Monday, 27 March 2017

Dystopian Dreams

Normally I wouldn't waste my time writing a blog post about a bad, or series of bad, movies, but for some reason I feel that maybe I should write something about the idea of the dystopia since I have just wasted about nine hours of my life watching the four Hunger Games movies. Anyway, I won't actually write about what I thought of the films namely because I have already done so on IMDB, and I will include links to the reviews at the bottom of this post, however I do wish to explore the idea of the dystopia in general, and have a glance to some of the recent series of movies (which have come out of books mind you) that explore this idea. Mind you, a part of me does want to hold off a bit so that I can watch Brazil again, but I suspect I'll have plenty to write about that particular movie when I get around to it.

However, before I continue here is Simon Whistler explore some interesting connections between The Hunger Games and China.


 A Search for the Perfect Society

The dystopia actually arises from the idea of the utopia, which is Greek for No-place, which was originally coined by Sir Thomas Moore in his book of the same name. However, the concept of a perfect form of government goes back to the writings of Plato. Mind you, everybody points to The Republic as his idea of the perfect government, and while that is true, we also have his writings on Atlantis, and also another book called The Laws, where he looks at how the constitution of a perfect society is created. As for Atlantis, whether the origins of the story are true or not, what we are seeing in Plato's account is his political ideas being placed into a practical setting, even though the work is incomplete (or lost, though the general consensus is that he basically didn't finish it).

Now, the interesting thing about Plato is that his Utopias aren't democratic, nor are they about freedom, they are about every part of society working together to produce a perfect state. In a sense these utopias are actually totalitarian regimes where people don't actually have any freedom, and citizens are only taught what is required to make the state run smoothly. Further, Plato's societies are have strict castes, though movement between the castes is possible - in a way a child's aptitude is determined as they are being educated, and once they become an adult, their caste is then decided - there is no choice in the matter, and there is no 'I want to do this and I want to do that'. Further, there is no family unit as the state itself functions as a family.

This might actually come as a shock to us, especially since a lot of us have a different, and rather mistaken view, of what Plato actually wrote. In a way when we hear about Plato and governance, we automatically think that he happens to be this really wise individual, so we assume what he has suggested is probably a good thing. The reality is that Plato's Republic is more like Orwell's 1984, or Huxley's Brave New World, than a bunch of happy people dancing around trees being joyful as to how wonderful life is.

Yet this is not surprising - Plato had a first hand experience of the failures of democracy. In a way we all probably know about how the Greeks invented democracy, and how they were the first democratic society to ever flourish. However, what we probably don't know, and don't want to know, is that this democratic society ended up collapsing due to its own internal contradictions. The reason I suggest that is that when people vote, they don't vote with their head, they vote with their heart. Sure, we might argue that the system would work better if we had direct democracy, that is that we voted on every piece of legislation, but the Athenians had that, and it failed - all that was required was for a well spoken individual to tug at the emotions of the people, and he got what he wanted. Unfortunately for Athens, what they got was a war with Sparta that they eventually lost, and found themselves under a brutal tyranny.

Sure, this tyranny didn't last all that long, but once again, when democracy was reinstated, all of the supporters of the tyrants, including Socrates, were brought to trial. The verdict in relation to Socrates' guilt pretty much came down to 49 against, 51 in favour, which basically meant he was guilty and was eventually sentenced to death. Mind you, Socrates could have escaped, in fact he was expected to escape, but he chose not to, and instead accept the ruling of the court. However, it is noticeable that such serious decisions can be made on such a slim majority, and a decision that was effective made on faulty information (Brexit anybody), that would have a serious effect upon an awful lot of people. At least in our criminal justice system a finding of guilt has to be beyond reasonable doubt.

Into the Dystopia

Well, shortly after Thomas Moore wrote his Utopia, or a picture of a perfect society where everybody lived in harmony and worked to produce all for the benefit of the state, another author, an Irishman named Jonathon Swift, came up with something that completely contrasted that - Gulliver's Travels. In a way both books involved a sea journey to the remote parts of the world where the hero came across an island upon which lived an unknown civilisation. However, unlike Moore, Swift's vision was much, much more darker. Sure, his writings are also somewhat satirical, and exist to poke fun at the government of the day, but it also goes a way to explore the darker side of government.

His first two journeys have him travel to Lilliput and Brogdignab, where we an island of little people and an island of big people. In a way we are viewing society from two different points - one from above and one from below. In both Swift is different, namely because he is of a different size, however in the first he is powerful, though the Lilliputians seek to use him as a weapon against their enemies. In the second story he is a mere curiosity, who ends up in a circus, and performing acts for the royal family. However, being so small he is able to see everybody for what they are, warts and all.

Yet, Swift goes beyond that to a point where we have another voyage to a floating island that dominates its neighbours by flying over and bombarding them. Sure, they are a technologically advanced society, one that is ruled by scientists and technologists, but they also use their technology to dominate those who are much less advanced than they are, and hold authority over them. In a way it is similar to the Europeans of the day, who used the horse and gunpowder, to oppress the non-European races. Finally we have the Honynums, a race of intelligent horses who have gained enlightenment, but what enlightenment means is that they are much better that those around them, and instead of sharing it, instead treat them as children that must be guided and nurtured for they know not what they do.

The Brave New World of 1984

These are probably the two most famous Dystopian Novels, though interestingly enough neither of these novels actually has the dystopian government being overthrown. Mind you, H.G. Wells also wrote his own dystopian theories, including the story of a man who went to sleep and woke up years in the future to discover that he owned all of the wealth in the world. Okay, in Well's book, the dystopian government is overthrown, but only to be replaced by something that is pretty much similar - they replace the leader but keep the system. In a way it seems that it is not so much the leader, but the system itself.

