Lazy Luddite Log

30.6.14

Evil Masked As Good (Part 1 of 2)

I have been putting off writing this post for ages. Partly because the subject matter itself is difficult stuff. Partly I have also held off on this because I suspect my thinking lacks complete coherence and consistency on the topic. That admission segues nicely into one of the key statements I want to make:

Consistency is difficult and I have never entirely understood the degree to which we deride those that patently lack it.

A politician changes ideology over the course of time and we are critical. But surely we should be allowed to change with life circumstances and experience? Someone “says one thing and does another”. This is more problematic I agree but even so I want to make an assertion.

Someone who consciously does evil and admits it is far more terrifying than someone who does evil while saying that they do good. This is true for an isolated sociopath but is all the more true for political movements.

So I’m discussing ‘Good’ and ‘Evil’ here. These are somewhat fanciful words in the modern era. We tend to use them only in some contexts and frequently those contexts are fictional or historical. It is as if we live in a world removed from morality. Fiction and romanticized history are partly to blame here. We see Good and Evil in terms of absolutes. In practice they are much more mixed phenomena. I have had to define these terms for the sake of my own fiction but I feel that mine is a reasonably realistic one if you care to take a look.

For me good and evil are defined by everyday acts big and small. On any give day a person can enact both. However most of us will think of ourselves as good and will very much wish others to perceive us in that way. Why? Well good is good right? Our tendency is to edit our perceptions and memory in such a way as to present ourselves as good to others and ourselves. The same is true for movements and for those with a lot of power. We never admit evil acts to the public. We rarely even admit them in trusted private settings. And only sometimes do we even admit them to ourselves.

There are plenty of ways of making evil (harmful) things seem like good (helpful) things. We can talk of the ‘greater good’ – what is harmful to a minority is good for a majority. We can propose actions that are good in the ‘long-term’ – what is worse right now will soon make things much better.

We can even say that we are practicing the euphemistic ‘tough love’ and suddenly I think of phrases like “this will hurt me more than it hurts you”. I normally find cartoonist Leunig rather abstruse but this cartoon is incisive. How cleverly we can twist things so that abuse and neglect can masquerade as care!

Utilitarian. Forward-Thinking. Parental. All these acts of mental acrobatics are ways of making evil look good and they are insidious. However the fact they are so very common I think demonstrates how powerful the concept of good is and how lacking in power the concept of evil is. You can be openly good and have to hide your evil. A person or movement that does this can be combated and exposed because they still agree with you on some basic notions of right and wrong. But now I move onto something I find more disturbing.

So far I have discussed ways of making evil acts look good within some agreed definitions of morality. But what of those who re-define morality? Some religious fundamentalists do it very simply by saying that morality is whatever God says it is. Any independent concept of good and evil is replaced by consent and dissent (respectively) to a supernatural authority. I suspect that rarely are the 'representatives' of that entity consciously self-serving. This is very scary but there are non-religious re-definitions of morality that are also scary.

Nobody needs God to define groups that are worthy and unworthy of care. I must admit that I exclude from my care or consideration both food animals and human embryos. Is this the product of conditioning or convenience or necessity? These are topics to be discussed another time. For now I will just discuss help and harm for born humans.

I have discussed prejudice here. There are degrees of prejudice however and I want to look next at a particular case of extreme prejudice and how a movement recnogized on some level that they were committing evil while still preserving a good character. In my next post I will turn to the Posen Speeches of Heinrich Himmler of the Nazi Party. I am taking the time to compose a separate entry because – as I say – this is difficult stuff. In it I will argue that those who recognize that they are evil are worse than those that deny it. Come back next month if you feel you can stomach it.

Cross-posted here.

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29.5.14

The Fellowship

I recently became aware that the Fellowship Of Middle Earth (FOME) has changed its name to the Fantasy And Science-Fiction Association (FASA). I had been forewarned of this in conversation with someone who is both a member of FOME and the Monash University Choral Society (MonUCS) that I’m active in. Nonetheless the announcement of the change makes me a bit wistful. In this post then I will reflect on my own personal understanding of the history of what from 1977 to 2014 was known as FOME.

I attended the thirtieth anniversary of FOME in 2007 and blogged about it then. What I neglected to say in that post is that while I was active in FOME I became a sort of historian for the group and even did presentations on the topic. As a result what I will relate here comes more from my memory of all the notes I poured over in the Mathom House and the conversations I had with older members than it does from my own personal experiences.

The Mathom House by-the-way is the name given to the library collection and archives of FOME, which for most of the time was held in two lockers upstairs in the Campus Centre. The Mathom House I knew contained a lot of pulp paperback science fiction and a smaller number of hard-cover fantasy novels and scholarly works on concepts like “sub-creation”. Like many of the trappings and traditions of FOME, the name “Mathom House” was an obscure reference to the fantasy world of Middle Earth. However, since its inception FOME was always a literary appreciation group for much more than just the works of Professor Tollkien.

1970s - Fantasy Origins

In the original constitution and related notes from 1977 the group expressed its interest in fantasy works like those of J R R Tolkien and C S Lewis. They specifically referenced those authors because many of the founders of FOME were Christian. This came as a surprise to me in the 90s as an agnostic who felt that the group had a very secular sensibility. But let me clarify that Secularism involves the inclusion rather than exclusion of religious perspectives. Both Tolkien (subtly) and Lewis (rather more blatantly) explored Christian themes but I would argue that a lot of the philosophy they espoused was more universal than that. Fiction has an ethical element and that is something that interests all contemplative persons. And what are university students but thinkers?

