Friday, 29 November 2013

Friday Warhammer: Salome's Last Veil

Two years after the last addition to the regiment, we have the sixth knight in my Riverlands army.  This particular bloodthirsty killer is a Piper from Pinkmaiden.  Some claim these particular Riverlords lack a certain gravitas, emblazoned as they are with almost naked women.  I, on the other hand, subscribe to the Modified Jayne Cobb Theory: a man rides into battle wearing that on his shield, you know he's not afraid of anything...

The full regiment.

Thursday, 28 November 2013

Wicked Awesome?

I went to my first West End show at the weekend (is the Victoria Apollo in the West End? I've no idea!), which was also my first ever musical which I went to with BigHead (which, now I think about it, is really quite strange).

(Vague spoilers below)

"But... But... His Hair Is So Funny!"

Thirty years ago the developmental psychologist Howard Gardner published his most famous work, Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences. Inside, he laid out a theory so obvious in hindsight it's amazing it took humanity so long to put it all together.  In brief, Gardner argued that "intelligence" is not a single quality, but a series of sub-divisions of skill within a person which may or may not be correlated [1]. Thus, simply describing a person as "intelligent" betrays a bias within the speaker towards certain forms of intelligence that are subjectively viewed as more important.

This should come as no shock to anyone who has taken an IQ test, which tend to focus on one's skills with linguistics, mathematics, and spatial relations.  Even there, cracks can appear; I do pretty well with the first, exceptionally well with the second, and utterly abysmally with the third.  Gardner argues that there are many other forms of intelligence (six more in the original book, though last I checked this had grown into something more like eleven more) that are no less real.  Musical intelligence, bodily intelligence, inter- and intrapersonal; there's a whole range of skills born within the mind that for centuries were viewed as either too hard to or not important enough to try and measure (or both),

I mention all this by way of a reminder that what it means to be called "intelligent" is in large part a social construct, just as it is to be called "beautiful". An IQ test measures (imperfectly) those strands of intelligence society has judged to be most valuable.  Not only does it prize linguistic and logical intelligence over interpersonal or artistic intelligence, but it prizes it's own conception of linguistic and logical intelligence over all others.  That's how western nations can create intelligence tests, pass them over to Africans, and then act surprised if they don't do quite so well (see Bell Curve, The).

As between societies, so within.  The rich and the powerful determine what the rich and the powerful consider most important to being rich and powerful, and then are amazed to find those qualities lacking in those not hoovering up seven-figure salaries. Doubtless certain forms of intelligence are very useful in making your way to the top. But in this country at least we may as well call those strands the "succeeding in a neoliberal capitalist marketplace" strands.  We can't draw any conclusions beyond that.  Perhaps we could call this strand "low cunning" for short, or even just "luck", as if the mechanisms by which you enter the world with high aptitudes for given intelligence strands weren't entirely down to luck in the first place.

There is no idea in the world more toxic to Boris Johnson's classical approach to Conservatism (the Jacobins would doubtless have recognised much in his comments, except of course they probably weren't "intelligent" enough to speak English) than the possibility that the systems by which some "cornflakes reach the top" are anything but the purest expressions of meritocracy, and moreover, that the merits the meritocracy reward are anything other than universal qualities worthy of equally universal respect.  The existential terror that the rich and powerful might have to share their riches and power with others less deserving - as defined by the rich and powerful themselves - can only be allayed by convincing themselves the world is better off with a strict social heirarchy in which those on the lower rungs accept they are objectively unsuited for a larger slice of the pie.

(Yes, I have been reading Corey Robin's Reactionary Mind recently.  Why do you ask? Jack Graham deserves some credit here, too, though all mistakes and bouts of idiocy remain forever my own.)

So is the game rigged, and those that rig the game comforted by hearing their own voices, louder than those they sit above, as they explain to people that it's really their own fault they haven't risen higher. After all, if they were smarter they could have rigged their own game, and reached the final level, where the only rule is to lie to each other over the champagne flutes.

[1] In fact, as I understand it Gardner was of the opinion that the correlations were very weak (I've only read bits and pieces of the original text, so I may have misunderstood, however).  I'm less convinced by this; I think it depends very much on the pair of intelligences under consideration and the population one is observing.  The key point though is that these correlations can be very weak, which is why trying to divide the population into "intelligent" and "not intelligent" is so ridiculous an endeavour.

