Tuesday, 31 March 2009

Shooting The Messenger

It would appear from this week's Lost that the show is about to offer its answer to the Grandfather Paradox. If Sayid's relationship with Ben resulted in Sayid being sent back in time, but then he shoots Ben dead whilst the latter is still a boy, what happens?

From what we've already seen it appears the answer is that present-day Ben falls into a coma, which makes precisely zero sense, but then this is time-travel and none of it makes any sense anyway. (Update: plus, Gooder reminds me in comments that it was a bad case of being hit with an oar that felled Ben, though of course there may be more going on there).

It did though remind me of a conversation I once had with a former girlfriend. Her theory, assuming time travel is possible, is that the Grandfather Paradox was actually irrelevant, because it would be impossible to cause sufficient change to the universe to obliterate oneself. Since you already exist, you can't have succeeded in destroying yourself. Something must have happened to prevent it. (Update: the ever-knowledgeable Pause tells me in comments that this is known as the Novikov Self-Consistency Principle; I can't remember if Rockgirl told me that at the time or not).

Because I'm a mathematician and I love having arguments, I started trying to work out the specifics of her theory. I asked whether it would be possible to find a time machine at location A at time B to go back in time, and send a letter to yourself telling you not go to location A at time B. Or, more plausibly, ask them to go to location C at time B instead. Possibly, in my case, by suggesting location C is a strip-bar with a sale on.

Her response was that the letter would be intercepted. I asked what would happen if I sent two letters, the first one and a second one, that either did suggest location A at time B, or was just totally irrelevant to anything. How would this "interception" work? How would it know which letter to block? It would be like playing Russian roulette with the laws of causality.

This was the point at which she got annoyed. Or at least, the point at which I noticed she was annoyed, which experience has taught me isn't often the same thing.

Once you get to this point, though, you're stuffed. You can't make any action that will potentially prevent you from going back in time, no matter how oblique the connection is. Absent the concept of God, then you also can't make any action that under other circumstances would potentially prevent you from going back in time. That means that either a) the universe is conscious in some sense, and prevents too much interference, or b) the universe would block any attempt at time travel whatsoever.

The latter option, of course, seems more likely. There's the other theory that each trip through time would create its own reality, which of course solves some questions and raises others, but I'm sticking with b) for now.

Anyway, that concludes this somewhat rambling post. Any other time-travel theories people want to share? Logical corollaries to my witterings? The phone lines are open...

Monday, 30 March 2009

Violent Femme-Fatales

It's increasingly important these days to find time to relax. By "these days", of course, I mean "during the desperate struggle to finish my thesis and not have it totally blow".

Currently, much of my relaxation time is spent hacking people to death with a quadruple-bladed lightsaber. Sorry, "beam katana".

I speak, naturally, of No More Heroes.

People much smarter than me have already put forward the theory that we are rapidly reaching the point where video games are liable to be constrained not by technology, but by imagination. Even comparatively early into its life, the Playstation 3 has delivered visuals so jaw-dropping it makes an old-timer like me weep in awe and confusion.

What this means is "realism" (and I've pointed out before what a strange obsession the entertainment industry has with the term) is more or less within our grasp. Again, I can claim no originality in pointing out that "real" then becomes an aesthetic choice for a game's designers, rather than a desperate hope.

(This is a bit of an aside, but I don't like realism in video games. Real life can fuck off, quite frankly. I want escapism. I don't want to play a game and think "Wow, that must be what fighting a war/piloting a fighter plane/driving in a rally is really like." I would much rather think "Wow, I can't believe I took out an insect-piloted hovertank with just a twin-barrelled rocket-launcher and judicious use of my jump-pack." It's a personal choice. More to the point, it's a personal choice about the kind of fiction one chooses to engage in).

One of the aspects of video gaming I appreciate most is the deliberate attempt to make a game according to a coherent artistic vision (Christ, I feel like such a prick typing that). Games like XIII, for example, which set out to create a video game comic (there was a Megadrive game that did something quite similar, but I can't remember it's name; any suggestions welcome). With No More Heroes, the artistic vision is "retro gaming", although the coherence is somewhat missing. Or maybe it's coherently incoherent, which now makes me feel like a prick and an oxymoronic into the bargain, but you get used to it.

The basic plot is fairly simple, you play Travis Touchdown, the 11th ranked assassin in the United States, who wants to be number 1, a desire which necessitates the brutal murder of the ten people above you. Since all ten are members of an assassins union (or maybe it's more like a club; work less, make more), you have to pay to arrange title fights. In-between, you have to raise the necessary dough in a succession of mindlessly repetitive subgames (nothing says retro like mindlessly repetitive subgames), which become increasingly bizarre (capturing kittens in the streets of Santa Destroy being a particular highlight). The nostalgic feeling of joystick-waggling (surely what the Wiimote was designed for) is accentuated by the various tinny musical stings, which sound like they could be coming out of an Eighties arcade. It's glorious.

This mining of the Eighties continues into the "plot". Travis is the ultimate extension of the desperate loser who wants to be a hero, the reductio ad absurdum of Travis Bickle or . This is a man who dreams of being a samurai, though given the skewed logic of the game said dreams manifest themselves as a vertical-scrolling which you naturally get to play [1]. When he's not firing out ludicrous macho dialogue (his first word in the game is "Fuckhead", which he shouts seemingly at random after dispatching a hapless goon), he's desperately trying to screw his handler, a willowy French girl named, what else, Sylvia Christel (at this point, two-thirds of the way through the game, it looks like she's going to put out, but we'll have to see), who spends most of her time in various states of undress for no good reason. Again, this is all very 1984 (the year, not the dystopian vision of a totalitarian future); if there isn't a scene set in a strip club by the end of the game, I'll be pretty surprised.

(That's the most clothes she ever wears, by the way.)

We need more games like this. Games that aren't just a chase for the best graphics (which the Wii is never going to be a contender for in any case), but are based around a definable concept.

Plus, on a personal level, a little bit more of this degree of total insanity would be a good thing for gaming in general. I had to apologise for being late to Blacklung's flat yesterday afternoon on the grounds that it had taken longer than expected to massacre a psychotic Polish magician, and that's the sort of excuse that should be heard more often.

[1] Once again, this revels in the idiocy of Eighties gaming titles, your samurai starts off fighting target boards, but pretty quickly they start shooting back, and then spaceships suddenly arrive and it makes no sense.

Saturday, 28 March 2009

The Non-Cancellation Blues

Hooray! Supernatural is back on form!

Well, for one episode, at least. Thursday night's tale of fallen angels and corrupted souls was the best the show has offered up since the third episode of this year, taking the show out of a slump which has pretty much lasted more than a third of the season. It's interesting to note that both "In The Beginning" and "Heaven And Hell" are both very heavy on the show's internal mythology, and the advancement of its story.

The last time I mentioned the show, I was only a third of the way through the first season, and I made some comparisons between it and The X-Files. Since I had only seen eight episodes or so at the time, I was mainly noting the differences in tone and approach for the two shows. Now that I'm three and a half years in, the differences between their development is becoming more and more obvious. In fact, there's a more general phenomenon to be considered here: the non-cancellation blues, otherwise known as "What the fuck are we going to do this year?"

It is, of course, entirely obvious that a TV show can have only one of two destinies. It can get shit, either in relative (The West Wing) or absolute (24) terms, or it can be cancelled before it has time to get shit. Those are the only options. The absolute best thing that can happen to a show is that it gets to exist long enough to explore its concept and characters thoroughly, and then get axed before it has time to begin the sucking.

Not everybody seems to get this. I don't know if this is the truth or just the bias of greater exposure, but it seems sci-fi fans get it least of all. For them it seems that the axing of any show that they have not yet learned to despise is an affront to all decency.

This is why so much of the whining about Angel getting the chop pissed me off. Every time someone used the phrases "Cut down in its prime" or "Hadn't reached the end of its life-span" my eyeballs started rolling so hard you could have used them as G-force simulators for insect astronauts. The damn show lasted five years, all of which were very entertaining (though there are significant parts of the show's fan base who hated at least one of the last three seasons), and then got knocked on the head before it had time to shake itself apart.

Given that, once you get to a certain point (in my case, after three years), then unless a show is attempting to tell a single, long-running story (of which more later), the news of its renewal becomes somewhat bittersweet. More time to tell good stories, yes, but also more opportunities to a) lose the plot and b) piss all over everything that has come before. And nine times out of ten, at least, they seem to take one or both of the latter options.

The question that occurs at this point is why do so many shows into the dumps after their first two or three seasons? I've always assumed it's because sooner or later show-runners have to make a choice as to whether they're going to shake the format up, or keep it the same. The former might mean losing whatever X-factor you originally had going for you, and the latter runs the risk of your programme going stale. It's a dilemma every show that survives long enough has to face.

