Humans: the Civilised Animals

I like reading books that blur the line between the human and the animal. Things like Watership Down, or Call of the Wild. Or the current book I’m reading, Royal Assassin (book 2 of the Farseer trilogy). Watership Down and Call of the Wild are both written from the point of view of the animal, personified enough to have a narrative view point. The main character of the Farseer trilogy, Fitz, has the ability to share thoughts and senses with animals.

In every single book I’ve read where animals have a voice, there’s a marked disdain for civilisation. There’s the recurring idea that our society and cities are unnatural, that our way of life is stilted and artificial, that what we need to do is tear away the veneer of civilisation, of polite society, and get back to the basics of eat, sleep, kill, survive. That those are the only truths in life and we humans smother them in manners and concrete.

A supermaket isle, special offer signs having off every one

Civilisation: eat; sleep; consume. DO IT NOW!!

There’s a fairly new movement out there called Uncivilisation. They believe that our current society is unsustainable and deeply damaging both to us, and to the ecosystem we live in. Both beliefs I share. However, there’s also a strong current in the Uncivilised movement of ‘civilisation bad, wild good’. There’s the same mantras of unnatural cities and societies, of the only truth being in eat, sleep, kill.

I’ve been reading the Tao Ti Ching over the last few months. (It’s taking me a while to get through, because I read a couple of pages and then have to think about them for a few weeks.) The basic thrust seems to be that the entire world is an illusion, and you need to learn to look past it to understand the truth of the Tao (the way, or path). It makes a lot of sense: once you start saying, ‘x is good’, then there must be ‘y is bad’ otherwise ‘good’ is a meaningless term. Because the basic definition of ‘good’ is ‘not bad’, and the basic definition of bad is, ‘not good’, both concepts are entirely circular, so both are illusionary and can be discarded. Human beings are microcosms of the universe, and so the Tao is inside us. We simply have to be still, and listen.

I don’t know about the Tao, but ruminating on the Tao Ti Ching and poking the illusion that is what we normally call reality has made me more aware of what’s inside me. Under all the thoughts and angst and narratives I’ve internalised. Once we have found the Tao, we must work with it. Like working with the grain of wood when carving something. So I’ve been trying to work with the grain of me.

And so I’ve been thinking about this, ‘wild good, civilisation bad’ thing.

First of all, I’m not sure animals would be quite as disdainful of our civilised lifestyles as these authors imagine. “What? So… you sit around all day, and someone else kills your food and brings it to you, someone else builds your shelters and your beds, you don’t have to worry about weather, or famine, or being ill, you don’t have to kill to keep your children safe, you don’t even have to walk anywhere… And all you have to do is obey a few silly social rules? Dude, that sounds fucking awesome!”

Staffordshire terrier puppy and gray cat. Isolated on white background

We have that already! And all it cost us was our balls and fallopian tubes! … No. No it wasn’t worth it.

Secondly, human brains are incredibly plastic. They are designed to re-wire themselves to best exploit the environment they are in–and ‘environment’ also includes the bodies that they’re in. Society and circumstance change our brains on a biological level. So it’s impossible to describe any human tendency as ‘innate’. By the time time we’ve been out the womb three months, it’s already impossible to separate nature from nurture. We are Nature’s wild cards.

However. We do seem to have a definite tendency to form complex societies. We form groups, and those groups adopt customs, beliefs and expectations. Those groups tell stories, share experiences, share crafts, create art, acquire and record knowledge.

Society, if not ‘civilisation’, seems to be part of the grain of humanity. All that stuff which keeps us away from eat, sleep, kill is the stuff which makes us human. While we deny part of ourselves, there will always be a lingering sense of dissatisfaction.

So this, ‘let’s get back to the wild! Get back to honest living! Eat, sleep, kill!’ isn’t a solution. The wild/civilised dichotomy is a false one: part of the human ‘wildness’ is civilisation. A return to a beast-life is no more a solution than eating nothing at all is a solution to not liking broccoli. ‘Wild’ is defined as ‘not civilised’, and ‘civilised’ as ‘not wild’…

A mediveal woodcut of a woman throwing a baby in a stream along with the bathwater

Look on the bright side, kid:  at least you’re never going to have to eat broccoli.

So what is the solution? Find out what needs our civilisation leaving so unfulfilled that there’s this repeating desire to throw out the baby with the bathwater and run around the wood howling at the moon. The Uncivilised movement is having a fair crack at that, or at least parts of it are. And me? Of course I’ve got to do the same thing. Macro and micro are illusions and doing one without the other is like making a cake with half the ingredients.

