Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Genius, Thy Name Is This

Happened to come across the Splitreason site (edit: link here) yesterday, which appears to be a site which sells geeky t-shirts with designs the public have submitted. First of all; this is a brilliant idea. Secondly; observe:

Mathematics' most important vampire now has his own clothing range. All is right with the world.

Monday, 29 March 2010

Economic Smackdown

My uninformed opinion on the chancellor's debate: Darling did reasonably well from the weakest position, but the fact he had a very difficult job to do doesn't change the fact that I don't think he did it. Osborne was worse, I think; I don't think he did much to differentiate his position from Darling's, and kept trying to interrupt in a way I found displeasing. On the other hand, he might have done well in frequently agreeing with Cable. There are far worse tactics than to imply Darling is wrong and Cable is right but his party unelectable (though the dominant opinion of my sample of four was that it was a mistake to make that point explicitly).

I'd say that Cable was the comfortable winner, actually. He stayed out of Darling and Osborne's squabbling, reminded everyone that his party had been far better at predicting the financial crisis than anyone else, and offered a nice little zinger regarding Osborne's plans for the "death tax" (I wasn't convinced by his delivery of it, but both my fellow viewers and the audience significantly disagree). His "experience" argument seemed pretty compelling.

But hey, I appear to have ranked the three competitors in the exact order I want them to get/retain the job! What a coincidence! Anyone out there got a different take?

"I Read The Mail On Monday So I'm Angry Enough To Write For The Rest Of The Week"

Most of the time I try pretty damn hard to keep the stink of the Daily Mail off my hands. There's a certain amount of pleasure to be had in having one's own prejudices confirmed, especially when those prejudices involve believing other people to be vastly, vastly more stupid than you, but every quantum of smugness wrung out from the Mail comes accompanied by vast torrents of rage-inducing bigotry and lazy, mean-spirited thinking, so it really isn't worth the effort (the Marcus Brigstocke quote in the title notwithstanding). Every now and again, though, I get wind of something interesting going on between its foetid pages - interesting in the same sort of way as it would be to find a slaughtered badger hanging from your porch light, but interesting nonetheless - and I put on my trusty mind-armour and go exploring. I do this for you, my dear readers, because I care about you, and you must be brought the truth. Even if it's entirely by counter-example.

The last time I read a Mail article was during the Jan Moir/Stephen Gately furore. An awful lot of people were Very Angry Indeed over that one, and rightly so. This time, however, I was innocently surfing the waves of my favourite forum when I stumbled upon a Mail link accompanied by a comment along the lines of "I don't read the Mail, but this seems to have a lot of truth in it".

This is already like showing a red rag to a bull of course. Once I discovered the article's author was Richard Littlejohn, of course, then you may as well wave a red rag at a bull whose mother was just yesterday shot and killed by another, bigger red rag.

I refuse to link to the article, but you can find it by searching for "I never imagined the town hall Nazis would go quite so mad". You know an article isn't going to disappoint when it manages to break Godwin's Law in the title. Remarkably, it then goes downhill from there, kicking off the article proper with one of those oh-so-hilarious cartoons of a man in drag, on this occasion with bushy moustache, pipe, and a sailor's tattoo. Nice work, the Mail. Very inclusive. Very accepting. I can already hear the knuckle-dragging rightwingers bleating over this; "It's just a joke, SpaceSquid! Don't you have a sense of humour?". It's not a joke. It is not a joke if the picture kicks off an article in which it is seriously argued that giving local councils funds to aid their transsexual community is a waste of money. It's just an attack you hope other people will find funny.

Still, I don't generally like to dismiss people's arguments at the very instant I find something stupid - especially since the cartoon isn'tLittlejohn's, and quite possibly neither is the headline, so I genuinely did try to grit my teeth and work through the whole piece. I eventually had to give up about 60% of the way through, though, so to paraphrase Will Self I apologise if it turns into Tolstoy on line 130. It's just that I was pretty close to actually vomiting bile over my keyboard, and I'd rather avoid that if possible. It isn't my keyboard.

Having said you shouldn't dismiss someone's argument just because they say something stupid, I'll now contradict that - Richard Littlejohn is a very special case - and point out that absolutely everything you need to know about the vapidity and nastiness of this article can be summed up from this quote:

At one stage, I worked out there were more people making a good living from AIDS than were dying from it.
To anyone with an ounce of empathy in their entire body, this is brilliant news. The (reasonably modest) funding we were handing out to stop people from being infected by a hideous, fatal disease is clearly working! AIDS workers are outnumbering AIDS sufferers. Assuming Littlejohn has his facts straight - and I have very, very little faith that he does, but for the sake of argument let's grant him the bedrock of his imbecilic rant - that sounds like an absolute triumph of local government to me.

To Littlejohn, this is the nightmare scenario. He sees a vicious disease that brings nothing but slow, agonising death to its victims being successfully contained, and his thought is "Could we not have done it cheaper?" Well, could we appreciably reduce the amount of funding that is (or was) spent on controlling AIDS without a rise in the infection rate? I have no idea. Neither of course, does Littlejohn, but that doesn't prevent him from arguing that that's what needs doing.

Of course, whilst simultaneously arguing successfully corralling terminal diseases is a waste of council time, he manages to whine that councils should be able to do more to stop flooding. If only more people were paid to stop flooding than were forced out of their homes by floods, eh, Rich?

The sheer jaw-dropping mental disconnect required to hold those two positions simultaneously is almost too obvious to point out, but I will anyway, because that's the sort of squid I am. It's simply incomprehensible to me that someone can argue that managing flooding is critical and managing AIDS is a waste of time. The only way to slot the two arguments appearing side by side is to imply that people losing their home to flooding as a tragedy, but someone losing their life to AIDS is just an unfortunate side effect of being one of the gays, or maybe touching a gay once because then you get gay and you are gay and that's how you get gAIDS. One wonders whether Littlejohn would have the balls to come out and say the people given money to create smallpox vaccine are villainous scabs since the disease no longer exists outside of laboratories.

Add in Littlejohn’s argument that changing a department’s name is evidence it’s trying to take control of the public, his repeated insinuation that there is something wrong with a council that recognises that homosexuals and transsexuals might need someone to look out for their interests, and his continued insistence that there is something sinister about a council which considers such clearly irrelevant issues as equality, diversity, health and safety, and I would suggest that “there is a lot of truth” in this article in roughly the same way that “there is a lot of gold” in a cat’s litter tray.

Saturday, 27 March 2010

Mad Men And Englishdogs

Watching Up tonight was difficult. Not because it’s a bad film; it’s some considerable distance away from being anything approaching a bad film, but because I was fairly well positioned to be punched in the gut by a movie in which the message of “Don’t let the past weigh you down” is delivered by a (surrogate) grandfather and an unbearably cute and loyal doggy.

Obviously, if I were to become miserable over the losses my family have borne over the last nine months, I’d clearly have missed the point of the film entirely. Instead, then, I’m just going to use this post as something of a memory to the departed. A few things that passed through my mind on the walk home.

“Don't ever ever underestimate the will of a grandfather. We're madmen, we don't give a damn, we got here before you and they'll be here after. We'll make enemies, we'll break laws, we'll break bones, but you will not mess with the grandchildren. ” - Josiah Bartlett, The West Wing.

“A dog's friendship is stronger than reason, stronger than its own sense of self-preservation.” - The Mayor, Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

“I never won a fight with Walter Crossman, because he always knew that the best way to win an argument was to be right in the first place.” - Ray Mallon.

“My name is Dug, I have just met you and I love you!” - Dug, Up.

I spoke at some length on my grandfather when he passed away, as indeed did others, so I hope he will forgive me for focusing on our four-legged friends this time around. Dogs are, quite simply, indispensable. When I was becoming Doctor Squid, I listened to Bill Bryson gave his traditional Chancellor speech which, amongst various other nuggets of wisdom, reminded us that we are all uniquely special - an infinitely unlikely swirling mass of molecules and thought - but that so was everyone else, so it was important to make sure we don't get above ourselves. Cats, as Ambassador Delenn once pointed out, are the universe's way of making us face up to the latter point. Dogs, I think, are the natural counterbalance, a reminder of how uniquely brilliant we all are. As an old friend once pointed out, there is nothing quite like seeing a dog barrel towards you, its tongue hanging out, and bearing an expression on its face that shouts "My God, it's you! This is the best thing that could possibly have happened to me today!"

In other words, dogs are God's apology for the rest of reality.

Friday, 26 March 2010

Friday Comedy: Everything Must Inevitably Explode

I've just finished working my way through Warren Ellis' Nextwave: Agents of H.A.T.E., which is finally available in a single volume, and it is quite simply too fit-inducingly funny not to share.

First up, a quick word on the importance of a daily routine from the Director of H.A.T.E., Dirk Anger:

We are also proud to present an easy to understand guide to summoning legions of dread warriors from the netherworlds with which to sow chaos across the realms of Man.

Seriously. Buy this thing. Buy the crap out of it. Nine pages in every ten are just as funny as those above, and the tenth only lacks for giggles because it's reserved for a colossal explosion.

