Lazy Luddite Log

30.3.20

CoronaPost

This is my Coronavirus entry to discuss aspects of the pandemic facing Humanity. There may be other such posts but we shall see. I’m of the opinion that there is an excess of information currently online. Even discussion of confused government directives tends to magnify the confusion. It is also worth asking why those messages are sometimes confusing. My answer is that this is a perplexing time for everyone. Even the experts that governments are thankfully heeding are a somewhat divided cohort on the specifics because this is something very new for us.

And yet it is something very old too. We have never had control over our lives and this world. However the post-war long peace has given us a semblance of control. We now lament its shortcomings but I think it worth pausing to reflect on how effective it has been for successive generations. In historical terms most of us were born in a golden era. But how quickly we forget all that.

Looking back over the last several weeks it seems that the problem was looming in the mid-distance. We would give it a sidelong glance and then get back to our everyday lives. I happily sat in a Chinese restaurant with an old friend discussing the issue in a rather detached fashion. We scoffed at those who were allegedly scared to do the same but now nobody can dine in any restaurant at all – by law we can only get take-away. A few weeks later I sat with a close companion in a public bath as I agonized over the feasibility of my travel plans in the face of problems mostly brewing overseas.

Yes I had plans to once more travel. On my itinerary were Rome, Florence, Venice, Montreux, Strasbourg, Aachen and Berlin. I decided to ‘postpone’ those plans while I still technically had the freedom to keep them. My motivation was a fear of the fuss and bother surrounding the creeping pandemic rather than the virus itself. Now I can scarcely imagine getting stuck in what they are bravely facing in many parts of the Northern Hemisphere. Once my plane tickets are re-funded I intend to donate some of that to emergency services working in Italy.

Back home life still has a semblance of normality. I can go out for utilitarian purposes – exercise or necessary errands. There is still public transport but I‘m keeping away from it and confining my life to a walking distance. Within my self-set limits are essential shops and some natural open spaces. I am focusing my patronage on one each of key shops like grocer and pharmacist.

It is as if I have defined my own ‘village’ but key friends are beyond its confines. I envy those in larger share households right now. Naturally we are still permitted to live with whomever we happen to live with. Remote communication helps but only so much. I have talked in the past of the difference between loneliness and solitude and now suspect I will discover whether I truly have a capacity for turning the negatives of the former into the positives of the latter.

There are problems beyond my own circumstances. Last year my mother moved into aged care and now thinks she depends on family bringing her assorted things she requests. We can technically still visit if we meet some criteria (such as a temperature check in the foyer) but how wise is it to do so? The aged have the greatest vulnerability to this and fever is only the most likely indication of an infection. It may be better for Mum to cultivate the old wartime spirit she admires and recognize that her needs are met at her nursing home. So far she seems to be managing okay with phone calls and the company of those carers she has grown fond of. I think she also finds that a day punctuated by naps, meals and television can go by quickly.

I'm finding that to be so. I have creative projects to slowly work on. I’m enjoying reading on a blanket on the lawn while the weather is still clement. I‘m cooking and washing dishes more. It could be time for me to finally sort the paperwork and memorabilia of my father – Dad died back in 2015 and I never announced it here. I might even enjoy the nostalgia. And then there is the plethora of content one finds online. And yes I do want to address some aspects of online Coronavirus discussion.

I quickly started seeing criticisms of classical liberalism due to the Coronavirus. Yes free enterprise alone cannot manage this emergency. But other models will find this challenging too. The solidarity so important to socialism depends on large face-to-face collectives (such as a factory served by a neighbourhood) and these are ill-fitted to slowing a pandemic. The supposedly organic links of family and community celebrated by traditional conservatism likewise will be tested by this calamity (yet possibly fare better).

I think it worth stressing that any model perpetually in disaster mode is itself a bit of a disaster. Better that it can adjust to both good and bad times. And anyway all models are abstractions. What we have is a blend of many forms. Our governments are rapidly changing how they do things but that is an indication of the flexibility of a democratic state and a mixed economy. A free society can be orderly. Right now I’m in a mood to match the non-partisan manner seen from our political leaders across party lines.

It will still take a lot of luck for our good sense and our will to succeed. I worry that we are asking humans to do something that contradicts our nature as pack animals. But then what of the hermits of old? These characters voluntarily entered into isolation and it was philosophy or theology that drove them. I have a hunch we will see a growth in personal contemplation in coming weeks.

I could make other predictions. Some are things I hope for. One is more generous and less punitive welfare provision persisting beyond the state of emergency. Another is more job-sharing along with working from home. And another is better public etiquette (smart-phone addiction is the bane of safe distancing right now). But there are other things I’m critical of that will suddenly have a renewed attraction. Consider car dependence and gated estates.

Is it right to cast my gaze so widely? Maybe it makes more sense just to look to the small everyday things of life. Right now I have most of what I need and some of what I want and I can adjust to that. Hopefully my next post here will focus on other topics because all sorts of things still exist as truth or memory. There is room for all that other stuff.

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I want to add links to other relevant posts but am tired right now. Publish then polish later...

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29.2.20

Concord Of Sweet Sounds

I usually discuss music itself but here I want to look back over my experience of attitudes to music. Each of us has distinct musical tastes and yet one thing we all share is that we are all into some kind of music. Well most of us anyway. Shakespeare stated that "the man that have no music in himself, nor is moved by concord of sweet sounds, is fit for treasons, statagems and spoils". Well, I'm keen on music both sweet and savoury but I get his sentiment. Music seems like something fundamentally human. And yet I have met the odd person who seems to lack that. Or if they are at all into music it is for its non-musical aspects - consider the comedy of Weird Al Yankovic. But that is rare and for most of us it is differences over which music we are into that can be striking.

I have long been puzzled by musical snobbery or even narrow tastes. However I have been guilty of these in the past. A big one for me was the dismissal of electronic music. In feeling that way I was following my nerdy university peers. Eventually I realized that was a flimsy position to hold while also loving electro-magnetic amplification. The old acoustic purists of folk and jazz had firmer ground to stand on. And yet even they would listen to recordings of acoustic music. I think our underlying problem with electronic music back then was its new and growing application as dance music and its 'mind-numbing' repetitiveness. However since then I have enjoyed the same mesmerizing repetition from a band jamming for a writhing throng. Iteration can serve its purpose very well.

Criteria for judging music are subjective. I object to cultural relativism in relation to human rights but for something like music it makes more sense. We could say that complexity makes music more challenging to play and more rewarding to consume but that is just a definition we set for ourselves. And many of us apply such criteria selectively so that our emotional preferences are favoured. Thus we re-cast our favourite music as the ‘best’ music.

By the time I got involved with choristers I was thoroughly into popular music. I was therefore a bit wary of musical snobbery among these classical and theatrical enthusiasts. And yet what I discovered was more acceptance of music in its variety than among Korner friends. I was so relieved by an opera student among them putting on Shaggy while dancing about cooking a dinner!

If anything, I find that the more musically versed a person is the more accepting they will be of all kinds of music. Possibly a part of this is that they have a greater curiosity for music. This contrasted with the lack of curiosity I observed among others in my younger days. It was a common thing for someone to have an album, possibly a movie soundtrack, in a genre such as blues. It would be much played and yet was token because they never bothered exploring the genre beyond that.

This has changed more recently with friends getting the memo (aka meme) that diversity is important. Lists of artists of different backgrounds that one should patronize have circulated. I never had to try because diverse genres result in a diversity of artists. Variety is the spice of life and I hope those lists promote enjoyment rather than just a sense of worthiness.

Another recent trend is the tendency to critically scrutinize lyrical content for its lack of ethics. I’m wary of this because I think we are foolish to conflate depiction with endorsement but, even if there was something to this, I find the standard is applied selectively. The songs of daggy old popular artists in particular come under fire, while the intentionally offensive and gross content of some alternative acts somehow gets a free pass. Once more the issue is subjectivity – we like whatever we happen to like and rationalize it as something more than that.

If I need to improve my own listening habits it is to try new music more. However there is so much music in every decade that I can discover new music in both the past and present. And if anything that stance is more common now than it once was. I get the feeling that the youth of today are more into the music of circa 1970 than the youth of then were into the music of circa 1920. Music of any era or origin can be worthwhile. Even if it cannot promote 'concord' or hamper 'strategems' I still think it enhances our lives and our ability to cope with its challenges.

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29.1.20

The Environmental Front

I have rarely written on environmental topics. In this post I admit to a lack interest despite recognizing its vital importance. My explanation was that ecology and climatology are too technical for me. But another motive is that the issue seems intrinsically non-controversial to me. There are many issues I can see are legitimately contentious and I find those the most worthy of contemplation and debate. In contrast environmental degradation due to over-development should be universally acknowledged. The only debate we need is over how exactly we respond to a challenge of our own making.

