Word on the P Street: In Defence of Hipsters

First published Time Out Sydney, 10 Apr 2013

Remember a few years back when “emo” was a pejorative term?

It was the go-to derogatory adjective (or, less often but infinitely more irritatingly, noun) for a certain type of person that no-one would ever admit to being – vaguely moody, self-absorbed and almost certainly wearing black, unless it was a band in which case it was a term that apparently meant “men with guitars” (seriously, I’ve heard “emo” applied to everything from My Chemical Romance through to Something For Kate).

Hipsters, yesterday.

Hipsters, yesterday.

But emo was like pornography: difficult to describe, but you knew it when you saw it. Also, in that it seemed connected with a whole lot of wank.

No-one’s used “emo” outside of inverted commas in years, but since about 2011 the I-hate-the-young-people term of choice has been “hipster”, and again everyone knows what it means while the definition has remained diffuse enough to apply to anyone you wanted to insult without being pinned down to any particular reason why you wanted to insult them. Hatred of hipsters is matched only by hipster hatred of the term “hipster”, which the Atlantic recently voted as one of the worst words of 2012.

That guy in the hat on a bike? Hipster. Those people sitting in the beer garden of that inner suburban pub? Bunch of hipsters. The music playing in the café yesterday morning? One of those hipster bands, no doubt. Though not actually No Doubt, obviously, since hipsters would be listening to something far more cool – unless they were being ironically retro, of course, which would be such a hipster move.

As a bearded, bespectacled man who owns several checked shirts, principally buys albums on vinyl and lives in a suburb replete with cafés, I tick a number of the 600 or so boxes that qualify one for hipsterdom, and even I avoid the term (I prefer the more poetic appellation “aging indiekid”, myself). But now that it’s become fashionable to hate on the word itself, it’s worth asking: um, what’s actually wrong with hipsters?

See, I get what’s complaint-worthy about, say, Nazis. They do stuff to people in an aggressive and racially-unpleasant way. I think we can all understand why folks would have reservations about Nazis, as a rule, but hipsters?

They’re generally what, inner-city folks of a vaguely artistic bent, generally with a degree or so under their belt and a progressive political outlook, doing such not-especially-aggressive things as riding bikes, launching websites, and playing in noise bands. They’re opening small bars and pottering about in community gardens. Seriously, they’re pretty easy to avoid if they irritate you so much, since they all seem to be fairly busy. After all, that organic ale isn’t going to microbrew itself.

While one of the criticisms of emo kids was that they were too self-absorbed to be political, hipsters get stick for having too much of a political outlook – so much so that the Miranda Devines and Alan Joneses love whaling on them as being latte-sipping inner-city types that are everything that’s wrong with Australia, with their fancy book-learnin’ and community action.

Maybe it’s just another version of our rich cultural cringe and our nation’s weird, inexplicable anti-intellectual streak. Or perhaps it’s something more positive: an indication that previous Australian cultural punching bags like non-whites and non-straights are less valid targets in 2013.

Seriously, if the worst subculture we can come up with as an object of contempt is a bunch of well-educated, environmentally-conscious, socially active and culturally aware twenty- and thirtysomethings with a penchant for quality coffee and retro tattoos, our society’s probably in pretty good shape. I mean heck, some of my best friends are hipsters.

Not that I’m one, obviously.

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Word on the P Street: Getting back to the true meaning(s) of Easter

First published in Time Out Sydney on 27 Mar 2013.

Eggs, yesterday.

Eggs, yesterday.

Dear readers, our most sacred traditions are under threat by the grubby forces of commerce. These days it seems like barely have the Xmas decorations been taken down when our supermarkets are filled with garish Easter paraphernalia. Anthropomorphic rabbits (or, among our more progressive and/or pro-marsupial retailers, bilbies) and garishly-coloured eggs are on display – as though Easter is nothing more than a heavily commercialised festival of chocolate.

Well, I say we need to take Easter back and get back to the actual reason for the season: marking the northern hemisphere’s vernal equinox with rituals enacting the symbolic murder of a god.

Today’s young people are so concerned with their Twitters and their video games that they don’t even properly celebrate the descent of Attis, consort of the Phrygian fertility goddess Cybele, into the underworld. Today’s defiant young women are happy to listen to their hip-hops and sext to each other’s smartphones, but precious few are out there performing the rituals celebrating the Anglo-Saxon lunar goddess Ēostre by lighting bonfires, clothing themselves in white and marking the incarnation of the goddess by revealing themselves in clefts of rock. And I for one think this is a crying shame.

