Monday, 31 August 2009


Five things I learned at Cocklick's stag do.

1. Paintball is exhausting, and on occasion fairly painful. It would be ludicrous to attempt to compare it to real combat, but it's worth noting that even hiding behind a flimsy wooden pallet whilst hearing the unending thud of incoming fire and wiping the paint of near misses from your visor is discomforting enough for every loud noise you hear for the next two days to set off flashbacks. I have Post Paintball Stress Disorder. My fellows were flinching when I pointed my replica flintlock in their faces, for fear they would end up like Jamie (see below).

2. If you ever find yourself short of bright red paint, bear in mind that you can generate some by combining orange paint with the blood from a gushing head wound, as Jamie has discovered. On the other hand, Jamie also somehow managed to get shot in the testicles without noticing, so all things considered he probably didn't do too badly.

3. I can dress up as a pirate and wave around a plastic sword and pistol and the Durham locals will still take the piss out of how I speak.

4. Pause has now reached such a level of gaming genius that the only way to combat him is to try to help him and allow your own incompetence to drag him down.

5. I can no longer say that for all its flaws, Durham is not a place where you will encounter gun battles between vehicles.

Friday, 28 August 2009

Confectionary Corner: The Story Breaks

Months after this blog's expose of filth-filled sweet wrappers, the Daily Mail finally gets wind of the story.

Note that these hideous PERVERSIONS of God's SWEET CANDY originated in GERMANY, which should suprise NO-ONE because the GERMANS are PERVERTS. The most DESPICABLE wrapper is cleary the cherry flavour, in which not only is a THREESOME displayed involving COJOINED TWINS, but the foremost cherry is getting all the fun whilst the one behind is relegated to TOE-SUCKING duty.

Ooh. Writing like I'm a Daily Mail "journalist" is fun! Though looking back it does look a little like an attempt to literally transcribe Jeremy Paxman's speech patterns...

Maybe They Just Mean Less Viagra

Continuing our irregular look at whether the Republican party can possibly pull itself back from it's current levels of mendacity/evil/insanity (if it should ever decide it wants to try, and if it ever stops actually seeming to work), I offer this question:

This is from the "2009 Future of American Health Survey" from the RNC. Not O'Reilly, or Beck, or talk radio, or one of the deluded fools protesting outside political events with a swastika sign in one hand and an automatic weapon in the other. The RNC itself. Democrats no longer want to kill your baby or your grandmother by denying them medical care, they want to kill you, if they find out you're a Republican.

But then the above is pretty much the least of the symptoms of how crazy the Right has gotten. Angry, armed mobs gathering outside political events and sending people inside to disrupt them. Senator Inhofe claiming the country is "approaching revolution"; other members of Congress listening to those who stand up at their events and label themselves "proud right-wing terrorists" or threaten to "take a gun to Washington" to deal with "little Hitler" Obama (Obama's death threats are already 400% what Bush's were, BTW), statements to which the politicians respond to with mild disagreement at best and outright egging on at worst (apparently "right-wing terrorist"="great American" to Congressman Herger).

In fact, the "Little Hitler" clip is illustrative of the larger problem, what I believe we'll call McCain's Fallacy. Senator Grassley [1] listens to a man telling the audience that the only thing stopping him going to Washington with his gun to sort out Obama is lack of a mob to do it with, and realises things have gone too far. His objection may be to the suggestion Obama is "like Hitler" as oppose to, you know, heading to the capital with an armed mob to sort him out, but he knows a line has been crossed, and he makes a quick effort to walk it back.

Having done so, though, he then goes back into spinning the sort of radioactive BS that got everyone so worked up in the process. Grassley, just like McCain during the campaign, knows you can't let people threaten death on their political opponents, but also thinks that as long as you object to the idea (in however a milquetoast fashion) when directly presented with it, you're OK deliberately fanning the flames of such insanity the other 99.99% of the time. And let's be clear on this point, you can disagree with the specifics of the healthcare plan without it meaning you're just operating out of ignorance and a head full of lies (I mean, from what I can tell it's a far from perfect piece of legislation, and it's only liable to get worse). Hell, you can not want healthcare reform at all and that still be the case [2]. But to be so scared of the very idea of healthcare reform that you form angry, armed mobs and/or threaten to start assasinating people would have to mean that you're either seriously disturbed, or you're view of the current bill is massively, ludicrously skewed, which means you've been lied to.

Knowing all that, Grassley is lying to his constituents, as part of an overarching strategy. They know these lies are going to inflame outrage and threats of violence, and they actively encourage the former and refuse to comment on the latter unless presented with it directly, as though their responsibility for what they know they have created only goes so far as their dealings with it on a one to one basis. This does not absolve them of guilt. This is exactly why I got so wound up by the idiots who claimed McCain was a man of honour because he took time out of calling Obama a secret homosexual Muslim terrorist militant to tell people not to threaten to have Obama killed. Yeah, real classy.

Of course, as ugly as McCain's campaign got (and it got really fucking ugly), things seem to be a good deal worse right now. It's difficult to write about what's going on without resorting to hyperbole, but all of this smells of an unprecedented and incredibly dangerous dynamic.

[1] Who is both a poisonous dissembler and one of the Gang of Six who will determine the fate of healthcare, as they allegedly attempt to hammer out a bipartisan compromise over healthcare. Of course, this will be compromise which Grassley has already stated he won't vote for, or indeed read (Inhofe's said the same thing, apparently the bill is a bit too long to make it worth knowing exactly how Americans might benefit from a "Yay" vote).

[2] Though as always, anyone who does think that needs to start each speech or article with "Despite there being 47 million uninsured people in this country and 18 000 yearly deaths because of that, I think we shouldn't try to change anything because...". Healthcare reform would help a shit load of people, and no-one gets to object to reform without admitting the cost of things remaining as they are. Let us not forget reason 1 on the Why Most Conservatives Are Wretched list: they want to pursue paths that will make life difficult for an awful lot of people, and rather than justify why that sacrifice is necessary, they pretend it doesn't exist.

Thursday, 27 August 2009


I'd manage to totally forget the abolition of maths coursework, but I feel no remorse whatsoever at its passing; it was a monumentally hideous and stressful task to corral children into getting it done in even the most cack-handed fashion, and the possibility of plagiarism made the whole thing pretty pointless (this is accentuated by how much I hated maths coursework as a child, though since I most definitely fall into the "cram at last minute" crowd, I guess that just makes me a stereotypical male). If you're going to make teachers (and those pupils who actually do give a damn about their progress) go blind with stress for a couple of fortnights a year, you should at least be sure you're getting something out of it.

The most interesting thing here (for me at least) is the suggestion that boys and girls should be assessed differently (for the sake of argument, we'll have to ignore the plagiarism aspect for now, since "should girls be examined in a way that makes it easier to cheat?" might throw off the debate otherwise). Off the top of my head, it would take some time to adjust to the new system, causing a dip in marks for a while, and I don't think it would do much for relieving teacher stress. There may be some philosophical/ethical issue to this as well, though I haven't yet come up with anything specific. I think the biggest problem, though, would be entirely practical. Coursework can only cover so many topics (one fortnight of geometry and another on data analysis, in the case of my teaching experience), so absent far more tasks, girls would still be required to sit a final test, simply with a lower weighting attached to it. The immediate question then becomes: what are all the lads doing during those four weeks? Are they doing the same task but for no credit? Are we doubling the number of maths teachers (or, more sneakily, swapping kids around to double the ability range of each class, which would bring its own problems)?

Or is the plan to modularise this stuff? Can a pupil choose the weight of their own exams, given the results of the coursework (again, assuming we could eliminate the cheating issue)? Since we already have modular courses in place, in which one can resit indefinitely until you run out of money or will (or have to get a job), I'm not sure it would be too much of a stretch. This would help avoid having to run parallel classes (though the temptation for students to blow off coursework because "they'll do it on the night" could well be pretty strong), and allow children to choose an assessment method that suited them personally, rather than attempting to make gender-specific changes across the board.

It's an interesting idea, at least.

While we're on the subject of interesting, I note that English results have had a wobble. I await the upcoming flood of people confidently stating that this is obvious proof that English exams are getting harder. I mean, that's the only possible conclusion, right?

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Lifetime Piling Up (Again)

Apologies for the slow-down around here, this can be attributed to being three days into a three week period in which I must perform best man duties both at the stag do and the wedding itself, travel to Munich (a process made harder by the refusal of the airline to get their act together to the point I can buy tickets), and write and give a presentation for the Big Bosses down in London, despite the computer program essential for said presentation still not doing what it's supposed to.

Normal service will be resumed after the 14th at the latest, and hopefully much sooner.

