Thursday, 31 December 2009

Soon Be Done

Off to Oxfordshire to see the New Year in in style (by which I mean whilst dangerously intoxicated). I hope everyone else managed a decent 2009, and that 2010 beats the everloving shit out of it.

See you next year.

Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Burning Bright

The good news is that I am almost entirely recovered from last week's lurgee, only a slight cough remains to trouble me, and I'm optimistic that this time it won't blossom into a chest infection that costs me an entire month.

Whilst I might be feeling better, though, I am tremendously busy, catching up on everything I missed last week and in addition hosting Tiger, and making sure she doesn't get into the sugar bowl. Thus I'm liable to see out 2009 with only minimal posting. Of course, if you get bored, you could mosey on over to Tiger's own blog, where she has posted up the prologue to her proposed ongoing fantasy series. I'm sure she'll want to explain the details herself, but suffice it to say that early signs are tremendously positive (and my obvious bias is entirely counteracted by my childish rage at how much better at fiction writing she is than me), and this is your chance to get in on the ground floor.

Update: And here's the link. D'oh!

Saturday, 26 December 2009

Signs Of The Apocalypse

It's Boxing Day, and I still have a hideous hacking cough, so I'm not too inclined to put together a particularly lengthy comment on The End Of Time Part 1. Indeed, there seems very little point in doing so, really. It's an RTD "big" script, which means at this point you can just make a list of the standard problems and tick them off: Doctor compared to God/worked into religion; constant drumming home of impending doom with no real justification, complete with music so histrionic that if it were an actor you would only hire them for mourning scenes in Italian operas; horribly misjudged comedy moments undercutting the atmosphere you're "working" to build; and of course Bernard Cribbins. [1]

(As an aside, I wonder if the same idiots who defended Voyage of the Damned as "would've been shit had it not been Christmas, but since we're all stuffed with food and not really thinking it was ace" are now singing the praises of this most mopey and continuity-heavy fair. I'm guessing yes).

So there's not much point going into all that again, save to mention that it is at least possible that we're half-way through the very last time we have to witness such hysterics. The one thing that I wanted to comment on was the Master's Masterplan (hey, if RTD gets to use an entire episode to set up his Master race pun, then I can have a piece of the action too). What exactly is the end game, here? There are now seven billion or so megalomaniacs on the planet. Some of them will be starving to death in African villages. Shivering their pasty arses off in Inuit huts. Figuring out whether they can get that massive wooden disc out of their lip before a jaguar eats them. President Obama Master might be smiling, but there's a lot of other Master's who are about to have a very, very bad day.

And how long is PresiMaster going to enjoy himself for, anyway? He can't use Air Force One anymore, because his pilot is the Master. Whatever fabulous pastry chefs slave in the bowels of the White House aren't gonna be cranking out any more Danishes, because they're the Master. Everyone Master who woke up somewhere nice is about to find out it won't stay nice with no-one to maintain it, and every Master who woke up somewhere shitty is about to assemble the nastiest weapons possible from whatever they have to hand and go on the march. The sudden arrival of the literal equality of every person on the globe is not going to lead to some kind of international Communist utopia, is it? It's going to be a fight to the death within three days. And everyone the Master has to take on during this global scrap is exactly as scheming and conniving as he is.

It's not really clear what the end-game is, is my point. Cobble all the Masters together into one gigantic Master Master and take on Unicron? Broadcast the resulting internicine conflict to the galaxy as "Big Master"? "Day six on the Big Master planet, and the Master has nominated the Master and the Master to be shot with TCEs". Enquiring minds are desperate to know.

Of course, all of this still makes more sense than Time Lords showing up again, hell-bent on achieving their Time Lord victory by destroying time. But I guess we'll see what that's about next week.

[1] I like Bernard Cribbins, don't get me wrong. It's just impossible for me to take him seriously as the human foil through which we watch the crumbling of reality. Especially whilst playing a character who begs the Doctor to speak to Donna in one scene, and then five minutes later shouts at him for parking in front of their house.

Friday, 25 December 2009

Pretty Obvious

Merry Christmas, everyone. I hope everyone is well and enjoying themselves, and taking a well-deserved break from the kind of crap we usually deal with.

Y'all have fun.

Thursday, 24 December 2009

Continuing The Theme

Since we're all about the lessons to be learned from sci-fi today, I came across these admissions today courtesy of the redoubtable Kevin Drum.

First up; Star Trek is teh librul:
I have over the past couple of months been watching DVDs of Star Trek: The Next Generation, a show I missed completely in its run of 1987 to 1994; and I confess myself amazed that so many conservatives are fond of it. Its messages are unabashedly liberal ones of the early post-Cold War era — peace, tolerance, due process, progress....
Sure, TNG is pretty liberal, but I'm amazed someone had the brass balls to argue that this is because it comes out against war, bigotry, violating legal rights, and stagnation (actually, that last one is pretty common). Apparently, conservatives just hate that shit. Good to know.

For an encore; why alcohol should be legal, but not cannabis:
That’s exactly what the left wants: a nation of young zombies — indifferent, unengaged, and uncaring. They provide amenable subjects to indoctrination. Alcohol may fuel fights, but marijuana, as its advocates like to point out, makes the user mellow. The toker wants to make love, not war.
Is there something in the water over there this week? Pot is more dangerous than alcohol because at least a violent drunk might try and punch out a liberal Fed?

Still, maybe I shouldn't object too much. Captain Picard would probably make the same case, and we know what that kind of woolly-headed bleeding-heart thinking leads to, don't we?


Dude! I am, like, so baked right now. Sooooo baked. Don't I have, like, a starship, or something. Sweeeeeeet.

Resistance is... something! Fecund?

Heh. Fec.

A Na'vi Tarred (By A Human's Brush)?: Part 2

(This post has mild spoilers for Season 3 onwards of BSG .)

Right. We've covered the problem of comparing assuming a black person might be different to assuming an alien cat-like creature from another world might be different. Let's talk about the film in the context of the genre to which it belongs.

I can see why Sek is arguing that the film pushes the idea that it's necessarily ennobling to spend time soaking in the non-white experience. However, it is far from the only conclusion to be drawn. Yes, Sully's tutelage under Neytiri proves spiritually enlightening, but I would submit that this has nothing to do with underlying racist principles, and everything to do with the fact that the view that we could stand to stand still and sniff the roses every once in a while is a widely held one, whereas there is a notable lack of people arguing that whilst Christianity might be all very well, isn't it time someone designed a toaster that works underwater?

Taken in this context, the Na'vi are an argument that we need to redress the balance. You might not agree with the sentiment, but it seems clear to me that such is what it is. Is BSG racist because it carries an overarching theme of mankind's reach extending its grasp? Sure, there are racists in BSG, which is part of what makes it so interesting, but is the whole show racist because by Season 3 it's beginning to argue that the best idea is for Cylons and humans to skip through marigold fields hand in hand, and blow the living shit out of anyone who claims a pollen allergy? [1]

OK, comparing BSG to Avatar is a hell of a stretch (though in fairness the conclusion to Avatar in no way made me want to build my own race of death-dealing machines and going all Caprica City on RDM's ass), but that's only one of dozens of examples. If a sci-fi film features a race more technologically advanced than we are, then either they are also more socially advanced, and we have to learn how shit we are, or they're evil mo-fo's and the film will revolve around finding the least implausible way possible to slap them down and send them back to Vega 7 with their prehensile tails tucked between their segmented legs.

You can even swap it round entirely and have the advanced heroic humans getting boned by primitive savage alien killers, as the Aliens films prove. The point here is that the tech-level is generally irrelevant to the assignation of the heroic and villainous labels (of course, a particularly smart film can bypass that in any event, but I'm not remotely trying to argue that Avatar is particularly smart), only the faith issue determines whether the film will be about humans learning (or failing to learn) from other species, or whether we're going to need to saddle up and beat the shit out of something.

In short, then, you have four choices. A race is more or less tech-savvy, and more or less, for want of a better term, discerning in their choice of faiths and behaviour (and let's not forget that Sully didn't reject humans for Na'vi so much as he rejected indubitable twats for Na'vi plus legs plus the woman-cat-Uhura-being he loved, it's not hard to believe that frolicking through the jungle would feel ennobling compared to discussing how many more motions we have to go through before we can start neutering kitty-cats). Whilst Avatar may be a particularly blunt and moronic version of one of the four options, it is still part of the sub-group that suggests we can in fact learn things from other people. While Sek sees Sully's eventual apotheosis (hey, he turns into a frickin' Avatar) as an attempt to assuage white guilt, it can also be seen as an argument that we are better exchanging our similarities and differences and that maybe we can become better people in the midst of the fusion.

