Tuesday, 29 October 2002


[site news] I'm disappearing for a few days. That's right—although I'll continue to post here, it'll all be invisible. (Although why would my posts be invisible just because I become invisible—surely my invisible fingers would still exert pressure on the keyboard? Waiter, I'd like a fresh one-liner, please; this one doesn't stand up to the harsh critical gaze of logic.)

Metaphorically speaking, I'm disappearing (in a non-literal sense) for a few (literally) days, to attend a symposium in the Lake district. This will, unfortunately, lead to a precipitous decline in new posts on this supposedly "frequently updated" site, to the tune of one hundred percent.

On the plus side, the rate of increase in new posts from Friday morning to sometime over the weekend could well be infinity percent.


Pute or Canute?

[minutiae] Newspaper banner headline: PUTIN DEFIES RUSSIAN GAS STORM.

You can't hold your breath forever, you know.


Rabbit Redux

[film] It was a fair while since I'd seen a movie that really grabbed me. The Road to Perdition was elegant to look at and pushed all the right gangster-movie buttons, and had a truly original villain in the form of Jude Law. One Hour Photo was also pretty good, taking the antiseptic qualities of the modern mall and projecting them into the empty life of its protagonist. But neither left me completely satisfied. The only really good film I'd seen lately was the excellent Chopper: funny, tense, chilling, and very, very Melbourne. But that was on DVD, and the movie was two years old.

So I was looking forward to Donnie Darko, with its alluring giant bunny motif and advance reports that it was seriously strange. And fortunately, it didn't disappoint. Set in the John Hughes world of 1980s America, it takes a bunch of teen movie tropes, stirs them into a bubbling black stew of medication and hallucination, and turns the whole thing in on itself with a looping time travel storyline. The plot never takes the easy way out, never underestimates its characters or the audience, and, more than anything on the big screen in months, is utterly unpredictable.

It's also a fine black comedy, with wise-cracking teenagers, uptight teachers, and a loathsome self-help guru played by Mr Dirty Dancing himself, Patrick Swayze. There's more crammed into Donnie's bathroom cabinet than most '80s teen movies managed to squeeze out of three sequels. Who'd have thought that one of the best movies of the genre would emerge this side of the millennium?



[net culture] November was exam time for me from 14 to 22, and once it was all over it took years to stop feeling guilty about not spending the best weather of the year hunched over a desk. Of course, a lot has changed since then—including the weather, which on the opposite side of the world ain't so great—but the essence of Novemberiness still lingers in my subconscious. Studddyyyyy. Faaaiiiiilll.

Which is one reason why I won't be joining Ed, Graham and a cast of thousands in NaNoWriMo, enjoyable though it sounds. If there's fifty thousand words to be written, I'll be writing them for something else; and if anyone's doing any testing, it's gonna be me.

Fortunately, I happen to have 90,000 words that I prepared earlier. [Unveils casserole dish. Blinks at soufflé, which has gone flat.] Okay, so it needs work. A rewrite. Bechamel sauce. Something.

Perhaps a WriMo isn't such a bad idea. But not a NaNoWriMo—a MadoWriMo.


Saturday, 26 October 2002

Cascading Stylishly

[books] As the days continue their wintry slide into darkness and the year draws to a close, a young site's fancy turns to thoughts of redesign. Or something like that. I've been toying lately with ideas for tweaks and improvements to the 'snail, and in the process have finally got around to reading the new book on Cascading Style Sheets by Owen Briggs and co. About time I did, because it's very good indeed. Even those who know and use CSS already will find plenty of interest in it, and those who are still thinking about taking the plunge will find as good a case for doing so here as anywhere.

Early chapters by Steve Champeon and Eric Costello outline the background and basics of CSS and structural mark-up, while Matt Patterson goes into the finer points of typography and Owen tackles CSS layout with his usual aplomb. It all hangs together well, hits the right notes throughout, and doesn't overburden the reader with finicky details that would be out-of-date next release of IE or Mozilla.

The only sorry note comes towards the end, where the harsh realities of implementing CSS in existing browsers are brought home. After having the basic principles explained so clearly in earlier chapters, the browser-makers' failure to get it right seems even more annoying. Owen gives solutions to the most significant problems, but rather than outlining every specific issue he's found (which would take another whole volume) instead offers some sound strategies for testing and trouble-shooting CSS-based designs.

Even having followed Owen's progress in getting to grips with CSS quirks over the past two years, I still got plenty out of the book. The refreshingly modest page-count of a few hundred rather than several hundred means that it isn't an exhaustively complete CSS bible, but as a guide to fundamentals it's hard to beat.


Bleep On

[infotech] Went along this afternoon to the Royal Museum of Scotland's new exhibition Game On, with over a hundred playable video games from Pong to Halo. A nostalgia trip for anyone who's grown up in the past thirty years, and it left me wanting to race out to buy a PS2 and a copy of Grand Theft Auto III. Oh, and a TV.