Back in the day, it was almost always the policy to freeze your programme in amber. There's a reason the phrase "reset switch" came about. By ensuring nothing ever really changed from year to year, you made sure the baby couldn't go out with the bathwater (to be fair, this was also done so that the show could be broadcast in any order by idiot schedulers without it mattering). Since the early nineties, though (and that's a starting time that can be argued with), it's become increasingly common to either fashion a long-running plot throughout the show, allowing progression in that way, or to revamp the show with every passing year.

X-Files tried the former. So did Babylon 5, though the comparison is hardly fair since Straczynski knew where he was going but tied himself in knots trying to get there, whereas Chris Carter just made shit up and hoped no-one would notice. The problems with this approach are obvious. Despite Straczynski apparently mapping everything out in advance and writing in "trap-doors" that could allow an actor or actress to leave the show and it not destroy the storyline, B5 as a whole is generally considered an ambitious failure, in that Season 4 failed to live up to the standard of earlier episodes, and then dashed to the finish line, leaving Season 5 something of a directionless mess (though, in retrospect, I think an under-appreciated one). There was just too far to go, and too many things that could go wrong, a lot of which did.

Carter had the opposite problem. If you just make it up as you go along, sooner or later you'll have painted yourself into a corner. Radioactive mind-controlling oil and killer bees and cloned workforces and lies that were true and then were lies again and flying saucers that were helicopters or were they kept being mixed into a plot that eventually collapsed entirely under the weight of its own bullshit. Years later, and we're still running into the same problem (I'm looking at you, Ronald D. Moore).

My point is that a single, long-running story isn't necessarily going to stop the law of diminishing returns from kicking in, and it can provide a lot of headaches into the bargain, not the least of which is finding yourself unable to actually finish said tale, a la Carnivale.

Much as I loved the first three seasons of Babylon 5 (and thought the fourth was pretty good, too), and thoroughly enjoyed the X-Files until I realised the writers were basically just bashing random keys on particularly sinister typewriters, then, it's probably for the best that the current vogue is for year-long storylines. One shake-up may or may not work (I still maintain Season 5 of Buffy was a total fucking disgrace, even though most fans seem to think it was the best season after the main characters graduated high school), but there's always the chance next year's arc will be more interesting.

That's how we get back to Supernatural. One of the show's true strengths is the quality of it's season storylines, and how well they manage to build upon them each year without falling prey to the problems experienced by B5, or The X-Files. Or even Battlestar Galactica, for that matter, which amongst its many other faults following the exodus from New Caprica suffered from piling up too many mysteries which it was ultimately unable to satisfactorily explain.

In contrast, Supernatural's formula is so simple it's brilliant. Each season's story combines a major supernatural crisis with a deeply personal component for one or both Winchester. In the first season the disappearance of their father and the murder of Sam's girlfriend was combined with the mystery of the identity of the yellow-eyed demon who murdered their mother, and its connection to the burgeoning psychic powers of various youths including Sam. In Season 2, the demon both murdered their father and attempted to open the gates of Hell, and got Sam killed in the process. This set the stage for the third year, in which the Winchester brothers hunted those demons that escaped while the gates were briefly opened (Yellow-Eyes having had only a few moments to gloat before he was done in by a magic bullet), whilst simultaneously trying to get Dean out of the Faustian deal he had signed with the demon Lilith, in order to bring Sam back to life (this was a wonderful inversion of survivor's guilt, with the brother who had died feeling guilty about the brother who hadn't). Ultimately they failed in the latter goal, and Dean was dragged into Hell.

This season, Lilith is trying to break the seals that imprison Lucifer himself, which leads to the angel Castiel releasing Dean from Hell so that he can help in the coming war. On one level you have the possibility of the upcoming apocalypse, and on the other you have Dean's memories of Hell, in which he was first tortured for thirty years (Hell apparently being not dissimilar from Narnia time-dilation wise), and then spent another ten actually torturing others, in exchange for a respite from his own suffering. There's also the slight matter of the angels not being a fan of Sam's psychic abilities, and the possibility that Azazel, the yellow-eyed demon, might have had a more developed game plan than anyone realised.

I'm really enjoying this 66 seal storyline, certainly it's more involving than the demon-chasing of last season. It also features a horribly powerful and vicious demon apparently played by Rutger Hauer possessed by Marlon Brando, and also Castiel and Uriel, two of fiction's most awesome angels. There should be a spin-off featuring those two. "He's an angel possessing the body of an uptight white guy. He's an angel possessing the body of a wise-cracking black guy. Together: they ignore crime, because it isn't worthy of their lofty attention." I'd call it Churlish Angels, but then naming things isn't really my strong suit.

Anyway, the point is that if I wasn't enjoying the show this year, I'd know something else will show up in Season 5, something that will presumably be informed by what has gone before, but not be totally reliant on it.

I reckon that this is the best answer to the non-cancellation blues. Certainly whenever Supernatural strays off its main storyline and tries a self-contained episode; things start to go wrong. Either the story is overly reminiscent of an earlier episode, it's trying so hard to not be derivative it doesn't actually manage to be any good, or it's one of the "comedy" episodes that the show does so well (you haven't lived until you've seen a giant animated bi-polar teddy bear trying to kill itself with a shotgun), but on which it's becoming overly reliant. In that sense, at least, it's drifting into the same trap as the X-Files, though at least the funny episodes aren't all Supernatural has going for it, and said episodes manage to be funny without having to parody the wretched mess of the show's own bloated, walking corpse.

I guess there are two factors at work here. How do you keep a show heading in an interesting direction, and how do you keep the rest stops along the way refreshing. Supernatural has a convincing answer to the first problem, but so far not the second, which is something of a concern (the fact that their network is reducing the budget every year isn't helping either, there are stories of the cast having to wear their own clothes and the crew having to bring packed lunches). Still, as long as I don't have to watch another episode featuring a ghostly racist truck (I am not making this up), we should probably just count our blessings.

Friday, 27 March 2009

A Non-Problem

There's a chance that the counter for the site will stop when it hits 500. If anyone notices that this is the case, let me know in comments, and I'll try and work out what I need to do to get it running again (the rather likely answer is: pay, which would be unfortunate, though it's kind of nice to have run into this problem after less than 16 days).

Update: Apparently not. Let's see what happens when we get to 1000...

Friday Comedy: Dylan Moran

Have now sent off the money necessary to un-bollix my camera, so hopefully in a few weeks I can go back to pointing it randomly at miniatures whilst blindfolded and drunk.

Before that, though, a brief treatise on rap by one of our foremost drunken philosophers.

Thursday, 26 March 2009


I think I've mentioned Squid's First Law before, which states the universe will not only fail to deliver on anything you ever want, but it will make it look like you are going to get it until the last possible moment, because reality is a cock.

Speaking of looking like you'll get what you want, I was really happy that the Vermont state legislature was going to comfortably pass legislation to protect same-sex marriage rights. We were due a victory after the Proposition 8 cluster-fuck.

Speaking of cocks, though, Governor Douglas is going to veto the bill, even though he knows there's a super-majority in favour, meaning said veto will be overridden.

I'll put aside the obvious fact that I'm very much in favour of gay marriage, and I've yet to come across any argument against it that wasn't heartless at best, and far more often vicious and cruel and flat-out evil. I'm also aware that vetoing a bill that you know will pass anyway isn't necessarily a ridiculous idea. Sometimes a symbolic gesture is worthwhile.

Of course, such a gesture costs is cost time, which means it costs taxpayers' money, and stops the legislature from considering other issues while they vote to override the veto.
So Douglas must be making a case as to why he's wasting the legislative branch's time, right? The urgency of our state's economic and budgetary challenges demands the full focus of every member and every committee of this Legislature.
In other words, Douglas has decided that the Vermont government should only focus on the economy, and nothing else. Should anyone try to introduce any other topic, he will deal with this flagrant waste of time by flagrantly wasting time.

Governor Douglas: a dick on three different levels. Refusing to accept any definition of important but your own, objecting to time-wasting by wasting time, and, of course, deliberately disenfranchising people in your own state and not even explaining that it's because your a flaming homophobe who just can't deal with the ickiness that results.

Wednesday, 25 March 2009

The End Of The End Of The Beginning

First up, I would like to announce that I have, at long last, been judged employable, and can expect to spend the next nine months considering the inner mysteries of oil wells. This makes no difference to some of you, probably, except to say that normal service will be resumed (i.e. my rants will become longer and more X-Men based) sometime in the middle of April.

Having said I never wanted to discuss that show ever again, I find that I can't stop thinking about last night's finale. I'm suffering from a degree of confused disbelief so intense that my mind keeps absently wandering back to it, the way your tongue seems to keep heading for the gap caused by a missing tooth.