Monday, 25 November 2013

The Days After Of The Doctor

So, this post as originally conceived was just going to be my thoughts on Saturday's Who special.  Really, though, I'm just not sure there's any point. The whole thing was such flimsily constructed sound and fury that trying to figure out if it signified anything seems fruitless.  When Moffat called this "a love letter to fans", he really wasn't kidding.  The only real question is whether you enjoyed the letter's prose, and whether you appreciated the letter's handwriting.

Not everyone did, which is hardly surprising.  Much as David Tennant's swansong contained pretty much every one of Davies' most obvious tics, Day of the Doctor surely couldn't have come any more Moffat than it did. For those who dislike Moffat's endless obsession with flashy structural tics and ironic banter, this must have been pretty excruciating.  I am not one of those people (which isn't to say I don't get the criticisms; different things bug different people). Moreover, even by new series standards, this thing had plot holes you could fly an inside-out TARDIS through.  Like Davies before him, Moffat clearly thinks he can rely on the rule of cool to combat this.  Unlike Davies, he's often right.

In short then, I loved it, but can't rationally explain why.  I suspect a great many people who didn't like it can summon far more coherent arguments than my "YAYFORALLDOCTORSAWESOMETIMES", but having waited some twenty-five years for something like this to show up, I'm not so self-sabotaging as to watch it with a detached, clinical eye.  That's what everything else on television is for.

That concludes what could charitably be called my thoughts on the special itself.  What strikes me as more interesting is some of the fan reaction that followed in its wake, most particularly regarding how Day of the Doctor impacts on previous Who stories.  There's no way to discuss this without major spoilers, so those who haven't seen the special - or who have had their minds wiped by the Black Archives - would do well to look away now.

Fourteen Million Reasons To Despair

(Trigger warning: sexual assault is mentioned, though not discussed, below)

One of the most strange truths about the growth of the ludicrous far-right bigot smorgasbord that constitutes the bedrock of the modern Republican Party in the United States is how blase everyone seems to be about it.  I can't count the number of times I've had a conversation about the horrific state of American news media in which someone has said: "Yes, but aside from FOX News".

The suggestion seems to be that FOX is so outrageously and openly biased that it has a disproportionate effect on the overall shape of American journalism.  Which is true, but not in the way these people mean.  FOX doesn't make the whole shebang seem like it's more slanted and mendacious than it is, it demonstrates the full value of slant and mendacity to everyone else. Arguing the most successful and influential example of a given group must also be an outlier strikes me as a damn hard sell.

The radio equivalent of FOX News has to be Rush Limbaugh.  This is a man nobody with the brains nature assigned to his least-favourite lungfish would take seriously for the length f time it takes to boil an egg in molten rock. This is the man who spent days calling Sandra Fluke a slut because she has sex with people for money testified before Congress that access to birth control was a genuine health concern for women.  If Limbaugh were an ice-cream flavour, he'd be Rocky Salmonella. If he were a Doctor Who villain, he'd be Davros' speech-writer.

Rush Limbaugh has over fourteen million weekly listeners.

I mention him today because this hideous man, this addled mess, this capering fool with the unique talent for making Howard Stern look like Cicero, has decided to weigh in on the question of whether the Senate is better off now the filibuster is partially gone:
Let’s say, let’s take 10 people in a room and they’re a group,” he said on his radio show. “And the room is made up of six men and four women. OK? The group has a rule that the men cannot rape the women. The group also has a rule that says any rule that will be changed must require six votes, of the 10, to change the rule.
How is any rational human being with an ounce of empathy in their souls supposed to process this? The forty-five millionaires who make up the Republican aisle of the Senate (88.9% of which are white men, of course) are kind of like women held hostage voting for themselves not to be assaulted?  Because they can't stop Democratic candidates from becoming judges?  Are we not to be concerned - and revolted - about a mind that jumps straight from restoring majority rule to one half of the legislative branch to the idea of gang-raping women trapped in a room.

And does the sweatiest mouthpiece the Republican Party has yet created really want to be using comparisons like this whilst his cronies in government are trying to crank out as many laws as possible forcing vaginal ultrasounds on any woman wanting to have an abortion?

In its own despicable way, of course, this hideous piece of non-think demonstrates just how absurd the thinking behind the Republican freak-out has really gotten.  It's not just that Rush has his sums wrong - in a Senate with ten people six people get their way even with the filibuster; he'd have been better off saying "in a Senate with twenty people the filibuster needs twelve of them to agree" - it's that the sheer horrific nature of the analogy is essential to hide what's really happened.  To switch the metaphor to something that doesn't make want to be ill, let's say twenty people are in a room.  Eleven of them want capital punishment to be mandatory for all crimes, and the other nine are sane.  Under this new system, it is not the case that capital punishment could then be voted in.  Even if the insane death-hungry party controlled the White House and the House of Representatives, the ability to directly vote for such a lunatic policy is still covered by the filibuster.

