Monday, 31 May 2010

Your Dose Of Bank Holiday Awesome (Part 2)

Also, I'm flagging up this film blogger, because she's brilliant. In my head, this is what my writing should be when it grows up. It's an impossible dream, I know. Maybe my writing can just marry her writing instead. How about it, Lindy West's writing? My writing will sit quietly in the corner. You won't even know its there. It'll do the dishes, too. And the hoovering.

Which I guess makes my writing more of a thrall than a husband, but that's OK, because they know they love each other and even though all the other writings will whisper behind their metaphorical backs they just won't care. And one day they'll have lots of little baby writings, and they'll have your brevity and wit and my... well, dick jokes, I guess.

Maybe I should set my sights a bit lower, actually. I'm pretty sure Jan Moir's writing is still single.

Your Dose Of Bank Holiday Awesome (Part I)

So, what should I do with my bank holiday? I mean, I had planned on lying in bed groaning and sniffling, but now this has arrived:
I may have to seek out some top-quality wenching instead. Decisions, decisions.

Also, and I should say this more often, I love my friends.

SpaceSquid vs. The X-Men #32: In The Land of the Pawns...

Time travel makes my head hurt. Even that brief flashback to my last post on the subject is bringing on a migraine. So as far as Lucas Bishop, accidental fugitive from the late 21st century, is concerned, the deck is already very much stacked against him. So, today's question is whether or not he's worth all the temporal sturm and causal drang?

It would be fair to say Bishop’s story doesn’t start well. Certainly not biologically; he’s born and raised in a mutant internment camp. Not chronologically (from our perspective, that is - did I mention this stuff gives me a headache?) either; within days of his arrival in our time he gets to watch his two squad mates murdered. And not conceptually, by any means. A comic book as long-running as Uncanny X-Men is bound to have its share of disappointing eras, but I’m pretty sure Whilce Portacio’s era constitutes a global minimum. The most nadirific of nadirs. You might as well have been created by Baron Frankenstein as that guy for all the chance it gives you to be accepted by polite society.

Well, except it didn’t work out that way. I should provide a bit of context, as part of my ongoing lamentation for the death of subtlety and story-telling during an entire decade. Portacio started sticking his oar in plot-wise for UXM #281 (the exact division of labour between him and Jim Lee is something I‘ve never been entirely clear on), despite him not being anything so advanced as an actual writer, or anything. This was during that period of time in which comic artists within Marvel (and possibly elsewhere) were loudly proclaiming to anyone who would listen that they weren’t just simply a necessary condition for the existence of comics books, they were sufficient, too. All writers could do, they insisted, was fail to ruin their characters, and that was only if they were very lucky. So why not cut out the middle man and just have the artists write the damn things too?

Well, the answer to that is pretty clear in hindsight (and just why it wasn‘t clear at the time is something I don‘t understand): it’s because that way leads madness and Rob fucking Liefeld. Still, what is your most popular money spinning flagship title for if not for taking completely unnecessary risks to soothe the egos of prima donnas? Huh? ANSWER ME, MARVEL!

Portacio’s run, all of 8 issues, brought us truly gob-smacking amounts of uber-violence, the deaths of multiple supporting characters for cheap (very, very cheap) shock value, plot lines that managed to be both insultingly simplistic and thoroughly nonsensical (which is its own twisted kind of achievement, I guess, kind of like Nazi McGaybash from the other day), and Bishop. If Gambit, as I have argued, was the personification of the ‘90s obsession with attempting to reverse-engineer Wolverine’s success and bolt the results to an endlessly snowballing set of core mysteries never to be solved (and regarding that latter point, I‘m far from sure that it‘s a coincidence that the X-Office settled on that policy so soon after the colossal success of Twin Peaks, or that it accelerated after The X-Files showed up with a similar business model), then Bishop was the avatar of that decade's supreme, wilful, and almost contemptuous disregard for human life.

It always used to amuse me when people complained that they didn’t like the idea of comics because of all those massive-breasted women prancing around in open defiance of fashion, taste, and pretty much gravity. Not because that wasn’t true (though there’s an entire conversation to be had about the way both male and female capes sported “ideal” bodies and whether comics can be held up to blame for what that supposed ideal actually looks like), but because I figured the fact that such gratuitous T&A was going on was an entirely secondary concern to the fact that it was happening at the centre of a hurricane of decapitations, eviscerations, and massacres with three-figure body counts.

Bishop is by no means the character active in that era with the highest kill tally. Hell, I doubt he’s even the X-Man with the most murders to his name, one imagines that would still be Wolverine. What made him singularly problematical was that his taste for spontaneous judicial murder (now with added disregard for innocents caught in the crossfire, kids!) was pretty much all there was to him. I’m not saying there’s necessarily anything wrong with a character with a one line pitch, but a) “He‘s an X-Man who‘s happy to kill!” isn’t anything like a good example, and b) your pitch is supposed to be a condensed starting point, not the character description in its entirety.

One of my big problems with The Sarah Connor Chronicles was always that what I saw as its core concept - that war usually turns people into machines, even when machines is what you’re fighting - was an intellectually interesting one, but not something you can sustain for more than a little while. Just because you understand why all the main characters were emotionally repressed zombies doesn’t mean you’ll feel for them because of it.

The same should have been true of Bishop. More true, even, in part because the Marvel Universe’s insistence that heroes never kill meant lacked the moral grey areas TSSC spent most of its life in, but mainly because Bishop was already the dead-eyed soulless killer John Connor was so frightened he would become. There was simply no there there, in fact “there’s no there” was the characters entire point, and what good is that to anyone?

Except people ate it up. It’s impossible to believe it now, but for a brief while Bishop’s popularity was absolutely staggering. This probably says more about comic fans than I’d like, to be honest. Actually, perhaps it would be fairer to say it says more about humanity in general than I’m happy about. After all, I‘ve talked before about how injecting an insubordinate, mysterious, trigger-happy curmudgeon is a fairly standard trick to increase one’s popularity without, y‘know, working for it in any way (see Seven of Nine, Ronon Dex, et al).

Certainly, Bishop had the mystery angle working for him: his history - our future - was one of the major concerns of the time. For Bishop, the X-Men were legends, champions of puppies and Christmas for years before they were slaughtered by an unidentified traitor in their ranks. For whatever reason, probably on the word of his “Grandmother”, Bishop was convinced that the hideous world he had grown up in - where mutants were branded and kept in concentration camps before the Summers Rebellion, and left to rot afterwards, and where hordes of vampiric “Emplates” terrorised the streets (ultimately killing Bishop’s sister Shard) - could have been averted if only the X-Men had survived for a little while longer. Whether or not that would prove to be true might be an interesting plot line, but these things being what they are, we were dragged instead down the Endless Mystery Spiral, with just enough time out for Bishop to repeatedly blame Gambit for it all. And if you don’t think watching two superheroes from the “Who needs characterisation when you have attitude” stable repeatedly engage in extended bouts of dick-fencing sounds like your idea of good times then, well, Rob Liefeld probably thinks you’re gay, but everyone else thinks you have a point.

Like I said. Not so much for Bishop with the good beginnings. Oddly though, after a few years, something genuinely interesting did start happening, despite the general bloodthirsty excess of the time. You can think of it as the inverse to the crisis at the heart of TSSC: what happens when the deliberately distant, emotionless killer starts to realise he’s giving a shit about the people around him? It’s not even remotely original, of course, indeed yet again we can draw a straight line right back to Wolverine, but it was at least something. And in Bishop’s defence, there is one important difference. Wolverine has the advantage of wanting to protect the X-Men because many of them are his friends. One or two of them, he considers family. There’s no struggle in that, for all of Wolverine’s anguish over so much else.

Bishop, though, is protecting the X-Men not because he cares about them (though despite himself he does, as we'll get to), but because he’s trying to rebuild the time stream from the ground up. He’ll keep you alive for exactly as long as he thinks you’ll help save the world. His world. If you deviate from that, he’s going to drop you in exactly as much time as it takes to draw his pistol. Any one of them could be the traitor, or do something else to risk locking our world into its temporal collision course with his own. In this, at least, Bishop resembles less Wolverine and more Professor Xavier, desperately trying - and inevitably failing - to maintain emotional distance from a group of people he may one day have to blow to pieces. The weight of an entire world is on his shoulders.

It is then both entirely fitting and impressively ironic that he should be so integral to the events of the Age of Apocalypse. For the uninitiated (and shame on you, because AoA is by some distance the best X-Men crossover of the '90s, and probably far beyond), Professor Xavier’s mentally unbalanced son David goes back in time to kill Magneto, and thus allow his father to preach his dream of human/mutant harmony unimpeded. Instead, he manages to kill Xavier himself, awakening Apocalypse decades early in the process, and generally fucks up the time line to a truly epic extent.

