Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Here Are The Facts Redux

Having completed another go-around on the milkshake carousel, it's time to once again collate data. What fun!

First up: the updated chart of shake quality by category.

At this point it seems we're seeing the various groupings balancing each other out; aside from chocolate and (arguably) cakes, the categories appear fairly similar (fruit took a particular beating this time round thanks to the truly abysmal pineapple shake). This may set the pattern for the future, thanks to the law of large numbers, though I would hate to mangle my presentation of statistics to the point where I implied 3 was in any sense large. Naturally, chocolate remains what is known in the trade as "an outlier of awesome".

We now turn to the updated shake quality deviation graph.

Biscuits and breakfast cereals are the biggest winners here. The twin nightmares of pineapple and blackjack have massively widened the quality deviation for fruit and sweets respectively, both of which were until now highly regarded categories. Chocolate remains powerful, but cakes are now clearly the most dependable category, as well as scoring highly overall.

Finally, we consider the overall satisfaction I am experiencing with the experiment as a whole.

As this chart demonstrates, there is a slight but noticeable downward drift in my enjoyment as the experiment goes on. Had I not been fortunate in my last two choices, the drift might be even more prominent. Alas, I see the coming day when all acceptable shake flavours have been sampled, and only a morass of mediocrity remains, punctuated occasionally by moments of pure revulsion.

Truly, I must suffer to bring enlightenment to my readers.

In conclusion: cakes are solid and dependably delicious, chocolate continues to do the business, and breakfast cereal seems to have overtaken sweets in a result that defies all conceivable laws of reality. Oh, and this series may not be long for this world, since as a general rule if I'm going to be putting on weight I'd rather it not involve drinking concoctions more suited to Snape's potions class than anything else.

Shake #21

Today's shake: Crunchy Nut Cornflakes

Taste: 8
Texture: 6
Synergy: 9
Scorn: 1
Total Score: 8

General Comments: Everyone with any real taste is aware that the best part of eating a bowl of crunchy nut cornflakes is finishing the flakes themselves, and drinking the remaining honey-tinged milk (surreptitiously, of course, otherwise Mum will shout at you). This shake essentially replicates this joy over the course of an entire beverage. In fact, the added creaminess makes the experience even more pleasing. Even the tiny gritty remains of the flakes that get in your teeth don't detract from the experience as you might think they would, in fact it actually improves the drink even more.

In fact, the only downside to this shake is the accumulation of a layer of soggy corn sludge at the bottom of the cup, which pretty much tastes like the soggiest cornflake mush imaginable. This means a slight reduction in the volume of drinkable cup content, but the quality of what remains is so high I am inclined to forgive.

With another trip through the seven ingredient categories complete, it's time for some more number crunching. Stay tuned for the results!

Tuesday, 29 September 2009

The Things We Do Deserve The Right Names

Let's a have a go at an old internet trick, shall we:

Shorter Ellis Washington: "How is it possible for a rabid, bullying, neocon hack and the Prime Minister of Israel to not publicly agree on whether Obama's U.N. speech was encouraging for Israel? The hack cannot possibly be questioned, which logically means the Israeli PM is an appeaser, Obama is an anti-Semite, and suggesting Palestinians should have their own state will cause Israel to be swept away by the combined force of every Muslim country in the world which is presumably what Obama wants."

Bonus asshole points are hereby awarded for suggesting Obama's desire to relaunch negotiations is proof he thinks he's the first one to try for peace in the Middle East. Washington even points out that every President since Truman has said the same thing, which makes Obama a narcissist... how? Slow learner, maybe. Unless his point is that all Presidents are narcissists, which is probably true, but that makes singling Obama out even more ridiculous.

Mainly, though, this article is a reminder of the insanely blinkered support Israel enjoys amongst American neocons. Sure, you can argue the accuracy and wisdom of describing the current state of affairs as an "occupation", and whether or not a contiguous Palestinian state is remotely feasible, but Washington has no interest in doing that; the best he can manage is to squeeze out the idea that if you lost people whilst invading somewhere four decades ago, that means you won the land at great cost and shouldn't ever have to give it back, because the US doesn't have to give the States back to the people they killed two centuries back and THAT IS THE EXACT SAME THING YOU GUYS!! [1]

No, once again it's far easier to just shout "ANTI-SEMITE!" (whilst lumping every Muslim country in the world as fighting against Israeli interests, because that's not indicative of dangerous thinking as regards a major religion, nooooo), suggest peace is necessarily the same thing as appeasement and surrender, and try to tie it all into a wider narrative of how Obama secretly hates Jews, whites, capitalists and Americans in general.

It's worth noting that, as far as I can tell from a quick Google search, Washington isn't Jewish. What he is is an unashamed partisan hack (yep, another one), which means that I get to quote Spencer Ackerman's Sunday post:
I don't know what lack of self-awareness convinces right-wing evangelicals that they're the true guardians of the Jews, but that condescending and parochial nonsense is its own form of antisemitism. We Tribesmen do not need some wire-rimmed enabler of one of the most destructive and inept presidents in American history to protect us from the perfidies of the world. It's us and not him who will pay the price for antisemitism, so if Gerson wants to actually act like a righteous gentile, he can start by not accusing Jews of apathy to their own people's wellbeing for the sin of not sharing his politics.
Ackerman was railing against Gerson (a former Bush speech-writer) accusing Ezra Klein of not giving enough of a shit about antisemetic blog commentators, so the fit to Washington's piece is not exact. For all I know, Ackerman and/or Klein may have hated Obama's speech (neither of them appear to mention it on their respective sites). Still, if Washington wanted to actually act like a righteous commentator, he could start by not accusing politicians of hostility to the Jewish people's wellbeing for the sin of not sharing his politics.

Edited for grammar.

[1] I would hope no-one would make this mistake, but don't take this to mean I necessarily think giving back the land is feasible or desirable, or even fair. The point is that the issue is massively complicated, but Washington wants to pretend it isn't, because if the Israeli-Palestine conflict and any solution to it are viewed as complex, his brand of blood-thirsty cheerleading can't work anymore. Hence he trots out a blatant piece of sophistry in the hopes that similarly dogmatic readers will nod along happily without question.

