Friday, 30 October 2009

Friday Comedy: Jonathan Coulton

Once again continuing my favourite theme, here's Jonathan Coulton (perhaps best known for writing "Still Alive" from the game Portal) spinning a meloncholy tale about a self-loathing giant squid.



If you're looking for more, here's [1] the aforementioned Portal Song, and also possibly the best song about dogs and/or spaceflight ever recorded.

h/t to those hoopy froods over at GeekPlanet.

[1] Fixed.

QF Frakking T

Galactica finale spoilers lurk in this link, so be warned. It's a nice comment on the conclusion, though, and Chemie in particular will get a kick out of it.

Thursday, 29 October 2009

Taking Stock

It's almost Halloween, people! And practically everything is prepared. In fact, I've just come back from a ridiculously large shopping trip (funded by Trainline finally coughing up what they owed). In order to facilitate merriment, I bought:

2 bottles of Strongbow (to make spiced cider);
8 cans of Kronenbourg;
4 cans of Strongbow;
4 cans of Kopparberg (to keep Tiger happy);
3 bottles of soft drinks;
2 McCoy's crisps six-packs;
5 bags of Haribo sweets;
1 bag of Jelly Babies;
2 tubs of Gu "Naughties" (bite-sized cake pieces that Garathon introduced me to and to which I am now addicted);
and
1 pumpkin.

Having passed all these items through the scanner without comment, the lady at the checkout then picked up the set of bat-embossed plastic tumblers I'd selected and said "Oh! You're preparing for Halloween!"

As to the menu board for films, I have purchased The Mist (which is awesome), Hellraiser (also awesome) Drag Me To Hell (allegedly awesome) and Return To House On Haunted Hill (which I can only hope is terrible in the exact same way the original one was). I also have a copy of Zombie Strippers, but it is important to note that this was denoted by a friend, and in no way something I paid for or sought out.

Under The Radar

Still furious over the whole Lieberman outrage, but I have just about enough humour left in me to think that this is the best veto note I've ever read. [1]

Certainly it's the best thing I've read all week. The second best? An article on the odds of it occurring by chance.

(If you're not sure what's so funny about the note above, I'd advise studying it for a little while before clicking on the link. Think of it as a tremendously rude Magic Eye picture.)

For the record, one needs to be careful here. 1 in 10 billion isn't a bad start, but one needs to consider the relative frequencies of each letter appearing at the start of a word, the chance of the line break appearing when it does, but also the number of alternative messages (offensive or otherwise) that could also have been spelled out (and if I ever decide to send subconscious messages to people through this blog, you better believe I would be more imaginative about it [2]). My gut instinct, though (combinatorics being a field in which gut instinct is very important, as I'm sure you can imagine), is that the odds are actually a good deal higher than Langer's rough estimate.

Even if the odds were significantly lower, though, smart money would most certainly be on Schwarzenegger doing this deliberately. Quite aside from the odd rhythm to the note, anyone who saw his promotional interview for Jingle All The Way in which he inserted the name of the film into every single answer he gave will be well aware that what he thinks is clever word-play is merely obvious and tedious. At least this time round he's pissing off the dysfunctional Californian legislature and not Barry Norman.

[1] Number of other veto notes I've read: zero. I did see President Bartlett do it on TV once, though.

[2] Hands up who scanned the first letters of each line of this blog post just to check if I'd tried it. Not that I won't sooner or later, obviously.

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Shake #24

Today's shake: Cherry Drops

Taste: 7
Texture: 5
Synergy: 7
Scorn: 3
Total Score: 6.5

General Comments: Given how awesome the cherry bakewell shake proved to be, I decided to compare and contrast by acquiring a cherry drops shake this lunch time.

Unfortunately, today's shake did not match up to the wonders of its similarly flavoured predecessor. The taste itself is very pleasant, pretty much in fact exactly how one would expect liquid cherry drops to taste (and whilst the Shakeaholic blenders failed to adequately hack up turkish delight last week, it turns out that they can do an amazing job on boiled sweets). Much as it might surprise people who know me well, however, there is only so much syrupy sweetness this Squid can take. The first third of the shake was delicious, the second third went down almost without me noticing, and the final third was a little difficult to get through. If someone you know arrives carrying such a shake, it would be well worth your time attempting to acquire a sip (through acceptable means, natch; this blog cannot condone shake-stealing), but think carefully before committing to the complete beverage.

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Fuck

Just. Fuck.

I wouldn't have thought it possible, but I've been too kind to Lieberman. At least the Republicans are prepared to allow 450,000 (edit: sorry, 45,000) Americans to die every year because of partisan politics, an insistence on party unity, and a total refusal to reconsider their ludicrous obsession with blocking any government intervention that doesn't involve building new weapons or screwing the gays.

Fading Traumas

With SpaceSquid's Sixth and Final Halloweenapalooza on Saturday, the time has come to start chivvying my various acquaintances into providing a definitive answer as to whether or not they plan to attend.

In several cases it transpires that people's reticence stems from the belief that my little shindig will be "too scary" (we shall assume for the purposes of this post that they are referring to the horror films themselves, and not to either my company or my increasingly dilapidated bathroom). Certainly this was the concern raised when talking to Anonymous McNoname and J-Dawg this morning.

Unsurprisingly, this led to a conversation on what does and doesn't constitute scary. My stated position has always been that it is practically impossible to be afraid whilst watching a horror film on a TV whilst surrounded by ten or so tipsy mates. I realise that's not always true, though; my friend Julia managed to be freaked out at the first Halloweenapalooza by Ju-On, despite the fact that that film is so unspeakably bad the scariest thing about it is that someone decided to remake it for American audiences and let the original director have another crack at it.

We also got onto my insistence that there's always one film that is too old for anyone to find it scary anymore. I made the point without really thinking about it, and Anonymous called me on it, but I genuinely think it's all but impossible to find a horror film that's more than, say, fifteen to twenty years old still scary. It can still be very good, still be interesting, and certainly one can appreciate how atmosphere was crafted and scares delivered, but more than any other film genre, horror seems very poor at maintaining its level of immersion as time passes. If I were to identify the cause behind this phenomenon (if indeed it exists at all outside of my own mind, though anecdotal evidence suggests I'm not alone on this) I'd say it was something as banal as the increased distance from contemporary production standards. In a strange way, it's the same issue as blatant CGI (described as "the bane of modern cinema" by SFX in 1997, and it doesn't look like we'll see the back of it any time soon); one can be impressed by it, but not be fooled into thinking it's real (even for the briefest flash of a second), and horror relies on our mind's willingness to be deceived.

Or at least, that's how it seems to me. I may be conflating faded scares with the fact that I don't ever get to see older horror films at the cinema (a naturally more immersing environment) and that I am more likely to see such classics in the company of others than alone. I think that there's something more there, though. I think the older a film is, the further away from contemporary viewing experience, the harder it is to watch it without the realisation that you are watching a film being strong and entirely conscious right the way through. With most films that doesn't matter, but with horror films I think that disconnect is more of a problem.

Anyway, this year's horror classic is Hellraiser, so I shall see how well that has aged (I've only seen it once, and long since forgotten anything but the bare bones of what it's like or about). Doubtless further musings will appear at the start of November.

Sunday, 25 October 2009

Today's Burning Question...

...Is: what would be better in goal; an octopus, or eight snakes?

Show your working, people.

Saturday, 24 October 2009

How To Tell People They're Wrong

Crooked Timber weighs in on the Superfreakonomics storm mentioned a little while ago. In essence, Davies' argument runs like this. First, if you're going to tell people the conventional wisdom on an important topic is wrong, you can't complain if you upset anyone. Second, if you deliberately attempt to sound controversial (because controversy sells) you don't get to whine when people reading the piece conclude that said controversial point is what you actually believe. The book has "Global Cooling" in its subheading, and is discussed in the introduction to the relevant chapter, so complaining that people who think the chapter on global warming is attempting to draw a parallel with global cooling are actually "wilful[ly] misreading" doesn't hold much water. As Davies says:
If Superfreakonomics wanted a calm and rational debate, this chapter would have been called something like: “Geoengineering: Issues in Relative Cost Estimation of SO2 Shielding”, and the book would have sold about five copies.
It's well worth reading the whole thing.

Friday, 23 October 2009

Friday Comedy: Scottish Heaven

The Armando Iannucci Show was often frustratingly variable, but on occasion it managed to throw out something brilliant, like so:

Questions That Need Answering

Well, I thought that went reasonably well. Andrew Neil is pointing out as we speak that there's a danger people will have seen this week's Question Time as being five people and an audience ganging up on one person, but given Griffin's spectacularly unconvincing performance, I'm not too worried. He said more than a few things that had me spluttering into my toast, but I suspect his biggest mistake politically was pointing out that David Duke's branch of the KKK is "almost totally non-violent". Griffin knows full well that the only way the BNP can make any more significant progress is to pretend that their views aren't racist really, and that can only work so long as the people inclined to vote for you think that racists are other people. When people say "I'm not racist, but" it isn't (generally speaking) because they know they are racists and want to hide it, it's because the word "racist" carries (entirely deserved) negative connotations that people are desperate to believe don't apply to them, whether or not they actually do.

Linking Griffin to the KKK removes his ability to start sentences that way. When people in Britain think of racists, they think of the KKK (whether this has something to do with "Only in America" thinking, I wouldn't like to speculate). You can't get out of that. You certainly can't get out it by arguing the particular faction of the KKK with which you are associated is "almost totally non-violent". Griffin said other reprehensible things tonight: calling it "creepy" to see two men kissing, arguing teaching about homosexuality to children is "perverse", and of course his continued Holocaust denial, but I suspect it's the link to David Duke that will prove the most damaging politically.