What our blood-crazed frothing madmen (in their white shirts, blue suits, and red ties) could do is vote for a judge that was similarly divorced from reality, and hope that judge eventually came across a case involving capital punishment so they could announce leaving any given criminal alive was contrary to the constitution.  Then you'd need for the Supreme Court to agree with so utterly insane a reading of what constitutes unconstitutional.

So, to sum up: Limbaugh's nightmare scenario is that eleven out of twenty senators could nominate a judge with views almost no American voter would find even close to tolerable, who might get lucky and get a case on which they can work their utterly insane thinking, which might then not get reversed by the Supreme Court despite its self-evidently lunacy. Limbaugh believes the correct number of those twenty senators to obliterate their electoral chances in the off-chance of acting contrary to overwhelming public opinion should be twelve. [1]

Fourteen million weekly listeners.  It took twice as long as usual to type this because my hands kept balling up into fists.

[1] On the other hand, the Democrats have a genuine reason to fear some of this coming true, since the current Supreme Court is both extremely conservative, and contains at a bare minimum three judges who have repeatedly contradicted not only clear precedent but their own clear precedents in order to achieve the result Republicans want.  Amongst other things, this is why Al Gore was never president, it is now illegal to limit campaign contributions, states are now able to refuse to accept money for improving their healthcare systems, and there is no longer any effective way to take Southern states to task for minting laws blatantly aimed at preventing non-white people from exercising their right to vote.  This would be a major concern for me, except that the current status quo favours Republicans to a major extent, and I don't believe the filibuster would survive the next Republican Congress in any case.

Friday, 22 November 2013

D CDs #482: Getaway Driver

George Carlin once said "white people got no business playing the blues, ever... Their job is to give people the blues, not to get them, and certainly not to sing or play them".  And it's not like it's hard to see his point.  Louis CK puts it more delicately (not many people Louis is more delicate than, but Carlin was one of them): "I'm not trying to say that if you're white, you can't complain. I'm just saying if you're black, you get to complain more."

Guitar Town is a white guy complaining about his blues.  Like, a lot.  There's even a song on here called "My Old Friend The Blues", so this ain't exactly stealth misery, or anything.  And this is a common theme of country music: a white guy on stage singing about how hard it is to live in the United States.  Which, considering country music a) has so much of its DNA entwined with that of blues music, and b) originated from areas of America that were hotbeds of racial resentment and the violent oppression of black people, is no small concern. 

That said, though, this is a dangerous game for me to play.  I'm not just a white man, I'm a white middle-class British man.  I'm not any closer to being able to pass comment on the struggle of being a working class white guy out on the deserted, hopeless back-roads of the American South than I am the daily experiences of African Americans.  Both of them represent experiences utterly different from my own, and both represent experiences far too infrequently discussed or represented in the media likely to sail its way across the channel.

In short, a man who appropriates music born from generations of the intolerable treatment of a whole people in order to complain about how no-one understands him is someone I can frown at (for all that I'm a sucker for self-absorbed moping to a catchy tune).  A man who takes that music to sketch out the shitty economic conditions that provide a backdrop for their life - well, I don't want to get into a fight with that guy about his choice of rhythm and structure.

This, in essence, is Guitar Town is all about.  Living in some out-of-the-way tiny speck of civilisation ("They don't even know there's a town around here", Earle laments in "Someday") where there's nothing to do, but nor is there money to be made and, therefore, no escape to be had.  The best songs on here detail this death-by-stasis; take the aforementioned "Someday", where counting out-of-state license plates constitutes the most interesting activity available, or the tight-rocking "Good Ol Boy (Getting Tough)" in which Earle tells us "I was born in the land of plenty, now there ain't enough".   It's not the just the difficulty of the struggle here, though, it's the importance of it.  Earle doesn't airbrush the rubble, he just won't use the rubble as an excuse to surrender. "Guitar Town" itself, aside from being a near-perfect slice of rocking country, is focused on the importance of defiant movement - "Everybody told me you can't get far  On thirty-seven dollars and a jap [1] guitar" - and finding meaning amongst the humbleness of your own circumstances - I gotta two pack habit and a motel tan... With my back to the riser I make my stand".

