These are the reckons you produce when you don’t actually know what you’re on about. These are reckons that get embarrassed by the most basic research. These, of course, are reckons most loudly voiced by idiot racists and arrogant populists.
Either the new government are proudly sharing these genuine reckons because they are that stupid; or they are cynically sharing their pretend reckons because they are eager for the support of bigoted fools. (There is no shortage of reckon-happy voices in the media who will be happy to protect this government from the consequences of its failures.)
Either way, they must think it doesn’t matter whether or not they are wrong, and who will be hurt as a result. They don’t care about families doing it tough, or people on a benefit, or anyone hurt by youth offending, or meeting climate change targets, or reducing smoking in communities, or the nature of democratic participation, or the importance of the Treaty at the heart of this nation.
This is easily the most embarrassing and pathetic and inadequate and unserious government this country has endured in my lifetime. Probably for generations before that as well.
It is my expectation that this return to the role of Doctor is explicitly intended as a continuation of this thread: RTD will frame this as the Doctor’s own psyche giving himself a chance to resolve his resentment and frustration, come to terms with the end of his time as Doctor, and to accept his final regeneration with positivity (just as the 13th Doctor managed to do). So I think we will see the marvellous Bernard Cribbins (RIP) again, as it was his life Tennant’s Doctor died to save beforehand. And I think his Doctor’s final line will be a satisfying rejoinder to the words that ended his previous incumbency: “I’m ready to go.”
I enjoyed listening to two episodes of Adam Conover’s Factually podcast, in which he hosted guests with competing perspectives on the existence of free will, a profound question that has vexed thinkers of all stripes for centuries. We have a strongly developed intuition that we choose what we do, and our theories of morality rely on this intuition. And yet, as we understand more about what humans are and how we work, it seems there is no space in us for a choosing agent.
Well I’ve been meaning to do a bit more writing for this blog, so what better way to do that than by solving free will.
Here’s me: ‘free will’ in the absolute sense is, as both Conover’s guests agree, a nonsense. Human action is never freely determined, there is no master-ego within us with an open field of action, there are always profound constraints on the behaviour we produce. The real question is whether human action is fully explained by summative forces of domino-chain neural firing across synapses, which instantiate all the prior experiences and learning that shaped our brains; or whether there is some gap to fill.
Dr Kevin Mitchell argues persuasively that there is a gap. The future is made fuzzy by tiny proportions of randomness that multiply over time. The domino chains must admit uncertainty, which in turn allows for the imposition of some system of evolutionarily-developed cognitive control. (I am, of course, oversimplifying his account wretchedly, and compounding the crime by doing so from memory.)
I have my own account. I have not done the reading on this; it’s just the operating assumption I’ve landed on that satisfies me. Maybe it will satisfy you as well. It’s this:
I don’t think we experience free will at all. Examining our experience of conscious thought can never actually locate a moment of choice. We can experience need to make a decision; we can experience the decision as made. The transition is not something we can actually locate. This is because it is not something we do with conscious thought.
To restate in a doubling down sort of way: our choices are not conscious.
What we are in fact doing, and what we experience with our consciousness, is cycling through information, refreshing it, reweighting it, experiencing it in a new present context; and then, this process eventually tips over enough dominoes to take us down a path of having chosen. Our experience of conscious choice is actually the process of assembling sufficient information that a choice becomes made within us.
The process of considering – what we call thinking – is just dominoes. A decision-making process is itself triggered by prior dominoes, some conscious, some not. Everything that happens in that process can be causally traced: our eyes take in photons that our brain assembles into a person’s face, that trigger associations with that person which we associate as memories, which in turn weight other dominoes so they fall this way not that. Our cognitive systems cycle through pass after pass of neural patterns firing, which we experience as thinking, because that is what thinking is. One thought leads to the next, we manage to focus on one issue above others, we discard alternative hypotheses, we make a choice – that’s the conscious experience of the domino array. The hard thing to wrap your head around is how complex those dominoes are: the number of inputs is so vast, and the fuzzy outcomes and uncertainties that flow within them are so deep, that a control system that is a huge evolutionary advantage to generate behaviour out of chaos.