The anecdote told by original members is that a group of them sat at the back of meetings of Evangelical Union (later named Christian Union possibly to distance themselves from the contemporary flavour of the word "evangelical") and discussed the philosophical implications of fantasy fiction and, rather than persist in this disruptive conduct, they decided to form a separate group to allow them to be nerdy in their own time. Some of the oldest traditions of FOME were started then, such as celebrating the birthday party of Bilbo And Frodo (pretty much an excuse for a dinner or house party) and holding Hobbit High Teas. In these practices you can see appreciation for the notion of The Good Life.

1980s - Additions And Subtractions

All groups change and part of that arises from changes in the setting which surrounds them. One augmentation to FOME came as a result of the Science Fiction Club folding. That group had a big collection of novels that were then given over to FOME. Suddenly Asimov and McCaffrey were bumping dust-jacks with Tolkien in the Mathom House. From that time on FOME was in effect the group for both fantasy and science fiction fans. However they still looked a lot more like fantasy tragics.

Another change came when some students (including some FOME members) formed a chapter of the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA) at Monash. Till then FOME members had done a lot of costuming (if old photos are any indication). However those most interested in such an activity got more involved in the College of Saint Monica and what was left behind in FOME was the tradition of making cloaks specifically (incidentally a cloak is a wonderful thing).

Another group FOME had overlapping membership with was originally called the Dungeons & Dragons Club but soon changed its name to the Monash University Role Players (MURP). A lot of role-play games have fantasy and science fiction settings so the overlap makes sense. But as much as games like D&D draw inspiration from Tolkien, they also draw on other authors, like Robert E Howard and H P Lovecraft. It is particularly an attraction to the darker moods of these sword-and-sorcery and horror influences that I think distinguished MURP from FOME.

Finally I must refer to a Monash Uni group lost to the mists of time – The Pooh Club. This was a group dedicated to silly and frivolous things from the children’s books of A A Milne to the adult comedy of Monty Python. They folded in the 80s but somehow that child-like sense of fun and irreverence transferred to FOME. By the time I got to Uni the description of FOME in Clubs & Societies (C&S) Orientation Week guides described the group in terms of the shared interests of its members and quoting Monty Python was definitely part of the idiosyncratic mix.

1990s – Codifying Fantasy And Science Fiction

If I were to say everything I did in the FOME of the 90s it would take far too long. I will just say a few important things starting with what we did to the Constitution. Recognizing that we were a group for both fantasy and science fiction fans we changed our objectives to reflect that. We also noted that books were just one medium we consumed and so also referenced other forms such as cinema and television. I was involved in this process, which necessitated the consultation and consent of C&S. We also in that time prominently referred to both genres in all our publicity.

There were other changes too. We still did things like Bilbo & Frodo’s birthday party, but we also instituted an annual Masquerade Ball, at which we got into costume and danced (we would borrow the awesome stereo of Monash Dance Sport to play our own track selections on). As far as I know this continues to the present and is assumed by current members to be a time-honoured tradition. And I suppose it is. What this says to me is that just as we changed what the group had been, so too will others.

FOME members had a wider impact on campus culture by forming other clubs. One was the Fiction Writers (who later became Creative Writers on the grounds that they did poetry and “poetry is truth”). FOME members had always penned original fiction and these members wanted to do more than just fantasy and science fiction. Overall however it was difficult to get contributions to the FOME publication Elbereth. Maybe we were all just too busy with increasingly complex lives.

For a more general impression of on-campus life in the 90s take a look here.

The Twenty First Century – FOME to FASA

I was an active FOMEite last century and then just someone who monitored them since. My impression overall is that they continue to do what we have always done but once more environmental factors have produced recent change. So what is it with this name-change to FASA?

Oral history is a murky thing so beware that what I will say next is the product (like much of this post) of word-of-mouth. One impression I have is that C&S have dropped the ball somewhat in understanding the diversity of groups they manage. Some students decided to form a Harry Potter group and C&S were fine with this because as far as they were concerned FOME was just for fans of Lord of the Rings. Had they looked a bit more closely at their own records they would have known that FOME had been the fantasy and science fiction club for a long time. As a result of such tardiness it is a necessity that the group re-assert its identity.

I have pondered the exact content of the new name. Surely “FASFA” is right because “Fiction” is a word too but I accept that that is difficult to pronounce and note that they have hyphenated “Science-Fiction” in the club name. Also what of campus identity? Monash University Fantasy And Science-Fiction Association (MUFASA) has a cool ring to it. Well apparently they did consider that but allegedly the University itself now frowns upon groups incorporating the name of the institution on the off-chance that the groups could do things to embarrass the Uni. This seems ridiculous to me. On the other hand an original FOME member told us back in the day that FOME had an ASIO file and that the group was deemed “harmless subversive” so who knows?

Well that is my potted history of a group that has enriched the lives of many of its members. I trust that the Fantasy And Science-Fiction Association (FASA) will continue to be the adaptive, contemplative, frivolous, creative, harmlessly subversive group that FOME always has been.

