A short note on the NSW fires

The situation is no better than when I last wrote about them, although there has been spots of cooler weather and some clearer days.

I made this gif to show how some of the fires near Sydney have spread over the last few days.

based on images from https://www.rfs.nsw.gov.au/fire-information/fires-near-me

Ironically, I missed suffering from the smoke on one of the worst days because I was stuck indoors (with comfortable and effective air-con) for wholly unrelated health reasons (I’m fine – just basic robot maintenance).

If you look carefully, you’ll see some fire zones that are sort of thin and wriggly. These are mainly places were the RFS are conducting burning back operations in attempt to create strategic fire breaks to limit the spread of the massive conjoined bush fires.

Current weather forecast suggest there is little chance of major rain in the region until late January. So these big fires will be burning until at least then. The best they can do is contain their spread.

Chaos, fascism and the UK

I’m still processing the UK election results. I wrote something yesterday and then trashed the post. I’m writing again from scratch.

My first observation is that while the results are heart achingly bad, they aren’t surprising. Of course it is very easy to say ‘I expected this’ after the fact but I wasn’t going to assert prior to the vote that the Tories would win despite their manifest incompetence as that would help nobody.

Should they have lost? Absolutely. Aside from a record of bad policies over multiple Prime Ministers, the Conservatives have even lost their veneer of competence. They are a broken party and Johnson is one of the least capable people to be in the role of Prime Minister since World War 1 (and I only stop there because my sense of who was PM when gets very hazy prior to that). By the very basic standard of whether there might still be meaningfully a ‘United Kingdom’ by the end of his tenure of PM, he has already deeply damaged Britain as a concept. Which helps mark out what his victory is and means — it is a victory for a particularly toxic and racist English nationalism.

The corollary of the victory of English nationalism (better symbolised by the odious Nigel Farage than Boris Johnson) is the increasingly plausible outcome of an independent Scotland and a united Ireland. Scotland also points the way to ‘nationalism’ in a different sense. Scottish people aren’t magical (despite the cartoons I’m watching) and are just as capable of bigotry and short-sighted thinking as the people south of the border but Scotland’s own very different concept of national identity as enabled the country to remain immune from the worst aspects of the divisions that have gripped England.

So why did I think the Tories would win? A few inter-related things but the common element is Brexit. There is obviously a lot to discuss about Labour, Corbyn, the Liberal-Democrats and how Remain campaigns stuffed up in various ways but I honestly think these all amount to a discussion how a very, very narrow path to a substantial Tory defeat was not met.

The predominate feature was the chaos around Brexit both in parliament and as a source of social division. Years now of wrangling around Brexit has only resulted in a political stalemate. It was that stalemate that resulted in two general elections, the first of which failed to improve the situation. That circumstance set up a situation where several things are in play:

  • The sunk cost fallacy. A huge amount of time, money and emotional energy has already been invested in the Brexit debate. That biases people towards seeing not enacting Brexit as a waste. This is fallacious reasoning but it is a very powerful kind of cognitive error, one that will incline people to ignore or repress the more obvious doubts they may now have about the wisdom of Brexit.
  • The problem of coordinated action. There are many reasons to oppose Boris Johnson and the conservatives but with multiple positions and opposing views beyond the Conservative Party there was no clear, simple alternative position.
  • Neither Labour nor the Liberal Democrats had a way of making Brexit magically vanish. That’s part of what is so poisonous to public discourse about Brexit as an issue. Jeremy Corbyn’s compromise policy of offereing a new deal that would be ratified by a second referendum was credible but by its nature it was a policy that would prolong the pain. A more assertive Remain policy would be more promising but that also would not end the pain UNLESS there was a massive and unambiguous vote for staying in the EU. A small-majority or a coalition government hoping to end Brexit would be facing a very politically determined opposition. Which takes me to the last point.
  • Bullying works. People know who the scary, less than rational group is in the Brexit debate and it is the pro-Brexit side. There is a disturbing result in game theory were an apparent loss of rationality is a rational manoeuvre. If one side cannot be reasoned with, that can (in some circumstances) place the more rational side at a disadvantage in a negotiation. In this circumstances people know that the pro-Brexit politicians weren’t going to stop if Labour won, or if (somehow) the Lib-Dems had won or if a Lib-Lab coalition had won or if Parliament had completely realigned to form a Remain Government of National Unity. We are back to the situation of were only a massive Remain victory to the point of utter humiliation would bring the poisonous debate to an end.