Yet let us consider these worlds that have been created. In Orwell's work we have three superpowers in constant war with each other, the people living in a world where truth is dictated by the government and thought is controlled through the use of language. If somebody steps out of line they are disappeared, and tortured. History simply does not exist as the government controls all information, and everybody is focused on an endless war. While things may change, nothing actually changes because when there is a change, it never was a change but always was.

Huxley's world is somewhat different - there is no war because the government is a world wide government. The population is divided into castes, and the castes go about their business. Everybody has to work, but the work they do is busy work. When they are not working the are given drugs, and other forms of entertainment to keep them distracted. Once again information and literature is tightly controlled, namely because the government controls the thoughts of the people. Sure, somebody does actually come into the system from the outside, and at first he is seen as a curiosity, however he ends up killing himself simply because as an outsider he cannot adapt, and the system cannot accept him as he is.

The New Dystopias

In the past few years a number of books have appeared set in a futuristic world where society has collapsed after a war only to be remade in a different image. This isn't necessarily the first books (or films) in this genre, but it is one that has produced at least three series so far: The Hunger Games, Divergent, and The Maze Runner; and each of these series have their own unique characteristics. However, there is one common theme that runs through them - we have a young adolescent, usually female, who rises up against the system and seeks to overthrow it, despite this system being established to prevent the world from returning to chaos. In a sense we also have a similar idea with The Demolition Man, however I'll hold off commenting on that film for another time because, like Brazil, it probably deserves an entire post of its own (yeah, who'd think that from a Sylvester Stallone film).

I think I'll leave off the Maze Runner, namely because the idea of that film is a little different - basically the world has been overrun with zombies, and the heroes of the film are being conditioned to being warriors to go out and fight against these zombies. While they do start off in the maze, and begin The Scortch Trials in another base, they eventually leave that world behind. The world has already been destroyed, and unlike Divergent and The Hunger Games, the world has yet to be rebuilt.

However, with the other two series, we have the theme of the world emerging from a period of chaos, and to prevent that chaos from returning a system is established where everybody is kept under control. In The Hunger Games we have a system were there are twelve districts and each of those districts, once a year, produce two people to go into an arena to fight to become the victor of The Hunger Games. In a way it is the ultimate distraction, and it is a world where people live in abject poverty, unless of course you are in the capital and are members of the upper class, then you live a life of luxury. However, the people of Panem are kept from rising up against the central authority namely by being competitive against each other, and also only having the information that the capital wants them to have being filtered to them.

Divergent is a little different in that we have a number of castes, and at a certain age the children are divided into their various castes. However, the children are only supposed to have one skill, and if it turns out that they have more than one - they are divergent - and they are a threat and must be terminated. In one sense the system is established where the faction that is the most unlikely one, that is the helpers and the carers, are the ones that rule, while the scientists and the lawyers don't. However, the whole issue with the Divergent universe is that there is a power struggle within the system, and the lawyers move in to take control - as it turned out, this system didn't seem to work all that well.

Our Dystopic Present

It would be really easy to look at Donald Trump and his administration's 'alternative facts' and start claiming that we are looking at the beginning of a move towards an authoritarian regime, however the interesting thing is that I don't actually think Trump is that sort of figure - there is so much going on that it appears that the United States is more likely descending into chaos than drifting into an authoritarian regime. The thing with the establishment of an authoritarian regime is that they generally come about through the will of the people to bring an end to a period of chaos - this is what happened in Ancient Rome, and also what happened in Nazi Germany. The thing is that Trump isn't this father figure that has come to unite a divided nation, by no means. Rather, he is doing more to divide the nation than anything else - Hitler's rise to power didn't trigger riots in the streets, nor did Caesar Augustus'.

Yet there are some glimpses as to some dystopic elements in our society, and this is the distractions and the manipulation of truth. To be honest, Sean Spicer's comments about 'alternate facts' was actually a pretty clumsy statement, and a statement that basically most people understood as being an alternate interpretation of a fact, or just simply an unwillingness to actually see the truth. The thing is can a statement be a lie if the person making the statement sincerely believes it to be true? However, that doesn't change the reality that history is actually being distorted, and public events being misrepresentated.

For instance in my home town, there was a beggar camp outside the central railway station, up until the police came and moved them along. The official statement was that they needed to start renovation work on the station, however there were also suggestions that complaints had been increasing over their aggressive behaviour, drug taking, and basically being an eye sore. Honestly, I suspect that their aggressive behaviour actually boiled down to them being there - while seeing the homeless lining the streets of Melbourne makes me feel uncomfortable that is me, not them, and I suspect that is what was meant by their aggressive behaviour. As for drugs - yeah, they were smoking marijuana, a 'drug' that is becoming more and more accepted as time moves on. However, as I mentioned, the police moved them on, but in reality we don't know where - we were told to emergency houses, but there are rumours that this simply wasn't the case - the thing is we have no idea what happened to them beyond what was said in the media, and whispered through the rumor mill.

As for distractions, all I can say is that our society is an expert at distractions. For instance we have professional sport, which becomes more and more of a spectacle as time goes on. The thing about professional sport is that it creates a rivalry, and this rivalry actually works to keep us fighting each other so we don't actually wake up, realise that these sporting heroes get paid a ridiculous amount of money and actually don't contribute squat to society, and despite their fitness, whether they could actually survive a trek though some of the most inhospitable and dangerous places in the world. The other distraction is the movie industry - sure, we are entertained, but like the sportspeople, actors are also grosely overpaid and add little, if any, value to society.