This is important for two reasons. Firstly, Bishop is one of the four X-Men sent back through time after Legion, only to fail to stop him. Thus, even before he’s had the chance to take a crack at the X-Traitor, he’s already demonstrated that he may well not have the time-travelling chops necessary to be of use to anyone. Hardly the best news, in this reality or any other.

Secondly, Bishop’s status as one of the “chronally displaced” means that whilst the rest of the planet is reset by David’s snafu, Bishop stays right where he is, decades in our past (which rather begs the question: what exactly happened to Cable?), with his memories of the “real world” buried deep inside his skull. It is he who persuades Magneto to risk his own life, those of his X-Men, and the world in general, in a desperate attempt to reset the time line to its original specifications.

The gambit (no pun intended) works, and normal service is resumed. Bishop more or less forgets everything that happened, but his memories of the horror remain in his brain, buried haphazardly under a thin topsoil of causality in a shallow grave that his subconscious keeps trying to uncover. He can’t quite reach them - at least, not to begin with - but they’re certainly there, reminding him on some level the stakes he’s playing for. The risks of altering the time-line remind him of the risks of leaving it alone, no matter who he might have to bump off in the process.

This is why one of Scott Lobdell’s best ideas was to frequently team up Gambit and Bishop: it forced Bishop to confront the paradox. To befriend the man he was entirely willing, and probably actively planning to kill. At first begrudgingly, and then almost happily, Bishop forged, if not a friendship exactly, a solid working relationship with LeBeau. Following Sinister’s discovery and excavation of Bishop’s repressed memories, it's to Gambit that Bishop admits being almost happy to learn he is not going insane (and there’s another nice little slice of irony, I think, the villain many people had pegged as being the most likely reason for Gambit turning traitor is actually the one to indirectly strengthen the bond between Remy and Bishop). And this is, though Bishop presumably doesn’t know this, on the very night the X-Traitor is finally revealed into the bargain. It’s kind of fitting that Bishop and Gambit bury the hatchet just a few hours before the latter is vindicated, and the former succeeds in saving the X-Men by facing off against Onslaught/Professor X.

Of course, the fact that Bishop succeeds in reaching the point where he can embrace the paradox that has been trailing around him for so long only makes what takes place following M-Day all the more tragic. It also makes everything that happens between those two points all the more frustrating. With the X-Traitor storyline resolved, Bishop loses his USP, especially since by this point the ’90s are finally starting to move beyond their obsession with absolutely, positively having to kill every mother-fucker in the room, and that basically makes Bishop a more pragmatic version of pretty much everyone else. In the following years, attempts were made to refashion Bishop as an interstellar adventurer (which entirely failed) and a hard-nosed cop (which didn’t work as far as I could see, though I lost interest after Chris Claremont got his hands on him in X-Treme X-Men). It wasn’t until the world lost all but the smallest fraction of its mutants that Bishop’s became truly interesting again. It was then that his status as a refugee from the future would once again become important (and no, The Twelve doesn’t count, even though I seem to be rather less unhappy with it than most). Everyone else wanted to know why Bishop hadn’t seen this coming, and Bishop himself - who most certainly had seen it coming - wanted to know what the Hell he was going to do about it.

Bishop, as people often forget, never actually chose to come to our time, he simply chased a bunch of dangerous criminals through a time gate that proved to be a one-way only kind of deal. If he had made the journey deliberately, though, we now know that he would have had two major goals. Keep the X-Men alive, and ensure Hope, the first mutant to be born after M-Day, ends up really, really killed. The fact that every other X-Man - the people Bishop has stood beside for years, who he has watched fight and on occasion die for a dream he shares - cannot be allowed to matter.

I don’t know how many people were upset when Bishop started carving his way through his former allies. It’s been a while since the X-books bothered with letter pages, and I don’t have any other connections to public opinion in general on these matters. What I can state with utter certainty however is that anyone who did object to it on the grounds that it was out of character was a jive sucker (what? I’m branching out!). This shit was so in character it hurts. It’s always much harder to believably turn a hero into a villain than it is to go the other way, or at least it is in comics. Havok as leader of the Brotherhood? Do me a favour.

With Bishop, though, it totally works, because he was always playing for bigger stakes. You know that old moral question about whether or not you’d want to go back in time and kill Hitler as a baby? That’s the entirety of Bishop’s life. Everything is a calculation about what needs to be changed to save the world. That’s why he went off the reservation during the civil war; he has loyalties that run far deeper than the X-Men. In fact, and this is another nice touch (or would be if I didn’t suspect it was entirely coincidental), loyalties that run deeper than this mostly new iteration of X-Men that never existed in the legends of Bishop’s time because Bishop himself is responsible for their existence. Bishop is willing to kill the X-Men who are actually alive - alive because of Bishop - because they can’t compete with his own extrapolation of the dream embodied by the X-Men who were dead before he arrived. How’s that for a kick-ass time paradox, Chris Chibnall?

(Ah, Chris Chibnall. You worthless hack.)

So, Messiah Complex treated us to the sight of Bishop attacking or even trying to kill his teammates. The ongoing Cable series has taken that to a whole new level. By this point, Bishop is tracking the new mutant (now named Hope) through time, and Cable with her, determined to finish her off. Clearly by this point Bishop is most certainly deep into unhinged villain territory, but crucially it still makes total sense from his perspective. What’s changed isn’t Bishop, really, it’s the way in which the world has presented itself to the person Bishop was all along. Cable, in this sense, offers the final piece of the puzzle. As we watch Bishop exterminating damn near the entirety of humanity in the centuries that follow our own, we discover not that Bishop has completely lost his mind, but that Bishop’s most serious flaw was always, and I mean always, that he was arrogant enough to believe that he could make the call over what was the right thing to do. He was like that back in the mutant concentration camp of his childhood, he was like that when he and Shard were on the streets together (note how much trouble he has dealing with her once she returns as a hologram with her own ideas on how things are supposed to be), he was most certainly like that when he first met the X-Men. This is just it taken to a horrifying degree. Bishop is so sure that the death of Hope will rewrite everything that he’s willing to kill billions - maybe tens of billions, considering our rate of population growth right now - on the theory that he’s right. Not even that, in fact. He’s doing it on the theory that he’s right and that he can't possibly fail.

At that point, you can stop drawing a line to Wolverine, and aim for Shakespeare instead. I’m not even slightly kidding. I haven’t gotten to the end of Cable’s run yet, so I don’t know how it all ends. One assumes it will go badly for Bishop (Second Coming alone proves that it can’t have gone too well for him, certainly, not to mention the last time I saw him he had a Brood stuck in his neck). He’s already an arm and an eye down, after all (his obsession is making him lose the parts that make him who he is DO YOU SEE YOU GUYS?). I have to confess to hoping he makes it through, though. Right now, he’s more interesting than he’s ever been, and in a way that makes absolute sense to the total non-character he started as almost two decades ago.

In fact, you could spin that out for a quite a while. Set him up as the guy who’ll take your side or not, based on the future only he knows, and will only trust himself to shape. An uncontrollable wild card who will save the day whenever it suits him. In other words, what everyone thought they were getting with Gambit all those years ago. It would be logical place to take the character, and sooner or later, when our world finally catches up with his, it might finally give him some peace. His current mad obsession, notwithstanding, I think I’d like to see that.

Course, it might be a bit harder now he’s killed the entire fucking world. But whoever said fiction was easy?

Next time on SS v X, we discuss the X-Man everyone had forgotten even existed, and discover why that was the best way for everyone to go in any case.

Sunday, 30 May 2010


It would not be possible for me to claim in good conscience that I enjoy Eurovision. My love of kitsch only extends so far, after all. On the other hand, it is a perfect two-hour encapsulation of our continent's glorious insanity. It's like a high-budget Eurotrash special, only without the tits. Just last night I got to see three women turn into butterflies, a robot stripping, and a half dozen Armenians worshipping a giant apricot stone. I doubt that this is what taking acid is actually like, but it's the best conception of it I can manage absent experience.

Almost as much fun as watching the madness unfold is the attempt to predict the eventual winner. This time, for once, I actually managed it. Turns out there's a system. Ignore the quality of the song, or the stage show, or even the technical ability of the singer, and just go for the sheer flat-out enthusiasm on display. In those terms, Lena was the clear winner. Sure, to our untrained eyes it looks like the vat-grown love child of Sarah Silverman and Fairuza Balk is singing in a cockney accent via Canberra. But the Eurovision aficionado understands better. To them, all that matters is that she did it in the style of a woman desperately stoned and who's just had the best sex of her life. And that, my friends, is Europe.

Saturday, 29 May 2010

Big Gay Al Says...

