Notes: On Creep

Creepy. Not quite the same as scary.

Someone running at your with a knife is probably scary. Someone staring at you and repeating your name over and over is probably creepy.

A man having sex with a goat may or may not be disgusting - that's a related issue. But I think a man having sex with a plastic goat is more creepy than a man having sex with a real one. Unless perhaps the real goat is making wordless vocalisations that would suggest, were it human, that it was enjoying the experience.

Eating rotten food - disgusting to almost all. Eating your father's well-cooked brain as part of a funeral ceremony - disgusting to the parochial. Drinking the blood of your enemies - gruesome perhaps, but condemned for being barbaric, not for being unhygenic. Drinking the blood of nubile virgins while in evening dress - complicated symbolism-wise, but no one suggests that Dracula shouldn't drink blood because it's bad for his health.

A man who wants to be transformed into a woman - creepy to some? If they pay a surgeon to cut and reshape their genitals to something resembling a vagina - to the person who finds transsexualism creepy, would the surgery be better described as scary because it's incomprehensible to them, or scary because it's castration, or scary because it proves the taxonomy of their culture is false?

Or disgusting because it's sexual and sexuality is digusting to them? Or disgusting because they've been told the appropriate response is disgust?

I admit it: Vaginas look weird to me, even disturbing. Anuses (male or female) aren't repulsive, just uninteresting. Penises and scrotums...certainly not beautiful; attractive in an unrelated way.

Muslims are genuinely disgusted by the idea of eating pigs. Most atheists are genuinely disgusted by the idea of eating dogs. Our emotional responses are real, but in a sense they're artificial. But not so artificial that we always know the best word for an emotion.

When I was a child I found shop window mannequins creepy, or unnerving. But not those poseable minuature figures used by artists, or stick figures, or cartoon characters.

I think mannequins were too close to looking like real people, while being obviously not, and the others were far enough away from looking human to be comfortable. Dummy's were in my "uncanny valley".

I had nightmares about them. Specifically I had nightmares about them moving and speaking - something which pushed them from creepy and unnerving to just being terrifying.

I enjoy creepypasta - spooky campfire stories reincarnated for the internet. But only because it's a form of speculative fiction adjacent to science fiction, and I've always been a fan of that cluster of genres. Stories about ghosts, inexplicable happenings, prophecies, things half glimpsed in doorways, demons from hell and demonic aliens from the planet Zog - not scary at all.

Daleks and cybermen, tentacled things made giant by "radiation", stone angels that move when you're not looking - these to me are intriguing ideas. But I've played videos of these things for teenage students, and seen them watch through their fingers. And yes, it was mainly the girls who did that - audience reaction is as much a psychodrama as what's on the screen.

Dolls are creepy. So are clowns. So clown dolls are probably extra-creepy. But not to the children who play with them. Whatever happened to childhood fear being the root of adult creep?

The dark is scary, presumably because it's the unknown, but it isn't creepy. You can be scared of the sound of scraping metal behind you (threat), or a blank void around you (the unknown), but I think you need to identify something to be creeped out by it.

A dark room, a locked door with stories of something mysterious behind it, a hooded cowl that hides a face - these can be scary, because it's the unknown. A sharp scalpel, a voice shouting threats, blood dripping on the floor - these are a different kind of scary, because they suggest threats.

But a dark room containing sounds of laboured breathing, a voice coming from behind a locked door, a hooded face that shows hints of reptilian skin, a knife made of teeth, a voice shouting in an unknown language, blood dripping from the ceiling - here there's some information, but not enough to form a clear idea of what's happening. Here it's not even clear whether there's a threat or not.

The wicker man is scary, the islanders are creepy.

Scare is about ignorance or threat. Creep is about ambiguity, uncertainty, hints that don't add up. Scare is knowing nothing, or knowing something bad. Creep is not knowing enough.

Scare is no world, or a bad one. Creep is a world that doesn't make sense. Creep is a response to violation of taxonomy. Specifically, to a culture's idea of the categories of nature. The dead coming back to life, a child having three fathers, a man living a thousand years, a creature living in seven dimensions, your own reflection in the mirror talking back to you, a hundred identical people, a family talking in unison.

