My Cartoon Epiphany
Posted Mar 26, 2008
I had an epiphany yesterday during an episode of Spongebob Squarepants. In the cartoon, Spongebob was being asked to make a difficult decision, and the action cut to a team of mini-Spongebobs in his head, Numbskulls-style, weighing up the pros and cons. One says to another "what do we pay you for?" and the other replies "you don't pay me; we don't even exist; we're just a complex visual metaphor intended to illustrate the mechanics of the though process..." This was *not* a joke aimed at children.
It then struck me that a lot of what I watch on TV nowadays is animated. No, not just animated, but cartoon. The Simpsons, Futurama, Family Guy, Spongebob and Fairly Odd Parents have sneakily usurped conventional adult TV in my viewing schedule. As the realisation hit, the reasons for this slowly became apparent.
First, there is what I have come to call 'intended accuracy'. There was an episode of Jimmy Neutron in which a class teacher asked the lead character to name the six types of quark, to which he replied, correctly: up, down, top, bottom, strange and charm. This is pretty obscure stuff even to science geeks, and clearly way beyond the expected knowledge of the target audience. Then there's the ultimate repository of geek-jokes - Futurama. My personal favourite comes from Farnsworth as the planet express ship is sinking to the bottom of the Atlantic:
"Dear Lord, that’s over one hundred-fifty atmospheres of pressure!"
Fry: "How many atmospheres can this ship take?"
Farnsworth: "Well, it's a spaceship, so I'd say anywhere between 0 and 1".
Second is the shot of bender flying through the electronic workings of the ship's brain, Tron-style, hitting a diode symbol and coming to an abrupt stop.
Then there's the invasion from Omicron Persei 8, a planet exactly 1,000 light years away, by a race of aliens desperate to see more episodes of Single Female Lawyer (Ally Mcbeal) last shown on terran TV exactly 1,000 years ago. It turns out that the star Omicron Persei really is about 1,000 light years away. The reference to the book 'Women are from Omicron Persei 7 and Men are from Omicron Persei 9'. Small things, but strictly speaking correct. The average Hollywood product could be expected to gloss over little details like the finite speed of light and the relative positions of Mars and Venus. Reality gets twisted beyond all recognition just to save the writers a few minutes of fact-checking. Futurama is apparently written by a bunch of maths graduates and is chock full of maths jokes, but not being a mathematician I don't get those ones.
Now it'd be nice to think that the writers of these cartoons deliberately get their facts straight in deference to their young and impressionable audience. But I don't think so; I think they do it for comedic effect. Scientific accuracy in popular adult films and television is has become so infuriatingly rare that its inclusion is satirical in itself. It has become a joke. But at the risk of becoming over-analytical, the joke itself is ironic - there is absolutely no reason why a cartoon character should obey the laws of physics - and yet they do. Meanwhile the mainstream of the entertainments industry drifts steadily further from the shores of reality. Every time I catch a little snippet of this recursively ironic 'intended accuracy' I have a little chuckle, smug in the knowledge that I'm clever enough to have got the joke. Having become so used to my intelligence being insulted, it's simply rather refreshing to have it acknowledged instead.
Then I caught the Simpsons movie and realised that there was much more to my love of cartoons that merely their pride in technical accuracy. There's the satire too. All the adult cartoons are ruthlessly satirical: never afraid to use racial stereotypes if it'll get a laugh, no organisation, government, religion or minority group immune. I am particularly fond of the Simpson's relentless persecution of the American Christian Right, as embodied by Ned Flanders. The writers could've just portrayed Flanders as a parody of the average well-meaning Christian if they'd wanted cheap laughs - happy to preach outstanding moral values but in reality just as morally corrupt as everyone else. But they made him perfect; a character of faultless morals with the conviction to practice what he preaches every time. He's not merely a parody of an evangelical Christian, he's a parody of what an evangelical Christian would like himself to be. Flanders is so morally upright that he's honest enough to admit that many aspects of his faith make no sense. In one episode Homer has a crayon removed from his brain, becomes super-intelligent, and accidentally comes up with a conclusive proof that God doesn't exist; Flanders reads it, agrees, immediately burns the proof before anyone else sees it, and returns to his normal belief utterly unfazed. Somehow the writers have succeeded in conveying the inherent contradictions of religion, with humour, but without causing too much offence.
But lets not just dwell on religion. The Simpsons routinely casts all nationalities by their most basic stereotypes, without pandering to any notions of sparing the third world from insult. Canada, China, Mexico, France, England, Ireland and 'Africa' have all been done. As a Scot, I should probably be offended by Willie the caretaker, but I'm not. The accent isn't a parody of a Scots accent - it's not that good - it's a parody of a rather poor Scottish stereotype. Every time Willie mentions his home town it is different - Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Glasgow - it's just enough to be Scottish. The deliberate consistency and continuity errors are presumably just more satire, this time aimed at Hollywood's laziness in cultural accuracy.
