Lazy Luddite Log


Epic Dream

I have discussed dreams here in the past but I recently remembered a particular dream worthy of recording for posterity. I had it sometime after the turn of the century and remember it well even now because, back then, I described it avidly to friends. It was unusual for its epic quality and the presence of three different celebrity figures. On that note however I must state that the three persons named are fully understood to be merely phantoms with a sense of likeness to those they are named for. They have zero responsibility for the things they did in this dream. So onto the story...

A pair of Jedi are dueling on a rock jutting out into a wide ocean bay during low tide. The tide is rising and a powerful wave comes and sweeps them both off the stone platform and into the churning water. At this instant George Lucas and his camera crew rush into the waters to both help the two actors to shore and to congratulate them for a scene well played. What originally seemed to be a true duel had become mere play-acting (despite the very post-production quality look of the light sabers).

I was among those gathered on the beach and now, as the rest are walking back up the sloping sand, I approach Mr Lucas and offer him some sort of award that I've been empowered to convey to him. The award looks like a lump of beach rock with a few crystals jutting at ugly angles out of it. Mr Lucas accepts the gift happily and then suggests we walk back to the reception centre.

We turn away from the ocean and towards the cliffs lining the entire curve of this wide bay. Ahead of us is a low-slung glass-fronted structure - the reception centre presumably - and we make towards it. However someone or something makes us look back to shore. What we see is a stupendous tidal wave stretching left and right as far as we can see. It is rushing horrifically towards our cliff-bordered bay at such a speed that escape seems impossible. I look towards Mr Lukas but find myself staring at the calm face of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama.

My companion looks at me as if to say he has everything under control. Just as the churning wall of water is upon us it becomes a fog which gently wafts about. The Dalai Lama then beckons for us to continue on up the beach. We now seem to be alone as we come to a modest but well-made pine-wood structure that is rather different from the one we had been making for.

He and I enter a room lined with timber columns and beams and furnished with long wooden benches. The room is filled with a warm mist and sitting on a bench is Jane Fonda (at the age she was in Barbarella) wearing a large towel. She welcomes us and gestures for both the Dalai Lama and I to sit with her, so that's what we do, he to her left and I to her right.

As we sit, part of Ms Fonda's towel falls away, revealing one breast, and somewhat surprisingly, the Lama gently cups it in one hand, as they both look at me with wicked grins and waggling brows...

As if often the case, my dream ended and thus metaphorically 'panned to fireplace'. We will never know what happens next but to this day I'm impressed with the crazy mix of things in this dream and with its cinematic tendency. It also interests me looking back at that closing moment. It seems like the scene is all set for some amorous sharing yet this was years before I got involved in anything like polyamory. In the past I have argued that dreams are just random and lacking in significant messages but if the data they have to draw on is everything you know and feel then once in a while they may bring some overlooked aspect of yourself into focus. Possibly that is what happened here. Or possibly it was just a silly dream.

Cross-posted here.

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I recently had a letter published in the Australian Financial Review (a first for me). It concerns a key problem I encountered back in my time as an under-employed person receiving income support from Centrelink. I also composed a longer piece on the same topic but sent that to a few key non-government organizations. I reproduce its text here:

Last year, I stopped claiming Newstart Allowance. The thing that allowed me to become independent of Centrelink was not a new job, nor work found for me by the JobActive network. Rather, my casual employer of a few years had slowly been increasing my shifts, to the point that I could get by without public support.

Before that, I had applied for many other jobs, because a full-time role is theoretically better. However, prioritizing full-time over part-time work could have been a mistake. Had I been offered a 3-month full time temp job, I would have been expected to take it, cancel my shifts, and hope that a short-term role would turn into something more. But that could not be guaranteed. Another thing that could not be guaranteed was my casual employer giving me back my old hours, because my reliability would have been undermined. A short-term win might have turned into a long-term loss, as I went back onto Newstart with less work than before.

That never happened. Prospective employers talk of having hundreds of applicants to vet. The high applicant-to-vacancy ratio was never acknowledged by JobActive consultants, however, as they focused solely on personal factors. And yet, the unemployment industry seems ill-prepared to understand personal circumstances, such as the plight of an under-employed person who needs to keep in sweet with existing bosses. Quickly changing rosters do not gel with bureaucratic expectations and, while it is touted as a flexible and community-based network of service-providers, JobActive is another bureaucracy, and a fragmented one at that. At one time my service-provider lost its government contract to a new player. The result was duplication of effort, as I had to brief new consultants on my background, and they had to familiarize themselves with Centrelink processes. I would have rather had stability than an illusion of choice.

Centrelink payments are also poorly designed to serve the under-employed. A particular problem I faced, at a time when I was only getting sporadic shifts, was the expectation that one declare income at the time it is earned rather than received. As soon as Centrelink knew of any extra income, they would pay a reduced amount of the already paltry Newstart, even though my pay was still weeks away. This one procedure played havoc with my frugal budget. I had less than I needed to survive and sometimes turned to family for help. Thankfully I have that kind of support, and never became indebted to loan sharks. But even after my earned income arrived, it never seemed to compensate for the preceding hardship.

