Thursday, 30 April 2009

Shaking Loose

I have received suggestions on ways in which to improve the Shake Experiment. Ibb points out that "Scorn Satiation" is not the most compelling of terms, and also argues that it is not clear how scorn and synergy differ as distinct properties, at least in terms of one man's opinion.

Thus a greater level of thought is needed. Plus a formula, obviously.

Therefore from this point on, "Scorn" returns, and the overall score of each shake will be calculated as follows:

Overall Score=(Taste + Texture + Synergy - Scorn + 10)/4

This will give an overall score between 0 and 10, as needed, and will allow me to pour scorn on all that I deem worthy. Also, for the sake of clarity, scorn is the a priori judgement of the flavour in question, synergy is the a posteriori assessment of how well it works in practice. Ibb is convinced that bacon and peanut butter has a high synergy rating despite a high scorn rating (she's certainly right on the latter, at least), but you can come up with your own examples if you prefer.

Note that neither Maple Syrup nor After Eight Mints change scores under this new regime.

Shake #2

Today's shake : After Eight Mint

It occurs to me that scorn is generally considered a bad thing, thus meaning a high scorn score might be taken to suggest a poor shake. I shall thus go for Scorn Satiation instead, where a high score means the shake temporarily soothed my endless hatred for the world we live in.

Taste: 7
Texture: 8
Synergy: 9
Scorn Satiation: 8
Overall: 8

General comments: Basically, it's mint chocolate chip ice-cream someone has allowed to melt. This, of course, is no bad thing, especially since the fluid nature of this delicious treat results in a stratification effect. You start off thinking you're drinking one of those mint Aero drinks you used to be able to buy. Then you start to find yourself spending more and more time alternating between swallowing shake and chewing on chocolate, by the end it's like eating After Eight Mints dipped in ice cream. Needless to say, the combined experience is awesome. This is only the second entry, but already we have a strong contender for Best Shake Ever.

When Bias Attacks

Every now and again I get into arguments about whether or not there is a liberal bias in the American media. The most obvious counter to this is FOX News, but that's so obvious there doesn't seem any point flagging it up any more.

There's more than one way to skin a cat, though. Ladies and gentlemen, I present the Washington Times:
Mr. Obama is the second-least-popular president in 40 years... According to Gallup's April survey, Americans have a lower approval of Mr. Obama at this point than all but one president since Gallup began tracking this in 1969. The only new president less popular was Bill Clinton, who got off to a notoriously bad start after trying to force homosexuals on the military and a federal raid in Waco, Texas, that killed 86. Mr. Obama's current approval rating of 56 percent is only one tick higher than the 55-percent approval Mr. Clinton had during those crises.
From Gallup's own website:

That's from March; today's figure is 63%. This, by the WT's own figures, puts him ahead of every president in the last 40 years, aside from Reagan (who beats him fairly comprehensively), and Carter, with whom Obama is tied (at this point in the presidency, Obama's first three months are on average ahead of Carter's). GALLUP also shows that Bush, far from beating Obama, managed only two spikes into the low sixties pre 9/11, whereas Obama has only dipped below 60% "on a few occasions".

This, by the way, is exactly the reason why I don't buy into the argument that a journalists should be assumed to be telling the truth unless you can dig out the counter-evidence. There's just too many of them that are flat-out idiots/liars.

Two important qualifiers. Number one, I am not, as may sometimes seem the case, anti-journalist. I do not believe them all, or even the majority, or even necessarily a particularly large minority, to be feckless scum. I simply refuse to assume that they must be telling the truth until I get round to catching them out. Journalists should need to build good reputations before they can be implicitly trusted, they should not start out expecting that trust until such time they prove to be unworthy of it.

Number two. I'm hoping to preempt a fairly common response to this sort of post, which is "That doesn't prove the media are biased towards the right!" Of course it doesn't. Simply arguing that the media isn't biased one way does not mean you are claiming that it is biased the other way. As Al Franken said, if there is a bias in the American press, it's towards a certain kind of money-spinning low-brow story. The Republicans are much better at playing to that particular market, which is why I can forgive an assumption that the media is biased towards the right (this sort of thing doesn't really help, of course), but that's not bias, that's just good tactics (though good does not mean, respectable, acceptable, or inoffensive). All I'm doing here is demonstrating that there are more reasons to doubt the apparently indestructible idea that the media is in the tank for the left than pointing at FOX. There are plenty of other media outlets out there pumping out fact-free conservative bullshit.

Oh, and in the interests of fairness: CNN, I'm with Drum; knock this shit off. DeMint's argument is shaky enough at face value, you don't need to parse his statement to make it seem more insane.


DJW sums up perfectly my thoughts on continued attempts to prevent same sex marriage by attempts at prevariaction or passing the buck:
On the one hand, the wrong venue/method tactic of delaying marriage equality is annoying and tiresome. But it's heartening that we live in a climate where direct adovcacy of marriage discrimination is increasingly beyond the pale.
This sort of thing always reminds me of hearing people start sentences with "Now, I'm not a racist, but..." What they may say next may, in fact, be hideously ignorant and bigoted, but it actually does represent progress when people start realising they have to at least pretend to be OK with people different from themselves. That's not meant to imply those who say "We're not sure this is the right time to enshrine gay marriage" are necessarily as bad as someone who says "I'm not a racist, but have you ever noticed how the Chinese can't drive", I'm just using it as an illustration.

Wednesday, 29 April 2009

Rats And Ships

I note from Eunomia (which, as always, is awesome and you should follow it doggedly) that Senator Arlen Specter (R-PA) has removed the R from that particular bracket.

There's a lot to be said regarding Specter crossing the floor. Firstly, while I wouldn't go so far as Larison has in decrying this as a move entirely based on electoral politics, that's mainly because I don't know either Specter or the political situation in Pennsylvania well enough, rather than having any strong counter-evidence. All I know is that Specter was a Democrat in his youth, and has been, by and large, the closest the Democratic Party has to a Republican ally in the Senate.

Pure survival instincts notwithstanding, I am unsurprisingly sympathetic to Specter's claim that this is a move based on the recent direction of the Republican Party. Since the GOP have been drifting to the right since, ooh, Goldwater, probably, but certainly since 2000, it seems to be an immediate corollary that the midpoint between the Republican platform and the Democratic platform is also drifting right, which means that year by year more politicians are finding themselves on the left hand side of that dividing line. If Specter is claiming this has just happened to him (or perhaps that it happened some time ago but the line is now so far to the right that he has no choice but to switch parties), then I can't claim a priori that he's making it up. I think it was Zell Miller who said "I didn't abandon my party, my party abandoned me."

The interesting thing about Miller, though, was that he was a Democrat who defected to the Republicans. This gets me onto my feelings about crossing the floor in general. I am somewhat uneasy about an elected official changing his or her political party partway through a term (or in this case, a year or so from the end). The reason for this is obvious; the political affiliation of a given candidate is quite clearly a consideration when voting for them. Some will give it little or even no weight, some will consider nothing else, but as President Bartlett himself said on the subject of voter choice "We don't get to choose what's important". Whilst he claims that his priorities and voting tendencies will not change, declaring that that should be enough to satisfy his constituents is dodgy ground, I think, though he does admit as much.

On the other hand, as leery as I am with Specter becoming a Democrat (much as we needed him, and more on that later), I would be vastly more angry at someone emulating Miller. Partially this is tribalism, I grant you, but I think there's a case to be made that defecting to the GOP is less justifiable than defecting from it.

