Wednesday, 31 December 2008

Six Hours And Counting

Everyone have themselves an awesome New Year. For a while I toyed with the idea of putting up Counting Crows' A Long December to usher 2009 in, but ultimately I decided we'd go with something a little more recent.

So instead I've settled into Empty Hearts by Josh Ritter. Even though God has once again decided that he will let me into this year with an empty heart, I am reliably informed that this is my own fault for, quote: "Not believing in him."

In any event, there's a lot coming next year that I'm looking forward to, and I hope the same is true of everyone. I shall see you on the other side.

SpaceSquid vs. The X-Men #11: Rock Chick

Poor old Petra Kristensen. When your tenure on the X-Men is brief enough to make Changeling look like a mainstay of the team, it's probably time to write your acceptance speech for the Most Inconsequential Xaverite Ever award (though I guess she'd tie with Sway, but that's another post). Like Changeling, we only even learned Petra was on the team some time after she'd bought the farm [1], though at least Kevin's death was revealed fairly quickly after the event. It was decades after her spit-and-cough that we were told the truth, that there once was a super-hero called Petra who died like a bitch halfway through her first mission [2]. Plus, sacrificing one's life to save the world from a subterranean tyrant? Reasonably awesome. Getting set on fire by a mad island? Lame.

It feels like I say this almost every time, but writing a piece on Petra is particularly difficult. She appears in all of three issues of Deadly Genesis, aside from an occasionally glimpsed psychic echo. In total, she appears on sixteen pages, and has roughly that many lines, none of which actually reveal anything about her other than she wants to join the X-Men, enjoys her training, and doesn't like her pies being stolen (and who does, right?). Not much to go on, really.

Complicating this is the fact that what little is known about her past from various sources includes information that I can't actually trace to any given comic book. All Deadly Genesis offers is the following: she is a runaway who has spent years honing her power before MacTaggert discovers her. The power in question is the ability to control rock and earth. Obviously, this allows for all sorts of earthquake/tidal-waves-of-rock hi-jinks to ensue, but there are potentially more practical applications, too. As Moira herself says, "I once saw [Petra] turn a piece o' rock coal into a diamond."

Think about that for a second. Petra holds the ability to make herself pretty much as rich as she damn well pleases. I'm not an expert on scarcity or economics or even stuff what is shiny, but I'm guessing that she could make enough money to make herself Queen of Wherever She Wants without generating so many diamonds she floods the market. The fact that she instead becomes a superhero is therefore pretty interesting. One might be tempted to assume that this reveals an innate goodness about Petra, a need to use her powers for peace and justice and warm woollen mittens. And in truth, knowing almost nothing about the girl, that might well be a factor, potentially the primary factor. On the other hand, there may be more to it than that, though to consider the possibilities we need to delve into the back story that I can't trace (seriously, if anyone knows where this stuff has come from, let me know in comments).

Petra and her family (her parents and her older brother) are all caught in a rock slide shortly after her thirteenth birthday. Subconsciously she uses her powers to save herself, but the other three are killed. This in itself, the "tragic past that could have been averted by knowing of one's superpowers" isn't really massively original, but in Petra's case it keeps getting worse. Given to a new family, Petra finds her foster mother to be uncaring, and her foster father to be an out-and-out sicko perve in training. When he finally attempts to fully-fledged child molester whilst in the park, Petra (who is around fourteen at this time) once again accidentally activates her powers, causing him to sink into the ground. She flees, horrified, as her foster father screams abuse at her for being a mutant "freak" (clearly a man who'd never heard about glass houses and stones). After that, she lives on the streets, begging and stealing, manipulating nearby caves to provide shelter, and constantly worrying whether she could have saved her family from the rockfall, or even if she had caused the accident in the first place. Everywhere she turns she finds anti-mutant bigotry and hate crimes. As an orphan mutant hobo, it must have seemed that there was little lower that she could sink. Complicating the issue is the possibility that the misery of being a mutant, the social stigma of being a panhandler, her guilt over her parents death, and her brush (mercifully abortive though it was) with child-abuse (the psychological after-effects of which are many and varied, and frequently pretty hideous) may have become intertwined. How could anyone expect a girl in her mid-teens to understand what feeling was generated by what experience, and how the whole mess could be untangled?

At sixteen she learns how to generate diamonds. Given her past history though, the idea of making enough of them to get rich may never have entered her head. There is likely no way she could produce wealth on such a scale without revealing herself to be a mutant, and subject herself to what she believed would be the disgust of the whole of society, as she revealed the massive snowball of guilt and inferiority that had built up over her time as a runaway. Rather than risk that, she keeps her diamonds small, and pawns them for money she uses to stay in a motel room. Eventually though she is arrested, whereupon she meets Moira after the latter woman has Petra's charges dropped, in exchange for Petra entering MacTaggert's care.

From there Petra accepts her new role as superhero in training with gusto, giving no obvious outward sign of her inner turmoil. The chance to fight for mutant-kind whilst behind a mask is one she apparently grasps wholeheartedly. Like so many others before her, her teammates and mentor seem to function as a surrogate family. This idea leads to a form of vindication in a strange and slightly twisted way, as in her final moments she and her new "family", Darwin and Vulcan, are threatened once again by a wave of rock, though this time it comes in the form of the insane and murderous "living island" Krakoa. This time her instinct is to use her power, now fully under control, to save her teammates by burying them beneath the ground, allowing them to survive as Krakoa incinerates her.

One question remains in all of this. If Petra had genuinely been so afraid that others would discover her identity as a mutant, why did she settle on the codename "Petra"? One possible answer can be found in the funeral scene at the conclusion of Deadly Genesis. Whilst both Suzanne "Sway" Chen (who died alongside Petra) and Sean "Banshee "Cassidy (who died trying to stop a now insane Vulcan in Deadly Genesis #2) have their full names and codenames written on their tombstones. Petra's, though, reads simply: "Petra, beloved comrade". If Moira had known the girl's full name, she chose to never reveal it to anyone else. Perhaps Petra had spent so long as an unknown on the streets that she felt no need for a codename any more than she did a surname. Her fear of discovery was out of immediate concern for her own well-being, rather than the more abstract fear of others knowing and cursing her name. Perhaps all the traumas and losses and escapes (physical and psychological) over her life had led her to believe that Petra was no more her name than anything else.

That's the cynical way to look at it, though. Personally, I prefer to believe that Petra's acceptance amongst her fellow mutants, and the care and devotion she received from a person like Moira, who was everything her foster mother wasn't, and everything she'd believed humans in general couldn't be, kindled a spark of hope in her, a belief that she could live a normal life, even if that normality included fighting gigantic monsters alongside time-manipulators, shape-changers, and energy-casters. Perhaps, in the final analysis, the codename "Petra" was a conscious choice to accept her past, and use it to inform the future, not to contaminate it.

I certainly hope that the latter is the case. She deserved to find peace. After all, she was an X-Man.

Next time, we investigate the history of Sway, who may have had even less to do than Petra did, but could at least boast a marginally more interesting power.

[1] We'll probably get into the details next time round, but the short version is that Petra's first mission went so badly wrong, and she and her teammates were apparently so totally, totally killed, that the Professor wiped all knowledge of their existence from Cyclop's mind, who was the only X-Man to know they had ever existed at all.

[2] Totally irrelevant fact: the Slovenian equivalent of "bought the farm" is "went picking mushrooms". See how this site is entertaining and educational. Or it would be, if anyone was likely to read an article about an X-Man that even I didn't know existed until I found a complete list of every member through the years.

Thursday, 25 December 2008

Take A Guess

A merry festive season of choice from all those at Chez SpaceSquid Senior. In particular, you are offered non-demoninational greetings from Storm, who is viewing Christmas morning with her usual disdain:

And from Josh, who appears to have stuck some wrapping paper to his head:

Try not to get too drunk, you'll need all your wits about you for bashing the crap out of the Doctor Who Christmas Special in an hour or so.

Wednesday, 24 December 2008

Bastards Of The World Unite!

OK, sure, so a bunch of wishy-washy liberals might be all pissed off that the Pope thinks that keeping the rainforests is no more important than ridding ourselves of homosexuals, but do you know who this is good news for? Dick Cheney!

That's right! Come January 20th the world's most unpopular slap-head (take that, Lex Luthor!) will find himself without gainful employment. What better way to prevent the world from forgetting his teeth-clenchingly appalling legacy (aside from surrendering to authorities over shredding the constitution and committing more war-crimes than a drunken Nazi Dalek) than to take a leaf out of Al Gore's book?