Monday, 28 September 2009

First Flash

I sat down to watch the first episode of Flash Forward tonight (spoilers are coming, peeps and peepesess), having consciously learned absolutely nothing about the show in advance. In fact, I knew so little about it I spent the first two minutes thinking "That dude looks an awful lot like Joseph Fiennes". All I knew is that everyone seems convinced that it is The Best Thing Ever, so I was prepared to hate it.

I... don't hate it. I mean Alex Kingston is still the most irritating woman working in television today, blue filters are so 2004, and all things being equal I'd rather have kept watching Charlie's cartoon (which apparently chronicles the adventures of a mentally unbalanced beaver and a shark in a goldfish-bowl reverse diving suit), but generally speaking it was pretty enjoyable.

For the uninitiated, the story revolves around a period of two minutes and seventeen seconds during which the entire population of the planet blacks out. Most of them experience flashes of themselves six months in the future.

This unlocks two crises. The most immediate one is the massive damage caused by such widespread unconsciousness; cars crash, planes crash much harder, operations are suddenly abandoned, and so on. Cue lots of shots of broken bodies, men on fire, and a genuinely unnerving image of a rubbery oil-slick of drowned surfers. Also the obligatory CGI effects of exploding oil-tankers, of course, which I am prepared to forgive, and an escaped kangaroo, which is either a fairly baffling clue or just someone having a preemptive laugh at devoted fans' expense (I fully intend to pooh-pooh any fan theory I see on the grounds that it fails to explain the marsupial).

The second crisis is more slow-burning, but with an obvious time limit; how do we work out how this happened, and make sure this never happens again? FBI Agent Mark Benford (as played by a bloke who looks like Joseph Fiennes, as played by Joseph Fiennes) saw himself investigating that very thing, which leads to him getting the gig in the present, but it doesn't look like things were going well, since his wall is full of random leads and his office is full of hostile men wearing black clothes and baby masks and sporting automatic weapons.

The way the flashes are used are very clever. A suicidal man is so delighted to learn that he will in fact be alive in six months that he immediately feels his life has meaning again (though since he tells a woman who killed her patient during an incident that cost the life of thousands of people that the flashes were a gift from God, it appears his life is meant to involve him being an insensitive fuck). An alcoholic watches himself relapse, which in itself would be likely to trigger that very thing. Mileage is gotten out of Benford's partner Dmitri receiving no flash and hence believing he will be dead within the next six months, I'm glad Dmitri (as played by Sulu, as not played by George Takei) worked this out fairly quickly, since it's an obvious conclusion, but whether this is going to set a pattern of actually getting answers or not remains to be seen.

Because anyone with any experience of genre TV knows where this could end. The first episode did nothing to alleviate my fears that one of three things could happen. Firstly, the flash might prove to be the only sci-fi aspect to the show, which the writers eventually run out of ways to make hay out of. You might be able to manage a low-key show for a while with that conceit, but it wouldn't last forever, and when you start of with the blood and the smoke and the exploding, you've really got to be careful about putting on the brakes too much. The second possibility is that more and more weird shit gets added to the mix (known round these parts as the "Twin Peaks Method"), hoping that new mysteries will work as a substitute to any actual answers, until everyone who watches the show literally chews their own fingers off and uses the bleeding stumps to punch Brannon Braga to fucking death. The third possibility is halfway between the first two, and involves allowing revelations to occur, but only at a snail's pace, and with each one leading to new mysteries, and interspersed with character scenes that involve everyone acting as stupidly as possible in order to justify no-one being able to work out what's going on (see Lost for a textbook example of allegedly smart people steadfastly refusing to ask even the most obvious question). That will end in bloodshed too, though at least I'll still have my fingernails so as to gouge out the eyes of my enemies.

Maybe not. It's impossible to tell for now, and I'm certainly intrigued enough to continue watching. Setting up a mystery is not the same thing as either maintaining nor resolving a mystery, though, so I refuse point-blank to get my hopes up in any way. I guess I'm learning.

Sunday, 27 September 2009

SpaceSquid vs. The X-Men #26: Betsy

If the X-Men are about anything, they are about change.

This is simultaneously their greatest strength and their biggest weakness within the world of comics. The advantage is obvious; in an industry so afraid of losing their core audience Marvel will have Spiderman literally make a deal with the Devil to undo years of continuity, the X-Men are free to simply mutate (both metaphorically and literally) into another form and then just get on with it. Admittedly it no doubt helps to be a team book, allowing writers to use cast shifts as cabinet reshuffles whenever a particular regime proves unpopular, but still, whatever one might think of recent changes in the X-line (and I liked M-Day a lot more than a lot of other people, though I can’t deny that far less was done with it than could have been), it cannot be denied that the X-Universe has a leg-up when it comes to avoiding stagnation.

Even the two other main themes in the X-Men, bigotry and dealing with your own changing body, are threads of the same idea. This is obvious in the latter case, though perhaps less so with the former. What is the hatred of mutants, though, but an expression of humanity’s fear of a changing world? Our own inability to adapt? And how is that different from dressing up xenophobia as a concern for “British jobs” (Gordon Brown) or lamenting that you can go to Knightsbridge and not hear an English accent (Morrissey)? It would be an oversimplification to suggest bigotry and change go hand in hand, but what seems unquestionable is that bigotry is at its strongest, ugliest and most plain whenever change is on the horizon. I once had a brief conversation with a man born in Birmingham, Alabama, who had been a child when the Civil Rights marches came to his city. His summation was that the changes the black community so desperately wanted were so obviously reasonable, the only way to oppose them was to hate those doing the asking as much as humanly possible, until you though so little of them in comparison to yourself that their current despicable situation became fair. You can take the idea far further, of course, but it wouldn’t be long until this became another anti-GOP rant, and this is supposed to be about comics. Actually, it’s supposed to be about Psylocke, whom I haven’t mentioned yet. We’re nearly there; trust me.