In my youth this was to some extent the case. The biggest political impediment to recognizing human impact on the planet late last century was simply apathy. As a result we had some big wins such as the global banning of chlorofluorocarbons. Now in these more partisan and emotive times we face an active and thoroughly ideological refusal to accept the scientific evidence that we are warming the planet beyond its capacity to support us in the life to which we are accustomed.

Luckily a growing number are pushing back to that push-back. More and more are acting conscientiously as citizens and consumers. Both are vital. However there is some confusion over that. I have noticed a tendency to say that our small acts to change consumption patterns are useless and only political change matters. This is foolish. The tendency of those who argue this is to characterize political activism as collective (and therefore effective) and consumer action as the fumbling of isolated individuals (and therefore futile). I object to this because both political and economic activity can be individual or collective in nature. There is a spectrum of actions and all of them can be useful to varying degrees. And anyway the distinction between politics and economics is something of an abstraction.

The irony in all this is that those who say 'only politics matters' also regard the biggest environmental culprits as private industry (who pay off crony politicians). If that is so then the most direct way to impact producers is by reducing consumption. They depend on us to buy from them and in a lot of cases we can simply refuse. And that is happening. The fossil fuels industry worldwide is losing its share to alternatives. Some of that is due to the positive actions of governments but it is also because of consumers changing how they consume. Ultimately a mix of actions is what is needed - the more the better. It would be a shame if too many of us fell for the 'only politics matters' line and then decided we can keep on consuming as long as we share a few narky political memes among our like-minded friends.

In the rest of this post I will share a few suggestions for actions we can take and try to sequence them in a continuum from economic to political. It will vary between both deliberate actions and inaction (since for the environment we need to do less in our lives). These work for me:

* Sometimes personal life circumstances result in less environmental impact by happenstance. I have never had kids nor operated a car. I have lived with others and therefore shared energy bills and white goods. Having only a bedroom in which to keep things has limited how much stuff I can own. Low income and a wariness of credit has resulted in me using everything from clothes to devices till they are falling apart. And moving in particular sub-cultures has given me a preference for directing my discretionary spending into experiences rather than objects. I had to do much of this but it has become my personal preference. It can be for others too.

* Some experiences incorporate things however and can be very damaging to the environment. Consider international flights. The energy levels needed to keep a huge hunk of metal flying are obscene and seem to give credence to the old technophobic saying that 'if God had intended us to fly he would have given us wings'. The only way to combat this under present technological conditions is to fly less. I have rarely gone overseas and wish to a few more times while I'm still hale. The next best thing then is for me to pay for carbon offsets. If I can afford the thousands it takes to go overseas then I can also afford the hundreds to compensate for the carbon emissions of all that fuel.

* If I intend to boycott a product then I make sure to tell its producers. Otherwise how can they know? I suggest sending a short message to them to say why one has ceased buying whatever it is they produce. This turns an economic act into a political one. This can also extend to acts like asking your favourite cafes to stop stocking newspapers from the climate-change denying News Corp. The way papers like The Australian have been minimizing the links between climate change and our devastating longer bushfire season is appalling.

* Yes governments and parliaments have a key part to play too. There are lots of ways to influence them. Lobbying can take many forms and be done between elections - consider emails, phone calls, meetings. And during elections it makes sense to play some role beyond just voting. Volunteering for avowedly environmental parties is incredibly useful. However I also suspect that helping parties that are becoming more environmental is also worthwhile. Australian policy lags behind that of most other developed nations and it is hardly a coincidence environmentalism is regarded as the preserve of just a few minor parties here. Turning it into a consensus transcending ideological divides will move us away from an American and towards more of a European vibe in environmental policy.

* Finally there is non-violent direct action. Marches and gatherings can attract attention from media and public. The larger and more diverse the movement the better. One fantastic thing with the recent school student protests is that they also drew more adults into the mix. Lots of those adolescents took parents with them. It grounds the movement in the 'family' demographic that is so important to governments. Another cool thing is that the sooner in life one becomes political the sooner one can mature politically. A problem over the last decade has been that members of all age-groups have been politicized online in a rather callow way. Many have stalled at the politics of simplistic and divisive messaging. Such communication is inherently populist yet even the most vocal critics of populism have helped to normalize it and thus give populists a boost. One solution to this is face-to-face political activity which makes harbouring caricatures of others more difficult to do.

My focus on the need for large and truly diverse movement that can persuade as well as pressure may annoy some. They may think it wishy-washy. But there is nothing wishy-washy in recognizing that politics is a numbers game. On the environmental front this is more so than for pretty much any other issue. I will end this post with an invitation to an action at Monash University (Clayton Campus) on Sunday 16 February in which a 'human sign' will be formed by those gathered to call on our reasonably proactive Victorian state government to offer greater climate leadership. This stunt deserves more than just the usual suspects.

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30.12.19

Tidying Transformers

Recently Lukas decided to reduce the size of his Transformers collection (which has mostly sat in boxes this century). This resulted in a show-and-tell session among a few friends keen on second-hand Transformers. The focus was on the original era of Transformers now known as Generation One (1984-1990) and this got me thinking all things ‘G1’.

One of the key things I have been pondering is the lack of consistency between the toy line and its accompanying cartoon. The cartoon existed to promote the toys so you would expect a close correspondence between them. However there were many discrepancies between them and herein I present my wish-list for reconciling them with a focus on the years 1984 to 1987. What follows is only for Transformers fans.

Reflector

This is an odd Decepticon that transforms from three robots into one camera. Is Reflector an it or a they? Does Reflector say ‘we’ and if so is it the royal we? In the cartoon it seemed to be one entity. The toy robots however had three separate names. None of this matters much to me but what does matter is inconsistent appearance in the cartoon and on toy shelves.

The cartoon character was there to bolster Decepticon ranks in the short first season of 1984 and was an occasional background character in the longer second season of 1985. It was never seen (except possibly via animation error) later than that however the toy only became available via mail order in 1986! My wish is that it had been available (on shelves even) in 1984-1985. I also have a particular fate in mind for the cartoon character.

In Transformers The Movie (which acts as a pilot for the third season in 1986) we should have seen a battle-damaged Reflector jettisoned by the fleeing Decepticons into deep space and then re-formatted by Unicron into the Sweeps. Three practically identical robots with barely any personality become exactly the same thing but with more useful alt-modes. This makes more sense (particularly in terms of reconciling toy shelves with cartoon seasons) than what did happen.

Soundwave And His Cassettes

Soundwave is a useful Decepticon in the first three seasons of the cartoon and likewise was in the catalogues of 1984 to 1986. This is a wonderful toy and its ability to hold micro-cassette sized minions is the original and still one of the best Transformers ‘play patterns’. However I would have done a few things differently with those cassettes.

Buzzsaw always seemed superfluous to me as the rarely seen other condor of the cartoon. But it was cool for the Soundwave toy to come complete with a cassette. I would rather have seen Soundwave packaged with the non-character drone known as the Autoscout which was only seen in one cartoon episode. Much more recently a ‘third party’ company (in other words a company that pilfers the intellectual property of Hasbro and Takara to make toys for adult collectors) has made the Autoscout and that shows it can be done. I think of this accessory as like Roller is to Optimus Prime.

The other change I would like to have seen was for the other four original cassettes to continue shipping to shops from 1984 to 1986. Later Decepticon Cassettes seem silly or would be better in another faction.

Blaster And His Cassettes

I have mixed feelings about the Autobot counterpart to Soundwave. Blaster is a cool character and yet in some ways detracted from the Autobot Jazz. It is a cool toy and yet way too big – this is one instance in which I think a re-deco of Soundwave may have been better than that hulking boom box.

Blaster lacked minions in 1985 but then got some in 1986 (persisting on toy shelves till 1988 even in his absence). He seemed to do okay by himself and it then made the debut scene of those minions in the movie an exciting one. However I would have replaced Ramhorn with an Autobot incarnation of Ratbat. Something as lumpy and brutish as a rhino seems silly as a cassette (I would say the same thing for later dino-cassettes). And why is it that bats must always be evil? Giving Blaster a winged messenger ('Scatbat') makes him a better match for Soundwave.

Perceptor

This Autobot microscope is cool and I’m happy with his consistent appearance as both character and toy in 1985 and 1986. Only qualm? Why do so many Autobots have to combine the colours red and blue? This toy looked awesome in its original Micro-Change colours.

Decepticon Planes – Autobot Cars – Autobot Mini-Vehicles

I bunch these together as I wish to have seen them following the same basic pattern of appearance and availability. They appear in 1984 and continue into 1985 consistently across both cartoons and catalogues. However in 1986 the Autobot Cars diverge from the pattern maintained by the other two groups.

The norm for most of these is that they appear in cartoon and are available on shelves for two years each (whether 84-85 or 85-86 or 86-87). The exceptions I accept are that a few key characters from 1984 persist into 1986 (Starscream as a ghost and Jazz and Bumblebee as true survivors). However I wish the following had been so:

* In Transformers The Movie I think that Unicron should have re-formatted Thundercracker into Scourge and Skywarp into Cyclonus.

