Friday, 26 September 2008


I had wanted to put up a hilariously ironic "Radio Stansted" post written during the seven agonising hours I was trapped inside its hellish glass corridors, but since the feeble coin-op computers they have scattered around are insufficiently advanced to allow either right-clicking or CTRL+C, I ended up a bit stuck. And bored. So, so bored.

Here, then, is Radio Back At Home. Ibb and I found this guy thanks to a fairly obnoxious barman in a dank pub in deepest Prague. She plays this song a lot when I go over, which is fairly amusing when set against the endless backdrop of "So, then I like..." and "Oh my God, right..."

It also reminds me a great deal of Dr P, which is ironic given how much she would have hated it.

Right, I'm turning off the lights. I will see you a week from now. Try not to wreck the intertubes whilst I'm gone.

Wednesday, 24 September 2008

Radio Ljubljana 10

Here we go, people. The final installment in this little series. 38 hours from now I will have left Ljubljana in a giant metal bird, so this seems an opportune moment to bring this collection to an end.

This song has been on my mind a great deal recently. Partially because my iPod saw fit to play it as I passed Ljubljana Castle the other day, but mainly because it reminds me that we choose our friends, and stick by them for as long as we can, and bollocks to what obstacles any other fool tries to throw in front of us.

I will see some of you when I return. The rest of you, sleep well.

Tuesday, 23 September 2008

Radio Ljubljana 9

Diagnosis: insufficient rocking out.


Next case.

Tune in tomorrow for the final installment in the Radio Ljubljana series.

Sunday, 21 September 2008

They Should Be Mad As Hell, Surely?

This is hardly Aaron Sorkin's best work, by any means, but then he tossed it off for his ex-girlfriend rather than writing it in the hopes of it bagging him another Emmy. On the other hand, it manages to make a few good points, and the price of admission (metaphorically speaking) is worth it for this exchange alone:
BARTLET Well ... let me think. ...We went to war against the wrong country, Osama bin Laden just celebrated his seventh anniversary of not being caught either dead or alive, my family’s less safe than it was eight years ago, we’ve lost trillions of dollars, millions of jobs, thousands of lives and we lost an entire city due to bad weather. So, you know ... I’m a little angry.

OBAMA What would you do?

BARTLET GET ANGRIER! Call them liars, because that’s what they are. Sarah Palin didn’t say “thanks but no thanks” to the Bridge to Nowhere. She just said “Thanks.” You were raised by a single mother on food stamps — where does a guy with eight houses who was legacied into Annapolis get off calling you an elitist? And by the way, if you do nothing else, take that word back. Elite is a good word, it means well above average. I’d ask them what their problem is with excellence. While you’re at it, I want the word “patriot” back. McCain can say that the transcendent issue of our time is the spread of Islamic fanaticism or he can choose a running mate who doesn’t know the Bush doctrine from the Monroe Doctrine, but he can’t do both at the same time and call it patriotic. They have to lie — the truth isn’t their friend right now. Get angry. Mock them mercilessly; they’ve earned it. McCain decried agents of intolerance, then chose a running mate who had to ask if she was allowed to ban books from a public library. It’s not bad enough she thinks the planet Earth was created in six days 6,000 years ago complete with a man, a woman and a talking snake, she wants schools to teach the rest of our kids to deny geology, anthropology, archaeology and common sense too? It’s not bad enough she’s forcing her own daughter into a loveless marriage to a teenage hood, she wants the rest of us to guide our daughters in that direction too? It’s not enough that a woman shouldn’t have the right to choose, it should be the law of the land that she has to carry and deliver her rapist’s baby too? I don’t know whether or not Governor Palin has the tenacity of a pit bull, but I know for sure she’s got the qualifications of one. And you’re worried about seeming angry? You could eat their lunch, make them cry and tell their mamas about it and God himself would call it restrained. There are times when you are simply required to be impolite. There are times when condescension is called for!

The Republicans have always been very good at poisoning the well. When the GOP label Democrats as angry ahead of time, the natural tendency is for them to try to avoid sounding or looking angry at all. As Sorkin points out, though, it would make far more sense to look angry for a damn good reason.

At least, that's how it seems to me. What's next?

Tales From The Crypt

Nothing much of interest to add to the running commentary on Ljubljana, so instead I shall once more delve into the archives to bring you the sorrowful tale of "Simon and the Duck".

One day Simon arrives at work to discover he has been summoned to see the boss (known as "Scrooge" in December and simply as "The Bastard" at all other times of year, though your humble scribe knows him first as "Father"). Trembling slightly, he knocks on the overlord's office door, and is granted audience.
The Bastard is in a gregarious mood. "You have done well!" he booms at our hero. "Your last client have registered their gratitude!"
"That bloke who lives in a mansion in the country and could afford to have everyone here killed?" Simon asks.
"The very same!" he is told. "He wishes to express your gratitude to you personally."
Simon is not sure he likes the sound of this.
"Express how?" he asks carefully.
"You are to attend his duck-shoot at his manor this very weekend," The Bastard informs him. "I HAVE SPOKEN!"

Simon, of course, has never shot a gun in his life. Nor has he ever killed anything, beyond stepping on the occasional snail, about which he always made sure to feel appropriately guilty. He had eaten duck in restaurants, of course, but he is quite convinced that having to dispatch the delicious water-fowl himself would certainly have been a deal-breaker.

But HE HAD SPOKEN, so like the dutiful corporate lawyer he was, Simon pulled up outside the palace-sized country house of his ludicrously well-to do client on a warm Saturday morning.
"Fine day for it!" his client tells him as he emerges from the mansion. Simon has no idea what exact properties of the current climate makes it particularly suitable for the executing of birds, but he nods anyway, to be polite and because this man is armed and scares him a great deal.

Not long afterwards Simon finds himself stood beside a wooden post, his arms cradling a shotgun and his pockets filled with spare shells. On either side slight iterations of the stereotypical red-faced corpulent borderline-alcoholic country "gentleman" stand ready, their shotguns pointed toward the sky.
Then the slaughter begins. The sound is nearly deafening as several dozen blood-crazed tweed-clad psychopaths begin to blaze into the sky, bringing down bird after bird after bird. Simon tries to join in, half-heartedly at first, then with increasing fervour. At first, after all, the main concern in all of this is that he doesn't want to kill an innocent animal. After a few minutes, though, the principle concern becomes that he can't seem to hit any of the damn things. All thoughts of moral ambiguity leaves Simon's mind as he becomes more and more determined that at least one duck shall feel his wrath this day.
It's not going to happen. The birds are just too fast on the wing. Simon is down to his last shell, and he's furious. That's when he spots one duck, either injured by a previous blast or just too damn stupid to live, waddling across the damp ground a few metres in front of him.
Delighted to finally have at least some possibility of proving his worth, Simon takes aim.
"Good God, man!" his host shouts in outrage, "You can't shoot a duck whilst it's walking!"
"I'm well aware of that," Simon tells him coolly. "I'm waiting for the bastard to stop."