It’s indicative of a society in decline when noble traditions are cast aside in favour of crude gimcracks and gaudy trifles. Everyone’s prepared to have a barbecue and scramble about looking for chocolate eggs, but are they giving three tradition-proscribed joyful leaps at the moment of sunrise or performing funerary rites for Ishtar, Astarte and/or Isis? Are they incorporating any or all of the many Indo-European traditions marking the worship of the pan-cultural dawn goddess Hausōs and the change of season marked by her heroic rescue from an enslaving dragon, most notably in the example of the Hindu goddess Uṣas in the Rigveda? Like fuck they are.

But it’s not just the young people that are the problem here: even our so-called community leaders are shamefully neglectful of the rich traditions upon which the festival is based. When was the last time you saw a politician – supposedly a representative of the people – passionately gathering flowers of the season to mark Ostara’s mating with the Sun God to produce the Yule child that will mark the winter solstice? This sort of intolerant ignorance is unacceptable in a so-called civilised society, and I say it stops here.

It’s almost as though our increasingly secular lifestyle means that these sorts of holidays are becoming less about observing arcane rituals based around mystical stories about magical figures, and becoming mere excuses to spend precious time with the people we love most. And I for one think this is a huge insult to the collected wisdom and piety of the nameless ancient clerics and seers who originally made these stories up for principally political reasons – and that’s why I, for one, will be assiduously joy-leaping, flower-gathering, cleft-wedging and dragon-thwarting this weekend.

Oh, and I’ll also be buying a couple of cases of beer ahead of Friday. Seriously, closing bottleshops on a long weekend? That makes the least sense of all.

Tom Hiddleston on Thor: The Dark World

First published in Time Out Sydney on 11 Oct 2013. 
Maybe it’s what he wants me to think, but at first blush Tom Hiddleston seems nothing like Loki.
For one thing, he’s just too damn nice: without his lank, black wig, lurid green cloak and golden helmet he’s just an unusually good-looking fellow, in a tidy casual suit and sporting stubble and short, sandy brown hair, welcoming me into a hotel suite overlooking Sydney harbour (“And honestly, what a view – and you get to live with it?”).
loki-face-the-dark-world-2013For another, Loki would definitely not have missed out on the opportunity to deck star Chris Hemsworth at some point during the filming of Thor: The Dark World, the forthcoming entry in Marvel’s sprawling superhero franchise and sequel to 2011’s Thor.
“The thing is, it wouldn’t be fair anyway because every time he’s hit me, I’ve asked him to. Because I’m insane.”
It’d be payback, though – after all, Tom legendarily got a pasting from Chris during the filming of The Avengers.
“What it was that Chris and I were filming the Thor-Loki fight on Stark Tower and Joss [Whedon, Avengers writer-director] came up after a few takes and said ‘It just doesn’t look like you’re hitting him that hard,’ and Chris said ‘Well, I’m not.’ And I was wearing that big helmet, so I said ‘look, I’m protected, just go for it.’”
And it worked? “Well, it begins with that moment when he piledrives into my chest,” he smiles. “It only took one take after that. Which was good – I don’t think I could have taken more.”
He pauses. “It was so funny, though: he did it and I went down – like, straight down – and Joss called cut and immediately turned to Mitch Dubin, the camera operator, and said ‘Mitch, mate, you saw him, you heard him tell me to do that’ and he was like ‘Oh yeah, I saw, Tom brought it on himself…’” He chuckles to himself. “Good times.”
The filming of The Dark World wasn’t any easier, it seems. “There was one point where Loi takes a hit and I had to fall back on the surface of a volcano – we’ve all been there – and there was no mat and no padding, and I just ran up to the mark and did a sort of Fosbury Flop, like a high jumper, onto the hard, rocky surface of an Icelandic volcano.”
It’s a glamorous business, this acting lark. “Oh, it is! It’s fun, though. I do enjoy it.”
Of course, most of the filming didn’t involve falling onto volcanos – or, indeed, anything at all. In fact, most of the sets and props used in the film exist only inside the design team’s computers, which must provide a challenge for someone who grew up on the rather more physically tangible environment of the British stage.
“Indeed. But when I was in drama school we had this amazing class in mime. The teacher was a very, very playful person. He’d ban notepads from the room – he’s say ‘write down what you want to forget, this is not about taking notes, this is about your imagination’ – and he’d make us do stuff, just like you’d see on Paris pavements. You know, with clowns pretending that it’s raining and then they’re walking down the street and taking their umbrella and shivering. And green screen is really no different: it’s about building the fiction of what you’re responding to in your imagination.
“So there’s this whole scene where Chris, Natalie [Portman] and I are in a spaceship and Thor, Loki and Jane have to get somewhere very urgently, and the set we’re actually in is just this grey shape, absolutely stationary just outside the M25 in London. We are not actually sailing through space between the stars of Asgard…”
Hold on: so this wasn’t filmed on location?
“I hate to break it to you, man: we were not actually up there in the Nine Realms. Is the illusion coming crashing down?”
Give me a minute. This is a shock.
“It feels like The Wizard of Oz, doesn’t it? You’ve just seen behind the curtain.”
Next you’ll be saying The Wizard of Oz wasn’t filmed on location.
“Oh god.” His hand goes to his mouth, his eyes well with false sincerity. “I’m so, so sorry. Do you need a moment?”
Actually, maybe he is Loki after all.

