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)  

‘Feather’ is Published

Well, let’s see.  I can’t remember how long ago it was that I first told the world that this book of linked stories existed – several years at least.  But even before that, it has been sitting there at the back of my brain for almost as long as I can remember.  At least 10 years.  And now, just today the proof copy of the book finally landed in my hands.  I will leave my reaction to that moment to your imagination.

It is scheduled for launch at FantasyCon 2011 alongside Nina Allan’s book The Silver Wind – also a linked collection.  The two titles make a great pair I think – both located in the quiet and haunting suburbs of slipstream.

Feather is a follow-on from my earlier book What the Giants were Saying, also from Eibonvale Press, though I am stunned just how much water we have all passed since those days (*ahem*).  Feather is a very different book in just about every way.  Where Giants was a lively and showy fable, these stories are much more emotionally-centred – which to me is more successful since that is what the act of writing should be about.  These are stories that have been with me through a lot of living – slowly developing over the years, not to make some cerebral point but to explore the bittersweet blend of pain and magic that is living life – encountering people, interacting with people, visiting new places, loneliness, love . . .  In Giants, Feather was a didact, wanting to show the world something that the world seems to have forgotten – but in Feather she is much more human and fragile.  Much more real.  During the course of writing this book, Feather the person developed from being a puppet I could use to enact a role to an expression of true human innocence, at least to me – someone who could stand for the essence of humanity, which I could then collide with the real world, hopefully revealing things about both.  So while Giants was an almost fun romp, Feather is an emotional journey – a deeply personal exploration that still hurts me, in spite of the levels of writers imagination that separates me from the stories.

It was with some appropriateness that Pete Tennant got in touch recently with an Interview for me and Eibonvale Press (read it here), among other things including the almost inevitable question on self-publishing.  That is not the first time I have discussed that matter, but this gave me a welcome chance to make my views known in the run up to releasing Feather and why I chose to let my own press handle the book.  Essentially the problem people have with self-publishing is the lack of a verification process, but I don’t believe for a second that that renders the act inevitably negative.  It all depends on the writer’s attitude, I think.  In the case of Feather, it was read, picked over, criticised and edited by three people involved with the press and several others as well – all of whom played a very valuable role in preparing the book for release and encouraging me to get my arse in gear and actually do this.  In essence, this means that Feather was ‘accepted’ three times – which probably makes it a more verified book than many published in the normal way.

With the book actually in my hands, I feel quite stunned.  Almost ready to cry for some reason.  I think that until this moment, you never quite believe that this thing is real – that you are creating a book as opposed to some weird thing inside your head.  And that’s another marvellous thing about being directly involved with the printing – the fact that you can see your creation all the way through to a physical object that you can hold.  Like a sculptor maybe.

But anyway – here it is at last.  Feather.  My own piece of bleeding heart nicely framed and nailed up on the wall for you all . . .

Published in: on September 15, 2011 at 7:43 pm  Comments (1)  

10 Weird Things About Me – On Request.

I have seen this on a few blogs. And when I mentioned it to certain friend of mine it became apparent that I wasn’t going to be let off the challenge either. Still, when you get right down to it – what could be more fun than trumpeting your own strangeness? It’s a sort of advertising after all. In fact – I hereby extend the challenge onwards to everyone else I know. See if you can outdo this bit of shameless weird-propaganda! Do it!! Now!!!!

01 – Collector’s Instinct.

Yes yes – my collector’s instinct is VERY pronounced. I am not happy unless I have filled MORE than every inch of available space with things I love. I personally suspect that it is a result of not having a ‘life’ – but hey, a shelf full of books and thundereggs makes an ok substitute for a girlfriend . . . at least until I go home to Neptune and find one . . . *sigh*


Have I just revealed a few more weird things about me?

02 – Microsnail Collecting

Just that. I am a conchologist with a special interest in land dwelling species and a special special interest in the microsnails. These aint the sort that eat your lettuce or your hostas – so please, no cracks about your garden, ok? You might have some in your garden, but if these ate lettuce, they could eat for a year and you wouldn’t notice. These are only just big enough to be distinguished as snails with the naked eye – as opposed to, say, sand grains. Maybe that’s why I like them so much. These tiny things, with such delicacy in their structure – and most people would live their lives without ever knowing they exist. To them, snails are only those big cute round things that live behind their shed. Ach!!

How I find them . . . well, that’s another story!