One of the more intriguing exhibits wasn't video, though, but audio: a bunch of listening posts featuring music from various eras of gaming. A listen to various 1980s Commodore 64 themes was a potent reminder of the roots of '90s dance music. To hear for yourself, download a SID music file player for Mac OS Classic or Windows, search the High Voltage SID Collection for 'Arkanoid' by Martin Galway, follow it up with an mp3 remix from C64audio.com, and bleep the night away.


Friday, 25 October 2002

[site news] So, the weekend I decide to pay a few bucks over the odds and stick with my long-standing host because I can't be bothered moving, even though I'd get more space and bandwidth if I did, would turn out to be the weekend the site's traffic doubles. The power of a MeFi sidebar link. Hello to all you new visitors, and sorry it's been a quiet week. There's more stuff backing up on the mental M4, but a truckful of work has overturned and blocked four lanes.


Tuesday, 22 October 2002

[weblog] This Public Address:

When you hold a camera, it is a license not to speak. I used to marvel at the way that worked. When I was shooting and intensely involved with unfolding scenes, I seldom spoke. It reached a point, after hours of shooting that I would sometimes forget how. Visual thinking uses different parts of the brain. To be asked to speak, even to respond to a simple question was like disrupting the trance.


[uk culture] I'm just amazed that nobody thought of it before: beer-flavoured yoghurt.


Sunday, 20 October 2002


[minutiae] The 5.30 train from Glasgow Queen Street to Edinburgh Waverley, full of day-trippers at the end of a sunny autumn Saturday. Jane and I are facing each other in a pair of window seats. Next to us, a couple of English kids have got out the travel Cluedo.

"I guesssss... Professor Plum... in the Library... with a spanner."

"No, I've got the spanner," says his sister. "My turn... [Rolls dice. Moves.] I guess Colonel Mustard, in the Library, with the spanner."

"You said you had the spanner!"

"Oh, did I? I meant the rope. Ha ha-ha!"

"You cheated!"

"No I didn't, I forgot."

"You did! You big cheat!"

"We'll just take the spanner out. We know it's the spanner. Go on, it's your turn."

"What do you mean? The game's over. You cheated. I won."

"No, no no, go on, keep playing. We're almost there."

"Oh, all right. [Rolls. Moves.] Ha! Miss Scarlet, in the Library, with the spanner."

[Checks cards.] "Okay, you win. But I won the first game."

"Come on kids, pack it away, we're at Haymarket."

Hurried packing up. The family alights. Silence.

Jane: "The man sitting next to me... on the Train... with his bare hands."


Friday, 18 October 2002

The Great Britpop Play-Off

[music] Supergrass and Suede go head-to-head in my latest review at Records Ad Nauseam [mirrored here].


[site news] Hmm. From some of the suggestions I've had in the last twenty minutes, I suspect I'm not the only one who has accidentally used my Almanack submission box as a search box. Time to take it down, I think. It's been pretty quiet lately, anyway, and I've given the idea a decent run for now. (The search box is at the end of the page, by the way—which may change next redesign. Curse those harsh realities of usability.)


Thursday, 17 October 2002

My Object All Sublime

[the almanack]

The thing I want the most, she said,
My object, all sublime,
Is to know the world before I'm dead
And make all I can of time

To see and to eat and drink it all
The lemon and the lime
To feast on the fruit before I fall
Is my object, sublime

To the deepest, darkest jungles go
The highest mountains climb
To stare at endless miles of snow
And beaches in their prime

To fly to the farthest ends of Earth
To live till the end of time
To transcend death and see rebirth
That's my object, sublime

Wanting too much is my only vice
Greed, my only crime;
But sadly, all of this sounds twice
As indulgent in rhyme.


The View From Here

[weblog] Germaine Greer and Clive James have both been enlisted by the English press to account for Australia's reactions to the Bali bombing. (Greer writing for the Telegraph and James for the Guardian? Shurely shome mishtake?) While both make some worthwhile points, reading their columns—especially online—brings home how close the kinship is between the newspaper column and the weblog rant. James's, particularly, is a blog-like stream of consciousness, with an embarrassing digression about one of his peers, Bob Ellis, that would be more at home on a personal site than in the pages of a major British broadsheet. And both demonstrate some of the perils of commenting on affairs back home as an expatriate. Not in recounting the facts—that's easy enough—but in accounting for feelings.

I worry about it myself, and I've barely been away a year; Greer and James have been away for decades. Of course, moving overseas is hardly the one-way ticket it was a century ago; but going home for a few weeks isn't the same as living there. When you live in a place, you get swept up, for better or worse, in its fads and fashions—by feelings that to an outsider can seem odd or even irrational.

I last lived in the UK for a year in the early '90s, and while I was away our long-time prime minister, Bob Hawke, was rolled in a leadership battle. These things happen; everyone figured that Paul Keating had leadership aspirations. What was harder to account for was the disdain in which he was held by so many Australians afterwards. Even knowing all the facts of the leadership spill (and of Bob ditching Hazel, and so on), I couldn't feel the same way about him—not because he was my favourite prime minister (which he wasn't), but because I hadn't lived through the drama as it unfolded.