The accompanying weakness to this constant focus on change, of course, is that the X-books have a (well-deserved) reputation for being almost impenetrable to the casual reader. Endlessly twisting, self-referential storylines might thrill the dedicated fanatic (one of the ways in which we closely mirror soap-opera addicts, a fact which neither side is likely to view particularly favourably), but such unashamed service to the established fan-base makes actually breaking in all but impossible [1]. I reckon it took me three years to get the basics down, and another ten to really get to grips with the specifics of X-Men continuity (the ‘90s being a particularly convoluted period), and I couldn’t blame anyone for giving up. “Too complicated” is a phrase frequently used to describe that era in particular, and the X-books in general. [2]

Psylocke (at last!) is the very embodiment of this problem. In fact, you could put a reasonable amount of money on the chance that upon telling even a comparatively casual X-fan that you intended to write a piece on Psylocke’s character, the response would be “which one?”

For the uninitiated, here is a list of potential Psylockes we could discuss:

  1. The model/charter pilot secretly using her psi-powers to aid STRIKE (the UK equivalent of SHIELD);
  2. The blinded, helpless victim;
  3. The bionic-eyed superhero star of a Mojo TV series;
  4. The faintly sinister X-Man;
  5. The Asian ninja, her mind shared across two bodies;
  6. The “whole” Asian ninja, following Revanche’s death;
  7. The Asian ninja; post-Crimson Dawn (now with shadow-teleporting and added crazy);
  8. The powerless prison for the Shadow King;
  9. The telekinetic;
  10. The dead body;
  11. The miraculously resurrected Asian ninja, without shadow-teleporting any more.

Writing that list I realised I have no idea whether Psylocke retained Jean Grey’s telekinesis when she returned from the dead. I don’t even know how Psylocke got the telekinesis, for that matter, since it took place during the borderline-catastrophic “Revolution” of the X-line which leaped ahead six months, a gimmick that simply ensured everything made even less sense (it also made it very clear that Chris Claremont is a writer who should be remembered, rather than revisited). I don’t even want to get into most of that list, though since I mentioned her in the footnotes, and because it probably qualifies as the most change-y of Psylocke’s changes, I’ll briefly sketch out the Revanche craziness. Basically, the X-Men went through something called the Siege Perilous, which wiped their memories. Betsy was found immediately afterwards by a group of villains known as the Hand. One of them, Matsu’o Tsurayaba, attempted to replace her mind with that of his comatose lover Kwannon. The extra-dimensional entity he hired to do this instead split the two minds over the two bodies, leaving Psylocke to believe she was whole within someone else’s body, until her original body, animated by a mind which also thought she was Psylocke, but calling herself Revanche, arrived, determined to unmask the “imposter”. Eventually the truth came out, and after Revanche contracted the Legacy Virus and her powers went haywire (oh, yeah, she was a telepath too, what are the odds?), she was able to un-shuffle the two minds, allowing Psylocke to live wholly within Kwannon’s body, whilst Revanche (who was now Kwannon) died inside Psylocke’s body.

Confused yet? I don’t blame you. Smart X-writers never, ever mention any of this (I lambasted it earlier, but it occurs that Fraction’s use of Pryor and Revanche in the same story might just have been him having a laugh at the X-Universe’s expense). And that’s just one part of the saga of Psylocke. It’s all a big jumbled mess.

Of course, as a general rule, I like big jumbled messes. Or at least, I enjoy disentangling them. That’s pretty much what maths is, once you factor out the social ineptitude and constant drinking. The problem with Psylocke is that it all sounds much better in theory than it does in practice. In theory, in a fictional universe where writers can just use the phrase “secondary mutation” and immediately turn a character’s life upside down, there might be a lot of worse in taking the idea to its extreme, and doing it with an established character rather than minor or new ones, so that the progress is observable. I mentioned before that part of the “life is change” idea that permeates the X-Men is dealing with the changes to yourself [3]. In an ideal world, Psylocke would take the idea further: exactly how many pieces of you can be altered, reshuffled, or removed entirely, until you get to the point that you’re not you anymore?

This is something that comes up in my head a lot. I don’t think I’ve discussed this on the blog before, but I’ve spent most of my life suffering from depression to a greater or lesser extent, and one of the side-effects of that is a lot of time wishing various aspects of my personality could be flensed away, so that the rest of my brain could function the way it’s supposed to. In more rational moments, of course, I realise that even if it were possible, it would not necessarily be a desirable proposition. Everything is interconnected; removing one straw will cause the others to shift, or even fall, and then all the marbles would drop out and you’ve lost the whole game of Ker-Plunk, and nobody wants that. The most generous interpretation of Psylocke is that her journey demonstrates the dangers of attempting such metaphorical brain-surgery.

If that had been how she had been approached, rather than just randomly saddling her with new shit because no-one knew what else to do with her, maybe that might have worked. Certainly it would have strengthened the idea of her relationship with Archangel, which was set up as two people with their bodies and minds twisted by fate taking comfort in each other, and could have led to an interesting (albeit probably quite depressing) co-dependency, rather than falling into the standard digital oscillation between “blissfully happy” and “troubled” that is all most comic book relationships seem able to offer. We’ve all lost people we were close to following shifts in behaviour (ours or theirs, the former often being confused for the latter), Psylocke could have been that most useful of comic book concepts, the literal metaphor.

I’m not sure it would have succeeded even under those circumstances, though. A lot of the problem stems from the difficulty in successive creative teams managing to keep stable characters consistent. The systematic breakdown of a character across multiple writers is an almost certain non-starter. Moreover, Psylocke’s periodic changes are just infrequent enough to make tracking her progress difficult, but too frequent for any of her incarnations to be reliably thought of as a baseline (her tendency to be ignored for months by writers even when she‘s an active team member doesn‘t really help). There’s no value in exploring how someone changes if there’s no attachment to what was there before the change. At best, you can come up with some kind of overarching similarity between the various faces of Psylocke. You could talk about puppets; Betsy Braddock spends most of her early life being manipulated against her twin brother Brian (also known as Captain Britain), then is enslaved by Mojo, eventually becomes a Hand assassin, and post-Crimson Dawn [4] is almost seduced/mind-controlled into becoming the bride/slave of Kagumi, Proctor of the Crimson Dawn. Even her death was a manipulation by Varga to intimidate the other X-Men, and her resurrection was at the hands of her insane brother Jamie, again as part of a larger plan (he even talks about bringing her back by tightening her quantum strings, which is a fairly explicit puppetry reference). Again, though, it’s an idea that only works in theory, especially since as we’ve discussed, there simply isn’t time to get to know and thus care about the puppet in question.

