That Tiny Circle of Firelight

We have always existed in a tiny circle of firelight and everything outside that circle is the great ‘Other’ – something from beyond, something out there, something to be treated with suspicion, aggression and terror. It’s one of the most fundamental instincts we have – responsible for so much of our behaviour from gang warfare, to a lot of horror fiction, to joking about the French or those south of the river, to caring more about the terrorist attack in your own city than on the other side of the world.

This is why science and the basic spirit of enquiry has such power for me – it has pushed beyond that circle of firelight into the surrounding darkness and attempted make connections with what lies beyond. It’s expanded our horizons so much that it is dizzying – the universe, the world, other people, the hidden depths of ourselves, the lies that we have told ourselves – simply the act of looking and asking questions is so immeasurably powerful. It’s the most powerful antidote we have to the basic small and aggressive repugnance of the human entity, if I may be rather dramatic! In comparison, I’d say that imagination (powerful though it can be) is entirely constrained by the circle of our awareness – whether that circle is a fire-glow or a universe.

That is why I find the anti-science arguments so bemusing – indeed, they fill me almost with a kind of grief. I think that word fits. Some find science cold, but what it reveals could hardly be warmer because there, removed from as much faffing around as possible, is ourselves and the world we live in, not as some unknown Other but as a partially known entity that we can then connect to and relate to. Some even accuse it of being materialistic, though how a tool and a basic human instinct can be that I am not sure. Instead, it is striving to be realistic – and what people do with that reality is up to them, as always. Some just seem terrified of the whole thing, seemingly desperate to bring that encircling darkness crashing back for all of us. Is it because they themselves never left it? Do they still feel all that old fear and hate and can’t face the act of revealing what is out there? Can’t cope with the scale of the universe and even of themselves, of humanity?

If we lost all that though and did indeed slide back into some kind of new dark age, I can barely even imagine the contracting of our horizons – can barely imagine the claustrophobia of that firelight, surrounded again by the hurricane of fear …

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Published in: on September 28, 2017 at 3:17 pm  Leave a Comment  

An Edifying Experience

Thank you my dear Virgin Broadband for a really interesting and edifying experience today, when your nice shiny new government mandated ‘web-safe’ internet filter accidentally got switched on for a while.  

I must confess it was quite a shock at first, when my writing lead me to research some minor specifics of feminine hygiene (I am NOT taking any chances with even such mundane things when it’s probably second nature to half my bloody readers!), only to come up against a brick wall plastered with talk of pornography, hate, drugs and suicide.  

There was a second shock a bit later . . . I would not have equated the minor surgery that I recently underwent and was trying to research as anything to do with hate or porn either – and likewise recovering from it hasn’t driven me to suicide yet.  But hey – always happy to be corrected about these things!  

Shock number three was that image on tumblr that came out of nowhere of some woman or other with what looked like a butcher’s meat hook through her perineum.  I will chalk that up to ‘extreme body piercing’ and ‘some people like to do weird things to themselves and who am i to judge?’ and then try and forget I ever saw it.  I am sure I will survive . . . but apologies in advance if cosmetic meat hooks turn up in some story or other in about 10 years time . . . 

Virgin, I fully intended never EVER to touch these filters, even with a six foot pole.  But I am kind of glad it got switched on for a while.  It was an education, showing very clearly that they don’t just sit on the ‘useless’ fence, they plunge right over into the badly maintained and thorny garden of ‘worse than useless’.  If anyone doesn’t believe me, just try the following little experiment.  Switch it on for a bit, go to Tumblr or something similar – even wikimedia commons – and just run a few searches.  Not for things you might want to discuss later maybe, but just try it.  And tell me how effective they are.  

Then for gawd sake turn it off again!

That’s the useless part.  They don’t protect anyone at all from anything at all except maybe from more focused and specific research.  You will always be able to find the porn, and if it’s hate and racism you want, just go to the YouTube comments sections!  The worse than useless part is the false positives – and beyond that, the further cementing of many natural normal parts of life as somehow ‘dirty’ when they really desperately need liberating for all our sakes – the simple act of trying to constrain the frank and unmoderated discussion and sharing of information and experiences – the pretending that certain things don’t exist when they really do exist and need addressing on many levels.  Even making users imagine they are somehow ‘safe’ when they aren’t . . . 

I am not often shocked or disturbed these days, but even I draw the line at meat hooks!  That time – that ONE time – I might just have appreciated a bit of protection.  But hey – I’m never going to get it without damaging everything else in ways that are beyond unacceptable to me.  I am aware of and accept that inescapable fact.  You can’t program or legislate human taste.  So, as you go down the path of life, you just have to accept that you are going to find a few roses as you go – and the occasional meat hook . . . 

I can’t blame you, Virgin, really of course.  It’s the government’s fault for pushing these useless things onto us with all the usual crap about some kind of morality that never represented anything meaningful.  I also appreciate the fact that you were the last of the major ISPs to bow to government pressure on this.  That is something I will remember.  But neither we nor you, Virgin, should just quietly accept it when they mess us around and interfere in things it is clear they don’t understand.  People in general need to think about this – need to realize that these filters are about far far more than somehow blocking things that you personally regard as icky.  And then SWITCH THEM OFF!  Take charge of your own internet instead, people, and make your own decisions!

Published in: on August 23, 2014 at 3:32 pm  Leave a Comment  
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TPP and TTIP Horror Stories

It seems the TPP is getting perilously close – as is the less well-known European version the TTIP. And I am getting increasingly bombarded with emails from my various activist groups about it, all exhorting me to fight and fight harder if we are to have any hope of preventing some of the worst corporate damage in history!