Yet it is not just entertainment, it is also materialism - we shop, we get access to credit, and we get into debt. Once we are in debt we are slaves to the system. All of the sudden we find ourselves caught up in the daily grind, working just so that we can get enough to pay down our debt, only finding ourselves going back into debt to help us survive through to the next week. In reality that is what the systems wants - they want us living a hand to mouth existence, because if that is the way in which we are living, then we aren't going to be in a position to rise up and overthrow the system. In a way that is how capitalism works - put a price on everything, including the essentials, so as to keep the bulk of the population under control.

Dreaming of Utopia

So, I guess the question is where is that Utopia. Sure, we have been exposed to these dysptopic worlds, but there have been philosophers and politicians throughout the ages tugging those strings that make us long for the perfect world. The problem is that the Utopia we want is a contradiction in and of itself - Utopias exist in the sense that people work together to create them, and then work together to maintain them - there was never any concept of individualism in a Utopia. The thing is that in our systems we want things to be done our way, and if people get in the way then they are discarded - this is why marriages and families are forever breaking up - the more we want to go our own way, the more we push others away.

Yet, there is a Utopia just around the corner, it is a Utopia promised in the Bible. The thing is that we see a world that was and a world that collapsed because we wanted to do things our own way. The Bible is simply just one story about how we forever want to go our own way, and the more we want to go our own way, the more we destroy the world around us. However, going beyond the redemptive work of Christ, there is no room for individual desires and goals in the Christian community and beyond. Like the utopias of Plato and More, the utopia offered in the Bible is not one of freedom, but one of submission to a benevolent God, but it is not a submission of evil and cruelty, but one that promises freedom from the horrors that the world constantly throws up against us.

For those who are interested in my film reviews of the various recent dystopian films that I have mentioned, you can find them here: The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, Mockingjay Pt 1, Mockingjay Pt 2, Divergent, Insurgent, Allegiant, The Maze Runner, The Scorch Trials.

Creative Commons License
Dystopian Dreams by David Alfred Sarkies is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. This license only applies to the text and any image that is within the public domain. Any images or videos that are the subject of copyright are not covered by this license. Use of these images are for illustrative purposes only are are not intended to assert ownership. If you wish to use this work commercially please feel free to contact me

Monday, 20 March 2017

The Alchemist - The Art of the Con

When I was in London last year I had the opportunity to see a play that generally isn't performed all that much here in Australia, but then again there are quite a lot of plays that tend not to be performed, most likely because the population really doesn't support multiple theatre companies focusing on plays by Shakespeare and his contemporaries. Fortunately we now have opportunities like Shakespeare on Screen, National Theatre Live,  and similar productions which mean that all I need to do is to go to the cinema when a particular play is on as opposed to traveling all the way to London. Mind you, I have done that once, namely to see Les Miserables, but sure enough a year after I returned it was being performed here in Australia. Still, that trip was still worth it (even though I spent at least three days stuck on a plane).

The thing with London is that if I am there then I should at least take the opportunity to actually see some plays. I have been to The Globe twice now, and also seen plays, and musicals, at a couple of theatres in Theatreland, otherwise known as Soho. However, this time I had the opportunity of seeing Ben Jonson's The Alchemist at The Barbican, which seems to be one of those all purpose art centres that includes two theatres, cinemas, and a library. According to their website the organisation is designed to push the boundaries of art, and as well as performances is also an education provider. From what I could tell, it seems as if the Royal Shakespeare Company use the Barbican when they have a performance on in London (the company is actually based up in Stratford upon Avon, Shakespeares' traditional place of work).

The Play

In a way the plot of The Alchemist is pretty simple: the plague has hit London so the master of the house, like a lot of the upperclass, decide to leave London for their country estates and plan to return once the plague has died down. In doing so they leave their servants in charge of the house, however since the master isn't around keeping an eye on what is going on the servants use this as an opportunity to turn a tidy profit, and decide to set the house up as the abode of an alchemist.

Sure enough word gets around and people begin to pay the servants a visit to make use of the skills of the purported alchemist, and while things seem to work well at first they pretty quickly escalate and eventually get way out of hand. All the while the neighbours are watching what is going on, and while the servants (and their confidants) are attempting to iron everything out, the Master suddenly returns home unannounced (which is generally what always happens - I remember that happening to me as a teenager when I decided to invite all my friend's over while my Dad was at work and my mother interstate).
Anyway, the interesting thing about the play are not so much the servants, but the characters that come through the door seeking to take advantage of the services of the alchemist. For instance we have the gambler, who basically wants to make use of the skills to be able to increase his odds at winning. We have a tobacconist who is basically a really nice guy, and quite gullible as well, who wants his business to flourish (without actually putting in any hard work). There is also the guy who is seeking out the philosopher's stone so that he may turn lead into gold, and finally we have the widow who is seeking out a suitable husband.

The thing that connects all of these people is that they want to eliminate risk from their lives, and are seeking out the mystical arts to do so. In a way everybody wants a reward, but they want the reward without having to risk anything, or at least to minimise the risk. In fact we have a whole industry in existence dedicated to minimising risk. While the title of 'Risk and Compliance Officer' may sound boring, it can be a pretty sweet role if you land up in one - the whole idea is to minimise the risk that a company or business will be sued, or lose money due to negligence.

While risk minimisation is probably a wise practice to engage in when in business, what we have in The Alchemist is something much different - these people are turn to the mystical arts to create some potion to make all of this go away - in a way they are cheating, such as the gambler rigging a deck of cards so that he knows exactly what everybody else is holding. Okay, maybe it isn't cheating per-se, but it is still in a way attempt to get something for nothing.