What was the point of all those flashbacks? I mean, Anders' made thematic sense (although since I'm not in the most generous of moods, by "thematic sense" I mean "A cynical ploy to make firing him into the goddamn sun seem like a reasonable fate"), and there was a nice moment with the Tighs. But Adama? Roslin? What the hell was that all about? Baltar's flashbacks seemed entirely there to remind us he comes from a family of farmers, which I guess led to a nice payoff at the end, but there was far more shown than you needed for that.

As for Lee and Kara, I'll grant that showing they were attracted to each other from the start is nice and all (though not necessarily something one need see in the final episode), but the pigeon chasing? I mocked this yesterday, but to be more clear, if your metaphors are coming from a Nelly Furtado song, you're in trouble. Such things do not belong in one of the best sci-fi shows of all time.

I will say one last thing about the ending, and then I swear I'm done. Turning a series that has lasted half a decade and impressed hundreds of thousands of people with its maturity and complexity into an extended public service announcement on the dangers of science is just, well, fucking stupid. Justifying it by having two of the most ambiguous and intriguing characters from the show explain it to you while walking down the street is an extra level of dumb. We're simultaneously getting a banal lecture on the human condition (with a point Lee had already made, and far more artfully, earlier in the episode), and then you're scrawling "THEY WERE ANGELS ALL ALONG, WOOOOOOOO!!!" on top of it. This is to say nothing of the rug pull of "All this will happen before, and will happen again," we had to endure. "DO YOU GET IT, PEOPLE!?! WE ARE THE NEXT STAGE IN THE CYCLE, WOOOOOOOO!!!" I'd spent the whole of the show thinking we would turn out to have been the first stage of the cycle. You know why? Because THAT MAKES FUCKING SENSE. Baltar even went so far last night to point out the astronomical odds of finding another race of humans that had evolved independently. I took that as proof that we were going to find out something more was going on. But what was going on was apparently "GOD TOTALLY DID THIS YOU GUYS, WOOOOOO!!!!" It's a non-explanation. Every time the show has previously talked about massively unlikely coincidences (The Hand Of God, Rapture), we now know it's because God was pissing around. Not by helping out, or anything, just by orchestrating events in a really weird way. It's pretty clear that I don't believe in an interventionist God (to paraphrase Nick Cave), but even if I did, I think it would be fair to say that I wouldn't believe in one that intervenes in ways that maximise dramatic tension.
I'm not even going to talk about Starbuck; I'm still too angry.

On the other hand, the idea of Capricans using "horns" as grave markers? Genius. In fact, there was a massive amount I liked about the finale, but 90% of it was in the first half. The second just collapsed under the weight of its own pretentious nothingness.

Update: Oh, and one more thing. I have earned my displeasure at the finale. I would just like to warn people ahead of time that anyone dissing Daybreak who has previously run screaming across the intertubes wearing "Nu Who Is Awesome And Doesn't Need To Make Sense!!" I will punch them right in the crotch.

Tuesday, 24 March 2009

The End Of The Beginning

Galactica finale spoilers. Look away now. Disappointment is something to be looked forward to.




There is a certain irony in the fact that I have spent the last year discussing my love of BSG whilst simultaneously explaining my reasoning for why "God did it" is such a terrible fall-back non-explanation that only idiots would use, only for the two fucking things to end up coinciding.

Needless to say, after five years, a certain irony was exactly what I was looking for.

Let us never discuss this show again.

Well, except to say this. If I was Ronald D. Moore, I would be attempting extensive plastic surgery to render me totally unrecognisable, not taking a bow in a last-minute cameo to drive home how much everyone has just been shafted. When your appearance is less welcome than watching Apollo chase a fucking pigeon, you know something's gone wrong, although there is a perverse level of genius in managing to rip off one of the oldest ideas in science fiction and think "What we need is to add a Dick Dastardly cartoon in here". I can only presume Caprica will involve a bizarre collection of outlandish characters attempting to hold an off-road race during an invasion by Martian tripods.

Mind you, that would be better than what I just had to sit through.

The Beginning Of The End

Alas, I must be brief, as I am back at the parental palace and thus computer time is at a premium. Mother wants to spend this evening listening to an internet broadcast by my younger brother (more commonly known as SpaceCunt).

All I shall say is, having seen the first part of the BSG closer I'm pretty sure Racetrack's surveillance photos show a Shadow Battlecrab, and thus I am predicting tonight's finale will involve Adama pitting the Galactica against the assembled might of the fleet of Z'Ha'Dum.

I have a horrible feeling that that's a better ending than will be delivered...

Sunday, 22 March 2009

Obvious Solutions

I'm actually enjoying Lost more of late. Having spent three seasons (correctly) complaining the writers were deliberately dragging their feet (I wonder how well the series will stand up to repeat viewings now that the agonising crawl to each cliffhanger isn't going to be relevant anymore), and another complaining that it's a dumb idea to telegraph the end of a season if all you're going to do is spend a dozen episodes gradually slithering toward it, it's nice to finally feel like the pacing is going well.

Can I make one humble suggestion, though. If you have two women both in love with the same two men, and those men are both simultaneously in love with both women, either flip a coin, or have a four-way. The reason people talk about "love triangles" is someone will get left out. Speaking as a man who is just as single today as he was when he started this blog, it's difficult to care about a situation in which someone has is worried he might not get the gorgeous brunette and have to settle for the tremendously attractive blond instead. It's the same reason I can't stand to watch rich people complain that the credit crunch means that they might have to choose between a new castle and their seventh yacht.


Maybe I've watched too many sci-fi and horror films, but this seems like an obvious recipe for disaster. The only thing more risky than unleashing giant robot fish into the seas (where they could get up to anything) is to do it near contaminated sites, so that these mechanised piscines can join forces with the mutant crabs and outraged dolphins. Detect pollution? They're more likely to use the pollution to create exploding starfish, or octopi that can use flame-throwers.

It won't be long before they rise from the depths to overthrow humanity. Although from the look of it, they'll start with Spain, so I guess we'd at least get to laugh at that for a while before the frenzied mecha-sharks start knocking at our doors.

Saturday, 21 March 2009

Insert Own PC Joke Here

Merseyside PC Steve Bettley has been fired for being a member of the BNP. He denies being a member, but that's for the appeal process to decide.

What I'm trying to decide is how I feel about membership in the police force being contingent on "approved" political views. It's genuinely something I'm not sure about. On the one hand, I get that the police can't function without the support (or at least the tolerance) of the general public, and that their ability to work would be seriously compromised were individual officers to be known "undesirables". The problem with that line of thought, of course, is that you could find time periods in which I would have been considered an undesirable, at least in (say) the States, and the idea that I shouldn't have been allowed to serve justice because a bunch of other people hated me isn't one I'm particularly keen on.

There's also the fact that the police are charged with following the will of the current government, in combination with the legal framework. Given that, certain political views might prove problematic in a policeman. An anarchist, for example, wouldn't be likely to make much of a constable, but then it's difficult to imagine under what circumstances an anarchist would want to be a policeman. You have to really want the job, after all, (it is not easy to get into the police force in this country, as my associate ChaosGibbon could tell you), and anarchists are less well-known for attempting to bring down the system from within than they are getting up at 3pm and scrawling graffiti across statues.

Nevertheless, the point remains that there are political impulses incompatible with policing. Crucially, though, those views are incompatible with the very mechanics of authority, rather than having a view about what authorities should do that happens to differ significantly from the mean. The implication here is that if the political party you want in charge is different enough from the one that is in charge, you can't be trusted keep the peace. That's a generalisation I'm not comfortable with.

The counter, I guess, is pretty simple. Anyone signed up with a group so viciously stupid as to have to assume that two people with the same skin colour must be essentially indistinguishable cannot possibly have the necessary brain-power to police the streets. You would hope the police would be able to tell that at the time of hiring, though, or at least work it out pretty quckly once this KKKPC starts working a beat. In that sense it's at least arguable that firing people for being in the BNP is a tacit acknowledgement that the police aren't capable of weeding out big old racists from their own ranks, which a worrying thought.

It should go without saying that I despise the BNP and all they stand for. Part of being a (hopefully) reasonably enlightened individual though is realising you have to separate how much you hate someone from your opinion of how they should be treated. This policy, if nothing else, implies we think certain political groups find that a harder thing to do than others. Which might be true, actually (there has been some interesting work done with comparing political affiliations with a person's degree of empathy), but it's something I'd like to see proved before we start deciding who can and can't be trusted to keep us safe.

Anyone else have any thoughts about this? I know if nothing else at least one of you is a policeman, though I have yet to receive any suggestion that I have any racist readers.

