Lazy Luddite Log

28.3.14

Life In The Suburbs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cross-posted here.

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10.2.14

Less Than Nothing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cross-posted here.

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19.1.14

Role Playing

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

Wenches and Swains That Never Were

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

The Jagged Tooth That Stood Too Long

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

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

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

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


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

Collaborative Creativity

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

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

Cross-posted here.

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23.12.13

Bulldust

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cross-posted here.

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5.12.13

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cross-posted here.

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28.11.13

Perfect Imperfect

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

Doctor Who



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

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

Middle Earth

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

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

Star Wars

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

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

Star Trek

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

James Bond

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

* * * * *

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

Cross-posted here.

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19.11.13

Console Rooms

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

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

William Hartnell (1963-1966)

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

Patrick Troughton (1967-1969)

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

Jon Pertwee (1970-1974)

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

Tom Baker (1975-1981)

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

Peter Davison (1982-84)

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

Colin Baker (1985-1986)

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

Sylvester McCoy (1987-1989)

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

Paul McGann (1996)

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

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

Christopher Eccleston (2005)

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

David Tennant (2006-2009)

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

Matt Smith (2010-2013)

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

Cross-posted here.

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31.10.13

Albion

This time last year I was obsessing over programs from my childhood made in the US. Most, like this and this were made specifically for children, while this was targeted at credulous adults but was a magnet for imaginative kids. They all sparked a sense of wonder that have stayed with me for decades. But what of kids TV from the UK? There was some amazing stuff made by both the BBC and commercial stations. Compared with the US stuff it was less polished and more slowly paced. Yet much of it was compelling nonetheless. I was very young if I saw them on first screening in Australia but it is also likely I saw them as re-runs. I suspect most of them I saw during the impressionable ages of 8 to 12. Here I will describe some of those British shows and the impact they had on me.

The Changes (1975)

In The Changes the contemporary UK is suddenly beset by extreme weather which is then followed by a shrill cacophony which drives everyone wild with anger at machines. They feel compelled to smash the machines in order to end the noise. Following this civilization sort of reverts to a much more primitive and superstitious form. A teenaged girl is separated from her parents and starts looking for them. However in the course of the series (several episodes long) the resourceful girl changes her objectives to discovering just what has caused The Changes. The electricity pylons that stalk the landscape become both a towering representation of the technological recent past and seem to also be the method by which something transmitted the maddening noise that threw society into anarchy. Even now I look on electricity pylons as something a bit ominous. In my reality however there is nothing supernatural seeking to return the world to a better balance between nature and artifice and over-balancing things in the process.

Children Of The Stones (1976)

I cannot remember if I ever saw this or was simply aware that it was on. If my parents had decided it was too scary then I would have understood. However it may well be that I saw it and simply forgot it. Or even blocked it from my memory. Watching shorts from it are bloody chilling. The story tells of a contemporary English village surrounded by neolithic standing stones. A researcher (played by Gareth Thomas of Blakes-7 fame) visits the village to investigate the radioactivity of the stones and brings his precocious son with him. However they discover a sinister conspiracy by the villagers to harness an ancient paranormal energy controlled by the stones. The scariness of the story was underpinned by a discordant choral music score.

Eagle Of The Ninth (1977)

I feel this historical fiction (based on a novel of the same name) is like I Claudius for kids. It may lack explicit violence or politically motivated sex but it does show the gritty reality for Britons living under the yoke of Roman rule. The central character is a young Roman who has come to Britain to investigate the disappearance of the Ninth Legion that his father was part of. In his quest he is assisted by a native Briton and a friendship grows which allow the protagonist to see the native British as humans to be respected rather than savages to be persecuted. I'm surprised how a story with such a violent setting was intended for children.

The Moon Stallion (1978)

This story was written by Brian Hayles (also a writer for Doctor Who) and starred Sarah Sutton (later a Doctor Who companion) as a blind girl who forms a supernatural bond with a wild white horse. The setting is a period one (they have steam trains but still use horse-drawn carriages) in which (yet another) researcher visits a rural English setting (in the vicinity of the Uffington Chalk Horse) with his son and daughter. His blind daughter soon discovers that the wild white horse is more like a spirit envoy from ancient Celtic times. She has to save it and its power from those who would use it for corrupt and greedy ends. If anything the images of those chalk carvings in England excite me more than those of standing stones. They give me this odd sense of something beyond my own ken - something old and distant and profound - and very likely it is thanks to shows such as this that I have any sense of the Numinous at all.