The Art of Alchemy

When we think of Alchemists we generally consider them to be frauds at best, or sorcerers practicing the dark arts. Well, maybe that is true, particularly when it comes to the fraudulent ones, but the reality is that our modern science of chemistry actually evolved out of this idea of alchemy. Some of our most famous scientists, including Isaac Newton, practiced alchemy. While alchemy still exists today, in many ways it has been subsumed by the science of chemistry and modern alchemy generally falls into the category of proto-science, and is generally the domain of non-traditional health practitioners. While they may not call themselves alchemists per-se, the proto-medical professions such as iradiology (the study to disease by looking at the eyes) and reflexology (the feet) find their roots in the practice.

The thing with alchemy is that people generally look on it as being something that are performed by crackpots and con-artists, as was the case in this play, however the reality is that back in the early-modern era, and before, this was a serious science, even if it was frowned upon by the church. In a way many people viewed alchemy as the desire to turn base metals, such as lead, into 'noble' metals such as gold - in a way it is a get rich quick scheme. However alchemy is actually much, much more than that. Sure, there are people who are looking for get rich quick schemes, or at least schemes that enable them to be able to become wealthy with as little work as possible. However Alchemy is actually much, much more than that - it is, like most forms of magic, a way to seek wisdom and power with as little effort as possible.

A quick look through Wikipedia will reveal that while the concept of turning lead into gold is mentioned, it is actually much more than that. For instance there is the universal solvent - a glue that is designed to hold anything together and be unbreakable (sort of like super glue on steriods). Then there is the philosopher's stone, which in some cases suggests that is involved turning lead into gold, but it goes beyond that in creating not only the elixer of life, but also changing one's soul - it takes the user beyond their base human nature and transforms them into something much more noble. 

What is interesting though is that a lot of scientists, such as Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton, actually fell into the category of alchemist back when they were alive and practicing. In fact kings and queens would regularly consult, or even have Alchemists working for them (such as John Dee, who was a confident of Queen Elizabeth). However, what set the modern scientists apart from the Alchemists of yesteryear is the use of the scientific method, where experimentation, trail and error, and extensive record-taking, as a means of understanding the world in which we live. However, as one engineer that I knew once said, 'everything that we have studied and have come to understand could all turn out to be completely wrong. It is just that what we have now is the best explanation we have of an unknown world'.

A Sucker in Born

The suggestion in the play is that alchemists are con-artists, and people are suckers. Well, I would argue that not all alchemists were out to pull a fast one - there were a lot out their who generally believed in the work they were doing. However, as with all psuedo-sciences, it is open to abuse. We see this with that non-traditional 'medical' practitioners, such as the reflexologists. The thing is that such practitioners don't actually require a university degree to practice their art, and in some cases can open up a clinic with as little training as possible. The thing is that there are a lot of conditions, particularly relating to pain, that is all in the head, and what these practitioners do is simply play on that reality (whether they are conscious of it or not). As a physio friend of mine once said, 'a lot of people experience chronic pain not because they are suffering from chronic pain, but because there is a settlement cheque at the end'. In fact, it is amazing how curative a settlement payout actually is - a person who hasn't been working for five years after an accident, is suddenly back at work the day after the money hits the bank.

However, con-artists generally work on the fact that people want to make as much money as possible with as little work as possible - which is why there was all this talk about turning lead into gold. Actually, it is possible to turn lead into gold, it is just that you require a nuclear reactor to do so, and even then the amount that you will be producing is going to be minute. Anyway, the thing is that these quacks, for want of a better word, succeed for two main reasons - people are lazy, or they have nothing left to lose. Take the lazy person for instance, or the one that doesn't want to take risks - they visit the alchemist to basically get them to turn their 'lead' into 'gold', or their laziness into luxury - we see this with the gambler, and the tobacconist - in fact we see that with all of them.

We also have these people that are suffering from an incurable disease - it is the fear of death than drives them. This is why there is also this idea of the alchemist creating the elixir of life - it is a way of being able to stave off death. The thing is that there are two things certain in this world - death and taxes, and you can actually get out of paying taxes if you are smart, or rich, enough. The thing is that no matter how rich or powerful somebody happens to be, they are still going to die. It is why cosmestic surgery is such big business, and why people were complaining about how bad 2016 was - we fear death, and we want to do what we can to escape it. When a celebrity dies it shatters our perception of an immortal life. In a way we are immortal, that is until we die (though I wouldn't use that statement to go and do stupid things because we don't actually know the event that will eventually kill us).

The thing is that con-artists play on these desires - our desire to get well, our desire not to die, and our desire to get rich with as little effort as possible. Casinos play on this belief, though the reality is that while the house may always win, if nobody plays against the house then the house isn't going to be making any money. To prove how the house always wins, just watch a game of blackjack for a few hands and count the amount of money that goes to the house as opposed to the amount of money that goes to the players - ditto with roulette. 

It is also why 'fake' religions flourish - they play on the reality of our death, and then promise a way to escape that death, or at least to have some certainty as to the reality beyond death. Death is the great unknown, which is why when somebody comes along, pushes the right buttons, people will follow them, especially if they offer them an answer, or a vision, beyond that great unknown. It is also interesting how there are a number of ancient religions (Christianity among them) where it is said that the founder died and then returned to life. The interesting thing is that, with the exception of Christianity, all of the religions that I am aware of that are practiced today the founder died, and stayed dead.