If any of the above incarnations might be viewable as the “real” Psylocke, I guess you could argue it is number 4, the version which first joined the X-Men. That particular aspect had a lot of promise. Her willingness to invade and re-write people’s minds, and even to kill them if she believed the greater good would be served, made her a nice alternative to the usual strong-but-characterless women that blighted the industry for so long (though a less charitable interpretation would be that Psylocke simply predated the relentlessly nasty portrayal of heroes of both genders during the early ‘90s). You can add in version 5 to this as well, back when it was thought her body was new but everything else was the same. Many fans hated her attempts to seduce Cyclops just before the Revanche story line, but I actually loved the idea that someone could be a hero, determined to save the world and help the helpless, but would be happy to cross the line in other respects, such as stealing your friend’s fiance if she felt like it [5], or poking around in a team-mate’s head to gain answers (most obviously Gambit, a decision that led to her ending up helping in the prosecution for his “trial“ by a disguised Magneto) or even rearrange the furniture (persuading Havok to enter the Siege Perilous, despite months of her being annoyed that he refused to trust her). It always seemed strange that people seemed uncomfortable with Psylocke’s transgressions. I’m not saying one has to approve, but for a team that has at least one proven killer amongst their ranks, complaining about a telepath who does too much poking, and isn’t afraid to try and steal your boyfriend, seems a little odd.

Yeah, I kinda liked that version of Psylocke. Shame she was living on borrowed time.

In conclusion, then: you can find a great deal to like about Psylocke as a character, and particularly as a female character in a book (and an industry) that has served women very poorly in the past, if not in the present. Given the sheer amount of variations on Psylocke herself, though, it is impossible to see those rare moments of competency as anything other than proof that if you throw enough shit at a wall, some of it is going to stick.

Next time we investigate Dazzler as part of our ongoing sub-feature of “X-Men I will find it impossible to say anything about”. Tune in next month!

[1] Established wisdom has it that this is why comic readership has flat-lined since the early ‘90s, which seems likely. More specifically, the problem lies in the confusion between stories that reference past continuity, and those that rely on it. Or, even worse, those that rely exclusively on it. Having a long-lost (or even long-dead) character suddenly show up is *not* a sound foundation for an entire story, and yet both Marvel and DC seem intent on endlessly recycling the idea. To touch once more upon the soap opera comparison, DC’s revival of Barry Allen can be seen as roughly analogous to Dirty Den returning to Eastenders, and from what I can gather worked out roughly about as well. Uncanny X-Men is just as guilty of this as any other book; as recently as this year I was forced to sit through the “Sisterhood” arc, which apparently assumed all you need for a storyline in a flagship title is the sudden reappearance of two characters killed off more than twenty years ago (Madelyne Pryor and Revanche, in this case, the latter of whom no-one even liked at the time, but more about her later) and an awful lot of Greg Land’s patented photo-traced porn stars poured into X-uniforms.

[2] For more on just how unnecessarily and unworkably muddled and intertwined this era of the X-Men really was, you should check out
Not Blog X, which attempted to determine whether it really did get as bad as everyone seems to think, rapidly concludes that it did, and then bravely kept cranking out reviews that read more and more like they should be read out using long, hopeless sighs. Unfortunately, these days the blog concerns itself only with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comics. Boo, and indeed, hiss.

[3] An idea that I found very resonant as a teenager. It’s probably no coincidence that the X-Men and Spiderman are generally the most popular Marvel titles; the twin themes of changing biology and the pressures of teenage life have immediate hooks for what is usually thought of as the target audience.

[4] Should probably explain this one too. Psylocke was almost eviscerated in a battle with Sabretooth, leading to Wolverine and Archangel tracking down the Crimson Dawn, a mystical power source deep in the Earth that can magically heal people (using, I swear to fucking God, the power of love), but apparently with the weird side-effect of tattooing your face, and making you able to teleport through shadows. So now you know.

[5] On the other hand, it will baffle me to my grave as to why anyone thought licking motor oil off Cyclops’ cheek was meant to be seductive. Perhaps it’s fair to say that I loved the idea of Psylocke attempting to seduce Cyclops, but it’s difficult to argue with the fact that the process did make her come off as more than a little slutty. Still, as I say, we’re talking about a period in which female characters were almost embarrassingly generic, so I’m willing to offer points for effort. Up until it was decided she only tried it on because of Kwannon’s influence in her head, of course. If there’s one thing that irritates me about comic-book heroes, it’s the fact that any non-heroic behaviour is almost invariably explained away, often in tremendously unconvincing ways, rather than just accepting that heroes aren’t perfect. And, once again, note how it's OK for Wolverine to slaughter his way through half of North America, so long as a woman doesn't come on to a man who's spoken for.

Saturday, 26 September 2009

Compare And Contrast: Obama Foreign Policy Edition

Two good pieces on American foreign policy today, both essentially focused on the Republican "contribution" to the debate. Depending on what kind of mood you're in, Daniel Larison provides an insightful analysis on the flaws in Republican thinking.

Alternatively, you could just watch David Mitchell instead.

Friday, 25 September 2009

Friday Romantic Cynicism

Hopefully Atheist Pope Tiger I won't read anything into this: it's just damn well hilarious, is all.

h/t to Vomiting Mike.

Thursday, 24 September 2009

The Space Squids Part 5: Three Chaplains III

Already you have heard of the massacre at Raxos, and the blasphemy that befell Kringrimm, and of the strange continent of Cauda on the world of Four Feathers. You know now of the stern, unbending artisan worshipped by the Krinngrimi, and of the endlessly destructive force of nature to whom the Caudans pay homage, and how both call their God “the “Emperor”. Above all, you know the three names around which this tale is centred: Tolosson, Orfirsson, and Tegatchi.