While on the subject of the Holocaust, I thought Jack Straw did very well tonight. At least, he did very well when directly facing Griffin, his squirming on the topic of Labour's track record was standard political stuff (not that I was really expecting anything different). If Griffin got anywhere tonight (in addition to anyone who really did feel sorry for him under withering fire, and there were a number of audience members who didn't really help their own cause in that respect), it was in stating that the dominant political parties are useless and fractious, and then sitting back to watch them squabble. Of course, even the briefest thought would reveal that Griffin's argument boiled down to saying "These three firemen have failed to put out the blaze engulfing your house; so isn't it time for me to SET YOUR FUCKING FACE ON FIRE!?!", so I'm not too worried.

On the other hand, probably the best moment of the whole programme came from Griffin claiming European law forbade him explaining his views on the Holocaust, only for Jack Straw to promise as Secretary of State for Justice that he could have full immunity to say whatever he wanted. I've heard Griffin use that excuse before, and seeing it so totally swept aside was a wonderful moment.

All in all, I'm calling it a win. Once you reduced to saying the KKK faction you're pals with hardly beat up any black people at all, then you're done.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

In Which I Once Again Steal Your Free Time

Remember that dice game I used to destroy BigHead's working life (at least for a couple of days)? Well here's another one.

Fortunately, it takes less time than Lock and Roll does, and in fact one enters the high score table expressly by rapid completion. The current record stands at 81 seconds. Have at it!

SpaceSquid vs. The X-Men #27: Fame Junkie

There is no shortage of reasons why everyone should read George R R Martin’s A Song Of Ice And Fire series. In fact, there are almost no reasons why anyone shouldn’t, save for the fact that it will almost certainly never achieve anything so tawdry as an ending. One of the (many, many) aspects of the series which has drawn praise, however, is the skill with which it argues that knights were the rock stars of the Middle Ages.

The parallels between the two are hardly difficult to see. If one were to suggest the medieval joust was the forerunner to the rock concert, one might not expect to win any prizes for original insight, but at least the chance of abject mockery would seem fairly small. Likewise, the tales of a knight’s courage and martial prowess could be seen as some form of prototype for hushed whispers in the pre-gig darkness regarding Keith Richard’s seeming indestructibility or Sting‘s mystical tantric sex powers [1]. And if attaining a knight’s favour is not particularly similar to either stage-diving or sucking a drummer off back-stage, we can at least recognise the root desire to be known through association.

The point is this. One can fairly easily draw a straight line between the 15th Century knight and the contemporary rock star. However, it is just as possible to draw a line between the knight and the superhero. Perhaps more so, actually, since the number of real knights who gained notoriety in jousts was very small compared to the number of fictional knights whose tales were told as evidence that society just wasn’t what it used to be anymore (plus ca change…) In fact, we can draw a line between the superhero and the rock star as well, and thus create some kind of insane equilateral triangle that blasts heedlessly through the barriers of space and time, and fiction besides. [2]

The key point to bear in mind regarding both knights and musicians is this: it is of little consequence as to whether or not the stories that surround them are true. Just ask Marianne Faithful about that Mars Bar deal. Knights were akin to rock stars in that some amongst them created followings, slavishly devoted fans who were utterly convinced that their pick was objectively the best. They were also similar to superheroes, though, in that many of the tales told about them were intensely implausible at best, and sometimes outright impossible.

There is another critical similarity between the three groups (and again this is something explored very well in Martin’s books): all three share the stated goal of improving the lives of others. Knights swore oaths to defend all sorts of people, places and ideals (sometimes leading to problems when their promises proved mutually exclusive). Superheroes pledge themselves to public service (specifically those parts of public service that involve punching criminals in the face). Whilst the manner by which rock stars aid humanity may be less clear, the belief that music can change the world, or at least give people a good enough time to stop them sticking their heads in the oven, is sufficiently common that whilst it may be a myth, it is no less plausible than the idea that a person becomes more worthy and honourable through receiving a knighthood.

Finally, as a consequence to the above, all three run the risk of becoming so addicted to the worship of the people they wish to help or please that adulation becomes the goal.

As the X-Men’s resident pop diva, Alison Blaire epitomises the struggle between entertaining/helping people for its own sake, and doing it so that people love her. At least, that’s where we end up eventually. In her earlier appearances, the theme is very different: everyone in show business is a dick.

Given Dazzler’s original conception, this is perhaps not surprising. The character was birthed out of Casablanca Records' desire for a bizarre cross-promotional stunt involving a comic character, an actual singer, and ultimately a movie tie-in. Nobody at Marvel was particularly keen to write the comic, and eventually Casablanca pulled out in any case, leaving Marvel with a heavily promoted and now entirely pointless character. I don’t know if the situation brought out any resentment in Danny Fingeroth (who ultimately drew the short straw on writing the series after a brief run by Tom DeFalco), but the series’ focus on the useless venality of almost everyone involved in showbiz makes it an easy conclusion to draw [3]. Her stepfather, who she meets as an adult, proves to be a washed up singer so obsessed with returning to the big time he admits to considering hiring super villains to attack Dazzler just so as to cash in on the publicity. Immediately after this, she tries to make it as a dancer in music videos, only for the first director she works with to try and kill her, hoping the resulting media storm will raise the profile of his efforts. Next up, she is cast in a film, but quickly discovers that the director knows she’s a mutant and wants to profit from the resulting press. Are we sensing a theme yet? The director goes on to organise a media stunt that goes wrong (fanning the still-young flames of anti-mutant hysteria), and though the resulting film might undo some of that damage (by portraying mutants in a positive light), Dazzler ends up having to destroy it after the film’s funder Eric Beale demands she sign a lifetime contract (and/or fuck him, depending on your interpretation of the proposed contract).

As is so often the case, the situation changed once Claremont was allowed to get his hands on the character. First appearing in New Mutants, Alison agrees to return to the gladiatorial arena she once escaped, in order to rescue Magma and Sunspot, now captives forced into fighting. In the resulting combats, Alison is forced to confront the possibility that she has become addicted, not to the adrenaline drug injected into the fighters, but to the adulation of the crowd. It occurs to her (and to us) that worship is worship, whether it follows from singing a melody or disemboweling an opponent. This is question #2. Question #1 is "how do I achieve fame?" and most people never find an answer (though there are plenty of people don't feel compelled to look, of course). For those that do, though, there are a hundred thousand sophomore albums that describe (generally in excruciating detail) the second question "Why did I want fame?".

This is the question that Dazzler spends the rest of her life asking. Why does she want to sing? Why does she feel the need to help people in need? Why would a knight go to all that effort of slaying the dragon? To keep the crops unburnt? Or because slaying a fire-breathing winged lizard is just the ticket for wooing the only buxom virgin for miles around?

She knows she wants to earn fame, at least. The Beyonder offers it to her once, for free, but she is smart enough to know that some things only have value once they are paid for. On the other hand, when next offered her heart's desire (whilst in the Citadel of Light and Shadow) Dazzler chooses to be a bag lady, so as to revel in self-pity (another trait not uncommon in famous musicians, or superheroes either, though in the latter case one can generally pass it off as melodrama). She chooses to have choice taken away from her. If gaining prizes unearned is less preferable to working for them, giving up entirely apparently beats both. Perhaps the answer to her question lies within all this, at least at that stage in her life. Maybe it isn't about making anyone happy, or even about them making you happy with their praise. Maybe it's just about not having to need to stress over the journey anymore. Perhaps in some strange way arriving at one's destination is the same as not being able to travel. Either way, you get to stay still.

Later, during Inferno, when the team's worst impulses are set free, Dazzler proves too interested in her own reflection to help out the rest of the team. I guess that doesn't really prove anything beyond the fact that the need to be desired is in the mix somewhere (a property hardly unique to rock stars). In any case, a second encounter with Beale (now bankrupt following Dazzler's burning of the film stock years before) leads to her using her powers to make him see the beauty in life, and that moment makes her realise that helping people is genuinely what she wants to do. The answer to the second question: "because this way I can make a difference to people."

This is not the end of Dazzler's story, by any means. She marries Longshot, and leads a rebellion against Mojo. She becomes pregnant only to lose the baby. Ultimately she returns to our reality, divorces Longshot, and rejoins the X-Men. What's important, though, is that by this point she's made her choices. Hero rather than singer. Saving people rather than having them worship her. It's likely that both of those choices required her to come down on the harder side. Certainly, as a singer or even a fame-hungry superhero, everything is a simple. Not necessarily easy, but simple. She would smell a damn sight better than a bag lady, sip champagne every night, and she would find people crossing the street to meet her rather than avoid her, but essentially the choices would still be in the past. At its simplest, Alison's choice is to keep choosing. If it's about them instead of about you, that's what you have to do. Keep choosing. Allow for the possibility you might fail, rather than work on the principle that it is only other people that can fail you.

I guess the only way to ensure you're remembered for the right reasons is to not care whether you're remembered at all.

Next time: a consideration of Dazzler's one-time love, Longshot; a man whose ability to subconsciously manipulate luck means he always gets the girl. One suspects that I will not be kind to him.

