Telephone calls are shit.

There's nothing wrong with phones themselves especially now you can use them to play games, take photos, access the internet, send email, mix music, edit images, watch films and listen to albums. The main problem is that you can still make calls on them.

Or rather, the main problem is that you can still receive calls. Of course even this wouldn't be a problem if other people didn't insist on calling you. But they do. The bastards.

From the beginning of recorded history until the late nineteenth century human communication fell into two broad categories; speech and written.

Speech is the oldest and most comprehensive of the historical communication methods. When speaking you communicate with another human being face to face in person and are able to view and interpret non-verbal signals as well as the verbal ones. Anyone who has ever been on a staff development course of any description will no doubt have come across the old adage that during any conversation only 7% of the communication taking place is verbal. Even if that's an exaggeration, it's probably fair to say that the majority of communication taking place is non-verbal and consists of the facial expressions and body language. Without them any exchange is incomplete and will probably fail in its intended purpose.

Writing is another matter. A written text may indeed have the same content as a conversation but there all similarities end. Writing is one dimensional and crystalized; writing is one person's opinion or appraisal of a situation. Writing is a wonderful thing and frees communication from the tyranny of space and time demanded by speech. With writing you can be privy to the thoughts of someone living 2000 years ago and can make your own thoughts available to the entire planet. Furthermore, it doesn't matter what the medium is; essentially the laborious exchange of tablets between Ancient Rome and its provinces is the same as a MSN chat session the only difference being the bandwidth. Stone slab or Twitter, best-selling-novel or Rosetta Stone, writing is probably the single most important development in the history of sentience.

The telephone call is very much of its time and Alexander Graham Bell's immortal demand "Watson, come here, I want you" set the tone for what was to follow.  The telephone call is neither speech nor writing and yet it's not some marvellous new third method either. As one of the first steps in the burgeoning science of electronic communication it's clearly the product of an immature technology, a worst-of-both-worlds hybrid of the spoken and written word.

The main problem is that phone calls are so downright ill-mannered. A phone call demands you stop whatever you're doing and pay attention; your actions interrupted on the impulse of whoever it is that's deigning to call you. Furthermore even if you are right in the middle of something you're made to feel that it's somehow you being rude if you tell the caller that you're busy.

Technology is at last beginning to catch up with the anachronistic phone call. The transmission of written communication is now just as quick and easy (if not more so) than that of speech which means that we're starting to regain our freedom from the capricious whims of others. Texts, emails or tweets are all short, to the point and most importantly can be put off until you're ready to look at them.

On the other hand the transmission of conversations still has a way to go, but it's getting there. Skype may fall short of Star Wars type holographic communication, but at least it's making an effort to drag the telephone onto the 21st century. The fact that it's a bit of a hassle is a plus too - making an appointment to Skype means that you end up doing it at a time convenient to both halves of the conversation rather than simply ringing someone up when they've got their trousers round their ankles mid-wipe...

Of course calls do have their place; aside from emergency calls there are occasions when only the phone will do, for example when family members, close friends or lovers are separated by continents, or when all you have access to is a phone.

In centuries to come people will wonder how we coped with the sound-only precursor of Total Immersion Telepresence and techno-psychiatrists will point at the multiple conflicts of our age as proof of the detrimental side-effects of the common phone call.

So, aside from the notable exceptions listed above, the Death of the Phone Call is a good thing, right? Not everyone will agree. Some people remain stubborn fans of the phone call. Listen in on them and you begin to understand why.
They won't shut up. They're not using the phone call to have a proxy conversation, they're using it to monologue. Really they should be writing, but they're just too lazy to put finger to keyboard. Every so often they'll make a concession to pretending it's a conversation by saying something like "But enough about me, how are you?" before skillfully steering the conversation back to their favourite topic.

You know, they're almost as self obsessed as bloggers...

One of the criticisms levelled at vociferous atheists is that often they're just as bad as the godbotherers they're bashing, that science itself is as much of a "religion" as hard-core Islam or bible-belt Baptist.

This is untrue and unfair. Whilst I don't define myself as an atheist (there are plenty of things I don't believe in aside from a god) I am a rationalist and can see that this argument just doesn't hold water. As far as debate is concerned it's about as sophisticated as playground name calling.

