Friday, 30 September 2011

Radio Lifetime

It's been over a week now, but I thought I'd post a few thoughts on R.E.M., now that they've called it a day.

R.E.M. are a band who have been around for my whole life.  That in itself is comparatively unusual - there are plenty of bands who were playing in 1980 who are playing now, but many of them have broken up at least once during that period.

R.E.M. are unique in my record collection, though, in that their time together was, until last Wednesday, pretty much exactly as long as my time on this earth.  Michael Stipe first met Peter Buck whilst my mother and I were in hospital, either just before or just after I had crawled into the daylight.  They played their first gig when I was three months old; I couldn't have crawled to watch it even if it had been in Stewart Park rather than Athens, Georgia.  The first copies of Murmur were being shipped whilst I sat at nursery school, wondering how long it would be before I got my bottle of milk to drink (this being just before Thatcher had gotten round to stealing daily dairy produce from the mouths of children).

I was never really into music much as a child - I bought my first album at eighteen, and that was only because someone else had gotten me an album for my eighteenth birthday that I was so disappointed with I resolved that it would not be the only CD I possessed [1].  Even so, it was impossible not to notice the arrival of Automatic for the People .  Not its actual arrival, back in the summer of 1992, the last time in my life in which my brain functioned according to its intended parameters [2] but it's sudden pandemic-like outbreak amongst my teenage friends when, approaching fifteen, we made the leap from "lower" to "upper" school (which, if any foreigners are confused by such arcane terms, basically just meant we got more tasteful ties and access to the coke machine in the "upper school room").

At the time, the album's popularity baffled me.  I just wasn't ready to appreciate it, I guess.  It probably didn't help that at the time my friends - and therefore I - were mainly listening to ...And Out Come the Wolves and Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness (alongside other, stranger beasts), and amongst all that high-tempo bombast and melodrama "Drive" and "Try Not to Breathe" were never likely to leave much of an impression (in fairness, "Monty Got a Raw Deal" and "Star Me Kitten" are still exceptionally boring songs even today). Basically, Automatic... seemed then what Around the Sun unambiguously is today. Suggestions I try the rockier Monster hardly helped (I'm actually quite fond of that album these days, but there's certainly no doubt that only an idiot would spin that disc purely because rock was what they were in the mood for).

For years, then, I was pretty dismissive of R.E.M..  Indeed, even now, I'm not really much of a fan of "Shiny Happy People", "Losing My Religion" or "Everybody Hurts", which given those three song's dominance of the R.E.M. radio appearance probability distribution made them a band who were easy to claim to dislike.  Eventually, at age eighteen, I copied Automatic... from my first girlfriend, hoping to understand her obsession/gain easy Brownie points, and took it with me to university.

And then, one day, I got it.  I don't know exactly when - it might have ironically been whilst the aforementioned relationship was in its agonising death-throes - but R.E.M. suddenly made sense.  When I went out and bought Up (an under appreciated gem of an album, albeit with at least three songs that could be culled without a moment's hesitation), I was lost for good.

My late appreciation of the band means that they ultimately only released four albums which I experienced at the same time as everyone else, and only two after I'd finally acquired their full back catalogue (though I never did buy Around the Sun, because there's a difference between loving a woman and letting her steal money from you).  Perhaps that's why so much of my thinking on the band differs from the conventional wisdom. Certainly I continue to be baffled by the level of praise heaped upon Document, Green and (especially) Out of Time almost as much as the lack of love Up receives, and I wonder whether the idea that Accelerate or Collapse into Now are mere shadows of their former glory would be less common had people, say, heard Lifes Rich Pageant for the first time in 2003, rather than 1986.

Anyway, the spigot has been turned off, and we now have (assuming they don't reform) the complete work of R.E.M. to consider.  Some of it is excellent, some of it is disappointing, and some of it is gloriously, thrillingly messy.  In short, If I came to R.E.M. too late for them to soundtrack my life, I can at least say they've reminded me of my life, which is probably all one can ask for in any case.

"It's the End of the World..." would clearly be too obvious a choice for a video here, so let's go with "Nightswimming" instead.  I know that's only a shade less obvious, but I don't care.  It's the best song the band ever wrote, and well up in the highest echelons of the best songs ever put together throughout all of time and space.

[1] For the record (hah!), it was Radiohead's Pablo Honey, and over time my opinion of it has definitely improved.  It's no The Bends (I find all other Radiohead albums unlistenable, and I don't care what anyone else says - OK Computer, Kid A and Amnesiac - the point at which I gave up even borrowing their albums - is music written by people who spend their lives wishing they could be reborn as smug computers), but it gets the job done in a few places, and "Lurgee" is without question their most underrated song.

[2] I was presented with my first set of shiny happy pills a few months later. I actually remember hearing Shiny Happy People on the radio soon after that and thinking "Whoever these guys are, they can go fuck themselves".

