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The Americans: leaving New York

In 1979 I hitch-hiked for seven weeks around the United States.  What became of the carefree, relaxed young 21 year-old of these pages?  Can I reconnect with those qualities, forty years later?

What about America itself?  Was it better then, or worse?

Perhaps the US needs to reconnect, too.

You can read more episodes from this journey on my page, The Americans.

Here is how I set off from New York on my first day of travelling, on 3 July 1979.  Pictures below!

Leaving New York

On Tuesday morning, Harold and Dorothy drove me from their house in Ardsley to the Major Deegan Expressway, heading south for Washington, D.C.  The road stretched out ahead.  First target was to reach the New Jersey Turnpike.

How was I not terrified?

Aged 21, my primary emotion was excitement.

Looking back, I think: “how can I reclaim that boldness, that clarity of purpose, that focus on the present, that carefree calm?”

Things I was not worried about:

– my career.  It had not yet started.  I had nothing to screw up;

– money.  I had all my cash, for seven weeks in the US, in traveller’s cheques on my person;

– other people.  During my trip, I wrote several letters and postcards home.  I tried to make one phone call, reversing the charges because I had no coins, to Harold in Ardsley – I can’t remember why.  On the line, I heard him telling the operator he refused to accept it;

– information about the rest of the world.  The Internet did not exist.  I do not remember buying a newspaper.  I had a tiny transistor radio (thanks, Harold) but mostly listened to music;

– death, injury or other cataclysm.  Sure, hitch-hiking posed risks.  But what would life be like if it consisted mainly of avoiding risk?

Things I was worried about:

– how quickly will I catch a ride?

If living in the moment had been invented, I would have been doing it.

I had arrived at JFK the previous Wednesday. For six days, even the most laidback, doped-out, rock-lobotomised New Yorkers had told me hitch-hiking in the US was too dangerous to contemplate.  When I told them I planned a seven-week trip around the entire country, they predicted my rape, castration and sale for medical research before I’d crossed the mouth of New York Harbour.

It was a suicide mission, they said.  If I made it beyond New Jersey, it would be a miracle.

I tried to explain the intoxicating intimacy and knife-edge mutual trust of hitch-hiking.  I said Jack Kerouac’s Sal Paradise was inspiring.  ‘Jack Kerouac is dead,’ they said.  ‘He was a sad, sexist creep.’

Maybe they were right.

But I set off anyhow.

Looking back at my Rand McNally Interstate Road Atlas I am astonished not only by my courage, or calm, in setting off on an odyssey around the four corners of the USA despite the blood-curdling warnings.  I am amazed too to look at the map: a baffling spaghetti of expressways, parkways and freeways (“For New Jersey, see page 57”).

No Google Maps or GPS, my first time in the States.

How did I dare do it?  I just set off.

Dorothy Berkowitz seeing me off on the Major Deegan Expressway 

My diary reads: I squinted into the sun for about 20 minutes (got to let the drivers see my honest eyes) before giving up and donning my ultra-dark smooth shades.  Within ten minutes, four cars stopped, all going to New York (ie not Washington direction).  The fourth, I took. (more…)

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The Overton window and social media manipulation: how worried should we be?

I first came across the term “Overton Window” in a piece by John Lanchester in the London Review of Books in July 2016.

He described it as “a term… meaning the acceptable range of political thought in a culture at a given moment… [which] can be moved.”

Lanchester said that ideas can start far outside the political mainstream yet later come to seem acceptable.  He cited Brexit as an example: considered eccentric in 1997, yet enjoying large-scale support in a referendum by 2016.

George Orwell

Lanchester’s article, by the way, like many LRB pieces, is improbably long: set aside a bit of time if you want to read it.

A recent piece at the splendid “Flip Chart Fairy Tales” blog (recommended: often a source of illuminating graphs, charts and views) entitled “Breaking the Overton Window“, also noted how opinions can change.  The author argues that for politicians and commentators the Overton Window has moved over recent decades towards libertarian, right-wing policies which do not obviously overlap with established political parties. By contrast, the views of voters have moved in the opposite direction, towards more authoritarian and left-wing ideas – likewise not corresponding clearly to existing parties.  This tendency, he argues, a) is a move away from traditional “left-wing” and “right-wing” categorisations; and b) should lead politicians to shift towards those authoritative and left wing policies if they are not to leave voters alienated from politics.

What has this got to do with social media? (more…)

Things are getting worse, right? Wrong. Here’s why.

‘I saw this terrible news today.’  My friend, a sensible person, is distressed.  ‘A terrorist group is breeding babies to be brought up as fresh soldiers for their cause.  How can we resist such fanaticism?’

‘Don’t worry,’ I say.  ‘It’s probably a mix of propaganda and sensationalism.’

