Sunday, 31 January 2010

More On Being Human

Good Lord. It's been an entire week since Episode 3 of the new season of Being Human, and I haven't said anything yet. People must be in tears the length and breadth of the blogohedron.

A couple of things whilst I wait for Episode 4 to download, then. First of all, I was disappointed that this week's "Acting Like A Cock" Awards have had to be cancelled. Everyone was just as self-involved as ever (1 000 000 points to Mitchell for finally telling George he needs to spend a little time outside his own miserable, brooding head), but that's pretty much inevitable for this show. Conditional on that, though, everyone seemed to be almost, well, human with each other.

If anyone could be nominated, I guess it would be Annie, for managing to convince herself so effortlessly that the best thing to do with her ghostly self would be to repair broken relationships, irrespective of the feelings of those people involved. That would be bad enough on its own terms , but it's especially irritating when you consider the added layer of self-importance in her assuming her sudden disappearance would be so emotionally crippling that only interference from beyond the grave could bring him back on an even keel. Then you have to award even more cock points for her trying to pretend all of this is some kind of great sacrifice on her part because she still loves him but she'll do "the right thing" and set him up with someone else instead. You're dead, darling, and invisible, you don't get credit for realising a relationship isn't gonna work out.

Still, as annoying as Annie's plan might be, it's a common enough response to heart-break, and at least superficially worthy, so it's much easier to write off than some of George's or Mitchell's earlier behaviour. Speaking of which, this episode's "The Real Hustle" scene has to be one of the best things I've watched in weeks. A lot of people online (who, needless to say, are nearly always wrong) have been complaining that the boys' meltdown over a missed TV program didn't ring true. Au contraire, it was probably the most relatable moment in the entire episode (only George's sorrowful admission to Hugh's ex that he was still too in love with someone else to keep dating her came all that close). People seem doubtful that a blood-starved vampire with management issues and a murderous werewolf with a coaster obsession would lose it having missed their favourite show, but that misses the point. Not getting to see TRH isn't worse than what they're already (failing to adequately be) dealing with, it's just unexpected. George and Mitchell right now are both pressure cookers. Everything's so heated inside their head, pushing so hard against their skulls, that if you suddenly slip something else in, it's just more than they can bear, and the result is that all their frustration and (metaphorical) impotence get launched at the most innocuous, irrelevant set-back possible. This is exactly how people's minds work. Well, it's how my mind works, anyway, as anyone who's seen me come in from a bad day and realise I've run out of milk can attest.

This leads us effortlessly into the other two major internet bone-pickings that have been going on over this episode. The first is something else I can't understand, and that's people's difficulty in believing a fire-and-brimstone mass-execution MC might be able to hold perfectly normal, measured conversations in the middle of ordering the deaths of dozens of innocent people. Doesn't anyone talk about the banality of evil anymore? I guess it could have been put together better than it did, but really, watching a man chat happily away with his torch-bearer in-between telling his helpless captives of the horrible death that awaits them struck me as genuinely creepy, albeit slightly more in concept than execution.

The other thing that drew a lot of criticism was the decision to show the body of a dead girl in its entirety, from head to foot, and with everything in-between. The word "gratuitous" was bandied around quite a bit. I'm not sure it that was meant in the sexual sense (which doesn't really track; the girl was clearly made-up to look like she was very, very dead) or just in the more general sense of there being no need, but I don't think either of those things are true. Watching it reminded me of Calliope in Sandman, and how Gaiman described her predicament. He explained how you get to a point where nudity stops being titillating, and is just horrible instead. In that sense, at least, a full-body shot of a dead woman naked in those circumstances could arguably be more effective than a dead woman dressed. To the extent that I'm affected by people pretending to be dead on TV at all anymore, I found it kind of upsetting, which presumably was the point.

That's the major complaints out of the way, on to the good stuff. Mitchell's "King of the vampires" story is getting increasingly interesting, though I'd point out that I'm not sure de-fanging a vampire and locking them up (presumably) forever is necessarily any kinder than actually killing them, so it doesn't really seem particularly merciful to use it as an alternative to execution, on top of being the kind of failure to follow through on his threats that is bound to fuck up Mitchell's chances to lead the vampire race to salvation by, oooh, Episode 6, I'd say. Also: good choice revealing Professor Jaggert so quickly, in an age where such things seem to always be stretched out interminably.

After a distinctly wobbly start, the show seems to be firing on all cylinders again, which is great. I'm genuinely excited to see what happens next, even if (out of context) the fact that the trailer for Episode 4 includes footage of a major character getting a nosebleed doesn't exactly make it sound like a mind-bending roller-coaster of dramatic tension or anything. It's like that Season 4 episode of BSG that included footage of paperwork in it's teaser sequence. I spent the whole episode waiting for someone to misfile a form, or perhaps not complete it in triplicate.

Anyway, I digress. I'm off to watch Episode 4.

The Shiniest Turd In The Sewer

My mistake. Apparently there is something we can talk about today: is the 111th Congress somewhat less shit than everyone on the left seems to think?

Norman Ornstein says no, arguing that the stimulus bill alone is proof that the current iteration has already gotten more done than any other Congress since the 60's. Steve Benen describes the article as "[Painting] a pretty compelling picture."

Let's not be too hasty here, though. Quite aside from how depressing it is to think that somehow this pathetic, mewling, paralysed, drooling child of a legislative body is the best the States have seen since 1965, I'd be wary about grasping at Ornstein's life-raft too quickly. There's something critical going on here that needs to be considered if progressives are going to be able to understand who we are, and what they want out of Congress.

There are, broadly speaking, two different types of bill that Congress can try to pass, and that progressives are liable to support. The first is like the stimulus package. This is an attempt to counter and possibly even neutralise what is a worsening of what was until recently the status quo. And no doubt these bills need passing, and Congress deserves praise when they do so (though clearly reasonable people can disagree how much credit to give them).

As important as this kind of legislation is, though, it is not progress. It is the arresting of a slide backwards/downwards (depending on one's frame of reference), but it is not progress.

And progressives want progress. That's what we voted for (well, I didn't, obviously, but you know what I mean). Progressives recognise the necessity of Obama's attempts to return the US to the state it was, say, at the end of Clinton's presidency rather than Bush's (they also recognise, or at least they damn well should, that this is a truly monumental, almost Herculean task, and there is no guarantee Obama and co. will get even close to it), but what they want to be able to do, I think, is to be able to point to something at the end of Obama's first term and say "Here is an area of American life that has literally never been better". The unspoken (or rarely spoken) concern in all of this is that Obama will get the country back on its feet just enough to allow the next Republican president to tear everything down again.

That's why I'd be careful about embracing Ornstein's framing too completely. This may not have been his intention, but it feeds the larger narrative that Democratic success be judged in how much they reset Republican errors, instead of how much they change America for the better. In fact, paradoxically, the only reason why passing the stimulus bill is something to be particularly impressed by is that the Republicans were so baffling obsessed with not letting it happen. One would think the last thing the GOP would want to do would be to make fixing their mistakes even more of a political victory, but there you go.

In any event, a dangerous cycle is being mapped out. Republicans ruin the country, Democrats are tasked to clean it up, Republicans fight so hard against the clean-up that no-one has the time/will/courage to do anything else, and then at the end of it all the Republicans get back in because the Democrats have "failed". This constant, sanity-defying drone from the MSM (and centrist Dems) that Democrats "misread their mandate" is one more extension of this; arguing as it does that the Republicans are the natural leaders of the country, and the only job the Democrats serve is to fix the GOP's mistakes. That somehow the country never wants the Democrats in power, they just want the Republicans out of power every now and again, and they know they'll need someone to fill the gap in the interim.

So is the 111th Congress doing well? Only in the sense that it's somehow managing to overcome Republican attempts to derail a political cycle that is overwhelmingly to the Republican's advantage.

I'd be careful about popping the champagne corks over that one.

Is It Possible To Be Unsurprised And Confused?

It's been a slow couple of days in my head, hence the lack of posting. I've been trying to get back to my increasingly convoluted chronicle of the Space Squids, but that's still a few days away. And since all anybody seems to want to talk about is John Terry, there's not much to talk about out in teh interwebs.

So hurray for this horribly depressing report, sent to me by Chemie, regarding Britain's current level of inequality

Spoiler alert: there's loads of it.

In truth, I'm not sure there's a lot to be added to what's already there. Certainly, much of it is unsurprising: one's ethnic and economic background has a truly ridiculous impact on one's success in school, and hence on one's options in life. Finding statistical evidence for these trends is always valuable, of course, but this is most definitely something to file under "D'uh".

