Sunday, 31 May 2009

More Struggling With Empathy

I can't get hold of David Brooks latest op-ed because I'm not a subscriber to the NYT. This is a shame, because he's talking about the empathy subject again, which is always interesting. The only extract I have (h/t Attaturk) makes him seem somewhat disingenuous, but it would be nice to see it in context.

Here it, for what it's worth.
Right-leaning thinkers from Edmund Burke to Friedrich Hayek understood that emotion is prone to overshadow reason. They understood that emotion can be a wise guide in some circumstances and a dangerous deceiver in others. It’s not whether judges rely on emotion and empathy, it’s how they educate their sentiments within the discipline of manners and morals, tradition and practice.
Uh huh.

Once again we find ourselves presented with a classic Conservative trick. Emotion and empathy aren't the same thing. Arguing against empathy per se is harder to do, though, so Brook assumes that empathic judgement leads to emotional judgement, and then says that's bad. [1]

Without access to the whole piece, I obviously have to be careful in drawing conclusions. What I feel comfortable saying is that Brook will, almost certainly, be trying one of two things. Either he will be hoping no-one notices his rather shoddy sleight of hand (which is both dishonest and insulting to his readers), or he earlier (or later) in the column will have conceded that "No-one is saying empathic judgements are or must lead to emotional judgments, but" which is a fairly common tactic amongst journalists and commentators and essentially means "I can't object to the current situation A, so I'll object to B, a situation that hasn't occurred, and then point out that B is not unreachable from A". Which is more honest, of course, but also renders the whole thing kind of pointless.

My main problem with this paragraph, though, is the suggestion that it's right-leaning thinkers who are aware that emotion can cloud reason. It isn't. Smart people across the board that are aware of that, thank you very much. Anyone who thinks that the right has clear-headed thinking sewn up really hasn't been paying attention.

Update: Thanks to Tom, I've finally read the entire text of Brook's column. It's actually very strong in a lot of places, but I stand by my original conclusion that he's conflated empathy and emotion and gone on from there.

[1] Which is often true, but it's worth noting that a combination of emotional and empathic judging would be superior to emotional judging on its own, since the former means letting ones sympathy get in the way, and the latter substitutes that sympathy for naked self-interest. It's also fun to listen to a man who supported John McCain (who ran a campaign that, whatever else it was, was pretty unambiguously aimed at persuading people to vote emotionally) suggest that cool-headed logic is a good thing. Or maybe I'm being unfair. Brooks notes the right understands how emotion can lead to bad decisions, but he doesn't actually suggest it's wrong to manipulate that truth to one's own ends.

Saturday, 30 May 2009


Right, so, musicians. Generally speaking, the vast majority of those that reach a level that can be described as "famous" can be broken into two categories. Type 1 insists on childish whining about the fact that just because one has money and fame and drugs and adoring fans and blow-jobs on tap doesn't automatically make one happy [1]. The easiest way to recognise one of these people is to listen to the first album they write after they've hit the big time, and count the number of songs called "No-One Really Knows Me", or "She's Best Friends With My Overstuffed Wallet", or "My Blow-Job Tap Has Started Running Cold", or some other variation on the solipsistic bitching song.

The second kind are entirely aware of this phenomenon, and take steps to avoid it. Ben Folds springs immediately to mind, he says in "One Down":
I'm really not complaining
I realise it's just a job
I hate hearing bellyaching rock stars
Whine and sob
'Cos I could be busting tables
I could well be pumping gas
But I get paid much finer
Playing piano and kissing ass.
Counting Crows, in theory, are of that second grouping too, at least to some extent. Recovering The Satellites might have been mainly about Duritz's post-fame breakdown, and "Have You Seen Me Lately" might just as well have been entitled "Just Because You Buy My Music Doesn't Mean I Want To Make Eye Contact", but Duritz at least had the grace to apologise for his dabbling in Second Album Syndrome, and point out that the rock star life style does genuinely have attendant problems. Ones that have to be considered alongside the obvious advantages, yes, but problems nonetheless.

So, whilst a lot of famous singers are miserable, whinging douche-bags, I do have sympathy with the line that it's a job with its own set of drawbacks.

If it is just another job, then, how about people do it fucking properly?

I remember watching an interview with Gomez during the six months they were the next best thing, and one of their three lead singers (I can't remember, but I think it was the one who sounded like a leopard singing through a suede balaclava whilst being wanked to climax) was whining about how they don't like playing their songs the same way they recorded them. "That's boring; who wants to do that?" Well, maybe no-one. But if this is a job, then I couldn't give a flying fuck if you're bored, do your job. Sing the fucking song I paid to hear.

The Rolling Stones have the same problem, insisting on peppering their set-lists with their newer, far crappier songs. "We get more of a buzz playing the new stuff", they claimed at one point. I don't care. People paid seventy-odd quid for your gig, and it wasn't to listen to Mick Jagger play guitar. Sing "You Can't Always Get What You Want". Do your job. [2]

The 10% of Wednesday's Crows gig that pissed me off was an off-shoot of the same problem. The Crows have always had a habit of reworking their songs, adding sections, mixing them together. I tend to be OK with that in this case, mainly because they tend to work really well (and if I like songs X and Y I’m generally going to be OK with the song (X-a)+(Y-b), where a is a verse and b is a chorus, or sometimes a middle eight). What doesn't work, and will carry the death penalty as soon as I finally work out how to rule the world (or at least the music industry) , is just randomly making up tempos and melodies for each line. Mr Duritz; you are not Alanis Morissette. Also: Alanis Morissette is shite. And, whilst Duritz is choosing his pitch according to an arcane and baffling stochastic process, the rest of the band are playing the song the same way they always do. I paid forty squids to attend a fucking karaoke competition. With only one contestant. Who was retarded.

This nonsense must cease. I came to a gig to hear songs I like. Or songs I don't like, but might change my mind on, or even songs I haven't heard before. Not to hear songs that are structurally similar to ones I like, but have then been re-scored by a tin-eared idiot. You're trying to persuade people to buy your records; how is that going to work if you make all your songs shittier?

Stop fucking around. Do your job.

[1] I once heard Richard Burton point out "I've been rich and miserable, and I've been poor and
miserable. Rich is better." Anyone who ever finds themselves with a bank balance in seven figures should be forced to have that tattooed to the insides of their eyelids.

[2] A qualification here. If a band in its declining years insists on playing their pathetic imitations of past glories in order to shift more albums, then I'm fine with that (disappointed, but fine). Even superstars need to put bread on the table (or cocaine on the silky thighs of a hooker). But whilst most bands make losses on a tour and thus need to shift units, the Rolling Stones make a profit on their tour. They could just play their best songs each time, and never sell another album, and still continue to swell their already massive coffers. Once you get to that stage, if your fans (read "customers") are telling you to get your head out of your arse, then maybe you should live the fantasy that you're still talented exclusively in the recording studio, and spend your tours just actually being good.

Friday, 29 May 2009

But... What? Seriously, What?

Another update for the "Watch the GOP go Motherfucking Crazy" file. Ladies and gentlemen, Mr Rush Limbaugh:
If ever a civil rights movement was needed in America, it is for the Republican Party. If ever we needed to start marching for freedom and Constitutional rights, it's for the Republican Party. The Republican Party is today's oppressed minority. It knows how to behave as one. It shuts up. It doesn't cross bridges, it doesn't run into the Bull Connors of the Democrat Party. It is afraid of the firehouses and the dogs, it's compliant. The Republican Party today has become totally complacent. They are an oppressed minority, they know their position, they know their place. They go to the back of the bus, they don't use the right restroom and the right drinking fountain, and they shut up. I don't think this way, I don't think of myself as an oppressed minority. Or as a member of an oppressed minority. And I hope I never do think of myself as one.
A number of immediate points spring to mind:

1) How is accusing a Supreme Court nominee of being racist "shut[ting] up"? Or continuing to threaten to filibuster bills with majority support, for that matter? Or arguing carbon dioxide can't be harmful because we breathe it out? People might not be listening, but that's very different to the GOP not talking.
2) Who exactly are the Bull Connors of the "Democrat" Party, and why didn't I hear about it when they turned riot hoses and dogs on Republicans?
3) How great must your problem with cognitive dissonance become when you suggest your political party requires a civil rights movement, whilst ignoring the fact that your party opposed the civil rights movement?
4) On a similar note, is there any clearer indication of Limbaugh's total absence critical faculties than the fact he cannot distinguish between a white person complying to a defeated mindset and a black person complying to actual fucking laws?
5) Does Limbaugh actually have any idea what the word "complacent" means? It's not often that the word is combined with "afraid", "compliant", and "oppressed".

