Dissecting Conspiracy Theories

I’ve been reading about conspiracy theories lately – well, it made a change from the end of the world – and one of the books I’ve picked up does a pretty good job of dissecting most of the popular/well known/most widespread ones by resorting to Occam’s razor. If you’re not familiar with Occam’s razor – and unless you’re a philosophy student, why should you be? – this essentially boils down to “the simplest solution is almost certainly the right one”. I have to say that a lot of the time, this method is really very effective but does take a lot of the fun out of things.

To select three examples which David Aaronovitch – for it is his book I’m reading – uses, let’s use the deaths of Princess Diana, Marilyn Monroe and John F Kennedy and, using Stef’s Hatchet rather than Occam’s razor, let’s see where we end up.

It’s all rather prosaic, actually. Princess Diana died in an avoidable accident (somebody really should have put their foot down and said that the driver was too drunk to be behind the wheel) and Monroe was an accidental overdose given that she had taken sleeping pills for a very long time and was reportedly rather depressed when she died. JFK is the one that I had most fun with. I’m still not sure that the angles work out for a lone gunman, but I’m going to stick my neck out here and come up with a really neat solution that entertained me for all of ten minutes.

Lee Harvey Oswald had already attempted to kill a public figure in April 1963, but was unsuccessful. He had the means, motives and resources to kill Kennedy. Opportunity favoured Oswald when the route of the motorcade was changed to go past the Book Depository, where Oswald worked – so he managed to get in, secrete himself on the sixth floor and wait. However, down in the crowd, somewhere near a grassy knoll, is terminally ill Jack Ruby, who decided that he was going to go out in style and take a president with him. Three shots are fired and it’s unclear who fires the fatal shot. It’s not until Oswald is arrested that Ruby realises he may have failed; he’s the one who shot the President, not this upstart. So he goes and kills Oswald in revenge for stealing his bit of limelight.

How neat was that? It’s plausible too, if only there were evidence to support it. Oh well, never mind – lone gunman it is then.

The thing is, people create conspiracy theories for two main reasons; (1) they don’t trust what they are being told by the government or the media, and (2) they want to believe in something. Any theory, therefore, is better than no theory. I think this tells us an awful lot about the relationship between government, media and populace and I’m surprised it hasn’t been explored more.

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Who Watches the Watchmen?

I’m reading a book about conspiracy theories at the moment. It’s not very entertaining (no outrageous assertions that all world leaders are Lizard People from Planet X, sadly) but it is enlightening, especially when it deals with how conspiracy theories take root and become disseminated into popular culture to a point where it becomes very troublesome to tell the fake news from the truth.

Now if that sounds a little familiar, I can only apologise – but I for one do not believe a word that comes out of the White House nor what appears in a Murdoch newspaper. The former, unfortunately, is more of a recent occurrence than the latter, but I long ago recognised that there is an agenda here which involves lying through the skin of their teeth at every available opportunity. If the facts suggest that something is black, they will maintain that it is white and that any suggestion to the contrary is “fake news”. In the case of the press, we are back to questions of journalistic ethics that I briefly looked at after watching Nightcrawler – what lengths will the media go to if they may get a story out of it?

The other side to this story, though, is what checks are there to keep the media from breaking the law – or just offending pretty much every normal person’s moral framework? The Leveson Enquiry spent months (and thousands of pounds) trying to establish a forum where the press could be regulated; but this ended up as entirely voluntary and so watered down as to be completely ineffective. Ultimately, unscrupulous media moguls can behave as they please without sanction, especially if those in power are doing exactly the same. No wonder the conspiracy theorists don’t trust anyone!

It’s incredibly depressing but what can one do? The simple answer, suggested by the book I’m reading, is this: the more variables involved in the conspiracy theory, the more likely it is to be faked. Unless, of course, the White House is involved, in which case believe nothing and trust no one.

The Rise of the Zombie Apocalypse?

I once wrote a short story about sinkholes. Admittedly, it was mainly a gripe about the number of sinkholes my car had to avoid on the journey from my house to the train station – my local council aren’t always the speediest at repairs – but I’d decided that they were the source of plague infected zombies. Seems that in Siberia, at least, I wasn’t far wrong; melting tundra ice (and the resulting sinkholes) is releasing long-dormant anthrax spores along with the buried methane – a major greenhouse gas. Diseases that many scientists had thought had died out may yet come back to haunt us. Let’s just hope the CDC still have vaccines.

