Tuesday, 31 August 2010

In Lighter News

Penny Arcade has been a bit hit-and-miss for a while now, but their latest comic is true genius.

All I can think of when seeing that is whether Yahweh is going to hand Moses a Horadric Cube. All together now: "Guhreeeeetings!"

Quote Of The Day (Before Yesterday)

From the always readable Mahablog:
Arsonists set fire to some equipment at the construction site of a mosque in Murfreesboro , Tennessee. I guess it was too close to Ground Zero.
This latest incident, following hot on the heels of a Puerto Rican man being verbally assaulted by a crowd of protesters whilst on his way to work, is another reminder of why Goldberg's arguments are so ludicrous. Again, I'll have more on this soon (I've ended up having to split my original column into two; there was simply too much bile for a single sitting), but what Goldberg is missing - or pretending to miss - is that the concern here is not over the number of reported hate crimes between 9/11 and now, it's in the volatility of the situation as a whole. I could just of easily shortened him last time round to "People raising safety concerns about these giant mounds of gunpowder underneath each major city are idiots, because there haven't been all that many fires lately."

It should be clear to anyone with cognitive faculties that the issue of minority groups' vulnerability is not simply a factor of how much they are currently under attack (or, as Goldberg would have it, how much the FBI has decided they are reporting being attacked); it's the ease with which that degree of hostility can change. Surely, the rapidly increasing reports of abuse and arson (mixed in with the occasional alleged stabbing) demonstrates just how precarious a position Muslim Americans are finding themselves in.

The other crucial concept that Goldberg breezes past concerns a minority's capacity to (through legal means, of course) defend themselves when these kinds of hate-waves take place. His comparison between ill will towards Jews and Muslims fails on both the above counts. Anti-Semitism clearly hasn't gone away, and obviously it would be a great day for the world if it ever did. If we compare not hate crime statistics, however, but rather the proportions of politicians, celebrities, and highly regarded media personalities in the US who are of Jewish heritage compared to Muslim, then Goldberg's argument falls apart. Why aren't people concerned (or as concerned) about a Jewish backlash? Because the Jewish population in America has far more of a voice amongst the country as a whole to fight back against the hate-peddlers (the degree of sympathy that exists in America for Israel and the still-raw wound of the Holocaust also makes it harder for such poison to spread).

I'm not saying the Jewish population should be any happier about the amount of hate-crimes they have to endure than their Muslims cousins. I'm also not saying anti-Semitism could never again become a dominant and/or publicly acceptable viewpoint within the States or its allies (it was only last year that an armed Holocaust-denier burst into the Holocaust Memorial Museum in D.C. and murdered a security guard). I'm saying that Goldberg himself, along with Charles Krauthammer, Senator Joe Lieberman, Jon Stewart, etc. etc. are ideally placed to fight such a hideous possibility tooth and nail.

Muslims, so far as I can tell, are entirely reliant on Christian and Jewish commentators to take their side, something which to put it mildly is not happening nearly enough right now.

That's why we're concerned.

Friday, 27 August 2010

Our Newest Adoring Fan

I don't have anything to report yet today, but I would be remiss in my duties were I not to announce some happy news: regular commentator (and damn good friend) lyndagb gave birth to a healthy baby girl last night. Given the exceptional intelligence of her mother (and father), I have no doubt that baby Thea will be using her tiny fingers to offer fierce internet rebuttals within, ooh, the next six months or so.

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

It's Getting Increasingly Hard To Paraphrase This Stuff

I'll almost certainly be a longer, more detailed dissection on the matter over at GeekPlanet next week, but I don't want you guys to feel like I don't call anymore, so submitted for your approval: a brief taster.

Shorter Jonah Goldberg: Muslims are the most loved people in America, so long as you ignore anything so complicated as percentages, and since Muslims doing better than Jews but not as well as Christians, it's only common sense that churches and synagogues should be built near to Ground Zero, but not mosques.

Monday, 23 August 2010


Apologies, folks. I had intended to write one of my "Five things I learned in..." posts regarding my weekend trip to Sheffield. In the event, though, the only thing I discovered is that a combination of five lagers, one JD and coke, and two ridiculously heavy plates of Chinese food renders a space-borne cephalopod entirely insensible. D'oh!

Well, I guess that's not entirely true. I also learned my friends are sneaky and evil.

So... there's that.

Also; Nemmie? Any idea whose socks those are? Or do I not want to know?

Friday, 20 August 2010

Is Alive!

Busy in Sheffield this weekend, so have yourself a picture of unrestrained awesomeness sent to me by Mad Richard last week.

Clearly his modelling skills far outweigh my own. I am deeply jealous both of his latest acquisition itself, and the way he has managed to construct it without bending, breaking or swallowing any of the pieces (although there's still time for him to screw up the laser, I suppose). Mad Richard also tells me "The best bit is that there's a sensor so that he knows his exact weight (down to 0.1 of a gram), so if you try and remove a piece he shouts "No disassemble, no disassemble!" and goes berserk!"

Now that, my friends, is craftsmanship.

Thursday, 19 August 2010

Usain Bolt Twists The Space-Time Continuum

My delightful A-level tutee phoned this morning in a (mainly fake) thundering rage, because he's done so well this morning that he can't skip out of his first university choice and go to his second, which has with hindsight become his favourite.

Well, caveat emptor, I say (and I know he's delighted with his results, if not their side-effects); I at least can view this with unvarnished pride, having gotten him up two grades in reasonably short order. I am thus dreading taking a look at the papers today, since I have no doubt I will learn that either a) he only did so well because the exams have gotten so easy, or b) he only did so well because his teacher was failing him and I was there to pick up the pieces. These, of course, are the only two possible stories to be told when there is a variation in the pass rate from the year before, which is to say every single year.

I prefer it when it's a), to be honest. It always bugged me that my younger brother got much better sprinting times than I did when we were at school. It comes as a great relief to learn that that's only because metres had gotten shorter.

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Foul Is Definitely The Word

Hey, you know what we haven't done in a little while? Taken a look at a highly-regarded American conservative political commentator and marvelled at how full of shit they are!

