What is pornography?

March 9th, 2020

Libertylo

What is pornography?

As soon as you read that question I suspect most of you would have intuitively formed an answer. My guess is you would classify pornography as images of a sexual nature that you wouldn’t want your family to know you enjoyed.

My next guess is that the word, ‘enjoyed’ took you a little by surprise: if you were ever asked such a question in polite company you would, of course, deny that you enjoyed such a thing as pornography.

The paradoxical thing about pornography is that it is simultaneously denounced and desired: when used in public the term is pejorative and yet pornography exists purely because many people from society privately desire it.

Let’s look at the people who desire it.

I once read a startling statistic that claimed over fifty percent of all Internet traffic is dedicated to pornography. Such traffic is not created by a small group of perverts satisfying their lusts.

Human beings are sex machines. After puberty, most of us are subject to powerful sexual drives – it is, after all, the fundamental reason we are all on this earth. Sex should be as natural as breathing or sleeping and yet our society has chosen to largely hide that drive or to sanitise it to such a degree that the only time we come across it is via a movie or marketing. Why is that?

Human society is built on rules; it can’t function without them – in the UK we all agree to drive on the left hand side of the road to facilitate traffic flow. The bigger and more complex a society becomes, the more its members are asked to behave in increasingly predictable ways. This allows certain systems and processes to operate smoothly and on a level that allows other layers of complexity to develop on top.

Sex, by its very nature, requires participants to ignore other things going on around them. It has an urgent immediacy that demands gratification. When a couple fall in love the sex urge is extremely powerful and dangerous within them. People who would normally consider themselves to be law-abiding and even prudish can find themselves performing all manner of outrageous acts once under the thrall of love.

And here lies the paradox: sex that excites demands a loss of control while society demands predictable order. The more order demanded in a society, the more extreme its pornography will be.

This inverse rule can also be observed in strict hierarchies: the higher up someone is in the official administration, the greater will be their desire for loss of control (and their positions of power usually allows easy access to opportunities). Stories about government ministers being prone to drug taking and participating in disreputable sexual practices are unremarkable due to their regularity.

Pornography is a subjective term. Only the individual can decide on the criterion – what is pornography to one is art or eroticism (or just plain sex) for another. I recall learning about the excavation of a Roman villa during the Victorian era: some of the mural images were vandalised by the outraged archaeologists because of what they depicted. This in itself is a fascinating philosophical puzzle: whose crime is the most heinous – the Roman hedonists unashamedly illustrating their practices or the Victorian archaeologists destroying evidence?

And everyone has an innate sense of what is acceptable in pornography. I’m sure many online searches for pornography by curious users have thrown up something that the searchers would regard as criminal, obscene or revolting. Porn exists at the very limits of the pale. Significantly though, it has to remain on the right side of it.

Society is in constant fear of disorder – that’s why one of the first buildings a society constructs is a prison. A human being in the throes of orgasm is a person out of control that is why sex is suppressed by nearly all human societies.

Pornography is like Revolution: it is a novel state of lawless abandon that bestows a sense of power on the participants.


Why do some people defend oil?

February 19th, 2020
Photo: Zbynek Burival from Unsplash

Photo: Zbynek Burival from Unsplash

If your wealth and power is derived from the business of selling fossil fuels then this question is redundant.

If however you have no financial investment in fossil fuels, why would you actively promote its continued use if better* alternatives exist? Most people take existing technologies for granted and generally become enthusiastic about the new alternatives and not for the old technology that is being threatened – so what’s going on?

I often run across people who actively campaign against the proliferation of renewable energy technologies and fiercely support fossil fuels that they have no investment in. This goes against any kind of logic.

If this attitude were applied across the board, would they be condemning all new innovations? And where would they set their cut-off point for acceptable technology – today, a century ago, the Stone Age?

One argument they offer is that they see renewable energy companies as being snake oil salesmen who dupe governments for huge sums of money.

The problem with this argument is that renewable energy technologies work. The argument then moves onto, they don’t work well enough or they’re just as harmful as the old technology. But all technologies have a development period where they improve beyond measure – just look at early brick-like mobile phones that could only make and receive calls to today’s tiny marvels of functionality.

The only answer I can come up with for this perverse attitude is that the fossil fuel companies have co-opted some members of the public to imagine they are crusaders for a cause (again, if the people aren’t connected to the companies in any way what drives the motivation?)

History shows time and time again that a dominant company will do everything in its power to consolidate its position in a market regardless of the cost. It will resist change that it has no control over.

Here is a classic example.

In the early days of the combustion engine there was a problem with ‘knocking’ in the car engine. Several additives to the fuel were tried to stop the problem and eventually lead was shown to be highly effective. The only problem was lead is toxic to humans and many other life forms. Fortunately, ethyl alcohol proved to be equally effective and wasn’t poisonous unless you drank it.

The oil companies went with lead and proceeded to commit the greatest man-made environmental disaster the world has ever seen. Hundreds of millions of cars all over the globe sprayed out a fine mist of lead that now covers the planet. This lead can never be removed.

