Deep Dump

I get ideas. Some of them are a occasionally not shallow. Most of them don't turn into essays. But I've started making notes of them. Here's the last month's set.

The attraction of the reincarnation notion is that previous lives imply subsequent lives. Regression promises immortality.

Three types of people are impressed by wisecracks: children, jerks, and americans.

Ostentations disinterest hides discomfort.

Ally and rival, friend and enemy - these are relative terms. In any alliance, you need to know when to stop trusting your ally, and when to use your enemy.

Willing slaves hate the unwilling.

The difference between crazy and stupid is that crazy can be logical.

You know how conspiracy theorists always claim there's a masterplan executed by hyper- competent, all-powerful puppeteers? Well, there's a flipside - people delude themselves they *are* hyper-competent, all-powerful puppeteers with a masterplan.

If someone tells you exacly what you want to hear, ask yourself why they're lying to you.

If the victor finds no glory in defeating a weak opponant, surely the victim finds no shame in being defeated by a strong oppressor.

Belief is not acceptance of a proposition with optional emotional colouring. Belief is an emotion. You don't get angry with a pundit because you disagree with them, your disagreement is a form of anger.

If you keep trying to measure something and keep getting different results, it may be because you're trying to measure something that doesn't exist.

To pray is to ask a deity to do something, because you can't do it yourself. So prayer can be a declaration that you won't, disguised as an admission that you can't, disguised as a petition that someone else will. If you're only pretending to want something, pray for it.

Are ethical claims testable? Z is the desired outcome. X is the action. it is testable that X leads to Z. Thus the imperative W to perform X to lead to Z can be judged "just" in light of Z (considered as an imperative directed at the world).

No one evades the question unless they're dimly aware of the answer, and don't like it.

A crazy person is one incapable of hypocrisy. A too-sane person is the same. The difference is that the former turns ad-hoc rationalisations into eternal principles, while the latter drops principles which conflict.

A ritual is a procedure with an asserted false purpose, and a denied real one.

We can believe that we believe things that we believe are false. This makes ideology possible.

The concept of the original, pure, authentic lost world is an empty category, created by dissatisfaction with the present world. We think we've lost paradise, we know we want it back, but all we know about it is it's not what we know.

You don't need a person to have a cult of personality.

Magic of Storytelling / Storytelling of Magic

"There are two kinds of questions: Puzzles, and Mysteries." - Noam Chomsky

There are two types of investigation story. There are those which how an apparently inexplicable event gets explained, and those which describe an inexplicable event.

On the one hand, stories where something unexplained happens - a murder in a locked room, someone being in two places at once, escape from an inescapable prison - and we know in advance that we'll get an explanation at the end, and thus the reassurance that the world really does make sense. Indeed, the whole point of the pretence that maybe it doesn' to enable the assertion that it does. Rationalist storytelling.

On the other hand, stories where the pretence is that maybe the world does make sense, enabling the reveal that it doesn't. Irrationalist storytelling.

In the latter, we enjoy not knowing. In the former, we enjoy finding out. In the one, stories about ghosts, miracles, demiurges, prophecies, and messages from the afterlife - irrationalism. In the other, crimes being solved, questions being answered, order being restored, chaos being defeated, and people being enlightened.

Magic, and science. The hidden, and the unhiding. The unknowable, and the coming to know.

Scooby Doo mysteries look like ghost stories, but there's always a non-supernatural explanation. Gregory House may not save the patient, but he always solves the mystery - and for his one unsolvable case, the unsolvability was the clue that the whole thing was a hallucination. The science in Dr Who may be junk, but even in the most supernatural stories, there is always an explanation and it's always presented as scientific.

Contrariwise, the Psychic Investigators may investigate, but the only explanation they're allowed to come up with is "something mysterious causes something mysterious to happen, mysteriously". Creationism explains one mystery in terms of another - one for which we're not allowed to ask an explanation.

So, is the dichotomy as simple as that? Let's look at some examples - including examples of stories that pose as one, but are the other.

Patrick McGoohan's The Prisoner was a surrealist espionage serial - which really ought to be a contradiction in terms. Surely the point of surreal events is to be unexplained and by implication inexplicable, while the point of an espionage story - like its close cousin the murder mystery - is to restore order and rationality by solving a puzzle.

But no - in The Prisoner the surrealism is window dressing, including the gainax ending. It's an espionage serial and thus promises a resolution - which McGoohan was unable to provide. If the genre had been surrealism with espionage decorations, fans wouldn't be trying to make sense of the willfully unreadable final episode - or be outraged by its unreadability.

