Lazy Luddite Log

29.1.15

Indoor Camping

The title of this post is deceptive. My living conditions in the last few weeks have been way better than it suggests. I was originally thinking of using the title "Squatting" but that is stretching the truth even more. The fact is I am legally living in my own home with the security of locks and keys. I have water pressure and power. I'm still sleeping in my own bed. But even small differences can have an impact on ones routine. You see my share household since 2010 is disbanding and as part of that process I have been living with fewer modern conveniences ('mod-cons').

My housemates Polly & Olav are moving closer to the city while I am moving a few kilometres from our current location. They have bit-by-bit been transferring some bigger mod-cons and I have willingly embraced the experience. Just what is it like to have access to fewer of these things? Here is my description of the key differences...

Pass Me Down That Can Of Beans

I have managed well in the kitchen even if I lacked refrigeration. For one thing we are having a mild Melbourne Summer thus far. For another there are a lot of things I enjoy that keep perfectly well in a pantry. Grocery shopping for me has included muesli bars, ultra-heat treated single-serve soy milks, Ryvita, Nutella, mixed juice, soda water, cans of corn, pinto beans, and "hearty" soups. I even made some toast in a frying pan.

There is a dish-washer but I rarely if ever use those. Somehow I prefer washing in the kitchen sink. I suspect this is because I prefer standing to bending or crouching. The one big drawback of lacking a fridge is that I cannot take advantage of the better prices that come from buying two iced coffees at once because I cannot store the extra one safely till the next day. Iced coffees are getting expensive but those two-bottle discounts bring the price back to something like it was a decade ago! I did try a tub of ice in the bathroom basin but it melted too quickly to seem worth it.

Scrubber Dub Dub

I have also managed without a washing machine. This is a bit more involved and I have employed two alternatives. One is to walk with my basket of dirty clothes to the closest laundromat. Those machines are pretty impressive in speed and performance. The danger however is that while there one will get eat-in dinner at a neighbouring restaurant and I did just that. I also had a novel to read. The other method is that - gasp - I hand-washed a few things in the laundry trough. It worked pretty well but it is also drudgery. Besides I lacked the thick old stick with which to churn the clothes and I felt as if somehow I was missing something historically important.

In My Day We Just Read A Book

The home Internet and phone service was switched off. Everyone uses mobile phones now so for calls I was fine. For accessing the World Wide Web it was another story. I can use my smartphone but I feel rushed by the notion of expending credit. Besides I detest using such a small interface. My solution has been daily visits to a local library for free Internet access using a full screen and QUERTY keyboard. I find that I can do what I need to in half an hour and a lot of what I want to with an additional hour.

I can also 'timeshift' the composing of particular messages or documents to home-time. How? Well because I still have a computer and there is lots one can do even without a net connection. I've been word processing text for transporting on a data stick. I've been updating digital photo albums (I was 12 months behind in that task). And I've been designing and re-designing my music playlists. I'm thankful for the hiatus in home net use as it was a chance to do these things.

There are other ways to keep busy too. I have finally finished a novel I was stalled on for months. I have done a bit more in the way of sketching. And of course I have been sorting and packing and tidying for my move. I only have the possessions of one share-householder living in one room so I am well on top of the task and have re-discovered many forgotten possessions. Also I have experienced just how the Internet has changed our needs and wants - I disposed of an old dictionary and thesaurus because I never use them now.

The time has flown pretty quickly except I must admit that half a week was taken with me visiting yet another intervarsity choral festival - this time Sydney 2015. And I have also had other things to do relating to friends or family or work. It has been only a few weeks of simpler living and I think I did well. It will however be nice to get back to my more usual routines in my new room.

In Your Room

I'm moving into a spare room in the home of friend Kellie. I have a general mental map of how I want to arrange my room but I suppose the final form will only take shape once my move is done and I'm unpacking bags and boxes. It will be an opportunity to play with a somewhat different combination of décor and displays. It will work well but I must admit I will miss my room of the past four and a half years.

It has had a lovely modern unified look and I've enjoyed spending time in it. I will particularly remember it for having friends over for life-drawing sessions or for indoor picnics with Belinda. However it was much more characterized by solitary past-times like watching old TV shows online.

This blog post has been sent from a public library but I expect the next will be done in my new room.

Cross-posted here.

