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.

We Really Can't Just Superglue Rugs To Regular Elephants?

Long version: assuming this NYT article isn't just the wearyingly familiar contraction of scientific progress (it's strange how "We can't entirely rule out that one day we might be able to X" always seems to morph into "Top scientists now say they can X tomorrow!!!1!"), the idea of getting close to being able to clone species extinct for up to 60,000 years brings mixed feelings.

Obviously, the idea of humanity actually being responsible for increasing the bio-diversity of the planet is quite an attractive one. Not only could we bring back some of the species we are directly or indirectly pushed out of existence (I feel particularly bad about the passenger pigeon, if anyone has some spare DNA from those lying around), but we could bring back stuff that got screwed for totally different reasons. I know that on any rational level that makes no sense, but my inner tree-hugger quite likes the idea of there being at least one species that's back because of us.

On the other hand, if we do decide to grow ourselves some new tarpans or indefatigable Galapagos mice (apparently not so indefatigable as claimed), what the hell do we do with them? We have enough trouble fiddling around with the populations of the animals we have now. Any species that went extinct without our interference did so for some reason or other, we can't just stick them back in the same place they came from and hope this time they get their shit together. Plus, a lot of the damage we've caused was from messing up habitats (it's no coincidence so many entries in Wikipedia's list of extinct mammals are creatures that lived on islands), which again raises the question of what we're going to do with our brand new giant tree rat. Maybe there's an animal here or there that we just brutally, directly fucked, by hunting the crap out of it or something, and we might be able to reinsert them into the wild without knocking over a huge chain of dominoes.

Otherwise, we'd just be talking about bringing these creatures into captivity, and beginning breeding programmes. Which, in fairness, is something we're already doing with a number of species that are now extinct in the wild, but the fact that such wild extinctions have been relatively recent and that the creatures are still alive and kicking makes it easier to justify releasing them if and when we have enough to make it worth trying.

I'm not sure where I stand on the morality of bringing back extinct species just so that we can point to them in zoos. Breeding programmes to keep species alive is one thing, but maybe we shouldn't be considering the hi-tech cloning equivalent of grave-robbing.

Short version: I want to see a quagga fight a thylacine and none of you motherfuckers are going to stop me!

Saturday, 22 November 2008


This is mainly for Kimmy: penguin escape!

h/t to BT.

Comment Commentary

My astrophysics expert Pause was good enough to school me last week on some of the finer points of what is known about the Big Bang, and upon being asked kindly placed his explanation in the comments section of the relevant post.

I asked him to do that, aside from the fact that smart people who know their stuff should always be listened to, so that I could ask a question that reading his thoughts inspired, which I don't think I've ever considered before. I hope Pause doesn't mind me hacking up his words (well worth reading in their entirety):

However, there is one deeper problem, and that's what created the manifold/brane/hypersurface/field that the universe itself was created from. You can already see the problem: it leads to the same infinite regression as 'who created the creator' (or even 'if this is a simulation, so are the people who made it').To the best of my knowledge (which is very limited at this level of quantum cosmology), no one's made a significant attempt to go back a step further than what created the universe (yet); we have enough trouble just supposing (read: inventing) various fields and branes in order to explain all we can see rather than worrying about why they were there already. (There are some people with loose suggestions - not least science fiction writers - but nothing you would ever want to call a theory.) The current theories are too incomplete to do more than worry about which one is right, never mind what's behind it. In essence, I guess we're still too busy trying to figure out what 'god' is before we get to what created it; religious/philosophical thinking has a few millenia head start on science.

There are two things to say here. The first one is that, whilst I agree with Pause that the infinite regression problem is common to the scientific and religious views of universe-creation, the latter has another problem associated with it, namely the explanation of the complex by reference to greater complexity. Whilst the idea of infinite universes stretching in both "directions" might be unconvincing absent further information, it does at least avoid the need to keep upping the stakes with each iteration.

I have a more fundamental point than that, though. Why is the idea of infinite universes problematic at all?

When I was a kid I had a friend whose father had a PhD in astrophysics. One day, whilst driving us to the cinema, he told me that there was a theory being batted around that the universe might be curved, so that if you set off in a shuttle craft and never changed direction, you would theoretically eventually return to the same point.

My puny ten year old brain refused to accept this. As far as I could see, if the universe was curved, we were inside a sphere, which meant there was something outside the sphere, which must also be the universe, since the universe was everything. My friend's father was kind enough not to completely disembowel me on the subject, simply saying "You're taking observations you've made in your life and applying them to situations you shouldn't possibly expect them to apply to".

I still don't get the whole curved universe idea (though I have progressed to not understanding the theory, rather than thinking it's obviously wrong), but that isn't the point. The point is, if we can accept that just because we see the world in three dimensions and Cartesian geometry (unlikely as we are to consider it in those terms) it doesn't mean they can be applied to the mind-shredding immensity of our universe, then what other preconceptions are we bringing to the table that are entirely reasonable from our perspective, but idiotic on the scale of the universe, or even multiple universes?

I would argue that one unnecessary restriction we might place upon our thinking in this regard is that chains always have a start. We're born to a mother who was born to a mother who was born to a mother, on and on and on. But everything we see in this world leads us to know that there had to be, in one sense or another, a "first mother", who was created in some other way. Whether God placed her on the Earth having grown her from a rib-bone, or sprung from the womb of the last of the creatures that could still be considered our antecedents rather than ourselves, there was a time before human women existed, and a point at which that situation changed.

It is tempting to think of the universe in the same terms. Sure, maybe our universe was created by the destruction of another universe. Or maybe not even its destruction, perhaps one universe gives rise to another in some way that lies beyond our understanding right now. The point is that the idea that this should lead to us to the conclusion that there must have been a time before the "first universe" is based entirely on our observation that a system of repeated processes must necessarily have a first step. Stuck atop our cosy little globe we have witnessed that cause follows effect, and that time flows in only one direction, and so we assume the same is true across the history of the universes. Even just using the word "history" betrays the difficulties inherent in considering what goes on on the inter-universal level.

It might be tempting to apply this same thinking to the existance of a God. If we break away from the assumption that the chain of universes has a beginning, why can't we get away with imagining God simply was always there?

The key difference in the two ideas is that we already know the universe exists. We continue to make progress towards working out what processes brought our reality into being. Once we get to that point, the question of "Where did the first universe come from?" is relevant only because we believe it is relevant. "It had to start somewhere." Why? God, on the other hand, has a host of other valid questions attached to him/her/them, the most pertinent one of "Why should a God exist at all?". That's not a question limited by our observations, that's just an application of logic, which is different.

At least, that's where my head was at on Thursday night. I'm sure bigger and better thinkers than I am have come up with this idea long ago, and may or may not have already shot it down in flames, but I thought it was something worth pondering. I mean, if you're reading my blog, it's not like you have anything more interesting to do.

Friday, 21 November 2008

Bow Before The Intellectual

I found a blog analyser over at Dan Larison's blog, and thought I'd give it ago (apparently the h/t should go to Alex Massie). Both Larison and I are apparently "thinkers", the logical and analytical type.