At long last, it looks like DADT might finally be going the way of the dinosaur, the dodo and the death of homosexuals by public stoning.

Of course, just as it was with the Civil Rights Movement, there is absolutely nothing like the threat of social progress to inspire the other side to quite simply go out of their fucking minds with hatred and bile. I once spoke to a man who grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, who had watched one of Dr King's marches. He told me that he thought the worst part of it all was what occurred in the minds of him and his fellow whites; the degree of unreasoning, senseless, burning hatred they were forced to bring out of themselves in order to escape having to recognise that the people marching past them were entirely in the right. I guess it's a pretty simple psychological cantrip, actually. You can't let things change, you know that things as they stand are spectacularly unfair for a given group of people, so the only thing your brain can do is conclude those people don't deserve fairness in the first place. Aside from the desire to screw the prettiest person within range, there's probably no more fundamental aspects of human nature than to conclude you deserve more than what is fair. It's no wonder we all hate each other.

DADT is not the same creature as segregation, of course. Or at least, I don't think it is; I'm pretty sure a straight white guy doesn't really get to make that call. My spectacularly uniformed guess, though, is that this is something less of a Big Hairy Deal for gay people than desegregated restaurants, buses and schools were for black people. On the other hand, the potentially comparative unimportance of the issue makes it all the harder to understand what the right is going so crazy over. I can find it in my heart to feel some small, cold sympathy for those people who simply went mad with terror fifty years ago. I don't have to agree with their position, or their desires, to understand that some of them were simply too scared to do the right thing. Another one of our defining racial characteristics. Changing the rules of society on a fundamental level, flushing its system of the poison of Jim Crow and Bull Connor, was unquestionably right, but it was also hard. According to the story, Johnson's first words after signing the Civil Rights Act was an aside to an aide: "We have lost the South for a generation." Which, y'know, was true (and optimistic), but as is so often the case with these things, I suspect the true cost was born out of sight. Not wrong. Never wrong. But hard, sometimes. We do ourselves no favours by pretending otherwise.

With DADT, though, I just don't see the there there. I literally cannot see how it can be a crisis to allow openly gay people to serve. I don't get how these people can believe that US servicemen and women are the best trained, most highly disciplined soldiers in the world, but if they met one of them hoe-moe-secksuwls they'd freak right the fuck out. Whether it's that extra level of "How can this possibly be a problem", or the lunatic right's constant insistence that an alternate wiring of one's sexual preferences is the mark of the Beast and that we're exactly one Sex and the City convention away from the destruction of the mortal realm, the entirely modest proposal to let the Pentagon choose to repeal DADT rather than Congress has led to an explosion of idiocy and bigotry from American conservatives that is amazing even by their standards. A lot of it isn't even enraging anymore, at least not to me - and again, I get that this isn't something I should feel comfortable making rulings on - it's just too ridiculous for me to get particularly annoyed.

I mean, how can you react with anything more than a resigned sigh when Rep. Gohmert insists that repealing DADT will compel service people to state their sexuality (you know, the same way Rosa Parks led to black people being compelled to ride at the front of buses) even whilst under fire? How can you muster up anything beyond dumbfounded bafflement when the Family Research Council argues that DADT is the only thing holding back a wave of unsolicited head being performed upon sleeping soldiers? Which no-one will dare report for fear of being labelled a bigot (and note the argument being sneaked in here; unfounded accusations of bigotry are more concerning than bigotry itself, and thus the only thing to do is to prevent such accusations being possible by enshrining the bigotry in law)?

Besides, you've got to go the extra mile these days if you want to win the "Most Offensive Statement Made To Justify One's Own Bigotry" belt. 'Cos you ain't gonna top the ludicrous claim made by Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association (and why does it never occur to these people that homosexuals tend to be a part of a family too?) that Hitler hired gays as his enforcers because they were way more OK about murdering innocent people; not unless you work for it. I'm talking hours standing motionless on rowboat bows. Running up mountains carrying sacks of rocks. Bare-fist punching stone slabs emblazoned with pictures of Elton John's civil ceremony. Because that guy? He's got game.

It's almost a work of art, in some ways. It's like he got bored of being just aggravatingly bigoted, headed into the kind of cloud-cuckoo bigotry it's impossible to take seriously, and come out the other side, frothing from the mouth and randomly firing off insulting analogies at the clouds and wildlife. I'm not even sure it should bother me at all; it's just too surreal. It's like a watchmaker getting pissed about The Persistence of Memory. I mean, I have no idea if there were any gay Nazis or not, but I'm pretty damn sure that the problem with them wouldn't have been the first hald of the description. If I get stranded on a desert island and my only two options for physical intimacy are a gay man and a female Nazi, then I guess the graffiti in my secondary school toilets will at last be vindicated. It's just the complete opposite of logic across the board, but as a case study for how much one can hate and how little one can reason in order to stop people being fairly treated, it's a winner. So congratulations, Mr Fischer, for demonstrating that no matter how ludicrous and hyperbolic your position is, you can still stuff it full of enough hatred that you can't be laughed off. It's a useful piece of information to have; now kindly fuck the fuck off.

Like I said, it's truly extraordinary what the human mind can convince itself of when the alternative is accepting the damage their positions cause. It's also more than a little frightening. The good news is that it might not matter this time. "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice", and so forth. I'm far more optimistic about this working out than I was about health care (in fact, by the time you read this it might already be game over). All the same, it can kind of unsettling watching this stuff in real time.

Friday, 28 May 2010

Friday Metal: Dream Evil

My head is still somewhat mushed followed last night's Weird Wine, Symphonic Metal and Disney A Capella Karaoke Party, courtesy of Big Head. Our main conclusions: raisin and black beer wine is my favourite drink since I discovered Bombay Sapphire, and my/Chuck's new creation of a mead/ginger wine cocktail - inevitably named "The Minger" - will doubtless make us both rich beyond our wildest dreams.

Regardless, I haven't anything like the necessary RAM to write anything particularly cogent this evening. Instead, I present to you the very opposite of cogency, courtesy of Big Head's encyclopedic knowledge of duff metal songs. Remember kids, these people are immortal. Forever. They just can't die.

Imagine listening to this on repeat for six hours whilst drinking endless combinations of advocaat, whiskey, mead and three types of ridiculous wine and trying to remember the second verse to "Under The Sea", and you'll have some idea of how last night went. Which is to say entirely goddamn awesomely.

Thursday, 27 May 2010

Getting Lost

I finished watching the Lost finale this morning, and unsurprisingly, I have some thoughts on it. Equally unsurprisingly, those thoughts are fairly spectacularly spoilerific, so avoid the paragraphs below like the plague if you haven't seen the final episode yet. Also, a lot of what I want to say involves comparison with the conclusion to Battlestar Galactica, so there's another reason the spoilerphobic might want to steer clear.




Before we start discussing Lost, let's remind ourselves of exactly why the BSG finale was so thoroughly objectionable. I mean, it was imperfect and disappointing in a number of ways, and there's still no getting around the fact that it turned out we'd waited four and a half years to watch Ronald D. Moore present us with a recycled Douglas Adams idea absent its sense of sad, fuzzy humour. But what rankled most was watching a show that had spent so much time presenting the struggle between religion and atheism as being something that couldn't be answered - Hell, maybe even shouldn't be answered - and simply told us "One-nil to the theists". It was atrocious story telling on its own terms, no doubt, as surely as if Starbuck had turned out to be an alien or Deckhand #2 the Number 7 Cylon, but it also managed to take every one of the comments made on the subject of religion over eighty-odd episodes and make them either right or wrong. In other words, "Daybreak" didn't just fail as an ending, it came close to breaking BSG as a series.

Whatever my problems with "The End", which we shall most certainly get to, it didn't break the series, and here's why. Despite there being complaints across the intertubes right now regarding the sudden explicit arrival of the concept of an afterlife, the question of religion was never a major part of the show. Or at least, not in the way it was for BSG. Lost did indeed spend a lot of time considering the question of science vs faith (not exactly the same thing as theism vs atheism, but the Venn diagram of the two arguments has an intersection big enough to fly the Pegasus through), but the closest genre comparison isn't with BSG, it's with the X-Files. Jack and Locke weren't Adama and Roslin, they were Scully and Mulder.

One of the most common complaints about the X-Files as a series was that there really should have come a point at which Scully just started shutting the fuck up. Mulder himself made the point in Season 6's "Field Trip":
No, seriously, I mean, every time I bring you a new case, we go through this perfunctory dance. You tell me I'm not being scientifically rigorous and that I'm off my nut, and in the end, who turns out to be right like 98.9 percent of the time?
It's by no means an unreasonable point, of course, but it's not entirely fair, either, for two reasons. Firstly, as Scully herself argued more than once, if she just immediately defers to Mulder's hunches every time he has one, then she's no longer any good to him. Secondly, and this is critical, Mulder is wrong almost as often as Scully is. Sure, he (almost) always gets it right in the end, but it was pretty common for him to work his way through a few hypotheses before he hit pay-dirt, it was simply that all of them were crazy.