Thursday, 29 September 2011

Denying GW

I don't know which annoys me more; the fact that Games Workshop's new piracy game isn't the Battlefleet Gothic for the high seas I was so desperately hoping for (which isn't their fault, I suppose), or that they've decided in their wisdom that seventy pounds is a reasonable price to charge (which very much is their fault).

Obviously, it's hardly news that GW's general pricing strategy is best described as "Gouge Everyone At All Times" (I still remember being thirteen years old and going to the January sales at my local GW shop - those were the days, huh?), but even by their standards this makes my head hurt.  When the new edition of Space Hulk came out - a game, remember, that was both massively successful and unquestionably adored in its earlier iterations - it wasn't just absolutely, outstandingly gorgeous, it was my only real chance to own a game I'd been hearing about in the most glowing terms since I'd been old enough to lift a paintbrush.  But I still didn't buy it, because sixty quid seemed excessive (a choice justified entirely when Cocklick, Jamie, lyndgb and Pause gave it to me for my thirtieth birthday, but I digress).

In comparison, Dread Fleet is nothing.  No-one's played it before, no-one remembers it; if it has any similarity to any previous game it will be to Man O' War, which was generally agreed to be something of a flop for the company.  Clearly, then, what needs to happen is fot another tenner to be slapped on the price.

Bah.  Get off my lawn, and such.

(I'm also, like Frontline Gamer, more than a little suspicous of the combination of high price, limited print run, and complete dearth of information.  Presumably information will be forthcoming in the new White Dwarf (which didn't see, to be available as of this Saturday), but even so, the implication seems to be that we will have a vanishingly small window opportunity to buy an incredibly expensive game about which we'll have almost no opportunity to consider or experience in any detail.)

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Being American Means Never Having To Say You're Sorry

What the Hell is wrong with Maggie Gallagher? It's un-American to stop booking people to give seminars when it turns out you strongly dislike their politics? People are required to continue to funnel money into the pockets of bigots?

This is the kind of lunatic "We are the victims!" thinking that makes so much of conservatism so maddening to me. I'd think if would be hard to come up with anything more un-American ("We hold these truths to be self-evident") than to be told there are two consenting adults who are maddeningly, hopelessly, breathlessly in love who want to entwine their futures until the flesh fails, and say "Sure, but only if their genitals don't match".  That's not really the point here, though.  The point is that Gallagher wants us to swallow the idea that people should be discouraged from and lambasted for choosing who they want to hire as a speaker based on the things they've previously said.

Because that's all this is.  If you want to be hired as a public speaker, and also write books explaining how certain subsections of the population should be denied what is not only freely available but culturally encouraged and lauded (you could even say pushed upon people, and you'd have a case), you'll have to deal with the fact that some people won't consider you the best choice to run their seminars.  Whether Gallagher wants to consider this or not, whether a speaker is going to prove a significant problem for members of an audience is a valid consideration when hiring.

But then this has always been the problem.  This is how miserable bigots like Gallagher twist their brains into the pretzel-cum-Moebius strip configuration necessary to believe what they believe.  They have to simultaneously think that preventing gays from tying the knot is so important as to require the writing of books and the forming of pressure groups, and also that it's so irrelevant to society as to have no bearing on who a company might want representing them in public.

Obviously, there are wrinkles here.  Just because I think it's ridiculous to ignore the reaction of homosexuals to a speaker doesn't mean I wouldn't be happy to ignore the reaction of racists.  Moreover, I recognise that if someone called a company un-American because their policy was "No black speakers in case the Klan's in tonight", I'd not even look up from my comic. There are no hard and fast rules here. 

But we already knew that.  We already realised that balancing a speaker's desire to keep being paid despite them advocating the disenfranchising of a minority, and the audience's desire to pay for an event in which they meet no-one who's written a book saying their love could damage the country, is going to be tough, and is going to depend on the individual circumstances.

Such considerations are beyond Gallagher's intellect, however.  Or her patience.  Or her strategy.  It's at least one of those, without a doubt.  But (s)he who lives by the sword, and all that. If we are playing the Bright Line game, I'd like to point out that Gallagher's argument means it is un-American to stop paying a speaker after they write a book about how miscegenation is damaging the country.  Is that something she's prepared to defend?

Maybe she is.  I've never spoken to the woman. So take another example.  Following Gallagher's logic, it would be un-American for her to fire someone after they penned a book entitled "Oppose Gay Marriage?  Then You're A Fucking Shit". 

You'll forgive me if I express doubt that this is a position she could stick to.