It would be nice to think that I and others are worrying unnecessarily – and that the fears are overblown. Reading through the EUs own web page on the subject, one might even be convinced that is the case, if it wasn’t for one major point.  Why is it that what may be some of the biggest deals in history are being negotiated in such attempted secrecy that even now so few people really know they exist or that they are at all significant?  To my mind, that fact alone gives plenty of reason to worry.  It suggests that those involved have a very good reason for keeping the public in the dark about it as much as possible. They know it would not stand up to scrutiny.  They have a guilty conscience, in other words.

What we do know only seems to back that up.  The businessmen and politicians talk of economic benefits, but the activists and watchdogs promise horror stories in the truest sense of the term – the perversion of what we have, and the deeper entrenchment of much that is wrong with the world and the resultant dwindling of our chances of improvement. The death of the internet as we know it and the final signing over of the world to corporate control and commercialism.

I remember these agreements from the days when we knew nothing about them at all, but the organisations and public that keep a wary eye on the world were so worried about the extreme secrecy that there was actually a totally crowd-sourced bounty of $70,000 offered for a leak of the TPP draft.  Are there any other comparable times in history when the public has actually come together to ‘buy’ a whistleblower like that?  That is also a somewhat strange indication of the world we are moving into – where we both need to and CAN do such things.  At any rate, that leak eventually came, and in the years since then we have begun to get a look at these things that have been brewing behind closed doors.

There are two distinct but connected sides to the worries about this.  On the one hand, we have people deeply concerned about freedom of expression and creativity being stifled by a drastic and draconian increases in intellectual property and copyright regulations.  As an artist, that is of course of great concern to me – but the other side of this is potentially even more serious in that it represents a signing over of power to corporations on a scale unique in history.

The 30,000 word leaked chapter on Intellectual Property came as a shock, though a somewhat familiar one, threatening  to increase the stranglehold already enforced on information, sharing and expression, complete with the old familiar enforced policing by  ISPs and draconian and incomprehensible copyright regulations – the sort of things we have been fighting for years coming back again like heads of the Hydra.  We can see where this is going online because, quite simply, the internet has already suffered massive damage and the glory days of the web as a carefree place to be yourself, exchange ideas and information are long gone. Now the net is shot through with dirt or threats of dirt on every level – spying revelations, censorship, filters, self-censorship / paranoia, postmodern prudery, prosecutions for expressing opinions, damaging copyright laws etc.  It seems that even as it just began to flicker into being, an end is nigh for any kind of truly free sharing of information and freedom of expression, as well as any kind of escape from or alternative to corporate control.  Will we ever be able to find that glorious freedom that the internet stood for again without constantly having one eye over our shoulders?

These agreements should be seen as one part of the negative progression, just one more nail in the coffin of the internet, given that this is what the corporate world has been striving for for years – and if so, it could be a decisive one.  A kind of last wound that brings it down.  One of the things about the internet is that, unlike when you are sitting there being fed information as you are from a TV, you are in charge and thus you can never know the consequences – just about anything you do online COULD POSSIBLY be illegal and there is rarely any way to know for sure.  Remember the days when they were trying to crack down on BitTorrent file sharing, and the only advice they could give was ‘the only way to be sure you are not breaking the law is don’t use it’?  Yes – their only response to the problem was to suggest shutting down an entire technology – which was approximately equal to shutting down email to stop people sending spam messages.  That was an extreme case, but it is symptomatic of the entire internet. Many of the things we naturally want to do online and offline may also become illegal.  That video you watch and put on facebook?  That image you find and share?  That quote you take of something you love?  That thing you want to show your friend?  That inspiration you draw on as an artist or that criticism or satire?  It doesn’t really matter to them. And with the powers provided by this new system, entire websites could vanish or entire families could be kicked off the internet for nothing more than a blunder, to say nothing of the times when such things are totally justified – e.g. allowing access to stuff you can’t see any other way, either because distributors can’t be bothered to distribute or (infinitely worse) because they are locked up by region coding, censored in your part of the world or in your language, or even just chained up in some ‘rights’ or other that are always entirely bureaucratic and no benefit to the artist or those passionate about it.

This of course, is of especial concern to anyone involved in the arts since, even offline, creativity is also increasingly stifled by intellectual property (which is increasingly becoming a dirty word for any artist), which represents a very worrying trend in the world.  Entire art forms are already ruined by over-regulation and more will follow, with art itself seeming more and more like a subversive and quasi-underground act.  True collage or found art, cosplay as a hobby, fan fiction, any sort of direct satirical art etc., all these are all either threatened or could be threatened.  Fan fiction (as an example) may not seem a very significant area, but it’s a harmless chance for some people to be creative and I have to ask, if a character or concept has become a household word, then why should people not be able to reference it in their own creativity if they wish, either as a homage, satirically/critically, or just as a bizarre pop-culture reference?  And preventing artists commenting on much of the real world (without playing that weird satirical game of finding ways for the audience to get the message without ever actually saying it) also seems extremely damaging.  This piece of street art is a good example.   This is something that is already only possible anonymously on a wall otherwise the number of potential lawsuits would be quite large.  This is why anonymous street art is often seen as the purest remaining artform, and the last thing we need is more types of creativity following it into the underground.  Collage and art using found objects, some types of independent film, even street photography, though that is somewhat removed from the subject of this article – anything that either doesn’t want to or can’t play the commercial game, basically.