If nothing else, had Sully's ability to bridge two cultures not proven pretty damn useful, it would have been a pretty limp ending. More to the point, it would imply that to share culture would be to lessen oneself, and it's difficult to see how anyone could label that the less racist option.

Anyway, that's an awful lot of words to argue with a piece that I thought had an awful lot of excellent points to make. I guess three days of miserable gribbliness has left me hankering for endless rambling. More so than usual, I mean.

[1] I must confess as to a certain degree of curiosity regarding whether or not Chemie has made her peace with Felix Gaeta's unhappy airlock experience.

A Na'vi Tarred (By A Human's Brush)?: Part 1

(If you haven't seen Season 3 of BSG yet, the post below has mild spoilers. Really, though, what's wrong with you? Season 4 is the shit one.)

(Edit: Wait, forget that. It's the second post that will need that spoiler warning. I blame still being all weak and pathetic from the fever).

Hurrah! At last, I can sit at a computer for an extended period of time without my brain worrying I'm going to get swallowed by the monitor.

The good Sek makes an interesting case over at Obsidian Wings as to whether or not that Avatar film what everyone is talking about can be considered to be racist.

Much of his argument is impressively put together. It's certainly difficult to shake the obvious echoes of Dances With Wolves style implications that the fact a race is being wiped out necessarily makes it a better, more noble and more spiritual (or am I off-base with regard to DwW; I don't remember it in great detail). One may consider such a race to be all those things in addition to one that is being destroyed, but if Sek wants to argue that to many people there is a correlation between the former and the latter, I would at least consider it plausible, with the fairly healthy caveats that a) an awful lot of people romanticise the past in general anyway, and b) for every person who desperately traces his family tree looking for a sliver of Cheyenne heritage, I'd submit that there is someone else working on the principle that if them thar "Injuns" weren't inferior to Whitey, they would have invented rifles and pocket watches.

That aside, there are a couple of points that I think warrant further attention, with regard to a larger issue. In the end, this post got so ludicrously unwieldy that I decided to split it into two sections, which can roughly be described as "Is it racist to assume aliens will be markedly different to us?", and "Is there an alternative way at looking at what the film is doing?". This post deals with the first question, and is somewhat longer than the next one.

I think the moment at which I diverge significantly from Sek's essay is when he says this:
The Na'vi are not merely distrustful of "the space people," they're inherently xenophobic, incapable of trusting any sentient being that doesn't look like them. If that mistrust is justified for some other reason (like a hairy first contact), the film never mentions it, meaning (in a classic case of projection) the humans assume that the Na'vi will be xenophobic before they even meet them.
It would perhaps be unfair to ask who is projecting what at this point, but I certainly think it's a danger sign when an argument relies on the assumption that if we didn't see something in a film, it didn't happen (though it might weaken the film to leave it out). I won't listen to that argument when people tell me Cameron fucked up Terminator 2 because the T-1000 has no organic skin covering (though I know Gooder feels very differently on that point), and I won't listen to it when they're telling me that without seeing the reason why two groups are so hostile to each other, it necessarily makes them both racist. Besides, didn't Grace at least heavily imply that relations had recently gone downhill, which certainly suggests some kind of specific, off-screen incident? Anyway, at its most basic, you may as well argue that until Sully gets into his wheelchair for the first time (and the film deserves points for delaying that reveal for as long as possible), he must have use of his legs.

I'm also not entirely convinced that "The film made me do it" is a particularly healthy arguing tactic. Yes, Avatar is goddamned fucking dumb, but Sek isn't, and that means conflating species to race and racism to xenophobia is a highly questionable move. I think the latter two words in particular drift apart in meaning pretty much in direct proportion to the number of parsecs between the two groups.

At this point I must pause to confess that this might, in fact (oh, irony of ironies) be a case of me projecting, but let's consider Sek's final analogy:
For decades, coaches and scouts wished they could find a black body with a white brain in it. ("If only someone could find a way to stuff Peyton Manning's brain into JaMarcus Russell's body!") The essentialist logic at play there is obvious: black people are more athletic than white, and white people are smarter than black. No matter how descriptive these people thought they were being, in truth they were creating the conditions they claimed to describe: black quarterbacks were increasingly valued for raw athleticism, white athletes for their pocket presence and tactical acumen. That's an expectations game based on racist expectations ... and it works according to the same logic behind the narrative of Avatar.
Emphasis mine.

To this observer, it appears that Sek is arguing from the perspective that it is racist to assume another race will be different from your own. This is also my own assumption, when we talk about humanity at least, so it's worth unpacking.

Here's a question: do you believe that there is no statistically meaningful difference between the athletic prowess of black people and white people, and/or that there is no statistically meaningful difference between the intellectual dexterity of black people and white people?



For me, I've always said "yes" based on what I can only define as an axiomatic principle: all races are equal. I'm not sure it's possible to lack that foundation and be a liberal (or social liberal at least), though I have a horrible feeling some amongst our ranks would agree that this is true unless they fall into Evil Religion X [1]. Of course, there is a particular subset of conservatives who would do the exact same thing when asked "Are tax cuts invariably beneficial?" [2], so I need more than that. At this point, I reach into my mathematical experience, and argue that because we share the same DNA, it is a reasonable null hypothesis to assume that the amount of variation between sub-groups is zero, and wait to see if anyone can ever prove that supposition wrong. It's not that I don't care whether the hypothesis is true - I very much hope that it is - it's just that I get uncomfortable around any argument that says "It just is", even if I'm the one who's making it (even if the above is probably just a more technical way of saying "Why on Earth wouldn't you assume two sub-groups of the same species would be pretty much the same?").

So that's where I stand. And as far as I know, that null hypothesis is still unassailable. And it's not like nobody has tried, or lacked a vested interest for doing so. I've seen enough people savage The Bell Curve to know it comes nowhere close to doing what it purported to do. When I ponder why in the nine years I've spent in this maths department there has been (to the best of my recollection) only one black lecturer, I assume it is either coincidence, some inner issue of my own that makes that seem remarkable (that's the one that worries me a little), or perhaps one or more external factors, whatever they may be. I would want each and every one of those possibilities proved to me before I could even begin to countenance the idea that somehow maths is a white person's game.

So this idea of the null hypothesis seems inherently reasonable to me. Critically, though, all of that disappears once you talk about alien races.

Sek talks about being encouraged by the film to consider race as analogous to species. He's missing the larger picture here; he's not just conflating those two terms, he's bundling the entire concept of taxonomy into one useless heap. Are the Na'vi even the same class? The same phylum? Does something so locally understood as the concept of a "spine" have any meaning here? Sure, I assume the Na'vi have what look like spines (it didn't occur to me to check). They also have what look like plaits, and that went pretty damn screwy.

If we ever do come into contact with an alien race, I would most certainly hope we don't start trading blows. But it would be downright ludicrous to suggest it demonstrates racist principles to assume that they won't be like us. That's, y'know, probability. If you wanted to take this to its furthest point, could you not argue it's racist to assume an alien race will be like us to the point where disliking us can be considered racist? I think that's probably a stretch, but I hope the point comes through.

While we're on the subject of aliens and science-fiction, of course, it's worth noting that the idea of humanity trampling over shit because we have too much technology and not enough faith/awareness has been a genre staple for decades. That, though, is something I shall go into more detail on later in the day.

[1] Also, just to be crystal clear, while I think that principle is a necessary condition for social liberalism, I am in no way suggesting anyone else necessarily lacks it.

[2] Perhaps that's a little far, perhaps it should be "Do you believe the next tax cut will be beneficial?" I'm guessing it's less the assumption that the world would be rainbows and ice-cream if only all tax was abolished, so much as the theory that if the country's infrastructure hasn't entirely collapsed yet, then there must be room for more goodies.

Tuesday, 22 December 2009


Have returned from darkest Guildford with a hideous virus, so light to no posting for the next couple of days while I fight it off.