In these circumstances, it becomes clearer what a dithering voter might do. The clearest route and the route that it is easiest to enact as an isolated voter at the ballot box is to hope that they only way out of the Brexit chaos is to push through. It is also self-destructive ‘madness’ and rewards the very people who created the mess but illustrates something we know about fascism in general. Fascism feeds on chaos by creating a climate of turmoil and offering authoritarian control as the antidote. It’s a poison that markets itself as the cure for the symptoms it creates.

Am I saying Boris Johnson is a fascist? Meh. That’s not my point. He’s not-not a fascist but no, his core ideology is “cynical opportunist” and I very much doubt there is anything much deeper than that going on in there. However, that hardly matters. It’s not the inner personal qualities or personal ideological commitments of Boris Johnson that are in play but the policies and program he has committed Britain to. His personal route to political power as a jolly oaf was never going to get him any further than Mayor of Greater London. His political success since has been via exploiting English nationalism, racism and xenophobia and doing so has kept paying off for him again and again. He’s hardly going to stop now that using the dark-arts of appealing to the worst aspects of English culture has delivered him a substantial parliamentary majority. Nor will he be able to pivot back to the centre because the fundamental problems with Brexit are still there and when/if the UK leaves the union those deep issues will only get worse. Boris’s problems are only just beginning and he has only one move that has worked for him: double down on the racism.

Well, that’s not a very happy account. I’ll concede that I’m writing from a long way away and from all the frustration and fear that entails. I was hoping to think of something more positive or at least hopeful to people in Britain. I’m sorry but I don’t have anything. This will be hard and it is on top of years now of misrule and hardship. It will be especially hard (and often needlessly cruel) to so many different groups of people in Britain.

Frankenstein as read by Timothy the Talking Cat

Once upon a time there was a man called Frankenstein who didn’t know where people came from. That has always worried me as well as there are an awful lot of people and not as many cats. Nobody would tell him were people came from because he was a bit of a prude and very posh and they thought he might blush if they had to explain all about ess-eee-exx to him. It wasn’t quite Victorian times yet though and actually lots of people were having quite a lot of ess-eee-exx including romantic poets in great big puffy shirts. The poets had three hobbies 1. writing poems 2. having lots of ess-eee-exx and 3. dying from tuberculosis.

I guess eventually somebody must have explained the process to him and oh man does he freak out. “I’m not making people that way!” he says very loudly to everybody because he is quite disgusted with the whole idea of having to be nice to somebody and learn how to cuddle and share his feelings and do all those things that would be intimate and make him feel vulnerable to another person. Not for me! He says and I don’t need quotation marks because, heck he has a point! Have you ever heard cats doing, well, you-know-what? Oh my golly gosh! The howling and the fuss and the accidentally falling off a wall and into a rosebush! Not for me and not for Victor Frankenstein either!

Also, that isn’t the end of the matter! There is pregnancy and then babies and then the babies are bratty kids and you have to look after them and you get weird hormones and then they are dependent on you and you are dependent on them and your whole life revolves around them. Sure Victor was very rich and probably had a big castle in Austria or Bavaria or Switzerland of wherever this book is set…maybe Transylvania or is that Dracula?

Victor is a brain genius. These days he would be somebody smart like Elon Muskstick or the man who invented Uber, who I guess must have been Nietzsche. Smart guys look at regular things that people do already without their help and say “Maybe there is an amazing start-up high-tech cyber wave-of-the-future disrupt-the-market think outside the box way of doing this?” and then they set up a kickstarter and go to lunch with an adventure capitalist (which is like a regular capitalist but dressed like Indiana Jones) and afternoon tea with a private inequity firm and BOOM! They have a pile of cash for R&D and rapid prototyping of their new product.

The big idea Victor has is a NEW way of making people. Instead of the whole squishy romantic intimacy stuff and the awkward pregnancy stuff and the whole lets-spend-twenty-years-raising-children-and-paying-for-college HOW ABOUT we just MAKE a person from left over bits and skip straight to the adult stage!