That's why, starting February, Mr Cheney will begin touring the world with his own Powerpoint slide-show, An Inconvenient Poof.

In the space of fifty minutes a man so totally unable to grasp biology he shot his friend in the face believing him to be a game bird will reveal the following amazing and terrifying facts about the phenomenon scientists across the world are calling "Global gaying":

  • The average act of sodomy produces as much CO2 as four Ford Explorers;

  • Gay wedding rings are made from the eyes of baby polar bears, and forged in the fires of burning Bibles;

  • By 2050 the WTC memorial may be submerged by up to six feet of partying homosexuals dressed as flamingoes;

  • Studies have proven that men can be rendered sterile by over-exposure to active gaydar;
  • Every time someone raises an objection to Proposition 8, a fairy dies. The good kind of fairy, that is; not a fag.

That's not all, though! There are many more hideous ways in which liberals seek to bring on Armagaydon! You'll have to pay to hear the rest, though; Mr Dick Cheney might be a vicious, hypocritical, lying, onerous, vindictive power-hungry cocktard, but he's not a charity. Make sure to do your part by parting with your hard-earned cash to hear his hectoring, elsewise he might not be able to afford to make his planned sequel, Why Muslims Give You Cancer.

Monday, 22 December 2008

Removing Parentheses

Over at Obsidian Wings Hilzoy makes a parenthetical point that I think is worthy of further consideration.

[I]t's odd how when politics enters the picture, people sometimes acquire a faith in the Svengali-like powers of teachers that makes absolutely no sense at all. In normal life, we know that overbearing or biassed (sic) teachers are more likely to annoy their students than anything else, and that even good teachers are not always believed. In politics, people sometimes assume that normal, obstreperous kids and adolescents are somehow transformed into docile, sheeplike (sic) beings who accept every word their teachers say. As a teacher, I find this very selective faith in us and our awesome powers quite perplexing.
Amen. There is a lot to be said on the topic of how political figures shaft the teaching profession on a regular basis (it's the educational equivalent of the player/manager dynamic, teachers fail and pupils succeed, unless its during an exam period, in which case the exams have been dumbed-down because we all know they used to be harder), but this isn't quite what Hilzoy is getting at, so I'll put away that particular soap box for another time. This about parents being terrified that the philosophy and morality of a school teacher will somehow trump their own.

Having said that, the two ideas are linked. My first thought upon reading the above was "This is Section 28 again". I've mentioned that particular law before, but if you're late to the party, Section 28 was an attempt by the Conservatives to prevent "promotion" of the homosexual lifestyle in schools. It was feared then, as now, that if teachers spent their time discussing homosexuality with their classes, children would get the idea that this is "the norm". I suspect that in this case (and I may be entirely wrong) that S28 was a deliberate sop to this particular subset of outrageous parents, rather than a deep-seated aspect of party philosophy.

I guess I've never understood where this attitude comes from. Looking back over my life, I can think of plenty teachers who were incompetent (usually because they either lacked the "killer instinct" necessary to keep a class under control, or because they were so relentlessly unpleasant that all higher brain processes were abandoned the moment they entered a classroom), many who were good at their jobs, and a few who were truly excellent. That latter category describes maybe three or four teachers across one's entire educational lifetime, and even then, their tremendous ability to impart knowledge and inspire interest and dedication is a separate skill-set entirely to persuading children to alter their moral standpoints. And this is coming from someone who tended to be one of the most attentive people in a class (more through fear of punishment than any deep desire to learn, it has to be said), and whose slowly crumbling faith in God meant I was already searching around for alternative philosophies. Hilzoy is quite right that proselytising teachers are going to be annoying rather than persuasive, and it's worth noting that it's hard enough to get children to accept facts [1] let alone your personal opinion on something.

What might just happen, if you're very lucky, is that once in a blue moon you'll find yourself in a conversation with a small group of children who are in the right frame of mind to ask and answer sensible questions, and aren't being expected to be doing something else right at that minute [2]. Outside of the "citizenship" sessions we had for twenty minutes a week (which to be fair did occasionally generate some good discussions), I remember pulling off this trick all of once, when I got to have a short conversation on whether homosexual couples should be allowed to adopt (given my opinions on such, S28 would have prevented that conversation had it still been in effect).

This, apparently, is what has people so frightened. From time to time a conversation may arise in which it becomes clear that a child's teacher feels differently on a given subject to their parents. The idea that a brief chat about such things will invalidate years of whatever philosophical indoctrination these parents have engaged in (and of course many and perhaps all of those claiming outrage will have had their church or whatever knocking this stuff into their kids' heads as well) is ludicrous. If it was that easy, no-one who went to a religiously-affiliated school would ever lose their faith (we'll bypass the self-evident truth that even sending your children to, say, a Catholic school, does not mean that Catholic parents will never disagree with anything discussed in class). Moreover, the idea that faith in one's dogma can be so easily overturned is both somewhat insulting to the pupils in question [3], and, if true, would mean the downfall of organised religion almost immediately, since preventing your children (or your flock) from ever being exposed to counter-arguments is manifestly impossible, unless you choose to seal yourself away and never have contact with the non-believers. Which is a viable choice, but be honest about it, don't send your child to school with everyone else and then complain when different opinions get raised.

I guess in conclusion I'd say that Hilzoy is right that people seem to have a funny idea of the level of influence teachers have, and that it's a wider problem than just on the subject of politics; parents often have a truly bizarre concept of the role, responsibilities, and effect we have on their children's development. I'm also continually baffled by the idea that faith is such a fragile thing that it must not be challenged, even indirectly, by coming into contact with other ideas. What a miserable, paranoid existence that must be.

[1] I once told a class of very bright Year 8 children that it was physically impossible to write down a googolplex (that's a one followed by a googol's worth of zeros, i.e. 10 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 zeros, in case you were wondering). Two weeks later I discovered that every time I hadn't been looking one of my pupils had been trying to write said number in the back of his maths book, so as to prove me wrong.

[2] I realised pretty early in my time teaching that kids had worked out they could avoid doing any work if they asked me a question I found interesting enough to answer in full; from then on I let them get away with it assuming I thought the question was more important than, say, five extra minutes of practising balancing equations.

[3] This is an extension to the "exams are getting easier" ..., the idea that children are so fundamentally clueless that they cannot do well unless the bar is lowered for them, and they cannot think critically on their own so must never be asked to defend their positions.

Sunday, 21 December 2008

Credit Where It's Due

Bush has finally helped the world economy, at least in a small way. If the Big Three can get disgruntled journalists to chuck American-made automobiles at Chief Monkey, then we can really turn this thing around...

Saturday, 20 December 2008

It Seems There Are No No-Brainers Anymore

Nothing too long today, I'm relocating for the holidays this afternoon, and plenty of stuff has to be shuffled around. Just a quick note to say: fuck you, America.

Friday, 19 December 2008

A Good Year

Time Magazine has up a list of 2008 Top 10's, of varying degrees of interest and capacity to depress. I'd recommend everyone read Top 10 Medical Advances and Top 10 Scientific Discoveries (though the latter cheats a bit) as a reminder that we haven't totally bollixed up the world just yet.

"SpaceSquid Obviously Can't Be Bothered" Friday

Finally got hold of some pictures from my trip to Slovenia. These are shots from inside the Church of St George in Piran.

That last one is the statue of St George himself, so brutally mocked at the time.

Thursday, 18 December 2008

Because You Can Never Start Too Early

If they hadn't sold out, I would demand my flunkies acquire me these for Christmas: A Young Mad Scientist's First Alphabet Blocks.

"Each block measures 1 3/8 inches square and depicts six mad science concepts and the appropriate letters."

Genius. T is tentacle by the way, which raises a number of disturbing questions. It also isn't clear what is on the four spare faces, though blueprints for an atomic bomb, a secret volcano hideout and a fembot, along with the chemical formula for a shark-mutation serum, are good bets.

No h/t to MightyGodKing, for though 'tis true that I found this on his site, he had the nerve to post up that Cure T-Shirt and pretend he located it on a non-me blog, which is clearly impossible.

UPDATE: Link fixed. Thanks, Jamie.