Cross-posted here.

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27.4.14

Adventurers

One thing I enjoy with creativity is that it tends to cascade. In other words one creative activity can inspire others. It has been so recently with my running of a fantasy role-play game. Running this game motivated me to do something that I could have done at any time - draw a set of creature illustrations for my fantasy setting The Lands. The images will be useful in that I can now say "you meet something that looks like this" rather than having to go into long-winded verbal description. However it also allowed me to produce another portfolio, something I've neglected lately.

More than at any time I made use of online images as 'references' to help me draw. In the absence of models (since I can hardly ask friends to depict some of these non-human monsters) this was incredibly useful in lending my images a degree of realism. Some illustrations drew on several images for one end product. In only one case did I look at just one image - for the Selkie I only looked at the feet of seals (I suppose my past life-drawings have served me well for imagining nudes).

I decided on including nudity partly because I like it and partly because an inspiration for me were the black-and-white line drawings that illustrated Dungeons & Dragons books in the 80s. These were somewhat risque as well as having an ominous charm. While my drawings have many flaws I feel they are an improvement on what I was comparing them with from my gaming youth.

And just as the Bestiary portfolio was inspired by gaming so too other things that can feed back into future gaming were produced by working on the portfolio. One was a fictitious character set. Some of my drawings needed writing to be depicted in them but somehow using Roman letters would mar the fantasy of those images. I considered appropriating existing but neglected scripts such as Cuniform or Linear (A or B) but decided that inventing my own was simpler for me than becoming familiar with historical character sets. My letters represent sounds but the look of them assumes that they were originally pictograms. The shapes were informed by assuming each of them represents a particular divinity, legend, planet or constellation of The Lands. Most of the letters can be seen in this image.

The final bit of cascading creativity came from the way in which the Internet has changed me into someone who uses gimmicks to draw attention to what I do. So as a part of my sharing the portfolio I ran online polls of friends in which they could choose which five adventuring Demi-Humans (included in some illustrations to give a sense of scale to the monsters) would be depicted in an adventuring party illustration. By then however I had hit a creativity wall and the action group poses I imagined proved too challenging for me. I settled therefore on something simpler and more whimsical (which also draws on another old game known as Hero Quest)...

The final illustration suggested a story however. I had some fun devising names and I also decided to write the back-story of that party. It is less a story in its own right and more background notes as part of a wider described setting. Both the image and the back-story (posted as a comment) can be seen here. At some time the implications of this story may then feed back into future gaming.

Cross-posted here.

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28.3.14

Life In The Suburbs

Last week I was interviewed for the Australian Generations Oral History Project. The organizers had called for expressions of interest from Gen-Xers and I had volunteered. In two sessions over five hours I basically had a recorded chat with the interviewer. I'm a good talker but still I was surprised that by the end of session one we had only gotten to my uni days. Mind you the interviewer deemed the lives of my parents to be part of my history so I had to try and recall what I knew. It was almost as if my own life extends backwards to the last World War.

The job of an interviewer is to let the interviewee provide the content but every so often she confirmed some statement of mine with a nod or a smile. I remarked that my father (a German migrant) seemed to have an interest in the cultural product of any migrant culture (saying that this is why SBS was a part of our family viewing) and my interviewer suggested that this is indeed a thing among migrants of various backgrounds.

Entertainment media seemed to play a big part of my childhood recollections (hardly surprising given a lot of my blogging topics). One thing I noted was that my mother has always listened to talk-back radio and as such my exposure to music was limited as a child and that at one time my favourite tunes were television themes.

My interviewer was interested in many things that I consider mundane such as family eating habits. I imagine that this information will contribute to the massive pool of data they are collecting on the changing behaviours of households. This is the history of ordinary Australians after all.

Except in this case 'ordinary' simply means everyone but the eminent members of society and historically significant figures. Within that mass will be a huge variety that undermines the notion of ordinary as average. And as we moved into the second session my interviewer showed a particular interest in those aspects of my life that are unusual for my generation. In particular she focused on two things.

One was the long-term practice of living in share households. The other was using common interests as a way of finding and forming a sense of local community. I talked of my own experiences and those of friends (never naming names) to describe a few different forms of household (which in some cases also represent alternative forms of 'family'). I shared my own experience of finding a community life from common interests (rather than simply from work or sport or traditional family). I even talked of my transition into non-standard relationship models. These things make me a bit odd for someone my age. They are also perceived as something different for an inhabitant of the suburbs.

To some extent if you practice alternative ways-of-life that is deemed as a bit of an 'urban cultural elite' thing from the inner suburbs. And in contrast if you are 'suburban' you are perceived as living a life bereft of distinctiveness. A well-known satirist recently annoyed me with her written description of Chadstone Shopping Centre as a life-sucking sterile "Shrine To Mammon" visited by anonymous 'wage slaves'. Honestly any concentration of shops is dedicated to making a buck. This includes the Camberwell Junction. It even includes Brunswick Street. But what we sometimes overlook is that culture can assert itself in any location. Things I have done at Chaddy include buying and painting my own ceramic figure as part of a group activity... seeing an alternative Australian speculative fiction movie with friends and then critiquing it afterwards over coffee... agitating for the management to introduce recycling bins within the centre...