And we experience those vast domino arrays in our brains as consciousness. So it could be said our conscious experience is, yes, fundamentally epiphenomenal. But, and here’s the trick to that: so what?
For what it’s worth, I don’t think this perspective does require an epiphenomenal consciousness. I think the thing we experience as consciousness *is* the process of tuning and filtering that produces our behaviour. In the same way we experience a kick to the shin as pain, we experience neurons working shit out as consciousness. That’s phenomena, not epiphenomena!
That intuition of free will still isn’t satisfied though, right? It’s all just dominos and even if some of them are wobbly, where is the decision? Where’s the moment my inner self stretches out a finger and chooses whether to knock over domino A or domino B? Well with all due respect to this intuition, I think it is unproductive. And not even based on what we actually experience introspectively. What it is, is a nice story, a narrative explanation that sews together all kinds of elements of life into a single useful tapestry (this is not mixed metaphors, a narrative can be a tapestry and vice versa, also HELL YES a tapestry can be useful, have you ever tried to decorate a wall in a medieval castle???). What we’re really talking about here is, in the statement “I think about this problem and then I come to a decision”, who is “I”? Is I my conscious self, whatever that might be? Or is it the sum total of all the thinking processes I have, some of which I can talk about and experience and some which I can’t? If you’re too precious to admit there’s unconscious stuff as a fundamental part of everything you think and do, then I can’t help you baby… and if you do admit there’s unconscious stuff in the mix, then how can you account for that except by admitting that some of “I” is not within your awareness? In conclusion, consciousness might not be an epiphenomenon, but the story we tell ourselves of a willful, agented self sure is. That’s a whole other blog post though.
As for the question of how the ‘lack of free will’ affects morality: no of course it doesn’t follow that since all our actions come from wobbly dominos not a willful agented self then we should let the murderers go free. All behaviour is part of a great matrix of social information, and by enforcing rules we are tuning society to better suit our needs. So lock ’em up! (Actually carceral systems are bad for society including for most murderers.)
Anyway that’s what I was thinking as I went for a dog walk this morning. (Also, the problem of free will kind of goes away if you don’t think moving time exists, moving time I have my eye on you, I am not convinced)
Twenty years ago today I was in the long-departed Ottakar’s Bookshop, in Edinburgh, wondering if anyone would come and play games with me.
It was not the best time for tabletop roleplaying games. They had fallen off the cultural radar completely during the 1990s, with an aging player base and no signs of transformation ahead. But I still loved them, more than ever in fact given the exciting experimentation of the indie scenes in the UK and the US, and when I found a high street retailer who wanted to make space for the games, I saw an opportunity.
Only a handful of people turned up to those first meetings of what became the Ottakar’s Roleplaying Club, but they kept coming back, and slowly the numbers grew. Soon my Saturdays had a reliable date: we’d meet at the bookshop, wander over the road to a giant internet cafe with lots of empty tables, and then play games all afternoon.
In time, the Ottakar’s Roleplaying Club morphed into the Open Roleplaying Community, and other people stepped up to steer it as I departed to the other side of the planet. (Dave! Bill!) And it’s still around today! Although it is very different in form these days, it still does the same job: it’s a welcoming hub for all people who want to come together and play these wonderful, ridiculous games together.
And of course, in that same time, tabletop roleplaying games have become a legitimate cultural phenomenon, attaining a level of cultural presence that would have shocked me that day in Ottakars!
I’m really proud of ORC (the acronym was entirely accidental!), and grateful for the wonderful friends I made there, many of whom I’m still in touch with today. I learned a lot. Some of those lessons are top of mind right now in fact, as I’m busy community-building in the TTRPG space again, this time for the glorious KiwiRPG. Just can’t help myself!
Introduced the School Beastie to Jurassic Park. (Long overdue because she loves the Dinosaur Island board game which is exactly the same idea. Yes she still mostly beats me when we play.)