Thursday, 25 March 2010

Planes Over Holy Island

Just in case you were wondering, I have indeed realised that there’s been a disproportionate amount of US political smack-talk going around in these parts lately. I’m very much hoping to redress the balance. A wee bit of lunatic dialogue here, some X-Men related musings there (I really will get round to Gambit’s SS v X soon; I’m just still finding it hard to put together full sentences about him without the phrase GAY PINK BODYARMOUR LOLZ spontaneously appearing), and, contained herein, a little bit of probability to keep us all going.

Yesterday morning, whilst I was busy rearranging the ghost-shaped salt cellars in a Lindisfarne coffee shop into a highly disciplined phantasmal phalanx, Brutal Snake ambushed me with the following question. A 100-seat plane flight has been fully booked. Each passenger has an assigned seat, but the first passenger to get on board has lost their ticket, and sits in a random seat. Each following passenger has their ticket, and will sit in their assigned seat if it is still free. If it isn’t, they will choose a seat at random.

The question is: what's the probability that the final passenger to board will find the only seat remaining is actually the one listed on their ticket? Anyone who actually feels like sitting down and thinking about this be warned: the answer is directly below.

Said answer might be intuitively surprising: it’s one half. In fact, it’s one half irrespective of how many seats the plane contains, so long as there’s more than one and the flight is fully booked.

For a two-seater plane, the truth of the answer is obvious; passenger one (henceforth called #1) either gets the right seat or the wrong one, and their choice forces #2's. The three seat case is only slightly more complicated, though takes a little longer to consider. In this case there are three things #1 can do, each one with probability 1/3. They can find their correct seat, guaranteeing #2 and #3 find theirs too; they can sit in #3's seat, guaranteeing #3 is out of luck; or they can sit in #2’s seat. This third option is the most interesting, because it then leads to two further possibilities for #2, who will now sit either in #1’s seat, or passenger three’s. That means that overall there is a 1/3 x 1/2 = 1/6 chance that first #1 will sit in #2’s seat and #2 will then sit in #1’s.

In total, then, the chance of #3 getting their own seat is 1/2 + 1/3 x 1/2 = 1/2, because we need to consider both the chance #1 gets the right seat and also the chancethey take #2's seat but this turns out not to matter. This is what we were expecting to find, of course, but the true importance of the three-seat example is that it contains the secret for cracking the entire problem: if #1 does take #2's seat, then the resulting behaviour of #2 and #3 is identical to the behaviour of the two-seat case. One need simply assign what was once #1’s seat to #2 instead.

This handy trick works in the general case as well. Let’s move on to the dizzying complexities of the four-seat case. Now there are four choices for #1. They might choose their own seat, or #4’s, both of which fix the final result immediately. They might instead choose #2's seat, then we just label what was #1’s seat as #2’s, and immediately return to the three-seat case. Lastly, #1 might sit in #3’s seat. In that event, #2 will get to sit where they were supposed to, and we can return to the two-seat case by reassigning #1’s intended seat to #3. And, as we know, both the three-seat and two-seat cases have a ½ probability of working out.

This time each possibility carries with it a probability of ¼, which means the overall chance of #4 getting their correct chair is 1/4 +1/4 * 1/2 + 1/4 * 1/2 = 1/2.

See the pattern? Whatever seat #1 chooses, unless it’s their own or the last passengers, it immediately allows us to consider a case involving a smaller series of chairs. This is what we call a recursion relation, a situation in which the value of each case can be calculated by considering the values of previous cases. If we call the number of chairs n, and denote by P(n) the probability of passenger n getting to sit in the right seat, then we have:

P(n) = 1/n x P(n-1) + 1/n x P(n-2) + 1/n x P(n-3) + ... + 1/n x P(2) + 1/n x P(1)

where of course P(1) = 1 because if there’s only one seat and one passenger, a match is inevitable.

The last trick is the most sneaky, and uses a mathematical procedure called induction. In words, induction works like this. If knowing something is true for step n-1 must mean it’s true for step n, and if it’s true for step 1, then it must be true for all steps, because the truth at step 1 guarantees its truth at step 2, which guarantees in turn its truth at step 3, and so on ad infinitum. The above equation requires a slight variance on that idea; in this case we argue that if P(1)=P(2)=...P(n-1)=1/2 is true for all steps up to and including n-1, it must be true for n as well.

How does this work? Well, if we assume that the answer has been 1/2 every time right up to and including n-1, our equation above becomes:

P(n) = 1/n x 1/2 + 1/n x 1/2 + .... + 1/n x 1/2 + 1/n x 1/2 + 1/n = 1/n + (n-2)/2n = n/2n = 1/2.

So, if the probability has been a half for every seat-number above 1 and before n, then it must be 1/2 for n as well. Since we already know that it was indeed a half for two, three and four seats, then it must be 1/2 for five seats as well, and then for six seats, and seven, and...

So there you go. I’m not so lunatic as to imagine that you found any of that quite so riveting as I did. You may also question, as indeed did I, what point lies in travelling 80 miles on your day off to an national landmark merely to drink coffee and discuss probability which is already your freaking job. I do think it's a nice little thing to think about, however, and if nothing else, it's less likely to be blocked by work filters than another round of political ranting/crowing.

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Squids On A Plane

Today, our hero is surrounded by his mathematical colleagues, discussing his clear superiority by dint of his recent promotion.

CHUCK: Looking forward to the day someone starts dying on a plane and they have to shout “Is there a doctor on this flight?”
SPACESQUID: Yes, that’s exactly what I’m looking forward to: some poor bastard to die on a plane because elementary set theory doesn’t cover the emergency trach. I shall settle back in my seat, my hand held high, and when they approach and ask “Are you a doctor?”, I shall smile and say “Technically.”
EDENSPRESCENCE: Technically it’s the MD’s who technically are only technically doctors. Technically.
SS: I shall be sure to explain that to them as the patient breathes his last. “Your customer died for your lack of specificity”.
ED: “And my lack of training.”
SS: There are many pieces to this puzzle.
CHUCK: Well, no, actually; mainly you just killed a guy. No offence, but you’re the pretty much the worst doctor anyone could fly with ever.
SS: Not necessarily. It depends what you’re looking for. A doctor without a scrap of physiological knowledge of biological comprehension, or a genius-level organ-tinkerer who coincidentally happens to be Davros.
SS: For example.
BS: What, it’s you, Davros and a guy having a heart attack? What the Hell kind of plane is this, exactly?
SS: All I’m saying is: sure, he’ll fix you up, but you might end up mutating into a radioactive green blob driving an armoured inverted ice-cream cone.
EP: So in an ideal world they’d need to ask whether you’re a doctor, whether you specialise in medicine, and whether or not you’re Davros?
SS: Not just Davros. Doctor Mengele, Doctor Moreau…
EP: Doctor Manhattan.
SS: Him too, though it’s kind of hard to imagine you needing to quiz him about his identity.
CHUCK: Whereas Davros is notoriously hard to identify, of course.
SS: He has a brother.
EP: He does not have a brother.
SS: He has a brother. An identical twin named Gary.
BS: Named Doctor Gary.
SS: Sorry, yes; he didn’t spent all that time in Kaled medical college to be called Mr Gary Davros.
EP: Literally no-one but you knows or cares about what you’re referencing right now.
SS: All he ever wanted was to use his single withered hand for healing. “Bring the patient closer to my feeble and atrophied digits. Let me stroke their tender fleshy regions back to health.”
CHUCK: Yeah, I don’t want to fly with either of those guys.
SS: I’m saying.

Snark, Schadenfreude And Set Theory

Ah, it has been a good day to surf the intertubes. Not just from the perspective of a despicably smug lefty, either. No, today has also offered up delightfully rich pickings for those of us who get our jollies torturing incoherent arguments to death. Such a life we lead, my friends! Off we go, creeping silently through the Forests of Logic, ears cocked for the rustling of the skittish False Dichotomy, or the nervous whinnying of the Excluded Middle. Once in a great while we might even come across the mighty If-By-Whiskey drinking from a babbling stream.

Then we beat the shit out of it. It is how we roll.

Right now you can stick a pin in the map of American Right Wing Blogohedria (to the extent such a map would exist, beyond a plain piece of paper with the words KEEP THE FUCK OUT printed upon it in scarlet script) and pretty much guarantee the associated page will be filled with signs of dire portent. The end of the Republic, the sinking ship that is Western civilisation, cats and dogs living together, and the drumbeat of the apocalypse (only one of those I haven't seen today, and I swear to God: it's the one about domestic mammals); it's all just one huge stinking Louisiana bayou of red-faced temper-tantrum spittle-drenched invective. And I know from red-faced temper-tantrum spittle-drenched invective. I encountered one gentleman today convinced that HCR was the first step towards socialism, itself the first step towards totalitarianism, and what Congress should actually have done was to introduce medicine directly into the water supply to treat people that way. Forcing people to buy insurance = the machinations of the Stasi (seriously, he said that, except for "machinations", which is a long word that I lent to him because I am nice), but forcing people to drink a bizarre cocktail of medications designed to combat all known diseases = a literal universal panacea.

