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Memory, plagiarism and the truth

Here’s a funny story. Many years ago, way back in the mists of time, I started a painting. Here’s a picture of it.

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I never finished it, and it got shoved away in a pile of junk under a bed in the spare room. It was forgotten. It stayed forgotten for a long time, and then I stumbled across it and was seriously impressed with what a great idea I’d had to invent such a painting. The idea that if we poke our head through the curtain of the sky we will see the clockwork that drives the environmental system: the clockwork of climate change. Look at that clever graph of the long-term climate-change signal! How clever I was.

I got the painting out, dusted it off, and I think I even tweeted a picture of it to show the world my genius. Then I put it back under the bed and forgot it again.

Time passed, and then this week I saw a Twitter tweet in which @JDProuty had posted up a picture  alongside one of his haiku.

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This picture looked familiar and suddenly I remembered mine again. For a moment I thought – my picture! Somebody must have stolen it from when I put it on Twitter! Then I looked closer and saw that this picture was much, much better than mine. Of course. How unfair, they stole my idea and did it better – the injustice. Then I thought: this is unlikely. I asked @JDProuty where the picture came from, and he kindly sent me some information and a link, demonstrating that this was an old picture, of which there were many versions floating around on the internet, and which had a long and interesting history. Certainly it was not mine. It’s even up there in Wikipedia!

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What must have happened, of course, is that long ago I must have seen the original picture and decided to make one of my own. I then forgot the original. I then forgot my own. I then discovered my own. I then  failed to recall the original. Whoops.

Another reminder that where memory, imagination, belief – in fact more or less anything – is concerned, you can’t really ever be quite sure of what comes from where, or of what you have ever really done, or that anything is really new, or that any idea is in fact your own.

Did somebody once say “there is nothing new under the sun”? No, I’m sure that’s one of mine!

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As is true for most people, I suspect, whether they realise it or not, my understanding of most things is pretty hazy. Most technical terms seem to be in one way or another controversial or uncertain. People use the same term in different ways, for different things. And even when you find a term with which you are comfortable, or a concept in which you are confident, that confidence is shaken when somebody declares, with even greater confidence than your own, that most people (probably, you infer, including yourself) have a completely misjudged understanding of what is, they claim, a much more complex idea than most people realise. Entropy is one of those terms. In the old days when I used occasionally to look up its meaning or have conversations about it with colleagues, students or friends (as one did in those days), it was rare indeed for the conversation to pass or for the source to be consulted without there being some reference to the fact that most people got the wrong end of the stick when trying to talk about entropy. Such terms then take on a permanent shimmer of incertitude. Rather like the word “incertitude” one uses the notion of entropy with a deep and unshakable feeling that you may well be using it incorrectly. It is with that feeling, therefore, that I tell myself today how much my blogs, tweets, web pages, facebook groups, Virtual Learning Environment sections and other online presences are tending towards… I hesitate to say it… entropy. After a certain point, unless there was a clear design underpinning the original conception, the management of an expanding web empire becomes a battle to retrieve lost structure or instil some form of order into an increasingly disordered mass. Perhaps if left to its own devices the mass would mutate into some naturally ordered form, like a crystal emerging from a liquid. In my case I see no sign of that. And so I am getting out the shears and having another prune, another hack, and lopping off more or less random extensions of the crumbling, rotting empire. I am turning loose to the barbarians, releasing to the sea, leaving behind in the desert, and allowing to dissolve into the ether a whole wing, a whole battalion, a whole region of the empire. Letting the jungle burst back up through the concrete. Letting the termites do their thing. If ever you knew that there was such a thing as physicalgeography.org.uk that knowledge is redundant now. It’s gone. It’s toast. It’s history. Or, at least it will be soon. Dead domain walking…  For a few minutes my world will feel just a little more simple and a little less disordered.