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Shake #18

Today's shake: Mint Viscount

Taste: 7
Texture: 5
Synergy: 8
Scorn: 2
Total Score: 7

General Comments: Much like the After Eight shake before it, the Mint Viscount shake is essentially just mint chocolate chip ice-cream. The Viscount shake is a fair bit mintier and less chocolaty, and also lacks the little parcels of mint cream that made the After Eight shake so interesting, but aside from that, the two are very similar.

Monday, 24 August 2009

I Sort Of Stole This From MGK

Late evening in ITV headquarters. The meeting room is awash with cans of Red Bull and cold cartons of Chinese food.

Big Boss: Gentlemen, this is infuriating. How difficult can it possibly be to develop a new zeitgeist-capturing water-cooler game show?
Minion #1: Don’t blame us, boss.
Minion #2: Yeah. We’re up against Anne Robinson, and she burned her soul to get her show.
Minion #3: Plus, that third cocaine break was probably a mistake.
Big Boss: NO EXCUSES! The last bunch of minions whined and moaned just like you little bitches, but damn it if they didn’t eventually come up with What Katie Did Next.
Minion #1: If they were so awesome, how come they’re not around here anymore?
Big Boss: They asked too many questions about the minions that came before them.
Minion #2: Gulp.
Minion #3: Recursive threats are the scariest threats.
Big Boss: Focus, minions! What do people want in a game show?
Minion #1: Awesome prizes?
Minion #2: Sexy hosts?
Minion #3: Absurdly easy tasks made to look difficult?
Big Boss: Yes, and?
Minion #1: Um… an absurd gimmick?
Big Boss: Excellent, Minion #1! You shall be eaten last!
Minion #1: What?
Big Boss: Nothing. Continue the brainstorming, my minions. Think outside the box.
Minion #2: What if we think inside the box?
Big Boss: Don’t make me order new minions.
Minion #2: No! Wait! Let’s bring back The Crystal Maze! Put a bunch of presumably partially lobotomised people inside boxes disguised as historical locations, and force them to perform obscenely simple tasks in order to humiliate them on national television.
Big Boss: I do like humiliation.
Minion #3: We’ll never get Richard O’Brien back, though.
Big Boss: Fuck else is he doing?
Minion #3: It’s like a pride thing, or something.
Minion #1: What about Ed Tudor Pole?
Big Boss: Your status as “last to be eaten” is hereby rescinded.
Minion #1: What?
Big Boss: Nothing. Can’t we just find some other freak?
Minion #2: Philip Schofield?
Big Boss: Is he bald?
Minion #2: He’s grey-haired.
Big Boss: Is that freaky enough, though?
Minion #3: We could put it about that he was sleeping with Gordon the Gopher.
Big Boss: I like it, Minion #3!
Minion #3: But, we wanted a sexy host, didn't we?
Big Boss: Let's have a sexy lady demonstrate how the games work.
Minion #1: As well as allowing practice goes?
Big Boss: Gotta get the sexay in there somehow.
Minion #2: Isn't that pretty gratuitous, even for us?
Big Boss: We'll stick her in a mask.
Minion #2: ...Yeah, that's a lot better.
Minion #1: What if we can’t get the rights?
Big Boss: We plagiarise! We are thinking outside the box!
Minion #1: The box represents copyright law, now, does it?
Big Boss: It does for those who wish to remain uneaten.
Minion #1: What?
Minion #2: Let’s just throw out all the dead wood. Like the different zones. Don’t need them. Or all the running between rooms. Bollocks to that. All you need are the pathetically retarded tasks that idiots will somehow make a hash of.
Big Boss: Get rid of the links, you say?
Minion #3: Like The Krypton Factor?
Minion #2: Fuck off! The Krypton Factor actually was hard. No-one wants to watch that in the 21st Century! It’s got to be childish party games that the dregs of society find impossible to grasp. Counting squares, maybe, or successfully dropping a ball inside a bin! Plus, we don’t need less links, we need *more* links! Only let’s include a bare minimum of choice-making in there as well, so we can pass that shit off as tension. If we’re going to rip off the Crystal Maze, we may as well do a number on …Millionaire as well.
Big Boss: You’re talking lifelines?
Minion #2: Yes! You could have a lifeline that gives you a free go at a game that looks to hard. Or a lifeline that makes a task even more grotesquely simplistic, to the point where monkeys could complete it with two minutes of trial and error!
Minion #1: And if they somehow still fail to walk in a straight line with their eyes closed, they get kicked off the show.
Minion #2: I dunno. Best give them a couple of extra chances, so they don’t. Say, nine?
Minion #3: Nine? We’re going to have to *really* search out some idiots for this one.
Minion #2: I doubt it’s going to be much of a problem.
Big Boss: So, let’s review. A grey-haired freak in a studio taking far too long to offer basic choices to contestants in-between wretchedly simple games, demonstrated by a woman in a mask, that are played again and again until the hapless fools beg for them to be made easier still. Have I missed anything?
Minion #1: Er… bullet time?
Big Boss: Bullet time? The Matrix was ten fucking years ago.
Minion #1: The Matrix didn’t use it to humiliate people in slow-motion.
Big Boss: ...Fine. Right, I think we’re done.
Minion #3: Wait! We still don’t have an actual set for all the games to take place in!


Big Boss: Eh, fuck it. Let’s just stick ‘em in a big transparent box. Done.

Saturday, 22 August 2009

Dogs and Tigers

Bit busy this weekend due to the official visit of Atheist Pope Tiger I, so light blogging. Under the category of "hilarious-but-faintly-disturbing", though, why not check this out: Chihuahua With Earrings Stolen At Gay Bar, which starts out weird and then gets progressively more crazy as it goes on.

Thursday, 20 August 2009


I found this post by Kevin Drum pretty interesting, because it ties into something I've been thinking with regard to Obama for a long time now. I genuinely can't remember whether I said anything aloud about it during the presidential campaign (and if I didn't, it was an opportunity wasted), but I noticed that both with Clinton and (especially) McCain, Obama ran slow-burn campaigns that built to absolute knock-out punches. Sure, the financial crisis kicked in just as McCain was trying to argue the country was doing well, and that gave Obama plenty of material with which to work with, but in both cases his supporters spent weeks or even months whining he wasn't playing the extremely strong hand he had in the wake of the Bush administrations myriad failures and Clinton's apparent refusal to see that the system needed fixing, and not gaming. [1]

In the end, after a period of simply weathering attacks by playing tight-lipped defence, Obama would change tack, savage his opponents, and watch his poll numbers spike. The two dominant narratives at the time were based on the questions "Has Obama finally learned how the game is played?" and "Will it be too little too late?". What I saw almost nothing of was the possibility that this was a deliberate strategy. Spend some time getting knocked around, and not really dignifying the attacks with a response (the notable exception to this during the campaign was his speech clarifying his "clinging to guns" remark, but that seemed more about fixing his mistake then defending himself against his opponents piling on), watch as the attacks get more aggressive, far-fetched and, frankly, borderline-racist, and then return fire, starting with an ad or a brief comment here and there before moving into full-on attack mode, and riding the poll-spike into victory. It's political rope-a-dope; by the time you move into the endgame your opponent's attacks look either tired (Reverend Wright) or increasingly crazy (secret Muslim), and are turning into white noise. Once you launch the fight back, it's something new, so the news outlets are more likely to carry it, you start to dominate the discourse, and rather than fire up your base at the very start, you do it at the exact moment it matters most.

It's not a strategy without risk, of course; if you leave it too late your spike might not arrive in time, or might not compensate for the numbers you might have lost waiting around (for all the complaints so many Americans have about partisan politics, they seem awfully willing to act in ways that maximise the effectiveness of petty bickering). It's also true that this strategy may not work as well for a piece of legislation as it does for a candidate. I just thought it's worth noting that Obama has previous with this particular line of attack [2].

[1] Obviously, Obama is playing the system now, and I doubt he ever intended to do things any differently. But the perception that he was going to change the way things were done was sufficiently strong for him to use it as an effective campaign tool.

[2] The alternative reading, that Obama is just slow to react to attacks and that he's been lucky so far, can't be dismissed either, though I would point out that the man is clearly not an idiot, which is what he would have to be to have been a Senator during the Bush years and not worked out how Republicans play the game. Still, the alternative possibility certainly seems to be Steve Benen's take on it, at least this time around.

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

Why Can't I Be Researching This?

Having spent so much of my first two PhD years reading up on SIR models, I am disgusted to not have thought of this first: the zombie outbreak mathematical model. I am more upset still to learn that I am almost as interested in the maths itself as in what it tells us should we find ourselves under attack by shambling hordes of flesh-hungry undead.