And it seems to me that this is what country music is at its best; sifting through the detritus of the crumbling abandoned towns of the rural American south to find what gold it can. It isn't an easy job -  the slow, sweet strum of "Little Rock 'n' Roller" is about a travelling musician's long-distance call to his young son, and could teach any number of miserable rockers a thing or two about how to write a song about the drawbacks of the musical life - but it has to be done. Somehow that realisation soaks into the steel strings and bottlenecks.  Guitar Town is no exception.  The title track is, as mentioned, wonderful; so too is the sharp, humming "Someday", the upbeat music/melancholy lyrics combination that gives country and western its clearest right to exist. "Fearless Heart" is pretty tasty, too, the best of three songs on the album ("Goodbye's All We've Got Left" and "Down The Road" being the other two, both of which are solid rather than inspired) which extend the metaphor of constant motion to avoid decay into the realm of the heart, with mixed results.

That's three standout joints among ten tracks, with another six entirely solid offerings, based around a simple concept, simple lyrics, and simple music; all of which is exactly what was needed.  Lovely. And if "My Old Friend The Blues", the only dud on the album, seems to prove Carlin's point, my sympathies lie with Louis.  White people do get to complain, as long as they do it as well as it's done here.

Eight tentacles.

[1] I can't really frame this review around complaining rights across races and not note that this right here is pretty fucking not cool. I haven't been able to dig up anything about what the word is doing in the song; my assumption is its just a kind of nod to the "not American = bad" theory that permeates so much of the culture of our cousins across the pond. It certainly doesn't seem intended as a slur, but of course "I didn't mean to be specifically offensive, just generally dismissive of things I don't think are American" doesn't work too well as a defence. 

If, indeed, that would be the defence used. Whatever else it is, though, it's an important line in the context of the album, which is why I've included it here.

Friday Talisman: Brobdingnagian Bufonidae

Some weeks, you just have to paint a toad.

It's a bit hard to tell, because of the usual problem of focusing, and because I couldn't get the cracks big enough, but this base has been painted with Agrellan Earth, which is supposed to make bases look like cracked earth.  Maybe with a bit of practice I'll get it sorted.

Still.  Amphibians. They're pretty cool, right?

Thursday, 21 November 2013

Forts On The Filibuster

For whatever subset of my reading population has any interest in US politics but doesn't follow them avidly, it's worth noting that today might be the last day the US Senate maintains the filibuster for judicial nominations. Here's a primer and some thoughts:


Under current rules you need a majority of the one hundred senators (or exactly half plus the Vice President) to vote in favour of a judicial nomination after debate for the nomination to be accepted. However, forty senators is all you need to refuse to hold the debate at all.  No debate, no vote for the nominee.

Why the hell?

Because of the way the US system is put together.  The Founding Fathers and their ideological descendants were big fans of the idea of democracy, but only to a point.  The basic idea behind Congress is that the much larger House - in which people have to run every two years - would respond more of less directly to the will of their constituents, whereas the smaller Senate (only two representatives per state) would have in their six year terms the opportunity to take the long view.  The idea of the Senate as being a kind of brake on the surging public will extended to the idea that bare majority shouldn't be allowed to make massive, sweeping changes that would screw the bare majority over.  Majority rule, in other words, couldn't extend to doing something utterly unacceptable to the minority.

Sounds reasonable

Well, maybe it does, in theory.  In practice, however, each senate in the latter half of the twentieth century and beyond has been more insistent on using the filibuster routinely than the one before.  This is a bipartisan problem insofar as Democrat and Republican Senates have both successively upped the ante, but it was the Republicans who first began misusing the tactic, and it is the Republicans who are using it now to completely lock down the President's appointments.

How bad has it gotten?

Right now the fight is about a Washington DC District Court that's three people down.  The Democrats want to replace those three people and, what with the President being a Democrat, they'd like him to pick three Democrats to do it.  This is how court selections have been made throughout history (with disastrous consequences in the case of the current Supreme Court).

The Republicans are arguing the court doesn't have enough work to justify it being fully staffed, and are therefore refusing any nomination to get a hearing.  The fact that this will tip a conservative-leaning court into something rather more central ("rather more central" being Obama's choice in this kind of thing, whether that's because he doesn't think he can go any further left or because he doesn't want to) is surely a matter of merest coincidence. And by that, I mean it's obvious to everyone that that's the real reason.

So let's get rid of it!

Well, not so fast.  If the Democrats get rid of the filibuster on judicial nominations now, the Republicans will have cover to get rid of it in general the very first time the Senate returns to their control.  Which, given the Democrats only hold it by a narrow margin, could be as soon as next year (every two years, one third of the chamber is up for election).  There's an argument to be made that liberals and progressives are better off sucking up the intransigence of the Republicans now in order to have our own immovable object the next time the levers of power switch position.