This procedure still exists, and changing it would make life for under-employed Newstart recipients that bit better. I wrote to various parliamentarians, including a past Federal employment minister. A staffer called me, and in true Sir Humphrey Appleby style, simultaneously said that, yes it was a problem but no, they would not do anything to change it. How hard would it be to let job-seekers only declare income once it arrives? Even though it no longer affects me, I still look on this experience with frustration.

I said that I got no government help in becoming independent, but that's not entirely true. The existence of Newstart itself made it possible by acting as a top-up to what had been an inadequate casual income. I was able to live the kind of life that is expected of someone in regular work, even part-time work, and participate in society as both producer and consumer. Newstart alone, or my casual earnings alone, would not have sufficed, but a combination of slowly growing casual income and downwardly adjusted Newstart allowed me to make a living.

In the long-term, political views on unemployment benefits need to change. A one-size fits all policy based on the assumption that jobs are there to be found makes life difficult for jobseekers, employees and employers. For me Newstart accidentally took the form of a low income top-up which allowed me to develop a stable and trustworthy relationship with a workplace that eventually grew my hours. It was only by sheer luck that Centrelink hurdles did not jeopardize that relationship. Maybe a low income top-up is exactly what we need. However, I would be satisfied with the more modest change of letting job-seekers declare income only once it is received. This would be a small boon for those who work but cannot find enough work.

I would love to make advocating for this last change a pet project of mine. I could definitely do way more than I have here to lobby for what should be a small and non-controversial reform. But right now I have other personal commitments and plans getting in the way. For now I will be satisfied that the issue is in the public record.

Cross-posted here.



Berko’s Muesli

Seems ages since I posted a recipe. I recently played with making some muesli and here is a mix that works for me (incidentally the word ‘muesli’ means puree). It takes a bit more effort than my usual method (cutting a commercial breakfast cereal with extra oats) but once done the result is rather satisfying.


Oats, Flaked Flaxseed, Sunflower Seeds, Almond Slivers, Honeyed Puffed Wheat, Dried Blueberries, Cinnamon, Malt

Oats are the basis of any muesli and one of my favourite foods. I throw in flaxseed because apparently need more Omega-3 fatty acids. Other seeds and nuts are characteristics of a decent muesli. I throw in a processed stand-alone cereal in the form of honeyed puffed wheat to add some sweetness and fun. The blueberries are one of the few dried fruits I enjoy. The cinnamon is just another flavour to add interest to the dish. Finally I threw in some malt powder simply because I had some and – well – if you have something you need to use it right?


Quantity and proportions is a product of the package sizes you purchase, the size of the container you wish to store the muesli in, and personal preferences. However my rule-of-thumb is that half the contents be oats.

Optionally I toasted half of those oats. I put them into a dry frying pan on a low flame. Stir the oats constantly till they are toasted. This process reminds me of cooking my pita chips - nothing seems to happen but eventually they start getting a bit smaller and a tad golden. The degree to which each oat cooks will vary but since you will be mixing them back in with raw oats this is fine.

The rest of the preparation process involves simply mixing all the ingredients together in an air-tight container and giving them a good shaking. I have included an artful picture to show what the resulting mix looks like.

This muesli works well with soy milk, milk or yoghurt. And like any good ‘breakfast’ cereal it works as a snack anytime of day or night. Guten Appetit!


Cross-posted here

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The 2016 that has just passed has developed the reputation among many as a rotten time to the extent that it has almost become a demon of contemporary culture.  My own 2016 was fine personally and professionally.  Any challenges I faced were moderate and I responded well to them.  The biggest one was simply facing life as part of a small and aging family. 

But my wider world as exhibited online was one characterized (in the Anglosphere at any rate) by lots of voters making stupid decisions and (more annoyingly in some ways) by many political pundits making the most stupid analysis of that voter behaviour.  Simplistic profiling seemed to come from all directions and was augmented by reductionist Internet memes.  With all this as a new norm I'm in a mood to move away from partisan political discussion and into non-partisan civic contribution.  A younger me would have been surprised by such a comment but that is how I feel right now.

The other thing that set the doomy vibe of 2016 was a slew of celebrity deaths.  And I return here to the matter of aging.  Our popular culture 'idols' tend to be older than we are so it only follows that we will face a time in which they perish from a combination of age and time related factors.  I have to mentally prepare for more of this to happen because the last twelve month were part of a bigger trend.  The largest generation in developed nations - the baby boomers - came of age at a time in which a variety of new media (from colour television to stereo radio) debuted.   This gave us a lot more popular culture personas to become part of our everyday lives.  Now they are getting old.

But as I contemplate this I also remember that this is nothing new to me.  Many of the public figures that have had the biggest impact on me died before I started blogging and (with few exceptions) I have rarely acknowledged in writing the affect they had.  I will remedy that here with reference to three important persons who died too young...

Janine Haines (1945-2004)

Haines was technically the first Australian Democrats senator and became the first women to lead a Federal parliamentary party in Australia. In my late teens she was a small but significant figure in national politics and made an impression on me. Yes she was sometimes dismissed as more a librarian than a politician. And yet here was someone who seemed to epitomize a kind of politics in which one could take a principled stand while also engaging constructively with ones wider political environment. This seems a far cry from the ideological trench warfare we are digging ourselves into these days and maybe the methodology of Haines cannot work now. Or maybe if more of us had committed to it sooner then things would have been different. I make further reference to Haines in this other post.