It’s not easy to tell from some of the pictures just how big these sinkholes are, but they are enormous. The glaciers lock into the earth by freezing into gaps in the earth’s crust, trapping methane and other greenhouse gases in the ice – as well as spores, bacteria and goodness knows what else. Captain America, probably. So when the climate heats up, the ice melts and everything securely tucked away is returned to the Great Unknown, including diseases we no longer have – or perhaps never had – any immunity to. It’s interesting because a similar mechanism is used for the start of the Zombie Apocalypse in World War Z; a child goes swimming in a millpond in China and ends up with this nasty virus… just move everything to Siberia and you have an entire new film franchise.

Equally – and for my part, more disturbingly – the release of the methane creates a positive feedback loop, by increasing the global temperature, thereby melting more ice and causing more sinkholes… you get the picture, I’m sure. Perhaps the zombies might be the lesser of the two evils.

Burke and Hare and the Importance of the Resurrection Men

I was watching an old film over the weekend – Burke and Hare starring Simon Pegg and Andy Serkis. Whilst mostly true, it wasn’t 100% factually accurate, but it had a great cast, a wonderful script and was a highly entertaining couple of hours. In telling the story of these two quite notorious criminals, it also explored a crucial early part of medical and surgical education.

Until the Anatomy Act 1832, medical students could only practice dissection – or observe anatomy lectures – using the corpses of convicted murderers, usually whisked straight from the gallows to the mortuary or lecture theatre. This meant that demand far exceeded supply, as lectures were often twice weekly and there was still the practice that the students needed to obtain their degrees. This led to the rise of the Resurrection Man, who would often hover around graveyards and dig up freshly buried corpses to provide to medical schools that didn’t ask too many questions – and a startling number didn’t.

Burke and Hare were quite successful in the resurrectionist business, and had a decent line in providing Sir Robert Knox with bodies for dissection before his students. However, after nearly getting caught by the Edinburgh Militia, they decided that a safer way was to actually murder some of the derelicts and drunks they found wandering the back alleys of the city, on the grounds that they were unlikely to be missed, and hand these bodies over instead. Unfortunately for the pair, someone was missed and they were arrested and tried.

The Resurrection Men were put out of business by the Anatomy Act 1832, which allowed any unclaimed body to be taken for dissection – this included any hanged criminal, occupants of workhouses and basically any corpse left in the street. The medical schools were all licensed and there was no need to rely on murky dealings at the back door.

The 1832 Act has subsequently been repealed and replaced with the Human Tissues Act 2012, which now sets out the full procedures for any kind of post-mortem medical dissection. That said, the twilight world of the resurrection men will remain one of the more interesting aspects of medical history for many years to come.

When Technology Makes Me Redundant

There’s a scene in the recent Charlie and the Chocolate Factory movie where Mr Bucket (Charlie’s dad) is made redundant from his job at the toothpaste factory because the position has been taken over by a robot. I’m fairly sure that a number of car manufacturers underwent a similar process when they mechanised aspects of vehicle production. And it’s almost certain that the number of secretaries will decrease as people become increasingly techno-savvy and start producing their own letters and documents. I expect that by the time technology gets rid of my job, I’ll be ready to retire anyway.

I know I’m something of a Luddite sometimes, but I’m not against technology as a rule. Technology has given us agriculture, food, clothing, books, housing and public health. Some technology is beneficial – BUT not all of it is and sometimes the after-effects of a technological innovation may not be immediately apparent or simply not something previously considered. The example that is usually given is Airbnb; seen as a way of helping people pay their mortgages by renting out rooms on a night-by-night basis, it has pushed up housing costs in some cities reliant on tourist income. Uber has had a devastating impact on the incomes of licensed taxi drivers, many of whom undergo rigorous testing to start their income. Amazon may be wonderfully convenient, but some of their working practices leave a lot to be desired and the “high street” has felt its impact considerably. Progress doesn’t always lead to utopia, despite what the CEOs tell us.

Perhaps we need to start seeing past the brands and look at what the companies actually do. There is still a lot of discontent about the number of major global companies who – quite legally – avoid paying corporation tax, even though they make billions of dollars in profit every year; and some of these are “hip young start-ups” like Uber and Airbnb. What impacts will their technologies have on people who don’t necessarily use them – and is that impact necessarily a good thing? The last thing I want is to end up in a mud hut sending smoke signals, but I do think we ought to question the brands a little more – and if we don’t agree with what they do, we need to go somewhere else, preferably before they put us all out of a job.