When I watched JP on its opening weekend in ‘93 I walked out thinking that it felt like it was a fantastic movie that was missing its final reel. Watching it again for the first time in decades, I still feel the same. The T-Rex taking out the velociraptors is a great resolution to that threat but it’s not a great ending for the movie.
I want some final beat that…
…turns the T-Rex back towards the main characters as a final challenge (the first half of the movie sets it up as the main monster, and you get two great confrontations, but that’s it! The two further appearances where it wanders onscreen and eats another dinosaur don’t satisfy the rule of three!
…gives Ellie a final hero moment – after being an absolute badass the whole film, she becomes kind of invisible once she and Alan are reunited. She’s got nothing more to prove of course, but letting her sit in the background is a bit disrespectful to everything the film’s done with her so far. This could also rhyme with the earlier bit where Ellie and Hammond argue over who should go fix the power, which sets up Hammond –
…sees Hammond taking responsibility in a serious way – i.e. by moving to sacrifice his own life to save the others, showing the effect Ellie’s call-out had on him. His lines of dialogue in the current film just don’t carry much weight and underline the theme which is all about the arrogance of humanity (i.e. specifically his).
…has Malcolm somehow saving Hammond’s life. Malcolm is ridiculously brave in the first T-Rex attack and then does nothing apart from look sexy. What he does can’t be a physical action – he has to save the day through the application of chaos. He takes a big chance, and it works out, the audience will forgive the contrivance – in fact they’ll embrace it because he talked about the butterfly effect at the start of the film. (And he’s gotta save Hammond, can’t traumatise his grandkids any further by letting him actually die!)
…and Grant doesn’t need to do anything, nor do the kids, they’ve finished their arcs. Grant just comes face to face with the final threat, and instinctively reaches out and takes Lex’s hand to reassure her, rhyming with the bit early on where Lex takes his hand and he is uncomfortable about it.
(My own contribution to the theme of the arrogance of humanity is that I think I can give notes to a beloved Steven Spielberg film. )
I was riveted by this Ockham-nominated history of the counterculture in Aotearoa NZ. It’s a chunky, sweeping account on an era of social and cultural history when the young Boomer generation started unbuttoning the starchy shirt of NZ rugby-and-church conformity to make room for sex, drugs, and rock and roll.
Nick Bollinger is a great writer, mustering a huge amount of research, interviews, first-hand recollections and reflective analysis into a very layered story without every losing hold of the narrative. I knew some of the major beats, but there were revelations for me on almost every page. There’s a Goldilocks effect here from the size of this country, large enough to chart its own complex journey through the broadening of culture underway around the world, but also small enough that its path can be mapped in a book like this. The same names recur across multiple chapters, and different kinds of influence can be readily tracked.
It’s also assembled in a crafty way. A notable example is that only as the book goes on does it expand its focus to the collective experiences of women, Māori, and Pasifika, who were all in different ways alienated from the main course of the counterculture’s flow, and ultimately implicating this failure of diversity in the counterculture’s demise and its mixed legacy.
It’s a great read. Don’t miss the discography/playlist tucked away at the end.
Where are the good conversations at? That was the core currency of the internet: newsgroups and bulletin boards, then blogs and forums, then social media and comment sections. And now it’s all gone.
Facebook is an unworkable mess, burying the things your friends say beneath piles of engagement-bait posts from groups you don’t follow or care about. Twitter is a collapsing building full of grifters and fascists. TikTok is linear TV for the algorithmic era. Comment sections are feral or gone because moderation cost too much (not to mention most of the good sites that hosted them have been stripped for parts, pour one out for the AVClub). Blogs are dead because outbound links are buried by every algorithm and RSS has been systematically strangled. There are a few dark-forest forums on discord and slack, and of course group chats, hidden spaces that only work well if participants are limited, and that’s about it.
Substack isn’t going to do it, either. We spent ten years getting all that stuff out of our email inbox, that pendulum isn’t going to swing back that far.
It didn’t have to be like this. But at least some awful people got very rich along the way.