Carl Sagan (1934-1996)

Sagan was a scientist and educator who came from a working class Jewish background in New York City. He impacted on me via two different media. One was television via the landmark documentary series Cosmos (1980) which I devoured as an older child. This program used then state-of-the-art effects and electronic music by Vangelis to tell the story of pretty much everything. Science was the focus but the facts were presented in the context of the history of human endeavour that gave us a rational and empirical grasp of nature. The other was a book given to me by housemates - Demon Haunted World (1995). This text is a skeptical critique of everything from paranormal phenomena (like alien abductions) to more mundane yet still suspect notions (such as repressed memory therapy). However Sagan is better than many other skeptical thinkers in that he shows compassion for those who are subject to credulous thinking and seeks to understand them.

Jim Henson (1936-1990)

Henson and his creations have been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. The Muppets (a cross between marionettes and hand puppets) helped populate the diverse community of Sesame Street (1969 onwards) before they went onto star in the Muppet Show (1976-1981) and many other things since. As a child I was drawn by the slapstick but as an adult I stayed for the cheeky humour. But Henson did more than just amuse. He also provoked the imagination with ambitious fantastic settings presented in movies like the Dark Crystal (1982) with its wonderfully intricate ecology. The nightly news report of the death of Henson at the end of my teens was a huge shock - it seemed to me as if someone vital to the fabric of the times had gone. But his work always involved the collaboration of many artists and It is comforting that his company has been productive ever since.

* * * * *

I'm tired and it took too long to compose this post. I was partly busy living life. But I also feel a bit mentally lethargic now and it is as if the legacy of those named is fading. Taking a stand. Acting constructively. Thinking rationally. Having compassion for those different from us. Feeding the imagination. Having fun. It is far too soon to say farewell to all these things. We have to try to hang onto them.

Cross-posted here.




Last Winter my Transformers collection passed its thirtieth year. In the eighteen months since then my interest in (and buying of) these toys has had a resurgence. In this post I will share some of my understanding and opinions of how Transformers (with a focus on the toys) have changed over three decades.


The original batch of Transformers were Japanese toys re-branded for selling to audiences in the United States and beyond. The US company Hasbro formed an historic partnership with Takara to co-own and produce the Transformers brand worldwide. Both have taken over smaller toy-makers but have never turned such acquisitive attentions on one another. They have worked together for decades to produce the most iconic and many of the best (but also some of the worst) converting robot toys for both children and adult collectors.

The concept behind many of those original Takara toys was that they were mecha operated by drivers. Design focused on depicting vehicles and other machines (alt-modes) accurately. The robot modes in contrast were more abstract - after all a robot can look like anything. As The Transformers however they were re-cast by Hasbro as sentient robotic aliens. They contracted Marvel Comics to develop storyline and characters. Animation models (templates providing guidance to animators) simplified and humanized the robot modes. The cartoon robots and the toy robots looked different from each other but kids were okay with that and the cartoon made the toys into a craze.

There were only so many original Japanese designs and by the third annual catalogue they needed more to maintain sales. With new designs came a new methodology. Now animation models from the cartoon movie (1986) preceded toy design and the focus was for the toys to more accurately match those robot modes. In compensation for this the alt-modes were now more abstract and took the form of 'futuristic' vehicles. As a youth I accepted that only one mode or the other in a toy would be realistic. I had a preference for the robot mode to be more abstract and even valued 'kibbling' (blatant machine-parts hanging off the robot body) as a key part of the distinctive Transformers look. I suspect a lot of kids felt similarly. But some children of the 80s have grown into the adult collectors of today and they are a lot more fussy.

Technical Generations

One of the most interesting developments of recent times has been the Generations line of Transformers toys intended to emulate older toys and be consumed by both older children and adult collectors. They have more expectations put on them than the original toys and have to be both 'toy accurate' and 'show accurate'. They cannot just depict a vehicle and a robot. They also have to depict what is now an iconic character in the minds of fans. The designers do pretty well with these expectations but there are some problems that arise from this and one that particularly annoys me is what is known as 'faux-parts'. Imagine a well-known character has windows on its chest in robot mode. In the original toy they were the windows of its truck alt-mode. But for the new version to have both toy and cartoon accurate windows it will be given two sets of windows (each exposed in one mode or the other). This bothers me to the extent that anything so trivial can bother a person. Make the windows turn into the windows dammit! Even if some supposed accuracy is lost who cares? A vital aspect of Transformers is the transformation process and faux-parts detract from that.

My favourite kind of transformation is one that is elegant rather than complicated. It needs a few inventive and non-intuitive twists (like the hip swivel or the head-chest switch) within an otherwise simpler sequence of moves. An extra set of windows is a nasty bit of misdirection for those who regard Transformers as puzzles for them to solve. Another development that I feel complicates transformation is the expectation of articulation. Robots that can assume a range of poses because of more joints can become more difficult to transform because of all that extra movement. A specific set of steps now have a significantly larger number of incremental movements between them.

