Yearly Archives: 2006

This year

I had plans for this year. And I mostly pulled it off:

  • Went to the Commonwealth Games
  • Saw Sigur Ros
  • Observed the beginning of peers turning 30 (including my wife)
  • Visited friends in Mildura (twice)
  • Did the Sydney Biennale
  • Witnessed three weddings
  • Had a child
  • Supported Pen finishing basic training and attaining her Masters
  • Bought a home

And, of course, much more, like going to Fiji, having my first wedding anniversary, and running a state election!

So we didn’t visit Adelaide, but that was only a possibility, anyway. Next year, for sure!

Penang Affair

At the recommendation of Cos, we dropped into Penang Affair last night to try out the Lao beer, Beerlao.

The restaurant has indeed expanded its range to something like 50 foreign beers (most of which I’ve tasted). Obviously the distribution floodgates have opened up to demand—I’ve given up noting restaurants and bars that carry a large range of beer. My main quibble is that most of these are simple lagers, so the choice is somewhat illusory. (Save me from bottle shops “opening up” their range to Heineken, Grolsch, Stella Artois, Becks, Sol, Peroni, etc; don’t even get me started on the huge “variety” of Australian lagers.)

Beerlao is a lager. It’s a rice beer, but unlike rice wine (saki) which doesn’t taste like wine, it does taste like beer. In fact, Beerlao tastes like Tiger, a lager that I’ve always got time for. It’s a much lighter and “sweeter” flavour than Australian lagers. Refreshing.

(Penny’s had Beerlao in Laos. She thought and still thinks that it’s watery. Oh well.)

Of course, I didn’t go to Penang Affair just for the food. Their mee goreng is the best I know of in Melbourne (since the passing of Wei Wah in Clayton). I also had some excellent roti chennai and divine spicy tempura eggplant. The staff were as friendly as always. For dessert I had mango icecream and some whisky:

Glen Moray (Speyside) 12 year old
Very syrupy. A subtle flavour—some might say weak, but I find it’s actually quite charming. Give it a chance and it’s like a gentle cognac.

Things Read, 2006

First half.

Of the novels read this half, I really liked 3:

The Haunting of Jessica Raven (Ann Halam, 1994)
Gwyneth Jones really doesn’t pull any punches writing for teenagers as Ann Halam. The emotional imagination and treacherous certainties are there as always, with some terrifying horror.
Ubik (Philip K Dick, 1969)
The realities of modern life warping golden age SF, this novel stacks idea upon idea until reality collapses under the weight. There is no final still point, nothing is what it seems, but everything must be lived through.
Red Shift (Alan Garner, 1973)
The intensity of this short novel starts at 11 and never lets up. Composed almost entirely of clipped dialogue, with all the assumptions—tonal, temporal, geographical, factual—that introduces, it requires close concentration and a keen mind. Wildly emotional and fiercely intelligent. Is it science fiction, fantasy, magic realism, bildungsroman, literature? It is language. If you haven’t read this, how can you say you’ve truly read?

And there is, again, too much to write about the comics and non-fiction I really liked—the psycho-existential romances of Stan Lee, the superhero poetry of Grant Morrison, the continuity complications of Steve Englehart, the testaments honoured by Milan Kundera, etc…

This year I’ve read 99 things: 28 novels, 55 comics, 13 non-fiction books, 1 short story collection, 1 play, and 1 epic poem. Three re-reads: Epicurus the Sage and two adventures of Tintin. Novels were down in the second half, comics and non-fiction were up. More read this year than the last two years.

Things Seen, 2006

First half.

Of the movies I watched for the first time this half, I really liked 8:

Maltese Falcon (John Huston, 1941)
Surely the ultimate film about acting as Astor cycles through roles like a lyrebird, while Bogart (finding himself outside society) positions himself as the ultimate critic, unable to play any of the parts that would give him peace.
Some Like It Hot (Billy Wilder, 1959)
Meanwhile in this film, the roles seem to take on a life of their own, drawing the protagonists (Curtis and Lemmon) into deeper and deeper involvement with their world. Wild fun!
The Descent (Neil Marshall, 2005)
See.
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (Sergio Leone, 1966)
A comic squabble draws the protagonists across an epic American Civil War landscape. This very good movie is really raised to greatness by Ennio Morricone’s startling soundtrack.
Night of the Living Dead (George Romero, 1968)
A black and white kaleidoscope of social breakdown.
Casino Royale (Ken Hughes et al, 1967)
A catalogue of comedy, mocking its source material by doing everything from broad slapstick to neurotic anxiety to playing it straight up. It’s parody is so powerful it becomes invention; the ultimate James Bond film, it contains all others. (Amongst its anachronistic feats, it also seems to invent the Third Doctor three years early.)
Casino Royale (Martin Campbell, 2006)
Pure escapism complete with the masochism that entails. The parkour free running chase after the opening titles is the best action sequence I’ve seen in years. (Mads Mikkelsen is no Orson Welles, however.)
Brick (Rian Johnson, 2005)
Very good noir, hitting every note perfectly. For extra points: surely that’s my high school story, the protagonist is me, a little removed.