"I know you are but what am I?"

I couldn't possibly repel this attack as well as Richard Dawkins does in the preface to the paperback edition of The God Delusion. In it he says:

"It is all too easy to mistake passion that can change its mind for fundamentalism, which never will."

This is to say a scientist passionate about his beliefs nevertheless when presented with firm evidence to the contrary will - in fact must - capitulate.

This is all well and good, but you couldn't be blamed for wondering whether this actually would be the case. Although scientists might sincerely think they want to live their intellectual lives by this creed, if actually presented with genuine evidence for the odd, might they not start back-pedalling? After all, Christianity, Islam and Judaism all claim to be following the word of a god who, at a point in time common to the roots of all three faiths, quite specifically said "Thou shalt not kill" and yet look at their track record. You could be forgiven a certain amount of cynicism. It is human beings we're dealing with here, after all.

To sort the wheat from the chaff let's propose an experiment. After all, what could be more scientific than that? In this experiment a sceptic (or group of sceptics) will be presented with what appears to be unequivocal evidence of the existence of something hitherto regarded as Weird Shit.

Not the existence of a god, that might prove difficult to mock up, but perhaps something along the lines of the psychokinetic powers that used to wind James Randi up so much that he offered $10,000 to any person who could "make the metal samples inside this sealed tube bend by psychokinetic powers"; an amount he later upped to $1,000,000 when he had no takers. To this day, the prize remains unclaimed - and in fact if Randi is so sure of himself why not up the prize to $1,000,000,000 plus an all expenses paid trip to Jupiter?

The Sceptic Experiment would have to be veiled in secrecy of course. The sceptics taking part would have to believe they were acting as observers for an investigation into paranormal phenomena even though in scientific circles these days even conducting such investigations is frowned upon (which seems a bit... unscientific to me). During the course of the experiment the subjects would be presented with totally convincing (although actually falsified) "evidence" that the phenomena they were observing were real, repeatable and provable. It doesn't really matter whether it's all done with smoke and mirrors or just a forged column of numbers on a computer screen.

So how would they react? It would be interesting to find out. What the scientific worldview should boil down to is "This has been proved therefore this exists, whereas this hasn't so doesn't necessarily". So if Randi is in a lab and sees the metal samples inside the sealed tube bend he should put his hands up and say "Ya got me!" before pulling out his chequebook.

However, we might suspect that in reality scientists are more emotional, that they definitely consider that there is "a way things should be" and "a way they shouldn't" no matter what evidence they're presented with. We might suspect that if presented with a paper detailing the evidence for the existence of a new subatomic particle a sceptical scientist might say "How interesting, well done!" whereas if presented with a paper detailing the evidence for the existence of a phenomenon hitherto considered "paranormal" they would probably move heaven and earth to disprove and debunk it or die trying.

We might suspect that, but without evidence we couldn't possible judge. That would be unscientific. Until the Sceptic Experiment is carried out we can't know.


A scientific paper claiming to provide evidence for the existence of precognition has been accepted for publication in a leading psychology journal. Whilst this evidence, if true, could revolutionise the way we think about the human mind and about time, what is more immediately interesting is what it reveals about the mindset of respectable scientists; a miniature preview of the results we might get if we actually carried out the Sceptic Experiment. In New Scientist a psychology professor said of the paper:
"My personal view is that this is ridiculous and can't be true. Going after the methodology and the experimental design is the first line of attack."
What? Surely the scientific attitude to a new theory in one's field should be that of interest and curiosity followed by an examination of the quality and accuracy of the work carried out? This reaction seems to imply that when a theory doesn't comply to a "personal view" of the way things are it should immediately be "gone after" and attacked. Whilst I have no idea whether this experimental evidence for precognition is significant and repeatable I am disappointed at the knee-jerk reaction on display here. These cries of "Heretic!" seem almost... religious.
"Fundamentalists know what they believe and they know nothing will change their minds
(Dawkins, ibid)
"No matter how unorthodox the reasoning process or how unpalatable the conclusions, there is no excuse for any attempt to suppress new ideas, least of all by scientists committed to the free exchange of ideas."
(Carl Sagan, An Analysis of "Worlds in Collision": Introduction 1977)

I would like to think that science is better than that, but maybe that's just a personal view too...