The terms are not mutually exclusive. A cat with human feet is bizarre, and could easily provoke fear, not because it's a threat, but because...well, strangeness can provoke fear. Unfamilliar people are "strange"-ers.

Reality can be creepy too. Children suiciding, children killing other children, siamese twins, getting sexual pleasure from murder - these are things which manifestly do happen, but which the metaphysics or superstitions of our culuture say can't happen.

A woman marrying another woman, a man marrying a dozen women, a white man marrying a black woman, someone not believing in a god, someone hating god - to some, these are taxonomical violations. That is, things which are allegedly contradictions in terms, yet happen. Hate groups live in an ambivalence - they hate the impossible for being possible.

So what about a girl of 18 falling in love with and marrying a man of 80? A green card marriage, or a vow of lifelong celibacy, a fetish for amputees, defacting in public, addiction to colonic irrigation, a taste for eating soil. No culture is truly monolithic, and no taxonomy is exhaustive, so many violations are marginal cases.

For one who has the courage to face the world, ask awkward questions and learn from experience, much might be scary, but little can be creepy.

With apologies to Susan Sontag.

Notes: That's the Spirit

Some people say, "I'm spiritual but not religious". It puzzled me for a long time what they could mean.

Religion isn't belief in a god, because not all religions have gods. It's not belief in supernatural beings and realms, because that would make channelling a religion. It's not submission to authority in matters of belief and action, because that would make kindergarten a religion.

Religion is belief in teleology - a purpose to the universe. A goal, plan, guiding principle with a target. Though to believe in a masterplan is not necessarily to believe in a masterplanner.

To that extent, anyone fighting a battle where they belive victory is inevitable has a religion.

Teleology is a form of amimism, as is the anthropomorphic belief that morals exist "objectively" outside of societies, but not all animisms are teleological.

Often, there's an attitude towards the supposed masterplan - that to push the plan towards completion is "good" and to oppose it is "bad". Or conceivably the other way around, eg. satanism.

Hence the relation between religion and "faith" as in "to have faith in X". Faith in this sense is an attitude of trust - faith in the goodness of people, in the reliability of an information source, and in History moving itself forward towards a better world.

This implicitly presupposes that the masterplan is knowable to humans and (at least in part) known to the beliver. Thus someone with religion believes they have special insight which common folk lack.

It also presupposes that humans in general and the believer in particular have the power to help or hinder the plan. Thus the religious believer believes they personally have godlike power to affect all reality - through ritual, prayer, meditation etc. This is the connection with belief in the supernatural - to believe in a masterplan carried out by willpower presupposes a belief in magic.

Which in turn means the people they identify as the enemy (a foreign nation, a rival church, an unpopular minority, an imaginary conspiracy etc.) also have the same power, though they may lack the special knowledge. To the christian, hindus work against god.

Religion here involves the elevation of the concerns of a sect (or an individual) to cosmic levels of importance. The flipside of this is the reduction of the universe to a human drama - storms as angry gods, earthquakes as punishments, astrology, fate etc.

Religion is attractive partly because it offers simple answers to difficult questions, but also because it makes the believer feel special - even in a nation of believers - as one who both knows the masterplan and is part of it. Thus even without atheists, the believer needs notional unbelievers (or less fervent believers) to be superior to.

When a person says they have spirituality but not religion, the minimum they mean is they are aware of a teleology.

Defining the teleology, being able to promote or retard it, defining good and bad by this ability, having enemies defined by it, being part of community of believers, superiority to nonbelivers - all these are nonessential options, and can be added and subtracted as needed.

Spirituality in this sense then is minimalist religion.

Notes: Tasty

Not every page of notes becomes an essay, but sometimes the notes themselves might be interesting. There were my notes on the notions of good and bad taste.
We can declare that someone has "good taste" or "bad taste" - meaning they have taste we regard as somehow "morally superior" or "inferior", whether or not we share that taste ourselves.

A particular set of preferences could in priniciple be deemed "good" by everyone, even when no one has them. The starship-building species of Terry Jones' "Starship Titanic" novel all pretended to love "fishpaste", even though they absolutely hated it, as a matter of planetary pride.