Jack and Locke have a similar dynamic. We know Jack is being stubborn and irritating each time he insists that there's no bigger picture to the island. That isn't the point. The point is that whilst Locke is right that the picture exists, he constantly misunderstands what it actually is, and causes an awful lot of collateral damage as he thrashes around for the answer (see "Boone, death of"). Both of them are zeroing in on the answer and, just as it was with Scully, Jack only really makes headway once his sparring partner is taken away. Jack finally admits Locke was right all along, only for the creature that's wearing Locke's face to immediately disagree. It's just not that clear-cut.

Simply put, BSG had its principal characters stake out a position that, almost without exception, they never changed, and ultimately revealed which ones were right. Lost had its principal characters embark on a journey, both rational and spiritual, and ultimately revealed where their destination actually was. This, needless to say, makes all the difference in the world.

This means that the spiritual aspect to "The End" couldn't do anything like the same level of damage as did the (vaguely) similar concepts in "Daybreak". At worst, I concede that they might have caused some problems for a re-watch of Season 6. I can't be sure yet, but I'd be surprised if the side-flashes aren't of far less interest once you know everyone involved is actually already dead and in the afterlife. On the other hand, it seems fairly clear that they took place in something equivalent to purgatory (I don't agree with those people who found it all explicitly Christian, the stain-glass windows in the "church" alone disprove that theory), and so I'm darkly amused by the fact that after six years of everyone assuming the Island itself was purgatory, it turns out the writers' had included it somewhere else.

So whilst I can agree with everyone who felt the sideways flashes turned out to be disappointingly uninspired, it's hard to view them as anything even approaching calamitous. Of course, that's only one of what seems to be the three main objections to the Lost finale. The second is that the MIB/Losties showdown was a pretty poor return for the last six years, that a show so endlessly - some would say ridiculously - convoluted should have done better than to ditch the vast majority of its swirling mass of story threads in order to reduce the entirety of the show to Protect the Magic Plug Hole. That makes a lot of sense to me, in fact it's the main source of what disappointment I had in the finale.

Actually, though, the finale was never the problem. I remember loudly condemning "Daybreak" in a Cornish pub last year, which led to Tomsk asking me what I would do to fix it. But that's not the right question. Conditional on every episode up to "Daybreak", there's very little that can be done. The rot had already set in; the point at which one could introduce a new alien race/branch of humanity/robot army/Act of God long since passed (I reckon it might just have been possible to do something along those lines immediately after finding the first Earth).

If anything, this is even more true of Lost, which seemed to have an almost ADHD-like approach to what counted as important. Remember when the whispers in the jungle were a big deal? Or when the show was fixated on the Others' obsession with kidnapping children? The constant questions over why the island could travel through time? Where Desmond's time-travelling fit in? The endless, endless shit with the numbers? It's by no means unusual for a show to shift its focus as time passes - BSG itself is a good example of that fact - but generally speaking such shows at least make an effort to wrap something up before heading on [1]. Lost never seemed to bother. It was frustrating at the time, but more than that, it became clear that the show was accumulating questions to the extent where nothing short of episode-long info-dumps was possibly going to sort everything out. The lack of such major-league exposithons by, ooh, halfway through the last season at the absolute latest pretty much confirmed truth seekers were in for something of a heart breaking, even had the writers themselves not already partially confessed to not wanting to hand out too many details. Those of us with sense spent the remaining time coming to peace with that fact, or at least trying to.

This, though, is where I hold my hands up and confess that I am biased by my lack of bias. Part of the reason the BSG finale made me so willing to kill all humans in manners that would make the most ardent meat-hating Centurion feel a wave of robo-nausea and have to lie down was because I had become so invested in the series that to watch it collapse in on itself in its final minutes was a tremendously harrowing experience. Lost, on the other hand, I have enjoyed watching since the start, but at no point could I be considered especially invested. Ironically, it is perhaps that same comparative dearth of interest which has saved the show in my mind. I'm pretty angry that Sayed, Jin and Sun all died within metres of the finish line, for instance [2], but if they'd pissed away, say, Helo and Lee just before "Daybreak" I'd have been close to inconsolable. People across the world are currently posting up lists of questions Lost failed to answer (and in fairness to the show, I'd say only around one in four of them is simultaneously particularly important and not easy to extrapolate answers to from what Season 6 gave us) - this is of course the third reason people are up in arms right now - and a lot of them of them are about scenes I had completely forgotten about. About the only mystery I felt genuinely aggrieved about not being resolved was over actually did happen when Juliet set off the nuke at the end of last season, partly because it was a season finale cliffhanger and you don't get to ignore those, and partly because it wasn't until a few minutes before "The End", er, ended that I realised the question was as unanswered as it was. Everything I said in January about the Lost writers themselves implying these questions could and would be answered remains true, I've just come to realise that the point at which I personally cared came and went some time ago.

Is that what I'm saying? Bad writing on Lost got me to the point where I stopped caring about bad writing on Lost? Maybe. Certainly, even more so than BSG, Lost has made me leery of TV shows that rely on overarching mysteries (the lack of any real characterisation was not the only reason I gave up on Flash Forward). In the end, though, I cannot deny that the writers took what they always said they were focusing on to its logical conclusion. "Across The Sea" proved that. You can't couch your explanation of the origins of the island's guardian/nemesis pairing as being about familial betrayal without it being a conscious stylistic choice to release exposition only through the mirror of characterisation (I'm not saying Lost has always succeeded in that, but it's clear it was trying). The significant mis-step of killing Sayed and the Kwons aside, the show managed pretty well at bringing conclusions and purpose to each of the characters, and that's worthy of praise. The show was never just about the island, so much as it was about what the island gave to the people on it, and how they dealt with that (oftentimes brutal gift). It wasn't just Jack and Locke who had a destination just over the horizon, it was all of them. Why do you think they all chose the church (save Michael, still too bitter and angry and alone to realise that the island was the only reason he had a son and not a stranger he was responsible for clothing)? A church like the one they actually started literally building on the island, before the show had to say goodbye to Mr Eko.

They all started the journey together, and because time doesn't matter (just ask Desmond, or Jacob, or the island itself), not really, they finished it together as well. And so did we. If one side of the coin is that that truth can't necessarily make the show complete without all those answers, the other must be that those lack of answers can't really make the show absent of all conclusion, either.

Or, just to leave behind rationality for a moment and indulge a flight of right-brain fancy, don't think of it as a coin. Think of it as two pebbles; one white, one black. Adam and Eve. Science and faith. Chaos and order. Bitterness and acceptance. Whether or not you are moving on.

So, y'know, maybe there's only really one question we haven't gotten an answer to yet: what you gonna do?

[1] Though that has its own risks, one of the few things I dislike about The West Wing under Sorkin was how long-running plot lines would be wrapped up within a few minutes of comparatively banal political wrangling. The risk of Leo being forced from his position over allegations of drug abuse hung over a third or more of the first season, only to be resolved by the President agreeing not to release a report on the value of teaching abstinence only in schools. High drama, that ain't.

[2] Seriously, what the fuck was that about? What possible purpose was served by three characters we've been watching for the last six years to die like that? One more "tortured Sawyer" scene? A few less character's lines to write for the finale? Or did they hope that the viewer would find their deaths affecting rather than unforgivably, appallingly cheap? This is basic story line mathematics, people; Jack's final sight in this world of the plane passing overhead would have been exponentially more powerful if it had contained six of our original heroes instead of three. If Jack had saved seven, rather than four. If Kate and Sun had gotten what they returned to the island for and left intact.

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

The Things You Find On The Interwebs

Was Labyrinth's Sir Didymus a perpetrator of dog slavery?

I have to say, I find it impossible to believe that any kind of canine hierarchy would place an Old English Sheepdog below anything so workaday as a terrier. But then I guess that's what fantasy films are for, to present us with scenarios that bear no resemblance to anything approaching reality...

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Good Things Come In Threes

Have just secured myself an extra five months funding, with a pay rise to boot. Hooray! Now all I have to do is teach a lecture course on a subject about which I know nothing!

To celebrate this rare moment of good fortune, I'm off tonight to see my second favourite band in the universe. So let's have us some videos. The first is for "Private Eye", the second Alkaline Trio song I ever heard, and the exact moment at which I fell in love. Sometimes bands grow on you, and some just gut-punch you in the best way possible.