The conclusions, unsurprisingly, is that the only two stationary distributions are zero zombies, and zero people (my long held liberal dream of peaceful coexistence is over!), and that if we want to avoid the latter state, we'd better take out the zombies as soon as humanly possible. This makes this particular research paper possibly unique. There are of course many academic publications that prove results that are breathtakingly obvious, but this might be the first time that someone has done it within a fictional setting. Next week, Robert Smith?[1] will prove that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be want of a wife, and that only Imperial Stormtroopers are so precise (actually, that last one is probably genuinely pretty difficult).

h/t to Chemie.

[1] That's not a typo, that's his real name.

Teach Them HARD! Redux

Since Chemie was kind enough to offer some links on the subject of A-level difficulty/desirability, I have a quick peruse of the TSR page on the matter. More specifically, I looked up the paper it referred to, which can be found here. It's worth a quick look, if you have time. Page 111 has the graph of their results (short analysis: science subjects are amongst the hardest, Spielbergo's sister can be rest assured that music is really tough too, Gooder might be annoyed to find that almost the only thing claimed to be easier than sociology is film studies), but it's also worth looking at Section 9.1 (beginning p115), which describes some of the criticisms of the method, that match and expand upon some of my concerns going into this. Section 91.4. in particular reminds us that:
[A] judgement about whether one subject is ‘harder’ than another depends very much on who happened to take those subjects. And if the characteristics of the entry change, so would the supposed difficulties.
This to me is the root of the problem; the very idea of two tasks being "equally hard" fails to take into account how "hard" is measured as regards the people selected for those tasks. There's also a brilliant point made by Goldstein and Cresswell that for any A-level with an average mark of X%, one could construct a sufficiently easy (or difficult) spelling test that would have an X% pass mark as well, but it would not be sensible to refer to them as "equally hard"; the differences in the two tasks make the comparison ridiculous.

Shake #17

Today's shake: Blackjacks

Taste: 3
Texture: 4
Synergy: 2
Scorn: 9
Total Score: 2.5

General Comments: Here is what you need to know about the blackjack shake:
  • It looks like fish sperm and poppy seeds;
  • Its tastes are entirely unmixable; you start with vanilla, then get hit in the head with aniseed. You might as well be carrying an ice-cream in one hand and a blackjack bar in the other, licking each alternately. We have thus discovered the world's first step function in shake form;
  • The shake is suffused with tiny particles of blackjack that bond your teeth together, like a strange form of molecular glue. This is not a good thing, though J-Dawg has pointed out that once all my regular teeth have rotted away (presumably from doing stupid shit like drinking milkshakes all the time), I will be able to use this shake to keep my dentures in;
  • It will turn the inside of your mouth grey, making it appear as though you are riddled with Tongue Leprosy.
Conclusion: avoid.

Update: Thanks to S. Spielbergo for reminding me how to divide. Oops...

Monday, 17 August 2009

Sixty Second Film Corner: Tarantino Through Time

Inglorious Basterds manages to be a standard Tarantino smart-mouthed bloodbath and a uncomfortable paranoia-infused SS-dominated war film at the same time, and I mean that in the sense that the last episode of Blackadder Goes Forth is simultaneously funny and tragic, rather than in the From Dusk Till Dawn "character-heavy kidnap film and bullshit vampire flick somehow welded together" sense. Since Tarantino wrote the latter, Inglorious... can be considered significant progress in the right direction.

The ending still kinda sucks, mind. In fact in the last ten minutes you could have had the Nazis turn out to be vampires anyway, and it wouldn't really be any less of a messed-up finish. I guess Tarantino's main progression is in waiting until much later in the film to go ape-shit, and not relying on Rodriguez to drop the insano-bomb.

PS: I also believe that "Tarantino Through Time" could be a truly awesome movie, but Hollywood can't have it unless they agree to let me direct my long-dreamed-of musical adaptation of Krull.

Sunday, 16 August 2009

Teach Them HARD!

An interesting article on the Conservatives' plans for school league tables. My thoughts on this one are kind of scattered, to be honest, but there are a number of issues in this that need to be considered.
  • It is most certainly true that universities regard certain A levels as more important than others, and this is a fact made clear to students while they are choosing their A levels. That means that whether or not Ofqual are correct and there is no such thing as "hard" and "soft" A levels is completely irrelevant. If the universities believe that there are, then it's game over.
  • Whilst on the subject of "hard" and "soft" subjects at A-level, though (leaving aside the alternative qualifications, and all things being equal I would rather keep those if possible, and don't find it at all surprising that the Tories don't), it seems very hard to believe that it can be said with certainty, by Ofqual or anyone else, that they are standardised. This is mainly because I don't see how they could be standardised. The skills required and marking methods applied vary so much it is difficult to believe they can all be considered level with each other. Obviously this may be ignorance talking, Ofqual might have an incredibly impressive method of comparison that I simply can't conceptualise, but I tend to doubt it. Certainly in maths, classes in our school who took maths and statistics consistently scored higher than those who take maths and mechanics, a pattern which had existed for some time before I arrived at the school I taught at, and continued despite having the least experienced teacher (i.e. me) handling statistics, and a ferociously competent former HoD on the mechanics side. There's also the fact that we were told in no uncertain terms to warn every applicant for maths that more than any other A-level subject their grades would drop compared to how well they did at GCSE. It is by no means unheard of for students to complete their A-levels with maths as their highest grade, but statistically speaking, that really isn't the way to bet. [1]
  • Whilst wondering about how well Ofqual can possibly judge similarity of difficulty across the board, I'm going to embrace totally the fact that they've said (along with Ofsted) that there is no evidence of "dumbing down". This has been a bugbear of mine for years. Partially this is because I've seen a number of syllabuses from various years in my time, and what is immediately apparent is that they have grown more coherent, with topics feeding into each other and building upon each other far more than they did in the past. That has made understanding easier, but that isn't dumbing down, it's imparting knowledge more sensibly (and more to the point, artificially raising the difficulty of the exams to compensate would be ridiculous). More importantly, though, the reason this stuff pisses me off is that there are three variables to consider here: exam difficulty, pupil intelligence, and teaching competence. The third is always ignored in this discussion. "Either the exams get easier each year, or the kids get smarter" is an easy formulation to make (of course, from the perspective of A-levels the latter could be objectively true if seondary school teaching is improving, which I would argue it has, at least to some extent), but the truth is that compared with secondary school teaching, the syllabuses that A-level teachers work from are subject to remarkably little fluctuation, at least in subjects that are well established. Whilst GCSE teachers are constantly being knocked around by the latest new initiatives (some of which, to be fair, are good ideas, a few of which even work in practice), an A-level teacher has the opportunity to deliver almost the exact same material in the exact same way to students who have been admitted to the course using almost the exact same criteria. I have no evidence to prove that this is what is happening, but the argument that this situation means it is to be expected that marks will improve each year is at least worthy of some consideration. A more major overhaul to the syllabus would almost certainly see a drop in results, as teachers get used to the new material and how best to impart it. As I say, the fact that this theory is possible doesn't make it true, but hopefully it makes the point that the third variable should at least be considered.
  • I think some of the proposed plan might well be a solution looking for a problem. In my entire life I have never met anyone whose choice of sixth-form college was based on more than looking at one or two options, and then choosing the closest and/or the one most of their friends were going to. The only time this dynamic changed was when certain subjects were unavailable in one place and available in another, a methodology the Tory plan would arguably make harder, since the highest rated subjects under their system are the most commonly taught, which means keeping the subjects around that might actually have affected a choice of school will be less desirable. Unless someone can show me that there are significant numbers of students shopping around for quality sixth-from teaching in specific subjects, then I'm not sure what good the measure will do for anyone but the universities, who already have these things called "grades" they can look at. I'd also like to see some evidence that there are schools using "soft" subjects to boost their scores to the point where their maths teaching looks good when in reality it's shit on toast, and that moreover this isn't trasparently obvious to the local population.
  • The Tories are absolutely right that focusing on the C/D borderline takes up a disproportionate amount of time, at the expense of other children. It's almost as though a league system leads to schools trying to get high in the league. If the Conservatives can offer an alternative metric that involves no numbers or categories (both of which immediately lead to focusing on getting as many children past those number or in or out of those categories), I'd love to hear it. Not that it would make any difference, the very nature of teaching is that some pupils are focused on more than others, whether they be borderline students or borderline sociopaths. It isn't fair, but there it is.
  • As a former comprehensive school student and descendant of a long line of socialists, the problems with attempting to link a school's worth with the universities their pupils go on to study at is immediately obvious. It would, in fact, entrench the problem of class bias in university acceptance (which as I understand it most certainly hasn't gone away), because the argument "if X is such a good school, why does no-one from X ever get in here" would stop being just sophistry and start being sophistry with a stamp of governmental approval (the fact that said government would be the Tories is no fucking surprise).
  • Finally, I am sympathetic up to a point with Smithers' argument that we should just scrap the league tables, because of the damage they do for all sorts of reasons. What I do worry about it what would happen once they were gone. I'm not sure it would lead to teaching being any less of a political football; it seems more likely to my mind that it would simply become an even less well-informed debate than it currently is (if such a thing is possible). I'm also aware that whilst the teaching profession includes a great many people of tremendous talent and dedication, it can't be claimed that everyone is sufficiently self-motivated, and perhaps some form of external pressure isn't actually a bad idea. Whether that could still be effectively provided by Ofsted without the league tables isn't something I'm sure on at all. My point, though, is that granting schools greater autonomy isn't necessarily a great idea, even though each individual school probably thinks it is.