But of course, this is not just about art and censorship, though as an artist that is one thing that bothers me deeply. Another big worry is the serious increase of power that these agreements threaten to give to corporations at the expense of the poor and even of governments themselves.  One aspect that bothers is the stranglehold of Big Pharma at the expense of affordable medicines in the developing world.  And similar things with patents controlling farming and the cultivation of food.  But perhaps the spookiest thing so far comes from our own European TTIP, the way it would give corporations the power to actually sue governments if they implement regulations that could be damaging to them – i.e. environmental or public health matters. That is, governments could be sued for keeping corporations from damaging nature, trying to control polluting or other industrial damage, increasing the minimum wage, animal welfare, trying to implement other laws that promote fairness at the expense of their pockets.

I don’t want to be over-dramatic, but these two agreements are starting to seem to be up there among the scariest things to have come along in my lifetime.

I quote Assange, from a while back but maybe still relevant:  “If instituted, the TPP’s intellectual property regime would trample over individual rights and free expression, as well as ride roughshod over the intellectual and creative commons. If you read, write, publish, think, listen, dance, sing or invent; if you farm or consume food; if you’re ill now or might one day be ill, the TPP has you in its crosshairs.”

We have already seen off several of these horrible plans and agreements and proposed legislations – SOPA and PIPA and ACTA spring to mind, but they were nowhere near as big as these seem to be. Maybe we can kill or neutralize this one too, since the controversy is only growing – and it is also important to remember that it is still being argued, still in draft form.  It may be that those who are insisting on the more draconian inclusions (the USA seems a major culprit, again playing the role of the world’s supervillain) will be overruled, especially if enough people provide pressure.

Myself though I am starting to despair! As an artist, as one who really believes in the potential of the internet, and simply as one who wants to see a world that works far far better than it does now.  But there seems such an inevitability about this march of commercialism and control that I wonder if there is really any point hoping? If this is beaten, then wont there just be another – and then another – and then another – as long as the world functions the way it does? Until the internet is just another totally controlled drip-feed like TV, corporations really do possess more power than countries and money is the ultimate controlling factor.

But anyway, I would urge people to at least stand up and be counted here. Easing trade between nations (which is the avowed goal of these agreements) is a very good aim, since the world is indeed ridiculously complicated, ridiculously unfair and far too bound up by national boundaries.  But can’t we negotiate such things without smuggling through additional problems like this?  And is there any reason at all why a trade agreement cannot be decided on with complete transparency and openness – and fairness and progressiveness?  Maybe these things don’t need to be destroyed – merely reformed so they can do no damage.  Or maybe they should indeed be destroyed because can we ever really trust the forces that are trying to shape our world, either political or corporate?  I honestly don’t know.

Links:

[1] WikiLeaks publishes secret draft chapter of Trans-Pacific Partnership – http://www.theguardian.com/media/2013/nov/13/wikileaks-trans-pacific-partnership-chapter-secret

[2] This transatlantic trade deal is a full-frontal assault on democracy – http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/nov/04/us-trade-deal-full-frontal-assault-on-democracy

[3] The lies behind this transatlantic trade deal – http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/dec/02/transatlantic-free-trade-deal-regulation-by-lawyers-eu-us

[4] nottip.org.uk – About TTIP – http://www.nottip.org.uk/aboutttip/

[5] The Hidden Threat of the TTIP Deal – http://www.morningstaronline.co.uk/a-d9e2-The-hidden-threat-of-the-TTIP-deal

[6] TTIP: 9 Risks Clegg And Farage Won’t Tell You About The US-EU Trade Deal – http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2014/04/02/ttip-us-eu-trade-deal_n_5050117.html

[7] TPP Leak Confirms the Worst: US Negotiators Still Trying to Trade Away Internet Freedoms – https://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2013/11/tpp-leak-confirms-worst-us-negotiators-still-trying-trade-away-internet-freedoms

[8] 3 things you need to know about sharing and collaborating online – https://openmedia.ca/blog/3-things-you-need-know-about-sharing-and-collaborating-online

Published in: on July 12, 2014 at 1:29 pm  Comments (1)  

Do we Make Art because we are Naked?

I have long been puzzled why humans are naked – without fir – and, I am relieved to see, I am not the only one as it is a bit of a general scientific puzzle as well, in its shadowy way.  The few people I have talked to about this basically give me odd looks – as though I was questioning something that didn’t need to be questioned.  But the joke is on you really, because none of you have ever been able to give me a convincing answer.  “I’m not naked – I’m fully dressed” is one puzzled reply you will hear regularly.  “We lost our hair when we started to wear clothes” being another – apparently forgetting that the more ‘primitive’ peoples (horrible word but you know what I mean) are often still naked and for some reason are nevertheless not covered with hair.  Losing hair must take a lot of evolution and a very distinct evolutionary reason, and have we really been wearing clothes for that length of time?  Hardly.  I know that these days it seems as though they are an essential part of life, but evidence proves that hair loss and the first clothes were separated by a huge period of time.  According to some very clever analysis of the evolution of lice[1], we may have lost our hair approximately 3.3 million years ago[2].  However, the most ancient estimate for when we started wearing clothes (again based on analysis of lice evolution[3]) is only 100,000-500,000 years ago.  Which completely blows out of the water any notion that we intrinsically need to wear clothes for protection because we are naked – at least in our original form.  This is very strong evidence that we formed into more or less what we are today and then eventually started covering ourselves.