Also submitted for your approval is their latest video, for the song "This Addiction". I'm offering it partly as a compare and contrast (clearly the coffers are a little less barren than once they were), and partly because it reminds me of The Tribe, that somewhat bonkers but occasionally brilliant New Zealand show from the turn of the millennium, which managed to be a typically ludicrous teenage soap opera melodrama and a neat look at a common childhood fantasy (i.e. no more adults) at the same time. It was the guiltiest of my guilty pleasures, but I still remember it fondly, in that way we all do with experiences too far in the past to clearly recall their faults anymore.

Monday, 24 May 2010

Deep Thought (Silver Screen Edition)

It's a strange world in which films rigidly following real-life events are actually far less predictable than those entirely birthed from people's imaginations.

Time Is Not On Our Side

(Note: this started out as my SS v X article on Lucas Bishop - which will still hopefully materialise before the month is out - but in the end I managed to generate so much on the topic of time travel itself that I decided it was probably worth its own post.)

Time travel makes my head hurt. I think it makes an awful lot of people’s heads hurt. It’s frequently confusing, for one thing, because there are at least a half dozen fundamentally different ways to approach it and it’s frequently not clear which one has been chosen. It also has the dubious honour of being second only to virtual reality on the list of sci-fi concepts you can employ to rob your entire story of any dramatic consequences whatsoever and still be able to pretend you're not cheating.

As much as I like a good paradox, there’s something inherently frustrating about a time travel story. It’s like only half of you can be absorbed in it, because the other half is running simulations in some dark corner of your brain, trying to work out all the different ways the writer might be preparing to shaft you. Again, it’s just like the virtual reality/Matrix plot line. You spend every second of the last few minutes waiting for someone to discover they’re still inside. As much as I love T2, for example, I can sympathise entirely with anyone not on board with the idea that Skynet was actually created by its own creations, even before the eleventh hour twist that Skynet could also be prevented from being built by one of its own creations destroying itself. I don’t mean to imply the idea ruins T2, so much as I’m marvelling that the idea is in there and yet Cameron manages to make the film work. Plus, of course, not everyone who reaches for the Grandfather Paradox is James Cameron.

Beware the obligatory twist ending, in other words; that bane of late 90s and early 21st century horror films (at least). There’s nothing worse than a writer trying to be clever through the application of the most hackneyed device imaginable. Add it all up, and dealing with time travel is frequently exhausting. It might well not be coincidence that when the Star Trek franchise - arguably the most scurrilous of offenders in this regard - introduced us to those people within Starfleet whose job it was to keep track of all those temporal anomalies and errant era-hoppers they were portrayed either as dead-eyed bureaucratic misery-guts (Dulmer and Lucsly from the Department of Temporal Investigations) or ticking time bombs of goggle-eyed insanity (the captain of the USS Relativity). Of course, whilst that was a nice touch (the DTI especially just felt entirely right), it hardly makes up for getting us to that point in the first place. On the other end of the scale, Chris Carter swore he would never go anywhere near time-travel in the X-Files, apparently because he had similar concerns, and tellingly the one time he broke that promise, the episode in question was total shit.

Actually, the problem there wasn’t so much that time travel stories are inherently bad (which clearly isn‘t true, as proved by everything from the aforementioned T2 to Back to the Future to George R R Martin's Unsound Variations), so much as you need to be damned careful when you bolt them on to something else. If your viewers have spent the last 3 years watching Miles O’Brien keep DS9 together with spit and baling wire, they’re not necessarily going to be giddy with delight when he gets his ass entirely killed, irrespective of the fact that he’s immediately replaced with a time-displaced alternative. I mean, I’m not claiming to be Aristotle or anything, but a main character’s death is supposed to be a Big Fucking Deal, dramatically speaking. The vagaries of schedules and actor performance and ratings aside, I’d think the only reason you’d want to do it is because of said Big Fucking Deal-ness. The absolute last thing you ever want is for you to butcher a main character and have the audience shrug, so why the Hell would you do it yourself? [1]

With comics, this problem is very much compounded, because of the unique way in which they operate. Firstl, you have all the editorial mandates, either to satisfy the hundreds (thousands? Tens of thousands?) of fans clamouring for an immediate return to the comic era they personally believe represented the zenith of the era and who won‘t stop screaming until they get what they want [2], or as some kind of ridiculous attempt to shake up what they see as moribund and outdated back story (such as when Dark Beast and the Sugar Man were suddenly responsible for the Morlocks and Genosha, respectively, concepts introduced decades before those characters' were dreamt up). Then you have the exact opposite problem to such heavy-handed editorial dominance: dozens of different writers all playing in the same sandbox and trying not to step on each other’s toes, a difficult enough task when you only have the present to mess around with, bring in the fourth dimension and everyone can end up pretty screwed.

In fact, Marvel at one point dreamt up specific rules for its writers on the subject of time travel. Essentially, they stated that every act of time travel created a new dimension, meaning that whatever the time-traveller did in that dimension wasn’t technically relevant, because it wasn’t the same one as they had left. Needless to say, this is completely unworkable from the very moment one’s characters attempt to find their way home. Is that a new dimension, too? Is the new dimension we’re now reading about in X-Men the same as the one we just visited in Fantastic Four? It had the advantage of not enslaving the entire Marvel universe to the events portrayed in, say, Days Of Future Past or Askani’Son, but it was no less unworkable an idea in the long or even medium term.

That's the list of symptoms, then: lazy and hackneyed resolutions, developments that are catastrophically unsatisfying, the enabling of evil manipulations by dark lords in their darker towers, and pretty much fundamental chaos across the entirety of your fictional world of choice. So what's the treatment? Well, at best, you might be able to come up with better rules; ones that state whether or not the past can or can't be changed, and whether or not the future is fixed, but at that point you run the risk of making time travel boring, which is arguably even worse than frustrating. Besides, bending as many rules as possible is pretty much exactly what writers are designed to do. You want to test out whether a structure of laws is sound? You give it to a child, to an academic, or to a writer.

In truth, though, I'm not sure there is a solution beyond abstinence. The Marvel instruction guide I mentioned above was pretty clear: if you can't understand how these rules work, you have no business writing a time travel story. Well, amen to that. You could extend the idea to suggest that if you can't understand how the rules of storytelling still apply when time-travel is involved, then you shouldn't be allowed near a keyboarfd, but then "Hire better writers" is even more pointless of a recommendation than the one I'm already offering. Which is already pretty pointless. There's no way of getting around the fact that a total ban would have denied us both Days of Future Past and the Age of Apocalypse, and you'd have to be almost indescribably idiotic to suggest such a thing.

It's just... can we keep the noise down a little, please? Less is more, after all. And considering the first clue that a time-travel story is going to go off the rails is almost always too much having happened for the reset button to not need pressing, it would most definitely appear that more is less.

[1] Never knowingly outdone in the shitty storyline stakes, Voyager of course took this one stage further by killing Harry Kim and replacing him with a duplicate from another universe. Using my inestimable power of maths, I can state with utter certainty that this idea is at least ten million times worse. At least the ur-Chief was almost identical to the original - something like fifteen minutes younger or older, or something. Kim was from another freaking dimension. The dialogue for his induction scene on “our” Voyager had to specifically assure us that he was entirely identical, and it’s incomprehensible to me that when Braga was writing that scene it didn’t occur to him that if you’re having to literally tell your audience that the death of a main character has changed absolutely nothing, that you’ve got no fucking business involving yourself in the fiction biz.

[2] I guess it‘s a lot like feeding chicks, except you get paid for the privilege and also you fuck up Spiderman like a total dick. Also, was there anyone clamouring for the new status quo One More Day offered up?

Thursday, 20 May 2010

Honestly Wrong

Rand Paul's victory in the Republican Primary for one of Kentucky's Senate seats seems to have driven a large portion of my particular neighbourhood of the blogohedron completely mad. In fact, madness is very much on the agenda; the vast majority of those on the left seem utterly convinced that Paul is totally out of his libertarian tree, and something of a cockbag besides.

I can't speak to whether or not his bagginess could most accurately be described as cockesque. I'm also far from sure that he's a nutcase, either. What he most certainly is is deeply, profoundly wrong, but that's hardly a surprise in a GOP candidate.

Given how much flak he's getting over his, er, intriguing position on the interpretation of the First Amendment, though, I wanted to point one thing out that is to his credit. A little bit of perspective and balance. You could see it as a concession to Spielbergo's demands that this blog's political coverage be more positive, or as a poorly disguised ploy to make people believe that that all my other posts about how the Republicans are twats must be the truth.