I must admit that ball-and-socket joints are cool and allow for greater durability as well as posing. Limbs that come off can now be snapped back in. In the older toys if a limb came off then your Transformer was broken. On the other hand it took a bit of force to do that and even as a kid I was careful. And while I love a lot of the original toys I also admit that the capacity to develop finer models has improved. They can now pack more precise designs into toys of a given size. However these finer designs demand more precision manufacturing and I feel the execution often falls short of intentions. Tabs that are supposed to fit securely here-and-there only sometimes work as well as they should.

The original toys had a mix of plastic and metal and rubber and that was cool. As soon as new designs were added they started reducing this variety of materials to only using plastic. The only metal in a toy now is the tiny screws holding it together. The only rubberized parts are sharp bits that would otherwise be a hazard for children. This is all done in the name of profits. Still there have been some improvements - apparently plastics are better made-for-purpose now. Tampographs are way better than stickers. Weapons can be stored on most models now. And 'piping' can give a toy optics that seem to glow.


I'm focusing on toys rather than cartoons but even a toy standing in isolation can tell a story. Look at these toys in robot mode and one often gets a sense of a fictional character with some kind of personality. Transformers were granted personality and alongside that came gender. Our culture so entrenches gender into identity. To start with they were all masculine (except possibly some of the animalistic robots) but eventually feminine characters were introduced too. The moment that happened debate ensued.

How can non-biological constructs have sex characteristics? It was always a difficult question to answer in-story. Now however we are becoming accustomed to distinguishing sex from gender. This concept allows me to say that Transformers can have gender identity even if they are sexless. And this kind of thinking is nothing new. Theology has ventured this for gods and goddesses since ancient times.

Once more the issue of form preceding or following characterization is relevant. Most 'mechs' (masculine characters) start with a neuter toy design. However it is a look that can readily be aligned with the caricatured proportions of masculine cartoon characters. Nobody balks at some boxy lumpy construct referred to as 'he'. However for 'fembots' (feminine characters of whichever faction) in past decades there was an expectation that they must have an exaggerated doll-like form so cartoon models defined a look that was difficult to render as transforming toys. This limited alt-modes of the few fembots that did get toys to more organic and 'shapely' things like spiders (yuck) and motorcycles.

More recently however there have been two interesting developments. One is that designers have managed to make fembots turn into reasonably convincing sportscars or jetplanes. The other is that feminine characters have been allocated to existing and more neuter designs (in a process known as re-tooling and re-decorating) and they turn into things like vans or fire engines. The former development conforms to notions of sexual dimorphism. The latter however recognizes that gender cuts across all sorts of forms. These fictional characters can be 'she' simply because we decide to call them that. The end result is that Transformers are bit-by-bit becoming toys for everyone.


There is so much more I could discuss but I will finish for now by saying that Transformers are intended to be collected. So many of them are made (as a toy or in storytelling) to go with others. Many are designated as having relations like 'twins' or 'master-and-pet' or 'rider-and-steed'. Others belong to groups that form gestalts. Others belong to toy selections who can use the same arms and armour interchangeably. And for me simply the variety of forms promotes the desire to collect. Turning into vehicles is cool but then there are others that turn into monsters or into everyday household appliances. Somehow all these disparate toys can look awesome on the same shelf together in whatever modes. And then they transform!

Cross-posted here.

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I rarely buy books, preferring to borrow them, but a while ago friends gave me a big boffo book voucher and one of the books I purchased was the history text The Forgotten Rebels Of Eureka by Clare Wright. More recently I got to see the author do a presentation on her book and had my copy autographed. My interest in the era possibly stems from my mother (whose Anglo-Celtic ancestry in Australia is traced to the 1850s gold rush) telling me of this important chapter in history. What both book and presentation helped drive home for me is how the following truism is very much mistaken - history is written by the victors.

It would be more accurate to say that secondary sources are written by the victors while primary sources are written by everyone. But even that is a simplification. What we find as we look at both history and the history of history is that it is presented from many perspectives and which ones dominate shifts over time. Forgotten Rebels Of Eureka is a case in point. Wright decided to examine the Eureka Stockade story from the perspective of women and found a huge amount of information to draw on in the public record. Everything from personal correspondences to ship manifests told a story that had been overlooked rather than deliberately suppressed. But we are playing here with shades of grey.

I could argue that the history of Eureka from any perspective has been overlooked and contrast it with the story of (say) Ned Kelly. There have been far more regular depictions of Kelly in popular culture because our society seems to value vigilantes over rebels. I could also say the legacy of Eureka has been deliberately distorted and refer to the existence of both militant trade unions and extremist nationalist groups adopting the Eureka flag despite the fact that the Eureka Stockade rebels were self-employed entrepreneurs of multi-national background engaging in a modest tax revolt as a last resort. In all these cases it has been the actions of many autonomous perspectives that have resulted in the mixed perceptions we have of Eureka. Nobody has successfully monopolized the role of story-teller. So now onto part of that story.

Life on the 1950s goldfields was difficult for everyone both in the civilian settlements and the government compounds that ruled over them. The population exploded overnight as all those entrepreneurs (who in many ways were more like gamblers) flocked to central Victoria to find gold and a better way of life. The government soon decided that there were too many men and too few women. Any functioning community must have a mix of characteristics but in this case the opinion arose from the patronizing notion that women calmed the more savage natures of men. The sexist roles of the Victorian Era had men striving while women mollify. Functional demarcations like that tend to go hand-in-hand with power imbalances but in this there also lay the potential for change.