03 – Rearing Giant Silkmoths

I used to do that, until they began to distress me. It was the adults that were the problem. The Caterpillars were great things to rear. They are simple creatures, who want nothing more out of life that to be surrounded by food. But when they hatch out into adult moths, they turn into something else. I had some Indian Moon Moths once. The caterpillars were huge – fat prickly green things – so large that you could quite clearly hear them eating in the night – munch munch munch. But the huge adult moths had something else on their mind. Sex. In fact – it was the only thing on their minds. They don’t eat and they only live for a week or so, so their entire adult lives are devoted to this one thing (sort of like a few people I know really). They attract their mates using smell. The only problem was that for some reason, all I got in my hatching were females. They spent their brief lives sitting on my curtains hopefully calling for a mate – and there was none. Their smell couldn’t quite reach to India, apparently. That seemed so sad . . . I never reared moths again. Or any pets, come to that. They’re better off among their own kind.

04 – No School

How’s this for weird – I never went to school. Well – ok, I did briefly, but I managed to escape after only a few years and before the worst damage was done. It left me to learn my way at home – which largely failed miserably and/but left me the strange hyper-creative social and worldly outcast that I am. The result is predictable: I am unable to fit in to anything – get on with anyone – and even less mesh with the world enough to have a real career of any kind. And, you know – I wouldn’t trade that for anything! I regard school as . . . well, ok, it aint the worst evil in the world. But it’s defiantly up there in the top dozen. It’s the great corruptor that takes innocent people and ruins them to fit into a ruined world. It’s the megaphone and control rod of a culture where free-thinking and non-conformity are still out on the fringes and where we all bow to the lowest common denominator. It’s a civilization-creating machine. And that alone makes it dangerous. I count myself lucky that I avoided it – even though the result has made my life very difficult and endlessly painful and brought me near to suicide on several occasions. It may be that the things that are really important to me will not do me many actual favours in life (aside from keeping me sane perhaps) – but I would rather that than be broken on the wheel of civilization . . .

Remember that next time a big issue seller calls to you plaintively.

05 – Down with Absolutes and Beliefs – Up with the Contrariwise

Question everything!

Why should I?

You tell me. I kind of like these twisted, self-contradicting philosophies. Never say never is another good one. They seem to sum up the tangled web of the reality of the human condition far better than any direct ideas, laws, creeds or defined behaviour patterns can. Humanity loves absolutes. Throughout history it has built its entire civilization, its ideas, its beliefs and its codes of law based on them.

It’s kind of a shame that they don’t exist, isn’t it . . .

I freely admit that I am a bloody minded and highly annoying person to discuss things with – since one belief I flirt with is that I don’t believe anything. No right and wrong, black and white. No absolutes. Accept nothing as direct truth. But of course – am I sure I believe that? Maybe I am not sure I believe it, meaning there are things I do believe in, in which case, how can I believe in nothing as I believe I should.

Believe me, this aint easy. It’s not lazy or somehow renegade. Not an excuse for behaving badly. But truely thinking for yourself – in some rarified world devoid of all preconceptions – must be so pure and fine and nice and etc. Outside of the protective cage of dictated moral codes and ideas, your brain would start fluttering like a bird suddenly released after years in a cage. It’s probably scary because suddenly you are away from those absolutes. Those blacks and whites. And you realise that you have to start making decisions and judgments yourself. And also discover that maybe sometimes, you just cant. Shouldnt. A glorious eden of thought. Do you believe that’s impossible? Sorry – impossible is an absolute, so impossible itself is impossible! The problem is, when you set out with the belief of thinking for yourself, all too often you end up trying to think for everyone.

One day I’ll figure all this out!

06 – Strange Food – Fantasy and Reality

I suppose I could have eaten those moths though . . .

People’s attitude to food bewilders me. There is so much out there that is edible, yet people eat so little – are even shocked by it, sadly enough. Whether it is eating guniepigs in Peru or Cats in china – poisonous puffer fish in Japan or honeypot ants in Australia . . . I dream of trying them all! And why not? Humans surround themselves with their strange morals but you don’t have to go far to find how hollow they are. Humans have this tendency to preach disgust at the ‘barbaric’ act of eating a cat while cheerfully tucking into a nice steak. Cringe in horror at the thought of chomping a spider while shovelling down a nice prawn salad. Nope – I don’t understand it either.

And think about this: A walk through a seafood market in china might make most British hair stand on end. But in all probability we catch all that stuff anyway – or whatever its equivalent is in our waters. The difference is that here it is all just slung back dead after they have picked out the handful of prawns that they can actually sell to us useless pathetic cretins. So who comes out tops then I wonder?