In a couple of blog entries near the beginning of the year I discussed the experience of being a member of a visual subculture. The experience of Being Punky (or Gothy or whatever else it might have been called at the time).

In part one I revealed that like many things that teenage boys do it all came down to girls, whereas in part two I dug a little deeper to find that it was also the attitude, the music and most importantly what it felt like that appealed. After all if it hadn't I wouldn't have stayed.

Any trouble comes with other people's reaction to this difference of appearance. Over the years I've come across a wide range of reactions from amused bewilderment to outright hostility. One person just couldn't accept the fact that I'd been to university due to an idea that was just far too deeply ingrained in his head - all people who looked like I did were stupid. Maybe I am stupid and perhaps I'm reading too much into it.  After all wasn't the whole idea of punk and its descendant genres just to dress to distress to get a reaction out of people?

Perhaps that is the case, but not always, and not in this instance.

Punk didn't spring fully formed from the parched earth of the UK in 1976, even though it might have appeared to at the time.  Amongst other youth movements it had antecedants in glam rock (the sense of children playing at dressing-up with the contents of their parents' wardrobe), American pre-punk (such as the Stooges and New York Dolls) and even reggae. The resulting look was a mish-mash; William Burroughs let loose with a pair of scissors and a second hand copy of the Full Colour Encyclopaedia of Style; the end product a chaos reflecting the nihilistic views of the wearers.

That wasn't quite it though. Not for me anyway.

Perhaps unsurprising for a movement with such a diverse parentage, punk spawned a legion of diverse children, from Anarcho-punk to New Romantic to Goth to Oi!  When Punk fucked Hippy it produced the Crusties, perhaps one of the more successful sub-genres in the decades since 76.  This proliferation of subgenres gave rise to fairweather adherents - people joining the subculture because their friends were, adopting the look (and even the beliefs as fashion accessories) then discarding it when they got bored.  Sometimes the beliefs could be temporarily discarded when no-one was looking as like fashionable clothing they could make the wearer uncomfortable.

But that wasn't it either though.

Whatever it was, shouldn't I have grown up by now?  Whether it was originally about the girls (part one) or about the music (part two) what it really boiled down to is what's inside a brain? Now that I'm older I should have more confidence in the fact that it's my ideas and how I express them that make me myself not adherence to a sartorial discipline.

But the thing is, it still helps. Reliance on a dress code as a shortcut to speech is perhaps symptomatic of being somewhere on the autistic spectrum (even if it's just the shallow end); I still feel I need the reinforcement of appearance to bolster my identity.

And ultimately it does still make me feel better about myself. I'd take a tub of Directions over Prozac any day.

I remember the first "officially" grown up book I was given. Unlikely to find its way onto school syllabuses even now, it was the collection First Love, Last Rights by Ian McEwan.

I must have been about 15 at the time, so yes, these disturbing tales of masturbation, mental illness, incest, death and pregnant rats did make quite a bit of an impression. Some of the words and phrases therein have stayed with me throughout the years as good writing tends to do.

So it was my first "proper" book, having up until that point only indulged in the allegedly juvenile genre of Science Fiction (or SF as it is known to its fans - not "SciFi"). Must have come as a bit of a shock to me, eh? All those serious, adult themes - sexual references especially?

Not really.

McEwan's short stories were quite tame compared to some of what I'd already read. As an avid devourer of SF anthologies and collections as well as novels I'd come across some right weird shit, I can tell you. And yet not being considered serious art this perverse literature managed to stay off the radar, filed away on that section of shelves in the corner of the public library between Asimov's robots and Clarke's astronauts. Furthermore this wasn't mere titillation. This was intelligent, articulate discourse on the disposition of sex and sexuality and yet some of it so graphic and surprising as to make McEwan himself blush.

A lot of this was to do with the New Wave. Long before that epithet was applied to a unique combination and synthesizers and Crazy Colour, it was used to indicate a fresh direction for the much maligned genre of SF. Up until the 1950s, much SF continued to be variations on a theme. Space opera, galactic empires, aliens - all grand ideas with the potential for exploring some fascinating concepts and waxing philosophical about the nature of being, but in some manner also appealing to its more juvenile audience - in many ways just Cowboys and Indians with added slime and lasers. Certainly not many of the protagonists tended to be anyone you could identify with, all highly trained engineers, scientists or inventors.

