Friday, 30 April 2010

Radio Coniston

Time for a holiday, I think; a week of looking out across the lakes, weighing up the benefits of a brisk walk around the hilltops, and then going to get another cider instead.

Sounds like heaven.

I shall be back in Durham and filling the intertubes with invective some time next weekend, though those who are particularly desperate to avoid work can keep abreast of developments on the twitter feed. Everybody play nice whilst I'm gone.

Shake The Vote #3

Ugh. Even the very thought of this shake made my blood freeze with horror. But because I care about you, my readers, each and every one of you, I will complete this three-part series. Do not forget this!

Today's shake: (Dairy Milk) Caramel Cameron

Taste: 8
Texture: 8
Synergy: 8
Scorn: 3
Associated Political Loathing: 9
Total Score: 6.4

General Comments: I was all set up to loathe this. As I sat drinking the shake, unable to taste much of anything but faintly chocolatey milk, forever unable to get to the good stuff due to the sinister sunken lumps that clogged the bottom of my straw, I thought I had this shake figured out. My head was filled with potential political parallels. "It's both too similar to what's gone before and too potentially dangerous", I would say. "Those things that lurk in the background" - or do I mean the backbench? Huh? Perhaps? - "Will choke you of what you have earned, or need, or have come to expect". The analogy would be perfect. The prose would be tight. I would massacre my enemy. I would be erudite and witty. Plus, someone, at some point, would be referred to as a "prick".

Alas, it was not to be. The damn shake is too good. Not for most of its short life, you understand, that really is just like sucking milk through a malfunctioning straw. But the end. Oh, the end, my friends! The Taiwanese make a drink known as "pearl milk tea", which is essentially black tea mixed with tiny globules made from tapioca and carrageenan powder. I can't really recommend it, but it was billed to me as "a drink and a snack in one", and so it proved, the near-total pointlessness of said snack notwithstanding. This is kind of the same thing, only instead of tea it's ice-cream and instead of tasteless blobs of fat it's giant hunks of caramel, cooled by the ice-cream to the point where they are almost crunchy.

If that kind of "happy ending" doesn't appeal to you, then I would suggest you are reading the wrong blog. And using the wrong form of taste-receptors on your tongue. Or are just so entirely dead to joy that even I think you need to lighten up a little. In any event, you are wrong, and everyone hates you. This shake, quite simply, rocks.

If only it wasn't dedicated to a feckless, slimy prick.

Oh, look at that. I got there after all...

Thursday, 29 April 2010

Conquering The World Is Hard

Today’s burning maths question: does every Liberal Democrat have a number of campaign leaflets they’d have to shove into envelopes before they just decided: fuck it, I’m voting BNP? I bet their volunteers are out there burning crosses in the night.

I’m not saying I’m wild about the idea of turning racist or anything, I’m just saying: sooner or later you get to that stage where you have to burn something down.

But Seriously...

Daniel Larison has an uncharacteristically unpersuasive post up right now regarding the new Arizona law that so many people - myself very much included - have been pouring scorn upon. Just a few points I'd like to make:
For decades, the federal government has failed the border states, and the border states have been left to pick up the tab for an incredibly poor regulated immigration system. In the absence of effective federal enforcement, border states have tried, mostly in vain, to cope with the consequences of mass immigration.
I have no doubt that this is true, but it is far from clear to me that it is in any way relevant. The fact that border control is a) difficult, b) expensive and c) politically difficult proves nothing beyond the fact that a solution will be hard to find. It does not follow that any solution suggested should be free from criticism or even condemnation. We turn once again to our Yes, Prime Minister and Sir Humphrey's appraisal of "Politician's Logic", "Something must be done, this is something, therefore we must do it." That is not Larison's argument, of course, but since it is immediately obvious that there are any number of alternative suggestions for combating illegal immigration that Larison would vehemently oppose, the claim that critics are engaging in "Brownian contempt" simply because they prefer no action to bad action seems like a fairly major stretch.

There is a skein of truth in Larison's case, of course. After spending months lambasting the Republicans for screaming about how terrible the Democratic HCR plan was whilst refusing to offer one of their own, it would be hypocritical of me not to accept that it is hard to take criticism from those who could be offering their own alternatives but are flatly refusing to address the problem. In this particular case, though, what makes that approach difficult is that Arizona has chosen to deal with insufficient funding to police its border not by increasing taxes but by creating a new, deeply draconian law and then demanding federal funds to help enforce it. They need 15 000 new officers to enforce this thing, and they don't have the money to do it. In other words, in order to deal with a situation for which they lack the money (read: are unwilling to generate the money) necessary to resolve it (or, to be fair, make it somewhat less of a catastrophe), they've created a new situation for which the lack the money necessary to resolve it.

As mentioned yesterday, it's the constant chant coming out of Arizona that government needs to be small and as powerless as possible (Arizona receives more money from the federal government than it pays in federal taxes, by the way) that rankles here. Along with many other red states, Arizona is one of the reasons why the government can't spend more on immigration control in the first place. They're not willing to help themselves out on the state level, so they're trying a new way to get the rest of the country to bail them out. Forgive me if I'm not sold on the idea that this is particularly comparable to Gordon Brown slapping a voter down for not being tolerant enough by his lights.
So Gerson believes it is “dreadful” that law enforcement officers would run a check on the immigration status of someone already stopped for some other reason. York goes on to make clear that there would be no check on immigration status if the person has a valid driver’s license...
I'm wondering whether part of this is simple cultural bias on my part, because I know plenty of other countries require anyone driving must have their license with them, but are we really comfortable with the idea that not doing so should be an arrestable offence? In circumstances where we can assume with reasonable confidence that said arrests will only take place when the perpetrator is Hispanic? There are already people like County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik who are convinced the law can't possibly work without mandatory racial profiling, which is a tremendous legal headache even if you side-step the morality involved.

I'm also somewhat surprised at Larison's faith in Arizona cops. I am most certainly not a reflexive police-hater - I've had both friends and family serve within their ranks - but when you hire 15 000 new guys and tell them their job is to start weeding out illegal immigrants, it doesn't take the world's most cynical mind to start wondering about how much emphasis is actually going to be put on the "reasonable" in "reasonable suspicion".
Unless there is another undesirable provision that critics of the law have failed to mention, it would seem that the only people who have reason to complain about this law are those who are here illegally and those who believe that immigration laws should simply not be enforced.
Well, sure. Conditional on it being OK to essentially tell 30% of Arizona's population they can now be arrested for the crime of driving with brown skin and no license, and under the entirely reasonable assumption that Arizona's police forces are exclusively populated by coldly rational automo-cops, I can't see anyone else having a problem at all. And it certainly isn't like anyone could hold that immigration laws are a good idea in general without supporting every single one of them, is it?