Into The Labyrinth (1980)

In this series (the only one I list to have more than one season) three contemporary children (a brother and sister who then meet another boy while stumbling round some local caves) are enlisted by a magically trapped sorcerer to go on a quest to find his amulet The Nidus. I have re-watched the scene in which the kids meet the trapped Rothgo and feel that he never gives them a satisfactory assurance of his moral character before they agree to help him. However I suppose they feel compelled by the fact that what has trapped him is a rival sorceress who wants his power. She cannot use the Nidus till Rothgo perishes but has thrown it into the whirlpool of time so that he cannot use it himself. The children have to travel a temporal maze which takes them to different historical settings in the hope of finding the disguised Nidus. All those settings were based on the same cavern sets re-dressed for different historical eras. I remember noticing this cost-cutting method even as a child but I watched it avidly nonetheless. Incidentally, a creepy soprano from the Children Of The Stones sings also in this show.

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What I find interesting with these shows is that they are for children in the sense that children (including adolescents) are the central characters. In many other ways however they are the same as drams for adults. Historical and speculative fiction with fantastical elements are for adults too right? Having adventures of necessity are likewise adult story concepts. It is as if in the 70s children were expected to experience drama and suspense and even thrills in the same way as adults but with just some of the depictions of adult concepts diluted and merely alluded to. Is this the same for children now?

I lack the inclination to make a comprehensive examination of TV for children since but I feel that much has changed. Possibly the biggest change comes in the assumption that children cannot cope with complex or difficult or disturbing concepts. If so something may have been lost. On the other hand we still have a lot of this stuff and so I can always re-watch these on YouTube with the perspective of an adult. I may find some of the production or direction to be dated but then that can be fun. I can always enjoy the incidental music which shows the impact in the 70s of progressive experimental bands. And if, as I suppose, these shows have a kind of maturity, then I should appreciate them as an adult.

Cross-posted here.

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13.10.13

Dandy

Last week I went to my dentist in Dandenong for a long overdue appointment. Public Transport users can only be early or late so naturally I had time to kill on my walk from the station to my appointment. As I walked at a relaxed pace I observed my setting, comparing what was new with what was old and remembering all the changes to my onetime home suburb. I could have given a historical guided tour, if the 70s and 80s are deemed historical. Here is the blow-by-blow of the sort of things I saw, both with my eyes and the eyes of memory.

* * * * *

- Dandenong Station and environs has changed a lot over time. The station itself was once a timber affair, like Clayton Station but bigger. In the 90s it was replaced by a steel and glass complex reminiscent of a Legoland Space set. From there I can choose to walk along Foster Street or cut through a backstreet to Walker Street. Foster Street once had a tough reputation, but the Southern Arora pub is long-gone, and most of the tattoo parlours have been replaced by Indian grocers and clothes shops. In fact the local council now call it Little India. However, some new developments towards Walker Street make me go in that direction.

- A pop-up park has – um – popped up across Railway Parade. I hope it stays a while as it includes a basketball court and lots of local teenagers (looking like they come from recent migrant families) use it. Further back from the road some new structure has been made alongside an abandoned Masonic hall. There are a number of new developments in this area between the station and Princes Highway (aka Lonsdale Street) but there are still old structures like the Walker Street Gallery, which was originally a fire station in my childhood. The Dandenong Science Fiction Club (DSFS) still meet there and I remember how fun it was to see another community group – the local Chilean dancers – meeting in an adjoining space and doing their thing.

- I next round the corner into Thomas Street. This was once the site of lots of bus stops that have now been re-located. It also has two ways of cutting through to the Princes Highway. I suspect that Vanity Court is still mostly empty of tenants as it has been most of my life. I choose the more cozy memory of walking through a discount pharmacy that once once a Coles Variety Store. Coles once had department stores under that name – imagine something halfway between Target and Best & Less in content with a cafeteria attached. Shoppers could eat in at a lot more shops because they were stand-alone. Now most department stores are in shopping centres with a food court close by. But in Coles Variety I had my first experiences of milkshakes in big metal cups. Mmmm...

- There is some new and very distinctive building under construction at the corner of Walker Street and the Princes Highway. I only later discovered what this new thing with the strangely shaped red roof was. I continued on across the Highway, seeing the ultimate in combining the old with the new, as I did. I’m referring to the Dandenong Town Hall, with its heritage-listed façade and clock tower, built in the 1890s, that now fronts an otherwise new (2000s) structure in the Drum Theatre.

- On the other side of the Highway I had to decide whether to use Dimmy’s or The Hub to continue my walk. Dimmy’s was once Walton’s – another long-gone department store. I remember they had an awesome toy department. I decide there is nothing exciting in Dimmy’s however and choose the Hub, an arcade on two levels with varying fortunes over time. Its upper level has always had specialist shops in it that can survive without exposure – things like a stamp-collecting centre. The ground level however has changed more. It was once bustling. Then the new Dandenong Plaza came along in the 90s and took away a lot of its custom. It seems to have revived somewhat, thanks to the changing demographics of Dandenong, with a lot of ethnic clothes and food stores. I do however miss Mind Games, which for ages has been an Afghan rug shop.

