Lazy Luddite Log

24.9.17

Same-Sex Marriage Campaign

Here in my homeland we are presently facing the most divisive and protracted one-issue political campaign of my lifetime in the form of the Australian Marriage Law Postal Survey. It has been a while since I blogged on the topic of marriage equality but right now it is useful to record my reflections on the issue. I’m a bit of a do-it-yourself campaigner and designed my own pamphlet promoting a ‘Yes’ response to the question ‘Do you support a change in the law to allow same-sex couples to marry?’ In this post I will share text from that A4-sized three-fold in which I offer locals 'the personal view of a neighbour who has voted Yes in the 2017 Postal Survey'.

My key arguments for supporting same-sex marriage are:

* Human Rights are by definition universally shared by all those who can exercise them. Marriage should apply to all consenting adults wishing to marry. And the beauty of this is that extending a right to a hitherto excluded group still allows full enjoyment of that right by those who already have it. This is a win-win scenario for us all.

* Right now our society has same-sex couples living in long-term committed partnerships that lack the legal protections that only marriage offers. Right now there are kids with two mothers or two fathers who suffer because of the disadvantage their parents face. We have many different forms of family but the law is lagging behind this reality. Our laws should recognize the way our society is today.

* Even religious freedom is an argument for same sex marriage. A growing number of churches support same-sex marriage but currently they cannot conduct weddings for some of their members. A truly secular society should give all religious groups the same standing. But for now the wishes of only some persons of faith are dictating how the rest can express that faith. A change for the better will allow all groups to decide who they will support in marriage.

* I have friends who are in committed long-term same-sex relationships. Some of them have children to whom they provide safe and loving homes. All of them deserve the recognition and the legal protections that only marriage can confer. I want them to be happy and be accepted by our community.

* I for one am angry that we are having this postal survey at all. It is a distortion of our parliamentary democracy and a waste of public funds. Some who feel the same way are talking of boycotting it. But how is ‘boycotting’ any different from simply forgetting to mail your survey back in? A better way is to participate. This political campaign has been imposed on us by a small group of politicians who insisted on side-stepping parliament. They are a minority even among conservatives and hope to win by changing the rules of play. And never forget that this stubborn gang want us to vote ‘No’. Only a ‘Yes’ vote will send them a message that they are part of a bigger society that is sick of political games.

I also responded to some of the arguments introduced by opponents of same-sex marriage:

* Free Speech means that I can express opinions and you can respond. If I say something offensive I can expect someone to tell me so. ‘Political Correctness’ is just a kind of manners asking us to respect members of our diverse society. Like manners it can be taken too far but like manners we each decide how much to accept it. The fact we are debating this proves we still have free speech.

* A civil union or de-facto relationship is better than nothing but there are many legal rights that only marriage ensures, including inheritance, child custody and medical power-of-attorney.

* Producing children is only one purpose of marriage. Consider all the male-female couples who will never have children but who are still allowed to marry. There are also mixed families, sole-parent families, adoptive families. Children should be made aware of all this.

* ‘Will same-sex marriage be followed by marrying the family dog?’ Such ridiculous questions overlook a fundamental concept – Informed Consent. Put simply, Rover cannot say 'I do' no matter how much you ask. The postal survey will at most result in the legalizing of same-sex marriage and nothing more.

Finally I gave a short reflection on why I decided to make a pamphlet:

* I want there to be more to this campaign than slick ads and smart-arsed Internet memes. I decided to become like the pamphleteers of old and engage with my community by presenting arguments rather than just slogans. All I did to bring this to your letterbox was use a word-processor, print at the local library, and have a walk in the Spring sunshine. I hope you take a few minutes to read and consider its content.

There is a lot more I could say on this issue but for now I will just keep it to what I managed to fit onto one sheet of paper. Following the close of survey collection I may expand the content of this post. If there is any Australian citizen looking at this post at the time of its publication then feel free to comment - I welcome any respectful and reasoned discussion.

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1.8.17

Long Intended Short Holiday

This month I will be having a holiday in the United Kingdom (England and Wales specifically). In this post I will refer to my key destinations and my motives for choosing them.

Most of my flying experience has been within Australasia. It was over two decades ago that I last went as far as Europe and I was much younger then. As an older person I suspect I will feel more aches from the long flights. However back then I only had a short story anthology and pen-and-paper to while away the hours. This time there will be much more in the way of personalized audio-visual entertainment.

But onto the objective of my journey. I have wanted to travel for ages and initially was intending to do something more ambitious. However the weeks and months would pass with me making few if any plans. Finally I decided to truncate my intentions and suddenly I was getting things done. I figure that a short holiday in the UK will act as a testing bed for my experience as a lone traveller and then following that I can try for more things (such as more of the European Union and also visiting some long-lost relatives in Japan).

I will be starting my holiday with two nights in Cardiff. The key attraction that warranted this decision is the Doctor Who Experience in Cardiff Bay. I am that much of a fan that this is an exciting thing for me. I will get to see lots of cool props and sets such as some console rooms including the current variation from the Peter Capaldi era. I wonder if there will be any new designs on display intended for the latest Doctor incarnation to be played by Jodie Whittaker? The imagination runs wild!