On Saturday night I was lucky enough to see West Side Story (1961) with all the music performed live by the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. Tremendous! The NZSO sounded amazing, unsurprisingly, although there were some slight issues with the film sound (the singing was great – quite a technical feat to get it all lined up with the music! – but for some reason the dialogue sound was sometimes a bit hollowed out and occasionally even a beat out of sync. Never mind, it didn’t spoil the fun!)
West Side Story is still as grand and affecting as ever, deservedly iconic. On this viewing I particularly appreciated how the whole plot tumbles out of the setup with such beautiful momentum, building speed as it closes in on the tragic inevitability of the rumble and then the conclusion.
Not sure how much of a hot take this is, but I think this 1961 film’s two big changes from the stage version are both solid improvements. First up, putting Bernardo in the ‘America’ song is fantastic – giving Bernardo some clear focus, foregrounding his relationship with Anita, and rewriting the lyrics to make the satire and critique of attitudes to Latino immigration even more pointed. Second, swapping the positions of the goofy ‘Officer Krupke’ number and the intense ‘Cool’ makes a huge amount of sense. You can kind of get away with ‘Krupke’ where it is on stage because disbelief is suspended just a shade further than screen, but tonally it makes so much more sense early on before shit goes down. Same with ‘Cool’ but in reverse.
There are lots of other minor changes for screen that also work well – beefing up Anybodys so they have more to do, creating a new character Ice (basically as an anchor for the Cool number) who gives Riff the stable support he was missing on stage, and giving the Jet girls a few crucial extra bits.
Unchanged from the stage: the dress shop pretend-marriage song, ‘One Hand One Heart’, remains a low-energy dull point that hurts the show. It’s slow and contemplative when the connection between the lovers should be running hot, and it’s a song without any dramatic mission – there’s no thrill or discovery in it, just a confirmation that, yup, they love each other now. It’s trying to sell the depth of their relationship but there’s not enough going on to do so, even though the song itself is lovely.
As Tony, Richard Beymer is a loveable lunk with a killer smile, but (like pretty much every other performer I’ve ever seen try this role) he doesn’t find a way to really make convincing the crucial turning point when Tony responds to Riff’s death by stabbing Bernardo. On this watch at least I could see some hints at rough edges I hadn’t noticed before, but that murder by our romantic leading man still takes some swallowing, especially as it commits even harder to the heightened reality of choreography fighting rather than breaking tone for a more realist note. (Compare for example the way the Jets abusing Anita underplays the choreographed style for most of that interaction, with much more satisfying results.) Still, you accept it because Shakespeare sold it in Romeo & Juliet.
It’s been cool to be mean about Natalie Wood for longer than I’ve been alive but I thought she was great in this, even though she didn’t sing and even though her accent was all over the place and even though she was playing out of her ethnicity. Crucially, she sells ‘love at first sight’, which is Maria’s narrative duty much more than Tony’s. (Tony mostly just has to turn up at her door smiling that smile.) Wood acts the hell out of the final moments too.
Anyway. Amazing flick. Looks great, wonderful stylised lighting, absolute control over each scene, dancing just delightful. Would watch again, even without a symphony orchestra.
David Tennant’s encore in the TARDIS, as the opening salvo from returning showrunner Russell T Davies, is going to be entertaining TV for sure, but also interesting as storytelling.
(I’ve been chatting about this with various people for months, thought I might as well chuck it on the blog so my expectations can be tested against reality!)
RTD has always invited viewers to take a perspective on his writing – the wonderful book The Writer’s Tale, about his process in the later seasons of his last Doctor Who run, offer plenty of insight into his style. To put it simply, he’s a vibes guy, assembling story as a means to hit emotional beats and payoffs, and worrying about coherence and structure as very much secondary concerns.
In the years since he left DW he’s developed his craft further, hitting a peak with the simply marvellous It’s A Sin, which was aimed at emotional turning points but also had an extremely well-crafted narrative form, one that did not follow any standard structure but almost built out its plot from the needs of character. A remarkable piece of work by any measure, worthy of the acclaim that has been heaped on it.
So it’s interesting to speculate about what we will see in RTD’s second era of Who: what will be the well-crafted vibes this time out?