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Lodged In The Craw

In case anyone's wondering, here is a list of things that would have been less stupid than defeating the Cybermen with love:
  • Defeating the Cybermen with anger;
  • Defeating the Cybermen with sulkiness;
  • Defeating the Cybermen with ennui;
  • Defeating the Cybermen with provolone;
  • Defeating the Cybermen with woodlice;
  • Defeating the Cybermen with the letter "K";
  • Defeating the Cybermen with Burt Wards gonad-reduction drugs;
  • Defeating the Cybermen with gold coins (again).
Also, contrary to the opinions of some, the stupefyingly ridiculous and cliched ending to "Closing Time" is not improved by the Doctor trying to argue there was more going on than "love > Cybermen", mainly because he gives up and admits that was what happened (in fairness, that's not how everyone read his conclusion; see the above link). 

As far as I'm concerned, the Doctor grinding to a halt in the middle of attempting to cook up what only in this situation could be referred to as a less ridiculous explanation serves as a giant flashing sign above the episode: "Even the Doctor has to admit it was love".  Which, of course, requires another sign just beneath it: "So the ending is exactly as fucking awful as you were thinking".

That's not undercutting, that's underlining.  That's telling your audience that any attempt to fanwank some kind of borderline plausible - or even simply non-nauseating - explanation for what just happened simply won't do.

About seven years ago, I was sitting in my friend Richard's sitting room for a meeting of our creative writing group, and I was writing a ping-pong story with our newest member.  She started, I continued, and she continued some more.  Apparently, she hated what I'd written so much that she actually pulled the "It was all a dream!" move halfway through the exercise.  Rather put out at this heavy-handed editorialising (the point of a ping-pong story is to adapt to what you are presented with, not rub it out because you can't twist it back to the tale you wanted to tell all along), I wrote in something even more extreme than my previous effort, complete with a random bystander exclaiming "It's like some kind of horrible dream, except it's clearly real".

What I did as a (hopefully) mild rebuke/quick gag in my friend's house, Gareth Roberts did to reinforce a terrible narrative resolution in a show watched by millions.  Presumably, he still got paid.

(Seriously, we're really supposed to believe the Cybermen's "assimilation machine" can't deal with a father scared for his baby?  That's really not happened to them in all the time they've been terrorising the galaxy?  God, these new Telosians are useless, aren't they?  As though trying to conquer Victorian London with Mecha Kong, a mad prostitute and Cuddles the Monkey wasn't stupid enough.)

Quote Of The Day

From Charles P. Pierce, who's assessment of the current race for the Republican candidate for President is both entirely correct, and viciously, bleakly hilarious:
If Bill Kristol went to the track, he'd bet on the fucking starting gate.
Kristol only has a tangential part to play in both the article and the topic it covers, but since he insisted on taking credit for Sarah Palin showing up on the national radar, he certainly deserves some blame for the freak show we're currently watching. 

And it simply cannot be said enough: Bill Kristol is the anti-Cassandra, repeatedly cited and asked for comment when the man's predictive powers aren't merely random, they're perfectly calibrated to choose any option but the right one. If Bill Kristol picked up a bridge hand to see thirteen spades staring back at him, he'd bet eight no trumps.  He'd also immediately redouble when you called him on it, and argue that the bridge itself would never be safe from terrorism unless we bomb Tehran within the next 24 hours.

Saturday, 24 September 2011

Faded Glory

So, a quick multiple-choice question to anyone else who saw the first episode of BBC3's The Fades.  Was it:

a) Ghosts vs birds feat. the nympho off This Life?
b) "You got Kairo in my Sigur Ros video!" "No, you got a Sigur Ros video in my Kairo!"?
c) An argument that hot girls prefer a sulky bedwetter to a black guy, no matter how funny he is?
d) All of the above?

P.S. I really rather liked it.

Friday, 23 September 2011

Only Straight Uggos Need Apply

Clearly, the fact that a significant number of the kind of Republican who'd want to watch their presidential candidates bitching at each other are classless shitheads is hardly news.  What's more aggravating, in the sense that so many people think he's conceivably presidential material (even if few of them would have him as their choice), is Santorum's comments on the recently repeal of DADT:
I would say any type of sexual activity has no place in the military.  The fact they are making a point to include it as a provision within the military that we are going to recognize a group of people and give them a special privilege to and removing Don't Ask Don't Tell I think tries to inject social policy into the military. 
This is one of those nonsensical, ugly answers that overloads your logic circuits so hard that you have to sit down for a while and try and piece your shattered brain back together. I'd like to make fun of it, but I'm just overwhelmed by the possibilities.  It would be like catching David Cameron in bed with Margaret Thatcher, whilst both were dressed in stocking and Nazi armbands and singing "Fuck the Miners" to the chorus of "Panic" by the Smiths.  I mean, what are you supposed to focus on?

This is probably one of the clearest demonstrations yet that for a large number of people on the American Right, homosexuality is completely inseparable from homosexual sex.  Letting gays in the military is a "special privilege", you see, because they'd presumably find it easier to do the nasty than all those poor straight guys would.  You know, the same way letting black people into the army is a special privilege, because of how it's harder to see them during a night mission. 