This true story courtesy of Squid Senior.

Radio Ljubljana 8

I quoted a line from this song earlier today and then felt bad about being such a immoral stealer of other people's words. I thus present the song in recompense, and also because it rocks. No accusations of whining here, my friends, though criticism of Ritter's hair is probably both just and fair.

Saturday, 20 September 2008

Radio Ljubljana 7

Another plausible entry for SpaceSquid's favourite video ever, this has the added advantage of being a pretty good song, too. But what else can one expect from Belgium's second best band?

Friday, 19 September 2008

Thoughts From A Tiny Nation: Chapter The Third

Further ruminations on my current home.

More interesting foodstuffs have been consumed. Added to the roster of fast foods here (which is pretty similar to those you would find at home) is something called burek. It's essentially a pasty, which when filled with meat (mesni burek) is fairly indistinguishable from something you might buy from Greggs. They also have a cheese version, though (sirov burek) which is filled with the local equivalent of Wensleydale cheese, and is wonderful beyond measure. It also allowed for a beautiful moment of international bonding:
SS: This burek is brilliant.
DJ: You like the cheese. It is a special kind of cheese.
SS: We have something like it at home.
DJ: They do something strange with the cheese, but I don't know what.
SS: Something to do with vats. I'm not really a cheese expert.
DJ: Me neither. But the cheese is good.
SS: The cheese is good.
DJ: We are not so different.

Also, these guys can grill a sea bass like motherfuckers.

Speaking of the sea, I finally got to swim around in the Adriatic yesterday. I kicked myself for not bringing a face mask, but in truth the sea was so still and so clear you could still see the fishes just by slowly treading water. The view from the fishing town of Piran was beautiful, and Slovenia's coastline so tiny that I could see Croatia and Italy from the same point (DJ tells me that Slovenia is arguing with Croatia about how to define their territorial waters, because if Croatia takes the internationally accepted width of sea, it will reach Italy's and Slovenia will become technically land-locked). On the other hand, the sea didn't quite have its usual calming influence on me. At present the working theory is that the lack of tide and wind made the Adriatic too quiet for me. I hope that's what it is. I'd hate to think the sea itself no longer soothes my addled nerves. That will only leave booze and quattro formaggi pizzas. I guess I shall see what happens when I reach the Isles of Scilly on the 27th.

Aside from the sea, Piran's main attraction is the Church of Saint George. Say what you like about the Catholics (and DJ and I had a fierce discussion on Catholicism vs Anglican over our wine and fish soup), but they know how to build a church. Having spent my youth being dragged to Methodist churches (a sect that thought the CoE was a bit too swanky, so you can imagine how spartan their places of worship tend to be), it was almost breathtaking to see how much effort went into to tarting up even a fairly small Catholic chapel. Of course, in an ideal world one would have hoped they would have sunk that money into clothing the poor, or something, but it still looks spiffy.

On the other hand, the sculpture they had of St. George himself was a little shoddy. Not only does it make explicitly clear that the maiden in the tale secured his help by uncovering her ample bosom to him, but the dragon he defeated was significantly smaller than his own horse. Basically, it was an overgrown gecko with a box of matches. All of which suggests a rather smut-driven man with a habit of proving his worth against defenceless lizards.

Also of interest: the largest cave system in Slovenia. Limestone caverns of white and red (iron oxide) with splashes of green (copper oxide, maybe?) and black (from when Yugoslavian partisans detonated the ammo dump the Germans hid inside there during the Second World War), almost all of which were naturally formed, though apparently various bridges and interconnecting tunnels had been built/hollowed out by Russian POWS during The Great War. One would think there would have been more pressing labour, but the Balkan's war effort loss was the Slovenian tourist industry's gain. Tragically we were denied the opportunity to see the famous "human fish" (actually salamanders) since they've all been carted away by UNESCO. All that remains is a lonely tank of shallow water, scattered with coins. It is not clear at this point whether the coins were thrown in after the removal of the salamanders, or whether tourists attempted to pay the amphibians at the conclusion of the tour. "Oi, human fish! Go buy yourself something nice!"

Also of interest: the traditional faintly reminiscent shape tour, including a parrot (which one particularly dense American tourist went off to find, believing it to be an actual species of Slovenian cave macaw), a rooster, the before-and-after boob job (not even slightly kidding) and finally, the Bill Clinton & Monica Lewinsky (and never before have I seen a blow-job so convincingly rendered in sedimentary rock).

Right, that will do for this chapter. More amazing revelations as they occur.

Wednesday, 17 September 2008

Radio Ljubljana 6

A compare and contrast exercise for you today. Electronic twiddling courtesy of The Postal Service (so called because the two musicians involved posted their efforts to each other and gradually assembled it into Give Up, which is well worth a listen):

and an acoustic version of the same song performed solo by one half of TPS, Ben Gibbard, better known for his day job of fronting Death Cab For Cutie:

I can't decide which version I prefer, but being a big old softy at heart I have to confess to loving the song's sentiment.

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

Further Thoughts From A Tiny Nation

With over a week of experience under my belt, I feel sufficiently qualified to unleash another round of penetrating cultural insights regarding my current home.

1. These people drive like lunatics. A red light here is less of an order to stop, and more a helpful suggestion. To make matters worse, a green man at a crossing doesn't mean cars won't still be driving past you, it just means they will probably stop if you end up directly in front of them. DJ is very proud that his countrymen are trusted to use their judgment whereas the British are ordered around. Of course, sometimes he sees someone driving so badly it contravenes even Slovenian motorist protocols, and the miscreant in question is derided as being so bad a driver he could be from Turkey.

Remind me never to go to Turkey.