As to the other blogs for which I have contributed, OurFrontRoom constitutes a blog of "doers", always talking and joking (thus at least some of the posts there have been impartially analysed as being jokes); and The Player's blog is of the mechanic type, independent and problem-solving.

So now we know.

Best Phone Call Ever

SpaceSquid is relaxing in Calamari Castle when the phone rings. Caller ID warns him that it is his sister, and thus he may have to explain the next hour explaining trigonometry, or what an integer is.

SpaceSquid: Whaddup, little sister?

Lil Sis: Guess what?

SS: You know we're not allowed to play that game, since I always start off assuming you've become a prostitute, or possibly murdered someone.

LS: True. Actually, I found a rare species of stone fly this morning. I think. It's hard to tell, they all look the same.

SS: Was it just on your pillow when you woke up, or was there some kind of search involved?

LS: It turned up dead in an ice core. I'm going to be famous!

SS: Are you sure that's the right adjective?

LS: Absolutely. Only six people before me have found this thing.

SS: You think international glory awaits person number seven?

LS: It's very rare. Unbelievably rare. This could be one of the only remaining examples of an almost extinct species.

SS: And you killed it.

LS: ... Shit. I hope it wasn't a pregnant female.

SS: One day I have to sit you down with Baby's First Book Of Animal Reproduction.

LS: You know what I mean.

SS: That you hope it wasn't a female with a bag full of fertilised eggs slung over her shoulder?

LS: Actually, I'm pretty worried now. What if I finished them off? I could be prosecuted for genocide.

SS: I'm not sure it counts if it was just the once, and by accident. Still, you will have to bear the knowledge that you ended an entire species.

LS: No! They were so precious and so unique!

SS: You said they all looked the same.

LS: The abdomen was fractionally longer. The little things are important.

SS: Unless you include insects as little things, in which case you massacre them by the thousand in order to infinitesimally increase mankind's understanding of how rivers flow.

LS: Are you mocking my job? Because I seem to remember you telling me your research revolves entirely around taking an almost totally useless branch of mathematics and making it more vague.

SS: Good point.

LS: They may not let me go back into Alaska if they find out I'm wiping out entire species up there.

SS: I think Palin will be fine with it. Although she may only let you get away with killing the species large enough to be brought down with a twelve-gauge.

LS: Plus, once word gets out, all my equipment will be demolished by people desperate to get their hands on these bugs themselves.

SS: Rare dead insect theft is a big problem up on the Last Frontier, is it?

LS: Can I tell you about a rare beetle my friend found the other day?

SS: I'm hanging up now.

Thursday, 20 November 2008

SpaceSquid vs. The X-Men #10: Chaos Theory

To start off with, I didn't think an article on Alex Summers would really take up all that much room. My planned introduction ran something along the lines of "Alex can't ever become his brother, and he hates himself for it. We're done; go away."

Certainly, one could consider Havok's entire history from that one perspective alone, and find overwhelming evidence for the hypothesis. If there exists a Marvel writer, past or present, who has gotten their hands on Alex without at least one reference (sometimes earnest, sometimes askance) to the fact that big brother is soooo much more dedicated and capable and level-headed, then I've yet to see any evidence. Comparing Havok to Cyclops is one of the biggest X-cliches of them all, which is fucking saying something.

Of course, where lesser commentators might be content to simply scribble down "sibling rivalry" in wax crayon, MotCC believes in going the extra mile. The endless comparisons between Alex and Scott might be our jumping-on point, but only because it works so effectively in hiding from view what's really interesting about Havok's character.

The first thing to note about the repeated consideration of the Summers brothers' similarities and differences is that, far more often than not, it's Alex himself doing the comparing. Not long after taking control of X-Factor after the X-Tinction Agenda, Havok admits to Dr Samson (the team's psychiatrist, who also helped Polaris as mentioned last week) that he is sick of having to work so hard to command respect, something Cyclops seems to be capable of without any apparent effort. A few years later, whilst trapped in an alternate dimension (after a makeshift time-machine explodes and apparently kills him, but that's another story), Havok passes up a chance to return home, in part for fear of being once again lost in his brother's shadow. Apparently risking being sutck forever in a messed-up reality whilst surrounded by twisted mockeries of his former friends is a more palatable option than risking going back to being the second best Summers boy. In the Age of Apocalypse reality, Havok's jealousy over his sibling's apparent ability to get everything without even trying ultimately leads to fratricide, though in fairness that particular incarnation of Alex was just too dumb to realise that trying to whine your way to the top is unlikely to work even before you factor in having Mr Sinister for a boss.

The relationship with his elder brother is clearly very much at the front of Alex's mind, then. Even when he isn't directly considering it, he has a tendency to subconsciously carry himself in a manner as similar to Scott's as possible. Lorna points this out to him soon after they have joined X-Factor:
Don't you see what you're doing? You're trying to be like Scott again. Scott's so deadly serious about everything, so you feel you have to be too. If Scott smiled, his face would crack. Some role model.
She might be totally useless 99% of the time, but if nothing else she knows Havok pretty damn well.

There are two problems with Alex's attempts to copy his brother as closely as he can. The first is obvious. Trying to base your personality upon someone else's is a fairly bad idea to begin with, generally speaking, but I'm not sure that's exactly what we're talking about here. There is good reason to believe that Scott himself is constantly trying to base his personality on Xavier's, which means Alex ends up as a copy of a copy. Moreover, it means that every time he fails, he fails twice, since he hasn't managed to live up to either Scott or Xavier. Given this, it is likely little wonder he has questioned his abilities as a superhero so often.

There's another problem with Alex's attempts to ape his older brother, though, and whilst it may be somewhat harder to spot on initial viewing, it is arguably a more fundamental issue: Havok and Cyclops are obvious opposites.

It was Mr Sinister of all people who first cottoned on to this, albeit only on his own selfish terms. Sinister had been keeping track of the Summers boys since they were infants, and had concluded that Scott was the most powerful. Whilst this leads Scott to be tormented inside an orphanage under Sinister's malign control, Alex isadopted by a foster family who had lost their own son to a kidnapper. When that kidnapper takes Alex too, along with his foster sister, Alex accidentally uses his powers to burn their assailant to a crisp.

It was at this point that Sinister realised he has misjudged the younger Summers. Scott might have more control, but it was unquestionably Alex that has the greatest power. This is the crucial metric by which the distance between the brothers should be measured.

There are two ways you can consider Scott Summers. One of them is to assume that his truly frightening degree of humorless inflexibility is a direct side-effect of his inability to control his powers (itself a result of brain damage he suffered as a child); that the constant need to keep his eye-beams under control has left him unable to let go in any other aspect of his life either. It's not a bad theory, by any means, and a number of writers over the years seem to have been operating under that assumption. On the other hand, there are several instances (as mentioned in his entry) in which Cyclops apparently uses his powers as an excuse for inaction. To me it seems just as likely that Scott's inability to control his mutation is simply an ironic curse laid upon a man who wants complete control over his life at all times.