To those few people who know the story of the Three Chaplains (perhaps none of which lie outside the ranks of the Krakens of Greyjoy themselves, save your humble scribe), it must seem as though the crisis was as obvious as it was inevitable. In those early days, however, the Krakens were under intense pressure from every direction; pressure from Rekasson to learn his new way of warfare, from the local governors and the Inquisition to hold the line against the alien and the heretic, from the memory of the Emperor’s Shields to live up to their example, and from the basic laws of attrition and recruitment to not vanish in the night before they had ever had a chance to make their mark. What might be going on in the shadows of the Reclusiam was a question nobody felt particularly compelled to answer.

As always in these matters, things started small. The various litanies of faith and fury employed by the Krakens date in the main back to the days during and immediately following the Great Crusade and the Horus Heresy, and remain almost entirely untouched by the dogma of the dour Krinngrimi. Relying on such ancient wisdom, the first few months Tegatchi spent performing his duties could not be faulted by his more experienced counterparts. And if the Four Feather recruits sought him out over Tolosson or Orfirsson for spiritual guidance or the application of penance, then this seemed not out of the ordinary. After all, at that time there were few Caudans in the Second Company, and none whatsoever in the First, and the scramble to ensure those two companies were battle-ready spiritually as well as physically meant that the Krinngrimi Chaplains were all too happy to leave the nascent Third, Fourth and Tenth Companies in the apparently very capable hands of Chaplain Tegatchi. The occasional combined manoeuvre demonstrated the Caudans’ capacity for recalcitrance and impertinent questioning, but beyond requests for more tightly-focussed hypno-indoctrination procedures during recruitment, nothing seemed to come of it.

Some would point out that given the weight of those dark, desperate days, in which a tiny, inexperienced chapter attempted desperately to be worthy of the dream their Chapter Master had shared with them, perhaps Tolosson and Orfirsson can be forgiven for failing to consider the long-term possibilities of their situation. Those same people might argue that Tegatchi, too, can hardly be blamed for attending to the spiritual well-being of his countrymen in the only manner he and they had ever known. It is those self-same voices who condemn entire sectors to flame and ruin in their attempts to understand problems rather than to solve them. The truly enlightened know that it matters not why mistakes were made, why cracks were allowed to appear that would one day become chasms: all that matters is where the chasms opened, what we lost to them, and how much blood it will cost us to seal them once more.

The unofficial and unconsidered segregation of the Krinngrimi-born marines and their young Caudan counterparts continued until the Kraken’s first major military action during the Hestanian Crusade. A strong force of rebels had staged a counter-attack against Warmaster Chellak’s overstretched flank, allowing hordes of daemons and legions of rebels and cultists to spill out into the Allagon sub-sector. Most of these forces were eventually countered by the hastily reformed picket fleets, but a small fleet of traitor guardsmen, along with several warbands of Word Bearers, managed to push their way through into the Vestan system, an otherwise insignificant system that contained the shrine world of Vestan Prime.

The colony on Vestan Prime predates the Great Crusade. Indeed, had the planet evaded discovery until the Age of Strife began, the newly humbled and ignorant mankind could never have attempted to build the seemingly endless interlocking spiral-towered cathedrals of Carella’s Maze, a multi-hued labyrinth of chapels, spires and cloisters constructed across the floor of Vestan Prime’s planet-wide ocean, its serene corridors dimly lit by whatever wan sunlight penetrates the depths. Azure fish would stare through bafflingly intricate pressure-resistant stain-glass, casting doleful glances at the confessors, missionaries, preachers and Imperial cultists that swept aside the strange, orange-gowned monks that inhabited the Maze ten thousand years earlier. There are more holy relics on Vestan Prime than in any three other local systems, but the defence fleet had been pared down to aid in the Crusade, and the traitor forces succeeded in making planet fall. Within minutes of splashdown the attacks had gouged their way inside the Maze with diamond-toothed daemon engines, and were mercilessly hacking down the horrified holy men.

The resulting terrified distress call was received by the Intractable, and Rekasson saw his chance to fully blood his chapter for the first time in the theatre of war he had chosen. Almost immediately, the Kraken fleet ripped its way into the Warp, their course set for Vestan Prime.

It was their first and last action as a united chapter.

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Hollywood Laugh-Peddlers FTW

Typical. You spend all your time complaining about the bullshit arguments being levelled against universal healthcare in the States, and then Will Ferrell shows up with his superior resources and celebrity friends and his obscene amounts of funny, and suddenly people pay attention.

They'd better do, anyways. This is awesome (up until the very end, which someone else has tacked on, I believe).

h/t to Mahablog.

Chain Reactions

Gosh, it's all go on the disarmament front, isn't it; Brown announces intention to scale back nuclear submarine fleet.

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Quote Of The Day

Just for the sheer incongruity; this popped up halfway through the Guardian's live-blogging of a speed chess match between Karpov and Kasparov, two former world champions. A genuine clash of the intellectual titans. Apparently, though, chess fans are so smart and refined that they can watch one display of attack and counter even as they themselves participate in another:

The discussion continues on Chess OK as to whether or not pizza "is gay".
On an related note, I have decided to count chess as a sport, rather than a wargame, because no-one to my knowledge has ever broadcast a wargaming encounter, and also in an attempt to water down the concept of sport until it no longer has any meaning, and everyone gives up on it. Join the struggle, my friends!

Shake #20

Today's shake: Bakewell Tart

Taste: 9
Texture: 5
Synergy: 8
Scorn: 4
Total Score: 7

General Comments: Tastes like Cherry Garcia ice-cream. And I mean exactly. Since CG is my absolute favourite Ben & Jerry's ice cream flavour (which pretty much makes it my favourite ice cream flavour full stop, absent a time machine that can take me back to Robin Hood's Bay in the mid '80s), this results in a very high taste score (only the absence of black cherries prevents it from reaching the hallowed 10). Texture wise, it breaks even, as the irritating flecks of crust that occasionally surface are exactly cancelled out by the random slivers of delicious icing. A very satisfying shake; highly recommended.