So there you go.

[1] Typing that reminded of the old "art student" vs "science student" debate that was endlessly bandied around whilst I was an undergraduate (well, it was bandied around by the science students, most of the art types were still in bed). An uneasy truce was formed by agreeing that it is both more difficult to fail or to excel in art subjects, allowing a much easier ride for the coasters, and a mountain to climb for those who wanted to reach the top. Whether this theory is true of A-levels (and I'm not sure how true it is of universities) I don't know, but one hopes Ofqual has a more detailed way of considering the situation.

Saturday, 15 August 2009

The Space Squids Part 4: Three Chaplains II

When last we spoke, you learned of the history of Krinngrim, the recruiting ground of the Emperor’s Shields, back when the Shields still lived to require recruitment. When the Krakens of Greyjoy rose from the ashes of that proud chapter, Rekassson had assumed they would return to Kringrimm for their initiates.

The Apostles of Minthras had other plans. Not content with the almost total destruction of the Shields at Raxos, the Apostles’ battle barge Salted Wounds (formerly Terra‘s Hope) and her escorts entered the Krinngrim system and, easily evading the defences mustered by the Chapter serfs still present in the Oronoi fortress monastery, detonated virus torpedoes in the planet’s upper atmosphere. The resulting rampage of genetically modified pathogens failed to annihilate the Krinngrimi, but the planet’s population was reduced to less than 7% of its previous size (the indigenous flora and fauna proved too alien to be affected), and was no longer capable of providing recruits in sufficient quantities for the Krakens to consider.

Instead, the nascent Chapter turned to Four Feathers, in the Greyjoy subsector, for warriors with which to build their strength. Four Feathers is a world of almost 90% ocean. What little landmass there is, beyond a few scattered archipelagos, can all be found in the same hemisphere; four small continents, each roughly the shape of a bird’s feather, hence the world’s name. On three of these continents, each high in the Northern hemisphere, Imperial colonists live simple lives, herding groxes or farming the land. On the equatorial continent of Cauda, however, the situation is very different.

When the first colony vessels tore their way into reality above Four Feathers, attempts were made to settle each of the four continents. On the other three continents, the newcomers found wide grasslands and gently sloping foothills; still, deep lakes; and expansive deciduous forests. On Cauda, the interlopers discovered exactly two things; fungus, and rain.

The rain was mainly annoying. The fungus, by and large, was deadly.

The colonists found themselves under attack from every conceivable direction. Toadstools the size of skyscrapers rained down acidic spores. Jet-black mushrooms as big as tanks exploded on contact, releasing their own clouds of spores, that if inhaled would hollow out a man in days. Creeping moulds, attracted to the warmth of human flesh, covered men as they slept, pouring into their lungs and sprouting from the corpses that resulted. Hallucinogenic fungi burst from gaps in rockcrete floors, driving colonists to madness, or created pits in the mushroom forests, into which the foolhardy would fall, to be digested only fractionally faster than they starved.

Not one of the original colonising party escaped alive, although they were successful in voxing their fellows, warning them never to approach Cauda. For several years, this directive was obeyed, but ultimately Cauda suffered the same fate as any stretch of land totally unsuitable for human habitation: it became a penal colony.

For thirty years the most objectionable scum from the three temperate continents were dispatched to Cauda to live out their days surrounded by carnivorous fungi, forced to decide between a lifetime within the stockade, or a brief, agonising death outside. But just as no stretch of worthless and remote land can avoid having a prison built atop it, no remote prison can avoid a revolution indefinitely. At best, they can hope to put down that revolution as quickly and bloodlessly as possible (the former being vastly more important than the latter, of course), but when the moment came, the authorities of the various prisons that collectively had become known as the “Gulag Peninsula” (located as they were on a narrow stretch of land jutting out from western Cauda into the Soothing Sea) failed to rise to the challenge. The story of Tanhoi's Rebellion (named after the political prisoner and former PDF Colonel whose tactical genius turned a series of riots into a full-blown military campaign) would be worth several posts in itself, but for now suffice to say that within a year of the initial food riot at Fort Jade, the entire series of detention facilities had fallen into rebel hands.

As is so often the case, however, winning the war proved to be the beginning of Tanhoi's problems, not the end. The rebels might have defeated those troops stationed on Cauda by the other continents, but there was no question that attempting to take the fight to their enemies would have been suicide; their numbers were small, and their access to transport smaller still. That same scarcity of vehicles capable of leaving Cauda also made the proposition of mass evacuation untenable. Eventually, Tanhoi decided on a strategy of fortifying his landing pads, and what few ports had survived the fungi and the fighting, in order to prevent retributive attacks from the other continents, and used what few spacecraft he had to contact nearby systems, letting them know Four Feathers has a new state, independent from its fellows but still unswervingly loyal to the Emperor. This last move was particularly shrewd, a rebellion on the level of Cauda's would not be likely to attract the attention of the Adeptus Astartes, but Tanhoi's act of diplomacy effectively removed the threat forever. It also allowed limited trade to develop between Cauda and the neighbouring systems, allowing much-needed building materials to reach the Gulag Penisula, in exhange for powerful acids useful for industry, and for dangerous fungi desired by idiot noblemen.

In the three millenia since Tanhoi first raised his flag over Fort Jade (now Cauda's capital), the descendants of the former convicts have fought for survival against the deadly fungi that surround them, scratching out a living on this death world-within-a-world. As with all such places, existence is often brutish, painful, and short, but the Caudans take a fierce pride in their ability to maintain civilisation in conditions that would destroy their neighbours within days. The Caudans still live in the former detention blocks to this day, building them ever higher to escape from the canopy of acid toadstools, and using flamer teams to clear encroaching mold on a daily basis. Life within these huge rockcrete towers is relatively safe, but sealing themselves off within them entirely would doom the Caudans to a slow death by starvation. Large convoys of loader vehicles must be regularly dispatched to acquire barely-edible mushrooms from scattered processing plants deep in the fungus jungles. It is these voyages that claim the most lives, and their extreme danger means that participation on each is determined by lottery. This has been the way of the Caudans ever since the days of Tanhoi; indeed he himself eventually met his fate on such a journey, his body crushed by the tendrils of a redlace madcap from which he was trying to extricate his vehicle.

No Caudan is considered pas their childhood until they have survived ten convoys. After their thirtieth convoy, they become full Caudan citizens. Another thirty, and they are deemed to have done their duty, and are no longer required to enter the lottery. Not one citizen has taken advantage of this rule for more than three hundred years. On Cauda, you run the convoys until you die, one way or another; it is a simple point of pride.

The comparatively small population of Cauda makes their organisation into the large, unwieldy regiments of the Imperial Guard impossible, but their extreme hardiness and dedication makes them ideal recruits for the Adeptus Astartes (the sudden change of Four Feather's tithe grade to Adeptus Non deeply pleased the other continents, finally bringing planetary reconciliation). From a facility built upon a small island in the Soothing Sea, Kraken serfs assess the local population for likely recruits, helping to bring the Space Squids up to operational strength as quickly as possible.

At first, there was no sign of any problem. The initiates proved genetically suitable for implantation, and the number who died in agony from organ rejection was judged within acceptable bounds. As the ranks of the 10th Company (a rather incongruous name at that point, of course) began to swell, however, Chaplains Tolosson and Orfirsson noted their recruits were proving unreceptive to their teachings. To the Caudans, the world was nothing but chaos and change. Spending their lives fighting fungus that could crawl across leagues a day, or blow in on storm winds to kill men in moments, building their towers ever higher, and engaging the twin lotteries of first being selected for the convoys and then surviving them intact, had left the people of Four Feather's most brutal continent convinced that stasis and inflexibility were impossible and foolish, respectively. For them, the Emperor did not sculpt, he destroyed, and rebuilt what he had swept aside in new and better ways, over and over and over again. To leave something the same forever, to carve its shape once and leave it for the ages, was to invite defeat.