Stephen Hawking vs the Space Aliens, or “Cosmologists Say The Darndest Things!”

Written 5 July 2010

Stephen Hawking is, let’s be clear, a smart fellow.

In fact, “smart” doesn’t really appear to do him justice as a description: he’s a freakin’ genius. And if there’s one thing that he’s a big ol’ geniusin’-freak-genius about, it’s the cosmos. He knows his cosmos like the back of the hand with which he moves his chair. If there’s a person more au fait with the secrets of the universe, it’s hard to imagine who’d they’d be.

Stephen Hawking, welcoming our new insect overlords (not shown)

Stephen Hawking, welcoming our new insect overlords (not shown)

Gamma ray bursts? He’s totally down with them. Expansion of the visible universe? Got that nailed. Mathematical models explaining how black holes will eventually evaporate due to the fleeting appearance of particles that bubble up in the quantum foam of space-time? This dude quite literally wrote the book on it. The man is a seriously bright sort of a person.

So: why does he occasionally say such silly, silly things?

You see, here in Australia, the Discovery Channel is about to screen the fist episode of Into The Universe with Stephen Hawking, a show about the cosmos (good) which is zippy and informative (good) and this episode should pique people’s interest on the biggest subject of all: the origins of life (also good).

Where things get the tinsiest bit not-good is just after he says some very reasonable things about how the universe appears to be made up of pretty much the same stuff all over – there don’t appear to be completely different elements to the west of the Universe, the same laws of physics appear to apply everywhere we look and so on – and that it’s therefore reasonable to assume that life has probably turned up elsewhere. That’s all fine (if speculative, at least until we find some evidence that there’s life anywhere else – currently, it’s Earth: 1, Entire Rest Of Universe: 0).

Then again, the notoriously liberal media are aware that space aliens have a right-wing agenda. Maybe Hawking is on to something…

So far, so uncontroversial.

Then he gets into a bit of fun, if somewhat pointless, speculation about what life might look like on other planets (spoiler alert: big ol’ suction-snouts), which pads out the running time a bit and gives the animators some showreel footage for any future job interviews at LucasArts, and then raises the question “how might we try to communicate with other interstellar civilisations?” before concluding “we shouldn’t, since it might make them come and steal our resources.”

Here’s the scenario as Hawking proposes it:

Highly advanced civilisation develops incredible technology. Said technology, which includes mighty spaceships, requires enormous energy demands. Civilisation depletes resources on home planet due to said energy demands. Civilisation leaves its ruined planet and becomes spacefaring, roaming the cosmos looking for new planets to plunder. Earth, being covered in awesome things like water and air and other nice stuff, is a tempting target – especially after we draw attention to ourselves by sending radio waves to the rest of the Universe. The spaceships lay waste to Earth, taking what they need before moving on. It’s not explicitly said, but I can only assume that the White House is the first target, followed by other photogenic landmarks around the world.