Government policy fostered the migration of more women to the goldfields and that included a growth in family life. With it came domestic violence. However a community living in tents is one with scant privacy and this in part may have resulted in greater exposure of the problem. There are records of a surprising number of women taking legal action against abusive men and sometimes even succeeding. But they did more than just stave off violent men or seek to influence gentler men. Women also took an active role in shaping and driving the community.

Some traded with the local Wathaurung - possum-skin cloaks became a valued commodity that was both warm and striking. Some worked alongside partners on digging claims. And some decided to sell the skills and services necessary to a growing population. In the next few paragraphs I will focus on a few of the more note-worthy and enterprising women of the goldfields.

* Jane Cuming is one of the few women acknowledged in older secondary sources. Her background in England included involvement in the Chartist movement for political reform. The goldfields harboured many such ideological aspirants originating in both Europe and America. Cuming was part of the Eureka Stockade revolt and five decades later sat front-and-centre in its reunion photograph.

* Martha Clendinning decided to operate a general store from part of the family tent. Many women did likewise and were soon bringing more money in than their mining husbands, a development that caused tension and jealousy. Having your own income is a key part of garnering a degree of autonomy but it can also undermine masculine egos conditioned to think their worth comes from bringing home the bacon.

* Clara Seekamp helped her husband edit and publish a newspaper - the Ballarat Times - and while he was indisposed she became sole controller of its content. Both of them were keen on seeing better conditions and improved justice on the goldfields. It should be hardly surprising that critics of the paper were all-the-more scathing of it for the fact that a women had a hand in its content. But it was read nonetheless and had an impact on the civic life of the goldfields.

* Ellen Young submitted content to papers such as the Ballarat Times. One of the things Victorian society did allow of women was creative writing and Young submitted poetry. Her compositions focused on political matters and she eloquently argued in verse for British Law (with its pretensions to decency and justice) to be consistently and truthfully applied in the goldfields. She expressed the popular opinion that the polity should be what it was intended to be rather than that it be replaced by something more radical. The poetry of Young was popular with both women and men.

* Sarah Hanmer was owner and operator of the Adelphi Theatre. The goldfields population craved recreation and makeshift public venues like the Adelphi provided just that. Hanmer was a performer herself but as an older woman took more of a background organizing role. Some of the shows performed were pure entertainment. Others however took the form of satire (always a safer way of expressing dissent) targeting the political issues of goldfields life. Hanmer became affluent and donated some of her profits to local causes. As politics on the goldfields became more tense she hosted benefits supportive of those seeking reform. The Adelphi became a site in which like-minded locals could meet and agitate during interval. The importance of such settings cannot be overlooked in the cause of change.

The Eureka Stockade revolt itself was a failure. But the spirit of cultural and political change it reflected in the population went onto drive democratic reforms in the colony of Victoria and beyond. Most of the direct benefits of that change went to men despite the involvement of women in those efforts. It was only later that women worked together specifically for their own emancipation from oppression.

The powerful seek to present themselves as more powerful than they truly are. This is an effective way of preserving power positions and both oppressor and oppressed sometimes collaborate in fabricating the fiction of hegemony. We tend to imagine the past as a time in which the elites were so much more powerful than they are now. And hand-in-hand with that comes the impression that those lacking power had none at all. But an examination of the personal lives of those associated with the Eureka Stockade story complicates this impression. In this handful of anecdotes we see how even a small share of power can be parlayed into more and that over time this can result in lasting change.

There is a Museum Of Australian Democracy At Eureka and I think I shall have to visit it one of these days. Hopefully once there I will find some of the names discussed here also displayed there.

Cross-posted here.



Magnum Movember

I am experimentally getting involved in Movember by reviewing episodes of the TV series Magnum PI (1980-1988) as an alternative to growing a moustache. This will be a bit unusual for me as it is civic work for the direct benefit of a demographic to which I belong and it somehow feels selfish. But we shall see how we go. I will be starting my profile page off with a whole series overview and am sharing it here too.

I originally saw Magnum while on the cusp of adolescence.  I enjoyed it then even if it was a bit mature for me.  Now on a re-watching I find it is rather immature, or at any rate the central character is.  Thomas Magnum is more than just the usual action hero.  There is a marked lack of stoicism in him. In fact, he is a bit of a winger.  The deeper truth however is that Magnum has had to be very stoic over the important things in life and so is a petulant bastard over its more trivial aspects.  Magnum admits in one episode that he acts like a big kid because his time as a Vietnam War combatant and operative (in Naval Intelligence) robbed him of a carefree youth.  Now he pursues rest and recreation between gigs as a private investigator.

There is a sober heart to the Magnum story but much of the appeal of the show is its surface fun and there is lots of it.  The setting of Hawaii is an enticing one, partly because of the tropical island locales, and partly because the culture of the fiftieth US state is a distinct one, drawing on everything from its Polynesian roots to its significant Japanese migrant population.  Another aspect of the setting we can now add is the nostalgia value of its era.  The vibe of the show is quintessentially 80s and demonstrates many of the stylistic shifts TV experienced that distinguished it from the 70s.  Take for instance its iconic theme music (introduced twelve episodes in) which puts electric guitar solo into the foreground and brass blasts into the background.

