Kobayashi Maru

On Sunday it’s a bright beautiful Spring day. I decide to leave the refuge of home for a skate in the park foolishly imagining it will be some glorious solitary pursuit punctuated only by the briefest glimpses of fellow human beings distant on the horizon. Unsurprisingly given much of everything else is shut there are very many people out walking, nothing seems very different despite the public health advice to stay two metres apart from each other. I find a patch of smooth tarmac around the back of some sheds that’s hemmed in by fences but decide on balance that it’s a wholly miserable place to be and skate back home. A running joke around Twitter is that all trips outside have become a version of frogger where you only find out two weeks later if you lost. Only the people around me seemingly haven’t decided to play yet. The news is full of stories describing beauty spots filled with people huggermugger.


My trip out in the sun leaves me in the genuinely curious and uncomfortable position of wanting my government to take away my liberty. As someone marginally left of centre but with an overriding libertarian streak I’ve always been torn between two views of the general public. One is a naively inborn, maybe Chompskyan, take that people if well educated on a subject can be trusted to make sound judgements. The other informed more by age and experience is the Hobbesian view that it requires a state to rule in order to prevent our lives being “nasty, brutish and short”. Looking up the full quote I’m taken by the irony of “and the life of man solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short” as I wait to be asked by the governemnt to become solitary and poorer in order to be kinder and save lives. The world is upside down.

By Monday evening the government mandate a lockdown similar to our European neighbours. Similar but vaguer, there’s total confusion on what counts as essential work and it’s still left up to employers to decide whether they should allow people to work from home or close entirely. It appears public health decisions in the UK are devolved and left to individual consciences and economics. The next day a friend of mine gets stopped by the police getting his tools back from the building site that up until the day before he laboured at. They warn him not to be caught out driving so far again. Completely antithetical a fortnight ago. We are allowed to shop for food, medical trips, “essential work” and an hour of exercise. I wonder if skateboarding is still not a crime.

Image showing skateboard sticker displaying the words skateboarding is not a crime

Skateboarding in many ways seems ideal as I had spent much of my youth socially distancing in solitary car parks. I am embarrassingly poor at it but find it most therapeutic. It’s hard to be concerned with anything else when trying to jump and land over a rotating piece of wood on wheels. The car park closest to me is now mostly empty and I start to spend half an hour a day there. One of my friends tells me to be careful as an accident now would place greater strain on the NHS. Now the dust on the initial shock of the crisis is settling the new modus operandi is one of judgement, not only towards our government but towards each other and ourselves. Simple decisions, like whether or not to just leave the house, previously passing wholly without notice now contain an impact on widest society. Italy is frequently invoked as an example and things take on a life and death scale that feels disproportionate, but isn’t. How we isolate, with whom we isolate, how and where we shop, whether we choose to wear face masks, it all matters to each other now. We are simultaneously apart from and noticing each other in new ways.

My parents form my primary concern given their age. The radio implores us to have the difficult conversation about being put on a respirator but they’re not that old and despite Dad’s constant cough I decide some things are best left unsaid. I feel much remorse at not making the effort to see them the last time they were at least on the island of Ireland. The pressing work deadlines that mattered then seem silly now, maybe they were then too. Everywhere people my age are having difficult conversations, trying to ascertain the seriousness with which their relatives are taking it. Is that decision to go out soundly judged? That the hairdresser came last week because in her words “she wasn’t told not to”, now already seems unwise and we all adjust to the idea of exiting this more hirsute than we entered. My father decides that if all holidays are cancelled then getting a cat is essential work. Estimations of risk are judged both by the people taking them and those around them. At the beginning of the week getting in a car to exercise elsewhere is acceptable, by the end it is less clear. As younger people start to be struck down the tables are turned and my Mother starts to check on me and my actions.

I sit at my desk in the bay window, idly tinkering at a laptop and watch a woman delivering a bag of groceries to a neighbour, she wears blue surgical gloves and is crying. Wiping the tear from her eye the gloves are now fruitless. Later the post comes, should I disinfect it? The delivery drivers now stand at the end of the short path to my door waiting for me to acknowledge an arrival. A friendly nod has replaced a signature and at least you know you’re going to be in to receive it. I’ve bought resistance bands for exercising at home and a foot rest for the desk I’m now likely to be sat at for hours a day and weeks if not months to come. The ethics of such purchases, supply chains, use of delivery slots and drivers on zero hours contracts are subtly discussed both in the media and in private conversation, and judged.