In Which I Finally Give In

Against my better judgement, I have entered the exciting world of "tweeting", mainly because I'm hoping the need to write snappy rejoinders in 140 characters or less might help me become less of a chronic wind-bag on the blog proper.

Hopes, needless to say, are not high...

The Biscuit Compulsion

One of the quintessential aspects of being British is our unerring knack of creating games popular enough to permeate the international community, which then beats the ever loving shit out of us at forever more. Not that that's particularly different from all the sports we didn't invent, obviously. In fact, the more accurate appraisal is surely that we suck across the board. Nevertheless, though, there is something defining about spending one's time expertly crafting contests of skill and character, only to watch some interloper swoop in and take all the shiny trophies.

It is thus with true British stiff-upper-lipped resolve that I announce my trouncing in the first official OCD Olympics, held in Durham Maths Stadium (AKA CM221) and based on my previous post on the subject at the start of the year.

This time, the weapons of choice were entirely biscuit based. My own preference was for bourbon biscuits, because I am a man of taste and culture; my opponent insisted on custard creams, because she is young and doesn't know any better, and also because she thinks a price of nine pence for an entire packet of biscuits represents "a bargain" rather than "an obvious warning". Following several failed attempts at mediation regarding the superior option, the decision was eventually made that each competitor would receive a home advantage in one event, to be followed by a third event which was to be considered neutral.

Event 1: Custard Creams

Rules: These are simple. Each competitor must remove and consume the upper biscuit layer (there is no official penalty for getting crumbs everywhere, but as a general rule it's frowned upon to snort them out of your nose, no matter how hard you're laughing, and directing the resulting stream of biscuit-flecked snot at your opponent is right out), and then scrape away the "delicious" layer of pseudo-cream. The first participant to achieve this feat wins. If all competitors break their bottom layer, the round is declared a draw. The full events requires two rounds, with a third "sudden death" biscuit-off in the case of a tie.

Result: A disaster for Team Squid. My opponent's vastly superior experience with custard creams (henceforth to be known as The Devil's Cookie) perhaps made her overconfident - she broke her first biscuit in two whilst I was still trying to overcome my nausea and revulsion - but following that first draw her second attempt saw her remove the nada-cream at a rate scarely credible. Had I not seen this feat with my own eyes, I would have branded such a feat impossible. Clearly, I had made the mistake of facing off against some sort of witch.

Event 2: Bourbon Biscuits

Rules: As above, but with an entirely more delicious biscuit.

Result: Well, I still lost, but on the upside the actual process was a lot more pleasant. I felt more at home with the longer, more aerodynamic bourbon shape, and was able to use my years of training to employ some fairly impressive tongue skills (shut up!). Despite this, however, my young opponent managed to squeak out a narrow win in one round, and a draw in the other, putting her two-nil ahead.

Event 3: Pocky

Rules: This one is probably best described as a suck-off (shut up!): the first participant to entirely remove the chocolate from a pocky stick wins.

Result: Tragically, our pocky reserves were almost dry (I caught my opponent offering them to other doctors earlier that day, and believe me there's going to be a conversation about that at some point), and only one of the two remaining had the chocolate-free "handle" still attached. This led to the horribly ignoble shame of being offered the more easily manipulable pocky on the grounds that I'd "already been humiliated enough", and the far greater shame of actually agreeing in the desperate hope of gaining a win. Ah, SpaceSquid. Is chivalry truly dead?

The way to win this one, I think, is to begin by sucking, and then switch to a feisty licking action (yes, I know, SHUT UP!). Certainly, that was the approach I took, and it seemed to work pretty well, allowing me to - at last! - avoid defeat, instead merely drawing. Well, that's what we decided, anyway, lacking the necessary resources to construct some kind of oral-fixated hawkeye that could determine the exact moment our frenzied activity allowed us to swallow the last of the... actually, forget it; this is making me a little queasy.

In conclusion, then, Team Squid returns home from its first OCD Olympics surrounded by the stink of defeat, and covered in the crumbs of various biscuits. None too impressive, I grant you, but I have learned a great deal. I now know the face of my enemy.

This day shall be avenged...

Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Also On The List For A Firm Self-Screwing

Since I took the time yesterday to tell Texas to go to Hell, I would be remiss in my old-man-yells-at-cloud duties were I not to point out that right now, Arizona and Oklahoma are much worse.

How much worse, you ask? How about a new Arizona law allowing people to be arrested if they can't immediately prove they are citizens? A law so ludicrously overreaching they're begging the Feds to help pay for it? I guess "Big Gubmit" isn't so much of an issue when it's only showing up to kick brown people back to Sonora, but you have to be missing a fairly worrying proportion of your frontal lobes to suggest universal health care is the first step to a police state but suggesting all citizens carry papers to avoid arrest is just a way of getting tough on crime.

Or how about this: new laws in Oklahoma demanding women seeking abortion receive an ultrasound and a detailed oral description of their foetus first, with no exception for rape and incest cases, and which protects doctors from lawsuits they may incur from deliberately hiding the existence of probable birth-defects from expectant mothers? Because nothing screams "good idea" like offering legal protection to doctors who want to lie to their patients.

The Democratic governor of Oklahoma tried to veto both those latter bills, by the way, only to have his vetoes overridden by the Republican-dominated state legislature. Which, y'know, I mention by way of one of my fairly frequent reminders that there is a significant proportion of the American population that has quite simply lost its mind. Even when that Mississippi school board pulling a prom-night bait-and-switch to stop evil lesbians ruining the pageantry with their tuxedos and cock-hating, it didn't get me quite as pissed off as this.

Hey, Mississippi! Arizona and Oklahoma are making you look like a wussy librul! How the fuck is that even possible!?!

Tuesday, 27 April 2010

The Injustice Of Love or Why Texas Can Go Fuck Itself

Even when you spend as much time as I do cataloguing the myriad forms of lunacy the Americans are pleased to call "justice", every now and then something surfaces that is just so far removed from anything worthy of the name that it takes your breath away.

For instance: refusing the appeal of a man on death row following a trial in which the prosecutor and judge were lovers. Why? Because they'd kept their relationship secret until too long after the trial for it to be held as relevant.

This, to me, is quite insane. My legal-eagle father was a little more thoughtful on the subject, though, and suggested that this was symptomatic of a larger trend (of which, he admitted up front, he has noted on the basis of comparatively scant evidence) of a tendency in the US/certain US states to fetishise the letter of the law far beyond what could be considered realistic, or more appropriately, just. He pointed out to me that the UK too has laws preventing appeals from being made too late after the fact - so as to prevent any attempts to use the process to gum up the works of the court - but that the system has the leeway to overrule said rules whenever it becomes clear that justice had been particularly ill-served.