Friday, 20 March 2009


Man, how am I supposed to choose? Especially between Ann Coulter (the world's most evil Barbie Doll) and FOX News. That's not even an organism. [1]

Then you have to decide on traitors like Lieberman, toads like Roe or straight out motherfuckers like Rush Limbaugh.

I guess I'll have to employ the only relevant metric: which of them would I most like to see Dick Cheney accidentally shoot in the face?

Come to think of it, why isn't Cheney in the competition? Has he been classified as insufficiently politically relevant these days to be seeded?

[1] And yet, ironically, a fox is. Let me tell you, if Bill O'Reilly was forced to comment on vulpine-related stories, the world would be a brighter place. Unless you were a pregnant fox teenager, obviously.

Friday Comedy: Stuart Lee

The current consensus on "Stewart Lee's Comedy Vehicle" is that it's somewhere between disappointing and terrible (I'm on the side of the former, for what it's worth). With that in mind, it's worth reminding ourselves of how awesomely funny the man can be.

This clip, by the way, is why I'm so desperate to believe that Lee's re-use of a Garth Merenghi joke was just two men coming up with the same line independently. It's not like "He's written more books than he's read" would have taken much crafting.

Thursday, 19 March 2009

It Is I, Sidney Feldman

It strikes me as a generally bad idea to post up pictures of oneself on one's blog. Especially in my case, since I look like a fat, balding Damon Albarn, and that isn't what anyone wants to see.

Thus, in future, when you imagine what I look like whilst reading my rants, I suggest you think of Mr Octopus, the new office mascot created by BT.

Update: it occurred to me a few minutes ago that I have, in fact, posted a picture of myself up on this blog before. Since it was disguised as a portrait of Russian royalty, however, I have decided that it doesn't count.

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

Adventures With Jesus Coda

It's been a few weeks since "Free" ended, so I've had some time to sit and think about what was said, and where I stand on it all.

I think one of my major problems with the presentation of Christianity offered during main event week was that it seemed to conflate two entirely separate ideas. The first is that there is a God who both created and controls the universe. The second, which assumes the first is true, is that since God is pulling the strings of our reality, then we should be grateful for everything we receive, since God purposefully gave it to us.

Sometimes it seems that people spend too much time debating the first point (which is probably to remain forever unprovable, arguments about Occam's Razor and increased complexity notwithstanding) rather than dealing with the second.

Certainly the jump between the two seemed something the various speakers were happy to make without comment. If God created me, went the argument, and He made the coffee I drink, and the friends I mock, and the doggies I occasionally try to explain mathematics too, then surely that's something worthy of thanks. Well, that wasn't quite what was said, so much as failing to give thanks is an infinitely odious sin which is worthy of eternal punishment, but that's just semantics.

This in itself isn't necessarily a problem. My issue arrives only when it's combined with the argument, which I discussed before, that we should accept that our suffering (beyond that caused by our fellow man, obviously) is all part of a greater plan that we can't understand.

On our own level, we know that we can be grateful for what we receive without being able to blame people for what we don't have. We thank your parents for what they buy us, but we can't blame them for what they're unable to get for us. "Daddy won't buy me a pony" isn't a valid excuse for complaint. And yes, the difference, of course, is that God could by you a pony, if He wanted, and make it talk, and be able to fly, and fight crime. But then since it's possible (and indeed highly probable) that much of what we think we want we're wrong about, and much more of what we think we want we do genuinely want but would lead to problems, God's refusal to spoil us rotten isn't necessarily a huge surprise.

Every now and again, though, something comes across as so unbelievably vicious that the argument above doesn't hold. I can believe that some good will come of being an athsmatic, for example. Terminal cancer? Not so much. Losing your legs to a shark attack. Having your family crushed by debris during a hurricaine. Drowning in the dark after being trapped in a cave. These are gifts from God, too. Why can't I dislike them? Because they are a part of a plan.

But that means my Wii is part of the plan, too. So is my car. So is being smart enough to write maths papers. Why, then, should I be grateful? If God needs me to have those things in order to assemble his perfect universe Mechano set, then I should feel lucky, because that's what I am, but grateful?

I've mentioned before that I don't believe in free will, or at least that someone will have to conclusively prove that true randomness occurs before I will entertain the suggestion. I tend to imagine the universe running entirely along deterministic lines, with you and I just reacting in accordance with atomic physics as we intersect with gravity and chemicals and magnets. We have the illusion of choice (which is a pretty damn important one, obviously), but the truth is we're just following the railway tracks of causality. What we have in this life is nothing but the complement of what we don't have. There's no deserving anything, and no receiving (or not) what you've earned. Not really. We pretend there is, because you need to in order to function, but that's all. All there is is luck, which is our word for not knowing what's coming around the next bend in a track that was laid down before we were born.

This particular view of Christianity comes to exactly the same thing. We don't and can't control our actions, because all this is just a puppet show being played out for God's amusement. Everything we have is just due to blind luck, from our frame of reference. The deterministic universe theory tells me I met a pretty girl because of the knock-on effects of atoms that happened to run into other atoms, so on back to the beginning of time. This particular idea of Christianity tells me I met her because it was the next move in an incomprehensibly complicated game of Solitaire. I just happened to be the playing piece who got pushed forwards that time. Somewhere else, someone is burning to death in a fire. I'm supposed to be grateful, and he's supposed to recognise his death is part of a larger plan.

People have a tendency to claim what they have (or want to have) is deserved, and what they lack (or have lost) is just down to bad luck. Fate is what you cite when you're getting your own way. Again, if you don't make use of this illusion on some level, you're going to have a miserable fucking life. But it is an illusion nonetheless. It's therefore no surprise that religion has taken this idea to the next level. "Everything you deserve is coming, and everything crap that happens is in order to make everything perfect, and once you die you'll get to join in."

Which is fair enough as a theory, I'm just objecting to the idea that a pawn should thank a player for turning it into a queen, so as not to seem ungrateful. Certainly I have problems with combining that with that queen immediately being sacrificed in order to set up check-mate, and the player telling her she should just shut up and get over it.

God can have gratitude, or He can complete control. He can't have both.

Fun With Calcium Carbonate

Some enterprising soul has drawn a picture of Barack Obama in chalk outside the library on the Science Site. Which is pretty cool in itself. What makes it even better is that there's a check-list beside the picture, which says something like:
  • End war;
  • Close Guantanamo;
  • End immunity from persecution for war criminals.
Only the first two are ticked. Which works as political statement in terms of what Obama's said, but in terms of actual list-checking it tells us that this is a chalk drawing of President Obama scratched out on paving slabs from the future. Tell me that isn't awesome.

I really wish I had had my camera on me (or at all, though the repair work will start this week) so I could show it to you. It's wonderful.

Tuesday, 17 March 2009


If anyone has any comments about tonight's Galactica, then keep them to your damn selves. I have decided to watch both parts of Daybreak whilst surrounded by doggies in my parent's house a week from now, and I don't need you people messing that up for me.

Which is not to say I don't love y'all, obviously...

New Rules

J-Dog: Success! I have put together my six-month work plan, and it only has one thing on it.
SpaceSquid: Is it something particularly tough?
J-Dog: Nope. Prevarication awaits! I shall become a gentleman of leisure. I may or may not learn to smoke a pipe.
Bighead: Unless the overlords find out, then they'll throw every spare lecture they have at you.
J-Dog: Shudder.
SS: I thought you wanted to talk more shit at more twats?
J-Dog: That's Black-Lung. I want to keep the twats away at all costs.
SS: You could build a castle for yourself and fill the moat with crocodiles.
J-Dog: We could cast the twats into the moat from the tallest towers. Those that successfully escape will be judged worthy.
SS: Then we'll burn them as witches.
J-Dog: Of course. No mere human could negotiate the moat of crocodiles.
SS: And then those that survive the bonfires as well shall be given jobs in the stats department. If you can make it through a crocodile attack and prove to be made of asbestos, you must be worth hiring.
J-Dog: Surely if they're made out of asbestos the crocodiles won't eat them anyway.
SS: Good point.
J-Dog: We've rendered the crocodiles redundant. That's no good. After all the money we've shelled out for them.
SS: They could serve in an advisory capacity.
J-Dog: I'd really rather they were eating someone. How about we replace the burnings with something else?
Bighead: Get them to dress up as puffins and then punch them in the face?
J-Dog: What?
SS: Different dialogue. It's a long story. How about we get them to bring a puffin, as some kind of quest?
J-Dog: It would make for an interesting invitation to interview. "Meet us at midnight on the Sabbath near Castle J-Dog. Bring a puffin."
Bighead: "Do NOT wear crocodile skin".
SS: It would certainly sidestep the need for all this A* at A-level bollocks. And the Russians in the department would finally stop whining that our intake aren't as well-taught as those in Moscow.
Bighead: No, they'd start whining that they weren't as effective at fighting flesh-eating lizards.
J-Dog: "Crocodiles twice as vicious under Communism."
SS: That's just because they're trying to keep warm. Moscow State University really isn't the best of places for reptiles.
J-Dog: Or parasitic academics.
Bighead: That's why they end up over here. Time to get rid of them, I say. Any suggestions?
SS: I have this idea involving cobras...