The characters and interactions are engaging and fun.  Tensions between the core characters can be frustrating to watch, but are also a source of self-deprecating humour.  As the series progresses we also see close and growing bonds of friendship and camaraderie born of shared challenges and tragedy.  Magnum, Rick, TC and Higgins are all survivors of one war or another and Magnum PI was pioneering in exploring the suffering of Vietnam vets.  But while our heroes are all very flawed characters, they are not anti-heroes, and I think this distinguishes these 80s characters from both the paragons of older shows and the gloomy and gritty characters of more recent programs.  That in part is what keeps drawing me back.

I do have some qualms with the lack of diversity in casting.  The four regular characters are all male.  This is compensated for somewhat by a regular supply of interesting female guest characters.  However they do have a tendency to fall into the same role over and over.  An independent and self-possessed woman finds herself in circumstances beyond even her ability and so turns to the titular character for help.  Magnum agrees to take the job and over its course starts to fall for his client till (say two thirds into the episode) he discovers there is more to her than she is letting on and that she is partly to blame for the growing dangers they both find themselves in.  This gets a bit boring and is definitely a dated approach to heroines.

Magnum is a dated program but at the time it was exploring new and different ways of addressing issues within a dramatic context.  Topics that had once been taboo were explored in the show.  The way they were handled seems clumsy by contemporary standards but popular culture had to make a start and this show was one that had the courage to do that. And along the way we get to examine lots of shady underworld schemes and some very personal murder mysteries. Rarely are the plots too confusing, although sometimes they take surprising turns, and as the seres progressed a hint of the paranormal started creeping in, with Magnum's 'little voice' seeming like more than just intuition. Magnum comes close to death at the end of the seventh season and fans speculate that the entire eighth and final season is set in purgatory.

But for me there is something cheering in watching episodes of Magnum which I find difficult to define. It does this even better than many science fiction or fantasy shows and I cannot say exactly why. I will enjoy reviewing select episodes as my way of generating some funds for Movember. So drive a borrowed red Ferrari to the island estate you live at rent-free and kick back in the bungalow with Thomas Magnum - owner of arguably the best mo of the 80s.

Cross-posted here.



A Bucket Of Dim-Sims

Like many others, I have been perturbed by the return to our Federal Parliament of the One Nation political party and its celebrity leader Pauline Hanson. I'm lucky to belong to none of the demographics Hanson targets with derision. And yet as someone who campaigned in opposition to One Nation 'back in the day' I feel a sense of loss. In this post I will discuss that feeling and hark back to a small campaign I facilitated in the late 1990s.

My feeling of loss comes in part from a tendency to cast our lives in fictional terms. In story-telling the heroes get to vanquish the monster and, with any luck, it never comes back. Midnight Oil even referred to Hanson as a vampire in the song White Skin Black Heart. In reality, however, our political opponents are just other humans who think and act differently from us. We share a society, and sometimes even workplaces or extended family groupings, with them. And sometimes if we look more closely we find that we share opinions too. Many who oppose the xenophobia of One Nation nonetheless object to Globalization. Many who oppose One Nation likewise object to the dominance of seemingly distant career politicians. In both these instances they occupy common ground with One Nation. However, as satirist Pauline Pantsdown has noted, Hanson is every bit the career politician, and now she has returned.

Another factor in my sense of dismay comes from the polity I live in. Rarely do ideologically peripheral groups get elected to Australian legislatures to the extent they do overseas. If I were the citizen of another representative democracy (including many peaceful ones I would be happy to live in) then I would be more accustomed to my parliaments having a token smattering of everything from communists to fascists. I could wave my hand dismissively at them as mere political decoration. But with the return of One Nation to the Senate it seems Australia has gone mad. The media love this controversy and amplify everything Hanson says. And once that happens persons of conscience have to respond and take a stand. The alternative is allowing prejudice to be given a veneer of respectability which in turn makes overt and damaging bigotry more commonplace.

Back in the late 90s one of the ways I responded was to propose an on-campus information campaign to the then Monash Democrats. We felt that an antidote to the absurd and divisive claims of One Nation was the sharing of statistics. Rarely do the newspapers that report political statements also then list facts to confirm or contradict those statements. Our One Nation Is Full Of Shit sheets were stuck to the walls of toilet cubicles on campus and we encouraged hand-written comments from those reading them. We took our information from an Australian Democrats pamphlet which in turn drew heavily from the Australian Bureau of Statistics. I have lost the original sheets we produced but I did recently come across transcriptions I made of the various comments received. I will share some here and then make a few observations.

"Will the Member for Oxley please give me a bucket of dim-sims and a shit-load of soy."

This is the most flippant and seemingly neutral comment we got but it has also stuck in my memory the most. It refers to Pauline Hanson having been a fish-and-chip shop operator before she got elected to the then House of Representatives division of Oxley. I however think of how the dim-sim can represent Australian multiculturalism. These ubiquitous snacks were inspired by finger foods introduced by Chinese-Australians, mass produced by the Greek-Australian owned Marathon Foods, and enjoyed by Australians of all backgrounds. This small story illustrates how culture constantly cross-pollinates and regenerates and how pristine and enduring monocultures are a fantasy.