Now, I should make clear that I’m not and never have been Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge University, but I’m prepared to proudly hold my BA (+ Philosophy hons) high and say this in response: bollocks, Professor Hawking.

And, if I may expand: bollocks bollocks bollocks and bollocks.

My testicle-heavy riposte isn’t simply in response to the implied notion that civilisations automatically become spacefaring when they get to a certain level of technology – although I am going to paddle in that metaphorical estuary for a moment since I think it’s a briny point worth making.

Obviously a civilisation can’t become spacefaring unless it reaches an enormously sophisticated level of technology but – as we’re learning here on Earth – creatures that have developed on a terrestrial planet are, by definition, not designed to live in space. Evolution, it turns out, is not speculative.

We marvellously adaptive and ingenious humans have scurried all over the planet’s surface but even we haven’t colonised the deep ocean trenches or inside volcanoes or up in the stratosphere, since we die under those pressures/temperatures/lack of breathable atmospheres.

Yet all those environments are much, much less alien to us than space: gravity is much the same, for example, and we’re still protected from cosmic rays and highly charged particles by the Earth’s magnetosphere. In space, human bodies are entirely inappropriate for the conditions.

Everything from the way our circulation works to the degree of radiation our cells can take before the DNA is damaged has evolved as per Earth-surface standards. Any species evolving on any other planet is going to develop to thrive under the conditions of that planet – the local gravity, the amount of energy it gets from its sun, the weight of its atmosphere and so on.

These are not simply curly technical problems likely to be solved via advanced spacecraft engineering. Any sophisticated technological species will have to be very highly evolved which means it’s going to be adapted to its specific environment – not the resource-poor vacuum of space.

It’s just possible that there are life forms of some sort floating in the thin gas between the stars, but they’re not going to be sophisticated enough have civilisations. Something as simple as a virus could possibly survive in deep space, but a virus can’t develop starship technology: they’d never find arc welders tiny enough, for one thing.

Develop enough to have complicated things like brains that can even conceive of space travel and, somewhat ironically, you’re going to be so well suited to your environment that you won’t be able to leave it. Genetic engineering might mitigate some of these problems, in the far off sci-fi future, but my deep love of Star Wars isn’t enough to shake my suspicion that there are exactly zero mighty starships currently ploughing the galaxy’s spacelanes.

But that’s a secondary issue. The main reason why I have a gonad-themed response to Hawking’s position is that a civilisation which is so energy starved that they’re forced to roam about the place plundering other planets will seek to use as little energy as they can in the process. It’s simple economics: there’s no point plundering a planet’s resources if you use up more energy in the act of plundering than you gather post-plunder.

This means that if there are viable plunderin’ alternatives a) said fleet of hypothetical starships are probably not going to explore the planets deep in a star’s gravity well, since they will be harder to survey and energy-expensive to leave, and b) they’re not going to waste energy dealing with a technologically-advanced indigenous society, even one whose powers are feeble in comparison, because dealing with any threat of combat, however small, is always going to use more energy than dealing with no threat at all.

Of course, as noted, that’s assuming that there are viable plunderin’ alternatives: but what if Earth is totally special?

We’re back at the thing Hawking was talking about before, how the Universe is made of much the same stuff and the laws of physics are universal. In other words, there’s nothing unique to Earth compared with the rest of the solar system (aside from life, or so it appears).

There’s plenty of water out there, especially in the Kuiper Belt and the Oort Cloud at the edge of the Solar System: a plundering civilisation could happily harvest comets out there without any interference. Carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, iron, hydrocarbons, methane – they’re all on other planets and moons, often in easier-to-get-at forms. Why bother even running an assessment to see whether these pesky humans pose any threat at all when you could save time and fuel merrily harvesting minerals off the moons of Neptune, say, with no living thing within billions of kilometres of you?

In any case, I find the idea of any civilisation traveling from star to star in search of anything whatsoever to be unlikely in the extreme, simply because of the staggering distances involved.

A civilisation facing ruin from resource depletion would surely be more likely to focus all of their efforts on drawing as much energy as possible from their sun, for example, than they would on pissing energy away building huge spaceships and hoping like hell they found something to burn out there in the cosmos. A theoretical interstellar civilisation might want to pop by our planet for many reasons, but I don’t think grabbing a metaphorical cup of sugar (or carbon) is likely to be one of them.

Or, to put it another way, bollocks.