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26.12.14

Playsets

I went on a quest for information recently. I wanted text and I wanted images. It involved a flurry of online hunting followed by several months of forgetting it till some stranger in the world gave me the key to what I was seeking. And the key was the right words to use. If you cannot find something online because you lack the right search terms then sometimes you can throw questions into the ether and hope that one day someone will answer. This is the ultimate virtue of the Internet - other minds that will always understand you better than a dumb search engine.

I have blogged about toys before but they were ones I am an expert on and can name all the names. That information will be something I can always find as they were toys I got into as an older child and pop-culture icons that I am still into today. But what of toys you barely remember let alone can name?

I wanted to find images of two very cool things from a more formative time. I had a department store playset while Lukas had a service station playset. I remembered them as having the same very basic human figurines. They only had a head and body and never limbs but they did have ball bearings set into them that allowed them to roll down inclines (like a Dalek). But what were they called? Who had made them? I had a few basic words and an assumption they were made in the 1970s.

I was mistaken in thinking they belonged together at all. A bit of hunting online showed me that the service station had the Little People figurines by Fisher-Price which lacked ball bearings. It was the Play Family Action Garage which you can see here and here. A characteristic of all these sort of playsets was lots of levers and buttons to do things like tip ramps or move lifts or rotate sections of floor. The figures sat nicely in the cars. It all just worked.

But what of the ball bearing figurines? They must have come from my department store specifically. I hunted some more and eventually discovered that such figurines belonged to a range of playsets made by the Japanese company Tomy and had names like Merry-Go Zoo and Merry-Go School. You can find images and footage of them online and they are super cute. But it seemed like nothing had ever existed called a 'Merry-Go Store' or anything like that.

And a problem with the phrase 'toy department store' is all it gives you is images of toy departments. So I abandoned my quest several months ago. However the last thing I did was to post questions on relevant web pages (such as YouTube reviews of other playsets) describing my lost toy and then went on with life (or at any rate moved onto the next retro or nerdy interest).

Then last week I got a response to one of my messages. Some lovely stranger knew exactly what I was looking for. It was called the Push Button Small Mall and was apparently from the department store Sears. Now I only know of Sears from pop-culture references like the Billy Joel song Scenes From An Italian Restaurant and I know Sears has never been in Australia. But I punched in those words and this is what I got. Wonderful!

Small Mall has all the push-button fun of the other set but it was also made for the ball bearing enabled figurines. Every floor sloped so that shoppers could move along one floor then fall via a hole onto another level and so on. My hunch is that Tomy made the playset for Sears and that (furthermore) some other Australian department store then imported them (whether from the US or directly from Japan).

You will notice that there were these transparent pink coins (life size) - they too had tracks that they ran along. The coins could be superimposed over back wall decals of products (thus representing a purchase) and roll from floor to floor all the way to the cars at the bottom. We had those coins way longer than the set itself.

And now we come to the sobering part of this story. This image reminds me of more recent recollections of the broken parts of the playset. We later on utilized them as background fixtures in science fiction action figure displays. Somehow we had broken the department store and sections of it had moving parts that just made them work well as things like a super computer for robots to use. Gone all but for the memory and (now) these images that I have photographed from the Internet and put on my own websites.

Why does all this matter to me? Is it some childhood nostalgia? In part it is and I do get a warm fuzzy feeling from looking at these good-time playthings. But I think it is more than that. It extends to an interest in history because of what these products tell us. They show how toys have developed over time. The design is reminiscent of trends in Twentieth Century architecture. And then there is this.

A boy and a girl (of different backgrounds too) are playing together with the same playset on its promotional packaging. Here we see late-70s manufacturers wanting kids of both genders to share a toy. Things seem to be different now and there is a lot more 'gendering' of toys. We tend to have this simplistic and mistaken notion of history as progress. Sexism is slowly reducing in our culture we are told. And yet now we have a lot more 'toys for boys' and 'toys for girls'. I suspect the motivation is economic rather than political - if kids share then parents can spend less money but if they all have to have distinct toys then toy sellers make more profit. What dismays me most is how much adults have become dupes to this con. And we ourselves had different childhoods from the ones we now impose on our kids.