Monday, 16 March 2009

Other People's Musings

Robert Farley has a nice post up discussing the Galactica's similarity to a Russian aircraft carrier, as oppose to an American one. It's nice geek reading.

I have to pick him up on this, though:
This leads to another (even nerdier) question; why do the Cylons and the Colonials only have capital ships? And why do they only, apparently, have one type of capital ship, rather than a specialized selection?
I would have thought the answer regarding the Colonial Fleet would be: what the hell are you talking about? With the exception of a few seconds of space combat in Razor, we have seen exactly three battlestars. One was on a secret mission requiring a carrier, so that a stealth fighter could be launched. The other two survived the attack on the colonies by blind luck. Why is there any reason to believe that just because both surviving ships are battlestars that no other class of capital ship exists? Or smaller vessels, for that matter. The whole point of the intial attack was that military ships went down across the board, from vipers to battlestars to space stations.

The Cylon question is a better one. If I were to guess, I'd suggest the following possibilities:
  • The baseship is the fastest Cylon capital ship, making it the only practical choice for long-term operations following Galactica;The baseship is the largest and most durable ship, meaning that if, as seems plausible, the Cylons really did abandon the Twelve Colonies to head for Earth with their entire population on board, they were the logical choice of conveyance;
  • A race that has only twelve different human models, along with hybrids, centurions, and raiders, either sees little use for variation, or is restricted by their own lack of it.
Any other suggestions?

Isolationist Imperialism

A brief Larison dose for you all. This time he's commenting on the seemingly infinite capacity for the American establishment to accept the difference between a country entering into an alliance with them, and that nation agreeing to a slavish devotion to America's whims across the board, no matter how objectively fucking mental they are.

As usual, the post is worth reading in full, but my favourite part is this:
More than that, it is not only that compromise that has been treated as virtual treason, but that allied disagreement has been viewed in the same way. In this cracked view, allies are supposed to understand that alliance is not a mutual relationship, they are not really our equals and they are supposed to do what they are told. Having deliberately built up a military supremacy and discouraged every European effort to develop its own parallel defense force, Washington then complains about the lack of military contributions from Europe; Washington wants Europeans to be pacific wards under our protection and auxiliaries in our wars, but it cannot have both. The most annoying consequence of these contradictory expectations is that it provokes a feeling of outrage at European “ingratitude,” when the core of anti-Europeanism is its profound ingratitude toward the nations from whom we received almost our entire civilization. Here is something else to ponder: had Washington defined Cold War-era relations with NATO allies by their willingness to back us in Vietnam, this contradiction in the U.S.-Europe relationship would have been exposed a long time ago. At the end of the Cold War, I think many in Washington perceived western Europeans as something akin to our deputies in policing the world, and these people have been continuously disappointed to find that European states have their own interests that do not necessarily fit this role.
It's always worth pointing out that even if a country wanted to do America's bidding whenever possible (and that certainly seems to British policy ever since Vietnam), this would be difficult to impossible because of America's tendency to pull in several different directions at once. This can be blamed on that country's refusal to consider international relationships holistically. Every problem is treated in total isolation, and the effectiveness of the whole suffers. This was especially acute under Bush, whose administration seemed absolutely determined not to consider the links between anything at all (this is the exact opposite of Wotan's problem which I keep banging on about, keeping all things separate makes applying power very easy, but pretty much guarantees disaster overall) but there's little reason at present to expect any truly great improvement regarding foreign policy under Obama.

What I Learned This Weekend: By 'Eck Edition

1. The Sheffield Space Centre is a geek shop, not an attempt to put the first Yorkshire man into orbit as I had hoped. Not that he would appreciate it anyway, beyond the fact that there would be no reason for him to have to reach for his wallet once he left the troposphere.

2. Certain eating establishments in Sheffield are following Goth Dave's Girls 'n' Noodles principle; the worse your food, the hotter those serving you have to be. This is actually a fairly useful relation. I wouldn't want to use this blog to objectify women, but I can just tell you that my fish and chips tasted of washing-up liquid and you can then apply the law of inverse proportionality.

3. Women wearing leopard-print jackets and sunglasses at night should not be approached, or even acknowledged in bars, no matter how loud their theatrical sighing becomes.

4. Trams are cool. We need more trams.

5. Contra Ibb (amongst others) it is entirely possible to meet people you have only previously known over the internet and them not turn out to be bastards, or try to kidnap you, or all have to sit around in silence because no-one can type the relevant smilies.

Sunday, 15 March 2009

SpaceSquid vs. The X-Men #21: Speaking Ill Of The Dead

America has a lot of problems dealing with its own past. I guess every country does, to one degree or another, but whether its their culture, their power, their youth as a nation, or merely a corollary to all the douchey things they've done [1], the US seems particularly confused about its role in history.

I touched on this briefly during the discussion of Sunfire, and the State's curious post-war attitude to the Japanese compared with the Germans or Italians. I posited a number of possible reasons for this. The one that I didn't mention, but will now, is the idea that the Americans had to pitch their national attitude toward Japan between confusion and hate, because there was no other way to wash their hands of dropping two nuclear bombs upon major population centres.

Now, I'm not saying the States are the only country to ever have caused massive death and suffering under the theory of "better them than us". Nor am I even arguing that dropping the nukes was objectively wrong (which is not to say such is or is not my position, it just isn't relevant here). I'm just saying that after a country kills (or seals the fate of) more than 200,000 people, mainly civilians, in the space of four days, it will almost certainly attempt to find ways to salve its collective conscience. [2]

You see where I'm going with this. If you can't cope with massacring a bunch of people on the other side of the world over the course of a week without trying to argue they kinda deserved it, then how do you deal with the fact that your country is built on the graves of millions of dead Native Americans, who you killed over hundreds of years with family members that are still with you today, squashed into whatever corners of the continent you've decided to let them keep?

This isn't the place to go through the various outrages the settlers perpetrated against the Indians (and in the sake of fairness, not all of them were foreseeable at the time, and the Native Americans did genuinely benefit in certain ways), the point is that hundreds of years of conflict and confusion and bad blood and repressed guilt and wilful denial has left the attitude of the American majority to its forebears almost impenetrably fucked up.

It seems logical to assume that anyone wanting to add a Native American to the X-Men roster would approach the task with all this spectacular amount of cultural and moral baggage in mind. However, if it's 1969 and you're Len Wein, you might just decide to have him hate white people, think his tribe are pussies for losing, and get him to make constant references to Native American history. You know, the basics.

By the end of his first appearance in Giant-Size X-Men #1, John Proudstar has already referred to Professor X as Custer, [3] and told Cyclops he hoped he wasn't being led into another Little Big Horn, which would be a lot like Henry VII suiting up for a battle and saying "This better not turn out to be another Bosworth Field, that's all I'm saying", i.e. it's about the most ridiculous historical analogy imaginable.

I figured I could make an entire article out of slapping Wein around for such tone-deaf writing. On the other hand, though, he was equally ham-fisted with the rest of the new recruits as far as cultural markers went. Sure, it probably wouldn't have taken long to find a battle in which the Apaches got their arses kicked, but then it also wouldn't have taken long to discover that Irishmen do not, by and large, say "laddy" every other sentence. Slapping around Sixties comic writers for a lack of subtle national idiosyncrasies isn't really worth the effort.

Being equally shit across the board isn't really an excuse. What stayed my hand ultimately was when I realised I might be looking at this from exactly the wrong angle. Rather than wonder how anyone could write such a terrible example of a Native American character after everything that had happened before, I wondered whether there was any way to reconcile Thunderbird's behaviour with that history.

Ever heard Where Is Home, by Bloc Party?
The second generation blues
Our point of view not listened to
Different world and different rules
A question of allegiance

Where is it?
Where is home?

The second generation issue is a fairly common one in this country. How does one react to being born into a massively different culture to the one your parents grew up in? Some ignore their parents' culture, some embrace it to an extent incompatible with British culture, but for many, and probably most, the struggle comes in attempting to balance that which can't be balanced.