Obviously, if Santorum doesn't think soldiers should have themselves any poon tang, then that's his right.  On his first day in the Oval, he's welcome to issue an executive order forcing the military to become completely celibate (and then watch it collapse into anarchy and cannibalism in, ooh, three weeks or so).  In the meantime, banning gays from the military makes exactly as much sense as banning handsome, charming men.  With the greatest respect to my gay friends, I don't believe a single one of them would get more ass than would George Clooney, should they all decide to take up arms together.

There's little more reprehensible than someone telling a whole group of his fellow human beings that giving them the exact same treatment should be considered a privilege.  "Hey, just as a favour to you, how about I let you have the same opportunities I got, huh?"

Friday 40K: Another Brick In The Wall

Things have been exceptionally slow on the painting front lately.  My horribly old DVD player (kindly donated by Gooder when I moved out) finally gave up the ghost a few months ago, and I do most of my painting in front of moving pictures.

I finally caved and bought a new player a fortnight ago, and already it has borne fruit.  Here is the next addition to my Planetstrike defences, following on from the bastion I finished about eighteen months ago.  Holding the line are my Ultramarines, freshly re-based and about to receive some reinforcements - where "about to receive" means "about to gather dust whilst I spend six months painting another three of them."

Thursday, 22 September 2011

Another Tremor Beneath The Tower

So, the next installment of my increasingly tardy series of data sets has arrived.  Naturally, it's completely incompatible with what I already had.  Turns out, rather than simply missing the third data set, I was also missing fully one half of each of the first two data sets, and now I'm missing the other half of the third.

And all of this is just the baseline data.  I've no idea in the slightest whether there's actually been any information gathered at the end of all this.  Not that it particularly matters at this point - there's little point in trying to figure out if patients have seen significant changes in their test results if their original results are missing.

To paraphrase Josh Lyman, the fifth year of this two-year study doesn't seem to be going any better than the first four.

Wednesday, 21 September 2011


I've finally gotten around to taking a photo of the oil painting I commissioned for The Other Half's birthday.  This is her bearded collie, Star (technically Woodland Star, since he's a pedigree, and therefore is required to have a stupid name). 

I'm immensely happy with this; it captures Star's personality very well.  Anyone who's looking to get a pet (or a landscape) painted for them might want to check out Isabel Clarke's home page. (Try to avoid the stuff on her politics, though...)

The Seven Facebooks Of Mark Zuckerberg

Man, the internet is a scary place these days.  Netflix has apparently been infiltrated by anti-capitalist Skrulls (or something), and Facebook is apparently going through more abrupt personality changes than '80s Doctor Who.  Presumably that means we're due for a year-long disappearance, mangled grammar, massive budget cuts, a sudden and remarkable improvement in product, and then lots of cats followed by cancellation.

Hopefully one day Sorkin and Fincher will dramatise this period of hyperactive, directionless cosmetic fiddling in The Social Network II: Antisocial As Fuck, in which the frenetic lunacy of the time will be represented by having the actors receive page after page of updated dialogue whilst the cameras are actually rolling.  Each scene will only end when Jesse Eisenberg becomes disorientated and overwhelmed, and bursts into tears.  Which is presumably how meetings end at Facebook's secret underground volcano lair these days in any case.

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Unwelcome Traditions

My comments on Giant Size X-Men for the other blog eventually got so ivolved that I thought they might be worth putting up here as well (after very minor tweaking). 

It's entirely unoriginal and obvious to point out that with the benefit of hindsight, "Secomd Genesis" marks probably the most important turning point in the entire history of Uncanny X-Men.  That fact eclipses all others, I think, and people forget - or at least don't discuss - exactly which parts of the book proved the most transformative and, more importantly, whether their effects were actually desirable.

A lot has been made of the international flavour of the second generation of X-Men, which is hardly surprising. Of the seven new mutants to be recruited by Xavier, only one was born within the borders of the US, and as a resident of an Apache reservation, it's fairly clear John "Thunderbird" Proudstar would not consider himself to be an "American" as the term is generally understood (which is to say, he very much considers himself American, but sees Xavier and Cyclops as "white-eyed" interlopers).

In all this talk of race and nationality, though, the more important change is often overlooked. With the introduction of the new team, the book is no longer about five teenagers who follow their mentors orders to the letter, but about eight characters in their early twenties through to (seemingly) their late thirties at the very least, who all have their own motivations for joining the team.

In short, the book is now stuffed full of conflict, both over the tactics best suited to getting the job done, and the strategy that should be being employed in the first place. "Second Genesis" makes this very clear once the neophyte X-Men arrive on Krakoa by having Cyclops split the group into four pairs, each of which (barring Storm and Colossus) consists of one team-player, and one surly, objectionable turd.