[1] Or even for the gossip over Amy Winehouse’s capacity for booze, or Pete Docherty’s ability to replace his blood supply entirely with heroin and still be able to play Killamangiro (albeit shittily, though I guess one could argue writing a terrible song and failing to do justice to it live requires its own kind of talent).

[2] Maybe the link between musicians and superheroes explains why something like 73% of Dazzler stories begin with her being attacked in the middle of a gig. Alternatively, it could just be an advanced case of lazy storytelling. Furthermore, the attempt to link capes in with the stories of yore is the only possible way to explain the out-and-out lunacy of Beauty and the Beast, a four part miniseries in which Dazzler falls in love with Beast, the power of her emotions allowing her to overcome the drugs she is being injected with in order to make her fight in gladiatorial matches. Not that Hank doesn’t deserve himself a hottie, of course, but even so… damn.

[3] It might also simply represent an outpouring of frustration at the world in general. I don’t know how well comic book writers were treated in the mid ‘80s, but if bears any similarity to their situation in the early ‘90s (when we reached the zenith of the “only the artist is of any worth” school of thought that led to Whilce Portacio getting his hands on Uncanny X-Men and screwing with it to an almost inconceivable extent), one can understand a few shots at the extent of those who make their money through other people’s talent.

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

There's Always More Stupid

Reading through my list of American political blogs over the last two days, most of which have mentioned the White House announcement that whilst they will engage with FOX News, they won't treat it as a legitimate news service, reminded me of the brief discussion we had a while back about the state of the American news media. Amongst other things, I argued that a large part of the problem is that opinion is too often passed off as news, and that lies are too often passed off as opinions. FOX, of course, is the main offender regarding the former, and I held up the Washington Post op-ed pages as guilty of the latter.

I also reiterated my belief that there is little point wasting time chronicling FOX's total refusal to apply any journalistic standards to their news segments (as oppose to their opinion and editorial shows), because their scurrilous nature is so well-known nobody needs to be reminded of it.

Guess what? Turns out I was wrong. Someone out there still thinks FOX is just the conservative equivalent to MSNBC. And she's written an op-ed about it! In the Washington Post, of all places.

I can actually see the argument that it might not be a good strategy for Obama to freeze out FOX entirely. Pissing off the press is something to be avoided if at all possible, even if (or perhaps especially if) they're transparently in the tank for the opposition. It would be nice to read a smart piece on that. Does Obama do more damage to himself by dissing a propaganda outlet, or by legitimating it? There's probably a lot to be said either way.

Marcus can't manage that, of course. She doesn't have the chops. Instead, she asks us to imagine the uproar that would have occurred if the Bush White House had treated MSNBC that way. Which it did, of course, but this is an "opinion" piece, you don't need to let facts get in the way! Not content with that, Marcus goes back to the tried-and-tested fallacy that MSNBC and FOX are both "opinion journalism". Marcus offers no evidence for this claim, naturally. It's just an opinion! There's no need to back it up! Both sides are equally bad.

Yeah, sure they are. Even if both networks were equally devoted to making the news itself objective, it would be insane to suggest Olbermann and Maddow are simply the progressive equivalent to O'Reilly and Hannity (to say nothing of Beck). Of course, the two networks are not equally devoted at all. I'm not claiming MSNBC isn't biased, but it's not claiming Republicans are protecting pedophiles over veterans, or taking Democrat briefing memos and transcribing them into their newsfeed. Even if MSNBC is biased (and they have far more conservative commentators than FOX has progressive ones, which is to say they have any), "both networks are biased and thus equally worthy of condemnation" is no smarter than saying "chocolate and champagne both taste nice, thus they should cost the same."

Looks like I was right about the Post, but entirely wrong about it being commonly understood that FOX = bad.

Update: I had thought about finishing this post by conceding that as bad as the Post's opinion pages are, at least no-one had gone on a Jan Moir-style homophobic rant (apparently there is still some discussion as to whether referring to happy civil partnerships as a "myth" consitutes homophobia, I'm going with yeeeah). Hooray for Phil Donahue, then, who shows up just in time to warn us about the "perverted" gays, who "know, deep down, what they're doing is wrong". I'm also trying to decide which is more amusingly loony; suggesting the ALCU is similar to Fidel Castro; referring to the current majority in Congress as "the Party"; or suggesting that people dislike Mel Gibson because The Passion Of The Christ is nice to Jesus, as oppose to not liking him because he made a film that can be construed as anti-Semetic and because he thinks the Jews were behind every war in the world. I'll give a few points back to the Post for putting up a rebuttal, though.

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Shake #23

Today's shake: Fry's Turkish Delight

Taste: 7
Texture: 2
Synergy: 6
Scorn: 3
Total Score: 5.5

General Comments: I love Fry's Turkish Delight. A lot of people find the combination of milk chocolate and bizarre wibbly pink jelly stuff somewhat baffling, but I adore it. Partially this is because it tastes awesome, and partially it's because it allows me to indulge my OCD eating habits (as have been mentioned before) by peeling off the chocolate a piece at a time, revealing a quivering slab of bizarrely coloured matter that can be consumed at leisure. For years I have been pointing out to my parents that whilst the ten pound note my grandparents send every Christmas is in no sense ungratefully accepted, I have long since passed the point where £10 represented a month's pocket money, and am now firmly in the position where it represents the total absence of thought. Whether my parents mentioned this, or my grandparents figured it out for themselves, I now receive £10 worth of Turkish delight each December, and my world is all the better for it.

I even drink lychee juice because the taste reminds me of said confectionery. The initial thought I had when tasting the FTD shake was thus unsurprisingly: "It's lychee ice-cream!".

The second thought was "Why the Hell is my straw blocked?"

The shake itself is very tasty: lychee (well, rosewater, probably) and vanilla with a hint of chocolate. Certainly it suggests lychee ice-cream works well, or at least would work well, I'm not sure I've ever seen anyone attempt it. Unfortunately though the delicious nature of the shake must be weighed against the fact that you can never get more than three mouthfuls before a defiant gloop of gelatinous pink blocks your straw. This problem became so pronounced that I was eventually forced to remove the top of the shake and swig, which solved one problem but simply served to demonstrate how much of the innards of the snack had resisted blending. At one point I found myself chewing through what must have been an entire quarter of the original jelly cuboid, an activity I enjoy under normal circumstances but which has no place mid-drink.

Perhaps the shop's blenders were simply on the blink this time round (C assures me that on a good day they can reduce a Ford Escort to a fine paste, assuming one could fit the car into the machine), but the end result is a very disappointing texture which has cost the shake badly. Those less resistant to combining beverages and chewing, or who don't consider removing the cup-lid to be an unacceptable level of effort, might find this shake more to their liking. Treat it with caution, though.

More Reasons Why We Never Get Anything Done

More secrets of the maths department are revealed on the internet. On the walk down to acquire sandwiches and milkshakes, our heroes break out the Big Maths.

BigHead: After Sunday's abysmal pub quiz performance, I have determined that if we were Bayesian statisticians, we would never engage in a tie-break, and instead always choose to share the winnings.
SpaceSquid: (rather half-heartedly) Explain.
BigHead: We never win the tie-break. Thus our prior probability of winning the tie-break must at this point be less than a half. It follows that sharing the money is a better strategy than gambling for the whole pot by trying to win the tie-break, because the latter has the smaller expected value.
SpaceSquid: That follows if you assume a linear utility for our winnings, but I think that's questionable.
BigHead: For small sums of money, I don't think there's a problem with saying OH MY GOD A HORSEY!
SpaceSquid: Yay! A horsey! Hello, horsey!

Awestruck silence as horse struts past.

BigHead: It's nice that we can adapt so quickly to changing circumstances, isn't it?
SpaceSquid: Let's talk kittens.

Fun fact: the horse was pulling a gypsy-style caravan, which had in its rear window a sticker reading "100% BASTARD". Nice. Also, Blogspot's spell-check refuses to recognise "half-heartedly", "internet" or even "Blogspot's", but "horsey" is apparently fine. Weird.

Monday, 19 October 2009

No Time For Strategery

An interesting post from Publius on what the healthcare debate has revealed about the state of US politics. The whole thing is worth a read, but I want to highlight one thing in particular:
On a more strategic level, the institutional GOP was once again tempted by the shiny apple of the short-term news cycle. They were too fascinated with town halls and Obama's dipping poll numbers to keep focused on the long-term. In short, winning the news cycle intoxicated them. But now that the fumes of summer drunkenness have worn off, that position doesn't seem as smart as it once did. And Obama's long-term focus seems, once again, much more savvy.
This crystallises something that's been banging around in my head for a while. I can't remember whether I actually said anything about it at the time, but the McCain Campaign was absolutely obsessed with short term tactical victories, an obsession which reached its zenith with the infamous Palin selection. The end result was a lot of publicity coups that had the talking heads saying how awesome he was (though since revealing McCain literally didn't know how many houses he owned led to at least one talking head saying how awesome he was, McCain probably didn't need to try all that hard), but the overall effect made McCain seem opportunistic and, worse, directionless. Even if the left complains (correctly) that McCain's endless reversals and flip-flops and out and out bouts of dementia were glossed over by the media, the impression of a man without a long term plan still filtered through.

The GOP, for whatever reason, though, has embraced this tactic entirely and is pushing it further than McCain ever could (well, he was only one man, so there was a limit to how much cynical news-cycle grabbing he could manage in any given week). Publius is entirely right that the town-hall targeting was part of that, as was stirring up the flat-out lunatic fringe of their own base more generally. As a result of ignoring strategy in favour of devotion to tactics, though, the Republicans have failed to meaningfully increase their polling numbers, have no credible alternative to Democratic legislation, and are facing the possibility of deliberate attempts by their own base to mount primary challengers who are even more unhinged than who they've got right now.