Reading through the article did remind me of something, though. It recalled the radio program I discussed in November that made the claim that Labour supporters traditionally focus on inequality of income, and liberals on inequality of wealth. It's not a position that can't be criticised, to be sure, but as I read through the link above, I did wonder to myself what I should be more bothered about: the fact that the the wealthiest 10% have 100 times what the poorest 10% do, or the fact that the poorest 10% have so little independently of anything else? Am I supposed to be looking at relative wealth, or absolute wealth? And should we be comparing wealth at all, rather than income?

This is why I don't talk very often about economic matters. I find it very difficult to see the links between strands. And since I regularly berate conservatives for not seeing such links either, I tend to keep my mouth shut about these things until such time as I can get into them properly (if I ever do).

So, what's worse? That a poor family has 1% of the worth of a rich one? Or that said worth, including possessions, is around nine grand or less?

Friday, 29 January 2010

Friday Talisman Blogging: Edging Ever Closer

Also, if Drum gets to start using a picture of the Grim Reaper to accompany his posts on healthcare reform, then so do I.

(Note how he waiting outside an Imperial bastion. The Ultramarines manning the facility have no idea what's coming for them, but apparently they won't need to worry until one of them steps out for a fag break.)

Including the Reaper in Talisman games is an odd experience. On the one hand, he's fun to use. We played a four to five hour game over New Year's, and every single time he was moved it was to a chorus of DEATH!!! from those present. It should have gotten boring, but it never did (at least, it never did for me, but I was kind of drunk on apple brandy at the time). There's just something intensely satisfying about moving the personification of mortality around a game board, chasing your opponents down.

On the other hand, he rarely makes any difference to the game. You need to roll a one for your movement score in order to move him, then you need to roll the right number to get Death to whomever you want menaced. So it's only once in every thirty six turns that he'll do anything at all (assuming the times he's out of range are balanced out by the times he has more than one potential target). Moreover, he only has a one in six chance of actually killing whomever he decides to hassle (it's just as likely he'll demand a game of chess or even, somewhat oddly, offer you a present, which may or may not be a reference to Hogfather, I neither know nor in any way care), which can often be re-rolled. Thus, even in a game where a clear winner is emerging, as it did in ours, the chance that G. Rizzle can polish off the current leader is 1 in 1296 each turn (a calculation that I did in my head, just now, because I am a motherfucking doctor of maths!!!), which is less than impressive.

On the other other hand, if the Deathmeister does get his skeletal mitts on those ahead of the game, and take them to Talisman Heaven (where presumably the dragons all have strength 1 and everyone gets to play as the Prophetess), then they start all over, and the game suddenly gets a few more hours tacked on to it. I mentioned it took about 270 minutes to play (do you see the ease with which I bend maths to my will?), at least half of that wouldn't have been necessary if we hadn't reached consensus that we were going to use Death as our personal assassin and hunt down the poor bastard in the lead. Sure, we killed our foe, but we also killed our own free time. It didn't help that three hours later the game was won by the exact same team we'd scythed the shit out of. I blame being stuck with the ghoul. The ghoul is shit.

So, Death. By turns fun, pointless, and a tremendous inconvenience. How like life. Except the fun bit, obviously.

The Continued Struggle Against Statergery

Daniel Larison offers a customarily smart take on the state of the Republican Party (SOTR?) right now. As is so often the case, he's a lot less convinced of them having any long-term route back into power in their current form than anyone is on the left. How much of this represents him lacking the usual paranoia and cynicism the American left tends to display these days (and who could blame them?), and how much is Larison's continued difficulty in viewing voters as anything other than supremely rational, I'm not sure, but in it's way it's comforting.

I also think his picture is incomplete, though. Whilst I think this is entirely true -
Republicans have been treating temporary, tactical political victories as if they were far more significant, strategic victories, when, in fact, they have no political strategy worth mentioning.
- it fails to take into account that the Republicans are a hair's breadth away from winning their greatest strategic victory since the Clinton years. I remain too depressed over the whole HCR debacle to go over it all again (I might have a bit more later; inevitably it'll be depressing and overwrought), though my current thinking lies pretty close to Kevin Drum's, but had the bill been passed by now, it would have almost certainly been a disaster for the GOP long-term. Had the Republicans put any effort into contrition over the disastrous last eight years, the Democrats might actually have gotten themselves a vote or two for HCR from them, and we'd a) already had a bill, and b) gotten to have watched the exact moment Senator Lieberman realised he was no longer of relevance to anybody except the editors of Bitter Old Prick magazine.

So I agree entirely with Larison that the Republicans are entirely focusing on tactics rather than strategy. This is something I remarked upon during the Presidential campaign; McCain's utter obsession with winning the news cycle was almost always successful, but frequently counter-productive. On the other hand, up until this moment, it's been tremendously beneficial for them. This might well become less true as whatever legislation is crafted to create jobs takes shape (can the GOP find a way to persuade the American people that more jobs is a bad idea? I'm betting they can!), since the downside of letting the Democrats pass that is far less than it was regarding HCR. I guess we'll see.

One other thought. As I say, I've been making this point over the Republican fixation with short-term tactics for a while now. It's also been widely pointed out in the past that a major difference between progressive and conservative thinking (or more accurately, what many individual progressives and conservatives seem to think) is that progressives see the links in the wider picture, and realise pulling one thread somewhere may lead to unravelling somewhere else, whereas conservatives treat each new issue as a sealed box, to be opened, the puzzle inside solved, and then closed again.

It only just occurred to me upon reading Larison's piece that those two traits might actually be very closely connected. Someone who views problems as a list of independent articles is probably prone to short-term thinking over political fights, and anyone too busy punching hippies to sit and think about the long-term direction of their party isn't liable to want to sit down for long enough to work out whether their views on healthcare will have an adverse knock-on effect on (Hell, these people haven't worked out whether their views on healthcare will have an adverse knock-on effect on healthcare).

I don't know if I'm way off the mark with this, or if it's a ludicrously obvious point that I alone have never grasped (a friend of mine calls these "Dickensian moments", after the exact moment an acquaintance of his finally clocked onto the fact that "Dickensian" means "Like something from Dickens"). I thought it was worth passing on. I should also state for the record that I don't believe all conservatives are necessarily incapable of considering and understanding complex systems, I'm sure some of them can and are selfish pricks anyway, or are even like Larison and actually arguably too strategic [1]. It's just that, as is pointed out so often, it ain't that type of conservative who's running the asylum right now.

[1] I asked him last week why he would be happy to see a bill designed at saving tens of thousands of lives a year die, and whilst he didn't directly respond, he did give a one-line justification for his position in his next post, which was something along the lines of the bill being "unaffordable and unsustainable". To which I say, maybe, but that's a hell of a long-term angle to take when people are dying every day.

Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Shake #33

Today's shake: Blackberries

Taste: 4
Texture: 3
Synergy: 3
Scorn: 5
Total Score: 3.75

General Comments: Today's shake experience caused another round of disagreement regarding the exact manner by which the "Scorn" score is calculated. During previous experiments, a shake is made and presented to me, and I ponder for a few moments its quintessential nature. What does this shake do? What is it for? In the alternate universe where this flavour of shake has never been conceived, what has been the knock-on effect upon human existence.

On this occasion, that latter question was all to easy to answer. Had the blackberry milkshake remained outside the boundaries of mortal imagination, we'd have gotten at least a few things done a damn sight fucking faster.

It took two people at least seven minutes to make my shake this lunchtime. I would question that amount of preparatory person-time if I'd ordered a particularly stuffed Spanish omelette. Every so often one of them would pull the mixing jug out of the blender, open it, shake their head in disbelief, and then add another cup of milk. By the time they were finished, they had to hand me my medium milkshake in a large cup, because no medium cup could handle milkshake of that magnitude (the man on the till helpfully explained that this is because "cold things expand with warmth", which I thought was very nice of him)!!!

So, I had much more time to consider my scorn than normal. This is what led to the argument. Scorn must be determined before taste; this much is obvious. But must it be determined before preparation, also? Can one's scorn really be time-dependent? Is a milkshake that takes too long to make worthy of more scorn? If not, where should it lose marks for what is, after all, a fairly major flaw when considering a drink I buy on my way to my favourite lunching spot (a stone bridge over the Wear that is often unbearably cold these days, but tradition is tradition)?

In the end it was concluded that I could raise scorn post-prep, in this case at least, since it seemed reasonable that watching people spend so much time creating a beverage which most closely resembled purple cement was suggestive that the final product might not have the smoothness one desires in a milkshake.