After all, there's no logical reason for splitting the team up - having them advance on the centre of the island from four different directions seems ludicrously counter-productive (rescue missions rarely requiring the target be surrounded) - so it must have been done to allow us to understand what is happening. The age of bickering and insubordination has begun.

I've discussed this at length over at the other blog, of course, as part of my attempts to deconstruct the '90s X-books and work out exactly what went wrong during that decade (not that I think it was as bad as some do). Ironically, given that I blame him for so much of what made those years sometimes tiresome, Wolverine actually comes off the best of the three designated dickheads here, appearing to be (as he is) a man willing to give his all to complete the mission, just with little interest in other people's opinions about how to do it. In contrast, Thunderbird and (especially) Sunfire are little more than argumentative children, constantly reiterating their disinterest in being part of a situation they volunteered for mere hours before.

Indeed, this is part of the fundamental problem of the book. Let's consider the original series of Star Trek for a moment. I once saw Nichelle Nichols tell, with visible emotion, a story about the day Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. approached her, and told her that Star Trek was one of the few shows he allowed his children to watch because it, almost uniquely for US television during the '60s, neither excluded black characters, nor made an issue of their presence.

He was right. One of the great strengths of ST:TOS is how little interest it had in pointing to its black comms officer, or its Asian helmsman. There is perhaps some mileage to be had in an argument that says writing Sulu and Uhura as being indistinguishable from white characters (which, by and large, they most certainly did) brings its own set of problems, but in the context of the era and the surrounding culture, I think the show deserves a lot of respect (c.f. the hideous back-slapping atrocity of "Far Beyond the Stars" DS9 offered up thirty years later) .

The point here is that it isn't enough to put together a multiracial cast of characters. You also have to not spend all your time sticking flashing arrows above those characters with their origins written on in neon.

The amount of noble gas expended in the thirty seven pages of Giant Size X-Men could have been used to make Las Vegas visible from high orbit. Banshee can't go two sentences without a "Begorrah!" or a "Sure'n it looks like...", and I'm not sure how comfortable we should be with the idea that an African tribe would worship a mutant as a god (though that's not really something I know enough to comment on), but it's Sunfire and Thunderbird, with their constant refusal to simply do what they'd agreed to without endless petty sniping, who get the most raw deal. Sunfire, just as he was five years earlier, is portrayed as a stereotypical arrogant, gaijin-hating, honour-obsessed Japanese citizen, and his simultaneous loathing for Westerners and desire to prove himself worthy of the Bushido code apparently compel to him join up, quit, and then join up again, all entirely without reason (naturally, in the next issue, he quits).

Thunderbird, though, is in a league of his own. Every analogy he makes involves Custer or his last stand - because clearly Little Bighorn is the only thing an Apache would think about or reference - but the real problem only arrives when Xavier gets him to sign up by essentially calling him chicken. "What will this Apache hate more", asks the subtext, "the white man, or his own people's miserable shell of an existence?"

It's not that I can't imagine a Native American who would look at his people's situation and find it lacking, or even that he would blame them for it. It's just the idea that a Caucasian could use those feelings to manipulate the Native American to do exactly what they wanted that leaves an excessively sour taste in the mouth, especially when you realise that a white writer is using a white character to tell an Apache that he needs to prove that his people are still worthy of respect.

In fairness, both Wolverine and Nightcrawler escape any kind of cultural pigeonholing, and Colossus' dedication to the ideals of Communism is presented without comment. So it's not all bad. There are definitely issues that need to be resolved, though. And whilst Sunfire and Thunderbird themselves very quickly stop being an issue, the basic concept of using someone's nationality as shorthand for their characterisation is something that lasted an awful lot longer.

Forced Donations

Found courtesy of lyndagb: a nice little analogy to remind us how messed up some people's views of sexual assault accusations can be.  It's not entirely equivalent (a stranger with a gun can't exactly claim they thought the victim was happy to go along with it all), but it still makes an excellent point.

Sunday, 18 September 2011

Disc Junkies

A few months ago, via a post over at MGK's place, I was introduced to the concept of "Ameritrash" board game and "Euro" board games. Simplified extraordinarily, Ameritrash games focus on creating an experience that could be considered evocative of the setting to the game. Euro games concentrate on sticking together the best mechanics possible, without any interest whatsoever in whether, for example, the game is in any way representative of colonising an island, running a medieval society, or burning down people's buildings and running away sniggering.

The potential problem with Euro games is that there isn't a sufficiently powerful hook to hang the experience on. On the other hand, Ameritrash board games can try so hard to ensure the gaming experience includes every conceivable facet of its inspiration that actually having fun becomes a secondary consideration [1]. There's another potential problem for Ameritrash games, though: how do you make a game fun to play for people who think the source material is a monstrous waste of time?