Sunday, 20 December 2009

Do I Want To Date His Avatar?

What can I say about Avatar?

I'm probably not the best person to ask, actually (not that anyone has, technically). Partially this is because Cameron is the man responsible for my favourite movie of all time (and two others that must come in the top 200 at least), so I've been deliberately ratcheting down my expectations; partially it's because it's harder to enjoy the application of film-making as thrill-ride when just getting to the cinema provides one with all the nail-biting tension one could ask for (apparently we'll hit -8C tonight); and partially it's because Avatar is a film that is very much preaching, and doing so in a context in which I can very much be considered converted.

Spoilers follow.




I've heard Avatar described by several people as a souped-up Fern Gully film. That is unfair. If anything, it's the bastard love child of Fern Gully and Dances With Wolves that was born during an explosion storm. Caused by climate change.

Seriously, if anything ever gets to be called liberal porn, it's this film. At least, it is right up until the end, at which point some war porn is stapled on to make sure no-one feels like they've wasted their money. Up to the (admittedly spectacular) conclusion, though, it's hand-holding, we're-all-the-same-inside, some-things-can't-be-bought-with-money, tree-hugging, circle-of-life stuff all the way. Frankly, if you're going to have your plot hover so close to that of The Lion King, I'd think twice about making your alien race look so much like anthropomorphic cats.

We feel bad that humanity wants to displace an indigenous population to get at the resources they're too "primitive" to use. We talk about "hearts and minds" whilst reaching for our machine guns. We come to paradise having fucked our own planet and then wonder what we can do to shaft this new one. We poo-poo nature's cycle and end up with the Big N. kicking our arses. Christ, there's even a healthcare reference in there; since the hero is stuck in his wheelchair purely because "the Man" won't pay to have his legs fixed "in this economy".

Of course, the fact that the message is simple doesn't mean it's wrong. And perhaps it's inherently ludicrous asking for subtlety and restraint in a film which features cat-people on dinosaurs fighting giant robots (controlled by men inside matching their movements, and it is thanks to this film that we can scientifically state that no matter how much bullet-proof metallic robo-death a man is surrounded by, he will still look like a dick when he mimes shooting a gun). We also need to consider George Romero's plight, whereby no matter how gratingly obvious he thought his subtexts were, people would always complain that they were too hard to see (presumably this is a problem that did not survive Diary Of The Dead).

Even so, it's difficult to watch this sort of thing and not feel like you haven't seen it a hundred times before. And that's fatal for a film promising to raise the bar of what cinema can achieve.

Having said all that, it's mind-bogglingly pretty, there are some great moments, the central concept of the Avatar is well done (if a little underexplored), and it never drags despite the patented Cameron ueber-runtime. And, at the end of the day, in a world in which hundreds of thousands of Iraqis are dead for no reason, international climate summits can end with each nation being given a blank piece of paper to write their own targets onto, and Michele Bachmann can organise a prayer session to make sure twenty to forty thousand Americans die each year, maybe we really do need films like this.

Seriously, though: a little restraint would kill you?

One last word: if you're going to make a big deal out of a major character dying because she couldn't be gotten to the Tree of Souls in time to save her life, best not have her change costume in the interim. It kind of ruins the impact. If those lunatic kitty-men hadn't spent so much time draping vines over Ripley's naughty-bits, she might have taped a machine gun to a flame-thrower and killed Alien Queen Scar-Faced Marine Dick. Just sayin'

Saturday, 19 December 2009

Taken Under Advisement

Definitely one of the funniest news stories I've seen for a while: Rage Against The Machine performance pulled for swearing by Five Live.

The fact that this happened is in no way a surprise, any more than it was when Sean Ryder launched into a torrent of naughty words on TFI Friday all those years ago. What makes it uniquely brilliant though is that the radio show told Rage Against The Machine they couldn't sing the line "Fuck you, I won't do what you tell me."

How did they not see that failing?

Radio 5 Live: We really like your music, Mr Rage, sir, honestly; big fans. We were hoping the "Evil Empire" would be defeated by "Renegades" at "The Battle Of Los Angeles", too, don't get me wrong. It's just that we can't let you swear on national radio.
Zack de la Rocha: What are you telling me?
R5L: I'm telling you you can't say "Fuck you, I won't do what you tell me."
ZdlR: I can't say "Fuck you, I won't do what you tell me."?
R5L: That's what I'm telling you.
ZdlR: I'm still not totally clear on what you're telling me to do.
R5L: I'm telling you you can't say "Fuck you, I won't do what you tell me".
ZdlR: Ah, right. I am now entirely clear on what you're telling me to do.
R5L: And you'll do it?
ZdlR: Do what?
R5L: Do what we tell you?
ZdlR: Fuck yes, I will do what you tell me.
R5L: Terrific.

Friday, 18 December 2009

Friday Comedy: Dylan Moran

I'm caught in this horrible loop right now where I'm too discouraged to talk about healthcare but I can't bring myself to concentrate on anything else. It's not a lot of fun.

Still, it's Friday, which means I get to put someone else's work up instead. And it's even linked to American politics, to some extent. Everyone wins.

Moran's new DVD is well worth it, by the way. Or at least, it should be. I've not seen it, so it's possible he was having an off-night during shooting, but I caught the live show in Newcastle and thought it was brilliant, even if I don't think a stand-up comedian should be allowed to eat a packet of Chewits during their set. A glass of red wine works as an appropriate prop; chewy strawberry sweets makes it look like he doesn't care whether or not his sentences are recognisable as English.

Wednesday, 16 December 2009


My God, that Obama disgusts me:
CHICAGO -- Dozens of terrorism suspects being held at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, will be moved to a little-used Illinois state prison that will be acquired and upgraded by the federal government, an Obama administration official said.

Obama made the move despite the objections of Illinois Republicans, who fear the transfer of prisoners -- some for indefinite detention, some for trial -- could make the state a target for terrorists. Rep. Mark Kirk has called the move "an unnecessary risk."

... Preliminary administration calculations suggest that the 1,600-bed state prison, currently housing about 200 minimum security inmates, could be upgraded for Guantanamo detainees and other federal prisoners in roughly six months. One official described the intended security level as "beyond supermax."

This is nothing less than a deliberate slap in the face to America's current supermax prisoners. For the love of God, how many people does a white guy have to murder before Republicans will start pissing themselves at the merest mention of his name?

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Shake #31

Today's shake: Skittles Crazy Sours

Taste: 8
Texture: 5
Synergy: 8
Scorn: 7
Total Score: 6

General Comments: Dammit, when am I going to get any good with the scorn score?

In my defence, who could have seen this working? "Sour" and "milk" are two words that are frequently seen together, and it invariably means bad news. Even if you're Tectonese, it means a nasty hangover, and for us humans, it gets a whole lot worse.

In this rarefied circumstance, though, it works perfectly. It shouldn't. Ever stuffed a dozen Skittles in your mouth and chomped them up, just to see what they taste like? That taste is like nothing else on Earth. It's like five different flavours that at the same time are a single, really weird one. I was afraid that was what I was going to get here, only with an after-taste that would blow my eyeballs out.

Instead, ludicrously, wonderfully, the whole think tasted like Raspberry Ripple, with a faint tang to the after-taste to stop it getting samey. Well, I say after-taste, really it was more like it was coming and going, like a sine wave of sourness. Or a super-villain who wanted to toy with me awhile before annihilation.

Of course, if annihilation tastes this good, I say bring it on.

I Want My Buttons Back (Buttons Back, Buttons Back, Buttons Back, Buttons Back...)

I have had it with my phone. More specifically, with putting more money on my phone. What happened to just pressing a few buttons and getting a top-up? Whose idiotic idea was to replace that with a series of yes/no questions? Utilising a system that cannot differentiate those two words unless one remains stationary in a silent room?

Even that doesn't work. You have to say "yes" in the right way, too. Literally hours of research has revealed that saying it with even the slightest hint of uncertainty or impatience will cause it to fail, and of course those are two things unlikely to creep into your voice when trying to gain the cash necessary to continue an important conversation using a idiotic system which might as well be Russian roulette for all the input I actually have into the procedure. No, the only way to get the job done is to sigh "yes" in a voice somewhere between infinite happiness and sexual release, neither of which was on offer at the time (why d'you think I needed my phone?).