Neutered cat and dog from here.  Supermarket from here.  Woodcut from here.

I, For One, Welcome Our New Evil Overlords

I’ve just rewatched the extended trilogy, and I’ve realised that I have a problem with Lord of the Rings. Well, there are many problems, but I have a different one.

A shot from the end of Lord of the Rings, Gollum sinking into the magma of Mount Doom

Gollum sinks?! This franchise is dead to me!

Let me just let you know where this is going to eventually end up: I’m going to forgive it and go back to loving it. When I first read the trilogy I went away and created my own epic fantasy world, and wrote two novels set in there. It captivated and inspired me. I’ve come to terms with Star Wars and I’ll no doubt come to terms with Lord of the Rings.

Now, back to getting my hate on. Actually, wait, one more thing: I’ve not read the Silmarillion, the appendixes, or any of the additional works. I’ve read The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, and I’ve seen the movies. So that’s what I’m talking about here, because stuff like this should never happen in the first place, let alone be patched up in obscure ‘bonus material’.

First, who the fuck awards the contract for making rings of power to a guy called ‘the Dark Lord’, who operates out of somewhere called ‘Mount Doom’? Frankly, you deserve what you get. If your characters stare at each other and say in hushed voices, “Evil McEvil the Lord of Evil from Fuck You Mountain betrayed us…” I’m not going to have a huge amount of sympathy for them. All it would take is Gandalf taking one minute to say, “he was not always known as the Dark Lord. Once, he was called Sauron the Ringmaker and his skill at the forge brought likes of Mr. T and Sonic the Hedgehog to his Mountain of Gold and Fire.” Then I might feel a bit sorry for Elrond instead of wondering why on Middle Earth everyone thinks he’s so wise, and making Mister Anderson jokes.

Elrond facpalms

He… he gave me mate’s rates. It seemed like such a bargain at the time…

And talking of the rings of power, there’s something even more fundamentally wrong with them. Here’s Gladerial’s introduction at the beginning of Fellowship of the Ring, the very first words in the film trilogy:

“The world has changed. I feel it in the water. I feel it in the earth. I smell it in the air. Much that once was is lost. For none now live who remember it. It began with the forging of the great rings. Three were given to the elves, immortal, wisest and fairest of all beings. Seven to the Dwarf Lords, great miners and craftsmen of the mountain halls. And nine, nine rings were gifted to the race of men, who above all else desired power. For within these rings was bound the strength and will to govern each race.”

So each and every time Gandalf, Aragorn, Elrond or anyone else talks about the ‘free people of Middle Earth’, what they’re actually talking about is a people enslaved to the ringbearer of their people. The ‘free people’ of Middle Earth live under a magical, despotic dictatorship. So now my choice of sides to cheer for becomes the magical despotic dictators, or the guy trying to overthrow the magical despotic dictators (MDD from here on). The MDD have labelled their opponent ‘evil’ and keep saying he wants to enslave the world, but when have despotic dictators ever said, ‘the opponents of my regime actually have a good point and maybe we should listen to them’.

Creating a clear ‘us and them’ line is an incredibly effective way to manipulate people. “We are Good. Anyone who is not Us is Evil. I decide who is Us, and who is Them.”

Seriously, when does Sauron actually do anything evil, other than have ugly servants? Does he really command Saruman to create an army to wipe out the world of men, to commit genocide? We only have Gandalf and Aragorn’s word for that. The only thing we actually hear from Sauron himself is “build me an army worthy of Mordor”.

The MDD hardly benevolent dictators. The only currency they understand is war. A leader must be a warrior, a fighter and a killer to be worthy of rule. The head of the vanguard is the only true place a king belongs. And all the thousands who follow him into the battle? The more who die, the more glorious the victory. And that’s the only use those of ignoble birth have. They are little more than cannon (… sword?) fodder for the nobles to play out their war fantasies. What drives a people to willingly throw themselves on the swords of their enemies for the glory of their unelected, unchosen leader? Maybe a magical ring that compels them to obey…

The power of the protagonists narratives (all the protagonists, with the exception of the hobbits, are nobles) extends beyond politics, magic and reason. In the third film, Merry rides into battle with the Rohirrim. The entirety of his martial training consists of a few seconds of holding his sword out for Boromir to hit. And yet, there he is, in the thick of battle, cutting down orcs who have spent their entire lives learning the art and craft of war. Anyone not of noble birth is there to fall upon the sword of the protagonists, to increase their glory, to prove the protagonist’s right to rule.

During both Helm’s Deep and the Battle of Gondor, Gimli and Legolas actually keep score on how many people they’ve killed. It’s literally a game to them.