Er... does that make sense?

I'm not sure, but I'm betting "no".  For a start, there's absolutely no reason to believe the Republicans will keep the filibuster when they get back into the majority anyway.  Running roughshod over the accepted norms of government is quite simply what they do now.  They know, among other things, that the news media would report such a move as an "opinions differ" piece, and that the ins and outs of Senate rule changes won't generate too much noise anyway.

So not getting rid of it for fear the Republican's will up the ante would be kind of historically myopic at this point.  The second point to make is that whilst the Senate is a battleground, the White House is becoming reliably Democratic.  Democrats won the popular vote five times in the last six elections, and the demographics are just getting worse and worse for Republicans (one of the reasons they were so glad to see the Supreme Court gut the Voting Rights Act; see Supreme Court, disastrous nature of).  A situation in which the Republicans hold the White House and the House of Representatives and the Senate by more than 49 but not more than 59 seats is hardly inconceivable, but its a lot of things that have to go for Democrats, and as mentioned, if this did happen, it's impossible to imagine the GOP keeping the filibuster around in any case.  A party that doesn't censure its members for confessing to passing voting registration laws in order to make it harder for its opponents to vote is not a party that will play by Queensbury rules the instant they're in a position to kick you in the junk.

In short, blow it up.

Update: You maniacs, etc. It's gone and good riddance.  Mitch McConnell's quote is my favourite: "by any objective standard, Senate Republicans have been very, very fair to this president".  The current Republican minority has blocked more presidential nominees for the judiciary than any other Senate in history. The blocking of cabinet appointments is, to my knowledge, utterly unprecedented.  The current senates attempts to block nominees to head up entire departments because they object to the departments themselves is certainly a new phenomenon.

So it would be tempting to assume McConnell is lying here.  Really, though, I don't think he is. I think there's simply a missing coda to that sentence that goes "considering his skin colour".

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Mo Money Mo Health Problems

Oh, for Gods' sakes.  The only thing Reform are independent of is basic logic and political history.
PATIENTS should be charged £10 to see their doctor and a £10 "hotel charge" to stay the night in hospital, a leading think-tank has said... Reform added that charges should not be applied to people on low incomes, although it states not all pensioners would necessarily be exempt... Proposing a series of options, Reform claimed that an increase in prescriptions charges from the current £7.85 up to £10, and in the cost of an annual Prescription Prepayment Certificate from £104 to £120, would raise an additional £130million annually. 
Reform can insist they're an "independent think tank" (frankly I wonder if a large armoured vehicle isn't the least inapplicable of those three words here) all they want, but George Osborn just got a chubby that won't subside until he touches a homeless person.

First of all, pointing out other European countries use this system completely fails to take account of the wider picture. Sweden may charge you to see your doctor, but it also has an array of social safe-guards in place to make sure you're looked after in a way David Cameron will swallow his golden lectern before he allows to happen to those of us in the UK.  At first glance, France might be a better comparison, but there's still a huge difference, which is this: France pays a far higher amount per capita into their health system than we do, and gets better results because of it (one of the reasons the NHS gets us so high up the list of countries in terms of healthcare is because it manages so well despite it's lack of funding; we're a surprisingly palatable budget meal amongst haute cuisine). Front-ending a small cost in order to gain access to a far more well-funded system is therefore less unreasonable. 

More to the point, this is the established system in France.  That's a very different kettle of fish to the idea of introducing charges to see a doctor at the same time as trying to strangle the NHS everywhere else. It's one thing to charge an entrance fee on the door.  It's quite another to introduce that fee the same week you're removing half the chairs.

In a political climate where introducing the bedroom tax is considered a reasonable plan but maintaining tax rates on the filthy rich isn't (this might be the Express' problem and not Reform's, but I'd like to know on what basis they state tax increases can't help), this kind of fiddling with the superstructure becomes grotesquely irresponsible.  It's also not clear it would even have the desired effect. Having slammed the Express above for lazy comparisons to other countries, I offer my own comparison guardedly, but it's at least worth pointing out that in the US (which, yes, has a very different healthcare system to the UK and France) this kind of charge is desperately counter-productive.  By charging patients to see a doctor and to pick up medication (under the proposal above, that's £20) you encourage people to avoid seeing the doctor until things get so bad that they have no choice.  By this point symptoms have often grown to the point where more medicine is required - which means even more money has to be spent - or even means a visit to the ER, where the state is then forced to pick up the bill in any case.