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Maintain Hope In Adverse Meteorological Conditions

I've always found it difficult to get next to Stephen King. Having never read any of his books, it's difficult to tell whether he's a mediocre writer or just poorly served by those who adapt his work, but as a general rule most of his stuff leaves me cold. Maybe it's just the wheat-to-chaff ratio that's the problem, given the sheer number of stories he's written (Wikipedia lists almost sixty novels and over a dozen short story collections) and the desperate rush to turn each and every one into a movie or TV series (I believe the current total of adaptations is somewhere around ninety), maybe it's hardly surprising if a lot of what is churned out doesn't appeal. Certainly there are some genuinely impressive examples; although The Stand is the only one that really springs to mind specifically from his horror oeuvre [1], and even that is marred by a lack of logic, crappy dialogue, and one of the worst endings in fictional history.

So I was kinda bummed to see trailers for The Mist, which looked really quite interesting until King's name swam up on screen. I considered maybe giving it a whirl on the off-chance, missed it at the cinema anyway, and eventually finally got round to watching it on DVD on Sunday night.

And it's fantastic. Seriously. OK, so a story in which so many different extra-dimensional creatures appear probably needed a much higher effects budget (the monsters look just about plausible in the mist, but in the harsh light of day they're somewhat less than impressive), but the monsters aren't really the point, and it's always nice when you can say that about a monster movie.

We'll get the plot out of the way first. The day after a massive thunderstorm David Drayton, his son Billy, and his acerbic neighbour Norton are shopping for supplies in a local convenience store when Dan Miller runs in screaming about his friend being taken by something in the mist. Minutes later an impenetrable fog descends, and those trapped inside the shop have to decide what they're going to do.

So far, so ordinary. Frank Darabont mentioned the 1944 film Lifeboat as one of the influences he considered in directing the film, which gives you some idea of how old the basic idea is. What matters, in The Mist as in Lifeboat, is how the characters react to the situation. It's a study of the human response to what Dashboard Confessional called "rapid hope loss."

Many of the film's characters find themselves caught inside a triangle of hope, duty, and despair, and the fascination (and ultimately tragedy) comes in watching each character as they gradually slide toward the latter. For Frank, the hope is that his wife, back at the house, is still alive, but his duty is to keep his son safe inside the grocery store. For Mrs Carmody, the hope is that she will get to Heaven following the End Times she is sure have finally arrived, and her duty is to try and take as many people with her when all that ascending kicks off. One woman leaves the store moments after the mist arrives, determined to find her children, in defiance of what might be lurking outside. Others assume duties in order to shore up their hope; Ollie becomes the primary defender of the group as their best shot with the only gun, and Hattie asks to be allowed to look after Billy whenever possible (she is the only character in the film to actually drive home this point, she specifically states that her duty to Billy is the only way to stop losing all hope herself).

There are other characters, though, that eschew responsibility. Jim Grondin encourages the bag-boy Norm to go out into the mix to fix their generator, despite Miller's warning and Frank's descriptions of strange sounds outside. When Norm is attacked by carnivorous tentacles from beyond space, Grondin freaks out and runs for cover as Frank and Ollie try to stage a rescue. Without sufficient strength, though, Frank can only watch as Norm is dragged into the mist by the unseen monster, at which point Grondin argues Frank is guilty of not describing the threat well enough (he later implicitly apologises for blaming Frank, though he doesn't really go so far as to take responsibility himself). Later in the film, Grondin comes across a survivor, tied up in webbing, and again freaks out rather than trying to rescue the victim [2]. This second failure, and the following massacre, causes his mind to snap completely. At this point he joins the growing religious cult of Mrs Carmody, in affect placing his hope and his duty in her hands.

Carmody is probably the most important character in the film, and certainly the most interesting. For her hope is never really in question (though she does allow herself one moment of weakness in prayer), every disaster that saps morale from the rest of the group only adds to her conviction that she was right all along, and that God's vengeance is at hand. Nor does she waver in what she sees as her duty to preach to the masses that they might be saved. As a direct result, she has a man sacrificed to the monsters outside (for the crime of working at the military base that was likely the source of the mist), and ends up being shot when she tries to prevent others from leaving the store. The message seems clear, it's one thing to balance hope and duty against despair, but quite another to try to force those things onto others. Of course, it isn't quite as clear cut as that, whilst Carmody dies in the process of "saving" her flock, it cannot be doubted that the fate of her followers is, as far as we see, better than that of anyone who attempts escape. Since she gives the impression of truly being willing to sacrifice herself for the greater good, perhaps she ultimately got what she wanted, albeit in a very different form to the one she expected it to take.

So what exactly is the answer? Part of the fun lies in the fact that it's so hard to find. The mist is not a homogeneous, predictable evil. Some die the instant they leave the store, others get some distance, some are never heard from again, and may even have survived. There is no magic formula. What is certain, though, is that hope is the keystone. At the end of the film Frank, Billy and three other survivors escape the shop in a car, only to find Frank's wife dead at home, and then ultimately to run out of gas miles down the highway, with no end to the mist in sight. There are only four bullets left in the gun Ollie carried until his death at the shitty end of a giant praying mantis claw, and Frank, finally out of hope, shoots each one of his passengers in the head before exiting the car, waiting for the mist to claim him.

Instead, the military arrive, using flamethrowers to destroy the remnants of the alien horde as the fog begins to retreat. Had Frank held on to his hope just a little bit longer, his son would still be alive. The brutal point is rammed home as a refugee truck passes carrying the woman who first left the store, along with her two children. Her hope got her to safety, though again the film leaves no easy answers: her salvation came from her hope and her duty lying in the same direction; Frank's were separated for so long that he never had the chance to follow her example.

It's to the film's credit that it suggests hope as necessary to survival but in no way sufficient. By its very nature, hope cannot be built on guarantees. The message here is not "here is how to win", but "here is how to avoid certain defeat".

Even so, it's a message worth remembering.

[1] Well, 1408 was quite interesting in places, but given that a) that's mainly due to tension building that is entirely cinematic, and b) it falls apart like a motherfucker towards the end, I'm not sure how much credit to give to King.

[2] Admittedly, said victim then burst after thousands of alien spiders hatched out of his body, but there was no way Jim could have known that at the time.

Monday, 15 December 2008

Torturous Logic: Redux

This piece by Jim Henley is worth reading in its entirety, but for those short of time I shall extract a few choice morsels, since it links back to my banging on about torture a few months ago.

First, why the "ticking bomb" hypothetical is somewhat flawed:

Let’s say you’ve caught a suspect and you’re sure he’s a terrorist, and you’re sure there’s a nuclear bomb somewhere in Manhattan, and you’re sure he knows where it is, and you’re sure this particular terrorist has been trained to resist torture just long enough that you could never get the true location of the bomb out of him in time. But you’re also sure this particular terrorist is a pervert! And he tells you that if you’ll rape your own child in front of him, he’ll tell you exactly where the bomb is and how to disarm it. And you’re sure that he will, because your intelligence is that good in exactly that way.

Wow! Fascinating hypothetical, huh?

Second, why anyone who believes they can torture someone to save millions of lives but doesn't because it's against the rules is a dick:
If you could stop a bomb from killing 1 million Manhattanites at the cost of your own life, would you do it? What if it would mean imprisonment for the rest of your life? Could you live with yourself if you let all those people die for your own comfort? If you couldn’t, and you somehow just had to torture this bad guy to stop the bomb, then you ought to do it anyway and face your punishment. Right? Leave possible pardons and runaway juries aside. We are hard men for hard times, and we want hard make-believe conundrums.
And why torture-supporters only ever come at this from one direction:
Here’s another poser: Suppose you’re an innocent suspect whom your captors are convinced is a terrorist. They don’t believe your protestations, so they decide to torture you into a confession. The more you protest your innocence, the more frustrated they get that you won’t “crack.” What do you say to get them to stop? How do you get them not to decide they need to hurt you even more?

That puzzle has two features that make it unpopular with torture advocates. It asks you to sympathize with the victim rather than the perpetrator. And for too many people, it isn’t a hypothetical at all.

Think Of It As A Shot Of Methadone...

...Or possibly morpha. The new Galactica webisodes started airing on Friday, and once again anyone not lucky enough to be born over the graves of Native Americans gets shafted. Of course, if you feel like breaking the law, and have some idea of an exciting new website called "Yootoob", or something...

Glad to see they've finally gotten round to giving us a character who lives in the intersection of the Venn Diagram of homosexuals and non-douches, BTW.

Actually, It's Usually Tuesdays For Me

Observe, if you dare, the most awesome T-shirt in human history.