The Cenotaph in London on Remembrance Day, 2012

Losers!  LOOOOOO-SERSS!

The whole story looks a lot less heroic when you realise it’s the enslaved people of Middle-Earth fighting to keep their war-obsessed MDDs in power against the free, but ugly, peoples of Middle-Earth rising up after centuries of being slaughtered simply for the crime of existing.

Oh, and one last thing: the Witch-King’s, ‘no man can kill me’. But a woman can. So, presumably, could an elf of either gender. Or a wizard. Or a dwarf. Or a hobbit. Or a horse. Or rat. Or a particularly bad cold…

So, yeah, there are problems with Lord of the Rings and right now, I can’t help but see them. Problems that make it more than an accidental exercise in privilege, that make it propaganda for white, male, Anglo-Saxon power founded on violence against those who don’t fit the ideal. Will I forgive it? As I’m white, male, Anglo-Saxon and raised until I was nineteen in Surrey, I’m pretty much the ideal audience for Tolkein’s Deep England bullshit. Maybe I’ll just have to learn to live with it’s ugly, ugly flaws until someone else makes a film just as epic with just as amazing battle sequences. And the book? I dunno. It’s going to take quite something to get me to read over a thousand pages of fail. Especially when there are plenty of alternatives out there.

Gollum sinking into the magma from here.  Elrond from here.  Cenotaph from here.

Nature vs. Nuture vs. Suicide

A study by researches at Indiana University in Indianapolis have found a possible biological indicator of suicide risk:

“Because of the brain’s complexity and inaccessibility, the search for predictors of suicide risk has instead focused on molecular signs, or biomarkers. These biomarkers help to indicate which people are at even higher risk… When the biomarkers were combined with clinical measures of mood and mental state, the accuracy with which researchers could predict hospitalizations jumped from 65% to more than 80%.”

As far as I can tell, the science reporting seems sound enough:  there’s no dramatic claims; there’s discussion of the methods and actual results; there’s the obligatory ‘the sample size is very small so more research is needed’.

As someone with both genes and suicidal thoughts, it feels as if I should have something to say about this.  I think perhaps the most I can manage is that the critical phrase in the entire article is, “When the biomarkers were combined with clinical measures of mood and mental state”.  There’s something in our blood that environmental factors may activate.

The combination of DNA and environment is not a surprise.  Our brains are plastic and re-wire themselves to best exploit our environment so, really, the line between nature and nurture is fuzzy at best.

A child stares at the camera, deeply bored

Pictured: lack of surprise

I’ve had this tab open for a while now, trying to work out what I want to say about it.  But the simple line I keep coming back to is, “I’m not broken, I just have a fault line other’s don’t have”.  If I even have these biomarkers.  It’s entirely possible my suicidal thoughts are entirely environmental.

So I guess the take-away is that what breaks me may not break you.  It’s not entirely my blood’s fault, or my brain’s fault.  It’s just something that happens.  And if my greater risk can be identified, I can take greater precautions.

And now, because depression is kind of, erm, depressing… cats!

Bored child from here.

Sympathy for the Devil

Regular readers will know that I’m all for every human being treated as an equal. That I’ll happily join in the toast when all invisible privilege is gone, when women can enjoy sex without shame, when people of colour can be heard, when homosexuals can have loving relationships on their own terms. I get very frustrated with people on the opposite side of the argument. Not those who don’t want to acknowledge or give up their various privileges, but those who actively campaign to keep them.

You see, four hundred years ago the Western world still thought slavery was okay so long as it turned a profit. Two hundred years ago, women didn’t have legal recognition of their basic status as human beings, let alone equal voting and pay rights. A hundred years ago, homosexuality was a crime punishable by jail. It’s happening very, very slowly, but we’re edging towards a place where every human being is treated equally. Over the course of centuries, that’s where we’re heading. It’s a comfort I take–we may be getting there slowly, but we’re at least getting there. In another few centuries, maybe we’ll be there. Maybe it’ll take longer, but it’s clearly where our momentum is taking us.

Emperor Palpatine, from Star Wars, stares meaningfully out at the camera

It is… inevitable. Hang on, wait. I thought we were the good guys..?

So why do people try to stand in the way? Can’t they see it’s inevitable? Can’t they see they’re the same people who stood up to defend the slave trade, who force-fed the Suffragettes on hunger strike? That they’re standing in front of a glacier, holding out their puny human hand and saying, “this far and no further”?