Let's not forget that high-profile Republicans who question the world according to Limbaugh (despite his obvious problems with history, analogy, and also adjectives) are forced to publicly apologise. Were he not so powerful, he would just be one more small-minded, vicious clown for right-thinking people to ignore. That's not where we are, though. As I've said before, the GOP can recover from their current position, but it can't happen without some fairly major rebelling against the current "leadership".

h/t to Hilzoy.

(Edited for clarity)

Friday Comedy: Bill Bailey (feat. Billy Bragg)

Bill Bailey and Billy Bragg sing a song written by the former as a tribute to the latter. Nice.

Thursday, 28 May 2009

Shake #8

Today's shake: Raspberry Jam

Taste: 7
Texture: 6
Scorn: 4
Synergy: 7
Total Score: 6.5

General Comments: Remember Raspberry Ripple ice-cream? That was my favourite flavour as a kid. Well, think of that, but without the necessity of chomping through the boring vanilla bits as you search for the next skein of fruity goodness. That's pretty much what we're talking about here. The only real problem is that the less solid nature of a shake compared to ice-cream means the raspberry seeds settle at the bottom, leading to an unfortunate conclusion to the experience for unwary drinkers.

Wherein The Rocking Is Epic

I went to see Counting Crows last night, an experience which I would describe as roughly 90% awesome. The remaining 10% is brewing in my brain, waiting for a post to be composed on the subject. The full thing will have to come later, since I'm swamped with maths today, but the general drift of the argument is that bands should by and large remember that people go to gigs because they like the songs, not because they want to see those particular people doing whatever the fuck they please on any given night.

For now though, and on a similar note (no pun intended), I offer 101 rules for power metal bands, in the hopes that one day all music across the world will be forced into obeying strict laws, divided by genre.

h/t to BigHead.

Wednesday, 27 May 2009

The Good Old Days

Remember how things used to be? Back when the Democrats dealt with the Republicans by trying to prove they were tougher, even though it never worked (see below)?

When did the Republicans move from "Jump off this cliff!" to "Pretend you're just as scared of the cliff as we are, even though it's miles away and adequately roped off!"? And what is Harry Reid thinking when he accepts the challenge?

Trying to look tough in politics is irritating and frequently counter-productive, but I get it. Trying to look scared? It's just embarrassing.

Update: Apparently Reid may have already got the message.

Tuesday, 26 May 2009

Geek Phraseology

In the last four days great advances have been made in geek-speak (or at least our chapter's version of same). We can now reveal the results of our back-breaking labour

Prevenge: to take revenge before your enemy has time to wrong you in the first place. Once could consider this a pre-emptive strike, but the latter usually requires a degree of proof of intent that this new phrase does away with entirely.
Lancashire Tapas: Regional cooking form comprising in the main of a variety of pork and potato products, introduced to differing degrees of boiling fat.
Miscuit: a new form of snack food, comprising of cookies studded with lumps of salted beef or ham.
Mills & Bourne: A new genre of literature in which lethal female assassins fall in love with distant men and spend all their time wondering why they never call, or sometimes shooting people.
Small Hairy Smelly Cave: Antiquated term for Special Drawer.

Please update your phrase books accordingly.

Monday, 25 May 2009

You Big Hairy Smelly

Another weekend of debauchery and gaming has led to further ruminations on the nature of game--playing (it's also led to more than one hangover, but what else is there to do in Ramsbottom but drink?)

It's a pretty obvious point that one of the major attractions to roleplay is the same as the major attraction to video games; they allow you to pretend you can do things that you actually never could. Videogames are (arguably) mainly about the visual experience, and roleplaying the mindset, but in both cases fun can be had with, for example, disemboweling an orc, or punching a Genestealer, or having a shoot-out with a demonically possessed Abraham Lincoln (that one made for a weird afternoon).

There are plenty of people who judge a roleplay game on the quality of the rules system, which is entirely fine and dandy, but to me the only real yardstick is: what will it allow me to (pretend to) do?

Take A Song Of Ice And Fire, for example. Sure, I'm a big fan of the novels themselves, but roleplaying in the Seven Kingdoms essentially boils down to whether or not you're going to hit someone with a sword. The setting is essentially a historical one, and I don't give a shit about history. If I'm going into battle, I'd fucking well better have something more fun to kill people with a sharp bit of metal. The rules could be considered and intricate and yet still easy to use, but I can't get past the fact that you're just pretending to be normal people, only without cars or showers or Leibniz biscuits.

Considering all this, you would think I'd dislike Og. For the uninitiated (and I'm guessing that's quite a few of you), Og is a system for roleplaying as cavemen. In terms of doing interesting things, it's a failure on almost every level. In Cthulhu you might find yourself battling a sanity-blasting horror from beyond time and space. In Og you might find yourself trying to kill a mammoth to delay starvation. And, since you're trying to do it with a bent bit of wood at best, what you're really doing is failing to kill a mammoth, and I've failed to kill a mammoth every day since I was born; I've gotten jaded. It took us thirty minutes to kill a cat, for God's sake. Think of the number of gibbering cultists I could have gotten through in that time.

The other issue with Og is that the characters have a vocabulary of all of seventeen words. Tactics become difficult and sudden inspiration almost impossible to share. We discovered at the end of the adventure that at least two players had completely failed to understand the initial mission briefing (it's hard to explain a previous party of cavemen have disappeared when you don't have a word for party, disappeared, or cavemen, and the only way to refer to the passing of time is by the phrase "sun sun sun sun sun"). Not only have you been robbed of all the comforts of modern life (without something fun to replace it, like magic powers or a cybernetic scrotum), you don't even get to use language. I couldn't even call people fuck monkeys, we eventually had to settle on "you bang small hairy smelly cave". And even when you get used to all that, there's still the risk of forgetting how to hunt, or where you live, or why you're on the mission you barely understood in the first place.

For some reason, though, it works brilliantly. There's a real sense of satisfaction in managing to explain (comparatively) complex ideas with your tiny vocabulary. Once you get the hang of it, you can hold entire conversations in cave-speak, and string together ever more inventive forms of abuse. Essentially, you're combining elementary puzzle solving with searching through a foreign dictionary for all the curse words, with an occasional time-out to massacre bunch of cavemen from a different tribe (without any of the pesky moral considerations of whether it's OK to kill a bunch of pygmies). There's also some pride to be taken in engineering breakthroughs in caveman technology; by the end of our session we had invented both the wheel and the scarf, and possibly scrambled eggs. Every roleplay scenario should end with a communal omelette.

Thus, I pronounce Og to be well worth a go. Cave thing go bang. You go cave thing, you go bang. Bang.

Also, in other gaming news, Arkham Horror appears to be impossible with all current supplements bolted on, and the Galactica has a much better chance of reaching Kobol if the only initial Cylon player spends his time drinking whilst locked in the brig. One wonders whether BSG will be gifted with expansions of it's own at some point. Given that the basic game is based on Season 1, one wonders if the expansions will each be based on a subsequent season. One expansion could add the Pegasus, the next could let you play for four turns on New Caprica and then do nothing interesting for the rest of the game, and the final one could include the "God" loyalty card, allowing you to move everyone else's people for them and then act as though people should be impressed with you.

Friday, 22 May 2009

Shake #7: Shakes And Pies

Didn't have time to get this latest shake for myself, so Ibb was tasked with fetching something from the "cereal" bracket.

I was somewhat concerned that she would consider this an opportunity for mischief, but in fact her choice was comparatively sane.

Today's shake: Chocolate Pop-Tart

Taste: 5
Texture: 5
Scorn: 6
Synergy: 5
Total Score: 4.75

General Comments. The slight aftertaste of pop-tart is not exactly unpleasant, but it's the only thing that separates this shake from a simple Nesquik shake, which makes paying £2.60 for it somewhat unreasonable.