Whilst I am significantly less qualified than my father to judge the differences between US and UK legal approaches, his theory makes some intuitive sense. It stands to reason that a country that obsesses so much over the meaning of its original constitution would tend to follow the strict letter of the law whenever possible (quantifying the irony of such a practice taking place in the self-styled "land of the free" is an exercise left to the reader) but a) this should not be taken as a reason not to view this as the affront against common decency and justice that it is, and b) if you're going to take such a potentially dangerous hard line stance against interpretation, consideration and simple wisdom, then you'd damn well better make sure your rigidly unbreakable system works better than it clearly is here.

Besides, I think something else is going on here.

What surprises me even more is the fact that Hood's case is getting a sentence hearing - as I understand it, a discussion over whether his sentence was fairly reached without touching whether his guilt was fairly determined - and the prosecution are going for the death penalty again. I suppose on one level I can see what's happening; the prosecution are convinced of the guy's guilt so they don't really care that he was found guilty by a compromised court, but once you're at a point where you know the defendant was a victim of a mistrial that simply wasn't recognised as such at the time, you would hope at the very least the idea of murdering him over it might be reconsidered as being possibly a bad idea.

Not in Texas, of course. In fact, the horror-show above ties into a larger problem, both in the US in general and most especially with respect to Texas: the continuing refusal of authorities who support the death penalty to accept that the system is fallible.

Once you look at it through that twisted prism, everything makes sense. Suppose this affair hadn't been revealed until after Hood had been executed. That would mean a legally innocent man[1] had been put to death. And the supporters of capital punishment can't deal with that. So instead we have the ridiculous idea that because Hood lacked the telepathic powers necessary to discern the truth in time, his trial must have been fair. That way, even if he was pushing up the daisies by the time the judge fessed up, it wouldn't matter. Time-limit expired. Shoulda spent more time studying body language, amirite?

It's the only way to avoid getting into the much more complicated conversation of whether executions known to have stemmed from miscarriages of justice can be considered an acceptable price to pay for continuing to maintain the death penalty. Not surprisingly, I would argue that no, it doesn't, that certain scenarios are simply too horrific to countenance (see also: torture, state use of). But that's a debate we could have, and it's one Texas' authorities seem desperate to deny is necessary.

Of course, all of that is just a strict subset of my larger problem with American conservative thought. I've mentioned this before, but to restate, the simplest, easiest way to work out the American right is full of crap is to count the sheer number of complicated situations they are prepared to claim are actually incredibly simple, and in which everyone wins. We'll be out of Iraq in three months. Lowering taxes always increases revenue. Everyone within driving distance of an ER does not lack for healthcare. Global warming has yet to be proven to exist. Torture works.

On almost every conceivable front, these people duck the necessary formulation of "This idea will be bad/terribly bad/nothing short of catastrophic for the poor/the black/foreigners/the very soul of our nation, but we still need to do it because..." and instead repeat The Old Lie, "Our way is easy, and no-one will suffer who doesn't deserve it." After that, it's just a toss of the coin as to whether they will argue that no-one is suffering, or that those people who are must by definition deserve it (we'll call the latter "The Limbaugh Method").

This is just one more example of that. Faced between commuting the sentence of a legally innocent man, and finding the most obscure legal loophole possible and exploiting it to the fullest - an exploitation directly leading to the death of a man - the Texas system of "justice" went through Door #2. Because it was easy. And because the guy deserves it. Why else would he have been found guilty?

[1] Obviously, I haven't the faintest idea whether or not this guy is actually innocent.

Monday, 26 April 2010

Shake The Vote #2

I couldn't get hold of a chocolate brownie milkshake today, and had to settle for the clearly inferior chocolate fudge brownie. This situation has displeased me, though it has provided BigHead with the opportunity to make jokes about Brown "fudging" the figures, so it's nice that it's given at least one person some entertainment (which may or may not be above average for one of my posts already).

Today's shake: Chocolate Fudge Brownie Brown

Taste: 8
Texture: 6
Synergy: 7
Scorn: 4
Associated Political Loathing: 8
Total Score: 5.8

General Comments: Just melt some chocolate fudge ice-cream, pour it into a cup, and you're already there. It's not flashy, it's not showy, but it gets the job done. I'd have said it was a perfect representation of our PM, if only it had attempted to bully smaller drinks on the way to Elvet Bridge.

Sunday, 25 April 2010

I Will Now Produce Maths Only In Exchange For Canadian Geese

Things have been comparatively quiet on the US politics front lately. There's still a sense of Congress recuperating from their last cataclysmic battle, whilst they slowly shuffle their pieces into place for the next one.

Before we get there, though, and the fur starts flying over the Next Big Thing (which is almost certainly going to be either immigration reform or an environment bill (EDIT: or financial reform, obviously)), let's take a minute to remember what was achieved a month ago: the Americans received a massive overhaul to healthcare that didn't involve bartering with chickens.

In truth, I think the site gives Lowden entirely too much credit, since it's assuming a linear utility for chickens. Far more likely is the possibility that the relationship between cost and chicken number is exponential. Or even unimodal. After all, ten chickens is a thoughtful gift. Eight thousand is a is a madly-clucking shit-factory. Plus, one would assume they'd make doctor's surgeries significantly less hygienic. That means more plastic gloves and antiseptic sprays, which presuambly Lowden will suggest be paid for using honey badgers and raccoon skins.

h/t to LGM.

Saturday, 24 April 2010

Birth-Death Processes

Yesterday was a busy day, headspace-wise. On the one hand, it marked the second anniversary of Dr P's death. I know a lot of people (SpaceSquid Senior in particular) work on the principle that anniversaries are just coincidental match-ups in an arbitrary measuring system, but I've never agreed. The fact the date you choose to remember the people you've lost (and indeed, the people still with you) is irrelevant is not the same thing as the process itself being worthless. One of these days I'm going to get around to my planned pilgrimage to some of her favourite places, but for now I'll have to settle for my yearly donation to the RSPB. I don't think Dr P ever met a bird she didn't like, which is more than can be said for a lot of people she encountered.

On the other hand, yesterday saw the birth of what I think can be described as the first ever baby born to good friends (as oppose to colleagues or acquaintances, and I shall feel really terrible if it turns out I've forgotten someone). That really is mere coincidence, but nonetheless there is something attractive in the symmetry. Far more so than turning thirty last January, the birth of little Henry makes me feel like my generation is genuinely moving onwards, and starting to replace itself. I shall spare you the details of my musings on the subject, save to say that today was the first time it occurred to me that the increasing life expectancy of humanity and the increased age at which people choose to have kids may not be entirely uncorrelated. I'm sure that's a question that's been asked and answered by people smarter than me, of course.