It should come as no surprise that I’m also anti-captalist and anti-progress. After all, if you look at the history of progress, it’s the history of profit at the expense of the environment, the workforce and consumers. ‘Progress’ is little more than a short-hand for ‘more efficiently robbing people of the wealth they produce’. (Many great leaps have been made in the quality and quantity of life, I know. However, truly altruistic advances stand as the notable exceptions to motor cars, female body hair shaming and iPhones.) I see politicians telling me that fracking is necessary to fulfil energy demands and shout, “you’re solving the wrong problem! Build society so we’re less dependent on electricity and plastic!” The solution is as obvious to me as a man running towards a cliff and desperately stitching extra panels into his shirt while he shouts that all he has to do is put enough panels in there to make a parachute. Seriously dude, stop running towards the edge of the fucking cliff.

A screenshot from the game Lemmings.  A steep bridge is covered in Lemmings and there is a constant stream of them falling off the edge, and to their deaths.

Yup, this is us.

And yet, since the Enlightenment at least, our society has been on an inexorable march. The Industrial Revolution set us on a path and we have marched down it with all the momentum of a rolling glacier. Innovation for profit has become so deeply engrained in our psyche few even realise it can be questioned, our cities become denser and denser, green land more and more scarce, our lives more and more dependant on technology. Four hundred years ago, most people walked from A to B and had little knowledge outside their own personal experience. Now, a family is considered deprived if it doesn’t have a car, TV and Internet access. Even those without a car can travel by bus or train, or hop on a budget airline flight and travel half-way around the world.

So I stand before this advancing glacier, hold out my hand and shout, ‘You Shall Not Pass!’

When I glance to my right (a long, long way to my right…) and I see people trying to hold back the glacier of basic human rights and dignity… well. It’s hard not to have an inclining of empathy.

Of course, they are still very, very wrong.

Lemmings from here.  The Emperor is from here, but I can’t get the actual page to load.

The False Equivalency of Electronic Piracy

Depending on whom you talk to, modern electronic piracy is either a cancer killing the modern entertainment industry, or the only legitimate response to an industry that’s exploiting both artists and consumers.  But I’ve been thinking about this, and I think modern electronic pirates have been given something of a bum deal. A really bum deal.

The original Golden Age of Piracy lasted from the 1650s to the 1730s. This was a time before even dial-up and UseNet. For the post-Pirates of the Caribbean folks, the basics of piracy were thus: find a ship carrying cargo you wanted; attack the ship; board the ship and take the cargo, killing anyone who objected; sell the cargo in a sympathetic port. In order to be a good pirate, you needed to be a good seaman and a good fighter. In order to be a good pirate captain, you needed to own your own boat and command the loyalty of a crew already proved to be perfectly willing and able to mutiny, and you needed to be able to shift your ill-gotten gains for a good profit without running foul of the law. That’s a lot of skills us modern pirates don’t, as a rule, posses. I mean, installing a torrent program and finding a Pirate Bay mirror doesn’t really compare.

A laptop showing the infamous Blue Screen of Death

Sailing on the good ship laptop–oh shit, kraken! Kraken!

High seas pirates killed people. Not all the time, but it was a tool in their toolbox. They occasionally raped, mutilated and tortured people. People feared them not because of the loss of profit, but because of the very real threat of the loss of life.

How did people like me (I fit the stereotype quite well, I think), an over-weight thirty-something year-old who can’t run without running out of breath, become synonymous with murderers and rapists? How did downloading a song become synonymous with raking a trading vessel with canon fire, boarding the vessel with cutlass in hand and brutally hacking at anyone who stood in the way? It hardly feels like a fair comparison.

And then there’s the nature of the theft. Lets say I board your vessel and steal your cargo of clothes and fine wine. At the end of it, I have the clothes and fine wine, and you are left with nothing. Any chance you have of recouping your investment, let alone making a profit, is gone. You have nothing to sell, just a huge bill that you now can’t pay.

Now lets say I download your album. I have your album, sure. But… well, you still have your album, too. You can still sell it. If, after the theft, you still have the stolen goods, is that still a theft? If it is, it’s certainly a different manner of theft. I’ve heard companies selling electronic copies of a product are said to be in possession of ‘infinity’ copies of the product. If you take one away from infinity, you still have infinity.

This isn’t a post intended to justify modern piracy. Everyone involved in the production of a product, from the artists to the PR folks, deserve to be paid for their time and effort (company executives and shareholders, however, are another matter, especially when they’re being paid at the expense of all those who actually made the product). The point is to say that the label ‘pirate’ seems somewhat out-of-proportion. It seems like labelling a toddler a murderer because their Twilight Sparkle cast Skeletor into the Lego box lava pit. And then treating them like a murderer.