There is a saying that "there are queers in the suburbs too". As if anyone ever needed to be told that. Likewise there are goths and geeks and pagans and ferals in those sleepy backstreets. The fantastic cultural diversity of our neighbourhoods is further complicated by all kinds of sub-cultures. With any luck demographers and historians will form a more accurate picture of Australian society than commentators of all stripes do. I hope my contribution to the Australian Generations project is to help develop a fuller image of our society than is provided by simplistic caricatures.

Cross-posted here.

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10.2.14

Less Than Nothing

The Abbott Government has recently expressed an interest in shifting some welfare recipients from the Disability Pension to the Newstart payment for jobseekers. This kind of proposal is nothing new and I witnessed the implications of a similar move under the Howard government in the late 90s. In this post I shall relate that anecdote and comment on it (while omitting any names of persons or specific organizations).

At the time I was working for a service provider that was part of the Job Network (I think the name was changed since to Job Services Australia). They employed me to accompany a client of theirs to a one-day food handling course. This client had been on Disability Support. They were now making an effort to get her into normal work. The plan was to get her a food handling certificate and then into café work. I was informed that she understood the subject matter but simply had difficulty interpreting the written test she would sit at the end of the one-day course. I would simply be there to help her interpret the questions rather than give her the answers.

It was an interesting one-day course and made me re-think a lot of the snack foods I habitually consumed at the time. Things seemed to progress well and my charge seemed to understand what was happening. Or at any rate she was familiar with the practice of nodding and smiling. Finally we came to the written test and I discovered that her understanding was far more limited than I had been told.

The clincher was the questions to do with safe temperatures at which to store and cook foods. We hit a metaphorical wall with the concept of negative degrees Celsius. Our test taker had never been told or had forgotten the concept. I understand perfectly. I think negative numbers are stupid and will argue that with anyone on the grounds that you cannot have less than nothing. However I do understand that as a convenience Celsius sets 0 degrees at the freezing point of water and that things can get colder than that. If only we used Kelvin.

I did my best to pull apart the concept and help her comprehend but it was hardly the best circumstances in which to do this. My role was never to give her the answers so I had to fall short of that. As a result of this and other things I recall that she did not pass the test.

I think there were many flaws in the thinking of the Job Network service provider and the government they were serving. Even basic jobs can be rather complex and taxing. Working in a café involves many skills and also a particular temperament. I personally think that even if technical issues like the Celsius thing were absent from this scenario there would still have been problems for the client to work in a busy customer service and food handling setting. But the state apparatus had this simplistic notion of what a low-paying and low-skilled job is.

Behind that was also a flawed concept of what constitutes a fulfilling life. The test-taker had a rich life with her wider family and with friends drawn from her interest in a particular sporting activity. She was a part of the community even if she lacked a normal job. But just because she was competent to walk to the corner store and buy milk they then assumed she could do anything. They talk of work as necessary for human dignity but all that back-and-forth with quasi-government organizations and confusing tests would hardly enhance self-respect. Thankfully she was a pretty relaxed person.

Historically it has been progressives who have argued that everyone is the same. And in terms of human rights this is true. But in the hands of contemporary conservatives the concept has been distorted to say that we are all the same and therefore everyone can do anything if only they try. We need to recognize however that there are limits to this. Both nature and nurture have a big impact on the motivation and capacity of every person. Those who overlook this variation in human ability betray a kind of naivety. However behind that naivety is something more sinister.

The Abbott Government needs to be miserly in some ways so it can be extravagant in others. The Disability Pension is more generous than Newstart and the key motive for shifting recipients from one to the other is that of cutting government costs by neglecting poorer and more marginalised Australians.

Cross-posted here.

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19.1.14

Role Playing

I recently facilitated a role-play game over three sessions set in my Lands medieval fantasy setting (the genesis of which was discussed here). It was supposed to happen over two sessions but I cannot run a disciplined game and why the heck should I? Seems that my chosen group of four players all rather enjoy a rambling game involving plenty of discussion. Also to some extent a complex setting makes this likely as there is always more to refer to in passing. Even confining the Fox And Hare adventure to three sessions took some work and a lot of preparation. Fortunately it was also a rewarding experience and my players are interested in more in a few months.

Wenches and Swains That Never Were

Playing drove me to fill in some of the information gaps in my setting including some rather mundane ones. For instance I had to decide what one would call both women and men who serve drinks at a tavern. The Lands have a semblance of formal gender equality (for instance property and titles pass to eldest child). However it is also a world of cultural gender differentiation. In these enlightened times we tend to use one term for the practitioners of a skill – both men and women who act these days are “actors”. In the Lands however they tend to have distinct words for both, so I needed serving wenches and serving swains. I felt that “swain” was equivalent to “wench” in that both terms are now archaic, rustic, somewhat frivolous and slightly derisive. The thing to note here is that I was creating something fictitious while also giving it the flavour of something that seemed historical to modern players. Besides, words are fun to play with.