Why did they choose lead?

Profits.

Tetraethyl lead could be patented and its distribution controlled; any farmer however, could distill ethyl alcohol from grain.

It was only legislation that stopped lead pollution from car engines (other pollutants are still being pumped out).

An industry that has so little regard for the safety of anyone (all the oil executives and their families were being poisoned as much as anyone else) can be expected to behave in an underhand way, so my guess is that their propaganda has radicalised enough people to form an army of opinion.

Any other suggestions as to why people who don’t financially benefit from fossil fuels help promote them would be welcome.

*A lot of what is considered to be ‘better’ is subject to a myriad of other factors and is an essay in itself.


Tracy Brabin in a Power Dress

February 6th, 2020
Tracy Brabin in the House of Commons

Tracy Brabin in the House of Commons

Tracy Brabin was recently the subject of much discussion on social media for wearing a particular garment in the House of Commons – it caused outrage among some members of the public.

It did this because it confused certain signals in our ways of seeing.

Men are particularly conditioned to view women in a sexual way. Ours is a patriarchal society and much of our entertainment reinforces this view.

In many western films and TV, one of the signals for a woman to indicate her availability when she’s alone with a man is through the manipulation of her clothes – if she slips off of a shoulder strap, either of a dress or a bra, for example, she’s initiating foreplay. Over time, an audience learns to interpret the shorthand.

Ms Brabin’s top had an, ‘off-the-shoulder’ design and one of her shoulders was exposed while the other was not. The effect of ‘a strap’ being half way down her right arm was to give her the look (within the context of film entertainment) of someone about to undress.

In other ways, Ms Brabin conforms to a female stereotype in a film – she’s an attractive woman with long blond hair that is often worn loose so that some of it falls across one of her eyes in a seductive manner.

But Ms Brabin was wearing the top in the House of Commons where she’s an MP so within that context many men saw her clothing as inappropriate.

The House of Commons is still predominantly a male preserve despite the increasing numbers of female MPs in it. It is also replete with archaic and incomprehensible rituals that maintain the culture of male dominance. The sight of Ms Brabin disporting herself in such a setting clearly enraged some men – here was a woman in their domain, inflaming them with her sexual power – how dare she!

Of course, if Ms Brabin had been photographed against a white background wearing the top and people were asked to imagine the context with no other information to guide them, most people would assume it was taken at some fancy dinner or some other high-society function. Asymmetry is the clue.

Asymmetry is uncommon in most of our everyday attire and is therefore a sign of cultural status. Asymmetry is usually the preserve of the empowered.

Two naked shoulders on a woman during a heat wave would have probably gone unnoticed in the House of Commons but one is making some kind of statement – but how to interpret that statement?

Given our cultural conditioning, and the education of Ms Brabin, my questions are these: why did Ms Brabin choose that top for a day at work? Did she anticipate it would be provocative in the context of the House of Commons? If she did, what was she trying to achieve?

And why did she answer her critics with a list of possible interpretations for her appearance that described empowered women?

The answers lie in the struggle for power.

In our society, women have sexual power and men have political power. A woman who commands sexual power and political power is a prospect too terrifying for many insecure men to contemplate.

Who murdered the BBC?

December 1st, 2019

Screenshot 2019-12-01 at 12.56.41 PM

Say I’m an unbiased detective and someone has told me about the murder of a large media organisation that I only have knowledge of through news reports. I’m assigned to do the investigation of the murder. I might have my theories about who did it based on the perceived attitude of the BBC and those it might have angered but I need evidence that will stand up in court so I look for likely suspects. I get a tip off that a group of Flat-Earthers did it. I’m shown circumstantial evidence that is strong enough to make me do a thorough investigation of their ringleader.

Although I maintain I’m still being unbiased, I’m looking for evidence that proves the ringleader perpetrated the crime. If I find additional evidence that confirms my suspicion I will look for more. If I don’t find any I will need another suspect and motive. Because I’m a hard nosed detective who understands human weaknesses, a lot of my evaluation of the circumstantial evidence will be based on my gut feeling. For backup, I will have my trusty Occam’s razor perpetually up my sleeve ready to deploy.

Journalists are supposed to be like detectives – unbiased investigators looking for evidence of exceptialism. But what if the force becomes corrupt and infiltrated by bent reporters?

The BBC is supposed to be an unbiased news organisation (among other things) but there are rumours that it has become corrupt and right-leaning journalists are influencing particular investigations. Moreover there is empirical evidence to support the accusation: several recent broadcast clips have been manipulated to misrepresent the truth. The BBC’s defence is ‘human error.’

How can the claim be properly investigated?

Meticulous attention to detail might do it.

I could decide to take just one broadcast slot – the six o’clock news, and ignore all the other output. I choose this slot because it carries particular influence. I then decide on a timescale – say, one year, to analyse all the broadcasts in that period. I then decide to look for news items that feature only two entities: The Blues and The Reds as they are the most significant players in the power game. I then decide to choose a topic, one that is particularly human and therefore universal. I decide to look at mentions of xenophobia, in particular, anti-Semitism and racism. Then I begin my analysis.