The downside to this target-rich environment, of course, is that it doesn't really provide much in the way of sport. To continue and revise the metaphor, it's like going hunting for bear only to discover every grizzly within a twelve-mile radius has been attacked by puckish fairies, who have not only caused them to lapse into enchanted slumber, but have also placed giant flashing arrows atop each dozing ursine, pointing to the heart and accompanied with the words "SHOOT HERE". Sure, you can still murder the bear, but where is the challenge? What in God's name is the point in massacring an innocent animal if it can't defend itself? Or, more precisely, if the primitive, irrelevant synapses it stores within its puny bear mind can't quake in fear at its impending destruction at the hands of a superior predator?

It's important to choose your shot, is what I'm saying. In fact, I hadn't really planned on saying anything at all, everything was so easy. "In Rebuttal of Stasi McCalpoltaps" doesn't really make for engaging reading, I would guess.

Hooray for The Atlantic's Megan McArdle, then. Not only do people read her because she's a Serious Journalist, but her article posted just after HCR passed is so laughably, hideously, blood-boilingly horrible that I was simply unable to walk by. It's that perfect mix of total abdication of critical thought and the desperate desire to appear coherent, like a jelly that paints itself grey and tries to pass itself of as a steel helmet. In future years, when we're living in huts built from the shells of the i-Pods that stopped working just after the Finland-Chinese alliance nuked the entirety of Western Europe, I hope I have a copy of this article to hand so that I can teach our surviving, horribly mutated children exactly what a failure to apply fairness, logic or common sense looks like. Let's see what she has to say, hmm?
Parties have passed legislation before that wasn't broadly publicly supported. But the only substantial instances I can think of in America are budget bills and TARP--bills that the congressmen were basically forced to by emergencies in the markets.
Ah, the old "I can't recall" dodge, also known as the "If I don't bother researching my points I won't have to worry about being proved wrong" pirouette (I think in some regions they also call it the "Bill Kristol lunge of desperation"). Others have already pointed out a fairly obvious example: the Surge. That initiative, all of three years old, had a 60% disapproval rating, but Congress let it go through. They did vote in a non-binding resolution to "object", but they didn't vote to stop it, and they sure as Hell could have. Unless McArdle is arguing that the will of the people can be ignored as long as it's done in a bipartisan fashion, of course. Even by the standards of the "Bipartisanship is more important than progress, electoral promises/mandates and the law, so long as it's Democrats doing the compromising" brigade, though, "bipartisanship > democracy" would be a fairly major ramp up of this particular fetishism.

(Also, to retrieve my well-worn drum for one last solo: note how market failure is an emergency, and hundreds of thousands of needless deaths are something to be worried about some other time if we can be bothered maybe).
Are we now in a world where there is absolutely no recourse to the tyranny of the majority? Republicans and other opponents of the bill did their job on this; they persuaded the country that they didn't want this bill. And that mattered basically not at all.
There are three problems with this most gobsmackingly vacuous of statements, which I shall tackle in the strict order in which they can be applied to smash this foolishness into its constituent moron-molecules (a strange compound assembled from atoms of crapium, nonsensegen and weapons-grade bullshitanium).

Firstly, anyone who has spent even the briefest amount of time watching this debate unfold (and you had plenty of time to do it) will already be aware that McArdle is arguing that it doesn't matter how a party persuades the public to take it's side, just so long as it does so. The list of lies, half-truths and underhanded tactics employed by the GOP since this whole fracas started could fill a phonebook, but McArdle discards all of that because it suits her purpose to argue that somehow the loudest voices must triumph independently of what is being screamed (and make no mistake, once you remove the need to actually say stuff that's, y'know, true, the loudest voice will win ninety-nine times out of a hundred). This leads us into reason two: the true, mind-numbing idiocy in the viewpoint she claims to profess. It's not that she claims unpopular legislation must be stopped regardless of merit, it's that popular legislation must be employed regardless of its self-evident craziness or how the American public were duped into believing it was a good idea. In other words, this woman who claims to be deeply concerned about the political future of America can't even wrap her brain around the fact that America is a Republic. Perhaps she thinks the only reason it isn't a pure democracy is the lack of cash that one would need to allow every decision to be sent to public referendum "USA: As Democratic As We're Prepared To Pay For". Doesn't really set the pulse racing, does it?

The third problem is just as fundamental: it is not the case that the public was against healthcare reform. They were, and are, overwhelmingly in favour of it. It's just that a desire for reform is not the same thing as desire for this specific bill. McArdle is arguing that if the public wants healthcare, but disagrees on how to do it, the democratic reaction is to do nothing at all. To ignore the will of the people, in other words. McArdle can only argue passing the bill is bypassing the people's desire by carefully slicing up the set of those citizens who want reform in just such a way as to prove her point. Sure, more people disliked this bill than liked it. Not by much, of course, and more people who were informed about the contents of the bill liked it than didn't, but let's grant McArdle her starting point. What's critical though is the reasons why people disliked the bill. These were many and varied - many in the GOP ranks complained it was too long, and I think we can all agree that the biggest risk in creating a stable platform for far-reaching improvements to the way life-threatening illnesses are treated is that the accompanying text won't easily fit in your new slim-line briefcase - but in general they can be divided into those who felt it went too far, and those that didn't think it went far enough. The bill was a compromise. That's what politicians do. Well, what they're supposed to do, when they're not bellowing into every available live mic that the proposed legislation will murder your grandmother - murder your fucking grandmother, Megan, that's how the Republicans "did their job" - and that the guy who came up with the reform process he essentially stole from their own party circa 1993 is Chairman Hitler Von Stalin-Pot of the planet Islamofaggot IV.

You may as well say that if 50% of the population wanted the money spent on healthcare per year to be $1.2 billion a year at least, and 50% wanted it to be $1 billion a year at most, it is ignoring the people's will to set it at $1.1 billion. The most agreeable - or least disagreeable - compromise does not have to include the intersection of all opinion at all. Put another way, if come next Presidential campaign season no Republican candidate receives more than 50% of the primary vote, a rigorous application of McArdle's position would require her to argue that the GOP would be honour bound to field no candidate in opposition to Obama.

It's quite possible, indeed it's very likely, that there is no health care bill conceivable by man or God that could satisfy more than 50% of the population, but that does not mean doing nothing is the preferred choice. This is basic set theory; you need to make sure you choose a sensible group of mutually exclusive and exhaustive subsets and interpret them in the right way. Frankly, it's also basic logic. And I mean basic. McArdle's position, to the extent to which we can believe it's genuine, is unbelievably childish in it's over-simplicity. And I don't even mean childish in the sense of it being deeply worrying to think that money was paid in exchange for her article, I mean childish in the sense of needing to ask an adult's permission before she can be allowed access to the safety scissors and PVA.
If you don't find that terrifying, let me suggest that you are a Democrat who has not yet contemplated what Republicans might do under similar circumstances. Farewell, Social Security! Au revoir, Medicare! The reason entitlements are hard to repeal is that the Republicans care about getting re-elected.
If McArdle's last paragraphs were Level 1 of Super Mario in Incoherence Land, then this is, ooh, Level 17 at least. The one you can't get to until you've collected forty gold stars (which McArdle shouldn't be allowed to handle, for fear of pricking her fingers on the sharp bits) and beaten up Bowser a couple of times with a fire-flower in one hand and a copy of the Socratic Method in the other. The reason entitlements are hard to repeal is that they are staggeringly popular. Not popular as in "any specific alternative taken in isolation gets less support", popular as in "Take it away and we will break you". McArdle is taking a situation in which no specific course of action had a plurality of votes and comparing it to situations in which the people of America would tear apart Capitol Hill with their teeth (real or otherwise) were anyone to try and knock them on the head. This is to say nothing of the ludicrousness inherent in arguing that the best way to demonstrate you care about re-election is to abandon a central campaign promise in the wake of unprecedented obstruction from the very party to which those same elections dealt a humiliating defeat. "We promise to do the things you want unless the guys you don't want running the show anymore decide you can't have them."

Also, whilst we're on the subject, McArdle manages to hobble her entire argument here and is too busy screaming bloody murder to notice. What just passed is a goddamn entitlement. A lot of people, CBO scoring notwithstanding, are convinced that it's too expensive an entitlement, and hence one that the US can't afford, but it's an entitlement nonetheless. More to the point, it's the entitlement to not die in agony from conditions we have the ability to cure. That sounds pretty damn good to me. I'm certainly glad I have that right, croissant munching Euro-pansy that I am. I can believe that in a few years people decide the bill is too expensive (again, CBO scoring aside), but I cannot possibly imagine it will retain only lukewarm support.

Since McArdle doesn't bother to mention this glaringly obvious point I can only assume she is working on the principle either that entitlements never get any more popular than the day they are created, or that irrespective of their contemporary popularity was a mistake to put together those entitlements in the first place if public opinion was against them at the time. The former position, of course, is fairly comprehensively disproved when one considers Civil Rights legislation - which like healthcare reform were strongly popular as a nebulous ideal but cost the Democrats dearly because of the specific legislation enacted - and one assumes that the latter is destroyed by reference to those same laws. Unless Megan wants to tell us that the US should have waited until Civil Rights laws - not the concept in general, but each specific bill - were supported by more than 50% of the entire population before social progress was attempted. I'm sure we could have made Martin Luther King Jr understand. "We live in an Athenian Democracy, Reverend, even if we can't stump up the cash to do it right. Now get to the back of the bus, would you?".
...I guarantee you that there are a lot of GOP members out there tonight who think that they should get at least one free "Screw You" vote to balance out what the Democrats just did.
See above RE: having no interest whatsoever of the differences in what is being voted on, how accurately it's been described to the public, or the precise level of support according to polling data, as though this bill could be sensibly compared with a fortune cookie slip stating "Kill Each Family's Firstborn" introduced by Senator Satan (R-NJ). Given her preceeding paragraphs I can't claim to be surprised that McArdle has come out in favour of applying playground rules to the settling of political grievances over profound questions of entitlements and civic rights, but it's still impressive to see someone so determined to divest themselves of the burden of nuance that they're willing to scream "THEY DID IT FIRST!!!!1!!1!One" over a process that the Republicans have essentially already used.