The X-Files was a loose bundle of unexplained events, including the central mysteries of the alien plan, the conspiracy and Mulder's sister. The pairing of the scientific skeptic and mystical believer - with the believer being proven right every week - would seem to point to the series being a compilation of ghost stories, with no rational explanation offered or expected. But the show had a rationalist premise, with the promise of a coherent explanation being always held tantalisingly in the future.

When fans realised there was no explanation in Chris Carter's mind, they stopped watching.

At first glance, Lost looks similar. A massively growing heap of mysteries waiting to be explained in the finale...which in the event explained nothing and even contradicted the mythology is was supposed to make clear. But actually I think the fans were in on the deal from the start - the writers admitted to making it up as they went along, and the fans found it fun (for a while at least) to play along with the pretense that all would be explained.

In the comicbooks, Superman constantly gets new powers (and forgets about old ones) whenever the plot demands. But there's still the pretense that "Magic A is Magic A" - that there is one set of rules in the comicbook's universe, they're mutually consistant, and they're always been the same. So the metaphysics of the Superman universe is rationalistic - just badly thought out.

One episode of The Sarah Jane Adventures features a creepy morphing clown who steals children. Sarah Jane is sure she can use reason to understand him and technology to defeat him, but he taunts her with the suggestion that there simply is nothing to understand. Then it's explained that he's an alien that feeds on fear...and for me at least suddenly shrinks from an intriguing threat to another monster of the week.

Stanislaw Lem's novel "The Investigation" concerns a police investigation into a spate of corpses seemingly re-animating, moving around for a few hours, then re-de-animating. A consulting scientist finds some correlations between the incidents and some weather patterns, and proudly declares the mystery solved - the weather brought people back from the dead, somehow.

The detective fails to find a rational explanation, and is eventually persuaded to pin the blame on a scapegoat - a man who drove near most of the incidents, and who presumably faked the reanimations for unknown reasons and by unknown means. The detective's boss understands clearly that the purpose of the investigation is not to find the truth or serve justice, but to cobble together a plausible explanation which can be sold as both, so we can stop being disturbed by the inexplicable.

He says of the mythical criminal: "You'll get the bastard even if he doesn't exist".

In The Investigation the only one who can see the obvious truth - that something supernatural has occurred - is the reader. Lem's other "detective" novel was The Chain of Chance, but here there's nothing magical - just a cluster of coincidences which give the impression of a crime where none occurred.

David Cronenberg's eXistenz is built around a refusal the answer the question "Are we still in the game?", ending with a pile-up of contradictory clues and the characters unable to decide. But if Cronenberg intended to suggest that the question is undecidable even in principle, that's not what he was able to make his work do. eXistenz may intend to say "there is no truth", but only manages to say "we can't know the far".

Antinioni's film Blow Up concerns a young man who might have accidentally photographed a murder. But the photographic grain is ambiguous, and even though he finds a body, it later disappears. The point seems to be that all evidence is by nature inconclusive, and life in general is a series of unconnected events with no plot. Hence the multiple subplots that go nowhere.

William Friedkin's Cruising is superficially similar, but has a more radical inexplicability. On the surface, it tells of an undercover police investigation into three murders, culminating in the hero catching the killer. But it's shown that the police are only interested in closing the file, not stopping the murders, or finding the killer, or even just solving a mystery.

In the novel on which the film is based, Burns the protagonist gets away with a fourth murder offscreen himself, but in the film he may or may not have done it. In the book, Richards the killer commits the other three murders, but in the film we only know the police want to clear the case by blaming him. Indeed, they offer him a deal - confess to these and a slew of other murders...and you'll get a lighter sentence.

We hear the killer speak three times, and each time the killer is played by a different actor - and when we see his face after the third murder, it isn't Richards - it's the face of the first victim.

The close resemblance between Burns, and the killer(s), and the first three victims, and a number of incidental characters is a plot point. Richards hallucinates his dead father, but whoever commits the three onscreen murders, they all speak with the father's voice - and Friedkin goes out of his way to make it obvious the voice is dubbed.

Cruising is a supernatural movie masquerading as a police procedural. The fan theory that Burns is himself (unknowingly?) the sole killer can't be squared with the clues presented - but the point is, nothing can.

So, the dichotomy looks to hold up - with some complications. It's another question as to whether all stories could in principle be categorised this way, or whether the Rationalist/Irrationalist distinction is a product of our Age of Reason.

Does Beowulf look like a ghost story to us, simply because we've grown up expecting an explanation? Is the Epic of Gilgamesh actually intended to make sense?

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.