And so it proved. I was concerned the shake would a) be too tart and b) solidify inside me. The first proved entirely true; the second I'm still waiting on. Even if I don't end up with a blocked intestine, though, I dread to think what damage the seemingly endless influx of seeds have done. At this point I could probably sand-blast (seed-blast?) my stomach lining clean if I just span around fast enough. Certainly, shake me and I'd rattle.

In conclusion, then, this is not only a poor shake, but a potential health hazard, though with sufficient cunning one could theoretically use it to replace a colonic irrigation.

Monday, 25 January 2010

The Month In Minutiae

Problem: A wave of petty (very, very petty) crime sweeping our department.

Cost to department: Delicious biscuits, much-loved spoons, assorted crockery.

Cost to me: One mug.

Response: Equally petty (very, very petty, though hopefully amusing) group e-mail:
If anyone is still weighing up their options regarding New Year resolutions, might I humbly suggest one: not stealing other people's mugs.

At this point my own coffee receptacle has been AWOL for over a month. I can thus only assume that either it is being used as a desk ornament with which to impress visitors from other, mugless societies, or that the mould that has presumably grown within is close to reaching the level of intelligence necessary to mark your homework scripts for you.

In case you're wondering, the item in question bears the English strip upon its side, but that doesn't really matter. Look around your office. Note any mugs. Check those mugs against your memories of buying mugs.

Any not match up? Put them back.


PS: For the record, the volume of the average coffee mug is equal to approximately that of 2.7 coffee cups of the kind already available in the coffee room. Thus, those too tight or too lazy to acquire a mug of their own can achieve the exact same result as stealing my mug by just using 2.7 coffee cups instead. You won't have to swipe anything!

Unless you enjoy theft, obviously, in which case I suggest you try stealing cars or gold ingots. Nobody likes an underachiever.

Result #1: Mug returned

Result #2: Extra mug gained as birthday present.

("If I am not DR. CROSSMAN then I stole this mug")

Conclusion #1: A man's mug is his chalice.

Conclusion #2: My best birthday presents always involve others playing off my total refusal to gain any sense of perspective or proportion whatsoever.

Sunday, 24 January 2010

Contractual Obligations

I mentioned yesterday that I'd have a bit more up about healthcare today. Unfortunately, yesterday's 14 hour drinking binge (interrupted only to watch Blacklung get married and a bit of dancing like a loon) has blurred my recollection of what exactly I meant to post. Certainly, I'm even less optimistic today than I was yesterday. That's possibly illogical; I'm not sure what I was expecting to happen by early Sunday afternoon Washington time, but there you go.

So I don't really feel like the "Hey, it just might be OK after all!" post I had half-conceived. But I'm going to put together an approximation of it in any case. Like the Mayor of Sunnydale before me; I keep my promises.

Essentially, the slim ray of hope amongst all of this involves two previous announcements, and an upcoming one. First, we have this:

The core problem is that the House Democrats no longer trust the Senate Democrats. And let’s be honest: There is no reason in the world for House Democrats to trust the Senate Democrats at this point, or even to feel very kindly disposed toward them.

That’s why there is resistance in the House to the most straightforward solution, which is for the House to pass the Senate health-care bill and send it to the president, and then to use the reconciliation process (which requires only 51 votes in the Senate) to pass the changes in the bill that House and Senate negotiators have agreed to—or, at least, as many of those changes as is procedurally possible. They can’t get all the changes into law that way, but they could get a lot of them.

The catch is that the House Democrats don’t believe the Senate Democrats will necessarily keep their word and pass the reconciliation bill containing the amendments. And it’s not only the question of trust: anyone who has watched the Senate for the last year can be forgiven for wondering if it is even functional enough (given Republican obstruction and a lack of cohesion in the Democratic caucus) to keep a promise sincerely made.

I read a summary of this position, but I've forgotten where, and whether it was a response to Dionne himself or to someone on the Hill making the same argument. Essentially, it ran along the lines that whilst it's true that at first glance the Senate is pretty much a pathetic excuse for a political institution, it's obviously not accurate that the Senate can't be trusted to pass something that requires a simple majority vote. They got 53 on healthcare without any trouble whatsoever. And whilst a lower number of necessary votes might lead to an increased amount of bullshit from senators who might otherwise fallen in line, it seems ludicrous to suggest the amount of time Lieberman, Nelson et al spent shitting over their own electorate constitutes a genuine concern for gathering 50 votes together.

There are thus three possibilities for why the above opinion was aired. Number one: the House is now so pissed with the Senate repeatedly ignoring anything they say, do or want that they've decided to finally take a stand. "If we can't shape the bill, we won't pass it". Obviously, I sympathise with their position, but since a) it's abundantly clear that trying this will simply lead to massive problems for House Democrats come election time, and b) the Senate has already made it clear that they've passed a bill and the House can pass it or go fuck themselves, there seems no point to the House choosing to die on this particular hill; it's like cutting off your nose to spite someone else's face.

The second possibility is that the House knows it's about to drop the ball, and is hoping to push some of the blame onto the Senate. This is probably the most plausible explanation. Certainly, whilst hoping whining about the Senate or trying to bring Republicans back on board in negotiations in the hope of spreading the pain is a massively boneheaded idea, it's an order of magnitude less flat-out imbecilic than believing letting the bill die is the best option left on the table, so I have no intention of ruling it out.

There is, though, a third explanation, and it ties into Speaker Pelosi's recent announcement that the House lacks the votes to pass the bill "at this time." Lindsay Beyerstein argues pretty persuasively that rather than sounding the death knell of reform, Pelosi's comment is basic negotiating strategy. If she implied the House could sort the Senate's mess out all by themselves, the Senate would have no reason to agree to anything. Far better to suggest the House can pass the bill, so long as the Senate agrees to push through certain House-requested changes via reconciliation later in the year.

As I say, I find the second explanation more convincing than the third, though of course the latter one is by far the most comforting. The fact that the Democrats are dragging their heels on this, however, means that hope remains. If the bill was clearly defeated, the only thing left to do would be to kill it as quickly as possible.

This is where my final point comes in. The general feeling amongst progressive political commentators right now is that every day the Democrats dither makes it less likely the bill will pass, and the more damage they will take for fiddling whilst Rome dies for lack of medical treatment. I would be very sympathetic for that position except for one thing: next week is the State of the Union. If I were Obama, I would be tempted to sit on the announcement that Democrats in the House and Senate had come up with a way to work together in concert to overcome Republican obstructionism so that he could unleash it in his speech. Certainly, one of the major reasons Democrats are balking at passing the bill is the tepid-at-best public support for it. If there was ever a chance to build some momentum, to remind people why this bill is good for them (at least in comparison to the status quo) and to signal the final charge on getting it passed, then the SotU would be time.

Again, I am not particularly hopeful that this is what is going to happen. Much as I spend a lot of my time defending Obama against what I think is unfair criticism, his treatment of the healthcare issue over the last few weeks/months has seemed genuinely pathetic. Whilst I think the above could work, and potentially work very well, and there is no direct evidence to suggest that it won't happen, Obama has spent too much time this week saying he refuses to let healthcare die but won't put any effort into producing a credible method to save it for me to hold out too much hope. It's also possible that I'm wrong and pretty much everyone else is right, and another three days of inaction will genuinely prove fatal.

Nevertheless, the possibility exists. And this is, by my count, at least the fifth time we've all been told healthcare was already dead (once before in the House and three times in the Senate). As Steve Benen pointed out yesterday, the alternative is to ignore the advice of their allies, and to follow that of their enemies. And that, at least, is something you should be able to count on politicians being too smart to do.

(Edited for clarity)

Update: Seems like Beyerstein's position is beginning to spread.

Saturday, 23 January 2010

Punting Stupid

Busy today (off to Blacklung's wedding), so little from me. I might have more tomorrow on (what else?) healthcare, plus also a quick look at one of the coolest birthday presents I've ever received.

For now, though; this made me chuckle, though not really in a good way.

Apologies for the poor framing, I don't have time for snippages. Anyway, more here.

Friday, 22 January 2010

Friday 40K Blogging: Boys In Blue

At last! The only remaining painted miniatures with which I haven't bothered the internet at large have finally arrived! Presenting my first squad of Ultramarines.

(For anyone who's wondering, the ship in the background of the first picture is a pirate ship pinata. Long story).

So what's next? Good question! I'm glad you asked. I appreciate it when you take an interest. Isn't it so great that we can just talk like this?