I look at that image and at old kids TV shows. In this post (under 'Marashara! Wirra! Ari!') I suggest that the central character of a program full of dinosaurs and alien technology was a girl even if those things are more regarded as for boys. I look at other old shows or adverts and see a world in which both boys and girls wandered around in jeans and striped shirts and floppy haircuts. They all rode bikes. They all got drawn into adventures and they all argued over how best to escape the crooks. I expect this vision is the product of selective memory but I also feel like we were closer to that vision in my childhood than we are now. But I cannot tell for sure because I have nothing much to do with the programming or products of children of today. I wonder what others think.

By the way there is a problem with hunting for things from your past. Sometimes you chance upon other things you had forgotten till you see them once more. I guess we must have had this rescue centre too. Our parents gave us some awesome things. There are still plenty of awesome things in the shops today but we just need to filter them more than our parents had to and it may take a bit more work these days to instil in children the practice of sharing.

Cross-posted here.

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20.11.14

Clumps Return

I originally did this for the 2013 Federal Election Senate contest. Now I’m adapting it for the use of voters in the 2014 Victorian State Election Legislative Council region of Southern Metro specifically. You can see the text of the original Clumps post here.

I’m sharing a method of mine to help me decide my below-the-line preferences in the Victorian state election. It is written with progressive voters in mind. In presenting these clumps I have made a study of the candidates via (i) Wikipedia (ii) party or candidates webpages (iii) my own link into the Zeitgeist as a long-time activist. In assessing I have chosen to overlook preference recommendations of the groups on the grounds that these decisions are often strategic rather than ideological.

My own intention is that once I have ordered those clumps I can then order the specific groups within (or in some cases across) those clumps. Note that these are all judgement calls and in many cases clumps could have been defined differently or particular groups could have been put into different clumps.

Feel free to do your own if you find this method useful. Likewise if you live in one of the other seven regions you will need to do your own research. Finally take a look at the bottom of this note for an important difference in the voting method for Legislative Council ballot papers.

I present my clumps moreorless in reverse order of palatability for me. I have included the letter designations (A to R) for each group on the white Legislative Council ballot paper.

RELIGIOUS ULTRA-CONSERVATIVES: Australian Christians (A), Rise Up Australia Party (D), Family First (N)

For this lot everything is dictated by what they want to think God says. A wonderful excuse for prejudice towards anyone who is different from them in terms of sexuality or family values or religion. They tend to be accepting of different backgrounds and can look multicultural. But they want a society in which we have a homogenous culture defined by fundamentalist Christianity. Tend to be pro-business and anti-environmentalist. Note that I have put the DLP in another clump.

REACTIONARY RECREATION: Shooters & Fishers Party Victoria (M)

I call them this because they may well never have gotten political if particular laws did not interfere in how they like to live. Government regulations protecting Australians and the natural environment piss them off. They want to fish, hunt and hoon all over Australia. Are necessarily anti-environmentalist. Tend to be conservative or libertarian to the extent they have an ideology.

COMMUNITARIAN: Democratic Labour Party (B)

Imagine a community that both takes care of you via welfare and industry protection _and_ polices your personal behaviour 'for your own good'. The Roman Catholic DLP epitomise this and it is an unusual political tradition with a long history. I have made this separate from the mostly Protestant religious clump because the DLP are far more into interventionist economics.

LIBERTARIAN: Liberal Democrats (C)

These have an ideology wishing to minimise government involvement in all aspects of life except legal defence of person and property. So in economics it is sink or swim for both persons and corporations (we just happen to know that corporations are better swimmers who tend to swim right over the rest of us). And in personal life it is literally your decision and therefore your problem whatever the consequences. The_tone_is different from what a lot of us feel. Rather than "yay celebrate difference" it is more "do whatever see if I care".

COALITION AND SUBSTITUTES: Australian Country Alliance (O), Palmer United Party (P), Liberal (Q)

This clump is for our neo-conservative Liberal and National coalition but also for parties that would otherwise be them but have some sort of issue with those major parties. It may be personal differences with key figures. It may be problems with party culture or structures. It may be a sense that the Coalition are neglecting some deserving interest they are supposed to support or possibly some ego that they neglected to stoke.

ISSUE-FOCUSED: Australian Cyclists Party (E), People Power Victoria – No Smart Meters (H), Animal Justice Party (I)

This lot seem okay but do take a closer look online. A group named People Power existed in the past and I would have put into the small-l liberal group (see below) but I cannot be sure they have the same identity – the focus for them now seems very much on the alleged radiation concerns of modern wireless technology.