“Brilliant!” says Forbes. “Amazing!” says The Financial Times. “The Way of the Future!” says some third famous business magazine. Before you know it, Victor has started his new silicon valley start up and it is called something like Build-a-Bloke. He has great plans for a Build-a-Bloke in every Regency era shopping mall in the future and people will go to Build-a-Bloke parties and come out with a new person who can be their friend or get some sort of emotional validation that people get from making new people or whatever. THE DETAILS DON’T MATTER.

So Victor makes his prototype and to be fair it was his first go but he probably should have got the Ives fellow from Apple to think about the whole “look and feel” of Build-a-Bloke Mark 1.

On the positive side, Build-a-Bloke Mark 1 is very much the type that you won’t need to pay high college fees for. He can basically teach himself and that’s exactly what he does with the help from a blind man who must, I guess, have signed up for Victor’s Kickstarter and got the Mark 1 as a high-tier backer reward.

So sure, some glitches, some imperfections but Victor has pretty much the proof-of-concept nailed down good. Oh but then it all goes wrong. The Build-a-Bloke Mark 1 goes to see Victor and says “You know what, I quite like the whole idea of getting married and having somebody to cuddle on a cold winter’s night and you know maybe do some extra snuggles and maybe have some little babies to bring up as our own.” But Victor is “Oh no no no. That would void your warranty and what about all the IP and patents and copyright and what have you! You can’t just go around making your own Build-a-Bloke babies! What about my business model! What about my return on investment! What about this graph showing the tax write-offs from depreciation of assets by which I mean you!”

Well, as you can imagine that does NOT go down well. If I was going to have that meeting I’d have picked a nice cafe or fancy restaurant where people are less likely to make a fuss. Victor the ultimate hipster thought “gosh, lets have my awkward business meeting on a glacier”. Maybe he was hoping for a photo shoot from Vogue but he’d badly miscalculated because photography was a few decades off from being invented. Victor curses himself and Build-a-Bloke Mark 1 goes on a murder rampage! “I should have invented photography and disrupted the whole portraiture market and inadvertently given rise to impressionist paintings!” Victor says.

Well the two of them chase each other around the world until they both end up in Antarctica or maybe Greenland. Somewhere cold and with even more glaciers. They are out there still. Victor and Build-a-Bloke forever chasing each other with a gaggle of IP lawyers and disgruntled investors in their wake.

Meanwhile, back in Europe, Mary Shelley has this great idea for a Kickstarter and funds her new concept of “freaky horror science fiction novel”. WHAM! The whole goth romantic poet market is disrupted! And everybody is “Lets invent computers” but it is still a bit early for that and also everybody has way too much opium and tuberculosis.

The end.

Gargoyles Rewatch: Part 1 – Season 1

Disney’s attempt at a kid’s cartoon built around merchandising but with higher production values, signalled it’s storytelling ambitions from the start. The first season starts with a five part origin story for the titular heroes, following them from Scotland in 994 AD to a New York that is sort of 1994 and sort of near future. In the process a plethora of characters are introduced as part of the backstory and then disposed of: A brutal Viking raider, a bigoted princess who relies on the Gargoyles to defend her castle but won’t have them in her sight, a young ‘magus’ with equal disdain for the Gargoyles and the captain of the castle who regards the Gargoyles as unjustly treated.

The Scotland section packs a lot in and not always convincingly. The five part ‘Awakenings’ story sounds generous in the amount of time given to establish the premise of the show but the story of Middle Ages betrayal and genocide is just one part of the broader plan to establish the show. We learn it is the sympathetic Captain who betrays the castle and had originally planned that all the Gargoyles would be away, so that even humans sympathetic to the Gargoyles participate in their destruction. The Magus, who appeared more villainous is genuinely contrite in his part in the destruction of the Gargoyles and it is he who accepts Goliath (the Gargoyle’s leader and the only one named at this point) to be turned to stone an join the five other petrified survivors. We are well into episode 2 by this point.

When we finally we get to meet the shows primary antagonist David Xanatos he is cast as an ambiguous figure. He is the arch-baddie of the series but he is affable, clever and broadly sympathetic. Rich and technologically brilliant, there are clear echoes of Batman as a character (although these days the similarity with Tony Stark/Ironman would be more current).

Castle Wyvern has been transplanted to New York and with the castle having ‘risen higher than the clouds’, the Gargoyle curse is broken and the Gargoyles are recruited by Xanatos as the castle’s defenders — just in time as the castle is immediately attacked. We’ll later learn this was a false-flag attack planned by Xanatos to further tie the Gargoyles to him. The attack (and falling stone work) bring Detective Elisa Maza to Xanatos’s building, and introduces her as another key character of the series.