None of this is to suggest I would seriously argue public opinion is irrelevant when it comes to deciding on how to vote on a given piece of legislation. What I profoundly object to is the suggestion that it is the only consideration to be made. The world, people, opinions, governments and politics are all deeply, frustratingly and above all beautifully complicated - well, maybe not for those last two so much with the beauty - and pretending not to see that for the purposes of pretending an undesirable outcome can be upgraded to an illegitimate one is a particularly disagreeable strain of intellectual dishonesty.

But let us not end it there! I am a fair man, after all, ever willing to find common ground with my opponents. With that in mind, then, I would like to end this post on a positive note of mutual agreement.
If the GOP takes the legislative innovations of the Democrats and decides to use them, please don't complain that it's not fair. Someone could get seriously hurt, laughing that hard.
See? In this, at least, McArdle is entirely correct. I am, indeed, laughing exceptionally hard.

Monday, 22 March 2010

In Which I Fervently Hope I Am Not Speaking Too Soon

I am an expert in probability. It is what I do. All the rest of this poking my nose in politics and arguing with people about science fiction is just a side-show. Probability runs through my veins. Just as with any other science, I suspect, you eventually get to a point where you start to see the world differently, like Neo inside the Matrix. Everything becomes a long string of events, each with their own attendant probability distributions, stretching into infinity. Any attempt to pass comment on the future becomes an almost subconscious effort to reduce the topic under discussion into its constituent elements, each of which are considered according to one's own approximation of their probabilistic behaviour, before being reassembled into a coherent whole.

It's automatic. It's reflexive. It is who I am.

I tell you this purely to provide some context for how ridiculous it is that I fear declaring the HCR battle over and retiring to bed. The suggestion that such pre-emptive celebration might in some way "jinx" this fourteen-month long, horrendously complex process in which I played no direct role and almost certainly had not even the slightest of indirect effects upon either is entirely anathema to me.

And yet...

Screw it. Time to nut up. I'm calling it: by the time I wake up tomorrow, HCR will have passed. It already looks like it will pass by a greater margin than I had predicted, in fact. A very large number of people who were hoping to receive the help they have been denied for so long will breathe a sigh of relief, and a very large number of people I am not strong enough to stop myself hating will find their various crusades to eliminate all but the most contemptibly self-serving of government actions significantly harder.

Not everyone who opposed the bill falls in that camp, of course. Poor old Dennis Kucinich, before he made the right choice and pledged to vote "yes", had more than his fair share of reasonable points. This is not a perfect bill. It is not even a great bill. Even the fact that I'm prepared to call it a good bill says more about how hopelessly, miserably broken the American system is. Every time I step away from the minutiae of this exhaustingly drawn-out political battle and start considering the wider picture, I am utterly bewildered by the idea that there could be any argument over the suggestion that a society should not allow people through simple twists of fate to be denied the drugs they need to stop their bodies from eating themselves. But that's where America is, and so the HCR bill manages, in a true testament to the fundamental disgrace that is the human condition, to be both a pathetic affront to intelligence and decency and a truly historic moment in the history of that strangest and yet most familiar of countries.

So it's got problems. A shit-load of said. At some point, someone still needs to get the remaining 5% of people in the country insured, for a start. And the myriad problems and potential problems that the bill in itself throws up aren't our only concern; we also have to process the amount of crappy, crappy bones that had to be thrown at crappy, crappy people even to get this far. Pro-choice groups are reacting to the last-minute compromise between the White House and Stupak's posse - those people who choose the deaths of hundreds of thousands of their own people over the merest possibility that taxpayer dollars may fund a single abortion and are pleased to call it "principle" - with what can be best described as total fucking outrage. Depending on who you listen too, the text of the executive order places it somewhere between a piece of toothless kabuki that nevertheless symbolically strengthens the railings on either side of the gender gap, or an actual legal recognition of illegitimate patriarchal BS that anyone with any sense has been desperately been trying to forget about.

We didn't win nearly big enough, and we did it only at high cost. Too high, for some. But for tonight, I'm actually OK with that. Tomorrow, an awful lot of very smart people are going to sit down and talk about how we make this better. Josh and Jed are going to want to know what's next. How do we take the next step forward, and what can we do to repair some of the damage that always seems to get done on the way? Progressivism is many things, but right now it feels most like spinning an infinite number of plates.

That's tomorrow, though. Tonight, we won.

Sunday, 21 March 2010

I Can't Stand It, I Know Six Planned It!

Argh! I can't take the tension! Apparently the HCR House vote is scheduled for 9pm, so it'll be well into the early morning before I get to see the tallies. It really is looking like it's going to work; at present I'm going to guess a final "aye" total of 218, but what do I know?

Anyway, since my head is too full of worries about the most important vote a country I've never been to and know no-one from is about to go through since the last one, I figured I'd take it easy this evening. And by "take it easy", I mean "just stick up something someone else has done." I thus present: Galactica SABoTAGE!!!

h/t to Lawyers, Guns & Money.

Update: the above is almost entirely spoiler free; the only way one could consider it otherwise were if someone were to see the briefest of shots from episodes unwatched and extrapolating from that. I don't really see it being a problem, to be honest.

Saturday, 20 March 2010

While We Wait For Things To Go Crazy Tomorrow

A few weeks ago Pause was good enough to send me a link detailing California state senator Roy Ashburn's confession of rampant gayness, despite him having spent his time in office on crusades of rampant anti-gayness (one can only assume he had to wear gloves when touching anti-gay bills to prevent the entire California legislature from exploding in a shower of pink protons). I read it, had a bit of a think about it, and promptly forgot about it when the cyclone of Spain-based preparation struck.

Now that I've returned, unpacked, and run through my backlog of comics and TV series, though - and having been reminded of the issue by this cartoon - the cogs are turning again.

Here's my thing. I don't believe it's hypocritical to either vote for legislation which disadvantages a group to which you belong, or refuse to vote for legislation which would help said group. To suggest otherwise would be to imply that the only two positions a politician can hold on any issue that would affect him or her is hypocrisy and naked self-interest. Remember when people were calling Obama a hypocrite because he was proposing public health care he wouldn't be taking advantage of himself? Those people were turds, and I don't want to pretend the idea makes any more sense just because I think Ashburn's politics stink. To demonstrate hypocrisy in terms of Ashburn's voting record, I think one would need to have evidence of at least one of two things, either a) the suggestion that homosexuals are not fit to run for public office, or b) rhetoric accompanying Ashburn's votes that states or implies his belief that gay people don't deserve the same rights as heterosexuals because they are in some way less than other people. I haven't read everything Ashburn has said on the issue, but whilst I come across several articles condemning his voting record, none seem to accompanied by any kind of quote that fulfils either of the above two criteria.

So I don't believe a gay politician casting votes which harm the gay community (or fail to help them) is a priori hypocritical. There are of course many other words that can be laid at Ashburn's feet; unfeeling, reactionary, bigoted; but aside from the bigotry in his case being far harder to understand, that's the same list of adjectives that one can apply to straight anti-gay Republicans just as easily.

In this case, though, that's not all there is to it. What makes Ashburn's case of note (aside from it spinning out of a DUI - whoops!) is his determination to explain his voting record as justified because it's what his constituents wanted.

So, here's my question. Is it possible to believe that one is representing a group of people homophobic enough to believe gay people shouldn't have the same rights as straight people - most obviously but not exclusively the right to marry - but who wouldn't mind if the guy they sent to the State Senate was gay himself? More pressingly, is it possible to believe that so strongly that you don't see any problem in hiding your sexual orientation during your campaign?

As far as I can see, that's where Ashburn's hypocrisy lies. Not in voting against his own orientation, but in deciding his constituents' hopelessly backward desire to judge others unworthy should only apply to those people who are not prepared to hide who they are.

Thursday, 18 March 2010

Down And Safe

I'm back! I touched down in Stansted at around 22:45 last night, and am currently a few hours out of Durham. My gracious hosts rather irritatingly decided to cut my internet access from the moment I checked out of the residence, rather than the moment I left their offices nine hours later, so I've been offline for the last 38 hours. I hope I haven't missed anything. Durham's still where I think it is, right?

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Radio Granada 2

Let's rock it fair-to-middling old school this morning with a trick turned by Guided Voices. You remember Guided By Voices, right? They're the guys that inspired The Strokes.

You remember The Strokes, right?

If you like this, I strongly recommend hunting down the studio version, which contains some bootsauce keyboards that are conspicuous by their absence here.