How is this considered an improvement in technology? The computer was an improvement in technology. OK, so they started off as card-addicted beep-bleeping wardrobes with as much mathematical acumen as an oxygen-starved tyrannosaur, but at least the idea was to replace the abacus. This bollocks is designed to replace pressing a button.

And even that doesn't make any sense, because you still need to push buttons in order to put in your card number. What the Hell was the ad campaign for this? "Like phones? Need to top one up? Prepared to push up to eleven buttons? Refuse to push fourteen or more? Then have we got the thing for you!"

Thanks, Mr Thirteen-Buttons-Is-My-Absolute-Limit. This is your fault. I hope you get trapped in a room filling with water, and the door has a fourteen button code lock.

Also, there's a shark. Not for any thematically appropriate reason. I just like sharks.

Monday, 14 December 2009


Children in the self-professed most powerful and most free country on Earth are asking Santa for socks and spectacles. Joe Lieberman has announced his opposition to a healthcare compromise he himself put together and was supporting six days ago. 45 000 people are going to die next year due to a lack of health insurance, and all anyone wants to talk about is if this worthless murderer's repeated betrayals will be bad for Democrats.

And 95% of American journalists are going to bed tonight hoping they get to be the one to work out how many white women Tiger Woods has slept with.

I am somewhat low on Christmas cheer right now.

Also, Copenhagen: fucked.

Sunday, 13 December 2009

SpaceSquid vs. The X-Men #29: The Maker

As Charlie Munger once pointed out, to the man with a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. The point is undeniable, and much has been made of it in comics generally and the X-Men specifically. After all, if you've spent your entire freakishly extended lifespan learning more and more ways to efficiently gut twelve people at once with your razor-sharp claws, it’s going to be difficult to come at a problem from a diplomatic perspective.

There is a counter to Munger’s point, though, and it’s this: to a man with every tool imaginable, every problem looks like a hundred different things, with no way to choose between them.

For the mutant known only as Forge (or other variations of the nickname), lack of tools is never going to be a problem. Hell, even if he did only have a hammer, he still would have the option of turbo-charging it or infusing it with powerful shamanistic magic.

So how do you choose? When there are a thousand different ways to tackle a problem, some which will work, others which won’t, and still others that will actually make everything worse, how do you decide which tool to take from the box?

I have already written several times about the paradoxical paralysis that can result from holding too much power. Forge doesn’t seem to have that problem, which I guess in some sense is to his credit. His problem comes when one considers the mechanism by which he chooses one tool over another.

The roots of Forge’s power, and his problem with applying it, can be found in his youth. Forge is born into a Cheyenne tribe, and it is immediately apparent that he had been gifted with an unheard of level of magical power. Given this, he is raised by the shaman Naze, intending for Forge to become a shaman himself, and combat The Adversary, the age-old enemy of his people with an annoying sideline in attempting to destroy the world.

Whether or not Forge is content with his planned destiny during his childhood is not known. Certainly, however, once his mutant powers manifest during his adolescence, granting him the ability to build almost any device of which he could conceive, Nate’s vision for his pupil doesn’t seem particularly appealing.

In later years Forge claims that as a teenager he made the conscious decision to put his faith in technology rather than magic. I think that is the truth, to some extent, but only insomuch as the each of those things lies on either side of the dichotomy which Forge actually faces: control and being proactive versus channelling and patient waiting.

“Give me a lever big enough and I will move the world,” Archimedes said (and not Aristotle; thanks Jamie). Metaphorically speaking, Forge can slap that lever together over breakfast, and it would take less time to use than it would to dust the toast crumbs off it's sides. Obviously, that’s a rare and powerful gift. The trouble is, of course, that if there’s no gap between concept and execution, and no gap between creating mechanisms and changing the world, there’s no reason to consider or even recognise the steps in-between. If Forge can build any device he can think of, then he can build any reality he can think of, just so long as he can work out what he needs to get there. What tools he needs for the job.

In a way, Naze traps himself early on. He spends Forge’s youth telling an impressionable boy that he is destined to change the world. That’s not really what he means, though. What he means is that Forge is destined to prevent the world being changed by something else. And that this process of maintaining stasis will only be possible by sitting around waiting for the Adversary to show up, so that he can be defeated.

Like so many teenagers whose are convinced their guardians simply want to create carbon copies of themselves, Forge rebels. His powers gave him the chance to actively do some good, rather than waiting around for some legendary figure to show up and start a ruckus. At this point, though, Forge’s vision is limited; he chooses not to head for the place he could do most goof, but to the place that was as far away from Naze as possible. Despite Naze’s protestations that the American struggle against Communism wasn’t really anything the Cheyenne really needed to be concerned with, Forge enlists with the US Army, and is shipped out to Vietnam.

Forge ends up a sergeant, fiercely dedicated to the soldiers under his command. If nothing else, the responsibility Naze taught him to human life is certainly understood; Forge suffers a crisis of conscience following his first kill, and from that moment on it seems his priority is to protect his own men, not harm those of the enemy.

In this task, the first of many, Forge fails completely. His squad are caught in an enemy ambush. His men are killed, and he himself is injured. Unable to make use of his gift for invention, Forge reaches for another tool: magic. Whilst he was never content to use magic as a passive safeguard, he understands its application as a weapon all too well. Forcing apart the walls of reality, he summons a pack of demons which devour the enemy troops. Later, it is learned that this spell is the one that allows the Adversary to return to our world. Like I said, sometimes you’ll choose the tool that makes everything worse. Forge realises his mistake, and calls in an air strike to destroy the demons, an action that quite literally costs him an arm and a leg (well, a hand and a leg, at least), but the damage is very much already done.

It is this choice, this terrible fateful decision that ultimately costs the lives of the X-Men (though inevitably they are resurrected almost immediately) that casts doubt on Forge’s claim to prefer technology over magic. Clearly, it is simply about control. If a magic spell can be aimed and fired in the same way as a plasma rifle, then all to the good. Otherwise, forget it. Forge has a time machine he needs to build. Or a power-nullifier. Or freaky-ass mutates to replace the near-vanished mutant species. Or…

One of the most important things to understand about Forge is that he not just a maker (or The Maker, as he is sometimes known), he is also a fixer. This is crucial, because it means he not only views reality as something he can create, but also as something which he can repair. I made the point after The Waters Of Mars was broadcast that the Doctor has now become so adept at the last-minute save that he no longer considers the ramifications of his actions. If anything he does goes sour, he can just fix it with a wave of his sonic screwdriver.

Forge has the same problem (though in fairness I suspect he would consider the sonic screwdriver as a toy for newborn babies, or possibly particularly slow dogs). He decides what he wants to do and then he does it, unshakable in his belief that it’s the right thing to do, and that he can undo it the very moment he thinks he needs to. This is why he builds the anti-mutant nullifier gun for a government he already has issues with over the Vietnam War. He can see why it would be helpful against the threat of the Dire Wraiths, and he’s sure he can destroy it whenever he wants to. Of course, that choice leads to Storm losing her powers, and her breaking his heart when she learns the truth and leaves him in disgust. [1]

This is not the last time Forge’s assumption of control will cost him in his relationship with Storm. For a while they seem to have achieved happiness, thanks in no small part to finding themselves trapped together on an alternate, abandoned Earth for a year (giving Forge time to reverse the nullifier’s effects upon his lover) in the classic Lifedeath story. Their contentment doesn’t last, however. Ultimately Forge proposes, only to rescind the offer because she doesn’t answer quickly enough. He claims he has realised that she will never leave the X-Men for any reason, but the truth is far simpler; he retracts the offer because it’s the only way to make sure she cannot say “No”. If he can’t have Storm as his wife, it is critical he be able to believe that it was choice. Some years later, after M-Day, he finds himself blackmailed into aiding a Nimrod Sentinel, so as to keep Storm safe. The breathtaking arrogance of assuming she cannot take care of herself, that her safety is something only he can risk or assure, is something he is apparently completely unaware of.

After Forge’s brief proposal, he joins X-Factor, and almost immediately the Adversary returns. After more than a decade of being taught how he could channel the forces of magic to defeat the Adversary, what does Forge decide to do? He builds the biggest fucking guns he can think of, and hands them out like candy to the rest of the team, all of whom end up slaughtered (again, only briefly) the instant the Adversary attacks. Hell, even his brief relationship with his team-mate Mystique is predicated on control, though since she’s an unprincipled murderer I’m willing to cut him at least some slack for designing a machine that prevents her from morphing into specific forms.