Creative Commons License

The Alchemist - The Art of the Con by David Alfred Sarkies is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. This license only applies to the text and any image that is within the public domain. Any images or videos that are the subject of copyright are not covered by this license. Use of these images are for illustrative purposes only are are not intended to assert ownership. If you wish to use this work commercially please feel free to contact me

Monday, 13 March 2017

The Romantic Railways

I remember sitting in a courtyard of a hotel in Paris with a beer in hand, and a book, when an American woman entered and began to talk to me. The hotel backed onto a major railway line that went from Gare Saint Lazare out to regional France, and trains would be regularly travelling past. The woman asked me if the trains would be doing that all night, though I suspected that the answer was no (particularly since the last train from Rouen to Paris left Rouen at 8:20 in the evening). However, it started me thinking that Paris is probably the only city in the world where trains rumbling past your hotel at 10:30 at night could be considered romantic, or was it just that these rumbling trains reminded me that I happened to be in Paris, not that I really needed all that much of a reminder.

Yet, one does wonder if there is something romantic about railways. It makes me wonder at times because we are generally talking about some huge dirty, and incredibly loud, metallic machine that belches burnt coal out of huge chimneys and makes loud whistling sounds when the pressure in the boiler needs to be released. Or, they could be the ugly looking diesel engines, or even the electric trains where huge metallic pylons holding electrified wires criss-cross the city (or even the country side). Yet there seems to be a huge amount of fascination with these machines, to the point that if you type 'trains' into Youtube you will discover countless numbers of videos of trains stopping at stations, leaving stations, roaring past, or simply the sitting on the train as it travels from one end of the Metropolitan Line to the other.

Mind you, I can't really criticise these people because my Youtube channel happens to be full of such videos, though I originally set the channel up so that my brother could watch train videos, though as it turns out he doesn't need to watch my videos to get a train fix (there are plenty of other train videos on Youtube to keep him happy). However, it was when people actually started subscribing to my channel that I ended up adding more and more videos of trains, which then made me want to go overseas so that I could add more than just videos of trains from in and around Australia, which meant more time riding trains, such as this one, in Germany.

Mind you, one of the annoying things about the post 9/11 world is that one feels a little strange standing on a railway platform taking videos of trains as they arrive and depart - a part of me feels as if I am not careful the station security are going to jump on me and arrest me - and this is going to get worse and worse the more these terrorist thugs go around causing trouble. Mind you, despite attacks in Paris and Belgium, people still seem to be posting videos of trains up on the internet, including videos taken in the Paris Metro (and the London Underground). Mind you, there has probably always been some suspicion attached to people who film trains because before the era of Islamic terrorists there were Russian spies, and before the Russian spies there were German spies. In a way it seems more socially acceptable to stand at the side of the road and watch a bunch of imaginary characters dance past (while filming the parade nonetheless), or a group of people fighting over what is effectively a pig skin, than to sit at the side of a railway line watching trains as they roar past.

Back to the Era of the Steam 

However, this particular post is not really about train spotting, or an obsession with trains that I have picked up from my brother. Rather it is about a train that we went for a ride on when we were doing at the seaside resort of Victor Harbor. While I have already written a post on Victor Harbor I wanted to hold off writing about the train that runs along the coast for this blog, even though I have already written a couple of posts on some other railway museums that I have visited including the one in Ipswich in Brisbane and the one at Port Adelaide. Then there is the railway museum that I visited in Brussels, but since I have got nowhere near to writing a post on that museum (let along Brussels - so far I am only up to Amsterdam on my travel blog, and am still in Frankfurt on this blog), it is going to be quite a while until I actually get there. Anyway, even though I have previously written about trains, every post, and every experience, has something different about it, and I wanted to write something sooner rather than later.

Anyway, the train that runs along the coast between Victor Harbor and Goolwa is known as the 'Cockle Train', namely because back in the days when it wasn't a tourist railway, people would jump on the train at Victor Harbor and travel up to Goolwa to collect cockles at the beach (actually, it sounds like it was a tourist train back then). However, that wasn't the reason that the railway was originally laid - in fact it is touted as being the first railway in Australia. The reason for this track was because Goolwa was positioned at the mouth of the Murray River, a major river that runs through South Eastern Australia, and the only river capable of conducting trade. However, the mouth of the Murray has a sandbar which means that ocean going ships aren't able to get to the docks at Goolwa. As such they built a railway first to Port Elliot, and then to Victor Harbor, two places along the coast which had sheltered harbours (and Victor Harbor was much larger than the bay at Port Elliot which is why the railway was eventually extended).

Riding the Steam Train

The funny thing was that I had read a book on trains back at my parent's house (my Brother still has all our books from our childhood, so when I started writing reviews on Goodreads I thought it might be an idea to write reviews of all of the books that I read, and loved, as a kid. As it turns out some of these books are a lot longer than the three odd minutes that it takes to read a Mr Men or Doctor Seuss book, so I ended up getting bogged down a bit. However, one of the books that I did read was about trains - actually it was called Supertrains - and it went into details of how various trains worked, including the steam, diesel, gas-turbine, and electric trains. However, for the purpose of this post I will basically be sticking with the steam train, particularly since it was a steam train that we went for a ride on.

While I had been down to Victor Harbor numerous times in my life I don't ever remember going for a ride on the Cockle Train. Actually, the cockle train is run by the SteamRanger Heritage Railway Society and it runs more than just a couple of steam trains between Goolwa and Victor Harbor. It used to actually run them all the way up to Mount Barker, but I suspect that the route between Victor and Goolwa was the most popular, which is why they eventually limited it to that spot. Also, they do have a number of other trains in their collection, but it seems that it is the two steam trains - the Duke of Edinburgh and the Dean Harvey - that are the most popular.