2. Many interesting options exist here as regards food. One of today's options in the cafeteria DJ and I sometimes frequent was battered shark (or “sea-dog”, as my hosts would have it). More bizarre was the discovery last night that, after a few beers in the pub, tradition has it that one retires to a roadside fast food van. So far, so normal. Rather than eat a badly-packed kebab, though, as would be our way, however, the Slovenians munch their way through a horse-burger.

Always happy to experience new delicacies (and quite drunk in the case of the burger), I tried both horse and shark. Shark, unsurprisingly, is very much like skate, although with significantly less cartilage getting in the way (whether this is due to fundamental biological differences or just that my mother is rubbish at boning fish is currently a mystery). The closest analogue I can think of for horse is kangaroo, which probably is further proof that my taste-buds are puny and worthy of ridicule.

Whilst on the subject, it is ridiculously hard to find anywhere to eat out in Ljubljana on a weekend. Not just on a Sunday, Saturdays too. I had to go to the same restaurant two nights in a row, which admittedly wouldn't have been so bad had I not temporarily forgotten that I've developed an allergy to pesto. I still can't believe I made it to another country unaided.

3. The local shop has a wonderful system whereby if you arrive clutching an empty bottle of wine (and those who know me well can confirm that I arrive at most places clutching an empty bottle of wine) you can exchange it for a full bottle and only pay the price for the wine itself. This, combined with the comparative cheapness of Slovenian plonk (it's not as marked a difference as in, say, Prague, but it is still noticeably cheaper) means that one can by a bottle of reasonable wine for around the same price that it would take back home to get a can of budget lager. One more reason I may decide never to return to Blighty.

4. One thing I do really miss about home is the gym. The one we have here is terrible. Most of the instructions are in Slovenian, of course, so it may be partially my fault, but not a single damn button on any of the treadmills will actually make them go, which pretty much just makes them tremendously crappy look-out posts. On the other hand, it's free, it's in my building, and it's always empty, so I guess I shouldn't complain too much.

Right, that's all I can think of for now. I'm going to the sea-side on Thursday, so doubtless that will spark off many new observations and/or lead to me being eaten by a tiger shark. Which I guess would make karmic sense, at least.

Monday, 15 September 2008

Radio Ljubljana 5

I wanted to put up another "Thoughts From A Tiny Nation" post today, but for perhaps the first time in recorded history I did too much work today to have time to write it.

Instead, I offer you one of my all-time favourite videos (you have to wait until it becomes clear what's going on, about half-way through), irrespective of the lamentable lack of whining it includes.

Friday, 12 September 2008

Seven Years And One Day

I've been considering for the last day or so whether to write something about 9/11. There are a number of things I could say, mostly from a utilitarian perspective. I've always found it hard to understand why people think losing 3 000 to one act of terrorism is worse than losing 18 000 people to an earthquake in the same month, or losing 150 000 people in the same country over seven years to acts off domestic violence, or losing well over 600 000 people in another country as civilian casualties in a bullshit war (those are estimates I've gleaned from various sources, mainly LGM, but the specifics don't really matter in the context of my confusion, so much as the relative sizes of the numbers). I'm not suggesting that view is wrong, or that one of the other options is clearly "the worst one", I just find it strange that so many other people are sure.

Then I decided I wasn't going to write too much on the subject, because when a single event is so tragic, and such a turning point in international relations, and something that ignites so much passion in so many people (I'll never forget the ugly conversation I had with an Afghan who was studying at Durham about how much he admired the terrorists that had struck against "his people's" enemies), you'd better be damn sure you're right before you start mouthing off.

I considered next putting up some links from others who have commentated on the topic over the last few days. I was close to giving you the link for Olbermann's tirade against the Republican "memorial" video used at their convention. Even by Olbermann's standards it's pretty vitriolic, though he usually has a point underneath all the sturm und drang, and if what he says about the video is true, he had every right to be enraged. Here's the thing, though, I'm not going to watch the memorial to check (it sounds so bad I think it would crush my will to live for at least a few hours, and I really need to finish a proof this afternoon), so I don't want to stir things up by posting a direct link to Olbermann's screed without any idea of how close to the mark it is (anyone with a stronger stomach than mine can find it at Crooks and Liars, amongst other places).

Instead, I offer you this: a Buddhist reflection on the nature of evil, and our inherent desire to classify the people in the world as either ourself, or everyone else, without necessarily realising what that might entail. It was written only a few weeks after the WTC fell, but it has lost none of its relevancy in the years between. Some of it gets a bit too far into the inner mechanics of Buddhism for someone as faithless as I am, but many of the more general arguments are fascinating.

h/t to The Mahablog.

Radio Ljubljana 4

In the spirit of compromise I offer up a piece of music with no lyrics at all, written by person or persons of unknown cultural heritage or skin tone.

Also, the video makes no sense, and frightens me a little.

Thursday, 11 September 2008

Radio Ljubljana 3

I had considered sticking up something a little more esoteric today, but given S. Spielbergo's disgustingly arrogant attitude towards whiny white boys, I am hitting back with a whiny white boy.

This is perfect chill-out music, which isn't a term I use often. In fact, I'm not even sure it is whiny, so much as whimsical and contented. Whatever, it's awesome. And he has a new album out: bonus.

Tough On Farmyard Animals

This had me laughing for quite a while yesterday: DRC police arrest and detain goats.

I think my favourite part of the story is the line "The minister said many police had serious gaps in their knowledge and they would be sent for retraining."

It is not clear what exact form their re-training will take, but I choose to believe they will be taken into a room with the following pictures on the wall

and asked which of the two they will brutally oppress the human rights of.

In fairness, it's just about possible to believe the police officers thought they were apprehending a herd of Kevin Federline clones:

which is certainly a laudable objective.

h/t to S. Spielbergo.

Wednesday, 10 September 2008

Radio Ljubljana 2

I can't embed today's video because the option has been disabled on youtube. Nevertheless it's a great song, and I hope the added inconvenience of a further mouse click doesn't put you off.

Astronautalis - Ocean Walk

If it sounds familiar, it's probably because Clarks used it not too long ago to sell shoes. Because you walk in shoes, you see? It works on a multitude of levels.

It didn't actually persuade me to buy their footwear, but it did inspire me to track the full track down (once again iTunes fails miserably to cater to my needs). Astronautalis describes his music as "rap for people who don't like rap", and that's as good a description as any.