Say I discover that in the time period there are forty reports of anti-Semitism (almost always associated with The Reds) for every one of racism (almost always associated with the Blues)*. My impression is that the problem of anti-Semitism is forty times greater than the problem of racism. And when I look forensically at the reporting of one of the news items I see that the BBC invariably maintains its supposed unbiased position by inviting a member of the Reds to deny the accusation. Strangely, little evidence is presented in these reports, it is nearly all opinion.

As far as the BBC is concerned, it has maintained its unbiased position and yet as an uncritical viewer I get the impression that The Reds have a huge problem with one particular issue whereas the Blues are almost completely free of it.

But then out slips my Occam’s razor and I assess the likelihood of this. Humans are more alike than different so I puzzle over this huge difference in reporting. I then find evidence that suggests racism is as much an issue with The Blues as it is with The Reds – so why the discrepancy in reporting?

I now look at the backgrounds of the people working in the BBC. The vast majority share the same culture as the members of The Blues. My Occam’s razor itches for more action. It appears a lot of the top journalists at the BBC are actually on intimate terms with a lot of The Blues – now I have a motive.

This forensic analysis could reveal significant patterns in bias. It seems strange that very few are ever conducted – I wonder why? I was sent a link (thanks Karl) of one such attempt though.

One final thought. There is evidence that illegal drug taking within Parliament is rife. Where is the ongoing outrage over this? Could it be that too many politicians and journalists are involved in the activity and so don’t care for its discussion? Lucky for them they have the powers to influence which cases are investigated and which are not.

*Hypothetical figures.

The Great Climate Change Deception

May 21st, 2019

mohamed-nohassi-186911-unsplash

Let’s ignore the fact that over 90% of scientists agree that climate change is man-made (most people thought the sun revolved around the earth at one time so consensus is not a guarantee of accuracy) and just look at the overall logic of the situation.

Today, we have fossil fuels as the main source of energy in society. We’ve been burning wood to keep warm and cook food for millennia – it’s a very old way of doing things. Oil and gas are just wood that’s more energy-dense.

Plants have harnessed the energy of the sun and wind for hundreds of millions of years to propagate themselves – this is the oldest method of all, we simply lacked the technology to take it beyond sailing ships and burning insects under magnifying glasses. Until now.

Today we have efficient solar panels, wind turbines and hydropower. This technology is still in its early stages and so the full potential of it hasn’t been realized yet.

So there’s a cleaner alternative to fossil fuels. As more and more people are living in cities now, being cleaner is one benefit that will improve the health of millions of people.

A bonus of this cleaner energy is that it doesn’t increase CO2 emissions from human activity (ignoring all the associated costs of mining and processing). So regardless of whether CO2 emissions affect the climate or not, you’ve taken that possible risk out of the equation so surely that’s an improvement?

Where I struggle is when a person not connected with the fossil fuel industry insists the climate change issue is a deception – why would they take this position?

If they belonged to the fossil fuel industry then it would make sense: they stand to lose money and their job, so like any obsolete industry they will fight to the last.

But if they have nothing to lose from the switch why would they defend a giant polluter like the fossil fuel industry? Where’s the logic? Why would they be against cleaner energy, increased forestation, and greater biodiversity?

If they believe it’s a money making scam by environmentalists why do they get upset about this particular scam (remember they’re not involved in the industry) when there are far bigger ones taking place in the banking sector and in defence contracts?

What is the motivation for these people?


The argument against billionaires

February 12th, 2019
Photo: Filip Czech

Photo: Filip Czech

In mathematics, infinity is considered an abomination. If a mathematician gets the result of infinity she will nearly always assume that the result is wrong and that there is an error somewhere in her calculations.

In my opinion, economics should cultivate a similar aversion to extreme numbers for society to function in an orderly fashion.

I recently expressed an opinion on social media that billionaires shouldn’t be allowed to exist in society. Someone asked me why not? Here’s why.

A billion pounds is a lot of money. It is so much money that an individual would find it impossible to spend even a fraction of it in any meaningful way (we can explore the definition of ‘meaningful’ elsewhere). The choices left are to do nothing with the money or to spend it in a meaningless way (hey, how many luxury yachts can you sail in at any one time?) neither of which does much good.

The favourite neoliberalist argument is that anyone should be allowed to acquire as much money as they possibly can without limit. This argument relies on extreme capitalism – winner takes all. However, this position also requires belief in the reverse process – loser gives back everything and this clearly doesn’t happen in our society. The financial crash of 2008 demonstrated this. In that period, many private banks should have failed but they were given public funds to keep them in business. A government intervened for the good of the majority (a collapse of the economy was bad for everyone it reasoned). So if the government is there to limit the failures of financial institutions why doesn’t it also limit the successes of them? You can’t have private profits and socialized losses unless the system is dysfunctional.

They ‘earned’ it.