The Jagged Tooth That Stood Too Long

Fantasy is different from historical fiction even if it draws much of its look and feel from our perception of the recorded past. It is free from the restrictions of accuracy. If you can have magic in your setting then sure as heck you can make other changes. Nonetheless some research can be useful. Central to our adventure was exploration of an ancient ruined castle. I based my floor plan on the model of Norman castles (things predating those tended to be timber constructions and if they were of any size would be rambling rather than towering). And yet “The Jagged Tooth” ruin was over a thousand years old in what is nominally a medieval setting. A medieval world in which medieval castles have existed for millennia? This is okay as we were playing a fantasy and anything goes as long as you can get away with it. Mind you the fact the castle was standing at all did need a bit of justification, which was provided in this written postscript to the game which hinted at a magical explanation…

The group have departed the Dire Swamp and are now traversing the vales between the hills back to Muddy Gully. As they do York the Hawk decides to stretch his wings and take a proper flight. As he wheels majestically in the sky scanning for rodents and rabbits he glances back over the hills past the swamp towards the Jagged Tooth in the distance.

Suddenly he notices the entire structure of the ruined fortress crumbling in on itself and spilling a cascade of loose stones all over its hill. It is as if some force that was holding it together has left it. Suddenly the ruin is accosted by the returning ravages of time.

York is startled but is then distracted by a racing hare. By the time he is once more with the party he has forgotten this puzzling scene. Besides which even if he remembered he could never communicate what he had witnessed.


This bit of written storytelling only happened because I forgot to tell the players this in the game. The device of using a pet as a witness for something the adventurers never knew in some ways is cooler. Sometimes mistakes produce fun things in themselves.

Collaborative Creativity

Keeping track of everything you intend to do in a game is difficult and the more I got into narrating and refereeing the more I left my printed notes aside and improvised specifics. Ultimately this is more satisfying for all and over the three sessions I think we all became more limber and agile role-players. I also think I have cobbled together a good group who have a balance of both gaming experience (in some cases more in the form of acting than gaming) and freshness of perspective. They challenged my setting and story but in a playful and constructive way. In return I provided them with a few surprises to amuse or shock (apparently I’m adept at making ordinary things like Mistletoe creepy). The result of these interactions is a form of collaborative creativity.

However there is also solo creativity in this game for me between sessions and in different media. I've drawn some illustrations, summarised sessions in written prose, and even selected tracks for incidental music (emulating 80s fantasy movies with a mix of orchestral and pop music rather than making any attempt at “authenticity”). I hope this will continue for a while, as exploring and expanding my fantasy setting has been rollicking good fun.

Cross-posted here.

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23.12.13

Bulldust

A friend once told me and another friend that we could spout shit about absolutely any topic – talk talk talk! And we then proved it by discussing “shit”. You would think that someone such as I could then blog ad-infinitum. And yet I’m considering reducing my self-set blogging frequency.

Initially I blogged weekly. This was reduced pretty quickly to twice a month. Now I’m thinking that once or twice a month will be more realistic. There are a few factors that play into this feeling.

Spare time has nothing to do with it for me. Even with full-time hours I can still schedule time for regular blogging. It has a lot more to do with the nature of my blogging as a form of writing. I have to be motivated by a particular topic sufficiently to convert it from chatter to a coherent flow of statements in written English. I cannot just choose a word and spout shit about it. I have Facebook for that.

So the topic has to interest me sufficiently. I have to also feel confident of my information or opinions to say it. It has to pass some forms of self-censorship. Some topics are too private to put in public (I will from time-to-time but in a somewhat coded manner). Other topics are a tad controversial and it seems my human environment has become more prone to controversy.

Once arguments over political aims were the norm. Now one has to be careful of how one expresses ones position even on matters of strategy. I have a few self-set limitations I try to follow now. As a result a recent rant I wanted to show the world was simply shared with a close confident. I think this is okay and it is definitely a time-honoured way of communicating.

What does concern me however is that I am getting slack in a lot of my personal regimens. For instance my seasonal pattern of creativity started in 2010 has fallen by the wayside. Stuff still happens but in a more occasional and sporadic manner. I keep having concepts percolating but execution is another thing altogether. Still relaxing the blogging minimum may refresh things a bit in the New Year and let me devise more topics that are interesting, fun and safe to share.

Cross-posted here.

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5.12.13

Of Humans... Cavepersons... And Sex...

Back in mid 2011 I was asked to contribute some writing to a community webzine called Conduit Media which focused on scientifically informed and culturally aware political debate. I reviewed the popular scholarly text Sex At Dawn (with some reference made to a topical genetics discovery of the time suggested by the editor). That website is now inactive but copyright is held by the writer so I'm reproducing my text here for a lazy blog entry.

Recently it was confirmed via gene sequencing that all human lines of decent that migrated from Africa have some Neanderthal ancestry in them. In other words anyone of non-African ancestry is a blend of two distinct forms of hominid. Put another way - persons of exclusive African descent are pure human!

That last comment is deliberately provocative and this is one of the problems of having a consciously political mindset - one anticipates the mindsets of ones opponents and I suddenly have racists in mind as I contemplate human genetics.

A white supremacist may well lament these latest scientific findings (to the extent that they pay them any heed at all - they may well prefer the power of "will" over "reason"). It is they that are the mongrels according to latest genetic findings. And they cannot twist it the other way by making Neanderthal blood a mark of superiority because it is shared by all non-Africans. But why am I engaging in racialist arguments with imaginary racists? Better I think to assert that there is only one race - Humanity - and that it is what unites us that is of interest rather than the many miniscule differences that can never entirely succeed in dividing us from one another.

