bodies of the people were made from the food they ate, water and other fluids they drank - and all came from the land they lived within.

The clothes they wore were likewise products of the land, as were the houses ( wood, earth, stone, thatch) they lived in and most of the tools they used.

So if anlaysed at chemical/ physical level - land and people would have been indistinguishable, would have been one.

But could this physical intimacy have any influence on consciousness and/ or behaviour? Guess it depends on how determinism works - and how influential ‘non-deterministic’ ideas are- the culture changed many times, as did the language.

Given myself two hours for this. Time now up.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

All power to the imagination.

Alternative realities

Read an article today which made me think of Johnstone’s Paradox. Ramsay Dukes/ Lionell Snell came up with it about 20 years ago. Paradox being that as soon as a sufficiently realistic computer model of reality exists, it will become impossible to establish from internal evidence if we exist in the ‘original’ reality or one of the constructed versions of ‘reality’.

Pretty much a standard science fiction concept - Philip K. Dick amongst many others played around with the idea, Johnstone’s Paradox differing only in that once inside the paradox, no way back to ‘original’ reality - so no Matrix style Gnostic escape routes. There is no ‘kind of way out of here’[All along the watchtowers]

Johnstone's Paradox (from Words Made Flesh by Ramsay Dukes: date ?)

1) if reality is ultimately mechanistic it could be programmed into an information structure and generate multiple sub-realities (witness the fact that each of us inhabits our own subjective sub-universe, plus the book's own prediction of virtual realities).
2) These subrealities would generally be variants from the original rather than exact copies (witness the widespread existence of magic, reincarnation and gods in our subjective realities) and so would seldom themselves be purely mechanistic.
3) As subrealities generate their own sub-subrealities the probability that we happen to occupy the original mechanistic reality shrinks toward zero.
4) Therefore, if reality is ultimately mechanistic, then we are most unlikely to be living in a mechanistic universe.

Observer article about Second Life, an online world which mimics Sims style this world rather than the other worlds of, e.g., World of Warcraft. Interesting. I have speculated about the ‘green’ potential for such alternative realities - that if the struggle for status could be relocated into the digisphere (cyberspace as we used to call it), then pressure on real world resources could be eased off.

Instead of sucking this world dry in attempts to satisfy unsatisfiable desires for consumer goods and services, infinitely variable binary bits could replace finitely constrained actual atoms.

Take housing as an example. What if, instead of power, wealth, status etc. being judged on physical size/ location/ interior decor of physical houses; status was re-attributed to the size, detail, decor, etc. of one’s digital dwelling place? Actual housing could then become more functional.

I tend to jump ahead - can’t remember when I came up with this idea, 15 years ago maybe, long before any chance of actualisation. Inspired by suggestion (not sure how true) that native people of north-west America have the most complex mythologies known. That they spent long cold dark winters creating complex other worlds - but, as with all myth, other worlds closely interwoven with this world.

Or William Blake - lived in virtual poverty but created a dense, powerful and enduring world of the Imagination - which he considered to be the true world.

But conflicts with rationalist vision (Bacon, Newton, Locke and Hobbes as Blake had it) of the physical trasnformation of the real world. Therefore somewhat ironic that hard physics and mathematical logic have opened (cleansed?) the Doors of Perception through which millions/ billions are now streaming into these Other Worlds of the Imagination.

Second Life appears to be as mundane as you can get, but perhaps its very ordinariness makes it more subversive of actuality than the high fantasy of World of Warcraft? Maybe.

Get a Second Life?

From The Observer "How to get the life you really want"

David Smith, technology correspondent
Sunday July 9, 2006
The Observer

A loft in New York City. The singer Regina Spektor is performing songs from her new album. People wander in, sit down and discuss the music. Everything seems normal. But then so did life for people in The Matrix

Like the world inside the hit Hollywood film, the loft is a 3D computer animation - but in this case it exists only on the internet. The audience is made up of virtual representations of real people. The real people sit at their computer screens around the world, living their lives through avatars, the characters that appear on the screen. Regina Spektor and her music are real people selling themselves in a virtual world. Her company, Warner Brothers, has decided that releasing her album to this 'virtual listening party' is the marketing strategy of the future.