On that last point, I wonder if this wasn't entirely unavoidable. If you spend all your time telling people that the politicians on the other side of the aisle are villainous traitors, dedicated to the destruction of the entire country, how do you explain why you still attend meetings with them, or sip from the same water coolers, or exchange pleasantries in the corridors of power? It may be that the image of congressional Democrats that the Republicans have painted is now so hideous that those people nutty enough to swallow it are disgusted at the Republicans themselves for even allowing themselves to be in the same building.

Something to keep an eye on, anyhow.

Frauds and Fools

Another day, another new book on global warming (well, a chapter on it, anyways), and another storm of accusations of misrepresentation and politicking and conspiracies. It's all very interesting.

I have a feeling Superfreakonomics (Levitt and Dubner) is going to be name-checked quite a bit pretty soon, either by those who deny either our role in climate change or our ability to stop it, or by those looking for another example of "we can't be sure we're all doomed so there's no point in doing anything" thinking that they can tear into pieces.

Given that distinct possibility, then, it's worth thinking a little about what's going on. It's quite an interesting story. A fairly depressing one, too, because it seems to sum up a lot of the problems plaguing discussion of global warming. We begin with Joseph Romm, who wrote a blog post arguing that much of the books characterisation of the debate is unfair, and that there are glaringly obvious mistakes and omissions. At the conclusion of this (fairly vitriolic) takedown, he accuses the authors of misrepresenting the work of climate scientist Ken Caldeira. Caldeira himself emailed to say:
If you talk all day, and somebody picks a half dozen quotes without providing context because they want to make a provocative and controversial chapter, there is not much you can do.
It was the suggestion that "[Caldeira's] research tells him that carbon dioxide is not the right villain in this fight" that particularly rankled, however.

What happened next isn't entirely clear. According to Romm, "Levitt and Dubner didn’t run this quote by Caldeira, and when he saw a version from Myrhvold, he objected to it". According to Dubner, they did run the quote by Caldeira, and he did not object to it, later admitting that he had failed to proof check closely enough:
They sent me the draft and I approved it without reading it carefully and I just missed it. … I think everyone operated in good faith, and this was just a mistake that got by my inadequate editing.
I don't think the two positions are entirely mutually exclusive, in that they seem to be shaped by what Caldeira thought at various times. It's hardly unreasonable to speculate that he started off believing the quote had not been in what he'd read, then later double-checked and realised it had been and he had missed it. I also don't want to totally exclude the possibility that Romm has been a little... overenthusiastic in attempting to portray Levitt and Dubner as deliberately manipulative. If there is anything to be learned here by those who accept our role in damaging the planet and believe in our ability to mitigate that damage, it's that we don't do ourselves any favours by treating each contrarian position as automatically insincere. In general, those that whine about "enviro-fascists" (a term which generates almost 19 000 Google hits) trying to silence their dissent are only fractionally less unctuous than those who claim their free speech is being trampled on whenever people object to them calling Muslims "evil". I understand entirely why anyone wouldn't want to give these people the benefit of the doubt. If we are ever to get anywhere, however, it is vital to be able to tell a fraud from a fool.

Otherwise, events follow a fairly well-worn path. Fromm's post contained about a dozen points regarding misrepresentations and outright distortions. The UCS article Dubner links to has several more. Even Caldeira himself stated that the full chapter is misleading, even if his own contributions are not. Because of Romm's accusations, though, Dubner can sidestep these issues almost entirely, and instead make this about unfair attacks by rabid environmentalists. It allows him to frame a debate which should be about whether or not the chapter is accurate in terms of whether or not the chapter is inaccurate deliberately. Everything else gets lost in the confusion, and confusion, like uncertainty, is not our friend (as Brad DeLong reminds us, whilst giving a fairly comprehensive list of reasons why Levitt and Dubner have no idea what they're talking about). Those who advocate no action regarding climate change love nothing more than to label their opponents as shrill zealots, because it's always easier to decide someone isn't worth listening to than it is to hear what's being said and argue against it. Part of dealing with this tactic is to unmask it for what it is, but another part is to make it harder for it to be applied.

Frauds and fools, people. Frauds and fools.

Update: Forgot to mention an earlier piece by Dubner, and Scott Lemieux's brief yet thorough takedown of it, that shows he's thinking along the same lines as I am: "When you say that your critics are shrill rather than explaining why they're wrong, it's a pretty clear sign that you've got nothing."

Saturday, 17 October 2009

Saturday 40K: Axolotls

Yes, it's a terrible joke; I don't care. This is also a day late for its traditional slot, but I didn't have time to write anything sensible today. Thus I shamefully fall back once more on pictures of tiny figures daubed with paint.

This week: my first Salamanders squad.

There's something about Space Marine armies that I just can't shake. Of the three completed armies I own, two are loyalist chapters. Of my two half-finished forces (well, one is 60% finished, the other around 15%), one is a rebel chapter, and Red Corsairs to boot, a chapter I specifically chose to minimise the amount of chaos influence involved (there was also the desire to paint cultists which the original background encouraged, back in the days when such things existed). And now, to keep me busy in-between painting Tau and Corsairs (along with space cruisers and the occasional Riverland knight), I've started up another three Space Marine forces. The Space Squids have already been featured on the blog (and have yet to grow from the two marines I had painted at the time), and the Ultramarines will be along fairly soon, but for now the Salamanders are the only force that can legally field a squad, let alone an entire force.

The veteran sergeant, armed with a power fist. Also a goddamn knife, because the accompanying plastic sprue (which has been unchanged for around 15 years now, IIRC) forces one to choose between the bolt pistol OR the right shoulder pad. Still, he clearly loves his knife, given how fixated he is on it. I should probably worry.

I've tried to make these miniatures a step-up in my painting techniques. There's more coherent highlighting this time around, but I'm most proud of the gradiated flame icons on each marine's right shoulder, shown below.

Friday, 16 October 2009

Friday Comedy: Yes Prime Minister



And yes, I do think I ought to run the country, but I promise to be one of those ineffectual tyrants who spends all their time at sumptuous banquets bothering the serving wenches. Nobody would even know I was there.

Thursday, 15 October 2009

Secretly Shit

So, as I said, I was planning on putting out a post on Secret Invasion, which I read this week as part of my attempt to get caught up on the Marvel Universe beyond the X-Men. Fortunately, however, I've been saved from analysing it in-depth. The recent surge of my psychic powers brought on by the approach of K'Challa (may his tentacles caress you) has allowed me to penetrate the veils of time and space and bring to you the conversation that birthed the mini-series in the first place.

Location: Marvel Head Office. Present: Joe Quesada and Brian Michael Bendis.

Quesada: Right, Bendis. It's that time again. Crank me out another Civil War.
Bendis: OK. Erm... anything specific in mind?
Quesada: Something people will like.
Bendis: That goes without saying, doesn't it?
Quesada: Tell that to Frank Miller.
Bendis: I don't think All-Star Batman And Robin was meant to be bad.
Quesada: Wasn't that the one with a guy doing a beetle?
Bendis: I think it was the one where Robin had to eat rats.
Quesada: Well, in any case, we can't take the chance that you might terrible even if it is accidental. We need to seal the deal on this shit.
Bendis: How?
Quesada: You seen that Battlestar Galactica show?
Bendis: Yeeeeeees.
Quesada: Do that.
Bendis: I'm sorry, what?
Quesada: Do that.
Bendis: In what sense, "do that"?
Quesada: In the sense of having a hot chick who's secretly evil. And a bunch of dudes who are also secretly evil.
Bendis: Uh-huh. People might be pissed if we turn everything into a betray-off again. That's, like, three times in a row, at least.
Quesada: Then make em' Skrulls. They're evil, they can look like you. It's the exact same thing as BSG.
Bendis: Not exactly the same, surely? There was a lot more to the show. Religion, and-
Quesada: Fine. Skrulls find God. Like the Cylons. Exactly like the Cylons, actually, what would be the point in rocking the boat?
Bendis: Avoiding a lawsuit?
Quesada: We're the House of Ideas, Bendis! We give a home to all ideas, irrespective of whether or not they're original! You can't possibly not have noticed that.
Bendis: Right. So the Skrulls attack, and-
Quesada: And the heroes beat them. Not straight away, obviously. There needs to be a struggle.
Bendis: Oh, I'm getting this now. A paranoia-soaked game of wits, built on the back of Civil War. A deconstruction of what it means to fight beside former friends that betrayed you, and a reminder that sometimes we must face the greater enemy despite our differences. The importance of trust, and of faith!
Quesada: That might be a bit heavy for a major crossover, to be honest. Can you just make it a goddamn huge fight?
Bendis: Might be tough. Assuming I use one issue for set-up, and another for conclusion-
Quesada: A conclusion that can't resolve anything!
Bendis: Naturally, and-
Quesada: And that sets up the next crossover!
Bendis: But of course. Anyway, that leaves five full issues for nothing but a fight.
Quesada: Six issues.
Bendis: It's going to be eight issues long?
Quesada: The accounting department mentioned the other day that eight comics will mean more money per reader than seven. It's basic maths.
Bendis: Sure, but a six-issue fight scene? That's really pushing it.
Quesada: I have faith in you. How about the heroes look like they're about to lose, but then at the last minute the cavalry arrives and saves them?
Bendis: I could get a cliffhanger out of that, maybe half an issue or so.
Quesada: Fine. Just do it three or four times in a row.
Bendis: I thought we were avoiding repetition.
Quesada: I don't believe I have ever said any such thing, or taken any action one could associate with that suggestion.
Bendis: But-
Quesada: Unless you want me to avoid repetition by hiring a new writer who doesn't spend all his time whining.
Bendis: ...I'll be good.
Quesada: You'd better. Remember, Bendis; I'm the guy who decides whether you get the sweet gigs, or a new series of What If's based entirely around what would happen if supervillains parents had loved them more.
Bendis: Ulp.
Quesada: Now, what do we have so far? An issue of set-up, six issues of fights constantly interrupted by new cavalry charges, and a conclusion that really just sets up the next crossover. What are we missing?
Bendis: A B plot?
Quesada: Good! Yes! Let's do that thing you said. A Civil War reference, a bit of paranoia.
Bendis: Any suggestions?
Quesada: Just throw the pro- and anti-registration forces together along with a bunch of Skrull replicas.
Bendis: And...
Quesada: And they fight!
Bendis: Fight for-
Quesada: Fight for six issues, yes. Oh, and kill someone off. I don't care who.
Bendis: Right. Fine. I'm off to get really drunk, and in the morning it'll be written.
Quesada: Cool. See you next year.