So, in lieu of an in-depth discussion of the circle of life (it moves, as I understand it, us all), I figured I'd offer up two very different videos as two very different tributes. First of all, for Dr P, a song that was top of my playlist the day she died, and which has thus become entirely about her - not inappropriately, given it's message of living life to the full (think of it as my apology for all this moping, which would have pissed her right off):



Second, for the bean, one of the most beautiful songs I've had the privilege to hear. On those rare occasions when I stop to consider the possibility of having children of my own some day, this is the song that I imagine I would sing to them. Hopefully that process wouldn't traumatise them too greatly.

Friday, 23 April 2010

Trust The Beard

Now they tell me.

Of course, maybe breaking out the beard-trimmer and reverting to the stubbly look hasn't reduced my trustworthiness, so much as made me trustworthy and sexy.

Yeah, that must be it...

Has The World Gone Mad?

I missed the debate last night due to an extended drinking session near London Bridge (two quick tips: if you ever find Honeydew beer on tap, then don't think about ordering anything else, and never turn around on an escalator if you value either your pride of the skin of your elbows), but the Guardian's summation seems pretty closely in line with what I was expecting. Another Clegg win would have been exceptionally welcome, obviously, but Brown and Cameron have had some time to work out how best to deal with the interloper, and from that report it sounds like they've figured it out (of course, if anyone has a different take, feel free to leave it in comments).

What I haven't missed, though, is the increasing number of newspaper headlines discussing, defending or attacking Clegg, including the quite spectacularly vicious "Nazi slur" stunt pulled by the Mail (thanks to Chris B for pointing that one out to me). Partially, this is probably a symptom of the media's ongoing battle with it's crippling ADD problems - Clegg is shiny and new and they can pullhimtobits!!!!! Brutal Snake told me he's concerned that even the positive coverage is simply stage one in another of the wearyingly predictable "set 'em up, knock 'em down" cycles from which the media seem unable to escape, and I can see his point (though personally my own take on Clegg's good press has more to do with people making themselves feel better over the fact that when the chips are down they don't intend to support or vote for him).

But it also feels not unlike an awful lot of people who I hate a great deal are running a little scared these days. I'm not too proud to admit that this pleases me. Those who are running Obama/Clegg comparisons are stretching things by some considerable distance, but in one respect they are genuinely very similar: when the intertubes exploded into a tornado of half-truths, smears and baseless accusations, it was because they were potentially very bad news for some very bad people.

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Shake The Vote

So last night I'm carpetbagging in Seaham, right, and everything's pretty quiet and I'm not really paying any attention, and suddenly C drops a bombshell: Shakeaholic are offering Election Specials.

How can I, a man addicted to both politics (albeit only the interesting bits) and dairy products (except for yoghurt, which I really don't get) resist such a thing? Time, I tell myself, to get back in the saddle.

Here's the thing, though: C is a liar. Or a fool. Or a foolish liar. Or a coelacanth. Well, probably not that last one. Shakeaholic disavows any knowledge of such a scheme. Shakeaway - Durham's obviously unnecessary alternative shake venue - does have such a promotion, but their so-called "specials" are a disgraceful assortment of unrelated ingredients. Where was the Caramel Cameron I was promised? The Chocolate Brownie Brown (£10 says that's what the kids at Brown's primary school called him until anyone got around to teaching them the word "shite")? Most importantly, how was I to acquire my Creme Egg Clegg (it was suggested to me that Snickers Creme Clegg would work even better, but I think the peanuts might be an issue), complete with yellow cup? How was the hoi polloi of Durham to know what my milkshake selection said about me as a person?

There was nothing for it but to order a creme egg shake, and spend my time alternating between sips of shake and loudly calling all non-liberals tossers. Those who have spent time with me during former TSE-dedicated lunchtimes will recognise this ritual as "business as usual".

On, then, to the shake itself. In deference to the political statement one makes with one's choice of such a beverage, I have added an extra category: political scorn. This is liable to drag down otherwise fine shakes, of course, but one can simply remove the relevant value from the list in order to extrapolate the quality of an equivalent shake free of political endorsement.

Today's shake: Creme Egg Clegg

Taste: 9
Texture: 7
Synergy: 9
Scorn: 2
Associated Political Loathing: 6
Total Score: 7.4

General Comments: Well, it's basically just a McDonald's Creme Egg McFlurry, only slightly less overpriced. Which is to say: it's motherfucking awesome on sale. It's a good job I was voting for Clegg's lot in any case, because this would probably have swung it for me.

Monday, 19 April 2010

Quz 2 Redux

Have belatedly remembered to put up answers to the second quiz. Another hearty "well done" to the blog's virtual team, 37 out of 40 is an exceptionally respectable score, especially since you lack the advantage of conferring.

Apologies For The Double Post

I seem to have hit a rather defiant stretch of writer's block right now (actually, that isn't true; it's more that I'm putting a lot into one of my two half-finished novels - the first thing I've ever written that I have even the slightest notion of perhaps submitting for publication some day - and I don't seem to have anything left over for the blog), so I'm finding it hard to think of things to post about. In lieu of anything new and sexy and exciting, then, I figured I may go for break in the time-wasting stakes, and post some more up about Saturday's Who episode, despite it not even warranting the amount of effort I put into it last time around.

Let's talk about the Daleks some more. Specifically, what seems to be the two most common complaints about them this time around. The first complaint is that the new variants look too much like they've been deliberately designed in order to create a new toy range.

This isn't entirely true, I don't think. The problem isn't that the Daleks look like someone designed them so as to make new toys, it's that they look like someone has already designed the new toys, and then the TV versions were created from those. Look at how cheap and simplistic these new Daleks look:

No fine detail, no intricate knobbly bits. Trollface over on the SFX forum argued they looked like they'd been made from vacuum-formed plastic, and he's right. It looks for all the world like the decision was made over what a toy could realistically look like, and the series version of the Daleks was created accordingly. This would most certainly not be the first time in TV history that a toy created a narrative (or even a show), rather than the other way round, but in the sheer brazenness stakes, this may be a first for Who.

The other problem, I am much more willing to defend. A lot of people are keen to know why the Daleks - so famous for simply gliding forwards with blasters blazing until everything non-Dalek was non-moving - would attempt such a bizarre plan of infiltration and defeat. Why not just turn up in London and start wrecking up the place?

Thinking about this, actually, I think the plan something to be said for it. From all appearances, there were at absolute maximum three surviving Daleks. It's even possible that the one left on the ship was the only survivor, and the other two were genuinely created by Bracewell.