"[ABS and Census figures are] government controlled bullshit!"

A growing number of political commentators say that using facts in emotive political debates is futile because ones opponents are completely set in what they feel. This quote shows an extreme instance of this. Some deny that there is any common ground of fact over which we can argue. All you can do is ask them why they think the truth they rely on is any more trustworthy. Or better yet move on and find more productive settings for debate. Look at the next comment.

"Thank goodness we now have some hard facts! One thing Australia does not need is the 'enemy within' syndrome. Hanson is not just racist she is dangerous! I want a copy of this!"

In political debates there are many who are stuck in between - lurkers and waverers and those who agree with you but lack confidence - and they have power too. Even if you never convince a rival you can still sway others or give them the tools they need to engage in debate themselves. Seeing something like this quote made me feel that our work was done.

"Oh! So Australians are dumber. In your next issue could you please write some more about migrants being better than Aussies."

One Nation provoke fear and envy by saying that migrants take our welfare or our jobs or both. Successive Australian governments have favoured skilled migrants who are well-placed to take jobs. But they also contribute to the economy as entrepreneurs and consumers. Past figures have shown that migration has a neutral to positive impact on employment. We had shared statistics to show that migrants contribute to the economy. This quote however shows the sensitivity of someone prone to insult. Possibly they had experienced hardship and were looking for simplistic solutions. Everyone wants those...

"One Nation are irrelevant - it's a right-wing civil war - Lib/Nat versus One Nation - the Left should wait then move in - read more Lenin."

Honestly what can one say to Bolshy stuff like this? They are so lost in doctrine as to lack any sense of what is happening in the here-and-now. And while they watch it is marginalized groups in society that suffer from the emboldened expressions of bigotry that One Nation as a parliamentary party provoke. With hindsight we know that a lot of the One Nation rhetoric was borrowed and polished by the Liberal/National Coalition. One Nation lost ground but are back. I think they will falter another time but it has nothing to do with hoping that others will do the job for us.

* * * * *

My prediction of One Nation faltering comes in part from my suspicion that a handful of ego-driven maverick senators with peculiar perspectives will eventually turn on each other. Extremists are like that. They have difficulty coping with a massive cosmopolitan society and they will also be challenged by the differences that inevitably exist within a small group. That kind of person wants things to be just so and once they discover differences among them the cracks will form. This happened to One Nation back in the late 90s. But have they adapted as a result of past experiences? I'm skeptical. The first speech in the Senate by Hanson was a regurgitation of her first speech from the 90s. She still talks of Australia getting 'swamped' and only changed the group to be scared of. Surely after decades a person would want to express things differently just from a sense of personal development. Nope - I think One Nation will face similar problems because the past they are stuck in includes the past history of One Nation itself.

My other hunch is that those of us who cherish a cosmopolitan society will continue to challenge what One Nation say. For Hanson 'freedom of speech' is an empty catch-phrase. I remember how she insisted on scripted interviews thereby effectively stifling the speech of journalists. We however can remember that free speech only works if it is universal. If they say something then we can say things too. Cite facts. Use personal anecdotes. Express your opinion. And if you are intimidated by a seeming rise in bigotry then seek help from others. Society is moving long-term in an exciting and positive direction but in the short-term that is provoking desperation among those resistant to change. We just have to keep talking, whether online, or in person, or even on toilet walls.

Cross-posted here.



Cultural Relativism And Universal Rights

I first came across the concept of cultural relativism in the 1990s. Dr Mahathir (then long-serving Prime Minister of Malaysia) argued that criticisms of his human rights record were nothing more than the imposition of values foreign to his own nation. This kind of thinking has a much longer history and reminds me of the following dismissal of universal rights from the Count de Maistre writing in 1797:

“Now there is no such thing in the world as Man. In the course of my life I have seen Frenchmen, Italians, Russians… But, as for Man, I declare that I have never met him in my life.”

The count needed to pay more attention to the common characteristics and aspirations of humans but he was an arch-conservative and one thing with conservatives is that they are particularist. Each nation will have its own home-grown conservatives whose purpose is to preserve the customs peculiar to it and (while they are at it) exaggerate its distinctiveness. This contrasts with international movements for liberty and equality that have a history of asserting the universality of civil rights and the importance of democracy worldwide.

And yet all too often I have noticed some opponents of conservatism making cultural relativist statements. They argue that democracy has a European cultural origin and to wish it for all nations is Eurocentric thinking. This assertion needs to be looked at more closely.

It is commonly known that democracy was invented in ancient Greek city-states and it is likewise commonly known that Greece is a part of Europe. But the ancient Greeks conceived of themselves as part of a Mediterranean world while Europe was merely a barbaric backwoods. It was only much later that a European identity formed and Enlightenment era scholars (resisted by the likes of the Count de Maistre) drew inspiration from the ancient Greek polis. Assuming a never-changing and uniform European identity is itself Eurocentric thinking.

Furthermore if we look across human history we find practices in power sharing and popular rule have developed independently in many parts of the world. Other candidates for such developments include the ganas of India and the Iroquois Confederacy in North America. Assuming that democracy is a solely European concept betrays a kind of Eurocentric thinking and dismisses democratic heritages across the planet.