And that's how it happened. In truth, a lot of people seem to really rate Secret Invasion as a whole, and the only book I've read beyond the actual mini-series during the crossover (New Avengers) was genuinely really, really good. The core book, though? Not so much. Shame.

Two If By Sea

I promise I'll write something proper soon; I have a post on Secret Invasion half-formed in my head (which at least will be more timely than my comments on Civil War), but in the meantime: let's all take a minute to stare in amazement at a giant squid steam-punk submarine cake.

It's one of those cakes that's almost too awesome to eat. And I don't say that often. I looooves me some cake.

h/t to Jen over at the Cake Wrecks blog, probably the only place in the world you can fina an edible Frankenstein's monster with a penis instead of a nose.

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

We Approach The End Times

One of the disadvantages of attempting to achieve world domination through stealth is that these days the internet is always poking around, sticking its nose in your shit. Now that Pharyngula has revealed the truth, there seems no point in continuing the hide the truth from you fleshy vertebrates. The Cosmic Calamari Overlord K'Challa is, at last, approaching.

Do not attempt to resist my oncoming master. The punishment for defiance will be... severe.

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Bug Bugging

Now this is what I'm talking about. At long last we can take the war to the insects! Infiltrate their bases! Learn their plans! Seduce their women, only to dash their unsuspecting hearts against the steel frames of our robotic interlopers!

Actually, do insects even have hearts? That's something else for RoboBeetle to find out. After the crushing, obviously. I don't really care about the exact biological terminology, but something better get ripped out and stamped on.

I mean, why else spend all that money on a remote-controlled cyborg beetle that can't be fitted with weapons that can harm anyone, or even a locator so as to know exactly where it's failing to do any damage to your human enemies? Surely you'd just stick it inside a nest of its former cousins and force it to start fucking things up, right?

Just make sure the Fourth Directive is never harm humanity. Also, don't get disappointed with RoboBeetle and attach two miniguns to a particularly angry wasp. That never ends well.

Monday, 12 October 2009

Outsourcing

Something a little different from MotCC tonight: German stand-up.

Henning Wehn has, to put it mildly, a strange delivery style and sense of humour. In fact, I find it kinda difficult to decide whether I like him at all. It's pretty interesting structurally, though.

Freaky Season

Gooder's dissection of various examples of the horror genre over at My Front Room has been chugging away for a little while now, my erstwhile flatmate has finally strayed into sacred ground: Romero's Dead series.

A couple of caveats. First, there is no doubt that Gooder is right that neither Land of the Dead nor Diary of the Dead can be particularly considered worth anyone's time. I'd consider the former entirely inessential rather than terrible, and even the latter has its moments (I also don't think it's fair to suggest that showing both sides of an argument is the same as not being sure of what one wants to say), but I'm not particularly inclined to defend them too vociferously, not when the difference of quality between those films and the ones that preceded them is so undeniable.

No, Gooder's true heresy lies in his entirely unforgivable suggestion that Day of the Dead is less impressive than it's predecessor, Dawn of the Dead.

The argument that the two films tread the same ground is superficially compelling; both involve a small group of survivors attempting to not get bitten by the hordes of zombies outside the complex they have locked themselves inside. Both contain the message that ultimately it's not the zombies we need to be worried about, but our fellow humans (though they do this in very different ways, and that particular theme is a long-established staple in disaster movies, which the ...Dead series can just about be considered to be, if one squints hard enough).

Beyond that, though, the two films are surprisingly different. If anything, Day... is the entirely logical progression of Dawn..., and for more reasons than simply being set after it (the only way in which the film can be considered a sequel beyond the zombies themselves). The former film asks how one would respond to society crumbling. The latter considers what happens once society has crumbled, past tense, and ain't never coming back. To take one example, Dawn... concludes with an attack on the protagonists' mall by a gang of anarchic bikers. By this point of the dead's inexorable replacement of the living, one still needs to be concerned about looters.

It would never occur to the survivors trapped inside the bunkers of Day... that they might need to guard against looters. The hordes of zombies have become an impenetrable ocean, all that the exhausted humans can see in any direction. Whilst Dawn... chronicles our fall, Day... kicks off by asking... what now? The stress of surviving Dawn... drives Peter to within inches of committing suicide out of sheer despair. Almost every character in Day... starts out that horribly damaged.

Much has been made, and I think fairly, of Dawn...'s indictment of consumer culture. Bored? Go shopping. World ending? Go shopping. Not sure where to find delicious brains? Go shopping, and eat the shoppers. The corollary to this, though, is that the survivors use the mall as a way to block out the truth regarding their situation, in the same way anyone might use retail therapy to distract themselves from the problems in their life. Dawn..., at its core, is about fiddling whilst Rome burns.

The only fiddling the characters in Day... are doing is with zombie brains and power drills (and their own sexual organs, apparently, though the less said about that the better). Not for them the questionable delights of mannequin target practice; they have a job to do. They have to turn back the zombie invasion. What makes Day... so much bleaker and harrowing is that whilst the characters in Dawn... needed only to survive, those in Day... have been given a mission. It's a mission that is obviously, unquestionably impossible, and moreover had a strict time-limit long since expired, but they keep doing it because there is no other choice, and because if they do give up, it means genuinely accepting that the end has come and gone.

Or is there? I wrote something about Day of the Dead in the run up to Halloween last year, as part of a larger article on horror films dealing with the apocalypse, and now seems a good time to dig it out:

The film concentrates on the various ways the characters (soldiers and scientists, drunks and evangelicals) process the fact that humanity's time is passed. If anything, the film is the Kubler-Ross model (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance) applied to celluloid, only the one dying isn't a person, it's a civilisation at best and a species at worst. Logan is denial, convinced that he has a way to keep humanity alive, even though it's obvious to everyone else that it cannot possibly work (how exactly he expects to millions of zombies tamed by constantly feeding them human flesh is a question best left answered, although it does feed my pet theory by being the bargaining part of the equation, "Have this food and don't eat me, please!"). Rhodes and most of his men are anger, blaming the scientists for their predicament and their losses, determined to "blow the piss" out of the enemy even though they know they don't have enough bullets, let alone men, to do the job. Salazar, fairly obviously, is depression, and for much of the film, so is Sarah. She might be more level-headed than anyone else (with the possible exception of Fisher), but she's still massively strung-out, still lamenting the loss of what she personally and humanity in general had, and terrified that what little she has left (including her lover) is about to be lost too. As the film continues though, she begins to reach acceptance, helped out by William and John, who are already there, and are determined to simply live out their lives finding what comfort they can.

In fact, Day... is an even more poignant example of the accompanying sadness I mentioned before, because it focuses on the exact moment the first type of apocalypse film (the sky is falling!) turns into the second (the sky has fallen, and we ain't getting it back up again). The characters have to make a conscious choice to let go of the hope they've held since the crisis began, and find something else to cling to instead. These films are generally about acceptance to some extent, but what makes Day... unique is that it focuses on acceptance by those who were tasked with affecting change. Viewed from this angle, the fear of losing the support of society becomes instead the fear of being forced to change, to re-write one's internal assumptions and certainties.

Strangely, then, whilst Day... is on almost every level a bleaker film than Dawn..., the central message of processing the past and letting it go is actually more optimistic than observing the gradual numbing of the characters in Dawn... (Peter's last minute change of heart notwithstanding), which manages to end the trilogy on the highest possible note one could expect without cheating the audience (well, the final helicopter nightmare is a cheat, but still).

All of this is without mentioning the film's ace in the hole, Bub (who, to be fair, Gooder holds up as the best part). Bub exists as a sort of twisted reminder that every ending is a beginning (which Romero expands upon in Land..., with admittedly distinctly mixed results), and as the most direct demonstration yet that there are worse things in Florida than the stenches. He is also proof made (rotting) flesh that hoping the clocks will turn back is simple insanity, which of course pushes Sarah closer towards acceptance (and Rhodes closer towards a psychotic break).