This leads to two tentative conclusions. Firstly, you have the possibility that last surviving ship was actually a comparatively rubbish one-Dalek saucer, which helps to explain why three Spitfires (yes, with Dalek cannons) could pose a serious threat (even with its shields down, one would think a Dalek Saucer would be the odds on favourite in such a fight by some considerable distance).

Secondly, and not unlrelated, is it possible that the last remaining Dalek has perhaps actually learned something after all those ridiculously embarrassing defeats? Perhaps it's no longer prepared to go in all guns blazing and hope to win by sheer body count. Somewhere in that coldly xenophobic processor, it's finally worked out that the Underpants Gnome theory of interstellar dominance is no longer working. Step 1: Blow up everything in front of it. Step 3: Total victory! But what's Step 2?

Step 2, it's now realised, is: Get your pepperpot-head handed to you by the Doctor. And that, from a Dalek perspective, is rubbish.

The very first Last Dalek, back in Season 1, had absolutely nothing to lose but its chains, and its mind. Step 3 was no longer an option, so it pretty much decided to settle on Step 1 in perpetuity. The latest Last Dalek - only someone with the memory of a goldfish would be prepared to call it the last Last Dalek - is in a very different situation. It can get to Step 3. It can bring back the Dalek race. And all it has to do is find his species' deadliest enemy, and not have him blow its eyestalk into oblivion.

The Daleks are supposed to be the universe's most efficient practitioners of warfare. They are warfare, to all intents and purposes. And I very much like the idea that there are certain situations in which their logic units point them towards tactics more complex than "Float along, zap". It's not really a new idea, after all. What was Spirodon but an attempt to improve the Daleks through subterfuge? The first two or three episodes of Remembrance of the Daleks reads like nothing so much as what the Daleks would consider smoke and mirrors.

The last advantage to this line of thinking is you could even twist it into a reason for the Progenator not opening. The same mental state that led our last Dalek to start thinking of alternatives to the frontal assault has rendered it insufficiently Dalek-y for the Progenator to want to have anything to do with. Sure, the claim in the episode is that it's a biological issue, but then there's a certain appeal to the idea that our newly-humbled pepperpot literally cannot grasp what the problem is. [1]

I suspect plenty of people would hate the idea of Daleks feeling that they need to be prudent and sneaky (though once the show got o "WE MUST NOW RELY ON SOLDIERS MADE FROM PIGS", I'd argue it had already crossed that particular Rubicon). You could also take the Remembrance idea and run with it, and suggest the problems lies in the Progenator being an Imperial device, which won't recognise the Stolen Earth Daleks, who are surely Purestrain almost by definition. Still, it's something to consider, at least.

[1] I acknowledge the problem here is why a Dalek AI operates in a different way to a Dalek itself. The best I can think of is that the former has partially transcended its own programming and become something all together more considered. Now there's a pleasingly terrifying idea...

Saturday, 17 April 2010

Two Wars

My soundbite review of tonight's Doctor Who is this: it's probably a bad idea that a story so utterly unwilling to sit still for ten seconds and think about anything at all should have triggered off so much in my brain.

Actually, that might be more of a soundbite review of my brain. But I'm still right.

There's a certain pointlessness - even by my standards - in delving too deeply into TV that is so clearly designed to bypass the cerebral cortex. Sure, I spent a lot of time laying into RTD over similar issues, but that's in large part because of his attempts to pass off his nonsense as if it were terribly important or relevant somehow. Victory of the Daleks, at least, suffered no such delusions. It was pure sugar-rush; a single chase scene stretched across three quarters of an hour. If Target still did Who novelisations, this one would be called Doctor Who and the Shit that Exploded. When you realise you're dealing with someone who thinks the Daleks biggest problem was a lack of bright colours, it's worth thinking about whether it's worth saying anything at all. You either enjoy the roller-coaster, or you don't. You're either OK with the Doctor punching out an android, or you're not.

The truth is, though, that I am generally pretty bad at taking my own advice, especially when said advice is "Shut up". I did enjoy the ride. I'm sure what is arguably the first space battle in Who history has Lawrence Miles ready to kill someone, but it worked for me. The idea that the Daleks are so twisted that they can't open their own locks unless the Doctor has shown up to be mean to them is brilliant, something of a photo-negative of the message to the Doctor in Dalek five years ago: you cannot let yourself be defined by your enemy. There's also something indefinably right about the Doctor attempting to hold off his nemeses with a jammy dodger, ludicrous though the idea sounds (all that was missing was the scanning Dalek expanding on it's discovery: "IT IS SOME SORT OF DELICIOUS BISCUIT!!!").

Also, much as it seems to be disliked by various aspects of the online fan community, I'm enjoying the setting up of Amy as being a genuinely useful companion, who actually complements the Doctor's skill set, rather than sulking and pouting and then just being described as wonderful rather than demonstrating it. I'm not sure what exactly it says that the idea of Amy being more intuitive than the Doctor is apparently so much more unpalatable than the notion that the Doctor might want to screw his companions, but at the very least if I'm going to have to sit through yet another year of sideways glances and subtext-laden conversations, it's nice that effort is going into it actually making some fraction of sense.

That, of course, is the absolute best spin possible to put upon watching the Doctor and Amy defuse a planet-cracking bomb with the power of wuv. Not even wuv, but naughty wuv, into the bargain. Quite aside from the level of total disconnection from reality you'd need to buy the idea that you can make an android feel human enough to stop a remote-controlled bomb from going off, one thing that always bothered me about New Who is the idea that the Doctor keeps showing up and stealing women away by dint of his unquestionable awesomeness. Nothing wrong with working out someone new would be better for you, obviously. Things change, after all. Neither Mickey nor Rory owned their respective partners - though one wonders how Amy would be seen by viewers had she run off with the Doctor the day after her wedding. All that said, though, I'm nevertheless uncomfortable with the idea that all this horribly complicated and potentially damaging Buzzcocks-style shenanigans is somehow terribly exciting and romantic, rather than just two parts uncomfortable to one part heartbreaking. If it was more honestly presented, rather than making Mickey whiney and petulant and Rory nervously geeky - though in fairness, that might change - it might bother me less. That's not what we're getting, though. What we're getting is "My forbidden lust for you just saved Planet Motherfucking Earth".

The other thing that bothered me is potentially more serious: it was hard not to watch the episode and not feel like the message was that war is noble and awesome. Flags are awesome. Winston Churchill was awesome. A woman in tears over the death of her significant other is something of a shame, but dammit there's a war on! And even that brief nod to the cost of war (which lasted roughly as long as the scene of the Union flag being lovingly restored amidst the fluttering beat of birds' wings) showed more respect than the Doctor dismissing the possibility of ending the Second World War because Curchill is on the case.