This time round, let's take a look at Ross Douthat. Plenty of people rate Douthat - the ever-impressive Daniel Larison seems to view him as one of the few intellectually honest conservative political voices that anyone bothers to listen to. Progressive responses to his columns fall a little more into the "I can see where this comes from but..." category than they do with obvious hacks like Krauthammer, Kristol and McArdle, who are rightly immediately consigned to the "Mendacious propaganda artists" bin almost every time.

With the frenzy over Cordoba House - the proposed Islamic Faith Centre that applied for planning permission two blocks away from the former location of the World Trade Centre - reaching boiling point, it's a good time to consider what exactly all the fuss is about. Douthat takes his best stab at it here.

So what's the verdict? Well, his opening assumptions are pretty shaky:
There’s an America where it doesn’t matter what language you speak, what god you worship, or how deep your New World roots run. An America where allegiance to the Constitution trumps ethnic differences, language barriers and religious divides...

But there’s another America as well, one that understands itself as a distinctive culture, rather than just a set of political propositions. This America speaks English, not Spanish or Chinese or Arabic. It looks back to a particular religious heritage: Protestantism originally, and then a Judeo-Christian consensus... it expects new arrivals to assimilate themselves to these norms, and quickly.
With his first two paragraphs, Douthat sets up his shell-game. Even so early, it does not seem difficult to extrapolate his argument. Sure, American citizens can do X, Y and Z, but that doesn't mean they should. Which, in itself, is an entirely banal point. There are certain rights that people expect you not to exercise in certain ways. Again, that seems entirely reasonable. I don't have any problem with the idea that one has, for example, the right to go on the radio and constantly use the n-word whilst telling a black caller they're being over-sensitive, for example, but one should still expect to be socially ostracised immediately thereafter.

Note where Douthat is placing his boundaries, though. My example involves the clash of two inalienable American rights - the right to free speech and the right to equal treatment independent of one's colour. Both racism and restricting speech are contrary to the spirit of the Constitution. In other words, I'm comparing apples to apples.

Douthat's formulation is different. He finishes what he has begun with his next sentence:
These two understandings of America, one constitutional and one cultural, have been in tension throughout our history.
Douthat's argument hinges entirely on the idea that it is not part of American culture to want to uphold the constitution. It should be obvious to anyone with any experience of American thought that one cannot flense devotion to the constitution from US culture. It's lunacy to try. What Douthat is doing is taking a near-universal cultural trait, and the dominant American sub-culture, and redefining the former as (essentially) constitutionalism so that he can redefine the latter as the totality of American culture. In effect, he's arguing that white Protestant America is America. This is a depressing common rhetorical trick for the right. It gets much easier to espouse the kind of principles American conservatives cling to once you deliberately declare those that disagree with you outside of America in any case. All of which is to say nothing of the large number of people who simultaneously draw on their shared white Protestant heritage (which would include me, by the way, even if I'm not American) but who don't demand rapid assimilation. I suspect Douthat has realised he can't make the demands of these incoherent hysterics sound any more reasonable, so he is trying to artificially pump up their importance and commonness, instead.

Douthat digs his hole deeper:
The first America welcomed the poor, the tired, the huddled masses; the second America demanded that they change their names and drop their native languages, and often threw up hurdles to stop them coming altogether. The first America celebrated religious liberty; the second America persecuted Mormons and discriminated against Catholics.
Man, it doesn't sound like this second group are particularly great, huh? Maybe we shouldn't be listening to them too closely. I mean, clearly they were wrong about the Mormons and Catholics.
But both understandings of this country have real wisdom to offer... During the great waves of 19th-century immigration, the insistence that new arrivals adapt to Anglo-Saxon culture — and the threat of discrimination if they didn’t — was crucial to their swift assimilation.
Wait! What's that sound? Why, it's the alarm that goes off in the head of anyone with the intelligence God gave a golden retriever when they hear current grotesque injustices being defended by arguing historical injustices were actually good things!

Listen, Douthat. There is a world of difference between an action having an eventual upside and an action in itself being good. I'm all about the liberation of the slaves, but that hardly means I'd argue that it was a good thing the South seceded. Moreover, this result Douthat sees as a long term good is often preceded by short and medium-term very bad indeed. I mean, Catholics and Protestants are very well integrated in much of England, but it was a long and bloody process in which a spectacular number of people were tortured and killed.

And all of that is assuming rapid assimilation is necessarily a good thing in any case. I mean, I have no objection to it in theory, but the crux of the matter here is that Douthat is just assuming it must be good because he comes from the second America. He values cultural assimilation over constitutional protection, and thus argues that violating the latter - implicitly or otherwise - has led to something good. There's no reason to believe the groups Douthat is considering wouldn't have assimilated themselves at length anyway, without "the threat of discrimination" (and really, once someone is arguing that advocating the threat of discrimination constitutes "wisdom", it becomes pretty difficult to not just walk away in disgust), but Douthat just assumes that a) his tactics must work faster, and b) faster is better, irrespective of the tactics used. He even goes out to point out that these ends were achieved "by fair means or foul" without so much as a pause to consider that whether they were fair or not matters.

Another problem is that this argument as it stands doesn't apply to Ground Zero, it applies across America. If he wants Muslims to assimilate, and he believes building Islamic Faith Centres is contrary to that assimilation, then why would that only apply to lower Manhattan?

Douthat attempts to escape this trap by arguing that Cordoba House is a special case.
The second America is right to press for something more from Muslim Americans — particularly from figures like Feisal Abdul Rauf, the imam behind the mosque — than simple protestations of good faith.

Too often, American Muslim institutions have turned out to be entangled with ideas and groups that most Americans rightly consider beyond the pale. Too often, American Muslim leaders strike ambiguous notes when asked to disassociate themselves completely from illiberal causes.

Douthat's clumsy, last-minute attempt to argue "It's not the mosque, it's the iman" (not that it is a mosque, but whatever) reveals more than he intends. The counter to those three sentences is almost pathetically obvious - the difference between Muslims, Christians and Jews is not that only Muslims hedge when asked to dissociate themselves from people a large section of the population have a problem with, it's that only Muslims are repeatedly asked to do it. The idea of asking Jewish leaders to repudiate Israeli excesses in the Gaza Strip before they would be allowed to build synagogues would be viewed with horror by Douthat. Why? Because they're already part of his arbitrary definition of the second America. [1]

That example in itself makes stark another point, Douthat is basically arguing that the Protestant/Judeo-Christian majority gets to determine who America's enemies are, and anyone who shares the faith of such enemies is morally bound to agree entirely. Then, once you're exactly in synch with what Douthat's buddies think, and only then, you just have to wait a century or two and voila! The US will be arguing you are incapable of doing wrong, and demanding everyone who doesn't think you're entirely and invariably in the right learns to be more like you. Assimilation achieved!