So much for basic logic; onto political context.  The counter-argument to everything I've said above - and it's less an argument than it is a smoke-screen - is that the changes would exclude people on low incomes.  To that, I give a hearty "pull the other one".  There are precisely two steps to the dance by which the powerful strip the powerless of their basic rights.  The first is to suggest those rights are more properly services which should be paid for by those who can afford it.  The second is to pretend everyone can afford it.  The first step is always, always the hardest.  No-one should be foolish enough to let a striker get into the box unopposed because the ball isn't yet over the goal line.

Monday, 18 November 2013

If Guns Are Politicised, Only Politicians Will Have Guns

From the always wonderful Charles Pierce, and on the continued subject of a Brit's inability to process the American obsession with shootin' arns, comes this little bezoar:
A Republican lawmaker in Idaho had his permit to carry a concealed gun revoked because he lied about a rape case from his youth on the application. But he can carry a concealed handgun anyway, because in Idaho, state legislators are allowed to carry guns, even though ordinary citizens must apply for a permit.  

So, just to be clear: "[lying] about a rape case" (in the sense that he lied about the fact he pleaded guilty to rape) is so bad an action that it invalidates you from secretly carrying a gun.  It does not, however, invalidate you from becoming one of the legislators who decides who can secretly carry a gun, and just to ensure no conflict of interest, they'll let you secretly carry a gun whilst you decide whether you're the sort of person you want secretly carrying a gun.

I'm worried Patterson will threaten to shoot himself with his secret gun unless Patterson votes to allow Patterson to have his secret gun.  Then he'll plead guilty to assault, wipe it from his memory, and Idaho will send him to Congress.

P.S. "I'm sure I never raped anyone, but I can't remember what I did or said because I had cancer" is a defence line they should carve onto marble and hang in the museum of How This Place Got So Indescribably Fucked.

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

A Pirate's Life For Me

Played it but once I admittedly have, but Libertalia might be my new favourite game, and not just because in artwork and approach it clearly should have been called Hector Barbossa: The Badass Early Years.

The basic idea is pretty simple; you have three weeks to swipe as much booty as possible (with Sundays spent drinking and counting your doubloons, presumably because no-one is out on the high seas that day other than missionaries and old couples in dinghies). The problem is, for reasons unexplained (well, Jamie didn't explain them, anyway), every player's crew is sharing the same boat, leading to something of a scrabble for loot.

There's only four pieces of loot available a day (due to, I don't know, EU piracy regulations, or something), and not all booty was created equal.  It might be worth a great deal, or very little. Worse, it might be actively harmful - cursed Incan treasures are something of a problem, and the Spanish Officer is quite literally a killer. All tokens are face-up, so you know what's coming, but that doesn't mean you can be sure you'll avoid getting cursed or shoved into a gibbet.

(There are also sabres lying around the money and authority figures, that you can use to assassinate other pirates when they think they're safe in their dens of iniquity.)

Each player has one copy of the same thirty pirates, but goes into each round with only nine. These are chosen at random by one player and then duplicated by the other three.  That's over fourteen million combinations, in case you were wondering (I know you were!). Each turn each player plays one pirate face down, which are then revealed.  This motley band of pirates can grab booty, but also have special abilities which are deployed variously before, during, and after the scrum for goodies, or when the week gets to Sunday.

The joy of the game is second-guessing what your opponents will play, and how best to counter them.  Each pirate has a rank. Higher ranks grab booty earlier, as befits their station, but it's the lower ranks who get to go first in the pre-grabbing round, and they tend to have the most powerful abilities, some of which involve punching up, which makes placing your highest ranked pirate down to grab some juicy treasure a distinctly risky proposition. Once the loot has been hoovered up, the surviving pirates return to their den, from which they won't emerge for the rest of the week.

In short, it's kind of like a pirate-themed Top Trumps with perfect information and bizarre extra rules ("My bosun is rank 14, but he murders your captain!"), played over six sets of three phases that inform and interact with each other.  You have to balance ranks versus skills, how much a character is worth to you in the late stages versus what it could be raking in for you whilst in the den, whether to use your high ranks to grab plum booty on good days or avoid disastrous choices on crappy ones, and figure out how all of this will interact with the bloodthirsty drunken sea-dogs to either side of you.  And even that doesn't fully describe how far ahead you need to think, because the pirates you don't play in one week get carried over to the next, along with 6 new ones (leading to an astonishing total of almost four million billion possible combinations over the entire three weeks).

It's a delight both tactically and strategically, in other words, heavy on the kind of conniving back-stabbing one associates (accurately or otherwise) with pirates, and is very pretty to boot. Highly recommended, as the folks from Merano like to say.