MODERATE: Group (F), Labor (L), Ungrouped (Neophytou)

It seems that Group F involves members of the latter-day Australian Democrats whose party lacks registration in Victoria. My former party is odd now - well more odd than it was. They were once a progressive party whose very moderate methodology attracted non-progressive voters. In contrast the current group seem to honestly think they can be 'centrist' in an electorate that includes Labor.

Labor are the party of the mixed economy and political compromise and wanting to be progressive but getting scared of conservative lobby groups. As centrists they can and do preference in all sorts of directions and let opportunism dictate such decisions.

From his own online presence the Ungrouped independent seems moderate to me but do take a look for yourself.

SMALL 'L' LIBERALS: Sex Party (J), Voluntary Euthanasia Party Victoria (K)

I put these together in this group because in one way or another they emphasize personal autonomy and civil liberty. They are culturally permissive. Economics is mixed (if tending to free-market).

PROGRESSIVE: Greens (G), Group (R)

Since the disintegration of the Democrats I think that the Greens are the best progressive party in Australia. And the independent candidate Luzio Grossi (a professional photographer and one-time Sex Party candidate) seems pretty progressive too.

* * * * *

There is one thing that makes the Victorian Legislative Council election different from a Senate election and that is the use of non-exhaustive preferential voting. If you choose to go below the line you only need to vote for five candidates by filling in the numbers 1 to 5. This option makes advice like mine that much less useful than if you had to fill in all the boxes!

Cross-posted here.

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27.10.14

Products Past

I reckon that most of the posts on this blog have a positive tone in that I am discussing things I value and enjoy. Some posts depart from this positivity in that they examine problems that I feel are significant ones - political issues and the occasional life drama. Something I rarely do is address trivial problems - things that annoy me but that I can get over. Indeed I think that paying scant energy and attention to these problems helps me got over them sooner. However this does put me out-of-step with much of the Internet. Today I will make an exception and have a good old whine about something.

I have particular consumer product preferences that have changed over time. In some cases my tastes change and that is okay. What bothers me however is that I sometimes become attached to a particular product that then gets discontinued! Here I will describe five such products that have been taken away from me and diminished my life as a result. Woe!

Helgolander Dark Rye

My family have always purchased rye-and-wheat breads by Atlantic Bakery. They have a distinct grubby shape and a springy texture. In the 90s as a young adult I got very into their Helgolander dark rye (named for an island off the coast of Germany). It was so dark that if you toasted it and added Vegemite it would still be as dark as it was to start with! It tasted fantastic but then it left the supermarket shelves. I wrote to the company and they told me that it was to be replaced by a new sour-dough bread. But it was lacking in something and was just another grey-brown rye. Why did they have to do that to me!

Some Crazy Cereal

I cannot remember its name but it came from New Zealand and this breakfast cereal was crazy I tell you! It was like having puffed grains drenched (and therefore both coloured and flavoured) with berry purée that had later dried. It was like pink pop-corn in a bowl! What a way to start the day! Then it went away. I was bitter at losing that sweet dish you could say.

Pasta Sauce With A Twist

Some products are designed to make you pretend you are participating in the home cooking process more than you truly are. This pasta sauce was one such item. The jar was shaped so that it had two distinct spaces. The largest and lowest part held the tomato-based pasta sauce. The nifty bit however was that the top few inches held this mix of finely chopped mushrooms in aromatic oils. One would spoon this concoction into a heated pan and sauté and it would smell amazing. One would add the sauce later but the experience came from that sizzling smelling sensation. Why did it go away? Surely others also enjoyed the experience of seeming to put together a dinner bit-by-bit and smell that awesomeness? Sometimes I think I'm alone in my culinary preferences.

Cassava Crackers

I only ever found these at the Asian grocer at Monash Uni in Clayton. They were huge and puffy and savoury and oily and kind of like vegetarian prawn crackers. They were made of cassava, tapioca and tastiness. I would buy a packet and share with fellow choristers over dinner before weekly rehearsal. This happened till recently. The shop in question never seems to stock them any more. They only ever got them intermittently but now they seem to have removed them altogether. I could always ask what happened and it may even get results. One small shop I can talk to in person is better than writing a letter to a distant manufacturer.