On Thursday we all go outside and clap the NHS and then post about it on Facebook. It’s hard to write cynically about such a mass outpouring of gratitude so I shan’t. The contrarian part of me that struggles with displays of banal nationalism, poppy culture, virtue signalling and just generally taking part in anything is beaten back and I stand loudly applauding on my front step. From nearby streets I hear whooping and am glad for the briefest sight of smiling neighbours. I think about all the poor sods without proper equipment and testing, some of whom even in the best case scenario are likely to end up as patients on their own wards and worse. Afterwards the display is quickly politicised online, many of us clapping will have voted for parties that oversaw their defunding and ignored the prior calls for equipment in case of pandemic. But my mouth has already been stuffed with gold as on the very same day the treasury finally welcomed me into their warm embrace and guaranteed my self-employed income, not that I was short yet. Again there is judgement.


I restrict my consumption of the radio to the Today programme, World at One and PM and take refuge again in music, exercise and cooking. Knowledge of a rising death toll is no use if my sole duty is to stay at home, listen to Satie and protect lives. Much wide eyed eye-rolling comes as the more free spirited of my friends in England suffer full blown agency crises and take solace in bizarre theories. I’ve never really felt like the state was out to get me, more that it just doesn’t particularly care and unchecked would quite willingly sacrifice me to satisfy the economic interests it exists to serve. But if my immediate needs were less well met or I were of a more paranoid disposition or fertile mind I can see how being forced to stay at home would be hard to rationalise. The news that police now have draconian powers to disperse groups of three or more people and are using drones to shame people into leaving beauty spots is hard to bare even when you invoke Italy. Even the less florid amongst us wonder how this will eventually be wound down given the ratchet action with which the state seems to keenly shave liberty away. There is talk of phone records being used to track transmission, techniques perfected elsewhere and if it saves lives here seem hard to argue against. It’s as if every decision can now be plotted along axes of individual liberty, capacity to save lives and economic cost to then become a trolley problem. Living has become an exercise in moral philosophy and utilitarian calculus. The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few and having dithered too long, or worse, the UK government and its people now face their own Kobayashi Maru no-win scenario.

Friday I shop. Having watched Ben Kavanagh’s video from Wuhan, I think that if I can avoid returning to Tescos for at least a week this can only be a good thing. I take from his example and shop with a case. My oversized flight case and two grocery bags transport £140 worth of food home. This is the most I’ve ever spent in a Tesco and I now rue my earlier decision not to have a club card based on privacy. On the one hand we’re told not to panic buy, on the other we’re told to shop as infrequently as possible and that at any time we many need to self isolate for anything up to fourteen days. But this monster shop is as much about mental health as avoiding transmission. If my own Tescos the week before was panicked but grimly normal, that is as-grim-as-normal, Tescos now is an altogether more harrowing affair. You disinfect your trolley handle while waiting to be allowed entry in a queue standing two metres apart, like a plague den nightclub – one in one out. Mask culture is firmly here now, no longer for other places. You look at an aisle before pushing on down it, sizing it up for people, too busy, too irresponsible, too ill looking, you push on. Catch that aisle on the way back round. At the checkout I too am judged, too many of my favourite yoghurts – you’ll have to put some of those back. Not even at the height of the panic did my beloved yoghurts sell out and I have long suspected I’ve been single handedly keeping my local Tescos selling them. But it’s churlish to argue and I swap them. People still smile at each other though and as I cut an odd sight wheeling my case home I give and receive the nod.

This week friends have become ill, thankfully mildly, and in the afternoon comes the news that our leader himself is struck down. Easily politicised his actions are now inspected, did he stand far enough apart? Were any of our politicians taking social distancing seriously themselves as they forced it on us? The punchline if any of it were funny is the sight of his chief adviser, whose hand in the crisis’s handling will be endlessly interrogated, hurriedly scurrying from No 10’s side entrance. Rat like.