There are other reasons to hold Day... up as superior to Dawn..., the acting and characterisation are better, and the zombie make-up is more disturbing (the first shambling horror we see roaming the streets of an abandoned city is possibly the best zombie yet committed to celluloid, though unsurprisingly this isn't a uniform standard throughout the film). Mainly, though, it simply feels like a more human film, even if most of the actual humans invariably behave like jerks, and/or get horribly killed, and one that has a message that feels important, rather than just snarky.

Sunday, 11 October 2009

Increasing Competition

Have decided to add Balloon Juice to the blog-roll, despite it being yet another site dedicated to covering American politics. I make no apologies for the apparent repetition; not only did the site put me on to the whole "Let's re-write the Bible to stop people knowing what they're doing making it more accurate" thing, but it also gave me this cartoon, which amused me greatly.

Dear Marvel: Either They Mutate, Or You Do


Right. This has gotten silly, and it has to stop.

I am on record as something of an M-Day apologist. For the uninitiated, and in as few words as possible, four years ago (in real time, which would theoretically make it around eight months ago comics time, but several sources, mainly Messiah War, contradict this) an insane Scarlet Witch used her reality-warping powers to attempt to remove all mutants from the world (and, as it later transpired, across multiple alternate dimensions). She was not entirely successful, but the mutant race dwindled almost immediately from the hundreds of thousands to just hundreds full stop.

When I say I am a quasi-apologist for this set-up, I mean only that conventional wisdom has it that this was a very bad idea in concept. I disagree. I think it's actually a very good concept, it's just been totally bungled in practice.

There are three incredibly obvious advantages to the idea. Firstly, it changes the metaphor. Ever since Claremont the X-Men have, at least nominally, been a metaphor for the Civil Rights movement. Sure, it's often been stretched to breaking point, but it's still always there in the background.

Reducing the mutant population to a comparative handful allows the metaphor to be recast, without it being entirely altered. Mutants are no longer analogous to black people or homosexuals, but to Native Americans. A previously formidable force now in its last days. No longer are mutant rights (and the accompanying terrorist attacks, lynchings, riots and so on) an urgent problem that the government must face, they're now something that can simply be swept under the carpet until the mutant population dwindles into non-existence. The decision to house the 198 (the number of mutants listed by the US government that retained their powers) at the Xavier Institute reinforces the parallel; at this point the school essentially becomes a reservation.

Of course, while there are many fascinating and melancholy stories one could tell about the slow fade of the Native American tribes from the pages of history, I grant that such tales are unlikely to sit well within a monthly comic book. The key difference though lies in the sheer number of organisations created exclusively to combat the mutant "threat" that suddenly find themselves a) on the verge of victory, and b) with only one remaining target to deal with [1]. So it's not as though there's a lack of potential for action (as made clear by the Purifiers strike against the Institute that left no fewer than 45 former mutant children dead). Just off the top of my head, you could utilise the Purifiers, the Sapien League, the U-Men, even remnants from the Friends Of Humanity, all without even having to reach for an evil mutant at all.

True, there would only be so many times that you could pit ordinary humans (however bat-shit insane) against the X-Men in a straight-out fight, but that feeds into my second point. A definite potential advantage of the M-Day board-sweep is that it could have forced writers to tell their stories with a smaller cast of characters to rely on. This could well be difficult for scribes used to being able to throw new super-powered characters into the mix whenever they want, but the necessity of relying on a much smaller group of heroes and villains would force greater character development and interaction. One of the most common (and accurate) criticisms of the '90s X-Books was that important/beloved characters would fall through the cracks, sometimes for years, without explanation, because too much emphasis was always being placed on the latest new threat or taciturn loner hero. Consider Battlestar Galactica, which managed perfectly well for at least for two and a half seasons with what it started off with, adding new characters only sparingly (to the point where episodes in which new characters suddenly appeared were roundly criticised for being lazy). Again, I recognise what works for dour space-opera television won't necessarily wash for superhero comic books, but the opportunity to weave the surviving mutants into a coherent narrative should not be quickly dismissed.

Speaking of characters, the third benefit of M-Day is the possibility to generate very strong drama amongst the mutant population, both for those still powered (survivor's guilt, suddenly feeling alone and without back-up) and, most especially, for those which are not. This is the other side of the coin from the repeated "secondary mutation" storylines, or the more general messing around of characters like Psylocke. What happens when lifetime of extreme change (or at least potential extreme change) suddenly becomes the same forever, and when what made you special is arbitrarily removed?

That's how I would have tackled the X-Men after M-Day, anyway. A combination of siege mentality and political maneuvering by what remains of the mutant population (divided into clear factions with a purpose for being, rather than just the Acolytes and the Hellfire Club sulking about their loss of status) in the face of a world that either wants them to die out or to be killed as quickly as possible, with the focus on the preciousness of each mutant life remaining, the trials of those left powerless, and the reveal of each still-powered mutant a rare and important event.

It might not have worked, naturally, but I think it would have had a better shot at working than what we ultimately received. What actually happened was that the writers tried to have their cake and eat it. M-Day led to an awful lot of moping around; mainly from Beast (which was at least interesting and led to Endangered Species, which is horribly underrated) and from Cyclops, (which wasn't interesting in any way at all) along with endless references to M-Day, but nothing really changed. Of all the X-Men, only Polaris lost her powers and dealt with it "on-screen" [2], and since at that point she was just a hideous, lunatic mess of a character, her crisis never came close to offering any dramatic power. New mutant characters continue to be introduced, with almost no appreciable slackening of speed, which both undermines the alleged dire straits of the mutant population and irritates long-time fans through the implication that while well-loved and well-established characters have been neutered, [3] brand new faceless mooks can still show up at any time (UXM #515 brought this home with the arrival of five brand new mutants, not one of which I have any reason to give a crap about). This also meant that the golden opportunity to attempt to allow a smaller group of characters to interact more regularly was lost, in favour of the typical mutant-of-the-week approach to X-Men stories that were precisely what M-Day was designed to prevent.

So, yeah, a great opportunity almost entirely wasted in practice. I say almost entirely because there have been a few good uses of the concept. Having the O*N*E Sentinels become the defenders of mutant-kind was a lovely touch (though again almost nothing interesting was done with them). Beast (one of my favourite X-Men) has gotten plenty of mileage out of the crisis, first with Endangered Species, and now with his Super Secret Science Genius Club, which alternates between time-travelling fact-finding missions and duels in barbed, erudite sarcasm. Messiah Complex and its sequel Messiah War could both have been done without M-Day, Hope's rarity could quite easily be replaced with just making her much, much more powerful, but it genuinely adds an extra layer for the story to be about "the first new mutant birth", rather than just the latest in an endless line of "most powerfullest mutant ever ever" tales.

So it hasn't been a total failure. At this point, though, I don't see what more can come from it. It was only in UXM #500 that the X-Men set up camp in San Francisco, hoping for a new beginning for what remains of the mutant race by setting up its own self-sufficient community, only for their new peace to be shattered by an attack by Magneto. Fifteen issues later, and the X-Men have set up camp on Utopia, an artificial island a few miles from San Francisco, hoping for a new beginning for what remains of the mutant race by setting up its own self-sufficient community, only for their new peace to be shattered by an attack by Magneto. If that isn't proof that the franchise is in trouble, I'm not sure what is. Xavier's mansion was always blown up every few years or so, so in once sense this is nothing new, but ever since M-Day it appears that nothing more is happening than regular "new beginnings" that go wrong, and have to be tried again somewhere else. There is some suggestion that the time the X-Men spend on Utopia might focus on the perils and necessities of nation building, but so far all I've seen is an attack by Magneto, again, [4] and an attack by Emplate, another mutant suddenly revealed to have retained his powers for the sake of a new crisis to throw at the X-Men. Nothing that couldn't have been done before M-Day with a great deal less angst (and I say that as a big fan of angst).

So I'm calling it. M-Day could have worked, but didn't, and at this point clearly didn't to the point where the writers are rehashing the same storylines and fucking them up in the exact same ways as before. We need something new, House of Ideas. Get to it.

[1] I don't really know enough about the time period in question, but I wonder if in the immediate aftermath of the creation of the Native American reservations their inhabitants suffered revenge attacks from US citizens?

[2] Ice Man was supposed to lose his powers too, but Marvel chickened out, which kind of underlines my point about the problems being in execution. If you decide you want to completely change the world in which your stories are being set, then doing it half-heartedly is almost certainly the worst possible approach to take. If you can't commit to the new status quo, why will anyone else?

[3] Of course, looking through the list of de-powered mutants makes it clear that very few major or even former major characters have lost their powers, and that most of those that did have had them reinstated through other means, which just makes Marvel's lack of interest in following through with the idea all the more obvious.

[4] OK, in fairness he simply arrived as the cliff-hanger to issue #515, so it's possible an attack is not forthcoming. The parallels between this issue and #500 are still disappointing, though. Whilst we're on the subject, it's worth mentioning that Magneto was another major player who lost his powers after M-Day and who has now had them returned by technological means. The post M-Day status quo might have been flawed from almost the very beginning, but at this point it's almost a parody of itself, and something needs to be done. Perhaps the mooted third part of the Messiah trilogy may address the problem.

Saturday, 10 October 2009

Zeniths and Brain-Eaters

A chance conversation with a fellow mathematician last night got me thinking about albums. My companion mentioned that as a general rule, he found most artists' first album to be their best. This made me wonder whether there is a stage of musical development that I tend to gravitate towards as well. To explore this I wrote down a list of every band or solo artist for which I owned three or more examples of their work, to see whether a pattern emerged.