In the first year of the chapter's existence, as Rekasson hid away from his fellows, considering his vision for the future of his warriors, Tolosson and Orfirsson browbeat their new recruits into accepting at least some of their version of the Imperial Creed, continuing the traditions of the Krinngrimi followed over hundreds of years. There was never complete acceptance, but the initiates, and later full-blown battle brothers, from Four Feathers allowed the two chaplains to lead them in their devotions, and to see to their spiritual well-being, which seemed enough. Given the near-total destruction of the Emperor's Shields, however, it was deemed critical to build up the Astartes equivalent of an officer's corps as quickly as possible. So it was that within five years each of the fledgling Companies (some of which could field no more than two full squads at this point) of the Krakens of Greyjoy had its own Captain. The first new Chaplain, chosen from the ranks of the Krakens to attend the needs of the Third Company (Tolosson and Orfirsson taking the First and Second, respectively) was named Noro Tegatchi, and it was with his first forays into life in the Reclusiam aboard the Intractible that the story of the Three Chaplains really began.

Thursday, 13 August 2009


In lighter news, is this the best use of the phrase "cockblock" ever? I submit that it is.

(It's also a pretty good article).


Senor Spielbergo asks in comments:
Here’s a question (one I don’t know the answer to, I’m genuinely asking). Is the standard of news coverage in America actually lower than Britain? I mean everyone can get behind making fun of Fox News, but I’ve certainly also made fun of ITV news, The Sun (the most commonly read newspaper in the UK by the way), The News of The World etc etc. The only bits of American media we tend to get are the bits where they make an utter hash of it, so I’m wondering if that’s not a fair representation. They clearly have lots of other stations and newspapers, so is the overall standard actually any better than ours?We obviously read / watch the news sources we like, and ignore all the ones we don’t (in terms of British news), so I’m wondering if this biases our view when we look at American media.
Tomsk responded to this whilst I was writing my own reply (raising an excellent point regarding OFCOM), but I think it's worth going over this in detail.

First of all, it's important to note that comparing FOX News to ITV isn't necessarily helpful because it's comparing outlier to outlier. I mean, on it's worse day it would be an intolerant insult to suggest ITV resembled FOX News in any way, but that's besides the point. One of the major problems regarding FOX is that, in addition to being a right-wing noise machine that should be wiped from existence and history with all possible speed, it does things so badly, so objectionably, and with such glorious disregard for objectivity, that it colours the entire discussion. Any time a conversation starts on the quality of American news media, you have to wade through people saying "Well, sure, there's FOX, but we know they're crazy." It's as if FOX's blatant worthlessness means everything else looks better by comparison, and that if anyone raises an objection to how the US handles news, it must be based on what we've seen from O' Reilly, Beck, and a bunch of Barbie Dolls (I'm not being sexist; I mean it literally).

So let's not talk outliers. Let's talk about the average state of the American media. The average state is: it's fucked.

There are a number of reasons why this is the case, some of which are across the board, and others of which are specific to TV. Firstly, Tomsk is entirely right when he points at the fact that American news sources don't need to avoid bias, and it's worth following through on that a little. If you don't need to avoid bias, and you don't need to admit bias, then the end result is that the news itself becomes nothing more than he-said, she-said argument. This would be damaging enough on its own, but at some point the right managed to persuade enough of the population that the media was biased to the left for the idea to become "conventional wisdom" (read "an idea so commonly believed no-one need ever provide any proof for it") and once that happened there was no way out. No-one could point out the accusation was unsound, because that was proof they were on the left in any case (it's unfair to blame Americans for the "if you attempt to debunk lies about X, you must be X" formulation, but they've taken it to dizzying new heights; there are still people out there who think McCarthy's biggest flaw was that he eventually gave up, and that those who brought that about were Commie traitors). At this point, most of the major news outlets are under constant pressure to prove they aren't biased to the left, which they can only do by becoming biased to the right, or at least becoming over-representative of the right (both in terms of hosts and guests), which isn't exactly the same thing but is still legitimate cause for concern.

The next problem is in the difference between news shows and news channels. We have individual news shows that need to consider ratings, of course, but in America the competition between channels is so dogged and desperate that their shows are under far more pressure to come up with the goods. And what the goods turn out to be is sensationalism and scandal. Not the sort of scandal that comes from having broken the law and the Geneva Convention for years whilst President, of course, the scandal that comes from having had some blow-jobs whilst President. [1]

The Drudge Report has a lot to do with this; a vicious, low-brow partisan site which manages a massively high update rate (an advantage available only to those who ignore such details as fact checking and critical thought) and which specialises in the grubby sort of story that people claim to dislike but in reality gobble up in droves. The success of Drudge has led to almost every major news outlet to one degree or anther beginning (or continuing, or concluding, depending on who we're talking about) the slide into becoming nothing more than squalid gutter-press peddlers of smut. Often this is embarrassing, but it can spill into rather worse forms. Take Lou Dobbs' show on CNN, for example, on which he repeatedly expresses his belief that Obama was not born in the US, and is thus an illegitimate president. CNN itself has declared this rumor discredited, but Dobbs won't stop banging on about it, and CNN don't dare muzzle him for whatever reason, despite the rather ugly racial undertones that he's dragging in with all the crazy. [2]

This is another problem with the ratings wars, it has thrown up news personalities. These people attempt to make the news more interesting, but as a result the actual facts get mixed up in the editorialising, because you're not watching the news, you're watching Dave Randomname's take on the news. You have O'Reilly and Beck on the right, Maddow and (to a lesser extent) Olbermann on the left, and various people in the centre (which usually actually means the right to all intents and purposes). Now, Maddow doesn't deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as O'Reilly and Beck in terms of quality and intellectual honesty, but the problem of battle lines remains. Once you decided on which personality to tune in to, you run the risk of seeing the world through their eyes. The stratification of news into "liberal" and "conservative" shows also means that the focus rapidly becomes the combatants themselves, and not the causes, which makes for good ratings, but shitty, shitty news (it's the severity of the problem and of the battles that makes the difference between these people and, say, Paxman over here).

Jon Stewart mentioned something along the above lines when he visited Crossfire, as a matter of fact. I mention this because the video of that encounter is kind of revealing, in that Tucker Carlson responded by trying to claim The Daily Show isn't a perfect example of news reporting either. He was attempting to defend his own low journalistic standards by comparing himself to a comedy show (a comedy show that actually does a better job informing the public than so-called "serious" news shows, but that's beside the point). The constant refusal of media personalities and journalists to hold themselves accountable for their own standards has become endemic in America. Perhaps most famously, MSNBC reporter David Gregory argued, apparently with a straight face, that it is not the responsibility of journalists to tell the public when they are being lied to. This is the case even when the lie is transparently easy to detect; just last week psychotic GOP members told the country there is language in the healthcare bill that will lead to the euthanising of old people, and I read a column that stated "Democrats state that this provision is not in the bill." You know what? Check the bill! This is your goddamn job! [3]

Once you combine the left-right war (which I think the media is probably more responsible for than the actual parties, which makes Gregory's suggestion that its the public that has to do its own damn fact checking all the more egregiously offensive), the sensationalist quest for ratings, the desire to titillate rather than educate, seemingly an entire generation of journalists who don't think they need to do anything more than spell-check press releases [4], and an associated problem that American politics reporters don't actually seem to like politics [5], and you have the mess US news is in right now.

Finally, on the topic of more general media, consider the Washington Post, which is supposedly one of the best newspapers in America (only the NYT and arguably the LA Times could be considered better, or so I'm told) but which regularly runs editorials by some of the most embarrassingly ill-informed people. Remember when George Will used that "no global warming in your adult life-time" bit? That was in the Post. Bill Kristol was also there for a while, which has to rank as one of the worst journalistic decision in the last ten years. Most of their editorials are written by conservatives, which again is an attempt to dispel the "liberal media" myth, but what baffles intelligent observers is how transparently false so many of the claims made within those editorials are.

The Post was also recently was discovered to be selling tickets to "informal" dinners where various high-influence people could buddy up to Post underwriters. My point is that this is (or was) one of the most highly influential papers in America, and it's become reduced to letting idiots give its opinions, and requesting money in exchange for making friends of its underwriters.

Again, this is one of the top three newspapers in a country of 300 million people.

So, yeah. Spielbergo's original point that we might only hear the worst of American news, whilst observing the entire range in our own country (or its Crown Dependencies) is a fair one, but once you spend some time immersed in this stuff, it actually ends up looking worse, rather than better.

[1] One hundred years from now, assuming this planet hasn't become a ball of radioactive dust ruled over by giant cockroaches who worship the few nukes that didn't go off, history scholars are going to have to explain to their students why Clinton avoided impeachment by one vote, and the idea of impeaching Bush was laughed at by almost everyone, and the poor kids will all lose their faith in humanity and become Republicans, or worse, French.