Ruined by Religion

On a bit of a whim, I watched I, Frankenstein last night. I think I’d been putting it off because of a memory of distinctly mixed reviews, but overall it wasn’t too bad. The special effects had clearly had some money spent on them, which in this kind of film is a definite advantage. However, the film was ruined by the religious elements, which was essentially the entire premise.

My recollection of Mary Shelley’s novel – which is a bit hazy, I haven’t read it for a couple of months – was that it was based on the triumph of scientific reason over religious superstition. Frankenstein wishes to usurp God by creating life. There are, obviously, feminist subtexts here, but essentially this is the motivation for the creation of The Creature. So by putting a religious spin on the film by having The Creature (here called “Adam”) caught in the middle of an eternal battle between demons and angels (here called “gargoyles”) just flies in the face of Shelley’s work. There is no place for religion in a Frankenstein story unless it is being dispensed with.

That said, there are parts of the story which are quite good. The attempt to recreate Frankenstein’s experiment on a mouse and the reduction of Frankenstein to a “bedtime story” was well done. Bill Nighy commandeers every scene he’s in with no effort whatsoever – it’s the laconic delivery that does it – as he did in Underworld, another film which told a supernatural story without having to resort to Christian symbolism. He must also love spending time in make up as his final appearance was full of prosthetics! Aaron Eckhart wasn’t bad as The Creature either; suitably grimy and scarred, but world weary with it. He looked tired and I suppose after two hundred years, The Creature would be pretty fed up of his existence, unless he’d found a way to die. And it’s never explained how he develops the soul that saves him in the end. If he didn’t have one for two hundred years, exactly how did he get one in the space of a few days?

I think the thing that irritated me was The Order of Gargoyles. Now I like gargoyles – and grotesques, which is what the Order, strictly speaking, were as I didn’t see any of them spouting water, just a lot of hot air – but to suggest that they were created by the Archangel Michael to protect humanity from demons is just silly. They are, to all intents and purposes, angels – they look like them, they behave like them and annoy the pants off me in similar fashion. It doesn’t fit with the scientific aspects of either the original story or the remainder of the film. The idea that reanimated corpses could house resurrected demons summoned from Hell unless the angels can pull the plugs out is taking too many myths and ruining the legend.

All in all, despite it being good in parts, I was really disappointed with the film. Perhaps I was expecting too much – previous attempts to film the Frankenstein story after James Whale’s masterpiece in the early 1930s have been unsuccessful so I suspect the studios thought that adding a different subtext might improve their fortunes. And maybe it did; but it totally ruined the story. They may have had more luck combining it with Lovecraft’s Reanimator story – at least it would have kept the religious bits where they belonged.

The Great Avocado Crime Wave

I shouldn’t laugh – this really is quite serious – but there is something really funny about avocados being at the centre of global organised crime. It feels a little like a detective story written by Salvador Dali.

The root cause of it, unsurprisingly, is climate change. Extreme weather in South America has had a significant effect on the harvest and the fruit has been priced out of the reach of many local consumers. A secondary cause, especially in Australia and New Zealand, is that demand is far outstripping supply, to the point where any avocados are being harvested from orchards in the hope of making a quick buck. Apparently, Down Under they even trade through social media.

Despite how bonkers it sounds – and I still think it’s the silliest thing I’ve heard in ages – it’s incredibly serious and I think ought to force us all to look at how we view food. I ate my first avocado at the age of 30; it’s not something that I grew up with. Vegetables were the basics; peas, potatoes, carrots, sprouts, cabbage, parsnips or swede (or beetroot with a salad). Fruit was even more basic – pears, apples, plums, oranges, bananas for a treat. Food fads were extremely rare and superfoods were unknown. What we did have was food grown locally, bought locally and tasting delicious.

If we promoted local produce, grown according to our local climate, I do think we would all be better off for it, both in terms of health and in not allowing crime to pay – which is what it’s all about really, isn’t it?

Being Batty

I think most readers will be familiar with the expression “he’s got bats in his belfry” to suggest that someone may not be entirely sane. Indeed, I’ve referred to myself as a batty old dear (or deranged old bat, or variations thereof) in the past. What I want to know is – when did a lovely little flying rodent come to have anything to do with a person’s sanity? Bats aren’t particularly known for their odd behaviour. It’s a conundrum.