This year in total I’ve seen 121 things: 88 movies (13 at the cinema), 5 shorts, 17 television series (!), and 11 television serials. Of that, I’ve really liked 45; but I didn’t like 23. Breaking it down a bit further, though, I’d previously seen 24 of the things I really liked, while I only re-watched 2 things I didn’t like.

I haven’t seen any of Ebert’s four star movies of 2006 (via Mark Bernstein), and have no interest in doing so.

What I did on my day off

Since March, I’ve been working a four day week. Mostly I’ve been taking Fridays “off”. An extra day a week has been welcome, giving me more time for the rest of my life. What have I been doing?

I’ve continued my cinematic education (following up my first major run witht he Monash Film Society in 1995) with 22 movies. I’ve had a lovely introduction to Cassavetes, Fellini, Renoir, Dreyer, and many classics (as well as flushing some real turds).

I’ve read Working Effectively With Legacy Code by Michael Feathers. This is a great collection of pragmatic tactics for getting existing code under unit test coverage.

I’ve made some pathetic attempts at breaking whatever blocks me from being a writer.

I’ve bought a new computer, been able to visit the obstetrician with Penny, investigated the Moreland City Libraries (which have old, large, and excellent graphic novel collections), seen a Giant Squid frozen in ice, supervised an electrician and a plumber, played music real loud, generally done a lot of domestic things, and just had a bit more space to breathe.

Things I haven’t done: slept in, meditated, had lunch with friends, gone for walks, read Emerson, taken any short courses.

My advice to anyone and everyone: if you can work a four day week, do so.

I’ll miss my day off next year, but the work will be worth it.

Baby Kicks

Penny’s belly is very big: there’s a baby inside. Some dads never feel their unborn baby. The way others talk, I thought it would be difficult, like trying to catch a fish with your hands. When Penny started feeling it at 19 weeks, she was sure I would be able to feel it too. But all I could feel was her blood pulsing and tummy rumbling. Then, a few days later, the baby kicked me. I wasn’t uncertain: it was like someone banging a drum, clear and sharp. Now we are at 38 weeks and you don’t need to feel it. You can watch baby move around, like a toddler under an elasticised sheet, sticking out a foot, poking out its bum, changing the whole shape of mummy’s belly.

Dave and Penny and Belly

Home Birth

Very soon now, I’ll be a father. Could be tomorrow, could be three weeks.

What are we having, Pen and I? We’re having a baby! We’re having a surprise! Penny has an intimate relationship with the bub in her belly, it would have felt like a violation to take an ultrasonic look-see at the foetus’s sex. So we’re getting lots of orange and lots of green baby stuff. I like orange, I like green. I hate Little Boy Blue and Barbie Pink. I don’t need to colour code my child like I’m some kind of fascist. (Gendered toys aren’t an issue either, as we’re trying to minimise the number of toys we receive.)

We’ve decided to have the baby at home. 0.3% of babies are birthed at home in Victoria. To give you some perspective: 0.8% arrive on the back seat of the car! All the rest are born in hospitals and birthing centres. Victorians have the most medicalised births in the world. Intervention rates are way above what the World Health Organisation recommends. We have an obstetric model rather than a midwifery model. It’s like going to a specialist for every spot and headache, rather than a GP! And with just one intervention, a cascade of interventions is triggered. Visiting the private hospital I was reminded of my emergency appendectomy. And that’s why we have a private hospital and obstetrician: as backup, for an emergency.

We know normal physiological childbirth is both possible and desirable. It isn’t fully natural, there is help: hot water, antibiotics, heart-rate monitoring, etc. With support, childbirth can, for most mothers, be an incredible experience, rather than a medical procedure (or, one hundred years ago, Russian roulette). With normal physiological childbirth, an extraordinarily complex system of hormones and reflexes is set in motion. We don’t understand it all and therefore we cannot in good conscience replace it with modern machines and processes because we are afraid.

Our bedroom is prepared. There is a beautiful, encouraging birth flag drawn across our bay windows. We have the birth pool and plastic for the bed. We have plenty of modern cloth nappies.

We couldn’t have done so well for ourselves without the wonderful support from our families and friends and web forums. They have been a fount of personal experience, advice, support, and loaned baby items. The knowledge and care of extended families and small villages hasn’t been completely lost yet.

I can’t wait to be a father! Soon I’ll experience my wife giving birth. Soon we’ll be sleeping with an extra body in the bed. Soon there will be so much to discover together. Penny will be taking a year’s maternity leave, and I will be stopping work for six months. Life is an awfully big adventure!