Next... I'm not sure. I have some more Tyranids on the way; the new codex is so filled with delicious goodies that I've been forced to expand the army list to 2500 points. Which means I'll have to add some stuff to my Dark Angels and Blood Angels too. Couple of special characters, maybe a Baal Predator, who knows? But then of course I've not yet hit 1300 points with my Tau; that needs to be rectified. My Red Corsairs desperately need some Thousand Sons reinforcements. I still have three fifths of a Space Squid squad to put together. There's been a strike cruiser sitting on my computer stack for months now waiting to be the first vessel in my Blood Angel fleet. I've also got all of those lovely Talisman figures to work through, though; as well as a copy of Space Hulk that Jamie, Pause, Dr L and Cocklick somehow managed to track down for me as 30th birthday present.

Damn, but life is hard...

Thursday, 21 January 2010

Chickenshit Dem Watch: Day 2

Always ready to kick his own party when they're down, Bart Stupak arrives to behave like an arse again:
Stupak has said many, many times before that he won’t support a bill without his amendment. If that would mean the downfall of health-care reform, then so be it... Stupak claims—and so far, I haven’t heard any dispute to this—that he has 10 or 11 Democrats committed to opposing the Senate bill’s less restrictive language.
Stupak apparently has history of exaggerating his support, but he may not be this time. Obviously, this poses a problem (and, as always, it's nice to see these people are so concerned about human life that they'll allow tens of thousands of people to die unless they can guarantee poor women can't safely have abortions).

On the other hand, if healthcare does go down in flames (and right now, that's most certainly where my money is, especially with Obama in full-on cowardly pussy mode) , I'd at least rather we have a specific list of Democrats to hold responsible. I doubt very much whether it will make any actual difference come the mid-terms, but in terms of cold comfort (which is the only kind of comfort liable to be available for a while), I'd rather the party was betrayed by specific, identifiable individuals, rather than collapsing as a whole, which was what seemed likely on Tuesday night.

Following on from this, I'm trying to decide what the downsides are to bringing this to the vote. It might well not pass, but I'm having a hard time believing the visual of the Democrats losing the vote could possibly be worse than not bothering to hold it after a year of bigging it up. In a nation of 300 milliion, I'm betting only Sarah Palin thinks losers are less impressive than quitters.

Hold the vote, and hold the cameras on every single prick or prickess who decides to screw his or her country. I want to know exactly who to add to my list of people to blame.

Or am I missing something? Beyond the fact that twenty quid says almost every single Democratic Congressperson who is about to humiliate their party is right now demanding the vote be skipped so as to avoid them being "embarrassed"?

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Breaking News On Breaking Points

The possibility of holding a Senate vote before Brown arrives just got taken off the table. Not surprising. That leaves a House vote on the Senate bill (reconciliation is a pipe dream, and has been for a while), which is looking pretty damn unlikely.

I was thinking (OK, brooding) about this a lot today, and something struck me. With the general election approaching, it is clear that whilst the Conservatives in no way deserve to win (and we most certainly don't deserve that outcome), it's very hard to see a way around the argument that Labour deserves to lose. Given the surprisingly strong Lib Dem showing in my area last time around, it's at least theoretically possible that my vote could help shore up Labour, or help knock them down (as much as one vote makes any difference to anything). I know I don't want the Conservatives in, but it's just so damn hard to try to persuade myself I want Labour to remain in power.

It's only just sunk in that this must be how Democratic voters must feel all the time. This latest round of bullshit is just that: the latest round. Publius calls it a betrayal, and it's hard to argue with that: the Democratic Party are about to abandon their signature legislation that helped them get the massive majority that apparently requires one dent for them to tell the people they can just forget it.

I've been doing this for, what, four years (two on this blog), and I'm ready to go back to believing the Atlantic Ocean plummets off a cliff a few miles west of Ireland. For those who've spent the last few decades living through this recurring nightmare, and who don't get to toy with the idea of ignoring America because they fucking live there, I just don't know how they turn on the news every day. How they live with constantly hoping that the next round of elections will bring a party that will simply maintain the hideous status quo, rather than actively making it worse.

Every Republican victory is one more nail in the coffin of anyone not rich enough to buy their own team of synchronised swimming elephants. But my God, the Democrats deserve to lose.

The Other Two Thirds

Time to chat about everyone's favourite vampire/werewolf/ghost flat-share horror-comedy, I think. Spoilers abound, gentle reader.




After last week's uneven start, Being Human is back on form. The comedy/horror/drama balance was much more even this time, and once again the show is back to combining the three without them getting in the way of each other. When a show can get away with sending disturbing messages from the beyond via a television and Terry Wogan, you know you're on to a good thing.

Speaking of "disturbing messages from the beyond", I'm delighted that Annie's storyline for the season has kicked off so well. I noted she was spinning her wheels last week (admittedly understandably), but now it would seem there is shit, and it his heading in a direction best described as down.

Annie's throwaway comment about the corridor of death being lined by men with sticks and rope was one of the best moments of the pilot (and I still don't think Lenora Critchlow is a fifth as good in the role as Angela Riseborough, no matter how much I prefer her hair), so it's great that it looks like we're going to see some pay-off. How all these vicious visions of death and its vengeful spirit agents tracks with Gilbert gaily skipping into oblivion last season isn't entirely clear, but then passing on is a tricky business.

Onto our weekly "selfish prick" watch, and we discover to our amazement that this week George has somehow managed to only come in third. Managing to work up a strop about someone made into a vampire ninety-odd years ago turning out to have had previous flatmates was a noble effort, and bonus marks can be awarded for also managing to make his discussion with Annie regarding Hugh all about himself too (though he managed to get the point across, at least). These are partially countered by him making lunchfast in bed for Nina, though (note: lunchfast is very different to brunch, in the same way that being Cthulhu is very different to stapling a squid to your face), and in any case Nina and Mitchell massively outstrip him in any case.

Let's hear it for our runner up, ladies and gentleman: Nina! a massive sarcastic round of applause for someone who claims she loves her boyfriend so much, telling him she's leaving him to his face just isn't something she's interested in! Using "You turned me into a werewolf" as a way to win an argument? That's fine. Doing it again in the face of a gentle admonition (plus lunchfast, of course)? Hell, yeah! But actually showing him some compassion and honesty? He should just feel lucky she didn't break his heart via text message.

Of course, this being Being Human, it's not like she didn't have some damn good reasons, and apparently as punishment, someone's gonna put her in a hyperbaric chamber and blow her blood out! Plus, it's not like she tried to make her flatmate's attempted rape all about her, is it?

So let's hear it for Mitchell, who tried to make his flatmate's attempted rape all about him! What a prince!

Actually, that's not entirely fair. Just as with George's bout of supreme gittishness last week, there is a grain of a point buried within Mitchell's jaw-dropping display of vicious thoughtlessness. First of all, Mitchell has been around for long enough to know how ghosts work. I confess this has never specifically come up in the context of the program, but I suspect that whilst Saul might have intended to rape Annie, such an act would prove impossible (the fact that it takes her so long to gradually alter what her spirit wears, for example, makes it hard to be believe that she can undress, willingly or otherwise). Mitchell would know that. Whilst the scene and Annie's reaction imply she narrowly avoided being raped, in truth I don't believe she was ever in any actual danger.

Obviously that doesn't alter the fact that she was suddenly and unexpectedly thrown into a situation where she believed she was in danger of being raped. Her responses, impulses and fears remain human, and apparently one thing she most definitely suffers through is being pinned down by an obviously stronger man. That's obviously a pretty hideous and terrifying thing to have to go through, even before you consider she's already been murdered at the hands of her fiance, so I have no problem with the suggestion that Mitchell was being horribly, disgustingly selfish and insensitive. Still though, I think it's worth noting that emotional damage, very serious though that is, is presumably all that she could suffer (at least, that's what everyone thought at the time, including Annie).

Mitchell, by contrast, could get a irritatingly splintery stake through the heart if people work out what he is. He wasn't saying "You magically fleeing from an assault is an inconvenience to me", so much as "You magically fleeing from an assault could get me dead by the weekend". I'm not sure if this will ultimately prove to be true (are there exorcists in the BH universe?), but right now Annie seems essentially indestructible absent supernatural intervention. In that context, I can certainly understand Mitchell's broader point that if Annie keeps wandering around in broad daylight, and gets made as a supernatural, it won't be her that ends up as a wolf-skin rug or the contents of an ashtray. She'll survive just fine when Mitchell and George get dragged off to Monster Island, or worse.