Perhaps I’m being too harsh on Forge. After all, he abandoned technology for magic in Vietnam, and almost caused the end of the world. The next time he meets the Adversary, he tries to rely on technology, only for those under his command to die once again. Then again, that proves only that there is no right tool for every occasion. Once Forge has chosen what tool to use, it is the work of only minutes to take that path to it’s conclusion. Open a magic portal, build a hand-howitzer, whatever. It is Forge’s curse that that initial choice always seems to go wrong for him. In once sense he ignores the past (most especially those parts of it where he refuses to listen to Naze or to Storm), but in other ways he allows it to totally controls him. The loss of his men in Vietnam haunted him for years. His mistrust of magic lasted longer still. Most importantly of all, though, in his final encounter with Storm he simply cannot get past the fact that she did leave the X-Men, at least temporarily, and she did it in order to marry someone else.

Were Forge any other man, one might assume his fury at Storm’s marriage to the Black Panther stems from the realisation that perhaps Storm would have married him, and he could have been happy. For him, though, the problem might well lie elsewhere. For Forge the worst case scenario is that Storm would never have married him under any circumstances. That he never had control. That no tool could have done the job.

I say "final encounter" because, to the best of anyone's knowledge, Forge is dead (by which I mean: Forge isn't around until someone tells us he didn't die in the explosion that concluded Ghost Box). After being knocked out by Bishop in Messiah Complex (or possibly Cable #2; apparently there's no impending time-line crisis so serious it can't be solved by punching Forge in the face) there is some suggestion he is suffering from brain damage at the end, so conclusions must be drawn with caution. Having said that, his final act in this world is to attempt to rebuild the mutant race by any means necessary, without any thought to the consequences of his meddling. That sounds an awful lot like Forge to me. Trying to simultaneously recreate the past and deny it (this bunch of horribly slapped-together mutated monsters won't go crazy, nooooooo), trying to find any solution because that's always better than inaction. The "engineer's solution" he calls it, which is pretty much code for "better this problem be addressed unbelievably badly than it not be addressed at all". I guess what's really sad is that the man with the intelligence to revise and improve upon any given machine was never really able to apply that skill to his own life. He never learned the lessons people tried to give him, he only learned new and exciting ways to make the same old mistakes.

Despite all of this, the Marvel Universe owes Forge a number of debts. For all that it cost Storm her powers, Forge was ultimately able to save Earth from destruction at the hands of the Dire Wraiths. He may have gone about it in the most pig-headed and costly way possible, but he was responsible for preventing the Adversary from performing similar acts of Armageddon on at least two occasions. And perhaps I'm laying the blame for his failures at the wrong feet. After all, it would be strange to consider the uses and applications of tools without noting the way Forge himself was used as such, first by Naze, then the Adversary, and the government, and even arguably Xavier and then Cyclops [2]. Lastly, I'm aware of the dangers of armchair quarterbacking, and that's before you get into how much more foolish such a practice would be if the quarterback had a medicine bag in one hand and a plasma pistol in the other.

So come on home, Forge. Take a breather, get your head together, but then come back to us. If nothing else, we've got an awful lot of nails for you to take a look at, and you are always our favourite tool. [3]

That concludes our consideration of '80s X-Men. Next time, we enter one of comics' most lambasted periods, and ask whether or not it's possible to be the quintessential '90s X-Man despite there not being a single pouch or over-sized gun in sight.

[1] I guess that you could make the case that if she hadn’t lost her powers to begin with, they might never have met under the right circumstances and fallen in love, but generally speaking I think the old “Better to have loved and lost than to never have loved at all” bromide contains a healthy exception for “Unless your entire relationship is built on a lie and suffocates you with your own guilt.”

[2] Even that doesn't entirely get Forge off the hook, though; since the Forge of the Age of Apocalypse spent all his time training Nate Grey to fight Apocalypse, and yet always insisted they wait for something to happen. I always thought casting Forge in the Nate role was a nice touch.

[3] Fuck you, I resisted as long as I could.

Saturday, 12 December 2009

The Climate Change House

Much of my time this week has been spent reading about climate change. Between the shitstorm that kicked off over the "Climategate" emails, and the ongoing conference at Copenhagen, all anyone seems to want to talk about is the exact degree to which we are screwed as a civilisation.

A lot of what is bobbing around the intertubes is feebly considered chittering by re-energised deniers. Never people who were afraid of overstating their case, the revelation that individual scientists might not be entirely above the occasional piece of corner-cutting has led many of the blogohedron's most incoherent bottom-dwellers (and Sarah Palin) to suggest the smoking gun has been found which requires we tear down all of what we currently understand on climate change and start afresh.

The exact degree to which the East Anglia emails reveal anything is being hotly debated, but the suggestion that this somehow invalidates the entirety of our assembled knowledge got me thinking. Between this, and a conversation I've been having on the SFX forum, I've put together some of my thoughts on the issue, and figured it might be of some limited interest as a complete post.

I don't think we'd have nearly so much of a problem with climate change deniers if they understood the nature of science, and the nature of scepticism. I always think that a good way to think of the way science advances is to imagine the building of a house. When we first start exploring a new concept, there's nothing there. We start arguing about how best to lay the foundations. How deep should they go, what material should they be made from, and so on. At that point, if someone shows up and says "Guys, maybe we should build this thing a little to the left", then there's no particularly compelling reason not to entertain the notion.

If, on the other hand, we've gotten the whole exterior structure finished, along with the interior, and we're trying to decide what sort of window frames we want to put in, and that guy shows up, he'd better have an excellent reason for wanting to tear the whole damn thing down before he's going to get anywhere. On the other hand, if he says "Guys, maybe we don't need all those windows anyway", we'd be more likely to listen. This is why it's frustrating to hear people yelling "You're shutting out dissent!". We now know enough about climate change and its causes that the building that's been made is pretty sturdy. Thus, the people who show up and say "We need to move this building six feet over there!" need to show very compelling evidence in order to make us agree that the whole thing needs to be torn down.

This is also why arguments that there is no such thing as "settled science" are so unconvincing. Yes, there is always work to be done around the edges. I've had deniers point out to me that the Theory of Relativity isn't even done with yet, so we have no business declaring the climate change debate concluded. What's important to remember, though, is that the sort of fine-tuning that such consideration amounts to is analogous to wanting to fiddle with the windows. If someone came along and said "I have decided that E equals m c cubed!", they'd be laughed out of the building unless their maths-fu was just too awesome to be refuted.

As I say, deniers' screams that dissent is being deliberately excluded is so ridiculous. Dissent is entirely necessary in science, and climate science is no exception. The problem with the dissent currently being offered by those who want to move the building is that it's just incredibly crappy. Those who label themselves "climate sceptics" (with varying degrees of accuracy) never really seem to care about that. They label all dissent as equally worthy. Doubt is doubt, and it doesn't matter whether it's doubt in a God, doubt that dogs bark, or doubt that Pluto is made of candy. For those of us who can understand that not all opinions are equally valid, however, you need a damn good slice of science goodness to knock down the climate change building, and no-one has come up with one. Those that have tried have had their work torn to pieces very, very quickly. This is not because dissent is intolerable, it's because bad science is intolerable, and anyone who says differently is suffering from the same delusion as the people who claim it's a violation of their free speech to be told that what they're saying is total rubbish.

There is much more sensible dissent to be found on the windows issue. The exact proportion of which these changes are mankind's fault. Whether those worse-case predictions of New York ending up below sea level are likely to come to pass. And, of course, discussions are ongoing. Since they amount to fiddling around the edges to determine the precise extent to which we are fucked as a species, though, arguing that until that debate is also concluded it's best not to bother with doing anything at all seems pretty foolish.