No entrepreneur made their fortune all by themselves. They didn’t build the roads that transported the goods; they didn’t educate the workforce that allowed logistics; they didn’t even make their own clothes that they went to work in. Society is a shared system. Individual members cooperate to make it work. The idea that one person had an original idea and single-handedly transformed that idea into a best-selling product is nonsense: chances are, their own education was provided to them for free. Thus, every successful person owes something to the society they belong to.

Say a billionaire wants to acquire yet more money (needless to say, at this level money is merely a numbers game for egomaniacs) and the easiest way for them to do that is to exploit oil fields in the Amazon rain forests, say. With their limitless resources they could pollute the environment with little cost to themselves to maximize their profits. And because they live elsewhere, they don’t need to care about the pollution. And even when their exploitation becomes so extreme that the earth is uninhabitable, they have enough funds to research the possibility of them blasting off in a rocket to Mars to escape the chaos. Is this acceptable?

Okay, I’m being facetious here (but only ever so slightly), the point I’m making is, money equals power. Say a billionaire wanted his own personal army – is that okay? If not, why? Then say they wanted nuclear weapons for their army – who or what is going to stop him? If countries come together to oppose the move then clearly they consider it unacceptable. Why? What’s the difference between a billionaire and a government? Would it have anything to do with perceived restraints on government decisions?

So let’s say the world gets its first trillionaire (remember, our system is winner takes all so we could end up with one person owning everything). That’s more money than the entire GDP of many countries. One person controlling this amount of money is essentially the equivalent of being a Roman emperor – unlimited power with no brake on anti-social behaviour. Ethics is the first thing to be abandoned in this scenario. How can that be good for a society?

It is incumbent on all governments to look after all the people that it governs. That means sharing the wealth to some extent. How hard would it be to devise a robust tax regime that was progressive with a cut-off point that reached a maximum tax rate of 100%? If an entrepreneur was genuinely concerned about ‘helping the world to connect and share’ then once they had reached a personal wealth of several hundred million (or whatever threshold was deemed acceptable) then they wouldn’t mind working for ‘nothing’ would they?

Even if a billionaire wasn’t an egotistical psychopath, and instead was a perfectly reasonable, responsible human being, they wouldn’t need to see homeless people in the richest cities in the world to remind them that society is unfair and needs balance. Remember, money has enormous economic power. Imagine Bill Gates pumping hundreds of millions of dollars into a charity based in an underdeveloped country. Imagine how that sudden influx of money is going to distort the delicate market structure in that economy. Even with good intentions, a billionaire making unilateral decisions can cause mayhem.

Yorkshire Sculpture Park, October, 2018.

October 23rd, 2018

Stones


The weather forecast was for a freakishly warm day with unbroken sunshine and judging by the business of the Yorkshire Sculpture Park car park that Wednesday morning, many of the visitors believed they were in for a cracking day.

Mitch had arranged to meet his friend Bill outside the gift shop entrance with the suggestion of spending a leisurely day walking around the splendid grounds of the park.

Mitch arrived first. He decided to wait just outside the entrance to the main building so that he could enjoy the sunshine. He sat on a bench opposite the car park and kept an eye out for Bill. He wasn’t too concerned about keeping a constant look out because he was sure if he didn’t see Bill, Bill would spot him. Mitch was not easily missed. He was a large man: six feet four inches tall and weighing nearly sixteen stones. He was dressed in a horizontally striped, blue and white rugby shirt, salmon pink trousers and light brown deck shoes. His thick grey hair sprouted like unruly cauliflower on his head. A pair of tiny but expensive binoculars hung around his neck.

Within a couple of minutes he heard his name being called – Bill had arrived. Mitch turned and saw a man walking towards him who was wearing thick-framed, dark glasses and a black Stetson hat. His most distinctive feature was his handlebar moustache: it grew so thickly on his upper lip that it seemed to flow out of his nostrils in a flood of bristles and could easily be mistaken for a fake one that he’d clipped to his nose. Mitch assumed that the moustache was carefully dyed every month because a sixty-year old man sporting such uniformly black facial hair seemed unlikely. In their long friendship he’d never thought to ask him if he did dye it. Bill’s black headgear was matched with a beautifully tailored black shirt, a black leather waistcoat, black jeans and black boots. A blood-red neckerchief set off the whole ensemble. All that he was missing to be the archetypal bad guy from a Western movie was a six-shooter hanging from his hip.

There was a firm handshake between the men; arthritis hadn’t attacked either of their hands yet.

Mitch said, ‘I suggest we go anti-clockwise today, just for the hell of it.’ Bill shrugged his shoulders in a carefree manner and they commenced their walk around the park.

The first new piece of sculpture they encountered consisted of three piles of sandstone blocks, stacked in such a way as to form rectangular structures.

‘Oh dear,’ said Mitch.

‘What’s up?’ asked Bill.

‘I feel a rant coming on.’