His problems with his eyes aside, Scott is perfectly designed to fulfil the role as the unquestioning, dedicated team leader. He may need to wear a visor, but his powers still give him a precision instrument. After all, how can you hope to have a better aiming system than simply looking at your target? And how much easier can regulating you potential damage potential than by choosing how wide to open your eyes?

Alex, though, has no hope for such accuracy or restraint. His powers are as chaotic as they are devastating (there's a reason for his codename); there have been several instances in which Havok has lost control of them almost completely. In battle he is often as much a risk to his team-mates as to the enemy (this is seen most clearly when he is believed to have killed Storm in UXM 248), and his attempts to fit into teams often prove problematic. Scott thrives on the order and co-ordination necessary to effectively fight within a group. Alex seems almost custom-made to fight alone. Perhaps it was this that persuades him to infiltrate the Dark Beast's brotherhood, pretending to shift his loyalties to an "any means necessary" philosophy which led to him crossing swords with former allies on several occasions.

But how much of that was pretense? Whilst battling Cyclops, Havok tells him:
For the first time in my life - NOTHING IS HAPPENING TO ME! No Living Monolith or Erik the Red ! No Malice or the Genoshan Magistrate! No Dark Beast! I'm not living under the wing of Professor Xavier -- or in the shadow of my brother anymore! Don't you get it, Scott -- for the first time in my life, I am free! FREE!
Whilst his loyalty to the Brotherhood itself is later revealed to be false, it's hard to shake the suspicion that Alex relishes the opportunity to lead a group according to his own vision, rather than those of his brother or his former mentor. Certainly his fears regarding cutting loose with his powers seemed to dissipate. This was fighting for mutants with chaos, not with order. Alex was finally within his element, dealing with crises the way he thought best, and in the manner most appropriate to his skill-set.

It didn't last. Once Havok broke cover, he returns to X-Factor right up until that time-machine blasts him across dimensions. Eventually he is dragged back into his comatose body by Carter, the mutant son of his care nurse, Annie (see Polaris' entry and its comments for more on the resulting love triangle of tedium and bullshit), and he attempts to reintegrate into the X-Men. This proves tricky when Annie leaves and the old Polaris/Ice-Man issue once again rears its head (and they say X-Men has run out of ideas), but ultimately he finds himself in outer space, fighting his insane brother Vulcan, who has taken control of the Shi'ar Empire.

Leaving aside the niggling problems of being stranded light-years from home fighting an unstoppable mutant killing machine and two-thirds of the armed forces of the most powerful alien race in the galaxy, Alex might well be back in the best place for him. Inster-stellar war requires a somewhat different approach to intra-mutant battling on Earth, and Havok's digital power setting of "OFF/BURN TO DEATH" might not cause so much of a problem. On the other hand, Havok has joined up with the Starjammers, who were led by his father right up to the moment Vulcan killed him. Rather than being surrounded by allies who considered his brother a natural leader, Havok keeps company with people who considered his father their master. Whether this will lead to a new crisis of confidence, whether (as seems likely) Havok finds it easier to step into Christopher Summers' role than he ever did Scott's, or even whether he finally chooses to go his own way, time will surely tell.

Right, that's the Sixties done. Next time, we begin to investigate the mysteries of "The Secret Team". That will have to wait a couple of weeks, though, until I get round to reading Deadly Genesis. Have no fear, though, true believers, SS v X will return...

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

I'll Be Posting About Rocks Next

I never thought I'd sink this far, but this article, on rugby of all things, is worth looking at. It's a brief history of the All Black's Haka, and why it's a) somewhat dodgy from a historical perspective, and b) really irritating. Worth a look.

Looped Branches

A while ago I wrote a companion piece to my first post for the Player Magazine blog. Since said magazine is currently non-functional (I can't even get the website to load), and my sources can't tell me if it will ever be repaired, I figured I'd just put my article here instead, since I put a lot of effort into it, and is one of the only things I've written outside of academia that actually had someone else edit it and slap me around over the crap parts.

A Cautionary Tale

Today‘s brainteaser: how do you offend someone who doesn’t exist?

Lately, I’ve been wondering whether my last piece decrying those who would object to games that feature unlockable content and require solo practice (I believe I labelled them “(sugar-addled teenagers”) was overly harsh. After all, many people in this world have better things to do with their precious leisure hours than grind mindlessly away at the same game day after day in the hope that their special moves end up nanoseconds faster off the draw than anybody else’s. This isn’t the Wild West; unfeasibly fast reflexes aren’t really a vital commodity anymore (neither are ridiculous hats, for that matter, although that’s beside the point), and if you’re not fussed about acquiring such skills, perhaps the hidden content genuinely does seem less like a reward and more like buying some half-formed game that will coquettishly promise riches beyond reach.

So, to test the above conjecture, I sat down with Super Smash Bros. Brawl. Turns out it took all of fifty seconds to realise that said theory is, in fact, total shit. If you‘re wondering, the exact moment confirmation came was when a giant disembodied head appeared and attempted to decapitate me with rapid-firing parallelograms. One round later, a heated duel between a hammer-toting thrush and an armoured space hopper with wings was interrupted when a gargantuan golden retriever sprang into view, banging its enormous paws against the screen.

Then everything exploded.

SSBB captures the casual gamer I was fretting about through sheer force of weirdness; through pure chaos theory. Not ten seconds went by in our first hour of playing without something so outlandishly surrealistic going down that the resulting shock and/or hilarity made finishing a round almost impossible.

Initial reaction: prejudice confirmed. No-one could navigate this surreal insanity minefield and moan about there being more madness initially off-limits, surely?Eventually, though, I realised that’s the wrong question to ask. The right one: why assume these people exist at all?

Recently a top scientist (i.e. me) has discovered a new disease: “Fanboy Projection Syndrome”. Simply answer the following question to determine whether or not you may be at risk.
Q: Upon learning Solid Snake would appear in SSBB, what was your reaction?
a) Uncontrollable joy;
b) Compete indifference;
c) Total confusion/desire to intimate that you have been presented with a sexual reference;

Answer a? You may be susceptible to FPS! Fear not, you’ll only reach the terminal stage if you start assuming everyone in the world is playing a game for the exact same reason you are.

Let me explain.

SSBB is designed to work on two levels. There’s the level to which it may interest the casual gamer who I was so unpleasant to last time around (well, mainly the distinct subset of same who resent anyone who may be more attached to a game than they are), mentioned above. Obviously, this trick can‘t work indefinitely (eventually getting disembowelled by a squirrel-tailed turtle with a light-sabre will become positively passe), but then it doesn’t have to. The defining aspect of such players is that they’re never going to reach that point. SSBB opens with twenty three characters and twenty nine stages, so our hypothetical fair-weather player is hardly likely to get through the light show and start demanding to see the man behind the curtain.