Despite reading a half dozen or so of the books, I've never been even remotely grabbed by Pratchett's Discworld series. I don't particularly dislike them, or anything, I just find myself baffled by people who tell me that they're fascinating and hilarious and sprung from the mind of a genius. As far as I'm concerned, they're perfectly good entertainment, with the occasional genuinely funny line, but it's like I've taken some Nytol and had a perfectly good sleep, only to discover that everyone else who took it has experience lurid sex dreams with their ultimate sexual partner. Or something.

All of this went through my mind when we started playing the Discworld board game. The good news is that the setting certainly doesn't overwhelm the game. I'm told by Jamie - my personal expert on all matters Discworld - that the various events that take place during the game certainly give the flavour of Pratchett's universe, but there was certainly no point no expectation of or advantage to my giving a crap. Essentially, the game plays out like Chaos in the Old World, in that all players are playing according to the same rules, but in an attempt to achieve different goals.

Well, sort of, anyway. Whilst each one of the four factions from CitOW have their own unique victory conditions (killing things, infecting cities, seducing nobles, or chasing after shiny rocks), three of the seven characters in this game have identical winning conditions. That's a bit of a shame, actually: since the game can only have four players, it might have been better to include five unique conditions instead. I did wonder if the three identical goals - representing Lords Rust, Selachii and De Worde, [2] and requiring control of just under half of the city - were there because such land-grabbing antics required more than one participant for balance, but since a game can include only one lord (or no lord at all), that surely can't be it.

Whilst the aforementioned nobility are busy trying to hoover up all the real estate, Lord Vetinari is trying to spread his minions across the city, the Chrysoprase is collecting gold, the Dragon King is hoping to set the city ablaze with riots, and Vimes is just trying to stop anyone else from winning before the game ends. Unlike CitOW, each player's identity is kept secret, which leads to a lot of second-guessing about what your opponents want, and whether your actions might be giving them advantages too. The resulting detective work, bluffing and double bluffing, and general paranoia is the game's real strength, and works very well with what is at heart a very simple game mechanism - each turn you can play a card, most of which have multiple effects (place a minion, kill someone else's minion, construct a building), and which may let you play another card, allowing you to potentially string together a great deal of cards. That's pretty much it - at least until the dragons arrive.

It's fun, it's quick once you've learned the ropes - and these are pretty simple ropes, none of that double inverted slipknot business - and it keeps Terryite thralls locked in the throes of Practchetty passion. Recommended all round.

[1] This is why I'm terrified that the final expansion to the BSG board game will simply contain three dozen chilled colostomy bags of Ronald D. Moore's urine, which are to be liberally spayed across all players in the penultimate turn.

[2] Whoever the hell they are.

Friday, 16 September 2011

Friday Meloncholy

I'm off for a weekend's gaming with Jamie and Pause in Devon, so I thought we should have a video that nodded to that.  Obviously, that county is most famous for pirates and cream teas - both awesome, obviously, but not immediately suggestive of a Youtube clip.

Looking at Wikipedia's entry, though, I discovered that Devon gave rise to some or all members of two of Britain's most internationally popular and staggeringly overrated bands.  Obviously, I'm not going to sully this blog with anything by pompous dirge-factory Muse, even one of the two good ones.  That leaves Coldplay, who have at least managed a good half-dozen genuinely brilliant songs alongside the chaff that everyone else seems desperate to fall about over.

Anyway, this is my pick of their back catalogue, (though "Don't Panic" comes a very close second).  Be warned, though, it's not exactly a particularly happy song.  I wouldn't recommend listening to it just before you go to the pub for your Friday drinks, unless of course that pub is where you're meeting someone who is slowly and surely boiling away your heart inside your chest, and pretending not to notice.

Thursday, 15 September 2011

The Mistake

A few hours ago I sat down and watched "The French Mistake", the fifteenth episode from Season 6 of Supernatural.  I know plenty of people who've raved about it - terms like "funniest episode ever" have been observed, though at a distance, as a hunter might observe a gazelle as it told its gazelle mates about the TV shows it's been watching in-between smelling musk glands and fleeing from lion prides.

I was pretty much expecting to hate it, actually.  Not because I'm a knee-jerk contrarian (not on this topic, at least), but because I couldn't see any good coming from the episode's conceit.  A more conceited conceit would be hard to come across, actually, and this is coming from a guy who once wrote a story about an army of his own clones taking over the world (it was for a writing assignment; long story.)

Below the fold; spoilers.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

The Ivory Tower

I love academia.  So far this week I have:
  1. Been asked on a Sunday afternoon to rewrite a section of a paper with a deadline of Monday afternoon;
  2. Spent Monday morning writing the changes only to discover the paper was submitted first thing that day, without me being told;
  3. Discovered that the woman responsible for cleaning and providing the data has left some mistakes in the data - or at least, in the 33% of the data I currently have - and has then gone on holiday, despite the deadline for having the full set ready for me being the end of this month;
  4. Found out the deadlines have been changed in an email I was never sent, and now involve me analysing the full data set in the next two weeks.
And this is all just one project.  I can't begin to tell you how screwed up my research programme is right now...