Firstly, the argument that one can switch parties without it changing the way you vote is less convincing when you're joining a party that votes in lock-step on many issues, and engages in some fairly vicious attacks when members don't play ball. Second, the "my party left me" argument no longer holds. The Democratic party has not drifted to anything like the extent the Republican party has, and more importantly, it hasn't drifted left. A Democrat choosing to become an independent might thus make sense, but crossing over to the Republicans cannot be sensibly viewed as the politician remaining still while the party moves away from them.

The third point to be made in all of this, of course, is that once Al Franken is seated [1], Specter will give the Democrats a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. I think a brief explanation of the filibuster might be appropriate here, for the aid of those less obsessed with American politics than I am.

A filibuster is used to prevent a bill from being voted on by extending the debate indefinitely, through the means of simply beginning a speech which then takes up the entirety of the remaining time before voting (see the West Wing episode The Stackhouse Filibuster). In the US Senate, 60 "cloture votes" are required to force the closure of a debate, thus rendering a filibuster impossible. I'm not sure whether this was the original intention of the creation of the filibuster (if indeed it was a creation, rather than a loop-hole someone discovered), but the end result is that there exists a method whereby which a minority opinion can prevail over a majority opinion, given sufficient dedication and organisation (well, dedication isn't quite so much of an issue anymore, since nowadays the filibuster is usually threatened rather than performed).

Whether or not it is a good idea for there to exist a method by which the "tyranny of the majority" can be defeated is an interesting question. Certainly I recognise the advantage of ensuring that the majority doesn't automatically get everything it's own way, especially since the filibuster only works if you're fighting between 50% and 59% of the Senate.

What does seem clear, though, is that there is a world of difference between preventing the majority from always winning, and preventing it from ever winning. If the majority should not hold the minority hostage, it immediately follows that the minority should not hold the majority hostage either. That, though, is the current situation in the Senate. The Republican minority is holding the Democratic majority hostage. The chart below shows the increase in cloture votes.

Thus, while I'm not sure how happy I am with crossing the floor as a general idea, in this case I'm more than happy to accept that even if the people of Pennsylvania are pissed that they voted for a Republican and got a Democrat, they can at least comfort themselves with the fact that the Senate can actually start moving once again, on issues that the Pennsylvanians and pretty much everyone else want there to be movement on. In an ideal world, I would like the Republicans to use the filibuster in the extraordinary circumstances it was once reserved for, rather than on every single bill. In a slightly less perfect world, I'd like to either remove the filibuster or reduce the number of cloture votes required (or even change the number of Senators, which I always thought was a weird idea anyhow). Absent either of these things, though, I'll settle for rendering it a moot point, or at least a moot point on whatever issues Specter chooses.

Update: Eric Zimmerman digs out what Specter had to say when Senator Jim Jeffords left the GOP for the Democrats in 2002.
"I intend to propose a rule change which would preclude a future recurrence of a Senator's change in parties, in mid-session, organizing with the opposition, to cause the upheaval which is now resulting," Specter said. "[I]t is my view that the organizational vote belongs to the party which supported the election of a particular Senator."
Interesting, huh?

[1] Assuming Norm Coleman ever shuts the hell up, obviously. This is one of those times where I recognise the man has the right to continue his court case, but at the same time he's a hypocrite and a bastard for doing so (back when he thought he was going to win by a nose instead of lose by one, he told the press whomever lost should not enter into a protracted legal battle, for the good of Minnesota), particularly since there are some suggestions he is deliberately dragging his feet so as to keep Franken out of the Senate.

Tuesday, 28 April 2009

Between This And Beer & Burger Day I Could Be In Real Trouble

A new project has begun. A milkshake bar has opened in town with all kinds of messed-up flavours simply begging to be converted into fat and stored on my thighs. A full survey must be made of their myriad treats. Since I have (optimistically) 18 months left in the North East, I calculate I must sample around ten shakes a month, so perhaps two a week, until I either reach the bottom of the barrel (parma violet flavour isn't something I'm particularly looking forward to), or I get too fat to fit into my office, which most closely resembles a walk-in closet with all the clothes replaced by a quantum theorist with an obsession with bagpipe music.

The up-side of all of this is that I get to do stats. Yay for stats. Each shake will receive a rating in the following categories: taste, texture, synergy (the degree to which the chosen flavour succeeds within the context of a chilled dairy-based drink), and an overall score. General comments will also be provided. Week by week this will build into an indispensable guide to Shakeaholic milkshakes. This guide cannot be purchased in shops!

Today's shake: Maple Syrup

Since this is my first shake, I am presented with something of a dilemma. How can I rate the shake without reference to the others? Should I simply place it in the middle of each category? What if further experience proves that it is one of the poorer shakes? What if no other shake can measure up to its syrupy goodness? Very roughly speaking, this crisis is the central premise of non-parametric statistics; the attempt to extrapolate future events with very little data, and without even really knowing what the fuck is going on at all. To give Dr F's favourite example, if you go to, say, Gabon, and see three people, you can extrapolate the average height of a Gabonese person. You may be fairly far out, but you at least have data that you can relate to in terms of what you know about human physiology in general.

Now imagine you're on Mars and run into three Martians. One is two feet tall, one is eight feet, the next is eleven feet. What can you say about the average height of Martians? You've never even seen one before, you have no frame of reference.

Those who read the preceding paragraph and conclude that there just isn't anything useful to say without more data are shameful quitters. Much of modern statistics is based on taking almost no information and deciding how one can use it to make the very least outrageous bullshit call possible.

In any event, in honour of Doctor F, the maple syrup shake will receive a five in every category, since the only milkshakes I can compare them to are those sold by McDonalds, and I don't think we can really put them on the same scale.

Taste: 5
Texture: 5
Syngergy: 5
Overall: 5

General comments: It is difficult to verify the syrup in question as being particularly maple-esque, but the drink is smooth and sweet, and thus can be considered a good baseline shake.

Update: J-Dog suggests in an e-mail that I might want to add a "Scorn" statistic, demonstrating the degree to which the combination is an outrage against the natural order. It's a good idea, so, unsurprisingly, we shall give the maple syrup shake Scorn: 5.

File Under Random

Came across this whilst researching something else: 5 failed McDonald's food items. The McPizza, the McLean and the Arch Deluxe are obvious non-starters, the Hulaburger is just plain weird, but the McAfrica stands out as one of the most incomprehensible PR fuck-ups of all time.

Monday, 27 April 2009

Strong But Inflexible

After (rather disgracefully) allowing my copy of The Lives of Others to languish in the giant pile of DVDs I've yet to watch, I at last got around to watching it last night.

It seems almost entirely redundant to describe it as depressing. A 132 minute piece on Stazi surveillance tactics in the GDR was never going to be laugh-a-minute, after all [1]. I had to watch it in three pieces to prevent myself just getting too bummed out (also, Supernatural was on, and a man can only go so long without having to watch some horror which is based on ghosties rather than man's inhumanity to man and the hopelessness of living in a totalitarian state).

As miserable as it is, though, it's also great. The late Ulrich Mühe is particularly awesome. He spends most of the film staring at either walls or dissidents, and the amount of range he can get out of just that is truly brilliant. Martina Gedek and and Ulrich Tukur are great as well, as a miserable actress and a petty-minded Stasi boss, respectively.