The massive structures towered above them as the two men strolled around the artworks. Each block of stone varied from the size of a washing machine to a double bed. The stone was not worked in any way other than being cut roughly into rectangles by big machines and drills. The one response it did evoke in the men was a childish urge to climb the structures using the easy handholds and footholds offered by the gaps between the blocks but a prominent sign instructed visitors to resist such a temptation and just in case they couldn’t read, a thin rope around the sculptures created a border of forbidden territory.

‘Is this art?’ asked Mitch.

Bill stroked his moustache in a dastardly manner. ‘There’s no such thing as art, as you well know, Mitch, only artists.’

‘As a child I grew up near a sandstone quarry which I often explored on boring Sunday afternoons. This…’ and he waved his arms vaguely at the blocks, ‘could be lifted straight from that quarry. In fact, you’d get more appreciation of stone by standing at the foot of the rock face in the quarry where they’d been cutting the slabs off than by standing in front of these things. What is this supposed to do for the viewer?’

Bill offered, ‘Maybe the art is contained in putting the stone here in this open field miles away from any quarry and then stacking the blocks into a geometrical design?’

‘Okay, but how is this different from standing at the foot of the cliffs on the Jurassic Coast with the sea behind you and observing all the different layers of rock? In fact, how is it any different from admiring a dry stonewall – the exact same criteria apply: stones in a field, stacked geometrically in a pleasing pattern. The wall even has a bloody purpose!’

‘So the wall can’t be art then. Isn’t it playing on the standing stones idea from ancient times? Shall we read the notes?’ Bill looked around for the plaque or sign that would probably explain the inspiration for the piece. Or not.

‘Sod that! You know my policy – if I have to read a great long thesis to understand what’s going on, I’m not interested.’ And as if to emphasise the point he cried, ‘Come on, let’s go!’

They walked up the gently sloping field towards the Long Gallery discussing the state of modern art when Mitch had a thought: ‘I’m beginning to suspect that the human race is starting to outgrow the idea of art.’

Bill burst out laughing. ‘You can’t be serious,’ he managed to say between guffaws. ‘The human species is defined by its creativity. We’re the only species that creates art.’

‘I’m not denying that but what if art is becoming a useless appendage, like a human appendix? It would naturally atrophy and drop off. We’re still evolving as a species – maybe art is at a transitional stage?’

‘And what would it be transitioning into?’

‘I’m not too sure, into something more contemplative, more thoughtful. Like Zen.’

Long Gallery

When they reached the Long Gallery there was another installation they hadn’t seen before erected on the grass bank by the corner of the building. It consisted of sheets of metal stacked on top of each other as you might find in any steel fabrication warehouse that was run by a foreman with bad OCD.

‘Oh dear,’ said Mitch. This time Bill didn’t ask what the problem was, he already knew. They had a look around the Long Gallery but Bill felt the need to hustle Mitch out of it as soon as possible as the artworks were having a deleterious effect on his mental health.

They walked up onto the ridge of the hill known as Oxley Bank that commanded a splendid view of the old Bretton Hall and the surrounding countryside. From one angle they could make out the M1 in the distance with ant-like vehicles crawling backwards and forwards along a black line in the landscape. Both men sat on the bench that had been positioned to take advantage of the vista and looked on in silence. Bill took off his Stetson, untied the red neckerchief from around his neck and wiped his sweating forehead with it. The climb and his black clothes in the burning sunshine had made him sweat profusely and his clothes felt uncomfortably clammy. Mitch peered through his binoculars at the horizon at nothing in particular; he just liked the power of being able to see into the distance.

‘Do you want to take a look?’ he asked Bill.

‘There’s nothing much to see, the heat is making the horizon too fuzzy.’ They both stared at the view in silence again. Mitch gave a satisfied sigh before he said, ‘Beautiful. Let’s continue.’

As they made their way through the trees along the ridge, Bill said, ‘Hang on, I want to have a look at the Goldsworthy piece,’ and he walked down a short little path that led to the boundary wall adjacent to a field. Jutting out from the wall was an enclosure built in the same style as the wall. When Mitch joined him and they looked over the enclosure wall they could see a deep pit about ten feet in depth and suspended in the void was a tree trunk lying horizontally. It was held up from the ground by being built into the surrounding stonework as if it were growing through the walls in an unnatural manner. The piece was old now and the tree trunk was starting to rot heavily which detracted from its weird configuration.

Tree with stones around it.

‘Look,’ said Mitch, ‘again; we can see this allusion to nature. I know Goldsworthy works with natural materials anyway but why do artists refer to the natural world? Is it because most people are becoming so divorced from nature that they need to be reminded of it?’

‘It’s funny,’ said Bill. Mitch looked at Bill in an expectation of a conclusion to this statement but none came. Bill noticed Mitch’s puzzled look and said, ‘I mean, this configuration is like a funny joke, an elaborate joke that makes me think: “huh?”’

‘I sometimes think that about life,’ said Mitch.

They came to the end of the ridge and started the slow descent that led down towards the lake. A familiar artwork greeted them in the trees: Speed Breakers by Hemali Bhuta.