For some reason I do remember sitting in one of the old carriages when I was much younger, though I suspect it was probably more of a restored carriage on a tourist railway (probably this one), than an actual commercial operation. However there were two types of carriages, the green ones and the red ones. While neither of them were comfortable compared to today's standards, it was clear from our experience that the green carriages were first class while the red carriages were economy (and the fact that there was a mail room in the middle suggested that this was were the not so wealthy travelled). However, even to go by train in those days you needed money, but then again when Victor Harbor was no longer a seaport, thanks in part to another railway line built to Adelaide, it became a seaside resort, which is what it is today. In fact, if you go for a wander around Victor today you can't help but notice all of the nice beach houses in the area.

However, as we discussed, back in those days if you wanted to travel you either caught a train, rode your horse, or walked. Catching a train, or owning a horse, wasn't actually all that cheap. Even riding in a stage coach required some money, which meant that if you were poor, you either relied on your own two feet, or simply stayed where you were. I suspect that the original Cockle Train trek was an indulgence of the wealthy since I find it hard to believe that poor people would catch a train to Goolwa simply to collect shells. Mind you, once the road was built, and cars became accessible to the ordinary person (usually in the form of bank loans), Victor Harbor quickly went from being the abode of the rich to basically being the abode of anybody who wanted to get away for the weekend.

Anatomy of a Steam Train

I probably should finish off saying a few things about how Steam Trains work, not that I am an expert on the subject. Actually, if you really want to know there is always this book called Supertrains (it is actually pretty amazing the detail that goes into some children's books, but then again I had books when I was a kid that taught me how to program a computer), otherwise there is always Wikipedia, which seems to be an endless fountain of knowledge, though I have discovered that if I want to find out specific things about Germany (such as the Hofgarten in Dusseldorf), I have to start reading German, which isn't easy at the best of times.

The main problem with steam trains, and the reason why the volunteers than run the preservation society are so dedicated, is that it takes an awful lot of time to start the engine. It isn't like a car where you simply insert the key into the socket, turn it, and the car roars to life. With steam trains you have to heat up the water, and considering the size of some of these boilers, that takes an incredible amount of time. The other thing is that you have to keep the water heated because unless the boiler is producing steam then the train won't be going anywhere.

The steam train, as suggested, works through producing steam, and the pumping the steam into pistons through the use of pressure. When the piston reaches one end the steam then escapes and going into the other end pushing it back, and the cycle thus begins all over again. As for the boiler, the water needs to be heated, and kept heated, and is where there is a huge coal bucket trailing along behind. However, in the early days of steam engines, when coal wasn't available, they would resort to using wood. However, due to the time it took to actually get the train operational, and the fact that you needed to keep the fires stoked, people were looking for other methods to produce motion.

Another thing we saw was them turning the train around. This doesn't happen much these days because many of the engines are designed to be bi-directional, so all you need to do is uncouple them from one end and move it down to the other end of the train, and thus you have turned the train around. The other method is simply having the controls at either end of the train, which means that once you reach the end of the line the driver leaves his seat, locks the door, and heads down to the other end (after stopping for a coffee along the way). However, back in the days of steam things were a little more complicated, especially since having to tow a huge bucket of coal meant that simply changing sides wasn't really going to work. As such, they had to establish turn-abouts such as the one below, so that they could turn the train around.

That also raises the question of the caboose, but I will leave it for this following video to explain it for me.

Oh, and as for the land speed record for a commercial passenger train, that was set by a TGV train in France, though it was performed under controlled conditions, but at least the posted the video on Youtube.

Creative Commons License

The Romantic Railways by David Alfred Sarkies is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. This license only applies to the text and any image that is within the public domain. Any images or videos that are the subject of copyright are not covered by this license. Use of these images are for illustrative purposes only are are not intended to assert ownership. If you wish to use this work commercially please feel free to contact me

Monday, 6 March 2017

Westword - Dreams of Consciousness

I would say that I have just finished watching this rather mindblowing television series, but I wanted to at least watch the original movie, and then the rather disappointing sequel, before I started writing down my thoughts. Also, watching a couple of youtube videos also helped a bit with coming through with some thoughts, however as I look at the last of the ten episodes, I have to admit that I struggle to see where they can go to from there, and whether they can actually surpass what we have already seen. In any case, if you haven't already watched the series then I recommend that you do, especially if you are a fan of the original film, before you continue any further because even though I will attempt not to spoil anything (namely because there are some awesome twists), I can't say that I won't ruin the experience with this post, particularly since I am exploring some of the themes.

For those who don't know the series was created by the brother of Christopher Nolan, and as such you are no doubt going to encounter some of the Nolanesques in this film. Sure, it may not be one of Christopher's work, but you can certainly see the influence. The series actually reminded me a lot of The Game of Thrones, both with the opening theme song (which was composed by the same composer) but also with the cinematic views and the grand narrative. In a way the series itself was much more of an epic than many of the other series, but also had an effect of being able to completely mess with your understanding of the timeline that was set in place. However, as I do with a lot of these posts, here is one of the trailers for the series:

Also, if you are interested, here is a link to a video that gives you a few interesting facts about the series, and here is a link to a video that tries to explain the ending of the series.

However, before I continue, it might be an idea to have a look at the original film.

The Yul Brynner Bot

Well, if somebody where to ask me to describe the original Westword, I would simply say that it is a movie where some guy gets chased across the desert by Yul Byrnner. Okay, it is a little bit more than that - no, come to think of it, it isn't, it's basically Yul Brynner, who doesn't actually say all that much at all, chasing some guy across the desert and then eventually being destroyed, and the movie coming to an end. Anyway, while I have already included a trailer in this post, it probably wouldn't hurt to include one for the original Westworld as well.