Now that I've tried one shake from each section on the menu, we can start the totally unnecessary and methodologically questionable statistical analysis. We begin with two pie charts (which are of course totally unsuitable, but visually pleasing), one which measures my lack of scorn by category, and one which measures the overall quality of the shake.

As can be clearly seen, my scorn powers are not yet in tune with reality, and I am more likely to apply too little scorn than too much. Clearly, more scorn is required. Rest assured, I will not make this mistake again.

Thursday, 21 May 2009

Hard Choices II: Acting In Ignorance

The response to my previous post regarding abortion has been very interesting, and led to a great deal of thought. As is usual with this issue, a lot of time has been spent discussing when an egg can be considered as "potential life". I'm by no means suggesting this isn't a worthwhile consideration, but I did want to make the follow-up point that uncertainty about a situation does not prevent the existence of moral choices regarding that situation.

I figured a bit of a thought experiment might be illuminating here. Consider the following situation. Four people are led into different rooms, each one containing a sealed box (no person sees any other, or is even aware they are involved in the experiment). Each is told that by pressing a button on the box they will receive a million pounds.

Person 1 is told there is a man inside the box, and that pushing the button will fill the box with deadly gas.

Person 2 is told there might be a man inside the box, and that pushing the button will fill the box with deadly gas.

Person 3 is told there might be a man inside the box, and that pushing the button will fill the box with deadly gas. However, there is a 75% chance the gas will be released even if they don't press the button.

Person 4 is told nothing further.

There are obviously a number of objections to be made over the specifics here. A million pounds isn't equivalent to avoiding pregnancy, I am implicitly dealing in terms of murder and death rather than the negation of potential life, and so on and so forth (of course, you could always alter the example to, say, winning £100 at the risk of breaking a man's legs). But the thought experiment is this: Does person 2 has a difficult choice to make. I would argue that they do. It is arguably made easier by not being certain that there is a person in the box or not, but it still not an easy choice.

Second, is it a difficult choice for person 3? Once again, I would argue yes. The fact that a seriously negative outcome may occur even without their input does not negate the moral responsibility of choosing to enter that input.

Finally, should person 4 be told after pushing the button that there was a man inside the box, and that they have killed them, would their response be entirely consistent with that of any previous person? In this case, my answer would be no. Certainly, we would expect them to feel guilty over what they have done. It should be fairly obvious, however, that the reaction of person 4 will be very different to that of persons 1 to 3. The end result is only part of a human response, the level of knowledge is also a significant factor.

The only point I am trying to make here is that it is most certainly not the case that lack of certainty about a situation implies there can be no moral cost to an action (thus those of us who support abortion rights must find alternative justifications), and that it does not follow from a lack of certainty that there should be no difficulty in making the relevant decision.

(As a side note, you could have a fifth person who is told there is a man inside the box, and that pressing the button might release deadly gas. It would be interesting to see how different their response would be to that of person 2).

Edited for clarity.

Wednesday, 20 May 2009

A Dollhouse Is Not A Home

Two months ago I wrote a post on the growing complaints against Dollhouse, in which I posited some potential explanations for the problems it was allegedly demonstrating, without having actually seen any of the show in question.

Having now watched the pilot episode (and I concede that more data is needed), I can indeed see a number of problems with the show, but curiously, none of them were quite what I expected.

First, the sexy times. I wonder whether Narin made too much of the first episodes hi-jinks. Sure, Echo is introduced to us as a leather-clad biker chick who also likes to dance in her nightie, but that's what her character is supposed to do. She's a hooker, for God's sake. She doesn't know she is, but she's a hooker. Beyond that, her initial mission as spunky totty is over before the credits (which are absolutely terrible, by the way), so it's hard to get too pissed off about it. Likewise, the communal shower scene is creepy rather than titillating, one facet of the treatment of the "actives", which is purposefully depicted as creepily cynical. Note for example how they all sleep in the same room, in separate boxes, like dolls. OK, it's hardly subtle (Narin is bang on about the lack of subtext, especially with the totally idiotic boxing match flashbacks), but it isn't particularly sexy either. Complaining that Dushku spends most of the episode as a "dominatrix type" smacks of wanting to have your cake and eat it; if Echo dresses provocatively, it's sexist, if she dresses professionally [1], she's rocking the dominatrix look, and it's sexist.

As to the central premise of the show, I have problems with it, but again, not the ones I was expecting. The moral implications of the 'house aren't exactly ignored, so much as deliberately side-stepped by the people working there. And what else would one expect? That's how people who rely on the immoral and/or illegal to get their paychecks often operate. Self-deception and endless sophistry. When DeWitt (the controller of the Dollhouse) attempts to pull Echo out of a mission to rescue a young girl on the grounds that they no longer have a client, ex-cop Langton (the closest the first episode has to a moral compass) points out that DeWitt constantly claims the Dollhouse is there to help people. Forced to choose between risking discovery without reward, and having to abandon her already tattered claim to doing some good in the world, DeWitt chooses the former. How could she not? We all need to believe that what we're doing is right.

So, at least from the pilot episode, the set-up itself isn't causing me any problems. We're not being asked to agree with what the Dollhouse is, we're being asked how much good can be done within an organisation that is inherently bad (if there is a prototype Dollhouse elsewhere in Whedon's work, it's probably Wolfram & Hart once Angel took over). It's nowhere near Galactica's ability to juggle multiple characters and viewpoints and make them all seem valid (which is presumably what Whedon was aiming for), but it's not a terrible initial attempt.

My problem, then, is this: how the Hell are they going to keep this up? I have no idea how Whedon pitched Dollhouse, but it could very well have been "One action movie a week, all starring Eliza Dushku". Which is all well and good, but the very nature of Echo makes her difficult for us to care about. She's a new character every week. The other actives are the same, meaning any connection to the characters by definition has to involve the shady runners of the Dollhouse, or Tahmoh Penikett's FBI agent Ballard, who so far seems to be a bit of a dick too. It's certainly not impossible to write a TV show in which people become attached to anti-heroes (Whedon's done it himself, albeit with shows less po-faced than this one), but I'm not convinced it will work when they're essentially abusing the main "character" every single week.

Moreover, one wonders how later missions can work. In the pilot episode a multi-millionaire who uses the Dollhouse (so he already uses mind-wiped hookers) asks them to help his kidnapped daughter. We can feel for the child, of course, but it's difficult to view the father with anything but contempt. By it's very nature, though, the Dollhouse is only available to such people. How many different ways can a scenario be cooked up which allows one of these unprincipled billionaires to require help in a matter we actually can give a shit about?

Lastly, Ballard represents a significant problem, since either his quest is doomed to failure (or worse, doomed to go on indefinitely without real resolution like the main plot of the X-Files) or will succeed and require extensive re-structuring of the show. Such shake-ups aren't inevitably a bad idea, of course, though in the case of Dollhouse any such change might well either dropping the central idea, or altering the specifics to such an extent that it becomes unbelievable, even in the context of an already silly show.

Still, time will tell.

[1] Well, what counts for professionally in TV land, anyway.

Tuesday, 19 May 2009

Village Gossip

This is a truly terrible column, and another example of why a journalist shouldn't be trusted on face value (apparently Margasak has been covering Capitol Hill for roughly the same amount of time I have been able to read). Since I spent so much time taken Allen apart yesterday, I will save you a long explanation of how far of the mark Margasak is, but I just wanted to address the fundamental premise of his column.
WASHINGTON – Barack Obama warned Democrats in Congress against making a partisan cause out of the Bush administration's harsh interrogation tactics.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is ignoring him — loudly — and the party, from the president on down, may pay the price.

Let's think about this for all of, oh, two seconds, as a nice little logical exercise. First of all, the input:

1) Obama doesn't want discussion the "harsh interrogation tactics" of the Bush administration to become a partisan cause.

2) Nancy Pelosi is repeatedly calling for an investigation.

Mix well and pour.

My conclusion: if Pelosi is going to get what she wants (and I want, and the majority of the American people wants), it's important she discusses this in terms of legality, and not partisanship.

Margasak's conclusion: By being a Democrat who is pushing for investigations, Pelosi is making this into a partisan cause.

Margasak's corollary 1: There exists no situation in which a member of one party can criticise the actions of a member of another party without it being partisan.

Margasak's corollary 2: Any attempt to investigate politicians breaking the law will either have to come from the party's own ranks, or be decried as partisan.