There will be other attractions to visit in the capital of Wales. I hope to walk passed the Welsh National Assembly and will be staying close to Cardiff Castle. I have also chosen to visit Wales in recognition that the UK is one state but more than one nation. However from there I will move onto England and have a one night stay in the provincial city of Bristol and see things like the Avon Gorge.

The centrepiece of my holiday is an adventure in the Vale of White Horse. I will stay at a village inn for two nights so that I can potentially spend a whole day walking to and from the ancient sites of the Uffington White Horse and Wayland’s Smithy. These attract me more than something more well-known like Stone Henge and possibly this is due to a TV show I saw in childhood called The Moon Stallion.

I call this part of my holiday an adventure because to get to and from my accommodation I will need to take trains, buses and walk many miles. The UK may be a world power but it still has its remoter parts (for a non-driver at any rate).

The last part of my holiday will be spent visiting friends Steve & Nieves in the world city of London. My hosts of three nights have some things planned for me and I also hope to visit things like the British Museum. I get the impression from maps that merely wandering around will show me some iconic stuff. I can expand on what I see in my next blog post.

One philosophy I am taking to this holiday is the notion that you cannot do everything but that anything you do is worth it. So my visit to the UK is a mere sampler but in the parts I will experience something of the whole. I just hope they have some bottled iced coffee once I get there.

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12.7.17

Testing Times

In this entry I will explore the fate of my online tests. My tone may be somewhat testy...

Class And Stutus Test (Considered)

I was recently motivated to design my third online test by what struck me as overly simplistic discussions of class during recent elections of world significance. It seemed that too many were now reducing the concept of class to just differences in income. This then legitimized arguments that one can only have economic grievances if one is of markedly low income. Such thinking instantly clashed with my own observations and preferences.

For most of my life I have fitted the description of a person of below-average income living in an urban area. This is a position I would much rather be in than the contrasting one of an average income person living in a depressed rural area. Infrastructure, services and personal networks are far more important to me than (say) affording a house in a hick-town. And yet many of my cohort summarily dismissed the concerns of rural voters in the context of the last US Presidential election because there existed urban voters of lower income.

This got me thinking that it could be worthwhile to make an online test that expanded the notion of what makes us well-off. One possibility was to draw on the Weberian distinction between economic class and cultural status. I drafted some questions and then visited the website OKCupid (also known as HelloQuizzy). It was then that I discovered a problem.

Links to my existing two online tests took me to an apologetic webpage declaring that something was broken. Other well-known tests from the same site had the same problem. And it went on for months. I sent a message to the administrators and the only response I got was to acknowledge that a problem exists rather than to say they had any plans to fix it. What was I to do?

Political Objectives Test

Only one of my two online tests particularly mattered to me - the Political Objectives Test. It had been operating for over a decade and had been taken many tens of thousands of times. It was one of the best-rated tests in its category and had garnered lots of positive feedback from across the political spectrum. I enjoyed observing it assess the ideology of test-takers and then comparing that with the content of user profiles (which tended to confirm my test results). I was proud of it and wonder if I should find a new host site.

Finding a new site will take time and effort. Re-writing the test into a new template will be fiddly. I have been busy with other things. And I also now have a sense that times have changed since my test became operational. Even just in the last decade something has shifted in the nature of politics that transcends ideology. Take a look at the underlying message of my test.

It gave users one of over twenty labels but it also showed them how those labels were inter-related and overlapping. My own test results are a case-in-point. As a progressive I got 78% in both equality and liberty and only 28% in stability. In other words I gave stability some credence but within limitations. As such I had something in common even with ideological rivals. This understanding is one at odds with present forms of political awareness.

Now more than anytime in my life the default is to assume we are nothing like those we argue with. Combined with this is a sense that many of us now define our politics by what we oppose rather than what we represent (as discussed here). And to the extent we represent something it tends to be defined by demographics rather than ideology. The notion of universals that we can all ascribe to is replaced by clannish interests determined by what we are rather than what we believe.

With all this in mind the Political Objectives Test may be rather obsolete. It can hardly compete with newer and slicker Internet-based interactions fostering a growth in political awareness that is both rapid and rudimentary in nature. I hark back to the many times I stood at polling places for a political party. It was usual for campaigners across party lines to interact well and this frequently surprised the average apolitical voter. The impression of politics as conflict (admittedly bolstered by the use of military words like ‘campaign’ and the play-acting of parliaments) is never disabused by the rushed and distorted forms of indoctrination I now observe online. And since political activity can safely be enacted from ones own room one need never have caricatures of politics challenged.

If you are still interested in my test you can always take it manually at this site of mine. But there are more fun ways of spending time.

British Eccentric Test

The other test of mine that is broken was the result of a conversation with a friend that turned into a silly test done just for fun. The British Eccentric Test can still be taken manually here if you are that way inclined. I suspect only an eccentric would bother.