Some of the more serious scientific theories on hair loss don’t make a great deal of sense either.  We lost our hair as a reaction to parasites?  Why?  Every creature has parasites.  We were once an aquatic species?  Why?  We are not that well adapted to the water really – our skin is not waterproof (witness our prune-like fingers when we have been in the bath too long) and we can neither see very well under there nor move very efficiently.  Our feet pads, very efficient at walking and scrambling on the ground[4], are suddenly very tricky when walking underwater.

The best theory for our nakedness actually involves a somewhat less-obvious influence.  Sweat.  Humans are great sweaters – compared to other animals.  The dogs for instance, don’t sweat at all.  This theory states that we evolved our naked skins as a part of a general improvement in the mechanics of sweating, probably in response to our movement into the hot dry environment of the African Savannah, coupled with our need to hunt during the day, out in the hot blazing sun.  With our profuse sweating, fur would have the negative effect of trapping the water (and the heat) on our bodies rather than letting it evaporate away, which has a strong cooling effect.[5]  Therefore, a suitably toughened naked skin and sweating is more efficient than any beneficial shading/protecting effects of fir.

It is important to remember that the ‘original’ skin appears to be the darkened skin, which, it appears, evolved its colour as the hair was vanishing.  Which makes absolute sense as the dark pigment melanin is there specifically to protect against the sun – far far better able to cope with it than my white skin or the fragile skin that exists under fur.  So, one can picture early man as a dark and tough-skinned, naked creature possessing a very efficient radiator system as it hunted for prey millions of years ago.  Interestingly enough, if we had evolved as a vegetarian species, we might never have made that change and might well have remained as hairy as a chimpanzee.  But then – if we had evolved as a vegetarian species we wouldn’t have evolved to be what we are now at all.  Incidentally, it is true that the Chimpanzee is also an omnivore and hunts meat but it forms a less important part of its diet than it does us – and also the chimp is a forest creature, where the blazing sun was not such a problem and thus never forced a change like this.

But there is still a mystery here.  Maybe the question should now be, why is my skin white and fragile and generally useless, burning at the drop of a sunbeam, rather than why do I not have fur to cover it?  My own skin is as pale as it gets – the so-called type 1 or ‘Celtic’ skin[6].  If we take a hypothetical dark skin as the original skin – at least, original after we lost our fur – then what the hell happened to create this race of fragile white variants?

Not surprisingly, skin colour is tightly bound up with certain factors of sunlight and geography.  According to the ideas put forward by Jablonski & Chaplin[7], the variation in skin colour derives from the balance we have to strike with UV light from the sun.  Put simply, when the sunlight is very intense (which it is where we first evolved), a lot of melanin is needed to protect us from the intense rays, but where the UV rays are less, less is needed – and indeed, less is desired, for we need a certain amount of UV on our skins to build the essential vitamin D.  So it could be that the adaptations in skin colour are simply the human body maintaining its balance with the sunlight that is available.  So, as humans moved northwards into the great forests of Europe (which is where the lightest skins of all evolved and where direct sunlight of any kind would not have been much of a problem) we simply lightened to match the reducing sunlight and UV intensity, to maintain our needed level.

It is interesting to note that some of the most northerly people of all, the Inuit, still possess fairly brown skins and Jablonski and Chaplin suggest that this is because of the high prevalence of fish in their diet, which is rich in Vitimin D, meaning that there was simply no need to change their skin colours.  Evolution needs reasons for things to happen, after all.  One could maybe speculate that the lack of shelter from the sun up there (in contrast to the north European woods) might also have something to do with that.

Also, this is much more recent in history.  At the time of humanity’s movement intoEuropeand across the world, clothes had been around for a long while.  I already pointed out that clothes probably first appeared 100,000-500,000 years ago, which was long before the first humans left Africa (70,000 years ago) and, therefore, before the first white skins appeared.  Humanity reached north Europe 40,000 years ago and clothes would have to be available to survive the cold.  So this means that our clothes may well have had a physical effect on us after all – certainly not making us naked, but perhaps helping us turn white!  By a) giving us more protection from the sun and b) possibly by covering up skin and maybe limiting access to the UV light that we need.  So, even though it had nothing to do with our hairlessness, we can maybe credit clothing with assisting us change colour – as a part of our ability to survive in these cold climates.  That may upset the nudists a bit – but even so, it shouldn’t be taken to mean that modesty and concealment is an intrinsic part of us.  We had almost 3 million years with naked skin before we started covering ourselves.  It’s worth remembering that.

*    *    *

But what of the hair that we do have?  To me, there always seemed something decidedly bizarre about the great unruly mop of hair on our heads and the three tufts that remain on our body.  However, pubic hair and armpit hair do make sense.  Pubic hair can be quite easily seen in the role of a visual indicator of sexual maturity and both function as a kind of ‘radiator’ or distribution system for pheromones, thus acting as an important element in sexual attraction (and witness then the irony in our mysterious modern fashion for shaving these last poor tufts of hair right off!).[8]  Some say that pubic hair acts to protect against external friction during sex and may even have a role in keeping our rather sensitive bits warm[9] and protected.

But the hair on our heads?  This weirdly huge lanky mop of the stuff on our head that trails everywhere, needs endless attention, gets tangled and probably ends up right over our eyes when we least need it?  Well, there is a theory on that issue that says that our mops of hair evolved in response to sexual selection – the reinforcement of certain characteristics by acting as criteria in sexual attraction[10] – which of course pans out to cover all areas of interaction, status etc.  Or, to put it another way, we found long hair sexy!  This makes a certain sense.  After all, the hair on our heads was probably always a very effective flag – almost exactly like the peacock’s tail and the lion’s mane – and indeed, many monkeys still function in this way, with manes and elaborate facial hair.  So no surprise that it should linger while the rest of our body lost it.  As we lost our hair, something had to remain to fill the role that fur and its colours and condition play in courtship and other interrelations.