I suspect that there's enough going on the film to write a whole series of posts, had I the time. I could talk about the basis of much of the film being the similarity between a intelligence operative and a voyeur, or the way vast suffering and hopelessness is generated by the smallest actions and omissions of actions of sufficiently many people (there's a particularly poignant moment in the film when Dreyman points out that the GDR keeps count of everything, down to how many shoes he buys a year, but that they don't tally suicide statistics, perhaps because somethings are too sad for even a faceless bureaucracy to deal with).

The thing that struck me most, though, and this may be because it's been rattling around my brain this last week anyway, is how the authorities in the GDR could simultaneously believe their country was so strong, and vibrant, and an international inspiration, but also that the smallest incident, down to a harmless joke or insufficiently patriotic comment, could destabilise them (the parallels with the most dedicated believers of American Exceptionalism are left as an exercise for the reader).

I'm not sure I'd go quite so far as to label it doublethink in the strict Orwellian sense, mainly because it seems to be a more general trait of humanity than any deliberate intellectual blindness [2], but it's an interesting phenomena nonetheless.

[1] In truth, there is one awesome joke in the film, which goes something like this:

General Secretary Erich Honecker wakes up in the morning. "Good morning, Sun, " he tells the Sun. "Good morning, Erich," the Sun replies. In the middle of the day, whilst Honecker is having lunch, he looks into the sky again. "Good afternoon, Sun," he says. "Good afternoon, Erich," says the Sun in turn.

Then, that evening, after Honecker has come home, he goes to the window and looks out at the sunset.

"Good evening, Sun," Honecker says.

The Sun is silent.

"Good evening, Sun," Honecker repeats. Still nothing.

"Why won't you answer me?" Honecker asks, concerned. "What's wrong?"

"Screw you!" the Sun tells him, "I'm in the West now!"

Well, it made me laugh, anyway.

[2] I actually first noticed this sort of strangely paradoxical thinking on a much more personal level, after a friend of mine told me she was simultaneously convinced she and her boyfriend would get married and spend their lives together, but also that she didn't want to admit to any dissatisfaction with any aspect of their relationship, in case he split up with her.

Obscure Branching

Another post which exists exclusively to trumpet myself (or, if you prefer, another post which exists exclusively to directly trumpet myself): my first paper has at long last been published under my "academic" name, Richard J Crossman.

If anyone has an interest in imprecise Markov chains, or just fancies a quick look at some equilateral triangles, it might be worth a quick look, if you can actually find a copy (or you can borrow mine, which just arrived today).

I am now officially a published academic, which is deeply pleasing. Plus, I'll be submitting my thesis within the week. Everything's coming up SpaceSquid.

Saturday, 25 April 2009

In Which I Listen To My Commentators Once Again

After the furore the last time round (furore is a fun word to type), I shall not cast any ethical aspersions upon Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann, but I figured this was an opportune moment to point out that Boehner's approach is part of a wider "strategy".

Well, that, or there are simply multiple members of the GOP who really are too ignorant to be allowed to speak in public. Draw your own conclusions.
But people talk about cap and tax and they aren’t sure exactly what we’re talking about. Let’s get back to step one. What is the problem? Why do we have to have this tax in the first place?

It’s about carbon dioxide.

Well, what is carbon dioxide? Let’s just go to a fundamental question.

Carbon dioxide, Mister Speaker, is a natural byproduct of nature. Carbon dioxide is natural. It occurs in Earth. It is a part of the regular lifecycle of Earth. In fact, life on planet Earth can’t even exist without carbon dioxide. So necessary is it to human life, to animal life, to plant life, to the oceans, to the vegetation that’s on the Earth, to the, to the fowl that — that flies in the air, we need to have carbon dioxide as part of the fundamental lifecycle of Earth.

As a matter of fact, carbon dioxide is portrayed as harmful!

But there isn’t even one study that can be produced that shows carbon dioxide is a harmful gas. There isn’t one such study because carbon dioxide is not a harmful gas, it is a harmless gas. Carbon dioxide is natural. It is not harmful. It is part of Earth’s life cycle.

Read the rest, if you're so far inclined, though I warn you she adds maths and the English language to the list of things she shouldn't be allowed to play with.

Actually, I should mention something else. Bachmann's last point, that we don't contribute all that much CO2 as a percentage of what's already there (or being created by other sources) is at least worthy of consideration. I don't have the figures (and I'm not going to trust those of a woman who thinks CO2 makes up three percent of our atmosphere), but it's at least not immediately dismissable, unlike the rest of her train-wreck. Senor Spielbergo suggested the other day I should be providing suggestions instead of just snark, so here it is. Those of us who believe global warming is both being accelerated by mankind and is something we have the ability to combat need to do a better job of explaining why our contributions to CO2 and methane levels make a big difference even for a comparatively small percentage.

Friday, 24 April 2009

Friday 40K Blogging: Space Squids

At long last my camera is back in action, and we can celebrate with the unveiling of the first two of my Space Squid marines.

Note how they stand guard over a tiny island in a tranquil ocean (which I probably should have hoovered first). Presumably the rest of the squad are still underwater, laying down some sub-aquatic smack.

Also, you'll notice I've decided to put my money where my mouth is and make the Krakens of Greyjoy a non-Caucasian chapter. It's nice to have some variety.

Thursday, 23 April 2009


Whilst driving into work this morning I ended up behind a land rover with a spare wheel cover emblazoned with the Confederate Flag.

This, I have to say, is somewhat confusing. What possible reason could there be for a vehicle in the North East of England to bear the colours of the Confederated States?

Obviously, since the alternative is doing work, I've spent the day coming up with a list of possibilities:
  • The driver loves slavery. Just can't get enough of it. There's always room for more slavery, he thinks to himself, and he doesn't care who knows it;
  • The driver doesn't love slavery, he loves a complex set of other considerations including states' rights and economic independence, and slavery just happens to be in there, honest;
  • Has heard Texas wants to secede again, figures he'll give moral support;
  • Just really fucking likes stars;
  • Offered 20% discount on car if he took the Confederate cover. He couldn't quite bring himself to take the 30% discount for the Swastika cover, or the 50% discount for a cover that reads "We Need More Paedos".
Other suggestions welcome.


It's now been precisely one year since Dr P passed away. I've been thinking about her a lot lately, partially because of the anniversary and partly because of being so close to thesis submission, and having to write my acknowledgments. It's not easy finding the right words to say about someone who worked so hard, with so little time left, entirely for your benefit. Even tenses are proving a problem, since Dr F and I have very different opinions on the afterlife.

I don't believe she exists any more, save in how she's remembered. In case I'm wrong, though, I hope she likes this song, which always reminds me of her. Apologies for the crappy sound.

Wednesday, 22 April 2009

Sport... Sort Of

Ouch. Poor old Steve Davis. He was obviously struggling last night, and from the look of today's scores he didn't do any better.

I'm never sure with the old war horses like Davis, or Jimmy White, as to whether I should be amazed they keep going, or depressed by the diminishing returns I have to watch them go through. I guess there's a larger question here. What means more, the amount of time you can maintain a great talent, or the degree of difference between where you were, and where you are?

Tuesday, 21 April 2009

The Face Of The Enemy

There's been a couple of oblique references in comments recently to my very partisan stance on American politics. I know that I'm significantly to the left by most measures, but I wanted to remind people that that isn't why I'm partisan when it comes to the US. I'm partisan because the Republican Party as an entity [1] is very, very powerful, and totally, irredeemably evil.

