The Almanack

DAB Hand

[10 Dec 02] Various newspapers noted last week that the BBC is spending 30 million pounds a year on digital radio at a time when only an estimated 70,000 receivers have been sold across the UK. That's over four hundred quid per receiver; more than I've spent on CDs all year. Now that prices have come down (to about £130-150 for the cheaper DAB separates, and £100 for an Evoke portable) the industry expects total sales to reach 300,000 by the end of 2003; but that will still mean that the equivalent of the entire licence fee of those 300,000 owners is being spent on... well, radio. Even at a hundred quid, the receivers aren't exactly cheap; and now, it transpires, the BBC is squeezing so many channels into each digital signal that their overall sound quality is inferior to FM. It's enough to make anyone keep cranking the Freeplay. Or wait until they get a digital TV.


My Object All Sublime

[17 Oct 02]

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.


TV Kid

[15 Oct 02] 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.


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

[12 Oct 02] ... 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].



[10 Oct 02] 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


[ 8 Oct 02] Tennis with Anubis.


[ 7 Oct 02] The Corporate Executive's Toupee.


Auld Reekie

[ 6 Oct 02]

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

[ 6 Oct 02]

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


White Teeth

[ 5 Oct 02] 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.


Slight Return

[ 3 Oct 02] After a month of MovableType woes, the mighty Wombat File returns to its former automated-publishing comment-enabled glory. Hurrah!


Poetry Places

[ 3 Oct 02]

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


Ignorance and Darwinism

[ 2 Oct 02] 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.


The Almanack of Everything

[ 1 Oct 02] 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.


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