So why do some opponents of conservatism harbour conservative assumptions? I venture two explanations. One is that pre-modern and post-modern thinking meet on the far side of the curvature of modern politics. Regarding every culture as alien to every other is pre-modern but rejecting any kind of rational common ground for defining terms is post-modern. Both abandon the possibility that we can understand one another and participate in shared discussions.

My other explanation is simply to say that some of us define our ideology by what we stand for while others are shaped by what they oppose. Among the ranks of progressives (of which I am one) there will be those who would be better understood as anti-conservatives. Ironically it is anti-conservatives who are more likely to accept conservative assumptions. As they seek to oppose home-grown conservatives they inadvertently play into the hands of conservatives in other lands.

If you accept the cultural relativist argument that every culture has its own unique concept of what it is to be human then it is worth asking who this thinking serves. Look beyond just the supposedly uniform nation to see that it is made of many distinct interests. Does withholding ‘our’ concept of human rights help those who suffer human rights abuses or does it only serve those who perpetrate those abuses? If a person has been imprisoned for criticizing local elites or defying restrictive traditions do they then sit in prison and accept this as part of their culture? Hardly. They ask for better because of a shared human desire for better.

The best way to promote the rights of humans is to empower humans with the ability to make decisions – that is exactly what democracy is. But it can and does exist in many variations because cultural and historical differences do have an impact. Likewise the way rights are defended will differ (say between common law customs and written constitutions). But I think there are standards that are worth sharing globally. The methods by which we will arrive as these shared conditions matter. Peace and diplomacy can be universal values too.

And it is okay to say that anything can be improved by adaptation and reform. After all the government of Dr Mahathir was technically deemed democratic. None of the regimes we live in are perfect and all can be criticized. I am free to criticize my own government but I reserve the right to also criticize others. And if the citizens of those other states lack the freedom that I enjoy then it becomes even more useful for me to say something.

Cross-posted here.



Smalltime Operators

Live in an area for a while and you get to know and like some of the local specialty stores. In this short post I provide recommendations on three of my favourite small-time operators in the Monash area.

Uyghur Cuisine in Oakleigh

Oakleigh is renowned as the centre of Greek culture and food in the Southern Hemisphere. But walk a short distance away from the Eaton Mall and you find a variety of other cuisines. One of my favourites has to be the generically named Uyghur Cuisine at 97 Atherton Road.

The Uyghur are a Turkic culture from north-eastern China and are associated with the long history of the Silk Road. At the risk of simplifying, what you will find at this small restaurant is food that combines the spiciness of Turkish food with the textures of Chinese food. In particular I'm a fan of the Lamb Lagman. Lagman is a kind of homemade pasta or noodle in the form of tiny pillows with the most wonderfully tender yet firm texture. The small pieces of lamb are succulent and the sauce is a tasty combination of tomato, capsicum and onion.

This is a small family-run restaurant and you can tell. There is a vibe of having stepped into a private home and this comes with both pros and cons. If you want incredibly professional service then you should move on. However if you enjoy something a bit intimate and modest then give this restaurant a go.

Just Collectibles in Mount Waverley

From Jordanville Station you can see a row of shops, offices and club houses, and the most noteworthy is Just Collectibles at 3 Windsor Avenue. The shop moved years ago from a more inner-urban address to this obscure locale. But I guess a specialty shop with a loyal following from across a large area can survive such a move. I also suspect that this store is a labour of love for its proprietor and his dogs.

Go into Just Collectibles and you find yourself in a space crammed with genre-based toys of all kinds from decades past as well as some newer items that deliberately target the nostalgia of affluent adult collectors. I prefer the older second-hand items and in a world of too many knick-knacks think this is a more conscientious way of indulging in a love of collecting. Also I'm a skilled 'window shopper' and regard stepping into such a shop as a chance to look rather than to possess.

And what a lot to see there is! There are huge spaceships for Star Wars figures to pilot. But there are more obscure things there - everything from Alien Versus Predator figurines to James Bond themed die-cast cars. On a whim I even purchased a pre-loved Ghostbusters monster disguised as a toilet! Yes I admit that is a bit odd.

Video Ezy in Notting Hill

Friends are surprised when I say I still borrow movies from a video library. They wonder where such an almost-extinct institution from our youth can still exist. Yes video stores have been shrinking and closing ever since the Internet became an effective way of delivering movie content. But some still operate and the one I'm a member of (at the time of writing) is a Video Ezy at 414 Ferntree Gully Road (close to the Blackburn Road intersection in a small set of shops that includes the passive-aggressive 'mower man').

This small library is crammed with DVDs which suggests to me that the collection has been consolidated from other now-closed franchisees. Who can say how long this one will stay open. It does seem to get lots of customers however. I think two factors may contribute to this. One is that there are customers like me who still enjoy browsing shelves and using discs and are prepared to come from surrounding suburbs. The other is that Notting Hill is a neighbourhood with a lot of affluent and aging residents who own nice DVD players and lack the patience to bother with newer forms of information delivery.

The shelves offer everything from recent blockbusters to old and almost forgotten cult classics. There will be titles you can find here that the Internet lacks. So if you still enjoy this way of getting your movies then consider becoming a member and supporting this and other local owner-operator capitalists.

Cross-posted at here.