Islay, my Islay

As promised, a showdown between three Islay malts: Bowmore 12 year old, Ardbeg 10 year old, and Laphroaig 10 year old. Up in Anglesea, Rob and I got out the three bottles, some glasses, some glasses of water, and sat down to business. (The water was for cleaning our palate. The whisky was drunk neat.)

We started with the Bowmore, which I have been despondently drinking since I got back from Fiji. Bowmore claims it is “universally regarded as the ‘best balanced’ of all the Islay malts”. Rob confirmed my contrary feelings: it’s so balanced that it’s not distinctive. Thin, light, nothing strong enough about it to dislike, but nothing to like either. It would be fine as an introductory scotch, if not for Islay expectation and high price. Rob says it’s the least flavoursome scotch he’s had.

Next up was the Ardbeg, “considered by whisky connoisseurs to be not only the best of the Islay malt whiskies but the best whisky in the world” (and, in a clear shot at Laphroaig: “it does not flaunt the peat”). Rob thinks it smells awesome; scotchy, peaty, interesting. The taste is smooth and lovely, and coats the mouth pleasantly. I agree, it is genuinely balanced and subtle.

However the clear winner of the night was Laphroaig, “most richly flavoured of all Scotch whiskies” (though it moderates that by saying it “has always kept itself a bit remote, like the islanders of Islay themselves. A touch aloof at first, but make the effort, broach acquaintance, and you’ll have a warm and genuine friend for life”). Rob says it smells peaty, slightly eye watering, but in a good way. The taste is very dry. I say: that smell!! The taste is full, more than I can describe.

There was no meal to accompany our tasting because I wasn’t organised enough. However, Jim Murray of The Whisky Bible says this about pairing food and whisky:

No, it’s pretentious crap, avoid it completely. You’re in danger of screwing up the flavour of absolutely beautiful whisky, or the delicate taste of the food you’re pairing it with.

The BBC on the other hand advises that “whisky is a surprisingly good match with a vast array of foods, from smoked fish to roast meats.” I’m actually leaning towards Murray, but I also think most wine is ill done by food.

Later on in the night I drank some Bowmore with cola. It was lame. Bourbon and cola (any bourbon and cola) is better.

Here is my final note on Bowmore, plus the Dalwhinnie that I had at a cafe in Lorne the next day:

Bowmore (Islay) 12 year old
Smooth, bland, boring.
Dalwhinnie (Speyside) 15 year old
Salty. Like a milder, more palatable cousin of Glenkinchie.

Time travel and being someone else in Arcadia

Watching The Reign of Terror made me think about Arcadia and the “theoretical scaffolding” of The Invisibles again…

What about the fact that the Invisibles can effectively only retrieve information from the past, not change it? What about the fact that Orlando takes a man’s identity in #5 and slaughters his family in #6? What about the fact that the dalang cannot suddenly have Krishna tell Arjuna, “you know, fuck this”?

As the series progresses (starting, in fact, with the very next issue after the Arcadia storyline, a kind of bridge) Morrison introduces the time suit, a device by which you can insert yourself into history as a different person. This has parallels to, and has often been read as, a kind of “fiction suit” that Morrison has described elsewhere, which allows you to Thursday Next yourself into a piece of fiction. The flaw in this latter idea is that fiction is not a world, but a text. It is not responsive. If you want to insert yourself, you must be submissive. Donning the time suit, as John-A-Dreams finds out in Volume 2, is submission.

When the Invisibles go back to the French Revolution, it is like re-reading Sade. When the dalang performs he is literally doing a reading of the Mahabharata. Orlando, on the other hand, is Meryl Streep, as she appears in The Hours, posed balletically, as if in flight on John Woo wires, with the head of a chihuahua.

I can feel the edges of something here, but I’m not sure how it joins up with Boy’s layered personalities, Robin’s magic and time travel, or John-A-Dreams. If we are all Brahman, or all are one in the Supercontext, then what does it mean to travel through time or be someone else? It’s just us. I’m missing something.

The aesthetics of television SF

What does Doctor Who look like? I’m talking about special effects and sets and costumes here. At least 33% of people think they don’t look very good—probably more: I gave up thinking of synonyms for dodgy and wobbly to poll.

I think Doctor Who looks just fine. Many reviewers hold up 2005′s Season 1 as a dream realised; I think the series looked as good in 1989′s Survival, 1970′s Inferno, or 1968′s The Tomb of the Cybermen. Of course, I’m picking the better productions, but my honest gut feeling is that Doctor Who generally looks good.

Honest gut feelings are the stuff of consumer advice, following the belief that my gut and your gut digest the same way, whatever we might say about something. I want to try a critical approach to explain why we differ on whether and which olives are good.