Either way, here's what Paul has to say on the subject of denying service to potential customers on the basis of their race:
I don’t like the idea of telling private business owners—I abhor racism. I think it’s a bad business decision to exclude anybody from your restaurant—but, at the same time, I do believe in private ownership. But I absolutely think there should be no discrimination in anything that gets any public funding, and that’s most of what I think the Civil Rights Act was about in my mind... [T]his is the hard part about believing in freedom.
Needless to say, this is nonsense. First of all, the right to express oneself is not the same thing as the right to perform any action one is allowed to express the desire to perform. There are all sorts of things I can say I want to do to or with people without it being OK to just go ahead and do it because I'm on my own property. Private property is not immune from the law, and the case that such laws are unconstitutional because entering into a financial transaction counts as "expression" strike as profoundly unpersuasive.

Secondly, if we're really going to be serious about the business of freedom, we need to realise that we maximise freedom by carefully balancing restrictions on all sides, not by pretending that each restriction removed has increased freedom when all you've done is convert it from one form to another. Paul isn't creating the freedom for shopkeepers to be racist out of thin air, he's transmuting it from the freedom to buy food for your children from wherever is convenient, irrespective of your skin colour.

Here's the thing, though. As much as I think Paul's ideas are totally unworkable and based on fundamentally flawed premises, I have to give him credit for introducing an idea most Republicans won't go anywhere near: there are some decisions the government might have to take that will be hard. That will cause problems for certain people. Essentially, Paul is saying "This is going to be a problem for a lot of people, but it is still the right thing to do."

It speaks volumes about the state of the American right that this is somehow impressive, but here we are anyway. This has been one of my big problems with conservatives since day one, the resolute refusal to admit that their choices could possibly disadvantage anyone, from "Everyone already has access to healthcare" through to "We will be greeted as liberators by the Iraqi people". Paul deserves credit for not playing by the same rules, even if as a result it's allowed him to criticise the Civil Rights Act in a way most of his fellow GOP politicians would never dare. It's probably why Daniel Larison likes him so much, and if we could have a few more like him, it might be easier to view the political struggle in America - and elsewhere - as being being between two philosophies, rather than between flawed opportunists and straight out mendacious bastards.

In other words, Paul isn't crazy. He's just deeply wrong and astonishingly honest, and that's confusing the crap out of an awful lot of people who aren't at all used to seeing the two things coming in the same package.

Update: Well, that didn't last long...

Wednesday, 19 May 2010


Dammit! Another day where there will be no work done whatsoever. Nothing says good times like forcing a man made entirely out of jelly to smack balls around for no good reason.

And if you get bored of that, there are an awful lot more. You're welcome, the internet.

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Quz 3 Redux

The latest round of quiz answers are up. I proscribe (edit: by which I mean prescribe, obviously) further research for all of you in the ways of cocktail creation. No-one should be happy with idea of leaving this vale of tears without trying a well-made Sea Breeze.

Ugly Pageants

Right. Let's get this over with as quickly as possible; I have programming to do. Also, I want to demonstrate just how easy this really is to deal with, and so show just exactly how much research and statistical thinking Daniel Pipes would have needed to have powered through in order to discover that his hypothesis (namely: them Muslim wimmins is takin' all our tiaras o' sexy) is so woefully lacking in evidence that he absolutely deserves his current pillorying by the left.

Short version: not all that much, pal.

The percentage of Muslims in American society right now is 0.6%. The number of Muslim winners of the fourteen major American beauty pageants listed by Wikipedia in the last four years? Well, I have no idea, but Pipes is claiming two, so I'll assume it's no higher; presumably Pipes would bolster his argument if he could. Are two or more winners amongst fifty-six unusually high for such a small population size? Well, just. The chances of that happening entirely at random is 4.5%, which means that at the 5% level that people seem so keen on nowadays we would just about smell a rat. But wait! We only chose four years because Pipes' first example was taken from 2007. What about if we include 2006, too? Well, at that point, the chance jumps up to 6.7%, and we're statistically OK with it. By 2005, a year Pipes is happy to consider when it suits him, we're at 9.1%. Not the sort of odds you'd want going into battle, I grant you, but hardly beyond the realm of plausibility.

Working from the fairly reasonable assumption that if there was a Muslim American winner in 2006 or 2005 Pipes would have mentioned it - he certainly goes that far back for other examples - we can already conclude that he has taken what would not generally be considered a statistical aberration and implied there is something fishy going on.

But there's more! He adds to his own case two British winners and a French one. Our Muslim population? 2.8%. And from that he finds two winners in six years. For one of those he has to stoop so low as Miss Nottingham, one of the twenty or so heats for Miss England. That's twenty heats and the final, plus the various other major British pageants, over five years, and yet two Muslim winners strikes him as an issue (for the record, the chance of two or more winners from a 2.8% slice of the population in 21 x 6 = 131 pageants? 88%). I'm not even going into how stupid it is to argue that a single French winner somehow bolsters his case. I can't even find the Mlle Picardie competition online at all; Google just keeps returning people's complaints about the winner in question. One could note that it is a strange argument that relies on the French being keen to make calls in favour of its Muslim population, of course, but that would be to stoop to Pipes' gutter-scraping level.

So that's why he's wrong. Here's why he is so thoroughly deserving of the kicking he's getting: he sees five Muslim winners across, at a bare minimum, 222 different competitions (assuming Miss France is a bigger ticket than whatever "Mlle Picardie" is), and his brain tells him something weird is going on. His brain, not the evidence, suggests to him that something is amiss. That there is a question that needs answering. He doesn't bother actually answering it, of course - something that took me all of three paragraphs (though see below) - he just decides that his own innate sense of wrongness has picked up on something that needs to be addressed. He sees what he thinks - mercifully unburdened by the facts - are too many Muslim people getting somewhere, and he thinks this is an issue. In other words, as Brutal Snake pointed out to me this morning, Pipes' confirmation bias is coming into play, and the bias in question would appear to be that Muslims get all the breaks.

This is a fairly obvious sign that things are Not Right. And rather sit down and think through the issue at hand, something which would have saved him a great deal of entirely-warranted grief, he immediately brings up the possibility that these Muslim women didn't deserve to win (note that I'm entirely skirting around the issues surrounding beauty pageants themselves, that's another post someday). He argues that because he hasn't outright stated that they were unworthy he has done nothing wrong, but the fundamental point here, the beautiful Muslim elephant in the room, is that his brain didn't feel the need to sift through any evidence before it decided too many Muslims are winning, or to conclude that it might be because they are getting the racial sympathy vote.

We have words for people whose brains do that kind of thing. More importantly, we have words for people whose brains do that sort of thing who are happy for the process to appear in print, and who then argue their point to the death without actually putting more thought in. We have words too for people who argue that only outright accusations require evidence and suspicions can be bandied around as freely as one wants, and who claim to be asking reasonable questions but who then ignore the answers that disagree with the hypothesis they're pretending not to push.

For confirmation of the strange state of Pipes' brain, one need only look at what he believes has "borne out" his suspicions. Another winner, this time from a single university in North Carolina. How many pageants must there be across all the universities in all fifty states? And this is supposed to be Pipes' smoking gun? Why? He doesn't explain, of course, though his inclusion of the news report implies he finds something inherently problematic in the idea that a woman could win a beauty pageant with only her face and general body outline visible. This is not how a human mind is supposed to work, people. In fact, as far as I can tell, this is a guy claiming that he has proof that Muslims are getting unfairly preferential treatment because he's seen one woman win even though in his head it would be impossible to tell how hot she is. I've seen a lot of weird shit come out of people's keyboards in the last few years, but I think watching a man state that his inability to judge feminine beauty without checking out how a woman looks in a bikini is conclusive proof that his grotesquely racially insensitive theory is correct is a potential applicant to the Aggressive Bullshit Hall Of Fame.

Like I said, Pipes deserves the names. The fact that Pipes doesn't like those particular terms being thrown his way is a matter of supreme irrelevance.

Also, just for the record, I am aware that my own calculations are drastically over-simplifying the situation. For one thing, I'd be sympathetic to the suggestion that integration difficulties and cultural differences might make the percentage of Muslim beauty pageant entrants significantly smaller than their percentage of the general population would suggest. I lack the necessary data to factor that into the calculations, but you could certainly do it. You might get out a surprising and/or interesting answer, too, and you might find you need a new hypothesis to explain that result. Crucially, though, that would involve collecting data responsibly, running appropriate tests on it, and interpreting results. That's how these things are supposed to work. Pipes doesn't want to do the first properly, and wants to skip the second entirely. That's how you know he's full of shit.

(Also, I have to admit feeling a little uncomfortable about the fact that around 95% of the sites I checked out over this story include pictures of Rima Fakih in her underwear. It just feels weird to be discussing the racial issues that have spun out from her victory whilst posting up pictures of her scantily-clad form, very attractive though it is. Of course, I can't complain too much; I didn't choose that picture of Jessica yesterday for my True Blood post because I thought it encapsulated my problems with the second season. One of these days this redhead addiction is going to get me into serious trouble...)

