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Jonathan Kepple

Dear Tim,

You reminded me of a story, by the late Argentinean author - Jorge Luis Borges, titled: Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius

In the story, the narrator discovers that volume XLVI of his friend’s Anglo-American Cyclopaedia contains four additional pages, not found in any other copy of the same edition, which briefly summarise the geography, culture and history of a country called: Uqbar.

The two men undertake exhaustive research of Uqbar, but can find no reference to it in any other book or even in the index of the cyclopaedia in which the article appears. However, one of the four volumes listed in the bibliography does feature in the catalogue of a small book dealer.

The section in the cyclopaedia detailing the geography of the Uqbar refers mainly to the internal landscape of the country and makes only vague references to known places, the result being that Uqbar is impossible to pin-point on a map.

The article also notes that the literature of Uqbar never refers to reality but instead to two entirely fictional regions known as ‘Meljnas’ and ‘Tlon’.

Years later, the narrator comes into possession of a book titled: A First Encyclopaedia of Tlon. XI. Hlaer to Jangr. It later emerges that this is one of forty volumes and is possibly the work of a cabal of scientists and philosophers. Shortly after the appearance of all forty volumes of this encyclopaedia, artifacts from Tlon - such as small cones, made from super dense metal - begin appearing and, at the conclusion of the story, the culture of Tlon appears to be taking root and superseding real world cultures and languages.

This story presents a three tiered, Russian doll, version of reality. There is the real world, there is the unsubstantiated country of Uqbar and then there is Tlon, apparently part of Uqbarian mythology, but growing in substance. The difficulty is knowing where the truth lies. How genuine are Uqbar and Tlon and since, by the end of the story, the culture of Tlon is in the process of overwriting reality - does it matter?

There is also the possibility that the narrator himself is part of the conspiracy. He begins his story by recalling a lengthy discussion between himself and his friend, “concerning the composition of a novel in the first person, whose narrator would omit or disfigure the facts and indulge in various contradictions which would permit a few readers – very few readers – to perceive an atrocious or banal reality.”

I have brought this up because it echoes the dilemma that you are experiencing as you attempt to filter truths from falsehoods in your search for Oldton. Although I have no wish to question your integrity, the story does also raise the possibility that the Oldton of your birth and early childhood is a fictional village of your own creation.

Personally, when questioning the validity of a theory or statement, I favour the method of inquiry outlined by Karl Popper , which balances certainty with scepticism, but allows neither to be absolute – We can never be sure whether something is totally true or totally false, although the theory does permit degrees of truth and falsehood. I believe Popper advocated a methodology in which hypotheses were constantly subjected to tests that might disprove or undermine their credibility –the rationale being that a theory which has survived many attempts to disprove it, is more likely to be true. However there always remains a possibility, that in the future, it will be disproved.

The philosophical problem with this method of inquiry is that the tests that are used, must also have degrees or reliability which means that we can never know whether the instruments that we use to test our theories are 100% trustworthy. Obviously this can send us plummeting into absolute scepticism or we can accept that all knowledge is fluid and to some extent relative.

Whatever its logical shortcomings, I have found Popper’s methods to be of great practical value and I put them forward as a means of testing the evidence that you gather in your search for Oldton.

Regarding your other enquiry, I believe that the artists, James and Hal Foster may have been distant cousins but I do not know whether the two were ever acquainted with each other.

James Foster’s public profile has suffered, firstly because some of his paintings were classified as confidential documents and were not publicly released until many years after the war (although they did feature in occasional exhibitions organised by The Ministry of Defence during that time).

His reputation was dealt a further blow when many of his paintings were damaged beyond repair - the result of a burst pipe in the basement where they were being stored. Sadly this flood occurred in a storage area in which there were many works, allegedly by famous artists, that were awaiting authentication by art experts – it is possible we may have lost previously unknown works by Vincent Van Gogh, Marie Laurencin, Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse.

Foster’s paintings have since been replaced by reproductions apparently produced by a government agent, while working in counter intelligence for MI6. By all accounts these copies show superior technique to that shown by Foster, however the fact that they are copies painted in an office in Vauxhall and not the originals from the trenches, whose paints were often mixed with mud and the blood of dead or wounded soldiers, has caused the art establishment to turn their collective noses up.

I believe that Foster is still something of a cult artist. The current unpopularity of the recent war in Iraq makes him, and his subject matter, unlikely candidates for a critical renaissance. However, I am surprised you can find no reference to him on the internet. Perhaps this is a legacy of his work being classified.


Thanks for the Popper idea. And Borges is always an inspiration.

As for your Foster chappie, this confirms something I have been suspicious of for some time; namely, that a lot of the 'art' of the last 60 years has in fact simply been a vehicle for a range of secret messages sent between govt spooks, embedded into the artwork using steganographic techniques. I am currently investigating the possibility that ALL the Oldton material I am uncovering is in fact a cover for a secret correspondence - and that Oldton itself had to be erased for 'security reasons'. More later

Digital art in particular is easily manipulated BTW, as described here:

Steganographic software is new and very effective. Such software enables information to be hidden in graphic, sound and apparently "blank" media. Charles Kurak and John McHugh discuss the implications of downgrading an image (security downgrading) when it may contain some other information [Kurak92]. Though not explicitly stated the author(s) of StegoDos mention embedding viruses in images [StegoDos].

In the computer, an image is an array of numbers that represent light intensities at various points (pixels1) in the image. A common image size is 640 by 480 and 256 colors (or 8 bits per pixel). Such an image could contain about 300 kilobits of data.

There are usually two type of files used when embedding data into an image. The innocent looking image which will hold the hidden information is a "container." A "message" is the information to be hidden. A message may be plain-text, ciphertext, other images or any thing that can be embedded in the least significant bits (LSB) of an image.

For example:


Suppose we have a 24-bit image 1024 x 768 (this is a common resolution for satellite images, electronic astral photographs and other high resolution graphics). This may produce a file over 2 megabytes in size (1024x768x24/8 = 2,359,296 bytes). All color variations are derived from three primary colors, Red, Green and Blue. Each primary color is represented by 1 byte (8 bits). 24-bit images use 3 bytes per pixel. If information is stored in the least significant bit (LSB) of each byte, 3 bits can be a stored in each pixel. The "container" image will look identical to the human eye, even if viewing the picture side by side with the original. Unfortunately, 24-bit images are uncommon (with exception of the formats mentioned earlier) and quite large. They would draw attention to themselves when being transmitted across a network. Compression would be beneficial if not necessary to transmit such a file. But file compression may interfere with the storage of information.



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