Thank TCB Almighty

It is done. I've been tentatively saying to people that the research required for my thesis has been complete for the last week or so, but until I got to Slovenia and spoke to my friend/colleague/unofficial replacement supervisor/walking Encyclopedia Mathematica DJ I couldn't be 100% sure. In fact, at the end of a half-hour brainstorming session yesterday morning it became clear that I wasn't quite done [1], but having been shown the one missing link in our chain of logic I simply beat the hell out of maths yesterday afternoon until it capitulated.

Now I have reached my favourite part of the academic process, writing papers. This is fun for two reasons. Firstly, writing=awesome, whether it's a story or a blog post or an academic article. Secondly, though, now that I'm supposed to be typing away at my computer all day no-one suspects anything as I sit here yapping away on the Musings instead. Take that, government funding to take me overseas! In your face, wonderfully kind and hospitable Slovenian hosts!

Anyway, gloat over. I shall now try and actually write some maths.

See you back here in, ooh, ten minutes or so...

[1] Maths is a funny business. The best way to explain the mistake I made is to use an analogy. I tried to prove that if there is only one water trough in a fenced field, then no matter where a horse is when it needs a drink, it will always go to the same trough, and so sooner or later the horse will visit said location. DJ's objection to my reasoning was essentially "why assume horses drink?". Of course, this being maths, I had to prove that mammals require water to function, and that took about four hours.

Tuesday, 9 September 2008

Radio Ljubljana

With my interesting topics quotient at an all time low, I figured I'd cunningly keep up traffic with some of the awesome music I've been unearthing on Youtube. We begin with a live cover of Woody Guthrie/Jeff Tweedy's "At My Window Sad And Lonely". Tragically neither this breathtaking version nor the original is available from iTunes. There is a Wilco cover I could get, but it's rubbish.

Note to Wilco: adding drums to this is musical heresy.

h/t to whoever was responsible for selecting the soundtrack to The Strangers, which in addition to being a nice little movie of the kind I like (i.e. remorseless, inexplicable horror) had some pretty impressive tunes, this being the best.

(Oh, and this completely off-topic, but already three people have coming looking for my host since he left for the afternoon, and every single one of them slid effortlessly into perfect English the moment they realised I was an uncouth foreigner. I can't think of a nicer place to be spending my exile).

Thoughts From A Tiny Nation

My tremendously friendly yet deeply scary Slovenian supervisor has popped out for a meeting, so I figured I'd take a little time to update y'all on recent trials and tribulations.

I hate airports. Actually, I think I hate any place where the main objective is to get as many people through that location as quickly as is humanly possible. It seems like having that as your guiding principle leads you to stop viewing customers as people and start seeing them as items on a conveyor belt that must endlessly be kept running. Any attempt to speak, to ask for help or clarification, and you will be immediately classed as a defective part who must be dealt with severely, so as to force you back into the system, that you might piss off again as soon as possible. I heard for years that Londoners are objectionably rude, and I've had some experience of this, but looking back it occurs to me that all my negative experiences have been in train stations, tube stations, or bus stations. It may well be then that I simply suffer for having to travel to London, and thus invariably the first people I meet are of the "human beings are cattle to be herded and eventually shot" stripe. Certainly, it turns out that several of the airport staff in Newcastle are egregious dicks, too.

On a more positive note, I am delighted to find that the acrophobia I suffered from as a child has now vanished. Given the seemingly endless capacity possessed by my brain to generate new and crippling phobias apparently at random, finding out they can disappear without reason too is quite a nice thing to learn. The one thing I still can't do, though, is read on an aeroplane if I can see out of the window with my peripheral vision. Something about trying to scan lines of text whilst clouds pass beneath you causes a short-circuit in my brain.

Slovenia itself is beautiful. I spent some time observing Western Europe as I flew over it, and it pretty much just looks like home. The same networks of roads, the same patchwork of arable fields. It's not like I was expecting volcanoes and glaciers, or anything, but the lack of variation was still a little depressing.
This is just like home, I said to myself.
Then we reached the forests, huge forests that stretched to the horizon. They were broken by valleys and towns, but there was no question as to who was boss. The only things that didn't seem to be menaced by the trees were the mountains.
Fair enough, I thought, this is new.

Ljubljana looks just as nice when on the ground. Forests, hills, nice buildings, clean streets. Plus an almost unbelievable number of outrageously attractive women. The only eyesores are the ubiquitous posters for various parliamentary candidates that are spread throughout the city. I am reliably informed that the predicting the extent of the upcoming political reshuffle is very difficult, since a recent scandal has erupted over the Slovenian government buying Finnish weapons and one or other government receiving bribes for making the deal, bribes currently being held in Austrian bank accounts. It's all very confusing, apparently.

I am assured, however, that there are no upcoming wars to worry about. This may be for the best, as I am unsure as to how much faith should be invested in Finnish weaponry.

The place where I am staying is ludicrously roomy, easily the size of my flat back home, which is pretty cool considering it's only little old me living there. On the other hand, unless I can get the internet in my living room to work, I am liable to go mad with boredom. One can only read for so long on any given day without losing a grip on one's sanity, especially when so much of the work day is taken up with perusing academic papers and deciding what can be safely stolen.

That will do for now, I think. This is taking loner to type than normal since Slovenian keyboards swap around the "Z" and "Y" keys (do Czech computers do that too? I've forgotten), so my already limited skills of touch-typing have surrendered entirely.

More to come later, but I'm getting back to the maths...

Saturday, 6 September 2008

Parting Is Such Sweet Etc Etc

Right, it's almost time to go. This time tomorrow, I'll be in Slovenia, trying not to gawk at the foreigners, and attempting to order beer in an unconvincing accent.

Updates are liable to be erratic, partially because I probably won't have the ease of access to the internet I do here, and partially because I don't know if I'll have anything to talk about beyond all the locals constantly complaining "Beer twice as cheap under Communism".

Hopefully I'll think of something, I'd hate to think of you all sitting around without my rambling to keep you entertained.

Friday, 5 September 2008

How Did I Not See This?

John McCain is a Cylon.

Days until exile: 2.

Treating Arguments With The Contempt They Deserve

I was blind, but at last I see.

GIBSON: But as you know, the questions [regarding Palin] revolve really around foreign policy experience. Can you honestly say you feel confident having someone who hasn't traveled outside the United States until last year, dealing with an insurgent Russia, with an Iran with nuclear ambitions, with an unstable Pakistan, not to mention the war on terror?