Again, none of this makes Mitchell right either by implying she should have stayed (especially since if I'm right and Annie's ghostly nature would mean the unthinkable could never happen, it's not like sticking around for what would clearly be a soul-shredding, disgusting and degrading experience would ultimately keep her secret in any case) or by choosing that particular moment to start his cover version of the traditional George rendition of the "But What About MEEEE!!?!" song. Nor would I suggest in a million years that a woman should shrug off any situation in which she just thinks she might be raped. I just think there's more going on than "Annie's attacked, Mitchell's a twat."

In fact, taken out of the context of that particular scene, in which the party in the right was never in doubt, horribly difficult (or just plain horrible) questions like this are what makes Being Human so interesting. What if Annie could have found some non-supernatural way to escape? Should she have tried that? Tried to formulate a better plan? Could she, whilst being attacked? Could anyone? Can anyone blame her for her reaction? Or blame her for the consequences of her choice? Is escaping from sexual assault (which surely this was) as quickly as possible worth risking your friends' lives over? You better believe I'm not implying I have an answer to that one, I'm just saying: makes you think.

Whilst we're on the subject of tough questions, where are people falling on Mitchell and George smuggling a self-confessed killer (of his own lover, no less) out of the country? I know the standard response to the old "we can't reveal they exist" argument regarding vampires is that we just kill them (see Ultraviolet, Buffy), which might seem somewhat harsh in this case, but is Mitchell's solution any better, just because the vampire in question feels really bad about it? Just because we know Mitchell did almost exactly the same thing to Lauren last year? Why isn't there an island somewhere where vampires can cut themselves off from temptation? More to the point, if they refuse to go there, does that give humanity the right to kill them? I've never found David Brothers' rants about how every time a superhero leaves a villain alive they become morally complicit in every murder the villain later commits persuasive, because the fact we can prevent a tragedy by performing action X, it does not follow that we have the right to perform action X. There's a hell of a difference between staking a vampire who's already killed and murdering a baby you know will grow up to be Hitler; I get that. I'm just saying that what can be done and what should be done and what must be done are different things, and it never helps to conflate them.

As a moral issue, it's much further removed from reality than is the rape question above, which maybe makes it less powerful (albeit a lot easier to think about), but it's still the kind of issue that makes stories interesting.

Well, that and men with sticks and rope. And Terry Wogan channeling Death. Those work too.

Crystal Balls (Heavy On The Balls)

Well, that went fucking appallingly, didn't it?

So, with the Senate Democratic Caucus at a "mere" 59 votes, here are my predictions for the next few weeks/months/years.

1) The MSM decide almost unanimously that this election demonstrates people don't like Obama, and that since they don't like him in Massachusetts, the only democratic thing to do is let the bill die. No-one of any consequence points out that the bill has a 59% supermajority, that the Republicans got this victory by delaying tactics that ground the government to a halt and risked American troops abroad, or that Brown is promising to kill national healthcare for "ideological reasons" whilst simultaneously extolling the virtues of his own states' healthcare system, which is incredibly similar.

2) People continue to tell me with a straight face that the American news media is "probably biased in favour of liberals".

3) Any number of smart observers point out that the Democrats can still have healthcare, so long as the House agrees to pass the Senate's version of the bill. Bizarrely, they all seem to think that this is liable to happen.

4) A number of Democratic Congresspeople state that the Massachusetts election was a referendum, so they can no longer in good conscience vote for a bill the party promised to pass, and which will save the lives of tens of thousands of people a year. Again, the fact that Massachusetts already has what Brown is promising to deny to everyone else will be quietly ignored. So to is the possibility that protest votes might less represent people not liking what the Democrats say they'll do, and more that they never manage to do what they say they will.

Nor is Brown or any other Republican directly asked why their "principles " are worth a yearly death toll at least twice as large as that of 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, and American losses in Iraq and Afghanistan combined.

5) The left spends the next six months deciding exactly which Democrat is most to blame for this. A significant number will swear that they are taking their ball and going home, making it even harder to elect Democrats, and forcing several vulnerable candidates to run to the centre, making progressive legislation even more unlikely.

6) Having failed to pass their signature legislation despite controlling the White House and Congress, Democrats suffer significant losses in the mid-terms. The media argues that this is proof that people don't like Democratic ideals, and that the worst thing the Democrats can do when given power is to try to use it.

7) Republicans control both Houses and the White House by January 2017. The President declares war on Iran, China, taxes, women, and plants and animals. The last image seen on television before civilisation collapses entirely is of the Commander in Chief quite literally skullfucking the corpse of a gay Muslim man he himself killed just moments before. In their final moments before being consumed by the radioactive sludge-zombies that have roamed the countryside ever since the clean water act was repealed two years earlier, 95% of liberals can be found attempting to find one of the remaining six Democratic politicians, so they can make sure to lynch the people responsible before the end.

Tuesday, 19 January 2010

SpaceSquid vs. The X-Men #30: Jubilation

We're in the '90s! At last, the '90s are here to save us! You can tell we're in the '90s, because we've gotten to the point where it's odds on any character I focus on will be despised by the vast majority of fans! Also, I've changed the font for the character names! Isn't that just so '90s? Replacing something that was working perfectly well with something designed to look all sleek and futuristic, but which actually dates something more accurately than radioactive decay? It's only a shame I couldn't find a font which drapes each letter in pouches and has the full stops that FIRE THEMSELVES OUT OF THE SCREEN AT YOUR FACE!

I'll stop now. Mocking '90s comics isn't exactly difficult, after all, nor particularly new, either. Beyond that, though, it's vaguely hypocritical of me, since it was during the '90s that I first fell in love with the X books. With greater age and experience, I can understand why so much of that decade's output is so widely lambasted, but just as with your first love affair, it's always pretty much impossible to objectively compare your initial experiences with everything that follows.

This is all by way of saying that I'm liable to be kinder to a lot of these characters than you might imagine (possibly a welcome change from my earlier articles savaging long-beloved staples of the Collected Mutant Adventures).

Case in point: Jubilee. My opinion of Jubilee is the exact inverse of my view of Shadowcat. It's not that I particularly like the character, it's just that I can't really understand why other people hate her so much. Compare this to how I feel about Kitty Pryde, whose general competence as an entertaining character (with more than a few embarrassing lapses) seems to have led to a lunatic cult of personality worshipping her every whiny utterance.

Given this rather interesting inversion, it might make sense to consider Jubilee in comparison to the senior female X-Teen. Certainly, when I mentioned to C earlier this evening that I was compiling an article on Jubilee, his immediate comment was "She was just the next Kitty Pryde". Plus, if nothing else, I'm sure it will make the (entirely hypothetical) hate mail more vitriolic. Also, it will allow me to focus on the period of time during which Jubilee was actual paid-up member of the X-Men. My comics collection is fairly basic up until about 2003 - my feeble coffers before graduation (the first one) being insufficient to feed my craving - so I have only perhaps a half dozen issues of Generation X, and once that bled to death (I keep hearing Larry Hama ran it into the ground, which is a shame considering how strong his work on Wolverine was) Jubilee just flitted in and out of various X-books until ending up de-powered, and apparently in Runaways with super-powered gloves, or something. I am increasingly sick of characters shafted by M-Day being implausibly returned to the cape pool, by the way, but that's another story.

First of all, everything I said in Shadowcat's article regarding the difficulty in inserting teenage characters into an adult-dominated narrative still stands. I feel a slight expansion is in order, though. I don't think the problem is so much that teenage characters can't work alongside adult characters, it's more that I think it's almost impossible for teenage characters to service a driving narrative in which adult characters are taking the lead (or even when they're not; the Harry Potter series could have fit into two books if Potter had ever taken his head out of his arse for ten minutes). For stories in which events are, objectively speaking, comparatively little import (the half hour of Glee I watched the other day being an example), it matters far less, or not at all, but if your central idea is a bunch of superheroes needing to take down Villain X (you know what, I bet he's an actual character somewhere) in order to save Manhattan, a sulky teenager becomes more of a drag factor.

Jubilee demonstrates this problem just as well as Shadowcat did. Once again the same scene was repeated over and over, the X-Men decide their youngest member is too immature to ride off to save the day, and said member finds some way to tag along anyway, either getting captured to generate cheap emotional struggle for the main characters, or managing to save the day and prove everyone wrong about them (sometimes both in the same story). Rinse and repeat.

Whether or not those who had already been through this once with Shadowcat found it doubly irritating when it was recycled for Jubilee, I can't say. In my case, however, there are three reasons why I think it actually worked a lot better the second time around.