Bring ’em on, say I! I want to experience them, before I die.

07 – I Respect Anime

Credo in animaris japonicus. Nyuuu?? What can one say about anime? Well ok – it aint THAT weird to like anime. Lots of people do – with varying degrees of embarrassment. It can be an alarmingly simple and formulaic art form sometimes – very much of the ‘establishment’. But the thing itself is weird to us western chumps and for one very simple reason. The Japanese seem to have very little concept of ‘high’ and ‘low’ art. The west can be hideously snobbish in its art. And somehow the art plays along with that. Dumb art is dumb art – beneath the attention of the serious-minded. And there is a huge distinction between the serious works and what is ‘just for fun’. Japanese anime just invites you in to a whole world where this snobbishness and distinction is just . . . not there. It all rubs together in one great equality-filled heap – the arty stuff not afraid to have fun and the silly stuff not afraid to take itself seriously in a strange way. And serious things can be said simply and daft stuff with unimaginable challenging complexity.

And all of it is very relaxed and accepting about what it is.

All this is more than can be said for ANY art form in the west. Trying to find an equivalent in western writing would be like having Samuel Becket writing mills and boon books while The Beano delves into Clive Barker style exploration of death and Hercule Poriot attends high-school and finds extraterrestrial romance. Oh and I must not forget The Lord of the Rings by Playboy!

Put THAT in your pipe and smoke it, critic-san!

08 – I Dream of Flying Underwater but Refuse to Learn to Drive

I have a submarine, you know. I do. Really! A small one. It looks like a small, stubby winged plane, but this is a plane for flying underwater. You can just squeeze two people into it and you have to lie on your front to drive it. It cant go very deep – but so what? I have had fun with that submarine. Every night, I get in it and slide into the sea. I have helped Croatian girls illegally enter this country. I have attached limpet mines to Chinese warships. I have snuk into the Thames and spooked drunken Londoners. I have weathered storms in the north sea safe on the seabed and buzzed oil rigs . . . it’s great. Everyone should have a submarine. Better than cars any day!

Who would want to drive?

09 – Bare Feet in the Snow – In the Street

Sadly that is a thing of the past. My rebel outdoors days are fading. I no longer go out without shoes (well – I no longer go out much with shoes either). I have fond memories of tramping round college barefoot – I once got thrown out of the local restaurant for it (I never did work out why bare feet should be against some sort of resturant code . . . ).

I cannot survive in shoes for too long. Shoes are depressing things that we wear to protect ourselves from our own mess! When I was in Slovenia, the fight I had to go through to prevent polite people giving me slippers to wear indoors – they were horrified! To them it was the sort of pathetic state of affairs like being in bed but not having any covers. The sort of situation that should be remedied by a friendly gift, bless them . . . But I loved it. And I fought. And the good people of Slovenia gave me very odd looks.

More fond memories, of the snow this time – a foot deep and minus 23 degrees (this wasn’t England!). I kid you not. That is hardcore barefoot weather. Ok, it was only to the woodshed each evening – but it was enough to get me a reputation for some reason . . .

10 – I am Not Going to Become a Terrorist or Activist.

I consider this highly weird of me. It’s easy to explain why people become terrorists. And even easier why people become activists. It’s a fairly predictable reaction to a world that really does its level best to make people very angry indeed. It makes me angry too – and you note I certainly don’t include THAT among my weird traits. Like so many others, when I read the steady stream of news items detailing the next dumb thing that has happened – the next pointless law introduced – the next example of humanity’s closed minded and thoughtless, unempathetic attitudes – well, perhaps I DO yearn to do something about it. To jump up and down and shout till my face goes purple and my spittle starts flying across the room. To banish humanity to its proper place – a pest that needs to be exterminated like the stupid vermin that it is. Not for any political reason – simply because it is true. Simply because humanity urgently needs a kick up the backside.

Unfortunately I have argued myself rather beyond the point of believing i can do anything about it – even in some sort of fantasy world wher ei could actually do things (like my dear character Richard Jarvis). Terrorism has largely failed to realise that it is a pointless exercise and even activism only seems to work if you tell people what they want to hear. The world – well, the western world – has progressed beyond the stage when one can influence them in any way. The evils of the world are usually no longer concentrated in a few people tor entities hat could conceivably be removed/sacked/exiled/blown up/have their minds changed. Instead, we have a system – a decentralised network of culture and ideas – and the reason that decentralised networks are so popular online is because they are impossible to take out! The modern malaise is something far beyond leadership or the government or authority figures. Who can really blame authority? They don’t seem to have any power to change things, even if they wanted to. Perhaps this is a network that consists of the ideas and outlooks of every soul living here. We really have achieved a sort of democracy – a world governed by the supremacy of the most ordinary. Resistance is futile – resistance is futile –
And how can you talk to that? How can you influence that and attempt to make any changes for the better? Instead, this whole business has become a play of slow-moving fashions that rarely do anything revolutionary or radical. If you want to go against that fashion – if you happen to think there is more wrong with the world than the obvious things like the certain types of discrimination or mess it is fashionable to complain about and ignore, then you will quickly find out how unbending and set the world is. That’s how i see it anyway. It’s very gloomy.