Incidentally, I originally got my hands on this song off of the Buffy soundtrack, but I never worked out which episode it was in. If anyone could help me out with that, there's a shiny penny in it for you.

Monday, 15 March 2010

Pensamiento Profundo

There comes a time in every man's life when he realises he can no longer hold his hand to his heart and swear he has never consumed the sexual organs of a bull.

Not that I know I have, but...

Also, I met a Belgian girl last night who insisted I try some kind of "local delicacy" that proved to be nothing more that nuts that tasted distinctly of Marmite. It's nothing but curve-balls in this country.

You Knew It Was Coming...

Those of you keeping an eye on the international headlines may have noted there's going to be a vote on HCR this Friday or Saturday. I'd love to tell you more about it (just as, no doubt, you would love to hear more), but honestly, I can't work out what the Hell is going on. No-one seems to think Pelosi has the votes yet, but she seems breathlessly confident that she will have by the time she needs them. She's the political mastermind, not me, and she has the home phone numbers for everyone involved, but I still have to confess to being a little nervous.

Regardless of the outcome, though, I'm almost indescribably relieved that we're going to at least see a vote. I'd far rather have a list of names for Democrats who tried - and may still succeed - to detonate a year's worth of work on one of their party's top three issues (maybe even the absolute numero uno - look how well my Spanish is coming on) who can be savaged in their primaries than just watch everyone pretend the last fourteen months never happened.

I'd also like to take a moment to offer sincere shout-outs to both the President of the Catholic Health Organisation and the entirety of Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good for reminding me of the difference between holding principles I disagree with (however strongly) and just being a incoherent babbling hack using principles as cover. I am not too proud to confess that listening to Stupak complain everyone is "ignoring" him has probably maxed out my month's allocation of schandenfreude - yes I got me some German too because I am an international jet-setting cephalopodic playboy. Further props - nay, mad props - are bestowed upon whomever it was in the Democratic Party who decided to try and shore up support for the HCR bill by suggesting they hitch on legislation aimed at improving the college loan system. It says something fairly pathetic about the political process that I am so blown away by the concept of attempting to shore up votes by making a bill better, but I'm choosing to focus on the positive today.

Well, I was. Whilst we're on the subject of HCR, and voting practices, let's spare a thought for poor old Dennis Kucinich. His principles are closer to mine than perhaps any other US Congressperson, as a result of which a) he's gotten almost nothing done in his entire career, and b) he's repeatedly voted against Democratic legislation for not being left-wing enough.

I share the frustrations of many people over his refusal to get on board with the current bill, both because his argument is quite simply flat-out wrong (anyone suggesting progressive legislation aimed at reducing inequality and/or enshrining the public's right to services isn't going to be built on in the future just isn't paying attention), and because he knows it won't do any good. He is not moving the Overton window [1]. He just isn't. It isn't fair that he isn't, but that's the way it is. One man cannot move the Overton window to the left in America from that far out. You can't single-handedly reframe the debate in liberal terms, Dennis; you can only make yourself look like a crank. I wish it weren't so, but if wishes were horses beggars would get to eat horseburgers for a week or so.

Damn it, though, he's on my side, and he's maybe the only one on my side, and it's only because he's the only one on my side that his tactics can't actually work and bring some good to that pile of snivelling centrists and full-on lunatic right-wingers in Washington. It's hard not to feel for the guy.

Of course, is HCR only gets 216 (edit: 215) votes this week, I'll imagine I'll find not feeling for him a good deal easier...

[1] The range of political ideas considered "acceptable" or, worse, "Serious" by the population. The basic idea is that by having cranks on the fringe of your party, you can make your own ideas seem far more acceptable in comparison (Tomsk has noted before how successful this strategy has been for Republicans), and by increasing the volume of those cranks, one can pull the range of acceptable ideas towards your side. Kucinich's problem is that the Republicans have successfully branded far more centrist Democrats than he as moon-bat lunatic Communists, which means his ideas don't make anyone else's look more reasonable, other people's ideas thoroughly derided reasonable ideas make him look even more crazy.

Sunday, 14 March 2010

Radio Granada: Mater Edition

It's Mother's Day! And what says that fact better than a singer my Mummy loves singing a love song about a mummy? Plus, some mellow Ritter action is just the thing for any tired American brains desperately trying to understand the sudden shifts of the chronal winds.

Be warned though, you don't need a degree in Egyptology to know that romances between immortal Pharoahs and beautiful archeologists aren't liable to end well...

Friday, 12 March 2010

Musings Near The Med 2

Continuing our series of travelogues for those that despise travel; five things I've learned about Granada:

1. My breakfast bar has a radio so tinny I genuinely spent the first third of "Losing My Religion" believing Michael Stipe had been replaced with a Cylon. This is amusing.

2. My temporary office is in a building so new the facilities have no toilet paper, or indeed locks on the door. This is irritating.

3. The "Irish" pub sixty feet from my building is staffed by Belgians and obsessed with kareoke. This is surprising.

4. What I thought was a water fountain on the ground floor of my building turns out to be connected to a keg of beer. This is also surprising, but I prepared to live with it.

5. The campus cafeteria features a 12-foot painting of a naked woman violently giving birth to a fully-grown beaver. This is terrifying in a manner words alone could never convey.

That's Like Fourteen In Dog Blog Years

Holy FSM (to say nothing of TCB), this place is two years old. I’m amazed I haven’t been distracted by shiny pennies, or possibly a younger, prettier blog (though that latter part may soon change, at least in part; watch this space).

Thanks to everyone who chose to spend some of their valuable free time - or possibly their prevarication options - here. As time goes on, I find this particular vertex of the blogohedron takes more and more of my time, but it’s a delightful hobby to have, and a lot of that comes from having you guys calculating the exact level of bullshit I am peddling at any given time.

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Musings Near The Med

I don't seem to be getting any happier about the idea of regularly (well, once a year) being flown off to various European locales so I can fail to understand the most basic of directions, but since it keeps happening, I might as well continue to offer my half-baked and entirely uniformed thoughts on the process. Think of it as the Rough Guide To Europe, as written by Oscar the Grouch.

This is my second time in Spain, indeed the first time I've ever returned to a country I wasn't born in (well, there's Scotland, I suppose), and my problem with it remains. My time in Madrid gave me the distinct impression that it was the least English-proficient country I've visited (currently it competes with Germany, Slovenia, and the Czech Republic), and so far a data set of exactly four people suggests that this is just as true in Andalusia. I fully realise that English people complaining that others haven't bothered to learn their language is bad and wrong and makes me a bad person who is wrong, but I don't have to like it. Even my contact at the University, who is in all ways lovely - though he does look like a Spanish Hans Landa, which means I get nervous every time he asks me a seemingly innocuous question - has a fairly shaky grasp of English, which made trying to figure out what exactly my set-up is pretty difficult. He seems to be one of those people whose vocabularly vastly outstrips their grammar (I once met the foremost authority on Shakespeare in all of China, and he had the same problem, though he may simply have been resisting the urge to tell us we were all a bunch of malthorses and coxcombs). Nothing wrong with that, of course, and you have to be impressed with someone who can't understand "How far is it from my residence to the department", but can apologise for having sent me a picture of himself that makes his face seem "less elongated" than it should be.

Ultimately, the situation seems to have been resolved. I have a nice little flat (which is closer to a hotel room, in truth), on the third floor of a strangely featureless building about 5km from the department (I have decided, perhaps unwisely, to attempt to walk it tomorrow; just to get my bearings), and nestled within a labyrinth of narrow streets that I am assured are entirely safe until around 2am. Food is acquired by the strange process of being issued food tickets from reception and taking them to a nearby cafe. This gains one a fairly impressive three course meal with beer and coffee, though that's counteracted somewhat by the beer coming in a wine glass, the coffee in something best described as a shot glass for Wookies, and tonight's "soup" proving to be some kind of seafood concoction halfway between a Dickensian broth and a shellfish battleground. It was like watching Ronald D Moore attempt a gritty, contemporary remake of Sharkey and George.

So here I am, sitting in my new place, and listening to people on all sides sing at me. Again, this is based upon very little data, but it doesn't seem five minutes go past in this place without someone starting up a gusty singalong. The tunes themselves most closely resemble what Hollywood would insist was a gusty Viking drinking song, albeit with a bit of Latin flavour, like something Antonio Banderas might have belted out during The 13th Warrior (yes, he was playing an Arab in that, but he wasn't really doing it very well). It's... unusual, to say the least. Hopefully it will stop in time for me to get some sleep.

More soon, assuming I'm neither poisoned or mugged, lose my way tomorrow, or finally manage to deliver an academic talk so gut-wrenchingly awful I am sentenced to death.

Radio Stansted

Travelling all day today - to possibly the only place on Earth I've mistaken for both a TV studio and a Caribbean island - so here’s a little bit of music to get you by. This has been stuck in my head for a week now after I heard it live on the radio in a coffee shop, so I am apologetically passing the earworm on to you. If nothing else, it’ll annoy Spielbergo that I’m once again peddling WWB music, though in truth I think it’s a pretty uplifting song, the fact it’s sung from the perspective of a suicidal dumpee notwithstanding.