MCCAIN: Sure. And one of the key elements of America's national security requirements are energy. She understands the energy issues better than anybody I know in Washington, D.C., and she understands. Alaska is right next to Russia. She understands that.

Makes sense to me. If anything is wrong with McCain's logic it's that it doesn't go far enough. Why pick someone who lives near Russia when you could pick someone who lives in Russia? What about Putin, for example? He has massive experience with dealing with that arrogant arse Putin. They say that no-one in the world is a better authority on Putin than Putin is. Think what a boost that would be to the ticket. Plus, no more of that tedious mucking around with hot-lines and what-not. McCain can just stroll to Putin's office and beg him not to nuke Washington in person.
Look, Sen. Obama's never visited south of our border. I mean, please.

Good God, McCain's right! Obama is a latitude bigot! All this hoity-toity flying around Europe and all, it's just a snub against everything below the 33rd parallel! I bet he thinks the Tropic of Cancer is the edge of a quarantine zone, the elitist latte-sipping fascist Communist arugula lover!

Wait, what's that? He's been to Africa? Well, that's south, isn't it? I guess McCain meant Mexico. Clearly Obama's going to have to hope pretty hard that he isn't asked any questions on bull-fighting during any of the debates.

You know who I blame? Japan. If the Home Islands were stirring up trouble in the Pacific again, then Obama would be a shoo-in. I mean, the man was born in Hawaii, for Christ's sake. That's where Pearl Harbor is. Obama understands. Because of osmosis. That's the same process plants use to suck up water from the soil, and thus is science and must be right! Of course, the latter relies upon semipermeable membranes, protoplasts, and the phospholipid bilayer; and the latter relies upon the ability to read minds from across the sea, but the chemical principles are identical!

Come on, Japan! Stop being so outrageously accommodating and get in the game! Cokie Roberts said you were a sissy (probably). And we can all be sure that a war between you and President Obama would be far less scary than one between Russia and President McCain. They have ICBMs, all you've got is big-titted schoolgirls in robotic battle-suits.

And, admittedly, Godzilla. How far can that dude swim, exactly?

Thursday, 4 September 2008

Assembled Ramblings On Palin

I was going to put up some thoughts on Sarah Palin last night, but ultimately I decided that getting out the truth about the Fraggles was more important.

In the end I'm glad I held fire, since I've come across a few more things since yesterday. Man, slogging through the liberal blogosphere's output on the woman is hard work. Even the whole "torture is OK and only traitors don't agree" shit-storm didn't generate this level of activity.

A few disclaimers first.

1) Sarah Palin was never a member with the Alaskan Independence Party. Her husband was, though. Obviously, I couldn't care less if Mr Palin is too stupid to realise Alaska demanding independence from America is like me demanding independence from my teeth. It might just be possible, given sufficient planning and effort, but it would involve a spectacular amount of sucking. Ba-dum tish!

On the other hand, any Republican out there who complained Michelle Obama didn't love America enough should now be legally forced to either apologise, make the same fuss over Mr Palin, or simply withdraw from human society.

2) I'm not going anywhere the fact that Palin's teenage daughter is pregnant. Sure, in an ideal world America would have a birth rate amongst teenage girls of less than 5.3% (though that figure covers all teenagers, so that's includes women who give birth the day before they turned twenty). Trying to link this situation to the Republicans' ludicrous abstinence only ideas is just lazy, though. All the situation proves is that there is a subset of teenage girls who have sex, and a subset of those that then get pregnant. In other words, it's a chilling reminder that hormones exist, and make people do stuff.

I also think people are missing the point when they wonder why McCain and Palin would make such a big deal about the girl choosing to keep the baby when they want to ban women from having the choice at all. To me it's just one more strand to the anti-choice argument; namely that all the sensible white-bread girls would never choose an abortion anyway. It's exactly the same kind of non-reasoning that led people to celebrate Juno and Knocked Up as "pro-life" because the pregnant protagonists of both films chose not to have abortions. In short, it's an appeal to people who are stupid, and we ain't running out of them anytime fast.

3) Everyone pointing out that claims of sexism against Palin are just Republican hypocrites need to be careful. This is one of the problems with campaigns, and frankly ideological arguments in general. I mean, consider the following progression. Dave says Clinton is a bitch, and Clinton claims sexism. This leads to Palin calling Clinton a whiner. Months later Fred calls Palin a bitch, and Carl claims sexism.

Is anyone involved actually a hypocrite? Unless you prove Carl was sexist towards Clinton (or racist towards Obama, frankly; sexism and racism aren't interchangeable of course but I'm happy to label bigots who hate slightly different bigots as hypocritical) and who is objecting to sexism against Palin, surely the answer is no. Of course, trying to paint liberals in general with the comments of a few outspoken idiots within their midst is pretty despicable, but in all truth I'm not sure that isn't a game that we've played from time to time.

So, with those out of the way, what can we say about Sarah Palin? Aside from the fact that she freaks me out.

I guess the most salient point I read today can be found here, from comments made by Mark DeMoss, former chief of staff to Jerry Falwell:

"Too many evangelicals and religious conservative are too preoccupied with
values and faith and pay no attention to competence. We don't apply this
approach to anything else in life, including choosing a pastor." Imagine, he
said, if a church was searching for a pastor and the leadership was brought a
candidate with great values but little experience. "They've been a pastor for
two years at a church with 150 people but he shares our values, so we hired him
to be pastor of our 5,000 person church? It wouldn't happen! We don't say, 'He
shares our values, so let's hire him.' That's absurd. Yet we apply that to
choosing presidents. It blows my mind."

Whoever thought I'd post something by a former Falwell flunky without drowning in my own bile?

It's an excellent point: why would anyone be less discerning in their choice of Vice President (and remember kids, McCain has around a 15% chance of not surviving to see the 2012 campaign trail) than they would be in their own pastor? The article I linked to above suggests the problem lies in a desperate struggle for relevancy. That's quite possibly part of it, at least. After all, DeMoss' analogy is arguably flawed in the sense that one assumes when choosing ones' pastor you're already limited in your choices to people who have similar beliefs to yourself. Obviously everyone is different, but it doesn't seem unreasonable to suggest that pastors of any given church will vary less in their choice of values than potential picks for VP. By picking Palin McCain has sent a signal to the American Religious Right that he's not hoping they'll all go away.