Q: So what can you do?

A: I haven’t a friggin’ clue!!

Published in: on August 6, 2010 at 1:36 pm  Leave a Comment  

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  

Big Red Hearts . . .

Suppose we all wore our hearts on our sleeves?

I mean literally.  Suppose we all had a cute little red heart somewhere – floating overhead like something in a cartoon – that increased or decreased in size depending on how you felt about the people with you at the time.  A precise visual indicator.

No hiding then!

No more love-lorn timids unable to tell anyone how they feel.  Everyone would know – and everyone would just have to get used to it.

No more lying relationships based on artificial guilt or fear of the alternative.  You could never again pretend that you loved someone just to keep a dead flame alive.

No more paranoid people afraid everyone around them wants to get into their pants – they also would have to get used to it.

No hiding any more . . .

You could nurture the other’s heart like a pot-plant and see it flourish!  Not like a ghost and see it hide.  Not like a riddle that has to be solved.

It would be the end of civilization as we know it.

And wouldn’t that be just great?

Published in: on August 6, 2010 at 12:47 pm  Leave a Comment  

Growing a Copper Sulphate Crystal.

Microcrystals forming in a drop of solution

Microcrystals forming in a drop of solution

The Crystal Grows in its Bath

The Crystal Grows in its Bath

The Crystal on Display . . .

The Crystal on Display . . .

. . . with an audience

. . . with an audience

Published in: on August 6, 2010 at 12:41 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  

Beep Beep – Beep Beep

Every day that an alarm clock rings, you loose two days of your life.  Today – and one lopped off the end of your lifespan.

Stage 1 – The Terror.  Duration: c4 sec

Skin prickles from head to toe.  Heartbeat races.  In an instant you know you are under attack and you are caught between two worlds.  Simultaneously awake and still asleep.  It’s a primal feeling as your sleep and dreams are ripped asunder by the sudden realisation of the presence of the great predator.  Immediate instinct is to fight.  To commit some atrocity in self-defence on the horror that is assailing you.

Stage 2 – Denial.  Duration: c5-20 sec

No no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no repeat ad lib

Stage 3 – Despair.  Duration: c20-30 sec

Heartbeat continues to race.  The prickles on the skin die down a bit, to be replaced by a leaden, gnawing pain in the pit of the stomach.  Reality begins to kick in, but you still cant face opening your eyes.

Stage 4 – Helplessness.  Duration: c10-60 sec

You know that you are loosing something vitally important here.  Its the feeling that a snail must feel, when it is wrenched out of its perfectly fitting shell, essential for life and health, and left dangling in a cold, hard world.  Basically – you loose that shell, you’ve had it.

Stage 5 – Nefariousness born of desperation.  Duration: c20-60 sec

Perhaps if you told them (later) that you were ill.  Perhaps if you told them (later) that your computer had exploded.  Perhaps if you told them (later) that a family member was dying.  Perhaps if you told them (later) that a magnitude 8.9 earthquake had struck on a previously undetected faultline and your entire town was now rubble filled with 22,000 dead . . . . then maybe they would let you SLEEP for a few seconds more.

Stage 6 – leaden resignation.  Duration: c5 min – 1 day

In the end, one is powerless.  There is no meaning in life.  No one can fight the forces that control you.  Not now – not till the day you die.  This is when you open your eyes.  The heartbeat finally begins to slow down.  Perhaps you turn over in bed.  Tears prick, but they always prove empty.

Stage 7 – The clock.  Duration: n/a

Not much.  You just gaze at the clock and read the time it is displaying.  And you realise that everything that the theologians, philosophers, scientists, politicians, cartoonists etc have ever said, is wrong.

Stage 8 – Intimations of mortality.  c1-5 days

That feeling that your own death is creeping towards you as fast as you are stumbling and blinking blearily towards it.

Published in: on August 6, 2010 at 11:59 am  Leave a Comment