There is, of course, another level, providing for a different player type. Which would be me, and probably you if you’re reading this blog; the people for whom a video game is more than just an alternative to playing charades at parties. There are myriad ways in which SSBB caters for us, but for the purposes of this article I’ll just highlight: the sheer density of “Bloody Hell, it’s *that* guy!” moments. Those are for us. You think the people who answered b or c give a shit that it takes time alone to unlock Snake? Well, some of them might, but presumably those same people would whine just as much over having to unlock Shang Tsung, the Vib Ribbon bunny, or Vyacheslay Molotov, so nuts to them. We shouldn’t get so caught up in our own tiny corner of the human experience that we project our desires onto everyone within reach. Just because we’re twitching with rabid joy imagining Sonic bitch-slapping Mario until he explodes to reveal a tiny seal (ask yourself what proportion of Wii owners will get that reference), there’s a tendency to believe everyone else will be too, and will be furious that they can’t immediately get their sweaty hands on him. “What do you mean I have to unlock Green Hill Zone? I must relive 1991 immediately!”

Never one to shy away from picking statistics out of the sky at random, I can say with total confidence that 99.9% of people desperate to watch Falco suplex Ganandorf are exactly the same people prepared to put in the effort to unlock them anyway. Those people (which sure as hell includes myself) don’t pick up this detailed knowledge of gaming history accidentally. We know it because we experienced it. I want to play as Sonic because it taps into countless hours of youthful nostalgia; I’m not going to turn around in 2008 and tell Nintendo that SSBB can go fuck its single player mode. The more casual players can keep themselves going with the Dali-esque adrenaline-fest to their hearts content. Both sides are catered for, so I see no reason why anyone would dream up a game-playing proletariat that longs to join the hallowed ranks of the elite (for “the elite“ read: rag-tag collection of fools unable to distinguish between talent and obsession) and then compound that error by slating those constructs for wanting to sign up for the club without wanting to put the work in.

I have one final article that was in the final stages of it's first draft when The Player went dark. I may post that up here as well, once it's finished. If nothing else, it will infuriate Senor Spielbergo, and that alone would make it worthwhile.

Tuesday, 18 November 2008

Diplomatic Smackdown

Continuing my policy of complimenting people I dislike when they do something right, I award a gold star to Nicholas Sarkozy:

With Russian tanks only 30 miles from Tbilisi on August 12, Mr Sarkozy told Mr Putin that the world would not accept the overthrow of Georgia’s Government. According to Mr Levitte, the Russian seemed unconcerned by international reaction. “I am going to hang Saakashvili by the balls,” Mr Putin declared.

Mr Sarkozy thought he had misheard. “Hang him?” — he asked. “Why not?” Mr Putin replied. “The Americans hanged Saddam Hussein.”

Mr Sarkozy, using the familiar tu, tried to reason with him: “Yes but do you want to end up like [President] Bush?” Mr Putin was briefly lost for words, then said: “Ah — you have scored a point there.”

h/t to Robert Farley and Duss.

Monday, 17 November 2008

Frakked Up

Thanks to Jamie I finally got to play Fantasy Flight's Battlestar Galactica board game at the weekend, desperately hoping that it would be as unrepentantly awesome as Arkham Horror.

Turns out: it is. In fact, in certain respects, it's better. Like AH, the game is co-operative in nature, casting each player as a character from the series, and launching wave after wave of raiders, heavy raiders, and baseships against you, occasionally mixing it up with a food shortage or fuel leak. Again, like AH, there is a palpable sense of the odds being ludicrously stacked against your rag-tag fugitive fleet. Run out of food, fuel, people or (perhaps slightly less convincingly) morale, and it's game over, and it seems that every ten minutes someone is rioting, engaging in McCarthyist Cylon-hunts, or repeatedly trying to usurp the Presidency (that last one might just have been Cocklick, though in fairness he was playing Baltar). You get distracted trying to save a clutch of helpless civvie ships from incoming raiders, and all of a sudden there are centurions in your launch bay waltzing (roboboogie-ing?) their way to your tenderest areas.

The true genius of the game is the fact that one or even two players might be a Cylon. Might be. Maybe not. Maybe everyone around the table is a pure-blood human, just as dedicated to saving the survivers of the Twelve Colonies as you are. But can you afford to take that chance?

Obviously, this ferments a glorious atmosphere of paranoia. Attempts to resolve the various crises can be scuppered by Cylon agents, though they must take care not to make their sabotage too obvious (we were three quarters of the way through the game before it was even confirmed there was a Cylon in our midst, but more of that later). Many decisions have no wrong and right answer (should someone activate an emergency jump during an attack, even at the risk of losing some of our ships?), meaning a savvy Cylon can deliberately weaken the fleet even as they appear to protect it.

Plus, just to make things more confusing and entertaining, there's a chance that players may prove to have been Cylon sleeper agents halfway through.

That was exactly what happened to me. Having spent the first part of the game (which is almost entirely based on the first season, and thus concludes with the arrival at Kobol) as Admiral Adama, bravely fighting off swarms of Cylons, choosing our most profitable path through the galaxy, and taking Baltar's presidency from him in a bloodless coup (I was suspicious he might be a toaster), I awoke one morning to learn I was a Cylon. Admiral Adama, President of the Twelve Colonies, and a Cylon agent.

This has potential, I thought.

From that moment on I began to eat away at the fleet like a cancer. Each jump suddenly happened to take us to desolate systems, absent of resources. Galactica's battle tactics switched to focusing on destroying baseships, allowing raider squadrons to attack the fleet and further deplete our fuel supplies. Several characters found themselves unexpectedly detained in the brig, unable to argue or barter there way out. Each responsibility belonging to either Admiral or President was perverted to suit my agenda. Only at the end, when it was too late to do anything about it, did I reveal my true colours by deliberately allowing a fuel leak, leaving the Galactica all but dead in space.

Meanwhile, the bickering amongst the other players had reached fever pitch. Was Baltar's single-minded quest to seize the President's power proof of some treacherous agenda? Why was Lee Adama spening so much time out of the cockpit? Why did Tyrol keep claiming he couldn't speed up repairing our birds? Roslin I had arrested as a Cylon sympathiser, which I thought pretty funny, all things considered. Tigh got arrested too, whilst I still thought I was human, but mainly for shits and giggles (it eventually transpired he had been a Cylon all along, so I guess I called that).

By the time I vented the fuel, revealing myself as a Cylon (unfortunately getting tossed in the brig before I could escape giggling), the fleet was totally screwed, with half the characters incarcerated, a massive toaster fleet hammering the Galactica, and plenty of robo-men traipsing through the corridors with gay robo-abandon. Victory was imminent. Tragically, though, the sweetness of our triumph was somewhat lessened, for two reasons. Firstly, Tigh's revelation that he was also a skin-job was somewhat muted since Jamie did it by attempting to make me President again whilst I was incarcerated, forgetting that his "Martial Law" skill hands executive power to the Admiral, which was a title I no longer possessed. Thus, Lee Adama received the Presidency instead, or at least he would have done, had Jamie not tried to pull all this off in someone else's turn, and was therefore breaking the rules. He might as well have baked a cake with "I am a Cylon" written atop it in icing, for all the good his unmasking did.