This is Second Life, the social networking website now recruiting up to 3,000 members a day, attracting the interest of American politicians and threatening to give MySpace a run for its money. Second Life has more than 300,000 residents, an estimated third of them British. Some demonstrate their talents in designing virtual buildings or fashions. Some form mutual support groups because in the real world they have a disability or are victims of rape. Some run businesses and convert the profits into money in the real world, and some do the same for charity. They do this chatting and trading under an assumed identity - their second life.

All this is played out in a sprawling virtual country, with its own simulated cities, streets and red light districts. Participants choose their avatar's identity - potentially changing sex and ethnicity - then guide it wherever they choose: down streets, into nightclubs, gatecrashing weddings. When they meet another avatar they can start a conversation. And so friendships, love affairs and entire subcultures develop.

There is nothing new about what are known in industry as MMORPGs: Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games, in which thousands of people play at once. But the most popular, World of Warcraft, is a fantasy of swords and sorcery, while variants such as The Sims also have a defined endgame. Second Life, however, is not a game. It is an internet community, where people can flirt, do business or go off and build their own virtual Las Vegas. Women make up 43 per cent of the residents, and the average age is 32.

'It's the best combination of social networking, chatrooms and a 3D experience,' said Justin Bovington, chief executive of Rivers Run Red, a London branding agency helping to shape Second Life. 'It's such an immersive experience that people get it quicker than anything else. We'd been looking for the broadband killer application, and Second Life is it.'

Last month Regina Spektor's album was the first virtual record release by a major company. BBC Radio 1 has 'rented' a tropical island within Second Life for a year, where the world's biggest virtual music festival was staged in parallel with the One Big Weekend event. While people attended the real concert in Dundee, the music by Franz Ferdinand, Pink and others was streamed live into Second Life, where 6,000 avatars crowded around a virtual stage, hosted by an avatar of DJ Chris Moyles and stewarded by computerised bouncers. Each left with a virtual digital radio to carry about inside Second Life.

The premiere of X-Men 3: The Last Stand at the Cannes Film Festival was also streamed into Second Life. It is rumoured that a senior US politician - possibly Hillary Clinton - is planning to set up a campaign office within Second Life, using a virtual town hall to address young voters. There is now a virtual Camp Darfur aimed at raising awareness of the real genocide.

Second Life is built from user-generated content: its software provides the tools to design a dress, construct a building or sell an avatar's body for virtual sex. Second Life's population includes a wedding planner, pet manufacturer, tattooist, nightclub owner, car maker, fashion designer, jewellery maker, architect, tour guide, and property speculator. There is a detective agency, which can be hired to check whether your virtual spouse is cheating with a virtual lover - such cases are reported to have caused marital rows over whether online cheating counts as real-life cheating.

From these services, an entire economy has sprung, based around Second Life's currency, Linden Dollars. This is not so virtual, as Linden Dollars can be converted into US dollars and back again at fluctuating exchange rates. Just as thousands of people now make a living off the online auction site eBay, many are doing the same by trading virtual goods and services on Second Life. Anshe Chung, the avatar of a Chinese-born language teacher living in Germany, has a virtual land development business with holdings worth an estimated £135,000. In January, transactions between residents of Second Life were worth £1.5m.

Linden Lab, the San Francisco company which launched Second Life in 2003, has rules against offensive behaviour in public, such as racial slurs or overtly sexual antics. Its punishment is unique. 'If someone is regularly abusive, we have a prison,' said vice-president Dave Fleck. 'They are put in a cornfield and made to watch black and white television Fifties public service announcements in a constant loop.'