There is another interesting line of argument that part of Palin's appeal is precisely because of her inexperience. This (horribly depressing) theory runs that the American Dream itself has shifted in the minds of many citizens, re-arranging itself from "Work hard to become rich" to "Get to the top ASAP". Essentially, Prins suggests that the endless iterations on American Idol have left people under the impression that a victory for "the common man" is somehow a victory for all "common men", that somehow electing someone so egregiously unqualified to be Vice President is a rag-to-riches/loser-comes-good style story that proves to everyone that "it could happen to you". It's the Presidential equivalent of King Ralph, basically, which is a fairly chilling notion.

Frankly, even I'm not sure I'm cynical enough to believe that anyone would use that as a basis for their vote, although it isn't too hard to believe that it might be a subconscious factor in their weighing of the decision.

For my part, though, I think the reason why the phenomenon DeMoss describes is so commonplace is due to something else. The major difference between picking a pastor and a VP is obvious: you are going to constantly interact with your pastor. My parents spent years languishing under a minister they despised, and given all the time and effort my mother invests in her church, it ended up stressing the hell out of her.

Chances are, though, that you'll never meet your Vice President. Now, just because you don't interact with someone doesn't mean they don't affect you, obviously, but the people Palin has been chosen to appeal to (hypothetical Clinton bitter-enders aside, whom I continue to maintain do not exist) don't really want or expect a Republican administration to come anywhere near them in the first place. Changing a few "liberal" laws to make them more friendly to the faith may well be all that a great deal of them want their White House to do in any case.

In that sense, this is less like choosing a pastor and more like choosing a dog-catcher. So long as the stray dogs get rounded up in the way you want, you don't care if you never see them ever again.

That, I think, is why Palin is so popular amongst a certain slice of the American citizenry.

And finally tonight, a video that can be filed under "Palin is rubbish" and cross-referenced to "political talking heads are liars and scum". This is an off-mic conversation that was accidentally recorded, and comes just after the people involved were singing Palin's praises.

h/t to Hullabaloo for the links (including the one they messed up).

Wednesday, 3 September 2008

Wherein My Tendency To Over-Analyse Reaches Its Zenith

Right, so, anyone remember Fraggle Rock?

Sure you do.

What you probably don't remember is that it was Marxist propaganda.

I'm serious. Fraggle Rock was The Communist Manifesto with Muppets. Let's start with the Gorgs, who consider themselves the "King and Queen of the universe" despite not having any subjects. This represents the inevitable irrelevance of the Aristocracy and their self-appointed titles. Producing nothing of value of their own, they simply complain about the Fraggles stealing their radishes (clearly here radishes=money).

Under the Gorgs (quite literally) live the Fraggles, who are clearly the Bourgeoisie by any other name. They spend their time cavorting around the caverns, handing out radishes to the Doozers under the condition that they continue to serve them. Capricious and indecisive, the worst of these scabs upon society is their leader Gobo. Not only does he fail to see the plight of the Doozers, but he regularly reads postcards from his Uncle Matt who continually feeds him misinformation about the workings of alternative systems of governance, referring to those that have shaken off the shackles of aristocratic authoritarianism as "silly creatures".

Finally you have the Doozers, who symbolise the Proletariat. They spend all day thanklessly creating complex structures (out of radishes, naturally) that the Fraggles constantly destroy and consume without a second thought. Sure, they claim that they're happy with their lot, but that's just so Gobo doesn't lock them up in some proto-gulag that they had to build themselves. The poor green bastards are so down-trodden that they don't even get to be the heroes of a series about Marxism, which is pretty damn perverted when you think about it (and clearly I've thought about it a lot).

Somewhere, under those adorable hard hats and behind the button noses, the Doozers are planning revolution.

You can carry the metaphor further, since I'm sure we can all agree that I haven't taken it far enough yet. Who else could Marjory the Trash Heap represent, with all her wisdom and predictive powers, but Lenin. Her heckling rats, of course, stand for Stalin, simply waiting for the right moment to undo Lenin and his grandiose plans.

Finally, we have "Doc" the inventor (clearly a metaphor for God himself) and his workshop, (which is Heaven) in which lives Sprocket, who represents Marx himself. Shaggy dog = shaggy beard.

Someone call HUAC!

In conclusion, then, this is conclusive proof that Henson was attempting to twist the minds of children into joining the American Communist Party. Well, that, or eat a few more radishes.

Next week: how The Clangers is marred by a disturbing undercurrent of radical Zionism.

Tuesday, 2 September 2008

I Hate When Someone Gets There First And Better

This is well worth reading in full, if you have the time (I recognise that not everyone is just twiddling their thumbs waiting to get deported). It's a couple of years old (which is why it doesn't mention that the Democrats getting hold of Congress didn't get its ratings out of its disastrous slump), but (among other things) it constructs a far more elegant version of an argument I made at the end of May. Specifically, I argued that there is an inherent paradox to any Republican administration because American conservatives, by and large, don't want a powerful federal government except in very specific areas, which means that the administration's specific failures can be painted as general failures of federalism. As Wolfe says:

Unable to shrink government but unwilling to improve it, conservatives attempt
to split the difference, expanding government for political gain, but always in
ways that validate their disregard for the very thing they are expanding.

Really, read the whole thing. It perfectly captures the ongoing GOP problem that found its nadir in Bush Jr.

h/t to Political Animal.

Days until exile: 5.

Monday, 1 September 2008

SpaceSquid vs. The X-Men #6: Red

I was never under any illusion that a piece on Jean Grey was going to be easy. Not because I can’t get a handle on the female mindset (just subtract logic and add ponies, right?), but because it’s often hard to pin down who exactly Jean Grey is. Whilst reading up on the red-haired telepath, I came across one person whose view was that Jean is a blank slate of a woman, existing for no reason but to give the men in her life someone to fight over. It’s an oversimplification, but it certainly isn’t without a kernel of truth.

Part of the difficulty of analysing Jean/Marvel Girl/Phoenix can be attributed to her beginnings. Like so many other comic book heroines of the time, Jean fell afoul of that particular brand of well-meant but patronising sexism that seemed to help define the Sixties. Everyone in the X-Men was desperate to stress that she was an equal member of the team, but somehow it was always Jean who had to be defended from the latest super-villain trashing New York. She ended up in charge of the team’s fashion choices, for the love of Pete. But whilst you could certainly write an entire essay on Sixties super heroine gender politics, that’s not really my bag. Certainly, defining Jean is tricky for reasons beyond her initial appearances. After all, Polaris was introduced in those halcyon days of mini-skirts and hippies too, and her character ultimately became more defined as time went on. True, that definition was erratic and self-contradictory, and more than any other X-Man her development has been enraging in its heartless cynicism, but she did grow. She evolved past the point where she was just an excuse for men to act heroically and protectively whilst she did the ironing. I’m not sure Jean ever really did.