The first, and I think most important reason regards Jubilee's power set. One of the things that bothered me most about Shadowcat was that her intangibility made her essentially invulnerable and her computer skills made her capable of effortlessly pulling off ludicrous last minute escapes (for the record, a deus ex machina doesn't really become any more palatable just because a main character gets to program the machina the deus will be ex-ing from). Not only did the former mean there was little sense of danger and the latter little sense of satisfaction, it meant that every time Xavier or Cyclops nixed Kitty's wishes to suit up, the implication was that the audience should disagree with them. I get that at the time, as now, UXM was almost exclusively targeted at teenagers, so there was bound to be a lot of sympathy for Kitty's plight, but as tips for good fiction go, "Don't make your entire cast of heroes bar one look like tossers" is pretty high up there, or at least it is whilst talking about fairly simplistic superhero tales. [1]

Jubilee, on the other hand, is generally not all that much use, especially in her early days. Sure, with enough experience and training, you wouldn't count her out, but she turns up for her first day on the job with enough power to temporarily blind a random goon maybe, combined with all the defensive capability of wilted rhubarb. This is not a chick with which villains are going to be afraid to fuck.

And defensive capability was, like, fucking important during the '90s. Comic creators pretty much across the board seemed to decide back then that maturity was the same thing as packing in as many gratuitous, wasteful deaths as possible. There's no phasing for Jubilee. If she finds herself in Sabretooth's clutches (which she does, at least once), then absent some swift rescuing she's pretty much going to end up torn into strips. If you're gonna have a teenage girl nominally on the team, and then treat her like she's a liability, it makes far more sense for it to be Jubilee than Shadowcat.

Whilst on the subject, it is worth nothing that the other advantage to Jubilee's mutation is that it both reflects her temperament and reminds us that "mutation" was always analogous to "puberty". Neither of these facets are particularly subtle or clever, of course, but in superhero comics, it doesn't often pay to bury things too deeply. Moreover, one of the defining characteristics of our teenage years is the headlong rush towards those things we consider "adult" and the total denial of those things we deem "childish", even though most of the time the things we define adults by are ridiculously superficial (I've always wished that I could have back the time I wasted accompanying my sixteen year old friends as they attempted to find a pub that would serve them lager), and the actions we define children by are conveniently only ever present in other people. Both Shadowcat and Jubilee managed quite well in conveying these ideas, but I would argue Jubilee has the edge because a) her conception of "adult" was one she was clearly unprepared for (whilst Shadowcat bounced between amazing world-saving competence and idiotic fumbles), and b) she had Illyana around as a foil for her doomed attempts to cast childhood aside. The fact that Illyana then dies and forces Jubilee to once more face her mortality is icing on the cake (though not from Colossus' perspective, I guess).

The third reason is simple relatability. If you genuinely want to construct a character with which the majority of the audience can easily identify with, there's not much point making her a pointy-headed super-genius. Jubilee works because the only difference between her and us is that she's a mutant. Teenagers might dream that they too could develop super-powers and join the X-Men, but getting special abilities and reaching the level of intelligence necessary to reprogram Skynet is probably stretching it. It's at least arguable, and I know it's arguable because I'm about to argue it, that the best kind of relatable characters deviate from the norm in exactly one way, and every further variation just sets up distance between character and reader. That would be another point to Ms Lee, I believe.

Of course, whilst the way Jubilee was handled worked comparatively well conditional upon her hanging around the X-mansion at all, it doesn't necessarily mean there was any worth in her turning up in the first place. There too, though, the young Ms Lee has Kitty beat. Shadowcat might not have been overly comfortable with the idea of her parents divorcing, but it doesn't track from that fact that her best bet is to be stuck in a "school" which is under attack by giant robots and slavering demons on a bi-monthly basis.

Jubilee, in contrast, is a homeless orphan. Her alternative to the X-Men is hoping that she can steal enough food in her local mall to stave off starvation. It made sense that the X-Men would take her in without automatically wanting her tagging along the next time they headed off to hand Sinister's ass to him. Making a character an orphan was a cliche even back then, and it has been remarked before that even given (or perhaps because of) her sketchy character origins various writers have presented conflicting accounts of her childhood (most obviously whether or not she is second generation American, or at least third), but that's the '90s for you, and it does at least legitimate her presence amongst the rising body count.

Actually, if I were to speculate on the reasons Jubilee seemed to grate so much in comparison to Shadowcat, part of the reason might be hidden in that last sentence. Shadowcat was a strange and implausible addition to the team roster, but those were strange and implausible times. I've remarked before how frustrating a writer Claremont was in the '80s, ricocheting as he did between stone cold X-Men classics (Dark Phoenix, Inferno, The Fall Of The Mutants) and excesses of "wackiness" that would have a fourteen year old staring at their shoes in embarrassment. At a time that a comic writer can submit an entire issue in which a main character (Shadowcat, natch) simply tells us a fairy tale (UXM #153) and then get paid for doing that, including a child on the team perhaps didn't seem so ludicrous. By the time the '90s arrived, however, all shoulder-pads and shoe-lace thongs and needless decapitations, even the toughest of children was going to have a hard time not sticking out like a mutated sore thumb.

Maybe that's where the problem lies. For all Jubilee's protestations that she was tough enough to handle the X-Men's world, no-one was able to make their minds up about whether or not that was the case. Hell, she hangs with Wolverine [2] long enough to imply there was very little she couldn't handle, but once she leaves his shadow she's immediately cast as the whining brat, and no amount of pointless attempts to tap into '90s teenage culture was going to change that (since I have little knowledge of what the kids my age - or slightly younger, probably - were getting up to across the Atlantic, I have no idea how close Jubilee was to resonating with "the kids", but it sure pissed off a lot of other people).

In any case, that's my defence of pre-Generation X Jubilee. Once she signed up for Banshee and the White Queen's new school (that she herself had suggested setting up), fan hatred of Jubilee seemed to subside. As I say, at this point I more or less lost track of her, save to note she switched from being the sulky rookie to the voice of experience, which I liked, and that she spent a lot of her time unsure about who she was attracted to or whether to do anything about it, which in a universe where 90% of the characters seem to imprint one one member of the opposite sex almost immediately and pretty much for life, made for a welcome change. None of this mooning after Colossus for thirty years, no sir.

Still, if she never came back, it wouldn't bother me.

Next time on SpaceSquid vs The X-Men, we consider the brief craze that was Gambitophilia, and get to the nub of the matter as we ponder the essential question: just what was up with that pink body armour?

[1] At least, it is when considering superhero comics. You can, of course, put together a cast of bullies, brawlers and bastards and it still be fascinating, but a superhero comic isn't the place to do it unless you're Warren Ellis.

[2] As a side comment, I always thought that pairing worked at least as well as Wolverine and Shadowcat, mainly because I loved how hard Jubilee tried to ape Wolverine's tough-guy persona without realising that what actually connected them was Jubilee having the same bleeding heart as Logan but without the experience to disguise it. Again, not exactly subtle, but...

Monday, 18 January 2010

OCD Olympics

Having briefly discussed my disturbingly methodical approach to eating various forms of food last year, I have decided to go meta-OCD and become anal about the actual eating process itself. I have therefore chosen four different forms of food, and will attempt to eat each one in the manner that God intended, assuming God washes his hands every ten minutes and has to check eight times a night that the Pearly Gates are locked.

I named this post in the vague hope that others would attempt to beat my times, but to be honest this is 50% an opportunity to get some good solid anal retention going, and 50% a chance to hasten my inevitable descent into Type 2 Diabetes.

Event #1: The Battenberg Liquorice Allsort


The two pink cuboids must be independently consumed without damaging the liquorice ones, which are consumed last. Final score is equal to the number of seconds taken to eat all four cuboids (including all necessary swallows), multipled by the number of pieces into which cuboids not being consumed at the time are broken into.


Time: 12 s

Broken cuboids: 1 (i.e. whole)

Overall: 12 points

A beginner-level event. Those looking for a greater liqourice-based challenge could attempt a similar process utilising one of those white and yellow triple sandwich things.

Event #2: The Double Decker


Nougat must be entirely scraped off with teeth first; only then may you eat the crispy part. The final score is equal to the number of seconds taken to scrape away the nougat multiplied by the number of pieces the crispy part is broken into during the operation.


Time: 36 s

Crispy biscuit pieces: 2

Overall: 72 points

I broke the end off the crispy part with literally the last bite of the round. Damn.

Event #3: The Creme Egg


The egg can be penetrated by whatever method is desired, but it must be done with one's teeth. The goo must then be entirely licked out of whatever remains of the shell. Once this is donw, the remaining chocolate must be consumed. Once again, the trial will be timed, and that value in seconds multiplied by the number of pieces the egg splits into during either the initial penetration or the licking process (those pieces deliberately snipped off to gain ingress do not count towards the multiplier).