Actually, 'getting away with it' might be key to all this. Perhaps cartoons still occupy a privileged position in the media, where they can say things that would unpalatable in a normal sitcom. Perhaps the ever-increasing sensitivity of our moral outrage hasn't yet reached the point where we take offence at the actions of a two-dimensional cartoon character. I suspect this may be a temporary phenomenon, so we should probably make the most of it while it lasts.
And finally, the third realisation of my epiphany: the complete lack of personal guilt. There is so much nasty stuff going on the world these days; so many issues and worries; so many things I feel personally responsible for, rightly or wrongly, that it is hard to switch off and simply absorb television as it was intended. I get narked when violent sociopaths with no regard for their victims are portrayed as 'cool' in films. Violent scenes remind me too much of real-world violence. I worry that scenes of animal cruelty are indicative of indifference on the part of the writers, I cringe at gangster movies in which the criminals are heroes, and I find it hard to watch action films without a nagging worry that too much carbon is being poured into the atmosphere.
But in a cartoon, none of it matters. Nothing is real. When Homer dumped a whole silo of pigs**t into Springfield lake, triggering a runaway reaction that ultimately renders Springfield a toxic nightmare, it was funny. Not funny tainted with a little bit of regret at what could have been a dramatisation of unfortunate real-world events. Just funny. It's like a little fantasy world away from the brutal realities of the regular fantasy world.
As if the increasingly complex and intelligent content of contemporary cartoons wasn't enough, their bold, simple colours look dead good on my new LCD TV too. Wasted on kids, I reckon.
Very Annoyed at Christmas
Posted Dec 18, 2006
I think the main reason this annoys me is that I've always thought of M&S as good value, good quality and customer focussed. Anyway, I recently received a special offer voucher through the post, entitling me to 15% off web orders. As I'm working up until xmas, I will not get a chance to visit any shops so this seemed an ideal solution to one of my xmas present problems.
So I placed an order for a coat. The quoted price did not inlcude the 15% discount, but I was assured that it would be applied when I received my order confirmation. A full day later, I received an email telling me the trousers I had ordered were out of stock. I replied saying I did not order any trousers, what about my order for the coat? To date I have had no reply.
Anyway, as time was running out I assumed the order was void and ordered another coat. Following the weekend, another reply saying this was also out of stock. It is now too late to order an alternative in time for xmas, and certain someone will have an IOU for a xmas present.
It is infuriating that M&S advertise goods on their website that are not available to buy. It is especially infuriating that they make you go through all the motions of placing the order - including submitting credit card details - BEFORE they actually check whether the goods are available. It is even more infuriating that there is a delay of up to a day before you find out.
If I was especially cynical, I could imagine them "prioritising" orders in such a way that no-one ever gets the advertised 15% discount. But that would be illegal, wouldn't it?
Posted Oct 4, 2005
Bloody car. Passed its MoT again, the smug git. We were both hoping it'd fail this time round, so we could go looking for new ones. But no. It just keeps on going. It doesn't really cost anything to run either so I can't possibly justify the expense of replacing it while it still works. If it were eligible for a licence it would now be old enough to drive itself, but apart from the plethora of battle-scars inflicted by the wife it shows no outwards signs of getting old. Maybe next year.
The Fringe and Beyond
Posted Aug 17, 2005
Just returned from a week back in the motherland. It mainly just served to reinforce my opinions that I should still be living there. A good time was had by all, but there were a few odd events and experiences that I have to share:
Surreal experience 1: sitting on the banks of Loch Tay while daughter swam; watching some chap standing waist-deep playing the ukulele while another - presumably unrelated - chap rows from one side of the loch to the other backwards. That is, blunt-end first.
Surreal experience 2: having a nice meal in an Italian restaurant with friends that subsequently turned into a full-blown karaoke competition between a bunch of girls and a bunch of lads on the surrounding tables.
Surreal experience 3: of the thousands of shows in the hundreds of venues at the Edinburgh fringe, we happen to go to the one where a girl we know from down south is doing the lighting. We then happen to stand up at just the right time so she spots us amongst the 2000-odd other punters. Being shown round the pubs of Edinburgh - my hometown - by a German girl who lives in the south of England. Being taken to a pub where an entire room is floored with mattresses.
Major gripe 1: why oh why do so many tourists when planning their visit to Scotland - in summer - think they need a large 4x4 to get about? Do they really think we don't have proper roads Have they forgotten the nationality of the guy who invented modern road surfacing?
Scotland has some amazing driving roads. They are perfect for small cars, sports cars and especially bikes. They are, however, often rather narrow and are therefore eminently unsuitable for wide, lumbering SUVs. In fact these monstrosities are even less practical here than in the London suburbs. In the couple of days we were away - 4 of us in a hatchback with room to spare - we encountered loads of these things either snarling up single-track roads or just holding everyone else up due to their supreme lack of speed and agility .
And as for off-roading, if you count the dirt track through the campsite then many normal people seem to manage it with a one-wheel-drive motorcycle.