* The ‘coneheads’ should never be seen getting devoured by Unicron. We know they live into the third season so replace them in that scene with generic purple tetra-jets.

* The Autobot Cars of 1985 should have been continued into 1986. Those characters could have been seen helping tidy Autobot City in the movie following the big battle there. Later they could have been in third season background scenes. And those toys could still be sold (whether on shelves on via mail order) in 1986 along with Jazz. However...

* Smokescreen always seemed such a superfluous character and toy to me and there always were too many Autobot Cars. Erase him. And...

* Red Alert is an interesting character but a ridiculous toy – who can accept the existence of a fire department affording an expensive sports car? On the other hand Skids is a distinctive toy mould but a cartoon non-entity. My solution - give the character and markings of Red Alert to the Skids toy and animation model ('Skid Alert').

* Arcee was never made as a toy in the G1 days. However if she had been I suspect she would have been an Autobot Car (with a design somewhat between those of Hot Rod and Blurr). It then follows that in the fourth season she should have become a Targetmaster rather than a Headmaster. The Daniel Witwicky exo-suit could totally be converted into a sweet ray gun.

* We see Cliffjumper survive the movie so surely they could have put his toy on shelves in 1986 alongside Bumblebee. And we never see his re-deco Hubcap in the cartoon so why produce this toy?

* In 1986 both Outback and Pipes get a bit of screen time and dialogue. But I would have liked to see Swerve and Tailgate get more of that (and possibly take some screen time away from Wheelie).

* I would have liked to see those 1986 Autobot Mini-Vehicles sold in 1987 and to see them on shelves rather than the crappy Throttlebots...

* And yet I have always been a bit ambivalent about the Autobot Mini-Vehicles. They are cute and were something a kid could buy with pocket money. But they were simplistic in design and small in scale compared to other toys. They also detracted from the roles of other characters – particular offenders were Cosmos, Powerglide and Warpath. Were they all needed?

Shockwave

Shockwave was never on shelves in Australia as far as I recall. At a similar time however we could get the grey ‘Shackwave’ toy from Tandy Electronics. Most of the 1984-85 Transformers had been designed by Takara in Japan and licensed to Hasbro in the US and beyond to become Transformers. Shockwave however came from a South Korean company called ToyCo who licensed the design to different users in different parts of the world.

Catalogues told us that Shockwave was only on shelves (in the US) in 1985. He was an important recurring cartoon character however in 1984 and 1985. He was last seen in the 1986 movie and presumed dead. I would propose changes to this. Either have the toy on shelves in 1984-85 or 1985-86. And give him a small but key role in the third season as the only Decepticon suspicious of the Quintessons in the Five Faces Of Darkness story (since he is far smarter and more conscientious than Blitzwing).

Megatron to Galvatron

Megatron is featured in the 1984-1985 catalogues and seasons and that works fine. Then he is re-formatted by Unicron into the clunky and mad Galvatron for 1986-1987 – once more this is fine. I prefer the colouration of the toy over the animation model - it has better continuity with Megatron and contrasts better with his lieutenants. I would have liked to see the toy share shelves with Powermaster Oprimus Prime and possibly even be re-tooled to fit a Nebulan figure (say as a power pack fitting his cannon connector).

Optimus Prime

Optimus Prime is featured in the 1984-1985 catalogues and seasons and that works fine. Then his character is resurrected in 1987 but the new Powermaster toy of Optimum Prime only hits shelves in 1988. I would like to have seen these reconciled. The latter toy has its pros and cons – I like that it brings Prime to the same size as Galvatron but will forever lament its introduction of faux-parts to Transformers.

Dinobots - Constructicons – Insecticons

These three groups all have similar profiles in toy and cartoon continuity but I wish to see them be more consistent. All three sets of toys were on shelves in 1985-1986. The corresponding characters however debut with much fanfare part way into the 1984 season and continue to be prominent in 1985. They become background characters in 1986 (with the exception of Grimlock who becomes a key participant in Autobot adventures). However there is the problem of what happens to the Insecticons in the movie.

The Insecticons are shown to be jettisoned and reformatted (like Thundercracker and Skywarp). I think they should have stayed with the Decepticons and participated in the leadership ‘debate’ (stating that they would support whoever could promise them the most energon).

There is also the matter of the Deluxe Insecticon toys. These came from the Japanese company Takatoku Toys and have a very different look and feel from the standard Insecticons. They were never cartoon characters and that makes sense to me. Also I cannot recall seeing them in Australian shops. I suspect these toys would look okay in a later Beast Wars display.

I think the Dinobot and Consctructicon toys could have been a tad bigger. And finally surely Hook should have been the Constructicon leader since he becomes head-and-shoulders of gestalt Devastator.

Jetfire or Skyfire

Jetfire also came from Takatoku toys and the same exact design was a prominent part of the popular Macross or Robotech franchise as a mech. Some distance between these two uses of the same product design was needed and so the corresponding Transformers cartoon character was given a distinct animation model and the name 'Skyfire'. He debuted (also with much fanfare) partway into the 1984 season but his prominence quickly waned into 1985. This may be partly due to the complex ownership issues and partly to make way for another large flying Autobot. However the Jetfire toy was on shelves in 1985-1986.

I would have liked to see Skyfire one more time in the 1986 movie. I imagine a scene at the start of the battle for Autobot City in which Ultra Magnus commands Skyfire to ‘get the humans far away from here’. He transforms and we then see Carly, Chip and Sparkplug all rush up his ramp before he takes off over the horizon.

Deluxe Autobot Vehicles

Whirl and Roadbuster also came from Takatoku and like Jetfire were unusually complex for the time. They were in catalogues for 1985-1886 but never made into cartoon characters. This is likely due to the problems (similar to that of Skyfire) of clashing with a Japanese cartoon (Special Armoured Battalion Dorvack) in which they were mechs. Then there is also the fact that there were plenty of Autobots anyway. They could have been intriguing background characters in ancient history flashbacks or scenes on distant worlds I guess.

Jumpstarters & Battlechargers

The two Autobot Jumpstarters were Takara products so were free of legal issues. However they were never made into cartoon characters. I wonder whether the gimmick of these toys – automatic quick transformation – was rendered useless in a cartoon that made that ability the norm. Mind you the later two Decepticon Battlechargers had that same gimmick and yet were made into cartoon characters. Once more is it that there were too many Autobots?

I think Topspin and Twintwist could have been given interesting guest roles in space-faring adventures – do that and fewer cartoon-only characters like Devcon from 1985 would have needed creating. Or I can see them having filled the roles that were given to Powerglide and Warpath.

The Battlechargers simply appear in the 1986 season as if they had always been there. I imagine a cute origin story for Runamuck and Runabout in saying that they were initially the ‘Watchdog’ cars seen in The Ultimate Doom story.

The Jumpstarts and Battlechargers only appeared on shelves in 1985 and 1986 respectively. It would have been cool if each group was in stores for two years rather than one.

Autobot & Decepticon Triple-Changers

In 1985 there were just two Decepticon Triple-Changers. That got me thinking they could be the arch-rivals of the Autobot Jumpstarters of that same year. But in 1986 another Decepticon and three new Autobot Triple-Changers were added. One of them is among the worst Transformers designs ever – Broadside – who is crappy in all three modes. I would be happy if this one had never existed and it would be tempting to have re-assigned optionally-winged Autobot Car Tracks to the Triple-Changers.

These toys never made it beyond the 1986 line. I would have liked to see the newer ones or even all of them persist into 1987. They are fiddly and flawed toys but pretty cool as characters. Of those characters I would have liked to see Blitzwing have a bit more screen time in 1986 and for Sandstorm to have always been a normal Autobot rather than the only decently-drawn refugee from Paradron. I however cannot cope with all the Decepticons fitting inside Astrotrain in the movie – surely there was some extra spaceship they could have commandeered!

Omega Supreme

The huge toy of this character was licensed from a company called Toybox. Both toy and character were in currency during 1985-1986. It is an impressive if very clunky play-set but I sometimes wonder at another role for its character. In some episodes set on Cybertron we see a number of ‘Guardian Robots’ using a very similar design to Omega Supreme. Since then the toy has been redecorated to represent these ancient non-aligned drones. I wonder if this toy (in whatever colouration) could have wholly and solely represented a neutral character. Imagine your biggest toy as something that can potentially endanger both sides of the conflict you are playing out. Or what if it is an objective both sides seek to control? I have always liked the notion of more than three sides. Also this could allow for a character like Skyfire to more effectively fulfill the role given him as large flying Autobot.

Ultra Magnus

This toy was a Takara original and similar in many ways to what became Optimus Prime. However his introduction was held off in both cartoon and stores till 1986 and then persisted into 1987. I wonder if it would have been cool to see this loyal deputy share some of the action with similar yet rival character Shockwave (possibly in an Americanized version of the Scramble City cartoon special). One thing I would have liked to see Magnus do more of in the cartoon is transport smaller Autobots in car mode.