This is taste in the sense of fashion - with the denial that it is fashion. "Good taste never goes out of style", "Fashions come and go but taste remains", etc.

You could define a snob as someone who pretends to others and have the tastes which they think would make other people admire them. Yes, a snob is both a sycophant and a con artist whose marks include themselves. Tangled web? What tangled web?

This notion of taste is of relatively unchaning likes. It would be surprising to hear "He has bad taste in clothes this week, but had good taste last week".

This idea of taste is of who you are generally, not what you're doing at the moment. "A morbid taste for bones", "It's just the way I am - my taste" etc.

But included in the notion is that who you are can change, and thereafter last a long time. "You need to change your taste in men", "He won't stop - He's gotten a taste for it now" etc.

This is taste as in personal preference - a preference that defines the person.

And yet it's perfectly true to say that my taste in tea goes in phases. This month, I'm into white tea. In the past it's been lemon tea, or green tea, or just plain black tea.

We don't have a clear notion for a personal anti-taste - you might encourage someone to develop a taste for Beethoven, but would you encourage them to develop a distaste for Bach? You might think it wrong that an older man has a taste for younger women, but would you think it right that he become repulsed by them?

I know someone who experimented a few times with gay sex...and two decades later found a taste for it. Was it there all the time but denied, or is sexuality just like any other pleasure - one you can enjoy when it happens but "take it or leave it", until one day you decide (discover?) you'd like it to be a habit.

What about occasional tastes? I drink spirits...once every few months. I go through periods of ploughing through audiobooks - no amount of listening to worthy classics can push me into the zone of like it if I'm not already in it.

Today I realised that for the price of a bottle of coke I could buy three times as much milk. Just as cold, just as pleasant to drink, just as hydrating - once you get past the strange looks people give you when you swig it on the street.

So I suppose that's my taste now.

The Man from...

I should probably note that I am now an uncle.

At 0900 on April 30th, my brother became a father - and is therefore legally obliged from now on to wear dad jeans, tell dad jokes, and do dad dancing. He will never be cool again.

By an amazing coincidence, at exactly the same time, his wife gave birth to a 7lb baby girl by caesarian section. Both were exhausted by the experience.

So for the next year or so, the baby will get 12 hours of sleep every day, while the mother...doesn't. I'm quite sure that's against the rules of arithmetic, but it seems to be a rule of babies.

Two high flying careers are now on hold, my own mother is knitting one-piece baby suits and teddy bears in her new role as grandmother, and I suppose I'm now officially a little more middle aged than before.

Jump the Schach

Demonic face
Whirling Dervish with arms raised
A man's face with mutton-chops and red eyes
A symmetrical sand dune
Ice cream cones
Two animate statues with Easter Island heads dancing around a cauldron
A red bowtie
Two DJs mixing with spinning guitars in the background
Sasquatch seen from below
A beaver balanced on a bison skull
Two bald men asleep at opposite ends of an enormous bed
A bat
A kangaroo with an opening parachute
Mice burrowing under a fur rug
The RKO tower
A tiger skin rug
An insect with a long feeding tube
The spades card suit
Rabbits about to kiss
Broken razor blades
Red tigers stepping in puddles
A flying machine with square blue wings
A green mountain
Fighting orange unicorns
A row of red apples
Sunbathing turquoise elephants
Blue crabs each weilding a leaf
A vagina
A woman in a multi-coloured bikini and huge feather boa


I have a job interview. I've collected the twelve most likely idiotic questions, so I can tick them off as they're asked.

Here they are in alphabetical order:
  • How would you feel about working with people who are younger and more ambitious than you?
  • Tell us about yourself/What kind of person are you?
  • What’s your (greatest) weakness/challenge?
  • What can you bring to the workplace?
  • What did you enjoy most about your last job/What do you hope to get out of this job?
  • What did you learn in your last job?
  • What is your (greatest) accomplishment?
  • Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
  • Why are you better than the other applicants?
  • Why do you want the job/to work for us?
  • Why should we hire you?
  • How much are you prepared to work for?
UPDATE: In the event, they asked none of these stupid questions. The questions of the British Civil Service are a different kind of stupid.
  • How can we guarantee that enquiries are responded to on time?
  • How can we maximise quality of work?
  • What makes a client satisfied? which the correct answer to all three is: "It depends on the situation". Or more succinctly, "Oh piss off!".