Similarly, although I was already a republican, I came back from that year even more convinced of the irrelevance of the monarchy than I had been, thanks to English friends who asked me, not whether I thought Australia should be a republic (which they took for granted), but whether England should be. Even now, there's a lingering sense among some Australians that our constitutional ties to the Queen make us part of something bigger and grander; when she opens a new Parliament House, it means something. Live in Britain, though, where you see plaques on every major shopping centre saying that HRH opened this in ninety-eighty-whatever, and it all starts to mean... less.

Going away changes you, that much is obvious; but it also means that, unless you go back often enough and long enough, or go back for good, it changes your ability to represent Australian opinion. At some point, you can speak only as an expatriate.

Greer clearly passed that point some time ago: anyone who writes "why Australia was so keen to be involved in the Gulf war must remain a mystery" is saying that Australian popular opinion and politics has become mysterious to them, and that really, they have no idea what those bloody foreigners are thinking any more. Which is hardly a crime—but hardly a sign that we're reading current "Australian" opinion.


Tuesday, 15 October 2002

Reading MetaFilter

[net culture]

Reading MetaFilter


TV Kid

[the almanack] The late 1970s. The days were longer, the months were longer, the summers were longer back then. In the weeks after Mum and Dad went back to work each January, my brother and I would fall into the comfortable routines of the school holidays. In the morning, I would be in my room, working on important projects: drawing page after page of comics, colouring them with textas, binding them with staples and trimming them with Dad's Stanley knife, straight through the paper into the criss-crossed carpet underneath; or building blanket forts and pitching my World War Two action figures against a pitiful army of ragged bears.

Outside, the sun would bleach the sky blue and the grass pale gold, turning the world into a slow oven. By the time my room started to get seriously warm, it was time to draw the curtains and head into the cool of the house for the day's main event: midday television.

We had a couple of TVs: a black-and-white in a sturdy wooden cabinet and, from about 1977 onwards, a colour one in fake-wood veneer and black plastic. They moved from room to room as the lounge migrated from one end of our big old weatherboard home to the other, with the colour TV always in the prime vegetating location. The black-and-white usually ended up in the dining room.

Each one came with a stretched copper spring of an aerial, and neither had a remote control. They hardly needed them; owning two TVs guaranteed 100% coverage at all times, because in 1970s Tasmania there were only two stations—the ABC on channel 2, and the commercial station, which in the south meant TVT6.

The difference between them was straightforward enough: the ABC showed British shows and a few home-grown ones, and channel 6 showed the American stuff. Naturally, all the kids at school watched channel 6, steeping themselves in Welcome Back Kotter, The Six Million Dollar Man and Happy Days.

We were the ABC household. One of the few.

In an age of cable it's hard to believe that watching one of the only two channels available could mark you out as a freak, but mark you it did. A typical exchange:

"Did youse all see Fantasy Island last night?"

"No... I watch the ABC."

"What are ya, some kind of snob?"

"He is, he's bloody posh, he's posh he is."

"Am not." [Cowers pitifully in corner and wishes he knew what "Da plane!" meant.]

ABC kids were weird: we watched old re-runs of F-Troop and My Favourite Martian (American, but not cool, because they were in black and white and clearly not from the '70s); we watched the medieval wizard Catweazle and his familiar, Touchwood; we watched Harry Butler before he became Les Hiddens before he became Steve Irwin; and, most importantly, we refused all appointments between 6.00 and 7.00 p.m. to watch the Goodies and Doctor Who, again and again. The ABC continuously repeated every episode it had: Bill and Graeme and Tim battling giant kittens and Big Bunny a hundred times; Jon Pertwee turning into Tom Baker and back again and forward again and again and again. What today's obsessive youth need DVD collections to achieve, the ABC did for us for free: drumming every line and plot-line into our formative minds.

Sometimes they'd fall down on the job, though. When they ran out of Goodies episodes (which happened more often than they ran out of Doctor Whos) they would swap an American sitcom into the six o'clock slot: the aforementioned Martian or F-Troop (tolerable), or the unmentionable The Ghost and Mrs Muir (sentimental schmaltz guaranteed to make any self-respecting ten-year-old puke). Yet still we watched.

Or I watched. My brother would sometimes defect to the other room—or eject me to it, depending who had the upper hand on that particular day—and we would watch apart, the trans-Atlantic divide recreated trans-our-joint. In later years he would be a minority of one, watching the Dukes of Hazzard and the A-Team in black and white while the rest of us watched ad-free in colour; the VCR and a second colour telly didn't arrive until the late '80s.

The ABC of the '70s wasn't all British imports and ancient American repeats, though. Throughout the summer, for two hours in the middle of each weekday, channel 2 was the place to be—because that was when they showed the Hanna-Barbera cartoons.