Scramble City Combiners

This is a Japanese term which denotes all the combiners introduced with a shared gimmick that the gestalt limbs can take on the role of any limb of any of the super-robots. It is a more versatile and fun method than that of the Constructicons. However like them I also wish these toys were somewhat bigger – the combiners should have stood as tall as the ‘city commanders’ Ultra-Magnus and Galvatron.

Four groups – Aerialbots, Stunticons, Protectobots, Combaticons – debuted late in the 1985 cartoon season. Another two groups - Technobots and Terrorcons – debuted late in the 1986 season. In all cases these characters arrived sooner than corresponding toys into shops. The original four groups were in the 1986-1987 catalogues. The next two were on shelves in 1987-1988. All or most groups were seen in the short 1987 cartoon season. This is all fine but the one change I would have liked to see is for all six groups to get specific origin episodes. Most do but some are just there.

Metroplex & Trypticon

Large citadel robots were toys and characters starting in 1986. Most are never as impressive in scale as one would imagine but they do have a lot of play value. The two I name were designed to scale with the limb-sized vehicles of Scramble City so I suppose these too could have been up-sized somewhat.

There is an alternative to these that I think would have been cool. Rather than larger Transformers that try to be play-sets how about some truly larger play-sets of key settings? Parts of them could still ‘transform’ but be free of the need to be a robot. Each product could then be packaged with a Transformer as an extra attraction. All we ever got along these lines was mail order cardboard dioramas.

Rodimus Prime

Rodimus Prime is the more mature form of Hot Rod. However this maturity is dependent on him possessing the Autobot Matrix of Leadership – take it away and he is once more Hot Rod. This trans-generational character was in both the 1986-1987 seasons. Likewise both the Rodimus Prime toy and the Autobot Car or Targetmaster toy of Hot Rod co-existed on shelves in 1986-1987.

I wonder whether the Rodimus Prime incarnation could have been a cartoon-only character and whether we needed the toy at all. It existed in a very crowded space filled by greater truck robots like Optimus Prime in 1984-85, Ultra Magnus in 1986-87, and Powermaster Optimus Prime in 1988-89. However I do enjoy the adventures of this stressed and sardonic character that had leadership thrust on him and never entirely adjusts to it.

Skylynx

This twin-modular beast and transporter was licensed from ToyBox and serves a similar role among the Autobots to Omega Supreme. Both toy and character were extant in 1986-1987. I’m fine with this and think of Skylynx as cool and quirky. One qualm – he is yet another red-white-blue Autobot – how about something different. Orange was a traditional colour of Autobot ships so that combined with white and black would have been striking.

Predacons

The Predacons are another striking set of Transformers that were in catalogues and cartoon in 1986-1987. They were fun but did they have to be so big? These beasts surely should be smaller than Dinobots. The gestalt of Predaking would have been fine with a similar stature to the other combiners.

Wreck-Gar & Gnaw

1986-1987 was the time for both these toys and characters. Wreck-Gar was an Autobot but from the very independent and isolated clan of Junkions. Gnaw was the name given to a toy depicting the cartoon Sharkticons. It was listed as a Decepticon but in the cartoon the Sharkticons were non-aligned slaves to the alien Quintessons. I would have liked to see more toys acknowledged as non-aligned or independent of sides. And I would also like to have seen these toys be smaller and less expensive.

Nebulans – Pretenders – Micromasters - Action-Masters

From 1987 onward I become far less invested in the later gimmick-laden and clunky Transformers. However some concepts are still fun (and recent re-imaginings of some in Generations have tended to make them better). Trends worth mentioning are...

* In 1987 the Nebulans were depicted in the cartoon as human-like aliens who choose to bionically bond with Transformers partners. They don suits that allow them to become the guns or heads and (in 1988) the engines of particular Autobots and Decepticons. Hence we got Targetmaster, Headmaster and Powermaster toys. These have pros and cons. For instance the Headmasters (and only the Headmasters) have room for Nebulan drivers to fit – a nifty touch. However if you lose that Nebulan then your robot is rendered headless!

* In 1988 the Pretenders were introduced and these are small Transformers encased in large non-transforming action figure shells that looked like something from Masters Of The Universe or Centurions. It would have been cool however if the basic concept of shells with innards had taken another path. The Trans-Organics of cartoon episode Dweller In The Depths deserved toys. Separate parts depicting both organic and mechanical components that can be mixed-and-matched and that indulged in the ‘gross and gruesome’ toy trend of the late-80s could have been fun.

* In 1989 Micromasters hit shelves and were pretty much the Micro-Machines of the Transformers franchise. They were surprisingly good toys for the size and came with cool transports and play-sets. At that scale you could collect a whole world of action for a lot less cost and display space. I feel you would have to regard theirs as a separate story unless you wanted to display them with citadel robots to accentuate the scale of those much larger toys.

* In 1990 the original Transformers line came to a close with Action Masters. These were small non-transforming action figures of Transformers characters that nonetheless came packaged with pets or vehicles that did transform. They felt like Transformers imitating G I Joe or Mask. What I would have liked is if cartoon characters that had never transformed had been given action figures. It would be awesome even now to have some toy depictions of Lithons and Quintessons and so forth.

* * * * *

There was a lot of fiddly 'fact' checking in all that. Websites I consulted in writing this are the ever-informative and entertaining TF Wiki (particularly for cartoon characters) and Botch The Crab for scanned catalogues.

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29.11.19

Gaming Anecdotes

I have written much on the topic of my most recent and longest role-play game. But tonight I will be describing a number of other disparate role-playing experiences and I will start at the very beginning...

Maze Games

I refer here to the Fighting Fantasy brand of solo adventure gamebooks. The first I ever got was The Warlock Of Firetop Mountain in late primary school (via one of those 'book club' order forms school encouraged our parents to patronize) and it served as a sort of appetizer for true role-playing. Character was only a by-product of ones imagination as one read ones chosen adventure outcomes but it did generate that sense of immersion that role-playing is renowned for. I remember that spending too long in bed reading that dungeon crawl would give me a mild sense of claustrophobia. Such power was enticing.

Fighting Fantasy also prompted me to make my own 'maze games'. I would draw a basic map of some setting filled with rival combatants and develop a very basic dice-rolling game mechanic for them similar to that in Fighting Fantasy. Recently Lukas and I came across one we had co-designed called Labyrinth. I cannot tell exactly how it is all supposed to work and may need to reconstruct its basic rules.

You Appear On A Road

It was in intermediate secondary school that I first encountered Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. I had seen the rule books in a Dandenong department store and been intrigued but school provided me with my chance to play. An entry in the Daily News sheet announced a D&D game was starting at lunchtimes in a particular classroom. I went along with a few friends to discover that two senior students were in charge (with the imprimatur of a teacher) and would be running some games for us. We were walked through the rolling up of characters and I have always found this activity alone to be fun. Following that we were thrown into an adventure together. I think the first was the classic module The Village Of Hommlet.

Our Dungeon Master (DM) was a harsh one and we all too easily would die. But that was okay - we could always devise a new character and jump right back into the action. The DM was hardly the biggest fan of back-story - he would introduce a new player-character into the game simply by saying 'you appear on a road'. It was as if he was drawing attention to the virtual and ephemeral nature of our characters. It was hardly the most nurturing GMing but that just drove us to keep at it and soon a few of my friends (Steve and Guy) were running our own games at homes on weekends. And we made sure to give our characters back-story.

Anarchy

One day at school an emergency teacher never showed to our class. We had an entire period with nothing to do. Everyone just sort of sat in groups and did whatever. In my case a few friends turned to me and told me to somehow just run a role-play game. I declared we needed dice and somebody made some six-sided ones from eraser. I then started to describe for them a scenario in which they were themselves in school wasting time. It was more 'situation playing' than 'role-playing' with the game starting identically both in and out of story. The ensuing adventure involved a neutron bomb exploding over Melbourne and throwing the less effected outer suburbs into 'anarchy'. Ridiculous scenes included attacking a school librarian with a stapler, looting an Aussie Disposals for guns, and car-jacking an open-topped purple Volkswagen Beetle decorated with pink flames. Yes games can promote violence and crime but only within the game itself. Fun times.

Till All Are One

I got into both role-playing and Transformers as an adolescent so it is hardly surprising that I designed a role-play game inspired by that toy and cartoon franchise. It drew on its third season for setting and the toy packaging 'tech-specs' for character game mechanics. I cannot recall the content of any sessions I ran for friends but still have the hand-written notes - here is an illustration from its folder. I'm thinking of incorporating original aspects of that content into my concept of the Titans Of Titan fiction within a fiction (assuming I ever get to it).

In A Flashback You Cannot Die

Into our uni days I continued playing AD&D with Guy and Steve. We also played with Sean and between the four of us we took turns GMing over a few years. The Spelljammer box of rules (involving fantasy space ships) allowed us to shift the game between the campaign settings each of us preferred running games in. We were pretty much power-gamers back then and indulged in such excesses as hunting and killing inter-planar immortals. However we could also share the odd joke. For instance I once had a non-player character merchant justify his prices by saying they were determined by 'supply and demand'. Next thing I knew the characters played by Guy and Sean returned to the shop in disguise and declared that they were the personifications of Supply and Demand and that prices must fall.