In asking what is common to humans we enter into the territory of what separates us from other animals and this has always been a difficult question to answer, if we look honestly at what we are. Many candidates for that unique human quality have been proposed, such as tool use, or language, or warfare, and none of these qualify as exclusive human behaviours. One of the more interesting characteristics described as something that humans do well, and which has shaped us as a species, is sex, and it is to this fascinating topic that I will now turn, with reference to the recently published popular evolutionary psychology text, Sex At Dawn.

I remember a sociology lecturer declaring that "serial monogamy" was the human norm. However a closer look at cultures across the world and in history suggests something more complex. And yet the notion of a human norm in sexual relations is a powerful one. The authors of Sex At Dawn argue that the assertion of a norm is itself a product of particular cultural and economic developments in human history that reflect only part of who we are.

The book compares the biology and behaviour of humans with our closest relatives, Bonobos, Chimpanzees, Gorillas, Orangutans and Gibbons. One of many characteristic compared is relative size of genders. For the most monogamous ape, the Gibbon, there is negligible size difference between females and males. The greatest size difference exists among the polygynous Gorillas, among which males are massive, and competition for mates is vigorous. In contrast, the ape most closely resembling Homo Sapiens, the Bonobo, is characterized by a moderate difference in size between the genders, and is also characterized by a non-monogamous (yet also non-polygynous) set of multiple sexual interactions, which serve to promote bonds (including same-sex bonds) among Bonobos as well as for purposes of reproduction.

Such comparisons are hardly conclusive by themselves, but the authors also survey human behaviour in historical times, and among extant nomadic groups today, to conclude that the asserted normality of monogamy is a product of the economic and cultural imperatives of a sedentary agrarian life, one that modern academia has projected backwards onto all of human pre-history. In a society in which inheritance of property is important, establishing paternity becomes an important matter. However there have been many cultures (some existing today) in which the identity of the father is incidental, as there is negligible property or status to be conveyed to children, as property is shared, and the esteem of ones peers is won by personal characteristics and conduct.

It is fascinating what explanations humans devise for natural phenomena in the absence of modern scientific tools and methods. One intriguing pre-modern notion described in Sex At Dawn, which can be found in several separate cultures, is that a foetus is composed solely of semen collected in the uterus as the result of many liaisons. Cultures with such beliefs also hold that a child can have many fathers, and even that this is preferable, as a child can then draw on the good characteristics of many (the best hunter... the best poet... the most hansom fellow...).

Of course, such notions can be disproved with the use of microscopes, but all notions are susceptible to scrutiny and re-assessment in the face of new evidence and arguments. One of the established notions of modern mass society is that competition among males for female "mates" is an evolved human behaviour since pre-human times. Increasingly, however, microbiology demonstrates that it is at the cellular level that competition occurs. Sex At Dawn discusses the discovery of "Sperm Competition" and the implication that rivalry among males is made redundant by this. It is tantalizing to think that a lot of macho posturing could be undermined by understanding the behaviour of our own sperm!

Yet we live in a society in which robust competition for success in many aspects of life is cultivated, so it is hardly surprising that we find this notion natural and so deem it intrinsic to us rather than the product of cultural and economic pressures. The authors of Sex At Dawn ponder why it is that a model of conduct - monogamy - that is deemed intrinsic to humans and bolstered by the conditioning of culture, religion and government policy should so frequently be observed to fail. They note with compassion all the lives that have been marred by acrimonious divorces as a result of aspiring to something that may in fact only be one of the many ways in which humans are naturally inclined to behave.

Sex At Dawn is critical of conventional assumptions, however it refrains from proposing some new utopian model of society to supplant current practices. Rather, its authors say that surveying the circumstantial evidence from biology, anthropology, sociology and psychology, while resisting some of the cultural filters that are often applied to these disciplines, throws many of our assumptions into doubt, but they also admit that they lack answers as to how to respond to this. They do think it is important to question human sexuality however, as it is something that shapes who we are as persons and as a a species. The book, then, exists to promote further debate and examination of human history and experience. It is a fascinating, challenging, evocative, amusing and sometimes moving read, and well worth a visit to your local library.

Since writing this the book has become something referenced by many friends and I think it faces the danger of becoming regarded as "scripture" by some non-monogamists (which I suspect was never the intent of its authors). Like any academic text it is part of a continuing debate. One qualm I had with the book was its tendency to glorify forager and horticulturalist phases of human development - my own prejudice is I'm rather fond of many of the developments of agrarian society and the city-state. Also I suspect that the debate of "what we once were" is less important than "what we are or can be". Nonetheless Sex At Dawn does get you thinking and has plenty to recommend it.

Cross-posted here.

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28.11.13

Perfect Imperfect

I sometimes find myself imagining ways in which I would like a fictional story to have been changed. However I also note that I only do that for things that are worth imagining improvements to. You never try to fix a total mess or something bereft of value. In that sense saying “they should have done this” is a form of compliment. Here I will discuss a few of the changes I have imagined for some of my favourite fictional franchises.

Doctor Who



Sometimes I get all fussy over trivial things like technology or costume design (I do this for Silurians here under 'Tragic Fan'). However at other times what matters to me is more important things like character and plot development.