Digby (amongst others) has been railing about this sort of crap for years. Too many political reporters spend so long being exposed to the partisan bickering between the two parties that it becomes the only way they can comprehend politics at all. Members of the Bush administration stands accused (though not by any actual court, as far as I can tell, unless you count one in Spain) of serious and repeated violations of the law. Only the most inept journalist would think that investigating lawbreaking is a partisan issue, or that those who want to see justice done will have a change of heart the minute they realise a Democrat might be (distantly) involved, but it seems to be a horribly common opinion in "the Village".

(It's worth noting that none of the above excuses Pelosi's rather unsatisfactory answers on what she did or didn't know, but since she keeps coming out with "Let's have an investigation about it", it's difficult for me to care.)

h/t to Attaturk.

Hard Choices

Kevin Drum spends a little time discussing Ranesh Ponnuru's reaction to President Obama's speech at Notre Dame, specifically regarding Obama's framing of his opinions on abortion. Drum thinks most of Ponnuru's argument is somewhat flimsy, but the point I wanted to address was the one thing on which the two of them seem to agree:
On one point, I think Ponnuru is right: some liberal politicians do have a habit of overdoing the "tragic, heartbreaking decision" rhetoric. To the extent that this is a reflection of reality for the way some women feel, it's fine. But it also shapes reality, and when it gets repeated too often it suggests that abortion should be a tragic, heartbreaking decision. As Ponnuru says, that's inevitably a concession to the pro-life worldview.
Until I read this passage it had never occurred to me that anyone with any intelligence would consider abortion as anything other than something that should be a tragic decision. Perhaps I'm just not entirely getting Drum's drift here, but it seems he is arguing that there is nothing necessarily wrong with an abortion decision being not particularly difficult.

I realise I'm sticking my head into the lion's mouth here (though those who know me well will know that abortion is easily the issue on which I am most conservative), but it's taken me years to the point where I'm even comfortable supporting abortion at all. Just to be clear, I've never been in favour of outlawing it, but it just took me a long time to view it as morally acceptable. It was ultimately Judith Jarvis Thomas' incredibly good article that ultimately changed my mind. The crux of her argument (and I am simplifying a great deal, so you should read the whole thing) is that you are not responsible for your pregnancy if the odds are sufficiently against it happening, and so carrying the baby to term is an act of goodwill that you cannot be morally expected (I'm not sure that that's good English, but I hope the meaning is clear) to perform. To not perform it might seem selfish, but it not your responsibility to do so, just as if you receive a phone call from someone you don't know in Australia saying they are dying and only a blood transfusion from you will save them, it is not your responsibility to hop on a plane, despite the fact that most people would agree that saving people's lives is something you should do if you get the chance.

That seems about right to me, certainly it made me realise that my objections to abortion are all about my failure to understand why someone wouldn't make that sacrificial act, which is just my opinion (and one that is much easier to hold when you don't have a womb) and thus entirely irrelevant to what anyone else chooses to do. What I don't get is why we wouldn't want to recognise that whilst you're not required to perform the charitable act, failing to do so has major consequences. I might not get on a 737 and head to Cairns, but I know that by doing so I am allowing someone to die. Is Drum's argument that because it's a severe imposition for me to make the trip, I shouldn't find it hard to let this person die, knowing I could have saved them? That seems very strange. By the same token, a pregnant woman is not responsible for her foetus, should she choose not to be, and is thus not required to give birth to the baby that would result, but the only alternative is robbing a potential human being of the chance of life, and that is a hard fact that cannot be escaped.

I don't think pointing out the decision to have an abortion should be difficult, and yes, tragic, is a concession to pro-life groups; it's a simple recognition of the choice being made.

Edited for clarity.

Snatch Wars (Not What It Sounds Like)

This is, perhaps, a little over-long, but it's genius all the same. Grand Moff Tarkin answering the intercom is particularly brilliant. (Edit: if the title of neither this post nor the video itself don't make it clear, this is NSFW).

h/t to J-Dawg.

Monday, 18 May 2009

In Which I Whine About A Whiner Whining About Whiners

Thanks to Kevin Drum I came across Charlotte Allen's poor excuse for an article on atheists (main point: atheists are boring and thus I hate them), which I felt deserved a thorough perusing. Let's take a look, shall we?
Other people... take to task such superstar nonbelievers as... Richard Dawkins... and ... Christopher Hitchens for indulging in a philosophically primitive opposition of faith and reason that assumes that if science can't prove something, it doesn't exist.
We've already reached our first straw man; the view held by Dawkins is that if science has no evidence for something, there is no reason to believe it exists, and that an explanation for a complex phenomenon that requires greater complexity and for which there is no evidence isn't an explanation at all. There are other things Dawkins claims that do irritate me (arguing that the Resurrection didn't happen because it's scientifically impossible is on its own terms a vacuous statement, for example). At worst, Allen could make the point that leaping from "there is no evidence God exists, and it's illogical to point to him as Creator" to "There is no God" is too strong, but that's a point about phrasing more than anything. If nothing else, someone willing to decry others as utilising arguments that are "philosophically primitive" should try to ensure their own comments on the subject aren't so embarrassingly dumb.
My problem with atheists is their tiresome -- and way old -- insistence that they are being oppressed and their fixation with the fine points of Christianity. What -- did their Sunday school teachers flog their behinds with a Bible when they were kids?
The only damage that can come from a child's indoctrination [1] being if they're being beaten, apparently. Speaking as an apostate, breaking from the religion you have been brought up in can be very difficult, and can lead to all sorts of problems in later life. If you spend the first fifteen years of your life being told you'll go to Hell if you leave the church, it is perhaps not surprising that a conscious realisation that you no longer believe does not prevent a subconscious terror that you're going to burn for eternity. I'm not saying Allen is necessarily wrong about the fact that numerous atheists tend to recycle the same points and obsessions ad infinitum, just that her response to such is glib to the point of being insulting.

Moreover, I'm not sure I'd use the word "oppressed" (nor can I recall it being used by an actual atheist), but in America (which is where the article appears, whether or nor Allen herself is American) it is certainly still the case that being an atheist can be an impediment to certain things (public office being the most obvious, see below), and pretending that such isn't the case requires a truly amazing degree of wilful blindness, which is being done here purely to allow the author to complain about a group of people no-one is forcing her to associate with or listen to.
visit an atheist website or blog... and your eyes will glaze over as you peruse... the obsessively tiny range of topics around which atheists circle like water in a drain.
This of course, is entirely true (and whilst I've removed her brief comment on how such blogs tend to have names that are both banal and combative, she's right there too), but by their very nature blogs dedicated to a specific topic are liable to be repetitive, especially when we consider that the same discussions regarding faith and morality spring up all the time (every time someone tries to prevent gay people from marrying, someone's going to bring up that West Wing clip, and I would humbly suggest that it isn't the latter group who are the problem). Moreover, trying to discredit atheism by demonstrating [2] that kooks exist on the internet isn't particularly persuasive.
Harris writes that "no person, whatever his or her qualifications, can seek public office in the United States without pretending to be certain that ... God exists." The evidence? Antique clauses in the constitutions of six -- count 'em -- states barring atheists from office.
Quite where Allen gets this from is difficult to see, Harris in fact offers no evidence of the claim at all in the piece she mentions (this, obviously, is hardly an impressive state of affairs in itself). Regardless, even if this were what Harris was hinging his argument on, Allen is being purposefully dense in suggesting the lack of legal obstacles to an atheist acquiring public office implies a lack of bigotry. Only the briefest consideration of the history of the United States would remind her that the gap between a group of people receiving legal equality and acquiring sufficient public acceptance to enter politics in representative numbers can be quite long [3]. The number of atheists in the Senate right now? 0. The number in the House? 1. That's one atheist out of 435 members of Congress (note that the Congressman in question, Pete Stark, did not admit to his lack of faith until after he had taken office). If we assume Allen's own number of 1.6% of Americans being atheists, you would expect seven. The chance that there would be one or less is a mere 0.7%. Assuming a binomial for this is dangerous in itself, but I'll take that any day over the tired "If it isn't illegal, everyone can do it" argument, especially when it's being made with regard to a country in which even Catholic and Mormon candidates for president have been widely decried as bad potential choices for the ticket specifically because of the suggestion that their faiths aren't close enough to the mainstream.