Which leaves one more character to make an entrance. In a signature twist it is revealed that Goliath’s mate (later called Demona but at this point nameless) has also survived. However, the audience (but not Goliath) is aware that the story both she and Xanatos tell about her survival is suspect.

Only by the end of episode 5 is the full premise established. Xanatos’s plan is revealed (it doesn’t make much sense but I’ll come back to that) it fails, he ends up imprisoned for stolen goods. Demona is revealed as an anti-human zealot acting on her own agenda but implicated in Xanatos’s scheming. The remaining Gargoyles all acquire New York themed names: Hudson, Broadway, Lexington, Brooklyn and Bronx the Gargoyle dog thing (whose exact species is never clarified but who follows the same rules — stone by day and alive at night).

The opening episodes form a mini-movie but still somehow are crowded. There is a lot going on but it also feels it takes a long time to establish everything. I suspect these day, more would have been revealed gradually but there is a strong sense here of a show experimenting with serial story telling in a medium where that was still unusual.

The rest of season 1 eases off on the epic storyline. We are teased with more open plot leads, such as what Xanatos broader scheme might be (if he has one), what happened to the Gargoyle eggs entrusted to the unpleasent Scottish princess and the arrival of an additional human antagonist MacBeth (John Rhys-Davies with the only decent Scottish accent in the show) who also appears to be connected to the undisclosed history of Demona’s survival and character changes.

Writing that all down reveals quite how ambitious and out of control Gargoyles season 1 is. The show’s ambition for an epic story line was not allowed to replace the kind of weekly mini-story and Gargoyles fighting somebody plots that a more conventional cartoon would have. So plot details are often left hanging and the momentum of the twists and reveals is often undermined by the show’s very variable pacing.

Where the over-packed plot did little to help the character development, the show was greatly aided by excellent voice acting. Keith David and Ed Asner provided weighty gravitas to the elder Gargoyles Goliath and Hudson, and manage to just about pull off the rapid switches between a kind of attempt at Shakespearean tragedy and Saturday morning cartoon hi-jinks. Xanatos and Demona were voiced by Star Trek: TNG alumni Jonathon Frakes and Marina Sirtis — which I was unaware when I began this rewatch and so had the joy of a ‘is that Commander Riker?’ moment.

Xanatos himself both works and doesn’t work. Having established him as the arch schemer and stoically unflappable, for the rest of the season his numerous plans within plans become to appear utterly aimless. Is he scheming just to scheme? That initially seems disappointing but after awhile, and possibly unintentionally, the idea of this hyper-wealthy genius who actually just doesn’t really care if he wins or loses starts to make sense. Frakes is a decent actor but not famed for having a great emotional range and the role suits him perfectly. If his new super-dooper cybernetic robot gargoyles gets trashed by Goliath, well that’s just useful feedback on the next design. He famously cannot lose but mainly because he is very rich and doesn’t take anything personally.

Demona works less well and it is very unfortunate that the only female Gargoyle in season 1 is portrayed as duplicitous, manipulative and motivated by hate.

The supporting Gargoyles each get a focus episode in season 1 that broadens them out a little from comedy relief characters. Hudson the older mentor gets named first. The three younger Gargoyles get basic traits, Brooklyn is the cool one, Lexington is the one with technical skills and Broadway is the tubby one who likes to eat. Their focus episodes are variable in quality but the show’s commitment to continuity establishes additional traits that are maintained for the characters going forward e.g. Lexington has a particular animosity to the B-grade bad guys ‘The Pack’ (a kind of bumbling Team Rocket like group), Brooklyn ends up duped by Demona and from that point has a special animosity towards her.

Broadway’s episode “Deadly Force” was apparently later censored. Like many episodes it has clumsy ambition to it — attempting to do a kind issue-of-the-week style plot about gun safety mixed in with a police procedural about organised crime. The shocking part is a gun accident in which Broadway shoots Elisa Maza in the back, leaving her unconscious in a pool of blood. Given that up to this point Gargoyles had been following the normal kid’s action cartoon convention of lots and lots of shooting but nobody dying on screen, the gun accident sequence carries a lot of punch. It took me by surprise when I saw it this week and it would have been twice as shocking when it first aired.