It’s worth noting that hair is not quite the fragile, attention-needing thing that we think it is.  We wash it and cut it all the time to keep it ‘nice’ and out of our eyes, but it seems that fundamentally, this is not essential.  People, myself included, have experimented with what happens when you don’t wash hair with soaps and chemicals, and the results are interesting – and maybe worth fanfaring out at high volume: We don’t need to wash our hair!  Normal human hair is quite capable of looking after itself with the same kind of washing that other animals use – clear water.  In fact, it is probably considerably healthier, both for the hair and the scalp.  The more we mess with our hair, the more the texture deteriorates, but we are driven to do it by our cultural demand for a totally sanitised and clean shiny product.  Just as we negate the effects of our under-arm scent radiators by using deodorants.  Natural hair has a slightly thicker texture, is heavier, but is really not unpleasant.  What is unpleasant is the transition phase when the scalp, used to compensating for the debilitating effects of shampoo, continues pumping vast amounts of oils in there until it recovers its equilibrium.

*      *      *

So – now there is still one big question left.  Why, having ended up a naked creature as part of a natural process, are we now compelled to cover up again using artificial means?  What the hell is it with humans and clothes?  After all, under normal circumstances, we don’t treat clothes as a protection as much as a way of hiding ourselves.  We are addicted to them to such a degree that removing them is just about the most traumatic thing that can happen to you.  Why?  Their use for protection and warmth seems obvious and we would have needed them especially when we ventured into cold climates – but is there more to it than that?  We lasted almost 3 million years stark naked but then something happened and clothes appeared – not when we moved north into the cold but long before.  ‘Clothes appeared’, the theories say, but they don’t bother to explain why.  What was it that suddenly prompted us to make use of this after three million years?  Why did we suddenly feel this need for dressing ourselves?

Obviously, something happened in the human brain to change things.  Was it simply that our brains and abilities finally progressed to the stage where we could do something to protect ourselves from all the prickly plants we had to run through?  Maybe.  That’s the classic view after all.  But there is a shadowy suggestion of something else – another possible reason.  After all, what made our brains progress like this in the first place?  My own speculation (and it is only speculation) is that clothes for protection was not the first thing to appear.  And I think that clothing and our dependence on it strikes right back into the processes that first formulated us.

To begin with, there was nothing but ourselves and our own visual signifiers.  Our relations, the monkeys, are the same, also relying a lot on visual signals for interrelations of all kinds – usually either or both fine colours or/and truly spectacular backsides.  And, even though we had lost our fur, we still functioned in the same way.  Our head of hair remained and we still maintain a quite noble backside and its attractive force is every bit as powerful as it is for other primates.  However, out on the plains, there were other forces at work for humans.  After all, the really significant thing about humanity – the thing that allowed it to survive – was far from just physical prowess or condition.  Humans are a pathetically helpless species in their bodies.  Our strength, speed and ability are a joke, we have no natural means of defence, fighting or camouflage – so really the only thing that we have going for us are our brains and our able hands.  So, with us slowly evolving from a state similar to hunting dogs and their intelligent pack hunting into increasingly complex minds, something began to change.

Sexual selection is when a characteristic is reinforced by becoming a criteria when choosing a mate.  Like the peacock tail that confused Darwinso badly.  Of course, this also leads to such things having relevance within social structures, but sexual selection appears to be the fundamental driving force according to many[11].  And, in this newly evolving creature clever enough to survive and overcome its bodily limitations, what was the most important thing when selecting a mate?  Those physical characteristics?  A fine arse?  Beautiful hair?  Of course, those would never vanish, even through to today, but that was not the whole story.  There was also brain power.  The intelligence that allows you to survive and manipulate the world in order to do so.  It is suggested that the brain also became a sexually selected characteristic early on – presumably long before clothes[12].

So how then do you ‘prove yourself’?  How do you help give yourself an edge over your competitors, with the help of these lively new brains?  How about creativity?  What do humans do even today to express love and interest?  Why, you smarten yourself up, ‘look good’ using little tricks and arty touches – and make/get something for the object of your desires that is ideally more beautiful than anyone else can.  Even now, in our cynical modern times, we all know the glow of being on the receiving end of that.

I think the significance of this simple point just cannot be overestimated.  In the practical world, one proves one’s capability by doing things and achieving things, but in the quieter world of interactions with people (including courtship), it can take on other more aesthetic characteristics.  I think, right here, we see the origins of art – as an offshoot of the need to prove ones lively brain and driven by nothing less than sexual selection itself.

This makes the foundations of art basically an extension of the peacock’s tail or the lion’s mane into the brain – into a person’s creativity and ingenuity – and, therefore, survivability.  And, when we began to find intelligence and creativity sexy, that opened up the door to unbelievable things.  What happened to the peacock’s tail happened again to our own minds, driving us to get cleverer and cleverer and ever more creative – cleverer and more creative than we ‘needed’ to for basic survival out there on the African plains – eventually leading to – well – to you.  One can perhaps trace all our art back to this simple beginning – this original powerful reason.  And also trace creativity/art as one of the most fundamental driving forces behind our progression.  All our sense of creativity and, specifically, of flaunting that in an abstract way for its own sake, which is what art is.  All our symphonies and paintings, novels and fashion design, glamour and rock musicians masturbating guitars – it all zeros straight back to this simple drive.  The same thing that drives every other species on the planet.  Given the power of sex in driving the actions of both men and women, it makes sense that our whole drive towards the earliest culture was sexually selected, as some have suggested, just as our brains and our cunning and creativity were.