And if anyone doesn't meet Douthat's standards? No building permits for them! They're not trying to engage in "inter-religious dialogue", which Douthat, with breath-taking arrogance, is defining as "agreeing with Christians and Jews". This is why I don't buy that his argument is just about the WTC. It's too easy to generalise to every imam who doesn't fit Douthat's description of what he thinks a moderate Muslim should look like. In his eyes, either you claim the US was entirely blameless in bringing about 9/11, and you renounce Hamas, or you just ain't trying. Because cultural mixing must mean cultural homogenisation, and because inter-religious dialogue means shouting down the side who disagrees with you.

In conclusion: ain't adding this guy to the "Arguing from good faith" pile.

[1] Just to be clear, I'm not saying religious leaders shouldn't be challenged regarding the unpleasant activities done either by their fellow holy men, or by their followers in the name of their God. I'm just saying that I'm not sure demanding repudiation before permitting the building of places of worship is a good idea, and if it is, it's damn sure a good idea for every faith.

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

SpaceSquid vs. The X-Men #34: The Ex-External

It has been noted more than once that it can be difficult for anyone to replicate the feelings they experienced the very first time they fell in love. There is something about that initial explosion of feeling that renders it unique and unrepeatable, no matter how unwisely it was embarked upon or how miserably it all fell apart. Montgomery Scott once remarked that the same is true of the first starship you serve on as chief engineer,

Obviously, I've never been chief engineer of a ship, star-borne or otherwise [1], so I can't comment. I do think, however, that the phenomenon often extends to long-running TV shows and comics (and even the more extensive film series, like Bond). There's something about the writers and characters that dominate the era you first encounter that make them special to you, entirely independently of how the period is viewed by more seasoned hands.

So it is with the X-Men output of the mid '90s. As many have documented, and as I have discussed before, many long-time readers are rather less than enamoured with this particular slice of mutant history. For me, though, it will always remain my "in". Moreover, those genetic anomalies who were serving at the time I first joined their adventures, persuaded by the excellent X-Men cartoon to pick up a shiny copy of UXM #323, will always remain "my" team. Storm and Wolverine, Archangel and Psylocke, Rogue, Gambit, Ice-Man, Bishop, Cyclops and Jean Grey, with Professor X to lead them.

All of those characters, I have discussed before. There was also a newcomer amongst the ranks, though. One mutant given the rank of X-Man at the exact same time I began to follow their story: Cannonball. He was not new to the X-Universe, any more than I was new to reading comics (though it had been a couple of years since I had picked one up, ever since I had lost patience with the slow pace and lacklustre ideas and art of the X-Files title), but we both took our first faltering steps into the world of the X-Men together.

Again, my uneducated view of Cannonball clashed with that held by those more knowledgeable in the ways of this fictional world. To me, Sam's nervousness, self-confidence issues and almost puppy-dog like desire to please made perfect sense for someone who has been suddenly thrust into the front lines with the world's best known and (depending on who you ask) most well-respected mutant team. For those who knew more of the early life of Samuel Guthrie, however, his sudden reduction to a shaky, unsure neophyte was ridiculous. "He spent years in X-Force" they told me (not that I had more than the dimmest idea of what that was at the time). "He served under Cable, mutant ball-breaker extraordinaire", they opined (Cable was from the future and had a gun; that was the limit of my knowledge, though in later years of course I learned that that was also the limit of Rob Liefeld's conception of characterisation). "He hasn't lacked self-confidence for ages".

I can see why it would piss older fans off when characters they care about take sudden left-turns in their development, or seem to have cast aside years - or even decades - of development. Hell, it's certainly happened to me enough times (witness Alan Davies' treatment of Marrow, or Chuck Austen's near-total destruction of Polaris). With Sam, though, even almost two decades on, and having read through a great deal of his earlier adventures (not including X-Force, naturally, I might be an obsessive completist, but I'm not a total idiot), the sudden change I was just too late to miss the first time round actually makes total sense.

This is all about the fathers.

It seems almost redundant to point out how much of the X-Universe boils down to difficulties with one's paternal parent. Sure, it's true. Xavier's father died when he was young, and his step-father was a cruel brute of a man. Scott's dad abandoned him on Earth. Iceman's old man was a vicious bigot. Wolverine once had no idea who his father is, but Sabertooth spent some time trying to claim the title, presumably in an attempt to fuck with his nemesis' mind as much as humanly possible. But whilst the history of Xavier's students is littered with deep-seated paternal issues, that's just a feature of drama in general. Lost was obsessed with the father/son dynamic. The West Wing dabbled far more than a little. Though the scales are tipping, fiction - or at least television and especially comics - is still somewhat male-heavy, and the two things a man is most likely to write about is women, and fathers.

Of course, show me a story about an absent and/or failed father, and I'll show you a surrogate father figure. Further, you can lay good odds on it being a two-way street, too; the vast majority of surrogate fathers are looking for surrogate sons themselves. Everyone is looking for something they lost, one way or another. Like I said, that's just what drama is.

In Cannonball's case, the loss is entirely literal; his father Thomas Guthrie passes away when Sam is sixteen; a victim of the coal-dust that fills the mine Thomas slaved in all his life. His father's ugly, undignified death thrusts Sam into the role of patriarch, as breadwinner for his mother and his veritable horde of siblings. He does this not out of necessity - Sam hardly lacks for brains and has already won a college scholarship - but out of duty, a sense so strong that he immediately begins work in the very mine that killed his father.

In this sense, Sam has already acquired metaphorical children; the younger members of clan Guthrie. We see this, years later, in the way he treats those junior Guthries lucky (or unfortunate) enough to develop mutant powers and head to Xavier's - all overbearing protection and hard-headed authoritarianism. It is difficult in the extreme to reconcile Cannonball + siblings with Cannonball + X-Men, but then that's the point. By simultaneously becoming an alternative father and looking for one of his own, Cannonball forms the final link in a very long chain.