In fairness, probably very few of them are what I would describe as evil by design (Mr Cheney, I'm looking at you here). The problem is, as Iain Banks noted in Complicity, if you combine thundering incompetence with the desire for power [2] you're bound to wind up with massive and costly errors, for which you are directly responsible, and wielding power you know (or should know) you are not capable of using sensibly becomes evil to all intents and purposes.

Having spent so much time yesterday arguing that you can't make these generalisations and not offer up a shred of evidence, here's John Boehner, a man who is only not Speaker of the House because the Democrats are in the majority right now.
George, the idea that carbon dioxide is a carcinogen that is harmful to our environment is almost comical. Every time we exhale, we exhale carbon dioxide. Every cow in the world, you know, when they do what they do, you've got more carbon dioxide.
Is he deliberately evil, or so incompetent and ignorant that he might as well be? "Carcinogen" is a word used to describe a substance or phenomenon that has been linked with cancer. If anyone has made the argument that CO2 is a carcinogen, it's news to me. More obviously, though, the man who may be the next Speaker of the House believes that something can't be bad if cows fart it. That, ladies and gentlemen, is his argument. It's pretty irritating when people deliberately ignore subtleties of an argument for the sake of a soundbite, but in this case the "subtlety" is that thanks to us there are a billion fucking cows in the world. Which produce methane, by the way, which is much more of a concern than CO2, though at this point I'm amazed he even managed to correctly identify cows as being part of the discussion.

Incompetence + Power = Evil. There's partisan politics, and then there's just knowing who the enemy is.

[1] Note my cunning sleight-of-hand here, referring to the party as a single unit to prevent me from having to deal with them as individuals. I'm quite sure there are plenty of Republicans who are neither evil nor stupid. As several people more smart than I have have noted, though, the problem with the GOP elders is that stupidity is not seen as an impediment for progress, whereas intelligence is viewed with suspicion.

[2] To be strictly accurate, in that book the observation was made regarding a doctor killing a patient through incompetence, though the more general point was driven home too.

Confectionery Corner

I feel like things have gotten a little heavy around here lately, so let's take a well-earned break and have a look at an anthropomorphic jelly bean anally penetrating a sleeping orange.

This, my friends, is nothing less than a scathing indictment of contemporary society. This is not appropriate packaging for a fruit-flavour sweet.

Perhaps you are thinking "Surely 'tis but coincidence, sirrah." That is because you are pathetically naive (and also apparently a 17th century nobleman). This grotesque abuse of cartoony advertising, known by the ever-eloquent Ibb as "Orange Up-The-Bum" is joined by many other hideous examples of fruity perversion. Observe: Strawberry Sodomy:

These graphic treats are also available in Raspberry Fingering and Apple Hand-Job flavours.

Apparently other countries have cottoned on to the hideous perversions being perpetrated in the UK, and have attempted to solve the problem by removing the faces from the fruits.

All seems well, until you notice Mr Anthro-Bean is rubbing a cherry into his crotch! This is even worse than what has come before! By removing the faces of those involved in this disgusting display of citrus-based fucking, the audience is encouraged to objectify fruit!

Fruit are our friends! Their noble sacrifice allows us to enjoy the banana split and the apple pie, or even a Waldorf salad, if you're completely devoid of even the most rudimentary sense of taste. They deserve better from their animal overlords than to be subjected to this kind of filth. First American Pie, and now this.

I will be writing a stiff letter to the Times about this, I promise you.

Monday, 20 April 2009

Diminishing Returns

It has always been my considered opinion that the Byron storyline in the fifth season of Babylon 5 is under appreciated by many fans ("under appreciated" is not to be mistaken for actually "particularly good", naturally). Probably my favourite Byron moment (for which I can't find a clip) involves him responding to a man's aggressive behaviour by demanding he punch him in the face. He then insists on another hit, and then a third. Standing as tall and still as he can with blood trickling from his face he asks whether the man had gotten what he wanted. Whether those three punches had solved whatever problem the man had assumed would be sorted by beating up a telepath. And if not, why would he assume that punches four to six would succeed where punches one through three had failed?

The point is two-fold. Firstly, a lot of the time, you can't repeat the same action and expect different results (remember the definition of madness?). Second, a scapegoat for your anger and frustration will remain a scapegoat no matter how much damage you do to them.

Byron's beating was the very first thing that came to mind when I read this. What did the interrogators expect to be revealed by waterboarding session one hundred and eighty three that had not been revealed by sessions one through one hundred and eighty two?

The Benefits Of Consideration 2: Over-Consideration Edition

I mentioned on Thursday, whilst discussing David Brook's contention that gut reactions are teh awesome and reasoned responses are teh sux0r, that I thought his piece was silly beyond the obvious point that you can't argue that relying on your own reason is arrogant but relying on your own emotions isn't. I also said that my further objections were somewhat long-winded in nature. Thus, if you're not particularly interested in how I view the world, and our place in it, I'd recommend skipping this post entirely, and coming back later, when I'll presumably be being rude to someone or making dick jokes again.

I spent some time last year discussing Dan Simmon's Hyperion Cantos, which I read in Jersey and Slovenia. Since I've been trying to hawk it to as many of my friends as possible, I won't give too much away here, but a crucial part of the second half of the story involves a young woman named Aenea, and her attempts to set up her own philosophical movement. Said movement, which ultimately becomes known as Aeneanism (though I'm not sure she would have liked the term, and not simply because it's terrible) cobbles together a lot of theories from various religions, particularly Buddhism, but at heart it is explicitly atheist. In fact, the best way to consider the philosophy is an attempt to find a manner by which people can live moral and meaningful lives in a universe which has no greater power to define those terms for us. [1]

Unsurprisingly, this sort of idea is very attractive to a lot of atheists. The two most irritating arguments that are repeatedly put forward by the faithful against atheism (and I had to sit through half a dozen permutations of them during Adventures With Jesus Week) is that without a God there can be no concept of the importance of a human life, nor of how anyone can morally live their life. Aside from this being a really depressing argument (I've never been sure of where the virtue lies in doing good because you've been ordered to), it seems transparently false that, for example, murder or rape is only bad if God tells us, as oppose to us being smart enough to work it out for ourselves.

Aenea would argue that in the absence of God, the most powerful force in the universe is love. Specifically empathy, if love is too wishy-washy and tree-huggy for you. In truth, this is something I've believed for a while, though I confess I'm terribly bad at it in practice, and I don't really see it in the quantum-mechanical level on Aenea deals with it (still, that's fiction for you). People much smarter than me have observed that the correlation between one's empathic level and their tendency towards the left of the political spectrum is actually surprisingly high. This is the second time I've quoted this result, and I still can't remember where I read it, so treat it with caution, but it is certainly true that much of the right prides itself on being realistic and practical, which tends to boil down to ensuring people don't get what they don't deserve [2], rather than trying to find (potentially non-existent) ways by which suffering can be minimised. I can tell you that it's certainly the reason I'm on the left, though whether the chicken came before the egg in this case, I've never been sure.

In fairness, there are many on the right who object to the crusade to make everyone happy purely on the grounds that it's almost certainly impossible, and frequently males things worse in the process (see: Iraq would be better without a fascist dictator in charge [3]). Which is an entirely reasonable position to hold, I guess, but ultimately all it proves is that good intentions need to be tempered by wisdom. Which, of course, we already knew. Well, I say we, presumably David Brooks believes that it's much better to just charge in with the first idea that bothers to saunter into one's head. Unless he thinks that acting from the gut is only good if it's practiced by his fellow Conservatives, of course. I'm honestly not sure which position would make him look more stupid.