In an effort to maintain some semblance of normality I keep on my personal trainer and therapist who’ve both rapidly adapted along with everyone else to video calls. I now get short videos detailing proper form over WhatsApp and sit through an hour and a half on Zoom with my counsellor. Considering my own hierarchy of needs I find them to be remarkably well met, freedom to me has always meant the freedom to create. If anything I feel liberated by the slower pace my life has been forced to take on. At first I’m annoyed when my recycling isn’t collected and then I guiltily confess that I enjoy not having to bother washing and separating it anymore. Friends get in touch asking if I’m alright on my own, each time I respond the same way that “you’re never alone with a cat”. I’m content in my own company.

“Hell is other people” feels apt not only in the widely misquoted sense but in its true original true meaning. Now hell is other people because we are trapped within them, subject to their judgement and judging ourselves as we perceive them to see us.

By the following Sunday as I write we are a week behind in our crisis when Italy’s health service began to crash in theirs, the news stories soften us for a further tightening of the lockdown and more cheerily that at best as a country we can survive with fewer than 20,000 excess deaths if we comply. London seems lost and they are building field hospitals across the country. The second hotspot is less than twenty miles from my parents but I don’t dwell. There is an awful feeling of waiting, as if a great wave of unknown force is coming from behind to crash over us and wonder at who will be left and what the new world will look like after.

Tsunami by hokusai 19th century.jpg
By Katsushika HokusaiMetropolitan Museum of Art, online database: entry 45434, Public Domain, Link

Memories all jumbled in one common box

A lot of poorly written diaries will be published about the 19-20 corona pandemic, this is mine.

Two months ago the outbreak in Wuhan was a news story happening in a far away country. Asia had experienced SARS outbreaks in the past and it had never spread far, just another news story. Tough break for the people over there. Just something else understood in terms of oh dear-ism.

One month ago I was on holiday in France, I caught a cold the day I arrived and joked with everyone, definitely coronavirus, definitely going to die. Because it couldn’t be coronavirus and I definitely wasn’t going to die this seemed humorously over the top as a reaction. It was still very much not real and happening to other people, there-in the unfunny joke lay.

In the airport flying to my next work engagement abroad I was struck by how many people were wearing masks, but that’s often cultural, no cause for concern there, it wasn’t uncommon to sometimes see people wearing face masks. Just something common in one part of the world that sometimes carried on over here. They were paranoid, we had nothing to worry about. We all joked about our coughs and colds, we washed our hands but only a little more than usual.

For the first time I google what the reproduction rate of a virus is when one of my colleagues asked how they grow. I find myself cack handedly trying to explain exponential growth, he asks how it ever stops and I mumble something vaguely Malthusian about it either wiping out its host or everyone becoming immune. The last night of the trip I listen alone in my cabin to the radio, half of PM was given over to the coronavirus story. It’s still just a story, just a bigger one than it was.

When I finally got back my cold still hasn’t cleared up, I get sinusitis most winters when I’m run down. There were posters at the airport asking you to ring 111 if you’d returned from other places, places I hadn’t recently been. I ring my doctor’s surgery for a telephone appointment, not because of the travel but just the lingering cold. But I still mention the travel, the dates, the locations, the onset and types of symptoms, nothing to worry about. We spent most of the conversation talking about the French slopes, they’d just been skiing, I snowboard. They give me antibiotics and it mostly clears up.

As the symptoms recede the news stories grow, it’s hard from memory to honestly pin point where and how. There start to be deaths in this country, British people quarantined on cruise ships but its framed as happening to older people or ill people or people far away, sad but still for other people, far away and containable, almost unavoidable. It’s not a threat to people like us. But wash your hands, it’s now important to properly wash your hands with soap and water while singing the national anthem. I see my therapist and we sit in the same room for ninety minutes and talk about life’s anxieties never mentioning viruses except to joke that my vanishing sniffle is corona, I drop the “definitely” because the tasteless joke no longer requires it, it’s funny because it’s still dramatic, a wildly over the top statement made with the intention of humour.

A week ago a friend’s birthday comes and it seems a real shame to miss it, but after the news stories and the increasing posts shared by online armchair epidemiologists for the first time I question the wisdom of being in a crowd of people. We all wash our hands and make ourselves stickers saying “back off” or “hug me” depending on our preference. Most of them say “back off” but after a couple of drinks nothing matters and many of us sit close together in the smoking room. Something’s already started to shift though, there are news stories about Italy going under lock down. There’s a shared sense that this might be the last party for a while, but it won’t really be like that here, will it? It’s just free floating anxiety.