Sunday, 10 November 2013

Accepting Gravity

Man, this is a film that really, really thinks a lot of itself. There's barely a shot in it that doesn't scream either "is this not beautiful?" or "bey you don't know how we pulled that off, huh?"

Which might be more of a problem if the cinematography wasn't so legitimately wonderful. It wouldn't have been hard to take the kind of dogged devotion to technique which resulted in that scene from Children of Men and turn it into the film equivalent of some pompous guitarist's eight-minute fret-wank.  There are a couple of moments when Gravity threatens to cross into this territory - yes, yes, we all get that any structure in space can be used as a metaphor for the womb, let's not pretend that's a massively clever idea or anything - but for much of its run-time, the film is exactly as impressive as it thinks it.

As a result of all this, there's really not a whole amount of characterisation (and what makes it in steers too close too often to mawkishness), or even really much in the way of plot.  But then, that's not even close to what it's doing.  It's an endurance ride, a close cousin to every popcorn flick shoved into our faces each summer, expect that your not supposed to be enjoying it.  Speaking personally, I don't see how one could eat popcorn at all during this film, if only because the seemingly infinite variety of space-related disasters paraded across the screen makes it hard just to maintain your own breathing.[1]

So it succeeds admirably in its stated aim.  There are quibbles. The incidental music is too loud and employed too often, which for a film about oppressive silence is something of a problem.  The apparently surprisingly realistic portrayal of spaceflight breaks down at the end in the interests of Plot Logic, which is frustrating.  And the delightful relief of watching a sci-fi film (which this in effect, even if it doesn't technically qualify as sci-fi) with a female lead who isn't required to meet men on their own stereotyped shoot-heavy turf (c.f. Aliens) is muted by the motherhood issues tacked on to Bullock's character which she absolutely didn't need.

This, though, is just nibbling around the edges. Gravity is a remarkable achievement; an act of film-making that should have been impossible, and one that ticks far more boxes outside its area of interest than perhaps we had any right to expect.

[1] This might only be my problem. Having been hooked up to a nebuliser for several minutes every day as a very young child, I have a severe phobia of situations in which my breathing is even remotely restrictive. Getting my head caught when pulling off a sweater can set off a panic attack.  There are days I try to avoid doing any driving because the proximity of the seat-belt to my neck makes me horribly uncomfortable.  Basically, don't go to this snack-free and then complain you could easily have eaten a three-course meal whilst Sandra Bullock is screaming about her air supply. 

Friday, 8 November 2013

I Have Hatred In My Heart

Pop quiz, hotshots.  You've been called to fix a tenant's broken stair so that they don't fall down it and injure themselves again.  Do you:

a) Set a time and turn up then?
b) Set a time and turn up hours late?
c) Set a time, decide not to come around at all, and let the tenant or the letting agency know?
d) Set a time, decide not to come around at all, tell absolutely no-one, and when challenged say you're weren't in the area at all today anyway.

If you answered anything but d), congratulations! You're less of a feckless dickchimp than the guy we have to rely on to stop us breaking our legs.  Fancy fixing our stairs?

Update: After some very annoyed phone calls, I was able to impress upon our letting agents that having taken the afternoon off, and with guests around on the following afternoon, coming round the next day was completely unacceptable.  They then arranged to have DC (as we shall now know him) to arrive at five that afternoon.

At seven that evening, he arrived to announce he couldn't do anything anyway, since he didn't have his tools with him (what self-respecting handyman would, after all?), and could he come round tomorrow.

Which is when things got strange.

Handyman: Can I come tomorrow?
Squid: Only if it's mid-morning; we have guests coming in the afternoon.
H: How early should I come? 

S: Shall we say ten?
H: Not sure. How early do you get up?S

: We can be up by nine, no problem.
H: Let us say eleven, then. 

S: ...

Update 2: Ah, 'tis fixed now.  Just so long as your definition of "fixed" isn't so rigid as to insist a stair be parallel with the floor, of course. That much, sir, would simply be too far.

I'll Have Some Of That Guilt Too

I hadn't planned on writing anything about the tragic killing of Renisha McBride here. Not because it doesn't horrify me, but because the circumstances of her death, despite being in obvious respects horribly familiar, has specifics which are little difficult for me to get my head around.

And the way I tend to deal with things I can't quite figure out is to write about them, which in this case feels to me too much like a white guy talking about himself in regards to a black woman losing her life. Which is a problem.