It is impossible to fully understand Sam without recognising how far back the chain really goes. As it happens, it stretches all the way back to the beginning, to Almagordo and Doctor Brian Xavier, one of the first experts on mutant biology, who showed a distinct tendency to treat his son like a case-study, right up until the point he came down with an unfortunate case of nuclear-blast-to-the-face. Thus does Charles Xavier (who you may have heard of) lose his father, before watching in horror as his mother first marries Brian's former colleague and all-round vicious motherfucker (thus rendering the metaphorical literal), and then first turns to alcohol, and then passes away.

This, needless to say, is not good news for Charles. Whomever he turns to for the paternal influence lacking in Kurt "Never Knowlingly Gave A Child An Insufficient Beating" Marko, I am not sure; perhaps history does not recall it at all. What matters, though, is that he not only loses his father, but also his son, who develops in his teens into the lunatic time-bomb Legion, an MPD basket-case Charles is forced to view as a threat first, and his offspring second.

I doubt anyone reading this needs me to tell them who becomes Charles's surrogate son. And, true to form, Cyclops is searching for a replacement father, since his own Dad is first believed dead and then revealed to be a little too busy detonating spaceships and shagging interstellar foxes (and I mean that in the most literal sense possible) to check up on poor old Scott and Alex. Scott is the next link in the chain. The next step in the vicious cycle. Inevitably, then, he loses his own son Nathan, this time to a combination of demonic interference and a weird futuristic pestilence that results in the boy being taken into the far future.

This is where it gets complicated. Scott needs a surrogate son, to replace Nathan. Bizarrely - though of course that's a deeply relative label where comics are concerned - Scott's alternative to Nathan is Nathan, thanks to Cyclops and Phoenix travelling to the far future to raise Scott's child whilst inhabiting alternative bodies (and if anyone is starting to develop a continuity headache, I don't blame you). This arrangement can only last so long, though, and the next time Scott sees his son, he is fully grown, older than himself, and going by the name Cable. And Cable, of course, has his own problems with his son, the insane villain Genesis.

Here, at last, we can return to Sam. When he first arrives at the mansion, his pseudo-father is Professor X, and Sam panics under the pressure. He eventually learns to find his feet, only for Xavier to be replaced by Magneto. That goes badly at first as well - albeit for very different reasons (in fairness, being casually murdered and resurrected by a godlike alien entity is a damn good reason for a certain malaise, and Sam is far from being the only victim in that regard). Eventually he ends up under Cable's influence, and whilst I haven't read through that particular era (remember: Liefeld), if that didn't lead to a new wobble of self-confidence, it can only be because the writer handling him was too grotesquely incompetent to understand what was going on (did I mention Liefeld?).

There is a chain from Charles Xavier to Cyclops to Cable to Samuel Guthrie. What makes Cannonball unique is not simply that he exists at the end of that chain (even if he sees his siblings as his children in some sense, they most certainly do not return the feeling; Husk and Icarus can both attest to that), it's that at various times he's been thrust into the surrogate son role with all three father figures that exist earlier in the chain. And when that happens, every time (at least it damn well should be every time, and anyone who ever attempts to offer counter-evidence using Liefeld's scribblings is completely insane; see also "Shatterstar, Obvious Homosexuality Of") he is thrown backwards into the same stumbling, second-guessing clumsy bumbler. Because that's just how it goes. He has a new father to impress; one who has no reason whatsoever to be impressed, and impressing your father is the only thing that matters to more sons than you can imagine. It doesn't matter if it's been done before, it doesn't even matter if it's been done with the same man, a change of father means a change of outlook; returning to Xavier is no easier than meeting him in the first place. Our nebulous "long-time fans" might have been angry at what I saw in my first encounter with UXM, but to decry it as contrary to Sam's nature is very much to miss the point.

There's a brief scene in X-Men #54, just before Onslaught breaks loose, and all Hell with him, that Sam confesses to Cyclops that Xavier has just metaphorically beaten the crap out of him. Scott immediately knows what to say - he's been there, after all, he's higher up the chain - and confesses he too has been on the end of one of Xavier's verbal slap-downs. If this isn't the exact moment that Sam's loyalties shift, that Scott becomes his next new "father", then it must have happened pretty soon after (of course, Xavier going crazy and attempting to destroy the world probably has something to do with it).

This, then, is the way to understand Cannonball, especially in recent days. As Scott has found it within himself to become Xavier, Sam has found it within himself to become Scott. The good son, and the good soldier, though I suspect that Cannonball, like Cyclops before him, would struggle to understand the difference. The comparison is not entirely fair. Scott had the advantage of never having to switch his surrogate father (Cyclops pretty much imprinted onto Professor X like a baby duckling), but there's more besides. Xavier's stoicism might make him a good role model, and an examplar of his dream (right up until he freaked the fuck out, obviously), but it also makes him a lousy parent. I have some experience of the way those abused as children deal with becoming parents themselves, and whilst I would never claim to be an expert, I find must that is familiar in the way Xavier deals with Scott. It's all brain, no heart. All evaluation and no passion, because Charles can conceive of passion only as violence and loss (Magneto can hardly have helped in that regard, along with Xavier's momentary lapse of control that led to him briefly seizing the mind of his former lover, Amelia Voight).

All too often, these things get passed down through the generations, and so Scott is little better. As Emma Frost has often pointed out, he's basically an expressionless outer shell struggling to contain a roiling, seething mass of repressed emotion just beneath the surface - in direct contrast to his actual father, and his hot-headed brother. Cable is perhaps less robotic (which is ironic, given half is body has been conquered by a techno-organic violence), but he's still so focused on the mission that other considerations are entirely ignored.