To understand the depth of this problem, try the following exercise. Assuming you can think of any, write down what you think the top five moments in Jean Grey’s history are. Emotionally powerful, kick-ass awesome, whatever floats your particular boat. Stuff that knocked your socks off, basically.

Now cross off every one of them including the words Cyclops, Xavier, Wolverine or Phoenix.
Got anything left?

My point is that, even as comics progressed into the eighties and nineties, and into an era that was at least in theory somewhat more enlightened (biology- and gravity-defying "attributes" aside, naturally), Jean Grey remained defined by others, rather than becoming a character in herself. She’s defined by her love affair with Scott, her friendship-and-maybe-more with Wolverine, her devotion to Professor X, and her ever-more complex and baffling symbiosis with the endless destructive energy of the Phoenix Force.

Let’s start at the beginning (though technically this is a ret-con, so I get to side-step the Sixties mentality I mentioned earlier). Jean’s powers first materialise the day her best friend Annie dies. Annie had been hit by a car, and as the ten year old Jean holds her friend’s shattered body, she suddenly finds herself able to experience Annie’s agony as she begins to fade. Holding her friend’s spirit as it slips away costs Jean in more ways than one. In the immediate sense, of course, she has lost her best friend. Jean becomes quiet and withdrawn, losing the joy of life that had defined her up until that moment. After various fruitless attempts to help their child, John and Elaine Grey turn to Professor Charles Xavier. Quickly realising Jean is a mutant, Xavier places blocks within her psyche, to ensure that her mutant power does not overwhelm her until she is old enough to handle it adequately. For all I know, this was the only course of action available to him. Certainly, I don’t feel comfortable engaging in armchair telepathy. What is clear, however, is that it ties Jean to Xavier right from the beginning. From time to time he releases the blocks to allow her to experiment with her power. Think about that for a moment. He allows her. Now, again, maybe the blocks were genuinely a necessity, but notice how this was a solution never suggested to help control Scott’s optic blasts or Rogue’s transferal powers. This has been noted by others before me, and the standard Marvel reply is that both Scott and Rogue are determined to solve their problems themselves rather than fall back on the Professor (there’s admittedly also the fact that it would likely be inconvenient constantly having Xavier switch their powers off and on whenever necessary). That answer though fails to address the fact that Jean apparently was happy with relying entirely on the Professor. Perhaps the difference is simply her age, but then this arrangement lasted until well into her teens. On the other hand, perhaps it taps into something else regarding Jean’s character. For years before we meet her in UXM 1 and for quite some time after, Jean seems completely content with having Xavier make these decisions for her, in the process becoming defined by Xavier’s choices as to how fast she can develop. I’m certainly not arguing that her faith in Xavier was a mistake [1], but it’s just interesting to me that a teenager would agree to having her natural abilities deliberately repressed by any authority figure. There’s no hint of rebellion, or even an acknowledgement that she is unhappy with the situation, as necessary as she believes it to be. Even before the beginnings of the great love affair with Scott Summers that would define Grey’s entire adult life, her devotion to Xavier means that she simply acts as a foil for his desire to do good.
Having Warren and Scott fight over her hardly helps, either. She has her own opinions on their conflict, of course, but she never actually states them, she simply sits there while they lock horns. As readers we know she would rather Scott win the mating ritual, but her total passivity in the process rankles somewhat, giving as it does the distinct impression that she is a prize to be won (of course, this contest comes from the original Sixties comics, and we’ve already gone over the problem there). Jean’s importance as a character is expressed in Xavier’s efforts to help her, and the two rivals efforts to have her. Throughout all this, though, we learn precious little about exactly what kind of person she is within herself.

Right; let’s slap Russell T Davies around for a bit. One of the biggest problems suffered by the first two seasons of the new iteration of Doctor Who was that we were constantly told by any character with air in their lungs that Rose was the bestest companion EVER, covering the space-time continuum with rainbows and lollipops and kittens. It never seemed to occur to Davies that this was an opinion to be backed up with anything as tawdry as evidence, the dyed-blonde whinging egomaniac just flounced her way through every episode and then demanded tribute [2]. It was Mary-Sue by propaganda.

Jean Grey suffers from a (substantially less advanced) case of the same problem. Every time we’re expected to care about Jean its because one of the mirrors we view her through has become distorted, or broken. The endless trials of her life with Cyclops, for example. After Warren gives up on her, having realised which way the wind is blowing, the way is open for them to begin dating, but Scott is just too tightly buttoned to confess to his feelings. Eventually Jean is forced to tell him he knows what he wants to say, even if he can’t say it [3]. When she is found alive in a cocoon years after her supposed death, she discovers Scott has had a marriage and a child in the intervening months, facts he initially tries to keep from her (partially because said wife, Madelyne Pryor, looks exactly like her,and Scott is finding it harder and harder to view Jean, Madelyne and the Phoenix as separate entities). Then, years later, Cyclops’ apparent death following his forced bonding with Apocalypse leads to a long period of alternating moping and hollow defiance, until eventually Scott returns, and Jean’s life begins to revolve around his new coldness, and the possibility that he may be having an affair with Emma Frost.
If it's not Scott, then it's Logan. If I had to pick my favourite Jean Grey moment, it would have to be at the conclusion of Grant Morrison's run on X-Men (or New X-Men as it was known at the time). Jean and Wolverine have been duped into investigating what turns out to be the wreckage of Asteroid M (the space station once used as a base by Magneto), which then begins to fall into the Sun. Wolverine's healing factor keeps him going for a while, but Jean quickly begins to suffer from the heat. Ultimately, Wolverine realises he has no choice but to kill the woman he loves, and he does so.
"God", he whispers as he holds her dead body to him. "Ah, God".

That is easily one of my favourite scenes in X-Men history. Frankly I thought Morrison's run contained a lot of crap, but every now and then he'd pull a rabbit out of a hat. But let's not kid ourselves, that was Wolverine's moment, not Jean's. [4]

So that's Xavier, Cyclops, and Wolverine. By far the biggest factor in Jean's life, however, was the Phoenix.