No matter, I thought. So what if the only other Cylon in the game has horribly botched his coming-out party? The fleet is running on fumes, the chrome-jobs have the feeble flesh-sacs surrounded, and any moment now I'll be able to kill myself and return to the fold. What could possibly go wrong?

What went wrong is that Jamie had accidentally fucked up to such an epic extent he had created three sleeper agents at the halfway point, in addition to himself. The Cylon players outnumbered the humans. Tigh, Baltar and both Adamas were skin-jobs, leaving Roslin and poor Chief Tyrol the only real people aboard. We had spent the last three damn hours running a fucking Basestar, with two humans aboard just to mess with their heads.

Damn you Jamie. Damn you to Hell.

Our host suggested another game, preferably with me in charge of Cylon generation, on the reasonable grounds that now we knew what we were doing, it might be somewhat less frustrating. At that point, though, I was convinced Jamie would still find some way of messing up, leading to us discovering four hours into the game that the crew of the last battlestar comprised three Cylons, two pod-people, and Saruman of Many Colours.

Still, brilliant game. Just make damn sure you read the Cylon agent rules damn carefully, because you can't ask half-way through "How many of us are skin-jobs then?" because you've suddenly realised that you couldn't organise a mecha-pissup in a bullethead brewery.

Friday, 14 November 2008

Shrinking Gods And Narrowing Gaps

I found myself intrigued by the description of Michael Poole's piece on the Guardian website right now:
Confusing creation with creationism

Intelligent design and young Earth creationism are both false, but that does not discount the notion of creation, writes Michael Poole.

It's hardly a tremendously novel article: Poole points out that the fact Young Earth Creationism is scientifically disprovable and ID shot full of logical holes doesn't invalidate the possibility of a Creator. Which, of course, is true, but it fails to address a more fundamental point. Once science maps out a framework under which the universe can exist perfectly happily without needing God to nudge it from time to time, what good does God do anyway?

Arguments such as Poole's generally boil down to "We can never tell". No matter what is defined and described and explained and proved by science, none of it will ever totally remove the possibility of a man behind the curtain. To some extent you can see how that would be unarguable, in much the same way we can never prove we're not in the Matrix right now. The degree to which the faithful are placated by being told their God might not actually do or ever have done anything, and while effectively useless within the universe might still exist maybe, is a topic for another time.

In fact, I'm not even convinced that the "maybe" argument is particularly compelling. Richard Herring said something along the lines that "Claiming the universe suddenly appeared because of a massive explosion that came from nowhere doesn't seem any more sensible than 'God did it'". I'm not an astrophysicist, so I don't get the Big Bang either, but even so I'm not sure you can equate the two.

Even if you can, though, it's at least arguable that it's only a matter of time before the Big Bang is explained to our satisfaction (if, indeed, it hasn't already, some of my regulars will know more about this than I do). Once we get there, though, we can describe the entire existence of the universe without recourse to a Creator of any kind. At this point, the logic position to take would be non-belief. We can accept the universe's existence without a God to create it, and any belief that such a Creator exists immediately begs the question "What created the Creator?" In other words, how did an entity more complex than the universe spring into being in order to start the Big Bang itself? This doesn't disprove God, but it does lead to a logic trap that we don't need to resort to any more. Option A: a fully cogent description of existence. Option B: an idea that has no proof and actually requires the collapse of deductive reasoning.

So I don't think Poole's platitudes, as well-meaning as I'm sure they are, particularly convince. I suspect the "God of the gaps" is not long for this world, and that sooner or later faith in any God will no longer become simply unprovable, but, in the strictest sense of the word, irrational.

Right: I'm going dark for the weekend, as I get my game on over in Lancashire. See you all on Monday.

Wednesday, 12 November 2008

SpaceSquid vs. The X-Men #9: Fatal Exorcist

During my thorough and entirely deserved kicking of Jean Grey I pointed out that while some of the blame for her truly feeble character development through the years could be pinned on the awful treatment she received at the hands of her Sixties writers, it wasn't really the whole picture. Yes, it was a hard time to be a woman in comics, even if most of the writers could (generously) be said to have had the best of intentions, but many other super-heroines created in that period (and it's not like the male heroes back there were particularly fascinating character studies either) went on to become far more complex and interesting than their humble origins would suggest.

In particular, I referenced Polaris as an example of how far one could develop such vacuous non-characters, given time and effort. Certainly, to compare Polaris and Jean Grey these days (ignoring the rather inconvenient fact that Grey is dead, or at least I think she is), it isn't immediately apparent that forty years ago one could only distinguish them by powers, costume and hair colour.

That's something of an oversimplification, though. Whilst Polaris has been redefined many times over the years (though she rarely redefines herself, and more on that later), and far more completely than Grey (whose occasional lapses are generally retconned), studying her history makes it clear that it took at least thirty years for any meaningful change to come about, and that until that happened, Polaris was actually far worse served as a character than Jean Grey was.

As mentioned in my article on her, Grey spends more time in the original X-Men run as a damsel in distress than I was entirely comfortable with. Despite this, though, and despite her shopping obsession and her truly vomit-inducing puppy love for Cyclops, even through those early days she does at least show signs of becoming the strong-but-caring woman that was mistaken for good female characterisation until at least the Nineties (and probably later). Polaris, by contrast, is pretty much the damsel in distress and nothing else.

We first meet Lorna Dane whilst she is under the influence of the hypnotist Mesmero (himself working for a robot he believed to be Magneto; long story), who only avoids being run over (hypnotised people apparently not understanding how to cross a road, making the whole "collect mutants" plan a bit of a bust from the get-go) when Bobby Drake pulls her out of harm's way. Clearly thinking with the wrong head, Drake brings Dane back to the mansion so she can coalesce, risking the security of the X-Men in the process [1]. It then turns out that Lorna has her own secret, along with the worst hair-dye on the planet, when a shower reveals that her tresses are in fact bright green.

There is little time to process this before Mesmero attacks the mansion, and Lorna is captured (along with Iceman). This is something of a repeated theme in Lorna's life. Up until she joins X-Factor in 1991, some 23 years since her first appearance (and thus around four comic years), it seems every storyline she is involved has her at the mercy of some enemy or other. This is particularly egregious in the early days. First she joins "Magneto" following her abduction by Mesmero, apparently due to a combination of believing herself to be Magneto's daughter[2] and a person's innate desire for power. Beast goes so far as to suggest this is a combination that would force her to take Magneto's side, which seems a somewhat unenlightened position for McCoy to take. The next time she ends up in trouble (having, probably wisely, concluded that the life of a super-heroine probably wasn't for her) it's when Sentinels attack her apartment, and she simply goes into shock. Jean might have gotten herself abducted a little too frequently, but at least she gave some vague impression of fighting back.