The Banana Splits. Top Cat. Atom Ant. Lambsy, Mildew and Bristle Hound. Speed Buggy. Squiddly Diddly. The Roman Holidays. Flat, garish colours. Repetitive back-drops. Minimalist animation of lips and eyeballs. Outlandishly groovy accents, and deliciously childish jokes. The channel 6 kids had nothing to compete with this; only Mike Walsh's midday show for the mums. So they would be outside, playing in thirty degree heat, at high noon, under an incipient ozone hole, while we ABC watchers stayed indoors—uncool, untanned, but unburnt. Who says TV is bad for you?

The channel 6 kids didn't even get to see the Hanna-Barbera their northern counterparts got. TNT9 showed Scooby Doo and the Jetsons, but TVT6 didn't. (As a born-and-raised southern Tasmanian, I was one of the few people to see the recent Scooby Doo movie without ever having seen the cartoon show. Fortunately, decades of nostalgic Gen-X references had long since filled that gap in my pop-cultural education, and I thought the movie was rrrrabulous.)

Looking back, it can only have been for a few short years that the ABC showed those particular cartoons in that particular timeslot. The Goodies were gone by the early eighties, repeated only once more a few years later; Tom Baker turned into Tristram, and soon the Doctor's days were marked. But for anyone of my age and background—mid-30s and middle-class Australian—those years, those pre-pubescent years that stretch into half a lifetime in the memory, defined television. TV for this kid was Tim Brooke-Taylor in his union jack waistcoat, Mildew being flung over the horizon from the end of Bristle Hound's stick, and Jon Pertwee fading into Tom Baker at the end of Planet of the Spiders. It was getting up to change channels, fighting with your brother over who had to watch the black-and-white, and curling up in a bag-chair to stare at a curly aerial.


Monday, 14 October 2002

[journal] So, uh, hm. Kind of lost all enthusiasm for writing frivolous nonsense after hearing the news yesterday, so the other stuff will have to wait for a bit.

It feels strange to be stuck on the other side of the world when something like this happens: a sense of dislocation, of not being where you ought to be. Not that Australians were the only ones affected, of course, or that anyone I know personally was directly affected (I dearly hope); but clearly there's a lot to think and talk about for all of us right now, and much of that conversation is happening a long way away.


Sunday, 13 October 2002

[site news] Found in the gutter.


Saturday, 12 October 2002

Pointedly that the Tooth of a Tail is Possession Ungrateful a Boy

[the almanack] ... is the phrase "sharper than a serpent's tooth it is, to have a thankless child" translated back and forth by BabelFish ten times. Hours of fun—or should that be "hours of the recovery"—at Lost in Translation [via this line with the filter of Méta].


Thursday, 10 October 2002


[the almanack] A timely request for 'limericks' lets me take care of five other Almanack suggestions in the same post.

Cafeteria Diplomacy by Henry Kissinger

Henry Kissinger once said
The best way to deal with a Red
Is to find a café
Sit them down there all day
And feed them caffeine 'til they're dead

The Wild Sexual Life of an Urban Marmoset

Two timid men made a dumb bet
They both later tried to forget:
To marry a wife
With the sexual life
Of a wild urban Marmoset

My Aunt Sold Me The Brooklyn Bridge

The singer from Ultravox, Midge,
While trying to sell me a fridge,
Said, "Once, in Vienna,
For only a tenner,
My aunt sold me the Brooklyn Bridge."

Hugging, Not Mugging!

In the sixties, when we were chugging
Down copious drugs, and all frugging,
The word on the floor
Was "make love, not war"
And on the streets, "hugging, not mugging!"

The Nigerian Militia Children's Theatre

Every kid in Nigeria goes
When the militia put on their shows
It all goes just fine
'Til one steps on a mine;
Then all of them think that it blows


Wednesday, 9 October 2002

[net culture] Eldred v. Ashcroft gets its day in court today. A piece by Steven Levy in Wired makes good background reading on the case, and Matt Haughey talks about why there's more than a famous mouse at stake.


Tuesday, 8 October 2002

[the almanack] Tennis with Anubis.


Monday, 7 October 2002

[the almanack] The Corporate Executive's Toupee.


Sunday, 6 October 2002

Auld Reekie

[the almanack]

The Place of Execution [detail]

"An Execution", by Captain Topham

I was this morning a witness to one of the most solemn and mournful of all spectacles, the execution of a criminal. Death is always affecting; but it becomes still more moving when we behold a poor wretch sacrificed to the injured laws of his country.

In Scotland, and I mention it to its honour, there is, on these unhappy occasions, much more solemnity and decency observed than in Paris. The lenity of the laws here makes it necessary that a man shall be "habit and repute" a thief, before he can be condemned to die for theft; and therefore, executions, except for murder, are very uncommon. This man had already been twice convicted and pardoned; so that there was no room for intercession to the King's mercy; nor was there the least hope of his amendment, as he was near sixty years old, had spent the whole of his life in a series of repeated thefts, and as he advanced in age, had advanced likewise in iniquity.