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A recurring theme of this blog has been that what we see out of the window depends only partly on what is out there and partly on what we have previously pasted onto the inside of the glass. Little surprise, then, that on reading the first couple of pages of Italo Calvino’s “Invisible Cities” I was struck by their relevance to some of the other things that are going through my mind at this point as I embark on a process of what I am calling i-simplification at the start of a new year, and as I position myself for  the final approach to my 50th birthday. The i-simplification is a simple de-cluttering of my online and electronic environments. Over the ten years or so that I have been keeping multiple websites, writing blogs, maintaining carefully isolated identities etc,  I have moved deep into the dark territory that lies beyond overwhelming. Many websites, many identities, many empires connected by links that only I can see. So I have taken a machete and am starting to hack away at some of the overgrowth. Identities: cut down to just three or four. FourSquare and similar distractions: gone completely. WordPress: cut back to just this one blog. Only drops in the ocean, I know, but a gesture, at least. I think the i-simplification is just part of a typical New Year feeling and a logical consequence of a broader decision to sort out some of the activity-clutter that plays havoc with my largely futile attempts at time management. In the untitled opening section of “Invisible Cities” Calvino writes of there being in the lives of Emperors a desperate moment “when we discover that this empire, which had seemed to us the sum of all wonders, is an endless, formless ruin… that the triumph over enemy sovereigns has made us the heirs of their long undoing. Only in Marco Polo’s accounts was Kublai Khan able to discern, through the walls and towers destined to crumble, the tracery of a pattern so subtle it could escape the termites’ gnawing.” This moment comes after the pride in the extension of territories, and after the melancholy and relief of knowing we shall soon give up thought of knowing and understanding them. Then comes the emptiness, then that desperate moment. Then the discovery of the tracery of the subtle pattern. So my thought upon reading that opening section, while hacking my way to i-Simplification and my 50th birthday, concerns on the one hand (while perhaps in the back of my mind touching upon camels and needles) the issue of how pride in the boundless extension of our territory may obscure the vision of that subtle tracery which may elude the termites and on the other hand the way that what we read depends only partly (perhaps very little) on what is actually written.

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When I first had a web site, and wrote “open letters” on it that were a kind of blog, nobody else I knew did the same, and people thought it was kind of weird. Obviously I ignored them and carried on doing it in my own way just for fun. This is my 10th year online with an unbroken history of blogging and blogging-by-other-names, and I just noticed that a whole bunch of other people from where I work have web pages and blogs (it’s so easy nowadays!). Looking around their pages, I started to think that they put mine to shame. Theirs are so… plein de poissons: so full of stuff. They have real content. Ian’s is full of rocks and seismic profiles and information and detail. Katherine’s is full of chemistry. Rob’s has so many opinions on so many interesting things. Partly because mine has grown up in a bit of a vacuum and never been out much, a bit like Kaspar Hauser it has ended up, well, different from other people’s. By coincidence, I think I may have met a dog called Kaspar today, which may be why I thought of Kaspar Hauser just now. As usual, I’m not entirely sure. I’m also not sure that meeting a dog called Kaspar would get a mention on my colleagues’ blogs. In the grand scheme of things my encounter with Kaspar should probably have been entirely ephemeral.

Ian’s rocks are of great moment. They are clearly important to a great many people who follow his blog, and are probably what Antoine de Saint-Exupery might have referred to as “matters of consequence”. Just as Saint-Exupery’s Geographer declines to record The Little Prince’s flower because it is ephemeral, perhaps I should be more thoughtful about what deserves to go into my blog. Perhaps I should confine myself to matters of consequence and stop recording ephemeral flowers. My problem is that ephemeral flowers seem to me to be matters of consequence. ephemeral flower

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Irredeemably Online

I used to carry a notebook in my pocket and keep lots of files of paper at home and in my office at work. I used a pen a lot, and showed 35mm slides in lectures. Now I have a website, which I use as a kind of library, archive and canvas all at once. I have this blog, which is more like a notebook. I have a Twitter page which is for announcements so people who need to know if I am around can keep track of me. I have an airset.com online “cloud” calendar that syncs with my iPhone and is my main record of all forthcoming appointments. I have a Facebook page, which is for nattering and playing games. I have an official work web page with links to a whole raft of teaching-related web pages that I maintain for the different courses I run. Each of these courses also has a set of online Virtual Learning Environment (Blackboard) pages.  I have a YouTube site where I put videos of some of my lecture material, and  I put some of those materials together online using prezi.com and screenr.com .  How am I supposed to remember all this? I need a notebook to write them all down in.

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