I’m very satisfied with the recent Day Of The Doctor fiftieth anniversary special but even so I have wondered how things could have been if the producers had managed to secure the involvement (beyond the use of archival footage) of the first of the “New Who” actors in Christopher Eccleston. This was an absence I for one noticed and it makes sense for him to have been the incarnation that experienced the end of the Time War. However there are some lovely interactions that occur with the involvement of the fabulous John Hurt that would then have been missed. The result of this musing is the realisation that you cannot have everything – that there are different ways to do a good story but to do everything risks the integrity of a story.

Middle Earth

Now with Day Of The Doctor past us I can get excited for the next instalment of the Peter Jackson directed re-telling of The Hobbit. That story is unfolding but the later tale of Lord Of The Rings has been fully re-told by Jackson and I do wish some of it was done differently. Unlike many fans however I am happy for changes to have been made from the novel but I wish those changes were fully committed to. Consider Arwen.

Jackson effectively merges the characters of Arwen and Glorfindel. I was fine with the more independent and action-oriented Arwen we see in part one but by part three she had turned into a swooning fairytale character who will magically die if the heroes fail in their quest. What rot! Arwen could have stayed strong as much as her father Elrond. She could have insisted that the sword be re-forged and then taken it to Aragorn in Rohan. I only decided all this once the story had been fully told. Sometimes however one imagines what will happen between instalments of a continuing story.

Star Wars

There was a lot the matter with the Star Wars prequels and I think that the tale of political intrigue and decay could have worked so much better as a mini-series with an HBO feel. Nonetheless I still enjoyed the further exploration of an amazing setting and during the intervals between the movies I hoped for some things that never happened.

I pondered who the Sith Apprentice between Maul and Vader would be. I imagined a stealthy female assassin with mauve complexion wielding twin light-stilettos (I’m aware there is something like this in the expanded and non-canonical Star Wars universe). I think that the character played by Christopher Lee had a level of gravitas too close to that of his Sith Master. George Lucas only got him in because of how cool he had been as Saruman. Another more recent movie has suffered from such use of an actor who happens to be hot stuff at the moment.

Star Trek

Towards the end of the following post I criticise the use of Benedict Cumberbatch as Khan in Star Trek Into Darkness. This actor is good but so are other actors. But because he is the cool thing currently we suddenly had an Indian character who had been immortalised by a Mexican actor now re-interpreted by an English actor. This was annoying and resulted in me referring to the character by the alternate name of “Kaiser”. But lest you think I only ever want to expand the ethnic diversity of actors in movies read on…

James Bond

The most recent 007 movie Skyfall had a better balance of classic Bond elements than we have had for a while. I enjoyed it but had one issue with casting. In it we met an antagonist who was supposedly the best MI6 agent in the 80s till he was abandoned to his apparent death by M. The actor Javier Bardem depicted a convincing villain but I find it difficult to accept that an elitist British institution like MI6 would have had a Hispanic favourite a quarter century ago. Javier Barden could have always been Khan. But for Bond I would have loved to see that the abandoned favourite was effectively another incarnation of Bond and it would have been delicious to have him played by a sardonic Timothy Dalton.

* * * * *

With the exception of James Bond I tend to do this re-imagining stuff for those things that present a complete fictional universe and credit must be given to those who produce such settings because it is a very difficult thing to do. You are far more likely to fall short of perfection if your palette is an entire universe rather than just - say – a small English village in which a murder happens every week. If your canvass spans worlds then naturally there will be mistakes. It is still worth the effort for the sheer imaginative thrill that you give to others.

Cross-posted here.

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19.11.13

Console Rooms

I’m writing within a week of the screening (both on big and small screens) of the Doctor Who Fiftieth Anniversary story. I’m getting rather excited but to share all my comments and speculation would be a breech of etiquette so I will herein simply discuss a rather mundane and safe topic – that of the TARDIS console rooms to date.

Mostly console rooms change as a result of deliberate refurbishment by the Doctor (known whimsically as “changing the desktop” in the revived series). However in the regeneration of the tenth to the eleventh Doctor (Tennant to Smith) we notice that the TARDIS alters the console room of its own accord and this got me thinking of fitting particular console rooms to particular Doctors in terms of personality and the resonance of the eras in which they are set. So once more I’m altering the time-line to match particular console rooms to each incarnation of the Doctor and finding this website useful in jogging my memory of this very long-running TV show.

William Hartnell (1963-1966)

The original console room is a classic which in many ways is reminiscent of so many 1950s science fiction movies in its depiction of futuristic technology. It also has many of the characteristics that have been preserved ever since. There is the hexagonal console with its central time rotor. There are the roundels set into the walls. There is the monitor (hanging from the ceiling). There is an overall impression of whiteness. There are also some wall-set computers and translucent panels that have been omitted from later and simpler designs. This all works well for the first Doctor.

Patrick Troughton (1967-1969)

The original console room or parts thereof was utilized till the end of the 60s but I feel that a somewhat later console room so much better fits the second Doctor. A console room only seen in one 1972 story (the set was accidentally damaged) has the innovation of these bowl-like roundels that look like something made by Tupperware. This room is so ‘Swinging Sixties’ and would have worked nicely for the second Doctor era with its kilted and mini-skirted companions.