[2] Another issue in all of this is that American libel laws work in such a way that you can't sue someone unless you can prove what they said was false, which is pretty hard (an unfortunate consequence of valuing free speech above not having your name dragged through the mud for no fucking reason), so media personalities have almost no fear of the law (though the FCC will slap them for saying naughty words, or accidentally losing pieces of their clothing) . Why their bosses don't slap them down for this kind of stuff isn't clear, though a desire for sensationalism would seem the most likely conclusion.

[3] Bob Somerby spends a lot of his time cataloguing the reasons why Gore lost in 2000 (or to be more specific, why the count was so close that it was possible to steal the election from him in Florida); and he pretty much blames the media throughout, which is pretty fair. For now, though, I'm just going to highlight the second debate, in which Bush lied about his tax policy, and then told the room and the public that Gore was lying when the Vice President corrected him. You know how I know it was Bush who was lying? From reading a breakdown of his tax proposal. Wouldn't you expect the journalists covering the debate to check who was in the right? Well, tough luck, I'm afraid; they told the public "Bush and Gore claim the other is lying", and then went onto whether Gore was "too boring". I seem to remember someone saying correcting Bush made Gore look "arrogant" as well, which surely must put us at the nadir of journalism, not only will they not tell the public when they're being lied to, they'll also complain when other people do.

[4] This joke stolen from Stephen Colbert.

[5] First noticed, as far as I'm aware, by Digby (who lives here), who noted that sports journalists like to talk about sports, and entertainment journalists like to talk about entertainment, but politics journalists like to talk about blow-jobs and barbeques. Just this week we've heard journalists complaining that Obama seems to be too invested in the details of the problems America faces, and how to solve them.

Wednesday, 12 August 2009

Shake #16

Today's shake: Blackberry Jam

Taste: 3
Texture: 5
Synergy: 2
Scorn: 5
Total Score: 3.75

General Comments: This shake received a Scorn of 5 mainly because the very idea of it simply defined rational analysis. The combination of ingredients required to create the drink are so incongruous that my mind could not grip onto the possible consequences of mixing them, the fingers of my psyche kept slipping off the smooth sides of the hypothetical construct sphere of this shake's concept. Or something.

Anyway, it made no sense before I tasted it, and it made no sense afterwards either. It reminded me of the time I ate green apple ice-cream whilst in Slovenia. It wasn't that it was bad, really, so much as it made no sense in my head; I was tasting apple flavour (as in the one they use in boiled sweets, rather than anything that had ever actually been grown) and ice-cream at the same time, and it didn't make any sense. Imagine ordering a pizza, only for a beef chow mein to arrive instead. You might like chow mein, but you ordered pizza, and it's a pizza guy that's shown up, and he's given you a small pot of garlic sauce to put on the noodles [1]. It was a bit like that.

Anyway, the blackberry jam shake has the same problem. Only in this case it was bad, so I guess in the above analogy the pizza guy punches you in the nuts, or has slept with your sister. Whatever. Don't drink this shake, is what I'm saying.

[1] I am not discounting the possibility that putting garlic sauce in a chow mein wouldn't work. In my experience there is almost nothing that can't be improved with garlic sauce.

Tuesday, 11 August 2009

We Also Train Rottweilers To Savage The SEN Kids

As a follow-on from Palin's total melt-down into unquestionable evil: the tragic horror story of UK healthcare.

All I can say is: fuck Stephen Hawking. If he ever decides to visit Britain, and I don't know if he ever has, I say we kill him and use the wheelchair for a British citizen. That'll save us enough money to give three hundred healthy Anglo-Ubermensch their hayfever tablets! Hooray!

h/t to Kevin Drum.

P.S. Like everyone else with a brain in their head, I would love to know why, even if these stories were ever true, the government denying you healthcare is "a price tag on human life" but an insurance company denying you healthcare is "the free market in action." I'm not holding my breath, though. After all, I could pass out, and a faceless Durham bureaucrat could judge my life unworthy of a few chest compressions.

Holy Atheist Pope, but I hate this crap.

Monday, 10 August 2009

SpaceSquid vs. The X-Men #25: Magnus

It’s not easy finding a good villain, sometimes.

This is problematical to say the least, because good villains are essential. Interesting, powerful protagonists are all very well, but unless they can face off against an impressive adversary with a dastardly plan, you’ve only got half a story. There’s a reason why you don’t see Plant-Man threatening the X-Men anymore. I’m sure there are no lack of opinions and theories as to what makes a comic villain great, but my own personal take on it is that you need two things: a decent hook, and a bit of time.

Magneto has both in spades. Over the years I’ve read various people lament the fact that Marvel can’t create new villains like him anymore (usually this sort of thing appears in comic book letter pages, which you really shouldn’t read if you want to retain any faith in human nature whatsoever), which rather misses the essential point about Magneto, which is that his brilliance as an adversary is intrinsically linked with the amount of time he’s been around. You can retcon villains into your heroes' pasts (most obviously Sinister, for example), but you can’t write familiarity. Of course, the Magneto first encountered by the X-Men at Cape Citadel is almost totally unrecognisable from the multi-layered character he became, but that helps to prove my point. Once in a while, a truly great character may spring into being fully-formed, but ninety-nine times out of hundred, they with time.

The maturation of Magneto is particularly interesting, because it mirrors the development of the franchise itself. It doesn’t seem at all unfair to suggest that the initial USP of the X-Men was squandered somewhat. Why introduce the concept of mutants if each one of them is simply going to be a standard superhero or super-villain? Hell, most of them had origin stories for their powers in any case. Sauron; Sunfire; Mimic; Xavier himself, all of them had their own tales of how they acquired their uncanny abilities. [1] Magneto was another victim of such traditional thinking, a carbon-copy super villain. Basic Story-telling 101 tells us that the best villains are often dark reflections of the heroes they oppose. The truth of this with respect to what Magneto’s relationship with Xavier became is obvious, but in the beginning, the X-Men’s “dark mirror” was nothing more than an opposing team of mutants. It was impossible for Magneto to become more until the comic became more in itself, which didn’t genuinely happen until the arrival of Claremont.

As terrible as Magneto was in those early appearances, though, they are not entirely without insight into his character. His endless taunting of Toad and manipulation of Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch might be simple 60’s evil short-hand, but it reveals a deeper problem. Actually, it reveals two. The first, which I’ll come back to later, is that whilst he cares deeply about mutants in the abstract, it is almost impossible for Mageto to give a damn about them as individuals. The second, which we’ll start with, is this, for a man determined to shape the future of the world, Magneto is impossible of thinking more than one step ahead. This one of the perils of trying to mould the future entirely from the desire to escape the past.

Of course, if anyone has just cause to not have dealt with his personal history, it’s Magneto. Pretty much anyone with the slightest interest in comics knows that he’s a Holocaust survivor, but there’s a good deal more to it than that. Some of it I didn’t even know until I was reading up on him. Growing up as a teenager in Auschwitz was only the second worst thing to happen to him during the war. First, he watches his entire family gunned down by SS soldiers, passes out from the exertion of subconsciously using his as-yet-unused powers to save himself, and is buried in a shallow grave with the victims of the massacre. He actually digs himself out by crawling upwards through the bodies of his dead family, only to be captured when he breaks ground and sent to a concentration camp. The hideous, pitch-black symbolism is difficult to miss; Magneto began his struggle for his right to exist by literally clambering over the bodies of the dead, some of whom were once people he loved, and his only reward was greater torment. The entirety of the tragedy of Magneto’s life (and it is a tragedy, even if the man often goes out of his way to avoid seeming sympathetic) is summed up right there. Every day is a struggle to climb the bodies, only to reach the top and find another pile to scale (and if his first brutal experience at the hands of the Nazis didn’t teach him that, spending his time in Auschwitz burning the bodies of the dead must have).

We perhaps see this revealed most clearly in Scott Lobdell’s Eve Of Destruction storyline; even with a safe haven for mutants guaranteed on Genosha, an island nation once on the brink of total collapse that Magneto has remoulded into something that, while far from paradise, at least constituted a functioning state, his first act upon receiving fresh recruits (thanks to Colossus curing the Legacy Virus with his sacrifice) is to declare war on humanity in general. Ruling Genosha was the absolute highpoint of a campaign that has lasted decades, and his response to that was to keep on climbing. The less charitable reading of this truth is that Magneto cannot rest until all of humanity is enslaved or dead, but I think the truth is more simple: Magneto cannot rest. His failure to save his family; the death of his daughter Anya, who burns to death before his eyes whilst he is restrained by corrupt policemen; the loss of his wife and fellow Auschwitz survivor Magda (later discovered to have been pregnant at the time with twins who grew to be Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch), who flees in terror when he takes his revenge on his captors; the combined effect is simply too much. He claims he strives to ensure the horrors of the past will never be repeated, but in reality I suspect he keeps climbing because the horrors of the past can never be undone.