Sam, it turns out, is more than the latest iteration. He is the goal. In him, at last, the desire to do his duty, to fight for the dream and his friends, are balanced with his other passions. Even whilst he has one eye on the whole board, on the long game, he can process the personal (though admittedly on occasion he needs Dani Moonstar to beat it in to him). The very first thing I ever saw anyone say to Cannonball was this: "Hanging out with Cable has toughened you up... you got guts." And when Wolverine tells you you've got guts, you believe it. What's just as important, though, is that Logan's comment came about in the midst of a confrontation in which Cannonball was refusing to let him hurt a defenceless Sabertooth. Partially because he had been tasked to protect the quiescent Creed, no doubt, but also partially because of how important his charge was to his girlfriend Boomer. His loyalty and tenacity ultimately stretches decades into the future, where (in one time line at least) he gives his life willingly to save to save Cable, one of his replacement fathers, and Hope, the child who in a very real sense is the daughter of all mutant-kind. [2]

In short, for all Cyclops insists that there is no reason to believe mutant-kind's next leader need be Sam, it cannot be ignored that each iteration in this strange, bitter-sweet process is producing someone more balanced, more stable, and is doing so without sacrificing anything. If you like, the primary dynasty of the X-Men is mutating, finding new and better forms. Readying itself for tomorrow. Just as Charles, and perhaps Brian before him, had always dreamed.

If he can avoid fucking it up.

Next time: we consider the relevancy of the centuries-old nature vs nurture debate when it is applied to a man who is the clone of an unbalanced, massively powerful mutant, and was raised by a lunatic tyrant who was sexually attracted to the man who bears your DNA.

[1] I once piloted a motorboat which had three speeds, only two of which involved any actual motion, and only one of those was forwards. I'm guessing that doesn't count.

[2] In the process, of course, he proves once and for all that Cannonball is not the immortal he was briefly and pointlessly labelled as back in the early '90s, by someone going by the name "Rob Liefeld".

Monday, 16 August 2010

Three Wishes And Thrice Three Lives

Today's burning questions both revolve around animation, as a result of the current explosion of interest in the works of Disney that my fellow mathematicians seem to be suffering.

The first question is by far the most involved. It concerns the conclusion of my favourite Disney film of all, Aladdin. Taken as a whole, it's close to perfect: funny and sweet and technically impressive, with the two best villains Disney has produced (though I grant that Shan Yu was far more menacing, and Gaston has the best evil theme going), and a very strong set of songs into the bargain. The ending, however, always winds me up, because it requires to believe that everyone involved has miraculously turned into an idiot, all except the Sultan, who has miraculously stopped being an idiot.

For those who have forgotten (or who, unforgivably, have never seen it) Aladdin is forced to choose between two options for his final wish. He can either become a prince once again, so as to marry his true love (does anyone in Disney films take more than 72 hours to decide who they'll spend the rest of their lives with?), or he can free the genie, as he promised. I realise that the intent here is to demonstrate that by choosing to free the genie Aladdin is demonstrating that strength of character is worth more than wealth or social standing, but this is somewhat undermined by the knowledge that he could easily just wish to become royalty once more and then hand the lamp to Jasmine, who could then free the genie herself. This, as I say, is then compounded by the Sultan suddenly realising he can change any law he chooses in any case, but that is somewhat more forgivable (he may only have realised due to Aladdin the importance of character over wealth, or perhaps Jafar had been deliberately preventing any potential marriage in an attempt to avoid getting the chop from a new Sultan). It's the first point that really rankles.

Of course, handing the lamp to Jasmine is only one potential way out. They could have used wishes from Jafar's genie, for example. That, though, assumes that he wouldn't find some way to trick them out of what they were asking for (hardly an uncommon tack for mischievous djinns to take). Passing on the lamp would make more sense. Or would it? Do the things you ask a genie for remain after they've been freed? They certainly outlive the lamp being passed on, but that's a different thing. The fact that Aladdin is neither transported to the Cave of Wonders nor instantly drowned once the genie loses his shackles likewise suggests not, but motion and creation are clearly not the same.

I guess you can patch together an explanation that makes sense, though if one of the most important scenes in your movie only works according to rules you haven't bothered to describe at all, you're doing something badly wrong. In any case, the question of what happens when a genie is freed is of critical importance, because it raises another conundrum, if a genie's creations survive its freedom, then are infinite wishes in fact possible?

BigHead and I discussed this at length over our lunchtime caffeine (because that is how we roll), and between us came up with the following. Consider the four rules of the genie. You can't wish for more wishes, and you can't have anyone killed/fall in love with you/rise from the dead. However, we know full well that a wish can make you into a genie. So what's to stop three people getting their hands on a magic lamp and trying the following? Person 1 has two wishes of whatever kind they wish, and then wish to be a genie. Person 2 gets one wish, then spends his second freeing the initial genie (which, admittedly, you don't need to do for this to work, but it's kind of a nice gesture, y'know?) and his last one on turning himself into a genie.

Person 3 gets one wish for themselves, uses their second wish to free Person 1, and then with their final wish they become a genie. Person 1 can now free Person 2, get one wish of whatever kind they choose, and then become a genie again, and so on the cycle goes.

Pretty neat, huh? There are two potential issues here. Whether a genie be freed and turned into a person simultaneously ("I wish you were a free human!") is one, though that doesn't matter as long as a free genie can themselves make wishes (you'd eventually have to end the cycle in order to get yourself free and human, but by that time you can have made an arbitrarily large number of wishes; so who cares?). The other potential stumbling block is the possibility that the genies operate some kind of union/hive mind, and one can only ever receive three wishes from them, irrespective of how many you have met.

Still, it's a nice little cheat, no?

Also, my second, rather shorter question is this: does anyone know of any cartoon, ever, in which a cat is killed and stays dead?

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

I Want A Song That's Indelible

Conservapedia really is the gift that keeps on giving, After announcing last year that they were going to re-translate the Bible - using only people not qualified to do so because everyone who works in academia is a gutless liberal - they've finally alerted the world to the fact that the Theory of Relativity is a liberal hoax.

I'm clearly not enough of an expert on relativistic physics (or any other kind) to refute their "counterexamples" (though I'm man enough to cope with the idea that a theory might still have kinks the shedheads are working to iron out). Actually, though, it's #9 that bothers me. You can disprove the laws of physics if they've been violated by Jesus? How can that possibly be right? How can a miracle be God doing if the impossible if the mere fact God means we can't call it impossible?

When I was still in the church, I always assumed that the laws of physics were the rules the universe ran by unless God was directly influencing them. Rules don't not exist because the people who write the rules can change them. Back when the Crown was still going around executing people, no-one was arguing that it proved the laws against murder didn't exist.