From there she moves onto the favourite tactic of atheist bashers, pointing out there are some amongst our ranks who are inveterate turds. This, of course, is the case, though find me any group that numbers in the (at least) tens of millions, and I'll find someone in there who is a twat, and more specifically, someone who is a twat but also famous and/or powerful.

Then we move onto Creationism. Allen asks:
haven't atheists heard that many religious people (including the late Pope John Paul II) don't have a problem with evolution but, rather, regard it as God's way of letting his living creation unfold?
This one's easy: hasn't Allen heard that many religious people do have a problem with evolution? She may not enjoy the debate, or the behaviour of some on our side of it, but it's not a good idea to pretend as though there is no reason why we talk about it at all. Also note how she cites the previous Pope.
Furthermore, even if human nature as we know it is a matter of lucky adaptations, how exactly does that disprove the existence of God?
Another straw man, which you would have assumed Allen would realise (it's always a worry when you reach the point in a supposedly serious article when the most charitable viewing of its author is as a total idiot, rather than someone smart who is deliberately side-stepping the real issues). Evolution disproves the necessity of the existence of God which, again, is an argument that is still far too common today, and thus worthy of countering.
And then there's the question of why atheists are so intent on trying to prove that God not only doesn't exist but is evil to boot... If there is no God... why does it matter whether he's good or evil?
This seems to be a coded way of asking "Why do atheists spend so much time trying to disprove the Christian God?" The answer is obvious, Dawkins (and Allen) both live in countries in which the dominant religious belief is Christianity. It is the belief with which we are most familiar, and the belief with which we most find ourselves coming into conflict with. If an atheist and a Christian are debating the existence of God, I don't see any problem with using a line of argument that says "Even if there isn't a God, they can't be your God, and here's why"; nor has Allen spent any time trying to argue that she is aware of any problems either.
The problem with atheists -- and what makes them such excruciating snoozes -- is that few of them are interested in making serious metaphysical or epistemological arguments against God's existence, or in taking on the serious arguments that theologians have made attempting to reconcile, say, God's omniscience with free will or God's goodness with human suffering.
Maybe this is true, maybe there are too few atheists willing to engage on a sufficiently high level. My counter would be that Allen gives no evidence for this, thinking rather that pointing out there are some stupid atheists and some smart atheists who say dumb things constitutes proof, and more importantly she gives no reason whatsoever to believe the same criticism cannot be laid at the feet of Christians. I agree entirely that we could do with more discourse, that there should be enlightened debates instead of slanging matches, but in the course of her article all Allen manages is to throw more invective around. You can't complain atheists don't engage intellectually whilst baldly misrepresenting the views of atheists. In the very piece Allen quotes, Harris gives a very nice postage-stamp explanation of the problem with believing God to be both omnipotent and loving. Allen might not be convinced by it, of course, but that isn't the problem, the problem is Allen is wilfully pretending it doesn't exist.

Allen concludes with this little snipe, proving that we can add projection to Allen's list of glaring logical flaws.
So, atheists, how about losing the tired sarcasm and boring self-pity and engaging believers seriously?
In fairness, I suppose if I were so totally unable or unwilling to grasp the arguments of others, or the current situation regarding religious belief in America, I'd find atheists boring as well. Having said that, I would hope that I am neither of those things, and I certainly didn't ask for money in exchange for writing a piece entirely divorced from reality, which complains the targets of the piece are entirely divorced from reality.

[1] Just to preempt any objections: it is indoctrination, in the sense that it offers historical facts and philosophical points without encouraging (and more specifically actively discouraging) critical examination of same. Perhaps there are some Christian teachers out there who do encourage such things, in which case I apologise for including them here. As a matter of fact, I would love to meet such a person, since I would be very interested in their teaching methods, and I think a lot of the potential problems with religious teaching might very well be bypassed.

[2] Well, claiming, Allen doesn't manage anything so interesting as demonstrating, which you think might be useful when you're saying things like "agnostics [are] a group despised as wishy-washy by atheists" or "atheists say the problem [behind low numbers of self-confessed atheists] is persecution so relentless that it drives tens of millions of God-deniers into a closet of feigned faith, like gays before Stonewall".

[3] I'm not trying to claim parity between atheists and African Americans, for example. I'm just pointing out the obvious flaw in Allen's "reasoning". A closer analogy might be homosexuals (another group for whom discrimination against them is largely a religious issue). I haven't found an exact figure, but it appears the number of openly homosexual members of Congress is somewhere in the region of three.

Further Distractions

Another round of "Guess the Song". Last time we tried this, my legions of adoring fans managed a slightly disappointing 44%. We can and must do better!

1. "Blue eyes for miles, pretty as a peach." - Ryan Adams, Pearls on a String
2. "Here she comes with a gun in her hand." - James, Dumb Jam (Jamie)
3. "Well I thought about the army, Dad said: 'Son, you're fucking high!'." - Ben Folds Five, Army (Jamie)
4. "Well, I took a stroll on the old long walk." - Steve Earl, Galway Girl
5. "Staggering home, the headlights throw a shadow up and upon." - Madness, Lovestruck
6. "They call her Jezebel, you might find her in your neighbourhood." - Dizzee Rascal, Jezebel
7. "Well it's not fair, it's not even close." - Alkaline Trio, I Lied My Face Off
8. "I wish I had a Sylvia Plath." - Ryan Adams, Sylvia Plath (Moddey Dhoo)
9. "Ever since I was young, your word was the word that always won." - Brand New, Guernica
10. "Orange sky, don't go." - Ryan Adams, Crossed-Out Name
11. "All the time, every time I need it." - Green Day, All The Time (Jamie)
12. "It's another way to get through the day." - Stereophonics, Is Yesterday, Tomorrow, Today?
13. "Turn the lights down when you cry." - Idlewild, Low Light
14. "I was born in the Merrie City." - The Cribs, I've Tried Everything
15. "I don't want to spend the rest of my life looking at the barrel of an Armalite." - The Police, Spirits In The Material World
16. "She sat right down on the sofa." - Counting Crows, Hanginaround
17. "God's dead, this state is torture." - James, Gaudi, (Legal Eagle)
18. "So I'm there, charging around with a juggernaut brow." - Elbow, The Bones Of You
19. "I'm running out of time, I'm out of step and closing down." - The Cure, Closedown
20. "You came to me like a dream, the kind that always leaves." - Alkaline Trio, Bleeder
21. "Save me from this way, it be killing me." - Seasick Steve, Save Me
22. "I'm under your spell, God how can this be?" "Once More With Feeling", - Standing (S. Spielbergo)
23. "My dog wears a path on the same line." - Ben Folds, Dog
24. "You say 'Why does everything revolve around you?'." - Barenaked Ladies, Too Little Too Late (Moddey Dhoo)
25. "You and me plainly saw a vision." - James, Hello

Some brief clues. The list includes eighteen different artists; fifteen bands, three solo artists (as always, YMMV with those labels), and one song from a musical. Four of these artists have had videos spring up on this very blog, ten are American, and exactly one isn't a whiny white boy.

Update: That's the musical out of the way. Having thought about this, I think I should alter the clues slightly. Removing 22, there are in fact two incontestable solo artists and eleven definite bands with nineteen songs between them. The remaining five songs are accounted for by two artists that can be considered a band or not, depending on how one views their history, and in fact both artists are represented above both with and without their attendant bands. Thus, the number of artists remaining is between sixteen and eighteen, depending on how you view it.

If we assume for the sake of argument that both qualify as solo artists, then there are eight Americans left, along with six Englishmen (we've already winkled out the only female vocalist in the list), and one representative each from Wales, Scotland, and Canada.

Update II: The Canadians have been caught. Also, we're one Ryan Adams song down, and only nineteen unknown songs remain. If S. Spielbergo still wants to guess at random, he's down to a mere 171 possible combinations...

Update III: Having spent a little while discussing the possible provenance of number 17 with Garathon yesterday, it amused me to hear it suddenly blaring from the shuffle feature on his Netbook. Legal Eagle noticed this coincidence first, hence he receives the honours.

