INSTALMENT 17 – “Lighter Entertainment and Logical Fallacies”

Date of writing : 16/02/2014
We’ve been locked in, this sunny Sunday afternoon, which is never a pleasure. However, unusually, we had two days’ advance warning about it. This is a much preferable state of affairs to finding out only by the fact that we’re still locked in. It meant for example that I could have a shower and make some phone calls this morning, rather than planning to do things in the afternoon and being thwarted. So, I’ve been sat in with DF, with various Winter Olympics events on the TV while I alternately do a bit of reading and a bit of writing. There are worse ways to spend an afternoon.

The last few nights have been mostly noted for their countless fire alarms. Now, the alarm itself isn’t much of a problem – it’s not very loud and we don’t tend to evacuate – but it does have unfortunate side-effects. Every time it goes off, the heating shuts down; I presume this is some kind of gas safety thing. If the heating shuts down ‘after hours’, then it won’t be manually reset until the morning. In addition, the alarm also triggers the automatic opening of large vents both at the end of the wing and in the roof. I can only assume this is to fan the flames, perhaps in the hope of reducing the prison population. The combined effect of these two processes is to make the full chilliness of the mid-February weather keenly felt in our cells. This is not ideal.

Apparently, our fire alarm is linked to that of the segregation block, and this has been the source of the problem. There’s supposed to be no smoking on The Block, but one man has been intent on causing mischief with a lighter. I’ve heard that once he has caused said mischief, he then secretes the offending article about his person in such a way that all but the most thorough of searches will not reveal it. I’m also told that the prison officers are powerless to extract it, for fear they might find themselves on the wrong side of the law. (Plus, I’m guessing the volunteers wouldn’t exactly be queuing up.) Thankfully, all is quiet so far tonight, and I’m hoping he finally got bored with his little game.

Meanwhile, in the outside world, the sale of my house has completed. By coincidence, the flat I had been living in for six months prior to my incarceration was cleared of all my personal belongings the following day. When I left my house under a heavy cloud back in May, I didn’t expect it to be for the last time – any more than I expected I wouldn’t return to the flat after the police paid me a visit early one December morning. These things are at once both significant and meaningless; in many ways they’re just an official confirmation of the status quo, but it still feels a little strange. For what it is, life in here goes on just the same.

I’ve been very pleased to get more than a few letters recently. An old friend I thought I’d lost has got back in touch, and wants to visit, which has been quite a boost. Another friend – one of my oldest – sent me a lovely letter including a picture of her cats, which I’ve found surprisingly soothing. My correspondence with a relatively new friend – which includes sharing song lyrics in progress, and writing a meandering story a few lines each at a time – continues to bring me both happiness and entertainment. I was also surprised and pleased to get a letter from Paul’s wife (for those of you watching in black and white, Paul is my ex-cell-mate). There’s a couple more I could list, but particularly worthy of note – and indeed thanks – are the postcard collections I continue to receive from Jane.

I mentioned before that Jane had sent me some Dali prints and a Whitby harbour scene, amongst others. The most recent clutch includes a dramatic photo of Striding Edge and a fabulously moody yet also uplifting painting of Styhead Pass in Borrowdale by Alfred William Hunt. (http://www.bridgemanart.com/de/asset/426048/hunt-alfred-william-1830-96/styhead-pass-borrowdale-1854-oil-on-canvas).  It really captures the feel of the place somehow. Look it up if you’re a fan of the Lake District’s dramatic scenery (or even Tolkien, which it somehow evokes for me). I won’t go into detail of the others (there are six altogether) but I will mention that I was grateful to have the backs of two of them devoted to providing me with logic puzzles.
I’ve never been a particularly patient person, nor have I been good at delayed gratification. We live in a time of instant delivery, with the world’s libraries at our fingertips, and I’ve made full use of that in the past: if I could take a shortcut by looking something up online, or even just using a calculator, then I would. It’s got to the stage where we don‘t really need to remember much any more: it’s easier to Google than to think.

Much as this can be viewed as one of the miracles of the modern age, I don’t know about anybody else, but I think it’s diminished my attention span and capacity for logical thought. First the machines took away much of the drudgery of manual labour, and now I wonder how much they’re taking away the drudgery of ‘manual thought’. The extrapolation of this to its logical conclusion could easily be (and probably already has been) the basis of some good dystopian Sci-Fi (note to Charlie Brooker: please steal this idea for the next Black Mirror). Might we eventually see a new generation of ‘rage against the machine’? Probably not, because that would require significant original independent thought, which by that stage will of course be impossible.

As usual, I digress. Where was I? Oh, yes, logic puzzles. Time was, that I’d be quickly bored with them and look up the solution. I know, that completely defeats the object. But my first reaction to Sudoku, instead of solving the puzzle itself, was to work out an algorithm I could use to get a computer to brute-force the solution for me in an eye-blink. That way, I’d beat every Sudoku once and for all. In other words, completely missing the point again. But now, without the Internet, or even a calculator, and with a dearth of mental stimulation, I’ve found I actually enjoy exercising those parts of my brain. Even better, in the last week or so I’ve had fun trading logic puzzles with the community hub that is Gordon’s cell. One of the puzzle postcards from Jane’s last batch has now been passed around half a dozen of the loose-knit group. It seems to have brought out quite a few puzzles people didn’t know they could remember.

So, time on my hands is handled differently in the absence of Internet. Amusing cat videos are no longer an option, and I’m forced to use my brain to do such menial tasks as adding up the cost of the things I order from the canteen sheet. My mental arithmetic has always been fairly poor – but it’s improving now. Which reminds me – remember I applied for a post as Learning Support Assistant? Well, a few days ago I got … another application form. Looks like the first one must have gone astray somewhere. Sigh. On the plus side, when I asked Officer Eagle (one of the more helpful and friendly ones) to fill in the ‘referee’ section, she was surprisingly positive. Apparently I have a ‘fantastic attitude’, and I’m ‘always willing to help and support people’. I still haven’t worked out whether I should be proud to be called a ‘model prisoner’. I somehow feel I should be doing more to ‘sock it to the man’, or something. But then, having seen plenty of counter-examples, I’ve noticed rebellion rarely gets anyone very far here.

Date of writing : 19/02/2014
I met a man with a vestigial tail today.   That is all.

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