That's for those separated from their family history by distance, though. Proudstar is separated by time. Compounding the problem, his parents died when he was a child, leaving him to be raised by his grandfather, which probably didn't help matters as regards striking the right balance of cultures. It may not be any wonder that confused and pointless cultural references are par for the course. John Proudstar is a man searching for an identity, only he can't find it, because all he has is rage. Rage at the interlopers for stealing his country, and then rage at own people for not being strong enough to stop it from happening. He's so angry with Caucasians he joined the US Marines to prove himself, attempting to demonstrate his superiority by doing what the white man wants as efficiently as possible. A few years later, he does it all over again, signing up with Xavier essentially because the latter man called him chicken.

I guess it all comes down to three choices. Fight the system, ignore the system, or succeed in the system. Which is true for all of us, obviously, though some of us at least get to make the choice with respect to "our" system, whatever that means. I would be somewhat surprised had that been Wein's intent, but it makes sense, and it has the advantage of defining the character directly. Whilst, as I say, a degree of caution and understanding would have been desirable in creating James Proudstar, that really only gives you an idea of what you can't do. It's colouring in the borders, nothing more.

Anyway, Thunderbird goes completely for option 3. If the world is a game run by white men, he's going to make damn sure he beats them at it. Each new challenge is an opportunity to prove he's the strongest, or the fastest, or the most determined. Each success is crowed over, each failure leads to one of those bizarre outbursts of simultaneous sullen self-pity and needless aggressive fronting most commonly observed coming from hormone-crazed teenage boys. Ultimately, Proudstar's obsession with demonstrating his worth leads to him jumping aboard a departing Harrier jet, so as to get to its pilot, the villain Count Nefaria. Despite knowing full well that Banshee could have stopped the plane easily were he not in the line of fire, Thunderbird insists on destroying the plane himself, which not surprisingly gets him killed.

Maybe that was the intention all along, whether or not he realised it. Believing his last act a success, maybe Thunderbird didn't want to risk another. This battle he had won, but I don't think he ever believed he could win the war. The Apaches knew that early on in the hills of Arizona. The US Marines realised it quickly enough in the stinking jungles of Vietnam. We all know that, one way or another, we're going to fail eventually, and fail so badly we can't recover. There's just too many different directions we have to run, and too many measures by which we can fall short. Any situation in your life has a geometric distribution, you succeed until you fail. And a lot of the time, those successes aren't worth the price you pay for them, and the failures not worth the effort you put into fixing them. If you think Thunderbird was crazy for jumping through "Custer's" hoops, I bet it takes you all of thirty seconds to think of a time in your life when you tried to succeed at something for the worst possible reasons (I'll bet further that it involved someone you wanted to interfere with sexually).

This is where the Neil Young quote at the start of this post comes in. It's a sentiment that holds some attraction in certain situations (artistic endeavour for one), but a human life isn't one of them. I have to admit, though, that Thunderbird's solution is at least internally consistent. Why keep running until you trip, when you can just stop the race while you're winning? I suppose my problem lies with the underlying principle that it's the wins and the losses are what we're meant to be fixing on. All that does is guarantee a loss, in this case the first death among the X-Men's ranks (aside from Changeling, who a) was already dying, and b) was masquerading as Professor X at the time anyway), all for the chance to stop a single villain who had already been bested.

It's pretty hard to not see that as a life wasted. Crucially, though, I'm sure Thunderbird would disagree (certainly he'd tell me to fuck off and mind my own business). For him failure was the waste, and by succeeding on his own terms (horribly warped though they may have been), it was a waste he avoided, and there was nothing more important to him.

I guess there are worse fates than getting what you want.

That's the last SS v X for a little while; what with me having a thesis to write, and papers to either review or sell. Once I have some spare time again, though, we'll make a start on those recruits of the 1970's, starting with the decidedly Marmite-esque Shadowcat.

Update: Mozz points out in comments that I was talking smack yesterday; Shadowcat is the first recruit of the 1980's. For some reason I'd forgotten Giant-Size ended a five-year hiatus.
Oh, also, I found this site whilst checking up on Proudstar's history. I suddenly feel much better about the Musings as an entity.

[1] You could also argue it has something to do with the myth of American Exceptionalism. Let's see if this line of reasoning sounds familiar. You did something bad, but you're totally awesome, therefore there must be some reason why it wasn't your fault, or alternatively it was actually a good thing to do, and people just can't understand that, because they don't realise how great and special you are.

It's almost impossible to observe any discussion of American foreign policy without someone putting forward a variation on that argument. Of course, the same is true of any discussion of American policy on anything at all. Or when people of any nationality are trying to justify their own bad behaviour, on any level. This is because people are almost invariably hypocrites, but then you knew that.

[2] I'm speaking in massively general terms, obviously. I don't think it's really necessary to point out that I'm not implying everyone in the States approved of the bombings, or attempted to justify them ex post facto as being a reasonable thing to do. I am pointing it out, though, because if the internet teaches you anything it's that someone somewhere will be obtuse enough to deliberately infer a position, no matter how retarded, simply because it isn't specifically refuted. This is because people are almost invariably idiots, but then you knew that, as well.

[3] Despite the fact that there is no apparent similarity beyond the fact that both are white, and despite the fact that the Apaches (coming from areas in what are now Arizona and New Mexico) had nothing to do with Little Bighorn (which mainly involved Sioux and Cheyenne tribes), which was fought in Montana.

Friday, 13 March 2009

Friday Comedy: Rob Newman

You probably have to be a Cure fan to get the most out of this. I was snorting my latte through my nose all the way through.

That's all until Monday, folks; I'm spending the weekend getting drunk in England's most land-locked city. Everyone stay good while I'm away.

Oh, and still no update on my bleeding camera.

Thursday, 12 March 2009

Warning: Your Priest Could Be Teh Gay!

I'm not putting this under the "Big Bloke With Beard" label, because the people it criticises are clearly operating from a position of outrageous hypocrisy in order to protect an institution, and the fact that said institution is the Catholic Church isn't really the point. This isn't about religion, it's about people with a great deal of power trying harder to keep that power than properly apply it to help the people they're supposed to.

Obsidian Wings linked to this the other day as part of a larger post on Catholic priorities for excommunication (which is worth reading) following recent events in Brazil, which is how I got hold of it. I know it's seven years old, but it still makes for an interesting (and rather depressing) analysis of how hypocritical and wilfully illogical the Catholic hierarchy (and many other hierarchies, in fairness) are prepared to become in order to find a quick fix (blaming gays) to a monstrous and serious problem (child abuse by priests).

Really, read the whole thing.

And There Was Much Rejoicing

Yay! Musings of the Cosmic Calamari is one year old today! And as a birthday present, I've added a counter, so as to get a better idea of how much traffic I get (prediction: precious little).

Here's to another year of vitriol and pointlessness.

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

All That You Can't Leave Behind

Galactica time again, folks. Look away now, those not two episodes away from end of line.




The theme of Islanded In A Stream Of Stars: having to leave things behind. Witness:
  • Adama having to leave behind Galactica herself;
  • Tigh having to leave behind the quaint fiction that he bears no responsibility towards the skin-jobs;
  • Four different groups having to leave behind their dead in the vacuum of space (loved that funeral scene);
  • Kara having to leave behind Starbuck; [1]
  • Boomer having to leave behind being happy over anything ever again;
  • Helo at least thinking he has to leave behind his child, and probably his marriage, too;
  • Roslin having to leave behind her life and her home;
  • Galen having to leave behind showing up in the fucking show, as part of the more general problem of the writers having to leave behind explaining what the fuck keeps happening to anyone who does naughty things;
  • Galactica as a show having to leave behind being even remotely subtle, as oppose to just beating you about the head like a lunatic old man with a paintbrush, shouting SOON WE WILL BE GONE AND YOU WILL MISS US.

I really don't have anything more to say. This was obviously another episode of jostling for position before the charge, a sufferer of the exact same malady which afflicted the first half of the season, and once again a reminder of the irony that so many whined that Season 3.5 was insufficiently arc-based.

Should Daybreak kick enough ass, this episode will probably come to be seen as a pause for reflection, the selah that separates Ellen's revelations from the end of the journey. It's entirely possible, and serialised (or semi-serialised) TV series often work better as complete works then they do episode by episode. I've said before that set-ups like this live or die on the quality of their pay-offs.

Of course, the last time I said that, I was talking about Matrix: Reloaded, so I'm pretty skeptical right now.

[1] Oh, and wow, is she stupid. Telling Baltar she's a zombie? He's either a religious nut, which she doesn't believe anyway, and thus liable to pull some stupid-ass stunt with what he knows, or he's still the same crazy, selfish weasel he always was, and will thus pull some stupid-ass stunt with what he knows. I guess I should be willing to forgive her, though, since a) it's totally in her nature to knock all the pieces over in the hope something good happens, and b) at least she was trying to move the plot along instead of whinging.