It’s known that the seed of the Tennant return, with Catherine Tate along as Donna, came from one of the lockdown Doctor Who rewatches where all three speculated about doing a return.
My guess is that this became a plan when RTD, having cast Ncuti Gatwa as his new Doctor, found he was staring down a full year of waiting before Gatwa could get out of other contracts and start in the role. With time to fill, a return to Tennant & Tate was right there on the table as an option.
But the idea of a fun reunion wouldn’t be enough for an RTD who had just achieved the highest highs of his chosen artform, and whose skill and reputation had never been higher. I think the motivation for RTD, in making this his opening statement back in the head office, is actually to speak back to his first run on the show, and return to certain decisions of the past, which is to say, certain vibes of the past.
One decision in particular is already featured in the trailer: Tate’s character Donna was left in the show with all memory of her adventures wiped away. This was an extremely controversial move, because the journey of her character had been greater than that of any other companion in the history of the show, and reverting her to a comedic bumbler did not honour her.
(Personally I had no problem with her sad ending, sometimes things just end badly, as RTD was pointing out. But I can understand why many viewers felt protective of Donna and were gutted by her final situation.)
It is clear that RTD is going to give Donna a happier ending this time out, where she can be fully herself again, living up to her potential. Not quite saying “I was wrong about that, sorry folks” – but definitely taking an opportunity to add some joy to the grand story of the show by undoing the sorrow he had once added.
I think that’s not all we’ll see along these lines. Tennant’s Doctor was always deeply flawed, and his final scenes saw him frustrated and angry at the circumstances of his demise, which came he thought too soon. Again, this left a bad taste in the mouths of many viewers, although it was very in keeping with the character RTD had steered for several years.
It is my expectation that this return to the role of Doctor is explicitly intended as a continuation of this thread: RTD will frame this as the Doctor’s own psyche giving himself a chance to resolve his resentment and frustration, come to terms with the end of his time as Doctor, and to accept his final regeneration with positivity (just as the 13th Doctor managed to do).
So I think we will see the marvellous Bernard Cribbins (RIP) again, as it was his life Tennant’s Doctor died to save beforehand. And I think his Doctor’s final line will be a satisfying rejoinder to the words that ended his previous incumbency:
“I’m ready to go.”
EDITED TO ADD: a relevant excerpt from Doctor Who: The Writer’s Tale by Russell T Davies and Benjamin Cook. As noted above, he’s not saying he was wrong about any of this, but he’s taking an opportunity to offer a new emotional experience by revisiting this.
Here is my warmest recommendation to you all this December: gather your family and sit down to enjoy classic piece of seasonal Kiwiana, the long-neglected monsterpiece The Monster’s Christmas (1981).
One hour of wildly imaginative hijinks shot through with kindness and humour, suitable for young and old, and free to watch online!
The Monster’s Christmas is a live-action fairy tale, about a thoughtful little girl on a fearsome quest to help a friendly monster. It’s kinda like Labyrinth without all that pubescent horny angst, just Ludo and Sir Dydimus and lots of kid’s theatre earnestness.
There is so much to recommend this crowd-pleasing show! Most memorably it’s a visual feast, with incredible monster costumes co-designed by legendary NZ cartoonist/impish humourist Burton Silver (Bogor).
It’s also a journey film, turning the diverse landscapes of Aotearoa New Zealand into a vivid and extensive fantasy world, two decades before Lord of the Rings pulled the same trick.
And it’s funny! The troublemaking witch gets most of the laughs, with beloved theatre/radio personality Lee Hatherley relishing being almost the only character with dialogue. The aerobics gags are very of their time but still work 40 years on!
And the whole thing is pulled together beautifully by director Yvonne Mackay (who would go on to be the first Kiwi woman to direct a feature film, The Silent One).
If I had my way, The Monster’s Christmas would go out on broadcast TV every Christmas Eve, and up and down the country we would gather in the living room and watch it together. A new tradition. I think we deserve this film that is silly and fun and sweet and so, so so weird.