Then things start to change fast, like Mike Campbell’s bankruptcy a pandemic happens “Two ways, gradually then suddenly”. Our mop haired Prime Minister, more suited to panel comedy shows than press briefings says that the deaths here won’t stop. He says that many more families will lose loved ones before their time. That we should work from home if we can. If we got a cough or a fever we should isolate ourselves for a week. There’s a briefing about “herd immunity” that makes me thing about women’s hour, MMR vaccines and cows. Their policy is that there’s now no stopping it, just mitigating it but that’s ok because the outcome in the long term will be “herd immunity”. Once we’ve had it we can’t have it again, but online no one’s too sure about that. The old people and vulnerable can shelter in place for three months and once the rest have herd immunity everyone will be safe, the virus will have no one left to carry it to the vulnerable.

The only problem is anyone whose watched the news with a calculator can run the percentages and still conservatively arrive at a quarter of a million deaths, not far away deaths now, British deaths for British people. People do run those numbers, respectable people, pillars in their field without an ideological axe to grind against the government and they complain loudly online asking to see the model, the data and assumptions, why are we adopting a policy so different to the rest of the world? Our nearest neighbours in France and the Republic have closed their schools, offices and public spaces but we’re still open, everything here is normal but it’s not. A friend gets the last flight from France to Heathrow and immediately phones his wife and asks why the shops here are still open.

By now the news story has overtaken everything else, it feels glib when other news stories get a mention, it’s the only story. Even the sports section of the Today programme is about the virus cancelling everything. But it’s not a story anymore it’s a lived reality. I’m washing my hands assiduously when I enter any building and they’re starting to dry out. I’ve swapped the national anthem for happy birthday twice only I can’t decide whose birthday it is so in my head I sing it slowly like Marilyn Monroe did for JFK, lingering longest on the words “Mr President” while calmly scrubbing. The panic buying happens before I notice it, one day it’s another part of the story the next day I can’t find toilet roll, pasta or tinned goods anywhere. I buy cat food and cat litter. I start buying a little more food than I need each day, which is odd for me, I normally shop daily for what I need that day just to get me out of the house. I bank that the Asian supermarkets will be the last to still have big bags of rice and lentils and am proved right, outside in the street I overhear people talking about the story.

A couple of years ago I became fascinated by nuclear holocaust fiction, speculative what if scenarios played out partly for public education partly as cathartic tragedies to put our real lives back in balance. As I watch and experience the panic buying and the arguments on what closing the schools will mean for people’s jobs my mind keeps bringing back the opening lines of the most haunting film I’ve ever seen, Threads.

“In an urban society, everything connects. Each person’s needs are fed by the skills of many others. Our lives are woven together in a fabric. But the connections that make society strong also make it vulnerable.”

The writer had talked to scientists and sent himself on the same nuclear preparedness training courses as the civil service, he came to the grim conclusion that in the event of a real bombing our infrastructure would collapse. I notice my house has mice skittering in the cavity above the ceiling and on one of the trips to my studio I think about Eddie Izzard reading from Robert Burns “The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men, Gang aft agley”.

The next day the government’s story changes, herd immunity isn’t the goal it’s just a by product of the plan. Apparently the evidence has changed and now the plan is now to slow the spread of the disease and stop it overwhelming our health system by greater “social distancing” but it’s not clear how that will work if everything just carry’s on as we are. The schools are still open, the pubs, gyms and restaurants are still trading as normal though the advice is to stay away. It all feels non-sensical, if the advice to stave off potentially thousands of deaths is to stay away then why have them open at all? Pundits on radio and TV talk of the danger of crashing the economy while simultaneously worldwide the economy is actually crashing.

I work as an artist, only every gallery by now is closed indefinitely, at first they say three months then they say twelve or maybe eighteen on and off. I read the new report that the government is now using to guide its policy. Sometimes things will close and we’ll live in our houses coming out only for exercise and food when we’re well and always stand at least two metres apart, never meeting our friends or embracing until it’s over. Other times… we’ll embrace? Unless we’re ill with it in which case we always have to live inside for up to two weeks depending on if we live alone or as a unit who will also isolate with us but apart from the ill. Every gig is cancelled. My Facebook feed starts to fill with friends now jobless asking for advice on how to navigate and apply to our now byzantine benefits system. I feel lucky that my commercial clients don’t cancel, I even get offers of new work but I furiously ring around them getting invoices due paid in quickly before things slide and people can’t pay.