More With Less

I've been trying to sort out how I feel about this new initiative to swipe talented professionals from other jobs and slap them into teachers. My original, visceral reaction was that, as tiresome as I found a lot of things in my PGCE, it's not immediately obvious how fully one-half of it could be jettisoned without adversely affecting the quality of the course.

I'm still wondering that, but I think that there's a series of more specific questions that need answering.

  1. How is the entrance criteria going to be determined? It's all very well claiming only the most talented will be chosen, but how does one determine how well, say, a chemical engineer will do in the classroom purely based on his job performance to date? Moreover, why can't this litmus test, whatever it is, be applied to graduates fresh out of university?
  2. What evidence is there that to suggest that there a significant (or even non-zero) number of professionals whose only reason for not going into teaching is that the training course is a full year? Low wages, high stress, and poisonous children are the reasons I've most often been given by those who have left teaching or who don't want to even try it. The latter two won't be changed by this new scheme, and if the pay structure is different for those who go through this alternate route, then that's going to cause real problems with regard to teacher morale. The unions would shit out their own heads, too.
  3. Following on from the above, is the implication here really that half a standard PGCE course is designed to professionalise graduates and permit crappy applicants to get up to speed? Is there any evidence that either of these things is necessary in any case? In other words, what is it that prevents the current standard course from being truncated, other than the nebulous idea of talent?

With regard to that final question, I am of course willing to grant that there are plenty of crappy candidates that get on PGCE courses. I trained with some of them, and far more of them passed than were failed. It seems obvious to me that you have to be a pretty fucking awful teacher before you're worse than no teacher at all, which is why these people get through (and why anyone ever who starts wittering about kicking out failing teachers without changing any other aspect of the status quo is talking out of their arse).

So in theory I can get on board with the idea that you could tighten up entry requirements and then shorten the course without the worst graduates from your new course being any poorer than those of the original PGCE. As I say, though, how well can any set of entry requirements filter out those who aren't particularly talented at teaching? As a job it requires a pretty unique mix of skills, that are difficult to test in isolation and as far as I know impossible to test in combination, except by practice. Which is why it took me a year to qualify, because there's only so fast anyone can read up on educational theory, discuss it, and put it into action, no matter how awesome an accountant they used to be.

All of which is to say nothing of the inherent problems with running two simultaneous training courses, saying one is for more talented people, and then letting the graduates from both into the same job market. It's pretty worrying that the government's answer to PGCE's being insufficiently attractive is to tempt the best and brightest into an alternative scheme. If this goes forward, applicants for PGCEs will be those either rejected by the brand new uber-teacher scheme (now with 50% less actual fucking work) or be ineligible to enter it in the first place; why else sign up for six months you don't need? So on top of all the reasons people don't like the idea of teacher training to begin with, now you've got people with a chip on their shoulder and in some cases a priori evidence of being sub-optimal candidates, who have to work twice as long to get to the same place, and then compete against those who are coming down from the shining city on the hill for the same positions.

In summary, I'm far from convinced many people would want to take advantage of this scheme, and I'm even less convinced that it proving popular would be an even remotely good thing for the profession as a whole.

Update: I mentioned this to a friend of mine still in the profession whilst at the quiz this evening. We agreed that as far as we could see, training someone to be an effective teacher in six months would be impossible, though perhaps one could spend that time building a robot to do the job.

I should have guessed that the Japanese would be one step ahead...

Tuesday, 10 March 2009

SpaceSquid vs. The X-Men #20: The Russkie

The thing about Colossus (aka Piotr Nikolievitch Rasputin) is that there's actually two things about Colossus, and they don't sit particularly well together (though one can draw a straight line between them). Which, as we'll see, is oddly appropriate.

Let's go with the most interesting part first. Some of you might not want to read this whole thing. Or read it at all. Or read any of these things at all, which just makes me a guy standing on a street corner waving a crumpled comic around. Which, let's be honest, is more interesting than a Big Issue seller, though any given Big Issue is somewhat less than 41,000 words long and doesn't insist on serialising itself over the course of two years. Nor is it likely to be this needlessly self-referential.


Let's go with the most interesting part first.

There's no such thing as a continuous variable. Not really. Not out there in the world, anyway, which is the only way a variable can be meaningful, and not just useful. The universe is a grid, the Planck values the spaces in-between each intersection. We don't walk through our lives, we jump from point to point, imperceptibly, solving Zeno's paradox in the simplest way possible.

If the universe isn't continuous, then, if the sliding scale is really only a ladder with rungs to close together to see, then that makes us a grid as well. Our anger doesn't swell, it increases by increments. God can measure precisely the degree to which we love someone, or hate them, or miss them, using the units only He knows.

Which is fine, in general, because for most of us it doesn't make any difference. For most of us, if you can't see the gaps, the gaps don't exist. We see a rainbow, not a collection of water droplets. The illusion is key. [1]

Sometimes, though, a person's gaps are all too obvious. Sometimes someone can only be described as digital, and the illusion breaks.

Colossus is digital. He's either flesh and blood, and just a man, albeit one of well-above average strength, or he's made of steel; an unstoppable powerhouse of cold metal. There is no in-between. Storm gets to play with the entire Beaufort Scale. Gambit can charge cards to explode, or just to light a room. Even Cyclops has a visor to stop him tearing off people's heads every time he does a double-take? Colossus either punches you through a wall, or he leaves you alone. There's just too many gaps between the two, and Colossus has to jump them all. Practice and experience might help around the edges, but there comes a point where an object is so heavy that it's either immobile, or it's going to crush you. Momentum is a scale as well, but it ticks up pretty fucking fast sometimes.

We've talked before about the perils of power. The more you have, the harder it is to use, because the more dominoes you'll knock over between here and there, where there is an unknown future where you're wife gets killed, or what have you. Wagner's Wotan couldn't apply his power because he knew applying pressure to any point would cause the universe to collapse around him. Black Bolt has the same problem, which if nothing else proves you can do far worse as a comic book writer than steal from German opera. You could even make an argument that Colossus' problems are a microcosm for the ungainly might of the USSR at the time of his creation, but since Colossus has never liquidated any peasants or tried to invade Afghanistan, I'm not sure how far you'd get with the analogy.

The illusion comes apart. Colossus isn't a superhero, he's a blunt instrument, or no instrument at all. He is a tool other superheroes use, when they can, and one they hope keeps out of trouble when they can't.

I guess it's no surprise Colossus is an artist. It's the one place the illusion holds. A sketch is a memory, not a collection of carbon molecules spread across paper.

Here's the other part. The lesser part. The totally shit part, if you will, though I guess your mileage may very, especially if you lie within the intersection of the Venn diagram of X-Men fans and people who think Mills and Boon novels are too much like hard work.

Let me know if this gets too tough for you. Colossus is strong, right? Really strong. So strong that he could be the biggest dick in the world if he wanted (c.f. Juggernaut). But he isn't. He's really nice. He is, not to get too technical, a "gentle giant."

Still with me? Strong, but sensitive. These are direct opposites which create dramatic tension.

Except they don't, really. Maybe they once did, and given enough spin on them they still can to some extent, but these days the whole idea is so horrifically cliche it makes my spin curl. Say what you want about Thunderbird III, but at least he spent the time he wasn't worrying about killing people with his awesome power trying to fuck everything that moved, rather than moping like a bitch. When Piotr isn't mooching about over not being any use to the team because he can't actually do anything without squishing people like ants, he's fucking up women left, right and centre because he can't distinguish between being naive and inexperienced, and just being a total fucking tool. Every time Colossus appears in the same panel as Shadowcat, or any woman he has any interest in, the subtext starts screaming "LOOK HOW HARD IT IS FOR THE METAL MAN TO BE FLESH AND BLOOD EVERYONE", and I lose interest. It doesn't help that most of it is his own fault. The man is incapable of seeing anything from anyone's perspective than his own, a fault that over the years has led to him joining Magneto's Acolytes and punching Pete Wisdom hard enough to almost kill him from cranial bleeding (the reason for this: Wisdom dared to be dating Colossus' ex, whom he split with after cheating on her).

I guess it's no surprise Colossus is an artist. An artist gets to imbue a piece with the exact emotions he wants, in the exact amounts. He gets, in effect, total control. The scales are his to do with as he pleases. I said you could draw a straight line between the two halves..