GV Fruit And Vegetable Juice

I have always found that a lot of vegetables have an off-putting dirty taste. However I try to find ways of getting more into me and one way is with juices. In the past mixed fruit and vegetable juices have been gross but more recently they have started to improve the mixes and proportions. There has to be a base of tangy fruit juice like pineapple for it to work. The addition of a small quantity of some other very intense fruit juice like lemon also helps. I particularly liked a brand that (if I remember correctly) was made by Goulburn Valley. It tasted nice and was cheaper than those fancy-pants fruit and vegetable juices they now shelve among the whole fruit and vegetables (wankers). It formed a part of my lunches during my stint with the Bureau of Statistics along with a roast vegetable wrap. I think that good things should also be fun things but sometimes the world makes it difficult to realise that and this is yet another instance of a product departing from my life.

* * * * *

All these products had in common the fact of tastiness and goodness (to varying degrees). And it just struck me that this is still a positive post because I am focusing on things I enjoyed and then missed. Sorry Internet but I just cannot meet your standards of negativity. Luckily there are still plenty of super tasty things for me to have.

Cross-posted here.

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15.9.14

Bring A Plate

The seed of this bit of creative writing comes from the latter part of this post and then draws on this older thing for its setting. It is more a concept illustrated by a fictional scenario than it is a short story in its own right...

Herevale was a satellite town that had become a dormitory suburb in the metropolitan hinterland. In living memory an indoor shopping centre had been constructed in former swampland. It sported one department store, one supermarket, one small cinema, and dozens of specialty shops. Many locals welcomed its convenience, but others blamed it for the demise of older local stores.

Isolated shops in back streets had been replaced by the anonymous offices of small-time tax agents who saved money on the deflated rents. The main street of town had ceased to be a shopping destination but during the day it was busy with visitors to its civic services, like the public library, and during the night diners visited its several popular restaurants. The truth, then, was more complex than the detractors would have you think, but minimalist architecture and expansive car parks never did give a good impression.

Helina drove into the Herevale Shopping Plaza car park on a surprisingly sunny July morning, with a look of disdain on her face. She was attending an extended family gathering in the area and was expected to “bring a plate”. However, she had left too little time in her morning to prepare a suitable contribution in her own studio apartment back in the City. As a result she had to endure the shopping centre that, to her, was sterile and soulless. Never mind that Helina had never accepted the existence of souls, the indoor shopping mall was a place to be derided for its dedication to conspicuous consumption.

Helina was a journalist and satirist who celebrated cosmopolitan culture and living a more authentic life. On many issues she was very insightful and provided a refreshing alternative to the credulous mass media. On some matters however she was blinkered. Helina rushed into the supermarket, mentally dismissing everyone she passed as a slave to consumerism and pop culture, and almost bumped into a gangly, mature-aged man with a manila folder clasped in his hand.

Adriano was a local political activist and right now he was walking towards centre management with a full petition. He’d been collecting signatures calling on the owners to install recycling bins throughout the centre, rather than just along the food concourse. Adriano had some success in local matters, having agitated for library opening hours on Sundays. On another occasion he had been partly successful, hoping to protect an old Masonic hall from demolition, and pushing for its retention as a neighbourhood house. In that instance the best he’d managed was to have the front façade heritage listed, resulting in a set of studio apartments hiding behind caryatid columns and ornate masonry.

Despite his avocation, Adriano was shy and anxious and, mentally rehearsing what he would say to the office receptionist, had almost bumped into Helina. If only she knew Adriano, Helina would consider him an ally, but presently he was simply someone slowing her course through the garish distractions and piped music of the shopping centre.

Having finally purchased some food, Helina needed a coffee to compensate for having had to see all the junk that a family ahead of her at the checkout had been buying. She found a cafe, ordered a flat white, and sat down. It was then that she noticed a choir, singing close by. Apparently management had decided to celebrate 'Christmas In July' to boost winter sales, and this had included hiring members of a university choir to sing carols. To Helina this was tiresome religious indoctrination, and she rolled her eyes while inhaling the fumes of her calming beverage.

Ironically, Kasey and Heng of the carolling group were thinking very much the same thing at that moment. Theirs was a secular choir, dedicated to beautiful music that, in past times, had been sponsored by religious authority and therefore had ecclesiastical content. They simply loved singing in close harmony. They were also there to make some desperately needed money for their community group and, in all honestly, to spend more time in each other’s company. Some of their peers had placed bets on how long it would take for the pair to communicate their mutual attraction. Kasey and Heng were seeing an Australian-made speculative fiction film at the cinema, after their gig, so maybe bets would be settled soon. On the other hand, one of them was an international student, so maybe they would shy away from a complex situation. If Helina knew of this heady life experience unfolding, she would tell them to give it a go, but she could not see past their black-and-white uniform to the cluster of human stories beyond.