If a Christian wants to go around stating the only law is "Anything is possible" because God can make anything possible, then that seems like a pretty useless way to view a world that, whenever the Hand of God isn't working the strings, follows rules which are consistent, measure able, and (generally) explicable (and all of this is to say nothing of my not agreeing that the example they cite necessarily means what they claim it does). As BigHead pointed out earlier, it's not like Jesus walking on water means the laws of gravity are incorrect (and yes, I checked Conservapedia didn't have a problem with gravity as well). You could, perhaps, make a distinction between things that are impossible full stop, and things that are merely impossible for a human, but that still sounds too limiting, to say nothing of reducing Jesus to the level of Manimal.

It also seems like a fairly major missing of the point. It's like the God of the Gaps, only worse, because that attempts to squeeze God into the inexplicable; this actively takes what is explicable and demands that it be reconsidered.

Oppressing With A Yawn

I've been quiet about Judge Walker's recent ruling that California's despicable Proposition 8 (banning gay marriage) was unconstitutional because I wanted to see how things developed (also, I've been insanely busy writing up an algorithm that only got finished at six this afternoon/evening).

In brief, whilst I can certainly see why some progressives would be nervous about giving the Supreme Court the opportunity to get their hands on Prop 8 and use it to screw gay people the way they've screwed, well, pretty much everyone who can't afford an entire synchronised swimming team made up of giant pandas - and we already know from Citizens United that they're entirely prepared to take the narrow rulings they are asked to adjudicate and use it to make massive changes to the law (because no amount of training, intelligence or experience will stop a man being a worthless hack if they know they'll get something out of it) - I'm choosing to be glass half full about this one. This may be the soft bigotry of low expectations, but it's pleasing to me that at least one American legal expert believes legislative gay-bashing (to quote President Bartlett) violates those silly ideas about equal protection the Constitution enshrine.

There are plenty of things that I could say on the subject. In large part, though, I'd just like to cede the floor to Glenn Greenwald, who absolutely nails how feeble the arguments against gay marriage really are. All I'd add is that this is part of a larger paradox within Conservative thinking, as I've pointed out before (I forget the specific post): the bizarre argument that their preferences are so clearly superior that they need the law to ensure people cannot choose anything else. At heart, it's the same oxymoron that claims America is so unquestionably awesome that even the most milquetoast of criticism will hand victory to the enemy and render the speaker no better than a terrorist themselves.

In other words, it's total bullshit, and with specific reference to the Douthat column Greenwald entirely tears to shreds, Kevin Drum is entirely correct: you can frequently tell how avidly someone holds an opinion by how easily they can formulate the arguments they claim to find persuasive. Here, Douthat manages nothing more than stringing together a few portentous-sounding but ultimately meaningless phrases. It's pretty clear he's just going through the motions.

Of course, in this case the motions are telling a significant proportion of the population that their relationships are somehow less than ours. Way to go, American Right!

Quz 6 Redux

The answers to Quz 6 are up now. I managed to fluff the arithmetic during the scoring, so Team SquidBlog didn't do quite as well as I'd thought. Still, 34 out of 40 isn't too bad at all, though I'd point out that a) anyone who couldn't even guess the name of a Rolling Stones album is breathtakingly ignorant of musical history, and b) if you can't get a football trivia question right that even I know the answer to, you may have to consider the possibility that you're an alien sleeper agent programmed by that kid Qulazx Central sent to Infiltration HQ for work experience.

Monday, 9 August 2010

Lucifer: No Friends Of The Devil

There are probably any number of ways to consider Lucifer's third arc (I'm including the initial mini-series, natch), but one fruitful angle is to approach The House of Windowless Rooms as the final part of an introductory trilogy. The Morningstar Option outlined Lucifer’s motivations. A Six-Card Spread demonstrated his methodology. The House... completes our welcoming tour by showing us exactly what awaits those that get in his way.
We had an early taste of this in the fate of Meleos’ library, of course. And Lucifer’s bearing has never given us any doubt that crossing him would be profoundly unwise. Still, clearly Izanami requires a reminder of exactly how dangerous Lucifer is, and it’s important for us to see him in action against an opponent more powerful than a heartbroken pacifistic angel. There was the Basanos, of course, but that at its core was a business negotiation, albeit an unquestionably dangerous one.
The House... presents us with something very different. This isn’t about negotiation, it’s about battle. Actually, it’s about two battles, one over the Morningstar’s wings, and the other over his gate.
The difference between the two is striking. Lucifer enters Izanami’s domain unarmed, naked and mortal, and gains his wings without any more inconvenience to himself than the ruining of his borrowed lapels. In contrast, Mazikeen’s defence of the gate has her blinded and horribly burned, Lux razed to the ground, and the survival of Creation only ensured by the interference of Jill Presto and the Basanos.
One can argue at length whose conflict was the harder; a sociopathic, headstrong Lilim against two Jin En Mok, or a wingless, mortal Lucifer against a family of murderous Japanese Gods. What is unquestionable is that Lucifer’s approach is light years away from Mazikeen’s endless headlong charges into combat (note how Mazikeen’s two victories in fighting Saul and Cestis come from trickery and lateral thinking). Lucifer has no problem with violence when necessary – as attested to by the off-screen fate of the hapless Ritsime – but his preferred tack is a good deal more subtle, if no less fatal.
Generally, Lucifer’s tack, and his strength, lies in assessing a situation, and taking the route out no-one else expected. To him, there is no Catch-22. He is frequently offered two or more equally unappetising choices; fight a demon or push his hands into molten lead; offend his hosts by eating a sacred animal or offend them by refusing to eat at all; sit at any chair in a circle that will lead to Kagutsuchi claiming he has chosen a chair above him. A Hobson’s choice, each one, but in every case Samael takes some new route unconsidered by his opponents.
Of course, this is entirely unsurprising. Who else could be so skilled at evading the apparent dictates of fate as the Morningstar, whose entire existence is dedicated to escaping what lies in the cards (we are reminded again of his distaste for the Basanos, even if once again we note him acting on the information they gave him and he claimed to find irrelevant)? It is not only the edicts of God he wriggles free from, after all. The machinations of these Japanese deities, whose obsession with stealing worship in order to survive must profoundly disgust him (as evidenced by his curt dismissal of Tsuki-Yomi’s fears as the latter lies bleeding from the wound of the Three-Named Sword, as well as his cold poisoning of Kagutsuchi), are navigated also, and rather more easily. Even games of chance disagree with him, as Izanami’s gatekeeper learns to his cost. Randomness is anathema to fate, perhaps, but they still represent what Lucifer despises: a lack of control. The Devil, we learn, does not play dice, though one imagines he would be rather good at it.
Although I suspect it is rather unfair to do so, I sometimes find myself comparing Lucifer to its parent series Sandman. More specifically, one can consider the progress of Lucifer’s arc with that of Morpheus. When one considers Sandman in light of Morpheus’ eventual fate, it is clear that his doom was set in motion early on. One could say the same of Lucifer, perhaps (I still have two books to read, so this must be taken with a hefty dose of salt). In truth, though, we had to learn of Morpheus’ inflexibility as we went along. Labelling Lucifer’s fatal flaw as his arrogance seems positively banal, an assumption one could make without so much as glancing at Carey’s work.
Nevertheless, what is unsurprising is not commonly untrue. What is interesting is not realising that arrogance will be Lucifer’s downfall, but how exactly it will happen. Here, we see Lucifer’s almost pathological need to insult those who oppose him bring him to within an inch of being stung to death by a demon of the Shiko-Me. Perhaps there was no other way to regain his wings, but without his casual contempt with which he treats Susano and Yama-No-Kami, to say nothing of his murder of Kagutsuchi, perhaps Izanami would have chosen a less vicious revenge than the poisoning of Lucifer’s feathers.
The true demonstration of Samael’s flaw, however, is in his exchange with Jill Presto when he returns to the smoking ruins of his nightclub. His snide dismissal of the Basanos not only risks another confrontation he has no real need of, but reveals something critical: Lucifer would rather lose alone than win through the intervention of others. If he cannot be in Lux to defend it, better it fall than it be propped up by those who are not bound to him.
Like Morpheus, or Gandalf, or Dumbledore, Lucifer cannot be everywhere at once. Lucifer is power, but he is not control (again, this comes as no surprise). Given his plans for the void beyond Creation that is – for now – his private playground, one can only assume that things have the potential to go very, very badly.
First, though, he has need of one thing more. He has Mazikeen and Musubi both to aid him on this side of the gate. But the other side must be guarded too. We shall talk more on that next time around.