Sunday, 14 December 2008

Reinterpreting The Classics

I don't imagine it will surprise anyone to learn that I don't follow X-Factor. I have a deep psychological aversion to any show that can plausibly have the word "reality" attached to it. I've mentioned before how a great deal of people who demand more realism in their television don't really know what the hell they're talking about, and this kind of show is the absolute nadir of that tendency. Watching the humiliation of an actual living person, seeing their tics and idiosyncrasies broadcast across the nation for the approval of the general populace, seems an act of outrageous voyeurism. And yes, the contestants are theoretically complicit, in that they all volunteered, but I know enough about television to realise that what they think they've signed up to and what actually ends up being broadcast is unlikely to be particularly similar. [1]

Having metaphorically washed my hands of such things, then, it took the Guardian to tell me that the winner of this series of X-Factor is releasing Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah as a single in a bid for the Christmas number one.

Covers are an awkward business. There is a prevailing theory amongst music buffs that certain songs are simply to sacrosanct to be re-recorded by anyone ever. I've always thought that this was too simplistic an outlook. No doubt this is partially because it is almost unheard of for me to not prefer the first version of a given song I hear, no matter how bastardised it has become by consecutive iterations. I almost came to blows with Vomiting Mike over whether Kirsty MacColl's version of A New England is better than the Bragg original. I shall maintain to my dying day that it is, but I attribute it entirely to hearing her version first, and then finding the original to be fairly spare and stiff.

Sometimes people just attach to songs like ducklings do to the first living thing they see. If there was ever an art form designed to totally bypass rationality and take up residence in your emotions, it's music [2]. Thus, passions tend to run high over this sort of stuff, so it's arguable that there isn't much objective reason to care when someone shuffles into view and massacres one of your favourites.

On the other hand, though, I think sometimes there's more to the issue. I remember another argument with Vomiting Mike, in which he put forward the idea that no artist should ever receive money for their work, as anything as grubby as financial reward would inevitably taint the resulting work. Now, obviously, that's a totally ludicrous position to take (and in fairness to VM, this was a discussion held a decade ago and I doubt he still clings to the idea), but the outcome of the conversation is that a distinction should be made between people who are paid for their art, and people who create art in exchange for money.

This is not by any means an original idea, and it's one that is shared by some artists themselves. Congenital bastard and misery factory Lawrence Miles has lamented more than once the fact that he had to write The Adventuress of Henrietta Street purely in order to receive the money. It's hard to blame someone for whoring out their talent as an alternative to starvation, but Miles' dissatisfaction hailed from the fact that he hadn't woken up one day desperate to write the story, but because he woke up wanting something to eat, and thought he could slap something together in exchange for a tin of beans (which isn't to say he skimped on the book, by any means).

Intention matters. Needing to write a song to deal with tragedy is light-years away from wanting to write a song so that people will recognise you in the street. Sure, talent and ambition are not directly correlated (though they are sometimes indirectly linked), and some truly wonderful songs have been born entirely through someone deciding they're going to take on the world. In such cases, though, it's possible that the level of attitude involved in being, say, the Gallagher brothers, bleeds into and suffuses their work, that it is character that informs the song rather than the tawdry ambition. Needless to say, the characters themselves might be total bastards, but the trick still seems to work.

Here's the thing, though; you can't pull that trick off with a cover version. Taking a song from one side of the getting money for art/making art for money divide and applying it to the other genuinely is something that bothers me. I haven't heard Burke's take on the song, and for all I know it would cause me to weep openly at its sheer beauty, but it remains a short cut to achieving fame without actually producing anything of your own. In that sense, of course, it's a microcosm of the entire So You Think You're America's New Top Catwalk Idol sub-genre, an attempt to reach the big leagues whilst standing on the shoulder of as many giants as is humanly possible. [3]

Of course, it's just as possible that I don't really give a shit about singers, I only care about songs. Or that Simon Cowell is such an exceptional example of a shitty human being that everything he is involved with becomes tainted. It's a rich tapestry.

[1] This is another reason why the "reality" label is bullshit. The people behind X-Factor, or Pop Idol, or IACGMOOH, or any of the other pandemic of such shows, are paid to make a show that is entertaining. An unswervingly accurate portrayal of everyone featured in such programmes is not only very difficult to achieve, it's often antithetical to that goal.

[2] This is one of the big problems with writing prose. It can take pages of words and months of work to get across a message that a poem can manage in a few verses, and a song can manage in a single chorus. Also, if you spend a few days writing a song, and it turns out to be shit, it's no great loss. Spending years of your life putting a novel together and then realising it's total bobbins is a fairly demoralising experience. Maybe I should finally learn to play more than three chords on my acoustic guitar.

[3] I guess technically that would be two.

Saturday, 13 December 2008

Keeping It In The Family

Today's birthday message goes out to my two siblings. Interestingly (slightly), they aren't twins, my brother just decided to arrive as my one of my sister's presents on her third birthday.

In honour of their continued attempts to grow up I present two videos from the tiny intersection between my music taste and theirs.

So, for my little sister:

And for my younger bro:

Thursday, 11 December 2008

More Left-Overs

The third and final of the articles I wrote for The Player before it went dark. Since I hadn't finished it at the time they dropped off the web, I didn't feel the need to conform to their word count, so this one is (slightly) longer. I should also apologise in advance to the citizens of Jersey, which is a quite delightful island and wonderful holiday destination. Fact.
Not A Chance In Shell

Jersey is boring as Hell. Sure, it has picturesque beaches, swanky restaurants, and a crop-based labyrinth based upon the weakest pun since Girls Aloud, but with everything so expensive, and all their money apparently modelled on Monopoly: Retard Edition , what’s an urbane thrill-seeker and his shabby coterie supposed to do?

Faced with a week trapped upon the English Channel equivalent of Alcatraz, then, your intrepid reporter had little choice but to barricade himself inside his holiday home with an assortment of Wii games and enough alcohol to replace Robert Downey Junior’s entire circulatory system.

There was a definite upside to this arrangement, though. By day my associates would be absent boogie-boarding, or perhaps prancing around Nazi beachhead bunkers, but at night they would return to shatter my solitude and grasp the surrounding Wiimotes in their clumsy paws, desperate to elevate themselves to my level. The result was an excellent opportunity to flex my gaming muscles, and ruminate on the multiplayer experience.

We sampled many videogame sweetmeats over the course of the week, but the closest I came to a deep revelation on the nature of our obsession came during extended sessions of Mario Kart Wii. Specifically, it pretty much hit at the exact instant the third blue shell in the same damn race hit my hog-riding dinosaur in the back of his scaly head and knocked him flying into one of Toad’s crates on the inexplicable conveyor-belts-to-nowhere.[1]

For a few fleeting moments I was seized by a rage likely familiar to many of you, the reddening of vision that descends as the peasants beat you in your chosen arena, not because of any skill on their part, but because the game you’re playing seems intent on handing out the goodies in inverse order of talent, like Father Christmas guest-judging X-Factor. It’s the home entertainment equivalent of FIFA allowing fans to help out the losing team by tossing them rocket launchers.

The constant sting of outrageous favouritism did, however, lead to my question for my latest article: should the most talented player win all games, or only most games?I mean, we were the ones who put in all the damn effort, wearing our fingers to bleeding claw-like stumps against plastic control pads as we go through the electric analogue to having Mr Miagi punch us repeatedly in the face whilst reciting Taoist homilies. To the victor go the spoils. Right?


It’s likely no accident that it was Mario Kart that inspired this line of thought. Nintendo seems pretty sure as to which side of the fence it wants to stick itself. The chosen demographic; the endless novelty/party games; Hell, even the motion sensing control system itself; all scream out “This isn’t just for hardened gamers!” Which you knew already, of course. The point is that that there are three ways gamers can get screwed over: a new control system [2]; a handicap system; and, last but not least, sheer dumb luck. It’s my contention that MKW attempts to find the middle ground between the second and third method, and that the game is all the better for it.

One of the most interesting attitudes regarding video games is the expectation that they be in some sense fair. Endlessly re-spawning opponents? That’s not fair. Your own re-spawn happens to be inside the blast radius of a tactical nuke. That’s not fair.