Sean went overseas for several weeks and we wondered what to do with our continuing campaign. I offered to run one origin adventure each for the characters of Guy and Steve. Steve then declared gleefully that 'in a flashback you cannot die'. This made me decide to surprise him. In his origin game he played a rookie assassin given the job of finding and eliminating a maverick assassin new in town. This enemy of the guild of assassins possessed a magical dagger which allowed him to assume the form and conscious memory of anyone he slew with it. Steve discovered that his beloved character had been an imposter all along and had killed his namesake ages ago (while also losing the dire dagger). The look on his face! The guffaws that emerged from Guy! It is to date one of my best plot-twists as a GM.

Capricon to Unicon

I role-played on campus as well as off. At Monash I sampled games as diverse as Call Of Cthulhu, Paranoia and Champions thanks to the Monash Uni Role-Players (MURP). I mostly stuck to short games held at 'infernals' (internal tournaments) or conventions but the only such events I went to were those that MURP was involved in running - namely Capricon and then Unicon. I co-ran a more advanced form of Anarchy with Damian at one such con - it involved a group of stoned peace activists creeping into Pine Gap to discover that it was in fact a secret missile silo. At other times I played Kryten in a Red Dwarf game and Orko in a Masters Of The Universe game. I got an award for playing Horse in Monkey Magic - I managed to convince the GM that if I could be arse-slapped forward into my human form then I could also be arse-slapped back into my older dragon form and this helped us in our final fight. What silly fun that was.

Never Enacted Concepts

I have mostly stuck to running fantasy games in a variation of D&D. But sometimes I imagine other settings and scenarios that would be interesting. One is an urban fantasy tinged with horror drawing on Gnosticism for its secret reality and Jim Steinman songs for its retro-modern setting. Another is a science fiction game inspired by obscure TV show The Starlost in which a many-segmented inter-generational ship has forgotten its mission and each huge segment has regressed into a distinct and isolated culture. It is more likely however that my next game (short or long) will involve returning to The Lands - after all I have invested much into that fantasy setting.

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14.10.19

Individuality

I am here to defend individuality. This concept has drawn criticism from many directions. The ‘me generation’ accusation levelled at young baby-boomers five decades ago has since been transferred to successive generations. Both then and now I think the assessment has been a simplistic one. Many seemingly selfish behaviours are less a product of thinking 'me me me' and more to do with thinking only of 'me and mine'. It is a kind of clannishness that I feel is the origin of many problems today.

I cannot here survey evidence of whether we are more self-absorbed or standoffish now than we were in the past. It depends on exactly when and where one chooses to look. Anecdotally I have witnessed both more and less respect between strangers over my lifetime. On the one hand I feel that my generation as youths were less likely to thank a bus-driver than youths who have come since. On the other hand I get the impression that the parents of younger generations than mine are more likely to regard teachers as rivals than as colleagues. It seems we are more combative while acting on behalf of those close to us. Members of the caring professions or providers of essential services (like teachers and bus drivers) are strangers that we nonetheless must interact with for our own benefit. How we behave towards them betrays how we regard wider society beyond our own family and friends. And how much do we even feel a part of an interdependent society?

Scholars in the past warned of the ‘atomistic’ nature of modern society. Old ways of belonging had long been waning. Connections to a productive class or a religious and cultural community grew ever looser. And while we were emancipated from old forms of dominance we were also set adrift from structures that for many were supportive. It was predicted that a mass of isolated individuals was prone to reconstituting into rowdy mobs. At times this has happened and populist demagoguery is the intermittent result.

And yet populist demagogues have come and gone rather than come to stay and I wonder what alleviates atomism. An answer is that humans are very good at finding new ways of forming groups to provide them with a sense of purpose and belonging. Culture is important. Some have a tendency to dismiss forms of group identity that are merely cultural rather than having some natural basis. But it is natural for humans to form links grounded in shared concepts. And these groups have a right to exist even if one thinks them fanciful.

Particularly in the post-war era cultures have been supplemented by sub-cultures dedicated to sports, hobbies, collections, interests, art, music and entertainment. I think that such sub-cultures helped give society a more complex and sturdy structure in which individuals could connect while also expressing themselves. And it is interesting to note that such developments were curbed by those demagogues who survived into the post-war era. Stalin for instance warned that chess should only exist for the regime rather than for its own sake. Loyalty to a game or to ones fellow players detracted from loyalty to the party.

I start by saying that individuals are good and now I’m saying that groups are good. A problem with any such topic is that it uses abstractions. As an animal I am a distinct organism and yet as a pack animal I belong with others. Both are important and getting the balance right is vital. Expecting rugged individualism of everyone is a libertarian fantasy. But subsuming ones personal identity into that of ones peer group has all-too-often been a stifling reality. The kind of societal structures I hope for are ones in which we can both belong and feel free to move. And the kind of groups I think work best are ones in which individuals thrive.

I am recommending more than demographic diversity. Diversity of personality is important too. Till recently I assumed this was a given but something has changed - we have virtual online ‘communities’ which can select or de-select participants from across the global population and with that comes the risk of large monocultures of temperament. The danger is that everyone in a particular group can be defined by anger or fear or hatred. There is a plethora of new ‘spaces’ in which the atomized can form mobs. They never need meet one another face-to-face and so we have something new – a way for misanthropes who cannot even stand each other to form a simulation of society.

Am I exaggerating here? Possibly. However the extent to which such a trend has provided a resurgent form of populism with its own youth demographic is worrying. Much online communication is worthwhile and a welcome response to geographic limitations. But we need to spend more time away from our screens. We need both face-to-face and remote interactions.

It is also worth moving in more than one scene. That tends to happen because our family and friends and workmates are distinct sets. But we can do better than that. If society is at risk of becoming more clannish then we need to find ways of linking those clans back together into our societal fabric. And now I return to individuality because it is far simpler for an individual to belong to more than one group than for groups to overlap by themselves. Those who do this help to distinguish themselves as individuals while also providing avenues of cross-pollination between distinct groups. Such individuality is important to wider society and far from selfish.

And yet I still think that most of us are self-centred and I speculate on what I call a ‘culture of one’. We tend to think of culture as something produced by groups but I feel that all the personal habits and practices that distinguish individuals are a kind of culture. I pondered this a while ago in a cartoon I drew (see below). It suggests that an island with nobody on it has an environment (the foundation on which all other concepts depend). Then an island with one person also has an economy as that person must manage how they use the environment. Finally an island with two people has politics as they must decide between them how to interact and share the island. I ask the question of how culture fits into this progression and I think the answer is that it coexists alongside economics in the way an individual lives.

Or you could say that my 'culture of one' is just personality.

Desert Island Illustrations

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25.9.19

Some Vego Dishes

More and more I’m eating vegetable protein. I could say my diet has always been ‘plant-based’ in the sense that much of my low-income life has involved getting full on cereal, bread and pasta. The difference now is that I can afford to consume meat but am finding ways to diversify beyond that. Here then I will discuss a few tasty meat alternatives (whether cooking at home or eating out).

Suffering Succotash

Inspired by the Loony Tunes exclamation, this is a dish of Algonquian origin in which maize and some kind of bean (such as butter beans or kidney beans) are combined in a one-pot dish. If I throw in some mushrooms then I cover all three of my secondary food groups but that is totally optional. A spicy tomato salsa will give the dish its ‘suffering’ quality and be in keeping with using New World ingredients.

Sundried Tomato Pesto with Egg Pasta

This is very easy and almost vegan. Commercial jars of sundried tomato pesto tend to lack cheese (I guess the tomato provides much of the moisture) but then I go and add traces of egg by choosing a pasta I favour because it cooks even more quickly than the standard. Once the pasta is cooked stirring the pesto in results in an instantly flavoursome dish complete with more than a trace of nuts.

Salad Of Three Salads

Many take-away souvlaki bars and the like offer a selection of salads to go with rotisserie-cooked flesh. I’m hardly the biggest salad fan but have found a combination of three standard salads produces a rather tasty meal. The three I choose are chickpea salad, pasta salad and tabbouleh. They are way better together than eaten separately.

Palak Paneer

A curry made with spinach and nuts surrounding lumps of cottage cheese served over rice or with roti bread? What a dish! I have never made it but with so many Indian restaurants serving this fantastic meal I hardly need to. It is even more decadent chased with some mango lassi.

Tofu And Vegetables Stir Fry

I am less into tofu than other sources of vegetable protein but the solution to its blandness is sauces and seasonings. The tofu that comes pre-marinated in things like honey-soy sauce is rather nice. I combine it with a can of mixed stir-fry vegetables (usually bean shoots, bamboo shoots, water chestnuts, baby corn, sometimes carrot) with something leafy. Risoni has long been my preference over rice and it serves as the base for this dish.