All of this is to say nothing of how difficult it is to get deniers to explain exactly what they mean by "settled" in the first place. I've already posted one possible way of considering such issues previously, so I won't repeat myself, I'll just mention that one of the reasons we refer to those who disagree on this issue as deniers rather than sceptics is because their bloody-minded refusal to swallow what they're told immediately disappears the instant someone tells them what they want to hear. Scepticism needs to be applied to both sides; otherwise it really is just denial, plain and simple. Anyone who says "Since we can't 100% be sure we won't find out this theory is wrong later on, it's best not to act on it now," isn't being sceptical, they're deciding what they want to be true and arguing anything that disagrees with them is worthless because it can't be stated with 100% certainty. It's exactly as dumb as saying "science can't prove hamburgers won't fall to Earth in my back garden", and then starving to death waiting for it to rain. Only that analogy isn't fair, because what they're really doing is telling everyone they think they should be waiting for the burger squalls too, and they're doing it in the knowledge that if they're wrong and the grilled meat patties don't start falling, there are plenty of other people who will die of starvation long before they do.

This ludicrous one-sided application of cynicism permeates everything the deniers do. The most critical and basic mistake they make is failing to recognise that "climate change is illusory/unstoppable" [1] is in itself a theory. Which means that it too must be built into a house. And no-one can. No-one's even been able to sketch out the foundations the building would need, and those that have tried have been convincingly rebutted almost immediately. These people have no workable theory, they just know they don’t like the only theory we’ve got. If you were to try and assemble the thousands of pathetically inept posts out on the web by people arguing for their theory, each of them inevitably titled “THE REAL TRUTH AT LAST!” or “THE LIES OF THE SCIENTISTS” or something equally histrionic, you wouldn’t have a building, just a really, really high mound of shit.

In essence, the arguments of the climate deniers are very similar to those who argue in favour of intelligent design by arguing certain types of shrimp tail are too complicated for evolution to have come up with them. It's sleight of hand, pretending that there exists a baseline theory, and any gaps in an alternative theory must mean the baseline assumption is the best one. Can't conclusively prove the climate will change? Then it will definitely stay the same.

This fundamental misconception is what leads people to believe that constantly attempting to shoot holes in various parts of the assembled evidence of man-made climate change is somehow proving their case. They can't put together their own theory; they lack the necessary skill, but they know they don't like the theory we currently have, so they constantly attack it. And because they're not building an alternative theory, they don't need to stand by anything they say. You can refute 99 pieces of ill-considered nonsense and it won't matter, they'll just post up piece 100 as though nothing has happened. There's always more shit to be added to the pile, after all. This Economist article documents the problem very well:

So, after hours of research, I can dismiss Mr Eschenbach. But what am I supposed to do the next time I wake up and someone whose name I don't know has produced another plausible-seeming account of bias in the climate-change science? Am I supposed to invest another couple of hours in it? Do I have to waste the time of the readers of this blog with yet another long post on the subject? Why? Why do these people keep bugging us like this? Does the spirit of scientific scepticism really require that I remain forever open-minded to denialist humbug until it's shown to be wrong? At what point am I allowed to simply say, look, I've seen these kind of claims before, they always turns out to be wrong, and it's not worth my time to look into it?

The article also makes the point that the kind of people who constantly pump out these fetid pieces of idiocy are taking pieces of research they are not qualified to understand and attempting to disprove them by sticking data in Excel and hoping they can muddle through. Somehow, the idea has arisen that understanding less statistics makes one's argument more convincing. Just as the lunatics over at Conservapedia are convinced Biblical translations will be more accurate if it's done by people who don't know how to translate, the deniers are convinced that the only way to disprove the consensus on climate science is to analyse that science without actually having the necessary comprehension. Of course, the "spirit of scientific scepticism" means that attempts must be made to check the argument, just in case this time someone miraculously has put together a compelling case, rather than just cherry-picking data or deliberately misunderstanding the current theory. While that's being done, though, Mr Who-Needs-A-PhD-When-You-Have-Excel can crank out more nonsense. Without an actual theory, they have no need to tie their points together into a hole, and the dissection of each argument makes no difference whatsoever to how aggressively they'll assert their next argument when it comes along. For each post like the one discussed in the link above that is torn down, two more will spring up to take its place. It's like a bullshit hydra.

None of this is to ignore the possibility that we might be wrong on climate change. The arguments that scientists are conspiring are obviously ludicrous, but the idea that certain theories become so entrenched that group-think makes them hard to shift even when they need shifting is less difficult to entertain, even if I don't believe that that's what is happening. Again, though, even if we do find something that forces us to fundamentally question our current thinking, we will need to create a new theory to replace the current one. It will not be good enough simply to say "This hasn't worked, so we'll just assume nothing will ever change." Because that isn't science. It's sticking your fingers in your ears and hoping the next time people smarter than you start talking, it won't scare you quite so much.

[1]The fact that the same people can make both arguments simultaneously with a straight face is pretty direct evidence of their mendacity. Arguing that we must be at either one end of a scale or the other and cannot be in the middle, there is something very badly wrong with your basic thinking skills.

Friday, 11 December 2009

Friday 40K Blogging: Size Still Matters

Now that I've completely finished my Imperial bastion I figured I'd stick some more snaps up. This time it's being manned by a krootox and its rider (which I believe to be one of only five painted miniatures yet to be featured on this blog), who is presumably suffering a slight case of weapon envy stood next to that rather impressive lascannon.

Note that the close-up reveals that my bastion is just too awesome for my small (illegally small, in fact) unit of Bretonnian knights to stand. The one on the right as you're looking at them is another of the five previously unseen miniatures. He's a Riverlands knight done up in the livery of House Paege, and I'll probably show him off better next year, when I've managed to get the unit up to an almighty four models.

Thursday, 10 December 2009

Fetch Me Your Finest Middle-Man!

This is probably my favourite American politics story so far this month, just for the sheer mind-spinning lunacy of it. Essentially, the American government can't interfere (or at any rate not meaningfully) if drugs companies massively over-price their product. However, other countries, most notably in this case Canada, can; by essentially refusing to buy the drugs unless they get a discount.

Thus, whilst every true 'Murican knows that Canada's health care system is a dystopian Socialist wilderness where you have to queue for days just to see the death panel responsible for murdering your grand mother, one unquestionable benefit with their system is that drugs are much cheaper once you get north of Michigan.

So now that the Senate has the chance to do something about it by adding an amendment to the healthcare bill, what do you think they're proposing? Finally allowing the federal government to explicitly prevent drug companies from ripping off the sick, elderly and dying?

Nope. They want to buy their own drugs back off Canada.

Drum calls this push hypocritical. I'm not sure. It's almost certainly cowardly (as Drum also notes); the government isn't willing to take the drug companies on directly so they want the Canadians to do it for them (much like the reduction of prisoners in Guantanamo turned out to be contingent on other countries taking those damn dirty Muslims off of the US's hands, because the States is just that tough), but to be honest if this is the only way the current Senate can see its way to making drugs cheaper, then maybe it's better than nothing.

So maybe the individuals aren't being hypocritical (though I suspect some most certainly are). As a complete package, though, it's more than a little ridiculous.

Also: we can add "dystopian" to the list of words Blogspot doesn't recognise. Lame!

Talisman's A Charm

There now follows the second and final part of my brief series on "Things I forced Tiger into doing over the weekend". Not content with risking the total collapse of her brain over the threat of Paranormal Activity, I was also prepared to render her mind so catatonic with boredom that she would be prepared to use the last ergs of her synaptic energy to try and kill herself with a pointy strength token.

I speak, of course, of Tiger's first journey into the world of Talisman.

In some respects, it was my first foray as well, in that it marked my initial experience with the game's latest incarnation, the first one to be produced by Fantasy Flight rather than Games Workshop. Talisman was a staple of my late adolescence, and is still played religiously once a year at Christmas, so I was understandably nervous about whether this brand new version could live up to the memories of my all-but-vanished youth.

Turns out, mercifully, that it can, just about. It's still an easy game to pick up (certainly compared with, say, Arkham Horror or Battlestar Galactica), but manages to be simple without being linear. The quality of the artwork has much improved as well. Paradoxically, though, that's my biggest problem with this new edition. 3rd Edition was absolutely packed with the zany, almost cartoony humour that dominated Games Workshop thinking for so much of the mid '90s. Looking back, I definitely think they made the right choice to tone down the madcap keraaazee in Warhammer and (especially) 40K, but for Talisman, which operated in a self-contained realm (perhaps as some alternate dimension in which the Warhammer World runs along slightly different lines), the cheekiness of the setup added massively to the charm. There is little doubt that the artwork is now objectively better (see below for a comparison), but a lot of that is in the sense of being more realistic, and greater realism isn't necessarily very helpful in a game where you might run into a ghoul and a minstrel fighting over who gets to have themselves a pet unicorn.