Helina then remembered the scratch on her sunglasses from her morning drive and, deciding to get replacements, walked to the department store. Her search for glasses took her past the small book department, and a young single mother, Aroha, with her son Tama. Aroha knew that Tama was wild about pirates and wanted to encourage both his reading and an appreciation of history. Luckily, there was a plethora of illustrated non-fiction aimed at children, which drew the reader in with features like 3D glasses, and then subversively fed them facts. Pirates Of The Seven Seas In 3D presented case studies on historical pirates from all over the world. Aroha suppressed a small pang of envy, wishing that she’d had such books as a child, but even if they had existed, such things had only become affordable more recently. She overcame this feeling quickly, decided to buy the book, and focused on the fun they’d have reading it together.

If she had known of this story Helina might have been torn between lamenting the gimmickry of it all, and applauding the focus on education. However, she now had enacted her purchase and was making a hasty escape from this shrine to the almighty dollar. With her new shades on, further distorting her perceptions, Helina got back into her car and drove onto her destination, tut-tutting the ridiculous posters declaring the slogan of ‘Food – Fashion – Fun’ that adorned every blank space. Fun my arse!

At the family gathering Helina entertained relatives with various anecdotes and truisms, many of them derived from op-eds she had written. One of her anecdotes related to travel and her assertion that it was important to get off the well-worn tourist routes and spend time with the locals. She had even done this in areas that were recovering from conflict or disaster. It was only if you did this that you discovered the distinct lives of the locals and the way in which culture develops in the most unusual settings. Life finds a way, she was fond of saying. Helina was so occupied with her conversation that she overlooked how much she enjoyed munching on the dolmades and stuffed olives she had bought, even if they had come from the Herevale Shopping Plaza.

Cross-posted here.

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24.8.14

All The Doctors

Tonight I will be watching the return of Doctor Who with a brand new actor. I cannot discuss what I am yet to see but I can discuss past actors and in how well they were served by the various recent fiftieth anniversary programs. I also go on a ranty tangent relating to the identity of Peter Capaldi.

Hartnell – Troughton – Pertwee

An Adventure In Time And Space was an amazingly well done docu-drama showing how Doctor Who started. It focused on William Hartnell as the original actor to play Doctor Who. I personally would have liked to see them extend the story of Hartnell to his limited involvement in the tenth anniversary story The Three Doctors in 1973. This would have then allowed for some depiction of both Patrick Troughton and Jon Pertwee. That may have made the story even more depressing than it was but it is the story of an old and sick actor so I would cop that for the sake of another concept. I personally think that the collected programming during the fiftieth anniversary should have done justice to all the past incarnations of the Doctor.

Baker

Tom Baker is amusingly impersonated in the comedic mockumentary The Five-ish Doctors Special which lampoons his absence from past televised reunion shows. However then there was the surprise coup of him having a cameo (as an un-named character) in the Day Of The Doctor. That was spine-tingling. Also I have been watching some old Doctor Who recently and always find I am most drawn to the Tom Baker era. Despite my protestations that I have a number of favourite incarnations I suspect that maybe I do have one favourite…

Davison – Baker – McCoy

The Five-ish Doctors Special was possibly the best thing produced for the fiftieth anniversary. Peter Davison, Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy are a wonderful comedic trio in playing themselves as past Doctor Who actors desperately seeking to get into the Day Of The Doctor. This cack-fest is worth seeing over-and-over and has a wonderful cinematic Hobbit reference in it. I may be saying this in part because the 80s was my time as an avid Whovian.

McGann

Apparently Paul McGann is called “the longest and the shortest” Doctor in the sense that he was only in one tele-movie but has been in the most other media such as audio-plays and novels. However for me TV is what defines Doctor Who and therefore it was wonderful to see McGann in the online mini-sode The Night Of The Doctor. I think this was the most exciting moment for me suddenly seeing what could-have-been if McGann had been in a continuing series. It was also nice to see him have a cameo in the Five-ish Doctors Special as someone who is a successful jobbing actor.