Monday, 21 September 2009

More Good News

Still refusing to get my hopes up, but the Guardian has another encouraging piece regarding Obama wanting to scale back the States' nuclear arsenal. If the suggested agreement for the US and Russia to reduce themselves to 1500 deployed warheads each comes to pass (that's more than a 33% reduction for the US, and almost 50% for Russia), that would be good news indeed.

Under normal circumstances I would try to find out why the French are being cagey about the phrase "a world without nuclear weapons" (beyond the self-evident fact that it's never going to happen), but as it stands the story manages to make the future look bright, Obama look awesome, and the French look like pricks, so I've already got everything I need out of it.

Sunday, 20 September 2009

More Blueness

Ranting about the Blue Dogs (amongst many other things) reminded me of my favourite political cartoon this year, reproduced below for your perusal.

M. Wuerker's archive can be found here.

Senate Smackdown!

Apparently Linda McMahon (wife of current WWE CEO Vince McMahon, and former CEO herself) has decided to try and get into the US Senate.

Aside from why she'd want the job (the House always seemed like much more fun), the big question is here is how anyone could look at the two current Connecticut Senators and conclude that Dodd is the problem. Apparently McMahon has given money to the Democrats in the past, so people are concerned she isn't Republican enough, but deciding Lieberman is worthy of keeping so much as the capacity for speech should be proof enough (though admittedly McMahon would have to wait another two years to take him on).

Ever since Al Franken was voted in as the Junior Senator of Minnesota (or at least since he was sworn in, after Coleman's wretched, hypocritical and shameless campaign of whining douchebaggery finally received sufficient legal bitch-slappings to force it to stop), Democrats need to be careful about mocking celebrities running for political office (I'd question if McMahon qualifies as a celebrity, but the whole "Can you smell what Barack is cooking?" episode during the Presidential Campaign at least suggests an awful lot of people pay attention to these people), but at least Franken had proven his understanding of the American political system. It will be interesting to see if McMahon can manage that feat also, or indeed whether anyone's actually going to bother to ask her to. I mean, she's already demonstrated an interest in bipartisanship (again, only because political commentators in the States are crazy enough to think that being nice to Joe Lieberman makes a Republican bipartisan, as oppose to just rewarding a turncoat for their treachery [1]) and fiscal conservatism [2], which in the world of George Will, David Broder et al, automatically makes you qualified for public office.

[1] I may sound hysterical over Lieberman, but the thing you have to remember about Lieberman is that I really hate him. The one and only time I ever spoke to Menzies Campbell, it quickly became an (entirely genial) argument over whether or not Lieberman deserved to be beaten with sticks.

[2] Magically, this always translates into "Everything must pay for itself except tax cuts for the rich and shooting foreigners" when people take office. Then everyone pretends not to notice, which is why the Blue Dogs still get to pretend they have a philosophy, rather than coin slots in their spines labelled "Insert $100 000 to shaft the poor".

Tiny Changes To Earth

Some interesting news on the climate change front: we may not see any new evidence of global warming for another decade or so.

On the most superficial level, one could consider this good news, if we work on the theory that this represents an extra ten to twenty years before we reach the point of no return (whatever that actually is), but I suspect that that is an absurdly simplistic viewpoint. Of more interest (and this is definitely in the "bad news" category) will be how many people who have spent the last X years shouting into their keyboards that climate scientists don't know what the Hell they're doing will now suddenly clasp Latif to their bosoms, hailing him as the Almighty Truth-Seeker. Once again we return to the medical analogy; if you've just spent the last six months telling everyone the last 100 doctors you saw said you have cancer and you ignored them because doctors are idiots, it doesn't make too much sense to pop open the champagne when doctor 101 tells you you're in the clear. It especially doesn't make sense in this case, since to continue the analogy in this instance your doctor has told you you do have cancer, but its gone into remission and won't return for ten years (actually, that might be good reason to reach for the champagne, in fairness, but that's just about the difference in life-span of one person and the entire human race and the planet it inhabits).

Monbiot has already found one such person, though I've never read the blog before so I'm not sure how fair it is to single it out as important or relevant, though its apparently in the Right Wing Blog Top 100, which isn't encouraging (he's also one of the endlessly irritating "Being told you are wrong = violation of free speech" brigade, and hates both Sarah Silverman and Stuart Lee, so clearly "contemptible" is a word that doesn't go far enough), but I don't doubt this is going to creep out further into the lunaticohedron. After all, nothing says "truth-seekers under pressure to keep silent" like rubbishing an entire scientific discipline until the instant someone in it tells you something you want to hear (as well as something you didn't want to hear, that you immediately ignore), does it?

Friday, 18 September 2009

Tunnel Vision

Today on Republican Idiocy Watch, your handy five part guide to looking like a fool, as modelled by Congressman Kevin Brady:

Step 1: Vote against the Stimulus Bill because it's Big Government spending;
Step 2: Organise massive rally against Healthcare, because it's Big Government spending;
Step 3: Fail to get everyone to rally, due to inadequate subway facilities;
Step 4: Demand Big Government spend more on subways;
Step 5: Be reminded that the subway is in the process of being improved, using funds from the Stimulus Bill.

So, just to be clear: the US government must spend more money to allow its citizens to more easily reach protesting crowds demanding the US government spend less money. Roger that. Perhaps each subway station should provide magic markers, as well, so that protesters don't have to draw Hitler moustaches on Obama photos at their own expense?

Update: Spielbergo points out that Brady's explicit complaints against the Metro aren't in the above link. They can be found here.

Thursday, 17 September 2009

District 9

Spoiler-free review: it's pretty good, but the individual parts sit uneasily next to each other, and if they'd tried harder to maintain the "documentary" feel, or at least eased out of it over time rather than careening between it and standard film techniques, it could have been a lot better. It's also pretty grim, too; you have been warned.

Longer, spoilerised review below.