I guess there are advantages to the game attempting to form its own identity, rather than cribbing Warhammer's, though in the process we've lost the Citadel miniatures that were so satisfying to paint (I'm worried whether the flexible plastic pieces the latest game comes with can be painted at all). If it came down to it, though, I'd still rather play the 3rd Edition (though in fairness I'm comparing the earlier edition with all of its expansions and the latter edition with none); the only real improvement is that the experience system now works much more sensibly (no more gaining craft for beating up a few goblins, or somehow exchanging experience with banishing spirits for a bit of gold). However, whilst I don't think the new version constitutes an improvement, it manages to be almost as good. Which is to say very good indeed.

Also, whilst on the subject of Fantasy Flight Games, I want to take a moment to tip my hat to their complaints department. My copy of the Innsmouth Expansion for Arkham Horror was missing a single (albeit important) card, and having complained about this, FF sent me a replacement for the entire deck, by first class international post, entirely free of charge. Nice!

Sheer, wondrous lunacy. Dante's Inferno meets Loony Tunes.

Absolutely gorgeous, but also slightly dull. Like the middle third of 2001: A Space Odyssey. You know, the bit that was just kinda sterile, rather than absolutely goddamn terrible.

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

The Funny Pages

I am displeased that it has taken me so long to find Comics Alliance. This archive entry alone is worth it's metaphorical weight in equally metaphorical gold. Hardly a SS v X article goes by without my "research" (i.e. reading the relevant UXN profile) throwing up some insane Silver Age story in which an alien dinosaur marries an aquatic vampire in a 1 000 000 year old temple on the moon, so I'm glad someone else is keeping track.

In fact, Chris Sims quite possibly takes the prize for funniest blogger I've read this year. I hope winning this award doesn't change him. I mean, he'll say it won't, but...

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Demons And Douchebags

I have mentioned before my old friend Mad Richard (I recorded his most glorious moment for posterity here). The common theme throughout his adventures, from his refusal to stop drinking (following doctor's orders) because he believed he had two livers [1] to attempting to train an insect he thought might be a flea into jumping through hoops [2], the recurring theme is a total inability to link cause and effect, combined with the unwavering belief that he is essentially indestructible. Generally, it's pretty fun to watch, though this is somewhat less true if it takes place whilst you're in a car and he's driving.

I mention Mad Richard because he reminds me so totally of the hero in Paranormal Activity, which I dragged Tiger to this weekend (sorry for the nightmares, honey!). Spoilers follow.




First off, I enjoyed the movie immensely. It's basically a text book example of a horror film that has a series of increasingly freaky events take place in the same location and then runs through them. It's hard not to view this as somewhat derivative, it's true, but it does it so well that I have no trouble forgiving it. I was particularly impressed with the fact that it managed so well to walk the fine line between explaining so much the unsettling mystery is lost and explaining so little it becomes impossible to tie the story together. If one considers a film to be a jigsaw puzzle, it's important that the viewer has enough pieces to feel like they can make a sensible guess as to what shape the missing pieces take (compare this with, say, Ringu II, in which it feels as though someone has mixed two entirely different jigsaw puzzles together and then handed you 30% of the resulting pile). Paranormal Activity manages that very well.

Part of it's skill lies in using its conceit (a couple attempts to videotape the strange goings on in their house) to its advantage. The static nature of the camera set up to film their hallway from their bedroom (and useless a tactic though I'm sure it would be, I'm pretty sure that if I believed a demon had set up residence in my house I'd be sleeping with the door closed) allows the film to ratchet up the tension very effectively. The same location with escalating events, as I say. This is helped by the fact that the location in question includes the characters' bedroom. One of the few things I liked about Ju-On was the scene in which a woman was killed by a ghost that slid into her bed; making what is supposed to be the place we feel most safe suddenly dangerous. This concept of the invasion of privacy is one of the film's best aspects, and is one of the reasons I think the repeated comparisons to The Blair Witch Project are so lazy. You need more than just a horror film shot with camcorders, I think.

On the other hand, there is a definite connection between the two films (and many other horror films) in one important way: the narrative is entirely dependent on at least one character being unbelievably fucking stupid. In The Blair Witch Project, that person is Mike, a man so entirely unburdened by intellect his response to finding a map difficult to read is to throw the thing away. That one act is so breath-takingly idiotic that it threw me right out of the film the first time I watched it, and it took me a long time to get back in.

As idiotic as Mike clearly is, though, he's small potatoes compared to Mika, the vacant-cranium numbnuts "hero" of Paranormal Activity. This is a man whose response to a demon haunting his home is to mock its power. A man who is so convinced that the psychic who visits his house is a charlatan that he immediately wants to disobey the advice that is proffered, namely: don't use a Ouija board to try and natter with the demon. A man who, having promised his girlfriend that he won't buy such a device (Katie being something like 15000 times smarter than he is, and that's despite the fact that the demon is clearly targeting her) then goes out and borrows one, as though her only problem was the expense involved, and then immediately asks her to help him use it. A man who attempts to interrupt the argument that follows Katie's horrified realisation that the demon used the board to spell out a message whilst they were out by asking if she'd possibly help him translate what the demon had said. He won't leave. He won't call the experts. He won't listen to his girlfriend at any point throughout the entire film. He claims to be in total control, in the same way Mad Richard will claim "It'll be fine!", only whilst in the middle of a situation in which his girlfriend's life might very well be in danger.

It's a real shame, because it does real damage to an otherwise excellent film. It doesn't exactly ruin it - the rest of the film is too good for that - but it makes it much harder to buy in. And horror films need you to buy in, especially those that are trading in "realism". I've mentioned before that I think people make too much of characters behaving "foolishly" in horror films. People go to watch a film about a mad axe murderer, and judge each character's actions as though they should be aware they are in a horror film, forgetting that they themselves hear noises in the dead of night, and don't run out of the door screaming in case it turns out to be a serial killer. Mika, though; Mika is just dumb by any metric. Not leaving the house because a door is mysteriously wobbling? Fine. Not leaving because your girlfriend has suddenly developed the world's creepiest case of somnambulism? OK. Not leaving despite the fact that you have videotaped evidence that an invisible creature is leaving footprints in your bedroom while you sleep? Get. The. Fuck. Out.

Anyway. If you have a higher (or I guess even equal) tolerance than I do for characters who are too simply stupid to be believable, I really recommend giving the film ago. Be warned, though, it's not an easy task to go to bed once you seen it.
[1] And one kidney. He described the day he was disabused of this particular notion as being akin to the moment one is informed that there is no Father Christmas.

[2] This was done by filling his bath with water, placing the wee beastie on a sponge floating in the centre (to prevent escape), holding out a hoop of some kind, and then prodding the sponge until the terrified arthropod leaped desperately to safety. Experimental conclusion: subject drowned.

Thursday, 3 December 2009

Getting People's Goat

If you're having a bit of a slow day (or share at least a fraction of my interest in such things), Lawyers, Guns and Money have a brief piece up on the Monty Hall problem, a probability problem that seems to confuse an awful lot of very smart people.

I can confirm Campos' claim that the four explanations are in the right order both in terms of abstraction and difficulty. Over the years I've tried various ways to explain the problem, but all of them are variations on 2 (I grant that 3 might work better, but it requires pen and paper to write down the list, and that seems to immediately make people regress to childhood homework traumas). Certainly I'd never attempt to use the most abstract explanation 1 with anyone but another mathematician, and even then I wouldn't expect a particularly high success rate amongst geometers and numerical analysts.

I also confess to sharing in Campos' frustration regarding the near impossibility of persuading certain people to abandon their intuitive position, irrespective of how many different explanations are employed to prove it incoherent. Already the comment thread over there is overflowing with misunderstandings that it's taking all my self-restraint to not correct.

Orders Of Magnitude

I really wasn't expecting to reach 10 000 hits so soon. Sure, that's pretty tiny by the scale of almost every other blog I read (MGK gets that many hits in a weekend, not that I'm in any way bitter), but I'm very proud of my tiny outpost on the fringes of the blogohedron, and I appreciate people taking the time to look around.