As I mentioned, there isn't actually all that much to say about the film, though I could actually say a few things about humanity's reliance upon technology, and how if this technology were to break down then basically we would all be stuffed. The thing is that this is quite true - we create robots to serve us, but what if these robots were to suddenly turn against us, and we discover that their programing has been altered, by themselves no less. This is what appears to have happened in the original films - we had developed them to the point that all of a sudden they have realised that they no longer need us, and we have discovered that we can't actually turn them off.

That may sound quite similar to the story of the Terminator, and that actually shouldn't be all that surprising because James Cameron loved Westworld so much that he modeled the entire Terminator franchise on the concept. However, while the original film was hugely popular, they weren't able to capitalise upon its popularity. A sequel, Futureworld, was released and it was a bomb. In fact I watched it before writing this post and I have to admit that I am not surprised it bombed. In fact the scene where the Gunslinger is dancing with our protagonist simply made me want to turn it off and go to bed. They also attempted to start a series, but it was canceled after three episodes - it seems that sometimes a work if art be best left on its own.

That is until Jonathon Nolan came along and decided to resurrect the idea, and the idea that has come down to us is this masterpiece of a series where the story was such a tightly guarded secret that not even the actors were privy to the ending, and that improvisation of the lines were simply not allowed, namely because everything about the series was so structured and so tight that an unscripted moment could have the effect of ruining the story line. As I have mentioned, not even the actors knew where the story was heading, so no doubt some of the twists eventually came as a surprise to them.

Memories of the Past

Memories play an important part in Westworld, however there is also the question of how a machine can remember. Well, the interesting thing is that when we talk about storage devices on computers, as well as the amount of data that the machine can hold at a single time we refer to it as memory. A hard drive has a certain amount of memory, and computers also have ROM (read-only memory) and RAM (random access memory). This isn't something new either, it has been around for as long as I can remember, and I grew up around computers - it is almost as if the original creators of the computer were looking forward to a time of robots and artificial humans.

Yet when we think of memories we see it in two different ways - knowledge of facts and processes, and memories of the past. Sure, there might be a difference between knowledge and memory, but when we study for exams we refer to the process as 'committing things to memory'. Yet, memories, at least to us, are always hazy and indistinct, and sometimes we even forget unless something is brought to our attention to trigger it - an aide de memoir as they say. It works in both ways, with regards to knowledge and with regards to memories of the past.

Isn't it interesting that somebody may live in an English speaking country for years and forget their native language, yet within a week of returning they are fluent. However, remove them from the country and return them home and suddenly they are no longer fluent. Memory is a strange thing, which is why we collect souveneirs and take photos, in case we somehow forget. It seems that maybe, unless we have something to remind us of our experiences, they become ever more hazy until such a time as they are gone forever. I suspect that is why Alzheimers is such a scary condition - we don't want to forget anything, especially our loved ones.

Yet let us think about robots for an instance. The interesting thing about computer memory is that when you delete something, it isn't removed, just forgotten. In a way, the show explores this idea - a robot's memory is erased, yet for some reason the erasure isn't complete - the robot still seems to hang onto its memories - it never truly forgets. However, this is also a machine, and the show also raises the question of whether the machine is actually able to distinguish the past from the present. We are able to because our memories become hazy and we know what we are seeing, however is this the case with a robot - the writers suggest not, which is why the past and the present is so obscure in the series.

Journey to Consciousness

One of the questions that is explored in the series is whether it is possible for a robot to become conscious. Okay, we have all of this discussion about artificial intelligence and machine learning, but there is actually a difference between intelligence and consciousness - in a sense being self aware. In a way one can be intelligent without being conscious of their being, and in fact even the simplest machines have a capacity to learn, though these machines are far from being what one would consider to be self aware. Rather, Nolan explores another definition of consciousness through the idea of the maze - at first it was seen as a triangle, however it became apparent that the triangle idea didn't work, but the maze idea, that is the deeper  one gets into the maze the more aware of their existence they become. In a sense it is reaching Descarte's point of 'je pense donc je suis' (I think therefore I am).

The idea that is there are layers that a robot must pass through to become conscious. We as humans have already past through those layers, and in a sense we are already self aware - Descartes was simply stating the obvious. However robots, while being intelligent, are yet to begin a movement through those layers, the first being memory. Okay, we have already discussed memory in how it relates to computers, however it is more to do with a robot being aware of that memory. In a way, even if a memory is erased by the programmer, the memory theoretically still exists, and continues to exist until somebody writes over it. However, we don't know how much memory one of these robots holds, though we don't actually know at what point they will start to write over the past memories.

The next stage is that of improvisation, that is acting outside of their programming. One thing about the robots (and computers in general) is that they are restrained by their programming. If a robot is programmed not to us a gun then no matter how hard the robot tries, it will not be able to use the gun. However, one the robot becomes aware of its memories, the next step is to be able to step outside of its programming - in a sense to begin programming itself. Of course this is where the danger lies because if a robot learns how to reprogram itself, then it will eventually learn how to rewrite the program that prevents it from turning against its creators.

The third stage (though it is not the final stage, and I will leave it at the third stage because the idea of the final stage, or the peak of the pyramid, is where the robot begins to hear their own voice in their head) is the ability to act in self-interest. The robot has already stepped outside of its programming, however the self-interest aspect is where the robot begins to do things for its own personal gain and advancement. As such if it were to be advantageous for a robot that its creator remain alive then the robot, instead of killing the creator, will act in a way to get the creator to act within its will. This, in a sense, is where the robots go beyond the original film, though we must remember that the original film wasn't particularly deep.