That gets me (finally) to my main point, and why it was Brooks of all people that crystallised it for me. I don't think empathic is a specific enough definition. You need to be able to think, too. You need logic in the mix.

Actually, maybe logic is the wrong term. What you really need, and this is something Brooks wouldn't recognise if it kicked him in the junk, is intellectual honesty.

The interesting thing about empathy is that there are three different groups of people to which it must be applied. Those you love, those you hate, and those you don't know. In an ideal world, you're supposed to be able to manage all three. At least, that's what Aenea would tell you. The Bible would too, which is pretty clear on the importance of charity (kindness to strangers) and loving your neighbour (whom you know, but may very well despise). Out in the real world, though, some applications are easier than others.

If we really are going to discuss empathy being more common in liberals, then it's probably worth mentioning what we're talking about is long-range empathy; the desire to do right by people you have never met, and probably never will. That disconnect between you and them makes giving a damn about them all the more laudable, but it also means that there's no personal stake for you in the situation. That's not to say that empathising with strangers is easy, or simple, or that choices don't have to be made, just that one can do all of that without getting tangled up in your own shit.

The thing is, though, whilst long-range empathy is unquestionably important; for the vast, vast majority of us we're not really going to make any difference on that scale anyways. A charitable donation here, a war protest there; it may be what we're supposed to do (and is), but the odds of actually producing change are pretty small. Chaos theory can only get you so far, and I should know.

Aeneanism, at it's heart, is about effecting large scale change by concentrating on your immediate surroundings, and trust that others are doing the same with theirs. And on the local scale is where people can excel. Some of the most moral and caring people I know, people who I suspect would be Aeneans without hesitation if it wasn't an idea cooked up inside a writer's imagination [4], work in this way. Either they try their hardest to care for everyone around them, or they try to care for those that are trying to care for everyone else, which I guess is meta-empathy, and about the best use of someone's time I can think of short of saving puppies from burning buildings.

On this closer level, though, in which you're dealing with the people you interact with on a regular basis, things get confusing. Love thy neighbour is all well and good, but what if your neighbour stole your girlfriend? Or made your best friend miserable? This is why we need to be able to rationalise, and why just reacting from the heart doesn't cut it. If your heart bleeds for the war orphans of Afghanistan, but you won't help your mate out because she was mean to you that time, then exactly what good are you? One of the fundamental constants of human nature is our desire, conscious or otherwise, to justify why we're going to do what we damn well please. If you're doing what you please, it's probably worth spending some time checking that you're lucky enough for your desires to intersect with those of the universe, rather than the far more likely outcome that you're just a dick, who's searching for cover.

This stuff is hard. It's supposed to be hard. If it was easy, everyone would do it, and we'd need to find an alternative goal to aspire to [5]. You should always be suspicious of an easy decision that involves anybody else (I'll grant that you can probably get away with whether or not to have cornflakes for breakfast). And that, I guess, is what all this is really about. Brooks, and others like him, believe that decisions should be easy, and that lives should be unexamined. Which, ironically, an atheist could claim (and many do), were they determined to pretend no-one else existed but themselves, but a Christian cannot. In fact, the most empathic and intellectually rigorous Christians are pretty much indistinguishable from Aeneans when you get down to it, assuming you don't them ask *why* they do what they do. Both sides could do with more of them. In fact, were each side to have enough of them, I'm not sure we'd need to use the word sides at all, but that's a thought I'll just leave hanging for now. Hanging there like a big floppy dick.

Ah. There you go. Normal service resumed.

[1] The universe of the Hyperion Cantos does have higher powers, in fact, but they are non-prescriptive, and possibly not even sentient in the way we conceive the term. The point is; they might offer the *means* by which we can become more than we are, but the choice to pay the price and take the leap is entirely our own.

[2] This is one of those things I can never understand. It seems pretty much axiomatic that in any society which offers aid to the people that most need it that there will exist other people who find a way to acquire that aid without actually qualifying for it. That's just human nature, combined with the sheer impossibility (and undesirability) of a government keeping a close eye on everyone at once. I've yet to meet anyone on the right who didn't think that benefit fraud wasn't evidence that benefits should be cut, despite the fact that this would guarantee less money for the people that genuinely need it. In other words, ensuring no-one gets a free lunch trumps ensuring those who can't buy their lunches still get fed.

[3] Which, I confess, I agreed with. Hell, I still agree with it, in theory, but "in theory" is a pretty dangerous term to use when you're talking about demolishing countries and then rebuilding them. Chaos theory will only let you go so far.

[4] Well, with one exception, but she's a Christian, which is cheating.

[5] Don't get me wrong, I'd like to live in a world where not being a prick was a universal quality. But we've existed as a species for two million years and we're still not all on-board with "no genocide", so I'm not holding my breath.

Saturday, 18 April 2009

Not Very PC, But...

...This was just too ridiculously funny not to share: Nazi Squid!

Cool Kids

Can anyone with a longer memory than me answer a quick question: has Naomi Klein always been this retarded?

Friday, 17 April 2009

Torturous Logic: Show Your Working

The "torture memos" have been released. I considered wading through the 100 or so pages, but so many others are doing it better that I suspect I'd be entirely superfluous.

One thing that I do want to flag up, though, is this quote from Ackerman.
Most of this story -- the torture techniques (except for the insects); the OLC blessings and reblessings -- has been thoroughly reported already.
(Emphasis mine). The US was using insects in interrogation sessions? That almost literally makes my skin crawl. Doubtless a large part of that is my phobia of insects, but then that's kind of my point. I can't imagine being tortured. Not really. I've never really been in the amount of pain and discomfort such things are designed to inflict. What I can imagine, though I'd really rather not, is the terror someone could force me to feel with the simple application of an awful lot of bugs. I can't imagine going through a few more minutes of being in close proximity of even a small number of, say, cockroaches before I'd be willing to admit to absolutely anything. It's my Room 101. I'm not sure it's rational to be more bothered by the States picking up techniques from 1984 than from the Japanese in WWII, but that's where I seem to be.

I'm sure for some people this all sounds weird, getting freaked out by a couple of flies or what have you. The point is, though, that the interrogators used this tactic on someone they knew had the same phobia. Moreover, they combined it with sticking the victim inside a "confinement box" at the same time.

I have no doubt on a rational level that were I to be subjected to water-boarding, or sleep deprivation, or the deliberate infliction of muscle fatigue (all of which are included as viable methods in the memos), that I probably wouldn't hold out for long. The deliberate installation of what I can only describe as mortal terror, though, is the first method I've come across that immediately strikes me as something I couldn't stand even for the shortest amount of time. Quite aside from the morality issues involved, how could anyone possibly use this technique and claim the resulting information was remotely reliable?

h/t to Robert Farley.

Update: forgot to include the actual link to the memos.

Friday Comedy: Marcus Brigstocke

Still no sign of my bleeding camera. Also: too long since we've had any Brigstocke over here.

Thursday, 16 April 2009

Snark Of The Day

I can't remember who I cribbed "Snark of the Day" from, so my apologies to them for not offering a specific hat tip.

Steve Benen on the Republican "agenda":

Imagine having an iPod and putting your entire music library on the hard drive -- consisting of only two songs. You can put it on shuffle, but all you'd hear are the same two songs, over and over again.

The Republican leadership's economic agenda is that iPod -- the same two songs for every situation. Worse, the songs aren't just old, they were never especially good in the first place.