Speed Breakers

‘Oh dear,’ said Mitch.

Both men stared at the bronze tree roots poking out of the ground.

Mitch continued: ‘these were probably quite funny when they were installed—and I’m going by your definition of “funny’, Bill, because shiny, bronze coloured tree roots would look odd. But these are so dirty now they’re indistinguishable from real roots so lots of people wouldn’t even notice them, they might even trip over them and not realise they’re supposed to be art.’

‘Lots of people do get tripped up by art,’ Bill quipped and looked pointedly at Mitch who noticed the look and said, ‘I’m serious – art has lost the plot.’

A hundred yards further along Mitch became animated and his voice boomed through the trees. They’d come across ‘Seventy-one Steps by David Nash: an artwork that did exactly what it said on the tin.

Seventy One Steps

‘This one gets me every time! Remind me, Bill, what is the one definition of art we can all agree upon?’

Bill sighed and resigned himself to the little exchange they always had when descending these wooden steps: ‘Art should be useless.’

‘Exactly! So how can this be art? They’re steps aiding a descent down a hill.’ He suddenly froze and his expression went into ‘screensaver’ mode then he burst into animation again by patting his pockets and muttering: ‘I’ve had an idea, I need to make a note of it and I’ve forgotten my notebook.’

‘Use your phone.’

‘I left my phone in the car.’

‘Use mine,’ and Bill produced his smart phone from his jean pocket.

Mitch hissed and made the sign of the cross with his two index fingers. ‘Keep your devil works away from me. I only interact with dumb phones. Serves me right for not remembering my notebook. What sort of writer forgets to carry a notebook at all times? I’m going to trust my memory, I’m not senile yet,’ and he gave up looking for any writing materials.

‘What’s the idea?’

‘Good thinking, Bill, it will help me remember the idea later by talking about it now.

‘It’s occurred to me that contemporary art came into being as a revolt against representation. Human forms and shapes from nature were out and abstract concepts and shapes were in. It was fun for a while – making jokes and puzzles but now contemporary art has run out of ideas, it’s cycling round to return to representation. What has happened is that the natural environment is becoming rare. People in cities have forgotten what trees looks like and how wonderful they are so artists are now trying to remind them of it. As more of the natural environment is built upon and lost, the art we will go to admire will be real flowers and trees that will be “exhibited” in places like this park. I mean, look at that Penone piece over there…’ They stared at a distant sculpture that looked just like a dead tree with a boulder stuck in its branches. ‘That’s a very good reproduction of a tree. It begs the question, why not just have a living tree there instead that’s even more realistic than the artwork?’

As they crossed over the bridge above the weir at the end of the lake, Mitch was vocally exploring the ramifications of his thoughts in a stream of consciousness – he was enjoying himself. On the climb back up the open grassy hill to the main building they came across another new piece of sculpture.

Metal Box

‘Oh dear,’ said Mitch. ‘Oh dear, oh dear.’

They were looking at a large sculpture of rusty metal framework about the size and shape of a HGV. The interlocking, square-sectioned steel beams resembled the skeleton of a high-rise building before any floors or walls are attached, except in the sculpture, none of the beams made any engineering sense. It was more like a giant puzzle.

Bill considered the piece. Finally he said, ‘Well, it must be art because it’s definitely useless.’ All that Mitch could do was mutter, ‘oh dear, oh dear’ over and over again.

As they walked back to the gift shop Mitch told Bill about a strange incident he witnessed the previous summer in the park.

‘I was walking by the lake at the other end and there was a young chap protesting. Here’s the funny thing though, he was dressed all in black with a polo neck jumper, black beret and dark glasses. He looked like a typical French avant-garde artist from the sixties. He had a placard that said “THIS IS NOT ART” and he had a scarlet rope pegged up to run completely around himself so the public knew they weren’t allowed to interact with him – except he interacted with them by shouting philosophical questions at them. I’ve never seen so many park wardens in one place with all their walki-talkies crackling at the same time. Judging by their unease I guessed it was some kind of unofficial stunt – probably by a performance art student. It was a good joke though and it got me thinking: I’m not the only one who thinks contemporary art has become a parody of itself.

‘No, I’m going to feed off the decaying carcass of modern art by writing a story about it. When we get to the shop I’m going to find a scrap of paper or promotional leaflet and scribble this idea down using a pencil that’s for sale in the gift shop – they can be hoist by their own petard!’

Eventually they reached the main building and on a counter Mitch found a white leaflet printed on matt cartridge paper with lots of blank sections. Inside the gift shop he found some pencils for sale and borrowed one to write his idea down for the story. As he scribbled, his thoughts seemed to tumble in on themselves and, as if in a hall of mirrors, they reflected back into infinity. He thought about the graphite in the pencil: he knew from history that at one time, it was only available from two places in the world, one of which was in England. Then he thought about the wood encasing the pencil – wood that came from a living tree that has been sculpted into a hollow case to hold the graphite. He marvelled at the thought that some people might buy the pencil and then sketch trees with it on paper that was produced from dead trees. How ironic and perfect would that be, how useless an activity?