Time: 80 s

Unintended additional pieces: 4

Overall: 320 points

Clearly this is a very difficult event. Not only are the walls of the chocolate egg dangerously sensitive to the slightest pressure, but they rapidly lose what little strength they have as they weather the assault of a dedicated tongue. Further practice definitely required.

Event #4: Fry's Turkish Delight


For this event, each piece of chocolate must be peeled away from the inner jelly and consumed separately (except for those on the underside, which are all but unassailable). Only once all chocolate has been eaten can the delicious rosewater-flavoured wibbliness be orally destroyed. As always, point score is calculated by multiplying the time required to consume the treat by the number of unwanted fractures, this time in the pink gelatine-based cuboid.


Time: 79 s

Pieces in delicious wibbly cuboidal blob: 1

Overall: 79 points

An involving but ultimately simple exercise, made significantly easier by judicious application of developed thumbnails.

____________*________________ *________________ *
That's all from this year's OCD Olympics. See you in 2 years for the OCD Winter Olympics, whereby I will repeat all the above challenges, but with the relevant foods straight from the fridge. Will my ridiculously sensitive teeth cope. WHO DARES SAY!?!

Those That Require Schooling

I was amused today to see The Guardian refer to Cameron's proposed new teacher recruitment policy as "brazenly elitist" three separate times, once in the link, again in the headline, and again in the first sentence.

Obviously The Guardian isn't trying to hard to hide where it's loyalties lie (or at least where they most definitely do not lie), but in fairness they could have quite sensibly gone much further. The problem with Cameron's idea isn't that it's brazenly elitist (a charge which requires some thought in any case), it's that it's completely, utterly insane.

First of all, though, we need to consider whether or not this plan is elitist. I think we need to be careful about chucking the term around in situations where a body responsible for training people for a job tells those people that their access to that training will be conditional on their level of ability. Is it elitist that I received funding for my PhD having received a first, and a friend of mine who got a 2.2 was required to pay his way to becoming a doctor? Surely not. There's only so many research funding to go around, and it surely makes sense to aim it at those who are most likely to do well.

Where the comparison falls down, though (and this is something Watt would have done well to mention) is that the assumption that getting a first makes one a good researcher is a much stronger one than the assumption that getting a first makes one a good teacher. Nothing in my three years of educational experience ever gave me reason to believe those who were more academically gifted taught more effectively. Often it made a difference to how high they rose within the hierarchy of the school (indeed, certain positions now essentially require masters degrees in education), but that's not the issue. We are not suffering from a deficit of school leadership (well, God knows a lot of schools are, actually, but that's a very different kettle of monkeys), we're suffering from a deficit of good teachers.

In that sense, then, there is an inherent assumption inside this plan that those more academically gifted are also more gifted at passing that information on to others, and that is elitist, I think, in the sense that it suggests academic ability somehow naturally translates into aptitude for being placed in authority. If we could prove such a link exists, or find a more plausible way to measure one's innate talent for imparting knowledge, I don't think I'd have a problem with the idea that some people might not be able to receive funding for their teacher training based on that metric.

Actually, that's not entirely true. If we had a large enough pool of potential recruits, maybe. But the big problem with teaching that Cameron is never going to mention, because it would involve spending money instead of withholding it, is that the reason why in certain subjects we don't have enough good teachers is that we don't have enough teachers of any kind.

In a minimally sensible world, any policy suggestion aimed at weeding out poor teachers would be legally required to come coupled with a plan to immediately replace them with better ones. And yet somehow politicians are allowed to continue suggesting that in a profession that is severely undermanned, the best solution is to make getting into it harder. To reduce the pool. If there exists a teacher out there who is so bad as to be inferior to leaving twenty-five children alone in a room for an hour, I have yet to meet them. Or to hear about it, save for that tiny percentage who break the law in the worst ways possible, and again, show me some evidence that academic achievement and predilection for pederasty have anything other than a correlation of zero.

The one correlation that I do think probably exists in all of this is that those with the highest qualifications are more likely to leave teaching. Teaching, as I can attest to, has something of a high casualty rate. In my case, when I finally decided the school I was working at wasn't for me (and it was more the school than the profession that was bothering me, though the latter was certainly in there as well), I didn't have any problem securing an alternative source of income. This is not necessarily the case for someone less qualified. If I didn't think I'd have found it easy to change careers (or even if I'd been to a few interviews and gotten nowhere), I might well have simply chosen to change schools, instead.

It's by no means a perfect correlation, but it seems obvious that since those with higher classes of degree have more alternatives when considering employment, it will be easier for them to leave teaching, and that means that assuming dissatisfaction is equal across the board, the teaching profession must lose highly qualified teachers more often than less highly qualified ones.

As far as I can see, then, Cameron's response to a horribly under subscribed profession is to make subscription to it harder, and to increase the proportion of subscribers who are more likely to not stay for very long, all whilst arguing that the only reason people like me didn't stay in teaching is that I didn't feel like the job was worthy enough for my attention. As a slice of counter-productive insulting lunacy, it's quite impressive, but I'd be surprised if Cameron doesn't top this one pretty quickly.

Saturday, 16 January 2010

Coming Next: Invisible Poisonous Snakes That Can Fly Helicopters

Every now and then a solution to a problem arrives that is so wonderfully sensible, simple and logical that it makes me kick myself for not thinking of it first. I think we can all agree that this is one of those cases: it turns out we could potentially bypass the contamination or skin irritation issues involved in the use of hideously chemical pesticides (with all their chemically chemicosity) by simply replacing them with bio-engineered zombie wasps.

Zombie. Wasps. A species so malign it injects its young into innocent mini-beast bystanders that they then control as puppets even as they eat their way through their tiny bodies. That's what we've decided to fuck around with now? Even Doctor Moreau would probably dismiss this as the product of a particularly dangerous cheese dream. Think of every disastrous tinker with the natural world ever presented to us by Hollywood and ask yourself: could any of those freaks make you into goddamn zombies? Well, those messed-up ants in Phase 4, I guess, but they developed the power to control minds two thirds of the way through. These things will have the brain-domination powers from the ground up. God knows what they'll develop in the third act. Telekinesis? Time-travel?

If only we'd listened to Joni Mitchell. She saw this coming. That's why her live performances of Big Yellow Taxi contained the lines "Farmer farmer, put away your DDT/ But don't think I'd rather you used fucking zombie wasps, you buzz-killing narc." Who's the lunatic hippy now, huh? Mitchell might have smoked enough pot to put the Cheech and Chong fan club to shame, but she never suggested we can live in perfect harmony with cybernetic brain-wasps, did she? She specifically said to leave the bees alone, and those waggle-happy bastards can't even control their own breeding anymore.

Not even in my darkest entomophobic nightmares did I consider the possibility that the world would end in a swarm of mind-controlling hymenopteric killers, but that'll teach me for not thinking sufficiently out of the box. Time to invest in bug spray, I think. And to start welcoming spots on my apples.

Thursday, 14 January 2010

Continued Branching

My latest web-based activity away from this blog is up now at Geekplanet. It's part of their "Why I Love..." series, and rather unsurprisingly, I plumped for maths.

It's a bit shakily edited (partially because I ended up writing the whole thing in the simplest email form possible, and not all of my notation has been changed into actual font), but I rather like this one.

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

One Third Human

Now that Doctor Who has been dispatched, at least for the moment, I am going to need to find an alternative TV show to pick to pieces every week, in my continuing quest to crack the shell of frantic idiocy that apparently surrounds almost all British TV at the moment, and attempt to feast on the goo inside that everyone keeps telling me is there, and tastes delicious.

Being Human - which started its second season on Sunday night - seems like a logical choice. Gooder and I caught the pilot when it was broadcast, and both of us were fairly impressed. Gooder didn't really watch the first season (I think he found the various cast changes and other alterations more problematic than I did), so I summed it up for him thus: it's what Doctor Who thinks it is. Or, given the amount of shagging and blood and what at least appears to be the first ever example of a contractual obligation to the BBC requiring you show your arse in at least 70% of episodes, it might be fairer to say it's what Torchwood thought it was (or perhaps thinks it is, I'm hearing ugly rumors that now its proved it isn't invariably shit, it'll get another chance to sear out our eyeballs with another few months of unrelenting hideousness).

The comparisons are obvious. Both shows work on the principle of alternating between light-hearted comedy and dark drama, except that Being Human pulls that off (mostly, at least). Both shows are frequently pretty frenetic, dashing from one scene to the next with breathless enthusiasm; the difference being that Being Human can do this whilst actually making some sense.