The Benefits Of Consideration

A lot of stuff has been swirling round my head lately regarding morality and empathy; the usual things that start wandering through my brain-pan late at night. I wasn't really sure how to start off, though, until I came across this from David Brooks:
Think of what happens when you put a new food into your mouth. You don't have to decide if it's disgusting. You just know. You don't have to decide if a landscape is beautiful. You just know.

Moral judgments are like that. They are rapid intuitive decisions and involve the emotion-processing parts of the brain. Most of us make snap moral judgments about what feels fair or not, or what feels good or not. We start doing this when we are babies, before we have language. And even as adults, we often can’t explain to ourselves why something feels wrong.

In other words, reasoning comes later and is often guided by the emotions that preceded it. Or as Jonathan Haidt of the University of Virginia memorably wrote, "The emotions are, in fact, in charge of the temple of morality, and ... moral reasoning is really just a servant masquerading as a high priest." (...)

The rise and now dominance of this emotional approach to morality is an epochal change. It challenges all sorts of traditions. It challenges the bookish way philosophy is conceived by most people. It challenges the Talmudic tradition, with its hyper-rational scrutiny of texts. It challenges the new atheists, who see themselves involved in a war of reason against faith and who have an unwarranted faith in the power of pure reason and in the purity of their own reasoning.
Hilzoy, who is an expert in the field, rather than just a curious bystander like me, deconstructs this pretty quickly, basically by pointing out that claiming the ability to make emotional moral decisions "challenges the bookish way" is exactly the same argument as claiming Venus Williams "challenges" the laws of motion; just because someone can (or in Brooks case, thinks they can) understand instinctively doesn't mean it is useless to attempt to codify it.

My problem with this is somewhat different (which is not to say Hilzoy's point isn't extremely well-taken). Actually, I have two problems. One of them links to what's been rattling around my brain, which probably deserves a post to itself. My first issue, though, is this: trying to argue that atheists who are overly reliant on their own reasoning are challenged by the idea that one can reason emotionally is about the most stupid thing I've read all year. It is certainly true that plenty of atheists assume that their own ability to reason is sufficient to "go it alone" in the world, and more on that in the follow-up post, but a person who utilises "emotional" responses (by which Brooks appears to mean "unthinking" responses) is doing exactly the the same thing minus contemplation. It's no less based on an individual's faith in themselves, it's simply that Brooks apparently believes self-belief is more warranted if it is based on one's gut, rather than one's head.

The whole point of reasoning one's response to a situation or problem is that it's supposed to make it less likely that you're just following biological programming or tawdry self-interest. It doesn't always work out that way, obviously, but deliberately removing the process entirely just guarantees there's going to be a fuck up. We are by nature selfish creatures, a fact which you don't need to be an atheist to recognise. To Brooks, though, thinking is the problem. Reason leads to arrogance, whereas apparently doing the first thing that occurs to you is a much more sensible plan.

Apparently, there are still parts of the American Right that can't get past the "truthiness" bullshit (copyright Stephen Colbert) that's been plaguing them, and us, for such a horribly long time.

Wednesday, 15 April 2009

Snow And Sugar-Lumps

Absolutely snowed under right now, what with the new job and finishing the thesis, to say nothing of still not having internet access at home.

So nothing too impressive today. I have a half-formed idea for something serious (and probably tedious) for later in the week.

Thus I attempt to preemptively balance the books with a song from the second series of Flight of the Conchords that I can't stop listening to.

The second song in this episode isn't nearly as good, though it does contain the line "You can say no to being a man-ho", which should be etched in stone and displayed to the next ten generations.

Tuesday, 14 April 2009

Planet Of The Dead Lazy

First, a disclaimer: I actually really quite enjoyed the Doctor Who Easter special a great deal. RTD's continued insistence on trying to make everyday people into heroes simply by dint of them not totally freaking out (there is no way in Hell you can persuade me Nathan and Barclay will make for good UNIT soldiers purely because they turned out to be good at digging, and provided no immediate evidence of their incompetence), and we really need to get beyond the idea that aliens are just people with animal heads (and yes, I know these ones had weird hands too, you don't get extra points for that, particularly since they apparently have ears compatible with blu-tooth headsets), but in general it all worked out.

I also got the distinct impression that Davies was trying a little harder than usual to up his game rationality-wise. Whether or not that means he's listened to people's criticism [1], or just independently realised where he was going wrong, or even if I'm seeing things that aren't there, it was a definite step forward.

Of course, the fact that much of this story was a cut above the normal dross that escapes Davies' typewriter just made his lapses into laziness all the more obvious. The best example of this occurred less than five minutes in, and demonstrates exactly the problem I have with Davies' writing in particular, and Nu Who as a whole. It's all about the progression. The story requires a London bus ends up passing through a wormhole, with an international art thief (or whatever) on board. Therefore we need a reason for the thief to be on the bus. She's being chased by the police. Fine. But we also need the Doctor on the bus. Let's have him scouting around for Whateveratron Particles. Fine (though over-used). Now, though, you have a panicked, adrenaline-crazed thief sat next to a man using bizarre technology to sniff weirdness out on a bus. Maybe this worries her enough for her to try and get off. Maybe it freaks her out but decides she's going to stay put. Either way, you need some kind of reaction.

Fuck it, Davies thinks, she just sits there, for some reason.

Now the police have reached the bus, sirens blazing. Why wouldn't the driver stop?

Fuck it, Davies thinks, he just doesn't notice, or something.

There's a more irritating example at the end of the story. The "200 Destroyer" is about to escape the oncoming swarm on its anti-grav system. The swarm are almost touching the bus by the time it escapes.

Hah! thinks Davies, thus have I introduced dramatic tension.

The bus makes it back to Earth, and flies around for a bit. No aliens appear. Eventually three of them turn up. This allows UNIT to start shooting at them.

Hah! thinks Davies, thus have I introduced an action sequence.

The obvious problem with this is: where is the rest of swarm?

Fuck it, Davies thinks, they just all stop for no fucking reason at all.

This is why I can't stand Davies a lot of the time. All the evidence suggests that he decides on his set-pieces first, and then strings them together in whatever cack-handed manner he can be bothered with. As I say, this particular story did it better than most, but the joins still stick out like a sore thumb. It's just a muddled rush to the next action scene, character moment, or one-liner (and the "I don't believe it, guns that work!" joke was pretty damn funny to anyone who remembers UNIT during Pertwee's tenure). It's the story-telling equivalent of getting on a roller-coaster and then squeezing your eyes shut and humming loudly every time you're ascending. The ascents are important. They provide context; anticipation. There's a reason why quiet-loud-quiet-MASSIVELY LOUD works so well (and not just in TV). In Doctor Who "quiet" too often translates into the sound of one man shrugging his shoulders.

[1] This is another one in a long series of side-issues, but could I make a small request. Just a little one. If you have ever, in any way, suggested that an artist of any stripe should mock criticism rather than listen to it, or that an artist is so talented and/or popular that they are immune from criticism entirely, then take yourself outside and shoot yourself in the fucking head. Please. The human race doesn't need you. People are supposed to get better. Getting better is the whole point of life, to the extent that it exists at all. If you want to shrug your shoulders and say "Meh, it'll do", that's your prerogative, but maybe you should sit down and shut up and leave the people who want to progress alone.