I mentioned earlier that Annie’s death incurred more than one cost. One of these would not be felt until years later. The Phoenix Force observes Jean as she comforts her friend in her last moments, and realises that this simple human, uniquely amongst the sentient creatures the Force has encountered, shares its love for life and for creation. It is at this moment that the Phoenix chooses its next form (though it decides to wait until her powers are more fully realised), with repercussions for the entire Marvel universe. On one level this speaks to her obvious devotion to those she loves. Jean simply bleeds love over everyone and everything. How else can we explain her decision to leave the X-Men after the Krakoa incident (in Giant-Sized X-Men) due to her attraction to Wolverine (a man who quite frankly got stuffed in the looks department, and at the time they met was a total dick to everyone and everything into the bargain) [5]. She can't stay for fear the attraction is too powerful, and she can't give in because of how much she loves Scott. On this first occasion, though, it is the Phoenix’s mirror through which we view Jean.

I could go on for quite some time about the alien entity known as the Phoenix, though I'm not sure that's really necessary. After all, although everyone thought at the time that Jean Grey and the Phoenix were one and the same (after it apparently possessed her in UXM 100), we eventually learn it merely mimicked her form, sending the true Jean Grey to the bottom of Jamaica Bay inside a cocoon. Anything the Phoenix then did whilst in Jean Grey's "body" is thus hard to attach a value to, at least in terms of how much it tells us about John and Elaine's elder daughter. Having said that, though, the Phoenix Force found it so hard to cope with Jean's overwhelming sense of life and love that it forced itself to believe it was her. So perhaps there is something of Jean in every action the Phoenix takes. Maybe the increased use of power it displayed (dampening Scott's powers so she could look him in the eye, "persuading" Kitty Pryde's parents to allow their daughter to enrol at Xavier's "school") was an expression of Jean's darker side. Maybe the manifestation of the Dark Phoenix [6], slaughterer of the five billion inhabitants of the D'Bari system, was a part of Jean Grey too. Certainly, the fact that the Dark Phoenix was only eventually defeated by its own love of life (reflection and complement to Jean as it is) resurfacing and choosing to immolate itself implies some link to the template personality.

I had a friend once who told me he was convinced that a person’s capacity for love was invariably equal to their capacity for hate. A few months later he beat the shit out of me [6], so I guess he knew what he was talking about. If Jean really does embody love and life to the extent we're apparently supposed to believe she does, then the levels of destruction the Dark Phoenix reached might in fact simply be quantitatively different to anything Jean might attempt, rather than qualitatively. The Phoenix is still the mirror through which we view Jean, but either the mirror has become cracked, or Jean herself has.

In the end, it is not until after her actual death that Jean shakes off the curse of simply reflecting others. After the resolution of the "Magneto" crisis, Jean finds herself resurrected 150 years in the future by the sentient virus Sublime. Ultimately she chooses to stop being a mirror for her loved ones in the only way she still can; by using the power of the Phoenix Force to reach through time and nudge Cyclops into choosing a future with Emma and with the Xavier Institute over wallowing in his misery. In effect, she echoes her final words to him, that he should live, and leave Jean in the past. He will have to study his reflection somewhere else.

Of course, whilst this highlights one final time her devotion to her husband, and the strength of her love for others, it still might not have been the best idea in the world.

After all, sooner or later, one way or another, she’ll be back.

We’ll be taking a break from SpaceSquid vs. the X-Men for a little while, since during my exile I’ll be separated from my reference books (which by now have pretty much covered the carpet in our living room, I half expect to return from Slovenia to find Big G has crafted them into a fort). When we reconvene, though, we shall investigate the strange case of the man who became a superhero through blackmail, and discuss how hard it is to locate a common thread in the actions of a character that re-appears almost constantly, but never stays long enough for anyone to bother deciding who what actually makes him tick.

[1] It would be a mistake to equate Jean’s brand of loyalty with Scott’s, although they do share some similarities. Ultimately, though, they come from different directions. Scott respects the man for his dream, and Jean respects the dream because of the man it came from. Of course, they both love both Xavier and his vision, they’ve just arrived at that situation through exactly opposite routes.

It's also worth mentioning how different they're loyalties manifest themselves during the Age of Apocalypse. Cyclops remains loyal to Sinister right up until the Horseman abandons his tower, even though Scott realises how badly the empire of Apocalypse and his cronies have dealt with America. Jean, on the other hand, abandons Logan, the man she loves, the very instant he agrees to a nuclear strike against Apocalypse, because she immediately knows it iswrong. She still offers Logan the chance to stop her by cutting her throat, of course. "If you've ever truly loved me, make it quick". I'd put that on the awesome list too.

[2] In Davies’ defence, Buffy Summers suffered from a similar disconnect between her behaviour and the regard in which others held her. Considering Davies essentially just re-writes Whedon scripts in the dark with a blunt wax crayon whilst watching the Eastenders omnibus, it’s probably not surprising he ran into the same problem.

[3] While we’re on the subject of a character that exists only as a reflection of others, I always found it faintly amusing that an attractive, smart, caring woman would not only fall for the silent, charmless guy that no-one else notices, but tell him how she feels without prompting. In a lot of ways, Jean could be considered a fantasy woman for those with low self-esteem. Which is interesting, since though I’m not claiming a perfect correlation, “low self-esteem” and “comic fan” really aren’t labels with a null intersection in their Venn diagram.

[4] It really annoyed me that having had such a horribly miserable end, Jean was then immediately resurrected only so she could die on Earth two issues later. She got to say goodbye to Scott that way, I guess, but dying in Logan's arms just seems so much more powerful. "Where's my wife?" "I stabbed her to death in space."
[5] Naturally she does this hoping Scott will follow her, but he chooses to stay with the Professor. Scott’s devotion to his principles has always been less considered and nuanced than his wife’s.

[6] An alternate personality that took control after "Jean" was almost fooled by Mastermind's illusions into joining the Hellfire Club and killing her fellow X-Men. Once she snapped out of it she messed up Mastermind to a fairly epic extent, which was good for a chuckle.

[7] He was my mate, he Pearl Harboured me, and he was fairly able at Jeet Kune Do, so my pride can handle the fact that I didn‘t really do to well in the fracas. I didn‘t fall over or pass out, at least. Plus, his fist got infected from punching my face, so I guess I had my revenge.