The Revenant

March 1st, 2018

I finally got round to watching this magnificent film.

And watching it is pretty much all you can do because the dialogue is so incoherent that it might as well be just another layer of noise in the astonishing soundscape. I don’t know if Tom Hardy (playing Fitzgerald) was attempting to hide an atrocious American accent or what, but he’d buried it deeper than the grave he digs for Glass.

The absolute star of this film is without doubt the landscape. Shot in ultra wide angle, you genuinely get a sense of the pitiless beauty and scale of it.

As much as I enjoyed the visual journey through the landscape there were too many attendant aspects about the film that irritated me along the way like so many biting mosquitoes. In fact they drove me so mad I had to write this blog post.

I’ll ignore any historical inaccuracies depicted because they won’t bother any viewer who is unfamiliar with them. What I will cover are the obvious stupidities in the story.

Cold is a killer. Anyone who has experienced snow knows how insidious it is, an hour in it is usually enough. If you fall into a freezing river you have minutes before you succumb to hypothermia and die.

In the film, Glass crawls out of a frozen river still suffering from his life threatening injuries sustained during a bear attack but he still manages to make a small fire and dry himself out and the bear skin cloak.

I was particularly amazed by all the handy gas burners conveniently situated just below the ground in various locations. At least that’s what I guessed they were because you don’t get a bright, dancing flame a foot high from a few small twigs. The only other possible explanation is that he was burning animal fat – but where did he acquire that in the wilderness and as a starving man surely he would have eaten it first?

In one scene, Glass is laying by a campfire that seems to be burning inside a snowdrift. All around him is a treeless flat plateau of snow. Where did the wood come from? And remember, this is a man who is supposed to be so injured he can barely walk.

The incident with the disembowelled horse forced me to put acro props under my disbelief to keep it suspended. The process of eviscerating a horse with a small knife must require as much effort as it does to build a shelter. The idea of the horse still being warm is absurd. Once the animal is dead, the heat would escape its body at the same rate as any cooked meat. So spending a night in it, naked (this symbolism of him being reborn was a touch too strained here) would produce hypothermia within hours.

The climax of the film contained the worst abuses.

Upon hearing of the possible survival of Glass, the captain of the fort orders a dozen men to go out into the wilderness and search for him at night using torchlight. Seriously?

Miraculously, they find Glass. The captain is furious at Fitzgerald and on returning to the fort they discover he has vanished after ransacking the safe.

Now, a safe is supposed to keep valuable things ‘safe’ so it’s usually difficult to get into. If any passing stranger can open the safe and take whatever they want from it then it’s not a safe, it’s a cupboard.

So we now have a vicious, remorseless man, heavily armed and desperate, loose in the wilderness. How many men does the captain muster to hunt him down? Er, two – himself and the barely recovered Glass. Bit odd that, why take a dozen men to search for a harmless survivor but only two to hunt down an armed desperado?

Inevitably, the two pursuers split up as they near their quarry and Fitzgerald murders the captain. Now it’s Glass, the expert guide and survivalist, versus Fitzgerald the mercenary.

Glass allows himself to be shot as he rides his horse through open territory. Fitzgerald approaches the body to investigate it whereupon Glass pops up from the other horse that carried the dead captain.

So a construction that needed to be strong enough to support a dead body in an upright position on a walking horse can be knocked over by a single bullet fired from a distance?

It gets worse.

After a struggle, Fitzgerald runs off and Glass gives chase but at one point is unable to decide which way he went. His tracking skills that formerly allowed him to follow footsteps in virgin snow to see where a quarry went have suddenly deserted him and he has to guess on the direction.

Iñárritu, the director of the film clearly wasn’t going to be distracted in his direction; he wanted a film about one’s man’s revenge against another man in all its stripped down brutality and he wasn’t going to let anything get in the way of it, especially the laws of physics or common sense.

It’s still a film worth watching though.


Toilet door handles

February 16th, 2018
Photo: Clem Onojeg

Photo: Clem Onojeg

After I’ve been to the toilet I always wash my hands. Data shows that most food poisoning is self-inflicted by handling food with contaminated hands.

After washing my hands in a public toilet I’m invariably confronted by one (but often two) doors that need to be pulled to open them.

Knowing that many people don’t wash their hands after going to the toilet (irrespective of how dirty they might have been) I’m always loathe to soil my freshly cleaned hands on aluminium handles that are no doubt harbouring harmful bacteria.

The answer of course is simple – make the doors on exit Push instead of Pull then hygienic users can use their shoulder or elbow to push open the door. The reason they’re not configured this way is because if they were, they would invariably open into a corridor and the door would then present a hazard to anyone walking along it. Most architects obviously think a case of campylobacter is preferable to an accidental injury that could result in litigation.

But I have an answer to this dilemma: two handles.