* * * * *

These meals are all vegetarian but few are vegan. Milk and eggs enhance most of these dishes and for me abandoning them takes things too far. And at other times I still enjoy flesh, fowl or even fish (of the blander sort).

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28.8.19

Night Of The Long Knives

I recently saw some memes suggesting that ‘fascists’ (however defined) only harm those that they say they will harm. Or it may have been phrased the other way around – if you belong to 'privileged’ demographics then you will be okay by the fascists. Rather than respond directly to such nonsense I decided to make use of a recent anniversary with the following ‘note’ on Facebook:

There is something both intriguing and disturbing in the way extremist movements will turn on themselves. A classic case of this happened in Germany 85 years ago.

On 30 June 1934 members of the Sturmabteilung (SA) Nazi Party paramilitary were murdered en-masse by the rival Schutzstaffel (SS) Nazi regime security service. This event helped consolidate the totalitarian nature of the Third Reich.

I have known this since my teens but only recently read that stray others were also executed during what was called Operation Hummingbird. Three of interest follow...

Gustav von Kahr - a retired conservative politician who had crushed the Nazi Beer Hall Putsch back in the 20s. This was a brutal instance of ‘payback’ ordered by Hitler for thwarting that past revolt.

Gregor Strasser - a leader of the socialist tendency within Nazism. Strasserism (popular among the SA) was suppressed to help secure military and industry support within the fledgling regime.

Willi Schmid - a music critic who was killed because of mistaken identity. In an act of perverse civility the Nazis later offered a formal apology to his widow for accidentally executing him.

Dabblers in populist and quasi-fascist ideology tend to do so from a deluded and selfish desire for security. History however warns that such politics brings disaster even to those for whom it promises the world.

My warning was addressed to those tempted by fascism. But my flist is hardly that ideologically diverse. The ahistorical political memes that had provoked my writing had been shared by anti-fascists. What sense is there in diluting our image of fascism by limiting its list of potential victims? A better and more accurate message to offer is that fascism can and will harm anybody.

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28.7.19

Wild Child

I would never be considered a 'wild child' in the sense of someone who is wayward and risk-taking. Much of my play happened at home. And yet I look back on my childhood actions and some of them fit the description. My environment was a big part of it. I was a child in the 70s and 80s. I lived close to some remnant bush and vacant land along the Yarraman Creek. In this post I will recall some of the wilder thing we local kids did and the 'urban wilderness' in which we did it.

* The walking tracks back then were all naturally occurring - formed by the action of local walkers rather than by council planning. They criss-crossed the remnant bushland between creek and back-streets. Some of them were modified by kids to include speed humps for BMX bike jumping. Of particular interest to me was a billabong left behind by a former course of the creek. It fluctuated between wet and dry but in whatever condition felt alive. It definitely harboured frogs and sometimes I imagined a bunyip lurking in its muddy reeds. It is still there today.

* Only some of the open ground flanking the winding creek was fenced horse paddock. The rest was just vacant and while it may have belonged to the water utility it felt like it belonged to nobody. We navigated long grasses and bumpy ground to find the detritus of suburban neglect. There was a patch of debris that looked like it had once been parts of a shed or other structure. I suspect there was asbestos in those fibrous fragments we idly handled. Another exciting discovery was a burned-out car with blackberry bushes growing to fill it.

* That car reminds me of an incident in which a handful of we children were on the sports oval overlooking this vacant land. Parked outside the local scout hall was a panel van and we instinctively hid from it atop the scrubby embankment. Some graffiti on the scout hall bricks seemed to advertise the risk we imagined manifest in that suspect vehicle - 'sex and drugs and rock-and-roll' it declared.

* One of the more stupid things we did was gather in gangs during Summer and scour the steep creek banks for the annual appearance of a European wasp nest. Once we located it we then destroyed it. I say 'we' but I always held well back from the front-lines and confined my activity to throwing sticks and clay-clumps at the despised enemy. Other kids did far more than that. One got several stings but never seemed to mind in his berserk state. Kids are crazy. It was satisfying however to see the inner sanctum of the wasps tumbling into the creek.

* Possibly the last stupid thing I did around the creek was to follow its course underground. Lukas and I went to the tunnel it traversed under Dandenong Road and decided to go from one end to the other. It was Summer so the water flow was a mere runnel and the sky had been free of clouds. Walking was awkward in a cylindrical passage with feet placed either side of the water. We got to the other side just fine. Decades later it partly inspired a short story.

We got to do a few risky things. There were limits on the ability of my parents to monitor everything we did. Dad worked long hours (besides which his was a relatively relaxed brand of parenting). Mum was at home but was never a driver despite her desire to hover over us more. And the closest phone was back home. I'm happy I did all that and survived. Whether I would recommend it to others is a discussion for another time.

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30.6.19

Seven Shops

Some of my most mundane subject matter on Facebook is also the most popular. The following post some months ago generated discussion exceeding two hundred comments:

Imagine you have moved to a different neighbourhood and are told there is a row of seven small shops close by. What do you hope those seven shops will include?

I got lots of wish-lists from friends and responded by number-crunching what kind of shops were the most wished for in these imaginary streets. These were my results...

I decided to try and convert all your comments into some kind of survey results. That took some judgement calls because some shops are very similar while others combine well into one mixed business. Also, nomenclature takes some translating. Still this is what I got...

1. In equal first place are cafes and bakeries (which nobody calls 'hot bread kitchens' anymore). Sometimes these were combined as bakery-cafes.

2. In second place were mini-marts (often named as IGAs). They were more popular than milk bars (possibly due to larger range or the additional services they tend to have like an ATM).

3. In third place were pharmacies.

4. In equal fourth place came fruit-and-vegetable stores, fish-and-chips (winner in the takeaway joint stakes), and milk bars (surprisingly popular given that they are smaller than a mini-mart but I think that might be in part a sentimental vote).

5. In equal fifth place were newsagents (who it was noted can be agents for services like Australia Post), book shops (or something that can exchange books), and noodles (that only just pipped pizza to the post in the takeaway joint stakes).

6. In equal sixth place were butchers and pizza.

7. In equal seventh place came Australia Post and op-shops (with some noting that an op-shop has all sorts of things and is like a small second-hand department store).

8. In equal eighth place came laudromats (including dry-cleaning), massages (more popular among us than hair cuts), curry, and arts-and-crafts.

9. In ninth place came delis. Some however noted that mini-marts or milk bars often include a deli selection. One of you wanted a cheese shop specifically.

10. In equal tenth place came clothes alterations fabric stores and pet-related services.

All other things were each named by three or fewer of you. These included hairdressers, plant nurseries and florists, machine supply and maintenance, toys and games, bars, gift shops, music stores and dance studios.

Following that I presented my own imaginary seven stores...

Some of you turned your lists into descriptions of the character of your shops so I am taking some inspiration from you in this, my imagined seven backstreet shops.

To begin with, I'll describe the fixtures outside the row of shops. Naturally, there's some parking space, but also bike racks, bins (including recycling), a post box, a payphone, some benches, and some hardy garden beds. An unknown local regularly places garden ornaments in among the shrubbery. The shops that need it have been allocated space on the footpath for alfresco dining. A street sign declaring the name of these shops does not include the phrase 'shopping centre' as that's an exaggeration, and instead just says 'The Shop Street Shops'. So, onto the shops, from one end to the other:

The Mortar & Pestle Compounding Pharmacy is also a licensed agent for Australia Post and the Commonwealth Bank and includes an external ATM.

Topknot To Toes is a combination masseur and barber (which does only basic cuts but charges women and men the same rate). One of their options is a combination hair cut and head-and-shoulder massage.

The Shop Street Laundromat includes vending machines, comfy couches, a book exchange cabinet, a chess set and a community notice board. A few of the locals regularly come here to clean their clothes and play chess. Nobody has ever seen the person who runs it.

The Shop Street Fish-And-Chippery is currently run by Kurdish Australians. Just as the former Greek Australian owners expanded the menu, so too are the current owners. There's an old Asteroids arcade game table in a corner, but on closer inspection one discovers that it's been turned into a terrarium.

There is an op-shop run by a philanthropic organization called the Worldwide Order of Oddballs (WOOB). The coordinator is a collector of pop-culture memorabilia and a costumer. Anything excess to her own current desires becomes part of the stock.

The Honey Pot Bakery-Café is renowned locally for its chilli scrambled, its fresh juices and its kibbled rye. Both the hot and cold coffees are good too.

The Shop Street Superette is a mini-mart run by Kiwis who think these shops are called 'superettes'. It includes a deli cabinet and a small selection of tacky gifts that nobody seems to buy. They make a better malted milkshake than the cafe does.

There is something timeless (within post-war era confines) in this description. Some of it resonates with recent trends but in other ways they are the kind of shops that many generations of Australians would feel are familiar. I guess that familiarity is what makes my mundane posts popular.