It is while a prisoner of the Sentinels that Polaris meets Havok, a man with whom she spends almost the entirety of her comic history. The pair return to the mansion and join the team as reserve members, much to Iceman's disgust, as he believes he had first shout (or dibs, or whatever expression you want to use for the ridiculous notion that there exists some kind of rigid etiquette to love). Inevitably the two come to blows, eventually leading to Iceman being injured and Havok leaving in shame. Xavier sends Lorna after him, hoping she can persuade him to return. This she manages, though only through the somewhat unusual method of being captured by the Hulk and needing to be rescued by Havok. The two don't even make it home before they are both imprisoned by the Secret Empire. The other X-Men don't even search for them, assuming Polaris was too rubbish to either tempt Havok back or remember to phone them to tell them she had failed.

Are we seeing a pattern yet? It would be tempting to pile on the accusations of accidental sexism, but that would be unfair, at least in part. Polaris' problem was that her character was totally unnecessary within the group. Her magnetic powers at this point were not all that much more impressive than Marvel Girl's telekinesis, with the added problem of only working on metal [3]. Beyond that, she was just another woman on the team, without anything more specific to recommend her. I've read most of Polaris' original appearances in the black and white Essential Classic X-Men series, and it's remarkable how difficult it is to tell the two women apart without their hair colours making it obvious. The best bet is to see who's fighting over her in any given panel, which implies that Lorna suffers from the same problem Jean does, she promotes conflict in other characters rather than having one within herself. Only the way this problem is dealt with particularly distinguishes the two at this stage.

With Polaris, there seem to be three options. Firstly, get rid of her. Lorna repeatedly drops out of the X-books, citing her education (she and Havok apparently have a sideline in geophysics), a desire to escape the superhero life, or an attempt to recover from the latest in an apparently endless series of traumas.

The second option is to have her captured, or possessed. This too is a recurring theme. The next time we see Polaris after the Krakoa incident[4] both she and Havok are under the control of a Shi'ar agent, who attempts to use them to stop Xavier meeting Lilandra. Proteus attempts to control her not long afterwards, and next it's Malice's turn. Malice, one of Mr Sinister's marauders, possesses Polaris for so long that the two become permanently bonded, seeming removing Lorna from the equation indefinitely. Ultimately Polaris only regains control when Malice herself is captured by Zaladane in the Savage Land. Malice is thrown from her host body, but Zaladane steals Polaris' magnetic powers.

This leads us to the third method for attempting to do something useful with Polaris; mess around with her powers. For reasons that aren't entirely clear, Lorna escapes the Savage Land with a new power, the ability to feed off surrounding negative emotions and convert them into mass and strength. This, whilst in some ways just making her a poor substitute for Colossus instead of a poor substitute for Phoenix, does at least keep her going until she is once again captured, this time by Legion (who himself is possessed by the Shadow King), and used as a battery for captured negative emotion (by now we have learned that she induces negativity as well as absorbing it).

In the resulting fight, the X-Men and X-Factor join forces to defeat the Shadow King, and Lorna regains her powers. In the wake of this, she joins a new iteration of X-Factor as a government-sanctioned mutant team. It is now, at long last, in 1991, that someone (namely Peter David) puts some effort into defining Polaris as an actual character. Realising that this post would require me to read some of his early X-Factor run was a genuine pleasure. The '91 reboot represents some of the best writing of the era, at least where Marvel was concerned.

One day there might be time to discuss David's run in more general terms (it's certainly worthy of study), but for now the key point is that David made Polaris into an actual person. The consequences of Lorna's low self-confidence and repeated external manipulation finally began to make themselves felt. She is referred to a psychologist, but refuses to speak, seeing his attempts to "get in her head" as one more act of mental violation. Eventually, though, he allows her to come to terms with herself, in addition to persuading her that she may be borderline anorexic.

This, at last, is the beginning of a genuine character. I've spoken before about the fact that the "flawed hero" archetype usually relies on a very narrow field of potential flaws, usually a dark past, torturous present, or a temperament unsuited for beating up super villains without killing them. Polaris tries to be a hero despite her low self-esteem and resulting extreme weight-loss. For all her fear of both recommitting to Alex and of losing him, and her conviction that she is unworthy of her role in X-Factor, she pushes it aside when it comes to the crunch. As time passes she begins to build her esteem, and becomes the moral backbone of the group. Now at last, she is strong and compassionate because she has overcome her demons, not simply because it's the accepted template for comic book heroines.

Naturally, this state of affairs couldn't last. Later stories (post-David) had her once more melt into Havok's shadow, needing him to save her from repossession by Malice, and freaking out totally when he leaves her (actually part of a plan by Dark Beast, which was part of a plan by Onslaught, which was then built upon by a plan of Havok's, it all gets very confusing). By the time Polaris returns to the X-Men following X-Factor's cancellation and Alex's apparent death (he actually just changes dimensions for a while), she is as helpless and pathetic as ever, running scared from a team of Skrulls that are tailing her when she should be beating the extra-terrestrial crap out of them. Her decision to join Magneto in ruling over Genosha (given to him by the United Nations in exchange for him not destroying all electronic equipment on the planet) at least shows some steel [5], but we quickly learn her motivation was simply to learn the truth about Magneto's relationship to her. No sooner has she learned that he is indeed her father, then the Sentinels of Cassandra Nova attack, all but annihilating the entire Genoshan population.

I mentioned some weeks ago that whilst Polaris' development as a character was undeniably significant, it was also cynical in the extreme. It is from this point on that this charge becomes applicable. The dual shock of discovering her father's identity and the massacre of millions of mutants changes her forever. The first change is entirely welcome, to the reader if not her colleagues: the murder of so many fellow mutants persuades her that Magneto was right all along, in terms of general philosophy if not necessarily in each individual terrorist act. With Magneto dead, she takes his place, finding herself comfortable in the role as his daughter and his successor, leader of the battered remnants of his country.

If they had left it there, everything might have been OK. The idea that even one as devoted to Xavier's dream as Lorna could turn 180 degrees in the wake of such tragedy is a powerful one (the real world parallels need not be named), and it gave her a mission and a purpose that she had always lacked. This, though, required that Magneto stayed dead (which he absolutely, absolutely should have, for so many reasons), which was never particularly likely.

Instead, Polaris returns to the X-Men to find Alex alive, though in a comatose state. At this point she switches into full-on Fatal Attraction mode, threatening Alex's nurse Annie with magnetically-controlled scalpels, taking every advantage to criticise and belittle her, and basically act like a total bitch. When Alex finally awakens, Lorna begs him to marry her, a rather sad proposal that the rest of the X-Men treat as a done deal before Alex has a chance to respond. It's all bound to end in tears (though it does lead to a sequence with a stag-night shape-changing stripper that's probably the funniest scene UXM has yet produced) since Alex has fallen for his nurse (her mutant son has been setting them up on psychic dates while Havok was comatose, which is one of the freakier things I've heard of). Waiting until the ceremony to confess this (Havok being, essentially, a douche) he sets Polaris off on a murderous rampage.