Just about had enough
Posted Jun 10, 2005
I must really be getting old - I find myself getting less and less tolerant and more and more right-wing in my views. My latest gripe has been inspired by the many circular science-vs-religion threads on these very pages.
In every case, someone brings up "...but science brought us the atomic bomb" argument, thus proving beyond doubt that science is evil, and inferring therefore that we should instead follow the preachings of . Science bad; religion good. Hmmm. I will resist the temptation to mention that the only time said bomb was ever used in anger, it was in a conflict initiated on grounds of religion and racist elitism. Oops, I just did.
Meanwhile in the UK, we are debating whether "incitement to religious hatred" should be criminalised when applied to all religions, in a similar way to anti-racism laws. Some tell us we should learn "tolerance" of other races and religions instead. The word in itself implies some fundamental difference. I have no need to "tolerate" other races - there is only one human race. Science taught us that. The ensuing moral obligation to treat people with such superficial differences goes without saying; it is not a religious mandate in any way.
Meanwhile, animal sacrifices continue in all parts of the world, notably the US, and the rest of us continue to conveniently exploit animals with zero thought to their wellbeing. The religious types, or at least those with no facts on which to base their opinion, will happily justify this by saying that animals only appear to behave intelligently; in reality they are automatons. Well, again science has taught us something else. It has taught us that the concept of an animal, separated from humans on the evolutionary tree by only a few million years, that exhibits similar behaviour to a human but due to a completely different underlying mechanism is nothing short of ludicrous. There exists a similar moral imperative to treat these creatures with a level of respect commensurate with their status as conscious, feeling beings like ourselves.
In fact, our aspirations to be the sole owners of conscious thought have been slapped down by research that shows that many of the decisions we make are made before we are even consciously aware of them. We may not be conscious at all, but merely experiencing a life directed entirely by our unconscious brains. You only have to observe a group of drivers on a motorway or a group of lads in a pub to conclude that most of our behaviour, no matter how complex it may seem close up, is almost entirely predictable, and therefore unlikely to be a result of what we call "free will". It doesn't bode well for the soul if even consciousness is an illusion.
So, we are not that special and are not that different to any other animal. Science has taught us to be humble. It has taught us our positions in both the universe and the biological hierarchy. It has taught us how to obtain and weigh evidence in order to make a rational decision, rather than one based on an inflated opinion of self-importance or unfounded beliefs.
Conversely, there exists a large number of people (probably a large majority) who decry science, and seek their enlightenment from religious, spiritual or any number of other ethereal sources that defy rational assessment. Every single day, I hear about such-and-such a new technology that could feed the poor or combat climate change rubbished by the spiritualist lobby. Polio is on the march again as a direct result of these unfounded "beliefs". GM rice in China is finally providing a reliable food source for the poor, and preventing hundreds of pesticide deaths every year - but we have effectively denied these benefits to the poor of Africa, basing our arguments on "GM is icky" or "we shouldn't play God". Hmm. Reshaping the land for our own benefit, causing the extinctions of entire species, or fundamentally altering the atmosphere of the entire planet is not, apparently, playing God. But creating *new* life or improving on it is somehow wrong.
Now, to the controversial bit. When was the last you heard of a scientist being accused of racism, terrorism, rape murder or even industrial negligence? In fact, when was the last time you heard of an atheist being accused of these crimes? Who are the few that still believe that climate change isn't happening, isn't our fault, or will sort itself out? It ain't the scientists, that's for certain. They are the one group who are (almost) unanimous in announcing that something must be done. The views of the rest of society will follow, eventually.
Now, who are the enlightened ones? Who are the people that understand their place in the world and try to improve society rather than tear it down? Who are the ones that actually understand the pros and cons of vaccines, nuclear power, criminal rehabilitation, mental illness, genetics, nanotechnology. The list goes on.
The more I learn the more enlightened I become. The less I believe the pseudo-scientific crap fired at me from all corners of this overtly commercial and ill-informed society. The more capable I am of making informed decisions. Most importantly, the better my ability to tell right from wrong.
Morality is not borne of religion or spirituality. Morality is borne of education. None of this will be new to anyone of a scientific persuasion of course. But as an atheist with a scientific background I feel very much in a minority. I am heartily sick of having to live in a civilisation that is at best lurching forward in small, random steps, held back and frequently vandalised, poisoned and broken into incompatible pieces by people who insist on making decisions based on zero evidence.
War, hunger, disease, exploitation and crime will not go away because of ley lines, auras, alternative therapies or religious morality. But we allow everyone to have their faith, even when that faith is in direct conflict with a peaceful society. A belief based upon nothing can be directed in any direction, and can take any form. This is dangerous. The problem is a lack of a sound scientific background to balance it.
I may be developing into a stubborn, opinionated old tosser or I may be justified. It may not be politically correct to speak out against people's beliefs, but in turn no one is proposing legal protection for mine. In short, I am losing tolerance, and I want a voice too.