If anything, anything needs to be dealt with carefully, it's the reasons why a time-travelling superhero has spiked the best chance anyone ever had of preventing the Holocaust. I'm not saying Who has to answer that question directly, I'm saying that if you're script has put you in the position of ignoring it, you've gone badly wrong somewhere. If there was ever a no-brainer in writing, it's that neither Bracewell's lab nor Danny Boy's Spitfire should have been allowed to survive to the point where the Doctor needed to decide what to do about them; it's far easier to deal with the Doctor not acting to stop the war than him acting specfically to prevent others stopping it too soon. The Fires Of Pompeii forced the Doctor to agonise for more than half an episode over the difficulties of not being able to save everyone, everywhere. The idea that it's somehow much easier to walk away from the deaths of tens of millions of people because Churchill knows what he's doing cheapens the Doctor, and frankly I'm far from happy about the idea of hero-worshipping Churchill either. I know that we've come a long way from the idea back in 1963 that Doctor Who should be a show that educated at least as much as it entertained, but I'm still not at all impressed by the idea of rewriting history to the point where Churchill's was so defiantly noble as to be the Doctor's bestest friend of all his friends.

Friday, 16 April 2010

We Owe David Icke An Apology

Doubtless you are all desperately wondering what I thought of last night's debate.

For a while there, my answer was going to be a colossal shrug. Sure, Clegg did well at not seeming like a student union president invited by mistake, Brown at not seeming like a violent ambulatory fridge, and Cameron at not seeming like a threat to all human life across the UK and beyond, but whilst these facts might make the post-game analysis interesting, the debate itself left me thoroughly disinterested. I had thought that there had been nothing of any note throughout.

But this is not the case! Thanks to my elite team of statistical investigators (also known as Chuck), I can reveal the dark heart of ITV's attempts to subliminally effect your voting preferences. Observe the travesty. The disgrace. The betrayal.

Still confused? Still mercifully unaware of the message imprinted in your unsuspecting brains? Check out those six sets of coloured posts, my friends! Six sets, three colours; that's one permutation each. An eminently fair way to represent the three parties, surely?

Yet this is not how ITV rolls
. What we actually see are two copies of yellow-blue-red and red-blue-yellow, and one each of yellow-red-blue and blue-yellow red. In other words, yellow is first three times, red twice, and blue only once.

Can the message be any clearer? Well, I think it could be, because I bet you're all "Wow! This is clearly an attempt to bias in favour of the Liberal Democrats!"

Nothing could be further from the truth! Literally nothing! Were you able to create a distance measure by which two statements could have their relative lengths from the truth compared, your pathetic theory would prove more distant from the shining singularity known as fact (FACT!) than such comments as "The moon is made of cheese" or "Cast are a distinctly above-average band". Your feeble hypothesis regarding this situation is based on that most obvious of errors: you are reading left to right.

Want to know who didn't read left to right? The Israelites.

You see the truth now, don't you? At long last, after so many decades skulking in the shadows, the international Jewish conspiracy has struck, and it wants you to ignore the Liberal Democrats! They know that as long as Nick Clegg is haunting the halls of Downing Street, their plan to fire Israel into space and attach death rays to its underside will never happen!

Is that what you want, huh? Living in the shadow of the Greater Space-Israel, constantly terrified your house will be obliterated because the budget has increased duty on bagels? To be seized by the drop pod borne robo-Mossad for daring to suggest Topol wasn't the best thing about Flash Gordon? Then vote for the other guys. Whatever.

Just remember that you were warned.

Thursday, 15 April 2010

The Notion Of Patriotism

Another light blogging day - my fingertips are still bruised from that Lucifer post - but I thought I'd point to a nice little article by J .K. Rowling (thanks to Kevin Drum for the link) in the Times regarding the importance of the welfare state. It's a good article, made better by Rowling's direct experience, but I think my favourite line is this:
...I am indebted to the British welfare state; the very one that Mr Cameron would like to replace with charity handouts. When my life hit rock bottom, that safety net, threadbare though it had become under John Major’s Government, was there to break the fall. I cannot help feeling, therefore, that it would have been contemptible to scarper for the West Indies at the first sniff of a seven-figure royalty cheque. This, if you like, is my notion of patriotism. On the available evidence, I suspect that it is Lord Ashcroft’s idea of being a mug.
When I was younger I used to view patriotism with distinct suspicion and condescension. Having mellowed as I have gotten older (fuck off, I have), I've realised that my problem isn't patriotism itself, simply the myriad evils committed in its name, and the equally expansive assortment of actions that are patriotic and yet self-styled patriots often refuse to have anything to do with.

Actually bothering to pay taxes to the society that got you to where you are sounds like a pretty textbook case of the latter, even for those people who didn't actually take advantage of benefits themselves, but still gaining the advantage of a labour force kept healthy and protected by the machinery of the state.

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

Our Friends In The South

At long last, Northerners get the respect we deserve.

My own singular encounter with the North-South divide occurred as I was visiting the University of East Anglia during my search for UCAS options (pausing only to falsify climate data and bring science into disrepute, of course). Just before we began the tour of the campus (which resembled the midpoint between a man-sized concrete hamster maze and the very least imaginative scenes in Metropolis), our guide asked my two fellow potential initiates and I where we had come from. Both my fellow travellers answered "London"; I offered "Middlesbrough". Our guide blinked, cocked her head in consternation, and told me "Wow. Yeah, we had someone else from the North here just the other day". Mercifully, she resisted the temptation to ask whether we were acquainted.

This though was entirely outdone by a friend of mine at the time who chose to apply to Cambridge, and who was also called upon to reveal her heritage during her visit. She too (equally erroneously) named her home town as Middlesbrough, which provoked the response: "Fucking Hell! Do you need to carry a knife?"

h/t to Danny.

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Devil's Due


It is perhaps ironic, considering how much time I have spent in the last week reading Lucifer, but recently I have been presented with a revelation.

Much metaphorical ink has been metaphorically spilt upon this blog regarding my problem with characters. My esteemed flatmate remains convinced to this day that anything that could even be vaguely described as a "character piece" will cause me to shriek my lungs out of my throat out in violent paroxysms of frustrated boredom. It is not a theory that lacks for circumstantial evidence.

For a while now I've been arguing that my problem is not with characterisation per se - only the most unobservant of judges could find me guilty of adrenaline addiction - it is simply that I cannot enjoy the company of characters who I dislike, however cleverly they are assembled. Reading Lucifer, however, I realised that isn't the whole truth. Just as with plots, where those that are best are almost always concerned with something other than what they look like they're concerned with: the relevant issue is this: is the character actually about something?