Anyone with any knowledge of TV sci-fi will already have made the obvious link regarding District 9, so let's start with that: yes, this is Alien Nation with gore and swearing. In fact, the film is so reminiscent of the 1989-90 TV show that assuming the Prawns have a similar relationship to their mothership as the Tectonese did with theirs is the only way the ending makes any fucking sense at all. In fact, signing off with no explanation of why the prawns ended up on Earth when apparently they could have just flown home is symptomatic of how schizophrenic the film is. The drip-feeding of information about the Prawns through documentary footage and TV interviews is exceptionally clever, forcing us to form our own opinions of the aliens (especially nice was the entomologist telling the viewers the Prawns were a worker caste; was that actually true, or just a classic attempt to, forgive the term, "dehumanise" the Other), and if the film had kept that up throughout any confusion and lingering questions would be entirely to be expected. Ten or so minutes in, though, we break from the footage approach and watch three Prawns discussing their plan to escape the planet by draining their own technology of every drop of the precious liquid MacGuffin it contains. If you can show that, then why not explain why the mothership lay dormant with the Prawns trapped inside, only for Christopher to easily reactivate it two decades later?

As I said, much of this can be bypassed by assuming an Alien Nation parallel, that the Prawns were slaves trapped in the hold, and it took Christopher twenty years to scavenge enough tech to be able to return to the ship and actually get in the driving seat (you can also extrapolate from the entomologist's contribution that Chris might be a Prawn "queen", and thus smarter than everyone else), but that doesn't change the weirdness of combining massive gaps in information with (frankly very clunky) exposition, all delivered by subtitles. It doesn't particularly work.

There are a lot of other questions thrown up by the film. How come the world's second biggest weapons manufacturer hire troops that can defeat a single administrator with only one fully functional arm? Why would a fuel source also transform humans into Prawns? What possessed the aliens to create a magnet that works on lead and pigs?
Mainly, though, the question that kept cropping up in my mind was: what is this film trying to say? Is it about the viciousness and nonsensicalness of racism? If that's true, making the Prawns pretty stupid seems like an odd choice, to say nothing of the dark irony (or unfortunate idiocy) of making almost all your black characters machete-wielding flesh-eaters (though as Gooder pointed out, almost every white character spends the entire film trying to shoot everybody they can). Of course, it's hard to see the film as anything else? The instant Wikus begins to become a hybrid, his colleagues and family (well, family by marriage) immediately treat his as no better than a Prawn. DO YOU SEE HOW FOOLISH RACISM IS? the film bellows, as Wikus' former colleagues test his nerve endings by drilling into his arm. Of course, some of the commentary is more subtle, so I guess they were just trying to cover a spectrum, for which I can hardly blame them.

I sound like I didn't enjoy the film, but I did. A great deal, in fact. The central idea is pretty interesting, it was a brave move to set it in South Africa, and there are an awful lot of brilliant moments. Sharlto Coply is great as Wikus, managing to act like a total bastard throughout and yet still engender sympathy (this may have something to do with him reminding me so much of Murray from Flight of the Conchords). It's just hard to watch without focusing on some fairly obvious structural issues, that could have been fairly simply ironed out and turned an already pretty good film into a genuinely excellent one.

On the other hand, though: prawn-shaped mecha. You're going to have to think long and hard to come up with a more awesome idea than that.

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Shake #19: The Unshaking

Today's shake: Pineapple

Taste: 1
Texture: 5
Synergy: 2
Scorn: 4
Total Score: 3.5

General Comments: For a few minutes after beginning to drink this shake I was terrified that analysis would be impossible. Apparently, whatever scale exists for the assessment of tastes, pineapple and vanilla lie on exact opposite sides of the centre from each other, and their combination thus tastes of nothing at all. It was like drinking heavy air.

Naturally, this led to an argument over what Taste score to give something that literally cannot be tasted. 0 is not an acceptable answer, for as we know from our Puddleglum, at least if it tastes of nothing it can't taste terrible. Nor can we reach for 5, simply because it is the halfway ground between the best and worst possible tastes (one would surely not give 2.5 stars to a movie with no sound or visuals). There is no proof that taste as a variable behaves linearly, and regardless 5 has already been used as the value assigned to the Control Shake, maple syrup.

Fortunately, this dilemma was eventually resolved when it was discovered that in fact a taste was present, and building up in slivers with each successive sip. Said taste was foul beyond description, so disgusting in fact that the shake was abandoned unfinished, a terrible breach of both experimental procedure and my Yorkshire heritage, but nevertheless necessary. Avoid this shake at all costs.

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Adventures With Animals

As promised, further pictures from Munich Zoo.

This duck isn't actually from one of the enclosures, it just looked really cute. One of the major advantages of going to a zoo in another country is that even the local fauna are new to you (I'm still not sure whether the gopher-like). I caught my first glimpse of a red squirrel whilst in Germany, too.

A grey-crowned crane and its nest.

An African hunting dog.

A gorgeous little pony that I was allowed to stroke because it was sooo cute and wuvvely.

The bearded pig (or bartschwein).

The indescribably cute dwarf goat that Ibb and I spent some time feeding, in-between terror raids by the local sheep.

No Passport, No Defibrillator

This post from Mahablog, regarding attempts to ensure illegal immigrants cannot receive medical treatment, got me thinking about conservative attitudes. I think the key line is:
There’s an old saying, “cutting off the nose to spite the face.” It refers to doing something for revenge or spitefulness that is really self-destructive. This describes the Right’s attitudes toward health care reform. Apparently it's more important to punish illegal aliens than to provide health care for ourselves.
Actually, I'd say it describes a common conservative attitude towards almost anything to do with the government helping people. All recipients of governmental aid can be divided (theoretically, at least, and probably crudely as well) into two groups; those that "deserve" that aid, and those that do not (the specific metric by which one is judged to deserve aid is a topic for another time). Almost by definition, a conservative will tend to believe that the most important thing to do is to minimise the latter group. Liberals, I would argue, tend to focus on ensuring the former group is maximised.

Of course, not only is the liberal approach more empathic (a word I haven't used in a little while, so I feel OK deploying it again), but it has the benefit of not being impossible to achieve. The conservative approach may move the line regarding what qualifies as "deserving", but it is fundamentally obvious that doing so will not decrease the number of people getting something they don't deserve using the new metric, because any line you draw will always lead to people just short of the line claiming to have crossed it [1]. You either accept that, or you give away nothing (which may or may not be something the conservatives in question want, though none of those that I've spoken to have ever admitted to that).