The town of Edinburgh, from the amazing height of its buildings, seems peculiarly formed to make a spectacle of this kind solemn and affecting. The houses, from the bottom up to the top, were lined with people, every window crowded with spectators to see the unfortunate man pass by. At one o'clock the City Guard went to the door of the Tolbooth, the common gaol here, to receive and conduct their prisoner to the place of execution, which is always in the Grass Market, at a very great distance from the prison. All the remaining length of the High Street was filled with people, not only from the town itself, but the country around, whom the novelty of the sight had brought together. On the Guard knocking at the door of the Tolbooth, the unhappy criminal made his appearance. He was dressed in a white waistcoat and breeches, usual on these occasions, bound with black ribands, and a night-cap tied with the same. His white hairs, which were spread over his face, made his appearance still more pitiable. Two clergymen walked on each side of him, and were discoursing with him on subjects of religion. The executioner, who seemed ashamed of the meanness of his office, followed, muffled up in a great coat, and the City Guards, with their arms ready, marched around him. The criminal, whose hands were tied behind him, and the rope about his neck, walked up the remaining part of the street. It is the custom in this country for the criminal to walk to the gallows, which has something much more decent in it than being thrown into a cart, as in England, and carried, like a beast, to slaughter. The slow, pensive, melancholy step of a man in these circumstances, has something in it that seems to accord with affliction, and affects the mind forcibly with its distress. It is the pace which a man in sorrow naturally falls into.

When the criminal had descended three parts of the hill which leads to the Grass Market, he beheld the crowd waiting for his coming, and the instrument of execution at the end of it. He made a short stop here, naturally shocked at such a sight, and the people seemed to sympathise with his affliction. When he reached the end, he recalled his resolution; and, after passing some time in prayer with the clergyman, and once addressing himself to the people, he was turned off, and expired. So great is the abhorrence of the office of executioner in this country, that the poor wretch is obliged to be kept three or four days in prison, till the hatred of the mob has subsided, and his act is forgotten.

From pp. 75-78 of Edinburgh Life in the Eighteenth Century, With an Account of the Fashion and Amusements of Society—Selected and Arranged from "Captain Topham's Letters." New Edition with Illustrations. Edinburgh: William Brown, circa 1899.


Her Fingers Were Replaced By A Chocolate-Covered Sandwich

[the almanack]

She hadn't intended to eat much
At her dinner with Elvis
Deep-fried peanut butter and such
Would go straight to her pelvis

But that was 'til she tempted fate
By drawing back her hand, which
Meant her fingers were replaced
By a chocolate-covered sandwich


Saturday, 5 October 2002

White Teeth

[the almanack] The teenager sitting opposite me in the taxi-brousse wore fashionable clothes and a big white-toothed smile—but it was hard not to notice the large black hole eating into one of them. Before long, it would turn into a large black gap, like the ones sported by so many people in Madagascar.

He had my sympathies. My own teeth have been jostling for space like students in a phone-booth ever since they appeared. Our primary school dentist noticed the potential for future problems, and performed four extractions—top and bottom, halfway back on either side—in an attempt to give the remaining teeth room to line up properly. For ten years, it looked like it had worked.

Then my wisdom teeth barged through, and within a few years the rest were tilting like tombstones. The school dentist had, it transpired, removed three baby teeth and only one adult tooth; my adult mouth had all but one of its full complement. The side where he'd got it right was the only one that was fine.

A wrestling match with another dentist saw off two of the wisdom teeth and stopped the remaining dominos from falling, but I'll never have the regimented choppers of an American newsreader. (There's always orthodontistry, but frankly I'd rather spend the money on airfares.) Even if I did, they'd still fail the newsreader test: because, unlike that Malagasy teenager's pearly whites and one black, half of mine are various shades of yellow.

No, I don't smoke; and yes, I brush twice a day. But for the first twenty-odd years of my life I lived in a town where the water came straight from a river flowing straight from Lake Pedder.

The water in Pedder, and throughout south-west Tasmania, is a remarkable sight: some of the cleanest in the world, turned dark brown by the tannin from countless hectares of peat. All through my childhood, the water in our town had the colour and staining properties of weak tea. Especially when you used it to make tea. Repeatedly. For two decades.

The council put in a new filtration system a few years ago, but its legacy lives on—in my non-white teeth.

They may not be perfect, but at least future archeologists will be able to date my skull. As long as they still have records of the dentists and water supplies of late-twentieth-century Tasmania.


Friday, 4 October 2002

My Little Eye

[film] This tense thriller by a relatively new director returns us to the finest horror tradition of the past. A group trapped in a rambling old property in the middle of nowhere wait out the days in the hope of winning a valuable prize. Cameras follow their every move and transmit them to the world. Their goal appears to be within reach, until startling events jolt them out of their complacency.

As the tension mounts, one player fears they're being stalked by a menacing figure from the past. The others attempt to keep them calm, but in this paranoid atmosphere—masterfully conveyed by distorted visual and sound effects—that becomes increasingly difficult. Then, just as hidden agendas behind the game emerge, the killing begins. The original goal is soon forgotten as the players fight for their lives.

