Sunday, 4 July 2010

Red or Black Clogs to Remain Secured by Obscurity

This week I received the very sad news that my colleague and friend from Kingston University and St Georges Hospital, Professor Paul Wainwright had unexpectedly died whilst I was in Pakistan. Paul was passionate about everything nursing and like myself had a real interest in the education and development of practitioners. Three years ago he started a very successful nursing research conference which enabled nurses at all stages of development to present and disseminate their work. His other passion was in exploring the relationship between the humanities and health care practice.

Ironically, I returned from Pakistan on Tuesday night and by 6am Wednesday morning I was well and truly right back in to the hurly burly world of University life, preparing to run the first of our joint Workshop Conferences aimed at bringing together the humanities and mental health nursing care in explicating Mental Health and Well-Being.

Along with colleagues from our School of English, Sociology, Politics & Contemporary History, and colleagues from University of Nottingham, University of Liverpool and University of Dundee, we had a great day exploring notions of madness, the Gothic in English Literature, tensions between psychiatry and mental health, and the works of Thomas Szasz and Peter Morrell.

My good friend Phil Barker came and gave a great key note presentation. Amongst Phil’s many claims to fame is the fact that he was the UK's first Professor of Psychiatric Nursing Practice, and at present, he is Visiting Professor at Trinity College Dublin, Ireland and Honorary Professor at the University of Dundee. In 1995 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal College of Nursing, UK and remains one of the very few mental health nurses to have achieved this. He is a prolific author and still travels the world presenting his work (on recovery and personhood). As some of my mental health nurse educator colleagues will know, Google Scholar has him down as the most cited living psychiatric nurse theorist. I have been fortunate enough to write with and for him and he has contributed to the last book Sue McAndrew and I wrote. Over the last few years we have run into each other at mental health conferences all over the world.

Phil also has a penchant for wearing black, but not in my exclusive sense, has a long ponytail, ZZ top beard, wears silver jewellery, and red, not black clogs. Some have made comparisons between us and wondered if one was emulating the other. We are of course individuals in our own right.

All in all it was a great day, although it started badly. Just 24 hours previously I had been sitting in the Sheraton Hotel reception with a cup of coffee, and turning on my lap top it had taken 30 seconds to connect to the University of Salford home page. Now 24 hours later, and just 60 feet from my office it took 40 minutes and the help of a very obliging technician to connect to the very same home page!

It also appeared that I was not the only one dogged by technology problems this week. I noted that Anna Kushchenko, one of the 10 people arrested as being a possible Russian spy, aaccording to the FBI, was dogged by persistent trouble trying to get the computer issued by her Russian handlers to wirelessly transmit her weekly intelligence reports. She suffered trying to make the connection work, and it was only when she purchased a Mac that such problems were sorted out.

The story also gave me a new word to use: steganography. I had not come across this term before although it has been in use since Johannes Trithemius used it in his work Stegabographis in 1499. This was a book that appeared to be about magic, but was actually a treatise on cryptography and steganography. Stegangraphy is the art and science of writing hidden messages in such a way that no one, apart from the sender and intended recipient, suspects the existence of the message. It creates a form of security through obscurity. Generally, messages will appear to be something else, and its use includes the concealment of information within computer files. Media files are ideal for steganographic transmission because of their large size. A sender might start with an innocuous image file and adjust the color of every 100th pixel so it corresponds to a letter in the alphabet, a change so subtle that someone not specifically looking for it is unlikely to notice it.

This was not only the way Anna and her colleagues were using to exchange information, but it was the way they lived their lives. They appeared ordinary, normal, part of the background and therefore did not attract any attention at all. As the more astute amongst you will have realized, this is rather like Phil and I.