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30.5.19

Three Phase Power

For over a decade I have avidly followed the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). This sequence of movies has been lauded as innovative for presenting a huge and coherent set of interconnected tales. I suspect it can be compared to the much older movie serials of the black-and-white era. But those movies were shorts connected by a linear plot. The MCU involves long movies (some so long that I wish they had intermissions) and the entwining of several parallel plots.

Of course I might only be saying this because these are effects-laden action flicks I'm partial to. Such stuff tends to be looked on as shallow pulp but the MCU has escaped this with its focus on character development and relationships. By the time the overarching story became dire, viewers felt invested in characters at risk, and it had a lot of impact.

And it look a while for things to become dire. The MCU mostly escaped the trend, prominent since the 90s, to be gritty or gloomy just for the sake of it. Action, drama and comedy were deftly blended in a way that felt realistic. And from a kernel of realism grew a sprawling universe in which spy flick conspiracy, science fiction technology and fantasy powers could co-exist and be accepted by the audience.

I'm impressed but can always wish for some things to have been different. In the rest of this post I will describe an alternative MCU in which the same overall story to date will have been presented with somewhat different flow and some shifting foci. The first three 'phases' of the MCU are now collectively known as the Infinity Saga - this then is a scrambling of that saga by just one fan.

Phase One

Iron Man: The first is still one of my favourite MCU movies. More than any other it demonstrates the ability of the film-maker to slowly draw the audience from a realistic basis into accepting some pretty outlandish stuff. Each of the three powered armours is better than the last and by the end we believe that Tony Stark (wonderfully depicted by Robert Downy Junior) can function as human, jet fighter and tank rolled into one. The only thing I would change is that only one actor play James Rhodes from the outset.

The Incredible Hulk: This is the only MCU movie that succumbed to 'gritty and gloomy' pretensions. I feel that would have been different if Mark Ruffalo had played Bruce Banner from the start. It is interesting that the movie puts the Hulk origins in its own past - one can pretend it is linked to the non-MCU Hulk movie that preceded it. I would have liked to see a different epilogue drawing it into the wider MCU. In it some Shield agents prominent in future movies would secretly monitor the fugitive Bruce Banner but would then be called away to a more pressing assignment in Budapest.

An Agents Of Shield Movie: I feel it makes sense for characters that become core Avengers to have an adventure of their own. Such a spy flick would have starred Scarlett Johansson as Natasha Romanoff, co-starred Jeremy Renner as Clint Barton and guest starred Samuel L Jackson as Nick Fury. Other characters like agents Coulson and Hill could also have appeared. The vibe would have combined the fun of xXx with the cool of Atomic Blonde but lacked the harshness of Red Sparrow (for now the closest thing I imagine we have to a Nat and Clint movie). By the end an array of criminal organizations would be shown to have links with Hydra. An epilogue would give the agents a history lesson on the World War II origins of that secret society.

Captain America - The First Avenger: Chris Evans is well-cast as the virtuous Steve Rogers and I enjoyed this historically-set comic book movie. However it always seemed to lack something for me but since I cannot define that thing I cannot suggest improvement. However the epilogue set in the present would involve Tony Stark rather than Nick Fury. Tony would use his surname to get some kind of recognition from Steve. And yet he cannot resist acting the showman and would utter the knowingly corny line 'welcome to the future Captain America'. Maria Hill could be standing in the background and receive a call from Phil Coulson saying he has discovered something odd in Oklahoma.

Thor: Chris Hemsworth is perfect as the bold and rash Asgardian. I enjoy this movie but find the contrast between Asgard and the desert of the south-west US jarring. Rushing from a fantastic 'realm' (yet to be characterized as just another planet) of immortal aliens to dusty New Mexico gives me culture shock. Shifting the setting of the hammer-fall to something a bit more temperate and verdant would address that. Also Hawkeye seems superfluous here. Otherwise this Kenneth Branagh directed movie feels like Shakespeare in space and works surprisingly well. Its epilogue could show that Loki is still alive and now working with other sinister powers intent on finding primordial artifacts.

The Avengers: The first super-powered ensemble movie of the MCU is one of my favourites. Joss Whedon was right for the job of writer-director because of how he portrays characters. They are never paragons-of-virtue. Rather they are flawed humans who recognize mistakes and try to make amends. I'm tempted to say this movie be left as is but there is something that bugs me with it - a whole gang of heroes face just one villain (and a villain who ends his story-line much later as a hero). I wonder how this would have worked as a movie in which villains collaborate (beyond anonymous minions and a behind-the-scenes puppet-master). What if a Hydra cell were involved? What if Red Skull also returned from seeming-death in the cosmic vastness? How would these villains interact? I imagine an ex-fascist who had abandoned cruder prejudices for a kind of perverse meritocracy (surely the doctrine of Hydra) would initially admire Loki but eventually see his shortcomings and turn on him. As for Thanos working in the background - I wonder at the wisdom of risking one infinity stone in order to collect another one. That gem could always be part of another story.

Phase Two

An Iron Man Sequel: In my re-arrangement I am merging some movies so that others can exist. A movie that combined the better aspects of both Iron Man sequels is what I'm imagining. The trauma Stark experienced as a result of his brush with death in outer-space is exhibited in his drunken and disorderly conduct. Various characters (including Hawkeye rather than Black Widow) either help or hinder him in his journey to become whole but in the process he never destroys all his suits. Possibly an infinity stone can become part of the Iron Man story too.

Guardians Of The Galaxy: This is pretty fine as it is and frankly it has a lot of work to do with introducing another whole ensemble to the existing setting. Of course it does this by taking to the stars (or as fans say it is in the more 'cosmic part of this universe' which is an interesting use of synonyms). This movie truly took the MCU to lurid and outlandish vistas but by then we were well-prepared for more-and-more.

Captain America & The Winter Soldier: I love this political thriller inserted into a comic book setting but the name always confused me. Replacing the dash with an ampersand clarifies that the Winter Soldier is a distinct character. This is the best Captain America movie and that is partly because it is also an excellent adventure for Black Widow. We also meet the wonderful Sam Wilson and the creepy magnetic-tape incarnation of Dr Zola. And finally the link between Shield and Hydra is exposed.

Ant-Man: I was surprised at how well this movie worked. I somehow expected it to be too silly but the level of comedy was just right and by this time it seemed that any kind of movie could be inserted into the MCU. I just wish that Hope van Dyne would tell Scott Lang that most ants (including his winged steed) are female.

A Vision And Scarlet Witch Movie: I feel that Age Of Ultron was a hot mess of an Avengers movie but maybe aspects of it would have worked well as a more modest origin story for my proposed titular characters. We needed more of a chance to see what these powerful figures can do. It could also be another movie focused on key Shield agents and associates (including the geneticist Helen Cho) as they finalize the destruction of Hydra.

Spiderman - Homecoming: This was a fantastic re-booting of the character. Tom Holland ties with Toby McGuire as my favourite incarnation of Peter Parker but this movie gives something more. Vulture as depicted by Michael Keaton is possibly my favourite of all MCU villains to date. He can be menacing and then charming and then just an ordinary person stuck in a difficult life.

Avengers - Civil War: I feel like Civil War is practically an Avengers movie anyway so may as well call it that. To make it more completely Avengers it could take a few scenes from Age Of Ultron. The party scene would be a must but with more tensions brewing. The personal flashbacks could be the product of conversations rather than mind-probing (or otherwise be in other origin movies). The ability of one person to manipulate such powerful figures into conflict would continue to be central to this story. Some characters (Thor and Hulk) would be otherwise occupied but could appear in sideshow cameos.

Captain Marvel: Bringing on this prequel sooner in the sequence would give the character more of a sense of belonging in the history of the Avengers. I also have an interest in a different incarnation of the character - Monica Rambeau. I randomly own just one Avengers comic and in this 80s issue her version of Captain Marvel is leader of the group and bursting with energy. Having her as the central character (rather than just a child) would have been cool. Still this was an interesting movie. I particularly like how two key characters essentially switch the roles of hero-mentor and villain - a nifty trick for any actors to portray.

Phase Three

Guardians Of The Galaxy 2: This is more fun and madness in the wider cosmos. Also more pathos for various characters such as Rocket and Nebula. It also offers many promises of future developments that I only hope will be delivered in coming movies beyond what is described here.

Doctor Strange: This takes us from the wider cosmos of Guardians to a hint at a multiverse that results in the rules-bending of magic. I would have enjoyed a bit more character development for some of the supporting cast - Wong as more than just a comedic character could be worth exploring.

Black Panther: Some movies present new sets of characters but this one goes further in presenting a whole culture. Its production of something new that is nonetheless inspired by age-old African cultures is an impressive work of craft and design. The economics is fanciful but this is the MCU and they can get away with it. The nation of Wakanda (both as a locale and a community) plays a key part in the final two movies of the Infinity Saga but with one noteworthy exception. The spy Nakia is central to the Wakanda story yet absent later on. I would have rather seen her in the final battle at Avengers headquarters than the brilliant yet barely-armed Shuri.