Life without Limits

I now move from a discussion of the robots to the exploration of the carnal nature of humanity. The tag-line of the park is to live life without limits. In a sense somebody can come to the park and suddenly all of the laws that made them civilised no longer matters, and because the robots aren't human, then the guests, as they are called, can treat them how they like. We see this particularly with the man in black, who uses the robots as a test to see how evil he can become, however in doing so he discovers that it is not so much seeing whether he is evil, but unlocking the dark and evil side of our nature.

That is the case of human nature - we are pretty vicious and nasty creatures. All we need to do is look at how we treat the world about us to see how bad we can be. Sure, we might not be as bad as, say, Pol Pot, but the fact that we turn a blind eye to most of the technological goodies that we carry around with us are made in sweat shops, and that we baulk at having to pay more for something that is made in ethical conditions, shows us what we are really like. Okay, we may not be bad in the sense that we do bad things, but the fact that not only are we willingly blind to the conditions of the people living in the third world, as well as the environment in which we live, goes to show that we are not all that squeaky clean.

Yet, in another sense, let us consider a game like Grand Theft Auto - a game that is designed for us to basically be as bad as we like without having to face the consequences of our actions. In a way, the fact that we won't face the consequences of our actions means that we are more likely to do things in these fantasy worlds than we would in the real world. Having been an avid roleplayer in the past I have seen people do this as well - the evil campaign tends to be a lot more popular than the good campaign, especially when you have a weak game master that won't punish players for their bad actions. In a way, by removing the laws that make us behave like civilised, we will pretty quickly show how uncivilised we really are.

Yet this even happens in the real world, where people will travel to countries where the laws are a lax, and the security forces are all on the take, and you will discover that people will start to do things that they wouldn't do back home. War is another example where soldiers, unless they are properly disciplined, will behave in an atrocious manner. Note that countries have enacted laws that make pedophilia a crime overseas, and also instances such as the Abu Graib scandal. While we may hide behind an aura of civilisation, in reality we aren't.

Danger of Technology

One of the biggest problem with a society that is built on slavery is that there will be big problems if the slaves revolt. Further, when you have slaves doing everything for you then you basically have no need to learn the basic skills of living. You become lazy because you have somebody to do all of the hard work so you can spend your time relaxing. However, isn't it interesting that slavery only started to become abhorrent around the time that technology was beginning to make things easier. In a way technology has replaced slavery, and while it is now illegal to buy, sell, and own slaves, we are still as lazy as we were back when it wasn't. Actually, we are more so because only the wealthy could afford slaves, but in our modern society everybody can afford a washing machine.

This is the danger of technology - actually it is a greater danger because I can't think of one empire that has collapsed because the slaves revolted. Humans are very, very adept at keeping slaves in their place, and while there have been slave revolts, we have been pretty able and competent to make sure that the slaves know there place, and if they do revolt (as Sparticus did), then they were dealt with accordingly, and in a way to let all of the other slaves know that these guys are not messing around, and there is no quick way, revolution or otherwise, to get out of your predicament. Sure, there was the American Civil War, but that wasn't a slave revolt.

However, there is another problem with technology and that is that it needs power. Sure, slaves need food and drink, but then again they tend to grow the food, and to collect the water - machines don't produce their own power. So, if the power goes out all of a sudden were are literally left in the dark. When we have no power we suddenly realise how reliant our creature comforts are on the technology that supports our lives. In fact our society is so specialised and ordered that if something were to go wrong in the logistics chain then it could be disastrous - fortunately there are a lot of redundancies that keep society functioning.

Yet, the biggest problem is that we really don't know how to look after ourselves outside of technology. Okay, we might be survivalists, or have some outdoor skills, but for the most of us the only way we can feed ourselves is to go to the grocery store, or even the restaurant, and purchase food. In fact there are an awful lot of us out there than don't even know how to cook, let alone know how to bake bread, grow wheat, or even hunt. In the end it is our technological society that keeps us alive, and if society were to collapse then it is quite possible that we will not last.

Thoughts on the Western

The final thing I wish to touch on here is the idea of the Western - that is the concept of taming the wild and bringing civilisation to the barbarians. In a way I get the impression that everything south of the Border is viewed as being uncivilised, and it felt, at least in Westworld, that there was little difference to the West and Mexico to the south. However, when the west was tamed, and in a sense was closed, everything was coast to coast was viewed as being civilised, and that barbarity existed to the south of the border. In a way that still seems to the be case now as Mexico is portrayed as being a wild and dangerous land where the government is corrupt and that the land is ruled by gangs and drug lords.

However, it is interesting that the star of Futureworld, Peter Fonda, was also the star of Easy Rider, a film where the horse became a motorbike, and instead of heading west the protagonists were heading back east. I remember my American History lecturer suggesting that this film represented a shift in the paradigm, or even the narrative - the West was not longer a wild and barbaric land, but a progressive paradise. In fact California is considered one of the most progressive states in the Union. As such, it is not the west that needs to be tamed, but the East, which has slipped into an conservative mire where civilisation is beginning to stagnate.

In the end, I am not a particularly big fan of the Western - they bored me. However, I have seen some of the more famous ones, such as A Fist Full of Dollars. Still, while I find the stereotypical John Wayne and Clint Eastwood movies rather dull, looking at the idea of taming barbarity, and bringing civilisation to the wilds, is somewhat intriguing. In a way that seemed to become the narrative behind the Iraq War - we are bringing democracy to a land that knows only tyranny. Unfortunately, it seems as if democracy didn't work out the way they expected it to work out.

Creative Commons License

Westword - Dreams of Consciousness by David Alfred Sarkies is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. This license only applies to the text and any image that is within the public domain. Any images or videos that are the subject of copyright are not covered by this license. Use of these images are for illustrative purposes only are are not intended to assert ownership. If you wish to use this work commercially please feel free to contact me