Monday, 13 April 2009

The Space Squids

Usually whilst I'm on holiday I like to write as much as humanly possible (in fact, Commanding The Kingfisher was mainly written on a trip to Scotland way back in 2005). This time round, though, I spent most of my typing time either working on my thesis or proof-reading my first novel (more on that later in the month, hopefully), so the only thing new I managed was the first piece of background for my Space Marines chapter. I showed you their colour scheme a while ago, which has now been slightly re-jigged (photos of the first couple of models as soon as my camera returns).
"A battle-brother must welcome combat on any terrain. From swampland to savanna, desert to jungle, and from sea to sky to space. The enemies of the Emperor must know that there is no place to hide, merely a thousand alternatives as to where they will meet their end." - Roboute Gulliman, Codex Astartes.

"Once a year, regular as you like, them haughty Ultramarines arrive in orbit, dive into the sea, and start knocking the stuffing out of the local fellsharks. What's the use in that? I've fought in three dozen wars in this blighted subsector, faced off against howling Orks and shadowy Eldar, but not once in my years of service has a fish picked up a chainsword and gone for my throat." - Colonel Vertelli, Isokan 3rd.
The problem with becoming the perfect warrior is that there exists no reliable metric by which perfection can be measured. Success, certainly; that is defined in terms of casualties caused, engagements won, and, with luck, by not dying at the end of the day. Perfection is something different.

How does one define perfection? Does it require the mastery of a single discipline, or competence in multiple fields? A man is not an Eldar, Emperor be praised; we lack the near-immortality required to master each form of combat one after the other. Nor do we need fear casting our nets wide. The Eldar may know in their rotten souls that to choose from two options is to always choose the most pleasurable one, but the children of the Imperium are made of sterner stuff. For the superhuman warriors of the Adeptus Astartes, all that need be considered is how to dedicate each day to the pursuit of becoming a more proficient killer.

Still, though, choices must be made. The Codex Astartes is quite clear; the Space Marine must face his foe on a thousand different battlefields, and defeat him on every one of them. Such perfection lies beyond a human lifetime, even one enhanced by the arcane genetic techniques of a chapter's apothecaries. To excel at one kind of combat is to neglect all others, but to learn to fight on a hundred surfaces is to risk being beaten by one hundred different kinds of specialist.

The Codex Astartes teaches, almost above all else, that a chapter must be independent. The arrival of companies from other chapters in one's battlezone is either fortuitous, or a commentary on the seriousness of a current engagement, but that is all. Indeed, how could Guilliman's masterwork speak otherwise? After the darkness and destruction of the Horus Heresy, in which misplaced loyalty to the tainted Warmaster had dragged fully half the Space Marine legions into chaos and damnation, nothing was more important than promoting independence at the expense of tactical co-operation.

Roboute was a tactical and strategic genius, but he was not a prophet. In the centuries since the Second Founding, events have made clear the drawbacks to the Primarch's approach. The Age of Apostasy demonstrated the difficulty in dealing with Imperium-wide rebellion when no obvious authority existed, and the Badab Uprising proved that it was still entirely possible for multiple chapters to mutiny against the Imperium given the right circumstances.

Despite these incidents revealing problems with the approach in the Index Astartes, few chapters have attempted to strengthen ties with their fellows. As a general rule, any chapter arrogant and indiosyncratic enough to flout the Index is unlikely to welcome closer relations with their fellows.

Such was the situation in M.38 when the Krakens of Greyjoy were founded, named after the giant sea-creatures that inhabited the deep oceans of Greyjoy, a hive world deep in the Ultima Segmentum. Given the world of Four Feathers, in a neighbouring system to Greyjoy, from which to recruit, the Krakens never even began construction of a fortress monastery. Their first Chapter Master, Hector Rekasson, refused to allow his nascent army to engage in combat of any form for an entire year, trying the patience of several governors of nearby worlds and attracting the unwelcome interest of more than one Inquisitor. If this discontent troubled Rekasson, there was no sign. Perhaps he knew nothing of it, for those first twelve months in which the chapter were ostensibly operational, Rekasson was locked within his quarters on the chapter's only battle-barge, the Intractable, with naught within but a sanitation cubicle and a copy of the Codex Astartes.

Precisely one year from the maiden voyage of the Intractable, Rekasson emerged. He addressed the brothers of the Krakens of Greyjoy chapter in a fleet-wide broadcast. The Codex Astartes, he told them, was a book designed to limit the fallout of treachery. For those whose loyalty was unquestionable, the tome was to be honoured, not to be followed blindly. The future of the Imperium lay not in a thousand bickering tribes, but in a finely-honed million-strong army. While total integration of the loyalist chapters was impossible, it was time for each of the thousand armies of the Astartes to become part of a greater whole. And the Krakens would lead the way.

Beyond a small facility to deal with potential recruits to the Chapter's 10th Company, the Krakens built almost nothing on the surface of Four Feathers. Instead, they toured the Segmentum, taking every opportunity to fight underwater, and training in deep space in-between. Rekasson's dream was to lead the Imperium's greatest aquatic fighting force, a deeply specialised chapter that could sweep all before it deep in the sunless oceans of the galaxy. In this way he offered his answer to the dilemma of perfection. Let the Ultramarines or the Imperial Fists attempt to be all things to all men. The Krakens of Greyjoy would forgo ninety nine battles out of a hundred, if that last skirmish brought them glory.

Though none in the chapter would admit to it, there is some evidence to suggest that in their first 150 years of existence, the Krakens fought fewer engagements than any other chapter. What they were happy to discuss, however, was their massively high success rate. On the forge world of Folstoii, the Ork Warboss Slitjaw attempted to circumvent the overwhelming defences of the mighty spires by constructing fleets of submersibles with which to destroy the power-lines which snaked towards the sulphur fissures in the world's ocean floors. The Krakens annihilated every single enemy vessel within twenty-four hours of their arrival in-system. When the eel-like Z'Cex took up residence in the purple oceans of Karranac, terrorizing the peoples of that world's narrow archipelagos, Rekasson and two hundred of his battle brothers exterminated their deep-sea hives within the space of a month, a feat which astonished the White Panthers, who had been fighting to reclaim Karranac over a month.

Whilst many might be happy to make this choice of quality over quantity, however, it is not a decision that the war-torn Imperium can well afford. The enemies of man attack unceasingly from all directions. What good is the efficient destruction of one alien force if fifty more await their chance to strike? Aquatic combat was a rarity; the Z'Cex were a minor race when compared to the Tau, or even the Tarellians or the Hrud, and few other species were any happier fighting underwater than was humanity. It became increasingly plain that the idiosyncracies of the Krakens would not be tolerated indefinitely. Inquisitorial investigation was threatened, a process that might conceivably lead to excommunication.

Whether or not Rekasson would have backed down is something historians will never know. The stand-off between the Krakens and the larger authority of the Imperium was broken when Hive Fleet Kraken entered the Milky Way. The Tyranids were an enemy able and willing to adapt to any conceivable battlefield. Whilst one set of hideous biological constructs rampaged across the land, fin-tailed raveners and jet-propelled hydrogaunts filled the oceans, consuming all in their path. The skill-set of Rekasson's chapter went from being ludicrously specific to endlessly useful. It is claimed by some that the Krakens of Greyjoy fought more battles in the five years following the new Hive Fleet's appearance than they had in the rest of their history combined.

As such, their reputation began to change. Across the Eastern Fringe, the people of sea and shore offered up prayers for deliverance to Rekasson and his Chapter, even after the Chapter Master himself died on the unlit seabed of Shelah, atop the body of the largest Hive Tyrant ever witnessed. Word of mouth spread that only one force could save humanity from the pitiless horrors that lurked in the deep, waiting to strike.