Monday, 12 September 2011

Waiting In Line

I have to say, I loved that episode.  A lot of people felt it was too cynically manipulative, and that's entirely fair enough.  God knows I had that reaction enough times during RTD's reign of VERY LOUD MINOR CHORDS terror.  This time, though, it worked on me entirely, and has made me reconsider my somewhat low opinion of Karen Gillen as an actress (and as my friend Boo pointed out, it was probably the first episode of the series that actually sold the idea of Amy genuinely being in love with Rory).

Having said that, there is one thing that keeps rolling through my head regarding the ending of the episode (spoilers...)

Sunday, 11 September 2011

Spectrum Spleunking

Time to rock it older-skool (old-skooler?) than we ever have before, with one of my favourite childhood games.  Our ZX Spectrum was frequently a treasure trove of low-tech brilliance, each one of its 48K was pushed to its absolute limit to produce excitement, challenge, and from time-to-time, more than one colour.

There are, of course, no instructions offered for the game.  Nor will I give you any help - that would be contrary to the spirit of '80s video-gaming.  I will give you a few tips, though.  The Black Knight is the best bet for a nemesis; axes aren't quite as good as you'd think they are, and the best way to kill the Oracle is to put on a magic cloak, grab a sword in each hand, and hack his tentacles off, preferably whilst screaming "You didn't see that coming, didya, bitch?"

Future's Fools

What is it with sci-fi films and stupid people? The Other Half and I had a movie double bill yesterday, and as far as I can tell, City of Ember is about an underground society so stupid they assign people their careers at random, and then are surprised when their engineers can't fix the generator they are entirely reliant upon.

Splice, in contrast, is apparently about two idiot scientists/gigantic aresholes who cross Lily Cole with a naked mole rat, and then are surprised when locking it in a barn doesn't leave to domestic harmony.

Better social and intellectual authorities, please!

Friday, 9 September 2011

Friday Cephalopods

Courtesy of Chuck, here's a 2007 short film which contains everything that's good and right in the world.

(Also, I just realised that this is post number 1234.  That's a lot of swearing.)

Thursday, 8 September 2011


Mathematicians learn, fairly early on in their intellectual development, that presence and absence are the exact same thing, simply observed from opposite directions.  To a more reality-based mind (and anyone who argues maths is reality based simply hasn't done enough maths to know what they're talking about), there are sights and sounds and tastes in abundance that distinguish what we have from what we don't have, but in the realm of sets and closures and numbers both rational and otherwise, an outline is an outline, and it doesn't really matter on which side of it you're standing.  The train tracks from one to the other go both ways, after all.

If "Paradiso" was about what Lucifer has, then, either what he's gained from his new universe or imported from his own one (which is far more than he wants to admit to), then "Purgatorio" deals with what he lacks.  And not just him, by any means.

Every character in fiction can be broken down according to four criteria: what they have and want, what they have but don't want, what they are trying to acquire, and what they are trying to avoid.  Lucifer has said right from the very beginning that there is nothing he is trying to acquire (that's why the Voiceless Gods were unable to influence him) and that nothing he has is of any interest to him (or so he keeps insisting to Mazikeen, at any rate).  Nor is the fear or losing anything something he would or could ever admit to.  What drives Lucifer - or, more to the point, what he says drives him - is simply the desire to be rid of those things he does not desire.

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

1.7 Matriculation, Part 4: Keep Digging

Apparently some costs are universal.

1.8                                                                     1.6

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Ursine Undone!

This is something you don't see every day.  Though you should, obviously.  Let all dangerous and voracious predators be warned: come at our dogs, and we will fuck you up.

Artist's impression

Monday, 5 September 2011

The Lies Of Locke Lamora

(Very minor spoilers follow)

Maybe it was the quote from him on the front cover, but I read Scott Lynch's debut novel feeling repeatedly reminded of George R R Martin's Song of Ice and Fire.

That, of course, is no mean praise, and Lynch's prose is certainly no pale imitation.  There's just something in all the political wrangling, the street-level view of grand events, and (most especially) the loving descriptions of food that ring a rather distinctive bell. 

(That, and the fact that this is (inevitably) the first part of a seven part series that (equally inevitably) isn't finished, and hasn't been updated in years; though this book at least works just fine as a standalone story).

There's also the characterisation to consider.  Whilst Locke Lamora is a somewhat stunted youth rather than an actual dwarf, and his parentage (so far as we know) is decidedly far less noble, one could do worse for an understanding of what this book offers than imagining Lynch woke up one morning and thought "Let's just have a whole book's worth of Tyrion."