Lucifer is about a great deal, and this is what, in whole or in part, makes him possibly the greatest comic book character going. What better way to celebrate my new interest in characterisation, then, than to discuss the gentleman in question?

Whilst reading Lucifer Volume 5 this weekend (for the first time, despite the comic reaching its conclusion in 2006), I was struck by something I had never realised before. I've known for a while, as an entirely banal conclusion and an entirely unoriginal idea, that Carey's comic restates the battle between Heaven and Hell, making it not Good versus Evil but Fate versus Free Will. It was only late on Sunday night that it occurred to me - and hopefully this is a somewhat less commonly considered point- that Lucifer is the world's most dangerous Buddhist.

Once this realisation dawned, there was really nothing to be done but return to the start and read the whole thing again. Sure enough, this angle springs up right at the very beginning, in Carey's three-part The Sandman Presents: Lucifer mini, referred to henceforth as the (slightly) less cumbersome The Morningstar Option. What follows is therefore a discussion of that story. The chances are good that I will discuss other Lucifer stories further down the line, but we'll start here, and see how we go.

Aaron Sorkin, without question my all-time favourite purveyor of liberal porn, once said the following on the subject of creating characters:
Stockard had done an episode of the show as the First Lady ... She took me out to lunch and said she really liked doing the show and wanted to do more and started asking me questions like, 'Who do you think this character is?' And those aren’t questions I can answer. [As a writer] I can only answer, what do they want?
I'm sure that works for him, but it's worth noting that the above approach wouldn't really get you anywhere with Lucifer. Much as the more fevered sections of my fanboy brain might squeal with ecstasy at the thought of the West Wing playing host to the The Prince of the East ("We have a job approval of 48% and Congress is one bad day away from burning this place to the ground, do we really want to be the first administration in history to show Satan round the Rose Garden?"), one assumes that Sorkin could have given nothing for Samael to say. Lucifer cannot be defined by what he wants. He doesn't want anything. The only thing that matters when considering Lucifer is this: what does he need?

To the best of my knowledge, pretty much everyone claims to want free will. Not everyone believes they have it, and there is a remarkable tendency amongst otherwise intelligent people to justify the mistakes they make and people they damage by claiming they never had any other choice (see Midnight Nation for a fairly long discussion of this point, particularly in issue #4, ironically - or perhaps perfectly - entitled The Devil You Know), but so far as I am aware, the number of people who believe they have a destiny is fairly small, and the number who believe they have a destiny they don't actually want is smaller still. The question these three issues asks us is whether, in fact, we do want free will, or do we actually need it on some primal level?

Historically, I think people have been fairly poor at telling the difference between want and need, or at least fairly poor at admitting the difference, to each other but especially to themselves. In The Morningstar Option, though, the difference becomes rather obvious once the Velleity starts granting wishes to all those who are silent or insane enough to ask.

Or at least, the difference should become rather obvious. The Velleity has shifted the question. We can discover the truth of the matter simply by studying what it is that the Voiceless Gods are prepared to offer.

Consider the origin of the Velleity. The Voiceless Gods, remember, were birthed by the very first humans, who lacked the words they needed to give form or structure to their desires. That very much implies they trade in the coin of need. Need is more basic, more fundamental than want. We need food, and water, and air to breathe. Our hearts desire, but requirement is in our bones. If the Voiceless were born out of our need to survive, perhaps then they have returned to us in order to perform the same function.

Immediately, though, this line of thinking raises a new question. Why have they returned, here and now? Those of the Dineh crawled from their jet-black realm millenia ago. Who or what can be blamed for re-conjuring them?

Surely, it must be want. When man first found his voice, he used it to list his desires. When that happened, he began to worship other Gods, those that would not give him what he needed, but what he wanted. A ripe harvest. A happy marriage. A life untroubled by war or pestilence or famine, and with death kept at bay for as long as possible. It is this world, in which we have developed a thousand or more ways to demand or beg for what we desire from the fabric of the universe that the Voiceless Ones have returned to; either because we're screaming our demands louder than ever before, or because there are simply so many voices in the selfish chorus. And since we found those voices, all those centuries ago, the Voiceless Ones can now have their own as well. They can think. They can reason. They can see how the game is played, in their own limited way. The fact that the world cannot withstand what they are offering in exchange for worship is irrelevant to them. They have no thought for what they need, only for what they want. We created them before, and we shape them now. One might hope they recognise the irony, but then that would presumably require people to see the irony themselves, which isn't something I'd be willing to put much money on.

So now the Voiceless Gods offer us what we want. In a sense, this is obvious almost from the first page. A man runs down the street, clutching a bag overflowing with money. A gift from the Velleity. Does he need it? The radio report we hear moments later suggests not. Perhaps it is reasonable to say money is something to be enjoyed, but it is certainly not to be depended on. It is not something we need, though of course it is in many ways the only way to get what we need, at least most of the time - maybe it should be framed as "We need money, we want wealth". And if there remained any doubt upon which side of the divide the Voiceless Gods rest, one need only consider Lucifer's quandary; how does one fight the pure expression of want when one wants absolutely nothing?

This is what sets Lucifer apart from everyone else in the story, and why fate and free will are so integral to everything that takes place within. Only a few pages after his introduction, Lucifer sums up his position on God impressively succinctly: "You'd think part of omniscience would be knowing when to stop." This dedication to self-determination is also why I label him a Buddhist. I do so with tongue firmly in cheek, of course. Lucifer might be on the same quest, but it's hard to put it mildly to reconcile him with the Buddha's teachings, even if I realised as I re-read these comics that he never actually kills anyone (he threatens, but in the grand old Satanic tradition he suggests it is other things that will do the deed: "my dropping you won't kill you; the fall will do that"). The point though is that Lucifer needs nothing except to be free to make his own choices. He needs free will. He does not want it, it is a basic requirement, the only one he has. The only reason he does anything but simply exist. It is the only motivation, though it acts as the root for any number of corollaries of action and attitude. Certainly, it is the only reason he takes up Yahweh's mission of destroying the Velleity. It will get him what he needs. Had he merely wanted it, he could have simply wished for it when he faced them in their blind forests. Instead, and this is absolutely fundamental, he realises the process of acquiring what one wants actually became a barrier to getting what is needed.