It is this congenital inability to see the future in any other way than through the warped lens of his youth that traps Magneto. It is also one of the most obvious ways in which he is does in fact represent the dark mirror of Charles Xavier, or at least the polar opposite. Xavier has a crystal clear vision of the future, total integration of human and mutant, including mutual understanding and co-operation. Magneto has on many occasions decried this dream as exactly that, and nothing more, but the reality is more subtle. Xavier’s problem is that he knows where he wants to get to in twenty years, but has an almost impossible task in working out the exact right way to fight for that future now. Magneto, on the other hand, knows exactly which battles to fight now, i.e. all of them, but his reactionary blood-thirst betrays the fact that he has no clear idea where he wants the planet to become, only where he will not permit it to go. Like all terrorists (which is what Magneto frequently is, which is what makes his occasional attempts to leave that life behind so poignant, albeit inevitably doomed), the reason behind the violence has long ago simply become an excuse, the demands made so impossible for anyone to comply even before one considers the behaviour of the one making those demands, that endless warfare is all that remains. And so, inevitably, Magneto hastens the future he claims to so desperately want to avoid. Hell, at this point, thanks in no small part to his constant belligerence, mutants as a race are all but extinct. His own daughter managed more in one desperate sentence than Hitler achieved in half a decade. To say nothing of the fact that it takes some major fucking idiocy to end up in a situation that by your own standards is worse than the Age of Apocalyse. [2]

In the end, a lot of this comes down to ego. When you engage in debate with Charles Xavier and he comes off looking humble and unsure of himself in comparison, I would submit that you’ve crossed a fairly important line somewhere. Which brings us to Magneto’s second great flaw; everything always has to be about him.

This is most obvious on the personal level. In his mind, people never fail Magneto, they betray him. The punishments for disobedience are always severe, and the rewards for following orders almost non-existent. Small wonder Toad once sold him out to an alien power after one incident of abuse too many, or that Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch abandoned him (this required a fairly complex and, to be honest, implausible plot to retrieve them from the Avengers, but Magneto gave no sign of having learned from his mistake; like I said, he can’t see more than one step ahead). Fabian Cortez betrayed him too, though Cortez is such an inveterate douche it’s unfair to blame Magneto entirely for that one. As a race, Magneto is desperate to save mutant kind, but on an individual level he frequently seems to see and treat mutants as tools at best, and cannon fodder at worst. In fact, he ultimately realises this himself, after a pitched battle with the X-Men leads to him almost killing Kitty Pryde. Faced with almost having murdered a child (and a Jewish one at that) leads to the beginning of a period of atonement for Magneto lasting several years, which we’ll discuss later.

As well as the personal level, though, Magneto’s self-regard damages his overall struggle. I hesitate to bring US politics into this, but Magneto’s world-view is eerily reminiscent of the most hawkish neocon, in that every action taken with him in mind, no matter how indirect, or how entirely defensive, is seen as a direct and intolerable attack. No country, or organisation, can have it’s own independent interests, either they follow Magneto’s vision, or they are the enemy, and are plotting against him (much in the same way that Kristol and his ilk believe Russia doesn't have its own desires and concerns, and just wants to piss of the West all the time). The most extreme example is perhaps the Magneto Protocols, an attempt by various governments to erect a satellite grid that would render Magneto harmless should he ever attempt to return to Earth (at the time he was using Asteroid M as a haven for mutants seeking “peace”, which naturally translated into “dictatorship under Magneto”). Despite having forsaken Earth, this attempt to separate Asteroid M from the planet more permanently (which was ostensibly Magneto’s goal anyway) is seen as a direct attack. And direct attacks against Magneto cannot be countenanced. His retaliatory strike, in which he takes control of the magnetic field of the Earth, kills thousands. Statistically speaking, that might well have included a mutant or two, but all Magneto can see is an attack against him. Years later, he decides to once again harness the magnetic fields of the planet for his own ends, and decides to put an unknowing human “on trial” to determine whether or not he is doing the right thing (X-Men #85, probably Alan Davis' best issue ever). Of course, as soon as the chosen homo sapiens demonstrates a desire to simply live and let live, Magneto reveals himself, terrifies the man by detonating a nearby car and flinging him into the air, and then declares his point proven when the poor man admits he wants Magneto dead. Not mutants dead, Magneto, but by this point Magneto literally cannot understand the difference. He may believe himself as working for mutant-kinds best interests, but the truth is obvious, he works for his best interests and then repeatedly assumes that the two things are the same. This is another factor common to terrorists, and to hawkish demagogues.

In this sense, the comparison so commonly made between Magneto and Malcolm X seems rather unfair on the latter. It works on some fuzzy level when comparing him with Xavier/Martin Luther King Junior [3], but when viewing Magneto alone, it holds less water. X looked back on two hundred years of slavery and subjugation for one group of people and decided they were oppressed as Hell, and they weren’t going to take it anymore. Magneto looked back on who knows how many years of suspicion and persecution of the Jews, added it onto a decade of outrageous horror and death, and extrapolated that to a totally different group of people. The most pertinent question to ask X might well have been “Do you really think this will work for black people?”. For Magneto, the question is “Do you really think this would have worked for the Jews”? X’s doctrine was almost certainly self-defeating, but the underlying argument that black people had waited long enough, and that the Civil Rights Movement wasn’t really getting the job done, was understandable on its own terms. Magneto took it upon himself to start a war on behalf of a group of people most of the world didn’t even believe in with the stated aim of stopping mankind from treating mutants the same way Nazi Germany treated the Jews. The fact that this hasn't happened yet is irrelevant, and the fact that Magneto gives every indication that his desire to stop it is to simply utilise similar tactics in reverse just as ignored. The Santayana quote above is, of course, entirely true, but it is wise to bear in mind that you can end up repeating the past by remembering it, but learning all the wrong lessons.

Quite aside from that, though, the logical problem in Magneto's thinking is obvious. If mutants really are as politically and militarily weak as the Jews were in 30’s Germany, then poking the hornet’s nest would be a psychotically stupid thing to do. If, though, mutant-kind is possessed of a greater power (and who could doubt that these days, with so many Alpha mutants running around), then Magneto’s worse-case scenario is either impossible, or liable to come around for reasons other than the ones he imagines, i.e. the mere existence of mutants. It would take something like, say, taking mutants and associating them with crazy and belligerent thugs.

This is where we get back to the American hawks. Magneto operates on the paradoxical belief that mutant-kind was so weak and scattered it had to be protected from the massive majority of “normal” humans, but so strong and powerful that they could achieve that protection by declaring war on the entire world. It’s a comic book re-enactment of the inside of Bill Kristol’s head (with further shades of the GDR’s paranoia that their manifest awesomeness was so obvious that jealous foreigners would bring it down by being a bit mean about it in pamphlets); in which America is so much better than anyone else it must be protected from all slights, however benign, by making new enemies, and preferably bombing them into powder. "We’re so obviously strong that we need to make new enemies, so that we can protect ourselves from things we're too strong to be hurt by, and also to prove to our old enemies we’re not weak, so they won't try and hurt us!!!". [4] Magneto suffers from the same lapse in critical thinking. It’s understandable, because in his head the faceless masses of the mutant population are as helpless as the Jews of Europe, but all his belligerence and search for power ever achieves is to push the arms race a little further along the path. Each new Sentinel or battle-suit or mutant cure leads to another confrontation, another vow to destroy humanity, and the whole cycle starts up again. It is ironic in the extreme that it was Magneto’s X-Men that defeated Apocalypse during the AoA, and that Magneto’s last words to En Sabah Nur before tearing him to pieces is a reminder that “survival of the fittest” always ends in those that have been deemed weak rising up and taking control. It’s a lesson our Magneto would do to remember; uniting mutant-kind is one thing, but uniting humanity against them would be disastrous.

I don't believe Magneto ever really came to understand any of this, in general, but at the very least almost being personally responsible for killing an innocent mutant in the same room (as oppose to killing a human in the same room, or finding out he'd killed a mutant elsewhere, or killing a mutant for some slight against him) leads to him reconsidering his approach. So too does the revelation not long after that Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch are his children, and that thus he has a human grandchild (Luna, the daughter of Quicksilver and the Inhuman Crystal), tying him to humanity by blood (his phrase, one would assume his parents were human, even if the idea of humanity and mutant-kind having different blood wasn't fairly dumb to begin with).

Again, though, all of this is about him. His failures. His family. It still seems almost impossible for him to show any real emotional connection to anyone not already tied to him one way or another. This is not to say he feels no love, or loyalty (Lee Forrester receives the first for a time, despite being human, and Xavier has been saved by Magneto on more than one occasion), simply that his goal to keep mutants safe, while clearly of overriding importance to him, only occur in the abstract. If ten mutants need to be sacrificed to save eleven, Magneto will make the call instantly; and he will kill ten more mutants if they stand in his way. Somehow, his struggle is both intensely personal and disturbingly clinical.