I am speculating now of course, but I suspect that our creativity grew with us from the very first.  Has always been there, in fact.  The first dawning of aesthetic awareness even goes way back beyond humanity.  We can see it in other animals, even relatively frequently.  From the magpie picking up brightly coloured things to the bower bird building it’s beautiful and elaborate bower with the only purpose of impressing the female with its appearance.  And maybe the aesthetic sense is even more primeval than tool use or manipulating the world in creative ways to achieve things.

After all, being interested in a rock in an abstract sense – as an object – must surely have immerged before turning those rocks into stone tools.  We would have had toys – things we played with.  Things we liked to have around.  And this would slowly develop into a sense of ornamentation.  And, inevitably, self ornamentation.  Ornamenting yourself for artistic rather than practical reasons is universal in all humanity today – more universal than actual keep-warm, modesty-protecting clothes are.  So could it be that it was the art – the ornamentation – that came first?  A self-ornamentation driven into existence by sexual selection, with the practical uses of clothing for protection developing as a secondary result of that?   Especially when humanity was confronted with cold for the first time.  Who knows!  The two dance together of course – the practical and the desire to be creative – and there is really no distinct division difference between art and the practical, so it probably all happened together.  But seeing our artistic instincts as the driving force, propelled by sexual selection and as the fuel behind our development does make a certain sense.  After all, when you look around the tribal societies of the world, even the most ancient, what do we see?  Not the shabby scruffy caveman image wrapped in a few skins, but a riot of crazy colour and decoration, often for no direct practical purpose.  So why shouldn’t that creativity be the fundamental?

Regardless of how they first appeared, the role adornments and clothes played in the sexual selection process is now fairly simple.  As we progressed down our logical course of appreciating increasingly elaborate creativity and self-adorning as proof of a lively mind, what you wear would only become more important to courtship, status and everything else in the group.  Showing off your beautiful hair would be supplemented by the tunic you made and the beads you wove – and you would have to wear them, otherwise you would feel inferior because maybe your competitors have them and would be more likely to get the sex or the appreciation or the respect!  And it is easy to imagine this need for adornment eventually flipping over further and further into a dependence on clothes and the fear of their absence . . . and then backflipping further into the more damaging area of an obsession with covering yourself for its own sake . . . and then of hating the uncovered flesh.  The body itself rendered unworthy.  And onwards and downwards through the infinitely complex tangle of humanity since these early times through to the mess we are in now!  These dreary confusions still bother us, but hopefully they will prove nothing more than a by-product of our super-fast evolution, which will eventually fade away as we slowly get more and more intelligent – always assuming that we continue to progress and don’t stagnate in our post-evolution society, which is very possible.

*     *     *

Do we therefore create art because we are naked?  Of course not!  We really shouldn’t give nakedness that much credit.  It appears that being naked is largely incidental to our development – simply a change that came about to fit us into our world better – like all natural changes.  Would we still have developed the same attitudes if we had retained our fur?  Would we still frantically hide ourselves in the same way?  I don’t know.  Maybe it’s a meaningless question.  But in my heart I almost think we might, because maybe clothes are not about hiding skin, but about creating the illusion of what we are.

Maybe the fact that we are artists is the most profound thing about us – not the fact that we are naked artists!


[1] Let’s hear it for the scientific mind!  That’s just bloody brilliant!

[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hair#Evolution

[3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_clothing_and_textiles

[4] when toughened up as they should be.  Our shoes and carpets make for very soft fragile feet, which shouldn’t be considered the norm.

[5] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hair#Evolution

[6] There are six grades of skin colour.  See here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Skin_colour#Skin_tone_variability

[7] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Human_skin_color#Evolution_of_skin_color

[8] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pubic_hair

[9] Presumably in the sense of reducing the motion of air over the skin in these areas, allowing body heat to remain.

[10] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hair#Evolution

[11] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sexual_selection_in_human_evolution#Culture_and_sexual_selection

[12] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sexual_selection_in_human_evolution#Culture_and_sexual_selection

Published in: on May 9, 2012 at 1:04 pm  Comments (2)  

On Copyright, Piracy and Region Codes

There have recently been some news reports that the UK government is considering forcing ISPs to take action against people who download ‘illegal’ files on the internet. By and large and in theory, I would support that up to a point. If I can believe that even a few pence in a DVD sale would actually support the people who sweat their arses of to make these things then that gets my thumbs up. By and large, DVDs are cheap to get online – often so cheap as to make sharing illegal files almost unnecessary. And DVDs are (usually) better quality than a file and come in a nice box!

However, that simple outlook overlooks one small and crucial point – one that the industry, the Government and everyone else concerned has never seems to pay much attention to: The movie industry itself is sick to the core! That’s why it would actually be highly embarrassing to live in the first country to clamp down on this, if they do it thoughtlessly and pay no acknowledgement to that fact. Instead of something that would help people, the move would then simply become another example of ‘the brainless nanny state banning things rather than thinking about them’. I would feel happier if I could believe that there would be some positive changes in the DVD world to match the changes in the file sharing world, especially if the DVD producers would at least acknowledge their part in causing the problem.