Monday, 17 May 2010

A Brief Musical Interlude

Speaking of the talented Mr Roberts, he may have entirely nailed why I love Chess so much as a musical: it consists almost entirely of people shouting at each other over squall of rock guitar. I had thought that it might have something to do with the multi-layered metaphor and exploration of love as obsession and vice versa, but no: it's probably all about the shouting...

This Blood Could Be Truer or Orgies, Orgies, We Want Orgies!!!

Finished the second season of True Blood last night, and thought the year as a whole deserved a post. Obviously, there are some spoilers below.




Well, that was... OK, wasn't it? I guess. There wasn't really anything - or at least not much - that I could point to and say "That was freaking terrible", but the overall feeling is very much one of ambivalence.

I've spent a while trying to work out exactly what went wrong this season, and I think I've narrowed it down to five issues, some of which overlap. In no particular order, they are as follows.


In fairness, I think the overall map for the season works well on paper. Having the events in Dallas build to a head whilst Maryann's takeover of Bon Temps simmered away was a fine idea in theory. In practice, though, the former ended at least one episode too soon, leading to the series feeling like it was running out of steam at the exact moment it needed to be building momentum. Both Bill's mission to find the Vampire Queen and Sam and Andy's attempts to avoid capture felt too much like last minute additions to take up time (and much as I like the idea of redeeming Andy, I think they'd already done too much damage to the character to make his last-minute conversion into someone half-useful-a-bit-maybe convince), even before you start wondering about exactly how much of the last three weeks you've spent watching mindlessly grinding mechanical group sex. Which leads us neatly onto...


Obviously, I have my problems with him as a director in any case, but whatever else he did, Kubrik pretty much demonstrated with Eyes Wide Shut that it's impossible to film an orgy scene that comes across as anything other than confusing and faintly risible. Partially that's because sex scenes actually a very difficult thing to film and seem believable - as oppose to stylised - and that problem is multiplied when you have a huge number of extras to deal with. Mainly, though, I think orgy scenes have the same problem as the battle scenes in the Star Wars prequels (and one hopes I am the very first person to link those two things, though knowing the internet I'm far from convinced) ; there's just nothing to focus on. The screen is filled with movement and the eyes and brain just get confused. It just sort of boots your consciousness out of the experience, leaving you blinking in bafflement. I'm not sure having Doctor Phlox involved helped, either, but that's just personal taste.

In any event, there was waaaaaaaaaay more of the bump 'n' grind going on at the tail end of this season. I mean, I like to look at naked women as much as the next guy, but even without the problems mentioned above, by the end the orgies felt distinctly like they were filler, and that just doesn't sit well with me, to say nothing of the fact that essentially an entire town got date-raped and the writers are apparently just having everyone (bar Tera, one presumes) forget it because that's easier.


The big problem with the vampires this season was simply that they weren't scary anymore. Now, I realise True Blood isn't really horror (my choice of post label notwithstanding), so much as it likes to dress up in horror's clothes from time to time. Nonetheless, the vampires of the first season were occasionally played as straight up murderous forces of nature, and never as anything less than an unknowable alien presence that was generally doing little more than tolerate you (remember how truly out of her mind with terror Jessica was in the moments before Bill turned her?) We knew Sookie was going to be OK when Longshadow jumped her, but Paquin absolutely played it like she was convinced her throat was about to be torn out. Hell, Eric and (most especially) the Magister managed to convince us that there were vampires who were scary as all fuck to other vampires.

This year, the vamps lost an awful lot of their (sorry!) bite. Eric has become more complex, which is welcome, but has lost much of his menace, which isn't. The lethal femme fatale Bill remembers turning him proves to be a petulant whiner. Rather than the genuinely unsettling Magister, we get the Vampire Queen, whose hedonistic excesses are not necessarily uninteresting (though given the orgy issue discussed above, perhaps ill-timed), but again lack all menace - something which isn't helped by her baffling jumps between cod philosophy and implausibly modern sayings ("That blows" is quite simply not something you can have your Vamp Queen say to someone and hope to have her retain any mystique whatsoever). Bill himself feels distinctly house-trained (and note how well his killing of Sookie's abusive uncle in last year's season was handled compared with Sookie's discovery of same in this one's). Godric's seconds are a lovesick worrier and a violent buffoon. And Godric himself... well, I really liked Godric. I'm not sure how much of his actual actions I buy, but I liked him. His world-weary stoicism was a nice take on the vampire myth, and his suicide-by-sunlight one of my favourite moments of the entire season.

He sure wasn't scary, though. Thank God Jessica - probably the most interesting character throughout the season - seems determined to make people leery of going out alone at night once again.

To a certain degree this is inevitable, of course. Monster creep is the bane of almost all genre TV shows. From vampires in Season 1 we jump to a Maenad in Season 2. God only knows what's coming next. The same thing happened in Buffy, in fact. Crucially, though, this matters far more in True Blood, because the central metaphor in Buffy was never about the vampires themselves, but the pressures of high school, so just as long as something was around to threaten the Scoobies, it was all fine. In True Blood, however, the vampires are central to the point. you can't just have the characters level up and fight a new Big Bad.

The Metaphor

I was about to start this paragraph with the sentence "At its best, True Blood is all about the metaphor". Immediately, though, I rethought the idea. It isn't what I mean. I mean, perhaps the show really is at its best when it's in its most bodice-ripping throes of melodrama - certainly the way the second season has been constructed suggests a lot of other people thought so, and wrote to Alan Ball to let him know. Perhaps I should say at its most interesting, True Blood is all about the metaphor. Now, Adam Roberts has written a pretty compelling piece of why the central metaphor doesn't entirely work; the short version being that it's difficult to see vampire/human relations as being an analogy for racial tensions in the Deep South when the program already has black people in it who nobody seems to dislike, but you can just as easily read it as a metaphor for the struggle for gay rights in any case. Hell, in some ways that works better; the church's obsession with demonising the vampires, the idea that anyone could be one, Lafayette's AIDS outburst.

In other words, you can still get a great deal of mileage out of the idea even in this bizarre universe where the Louisiana bayous are filled with people of all colours and creeds sliding down rainbows together on the backs of unicorns. Crucially, though, this season seems to have left that behind. Or worse, taken what was presented with a light touch - by this show's standards - last year and reduced to its simplest possible elements. Compare Bill's attempts to talk to the Bon Temps History Society in the face of childish mockery with Steve Newlin's constant lunatic raving. As I say, subtlety was never this show's strong suit, but there was at least a complexity of character that Newlin seemed entirely unburdened with. It's especially frustrating when you consider that the most interesting thing you could do with the church's hatred of homosexuality is posit what would happen in some alternate universe where they actually kinda had a point. I'd like to think that any writer with an ounce of real sense would use that situation to make the church more sympathetic (which is naturally not to suggest we should be sympathetic to that kind of stance now), not dial up the evil/crazy to 11.


Not enough Lafayette. This is probably the greatest sin ever committed by a TV series in the last ten years. This makes failing to make Racetrack the star of every episode of Battlestar Galactica seem entirely reasonably in comparison, and when I'm recommending a male character above the universe's sexiest Raptor pilot, you just know something has to be up. Note for Season 3, guys. All Lafayette, all the time. Unless you want to give him his own show, of course. Hell, you could just have Nelsan Ellis reading the phone book suggestively to camera, I don't mind. I'm secure in my masculinity...

Like I said, I don't think any of the above made the second season objectively bad, so much as it feels like an awful lot of opportunities were wasted. Maybe next year can pull it out of the fire. Time will tell.

(A shiny penny for the first commentator to name the source of the latter half of this post's title, by the way.)

Friday, 14 May 2010

Can I Get Durham To Boycott Devon?

Garathon just tipped me off about this Independent article, which details a planned economic boycott of Arizona by Los Angeles.

I'm sure others more informed can offer suggestions, but as far as I'm aware the idea of a city boycotting another region inside the same country must be pretty rare. I'm not sure I've heard of it happening before (I dimly recall some scuffle regarding Quebec a while back; all details have long since fled my mind, though). One would like to think this action might lead to Jan Brewer and her cronies pausing for thought over the whole ridiculous idea, but I'm not holding my breath. After all, there's probably nothing a reactionary GOP lawmaker wants to tell their constituents more than "California thinks we're all dicks". They probably print that crap on Arizona bumper stickers. Hey, there's an idea! Immigrants in Arizona! Can't get a passport? Put some bullshit redneck sticker on the back of your car! Who's gonna stop you then? The ACLU? Those pussies?