Quick question. So. The. Fuck. What? What MKW (along with others) has done, and it’s genius and you people are peons for not noticing it, is to simulate the shit happens principle (also known as “life”). People trip inches from the finishing line. Stalin invades Poland. It turns out George Clooney already nicked it (seriously, what a shitty, shitty film). It’s not like any of this is new to games, either; pretty much any
activity outside of electronics that you want to mention involves endless chance, from where the goalkeeper is when you try to score through to the double you need to roll to get out of jail in Monopoly. It would be nice to think that there is something more that attracts us to our chosen pursuit than a simple fear that things might happen beyond our control [3]. We still have the tools and the talent, to paraphrase Winston Zeddemore, demanding we be free of the vagaries of probability in addition just makes us look small.

So what if MKW is kind enough to skew chance in favour of those who happen to be having a bad day, for whatever reason? That just makes it one of those performance-sensitive handicap systems that seem to be in vogue nowadays. It’s looking after the underdog, it's Ecclesiastes 9:11. It’s how, if we’re honest, we wish God would do things, instead of randomly setting fire to bushes whilst everybody gets cancer.

Of course, maybe you want to sit down, arms folded petulantly, and demand that your games are entirely devoid of random chance, driven only by the cold, uncaring realities of the respective skills of you and your opponent. Which is fine, I guess, as far as it goes. But you don’t want to hang out with your mates, you want to sit down and play chess. With yourself.

So piss off and leave us to it, would you?

[1] Seriously, what does Toad even make in that damn factory? He’s been suspiciously quiet all these years about his side-line interest in the textile industry or whatever. Or maybe his father runs the family business, and Toad is just a useless playboy competing in illegal street-racing for the hopes of snagging himself some mushroom ass. Daddy must be devastated. If only Toad’s elder brother hadn’t met his end in that damn shiitake omelette.

[2] Think back to how traumatic is was when someone told you to play a FPS with keyboard and mouse simultaneously, and that was a system that actually ended up being better than what preceded it, as oppose to simply weirder.

[3] And even when you do find yourself proof to the pseudo-randomness of a games programming, there will still be days when you’ve spent what feels like hours infiltrating the enemy base only for the contents of your head to be evacuated by some jittery thirteen-year old sniper on your own damn side.

Wednesday, 10 December 2008


...In my local swimming pool.

Rah #1: Did you know that a cubic litre of water weighs one tonne?
Rah #2: Really? 'Cos it doesn't feel that heavy when you're under the surface.

There's so much wrong here I don't know where to start. It would be nice to believe these two weren't our students, but I suspect this is a vain hope.

On the other hand, I swam my first mile today. I realise it could be considered slightly pathetic that it has taken me 28 years to have gotten round to it, but when my father was my age he couldn't swim at all, so I guess we're making progress as a bloodline.

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Draw Your Own Conclusions

Between finishing my latest research paper and debating with S. Spielbergo, I haven't got the time today I'd like to discuss this article in detail. I'm just flagging it up because it links back to earlier thoughts about the various levels of plausibility regarding the nature of the universe. Decide for yourself how convincing it is.

Monday, 8 December 2008

Face My Wrath, Comments Section

A couple of people are wondering what exactly my problem is with the DNA database, so I figured I'd lay out my concerns in a post.

There are four reasons I am leery about a DNA database, and none of them are of the "what if the government are mean ol' clone-happy bastards" variety.

The first concern is the most banal: how much is this actually going to cost to create, maintain, and make sure is running the way it's supposed to? Whilst I'm not particularly concerned about government misuse of such an asset, bureaucratic incompetence is certainly something worthy of consideration.

Now, obviously when something is obviously a good idea, cost isn't something I'd be bleating about quite so much. Contra S. Spielbergo, I have a hard time seeing the obvious bonus to holding everyone's DNA on file.

That would be problem number 2: what are the benefits of the database? In the past I've likened DNA testing to the police searching your house. The police have the right, given sufficient reasonable suspicion, to enter my flat and search for incriminating evidence. It's understood that my flat is my property (well, not mine exactly, but for the sake of argument), and it can't be invaded by the authorities unless they have a pretty good reason.

As far as I can see, if my flat is mine, then my double helix is definitely mine. If the police want to test my DNA, they better have a court order with them. It seems to me an obvious no-brainer, as far as due process is concerned. And if you do need that order to test someone's genetic material, why not just get it when you need it? If the government takes my DNA from me at a point when I am innocent of any crime, then later I commit a crime, they test the DNA at the scene, and come arrest me on that and that alone, how is that not a violation of the idea that we should be free from self-incrimination? There's a reason we have the right to silence. In that sense, Big G's point that "no-one is going to get convicted on the strength of DNA evidence alone" is irrelevant. All that matters is that the chain of evidence gathering begins with a bullshit call, just in the same way that a case will be thrown out if it started with an illegal car search, irrelevant of whether that search had turned up three dead hookers and a keg of anthrax.

So you can't use the database to just drum up a list of suspects, or at least you shouldn't. You can do whatever tests you want on the DNA samples you find at a crime scene, but you don't get to just run it against a whole bunch of people, at most one of whom isn't entirely innocent, and hope you'll get a couple of juicy leads. Especially since DNA matching isn't nearly as precise as the movies try to make it look. Like every other human system, there are flaws and there are complications.

This ties into my third problem, which is a general one with the process itself. It's a tricky business, is DNA testing, with lots of tricky conditional probabilities floating around. There actually exists legal precedent on the amount of probability you are allowed to give to a jury (it being the subject of supermen), and all this stuff about false positives and population frequencies (to say nothing of the Prosecutor's Fallacy) can overwhelm a jury, and has on at least one occasion. All of which means I am worried about the possibility of relying upon DNA evidence in court. Again, this is the problem with Big G's argument; cases have existed in which DNA similarity was the strongest piece of evidence in a trial. If you present enough circumstantial evidence and then heap genetic testing on top of it, you may well get a conviction which you wouldn't have had with the circumstantial evidence alone. So, and whilst I realise this is simply a suspicion at this point, I'd be worried about an increased reliance upon DNA evidence that such a database might represent.

And finally, and this is pretty minor but relevant nonetheless, my genetic data belongs to me. Everyone has their own personal opinions on the relationship between the government and the individual, obviously. As far as I'm concerned, they can have my taxes (on the occasions that I'm actually required to pay them) as the price of living in a civilised society. They can have the details they need for me to have a bank account and travel overseas as the price of me not having to hoard gold under my bed or get slaughtered by invading Visigoths, respectively.

What do I get out of handing over my DNA? An increased possibility of recognising my body if I die in mysterious circumstances? If that's all we're talking about we could set up a far smaller data base of families who have lost members, against which John or Jane Does could be referenced.

Like I said, this last point isn't particularly major, but I do think that a cogent and compelling case needs to be made by the government before they receive anything from its citizenry, and I don't see that here.

In conclusion, then, it will be expensive, it would be outrageous to use it without the same due process required of other searches, it might well add to an already worrying problem regarding how the justice system deals with the technology, and it violates the idea that the government should only take from us what it truly needs.

That's my problem. Have at it in comments.

Oh, and just for the record, I agree entirely with Big G that increased detention times are a bigger problem. I also think my girlfriend murdering my family is a bigger problem than her cheating on me, but I reserve the right to be pissed if I find her in bed with some other guy.

Sunday, 7 December 2008

400 Babies

I figured it would be rude to not finish the Powerthirst duology, especially since the second video is even funnier than the first.

Saturday, 6 December 2008

Just Stop Dancing, Already!

So I spent some time yesterday afternoon on the SFX Forum whining about how impatient and increasingly hopeless I feel about Dance of Dragons ever getting released, and it occurred to me that my ranting was so extensive that it might serve as a post, thus allowing me another day in which I don't have to particularly engage my brain (still coughing, BTW, I think I may have loosened my filling). For anyone still not up to date with events in Westeros, fear not, this is an entirely spoiler-free rant.

The thing about George R R Martin is that I really do want to take his side on this. I may only be the most amateurish of amateur writers, but it doesn't seem unreasonable to me that the massive chasm that exists between our respective talents doesn't change certain fundamental principles about the nature of our desire to write. Namely, that we'd like to work on a bunch of stuff, rather than just the same novel day in or day out (right now I have two novels on the go, a third to be edited until the prose bleeds, and a short story and short film script halfway done), and that finishing a piece isn't quite as important as making damn sure it's a good as it can possibly be made. There's a reason for the old chestnut that art is never completed, only abandoned; eventually you can't think of a way to make it better, so you just put a conclusion in and hope you're next story is better.