Turns out there are 18 artists for whom I own three or four examples of their work, 8 for whom I have between five and nine, and 2 for which I achieve double figures. From this sample, fully 44.4% of the artists peaked at their second album, and 33.3% at their third. Less than a quarter of artists manage anything else. Only 16.7% concur with my friends "First is best" policy.

I actually guessed last night that I would come down in favour of sophomore efforts, and so it appears, at least on first reading. There's more to it than that, however. First of all, it's worth noting that there is a correlation between the number of albums I own by a given band, and the point at which I consider them to have peaked. For 3 or 4 albums, the mean value is almost exactly between the second and third. For 5 to 9 albums, it's exactly between the third and fourth, and for 10 + it's eight and a half, though since there are only two data points in that category (R.E.M. and Ryan Adams, if you care), I'm not sure how much faith to put in that number (especially considering how hard it is to choose a "best" album for artists as changeable as as those two).

One immediate thought is whether or not discovering a band that flowers slightly later encourages me to make greater investment in their records. If a band are still bringing it by album four, it's less likely that they're going to quickly burn out. There's also the law of the brain-eater which makes it clear that if album X is awesome, the chances of album X-1 being terrible is far, far smaller than the chance album X+1 is. Certainly, my first acquisition of Ryan Adams music were his fourth and fifth albums (well, the two two-thirds of albums that eventually got trimmed into Love Is Hell), and in R.E.M.'s case it was album number 8 (the admittedly strong but still massively overrated Automatic For The People). It's also interesting that it's so hard to pick a favourite from those two artists. Partially it's probably because I have more options, but I wonder if also the degree of variation in their work feeds into their longevity, allowing more albums to be recorded, which I then have to pore over attempting to pick favourites.

Perhaps, if I were to be fair, I should look at all the individual albums I own, to see if they tend to be from very early in bands careers. I actually think that that would prove true, but with a collection including well over 250 different artists, I'm hesitant to try.

Nothing's stopping you people, though. Anyone discerned a trend in their own taste? First albums? Sophomore efforts? "Late period" discs?

As a bonus question: can one pinpoint the median value at which the brain-eater appears, and a band suddenly become shadows of their former selves, with almost no hope of recovery. The same gut instinct that tells me I probably have a significant number of debut albums by artists that I never felt compelled to follow up on also suggests the value will be between two and three. Even for the twenty-eight artists for which I have enough material to make a judgement on the brain-eater issue, though, it's hard to decide exactly what qualifies. The point at which a downward spiral begins is usually pretty easy to pick out, but is that exactly the same thing? The second Kings of Leon album is significantly poorer than the first (despite what popular opinion would tell you), but their third and (especially) fourth albums are spectacular, so A-Ha Shake Heartbreak feels much more like a blip than the first signs of grey-matter consumption. You also have to consider competent bands who occasionally rise to the level of excellence, seemingly at random, before returning to their previous level of comparative mediocrity (take James, whose 5th album Laid is way, way better than those on either side, though neither one of them could be considered bad either).

I shall have to ruminate more on this issue; but comments are very welcome. Perhaps we can slap together a statistical model for the journey of the musician. What better way could there be to spend one's time?

Friday, 9 October 2009

Say What Now?

Couldn't let today go by without mentioning how ludicrous it seems to me that Obama won the Peace Prize. Glenn Greenwald sums it up pretty well: you might just be able to get away with giving it to someone who hasn't done much yet but looks like he will, and you could even give it to someone who authorises bombing runs that have killed hundreds of civilians (I guess it all depends how much "peace" was generated elsewhere), but it's pretty difficult to swallow both at once.

Still, it's not like they could ever have gotten worse than Kissinger, right?

Update: Steve Benen points out that the Nobel Peace Prize is sometimes awarded in order to support ongoing efforts towards peace, rather than for successfully attaining it. Maybe, but colour me unconvinced. The post mentions the fact that Desmond Tutu was awarded the prize ten years before apartheid was entirely abolished in South Africa. This fails to take into account that Tutu was already twelve years into his struggle by that point [1]. It's been less than five years since Obama even reached the US Senate, and whilst he apparently worked on the non-proliferation issue even then, no-one was discussing the value of that push back before he set his sights on the White House.

[1] Full disclosure: I know almost nothing about that particular period in history, and have gained the twelve years figure from Wikipedia; so treat it with caution.

Thursday, 8 October 2009

Shake #22

Today's shake: Lemon Curd

Taste: 7
Texture: 6
Synergy: 5
Scorn: 5
Total Score: 5.75

General Comments: Remember Calippo iced lollies? Well, imagine someone decided all that freezing business was for losers, because of all that horrible scratchy ice crystals, and instead just sold the lemon flavour syrup directly. With ice cream.

Somehow, that's what lemon curd manages to taste like (yes, the lemon aspect was probably easy to predict). Which, y'know, is OK.

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

20CC Of Cuteness, Stat!

It just occured to me that there isn't a single picture on the entire front page of this blog! Just paragraph after paragraph of dense, snarky text!

This will not do! I must spruce this place up!

Ahhh, much better. Go about your business, citizens.

Interpreting The Classics

Remember how the media is full of liberal bias, so America needed FOX News? Or how school textbooks on American history are full of liberal bias, so America needs new books that don't mention liberals at all?

Well, that jazz is for amateurs. You know what's really liberally biased? What really needs attention from conservatives to make sure the truth is known?

The Bible.

Various people have been trying to parody this since it started doing the rounds (I got it from Balloon Juice, so h/t to them), but how exactly can something this incomprehensibly loony possibly be parodied? I mean, Supply Side Jesus worked back when so many conservatives were conent to just ignore their own holy text's lessons, but actually re-writing it? What can you do that would make this seem more crazy than it already is:
Guideline 6. Accept the Logic of Hell: applying logic with its full force and effect, as in not denying or downplaying the very real existence of Hell or the Devil.
Guideline 7. Express Free Market Parables; explaining the numerous economic parables with their full free-market meaning.
Applying logic to Hell.

Sure, there are mistranslations in the Bible, and there are an awful lot of very smart people who disagree about various words and passages. Crucially, though, those are the very people who Conservapedia say "can be expected to be liberal and feminist in outlook". Got that? The people who are actually qualified to spot errors are all moonbat feministas, so those who by definition don't know how to spot a mistranslation must be the ones to change the holy word of God. To think these people say academics are arrogant.

Like I said, I can't see how you could riff off this to make it more crazy. This is coming just days after Neal Gabler's article Politics as Religion, which essentially argues large subsections of the American populace now view politics as so black and white that it might as well be religious dogma to them. Turns out religion isn't really dogmatic enough for them, either.

I can't stop thinking about the Pharisees in all of this, attempting to turn the word of God against God Himself when He finally showed up. There's some half-remembered story about a cult who murder their own leader because he refuses to go along with the way in which they've twisted his own message; I wish I could remember the name. How else can you view the attempt to re-write one's own holy book so as to remove "the pervasive and hurtful myth that Jesus would be a political liberal today"?

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Conserve THIS!

Now that I've been able to persuade my car radio to pick up Radio 4 (seriously, I so awful with technology that I should be Amish, except for that whole no sex, no booze thing), and have been embarking on mammoth driving sessions up and down the country, I've had time to listen to various politics shows in-between whiny whiteboy CDs.

This included Sunday night's Westminster Hour (now available on iPlayer), which ended by running the first part of the upcoming Conserve What? series, starting tomorrow.

The basic idea is to explain what it means to be a conservative (small "c", though the big C's are unsurprisingly involved) in the 21st Century. Obviously, this of interest to me, if only to get a better understanding of the opposition.

The program itself is pretty poor. This should come as no surprise given it's been put together by a Daily Mail journalist, Peter Oborne. Even if one were to take what was said at face value, one would find it difficult to take the program and put together a particularly useful picture of conservatism.

As is frequently the case, though, a great deal was revealed by accident.

First of all, Oborne tells us, conservatism isn't a philosophy, more of a sensibility. This, Oborne suggests, is why there are so few "conservative philosophers" (he suggests Edmund Burke might be the closest to having earned the label). He also suggests conservatives don't consider politics particularly important, at least not when compared to your family, or your mates.

This argument gets right to the heart of my problem with the Conservative party. Why would anyone think a "sensibility" is a good thing to base the rule of a country on? Because politics isn't important, you see. Looking after Britain is something you do in-between church picnics and long walks on the beach.

It might not be quite paradoxical to suggest one wants power in order to ensure that said power is never used, but the very last thing you could accuse Thatcher or George W. Bush of being during their time in office was idle (Bush's record-breaking holiday time notwithstanding). The conservative belief that people should just be left alone to do their own thing misses (or deliberately ignores) one of the fundamental points of progressives, namely that practically every piece of legislation means denying people the ability to do or have something, or at least make it harder to perform/acquire. The denial might be explicit (no murders) or implicit (relaxing health and safety laws will make it harder for people to perform their jobs safely, or gain compensation when things go wrong). It might apply to all people (no murders, thanks), or only to some (making it harder, albeit fractionally, for a given group to get jobs due to some mandated hiring quota). For progressives, the idea is to find the perfect balance, if indeed it exists at all (and it probably doesn't, but like a sin-free life, it doesn't follow that is not something worth attempting.) Just like refusing to decide is itself a decision [1], not interceding on behalf of one group of people is itself an exercise in power [2]. I don't want to imply that this invalidates conservatism entirely, since the idea that man should be free and that if it that ends up screwing you it's tough isn't an incoherent idea (just a supremely distasteful one that conservatives frequently go to great lengths to refute, usually fairly unconvincingly), but it's worth bearing in mind.