Perhaps most importantly, though, Being Human actually manages what RTD constantly tells us Doctor Who was doing and demonstrably wasn't: making it all about the characters.

My opinions of RTD's grasp of characterisation is doubtless well-known. He even admits in the latest edition of The Writer's Tale [1] that he paints characters with "broad brushstrokes", but unsurprisingly this doesn't in any way go far enough. The truth is he doesn't create characters at all, he simply writes down two moods, and has them stagger from one to the other and back again like a drunk between a bar and a urinal. The Doctor is either madcap, or brooding. Rose is either having fun, or moping self-indulgently. Donna is either shouting stroppily, or pluckily proving her worth [2]. And that's all you get.

Being Human works differently. For a start, there's a clear and very workable metaphor in there. Just as Buffy was about surviving high school (one of the most obvious reasons why it lost it's way in the later, post-graduation seasons), Being Human is about how to fit in when you know you're secretly a freak. More importantly, though, Toby Whithouse has managed to create three characters with their own unique freakiness (one vampire, one ghost, and one werewolf), defined what makes each of them who they are, and then let them develop naturally. There's no deafening orchestral swell when we need to be told that now the Doctor is sad, instead you get to watch lapsed Jewish werewolf George trying to balance his desire to deny what he is, and to understand it so it can be overcome, whilst trying to decide if his vampiric best friend is helping by providing comfort and counsel, or making things worse by matching George's bloodlust with his own.

In fact, it is George that is by far the best character in the show. Probably the best werewolf character ever written for TV, too (Oz's laconic humor notwithstanding), though since I never watched Wolf Lake* I might be wrong, and also don't have too big a pool to draw from. Certainly, he deviates far further from type than either the vampire of the ghost do (not that either of them can be called bad characters, either). Using "the beast inside" to propel storylines isn't particularly imaginative (turns out it can mean wanting to be violent or wanting to shag; who knew?) but what George unique is that the focus is not on what happens each full moon, nor on endless conversations about how he's dangerous. It's all about how he's "dealt" with the situation by totally retreating into a state somewhere between OCD and total repressive denial, all facial ticks and squeaky voiced outrage. He's not controlling the wolf (indeed, he can't control the wolf), he's trying to control everything else instead.

Which doesn't work, of course. His constant attempt to repress any real emotion simply means he constantly leaks bitterness and petulance, staining everything with his low-level bitchiness. He can't see it, because his obsession with his internal battle leaves him blind to everything else, but it just keeps happening. And if someone points it out, or if things get so bad it even penetrates his head, he'll do everything he can to help (and he can be pretty observant when he needs to be), but once that's over, it's back to sitting in the corner squeaking to himself.

At least, that's how George was in Season 1 (and if you haven't watched it yet, I would suggest skipping the rest of this post). At the end of that first run, though, George allowed himself to murder local vampire chief Herrick whilst in his wolf form, so as to save his friends. During this confrontation, he also managed to scratch his girlfriend Nina, turning her into a werewolf too, a fact of which he was unaware.

And now a whole new bundle of lunacy kicks off.

In truth, the first episode of the new season was generally a bit of a disappointment. The tone was all over the place; that ability to mix comedy and drama has apparently gotten a bit rusty in the interim. Moreover, it doesn't really give Annie and Mitchell anything to do. Mitchell is reduced to sitting around sulking because all the competing urges, duties and enmities of the first season have been resolved, and now that Annie has conquered her fear and betrayal following her murder at her former fiance's hands, she doesn't really have any drive, and having her apply for a job as a barmaid isn't really going to cut it (though having her bring out a tray of tea for her neighbours at the end of the episode was a lovely character moment). Since the focus of this episode (unsurprisingly) was George, I guess it doesn't matter too much just yet, but it's frustrating to see them spinning their wheels nonetheless.

George, though. George is going from strength to strength. Which is not to say he is becoming more likeable. Quite the opposite. There were multiple moments on Sunday when I would have quite happily slapped him (last year that only happened once per episode). But infecting Nina was a stroke of writing genius, as was her deciding not to tell him. On the one hand, she can't bear to touch him, and on the other, she won't leave, because now she knows what's lurking in the bushes out there she can't handle life alone. It's a clear metaphor for those miserable relationships in which one person is obviously not remotely interested in actually being there any more but is too afraid of being alone to leave, and the other one is still very much into the relationship but horribly aware they're nothing but a glorified hot water bottle, and faced with this grim new dynamic, George strays.

All of that on its own would work just fine, probably. But this is being human, so there's another level to it all. George doesn't cheat on Nina with just anyone, he goes for a lunatic vampire named Daisy (who annoyed the crap out of me, but since she drove the story forward so well I'll cut her some slack). In-between seducing uptight werewolves, Daisy is struggling to expunge what remains of her humanity, in a brilliant mirror image of George's struggle, and which leads to her suggesting George embrace his supernatural side. Before, he's never really wanted to hear that, but right now it stands in marked contrast to Nina's obvious disgust, and so George is now more receptive to the idea than he has been in the past.

In that sense, George is not only getting the red-hot sex action he isn't from Nina [3], he's getting comfort from her as well, in the sickest and most twisted way possible. Ultimately
it's not that George was horny (or not just that), it's that George desperately needs Nina to tell him it's OK that he murdered Herrick. Obviously the werewolf/supernatural issues are mixed in, but I think for George the key issue is that he murdered someone, Nina watched him murder someone, and somehow the result is that Nina is the one who needs to be told everything is going to be OK. George turning round the perfume conversation was classic projection/distraction, but I think part of it was also that he resents the fact that he discovered Mitchell and Nina having an actual conversation. All George is getting from Mitchell is vampire sulking, but apparently Nina can get council and sympathy. Add in how chatty Annie and Nina seem to be, and it could very well look from George's perspective that he's suddenly been shut out. Mitchell even partially confirms this later in the episode by implying to Nina that it is important they help her through this, because none of them have ever had that before; this he says in front of his best friend who is now a murderer and has essentially been left alone to process it all by himself.

Daisy, though. Daisy is helping. On the most basic level he would never have met her had he not killed Herrick, and the plus points of their meeting are pretty obvious. On another level, though, her "accept who you are" line has come at exactly the right time for him. It simultaneously reminds him why he needed to kill Herrick, and it lessens the guilt over the deed itself. Moreover, he gets to spend some time helping Daisy deal with those parts of her that remain human (the exact opposite to what Annie was doing with Nina), and in the process reinforce his own. And, as a corollary to all that, it means that in George's head what he's doing with Daisy actually is the same thing as what Nina is doing with Mitchell, or at least that the two are so closely connected the fact Mitchell and Nina are confiding in each other actually provides evidence they're sleeping together.

It's brilliantly complex (to the point where I didn't mind that most of the issues above were explicitly pointed out by the characters themselves), and excellently written (though I continue to think Russell Tovey is a fairly overrated actor). And, even better, all of the above was only one part of the whole episode. I haven't even touched on the building plot of Professor Jaggart and his supremely creepy right-hand man, Kemp. That's the way to kick off a season's story arc. None of this bollocks with inaccurate prophecies or non-specific foreboding portents. Our heroes don't even realise they've been targeted by whomever (or whatever) Jaggart is, or that he has a nasty habit of slinging werewolves into hyperbaric chambers and letting them bleed to death.

So, yeah. A bit of a mess, but a massively fascinating one. I'm certainly curious to see where they go from here.


[1] Is he referencing Chaucer here? If it was anyone else I'd assume not, but if there's any writer out there now who would compare themselves to Chaucer under the cloak of "irony", it's RTD. We should probably be grateful he didn't call it A Midsummer Night's Making Shit Up.

[2] That last one is particularly irksome. Doubtless this has much to do with RTD's total inability to realise when he's done something to death, but there's a limit to how many times you can tell an audience that working class people can also be noble (it's her fucking surname, for God's sake) before it becomes clear it isn't those watching with the issue, it's you. Remember Mitchell and Webb's Good Samaritan sketch? It's that.

[3] Ordinarily the idea that someone would stray just because the sexy times have died down would make it very hard for me to sympathise with someone. In George's case things are at least a little different. The fireworks with Nina haven't petered out as they often tend to in relationships, they've been deliberately withdrawn for reasons unknown just at the point where your average relationship graduates from "I'm having sex with someone new!!!" to "Let's see what happens when I do this!". I'm not suggesting this excuses George's behaviour, simply that it makes what he did perhaps slightly less hideous.