Eccleston – Tennant – Smith

I touched on both my approval for Day Of The Doctor and my desire for changes to it here. What if she special had included all three actors of the revived era? I would have loved to see Christopher Eccleston as well as David Tennant and Matt Smith. The fact that producer Stephen Moffat managed to get Tom Baker involved but never managed to bring Eccleston back into the fold is a huge pity. The one implication of my futile wish however is that a show with the three latest actors would never have needed the invention of the ‘War Doctor’ played by John Hurt.

Yes I love John Hurt too but a seasoned actor like him could have taken on another role in the special. I personally would have liked to see a wise elder figure in the role of the ‘Interface’ of the doomsday device the Doctor took to that hut in the Gallifreyan desert. Why? That hut intrigues me. What is it and why did the Doctor go there? I think it is of personal significance to him. There are mountains in the background and this reminds me of tales told by the Doctor in the classic series of a hermit who lived in the mountains behind his childhood home and who was a mentor of sorts for him. It would make sense for the Interface to imitate a past incarnation of that character.

But what of Rose you say? Well it was never Rose – just a computer simulation. New Who has plenty of “feels” as is and you cannot have everything in your special. What of Jack? Or Martha? Or Amy & Rory? All recent companions could have worked in a reunion show.

However I personally think that the likes of Kate Stewart and Queen Elizabeth I give the Doctor plenty of supporting characters to play with. I enjoyed the show and think it was one of the most well-developed adventures I have ever seen but I can also lament lost opportunities.

Capaldi

And now I come to the new actor who will play the Doctor from this weekend and I become ranty. At the time his tenure was announced I knew nothing of who Peter Capaldi is. This was quickly addressed by friends on Facebook whose posts informed me of two things. One was that he had played a character in a political satire who uses expletives with aplomb. The other was that the Doctor was to be played by “just another white person”.

I’m well aware that the concept of “white” is a hopelessly vague one which obscures diversity behind the selective unifying characteristic of a pinkish complexion. I’m also well aware of how much it is subject to interpretation and revision that can vary with time and place. This generalization promoted me to look into the Capaldi background a bit.

Capaldi inherits his surname from his Italian grand-father who came to Scotland a century ago and sold ice-cream made to a family recipe taken from his homeland. Were Italians even deemed “white” in the UK of a century ago? Whatever the classifications of the time, I can well imagine Giovanni faced a degree of prejudice as a result of his ethnicity. Hopefully his son Gerry (who also sold ice-cream from a van) fared better and that by the time Peter came along he felt like a wholly accepted part of British society. However that is only my hope.

The slurs of “wop” and “dago” abound in British comedy shows of the 70s that I saw as a child. Hopefully much of it by then was presented with the intention of lampooning those using the terms but that is optimistic. It was in the 70s that Peter was a teenaged Doctor Who fan. With a surname like his I suspect he would have had some experience of prejudice.

Now however Capaldi is lamented (by some with a focus on identity politics) as just another white playing the Doctor. I find it ironic that over the course of a few generations the same family within the same cultural context has (likely) been subject to both racist harassment and racialist dismissal of cultural identity. I agree that representing diversity in fiction is important (as I have discussed for another science fiction show here) and there are lots of ways to do that. Despite its name Doctor Who has always focused on the adventures of a group and progress has slowly been made and will hopefully continue.

There is more to diversity than just glancing at a mug-shot and making blanket pronouncements on that basis. Those who oppose racism need to grow beyond using racialist simplifications (some go so far as to use what I would call a 'race binary' for all humanity). Overly blunt analytical instruments are prone to backfire.

* * * * *

Due to various plot twists the Doctor expended all his regenerations but then got a brand new set and that is what we start with tonight. It will be interesting to see how this new first incarnation fares in investigating the whole of Spacetime. I hope they will do justice to this long-running story-telling vehicle.

Cross-posted here.

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28.7.14

Brazen Evil (Part 2 of 2)

Last month I put forward my feeling that a person or group that openly admits to evil action is worse than one that seeks to hide or re-define such harmful acts. I say that an honest evil scares me more than a clandestine one. This is despite my cultural conditioning to deride deception and criticize lack-of-consistency.

Honest evil is a rare thing and that is because rarely do perpetrators of evil acts have the confidence to be so brazen. Those that do may be deluded as to how powerful they are. The lone sociopathic killer is likely such a person. However there are others who might have a reasonably accurate sense of the power they have. They are truly scary and with that in mind I turn to the Posen Speeches of Heinrich Himmler.