It's also worth noting that the speed with which we've reached 5 figures means that it is mathematically feasible that MotCC will reach a million hits within my life time (though admittedly that requires me living to 104).

Let the great journey begin!

Also, courtesy of Pause (by way of Somethink Fun), your religious snark for the day:

Yes, "mindless followers" is hardly true for all Christians (I'd probably have gone for "Demands the consuming of blood or flesh," myself), but then it isn't really a very fair label to pin on vampires, either. Which is the greater crime?

(Edited for clarity).

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Shake #30

Today's shake: Reese's Peanut Butter Cups

Taste: 5
Texture: 6
Synergy: 5
Scorn: 6
Total Score: 5

General Comments: Since edenspresence seemed entirely incapable of shutting up about it, I have finally bowed to pressure and tried a milkshake infused with RPBC (which brilliantly sounds like a underground political movement in Communist China).

I am a big enough man to admit that I fervently hoped the shake would be terrible (even if Chuck has previously forced me to confess that the RPBC itself is oddly satisfying), so as to mock edenspresence and his feeble tasting skills. Tragically, this was not possible. It's not a particularly good shake, certainly, but it can reasonably be described as adequate. My rage was not inflamed at any point, which isn't exactly the easiest thing in the world to accomplish. The crunchy remains of the peanuts added an extra bit of texture, and it managed to not stick to the roof of my mouth as I had originally feared.

Overall, I won't be trying it again, but nor did I feel like I had been robbed of £2.60. The esteemed Mr Presence can rest easy in the knowledge that this experience has revealed him as simply misguided, rather than actually evil.

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Rights And Wrongs

Attaturk takes advantage of Rush Limbaugh's upcoming fourth-time-lucky nuptials to remind us of Limbaugh's take on gay marriage:
I really do not even think marriage is a right. Marriage is a responsibility. It’s not a gift that somebody says, ‘Hey, now it’s time for you to get married. It’s our bestowal to you.’ It’s a commitment that you make and it is a responsibility that you accept.
Attaturk believes the clammy hand of hypocrisy is stroking Limbaugh's back here, but I'm not sure I'd agree; certainly I would advise caution about implying three failed marriages is a priori evidence of irresponsibility.

My issue with this is somewhat different, and since Attaturk has brought the quote back up and since it feeds into some of my larger issues with the American (and British) Right and discourse in general, it's worth taking a moment to consider Limbaugh's statement in a wider context.

One of the most constant frustrations when engaging with many right-wingers is how totally they fail to grasp the notion that rights carry with them attendant responsibilities. The right to free speech carries with it the responsibility to not call for the extermination of Muslims, or tell people that a healthcare bill designed to save money and save lives is actually going to kill people's grandparents. The right to bear arms (not that I believe such a thing exists, though the difference between legal rights and human rights are probably best left alone for the moment) carries with it the responsibility to ensure guns are kept in safe places, are well-maintained, and aren't waved around at protests as some kind of bullshit display of force and rebelliousness. Both the greatest strength of and the greatest problem with rights is that we recognise that one retains them even whilst ignoring those responsibilities (up to a point where such violation of responsibility becomes literally criminal).

People like Limbaugh don't get that. They see every suggestion that they take those responsibilities more seriously as an attack on their rights (whether this is due to their paranoid victim syndrome, or whether said syndrome is based on this misconception, I don't know; perhaps they feed into each other). "If it is my right to do it, I cannot be criticised for doing it!" they whine. Witness Limbaugh's own temper trantrum when he discovered that after years of repeated race-baiting he found it impossible to buy an NFL team with an abundance of black players.

Limbaugh's comment is the logical (well, logical based on his own illogical axioms) corollary to the above. If marriage carries with it great responsibility (and on that narrow point at least I agree with him), then it simply cannot be a right. How could it be? If it was a right, then we could marry whomever we wanted at a drop of a hat without anyone objecting or criticising. That's our right. We could be polygamists. That's Our Right. We could marry someone on Tuesday, divorce them Wednesday, and then marry a duck on Thursday. And then shoot the duck and eat it. And then tell everyone the Democrats did it. OUR RIGHTS ARE LEGION![1]

It's kind of interesting to see someone with no capacity for self-criticism (or even self-awareness in general) come at this from the opposite angle they normally take, but both directions are mired in the same inability to recognise rights and responsibilities are not mutually exclusive, but rather go hand in hand.

[1] Just to head off potential criticism, I am not suggesting marrying someone on a whim is wrong, certainly not in the sense that inciting religious hatred or lying to the country to justify lining your own pockets is wrong. I would however say there are obvious potential problems such a move might cause, and the point remains that the fact it can be done does not mean there can be no criticism of it once it has been done.

Monday, 30 November 2009

Liberalise This

A while back I wrote a post suggesting Peter Oborne's recent radio series "Conserve What", on the nature of modern conservatism, was fairly poor, relying as it did so heavily on constructing a straw-man version of liberalism/progressivism and then defining conservatives as simply being those people who didn't like said shambling monstrosity.

I mentioned this show to C at the time, arguing that it was essentially propaganda rather than a serious political analysis, and his immediate question was "When do we get a go?"

Turns out the answer was "in about two months". Last night's Westminster Hour featured the companion piece, Richard Reeve's Political Roots.

First off, I should note that it's a little irritating that whilst conservatives got three episodes, liberals and "whatever Labour thinks they are these days" get one each. Beyond that, though, it was interesting to note how much fairer this piece was than Oborne's attempt. In truth, the actual amount of detail gone into wasn't much better that it was in Conserve What?'s first episode (almost as though 15 minutes isn't enough time to detail what liberalism is), and since I took Oborne to task for arguing conservatism isn't a philosophy but a sensibility, I should also point out Reeves' strange focus liberalism is a gut feeling rather than a considered opinion or set of dogmatic constraints. The latter isn't really something any political group is liable to lay claim to (outside of some of the more obviously lunatic members of the Republican Party), and the former is, to put it mildly, deeply unconvincing. To me part of liberalism's great strength is that it combines a deeply-held feeling that inequality and misery are bad, and then applies logical thought and expansive consideration to the question of how such things can be eliminated. I may be being unfair here, though; Reeves may simply be attempting to combat the liberal image as nothing more than stone-hearted egg-heads (and certainly he doesn't deny the rich intellectual heritage liberalism can lie claim to).

At least though a valid attempt was made to describe what liberals are, rather than just what conservatives aren't, namely people who are deeply concerned by clear inequalities in wealth and social standing, and who believe that the solution to preventing tyranny is to challenge the powerful at all times (in truth every party claims this, though not all practice it equally well), especially those powers which exist simply by force of tradition.

In fact, the only time anyone really brought up a negative comparison of conservatism was in a brief excerpt from Nick Clegg, which was immediately followed by Reeves saying something along the lines of "Of course, he would say that, wouldn't he?". It was a refreshing admission of the bias running through the program which was missing entirely from Oborne's fawning love letter.

Conservatism did come up once more, as part of an argument that "progressivism" as a label has run its course in this country, since now even Cameron is labelling himself as such. It's an interesting point, actually, though it's at least arguable that this merely indicates how deeply confused Cameron's approach (or claimed approach) to politics is. Much as with Oborne, the only way Cameron can define his approach (as indeed he did on Oborne's program) is to invent an alternative approach from whole cloth and then point out why his is better. To hear Cameron tell it, the "pure" progressive will always attempt to solve a problem by removing everything already there that can be used, so as to leave the way clear for an entirely new approach (remember Oborne's claim that removing tradition and institutions was the aim of liberals, rather than simply a price we're entirely prepared to pay in order to achieve what our actual aims are). That way he can state that his brand of conservatism will attempt to create progressive accomplishments within the framework that already exists. That is to say, he's promoting a suggestion that no rational progressive would automatically object to (though of course in any given circumstance there could be heated debate over which aspects of the current framework are and aren't necessary and do or don't do more harm than good), and is presenting it as some kind of shiny new form of revolutionary thinking. In fact, liberals might in fact take some comfort in the idea that the Conservative Party has recognised the only way back to power is to agree with us whilst pretending not to, though it would be a major surprise if Cameron's dedication to progressivism proves any less ephemeral than his definition of liberalism if and when he takes the reins of power.

All in all, it wasn't too bad, and certainly at worst was simply throwaway, rather than genuinely objectionable. So why aren't we getting more of it?