More to come when I reach Granada.

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Quz 1 Redux

Answers up now. Contrary to what I said at the time, I am now counting a combined total of 31 for you guys, which goes up to 32 if I assume Chemie was actually proffering an answer rather than simply decrying my debasement of science.

Am very surprised no-one got Black Flag; I'd have thought "the opposite of surrender" bit combined with knowing a colour was involved should have been clue enough. Also surprised no-one put down the Cretaceous (Jamie's last-minute change of heart notwithstanding). The other dropped questions were intentionally nasty, however, though only two (Cuba and "Bleak House") were gotten by no-one at the pub either.

Kraken's Dance: Part Three (Of Three)

When Tolofsson awoke, his enemy had gone. So had the cathedral.

And so, of course, had his left arm.

The first thing his rheumy eyes allowed him to focus upon was his brother Orfirsson, who stood over him with a steaming censor in one hand and a whirring narthecium in the other.

“Where-” Tolofsson began, but stopped himself. Something was wrong with his right cheek. It felt too tight, as though he had been burned. Every movement of his jaw threatened to split the skin .

Besides, he could feel familiar vibrations through the bench upon which he lay, travelling up through his body, shaking his teeth and sending lances of pain through his wounds.

“A Thunderhawk?” he asked Orfirsson. It was not a request for conformation. There was no doubting where he was. What he didn’t know was why.

“We’re en route to the Intractable" Orfirsson told him, guessing his meaning. “The duel is over. It did not go well for you.”

Blinking back tears from the heavy censor smoke, Tolofsson winced, more from humiliation than pain. In response, Orfirsson brought the clicking, trembling narthecium down towards him.

“Keep that damn thing away from me!” Tolofsson exclaimed, knocking the device aside with the stump of his arm (which he noticed was now cleaned and bandaged). “If I’m going to be poked and prodded, I’d rather it be by a professional.”

“That would be less than entirely wise,” Orfirsson told him coolly. “There are currently three apothecaries across the chapter, each of them born on Four Feathers.”

“And you don’t trust them?” Tolofsson asked tetchily, not particularly wanting to think through the implications of Orfirsson’s caution.

“Not right now,” his comrade told him. “And certainly not with your life.” He paused briefly, as though finding it difficult to speak his mind. “This is not the first time you and I have sat in a Thunderhawk and asked ourselves whether we were all that remains of our chapter.”

“Isn’t that a little melodramatic?” Tolofsson asked. “I still have three other limbs, after all.”

Orfirsson’s face grew darker than the pale crimson light strips that just barely allowed Tolofsson to see around the deck.

“How much do you remember of the duel?” he asked.

“Enough,” Tolofsson grunted disconsolately. “I remember letting that disobedient pup stab me, and taking away one of his legs in payment. I remember standing over him whilst I pulled out his own knife from my chest so I could kill him. I even remember losing my arm, though only distantly. I had hoped to find it only a dream.”

“Not a dream,” Orfirsson assured him. “Most certainly not a dream”.

He paused again, as though screwing up his courage. He took a long, deep breath, perhaps to buy more time.

“Blade of the Emperor,” Tolofsson exclaimed. “Will you spit it out? You make a blind Eldar seem hasty.”

Orfirsson didn’t reply. Instead, he held the narthecium out for Tolofsson to take. The intricate patterns of reflected light that the device produced danced across Tolofsson’s vision, and he realised his friend’s hand was shaking.

“If I won’t let you use that thing with two hands and no head injuries, then how likely is it that I’m going to want to try and repair anything myself?”

“The blades are polished adamantium,” Orfirsson replied. “A ghost could use the reflection to shave himself.”

“Check your face.”

There were undercurrents in Orfirsson’s tone that unsettled Tolofsson far more than he would ever admit to. Gingerly he took the medical device in his one remaining hand, and, trying to seem unconcerned, lifted it to his face.

A vicious purple stain lay across his right cheek like a Ymgarl boneleech. Its shape it was identifiable as roughly blade shaped, but that central outline was broken up by a hundred tiny tendrils of black capillaries that crisscrossed his face. A few of them ended in ugly purplish blisters, as though his face had been painted and then a part of it burned until it bubbled and ran. Unconsciously he opened his mouth in horror; the motion once again sent pain through his cheek, and several of the blisters began to weep a nauseating yellow-black pus.

“I assume Tegatchi wanted to prove beyond any doubt that there had been absolutely nothing stopping him from killing you,” Orfirsson explained. “That’s why he hit you with the flat of the blade. A blade from a sword he pulled from a mound of dead traitors.”

“A Daemon weapon?” Tolofsson asked, almost to himself, unable to tear his gaze from the horrific atrocity marking his skin. He knew it was simply a perverse subdivision of his imagination, but he couldn’t help thinking that the wound was gradually expanding as he watched.

“Or something so similar as to make no difference,” Orfirsson agreed. “What remains of your arm is not any prettier, I assure you.”

“I don’t care!” Tolofsson lied. “A Daemon weapon? Tegatchi has condemned himself. Surely not even his Caudan lapdogs can be blind to his treachery now.”

“It is not so simple,” Orfirsson said sadly. “Whatever else might be true, there is no denying that you lost the duel.”

“So the Cathedral is still uncleansed?” Tolofsson asked incredulously. “On the whim of a man who fights his battles with the blades of the Warp?”

“In truth, I could not swear he knew what he was doing,” Orfirsson said. “Perhaps he needed a weapon and he found one. Certainly, that is his telling.”

Furious, Tolofsson threw the narthecium across the bay to shatter pathetically against the bulkhead.

“The traitor claims no treachery, does he? How my hearts soar to hear the news! Where is he, Orfirsson? Carella‘s Maze? The fleet? Answer me! We need to find that blasphemous heretic and toss him into the flames we make when we burn that damned chapel to the ground.”

“No,” Orfirsson said, and his voice layered with the infuriatingly placatory tones he used whenever he thought his old friend was being painfully obtuse, “We cannot afford to challenge Tegatchi directly.”

“Do not play the diplomat now,” Tolofsson growled, “It never became you, and it’s especially stupid now. Tegatch is tainted, and he must be dealt with. Immediately.”

Eager to demonstrate his resolve, he tried to rise. The process was more complicated than he’d realised. His brain kept trying to do it by pushing off the bench with his hands, and the instinct was too deeply ingrained for it to be easily overruled.

Without warning Orfirsson lunged for him, pinning him back against the bench. The abandoned censor hit the deck with a sharp crack and rolled away, spewing incense and ashes.

“Will you listen?” he hissed urgently. “Take another look at yourself.”

“I smashed the narthecium, Alkin.”

“Fine. Then I’ll look at you. You know what the first word is the sight brings to mind? Infected.”

“You dare?” spat Tolofsson, trying to struggle free from his friend’s grip.

“Stop that,” Orfirsson admonished. “As you said, I have two hands and no wounds."

“If we move against Tegatchi, if we insist to all that can hear that to hold a Daemon weapon is to become tainted by it, then his first move, his very first, will be to argue that wielding a blade cannot be nearly so dangerous as losing an arm to it.”

“You can’t believe that!” Tolofsson said. "The idea I might be tainted?"

“Whether I believe it is very much beside the point. Others will. The Caudans, certainly. Perhaps even a handful amongst our own ranks. This one incident would blossom into civil war. And all this is to say nothing of any outside interference.”

“Outside – “ Tolofsson began to parrot, until realisation hit. “The Inquisition”.

Orfirsson nodded slowly, and released Tolofsson to sit back on the ammunition crate he was using as a chair.

“Inquisitor Gellial is already in-system,” he said.

“Gellial!”. This was quite some way from being good news. “She’ll burn the whole planet over what we’ve left at St Varakus’.”

“Almost certainly.”

“Damn Tegatchi! We could have saved the whole of Carella’s Maze!”

“Perhaps,” Orfirsson allowed. “Though even with St Varakus’ Cathedral cleansed, there is no certainty of that. Gellial has destroyed more over less. But the fate of Vestan Prime isn’t my concern at present. It’s what happens to you when Gellial learns what has happened."

“She will learn nothing,” Tolofsson said dismissively. “It pleases the Inquisition to think theycan issue us orders, but they cannot *control* us. They know only what we wish them to.”

“Ordinarily,” Orfirssom admitted. “But that requires that we tread carefully. If another confrontation breaks out whilst Gellial is snooping around, then she will learn of it, and I would give very little for your chances. Even if you survive, an Inquisition death mark would simply hand more ammunition to Tegatchi. All of which is actually the best-case scenario. We don’t have the strength to resist for long if Gellial decides to declare the chapter Excommunicate Traitoris.”

“This is cowardice, Alkin!” Tolofsson roared.

“This is prudence, Gossan,” Orfirsson replied in the same even tone. “To force a confrontation will cost you your life, and possibly destroy the chapter, either from the Inquisition’s interference or by our own hands. Stay your hand, and we live to fight on.”

“Fight on for what?” Tolofsson asked. “If we can’t even cut out the rot amongst our own ranks, can’t maintain the purity of a chapter that has served with honour for three millenia, whatever our name might be today, then what is there left to fight for?”