The final episode of the show essentially concludes the origin story. Another Start Trek:TNG cameo from Michael Dorn adds a further antagonist (the troubled Coldstone, resurrected partly by Xanatos’s cybernetics and Demona’s sorcery). By the end of the episode the Gargoyles have defined for themselves a new purpose as the defenders of their new home, not the castle but the island of Manhattan. The end is a kind of deceleration about what kind of story the Gargoyles are in: are they in a pseudo-Shakespearean fantasy epic or are they in a more conventional superhero story? By episode 13 they appear to have chosen — they will be the defenders of the night fighting crime and serving the people who fear them.

Stronger in its ideas than its execution, the difficulty of serial story telling is apparent throughout season 1 of Gargoyles. Marrying all its themes and ambitions together doesn’t entirely work. It is appropriate that the final episode features a Gargoyle that is made out of multiple parts who can’t resolve who or what he is. Coldstone feels like an allegory for the whole of season 1.

Does it hold up? No. It is not a case of the suck fairy so much as the degree to which television has worked through so many of the issues that Gargoyles is experimenting with. The idea of kid’s shows with deep story arcs, character development and emotional depth and yet still being comical and tied in with merchandising is now much better established. With fewer templates to work on, Gargoyles season 1 is too clearly multiple influences joined together imperfectly. What you can never fault is quite how bold it is in what it attempts. It has been lessened over time but partly by people building on what it attempted.

Rewatching Gargoyles: Part 0

Was it the impact of cable television or was it the slow impact of VHS but significant changes happened to the world of mass-market kids cartoons in the late eighties and early nineties. The basic fundamentals of creating shows which would cross-promote toys and other media franchises (movies, comic books) and which could be recycled indefinitely on Saturday mornings, didn’t change but there was new emphasis on better quality animation and writing. Notably, there was a renewed appetite for serial story telling and shows were there was continuity of both plot and character development that was lacking in shows like He Man.

Notable examples include The Real Ghostbusters, Batman: The Animated Series, the 1990’s X-Men series that each attempted to raise the game of kid’s TV shows. Of those, Disney’s Gargoyles was one of the most ambitious. Personally, it was a show I saw only a little of due to where and when it was available but I recall even at the time that it was promoted as something of a prestige project. Like many kids shows, it had a short run of three (closer to two and a half) seasons that had a bigger impact than its net running time.

With a complex premise and deep backstory, it was the sort of show that would plug into young minds and create a fandom that would last far longer than the show itself. The term ‘Xanatos Gambit’ named after the shows key antagonists convoluted schemes has become a term used in wider fandom both to describe a plot trope and ironically to describe over-thought schemes in real life.

Meanwhile…speaking of manipulation…

Obviously I caved in and signed up for a Disney+ streaming subscription. Tempted by the vast back catalogue and the live-action Star Wars series The Mandalorian (aka Lone Wolf & Yoda-Cub), I handed yet more of my dollars to the media-oligarchy. The service itself is still a bit clunky (it forgets what episode you are watching, hangs for no good reason etc) but its selling point was always going to be the vast archive Disney controls.

The poor old meat robot had a spot of enforced idleness this week which coincided with a blistering hot day and a level of air-quality that was literally off the charts. It was the sort of day where that bit in The Empire Strikes Back where Luke is recuperating in a big tank of liquid looks like the best of all possible worlds. It was the perfect day to sit back and indulge in rewatching something. I asked Twitter to pick between an MCU infinity war marathon (Avengers Infinity War & Endgame back to Back), the 1990’s X-Men cartoon or Gargoyles. The answer came back that I should watch Gargoyles.

I phrased the choice as a ‘rewatch’ but I quickly realised that I knew even less about the show than I thought I did. So this was more of me arriving new to the show and experiencing a whole pile of twists, betrayals and shocking reveals for the first time.

I semi-live Tweeted my experiences of about eight episodes here:

And here:

I’m going to finish watching Season 1 and then write a blog post covering that first series and then two further posts for Season 2 and the shorter Season 3.

I think this is going to be a meaty topic. The show has many flaws and sudden shifts of tone but in nearly every episode I’ve seen, it is full of ambition. Whatever else you might say about this often surprisingly dour show, it was a show that relentlessly worked to be bigger than its limitations.