The one time that it all came together was on the day Colossus died. Years earlier, he lost his younger sister Illyana to the Legacy Virus. There was a lot of moping, of course, and the subtext started yelling again ("HIS AWESOME STRENGTH WAS USELESS AGAINST DISEASE HOW CLEVER IS THAT!?!"), but the horror of his loss led ultimately to greater understanding. He began to realise that there were other ways to fight for what he believed in than punching a hole in it. When an opportunity presented itself to cure the Legacy Virus at the cost of his own life, he didn't think twice. All he had to do was inject himself with the cure and activate his mutant power. Jump all those gaps, from flesh to steel and plague to cure and life to death. If you can't make your jumps smaller, you have to make your goals further away [2]. That storyline was probably the first time Colossus got anywhere beyond pointless-to-irritating on my patented tolerance scale of X-Men. As this series of posts have ably demonstrated, that isn't an easy thing to do.

Of course, all of this was undone by Whedon of course, the great big bastard. Seriously, in general I'm all in favour of the Big W (as he likes to be called), but bringing back Colossus pissed me off in the extreme. His sacrifice was so perfect, the ultimate fuck you to both his image as being nothing by a whiny powerhouse (which, admittedly, I have embraced throughout this post) and to the quiet little virus that killed his sister, and which had been ravaging the Marvel Mutant Universe for around a decade of real time. It's not everyday you get to combine a satisfying ending with poetic justice and tidy bookkeeping. [3]

As far as I can tell, Whedon only brought him back to make playing with Kitty more fun, before apparently killing her off. For a lot of comics fans, that's like bringing back Jason Todd and involving him in a chain of events that ends up killing Batman (what's that? Well, fuck you, DC). Since I don't really like Kitty either, though, for me it's more like resurrecting Jason Todd and involving him in a chain of events that ends up killing, well, whoever all these fucking people are. It still bugs me, though, because curing the Legacy Virus took Colossus' years of service to the X-Men and both justified it totally and ended it perfectly, and I hate having a perfect ending ruined by a sequel. Even if Whedon had written it, I don't want to see American Beauty 2: The Return Of Lester.

As long as he's back, though, there's hope that Colossus will find a way to line up his gaps and his jumps once again. Once he's finished sulking over Kitty, obviously.

Next time round: we finish our consideration of the Sixties (update: by which I mean Seventies, obviously, what with understanding the passage of time and all) X-Men by asking ourselves whether or not the wrong strongman got blown up in mid-air like an itty bitty bitch?

[1] Off topic, but this is why anyone who tells you that belief in God is necessary to see a person as more than a collection of molecules is full of shit.

[2] Scott Lobdell: misunderstood genius. Discuss. Not too hard, obviously; the answer being clearly "no", though he is somewhat under-appreciated.

[3] Also: having his body stolen from the morgue, replaced with someone else's, and then brought back to life by an alien in an attempt to pre-emptively fuck with the X-Men. Lame.

Monday, 9 March 2009

After The Boom

Two Galactica posts in one week (assuming I find something of any relevance to say about Islanded In A Stream Of Stars come Wednesday) might be a little much, but I’ve been thinking about Boomer a lot lately, and discussing her a bit, too, and I wanted to make a few general points. (Edit: Forget to mention that, once again, here be spoilers).
A lot has been made about how badly Boomer has suffered through the course of the last four years. Just as a brief list, you have being dumped by the Chief, being thrown in the brig (both of which are admittedly entirely understandable), being shot by Cally (less understandable, especially given Cally’s desultory punishment), who later threw Boomer’s kindness back in her surprised robo-face on New Caprica. Next she banned from participating in the “diplomacy” above the Temple of Jupiter, and finally got her robo-ass chucked in the brig again the instant she appeared having rescued Ellen Tigh (of the robo-Tighs).

And that’s just the Colonials. The Threes wanted to box her, and the rest were apparently happy to just ignore her [1]. Their dirty little secret. Either they refused to wipe her mind in case they needed intel on the humans she had once considered friends (and lovers, and confidants, and a family to replace the one she was programmed to mourn every day), or they had offered, been rebuffed (“You carry your scars with a certain pride”) and then just left her to rot.

The Colonial attitude at least is usually put down to their outrage at Boomer’s “betrayal”. Adama can’t look at her without thinking of the scar that lies, quite literally, across his heart. [2]

I’m sure that’s part of the equation. It might be hard for me to imagine how Boomer can mess with the Admiral’s head to such a degree but the other Eights apparently not register, but then I’m a man who has had precisely zero bullets penetrate his torso (literally speaking, at least), so I don’t hear music and think sirens. If his PTSD wants to explode into being every time he hears a specific call-sign, I say cut the old man some slack.

There’s more to it, though, at least where everyone else is concerned. “You shot the Admiral” just doesn’t really cut it, doesn’t go far enough [3]. Tigh, for example, is the one who makes the call to stop her when she arrives on Galactica above the algae planet. The two machines who deliberately tried to exterminate humanity, and the man who Tigh is convinced assisted them in their second attempt, he lets through. Not Boomer, though. Her crime is far worse.

And it isn’t that she put two in the old man’s chest, either. The problem with Boomer is the problem with Hera: you’re not allowed, under any circumstances, to suggest that the opposing forces in a war lie on a continuum. It has to be us versus them, otherwise everything gets complicated and you have to consider where the boundaries lay, instead of just shooting anyone on the other side of the chasm you’ve conveniently decided exists between you. The Resistance proved that down on New Caprica: suicide bombing is reprehensible unless the people you’re killing are trying to bridge the gap.

The Cylons are on the same page, that’s why they couldn’t consider any way to cross-breed with humanity other than setting up rape farms. If we are to be useful, it must be as a commodity, otherwise someone somewhere will bridge the gap. Caprica and Boomer might have once persuaded them into a cease-fire (and given our only explanation as to what they did came from Cavil who we now now is Captain Evil McLiar, who knows what the specifics were), but that just led to a promotion from tools to badly-trained pets. [4]

In that sense giving Hera to Boomer to nursemaid was the worst thing that could happen even before the baby rejected her. It was a reminder that the Cylons were desperate to fill the gap, but would never admit to it, leaving her shit out of luck.

And, of course, Hera did reject her. The only proof in the entire universe that humans and Cylons might find common ground, and she didn't want anything to do with Boomer either. Athena, she was cool with. Athena, who hasn't bridged the gap, but somehow crossed it, despite being the one who knew about the holocaust while it was happening, had agreed to help out by fucking an unwitting ECO. I guess a treacherous former enemy gets more points than an unwitting dupe. They've chosen a side, after all, and we'll conveniently forget the fact that Boomer was given both sides, by making sure she could stay with neither.

I'll bet all the money in my pockets that it was very soon after Hera ended back up on Galactica that Boomer signed up for Cavil's Secret Plan To Secretly Manipulate Everyone Club (feat. Secret Ellen). He, at least, understands. He doesn't want to be torn between two worlds either. She might be running from the commitments and loves of her former life, and he may simply want to be the universe's most awesome calculator, but they share the same goal, to reverse the process the Final Five began when they created the first skin-jobs.

To widen the gap.

Someone always wants to widen the gap. That's why propaganda works. That's why Hitler figured out building up Germany would be easier if coincided with tearing down the Jews. That's why Rush Limbaugh has a job, and a radio station, and sufficient money to stuff his face with enough food to satisfy twelve Iraqi refugees, every one of which he would recommend shooting.

Now Boomer wants to widen the gap. Except she doesn't; her parting words to Galen made that clear. What she wants, I'd imagine, is for Cavil to work some more of his memory-altering magic on her. To make her forget she was ever on the other side. That's what made it so easy to fuck Helo, to damage the Galactica so badly as she jumped away. When you've decided to cross a bridge for the last time, you tend to want to burn it, in case you want to change your mind, or in case people try to follow you and bring you back. And because if someone can make you forget the bridge was ever there, then burning doesn't really matter more anyway, right?
Of course, Cavil may be right in thinking Boomer doesn't have anywhere left she wants to go, but that doesn't mean she plans to stay with him. After all. not being able to get back doesn't stop you from torching the side that you're on. If I were a betting man, that's where I would point to as regards Boomer's fate: screwing both sides so badly she can finally feel she has left them, not been removed. It's not a very pleasant idea, and it's certainly not very fair, but it's very BSG.

[1] Three’s nefarious plan to have both Boomer and Caprica boxed couldn’t have worked had the wider Cylon community been keeping a closer eye on their errant Eight.
[2] Ishay had to open his chest and massage his heart to get it working again, which I think is medically accurate, but is also a nice little metaphor. What do we do when our hearts are broken?

[3] Well, I’ll let Galen off as well, since every glimpse of Boomer is a reminder of all the things he’s lost, and all the things he was miserable enough to settle for in their place.
[4] There's also the fact that plenty of people bitched and moaned that Season 3 was making the Cylons insufficiently scary as their own problems and divisions began to be explored. Even the fucking audience was pissed about the idea of the two sides becoming less distinct. Admittedly, I was slightly pissed too, but that was just because the more time the Cylons spent bickering the less likely any sort of coherent explanation of "the plan" became.