Comparisons with Big Brother are inevitable, but the situation portrayed here bears only a superficial resemblance to it. This clever blend of reality TV and the Internet dramatizes the risks of ignoring dissent in the pursuit of immediate gain, and will definitely keep the audience lying awake at night.

My Little Eye-raq, starring G. W. Bush. On general release.



[net culture] Mark Pilgrim reports on recent changes to Google's PageRank system that have hit weblogs hard, and seem to have weakened other search results in the process. Guess I'll never be the number three (number one non-dead non-female) Rory again.


Thursday, 3 October 2002

Slight Return

[the almanack] After a month of MovableType woes, the mighty Wombat File returns to its former automated-publishing comment-enabled glory. Hurrah!


Poetry Places

[the almanack]

Poetry places aren't physical spaces
Where doggerel verse is performed
To pull our blank faces out of their stasis
And leave us all feeling transformed

Their actual basis is in mental spaces
Where every taut stanza is formed
The kind that you find when the back of your mind
Is ever so slightly deformed


Wednesday, 2 October 2002

Ignorance and Darwinism

[the almanack] The hard ones first, eh? This Almanack request was subsequently narrowed to 'a social Darwinistic take upon ignorance', not just 'Darwinism is scientific, creationism is ignorant'—which makes me happy enough, because life is too short to spend arguing against the elaborate edifice of nonsense that is modern creationism (although I'm glad that others are doing so).

The trouble is, I'm not the best person to give 'a social Darwinistic take upon ignorance', because I'm not a social Darwinist—even though someone once insisted that I was, after hearing me deliver a paper on evolutionary themes (and even though I explained why I wasn't in that same paper). I suppose evolutionary psychologists would have something to say about ignorance and its persistence in the human spectrum; it might not even be hard to explain, given the relationship between level of education and number of offspring. More education means less kids, so less education means more kids, so the ignorant will inherit the Earth, or something like that. Even in writing that down I can see problems with it, but I imagine someone out there is already writing The Bell Curve Mk II on that basis.

More interesting to me is our relative state of ignorance about how Darwinian mechanisms apply to society and particularly culture. After Social Darwinism was discredited by its eugenic excesses, the whole project of studying nurture as well as nature through Darwin's lense fell into disrepute. It's only in the past couple of decades that it's re-emerged. (I like to think that some of my work is part of that re-emergence, but, to be honest, a study of Pacific politics isn't likely to be noticed by mainstream evolutionary and social theorists.)

Nowadays, everyone talks about media viruses, memes, and the parallels between genetics and memetics. Even though many intriguing words have been written about it, the 'meme' meme has been overdone to the point of pointlessness—or to the point of missing the point. Culture doesn't just develop through the transmission of attractive ideas; it develops through the transmission of practice. It's not enough to know things: we must also make things and do things. To restate my Ph.D. mantra: tradition is a system of group knowledge about how to live and behave in a certain social and physical environment, which evolves in response to individuals' decisions about how to act; and tradition and traditions are, if not the whole of any culture, then a great part of it. I'll bet my long-standing tradition against your media-virus-of-the-month any day.

The meme meme obviously strikes a chord with inquisitive minds; after all, who can resist spreading an idea about the spread of ideas? But it can mislead us into believing that culture can change just by thinking about it. Strangely, the most memorable statement of such a belief that I've heard came not from the popularizer of the 'meme', Richard Dawkins, but from his occasional sparring partner Stephen Jay Gould.

At a 1995 appearance in Canberra, Gould was answering a question from the audience about Lamarckism, the pre-Darwinian theory that parents pass on acquired characteristics to their offspring, and can also 'see' the direction they must evolve in, and strive towards it. At one point he said that cultural evolution is Lamarckian, which is why cultures change so quickly. But I believe he was wrong: cultural evolution is a selectionary process, just like biological evolution. We might have ideas about some point we want to reach, some goal we want to realise, or some hypothetical object we want to invent, but we get there by trial and error. Otherwise, we'd all be flying around in jet cars with robot chauffeurs; and every child's beliefs would be a perfect mirror of their parents'. To return to the subject at hand: ignorance is possible in any generation, no matter how educated their ancestors—which shows that, at least on this point, one of the great modern Darwinists was wrong about how cultures and societies evolve.


Tuesday, 1 October 2002

The Almanack of Everything

[site news] This month I thought I'd try something a bit different* around here: instead of constantly trying to come up with new things to talk about, I'm letting you choose what I talk about. Pick a subject, any subject, or just a word or two at random, and enter them in the handy box at the top of the page. No IP address will be recorded, no salesman will call—but I'll add your contribution to the list and choose one each day to waffle about, building up a complete Almanack of Everything week by week for You to Collect. (Note that the proprietor reserves the right to treat serious subjects unseriously—and to give the whole thing away if (a) he gets bored, or (b) nobody plays along.)