I think the saying has a bit more to do with the commotion of bats taking flight from a tower (or belfry, which is the church bell tower) and it has somehow come to be linked with disordered thinking. Even Buddhists and Taoists have a similar idea, which they call “monkey mind” or “butterfly mind” – when the mind flits from idea to thought to idea to thought without really pausing at anything; one cannot concentrate because one is constantly being distracted by new ideas and thoughts.

Bats themselves are not unintelligent; they are one of the few land creatures which use sonar to find food on the wing (i.e. when flying), and roost in packs in dark recesses – trees, caves and roof spaces are common places to find bat colonies. If you do find one, it is against the law to disturb it. Most bats are endangered and any steps that can be taken to promote their conservation are encouraged.

I do think it’s a very strange juxtaposition; bats and madness don’t really go together in any way that I can see. Not that it matters. I’m quite pleased to be batty.

How Likely Are Climate Wars?

A book I read recently dealt with the entirely plausible scenario that climate change was more likely to cause war than the global co-operation needed to get it under control. The author, Gwynne Dyer, combined invented scenarios with genuine scientific evidence to explore the likelihood of the scenario actually happening. If I’m honest, the results are terrifying – and this book wasn’t fiction either. It was, however, ten years old – which is even more worrying, because I don’t believe we’re any closer to solving the problems we’ve got ourselves into, it may even be too late, and there’s absolutely no sign of political progress whatsoever. Perhaps I should send a copy to every single Head of State in the UN and see what happens.

That, however, is beyond the scope of this piece. What I want to know is how seriously I should take the author’s claims that humanity is more likely to wipe itself out from climate change driven war than climate change itself. My conclusion is exceptionally seriously indeed. Quite aside from the fact that a book written in 2007 not only predicted Brexit but a wall along the Mexican border, but other scenarios he predicts are starting to happen. Drought and unrest in the south-western states of America, unrest in South America, water shortages due to late monsoons in India, China and South East Asia. If we look, we can see it happening.

The two main triggers for unrest which Dyer proposes are water shortages and food shortages. As he points out, a country which cannot feed itself will raid before it starves. Equally, water shortages will prevent the irrigation of food crops, so access to water rights will become a proverbial hot potato. Both of these will inevitably lead to mass migrations of people, primarily as refugees but also economic migrants. Nations which can just about feed themselves or supply water will close their borders to protect their own citizens.

You can see how war becomes inevitable, can’t you?

The most terrifying scenario for me was the one entitled “India 2039” – partly because it’s so believable but also because it’s based on historical evidence and follows things to a logical conclusion. Because India and both of its near neighbours, Pakistan and China, are nuclear powers, the sabre rattling – over water rights initially – quickly takes a turn for the devastating. The agreement settling the water rights in the first place was finalised in 1960, and owing to (predicted) climate change, it comes up for renegotiation, which soon degenerates into a full tilt nuclear conflict. It’s completely plausible and wouldn’t be entirely unexpected – if it happened, which it hasn’t yet.

Although it’s an incredibly sobering book to read, I’m really pleased I did. It’s opened my eyes to the realities of geopolitics of climate change and the decision making processes many governments fall back on. Climate change is a trigger for a lot of the political realities that we are seeing every day – migrant populations, food shortages, water rationing – and if we do nothing, it will only get worse.

A Fashion For Witches

Apparently, witchcraft is all the rage in the fashion world this winter, if The Guardian is anything to go by (and as it’s my paper of choice, I go by it quite a lot). It seems that a lot of hip young British fashion designers are looking towards the Wise Women of the Woods for fashion inspiration which, I must admit, makes the Goth in me a little over excited. I may yet come back into fashion – and then what will I wear?

Sadly, it’s not all pointy hats and warty noses, although there are stripy tights and winklepicker boots a plenty. No, it’s all natural fibres, muted colours and plenty of layers, a startlingly sensible idea given what the weather at this time of year normally offers. Fingerless gloves in berry colours, plum coloured petticoats under ruby corduroy skirts, poison ivy green jumpers hiding mustard yellow blouses. There is lace, embroidery, flashes of contrasting pattern in shapes which are basic and alarmingly comfortable. The jewellery is silver, moonstone and labradorite, iridescent and mysterious.

Yes, I like this idea a lot. My one gripe, such as it is, is that it seems to be similar to what comes out for this season every year. Perhaps one day someone will do a winter wardrobe in pastel blue and baby pink, or ice cream candy colours, just to brighten the drabness up a bit. Jewel bright shades would even be an improvement, but then I like jewel shades anyway so I hold my hands up to the claim of bias. And I’m delighted to see that spiders webs are an optional extra.