I must emphasise that I am not talking here about downloading the latest Bond movie or the latest horror flick from Hollywood. With the price of mainstream DVDs, there is little point to that and I would have no problem whatever with a ban on it. DVD prices online – especially second hand and on the Amazon Marketplace – are very approachable. Sometimes it takes a little time for the prices to drop – but it is worth waiting. I am talking here about things more on the fringes, which is where the DVD industry breaks down and reveals just how sick it actually is. I am talking about the times you desperately want to see some rare film – and no one has bothered to release it on disk. Or you desperately want to see ditto but it is only available on region 1 disks. Of course it is possible (and legal) to ‘crack’ and get round region coding – but that involves tampering with your system, installing software or firmware and possibly even permanently damaging it if it goes wrong. It is here that it suddenly seems that approaches to copyright have got it all wrong and some changes are essential for the sake of the whole industry.

Let me express the two main problems in two simple bullet points:

* It is unfair to make something available in one place only and then prevent people in other places from ever seeing it.
* It is unfair to make something copyright, then not release it at all.

I was talking with director Richard Stanley a while back and he was describing his frustration that, even after much struggling, he couldn’t even get to see his own film Hardware (quite a cult favourite, I believe). It wasn’t out on DVD (though a version has since been released) – in my entire career I had only seen one VHS copy (which could have been pirate, judging by the quality) – instead, the film was just sitting somewhere in a warehouse out of reach of anyone. I had no idea if the film is available anywhere to download and share – but I hope it was! Simply so that people who want to see it can see it. And anyone who wants to call that illegal is really stretching into definition of selfish. It would be kind of ironic if the film’s director is forced to download an illegal copy just to be able to see his own movie!

Region coding is also a highly suspect idea, and one with very little reason behind it. Its impact is less in the case of a film released across the world and in all regions (though even then you can run into versions cut in one region but not in others or better extras/better transfer available from one place but not others, which also makes the system frustrating). When this really becomes destructive though is when you encounter a film that is ONLY released in one region code. The concept of making disks that are playable in one part of the world and not another seems to me to be not that far away from some form of racism. The region coding system is like banning a touring art gallery show from visiting Africa or producing a book that needs a special pair of glasses in order to read it, which of course are only available in the US. Extreme examples possibly, but can you point out a single reason for region coding to exist that has anything to do with me? Anything to do with the people who make the films come to that? It is all based in the grey area that comes in between, which should never have the power to damage the system it is supposed to be facilitating.

I work in the book world, thank goodness, and books are what I collect and write. That’s a much more wholesome world. If I did create a film though, I would prefer that people could buy it from me rather than be forced by region coding to download a pirate copy. BUT, if I created something, I would rather people could download shared copies rather than not see it at all. Calling that illegal also seems to fit the definition of selfishness and unfairness. If they can’t release something properly, then they must expect people to take whatever paths they can to find it – including downloading it if it is there to download. After all – some people care about films a lot as an art form – and caring about films is more important to people than a pointless region code system and the laws it meshes with so unfairly. Therefore it is a legal setup that gets and deserves no respect whatsoever.

To put it bluntly, region coding is one of the forces that makes piracy inevitable and any attempt to stamp out piracy should also feature an effort to stamp out that. A) It’s the only way they could have a hope of succeeding and B) it’s an unfair system full stop.

I like to trot out the example of Australia, who, I believe, has warned that it could be a violation of the Trade Practices Act to sell DVD players that are fixed to one region code. Good for them. I really wonder why everywhere else in the world cannot see what an annoying, pointless and damaging system that is and act accordingly.

Let me express the results of my ranting in two more bullet points:

* It should indeed be illegal to copy something, provided that that something is actually available. If someone owns the copyright to something but can’t be bothered to release it then it should automatically be legal to copy and distribute the material without personal gain.

* Similarly, if a film is released only playable in one part of the world (region coded) then it should be legal to copy and distribute that material in other parts of the world without personal gain.

These two facts seem not only fair to me but obvious. If we could just see some attention given to these problems, in opposition to the unending media hype about piracy and the poor saintly producers that are supposedly losing millions to this evil corruption, then I would be a bit happier. But until that happens, I and many others have no sympathy at all for the industry and its complaining. And I really hope that any system implemented to make life hard for downloaders has the sense to operate in an appropriate way. It is worth remembering that not everything shared on file sharing networks is illegal. Far from it. I have shared my own stuff on there in my time. Distributed my music there for free sharing. And it was great. I loved it. There was something almost liberating about saying bye bye to it and casting it loose to places where I can have no more influence on it at all. If the proposed clamp-down can be suitably selective – targeting certain things that there is no excuse for downloading for instance – and concurrent with a warning (after the pattern of the Australians) against manufacturing region specific DVD players, then that would be acceptable. To simply strangle the whole thing and bring an entire and often valuable and exciting system crashing to the ground without any thought would be decidedly unacceptable. I just wonder which approach I can trust the UK to take. In the past, their record in the ‘ban it rather than think about it’ department has not been very good.

* * *

Wikipedia article on Region Codes: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/DVD_region_code

A few helpful links on cracking open a region locked DVD drive:

A good general guide is here: http://www.digital-digest.com/dvd/articles/region.html – though it doesn’t make much mention of alternatives to Firmware.