Planet Hulk: Here I imagine the more Hulk-centric aspects of Ragnarok as a stand-alone Hulk sequel. Such a story could start in a scene of urban destruction on Earth caused by a berserk Hulk who later repents as Bruce Banner and exiles himself from Earth. In coming to Sakaar he must defend himself in Hulk form but then find himself suited to the life of a gladiator. Fun could ensue in Guardians fashion and the character who finds and fights Hulk could be the travelling Captain Marvel.

The Wasp: Both Scott Lang and Hope van Dyne are the central characters of two movies to date. One is barely more important than the other. So if Ant-Man can be the focus of one movie then the Wasp can be the focus of the other. This would involve only small changes in emphasis. However the Wasp could end the movie as the one trapped in the Quantum Realm. The scene of others ceasing to exist takes me to a small peeve of mine - 'the snap' special effect of turning to dust seems tacky to me. I would prefer the older yet subtler visual of simply fading. I feel this better conveys a sense of getting edited from reality rather than just destroyed. It could also easily be confused by viewers as something akin to the phasing problem also seen in this movie and thus accentuate speculation.

A Thor Sequel: A long fantasy movie that combines the best aspects of both Thor sequels is what I propose here. It would be more grounded in a Norse vibe but fit the Nine Realms more fully into a cosmic framework. The Dark Elves could just be a minor challenge overcome only to then face the greater danger of Hela (my other contender for favourite MCU villain). More time could be focused on Heimdall as a resistance leader and a still-extant Lady Sif could become protector of Asgardian refugees. Connection to the wider MCU could still be provided by scenes involving Dr Strange and others.

Avengers - Infinity War (Part 1) & Endgame (Part 2): I regard these as one very long movie with a shock cliff-hanger and intermission of several months. There is so much in this to be impressed by and barely anything I can even start to re-configure (I choose to overlook the cascading death that would result from a halved population thanks to that fanatical fool Thanos). All my changes to other movies would result in a very similar culmination and what a ride it was!

* * * * *

I only ever imagine changes to things I value and that is very much so here. My wishful thinking is far easier to do than the epic task undertaken by thousands of workers who have given us the amazing Infinity Saga. What I found interesting with this exercise was to notice how changes at the start of a story necessitate many more changes later on. That is why my descriptions of change are explicit in Phase 1 but then vague in Phases 2 and 3. There are simply too many things I would have to reference in order to justify my reconstituted story. And to be honest I am very happy just to re-watch the Infinity Saga movies as they exist in this reality.

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28.4.19

2019 Federal Clumps

I’m adapting my Clumps for the use of progressive voters in the 2019 Australian Federal Election for the Victorian Senate contest. Gone is my complex ideological model for something that better fits the spirit of the age. What punters ask is simply ‘are they on my side?’ I can answer by sorting all the parties into just three clumps named (1) Yes (2) Maybe (3) No.

Another way to look at these clumps is by reference to the two major parties: (1) Better Than Labor (2) Between Labor And Liberal / National (3) Worse Than Liberal / National.

You need to number six-or-more groups above the line or twelve-or-more candidates below the line on the Senate white ballot paper.

I provide short descriptions of parties to help in the task of arranging preferences within (or indeed across) my three clumps. In preparing for this I made a study of the candidates via Wikipedia, party websites and media reports. I will overlook the preference recommendations of parties because such decisions are often strategic rather than political.

Within each clump I present the parties in alphabetical order.

1. THE ‘YES’ CLUMP – BETTER THAN LABOR

Australian Democrats – This social-liberal party is a pale ghost of its former self but still has a progressive platform to warrant its inclusion on this list.

Australian Workers Party - This is a social-democratic party with a focus on getting governments back to supporting employees and local jobs. Are economic protectionists but, unlike others further down this list, reject cultural isolationism. Are basically like left-faction Labor if they were independent.

The Greens (Vic) – This is the most successful progressive party in Australia with a strong presence at all levels of representation. They have grown into an effective force for reform in the Senate.

Help End Marijuana Prohibition (HEMP) Party – These activists wish to integrate hemp products into our economy and society on environmental, harm-minimization and personal autonomy grounds.

Pirate Party - This party is populated by Internet geeks and presents policy in the form of a member-run wiki. They are particularly interested in online civil rights and privacy issues.

2. THE ‘MAYBE’ CLUMP – BETWEEN LABOR AND LIBERAL / NATIONAL

Animal Justice Party - This party focuses on animal liberation and veganism. I’m okay with much of what they say but some may find them too radical for their tastes.

Derryn Hinch's Justice Party - Normally one expects ‘law and order’ candidates to be conservative but this party is more difficult to box. Some would argue that they are moderates because ‘the pendulum has swung too far’ on issues of criminal justice. On a host of other issues it almost looks like Hinch just tosses a coin to make a decision.

Health Australia Party - This party focuses on health issues and on the surface look fine. But if you take a closer look you find a connection with alternative medicine and New Age beliefs. Take only as recommended and make sure you are inoculated.

Independents For Climate Action Now - They say that addressing climate change is so important that it needs politicians solely focused on it who can work with everyone across the political spectrum to act while we still can.

Republican Party Of Australia - A party focused on political reforms such as us becoming a republic. Vague on other issues and so look okay but best to be wary.

Secular Party Of Australia - I suspect many in this party forget that a secular society is one that accommodates all religions rather than one that lacks them. However they may provide a useful counterpoint in an electoral contest that includes many fundamentalist religious parties.

The Small Business Party – These are classical liberals who say that the self-employed and small-time employers are undervalued for the economic contribution they make. Leader Angela Vithoulkas is into some innovative concepts such as a city ‘night mayor’.

Socialist Equality Party - This is a Marxist-Leninist group. On an issue-by-issue basis you may well agree with them on many things but personally I have a problem with anyone whose doctrine includes talk of violent revolution.

Sunny Chandra & Robert Whitehall - This group have a focus on regional development by prioritizing non-urban areas for immigration.

Sustainable Australia - This party seems to think that population within our borders is the only issue that defines environmental problems, rather than the consumption patterns of persons and industry worldwide.

Ungrouped - The problem with independents is that it is difficult to find information on many of them and they can represent any kind of politics. Err on the side of caution unless you have information on specific candidates. These candidates only appear below-the-line.

Voteflux | Upgrade Democracy! - This party has a gimmick rather than an ideology. They have an app rather than any kind of policy platform. If they have opinions nobody will know because they will do whatever they are told by whatever group of voters can be bothered getting online and directing them.

3. THE ‘NO’ CLUMP – WORSE THAN LIBERAL / NATIONAL

Australian Conservatives - The party started by Cory Bernardi who felt that the Coalition were lacking in religious conviction. Basically like Liberal / National but more morally conservative.

Christian Democratic Party (Fred Nile Group) - For these fundamentalist protestants everything is dictated by what they want to think God says. A wonderful excuse for prejudice towards anyone who is different from them in terms of sexuality or family values or religion.

Citizens Electoral Council - The CEC is an insular cult-like group with international connections to the LaRouche Movement. They think some of the strangest things and nobody trusts them. They deride rock-and-roll and for that alone I oppose them.

Climate Action! Immigration Action! Accountable Politicians! - Formerly named Senator Online and with a similar modus-operandi to VoteFlux but here’s the thing – plebiscitary politics tends towards mob rule. The shouty new name for this group presages that, hence me placing them here among the scary populists.

Fraser Anning’s Conservative National Party - The former One Nation splinter group of our worst senator. This time you can cry ‘fascist’ and I will nod in agreement.

The Great Australian Party - The party of former One Nation senator-elect Rod Culleton who was ineligible due to bankruptcy. Fixated on particular legal and financial issues (fancy that).

Labour DLP - The Democratic Labour Party is morally conservative and economically protectionist. Its members tend to be drawn from the working class Roman Catholic community.

Liberal Democrats - These libertarians with a deceptive party name want to minimize public sector involvement in all aspects of life except legal defense of person and property. In advocating for such they enjoy dismissing the needs of everyone along the way.

Pauline Hanson's One Nation - This party of xenophobes and malcontents just keeps on coming back. They fragment and rupture but always seem to find fresh blood for one more shot at tarnishing our polity.

Rise Up Australia Party – A party of fundamentalist protestants founded by Pentecostal minister Danny Nalliah. Even more extreme than the Fred Nile Group. Are anti-environmentalists and all kinds of phobic.

Shooters, Fishers And Farmers - You might think Ricky Muir is alright but these hoons want to hunt and fish across the land. Overall are pretty conservative while wishing to limit further natural conservation.

United Australia Party - Clive Palmer is back for more and bags of dosh help him do that. If he had a normal ego I suspect he would just be another Liberal or National member. This is pretty much a party for maverick neo-conservatives.

Yellow Vest Australia - These jerks ran last year as the so-called Australian Liberty Alliance. Are seeking to associate themselves with the French protest movement but are nothing but angry home-grown xenophobes. I keep calling them ‘yellow jackets’ and they are rather WASPish.

I'm happy to discuss these and other parties in comments or private message if you prefer.

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