Sunday, 17 May 2009

Shake #6

Today's shake: Marshmallow

Taste: 8
Texture: 2
Synergy: 7
Scorn: 3
Total Score: 6

General Comments: A delicious treat of awesome flavour, and of great synergy, being essentially vanilla-flavoured, Phish Food ice cream, the only downside to this wonderful shake is that it's all but impossible to actually suck the damn thing through a straw. So great was the effort necessary to force its vicious nature through a narrow plastic tube, I considered throwing the implement away entirely and simply quaffing from the cardboard cup. This plan was swiftly nixed, however, when the liquid within proved far too reminiscent of the time Maoist Rob threw up an entire tub of strawberry ice-cream on my drive-way [1]. A straw of larger gauge, or a more efficient blender (in fairness, the one used in the shop had just carved its way through a Fruit Salad bar, and was thus probably on its last legs), could have made all the difference.

[1] Want an awkward New Year's Eve? Try attempting to discern whether your friend's strawberry-flavoured vomit contains traces of blood or not.

Saturday, 16 May 2009

Well, It Made Me Laugh

The inevitable "re-imagining" of the My Little Ponies movie.

Friday, 15 May 2009

More Gleaming Robo-Judges, Clutching Thumb-Screws

The war against empathy continues, courtesy of Alberto Gonzales.
Well, I think everyone wants to think that their government officials are kind, compassionate people. And I think someone having that kind of image is certainly helpful in a confirmation hearing. I do worry a little bit, well, I worry, I worry about about justices on the court making decisions based on what they think makes them feel good. I don’t think it’s fair to expect society to anticipate the outcome of a case based upon what makes a justice feel good. In essence what you’re saying, I think, is that I’m going to, I don’t care what the law says, I’m going to come out, I’m going to pursue an outcome that I think is fair and just. I’m going to rewrite the law. And I think that’s dangerous and so, again, I agree that we want our justices to be compassionate, to be kind people, but I think their job as a member of the court, quite frankly, is to apply the law and I think the notion that we worry about the outcome. You know, I served as a justice on the Supreme Court of Texas and sometimes I reached decisons (sic) and I didn’t like the outcome, but I felt that I had a duty to my oath of office to respect the words of the statute that I was interpreting.
It's worth noting, of course, that his duty to his oath of office didn't appear to trump his desire to tell Bush whatever he wanted to hear, of course, and that he's either lied to Congress of has a memory so full of holes he shouldn't be allowed out of the house alone, but that's beside the point. What bothers me is that Gonzales apparently thinks that empathy is equivalent to "what makes you feel good", a trait by which someone ignores a law that he disagrees with, rather than a method by which one's opinions are formed by more than what you believe at any given time. (it's also insulting that he assumes empathic people are less capable of following through on decisions they don't agree with, rather than just having a different criteria of what constitutes an agreeable decision).

Dahlia Lithwick makes the point that the opposite of empathy "isn’t rigor. It’s pretty close to solipsism... " [2]. Moreover, Gonzales' implicit argument that he's worried about conflicts between the letter of the law and fair and just outcomes says far more about his own view of the justice system than it does about anyone who approaches the job with a degree of empathy. Gonzales is well aware, as are (hopefully) all legal professionals that the laws of the USA or of any other country require interpretation when put into practice. Part of the reason he knows this is that he interpreted the Geneva Convention as not applying to the inmates of Guantanamo Bay, a decision which (along with others) led to him being forced to resign as Attorney General [2]. So he realises you need to bring your own interpretation to laws, he's just worried about someone doing it from the perspective of wanting a fair and just resolution.

In truth, as S. Spielbergo noted not long ago, there is a genuine discussion to be had here as to how important empathy is independently of other qualities, and how empathy can be most wisely applied. That isn't what we're getting, though. It is entirely reasonable to suggest that whilst we want our judges to be fair, we also want them to follow established law, and we need to make sure the two aspects to the job are balanced. That isn't what's being suggested, though. It's just the typical bullshit conservative reaction to an attempt to value a property which is supposed to be at the core of our society.

[1] Check out the link for a quick list of the various other conservatives making similarly irritating comments. My personal favourite is probably Steele: "Crazy nonsense empathetic! I'll give you empathy. Empathize right on your behind", because it's both belligerent and grammatically incoherent, but Hannity's claim that this will lead to "social engineering" comes a close second. In fact, Lithwick comes to the conclusion that these people are mistaking "empathy" for "bias towards people without money or power" (as oppose to bias to people with money or power, which is entirely OK, obviously), which is an interesting suggestion, that I don't feel particularly inclined to disagree with.

[2] Interesting side note, a motion to determine whether Gonzales "no longer [held] the confidence" of the Senate and American people was put forward in the Senate, and the Republicans tried to filibuster it. I mention this because of my earlier comments of filibustering, and the sheer idiocy of claiming that said rule should be employed to ensure an AG can only be censured if he's lost the confidence of 60% of Senators or more.

Also, note what's happening here. A man forced to resign, in part, for deliberately approaching the Geneva Convention from the perspective of trying to minimise the rights of combatants (or suspect combatants), and maximise the options for their interrogation, is telling us that when choosing people to interpret the law we need to be careful of people who care what effect their choices will have on others.

Friday Gothic Blogging: The Great Devourer

Hive Fleet Tengu enters the Carpet Nebula.

Hand on heart, this is not the fleet of which I am most fond (you saw that one a fortnight ago). The problem with Tengu is that I needed to tie it in with the ground forces I’d already painted. And by “already painted”, I mean “already painted fifteen years ago”. Well, most of it, at least, some of the miniatures are more recent (we’ll get into that when I finally find time to photograph the army), but the basic colour scheme matches that of the studio army before and immediately after the arrival of the ‘Nids very first codex , back when all the bugs were red and cream (unless they could reproduce in which case they were pink and blue), and you could finish off a Hive Tyrant with a combination of a personal warp generator and a vortex grenade. Simpler times. Anyway, I thought about a whole new scheme, but ultimately my OCD tendencies kicked in and I was forced to ensure cohesion. Hence the rather simplistic paint job.

It’s also worth noting that I cannot get the hang of the Tyranid fleet at all, which is somewhat upsetting considering that I’m using Tengu in my current 40K/Gothic campaign, “The Isoka Corridor”. Hopefully I’ll get the hang of it before all my fleets are gone, though given my current record (two out of ten, with one of those on a technicality and the other through sheer force of numbers) I’m not too optimistic. Especially since C is my chief rival at this stage, a man that could outfight a Genestealer, provided he persuaded it to sit down and play Yahtzee. [1]

Still, lots of spiky bits and claws. Gotta love those. Case in point: the Razorfiend.

I’m never sure which way round these things are supposed to go; neither one seems entirely right. Are those long tubes engines or weapons? That, my friends, is the enduring mystery of murderous extragalactic horrors.

A close up of some Escort drones, which have an embarrassing tendency to explode almost immediately upon contact with the enemy, which makes them less of an effective escort, and more tracer rounds for whomever is planning to blow up my Hive Ships. Speaking of which:

One of Tengu’s Hive Ships, being escorted by Vanguard drones. They aren’t really any more use than the Escort variant, but at least they’re somewhat faster, allowing them to die ahead of the main slaughter, and make me feel like my humiliation is lessened, at least in terms of maximum number of ships lost per turn.

I’ve run out of Gothic models to showcase (until I finish my Dark Angel fleet, hopefully sometime in June), so from next week it may be time to start running through some proper, honest to God armies. Try not to get too excited.

[1] And even that wouldn’t be easy. More arms means more dice; that is maths.

Thursday, 14 May 2009

Shake #5

Today's shake: Banana

Taste: 5
Texture: 5
Synergy: 8
Scorn: 1
Total Score: 6.25

General Comments: It's a banana shake. Fuck you expect?

Democrats Smell Of Poo And Are Pooey

The GOP are considering "re-branding" the Democratic Party as the "Democrat Socialist Party." Hilzoy provides the appropriate response, but in all honesty I'm not sure whether anything can be said in response to such total lunacy. I mean, official name-calling?

This reminds me of Tom's comment to my "Republicans are Irredeemably Evil" post. He was entirely right in theory that the Republican Party isn't irredeemably anything, but all the signs are that the party (under the watchful eyes of Rove, Cheney and, especially, Rush) are striking out in the exact opposite direction, into what Kevin Drum is calling "the ongoing intellectual collapse of the conservative movement". The intellectual and moral bankruptcy of so many of their leaders is so acute that I don't have any problems suggesting they themselves are irredeemable, and so the only way the GOP can recover is to cut them loose.