None of that, of course, changes how frustrating it is to just be sat here twiddling my thumbs waiting for resolution. I didn't start reading the series until after A Storm Of Swords had been released, so I can't be entirely sure of this, but I'm reasonably confident that back then I wouldn't have minded how much other stuff Martin was working on, how many Wild Cards anthologies he was editing or Dunk stories he was writing, or what have you.

But A Feast For Crows took five fucking years (and wasn't entirely worth the wait, though that's a different kettle of monkeys) and, after being told A Dance With Dragons would only take another year or so to complete, we're looking at at a total writing time of at least four years. That's twice the time it took to write either A Clash Of Kings or Storm..., and moreover most of the book was supposedly already done. Which means Martin's effective writing speed[1] is somewhere between a half and a quarter of what it was. We were assured that the gap between Storm... and Feast... was due to an unavoidable course change, a necessary adjustment to a story that wasn't behaving itself (again, I can sympathise). All well and good, I guess. What about Dance..., though? Is there another complete overhaul going on? Because that doesn't sound particularly encouraging. How many times can the series survive needing to be radically re-jigged?

Regardless of the reasons for this particular delay, the fear is that if it takes four years to finish Dance... when it was estimated to take one, does that mean we'll be waiting eight more years for the next book? Another eight for the last? Martin will be seventy-six by then. I realise that writers, more so than many artists, can get to a fair old age before their work gets hit by "the brain-eater", but even if the quality remains constant (and there are reasons to doubt that), the quantity might well diminish, and we've got problems enough there as it is.

I think Martin, quite simply, fucked up. He came up with a brilliant idea for a series of books, started them, watched as people lapped them up, and then suddenly realised halfway through that he was going to have to seriously re-think the whole thing. Shit happens. But the resulting situation is that hundreds of thousands (millions?) of people have bought into this series under the very reasonable expectation that it will conclude at some point, and twelve years (and God knows how many sales) after the series began, there's still no end in sight, and only Martin's increasingly inaccurate word to go on that we're even past the halfway point. And that's before we start thinking about all the new converts the HBO series is liable to add to the mix, who (assuming it a) gets made and b) isn't shit) will also be keen/desperate to see the end of a series that doesn't have one yet.

At this point, I think there's a stark choice to be made. Martin can either cast aside as many other projects as he can to make sure ASOIAF gets finished, or he can keep juggling like he has been, and hope for the best. He has every right to choose the latter, it's his life, and certainly that choice is entirely understandable. But as one of potentially millions of people who have handed him money on the understanding of reading a story that actually has something prosaic as an ending, I reserve my right to be pretty pissed off about that decision.

Martin likes to point out that no-one talks about how long it took Tolkien to write Lord Of The Rings. The key difference, obviously, is we know that Lord Of The Rings got finished. He may not realise he's in a race, against the ravages of old age and diminishing talent and, frankly, the big brick wall that is death, but I suspect he's too smart for that to be true. Moreover, his argument that if a new idea makes a story better than it must be included only works as long as the price of that inclusion is delayed completion, rather than the risk of non-completion. I think we passed from the former to the latter a year or two ago, at least.

Lastly, it's also possible Martin would argue that he can't actually write Dance... any faster, that his various side projects are just filling up what would otherwise be dead space, that he can only concentrate on the same project for X hours a day, regardless. Which may be true. It might be that putting in X+1 hours a day would cause the narrative to suffer. I guess my position at this point is that I'm finding it really hard to care. I don't care if a new idea would make the book 10% better, and I don't care if an increased work-speed will make the book 10% worse. Sooner or later reality reminds you who's in charge. Just make it happen, would you?

Update: Over on the forum Werthead makes the point that neither Game... nor Clash... were written as quickly as I had thought, though that doesn't really address the "you'll only have to wait a year or so for A Dance With Dragons" issue.

[1] OK, I acknowledge that the term "effective writing speed" is almost entirely meaningless. All I mean is that his rate of publication is plummeting. Maybe that's because he's now working on such an ascended level of literary genius that things are taking longer. Of course, since Feast... is the weakest of the first four books, I'd be careful about drawing that particular conclusion.

Friday, 5 December 2008

Give Me Back My Double Helix

Hurrah! The European Court of Human Rights agrees with me! Not for us the keeping of DNA on file for no good reason!

This is doubly cheering, partially because it's the right decision, and partially because of the number of irritating people who will doubtlessly be wound up by this. I look forward to the inevitable Daily Mail whining about how statistically this means the DNA of up to umpteen paedophiles will no longer be on file and that means your child will die!!!

Snark Of The Day

Ezra Klein responds to news that "Citigroup’s top executives, and Robert Rubin, a director and senior adviser, are ready to forgo their bonuses this year":
Am I missing the point of bonuses? I always understood them to be tied to performance, either that of the individuals or that of the company. But the company almost went bankrupt this year and the executives demonstrated themselves almost cosmically hapless. If they were going to get bonuses, then what could the term possibly mean? Bonus for what? A working cardiovascular system?
I agree entirely. If anything bonuses should go to executives without a working cardiovascular system. Zombie bankers might not have saved us from the credit crunch, but they have managed to avoid destroying mankind in an orgy of human flesh consumption, and that's probably worth some kind of reward.

The ineviatable h/t to Kevin Drum.

Zap Zap Kapow

Still low on energy due to the Horrible Gribbly Disease, which I assume one of my various thralls brought back from the South, or possibly Scotland. If you're looking for something to eat up a few hours of your Friday afternoon, or indeed endless days of your pathetic life, you might want to give Desktop Defense a go. Let me know if you manage to beat it on Hard.

Thursday, 4 December 2008

Voices Of Authority #1: Dark Energy

When, a few weeks ago, I was ruminating on Big Bang Theory and considering (in my own cackhanded, amateurish way) to what degree it was a more satisfying answer to why we exist than "God did it", it occurred to me that others would be far better at tackling that sort of question than I. Specifically Pause, who is constantly willing to correct my feeble understanding of astrophysics when prompted (and I appreciate that he waits for said prompting, otherwise I'd probably be in tears every other day).

In fact, not long after that post appeared on the intertubes, S. Spielbergo e-mailed me, wanting to know if the all-powerful Pause could enlighten him as to why the universe is apparently not only expanding, but accelerating in its expansion.

Because I care about my readers (at last count, and being generous, you might just be in double figures by now), I asked Pause this very question, and he was good enough to explain it to me: dark energy.

That makes sense, I thought, dark energy. Trouble is, I was thinking of dark matter, and I'm not entirely sure what that is either, but apparently it's very different to dark energy, and I was a crazy, wide-eyed fool for believing differently.

Anyway, this rather rambling introduction is a preamble to introducing a new (and almost certainly tremendously irregular) feature: Voices Of Authority. Within these posts you will find the smartest minds that can be found (read: that can be found in my address book) explaining various complex topics in a way that even I can understand.

We begin with Pause, ably assisted by fellow space-obsessive Cocklick, trying to hammer the basic properties of dark energy into my puny cranium. Jamie was there too, but since we weren't talking about whether Nero ever actually played a fiddle, his turn will have to wait.