Once you get past cartoonish caricatures of Nazism it becomes a difficult thing to stomach so feel free to stop reading. I should offer a trigger warning because I discuss persecution and mass murder.

Himmler was leader of the Schutzstaffel (SS) political security force of the Nazi regime and in charge of exterminating millions of Jews, Roma and other victims of the Third Reich (some of whom I have discussed here). In 1943 he gave a number of speeches to a select audience of close to a hundred SS and Nazi Party personnel in the Posen Town Hall (then situated within greater German territory). The speeches were recorded and exist to this day. They were used as evidence in the Nuremburg Trials. They are interesting to me in terms of showing a confident admission of harmful acts by the speech-giver. But that may depend on just how public one considers the speeches to be.

Is giving a speech to an elite audience private? If it is recorded and a text of the speech distributed to others of that elite is that still private? Himmler himself in the speeches says that some of its content must “never be discussed publicly”. Nonetheless I think it is significant because most other perpetrators of harm will only say these things in much smaller groups with a much more intimate tone or they will even think these things only to themselves.

The motive for supposed discretion is also worth considering. Part of it may have been a sense that the Germans were starting to lose World War II and that they had better be more careful in the face of Allied propaganda. In part however it may also have arisen from a perverse sense of gentility exhibited in other parts of the speeches. Consider the following:

“Most of you here know what it means when 100 corpses lie next to each other, when there are 500 or when there are 1,000. To have endured this and at the same time to have remained a decent person — with exceptions due to human weaknesses — has made us tough, and is a glorious chapter that has not and will not be spoken of.”

What audacious twisting of reason! Be a mass-murderer while at work and then go home to your loved ones and still be a “decent” person rather than some sort of brutish monster. Kill but never discuss it over dinner with your family. To Himmler this shows that you are cultivated in manners and strong of will and that makes you a better person.

Notice how he says that they have “endured” this. There is some sense here that brutal acts have a detrimental effect on a person. In other parts of the speeches he says that the Holocaust is the most difficult thing they have done. This seems at odds with the Nazi notion that those they were exterminating were more animal than human. A comparison is even drawn with the killing of Nazi comrades…

“…we did not hesitate on June 30 to carry out our duty, as ordered, and stand comrades who had failed against the wall and shoot them.”

This was a reference to the Night Of The Long Knives in 1934. During that event the Sturmabteilung (SA) or Stormtroopers were forcibly removed from the Nazi regime they had helped establish. The SS had till then been one small part of the SA paramilitary organization and on that date SS officers murdered SA colleagues. How did those SS officers feel? Well they had too much “tact” to say anything but Himmler expresses the opinion that…

“...everyone shuddered, and everyone was clear that the next time, he would do the same thing again, if it were commanded and necessary.”

Himmler is saying they had human responses of revulsion to what is a revolting act but also evokes loyalty and necessity in saying that they did it once, so they can do it again. In this speech his purpose is to steel them for more evil acts – more and more corpses lying next to each other. But why do it?

“We have carried out this most difficult task for the love of our people. And we have taken on no defect within us, in our soul, or in our character.”

That particular statement is taken from a part of the Posen Speeches relating to what to do with any possessions confiscated from the victims of the Holocaust. SS officers are barred from personally profiting from any such booty and must hand it all over to the regime. Here we see them clinging to some twisted sense of integrity. And it is all done in service to a people under threat.

The threat the SS were acting on was a manufactured one – a fiction that some ‘races’ had to be destroyed so that the German ‘master race’ as exemplified by the SS could flourish. Race ideology was a delusion the Nazis harboured but elevating necessity over matters of good and evil is different from pretending that evil acts are good acts.

I think the Posen Speeches show a powerful regime that is aware of the difference between good and evil and accepts on some level that it has done evil things. And that is truly terrifying. They have power that allows them to be brazen. They cannot be exposed because within a given jurisdiction there is nothing more powerful than they are. In the rare instances that this happens arguments of reason cease to matter because ‘might is right’.

The Nazis took the ‘will to power’ too far and discovered that the world was still bigger than them. Eventually there were consequences for what they did but by then it was too late for the many millions of victims of their hate and fear. I prefer a politician who is scared that his sins will be discovered rather than one that thinks he can do anything with impunity.

Cross-posted here.

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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 given 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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