Thus far there isn't much sign of that. Which means one of two things. Either the Republican party will actually die (it's rare, but it happens), or at some point there will be insurrection and a massive U-turn, in which case the party will be redeemed, but only following such fundamental change that it would in many ways remain the same party in name only.

Philosophy With SpaceSquid and Big G

Our heroes have settled down to watch Outpost, a decision based entirely on the box's promise of undead SS soldiers. To begin with, though, all we receive is a bunch of stereotyped mercenaries cussing their way around Eastern Europe.

Big G: Why is that guy part of the UN?
SS: I assume he's a deserter.
Big G: So why is he still wearing his swanky blue hat?
SS: Nostalgia?
Big G: Bollocks to nostalgia; he's supposed to be camouflaged.
SS: Maybe that's the only reason he joined the UN; a desperate need for a rakish blue hat.
Big G: The UN being the only place such things can be found, obviously.
SS: "Don't go, Taka! I have procured an azure stetson! Do not throw away your life!"
Big G: "No hat is worth being forced to stand in war zones and be entirely fucking useless!"

Eventually, the promise is fulfilled.

SS: Gasp! Zombie Nazis!
Big G: Are those the worst kind of Nazis?
SS: Depends on whether you think consuming human flesh is worse than trying to exterminate the Jews.
Big G: Werewolf Nazis would be pretty bad.
SS: Especially if they bit a Communist.
Big G: Poor bastards. Every full moon they are fated to pull down the monuments to the people that they have worked so hard to build.
SS: "Take that, proletariat; seig heil!"
Big G: What about Nazis that transform into tanks? They'd have to be pretty damn scary.
SS: I've heard the Germans were working on that at the close of the war. If they'd made up their minds between them and the Bomb, Berlin might never have fallen.
Big G: They got as far as a Nazi Gobot, but then all he was really doing was lying down. (High pitched voice) "I'm a Transformer!"
SS: Why did they choose such a girly Nazi for their experiments?
Big G: Girly Nazis are the most in need of cybernetic improvement.
SS: I don't give a shit about who needs the most improvement. This isn't a self-help group, G; we have to create a Nazi who can turn into a tank before the Allies reach the Rhine!
Big G: I guess if you're not sure the procedure will work, you don't want to risk precious butch Nazis.
SS: That's true.

Wednesday, 13 May 2009

Nostalgia And Xenomorphs

Given that it is practically impossible to get ahold of the Aliens board game anymore, and given that said board game kicked arse as only a faithful interpretation of Cameron's best movie could, I really can't recommend highly enough this Flash version.

h/t to MGK.

Update: My current best result is to have escaped the planet with Ripley, Hicks and Newt, as one would expect, and also Dietrich, Drake and Crowe. Also Burke, so we have someone to slap around on the way home. Anyone done better?

For Serious?

Karl Rove explains to FOX how to keep Americans safe.
[Revealing and ending "enhanced interrogation" techniques] has served, frankly, I think, as a recruiting tool. [Terrorists] can now take these memoranda and go to prospective, you know, recruits and say, This is the worst that the enemy, the United States, would ever do to you... and they've even forsworn these things... [T]he enemy is so weak they're not going to use these techniques on you, and it’s given them a tool to make it more attractive to recruit people, and you know, this kind of thing is harmful to us over the long haul.
I'm not even going to comment on this one, the total logic vacuum is too obvious to make it worth picking apart. I'm just flagging it up as part of my ongoing obsession with torture and the Bush administration.

SpaceSquid vs. The X-Men #22: Kitten

This is not liable to go well. Pretty much every member of the X-Men, former or present, has their own legion of devoted fans (Hell, I still think Maggott was the best addition to the team since Bishop, and I will maintain that position to the grave), but the adoring hordes willingly enslaved to Katherine Pryde are genuinely something else [1]. A man could get himself FUBARed over this sort of thing.

I exaggerate. Probably. Ultimately, the problem with the Hangman's position is that I can’t possibly understand it. A good number of those I have spoken to about their love of Shadowcat (or Sprite, as she was at the time) have told me how they came of age at the same time she did, that they grew up as she grew up, that she was their window into the world of the X-Men. It may well not have hurt that she reminded them of their current school-yard crushes, with the added advantages of being a genius super-heroine and not being able to turn round and crush their dreams with the contemptuous sneer of the young and disinterested.

I wasn’t reading X-Men when Kitty was introduced; I was too busy being born. If I had an “in” to the team when I first started picking up the comic, it was Cannonball, which didn’t really have the same effect. The other alternative would be Marrow, but by the time she arrived (as a member rather than a villain), I was already approaching twenty, plus also she was a psychopath. [2] Moreover, by the time Shadowcat drifted into view, she had done her growing up in Excalibur (you‘re not going to stay innocent and naïve long when Pete Wisdom and Warren Ellis get hold of you). Perhaps for those that had accompanied her on her earlier adventures (hopping dimensions, befriending dragons, enrolling in English public school cheerleading contests, the usual) there was a sense of satisfaction seeing the woman that they had known as a child, but to me the character arrived as an adult, and it was on that basis I had to judge her.

In fairness, I never had any great problem with Kitty. Certainly, she avoids the trap that ensnared Jean Grey and Polaris; Shadowcat’s endless on-off situation with Colossus might be an important part of her character, but it never seemed like the sole unique facet of her life, the way the Summers brothers loom over everything Jean and Lorna do. Further bonus marks are awarded for her quiet faith, and for managing to be caring and empathic without it seeming totally unnatural (I‘ve always thought it very difficult to produce a character who is clearly caring without them either becoming a Mary Sue, or having to endure corrective bouts of outrageous dickosity that make them capricious and unreliable). So I don’t hate her, by any means, even if she very rarely does anything to truly impress me.

Here’s the thing, though. Katherine Pryde doesn’t really seem to be a character people discuss in terms of who she is, but in terms of how far she’s come. Far more than most, Shadowcat is a product of her early appearances, and so it’s on her early teenage years that she must be judged. Again, it should be noted that unlike those that read about her as teenager as teenagers, I would estimate my first exposure to the origins of Kitty was at the age of twenty-seven.

It’s fairly common knowledge that Chris Claremont based the character on the teenage daughter of friends of his, and you can tell. Whatever else you want to say about Kitty, she certainly does act and react like a teenager. Claremont did an impressive job of catching the internal contradiction of the hormone-charged early teens, particularly intelligent girls, a rabid insistence on fairness and theoretical kindness clashing against relentless self-absorbed petty bitchiness [3]. If I’d been Claremont’s editor, though (and I grant that for all I know they thought and said the same thing), I’d want an answer to two questions: how and why?

Let’s start with “why”. To return to a familiar theme, just because something is realistic does not make it good. If you plan on introducing a thirteen-year old to the X-Men, ensuring she be well-written is a necessary condition, not a sufficient one. There’s a reason why people roll their eyes when a mid-pubescent kid flounces into a storyline, it’s because by and large they are massive pains in the arse. Ninety-five percent of the time, a teenage character can either be believable, or not be an impediment to the plot, but not both (this is why the argument that Kitty is very believable tends to fall apart whenever she actually does anything useful, at which point she’s basically Wesley Crusher with better hair). There are exceptions, obviously. If you base your storylines around teenagers, you’re OK. The New Mutants was proof of that. So was Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but that’s because the whole series (or at least the first three years, when it was at its best) was build around a metaphor devoted to teenagers: surviving school = battling evil. Had a thirteen-year old wandered into, say, Firefly, it might not be so obvious as to what was to be done with her. [4]

The “how” then complicates matters. No amount of good writing (and Claremont ran distinctly hot and cold even back then) is going to cover up the fact that an adult superhero team isn’t going to gel well with a kid. Buffy gained the (grudging) admiration of various adults by being able to do something they couldn’t (Willow managed the same, eventually; Xander was pretty much useless throughout). Shadowcat (or Sprite, or Ariel, or what have you) was amongst the fellow super-powered, her only distinctive quality was being young, and kind of whiny. [5]

Given that, it’s no surprise that her fellow X-Men constantly attempted to shield her from danger. Of course, all that means is that it was clearly idiotic to have her arrive in the first place. Time after time, Kitty’s stories added up to nothing more than slight permutations on the “Inexperienced newbie proves their worth”. In order to facilitate this rather tired trope, every other character was forced to mutate into either concerned parents or snaky elders, so that they could be proven wrong by the spunky newcomer. You’re always in trouble when you have to twist characters to fit into your plot, and it gets worse still when the plot isn’t really that impressive or original to begin with.