Sunday, 8 August 2010

A Perfect Beast

I spent Friday night with Bighead and a couple of other friends watching the Gala Theatre Stage School perform the stage musical adaptation of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast.

It was a fascinating experience. I’m never entirely sure what to make of the actual story. I have two fundamental problems with it, one from the Disney interpretation, and the other as old as the tale itself (which is not, one assumes, as “Old as time”). I find it very difficult to entirely shake off the feeling that the overall message of this particular yarn is that if you’re prepared to fall for someone ugly, you’ll get yourself a reward for being so nice as to forgive their repulsiveness. Now, there are plenty of good counter-arguments to this interpretation. It’s possible to view the moral of the story in exactly the way it’s presented: true beauty lies within. That might come across as a little clearer had the Beast, say, become gradually more attractive as the tale progresses, but then that would sacrifice the drama in the set-up, so it’s hardly surprising that route wasn’t taken. Even so, I remain uncomfortable each time I see Belle profess her love to the dying Beast, and then see the look of happiness on her face when he turns out to have been a Gallic pretty boy all along. This is why Shrek’s inversion of the tale works so well. The point isn’t that inner beauty translates into outer beauty, it’s that the former, we hope, renders the latter largely irrelevant. Belle’s reward for being willing to forgo physical attraction is to receive it. Shrek receives no reward other than the love of the woman he loves in return, and that’s absolutely all he needs.

I realise I am probably being uncharitable, in addition to potentially applying far too much thought to a tale for children (though that attitude taken too far is profoundly dangerous). Nevertheless, the issue remains. It’s accentuated by the Disney approach itself, in which all that stops Belle from leaving the Beast forever is him saving her from being torn to pieces by a pack of slavering wolves. That, at least, seems fairly unambiguously rooted in childhood fantasy. “She might not notice me now, but I bet if I saved her life she’d see how awesome I am”. The man who confuses gratitude for affection does himself – and the object of his desire – no favours.

So I have some problems with the structure of the story. The execution, however, was flawless. I really should go to the theatre more often, but my inexperience has the happy knock-on effect of being amazed every time I go as to just how much can be achieved by an inventive and dedicated troupe. Watching a man turn from man to beast and back in front of your eyes is truly astonishing. The battle for the castle that forms the film’s conclusion was brilliantly, impossibly recreated, with added lashings of French farce (a lovely and smart touch) for good measure. The cast’s rendition of “Be Our Guest” actually outstrips the source material, which shouldn’t be humanly (furnishing-ly?) possible – I’m really not sure why they didn’t end the first act on that, rather than what I can only assume was meant to be some kind of musical suicide note by a moping Beast. Absolutely nothing fell short of expectation, and frequently the show outstripped all hopes for it. Even the new songs, whilst not up to the standard of the originals, were engaging and interesting in their own right.

My only major niggle was the desperate lengths the cast went to imitate the accents and voices of the original stars. In this, I differ markedly from BigHead’s opinion, but if I’m watching an interpretation of a work from another medium, that’s what I want; an interpretation. Not something that is as close to a copy as possible within the structure of the new situation (something you could argue Zack Snyder’s Watchmen, for example, fell afoul of). Obviously, when you’re dealing with something as popular as a Disney film (or The Lord of the Rings, which also came up whilst I was talking this over with BigHead), the major heresy is not to copy too avidly, rather to change for the worst, but that makes replication merely safe, not necessarily good.

Over the course of this conversation, BigHead pointed out that I would be hardly likely to raise similar complaints had we seen a band that night rather than a play. And to some extent he’s right. Indeed, I am on record as disliking, say, Counting Crows’ habit of re-jigging their songs during live sets – though in fairness that has less to do with purism and more the fact that they’re often just not very good at doing so. On the other hand, I’ve seen live performances by Coldplay (on TV, admittedly) which were indistinguishable from their recorded versions, to the extent that it took me much of the song to determine they weren’t miming.