The 1960s was a time of global change, and the world of SF writing was not free from the influence of the counterculture, most notably the magazine New Worlds under the aegis of Michael Moorcock. This movement brought forth surprising and groundbreaking novels by authors such as J G Ballard and Kurt Vonnegut and it's fair to say that after this time nothing was ever the same again. The gloves were off, taboos broken.

And it was these new wave stories finding their way into SF anthologies that provided me with much of my early sex education. Random sight-unseen loans from the SF section of Muswell Hill library not to mention the contents of the paperback bargain bins in the Colney Hatch Lane branch of Woolworths were the introduction to a number of astonishing stories, fascinating and disturbing in equal measure.

In particular James Tiptree Jr's anthology Ten Thousand Light Years From Home (10p from the bargain bin - purchased mainly because of the spaceship on the cover) ensured I'd never quite think about sex in the same way as my peers. Whilst the confident arrogantsia at my school were hunched over the "rude bits" in Killer Crabs or other cheap horror novels at break-time, I was discovering the consequences of exogamy in Tiptree's astonishing opening story "And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill's Side" in which it's revealed that when we finally do encounter aliens we just want to fuck them or die trying, or what it was like to have no sense of pain and to travel with cuddlesome empaths having orgies in The Lovepile, a spacefaring psi-powered paper bag in Painwise.

It wasn't just sex though. Other adult themes were aired by these books in ways that expanded the horizons of my 13-year old mind in ways I'd never imagined. Somehow being the nerdy kid into Doctor Who and Star Wars had opened hitherto undreamed of doors and changed the way I'd think forever. The name John Wyndham may now conjure up images of killer flesh-eating Triffids for most people but for me it was the thought provoking and disturbing short stories (most notably those collected in the anthology The Seeds of Time) that stuck in my mind.

So compared with the expanded universe of possibilities already encountered, the subject matter of Ian McEwan's acclaimed collection of short stories was nothing new, and could conceivably appear almost tame when compared to some of Karl Glogauer's experiences with man's inhumanity as he falls through a series of past lives throughout the 20th century in Moorcock's Breakfast in the Ruins.

But nevertheless and despite all this - many people would still consider the McEwan the first "proper" book I'd read and dismiss anything that might have come before. Genre snobbery is even now a force to be reckoned with. This is probably partly to do with the history of the genre - the lurid covers of the early twentieth century SF pulps must have ingrained themselves on the collective unconscious to such an extent that people who'd never read them would have been fairly confident that this was nothing more than the literary equivalent of King Kong.

The New Wave and its aftermath should have changed all that but by now the forces of the marketplace were in charge. The compartmentalisation of fiction meant you sold more by aiming genres at their markets. This includes so-called literary fiction - as New Weird author China MiƩville recently pointed out much of this could comprise its own genre LitFic. In many ways this compartmentalisation is no more than the publishing equivalent of DVD Region Codes - if your head lives in Region 1 (LitFic) then you're not going to be interested in any Region 2 (SF) releases.

This has led to the almost farcical situation of books that are clearly SF or Fantasy (from the subject matter) being classified as LitFic in order to reach a wider audience, the fantastic elements being dismissed as satire or parody. One of the stories (Solid Geometry - adapted for the screen in 2002) in First Love, Last Rights was SF as far as I was concerned and more recent examples of this doublethink include the popular Cloud Atlas, The Time Traveller's Wife and The Lovely Bones. Author Michel Faber (whose novel of Victorian prostitution and hypocrisy The Crimson Petal and the White was thought so highly of by his publishers that they tried to persuade him to seek British citizenship simply so that it would be eligible for the Booker Prize) had his first novel Under The Skin shortlisted for Whitbread First Novel Award. Under the Skin is a satire, apparently, despite concerning a clandestine alien presence on Earth for the purpose of farming human beings...

It is unlikely that this state of affairs is going to change any time soon, tied as it is to the sales practices and policies of an industry under siege - but how about we hack our brains to make them Region Free?

We can then read whatever we like.