This is where we get into trouble. Dealing with Lorna's trauma over the Genosha incident by having her change her political philosophy and embrace her father's legacy made total sense. Watching someone who has been, on and off, a super-heroine since the late Sixties become essentially a terrorist sympathiser and even backer probably upsets a lot of fans (it bugged me a little too, though mainly because of how I remembered her from X-Factor back in the mid Nineties), but it was a logical progression that breathed new life into the character. But have her try to kill all her mates because she's been dumped at the altar? Sheesh. I get the argument: that this was just the straw that broke the camel's back, but having a genocide survivor finally snap because her wedding has been cancelled (a wedding, by the way, that she was very clear about being a sensible move rather than a heartfelt or passionate one) is nothing short of pathetic.

In the issues since then, she has lost her powers again due to M-Day, once again becoming whiny and useless and entirely defined by Havok (who now loves her again, did I mention he's a douche?) before being captured (hooray for tradition) by Apocalypse and converted into Pestilence.

Ultimately this bonding gave her back her powers, and she has both forgiven Havok and possibly restarted their relationship (it's hard to tell, they're in space now), but she still seems to oscillate between the unforgivably wet whining Lorna of the Sixties; the raging, directionless psychopath of the new millennium; and the pointless Jean Grey clone she seemed to be at more or less every point in between.

For God's sake, Marvel, give her back to Peter David. He's even writing X-Factor again.

Next time, we take a look at Havok, the final X-Men from the Sixties (that'll make seven years already dealt with; and they said this couldn't be done), and discuss the problems inherent in being a younger sibling to an apparent golden boy, and also to have powers which are rubbish and keep going crazy.

[1] Though since she actually sees Beast and he just tells her he's off to a costume party (in the middle of the day, natch), she's clearly too outrageously stupid to be of any real threat to the operation's secrecy.

[2] This, of course, is true, but complicated. Since Magneto had an affair with Lorna's mother, and later apparently killed both her and her husband in a plane crash, the truth wasn't actually known by Lorna's adopted parents (actually her "paternal" aunt and uncle), hence the "reveal" in UXM 52 that Lorna and Magneto weren't related), leading them to debunk the tale that, years later, turned out to be true.

[3] It's worth noting that Polaris' similarities to Marvel Girl is somewhat echoed by Havok's similarities to his brother (this at least makes somewhat more sense). I don't think it surprising at all that neither character remained with the X-Men for particularly long.

[4] The battle in Giant X-Men that led to the changeover between the original team and the Seventies recruits that re-energised the comic, and ultimately turned it into a franchise. It was also the crisis that led to Phoenix removing the mental blocks Polaris had apparently subconsciously erected to limit her powers. Apparently otherwise there would have been a very real chance of her achieving something.

[5] And some pleasing moral flexibility, too. Magneto loses his access to his powers in his attempt to shut down the world's machines, and only close proximity to Polaris allows him to regain his abilities. Had Polaris refused to join him, it is likely that his rule over Genosha would have been short-lived in the extreme.

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

If Only Someone Else Read For Him

If you can get past the overblown language and Olbermann's tendency towards histrionics, this is about as good an attack on Proposition 8 I've heard so far.

Monday, 10 November 2008

What He Said

Since he's pretty much my role model in any case, I'll let Charlie Brooker sum up on post-election disbelief. Hopefully this will be the end of it for a while, and I can find something else to bang on about.

(Best line, by the way:
Jesus, guys, why not just change your name to the Bastard Party and march around in long black capes? Vote for us, we're openly despicable.
Needless to say, he's describing the Republican campaign.

Also, make sure you stick around for the zombies).

Sunday, 9 November 2008

No Respect For The Dead

SpaceSquid and C are changing following their calisthenics programme, which is very manly and makes women love them. Our awesome masculinity is marred, however, by the sudden arrival of rubbishy classical music.

SS: Why the Hell are they piping this crap through in here?

C: You have an objection to Handel?

SS: I'm just uncomfortable listening to him while I take my clothes off. I feel like I'm in a Stanley Kubrik film.

C: You have an objection to Kubrick too?

SS: Are you kidding? If I end up in his oeuvre I'll be bored senseless, and possibly hacked up with an axe.

C: Maybe the axing will come as some sort of relief. Unless Kubrik does ghosts. Does Kubrik do ghosts?

SS: In The Shining, yeah. I like that you didn't know that but you haven't questioned that whole axe thing. What's your point?

C: That you'll spend eternity haunting a Kubrik film.

SS: Ah, Christ; you're right. I hope it's Full Metal Jacket. That's only half total shit.

C: I couldn't interest you in 2001? You could freak out the apes.

SS: Pffft. I can't help thinking prehistoric primates wouldn't fully appreciate the terror of being visited by a furious ghost from the distant future.

C: Erm, the orgy scene in Eyes Wide Shut?

SS: Sigh. I guess that's the best I can hope for. Sold.

Saturday, 8 November 2008

I Weep For Today's Youth

Important work on my thesis (that I was totally doing and in no way playing Krakout whilst thinking about chicks) was interrupted yesterday by Josephus arriving with an urgent question. It's always flattering to be asked for advice by my junior colleagues, so I was glad to help.
"What can I do for you?" I asked in my most friendly and yet patronising tone.
"What the accepted procedure if an undergraduate signs off his homework with a picture of a penis?" Josephus replied.

Now, this is a difficult question. We have yet to write the paragraph of departmental policy that deals with representations of male genitalia, so a certain amount of improvisation is required. More importantly, though, it raises a number of important and yet disturbing questions. Some wished to know whether the image was a self-portrait (obviously I don't have the ability to recognise undergraduates purely by their naughty rods, though if it that was the artists' own attributes I'm not sure they were worth advertising). Others demanded to know whether the penis was worth anything without the working out, even if it was the answer to using trigonometry to prove the triangle inequality.

Mainly, though, I just want to know how someone can be admitted to one of the foremost mathematics departments in the country and still be unable to resist the urge to draw phalli about the place with idiotic abandon?

Friday, 7 November 2008

Culture Report With SpaceSquid

Went to see Chess last night, and am happy to report that I enjoyed myself immensely (even though they were all young and pretty and could sing and dance and thus I hate them and everything they stand for).

It was interesting to see some of the changes that had been worked in. It's not clear how much of this was specifically done by the troupe themselves (a few new song lines were sufficiently clunky to suggest Tim Rice was either not involved, or really bored that day), and how much of it was down to the bastardised hybrid that arose from the ashes of the West End and Broadway versions. Given the amount of time I wasted explaining why Chess is total genius, though, I figured I would mention how some of the changes affect the story.

The most interesting addition is a counterpart to Molokov, an equally scheming and jingoistic American whose name I don't remember but was something like De Corsi. This has the advantage of symmetry (I mentioned last time round that we didn't see enough of the American half of the Cold War rhetoric), and frees up the American from the political wrangling that was never really that convincing (sure, he wants Florence back and his former opponent to lose, but joining the Russians in their meta-game never entirely sat right). On the other hand, though, it sidelines the American in the second act, he simply becomes a washed-up player that no-one respects. His only real contribution to the proceedings post-interval is to let the Russian know of a potential flaw in Vitaly's game, which will allow the Russian to win.