Orfirsson cocked his head, like a predatory bird considering which rodent to pounce upon next. “The future,” he replied simply. “Tegatchi has won this battle. But he has not won the war. And by returning to the fleet, we ensure that the war can continue in methods beyond us all simply throwing off our armour and trying to stab each other to death.”

“A war without blades?” Tolofsson scoffed. “What kind of war would that be?”

Orfirsson smiled, for the first time since Tolofsson had awoken. Or, now he thought about it, since as far back as he could remember.

“The kind that I can win."

Monday, 8 March 2010


Oh, for fuck's sake.

I suppose, in some way, you have to give Inhofe a sort of twisted, grudging degree of respect for never failing to find a new way to be more of a classless turd than he was the day before. Those of us who still nurture a spark of hope for our race of shoe-clad primates might assume there existed some kind of ceiling on this particular type of ass-hattery, but dammit if Inhofe isn't just The Little Cock Who Could. One might have thought he'd have acquired a shred of humility and more than a soupcon of reality from his disastrous one-man-truth-squad stunt at Copenhagen - and I'll once again state for the record that I don't understand how any reactionary GOP frothy-mouthed lunatic can stand on the same side as Communist China and not wonder whether he's strayed too far from the herd - but now we've gotten to the part where he starts intimidating scientists by threatening Congressional investigations.

Since we discussed McCarthyism a couple of days ago, and because this move is being referred to as "McCarthyite" as well, it's worth taking a few moments to consider the veracity of the claim. Firstly, whilst there is absolutely no doubt that Inhofe wants to prosecute these climate scientists for political gain, if someone out there actually has broken a law, then it would be ridiculous for me or anyone else to start arguing that they shouldn't be prosecuted just because the guy demanding they get busted is a worthless pricktard. I might want to argue that a given law is in itself stupid, and it's not even remotely controversial to suggest that if Inhofe wants to cast a drag net through a given profession and keep pulling 'til he catches something there are far more worthy targets, but those are separate issues.

So, let's not pretend I'm not in favour of maintaining the rule of law. Certainly, that point alone means Inhofe can at least be considered less contemptible than Kristol and Cheney. Having said that, the rule of law issue is also part of the problem, and not just because he's apparently calling for British scientists to be investigated for possible violation of American laws. Inhofe isn't telling people scientists X have violated law A, he's telling people scientists X might have violated laws A through H and scientists Y might have been in on it as well maybe.

It's from here that the McCarthyism charge stems from: the attempt to intimidate scientists by saying "We're not sure you did anything wrong, or even your mates did anything wrong, but we're watching you anyway". It's guilt by association in a situation in which no-one's guilt has even been established yet (and Inhofe's "evidence" for this crap is just as ill-conceived as his usual ramblings), and in some cases already dismissed by internal investigations (which, yes, may not be particularly convincing, I don't know). It shouldn't need pointing out that the potential damage a Congressional investigation could do to a scientist, even if their cleared of all wrongdoing, could be significant. These aren't high level politicians we're dealing with. They don't have convenient access to microphones. They're unlikely to have the money to deal with protracted legal battles. And it's not like they weren't politically radioactive before this crap kicked off. You don't have to work in academia to realise that there's only so hard your faculty is going to be willing to fight the government over whether or not you keep drawing your paycheck.

All of which I suspect Inhofe knows - frankly, I think he's counting on it - and he's doing it anyway; working on the principle that if he kicks over enough ant-hills, he might find some evidence to convict someone of something (I particularly like his suggestion that Congress' best use of time is to check whether individual scientists have violated Federal policy; I guess if he can't use taxpayer dollars to incarcerate someone, he can at least get them fired). It's working backwards; starting off with a suspect and trying to track them back to a crime. I understand that the whole point of Congressional investigations is that they don't have all the necessary facts, that's what investigations exist for, after all, but Inhofe's unwillingness to give more than a laundry of suspects - which from what I've read are mainly considered suspects by dint of being leaders in the field - and demand that each one be run through a checklist of crimes reveals the true message here: "Nice scientific discipline you have here, shame if something were to happen to it."

Sunday, 7 March 2010

I Will Destroy Britain's Enemies As Soon As They Agree Not To Be Mean To Me

I'm sure there's plenty of wailing and rending of garments over Nick Griffin's refusal to return to our screens in order to debate the issues facing the constituents of Barking and Dagenham, but if you can manage to hear yourself think over the sound of an entire country gnashing it's teeth in tear-soaked rage at out loss, the news does raise one important question.

How can a man simultaneously argue that he is the spiritual successor to Churchill, destined to take power and sweep the multitudinous riff-raff from our proud nation in order to forge it into the steel-clad bastion of stiff-upper-lipped virtue it apparently always was until those swarthy colonials descended, and then go on to complain he won't slap his ugly mug back on TV to make his voice heard if he thinks it's unfair?

I have this thought about American conservatives a lot, as well. Just how long can anyone expect to push the line that their strength and resolve are too great for the "extreme left" to hold back, but also that people are cheating by making them look mean and it's not fair?

To be sure, the tactic seems to work; apparently because there are plenty of people in this country and across the Atlantic willing to believe that their superior strength and dedication would be obvious if only much weaker people weren't so totally oppressing them. And, as I've noted before (as have many other people, far earlier and far better, of course), entire nations have been run on this exact principle before (take the GDR, for example).

I guess it's just one more part of human nature that I don't get.

Saturday, 6 March 2010

More Weight

The Salem Witch Trials have been on my mind a lot over the last couple of days. I just polished off Ser Visal's Tale, the final story in Stephen Donaldson's collection Daughter of Regals. At its most basic, it's about a country run by templemen, who are afflicted with much the same obsession as those 17th Century pilgrims over rooting out witches at all costs, but this time said witches are actually real. If I had to sum up what Donaldson was aiming for with the story, it would be this: the problem with the Salem Witch Trials was not that witches don't actually exist.
It's the one point Miller couldn't easily make in The Crucible. Sure, Miller's play is a far superior work (which isn't to suggest Ser Visal's Tale is bad, it's pretty good in fact, it's just being compared to true greatness), but the inattentive viewer might walk away from the play thinking that the relevant message was that it's a horrible state of affairs when the innocent are blamed for things they didn't - and indeed couldn't - do.

That isn't a message that shouldn't be considered, of course, but that's only part of the horror of the McCarthyite method. It's too easy for people - those in America especially, who decades later still decry socialism for no better reason than they know it's a bit like communism somehow maybe - to conclude that the junior Senator from Wisconsin erred only in that he persecuted those who were in fact free of taint. The full message, and this is where Donaldson has the advantage over Miller through his use of a fantastical framework, is this: even if someone had been a communist, what the fuck business is it of yours?

Sometimes things come along at just the right, or wrong, time. Even as I was sitting in my flat, reading about a fictional world's legal proceedings, and how it assumed prisoners guilty until proven innocent, and worked on nothing more than guilt by association, this ad was being played in the States (I quite simply cannot bring myself to embed the video). In it, nine people (seven of them anonymous) are vilified in the most disgraceful manner on the grounds that they have - in their capacities as legal counsel - worked for and with prisoners at Guantanamo Bay.

There simply is no other way to interpret this than as a McCarthyite attack. Those that defend terrorists might share the terrorists' views. For sure, it isn't McCarthyism at its worst. Yet. But a pattern is being established here. Many of the most reprehensible members of the American right have spent the last few years dehumanising the enemy by claiming that said foe are less than they are; that the enemy doesn't deserve legal counsel, that the methods which would be roundly condemned as torture were they to used against an American are simply "harsh interrogation" when applied to them.

That they are worth so little that determining they are actually guilty is too great a risk to take. After all, what if real people got hurt in the crossfire?

And now, having apparently persuaded a truly worrying proportion of the US that torture is something people would rather not use in a perfect universe but gosh shucks there's no world peace or Santa Claus so we'd better break out the thumbscrews, we see these same callous moral black-holes are moving onto Stage 2: arguing that since those languishing in Guantanamo are nothing more than blobs of concentrated evil with thumbs (which, as mentioned, can be screwed), each of whom is more evil than the last, it is obvious that anyone still prepared to defend them must be morally questionable as well. They've moved from Miller's fears over not caring whether those they charge might be innocent to Donaldson's concerns over levelling accusations that are accurate but irrelevant since they involve entirely benign acts.

I've mentioned before that slippery slope arguments have their uses, and this is one such occasion. The hideous moral outrages suffered by this world and enacted upon many of those in it did not happen in a vacuum. Frequently they were built on years of work at changing public opinion by inches, taking away or twisting one layer of moral fortitude at a time, until people no longer remembered how things had started, and only knew that something needed to be done. It's at least arguable that Liz Cheney and Bill Kristol and their cronies have already won their first battle: they've persuaded a plurality that it's OK to torture brown people so long as someone thinks they're a terrorist. What happens if they win this battle, too? What if enough people are convinced that torturing the foreigners is OK but defending them in court is a moral outrage? When people have had a little time to have gotten comfortable with the idea that there is something inherently suspicious to defending a terrorist suspect, what will follow? What gets flensed away next time? Right to counsel? Will they close all government positions to those who remember it is the moral duty of the state to defend its own supposed enemies? Which right will the American people next decide is something that some people deserve, so long as they aren't one of those horrible terrorist people, or those who sympathise with them? Remember when empathy was just a bad quality for judges and a codeword for activism? Well, now it's indicative of treasonous leanings, too.