Doctor Who might look good enough because: 1, it was state of the art when it aired; 2, it makes an acceptable trade-off for scope; 3, flashiness doesn’t matter; or, 4, it has a thorough aesthetic at work. Choose!

1. By state of the art, I don’t mean the inside art, but the outside one. What did people expect of television in 1964? And what did they think aliens or moonbases looked like? What did they think things sounded like in space? You might say that Doctor Who looks crap compared to Battlestar Galactica, but you can’t use the eyes of 2006 to judge what was made for the eyes of 1986, 1976, 1966… You can be certain that in ten years time, Battlestar won’t look so great. Realism is relative.

(A variation on the above: you can’t use the eyes of 29 to judge what was made for the eyes of 14.)

2. As I’ve noted before, it would be impossible for any television show to look perfectly glossy (or stylishly grungy) if it wants to visit a new world, with new people, every four weeks. Battlestar Galactica has a handful of sets, everyone wears the same type of costume, and all the people (Capricans and Cylons) look like you and me.

3. I’ll let Ray Carney field this one:

If you’re a real artist, you can make art with no money: Red Grooms used house paint and plywood to make his art. Paul Zaloom sets up a card table and moves toy soldiers around. Todd Haynes used Barbie dolls. I had a friend, Freddie Curchack, who made shadow puppets on a sheet.

Point 1 kind of says, “it looks crap now…” Points 2 and 3 kind of say, “sure it looks crap, but…” Point 4 is more subtle. Does it underly the first three, or synthesise them?

As per point 2, an artist must decide how their budget is going to be allocated. As per point 3, they might decide to use shadow puppets rather than CGI. But between the inside art of what is technically possible, and the outside art of what the audience expects, there is the state of the artist’s art. The artist develops their own aesthetic, and part of that is developing a private relationship with their materials. They work out how to best use their materials, and they also learn how to deny accident.

It is an accident that a Doctor Who serial has dodgy monster costumes or wobbly sets, but the best writers and script editors and producers and directors denied it. As a novelist thinks through writing, as film noir was shaped by black & white and the Hays Code, a Doctor Who serial takes form through the special effects available. The director adjusts lines, etc, accordingly. Special effects become aesthetic choices.

Now since this is a blog post and not an essay, let me swerve off and talk about Star Trek: The Next Generation and Babylon 5.

Next Gen made the opposite budget allocation to Doctor Who: the executive producers chose to have very few sets, costumes and effects shots, with the understanding that these would all look very good. In fact, those computer-controlled camera shots of that detailed Enterprise model still look more realistic than anything on television. The budget allocation required the action to take place standing still, for the ships as well as the crew.

But the production team went further, developing a philosophy that reflected and emphasised their choices, creating a unified aesthetic. The Federation has an existentialist/scientific view of the universe. Reality is out there, observable, knowable, reproducable. Starfleet are interested in going out there and experiencing it, but in a way that favours being and contemplation over action. The characters themselves are solid and fixed.

Babylon 5 responded to Next Gen in part by reversing its budget allocation, aligning itself (at a tangent) with Doctor Who. Its CGI can get pretty cheerful, but it is one with the show’s aesthetic, which places a premium on dynamism and interactivity, and wherein political expedience always trumps reality.

Yes, I’m saying that looking at these shows tells you things about them!

That a viewer says Doctor Who has dodgy effects and wobbly sets has sociological meaning(s). That a Dalek looks like a pepperpot has aesthetic meaning(s). Fandom starts with the aesthetic and ends with the sociological (as documented in the best episode of this year’s season, Love and Monsters). I want to get back to the aesthetic, I want to deny accident, I want to see what Doctor Who looks like.

Homecoming

There were lasers, then a processed voice rang out:

We have been upgraded. The next level of mankind. We are Human Point Two. Every citizen will receive a free upgrade. You will become like us. Upgrading is compulsory. You are rogue elements. You are incompatible. You will be deleted. You are inferior. Man will be reborn as Cybermen but you will perish under maximum deletion. Delete. Delete. Delete!

Pretty boys and girls in abbreviated cyber-wear moved on stage to the opening notes of Can’t Get You Out of My Head—it was the the beginning of the final set of Kylie’s Homecoming concert last night.

Ms Minogue herself looked like a cross between a Movellan, and Seven of Nine, and something new and different and colourful.

When the song ended, the music faded to the TARDIS dematerialisation sound.

Yesterday I said that The Sensorites was the dumbest Doctor Who story, but not the worst: that honour belongs to this year’s Rise of the Cybermen/The Age of Steel (and arguably continued at the end of the season). But I’m afraid it’ll take a lot more than one camp pop star to redeem and recuperate it!

(PS: In an earlier set, Kylie was costumed perfectly as DK2‘s Catwoman. Meow!)