This is bad for two reasons. First, the entire point of the American's character is that chess is the means by which he wins respect and adoration. The game itself is completely irrelevant. He as much as admits this when he describes the child he once was: "He could have all he ever wanted if he's prepared to pay". Chess isn't fun for him, it's the necessary payment for what he needs. Having some 11th hour revelation that chess is all that matters [1] completely violates that idea.

The other problem is that this idea weakens the Russian. For the Russian chess is important. It's critical. His only real ambition is to prove himself the best at the game he loves. When he defects to the West at the end of the first act, there is no suggestion that this is an ideological move (he admits he has no time for anything so petty as nationality), so much as the desire to escape the party men who constantly attempted to inject politics into his playing. In the original, there was never any doubt that he could defeat Vitaly, the choice was entirely his as to whether he would win for himself, or lose for Florence. You lessen that through the implication that he needed help.

Going back to the American for a moment, the poor guy was fairly badly done to throughout. The original character was fascinating, with insufferable arrogance and bellicose invective shielding low self-esteem and his desperate desire to be loved. His dismissive attitude towards and yet total reliance on Florence is part of that. No admission of his insecurity can be made without it being preceded by rage, and is inevitably shot through with self-justification. The man is a horrible mess of drives and needs and fears and self-hatred, and listening to him unravel over the second CD of the original album is genuinely affecting. In last night's show, though, he was almost one-dimensional, whining and ineffectual from the beginning. He was impossible to sympathise with, a great shame when making you feel for the guy was one of the triumphs of the original.

Finally, as predicted, the ending was somewhat less miserable than it once was, though still pretty morose. The only really important change is that having won, the Russian returns to the USSR, ensuring the Russians will give Florence what she wanted. I guess the idea is to show that whilst the Russian would never choose anything above his own success, he genuinely did love Florence enough to sacrifice himself once his victory was complete. The degree to which we should expect Florence to feel satisfied by this is debatable.

Anyway, if nothing else, if you get the chance to catch a musical at the Gala Theatre in Durham, I can recommend it. Them kids can sing.

[1] He also implies that he's the only person in the entire competition who seems to care about the game itself, which is both pretty laughable given his previous behaviour and another example of this particular version of the show constantly ramming home what is supposed to be subtext (however obvious): there are games within games within games. At various points all the main characters actually move as though puppets, controlled from above by the Chess Federation President, who herself moves like a terrifying clockwork mannequin. See what they've done? Everyone is being played, everything is a game, all of us are puppets. As though that wasn't obvious from the story already. Mind you, every time I complain something is depressingly obvious I find someone who didn't pick up on it (several of the people who came to see the show with me couldn't work out what the Hell that crazy spasming woman was doing. "Does she have some kind of degenerative disease?").

Update: I should also mention that it was good to see this performed without any eighties hair to distract me:

Time To Spare

Apologies to R and Tom for not having celebrated their birthdays here yet; it's been a hell of a week.

Here, then, somewhat belatedly, is a video for R, one of my favourite moments from one of my favourite shows.

And here is something for Tom. This choice is a little less obvious, I mainly went for it a) because it's an awesome song, and b) my perverse internal i-Pod chose this as the soundtrack for watching Tom marry the delectable K.

Good work on still being alive, you guys. Keep that up.

Thursday, 6 November 2008

A Little Light Relief (Unless You're Poultry, I Guess)

Escaped tigers caught by throwing them chickens.

It isn't clear whether the chickens were roast, fried, or still squawking. Nor is the specific manner of the "throwing" discussed, though until evidence to the contrary arrives I fully intend to assume some kind of trebuchet was employed. The idea of providing all zoos and circuses with emergency chickens is one that should be studied more closely, I think. "In case of emergency, break neck".

I also enjoyed the image of the police holding the tigers at the station until their owner coughed up his fine. One wonders whether the animals were just locked in the cells with half a dozen terrified drunkards and Danny Trejo (who I have learned from Hollywood can be found in every Mexican or Californian jail simultaneously).

Of course, while I'm sure people are relieved that these dangerous animals have been rounded up and detained, can I remind the Mexican police that the chupacabra still remains at large. Perhaps some emergency goats are what is called for?



Incarcerated in multiple locations

At large

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

Can I Just Say...


Also, a brief safety announcement. Anyone possessing unopened cans of John Smith's are advised to treat them with extreme caution. Danny was foolish enough to remove one from the fridge without taking security precautions, and the damn thing exploded. Whole kitchen covered in beer, Danny constantly whining about his "soaked ass", not really a lot of fun.

Monday, 3 November 2008

200 Posts Fiesta!

Hoorah! 200 posts and I am still going strong (where "going strong" is defined as "continues to exist"). Let us celebrate this unlikely turn of events with a veritable smorgasbord of content.
  • Today we celebrate Danny's birthday, he of the eponymous "Danny Show". Whilst it would be deeply tempting to offer praise to him through the medium of the maths he loves so much, it's probably less geeky to just post a video:

  • Circumstances (read: whining friends) conspired to prevent me watching more than one new horror film at Halloweenapalooza this weekend. Fortunately, it was [Rec], a brilliant little zombie film from Spain which has three things going for it. Firstly, it's pretty short, and very fast. Secondly, it manages to do something no other zombie film has done, which is to suggest a reason behind the chaos that isn't total bollocks (it also leaves you to work out what the Hell the last scene is about, which is nice of them). Thirdly, the main character is almost unbearably cute (apparently a genuine Spanish TV presenter, which means this is 21st Century Spain's equivalent of Ghost Watch), and although they attempt to appeal to women as well with an (apparently) attractive fireman, he gets brutalised pretty quickly. A2 was very upset, which only added to the fun.
  • Anyone looking for a blend of cuteness and full on weirdness should check out zoo animals with birthday cakes. Note especially how apparently the giant panda is somewhat more keen on cake than it apparently is in having sex, or continuing the species, or anything like that (h/t to Hullabaloo)
  • Hilzoy gets a shiny penny for being the first person I've read to finally work out what I thought was obvious:
    It's a real relief, after years of watching politicians grab as hard as they can for each micro-advantage at each moment in time, to see someone with larger sense of what matters: of the arc of a campaign, of when you can afford to hang back and let your opponent wear himself out, and when you need for everything to come together.
    It's been obvious for months now that Obama has been saving the best for last, and that every single person who whined that he wasn't hitting hard enough and that the race was too close and wah wah wah owes the campaign an apology. I know there's no way to prove this, but I have no doubt that the electoral college wouldn't look too different to how it does now even had the financial sector not gone into melt-down. Obama fought a strategy-heavy campaign that has beaten the crap out of McCain's tactics-obsessed one, and people are finally starting to notice.