It should be noted that I brought progressives into this quite deliberately, because Oborne does as well. Many of his points regarding what conservatism is boiled down to "progressives do X, and we think that's bad". It really didn't do much to dispel the notion that conservatives spend their time deciding what they're against, rather than what they're for. Further, whilst I can't claim to be anything close to an expert on philosophies, I'm not sure progressives would be likely to claim their political outlook is nothing more than a sensibility, which makes comparing the two as theoretical equals less than totally convincing. My own interpretation of the progressive philosophy (and YMMV pretty strongly on this) can be boiled down to the well-worn idea that all people should be offered equality of opportunity. The aim of political activity and the objective of political power is to achieve that balance. Or, in situations in which that balance cannot be achieved (which, as acknowledged above, is probably all of them) the aim is to oscillate around the balance point like a pendulum. [3]

Oborne's definition of conservatism, in large part, boils down to "We don't want that". The reason for this, he claims, is that society has worked perfectly well up until now, and we should have more respect for the generations spent assembling said society than to simply reshape it upon a whim. Why rock the boat and risk the way we live our lives?

There are obvious problems with this argument. Had this idea won over two hundred years ago, we would never have abolished slavery. Had it been persuasive forty years ago, homosexuality would not have been legalised. Evidently, neither of those resulted in the downfall of British civilisation. It would be difficult in this country (and all but impossible in America) to point to a single paradigm shift in history that we consider a good thing but which conservatives at the time did not oppose. As clear as those counters are, though, there is a more fundamental point to be made. The problem with conservatism is that it relies so heavily on slippery slope arguments. I've pointed out before that these have their place, but those occasions are comparatively infrequent. The conservative fear that change might lead to the collapse of civilisation as we know it that Oborne references is rooted in the perception of the various elements of society are not pendulums, but lines of dominoes. This is perfectly demonstrated by conservatives in America (you knew I was going to go there eventually), who are even now screaming that preventing 45 000 people a year from dying because they can't afford health insurance would be the death knell of freedom. The fact that their hero Reagan claimed the same thing about Medicare (seriously, he said if government-funded medical treatment for seniors wasn't stopped "[O]ne of these days you and I are going to spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children what it once was like in America when men were free.") and turned out to be completely, embarrassingly wrong apparently doesn't matter. [4]

In the light of this, it's almost comical that Oborne accuses progressives of ignoring the lessons of history. What he means, I think, is that we focus on the negative aspects of history in our desire to avoid their repitition, and so in our eagerness to avoid a repeat of injustice, we might sweep aside some of the positive parts of our past as well. That, at least, is a defensible position. Perhaps we do have a tendency to throw baby out with bathwater. Oborne's problem, though, is that he thinks history in itself is virtuous. He accuses progressives of dismissing tradition, because we see it as prejudice. It would be far fairer to suggest that progressives focus on the prejudicial aspects of tradition and attempt to excise them. If Oborne wanted to argue that it might be a shame if a centuries-old ceremony was chucked out because there was no way to retain it in it's current, bigoted form (however passive that bigotry might be), then I'd at least be willing to listen. That stance is too complex for him, though. The progressive must be demonised. We can't possibly be faced with two unpleasant options and have chosen the lesser evil (or more precisely have chosen what our philosophy suggests is the lesser evil), we must simply be thumbing our nose at history due to an appalling lack of respect. [5]

This bizarre thought process results in Oborne lamenting the progressive desire to destroy venerable institutions. It apparently never occurs to him to consider the common traits shared by those institutions the progressive does want to see expunged (or altered). He once again makes his baffling statement that progressives are wilfully ignorant of history and declares that it is for this reason that conservatives recognise the corrupt nature of man, and furthermore that it is this realisation that leads to conservatives placing their faith in institutions instead. It is at this point that the wheels really fall off the wagon. It is most certainly not that progressives do not understand that man is prone to selfishness. In fact, it is for this very reason that we object to the idea of our government maintaining a policy of non-interference. Moreover, the idea that somehow an institution will counteract human mendacity, rather than multiplying it, is evidence enough that it is not the progressives that need to revisit their history lessons, but Oborne himself. Naturally, the government itself is an institution (how strange that Oborne trusts neither the common man nor arguably the most powerful of institutions, but somehow believes that all that lies in-between is sacrosanct, presuming of course that it is old enough), and so must be subjected to constant scrutiny to ensure its members are following the rules, but that is hardly an idea new to progressives.

Ultimately, the problem with progressivism is that we can never agree on which direction in which to proceed. The problem with conservatism is not dissimilar, only in their case it is better phrased as they can never agree on which direction in which to regress. Oborne admits that conservatism isn't automatically about stasis, it frequently involves the desire to change society as much as progressivism does, it is simply that in their case the aim is to change things back to how they were. A conservative might argue that this is an important distinction, that (to return to the analogy above) that they are attempting to re-stack dominoes rather than knock them down. This, of course, ignores the fact that society is constantly evolving in myriad ways, and therefore the fact an idea worked before does not imply that it isn't dangerous to return to it (again: consider slavery). Douglas Adams once perfectly encapsulated the way people often become more conservative as they grow older:
Anything that is in the world when you're born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works. Anything that's invented between when you're fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it. Anything invented after you're thirty-five is against the natural order of things.
This thinking can be expressed in another way: if we've changed anything in the last five years it was a cataclysmic mistake that must be reversed. If we've changed anything in the last thirty years it was a sad loss to society, and we must attempt to find our way back to it. If we've changed anything in the last seventy years, then we don't expect to see it back, but we'll still complain about it being gone, sotto voce in case the fascist PC brigade overhear.

If we changed something before that, of course, it is history, and we must fight tooth and nail to preserve it.

Time is not on the side of the conservatives. If a change is wrought, there is only so long to reverse it before it simply becomes the new order. It is one of life's great ironies that today's conservatives might fight to maintain the ideals yesterday's conservatives vilified so thoroughly. But then each generation of conservatives is convinced that their own lifetime represents the global maximum of human civilisation, and that unlike all the other previous conservatives, the ones who wanted the throne to have unchecked power or to tell brown people what they could and couldn't do, they're really, really right this time.

One last point: Oborne needs to bone up on his analogy skills. His attempt to compare conservative vs. progressive thought to a sprinting race doesn't really work. Conservatives always want the fastest person to win, because that's what the rules demand, he suggests, whereas progressives want to tinker with the rules so the same person wins each time. This is by way of suggesting conservatives are more concerned with the rule of law than progressives are. Aside from the sheer lunacy of anyone alive during the previous Conservative administration suggesting they have a superior commitment to due process than anyone else does, this entirely misses the point. The rules for, say, the 200m are fixed now. There was a time when they weren't. There will almost certainly have been a point at which people sat down and discussed how to deal with the fact that the track curves, and so everyone couldn't start on the same line. I don't imagine the discussion took very long (assuming someone present had a basic grasp of geometry), but the point is that sports and games require development to make them fair. Football is still developing, for example, with FIFA continuing to tweak the rules [6]. Football is also a much better analogy for society, by the way, because it is a sport in which one teams actions directly affect the other. Fairness is about ensuring consistency of interaction, not just ensuring everyone has the same conditions under which they can go it alone. The progressive is interested not in ensuring all runners have a turn at winning the race, but in fiddling with the rules until every runner has the same chance of running the race. It's not the same thing, and I should know.

Right, that took forever to write, and is probably too long for anyone to bother reading. Still, it should serve as a reminder to Spielbergo that it isn't the number of posts that counts, it's the insane length to which you can stretch each one.

[1] A brief and terrifying insight into my day job; whilst in Munich I attended a talk regarding imprecise decision making, which concerns itself with the idea that rather than offering people Option 1 or Option 2, you should offer those options along with Can't Decide. One member of the audience then asked whether or not you should extend the situation to Option 1, Option 2, Can't Decide, and Can't Decide Whether You Can't Decide. It says a lot about the company I keep that this observation resulted in at least as many thoughtful faces as it did rolling of eyes.

[2] Let us recall Paulo Friere here: "In the struggle between the weak and the strong, remaining silent is not to be neutral; it is to give victory to the strong".


[3] This, incidentally, is one of the reasons I'm in complete agreement with Stuart Lee on the subject of Political Correctness. The ideas and initiatives that the term is used to describe are borne of a conscious attempt to ensure bigotry and prejudice are no longer commonly expressed in society. If people want to argue it's gone too far, then I wouldn't immediately object. I'd suggest though that we're closer to the balance point than we were forty or fifty years ago, it's just that we're also on the other side now. At some point, the pendulum will swing back again, and we'll probably pass the balance point again, but hopefully not stray so far from it.

[4] The point I made above about British conservatives consistently standing on the wrong side of history applies tenfold to our American cousins. Slavery, women's rights, civil rights, gay rights, free medical attention for seniors,anti-pollution laws, food safety laws, on and on and on.

[5] Note again the defining characteristic of so much Conservative argument. There cannot be complex situations with no easy answers; there can only be easy answers which progressives refuse to see.

[6] Others know far more about this than I, of course, but I confess the fiddling with the rules of football might have more to do with keeping the game exciting and flowing smoothly than with the idea that there exists inherent unfairness that needs to be tackled. Hopefully though my central point survives.