Deeply Dippy

Deepity (n): A statement with two interpretations, one true but trivial, the other profound but false.

The term was popularised by philosopher Daniel Dennett, after being coined by a friend of his teenage daughter. Deepities are common in self-help books, religious apologetics, and sales pitches.

* "Time is a word" - could mean "The word 'Time' is a word", or "The concept of 'Time' is nothing more than a word'.

* "God is love" - could mean "Love is good and important", or "When you feel love, you're feeling a magic man in the sky".

* "There are no problems, only opportunities" - could mean "Every problem presents an opportunity to overcome it, which may or may not involve innovation", or "There is no such thing as a problem, and only foolish people like you believe there is, wheras wise people like me know better".

* "Everything is in a process of coming into and passing out of being" - could mean "Stuff changes constantly", or "Everything is simultaneously itself and something else". It's also used to argue that "All categories are fuzzy at the edges" (obvious and trivial), or "All categories are false" (obviously trivially self-refuting).

* Jean Baudrillard's (in)famous declaration that "The Gulf war did not take place" - could mean "All that death and destruction was a lie", or "Most of us experienced it on the same level as the death and destruction of a video game".

But...what's the opposite of a deepity? What would we call a statement with two interpretations - one shallow and false, the other profound, maybe obscure, and true?

For instance, Marshall McLuhan's famous slogan, "The medium is the message". On one level, it's a basic category mistake, conflating "Television" in the sense of "The technology which makes it possibe for you to watch soap operas", with "Television" in the sense of "The soap operas you watch". On this level, it would mean "The story is the paper it's printed on" or "The grapevine is the rumour".

But what McLuhan is saying is more like "The presence in your life of all the economic infrastructure, technological skill, scientific understanding, construction centers and distribution networks necessary for you to watch crap on TV...makes more difference to how you live than the crap on TV".

So, all the preconditions that had to be in place, for me to dunk a cheap biscuit into a cup of tea with milk at six in the morning before typing this sentence on an affordable laptop...are earthshattering compared to one soggy biscuit and one impulsively written blogpost.

Maybe the opposite of a deepity is just an aphorism. Like "The fox knows many things; The hedgehog knows one great thing", or "History repeats, first as comedy, then as farce", or "Nothing causes greater adherence to an opinion than opposition to it.".

Here are some aphorisms from a blog I just found. Except some are, in my humble opinion, deepities. I've struck through those which I think are pseudo-profound. See what you think - more to the point, see where you disagree.

* Prove to me that there is a God and I will really begin to despair.

* More often the miracle is what does not happen.

* What people believe is a measure of what they suffer.

* I broke a stone to see what was inside. It was no longer inside.

* Today there is no-one to fight for. Only against.

* Few silences are unbiased.

* The purchase of books is mistaken for the appropriation of their contents.

* Learning too soon our limitations, we never learn our powers.

* “Pull yourself together” is seldom said to anyone who can.

* Science is a system of exact mysteries.

* A grass blade hyphenates earth and sky.

* Never take investment advice from someone who has to work for a living.

* It is a sign of weakness to avoid showing signs of weakness.

* There is this prevailing illusion that debt is a renewable resource.

* “Success” isn’t being on top of a hierarchy, it is standing outside all hierarchies.

* We idolize eagles although hens are much more useful.

* All events and experiences are local, somewhere.

* Detachment is not indifference.

* There are two endless directions. In and out.

* Narcissism is the other side of self-pity.

* I got serious; I became a humorist.

* Luck cannot be duplicated.

* Humans have stomachs twice the size of their brains and three times the size of their hearts.

* Once you have resigned yourself to your sentence, the guard always unlocks the door.

* Thinking’s the disease. More thinking’s the cure.

* Guessing is more fun than knowing.

* I don’t know how old I am. It changes every year.

* True deception goes unnoticed.

* The distance a goldfish swims is not controlled by the bowl.

* A mystery is a topic about which the more is learned the less is understood.