For example, you type: you suck

I type: Etymologists are bitterly divided over the derivation of this popular put-down. Some insist on a strictly literal interpretation with distinctly sexual overtones. Others trace 'suck' and 'suckage' back to 'sucker', an insult beloved of fifth-graders and Warner Brothers cartoon animators. The 'all-day sucker' in fact gives an important clue to the origins of 'suck': these round lollipops are made out of solid sugar or, as Francophones would say, sucre. Americanized in spelling by Webster, 'sucre' became 'sucer'; thus, anyone who says "you suck" really means (if only they could speak French, les merdes stupides) "vous êtes sucre", or "you're sweet". Gosh, you shouldn't have.

*Idea subliminally pinched from Graham Leuschke.


Come to Sunny Sarawak

[books] Blurbs can be tiresomely hyperbolic, but for once they seem accurate enough. I'm not sure if Redmond O'Hanlon's Into the Heart of Borneo is the "funniest travel book I have ever read" [Eric Newby], but it's certainly one of them. His tale of travelling up-river with the poet James Fenton and three Iban men in search of the fearsome Ukit tribe and the rare Borneo rhinoceros is too good to spoil with a summary, but a few quotes give its flavour:

Leon fitted our army batteries into the cassette player and the machine came horribly to life. The tape of pop music sounded over-excited about some small domestic problem in the usual kind of way.

Slinging my soaking clothes from a tree with parachute cord, I rubbed myself down with a wet towel and, naked, opened my Bergen to pull out my set of dry kit for the night. Every nook and cranny in the bag was alive with inch-long ants. Deciding that anything so huge must be the Elephant ant, and not the Fire ant, which packs a sting like a wasp, I brushed the first wave off my y-fronts. Glancing up, I was astonished to see my wet clothes swarming with ants, too; a procession of dark ants poured down one side of the rope and up the other, and, all over my wet trousers, hundreds of different moths were feeding.

I edged forward across the shingle until I crouched behind the rock and then, with what I imagined to be an Ukit-cum-Clouded leopard assassination howl, I lightly touched his neck. The Iban yodelled a particularly horrible battle cry. I can't say that James's hair stood on end, because the sample is not statistically significant, and he only emitted a smallish scream; but his legs went convulsively stiff and shot up in the air, and he threw his arms wildly over his head. ... His countenance, when he rolled, very fast, on to his stomach, conformed, in several respects, to Darwin's description in The Expression of the Emotions (1872) under the heading "Fear".


Walking Worst

[uk culture] When I embarked on the past year of pedestrianism, I never knew that walking in Edinburgh would be so fraught with hazard. You'd think that a compact medieval town grown to a modern city of half a million would be fairly sympathetic to those on foot, but no. First, those medieval Edinburghigians built their town around a castle sitting on top of an extinct volcano, and trailed its main street (the 'Royal Mile') down a long slope of hardened lava. Then they covered it with polished grey cobblestones the size of bricks, spacing them just far enough apart that the edge of the foot slips neatly into their gaps. And then their Victorian descendents went and built my workplace at the bottom of said street, and contemporary bus planners routed my bus across the top.

Add the frequent presence of moisture in the form of fog and rain, and the result is having to completely re-learn how to walk. Heels, toes and calves develop new nerve-endings and muscles and hold themselves in a completely different way, braced against the constant threat of ankle-twisting, moulding and shaping themselves to the uneven surfaces, never lifting too far from the pavement so that they can better detect the next safe spot to land. Eyes, usually faced at least occasionally forwards or upwards, are stuck in a constant downwards cast, searching for obstacles—obstacles like thousands of grey-white splotches of discarded gum, the remains of freak hailstorms of PK and Juicy Fruit. 'Wrap It, Bin It', the council billboards implore; 'Shut It', the locals respond.

True, the downwards gaze has helped me find over sixteen quid in hard cash; but it also means looking chronically depressed, and having to be constantly on the lookout for tourists. They saunter around blithely, staring up at the crinkly pointy buildings in their gothic splendour, oblivious to downward-staring locals barrelling downhill towards them. The local then has to loop off the footpath and into the path of oncoming double-decker buses, adding chronic anxiety to chronic depression. No wonder so many British cities built boring grey boxes after the war rather than rebuild what they had; get those tourists staring at their feet like the rest of us, they must have thought.

At every intersection you see tourists wondering when the little red man will ever turn green. Unlike just about every other traffic-light system in the world, here the pedestrians don't get to cross first, but last, in an all-directions scramble after both streams of traffic have had their turn. The result: everyone ignores the lights and crosses whenever they feel like it—right into the path of double-decker buses.

Safer to travel on those, you might think. But buses bring their own hazards. Their bottom seats fill up fast, so you usually have to go up top; it's easier there, at least, to see when your stop is coming up. You hit the bell and lurch up the walkway to the spiral staircase, as the driver races to your stop to test how quickly he can bring four tons of steel to a complete halt. If you haven't got a firm grip on the central pole by the time you reach the spiral staircase, you slip and crash down its eight steps, with only the tight surrounding panels to stop you from setting off a human avalanche. With practice, you learn better timing, learn the rhythms of the lurching halt, learn when to use its momentum to swing round and down the stairs like Tarzan and, with a single light step, out of the central doors and onto the nearest treacherous cobble.