Having said all that, once he chose to fight on the side of the angels, he gave his all to it. Those years (starting sometime just before UXM #200 and lasting for some four years or so, or I guess eight months or so from the character's perspectives) was the most interesting in his long history. At this point comparisons between Xavier and Magneto become truly meaningful; here we have two people who aim for the same thing, but disagree on how to achieve it, a contrast that became even more immediate when Magneto became headmaster of the New Mutants. Specifically, it demonstrates that it was never their differences in approach that separated them, or at least that those approaches stemmed from far more fundamental differences in temperament. Whilst Charles deals with his failures with stoicism and what Bertrand Russell would call "calm autumnal sadness" (sure, that eventually leads to him becoming Onslaught, but that was partially Magneto's fault in any case), Magneto deals with it with anger and force. Since his sincere desire to follow Xavier's example (at least upto a point) means he can no longer turn that force against humanity, he simply turns it inwards instead, becoming a taciturn, unfeeling drunk, desperate to find a way to protect the New Mutants as once he tried to protect all mutant-kind, and with no more success. Doug Ramsey is murdered, and the other New Mutants drift from his care, sickened by his involvement with the Hellfire Club as the "White King" (an attempt by Magneto to both keep an eye on the organisation and to use their resources against the X-Men's enemies) and his refusal to allow them to try and prevent the X-Men's "death" in Dallas not long before Inferno. Ultimately, the New Mutants demand to leave his charge, and Magneto accepts. Within months, he has returned to his villainous ways, leading to a set of events that incorporate the Magneto Protocols event mentioned earlier, and concludes with him extracting the adamantium from Wolverine's body (another ultimately self-destructive act of revenge) and having his brain shut down by Xavier.

There are many, many more things one can say about Magneto. I've skipped over Genosha almost entirely, to say nothing of the Magneto War, his clone Joseph (who will at least get his own article), his reduction to infancy by the mutant Alpha and Moira MacTaggart's subsequent attempt to rebuild his DNA, but I think we've covered the essentials [5]. Magneto is a man who has seen the absolute worst humanity has to offer, and he has allowed it to change him into something monstrous. He is a man who can deal with the failures of the past only by making new mistakes in the present. And, above all, he is a man who cannot separate himself from his cause, but separates the cause from its cost all too easily. In all but the first, those things probably makes him more like everybody else than we would like to admit, and certainly more human than he would dare to concede. But then, that's always the problem with dividing people up into us and them; they always turn out to act exactly like us.

Next time round, we consider Psylocke. Will I be annoyed at the implication that a reserved British woman can't last as a super heroine? Or will I mainly concern myself with the fact that she's a brutally hot ninja? Who can tell? WHO!?!

[1] Whilst I continue to maintain that M-Day and the events preceding it represent an opportunity wasted rather than a bad idea altogether, but the fact that Quesada justified it as an attempt to make it harder to create new characters rather makes me wonder whether the man has any idea what the fuck he’s doing, partially because it didn’t (and couldn’t) work, but mainly because all you need is a cool idea and the line “they’re a mutant” and you’re off and running. Why you’d want to intentionally block that is beyond me.

[2] Say what you want about that particular alternate reality, they weren't running out of mutants any time soon.

[3] Particularly after a cursory glance at the respective childhoods of the two men. They were in no way as far removed from each others experiences as Xavier and Magneto, of course, but at the very least you could hypothesise that the two men might have shared or even swapped their political philosophies had they swapped their early experiences. In the Marvel Universe, Charles never needed to fight for his food, and never could fight in order to stop his abusive step-father and bullying step-brother. Magneto, on the other hand, is only alive at all because he chose to kill rather than lay down and die.

[4] The short-hand to all of this is that the only way to not be destroyed is to demonstrate fearlessness, and the only way to demonstrate fearlessness is to deliberately flirt with situations that would lead to your destruction.

[5] He also tried to take the world over using mind-controlling lava, once, but we don't like to talk about that.

Sunday, 9 August 2009

In Which I Am Compelled To Once Again Discuss Buses

Remember the Atheist Bus campaign I spent a few posts discussing (and twisting to my own childish ends) at the start of the year? One of the major bones of contention was whether "There's Probably No God: Now Go Out And Enjoy Your Life" was too strong a phrase (it should surprise no-one to learn I thought it wasn't, though other phrases were suggested that might well have worked better).

Well, compare that message to the one being used in Des Moines: "Don't Believe In God? You Are Not Alone." Well, I say "being used", they've already been taken down after a storm of complaints. Iowa Governor Culver approves, saying "I was disturbed, personally, by the advertisement and I can understand why other Iowans were also disturbed by the message that it sent." He also claimed to be "offended".

Disturbed by the message? Offended? This is the democratically elected Governor of the State of Iowa, and he's offended to learn that atheists might want to remind each other they're not on their own out there.

Apparently the ads are going to go back up again, which is good news. My point here is two-fold, though. One, there is apparently no atheist message (and this one is about as obvious an attempt to help out other atheists as possible, bypassing the already very weak argument that such ads are aimed at Christians themselves) non-confrontational enough to avoid people complaining that it's disturbing and/or offensive. Two, whilst Des Moines is not London, the questions raised previously about why atheism would need to advertise are answered pretty quickly here. If people live in a society where being reminded that atheists exist constitutes an offensive message, atheists need all the reassurance they can get.

Saturday, 8 August 2009

Every Time I Think We've Reached Rock Bottom...

Is there a word to describe a mother who drags her baby with Downs Syndrome into a political fight in order to defend a system that denies heathcare coverage for babies with Downs Syndrome? I mean, it's not like I have a small vocabulary, or a tendency not to call it like I see it, but I'm genuinely struggling to not agree with straight-up "evil". Taking your own family's suffering and exploiting it to make other families in the same position suffer more?

I'm not saying her situation requires she back reform, og of course. Palin could tell the public why she opposes the proposed health care legislation, despite the fact that it will help families who are dealing with children with Down Syndrome. That, at least, is a mature stance; if the good the bill would do over this one subject would be overwhelmed by problems elsewhere, then by all means let's hear about it. Failing that, she could have just kept her mouth shut.

Someone once said that the interesting thing about liberals and conservatives (as the terms are understood in America right now) is that conservatives tend to take liberal positions on issues that directly affect them. Say what you want about Cheney (and God knows a more hideous example of humanity is not easy to find outside the realms of fiction), but having a gay daughter meant he never played ball with the GOP over gay-bashing (if only he'd had three other daughters, one black, one Muslim, and one the anthropomorphic representation of law and Constitutionality). The link between this observation and wider discussions on the subject of empathy are left as an exercise to the reader, but my point for now is that this particular conservative has gone the other way; she is currently experiencing first-hand the exact sort of struggle that liberals point to when they argue health-care insurance should be easier to acquire, and she is deliberately using it to make that argument harder (in a way that makes no fucking sense, of course, but her total disconnect from reality is one of her least crimes at this point). It make me long for the good old days when all Palin was doing was telling people her daughter had chosen to keep her baby, as though that somehow made it OK that the potential McCain administration would have attempted to deny her the right to make that choice from the very moment they got to the Oval.

The more I think about what could have happened had McCain taken the White House, the harder it is to sleep at night. The fact that the TPM article linked to above suggests that this might be a trial balloon for 2012, much as I doubt that such is the case, makes my head hurt.

Jessie's Video Games

This week, I 'ave bin mostly playin: Plants Vs. Zombies.

This is because it is awesome.

The basic idea is fairly obvious from the title; the only clarification required is that you are on the side of the plants. Or, more accurately, the plants are on the side of you, since they are all that stands between the zombies and a delicious brains-croque-monsieur, of which the principle ingredient is you.

In practice, the game is not a million miles away from Desktop Tower Defense, which I've mentioned before, except that the zombies can only arrive from one direction, and the available defences are far more varied and interesting. And funny, as well, which is impressive. Being able to write 50 biographies for different zombie-killing plants and make them all amusing (to say nothing of the descriptions of the dozens of zombie sub-sets themselves) requires a special kind of creativity.

Oh, and it also has one of the best credit sequences in living memory, though you probably have to experience the game to appreciate it fully. Still, J-Pop + shambling undead? Sign me the fuck up!

I acquired this genius for the bargain price of eight quid from Steam, and it was worth every penny. Alternatively, there are demos you can download. I recommend that you do. The only obvious flaw with the game is that it's kinda easy; I only had my brains eaten four times over the course of the whole thing, and three of those were on the final set of levels (stoopid bungee zombies!). Regardless, it still took me most of a day to complete (and there are many bonus levels I haven't gotten around to yet), and for the price of less than four pints (which continues to be the only sensible way to measure fiscal strain), you could do a whole lot worse.