The usual grab rail handle can be placed in the normal position for comfortable leverage by the user – roughly at shoulder height. The second handle however is set much lower down so that it requires a slight crouching position to reach it. This would mean someone using the second handle would have to exert some effort in its operation. If a person is so lazy that they can’t even be bothered to wash their hands then they are extremely unlikely to use the lower handle.  This means only conscientious people will use it and so lessen the risk of harmful bacteria collecting on it.

You’re welcome.

Where Ideas Come From

December 3rd, 2017
fuyong-hua-Ideas

FuYong Hua from Unsplash.com

It’s logical to assume that someone somewhere must have once had an original idea. Today it is said that no ideas are original; our exposure to creative content is so great these days that it’s incredibly difficult to state with any conviction that a new idea is entirely original.

Plagiarism however, is more readily identified. The worst cases involve writers who copy and past entire novels, change a few details and then declare the work to be their own and try to sell it online for profit.

In-between these two extremes is a muddy area. Here is a recent case in point.

Jack Strange is a friend of mine from decades ago. He recently had a novel published titled Celebrity Chef Zombie Apocolypse. I read the novel and although the genre of fantasy horror was not to my liking, I was still happy for his achievement – writing novels is tough.

In fact, his achievement encouraged me to have a go at doing some creative writing myself and I wrote several short stories. One of them I posted on this site.

The inspiration for the story was very clear to me. Last summer Chris Olley and his wife, Karen, visited me. Chris had spent some time in Wakefield before moving to Nottingham where he formed the band Six.BySeven and with which he enjoyed considerable success.

We were sitting in the café of M&S where Chris was regaling me with stories from his colourful past. I was amazed he knew Bill Hicks and had corresponded with him. One of his other stories involved a well-known Rock Star who Chris was friendly with but who had a reputation in the music business of being incredibly unreliable.

Now, I’ve long been fascinated by the development of powerful technologies and especially algorithms that are set to take away everyone’s jobs so I joked with Chris that one day soon, this celebrity won’t be needed to introduce other acts as virtual reality will be convincing enough to fool an audience into thinking he’s really there.

After we’d riffed on this concept for a while I told Chris that there was enough material to write a short story about it. The result was Lazarus Corps.

I showed the story to a few people and one of them informed me that it wasn’t so much science fiction as science fact and told me about the Star Wars film where the character of Christopher Lee ‘acts’ even though he had been dead for some time. I hurriedly posted the story online before it became outdated.

Then Jack Strange came across it and accused me of plagiarizing his novel Celebrity Chef. I must say I was surprised by this allegation. The genesis of the story was clear in my head – it was that day in the café of M&S.

However, I reflected on his points: in his novel he has an invention called The Lazarus Engine that is used to resurrect a long dead TV chef (whose rotting corpse has to be physically dug up out of the ground).

In my story, the company that specialises in programming the algorithms to create the dead (and sometimes still living) celebrities from existing video footage of them is called Lazarus Corps.

Had Jack invented the name Lazarus and told a story about him being raised from the dead, I would have no defence and I would indeed be a plagiarist. But Lazarus is a story from the bible and has been invoked many times in creative works (Lazarus Raised by Peter Gabriel from 1989, for example).

Who has claim on the name of ‘Lazarus’?

If I had named the company in my story ‘Frankenstein Corps’ would that have been acceptable or would the estate of Mary Shelley be accusing me of stealing her original idea (or was she herself borrowing from the Lazarus story)?

The development of sampling technology brought this issue into sharp focus. Here, musicians were lifting actual samples of records to incorporate into their own ‘original’ works. Often, the samples only lasted for a few seconds but anyone familiar with the original work would recognise it.

Sampling is fine if the artists acknowledge the source and pay royalties if money is made from any creation but in this example the artists can identify precisely where their samples came from.

The creative process itself though, is not so clear-cut.

Here is an example.

I write comedy routines to perform live. As I develop the routines I make a habit of running the ideas past several trusted friends. More often than not, they comment and supply me with additional lines of exploration that I had overlooked or would never have thought of because my mind doesn’t work the way theirs does. Their interpretation of the content often sparks new ideas I can apply to my creative process.

Here is another apposite example.

Chrystal Roe posted a comment about Lazarus Corps being a possible jumping off point for a much longer story. This idea had never occurred to me, I just saw it as a complete short story but the comment has made me consider the idea. If I were to write the longer story, how much credit do I give Chrystal Roe?

This is even before we consider the area of subconscious appropriation. Music is a minefield for this. I’ve lost count of the number of lawsuits concerning plagiarised tunes. I’m pretty certain that the musicians involved often had no idea they had lifted chord progressions or melodies from old songs that they may have heard in the background at some point.

So when Jack brought his comparison to me I thought deeply about this – do I owe him a debt of gratitude?

With regard to appropriating any story lines, I don’t honestly know. If I do, then he will simply be in a long line of other storytellers I must have knowingly or unknowingly borrowed from.

But for the record, one thing I can acknowledge for sure (as evidenced by this lengthy post) is that Jack Strange has encouraged me to sit down and write.