Nor is the above the only sign of the ugliness that might lay in wait for America. We already had to sit through the overwhelmingly distasteful scene of watching Republican Members of Congress demand an investigation over whether a Muslim group might have "infiltrated" Congress with "spies", by the inordinately sinister method of their members legitimately acquiring jobs and posts. And it's not like the US can rely on the press to act as watchdog, either. After two years of "Torture: Opinions Differ", we're now at "Smearing DoJ Lawyers For Maintaining The Rule Of Law: Opinions Differ". Glenn Greenwald is absolutely right, in any sane world the comparison with Murrow should have CNN begging for forgiveness. Anyone wanting to bleat platitudes at me about how there's nothing wrong with the American media would do well to study that particular link.

To be sure, I am not arguing that the USA is headed for some kind of Muslim pogrom, or even the arrival of a new blacklist (though it's not like the latter is inconceivable at this point). In fact, by the time I left the office tonight, pushback had already begun on this most hideously objectionable of actions. What I am saying is that if we are ever to ensure that things like the McCarthy era cannot take place again, it is critical that the first steps towards it are recognised for what they are. It is critical we remember that each failure of a society's moral compass, each attempt to exchange liberty and fairness for a little temporary safety (just to throw some Ben Franklin into this) makes the next failure that more likely, once the current collapse of morality has had time to harden into the new norm. The two biggest advantages that people like McCarthy enjoyed, and the Cheneys and Kristols and Bachmanns of today can rely on now, are the twin fallacies that periods of great villainy and tragedy can only happen in the past, and that people's definition of what constitutes too far will remain stubbornly constant as everything else flows towards the darkness.

To quote Guido Carosella: "That's how stuff that could never happen happens... 'cause people are too busy saying it couldn't". And when a superhero named Strong Guy can smell what's coming in the wind, you have to start wondering just how blinkered Wolf Blitzer and friends are willing to pretend to be.

In short, Keep America Safe has decided that it isn't enough to conclude that one's access to the justice system should be inversely proportional to the severity of your alleged crime and your supposedly just punishment. Apparently, access to one's lawyer needs to be stripped away as well. And dammit, if they can't get this sissy-Mary socialist atheistic gay orgy of a government to do anything about it, they're just going to have to lean on the lawyers themselves until they get the message.

Friday, 5 March 2010


I have the worrying feeling this is what happens every time I play the BSG board game...

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Quz 1

Since I've now started compiling and delivering a pub quz (that's not a typo, it's college tradition) once a month, I figured it might be nice to reproduce the questions here, and let you have a pop at them. Unsurprisingly, no Googling or other research is allowed.

I'm not sure how to work this so that whomever shows up first doesn't get all the glory, but I'll post the whole thing up this time round and consider whether it needs any fine-tuning for next time.

Edit: How about this. Anyone who wishes can leave answers in comments, and I'll provide answers and marks next week. Probably Tuesday, so that it's out of the way before I'm banished to Granada.

Round 1: Word Round.

Every answer to this round is two words, one of which is a colour (eg: Charlton Heston film set in 2022: Soylent Green).

1 An acute viral hemorrhagic disease, with symptoms including nausea and fever, which is spread by female mosquitoes, and originated in Africa but reached other areas due to the 16th Century slave trade. (Yellow fever)

2 An Irving Berlin-penned song first publicly performed in 1941, and which ultimately became the greatest selling single of all time. ("White Christmas")

3 A powerful and toxic defoliant used by US forces to deny cover to their enemies in the late 60s and early 70s. (Agent Orange)

4 The name given to the second lunar opposition to the sun occurring within the same calendar month. (Blue moon)

5 An American punk band probably known for their 1982 single, and who chose their name based on their belief that it represented the opposite of surrender. (Black Flag)

Round 2: Red

1 Which Texan fire-fighter specialised in dealing with oil-well fires, and achieved international notoriety in 1962 after tackling an one such fire in the Sahara nicknamed “The Devil’s Cigarette Lighter”? (Red Adaire)

2 The Suez canal connects the Gulf of Suez at the northernmost end of the Red Sea with which other body of water? (The Mediterranean)

3. Which was the first of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s four Sherlock Holmes novels? (A Study In Scarlet)

4 In which Caribbean country was Mick Hucknall, lead singer of Simply Red, attacked by an irate young fan, whom he unceremoniously pushed into an orchestra pit before leaving the stage? (Cuba)

5 What was the name and number of the British landing craft that the ESA intended to explore the surface of the Red Planet, only for all contact to be lost with the vehicle six days before it was due to reach the Martian atmosphere? (Beagle 2)

Round 3: Cars

1 In which decade was the first Model T Ford built? (1900's)

2 Which 1983 Steven King story, adapted into a film that same year, involves a supernaturally malevolent ’58 Plymouth Fury killing those who tormented its owner? (Christine)

3 Who in 1979 reached #1 in the UK charts with the song “Cars”, taken from the album “The Pleasure Principle”? (Gary Numan)

4 Who had abandoned a planned assassination attempt and was eating a sandwich in a Sarejevo cafe when he saw the car carrying his target stall just outside, allowing him to complete his mission by shooting his victim in the neck? (Gavrilo Princip)

5 For which 1992 film did Marissa Tomei win an Oscar for portraying a Brooklyn hairdresser whose intimate knowledge of cars saves to innocent men from the electric chair? (My Cousin Vinny)

Round 4: Song Synonyms (Each of these is a Michael Jackson song written as something between a collection of synonyms and a cryptic crossword puzzle. “Atrocious” = “Bad“)

1. Go second in chess, or first ("Black Or White")

2. Male goat, marker of inheritance ("Billy Jean")

3. Frictionless gangster ("Smooth Criminal")

4. Merely a further aspect of my person ("Just Another Part Of Me")

5. Shaking winter bird ("Rockin' Robin")

Round 5: Canada

1 Quebec, the largest Canadian province, was formerly part of the area known as New France before it was handed to the British following the treaty of Paris in 1763, which ended the 7 Years War. Which three European countries were the principal signatories to the treaty of Paris, along with Portugal, who abided by the treaty but did not sign? (England, France, Spain)

2 Canada’s land area stretches over more than 9 million square kilometres, excluding internal bodies of water, making it one of the largest countries in the world. Where exactly on the list does it lie, with Russia first, and the Vatican City last? (4th, behind Russia, China, and the USA)

3 The phrase “Hollywood North” has become a blanket term for the entire Canadian film industry, but what Canadian city was the term originally applied to? (Vancouver)

4 Which 30’s born Canadian Singer won a Juno award in 1993, commentating that only in Canada could a voice like his earn Vocalist of the Year? (Leonard Cohen)

5 Which game, which has is origins amongst the Native Americans of the United States and Canada, and particularly the Huron and Iroquois Tribes, has become one of Canada’s two national sports, alongside ice hockey? (Lacrosse)

Round 6: Dinosaurs

1 In which geological time period is it believed that most dinosaur species existed? (Cretaceous)

2 Which actor and director narrated the 1999 BBC series Walking With Dinosaurs? (Kenneth Brannagh)

3 To what purpose did Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins put a hollow life-size replica of an iguanodon in 1853? (He held a banquet inside)

4 Which Dickens novel allegedly features the first mention of a dinosaur in English literature in its third line, which reads: “As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill.”? ("Bleak House")

5 Which English football team has a mascot named Gunnersaurus Rex? (Arsenal)

General Knowledge

1 Whose gun did George use to kill Lennie in Of Mice And Men? (Carlson)

2 The Lipizzan or Lipizzaner horse breed takes its name from the Kras village of Lipica, which pronounced Lipizza in Italian, near which an early stud farm was located. In which modern-day European country does Lipica lie? (Slovenia)

3 Which celestial body is nicknamed the “Dog Star”, from which the phrase “dog days of the summer” is taken? (Sirius (A))

4 What chemical is mixed with hydrogen peroxide to make hair bleach? (Ammonia was indeed what I was looking for, though I am reliably informed this isn't/is no longer true)

5 Whose failure to chase the German fleet following the the Battle of Jutland was judged too timid to allow him to remain on active duty, despite former First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill praising his prudence, calling him “the only man on either side who could have lost the war in an afternoon.”? (Admiral Jellicoe)

6 Who fought Muhammad Ali in the “Rumble in the Jungle”? (George Foreman)

7 “The Butterfly That Stamped,” “How The Rhino Got Its Horn”, and “The Cat That Walked By Himself” are all stories from which Kipling collection? ("Just So Stories")

8 Which businessman, now often termed “The Sultan of Bling” referred to the products of his jewellery company as “total crap” in a 1991 speech at the Institute of Directors, which led to the company’s near-total collapse once the line was reported by the press? (Gerald Ratner)

9 In 1992 George H W Bush announced his desire to make American families a lot more like the Waltons and a lot less like who? (The Simpsons. Apparently Bart hit back in a TV advert not long after in which he said "We're just like the Waltons. We're waiting for the end of the depression too.")

10 Which musical features the songs “I Know Him So Well” and “One Night in Bangkok”? (Chess)