- The Palm Plaza is a nice area to wander and see passing shoppers. However one is inexorably drawn into Dandenong Plaza shopping centre, which came along in the late 80s and then was expanded in the 90s. I can barely remember what preceded but let me try: Myer was always there and still is. However it was a stand-alone structure flanked by both Coles New World (the supermarket of that brand to distinguish it from Coles Variety stores) and either a Safeway or Woolworths (in the 70s they were separate stores rather than alternative brandings for the same supermarket).

- For a while I feel that Dandenong Plaza damaged the older shopping areas like the Hub and Vanity Court. However it was also a needed thing, with Dandenong as the retail centre of the growing outer south-eastern suburbs. And it is architecturally a nice shopping centre, with its exposed white steel framework and curved roof sporting many skylights. Also culture can be allowed to grow even within such a regulated environment – the centre has placed a giant Chess game in one area and locals of different ages and backgrounds (but as far as I can tell only one gender) gather to play, spectate and comment sagely on strategy.

- Across Clow Street is the Dandenong Market. It looks like it has had another major expansion recently. I’m told it is an excellent produce market and should visit it on an open day sometime. For now I simply wonder what has happened to the historic Dandy Hams And Bacons neon sign – it comes and goes and comes and goes…

- Further along Clow Street is the municipal council offices and then the old Dandenong Library. I spent much of my youth there. It still even bears the old name of the City Of Dandenong Library (the councils of Dandenong and Springvale were merged in the 90s to become Greater Dandenong). Inside I discover an architectural model of the proposed new home of the local library – it is none other than what I saw under construction at the corner of Walker Street and the Highway. Well then this could be the last time I ever visit the old library. But change is okay. Likely the new library will be better and its more central location will give the public better access to it. Besides this is what photos and other records are for. I take a few and move on.

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There is more I could say. There is always more. But brevity is a virtue and this short record will provoke other recollections. I know that change is a constant force in life and often a constructive one. However it can also shock and surprise. Luckily it is usually a staggered process and as such we get to have the new parked alongside the old. And then by the time the new is old we will be in a better position to cope with the new that is new (and so on).

Cross-posted here.

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30.9.13

Timbre

On the weekend I was sitting in a music classroom because it was serving as a changing room for a theatrical production I was in. There were student-made posters on the walls dedicated to particular elements of music – things like tempo and pitch and dynamic. I commented that my favourite was missing – timbre. This is my very layperson musings on the topic.

I once claimed to be a timbre junkie. The waveform of an instrument is distinctive and provides a lot of what distinguishes particular compositions and makes them into an aural banquet. I notice how a lot of the time different musical genres are defined by other characteristics. Some kinds of electronic dance music for instance are defined by Beats Per Minute. If they stray one beat away from the proscribed range do the suddenly become something different? For me a lot of what helps me decide a song is what it is comes from the timbres it exudes. The presence and absence of particular instruments is important to me.

I should clarify that sometimes an instrument can be more than one instrument in terms of timbre. It can be played with a different technique which alters its sound. Or that sound can be distorted differently by amplification and recording. And it can all get rather confusing. I listen to some very old metal songs (the kind many metal fans think is just rock) and can be puzzled as to whether I am isolating an electric guitar or electric organ in my active listening. Or similarly in some old funk or soul I will be confounded as to whether I’m focusing on an electric piano (like the Clavinet) or an electric guitar playing a rhythmic "wakakakaka”. My imprecision comes in part from the fact that all of these produce sound using moving steel parts and electromagnets. And whatever is making these sounds hardly matters as they all sound fantastic.

There are short-comings to my focus on timbre. If someone plays me a cover of a song using markedly different instruments I can have difficulty recognizing it even if the timing and notes are faithful to the original. Is this odd of me? I suspect it is a natural and common thing and I say that because of how important voices are to humans. Every person had a distinct voice and for us as pack animals it is important to recognize them. This gets back to music too – a key way to identify a particular artist is by the sound of the vocalist.

I prefer music produced by ensembles of instruments to a cappella music. Vocals are beautiful and allow for the addition of words to music but I also desire diversity of timbre. As such I prefer a band in which there are both male and female vocalists. Likewise a band that has a guitar and a keyboard is better than one with two guitars. Likewise a band which throws something like a saxophone into the mix gets my attention. I get annoyed if the bass player gets lost between cacophonous guitar and drums – hence production values that allow me to identify all the parts is a preference of mine. And finally this desire to distinguish all the instruments puts a limit on the sheer number of instruments I want to be playing all at once. Few if any bands meet all these descriptions and that is possibly why I listen to lots of various-artist playlists. That way the selection approximates the kind of band I want to listen to.

It is too late for me now to turn this into a project poster and put it on that classroom wall. Also I suspect it is too personal to be deemed informative writing (as well as too sloppy – that was a tiring theatrical weekend). Time now to listen to some more music.

Cross-posted here.

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