Jon Pertwee (1970-1974)

It barely matters which console room to allocate to the third Doctor. He spends much of his time in exile on contemporary Earth and is often seen working in his lab at UNIT headquarters. The Police Box sits in a corner. Sometimes the console itself (now in colour transmission and seen to be an odd pastel green) is sitting in the lab and I wonder how it was removed from the TARDIS. For those times the Doctor is free to travel I think the Tupperware room would have done fine.

Tom Baker (1975-1981)

The fourth Doctor had by far the longest tenure so it is tempting to let him have console room changes. The room that he did have which by far and away fits him best for me is the auxiliary console room of 1976-77. It is specifically stated to be a separate chamber. It has all this wood panelling and brass railings and even a few stained-glass roundels. It introduces columns between wall panels which became a standard for the rest of the original series. Its console is markedly smaller and lacks a time rotor (the only thing it lacks I feel). Another innovation is that the console is on a platform (apparently this was to make life better for camera operators) which is something that has only returned in the revived series. I love this timber console room which so nicely fits the Bohemian eccentric that is the fourth Doctor.

Peter Davison (1982-84)

A fresh-faced fifth Doctor warrants a shiny new console room but possibly the phrase “everything old is new again” is relevant here. I think the console room that the fifth Doctor inherited works well for him. The classic white walls look is preserved but there are changes. The roundels are now translucent fixtures set into the walls (rather than depressions). The columns are there. The monitor dominates most of one wall. The console itself is back but with more standard white and silver science fiction livery. The time rotor has a lovely pinkish glow.

Colin Baker (1985-1986)

The sixth Doctor is all showy and glitzy and the changes introduced in the Twentieth Anniversary special fit him particularly well. The key change is to the console itself. Its base and time rotor are more complex and decorative but what draws the most attention is just how very busy the controls on all six panels are. This was the 80s and we had entered the digital age. The Twentieth Anniversary console reflects this. The mishmash of levers and dials and lights have been replaced by a tidy yet complex array of keypads and readouts. Sometimes science fiction makes the mistake of presenting contemporary advances as futuristic. Still it is very of its era and I’m happy for the sixth Doctor to have this.

Sylvester McCoy (1987-1989)

Now I intend to do something different and borrow a console room from another Timelord altogether for the seventh Doctor. The Rani had a tastefully designed console room of stone walls and a rounded console with a time rotor of optical illusion rings. I think this would nicely fit the combination of intrigue and reassurance represented by the seventh Doctor. The only significant change I would make would be the items displayed on the various stands arrayed around the room – replacing the macabre specimens of the Rani with more savoury curios collected from history by the Doctor.

Paul McGann (1996)

So much of what we now think of as the hallmarks of the revived series debuted in the 1996 telemovie. But what are now celebrated as innovations relevant to Twenty First Century audiences were back then dismissed as Americanizations in this Transatlantic co-production. But I digress. One of the new things in the telemovie was a much bigger and darker console room.

It seems to be ‘open-plan’ with corners of the space serving different functions from conservatory to library alcove. The console itself emulates the original hexagon but its fixtures evoke imaginings of the Time Machine by H G Wells (which indeed the Doctor is reading in the movie). This retro look is accentuated further by the ironwork supports flanking the console. Finally the time rotor extends into the ceiling. In lots of ways this was the first console room of ‘New Who’. This moody and ornate chamber well suits the poetic and romantic eighth Doctor (which is just as well since he was only seen in this one telemovie and in the retrospective ‘minisode’ Night Of The Doctor screened online only last week).

Christopher Eccleston (2005)

What we have been calling the ninth Doctor is someone who has experienced some trauma and so the revived series console room fits him well. It is dimly lit and somewhat twisted with its almost organic curling supports flanking the console. The console itself is rounded but divided into six segments so referencing the hexagonal original. The rotor once more connects to the domed ceiling from which snaking cords array. The new thing here is that the console is on a platform and one can access mechanisms below it – a metaphor possibly for what is now hidden in the past of the Doctor. I think this one worked well but I also enjoyed what came next.

David Tennant (2006-2009)

The following Doctor persisted with the same console room but – I dunno – I have a hunch this rather self-centred incarnation would have jumped at the chance for a “new desktop” and the one that was introduced later in 2010 would have fit him well. That warmly lit multi-levelled console room with curving walls and seating and bells-and-whistles is a bit of a bachelor pad frankly. And who better to have a bachelor pad of a TARDIS than this Doctor who wilfully played with the emotions of assorted companions. Put me in there and feed me some dessert wine and I too may well succumb to your alien charms.

Matt Smith (2010-2013)

In truth the most recent Doctor has gotten two new console rooms during his tenure. And I must also admit that the “warmly lit” room was in other ways a fitting setting for the family vibe that companions Amy & Rory lent to the story. But I have to press on with my rigid concept of matching console rooms to incarnations and I think the latest console room works well for the Doctor who will take us into the Fiftieth Anniversary celebrations because it is the ultimate mix of the old and new. Yes it is new and shiny and full of steel reflections and blue light. But it is also a salute to the past white console room possibly as it wished to look rather than the way it did look. The console itself nicely references the original. Here you have a setting that is arrogantly technological and suddenly you remember that the TARDIS is a spaceship. I look forward to seeing more of it in a few days. I’m also impressed that you can use Google Earth to enter a police box in London and explore this fictional setting (try it yourself in Earls Court Road)...

Cross-posted here.

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