As far as I can see, allowing people who (arguably) shouldn't have X to receive it is simply a cost to be factored in to the process of doing what we're supposed to as a society, which is giving X to those in need of it. You can argue that people don't deserve something, but it seems a fairly weaksauce argument to claim that people who do deserve something shouldn't get it to make sure that those who don't deserve it can't have it either. Contra maha, it isn't a cut-nose-spite-face type of deal, since those doing the cutting know full well they still get to be able to breathe and smell the roses, but that makes the attitude all the worse.

[1] I grant that whilst the number of cheats may not go down, one could ensure the total cost could. Interestingly, though, conservative discussion of the issue often focuses on the people doing the cheating, rather than the specific amounts involved. I admit that that's not always the case, though. Besides, either an amount of money being lost is big enough that I'd be in favour of stronger measures to police the current line (rather than moving it, and wherever possible that the policing be done ex post facto, i.e. we catch cheats after they've cheated, rather than holding up potentially truthful applications interminably), or it isn't, in which case I would suggest it's not worth getting worked up about in any case.

Monday, 14 September 2009

Five Things I Learned In Munich

1. Munich airport buses are tremendously badly labelled. Ingolstadt, however, is very nice at this time of year.

2. It is physically impossible to eat too many Bavarian sausages, or quaff too many litres of beer. It is possible, however, to get home and find none of the clothes you wore in the previous week fit anymore.

3. Nothing says safe sex like an anthropomorphic leering penis with a bunch of flowers. Of course, why bother attempting to acquire prophylactics at all when you can simply move directly to the Travel Pussy? (NSFW, though God help you if you need me to tell you that).

4. Randomly slapping objects with your penis is an entirely acceptable hobby in continental Europe (known as "swaffling"). Limiting this behaviour to the sides of buildings, however, is a weird fetish, and will lead to social ostracism. [1]

5. Bavarian sheep are fucking psychotic. The picture below captures an unsuspecting Ibb mere nanoseconds before a brutal ovine attack. Sharp-eyed observers will spot the malefactor preparing to strike.

I'll probably post more zoo pictures up later in the week. In conclusion, though: it's great to be home.

[1] So Dr F and Waffles tell me, anyways.

Monday, 7 September 2009

Squid Migratory Patterns

Probably little to no posting for the next week, folks; I have a top-level talk in London to not screw up tomorrow, and after that I'll be sampling the beer and maths of Munich (mostly beer, obviously), and will not return to the North East until around 9pm next Monday.

Everyone behave whilst I'm gone.

Sunday, 6 September 2009

No... Ticket!

Every time, every single time that I assume I've maxed out on US-related WTF, I come across something new and uniquely disturbing. Jericho, Arkansas is a town so small (population 174) that it no longer has any businesses, but it has 7 police officers. That's 4% of the population, which the city can't pay for meaning they're cutting back on fripperies like fire department. Their desperate need to pay for themselves means it's now apparently almost impossible to get them to respond to emergency calls, because they're too busy writing as many parking tickets as humanly possible, so as to raise funds.

And, when you go to court to contest bullshit tickets, like fire chief Don Paye (edit: Don Payne, apologies) did last week, the cops will show up too, and they will fucking shoot you.

Seriously. They will fucking shoot you. Right there, in court. In the back.

Also, turns out the tickets were void, because the department had no power to write them in the first place.

So, let's summarise. A police force a city can't afford hand out tickets that it can't legally write like goddamn confetti in order to keep itself afloat, still ends up costing the city so much they start getting their fire engines repossessed. Then, when you stiff the guy in charge of using whatever engines were left to stop your city bursting into fucking flames, and he objects, you shoot him in the back.

I believe the relevant word here is guuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuh?

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

At Last I Am Victorious

Confirmation came through yesterday afternoon that my corrected thesis has been passed. I have thus now graduated from telling people "I will be a doctor conditional on not screwing up my corrections" to "I will be a doctor conditional on not burning Durham to the ground by accident." Whilst the latter scenario cannot be ruled out entirely, this is still a tremendously positive step.

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

Further Competition

Although a casual glance at my various comment threads might suggest Chemie and I agree on almost nothing, now that her own particular facet of the blogohedron has been up and running for a while, I'm adding the URL to "The Competition". If nothing else, reading some of her posts will make you more adventurous in the kitchen, as well as causing insatiable cravings for gummi bears.

Check her out at "Sniffing the Snowdrops".

Who Are You Trying To Kid?

Whilst driving into work this morning I ended up stuck behind a bus for long enough to get a good luck at the advertisement printed on its rear end. "LOVE CULTURE?" it asked innocuously. "LOVE MIDDLESBROUGH".

Middlesbrough has culture now? It has a culture, in the sense that the various cannibalistic mutant tribes that haunt its industrial wasteland have their own language and traditions (the "knacking" of anyone caught wearing a brightly-coloured shirt in the town centre on Friday nights is a particularly solemn tradition, though the yearly sacrifice to the heathen Gods to ensure next year's child prostitute crop is bountiful comes a close second). It has cultures, insofar as at least some of the vast array of moulds and fungi that stain the buildings must have been deliberately placed there by insane scientists to allow to grow into new and deadly strains. But culture?

Please. This is a town whose two most culturally significant local landmarks are a giant metal colour-shifting phallus, and a piece of modern art my brother spent ten years believing to be a climbing frame. A place so grim that it gives people a new appreciation for a shithole like Hull. A locale so relentlessly unpleasant that Captain Cook allowed himself to be horribly massacred by Hawaiians just so he wouldn't have to choke down another parmo.

It's difficult to know what amuses me more, the fact that the original advert I saw on that bus was covered in mud and seen through a haze of exhaust fumes (thus ensuring the picture of my hometown that accompanied the website address above was at least an accurate representation of what lies in wait for visitors) or the fact that the first time I went to the site above I was greeted by the phrase "Supergay!" in huge letters.

Visit Middlesbrough. It's supergay. Don't actually dress gay, though, or we'll fuckin' knack ya.