'Future' Twilight Sparkle, from My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, in a torn black catsuit, bandana and eyepatch pointing with a snarl on her face

It’s not murder. It’s justice!

Of course, the answer to ‘how did modern electronic pirates become equated with the sea-faring swashbucklers of old’ has a simple answer:  those who control our consumption of media deemed it so.  It suits them to turn us into a vaporous bogeyman, an evil shadow they can claim to be fighting with light and truth.  Them fighting for the side of Right and Law, while we raise our flag for Chaos and Lawlessness.  If you’re not one of the good guys, then you’re one of the bad guys.  It’s the same trick they pulled back in the seventeenth and eighteenth century:  piracy is bad; the government is good.  Of course, things weren’t that simple.

But if the problem is going to be solved, surely you need to know what the problem is. There’s no point in creating a bogeyman and fighting that, because while you’re busy playing make-believe the real problem is going to keep on going, happy that you’re distracted and not looking at it.

That article by Courtney Love I linked to up there is from way back in 2000.  She talks an incredibly good game about alternative distribution systems for artistic content.  Back then, the choices we had as consumers were either wait for a film, TV show, CD or whatever to be released in our country, and then for it to find its way into our local retail outlet, and then save up the vast sums of money to pay for it–there was no Amazon back then, no eBay, no Neflix, just region-locked DVDs and over-priced CDs; or log onto the Internet, click on a link, and have it in a few minutes.  We didn’t have to pay for it, but we were willing and happy to.  After all, we were used to paying for music and films and TV shows.  It was all we’d ever known.  But the companies decided we were the enemy.  Those who wanted an alternative way to purchase media were pirates–murderers, rapists, thieves.  So if we wanted to consume media in the manner of our choosing, we did it without paying.

Thirteen years later, now that companies are finally beginning to let us stream media in the way we’ve been begging them to for over a decade, people don’t want to pay for something they download.  Something you download from the Internet is free.  It’s what we’re used to, what we’ve always known.

But hey, what do I know? I’m just a murderer and a mutineer.

Blue Screen of Death from here.  Future Twilight Sparkle from here.

Here’s To The Internet!

It would be wrong for me to describe the Internet as a force for good or evil. It’d be wrong to describe it as neutral: the infrastructure needed to support it is so vastly resource intensive that it requires more resources than the Earth has to support it.

However, I can say that the Internet is incredibly useful.

A flat-eared kitten stares plantively up at the sky

You can’t talk about the Internet without referencing cats. Sorry, it’s the law.  Anonymous will get me if I don’t.

I worked through a first draft of a the other week, turning it into a second draft. I had done an awful lot of reading for the story. But that all required hours of careful combing through search results, and took many weeks.

I had a browser window open behind my document, and called it up whenever I hit a stumbling block. Well, just a little pause to fact check here and there. It took me less than five minutes to look up each one of the following:

  • When mops were first mentioned in English
  • What a well-muscled man looks like while wearing a shirt
  • The military campaigns of Alfred the Great and Edward, the Black Prince
  • The name of Aragorn’s sword
  • The provenance of the Anglo-Saxon epic, Beowulf
  • The provenance of Beowulf’s sword ( Nægling, not Hrunting)
  • Jails in London in the eighteenth century
  • The accuracy of John Harrison’s H4 Maritime Timekeeper
  • History of matches and how to use a tinderbox
  • The correct spelling of ‘heel’
  • Whether to write, ‘a historian’ or ‘an historian’
  • A description of keelhauling
  • The colour of storm clouds at sea
  • The name of the boats used to get from a tall ship to the shore
  • Checking what I thought was a tiller was actually a tiller
  • When to use ‘sank’ and ‘sunk’

Just take a few moments to look at that list. We have military history, maritime history, grammar, social history, English literature, navel history and two image searches. Without the Internet, I’d have been down the library, pawing through book after book, hunting down those answers like Elmer Thudd hunting wabbits.

A rendering of the planet Uranus.  The surface is texutred shades of blue, the rings running vertically around the planet

See? The Internet isn’t just for porn! And here’s a picture of Uranus.  Rimshot!

Libraries have their place. The Internet is wonderful for surface-deep research, but if you really want to get into the heart of something you still need books and archives. And if you want to pierce the heart, then it’s people you need to find.

However, when you don’t need to go beneath the surface–for example, if you’re writing an alt-history spec-fic story–the Internet is a very useful thing.

Painfully cute cat from here.  Rimshot downloaded from here.  Picture of Uranus from here.