Reasoning about the government’s briefings and the questioning of balancing its response against the economy in my head I keep recalling the scene in Alien where Ripley sits down in front of the ship’s computer Mother and asks what’s going on. The screen tells her the first priority is to capture the alien, all other priorities rescinded and that the crew are expendable. Ash the robot sits next to her and murmurs that “there is an explanation for all this you know” and Ripley angrily starts to cry that she doesn’t want an explanation as she starts to hit him. I start packing everything of value or benefit in staving off boredom into carts and wheel them the forty minute walk from my studio while damning myself for never learning to drive.

Work carry’s on, as a technician I prepare the sound recordings of children’s poems for a public art installation, the curator comes in to my house to pick up the SD cards. She is the last visitor to my house and already it feels strange to let my friend in. My dentist rings me to check if I’m still coming to my appointment and I’m surprised it’s still going ahead. I wonder if it’s responsible, for either of us, is it really just a sniffle, who else have they seen? The next day I walk through an only slightly quieter than normal street on my way in and past the poetry jukebox. I press the button not with my finger but with the edge of my jacket and as I walk away the child’s voice carries a little further against the dulled traffic. After I’ve sanitised my hands at the dentist the receptionist tells me all appointments are cancelled.

I move my Radiohead collection back from my laptop to my phone. The rolling bassline and frantic trumpets of the other, catchier, live version of the national anthem powers my hoarding trips into the studio. Thom Yorke singing “we’re not scaremongering, this is really happening” takes on a new power. A commonly observed side effect of having once lived with chronic anxiety is a curious sense of feeling calmest in a crisis.

In my last meeting with my therapist I’d joked how I’d pick a crisis over the everyday because in a crisis it was always clearest what to do, there’s no time for agonising over choices, only decision and action. My girlfriend asks me on the phone what I’m doing for my mental health and I testily explain to her that I’m fine, I’ve seen real paranoid psychosis up close and that getting expensive gear out of a studio in a building that could soon be empty for months is only prudent. She reminds me that it is but that you can’t sustain a fight or flight response indefinitely. I buy weights and try to sleep better by turning the radio off. I don’t own a TV.

By Thursday I’ve pulled out everything of value from my studio, there’s a video meeting I have to make it home for only I can’t find one stupid thing. One stupid thing that if losing was the worst thing that happened this month would still represent a major victory. I search the building and run out of time to pull my equipment the near hour long journey home. For the first time all week some panic starts to set in. I set the alarm but forget the lights and have to return inside the building. Now I’m thinking about Ripley again, piling oxygen aboard the escape capsule as sirens blare not realising the enemy was already in there, invisible.

I decide to try and run home with the two trolleys to make the video meeting in thirty minutes. My cases make it as far as the second curb before they trip causing my studio computer to fall out of the crudely taped together heap in my cart and scatter across the floor. I call a taxi, the driver patiently helps me load my heaviest case into the boot and as we simultaneously reach for its handle I’m hyperaware of not letting my hand touch his. Instead of sitting in the front like normal I sit in the back, diagonally as far away as possible. I can smell his brand of soap as I breathe in through my nose and out through my mouth counting the minutes on his clock to my home, waiting for either of us to cough.

Online I’d continued to post as normal, an almost completely light hearted ironic parody of myself, everything’s a joke, just a joke like on Top Gear, either an exaggerated perceived truth or a contrary position overstated for comedic effect. Except the quarter of a million deaths if we do nothing, I posted about that. But I read other’s posts, in Italy they are triaging patients by age and being forced to let the over sixties die alone in corridors or outside the hospital. There are pictures of people the same age as my parents with plastic bubbles around their heads force feeding them oxygen while they clutch their chests. In Le Carre’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy Roy Bland says to Smiley while walking in a park that “An artist is a bloke who can hold two fundamentally opposing views and still function.”