But MightyGodKing is right, I think. White people do need to talk about this stuff, if only to make sure we penetrate the fog of indifference our culture still seems perfectly happy about wrapping ourselves in.  A black person has been shot in America, again, and the police aren't sure whether it's worth arresting anyone, again.  Trayvon Martin died because a man assumed wearing a hoodie whilst on the streets meant he was probably a criminal, and decided to give chase. Renisha McBride died because a man assumed knocking on his front door at 3:30am meant she was probably a criminal, and went to the door with a loaded shotgun.

That is - that has to be - the takeaway message in all of this. That black people in America live in a culture of paranoid suspicion that means that, even when we can't be sure race was the reason they were targeted, they can be damn sure race will be the reason nobody in authority will care.

There are, as I say, a few specifics here regarding gun laws and gun culture which I think might need unpicking, but as I say, it's a white British man pontificating on how a black American woman came to be shot for the crime of needing help with her car.  So I'm putting it all below the fold.  If you're interested, have at it, but if you want to stop reading here, I couldn't come close to blaming you.

Sunday, 3 November 2013

Boozing With Brummies

Being an abridged description of our adventures at the local booze convention. As always, my dislike of ale and obsession with cider must be taken into account when reading my shockingly biased 'reviews'.

Delicious Ciders

Blaengawney Rum

This is tough to order without worrying about pronunciation (a thousand blessings to the person who invented pointing).  Once you navigate that issue, it's tasty enough, but other than an above-average sweetness, there isn't anything particularly special here.

Oliver's Perry

This is heavy as hell. It starts off dry, but there's a submerged sweetness that runs rampant across the aftertaste like an enraged sugar-caked wildebeest.  It's pleasingly powerful, as well.  Really the only problem here is that after a few mouthfuls it becomes indistinguishable from cheap squash, albeit a squash that will reduce your liver to burnt blancmange.

Sweet Crossman

Sweet sulphur, more like. This would be the perfect accompaniment to a hot day in Hell (which is all of then), for when the gibbering demons find themselves between scourings and with a thirst to quench.  Mortals, in contrast, should approach with some caution.

Gwatkin's Perry

Smells like port, tastes like unstoppable victory.  And port. I would make a nest in this.  I would marry it, and settle down, and not even cheat on it with cocktails.  Not least because I'd be too drunk to leave the house.  Even finding the front door would cause problems.

Princess Pippin

This is 8% and utterly undrinkable; the latter quality perhaps functioning as a public service.

Awful Ales

Jumping Pirate

Great name, terrible drink. It's like burnt yeast with a Dettol aftertaste. Avoid.

Space Hoppy

Strong, bitter, and not tasting of shit, like I like my women. The label says "pale", but this is amber through and through.


A blank canvas onto which we project our dreams and desires. Or, more likely, not.  But there's nothing else to do with this. Still, we refer you to Puddleglum's First Law of Consumables: "If it doesn't taste like anything, it can't taste terrible."

(This law does not extend to rice cakes.)

Bad Kitty

Vegan beer!  And dammit, it's brilliant.  At last a "chocolaty" beer that lives up to the name. I could have done with milkier chocolate, I guess, but under the circumstances that would probably have been too much to ask.

Foreign Beers

Lindeman's Framboise

This is just fizzy raspberry cordial that gets you slightly drunk.  Which would be an entirely awesome were it not 12p a centilitre.  Some of us are on budgets here, Lindeman!

Einstok Icelandic Toasted Porter.

What are the chances that in an island nation of 320 000 people someone would combine alcohol, coffee and - um, ash, I think? - so well?

(Don't write in. I know the chances. Or I could definitely work them out. Maybe.)

Leffe Ruby

"Red fruits and Belgian beer", it says on the label.  Probably. My French isn't all that good. The result is stronger than Lindeman's Framboise and not quite so sweet.  It's by far the best Leffe I've tasted, but again, you're most certainly paying for the upgrade.

Berliner Kindl Weisse

Well, this is a hell of a thing. I can't exactly say it's pleasant - the closest I can come to a description is "carbonated stomach acid" - but its so far out of the wheelhouse of British beers that it's worth trying just to see how the Germans do it. Which, it turns out, is to make beer taste as much like sour milk as possible.

Friday, 1 November 2013

Friday Talisman: The Only Player In Town

That weapon is a bit of a shapeless nothing, but I guess when you're riding a motherfucking dragon, it doesn't matter all that much what's in your sword-hand. You have to respect a game which is so unconcerned about balance it can have players being leprachauns and minstrels vying for victory with a woman atop a gigantic flying six-limbed firebreathing lizard.