SS: Welcome ladies and gentlemen, to the first episode of Voices of Authority. Thanks to Pause and Cocklick for joining us, and to our studio audience for being so well-behaved.
Jamie: You mean me?
SS: Quiet, Jamie. Anyway, since I apparently can't tell the difference between dark matter and dark energy, purely because they both start with the same word, maybe you guys could tell me what the difference is between them?
Pause: Dark matter is still a form of matter, which we can't see, but has gravitational attraction like all other matter.
SS: So how come we can't see it?
P: We don't know: we just can't. Well, we can't detect it. It appears to interact only via gravity, which is the weakest of the four fundamental forces.
SS: The other three being?
P: Weak nuclear, strong nuclear, and electromagnetism.
SS: All right. So we don't know it exists; we haven't detected it.
Cocklick: That's not quite true. We can't observe it in EM radiation, but we can test it by galactic collision. Basically, two galaxies collided, and there was a big explosion in the middle, but the dark matter went straight through.
SS: But you couldn't detect that, surely? Isn't there a problem with inferring its existence in that way having already assumed its existence? Isn't that a bit circular?
C: Not really. The idea was "If we assume dark matter exists, what natural phenomenon would demonstrate its existence?" What would split normal matter and dark matter? And the collision of galaxies is one thing that would do that, so they went out looking for it. And they found... something, by using gravitational lensing.
SS: So there's more to dark matter than just "we need this thing to balance everything out".
C: Well that's how it started, but now we're at the next step.
SS: Proving that it actually exists?
C: Yes.
SS: Right, that'll have to do, since I've already wandered way off what it was I actually wanted to ask. So, dark matter is matter that interacts by gravity but is unobservable. What's dark energy?
P: Dark energy is something completely different. It's a repulsive force which is responsible for the universe expanding. In the loosest possible sense, it's "anti-gravity".
SS: And the universe isn't just expanding, but expanding faster as time goes on, right?
P: Yeah, the expansion is accelerating.
SS: Which confused everyone, since we'd always assumed that the universe would either contract, reach an equilibrium, or just drift apart.
P: And none of those seem to be the case.
SS: I've got to ask the same question I did about dark matter. Is there any reason to believe that dark energy exists, beyond us needing something to explain accelerating expansion? In which case, couldn't I just say "it was God?"
C: Well, not really. Science is about generating models. We have a standard model that explains most things. Now we've found something that it doesn't explain. So we ask ourselves what we can add to model to explain it.
SS: But my point is what makes "dark energy did it" any more compelling than "God did it?"
P: Well, dark energy is just a name for at least two or three different theories. It's more of a label.
SS: So it has nothing to do with actual energy?
C: Maybe not.
SS: So I could call it "space fairies" and be no less accurate?
P: You might find it harder to get your papers published.
SS: Isn't that a little homophobic?
J: You're the one trying to blame universal expansion on gays.
SS: Quiet, Jamie; this is a serious article. Anyway, I could argue that dark energy is actually a racist term.
C: Back to the question at hand, you could call it Unexplained Phenomenon A, if you really wanted. I guess the "dark energy" label came about from attempting to balance Einstein's equation. They didn't want to call it "negative energy."
SS: Because that describes the Mexicans?
P: No comment.
C: The University of St Andrews does not endorse bigotry of any kind.
SS: Yeah, MotCC would like to make clear that the Mexicans are an industrious race, and a wonderful people.
P: We salute our Mesoamerican brothers.
SS: OK, next question. Obviously as the universe expands, the galaxies get further apart and thus exert less gravitational force upon each other. So why isn't this dark energy getting weaker in the same way?
P: Because dark energy, unlike matter, isn't concentrated in galaxies. In fact, maybe it's better to move away from the "anti-gravity" idea. Dark energy actually expands space-time itself. So rather than the "big crunch" idea, where everything collapses back into itself, you get the possibility of a "big rip", in which space-time becomes stretched so far that it just basically snaps. Electrons end up too far from nuclei, and everything stops working. It's one more potential "end of the universe" scenario.
SS: So the expansion of space-time doesn't mean subatomic particles get bigger, they just get further apart?
P: Right. And if this dark energy effect isn't homogeneous, then it's pretty close to it.
SS: OK, well I think that's probably enough for our first session. My thanks to Pause and Cocklick for their co-operation and enlightening answers, and to Jamie for not slowing us down with retarded art-student questions like "What colour is an atom?" See you next time.
(Edited for clarity).

Wednesday, 3 December 2008


Far too ill to post anything particularly deep or long this evening, so you can have this instead.

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

Choices And Orderings

This article reminded me of a question I've had floating around in my head for a while. It's related to another, more commonly-asked question, which simply put goes: "Which bits of the Bible are actually right?"

For a Christian, and I would imagine for many other religions too, there are two basic choices. You either work under the assumption that the entirety of your religious tome is literally true (or at the very least everything in there is unambiguously correct in its message), or you have to consciously or subconsciously cherry-pick what you do and don't believe (or do and don't follow). There are a lot of interesting questions to be asked about the specific methodology people use to do that, but that's away from my main point.

What I'm wondering about is: once you've put together your own personalised list of Right and Wrong, according to the particular verses from the Bible that you agree with, how do you then take that list and organise them in order of preference?

Because that's the obvious question raised be what this Reverend is saying. Having first concluded abortion is wrong (which, yes, is official Catholic policy, but that in itself doesn't make it an article of faith for all Catholics, and potentially even for all Catholic ministers), Rev. Illo has apparently made a further leap and decided that abortion is so wrong that voting for someone who doesn't want to ban it is a mortal sin. Apparently voting for McCain is fine, even though the man's policies and rhetoric made it very clear that there could well be more wars under his watch; most plausibly with Iran but even potentially (God forbid) armed skirmishes with Russia. Either of those outcomes would lead to a healthy body count of American soldiers and foreign civilians, but apparently someone not trying to stop that particular tragedy is perfectly OK.

Attaturk over at Rising Hegemon, from where I found the article above, describes this approach to abortion as "a one track mind". I see where he's coming from, but I would phrase it differently. To me, this kind of behaviour is proof that certain people have a very odd and enormously top-heavy priority list. Murdering foreign civilians? Meh, it happens. "Murdering" the unborn? Anyone allowing it, or voting for those that allow it, are sinning. Since objections to both must surely come under the 5th Commandment, I don't see where the differential is, other than a potential difference in numbers, which would be the first time I've seen religious molarity bend to statistics.

I understand that religious leaders are charged with, well, leading. It still baffles me though how anyone can be sure that their own personal hierarchy of what is more and less important can be projected onto anyone else. Between the choice of what to take from the Bible, and the choice of what order to place everything is, it just feels like there's too much uncertainty around everything to be so heavy-handed in condemning a political choice, or pretty much any choice, for that matter.

Sunday, 30 November 2008

How To Destroy Humanity (In Six Easy Steps)

1. Infiltrate a Battlestar as its Chief Petty Officer.
2. Pretend to have no spare parts as the entire CAP gets buggered.
3. Claim that you've suddenly found some spare parts, if someone will donate their turn to you.
4. Use turn to reveal yourself as a Cylon, and shoot the only other engineer is the chest.
5. Watch your raiders annihilate the civilian fleet.
6. Thrust your groin into the face of each human player.

In truth, Step 6 is probably optional.

Did I mention that I love this game?

Friday, 28 November 2008

Lateral Thinking

I hate the Drake equation. Actually, maybe that's a little harsh. As I understand it, the intent was never to actually calculate how many intelligent alien cultures there are bumbling around our galaxy, but more to ascertain exactly what unknowns would be required to work such a thing out. Since several of these unknowns are pretty much massively fucking unknowable, though, the Drake equation essentially consists of someone very, very smart shrugging their shoulders. I really don't need to see the working out to know we're not in a position to work out the expected number of sentient extra-terrestrial species, thanks.

There are other things that can be considered instead. Take this idea, for example. Since every star system can be more or less considered independent of every other (or so Pause tells me, though he did remind me about panspermia), there are a finite number of them, and every system either will or won't include "life" (however one chooses to define it), we already have three of the four conditions necessary to model the number of inhabited star systems by a binomial distribution.

The fourth condition, that the probability of a system supporting life is the same no matter what system you are considering, is where we get into trouble. Firstly, and this is where the Drake equation got scuppered, we can't possibly calculate that probability at this stage in our scientific advancement. The variables are too many and too complex, and we only have one data point (us) with which to work with.

This is why we need to work backwards. Instead of trying to (more or less) arbitrarily assign a value to this probability, why not use what we do know (the number of stellar systems in the Milky Way) to work out what that probability would have to be before we would be more likely to be alone than not.

The other problem with this approach is that it's patently ridiculous to assume that each system has an equal chance of supporting life. We'll just have to muddle through with some nebulous concept of "average" probability, and hope no-one asks awkward questions.

I am reliably informed (by Pause, again) that there are something like 100 000 000 000 stellar systems in our galaxy. We'll call our unknown probability p. We're thus considering X~Bin(100 000 000 000,p). Substituting that into the the binomial equation tells us that, for a given p, the probability that there is more than one stellar system supporting life (we already know there's at least one) is:


In other words, p has to be less than 0.0000000000169 before it's more likely than not that we're alone out there.

This, of course, isn't the full story. Technically we should be considering the conditional probability that there is at least two life-bearing systems given that there is at least one. That gives a new bound for p; now it has to be less than 0.0000000000126 before the odds are we're all alone in the night. [1]

That's about five thousand times less likely than winning the lottery on your first ticket. Depressingly, that doesn't really seem too outrageously low, considering all the factors involved. I'm not really one for biology, though, so I suggest you draw your own conclusions.

Update: Pause points out in comments that xkcd isn't a big fan of the Drake equation either.

[1] It has to be said that things get more complicated when we realise that the only reason we can perform this analysis in the first place is because we're already here, i.e. we ourselves are a product of the observed data. Frankly, though, it's too much of a headache to go into the implications of that, at least for now.