I read the about the virus, before becoming an artist I’d trained as a theoretical physicist and was still numerate enough to understand the explosive nature of exponentials and philosophically the differences between models and reality. I could still multiply together odds, 60 to 80 per cent forecast to become ill over the year, call it 0.7 and of those 10 per cent likely hospitalised, call it 0.1. A seven per cent chance of ending up in one of those wards. I didn’t multiply in the final statistic, I didn’t want to know. I think about the role playing games I’d played as a teenager, you’d be happy to take the chance of rolling under 93, but you’d see it go the other way – occasionally. I start to think about the first time I was quoted odds on a lethal outcome when my mother got cancer, they were far better than the 0.5-1% I was bringing myself not to stare at. She had to roll a 60 or under and she’d make it, and she had. But I remembered how uncomfortable it had made me. Why not be 99.99% positive of an outcome like the percentage of germs killed by the disinfectant I now wiped down my phone with, I liked those odds much better.

On Saturday the pubs, bars and restaurants finally close. It’s a week since my friend’s birthday party and I text him to double check it’s really only been that long. Neither of us can believe it and considering our actions that night now the past really is a foreign country, they do things differently there. We talk of a second party to bookend this whole experience which is hopeful.

It’s not just Radiohead, Alien, Threads, Marilyn Monroe, stand up comedians, poetry, viruses, mice and dice that have rolled around my head all last week. Loudest of all came the last stanza of my favourite poem by W. H. Auden, Domesday Song also known as Jumbled in the Common Box that I first came across thirteen years ago set brilliantly to music.

“Jumbled in one common box…”
W.H. Auden

Jumbled in one common box
Of their dark stupidity,
Orchid, swan, and Caesar lie;
Time that tires of everyone
Has corroded all the locks
Thrown away the key for fun.

In its cleft a torrent mocks
Prophets who in days gone by
Made a profit on each cry,
Persona grata now with none;
And a jackass language shocks
Poets who can only pun.

Silence settles on the clocks;
Nursing mothers point a sly
Index finger at a sky,
Crimson with the setting sun;
In the valley of the fox
Gleams the barrel of a gun.

Once we could have made the docks,
Now it is too late to fly;
Once too often you and I
Did what should not have done;
Round the rampant rugged rocks
Rude and ragged rascals run.

BOM lab residency week seven

Last week I rebuilt my air quality sensor with the fan fitted right on the side of it. I’m now getting results that seem qualitatively in line with expectations plus I got to play with multimorph plastic and a hobby drill so that’s good. I re-wrote a fair chunk of my kinect code and got it working more stably (but black jumpers are still a problem) but I’ve decided to shelve that for the time being and spend some more time concentrating on recording some sound and making it work musically with various inputs…


BOM lab residency week six

Last week I mostly tried to perfect my breathing detector in openframeworks. The conclusion I came to is that it works really great if you’re wearing the right coloured jumper and not at all if you’re wearing black or even worse a checked shirt. Having booked myself in for a Skype chat with the ever helpful and talented Zach Lieberman I think the dark clothing can probably be overcome by improving the contrast and standardising the input somewhat. I don’t think the checked shirt problem will be overcome but you can’t please all the people all the time. Given the installation will do other stuff in response to movement and standing still besides responding to people breathing I’m not too worried. Besides, check shirts are all ghastly.


I also boxed up my home made air quality sensor and tried to calibrate it with an expensive one kindly loaned to me by the University of Birmingham. I left it running all day and burned some incense next to it to give it some nice tiny lung ache inducing particulates to measure. Sadly when I compared the results I found my sensor was detecting something very different, so different in fact it made me question the validity of the results at all. Having read through the literature again I’ve decided I am probably better off sticking to my original plan and trying to recreate the work of indiairquality blog by drilling a hole in the side of the PPD42 and fitting the fan to suck air through it, alas the laminar flow light locked laser cut case might have been a blind alley.

Screen Shot 2016-06-22 at 11.46.22

I’m at that irritating middle part of any creative endeavour where it seems like most things are going wrong and you start to question the validity of your original idea and your own ability as a creative practitioner. This is fairly standard though so I’ll just muddle through. I went to a good artist’s talk by Nicky Pugh recently where she mentioned the importance of play testing ideas early on and regularly through out a project so I shall get on with that and try to find ways of solving my kinect and air quality sensor problems while play testing my ambient music generator with the kinect…