Incidentally I will be visiting the United Kingdom soon and so will possibly get a chance to observe British eccentrics in their native habitat. I wonder if that will make me want to revise my impressions of what makes them tick.

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12.6.17

Carry On Trucking

Recently I've been re-watching some old Carry On films which I have a perverse fondness for. These comedy romps dominated British cinema in the 60s and 70s and delivered a brand of bawdy humour that is now rather dated. I originally saw them as a child who was oblivious to a lot of that bawdiness. It was just silly fun for me. I now find them both fun and charmingly indicative of changing times.

I once scripted and recorded an audio-only spoof trailer for a non-existent Carry On movie. This was done as a bit of a joke for Belinda who was driving a pink truck at the time as part of her sanitization job. I remembered that I still had it on my smartphone and decided it would be fun to share here. The text of that script follows.

* * * * *

Narrator: In 2012 the economy depends on sweet-smelling workplace washrooms. Is the future a sterile and sanitary time? One company delivers scent-units to all workplace washrooms in the city until...

Foreman: Gov'nor, a few of the men are reporting in sick with man-flu!

Worker: Gordon Bennett, I got the man-flu.

Boss: But we have to get all units delivered daily, or there'll be a furore!

Narrator: That's when young Nancy in payroll chips in with a suggestion.

Nancy: Boss, I drove tractors back at the farm in Shropshire. I can drive a lorry, and all my accounts work is done for the next few days.

Narrator: Nancy does her round in record time and so the boss gets her to show the ropes to another employee, Cindy from quality control, and that's when the fun begins!

Nancy: Cindy, our first delivery for the day is to the Boxtop Paint Factory. I'll just take the units in and you stay here in the loading bay.

Narrator: Later...

Nancy: Cindy, what have you done?

Cindy: I'm sorry Nancy, I never meant to back into this mountain of paint cans!

Nancy: Our poor truck is all pink. How will the lads back at the depot take us seriously now?

Narrator: But whatever the truck colour, the round must be completed, as Nancy and Cindy visit an aged care facility...

Old Letch: Nice tush you got there.

Cindy: 'Ere, keep your mitts to yourself!

Nancy: These geezers may be old but they're still like boys down at the local.

Cindy: I'll say.

Narrator: A mannequin warehouse...

Nancy: Blimey, I wouldn't mind having knockers as perky as those plastic ones.

Cindy: Get outta here Nancy, I'd love to have smashing bristols like yours.

Nancy: Well you say that now with them all covered and coddled.

Cindy: Come on then, let's compare ours while nobody's looking.

Narrator: And Luna Park!

Nancy: Cindy, how in blazes did you get the truck onto the Scenic Railway?

Cindy: Look out! Here comes the roller coaster!

Narrator: Take a look forward to the year 2012, as Nancy, Cindy and a pink truck deliver good, clean fun in the smash hit of 1973, Carry On Trucking.

* * * * *

This still brings a smile to my face with how dumb it is. It is also rather representative of what it spoofs and includes slapstick, innuendo and messing with once entrenched gender roles. I'm kinda scared of how it will be received on YouTube but disabling comments should insulate me (that and the fact that this is a needle in a haystack of online content).

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24.5.17

Cross-Posted

Way back in November 2005 I started this blog (as discussed here) as part of a trend among Korner friends. Then a short time later in August 2006 I was persuaded onto LiveJournal as Originaluddite to follow the gossip among choristers. Initially I did longer-form writing here (as I still do) while Originaluddite was for shorter and cuter posts. Eventually however Facebook (initially accessed to help me keep track of Lukas while he was adventuring overseas) became my medium for pithy stuff and I made the content of both this blog and Originaluddite identical from May 2009. But that has now changed.

Recently the ownership of LiveJournal changed hands and as a result its terms-and-conditions are now subject to the laws of a multi-national state that is a tad too authoritarian for my liking. Now it may well be that this change would never have a direct impact on me. However many friends feel (i) that you cannot be too careful and (ii) that it is ethically better to distance ourselves from this particular world power. And so I have closed that other account.

However there was content on it that I wanted to keep and so I went on a screen-capturing frenzy to get its unique content from 2006 to 2009 (or at any rate the stuff that was still of interest). This included many of the attendant comments posted by others (which had always been set to 'public'). Then I pasted many of the comments since 2009 to the corresponding blog posts here (Originaluddite in that timeframe tended to get a lot more commentary than I get here but in recent times even it has dwindled to almost nothing).

This act of wariness also fits my other objective of having a simpler life online. As a result of this I will never more have to write 'cross-posted here'. There is still one more thing I have to do however and that is remove all those links to a now non-existent account (because broken links are a form of messiness that vexes me). I will do a bit of that now...

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15.4.17

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 Lucas 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.

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30.3.17

Underemployed

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.

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22.2.17

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.

Ingredients

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?

Preparation

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!

Muesli

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31.1.17

Vale!

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.

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28.12.16

Transformation

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.

Origins

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.

Gender

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.

Collectability

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!

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