Walking at least gives you something to do; sitting on the same bus every day gets boring. But soon you start using that dead time as reading time, working your way through novels half-chapter by half-chapter. With practice, you can even keep the book open as you alight, and keep reading as you walk down the (quieter side-) street, flipping your eyes upwards and downwards at the end of each paragraph to avoid potential hazards. A useful skill when your bus trip ends three exciting pages before the book does.

And then one day—a Tuesday, let's say—you make the mistake of doing the same with a free newspaper from the bus, obscuring all forward view of the quiet side street with its pages, watching your feet for hazards, skillfully avoiding the ever-present gum and dog-shit, and walk arm- and shoulder-first straight into a lamp-post.


Signs of Madness

[film] I would put one of those considerate 'spoilers' warnings here, but if anyone spoiled Signs, it wasn't me, it was writer-director M. Night Shyamalan. Still, if you prefer your incredibly obtuse endings unspoiled by apoplectic splutterings, skip ahead now.

I should have listened, I suppose, to the reviewers who warned that Signs was sabotaged by its final moments. But many of those same reviewers hated Unbreakable, which I enjoyed (if they could buy the ghost-story stuff of The Sixth Sense, why weren't they prepared to buy a superhero story?). Sure, Signs looked like silly alien fare, but I hoped that Shyamalan would transcend the usual clichés, as he'd done in his first two.

For most of the movie, he did. He played with our skepticism with jokes about nerds in crop-fields and al-foil helmets, and cranked up the claustrophobic dread in finest horror-movie fashion to the point where it seemed that the main characters were all doomed. Even if it was obvious that the lapsed priest played by Mel Gibson would return to God by the end, and that this meant we were in for a miraculous resolution of some kind, that at least suggested that the ending would be worth it. And right up to the final moments, it looked like it would be. (You haven't seen the film and you're still reading? Go on, skip now, or don't say I didn't warn you.)

Even the sight of the alien maintained the suspense—shadowed by the sun through the window, dimly reflected in metallic surfaces, looming menacingly over the boy. How would they defeat it? And then: Mel sees the baseball bat on the wall, next to his ball-playing brother. Of course! Ultra-violence! Maybe the aliens have unusually brittle bones, and a bit of biff is all it takes to defeat them. How brilliant—the whole film becomes a statement about how our fears of the unknown greatly exaggerate any actual threat. Now that is timely.

But no. It's not the bat—it's the glasses of water set on every surface by the obsessive daughter. The alien is allergic to water. Not just allergic—it burns him; it kills him.


Let's assume, Mr Shyamalan, that aliens advanced enough to travel all the way to another planet will also be able to tell if it's covered in a compound that causes them extreme physical distress, and if so would:

  1. not go there in the first place
  2. if they must go there, at least wear some sort of lead-lined space-suit or water-proof body-lotion or something, dammit.

Imagine if we earthlings started colonising the universe and stumbled across a planet covered in oceans of concentrated sulphuric acid whose inhabitants drank the stuff and could burn our tender flesh just by spitting at us. Would we go there? Would we start strolling around it in the nude? Would we even taunt them with a few well-placed crop-circles and risk that they would come after us with sulphuric-acid water-pistols? I think not.

I mean, man, you have scenes of an alien wandering around in Brazil, and he doesn't even notice the humidity?

There is only one thing that could have redeemed that ending: following it with a shot of thousands of amassed aliens being struck down by a sudden rain-shower, all screaming in alien-speak, "I'm mellllting, I'm meeeeelllllltttiinnnng!" At least then we would have been in on the joke.

And another thing: the TV announces that three cities in the Middle East found a primitive way to defeat the aliens, but "we haven't yet learned what it is"? What the?

"Hello, this is CNN."

"Hello, this is Beirut. We have found a primitive way to defeat the aliens. It is w... [crackle, crackle]"

"Hello, Beirut? Hello? Must be some kind of interference. Oh well. Tehran, are you there?"

"Yes, we have found the weapon to defeat them, Allah be praised. It is [chhhrrrrkkkkk, chrrrk]."

"Damn! Damn... Tel Aviv? Are you there?"

"Yes, we are here. You'll never believe what it is. Why, you just might have a few glasses conveniently placed around the house by a fussy four-year old. You might even have been tipped off by the rumours about how they kept away from lakes. That's right, it's been under your nose all along, but you refused to believe it because it's the STUPIDEST WAY OF DEFEATING ALIENS EVER, AND I'VE SEEN ROBOT MONSTER AND PLAN NINE FROM OUTER SPACE. It's [beeeeeeeeeee...]"

"Rats. Guess we'll never know how it ends."

How lucky you are, my friends.


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