My drive was hardware-locked to region 2. Instead of troubling with firmware, I have had good results using a little free program called Remote Selector – http://www.remoteselector.com/

Published in: on August 6, 2010 at 1:16 pm  Leave a Comment  

Pizza Delivery – a true story

Here’s a little story of something that happened to me when I was living abroad in Slovenia – July turning into August – when the thunderstorms came marching across the Ljubljana plains seemingly every few days.  Very inspiring for working on my thunderstorm novel GROM if nothing else – and I loved it.  On this particular day, it seemed that another was approaching, but I was almost getting dulled to them now.  Flashes lit up the clouds in the distance and a faint rumbling was echoing down to me across the city.  And, because I was preparing to make a night of writing and perhaps try and finish off a few stories (which would be a very rare and special thing to achieve), I decided to order in a pizza from Papino.  I like those pizzas.  They have a very nice one called the Bolognaise Pizza which I haven’t seen anywhere else and I sometimes made use of them when I couldn’t be bothered to cook.  This time though I called in just before closing time and started negotiating my way to ordering something from the rather tired woodbine-alcohol-lady voice that answered.  She sounded bored and she started talking.  Asking me where I was from and what I was doing.  I explained I was writing a book and would be working all night.  She asked if I was alone (question mark) and if I wanted some company (double question mark) – and I joked that if it would help finish this damn book of mine then any company would be very welcome!  That was it and I awaited my pizza and carried on working – and all the while the storm was building up and creeping closer.  In due course the pizza arrived and I settled down to eat half of it before stashing the rest till later.  I chuckled at my conversation on the phone and reflected that taking orders for pizzas must rank as one of the most boring jobs there were in a world full of boring jobs.

But then the phone rang again.  Damn, I thought, quickly saving the document I was working on and putting child rape and nuclear power stations out of my head for a while.  Who on earth?  My friend Aleksandra finally breaking the silence?  My parents making a late night phone call?  I answered cautiously.  And what do you know?  It was the same familiar lady-voice – asking if my pizza had arrived safe and sound.  I wasn’t used to such service from a Pizza delivery firm and I cheerfully explained that it had and that it was delicious and that it would do a good job of lasting me the night.

Then the voice suggested meeting up over some wine.

I thought . . . now wait a minute here.  Why was this lady, who sounded as though she had smoked too much since a very young age, wanting to meet up with a young English horror writer.  I hummed and hawed and then, out of pure curiosity if nothing else, said yeah, sure!  Why not?  One day.  But she insisted that she was going away for two weeks tomorrow.  (Pressure tactics.)  Was I busy tonight?  Was I going to sleep?  I hummed and hawed a bit more.  Working – deadlines . . . but I never have been too good at refusing people things.  And I thought to myself, why not?  Perhaps she could answer a few questions for my Slovene novel.  But I was suspicious.  Something here was not kosher.  Why did I have the strong feeling that she was lying about something.  And as soon as I had put the phone down I was starting to get a little bit nervous.  Was this some sort of setup of some kind?  It didn’t make sense?  Either that or pizza delivery was a REALLY boring job.

Well – outside the storm broke with gothic fury and I remained there staring out into the wild night, uneasily awaiting whatever it might bring.  Munching on a pizza that had rather lost its flavor.  All sorts of odd scenarios were going through my head – and at one point I even hid my wallet carefully behind my books, just in case anything really nasty happened.

Eventually of course, through the teaming rain, the bell rang and I jumped slightly, but went to open the door.  The trouble was, there was no one there.  No one except some guy with a bag and his huge dog sheltering from the rain.  The dog immediately ran inside – very eager to get somewhere dry.  I tried to give a covert glance round without making a fool of myself, in case she was sheltering somewhere out of sight – but there was no sign of her anywhere.  I was bewildered but not very disappointed.  Then I glanced at the man in the porchway, to see if he wanted to come in or not.  He glanced at me.  We stared at each other for quite a long moment.

Oh no, I thought – quite distinctly.  Oh no.

He was about six foot tall and didn’t seem to have much hair.  Cut short, I suppose.  The bag contained a bottle of wine.

He broke the silence.  “Er – did I speak to you on the phone?” he managed, he face beginning to fall.

I nodded slowly.  There was a silence.  He obviously didn’t speak English very well – and this shock stretched his linguistic skills to the limit.  “I thought you were . . . woman,” he said, beginning to back away.  I stammered something dumb that I cant remember.  “Are you guy?” he asked.

“Am I what?”

“Guy?  I mean – homo . . . sexual?”

I shook my head urgently.

“Er – sorry,” he muttered.  “I make mistake.  I will go . . . do you like tiramisu?”

“Yes,” I said, uncertainly.

“Do you want one?”

“Ok,” I stammered.  “Thanks!”  And to complete my astonishment he thrust a huge tub of it into my hands – and then a very embarrassed six foot tall Slovenian guy slunk off into the stormy night.

I went back to my apartment . . . and cracked up.  He thought I was a bloody girl.  I thought he was a bloody girl.  What the hell are the odds of . . . In my innocence I must have given every come-on and green light that a bored pizza man could possibly want from a friendly English girl.  What had I done?  I had been seduced – completely.  No doubt he pictured her alone in a strange land and pining for a tumble in a cheap bed-settee.  I must have seemed like a dream come true.  And instead all he got was a fat Englishman with a black night-robe and sideburns.

Well, I thought, when I had stopped laughing.  At least I was richer by one tiramisu.  Shame he didn’t leave the wine as well.  I could have used that to get through that dark and stormy night . . .

The dog spent all night lying in the corridor outside my apartment.  Must have been a stray.  Very early next morning it followed me outside and strolled away, never to be seen again – but it left a stink behind that lingered for a long time.

I was so confused though that I cant even remember what his/her voice sounded like very closely – so gawd knows how many pizzas I ordered from him subsiquently!  I wasn’t abandoning that bolognaise pizza for anything!

Published in: on August 6, 2010 at 12:05 pm  Leave a Comment