Alayne Wartell, 42, of Harrogate, met her real-life husband in Second Life and now works full-time within it, earning a living from her virtual shoe and flower shop. 'In the beginning people got involved because they liked making things,' she said. 'But now it's become very social, a place to hang out with your friends.'

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Psychedelic Druids vs Galloway Levellers


Found a new (old) Pink Floyd cd in Woolies -same store I bought Anarchy in the UK 30 years ago. Its an impressively excellent 17 minute version of Interstellar Overdrive and Nick’s Boogie -12 minutes worth (later reworked as Saucerful of Secrets and which sounds like krautrockers Amon Duul) both from January 1967.

It really is good- as good as west coast USA psychedelic classic’s like the Jefferson Airplane’s After Bathing at Baxters or Quicksilver Messenger Service’s Happy Trails (Who Do You Love). Which is interesting - the UK scene was supposed to be the poor relation, but on the strength of these tracks I’d say London was on the cutting edge.

There is also a film clip - but haven’t managed to get it to play on this Mac yet.

Bit of a culture shock today - young woman with dreadlocks on the street today - part of a whole crew in a clapped out green camper van-ish truck. Time /space travellers who jumped 20 years into the future and 350 miles north after escaping from the Beanfield?

Could go off on a whole riff on a counterculture theme, but got to get to the Galloway Levellers... although... there is a Druid link. But how to explain?

Go back to about 1889. On an outcrop of rock above High Banks farm steading near Kirkcudbright a set of ‘cup and ring’ rock carvings were found. Local (and Galsgow) artist Edward Hornel went to see them and then visited an old man called Sinclair who knew where more of the markings could be found:

Sinclair took from a shelf a small china bowl in which was a small bluish stone. Holding this in his hand, in a few minutes he seemed to go off in a sort of trance, and then began to describe, like a wireless announcer today [i.e. 1939], a vision of a procession of priests with sacred instruments and cattle which somehow were connected with the cup-and ring markings... [from A.S. Hattrick: A Painter’s Pilgrimage Through Fifty Years :1939: 60/61 in Bill Smith: Hornel: 1997: 59]

This inspired E.A. Hornel & George Henry to piant The Druids: Bringing in the Mistletoe - now in the Kelvingrove Museum, Glasgow. See pic at


for High Banks see


Hornel lived (until his death in 1933) at Broughton House in Kirkcudbright. Here he built up a library of 25 000 local interest books (inc. a huge section on Burns). He also had a cast made of the High Banks cup and ring markings for the Stewartry Museum, also in Kirkcudbright - can still be seen there.

Amongst the Hornel archive is John Nicholson’s research material on the Galloway Levellers- pencil written in a big note book. Nicholson was a Kirkcudbright publisher and author. Last week I sat in Broughton House and read through Nicholson’s material...wow!

The first section is based on folk history - grandparent and parents tales of the Levellers jotted down around 1830, but also John Martin’s recollections. John (born 1710, died 1801, grave in St. Cuthbert’s kirkyard KBT, not far from Billy Marshall’s grave - Billy died aged 120 in 1792, was ‘king of the Galloway gypsies and a leader of the Levellers).

In 1724, aged 14, John was a Leveller. He came from Halmyre farm in Kelton parish (close to Kelton Hill- see solstice blog below) and first armed himself with a flail and then, after the stand-off between the Levellers and the landowners at the Steps of Tarff, picked up a gun dropped by a more nervous Leveller and adopted it.

There is a lot more - including a 3 act play ‘The Levellers of Galloway’ written by Nicholson. His brother William wrote a poem ‘The Brownie of Blednoch’ [which inspired another of Hornel’s paintings] - William’s ‘brownie’ is the ancestor of Harry Potter’s house-elves - he works faithfully until give clothes to cover his nakedness by a modest housewife, after which he leaves.

So there you are - from a lost bit of full on psychedelic / acid house by Pink Floyd in 1967 to ‘hippy travellers’ here in 2006, from Bronze Age rock carvings to painted visions of Druids in 1890 and back to the Galloway Levellers.