In fairness, I'm not sure the law is quite as bad as the article states. As I understand it, police aren't required to stop anyone they think isn't in the country legally, they're required to check the citizenship of anyone "reasonably suspicious" who they've already stopped. On the other hand, I think the man quoted in the article is bang on; essentially requiring someone to carry their passport in their own country to avoid being arrested is pretty unambiguously "not American", or as anyone from outside the US would call it: "Entirely shitty." This is to say nothing of the recent Daily Show segment on all this, which featured a video of a GOP politician (either Russell Pearce or Tom Tancredo, I can't remember which and the vid isn't available anymore) in favour of this law being asked whether the police have to take your word on the subject of your legal status, and who essentially replied with "Well, if so, the officer can just find some other reason to arrest you". One would have hoped it's axiomatic that a law that requires police to make shit up in order for it to work properly is probably something that shouldn't be allowed anywhere near the statute books. Apparently not.

In other words, go LA. Maybe you can make them rethink banning ethics studies in schools while you're at it. I mean, this may not be the winning argument or nothing, but aside from the fact I'm 99.9% sure those classes aren't being used to ferment rebellion and insurrection, I'd say any state that's terrified of being brought to its knees by angry high-school students pretty much deserves to get itself overthrown.

Radio Friday: Equal Opportunities

The fact that the latest musical quiz on this here blog contained no female vocalists makes me feel bad that my i-Pod is so man-orientated. Here is a small attempt to redress the balance.

Yes, some guy turns up to stick his oar in from time to time, but I think we all know who's in charge here.

Thursday, 13 May 2010

Just Because I Haven't Used This Tag In A While

Anyone with an hour free could do much, much worse than sauntering over to Radio 4 and having a listen to the last episode of this season's The Unbelievable Truth, and the first ever installment of So Wrong, It's Right, both of which feature David Mitchell and Charlie Brooker being incomparably awesome, as is their wont. Those two should solve crime. Or cause crime. Or watch crimes being committed and comment on the criminals' technique in a caustic and pedantic manner.

The Catastrophe Of Atheism

Damon Linker and Kevin Drum, neither of whom I could hope to beat in a fair fight on much of anything, have been engaged in a bit of back and forth on the topic of atheism, and now Andrew Sullivan has joined in the discussion as well.

You can read through the links above - and it might be worth your while to, if you're at all curious about how the big boys discuss this sort of thing - but there was one point in Linker's article that I wanted to pick apart a bit, which is this:
What’s most disappointing is Drum’s failure to grasp the culminating point of Hart’s essay, which, as I take it, is this: the statements “godlessness is true” and “godlessness is good” are distinct propositions. And yet the new atheists invariably conflate them.
For the record, I think Drum is probably right that Linker is misrepresenting him a little bit, but that's a side issue. My main point would be this. Although I sympathise with Linker's general stance (though every time anyone on either side of this debate uses the word "invariably", you immediately get the sinking feeling that this is just the latest attempt to build a convenient straw-man you can tear to pieces at leisure), I think he is perhaps framing it incorrectly. Whilst I agree that his two propositions are distinct, and should not be conflated, I don't believe that that is what is happening here. To my mind, the "new atheists" are thinking in conditional terms: given that godlessness is true, it is good that we know it is true.

This is not the same thing as saying it is good to not believe in God. It is merely the suggestion that we are better off knowing unpalatable truths than we are living in ignorance of them. Now, that in itself is hardly axiomatically true, so there is work to be done in proving it holds in this particular case - and I share Linker's frustration that said work seems to be somewhat lacking - but it's clearly a different problem.

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Quz 3

Right. Another relative toughy this time round (I did try to make it easy, honest), though one particularly smart team managed 36. Second place was 30, and there were two teams tied on 29.

I should note that Round 3 was written by one of our contributors, rather than myself. If you detect a sudden upsurge in quality after ten questions, that would be why.

Round 1: Words

(Each answer contains the name of a musical instrument, unscrambled, i.e. "fluted" contains the word flute, though the other answers are much less stupid.)

1. A member of the vespidae family of insects the largest member of that family to build communal nests, noted for its exceptionally painful sting. (Hornet)

2. A title used by various governments - including the UK's – to describe a high-level political position, or even, in countries like Austria, to describe the head of state themselves. (Chancellor)

3. To give a keen edge or fine point to. (Sharpen)

4.The name given to any medical procedure in which a tube is inserted into the body; though its use is most common in situations in which the windpipe is to be artificially kept open. (Intubation)

5. A word first coined by Samuel Foote in 1755 to refer to a person who has or claims to have great authority or influence. (Panjandrum)

Round 2: Dogs

1. Digby, the biggest dog in the world, The Colonel from "101 Dalmatians", and the Dulux dog are all examples of which dog breed? (Old English Sheepdog)

2. Dogmatix is the tiny canine pet of which super-sized cartoon character? (Obelix)

3. The David Bowie album "Diamond Dogs" came out of an attempt to create a theatrical production of which novel written in 1948, a project which was abandoned after the author's estate denied the rights? (1984)

4. Which financial and commercial centre is located upon the Isle of Dogs in East London? (Canary Wharf)

5. The four dog statues outside Tivoli Mansion in central Ljubljana are named for a missing piece of their anatomy, an oversight that according to local legend caused the artisan Anton D Fernkorn to kill himself when he realised his mistake? (Tongues)

Round 3: Numbers

1. What gauge of film, introduced in 1892, is still the standard gauge still used for still photography and motion pictures? (35mm)

2. There is only one temperature given the same value on both the Fahrenheit and Celsius scales of temperature. Which is it? (-40)

3. What number links the Golden Mean of Proportion, the Defenestration of Prague and the Roman Mile? (1.618/1618/1618 yards)

4. What number was, according to the computer Deep Thought, the answer to Life, the Universe and Everything? (42)

5. How many zeros follow the one in a googol? (100)

Round 4: Creation

1. In the Book of Genesis, on which day of the forming of Creation did God create the stars? (The fourth)

2. What kind of animal was Audumbla, who according to Norse mythology freed the first Gods by licking away the ice that imprisoned them? (Cow (of the giant space variety))

3. What is the name given to the time period in which, according to the Australian Aboriginal tradition, totemic spirit beings gave birth to creation? (The Dream Time)

4. In Greek mythology, who led the Titans in their war against the Gods of Olympus soon after the creation of the world? (Chronos)

5. The creation myth of which ancient civilisation held that the God Atum or Temu brought forth the world through an act of masturbation? (Egypt)

Round 5: America In Song

1. Which laconic Canadian described America "The cradle of the best and of the worst" in his 1992 song "Democracy"? (Leonard Cohen)

2. Which Lynyrd Skynryd song takes Neil Young to task for his own song "Southern Man", in which he suggested the American South should repay its debt to its black citizens? (Sweet Home Alabama)

3. In Simon and Garfunkel's song "America", Kathy spies a man in a gabardine suit. What does the narrator tell her the man's bow tie really is? (A camera)

4. The lyrics to which song come from a Francis Scott Key poem, written after he watched the bombardment of Fort McHenry by British ships in the Chesapeake Bay? (The Star-Spangled Banner)

5. Which group of Americans did Kim Wilde sing about in 1981? (Kids)

Round 6: Seas

1. In which sea, the only sea without shores, do both the European and American eels go to spawn? (The Sargasso Sea)

2. The oasis of Ein-Gedi, where the Bible states David hid from King Saul, is near to the shore of which sea? (The Dead Sea)

3. Which section of the brain, important for long-term memory and spatial navigation, is named after a seahorse due to its roughly similar shape? (The hippocampus)

4. Astronomers have hypothesised the existence of a subterranean sea under the surface of which moon, due to the apparent smoothness and youth of its outer layer of ice? (Europa)

5. The sea breeze cocktail, born in the 1920s, is made from vodka, cranberry juice, and the juice of which other fruit? (Grapefruit)

General Knowledge

1. The final "Hound of the Baskervilles" question: whodunnit? (Stapleton)

2. Which supermodel stormed out of an interview late last month when pressed on the possibility of her having received a blood diamond from the former President of Liberia? (Naomi Campbell)

3. Name either of the two countries in South America which do not share a border with Brazil, other than Brazil itself. (Chile and Equador)

4. Which nineteenth century poet wrote "Hyperion" and "Endymion"? (John Keats)

5. What distinguished the constituency of Houghton and Sunderland South on Thursday night? (First to declare)

6. Neil Robertson has become only the second World Snooker Champion from outside Great Britain and Ireland since the modern game began in 1969. Who was the first? (Cliff Thorburn)

7. In which war did the first military submarine see service, a one-man hand-powered vehicle that tried and failed to sink the HMS Eagle? (The American War of Independence)

8. Which Australian misery merchant has fronted three successful bands, duetted with Kylie, and co-wrote the score for the films The Proposition and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford? (Nick Cave)

9.What is the most common translation of the Latin phrase "Caveat emptor"? ("Buyer beware")

10. What kind of animal is a weka? (A bird)