That holds absolutely no interest for me at all. I want some variation in a live performance. That, in large part, is the point of a live performance in the first place, at least to me. You can keep your shared experience. I want change. Not too much, perhaps, but surely some Goldilocks Zone of alteration and innovation must exist. This is especially true because the analogy above is faulty. We weren’t watching a band perform one of their songs. We were watching them play someone else’s song. Anyone ever loved a cover version because it was essentially indistinguishable from the original?

I’m betting no.

Still, I’ve gone on at length about this because it’s an interesting topic, not because the problem that led to it was particularly crippling. On the contrary, I was profoundly impressed and entertained. Even if I am worried about the fact that I thought the French maids were more attractive as feather dusters...

Thursday, 5 August 2010

Quz 6

This months' quiz. A slightly uneven batch this time round: in general people found rounds 1, 2, 6 and GK fairly straightforward, but struggled with 3, 4 and 5. On the other hand, rounds 3 and GK were the only two where no team scored full marks, and the very last question in the quiz was the only one not to be answered correctly by anyone at all. The score to beat this week is 35.

Round 1: Words (each word contains an IATA airport code, e.g London Gatwick is LGW)

1 A family of small primarily insectivorous mammals which sport leathery armoured shells (Barajas International Airport, Madrid) ArMADillo

2 Subsequent to birth (London Stansted) PoSTNatal

3 A massive gravitationally bound system of stars and stellar fragments (Los Angeles International Airport) GaLAXy

4 A term meaning “Before the meal”, which refers to the first course of an Italian meal. (Tripoli International Airport) AnTIPasti

5 A lighter than air craft that is steered through the sky using a rudder and propellers (Gibraltar Airport) DiriGIBle

Round 2: Bears

1. From where in South America does Paddington Bear originate? Darkest Peru

2. From which American President do teddy bears take their name, after an incident on a hunting trip in which he demanded the mercy killing of a wounded black bear? Theodore Roosevelt

3. Which trilogy of books includes a talking polar bear by the name of Iorek Brynison? His Dark Materials

4. The constellation of Ursa Major, also known as the Great Bear, contains within it which pattern of seven stars which is frequently informally considered a constellation itself, and which can be used to find the North Star? The Big Dipper/The Plough

5. More correctly known as “Symphony No. 82 in C Major”, “The Bear Symphony” was completed by which composer in 1786, making it the last of the so-called Paris Symphonies to be finished, despite it coming first in the collection? Joseph Haydn

Round 3: Clowns

1. How is Hershel Shmoikel Pinchas Yerucham Krustofsky better known? Krusty The Clown

2. Which serial killer, active between 1972 and 1978 and responsible for over 30 murders in Illinois, was given the moniker “The Killer Clown” because of the popular block parties he would throw for friends and neighbours whilst dressed as a clown to entertain children? John Wayne Gacy, Jr.

3. In which decade was Ronald McDonald first introduced to television in an attempt to market the fast food restaurant’s products to children? 1960's

4. In which Steven King novel is the town of Derry terrorised by a demonic clown named Pennywise? It

5. What object is used to record the individual face make-up of every clown that joins Clowns International? An egg

Round 4: UFOs

1. Which US band, who released their debut album in 1995, take their name from a nickname for strange glowing lights frequently witnessed by American pilots during the Second World War? Foo Fighters

2. Which television writer and director created the 70’s television series UFO, his first show to use live-action shots rather than Supermarionation puppetry? Gerry Anderson

3 In the summer of 1947 a UFO, later controvertially identified as a weather balloon, crashed on a ranch outside the American city of Roswell. In which state does Roswell lie? New Mexico

4. What name did the American military give to their study of UFO sightings between 1952 and 1970, in reference to the small booklets given to exam candidates in many colleges and universities? Project Blue Book

5. Which 1959 Ed Wood film,in which flying saucers resurrect the dead as violent zombies, includes a posthumous appearance by Bela Lugosi and has been described by multiple critics as “The worst film ever made“? Plan 9 From Outer Space

Round 5: Dice

1. Which Nobel laureate once said “God does not play dice”, in reference to his dislike of the idea that any event could be truly random? Albert Einstein

2. “Tumbling Dice” was the lead single from which Rolling Stones album released in 1972? Exile on Main St

3. Which is the highest value on a “doubling dice”, which is used to denote the current stake in backgammon and several other games? 64

4. What is the most likely value obtained by rolling two dodecahedral dice and adding their scores (the most likely score on two standard dice being 7)? 13

5. From which ancient civilisation have the first cubical dice been found, earlier gambling games having used instead the polished heel-bones of sheep? Egyptian

Round 6: Hearts

1. The human heart has four valves: the tricuspid, the mitral, the aortal, and which other valve? Pulmonary

2. In the card game “Hearts”, which is the only point-scoring card not belonging to the eponymous suit? Queen of Spades

3. Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novel “Heart Of Darkness” was adapted – albeit with significant revision – into which 1979 film, directed by Francis Ford Coppola? Apocalypse Now

4. Hearts of Midlothian FC “enjoys” a rivalry with which other football club which is also based in Edinburgh? Hibernian FC

5. Which game does Alice play with the Queen of Hearts, amongst others, in Alice in Wonderland, a game made difficult by its use of live hedgehogs, flamingoes, and the Queen’s own soldiers for equipment? Croquet

General Knowledge

1. (Lolita) Humbert ascribes his obsession with nymphets to the death of which childhood sweetheart? Anabel Leigh

2. In what year did the USSR launch Sputnik 1? 1957

3. Chartreuse, harlequin and veridian are all shades of what colour? Green

4. Which country abandoned its previous monetary unit last year after inflation rose during December of 2008 to an estimated six hundred million googlon percent? Zimbabwe

5. The existence of which subatomic particle was first posited by Gell-Mann and Zweig in 1961, and demonstrated to exist – though originally named “partons” – in 1968? Quark

6. Which poem contains the lines “Water water everywhere, nor any drop to drink”? The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

7. Name either of the countries from which chorizo sausage originates? Spain or Portugal

8. The legendary “Mongolian death worm”, several feet long and the colour of blood, is alleged to haunt which Asian desert? Gobi

9. Who assassinated Lee Harvey Oswald at Dallas Police Headquarters in 1963? Jack Leon Ruby

10. What kind of an animal is a loa loa? A worm