I’ve written before about how the Internet is filled with misleading nonsense (“a vortex of vacuity; a crisis of kaka; a whirlwind of piss-poor polarisation”) in one of my most popular blogs: The Internet.  7 reasons why it will destroy civilisation.

Lesotho: one of the most beautiful countries on earth has a dismal life expectancy – Photo RP

I’ve also written about the elegant Tuchman’s Law (hit the link for the full article), which says: “The fact of being reported multiplies the apparent extent of any deplorable development by five- to tenfold (more…)

Read it now, watch it fast: scary, scarier, scariest

What if the team supporting a political campaign had information about the opinions, preferences and voting intentions of every individual in a country, and could tailor their campaigning precisely to each voter?

They have it already.

The Vice News article “The Data That Turned the World Upside Down” is the second scariest thing I’ve seen for ages.

It analyses how the harmless-sounding British company Cambridge Analytica uses information gathered from social media – all your “likes”; which shows you watch on TV; every quiz you ever did on Facebook; what you click on; what you buy; what you drive – in fact the whole of so-called “big data” – to build up a picture on you more detailed than anything George Orwell could have imagined.

If the Thought Police in 1984 had had big data, they wouldn’t have needed Room 101.  They would have known everything already.

As others have observed, Orwell got total surveillance right.  What he didn’t anticipate was people voluntarily putting on line all the information about themselves a potential authoritarian state could ever need.

(more…)

You need to smartphone detox. 11 free ways you can help yourself

‘It’s relentless,’ the god-like figure says to me.  ‘From 7 a.m. things are coming in.  All day – even when I’m in meetings, mealtimes.  Until late at night.  It’s the 24-hour news cycle.’

I’m talking to a top figure in an elite organisation: someone I respect and trust.

In fact, this person is almost a household name.  Most people would see him or her as someone who has risen to the top through an awesome combination of intellect, charm and hard work.  Yet this person is struggling to cope with information coming in on one device – a Blackberry.

What chance do the rest of us have?  You may be addicted to multiple devices.

When Blackberrys were first introduced, people called them Crackberrys.  No wonder.  Ten years later, our smartphones are one hundred times more addictive – an addiction as strong as alcohol or gambling, as the video below (watch it later!) points out.

What can you do? (more…)

The Americans: Valley of the Rogue

In 1979 I hitch-hiked for seven weeks around the United States.  What became of the carefree, thoroughly relaxed young 21 year-old of these pages?  Can I rediscover those qualities?  And what about America itself?  Was it better then, or worse?  Read on.

You can read more about this journey on my page, The Americans.

This is what happened on the night of 27 July.  To TC and Miguel: if you’re out there, get in touch.

Valley of the Rogue

TC was too young.  Miguel was older, but didn’t like being asked to show his ID.  So when their ancient Chevy had wheezed into the gas station in Crescent City, we pooled six grimy dollars and I went to buy the beer.

Scan 29_2

California coast near Monterey, 1979 – photo Robert Pimm

In California at 20 you can have sex, smoke dope, and die for your country, or someone else’s; but you can’t get a drink without a friend.  The two Mexicans and me, Oregon-bound, were old friends for the night.

So how did I end up with TC and Miguel in Crescent City?

In summer 1979 even the most laidback, doped-out, rock-lobotomised New Yorkers said (more…)

Paris, the Internet, and the FT

My recent blog “The Internet. 7 reasons why it will destroy civilisation” set out troubling facts about this most wonderful of inventions.

One of my concerns was that:

“the Internet polarises opinion.  Imagine a billion people in a desert, shouting.  Who can shout loudest?  The best way to attract online attention is to be shocking and extreme.  Slag someone off.  Be outrageous.  You know that famous, reasonable, internet commentary site?  No?  That’s because there isn’t one.  You can’t be reasonable and famous on-line.”

So I was interested to see this weekend in The Financial Times a piece by Simon Kuper, “Paris attacks: Notes from a wounded city” (NB if you don’t have a subscription to the FT, you can sign up to read the piece – and several more every month – free).

IMG_7511

Kuper’s piece is characteristically thoughtful. I like his resistance to simplifying everything – particularly anything as tragic as the Paris attacks. But I was most struck by his comment that in the world of punditry and politics, “the people with the clearest messages win“.

Thus, Kuper suggests, if you want to look at the world in a more nuanced way – he quotes a man who asked of the 13 November events “with what perception must I perceive this?” – you are unlikely to be invited onto TV to pontificate about how we should react.

What people want is certainty; and that is what pundits offer.

That is often the equivalent of shouting loudest. But it is not always the best way to approach important issues.

Do check out Simon Kuper’s piece, and my earlier blog.

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