The Lies of Locke Lamora is somewhere around 70% Tyrionesque wit and cunning, 20% the Artful Dodger, and 5% each of House of Cards and The Real Hustle, all set in one of those rarest of locations - somewhere simultaneously familiar and fantastical (think Venice if it had been built by long-dead aliens with a fondness for glass and sharks) which allows itself to be unfurled and explored slowly, rather than requiring clumsy tours early into the action.  It's pacey, clever (sometimes exceptionally so), and stuffed full of interesting characters (both real and faked), and captures very well (again, this is reminiscent of Martin's work) the clash of multiple political factions, in which the very worst of enemies can end up unknowingly helping each other as they both gun for the same third party.

Simply put: it's brilliant (and funnier than Martin, too).  Buy it immediately.

Friday, 2 September 2011

Started Bad, Got Worse

Never afraid to exploit misfortune and tragedy, some of the more odious members of American conservatism are keen to point out to us all that earthquake/tropical storm shenanigans constitute "acts of God", and that the eponymous Being might well be trying to send us mud-caked mortals a message of some kind.

(In the name of fairness, I should point out that Bachmann has since claimed she was "joking".  The transcript makes that immensely difficult to believe, and Pat "Every gay kiss gives Jesus acid reflux" Robertson certainly isn't backing down, but I wanted to Bachmann's attempted climb-down anyway).

From what I can gather two such events in such a short space of time is at least somewhat unusual, if not anomalous.  Indeed, natural disasters have been on the rise lately.  Scientists wonder aloud about the chances of this being an effect of climate change, whereas the standard wingnut hypothesis is that its probably something to do with gays (seriously, type "Hurricane Katrina gays" into Google and marvel at all the malicious crazy).  This might be the first time such events have been publicly blamed on fiscal policy rather than a moral standpoint, but these ideas have been floating around for a while now.

Ungar's response - basically, "If this is mankind's phone-ringing, how are we supposed to know what the caller wants?" - is, of course, entirely reasonable, but take on this is a little different. Let's assume for the sake of argument that these natural disasters are the will of God, because for some reason or other He's annoyed at the United States.

It that's true, then, if God really is sufficient pissed off at the United States that he's prepared to throw hurricanes at it in the hope it'll buck its ideas up, why has he waited until now?

If failing to consider a balanced budget amendment is a big enough deal for God to start throwing his weight around, then what was stopping him torching the place during the civil war?  During decade after decade of slavery?  Whilst nation after nation of Native Americans were systematically displaced or slaughtered.

This is supposed to be the stuff that makes God lose his shit?  Please.

Of course, maybe this all makes sense in the heads of Bachmann, Robertson et al.  Maybe they really do think that God preferred the US as a nation built and maintained through slave labour to one where politicians are prepared to consider the upside to large deficits.

Sounds like a question that needs to be asked, no?

Friday Theology

I see Richard Dawkins is back with a new book.  I don't know why he bothers; the conclusive proof of the absence of  Divine Being has already been provided for us, and by God's an uncaring, unordered world's humble pigeon, no less.

(And season 2 arrives soon, too.  Bonus!)

Thursday, 1 September 2011

Exactly What It Doesn't Say On The Tin

 Via Balloon Juice and PZ Myers, I came across this article earlier. The boundless capacity of conservative/libertarian Americans for projection and self delusion never fails to amuse me.  How in the name of all that's holy (by which I mean science, bitches!) can a website that allows its writers to argue that Darwinists are being inconstant in not believing that the human race can evolve its way clear of global warming possibly have the balls to call itself Reason?

Something like 99.9% of all species that have ever existed are extinct, because they weren't able to adapt in time to a changing world.  The last major extinction event took out over half the genera on Earth at the time, and what ultimately came out of it looked very much different to what went in [1].  If Harsanyi likes the look of the odds, that's his prerogative, but you'd think he'd keep his mouth shut regarding how anyone else is judging the situation.

"Don't worry, lads!  Evolution says
Also, while we're on the subject, let's try to remember what a skeptic is. A skeptic, in a philosophical sense is someone who either requires significant direct evidence before willing to accept something, or actually believes some things simply cannot be sufficiently determined.  Someone like Rick Perry, who will immediately accept as true any "evidence" at all that supports his view, is not a skeptic.  Whilst I think "I'm not convinced by the current evidence" is generally frequently synonymous with "I haven't really looked at the current evidence", that's not invariably true, and as a scientist (even a mathematician), I can't possibly object to the idea of skepticism.

Rick Perry believes that climate scientists are engaged in an international conspiracy to trick the governments of the world to pay them to stop an imaginary threat.  I can think of a lot of words one could use to describe a brain that considers that a plausible scenario, but "skeptical" would never be one.

[1] Note that I'm not arguing that global warming will get so serious that it qualifies as a major, or even lesser, extinction event - that's something far outside my area of expertise.  I'm just pointing out that suggesting a belief in evolution should lead people to conclude humanity will be OK is completely ridiculous.