Thursday, 27 November 2008

...The Hell?

What in the name of all that's holy is Bush up to now? It was difficult enough to understand why we wanted Georgia in NATO before the recent clash with Russia (a clash that even some of Georgia's own diplomats are testifying was an altercation Tblisi started). Even back then, including Georgia into NATO would have angered the Russians (who still view NATO as a specifically anti-Russian alliance) at the exact moment when we could really do with them being onside (there are dozens of reasons why, the latest one being that Russia could make our war in Afghanistan much, much easier if we give them a reason to). And for what? There's no real strategic value to the country, by all accounts its military isn't really up to much, so we'd be weakening the alliance by including them. Add to that the fact that, as Ossetia proved, not all of Georgia wants to be in Georgia, and Moscow could credibly claim we were placing under the umbrella of NATO people who want to be Russian. Add to that the fact that it's pretty hard to imagine almost the entirety of Western Europe along with the US going to war with Russia over Georgia, and adding the country to the Alliance weakens our resolve as well as our combat effectiveness.

All of that was true before the last week of August. Now, we'd be talking about including a country which just got humiliated by Russia into the club. If another brush war breaks out (hardly impossible, or even necessarily particularly unlikely) and we will be bound by treaty to help out militarily if Georgia asks.

So it made almost no sense to include Georgia in NATO before August. It makes absolutely no sense now. And it makes less than no sense (which although scientifically impossible still seems to be something the Bush Administration does time and again) to suggest we make the process faster and easier in this case. You might as well admit that you don't think Georgia meets the criteria, but fuck it, let's do it anyway, so that we can go to war with Russia all the sooner.

As far as I can see there are two possible reasons behind this move. Number 1, Bush knows he won't get anywhere with this (we only have to wait another eight weeks for Obama to enter the Whitehouse, so American pressure isn't something we really need to worry about at this moment) and is just trying to show solidarity with Georgia. This makes no sense, since there's nothing Georgia can give him back, and it was exactly this sort of crap that emboldened Saakashvili in the first place. It's also strangely at odds with Bush's apparent unwillingness to do anything with the last days of his administration beyond occasionally telling people that the free market economy is still the bestest idea ever.

Number 2 is even more weird; perhaps he genuinely believes he still has enough clout to persuade people to allow Georgia into NATO before Obama takes office, or at least get far enough down that route that Obama can't do anything to stop it. Again, though, America gains nothing from Georgia being in NATO, Georgia is probably better off without us, at least in it's present state, and we're risking either the total emasculation of NATO at best, or an armed conflict that could credibly called World War III at worst.

What the fuck, is basically my question.

h/t to the mighty Kevin Drum.


Big G was kind enough this morning to remind me of this review for the 1998 Carrot Top vehicle "Chairman of the Board".

It is, quite simply, brilliant (the review, apparently the film is so bad you'll try to gouge out your eyes with your remote control). This is the level of galaxy-spanning snark I wish I could summon up on a regular basis. This is Charlie Brooker on a day he's too miserable to hold back.

As is the perverted nature of mankind, of course, I am now desperate to see the film itself. Purely in the interests of science, you understand.

Wednesday, 26 November 2008

Tired And Emotional

Determined to post something today, purely so I can reach 30 posts in a month for the first time.

This despite the fact that all the Americans are too busy with turkeys to post up anything interesting that I can steal. And the fact that my brain is all mushy from my flu shot earlier. And the fact that Big G and I have spent the whole evening playing Gears of War 2.

So, it's time for a new feature, that will require the absolute minimum of effort: great musicians who you have never heard of, because you are scum.

First off: Anthony da Costa. Remember this little treat from the Radio Ljubljana sessions?

That's him, that is, along with Abbie Gardner. Alright, alright, he didn't write that one, admittedly. So try this one:

Pretty sweet, huh? Well pretty much the whole of his latest album, Bad Nights/Better Days, is that good (it's co-written and co-fronted by Gardner). It sounds like Ryan Adams does when he decides to just be as country as humanly possible (see Heartbreaker or Jacksonville City Nights for an idea of what I mean), only with someone else around to stop things going to wig-out mental [1]. Otherwise, it's exactly what you'd expect from country/folk music; everyone is depressed, and lonely, and their partners are either dying, dead, overly clingy, or cheating on them, or often several at once. Given all that, it surprises me it took me as long to get into the genre as it did. [2]

So go check it out, Squidlings (I can't find it on Amazon, so I downloaded the whole thing off of iTunes for the bargain price of eight quid). Just don't listen to it when you're down, or you'll throw yourself off the nearest haystack.

There; 30. That wasn't so hard, now was it?

[1] On occasion I still miss Whiskeytown. I realise I can't prove this, but from the leap from Pneumonia to Heartbreaker and onwards, it's hard to shake the impression that Caitlin Cary's role in Adam's former band was just to slap him every time he said "What if I play this piano part with my teeth?"

[2] John Denver is still shit, though.

Tuesday, 25 November 2008

Shameless Padding

Busy today. Just take this and leave me alone.

Update: Pause was good enough to remind me that I had already posted the original Count-fucking video on this 'ere blog, so I've swapped it for this one, in which the Count takes his grotesque perversions to the Mediterranean, in total violation of accepted vampire lore, and many other laws besides.

The original video is still up here.

Monday, 24 November 2008

How The Mighty Have Fallen

You won't be likely to read a funnier news story this year than the first four paragraphs of this one:
BANGKOK - A MAVERICK Thai general who has threatened to bomb anti-government protesters and drop snakes on them from helicopters has been reassigned as an aerobics teacher, the Bangkok Post said on Friday.

Major-general Khattiya Sawasdipol, a Rambo-esque anti-communist fighter more commonly known as Seh Daeng, reacted with disappointment to his new role as a military instructor promoting public fitness at marketplaces.

'It is ridiculous to send me, a warrior, to dance at markets,' he said, before launching an attack on his boss, army chief Anupong Paochinda.

'The army chief wants me to be a presenter leading aerobics dancers. I have prepared one dance. It's called the 'throwing-a-hand-grenade' dance', he said.

I'd be curious to learn whether it was the snake-bombing thing that got him reassigned, or just internal politics. I mean, who hasn't had days when they wanted to drop kraits on their enemies?

h/t to Hilzoy.

I Appreciate The Effort

Senor Spielbergo e-mailed me this link earlier, on the grounds that I could probably use it as the launching point for a bile-filled post on the idiocy of vast swathes of the conservative American blogosphere. Apparently, you no longer need your elected officials, or your press, or even a defeated enemy, to tell you when a war has been won, you can just unilaterally declare victory with your internet buddies.

Seriously, that's literally what they're suggesting.

Surely, though, this is beyond parody. I mean, how can I live in a world where this picture isn't ironic?

Or where you can apparently prove a war has been won because less American soldiers are shot (edit: shot in Iraq, I mean) than American citizens are shot in Chicago? [1]

It'd be like kicking a puppy; it just wouldn't be fair.

[1] Don't get me wrong, I don't think it's a particularly encouraging statistic. I'm just not sure more civvies dying in one city than soldiers in a war is proof that the war is over, so much as it is that Chicago is not somewhere people should be spending any time if they can help it.

Sunday, 23 November 2008

In Which Mad Science Sticks It To The Chinese (More On Cloning)

There is another use of the cloning technique mentioned in my last post. According to the NYT article, the idea would be to inject elephant eggs with mammoth DNA, and over the generations breed a pure mammoth from pure elephants.

Well, if we can do that, what's to stop us, say, breeding more Yangtze river dolphins from all those bottlenoses we have in water parks? The Yantze dolphin has been declared functionally extinct, which means there's no longer a large enough population to allow them replenish their numbers. Just stick a few dozen of our home-grown cetaceans in there with them, and maybe they'd have a shot.

Actually, I acknowledge that the Yangtze dolphin probably isn't the best example, since even if it is functionally extinct as oppose to literally extinct (the last confirmed sighting was four years ago, apparently), we'll never make new ones in time. But there are three other river dolphin species, none of which are doing so hot right now, and hundreds of other mammalian species who are far, far closer to shuffling off this mortal coil than we'd like. Why regrow extinct animals when we can add to the breeding populations of the critically endangered. It seems to me that this would also navigate at least some of the thorny moral issues in all of this, since in effect all we're talking about is growing suitable sperm/wombs for the actual population to avail itself of.