Long story short: Kitty was a nicely realised character in entirely the wrong comic. Franky, Kitty is probably the first symptom of Claremont’s early Eighties desire to write bonkers universe-hopping stories with minimal internal logic, which is why it was such a relief when Excalibur arrived and allowed him to blow off steam. That she survived the process (up until running into the Ordworld’s Planet-Wrecker Penis, at least) is fairly impressive, and there are certainly X-Men who irritate me a great deal more, but if and when Shadowcat returns, it would be nice to have her be interesting for where she is, not for where she’s come from.

Next time: we take a look at the Rogue, the first team member introduced as a genuinely morally ambiguous figure, rather than just a stand-offish prick.

[1] Actually, that’s a pretty nice site, which is worthy of your time, and I’m not just saying that because the editor emailed me once to congratulate me on how mean I am to twats.

[2] Which was fine, don’t get me wrong. In fact, I liked Marrow a great deal in those days, though she was prone to bouts of rebellious cliché and terrible dialogue. Then Alan Davis made her pretty, proving once and for all that characterisation is something Davis does entirely at random whilst he's charging towards the next alternative universe.

[3] I don’t think it any coincidence that Buffy and Willow both exhibit the same paradox to a greater or lesser extent. In fact, As Hangman notes, Buffy was deeply informed by Kitty; Joss Whedon being another member of her devoted fan base. Like Hangman, though, I too see more of Kitty in Willow than I do in Buffy.

[4] This is to say nothing of the fact that Willow and Buffy were either sixteen when the show began, or reached that age very soon afterwards. When Dawn was introduced, much closer in age to the original Kitty, she managed to be whiny and an impediment to the main storyline which supposedly hinged on her.

[5] I'll grant that Hangman's point regarding Kitty's comparatively unimpressive power could be considered part of her appeal, since it increased the parallels between the character and her teenage fans. Again, though, this idea sits uneasily with her status as the resident teenage super-genius/computer prodigy, and by the time I got round to meeting her, she was also a trained ninja, or something, which makes it even harder to consider her "one of us".

Tuesday, 12 May 2009

Shake #4: This Time It's Personal

Today's shake: Battenberg Cake

I figured it was time I delved into one of Shakeaholic's more esoteric flavour lines (still to come: cereal, sweets, and fruit, which admittedly isn't really weird so much as crushingly boring), so I figured that I would be a fool and enter the nightmare… of cake. [1]

I should mention first that battenberg is not simply a cake to me; it's a memory. Every year for as long as I can remember, my grandmother would bake a battenberg cake for the birthday's of my mother, my siblings, and me. The two at this point are indistinguishable, and when she passed away ten years ago, my mother carried on the tradition. I tell you all this purely so you understand that the mistreatment of batten berg cake is something I am liable to view very poorly (hence a high scorn factor).

Taste: 8
Texture: 7
Synergy: 9
Scorn: 8
Total Score: 6.5

General Comments: The legacy of battenberg cake remains unsullied. Just like the After Eight Mints shake, the shake is smooth enough to work as a drink, but contains delicious pieces of marzipan that double as snacks (the vanilla in the ice-cream makes these taste even better, too). The taste of liquid battenberg works far better than it has any right to; were I not so intimately familiar with the substance in its solid state I would assume the shake had been deliberately designed as a drink.

[1] Copyright Chris Morris.

Taxing Questions

Kevin Drum makes a very good argument regarding cap-and-trade versus carbon tax; the proponents of carbon tax can pretend their option has no loop-holes or unnecessary complexities precisely because they haven't gotten anywhere with it. Specifics only matter once the general concept has been accepted, or at least gotten somewhere near being accepted.

I'm not sufficiently up on the specifics to be sure Drum is right, but it's a very persuasive argument, and it's a reminder that a good plan poorly implemented is far better than a perfect plan that can never be implemented at all. This is something Liberal Democrats in this country and progressives in general should remember, to ensure that we don't keep fighting imperfect plans because we imagine a vastly superior alternative that will never occur anyway, at least without dilution to the point that it isn't much better in any case.

In short: anyone can promise they'll heal the sick upon election if they know they'll never, ever win.

Two Months On

BSG spoilers ahead, bromies.

For the first three years we had access to Sky, I had a distinct advantage over various other geeks in that I got to watch Galactica months before they did. In March, of course, the advantage became that I got to be disappointed months before they did. Some, in fact, have yet to progress beyond the tragic death of Felix Gaeta (my apologies to Chemie for bringing that up again). This, of course, provides an opportunity for experimentation.

Hypothesis: The ending of Galactica was so fucking awful that it would be near-impossible to predict the full extent of its relentless shittiness.

Experiment: To inform a fan yet to see the last six episodes that the finale sucks uber-balls, and invite them to speculate on the specific reasons for such unspeakable crapulage.

Location: The swimming pool, for some reason.

Data Set: C, because T was too busy actually trying to get fit.

Result: Subject becomes concerned it will "All turn out to have been God". He then expands on this principle by suggesting "Kara will be an angel". He concludes with "then she'll fly away in a light-ship, or something, and Patrick MacNee will turn out to be Satan". When realising that Patrick MacNee might be dead (he isn't), he removes this from his theory, settling on "God has been directing events, and Kara will turn out to be an angel and disappear, possibly on a light-ship".

Conclusion: Subject comes amazingly close to grasping the sheer idiocy of Daybreak, but fails to consider the possibility that the events he imagines will take place in the midst of a plot twist so hackneyed Douglas Adams was parodying it thirty goddamn years ago. We thus conclude that the hypothesis has been confirmed the fuck up.

Monday, 11 May 2009

Seven Observations...

...Regarding J.J. Abram's take on the Trek universe.

1) Starting the film with a time traveller changing history is massively clever, because now no-one can complain about future films messing with the time line.

2) That still doesn't mean you can get away with having people order Cardassian cocktails in a bar, but even I recognise how pointless a nit-pick that is.

3) I'm also somewhat displeased that the only remaining stories that actually "happened" belong to Enterprise (better than Voyager, admittedly), and everything else is gone. I can't entirely articulate why I'm pissed that a bunch of fictional events now aren't recognised within the same fictional world, but Dr L tells me my reaction is consistent with literary theory, so I guess I'm OK with it.

4) Abrams continues to indulge in his twin obsessions with father issues and big red shiny balls, and has now apparently added "falling off of things" into the mix.

5) The new cast works pretty well in general, though Pegg is only required to play Scott as a comic character, so I remain unconvinced he's going to work over the long term. Assuming that's an issue, of course.

6) The future is now undergoing a retro revival, which includes swanky cars, Nokia sound systems, the Beastie Boys, and padded bras.

7) If I had a tiny man-bat to keep me company for the cost of one bean a day, I would renounce Lord Mothington completely.

Update: C has e-mailed me to point out there was at least one Cardassian exiled on Vulcan before Kirk meets Uhura in the bar. He quotes Memory Alpha:
Iloja of Prim was a Cardassian serialist poet who lived during the First Republic. Jadzia Dax regarded Iloja of Prim as her favorite Cardassian author. One of her symbiont's previous hosts, Tobin Dax, met Iloja when he was in exile on Vulcan. He noted that Iloja had "quite a temper". (DS9: "Destiny")

Iloja of Prim's exact time period has not been established. He had to be alive sometime before 2245 by which time Emony Dax carried the Dax symbiont. As both were on Vulcan during this time period this indicates that both Trilland Cardassians were known to the Federation before 2245.

Thus Cardassians were in fact known to the Federation on an individual level; one assumes that official first contact with the Union came much later, and led to the war described in "The Enemy".

C also points out I could double the number of comments above entirely by listing the ways in which the film pisses all over the laws of physics, but given my shaky grasp of even the most basic physical laws, I'll leave that to those better trained in it.

Update II: Apparently the links in the above quote didn't work ( I copied straight from C's email), so I've removed them.