Although still known officially as the Krakens of Greyjoy, by the early years of the 40th Millennium no-one on the Eastern Fringe was particularly keen to use that name. Instead, across the Fringe and beyond, the chapter had become known as the Space Squids.

Booze; Diplomacy; What Could Go Wrong?

Came across this story in the Observer yesterday, about the pub that's divided between Slovenia and Croatia.

It strikes me as a bit of a shame that a pub has to be guarded by both sides, and yet none of them ever have a cheeky pint at lunch together for fear of starting a war. Not that I'm suggesting all complex geo-political disputes can be resolved over alcohol, you understand, but having spent three weeks in Slovenia I can't help thinking their border patrol at least are forgoing their heritage in not spending their coffee breaks chugging Union pivo.

Oh, and in point of fact, Slovenians and Croatia have fought a war, right at the start of the break-up of Yugoslavia, but it only lasted ten days, since the Slovenians just wanted to be left alone and the Croatians had much bigger problems.

Update: Jamie points out that I managed to spend the entire post writing "Serbia" instead of "Slovenia", which makes absolutely zero sense, since I've only been to the latter. Clearly my week away has led to a greater degree of head-mushing than I had realised...

Work Is Teh Sux0r

Back from my tour of the South (which, it turns out, is really big). And, at long last, I finally have access to the internet again. Obviously, this comes at a price. Whilst you people are lounging with indolence on picnic blankets whilst sipping refreshing cocktails (or at least I presume you will be once you get out of bed), some of us are chained to the desk at our brand new job. Yes, I know, I am shirking that very job by posting this, but it's Easter Monday so shut up.

More to come once I reboot my mind, which is still in a state of some confusion from having spent a full day without any booze.

Friday, 3 April 2009

I'm On Standby

No updates until the 12th at the earliest, people (try not to weep openly), as I am embarking on my holiday. Or, to be strictly and depressingly accurate, I am continuing the thesis write-up in a different county, in the company of friends.

So here's Grandaddy to play me out. I wouldn't recommend watching the video itself, though, unless you have a strong desire to see children pretending to be American football players apparently infected with some kind of zombie virus.

Of course, you might want to see that kind of thing, but if so I'd recommend keeping it quiet.

Thursday, 2 April 2009

Streams Of Consciousness And Beer

SpaceSquid has wasted his lunch hour fighting with Durham County Council. He is displeased.

SS: I have wasted my lunch hour fighting with Durham County Council. I am displeased.
Bighead: I thought they were giving the council the chop this month?
J-Dog: Not the whole council. Just one layer.
Bighead: Like they did with Stockton?
SS: And the rest of Cleveland, back in the Nineties. That's why SpaceSquid Senior started working in the private sector. Made us all rich, 'til he decided he couldn't be arsed.
J-Dog: That selfish prick.
SS: I know! We could have had a yacht by now.
J-Dog: You wouldn't know what to do with a yacht. Well, other than fill a swimming pool with booze and floating it on top. Go for a swim every now and again.
SS: Nobody would be allowed to swim in it! Risk of contamination. It's hard balancing alcoholism with germophobia.
Bighead: You could sit on deck with a long straw.
J-Dog: Or buy a submarine.
SS: Now there's a plan. I could just drink from the ballast tanks whenever I got thirsty. I could try to drink them dry and bring the sub to the surface.
J-Dog: I don't think that's in line with the laws of physics.
SS: So I'm just a drunk guy in a submarine? I'm actually pretty much OK with that. We could take her for trips through Durham.
J-Dog: Along the Wear? I wouldn't advise it.
SS: Yeah, I suppose the decontamination procedure would need to be pretty thorough. What we really need is some kind of device that can convert the ocean to beer. Sure, all the fish would die, but we'd all be too drunk to care.
J-Dog: But if the ocean is made of beer, you wouldn't be able to sell it.
SS: I don't want to sell it. I want to drink it. I'm not a seller, I'm a buyer, and now I can buy it for zero pence. This is my favourite amount of pence.
Bighead: You could try and build the device so it only works on British territorial waters.
SS: I would suggest that that would be ludicrous, but I sense that ship has sailed.
Bighead: Or maybe an inland body of water, like the Caspian Sea.
SS: Isn't that drying up due to global warming. About which I was only slightly concerned, until it threatened my vast beer reservoir.
Bighead: We can alter the chemical composition of beer, to give it a lower heat level.
SS: Lower heat level? What the fuck is that? You're supposed to be a scientist!
Bighead: Fine. Lower boiling point.
J-Dog: It wouldn't boil, surely.
SS: It wouldn't need to. It's that triple-state-point-thing.
J-Dog: Fucking physics.
SS: I'm pretty sure it's chemistry.
J-Dog: Fucking chemistry.
SS: Damn right, fucking chemistry. Can we make sure we're bigoted towards the right science, please?
J-Dog: Fucking science.
Bighead: Even maths?
SS: Especially maths. And we should know. Besides, everyone hates maths. Or thinks they do, at least. What most people think is maths is just arithmetic. It is not maths if it can be performed by monkeys with an abacus in exchange for bananas.
Bighead: Apparently baby chicks can count.
J-Dog: Won't be long until we start hiring them for postdocs, then.
SS: Does that mean that the first chick can actually count its brother chicks before they've hatched?


J-Dog: I hope a chick gets your job.
SS: If she's hot, then so do I.


J-Dog: You are really off your game today.
SS: I wanted to use my lunch hour writing jokes, but I have wasted my lunch hour fighting with Durham County Council. I am displeased.
J-Dog: The Rule of Three is the last refuge of the twelfth-rate.
SS: Fucking Rule of Three.
J-Dog ...Point taken.

Wednesday, 1 April 2009

Belgrano sinks LOL!

Irritatingly, I forgot today was April Fool's Day until it was already too late, so I couldn't come up with something hilarious for the blog.

This, however, would have beaten the crap out of anything I could have come up with in any case.


I haven't written anything about the Credit Crunch because economics is one of those subjects I just can't get my head round. SpaceAccountant was nice enough to sit me down once and patiently explain why we need interest rates, and that's literally as far as I've gotten.

So I'm not shooting my mouth off about it.

The one thing I have been tempted to write about is the fuss over traders demanding they get their bonuses/retention payments, even after the world has woken up to find it's blown all it's money and will now have to crash on Saturn's couch. Even for someone who doesn't know his ISAs from his FSA, there's something distinctly fishy about a bonus for which there is literally no criteria under which you don't deserve it, short of being fired.

Fortunately I don't have to dirty my hands, though, because Mark Taibbi has done the job for me.
Out in the real world, when your company burns a house down, you're not getting paid by that client. It's only on Wall Street, where the every-man-for-himself ethos is built into an insanely selfish and greed-addled compensation system, that people like you expect to get paid in a bubble -- only there do people expect their performance bonuses no matter how much money the shareholders lose overall, no matter how many people get laid off after the hostile takeover, no matter how ill-considered the mortgages lent out by your division were.

You expect that money because you think it's owed to you. But what money? The money is gone. Your boss, if not you, set it all afire. You want the money, but where exactly do you think it's coming from?

Do you just not understand that that money now would have to come out of someone else's pocket? That it would have to come from middle-class taxpayers, real plumbers, people who didn't make millions over the years in equity and commodity trading?
That's my favourite part, but the rest of it is great as well.

h/t to MGK.