Hence: Buddhism. The removal of desire. The attempt to expunge every little voice in your head that claims you only need this or that to improve your life, and that all that stands between you and happiness is the distance from here to the latest bauble you've set your gaze upon. Lucifer understands, perhaps better than anyone else in God's Creation, that desire will trap you in the end (just ask Dream). This is reinforced by almost every other character in the story. Briadach and Mahu are so busy demanding their right to inherit the Earth that they can think of nothing else, other than their own pain. Their absolute obsession with a day that will never come precludes any possibility of choosing a better path, their stasis so unassailable that Briadach actually takes comfort in Mahu's breath-taking lack of curiosity, considering it a universal constant. As understandable and heartbreaking as his actions are, Mr Begai's refusal to believe his Rett syndrome-afflicted son will recover prevents him from accepting the situation for what it is - unchangeable, but not unbearable. Amenadiel might claim to be a willing servant of God, but every word he chokes out demonstrates his hatred of what he is doing. Ramiel is already overwhelmed by the stewardship of Hell - a stewardship, let us not forget, that made Lucifer cut off his wings rather than continue - and quickly finds he has no choice but to obey both God and Lucifer, whenever the whim of either takes them. Even the truck driver who brings Lucifer and Rachel to Mount Taylor has been forced into Pharamond's service because he owes the latter money.

If you define your life by what you want you won't be free until you get it, and the instant you do, you'll just choose the next thing you want to chain yourself to. That's to say nothing of the consequences that radiate outwards from each acquisition, or each failed chase, which conspire to bind you still further. As I say, people are very good at ignoring the consequences before they hit, and denying them (wishing them away) when they wash over us, or even threaten to drown us (note Lucifer pointing out to Rachel that whilst she believes she is drowning as they pass to the third world, she in fact is not), but they are always there, limiting your choices next time around. Mahu wants the Earth too much to live in it. The truck driver, subconsciously or otherwise, exchanged his freedom for whatever it was he used Pharamond's money to buy. The Velleity itself wants to be worshipped, even if the gifts if offers in exchange will destroy its worshippers, both actual and potential, and presumably by extension itself. I don't believe for a second that it's coincidence that only that Duma, Angel of the Silences, seems to have any leeway in how he deals with the situation; for he alone is as Voiceless as we were when we first clambered down from the trees and realised we could kill each other faster with a stone in each hand. If he wants anything, it is known only to himself.

All of this, by the way, is why Rachel is so important to his chances of success. Yes, she serves as a guide, her Navajo heritage getting him to the Fourth World, but there is more:
Rachel: Pharamond said we could come up here because I'm Navajo. Is that the only reason you brought me? Because you couldn't get in by yourself?

Lucifer: No. Not the only reason.
The vital truth about Rachel is that in her, alone amongst the characters in the story, what she wants and what she needs has become inextricably entwined. She wished herself free of her brother; his inability to walk or speak made him a stone around her neck, stopped her from being free. But, ironically and inevitably, her wish makes her less free still, for now she feels she needs to return him to life, to undo her acquisition of what she wanted. But does she want him back? Or does she need him back? Or is it neither; does she claim she needs him back, but in actuality simply needs to demonstrate that she tried. Does she need to attempt the quest but actually want to fail?

Perhaps only in such confusion can one wish for what one needs, when one is distracted enough to follow the fundamental principles of one's make-up. Only by being unable to voice what she wants, by not having the words she needs to formulate what that would be, can she end up asking for what she needs instead. And what she needs, like everyone else, turns out to be freedom.

It is perhaps for this reason that Lucifer tolerates her insolence as far as he does - the truck driver ends up permanently impotent for arguably far less disrespect. In Rachel, though, there is the tiniest spark of something he recognises; someone who isn't afraid to wander the dark places to get what they need. It is also why his betrayal is less vicious than it at first appears:
Rachel: So how do I get Paul back?

Lucifer: You don't. It's too late now.

Rachel: But you... you said...

Lucifer: I said I'd give you an opportunity. Not step-by-step instructions.
It is true that Lucifer could have told Rachel how to get her brother back. And yes, there are unquestionably selfish reasons as to why he didn't - though even chance to recover her brother is more than she would have had without The Morningstar - but there is more, here. Had Lucifer articulated her choice, Rachel would have been reduced to choosing what it was she wanted. The only way to avoid that choice is to not realise you are making it.

Before we go any further, let me state the obvious; I am not arguing it is better Rachel be free of the responsibility of accidentally killing her brother than she manage to return him to life. I am simply saying that it was what she needed, and it has left her free. The instant she has that freedom, however, she throws it away. She pledges her life to the task of first gaining the power to defeat Lucifer, and then using it. As he walks away, he chides her for submitting to the melodrama (actually, for no longer keeping her head above it, another reference to drowning or smothering) that had consumed everyone else in this affair, but he might as well be criticising her willingness to return to the blind, ugly cycle of scrabbling to find what we think we want, rather than allowing herself to remain free.

That brings us almost to the end of The Morningstar Option, but a lot of what's discussed above recurs throughout the first five volumes of Lucifer, in new and interesting combinations. As the story draws to a close, Amenadiel returns to Lucifer, giving him what he asked for: a letter of passage out of God's Domain. True freedom at last. What Lucifer does with that letter, and what he allows to happen as part of a larger plan, is something to be returned to another day.

Monday, 12 April 2010

Five Things...

...I learned in Sheffield.

1. There is at least one Italian restaurant in that city in which you can "accidentally" get hold of a friend's vegetarian meal, eat half of it, claim ignorance when said friend sends back his meat-o-rama, be handed said pigpocalypse amidst profuse apologies, eat all of that, and not be charged over the "mistake". This restaurant also garnishes its calzone pizzas with goddamn mince, making this an even more wizard wheeze than might already seem the case [1];

2. Three player Talisman is a lot of fun. Five player Talisman is an ungodly bloated mess of never-ending failure, which is still awesome as Hell;

3. Due to some bizarre timey-wimey effect I have now switched places with the previous rabid fans of Doctor Who and now find myself as the one defending the nonsensical plot lines cynically soldered together according to a checklist of emotions. I reckon I'll give it another week before telling everyone they're not true fans and they are secretly both poisoned against and jealous of Moffat because he's Scottish. I will also allow my spelling and grammar to slide precipitously;

4. It has now been scientifically proven that there is no amount of booze that can make the ending of Transformers 2 bearable. One can merely either despise it, or lapse into a alcohol-induced coma;

5. You should never insult a spectacularly mediocre 90's indie band in case the uncle of one of the members is sat at the table immediately behind you. Seriously, how on Earth did I manage that one? And who could possibly have guessed anyone would admit to being related to one quarter of Cast?

[1] I seem to be in something of a Jennings mood today. This is simply the latest in a long list of temporary personality changes that lay beyond mortal ken.

Friday, 9 April 2010

Unwanted Focus

I've been hearing for some years - pretty much since I started poking around in US politics, actually - that Charles Krauthammer is somewhere between morally bankrupt and flat out flame-spewing evil, but I've never actually gotten around to reading an entire column of his. I've seen pieces of them demolished to hilarious effect, but since I've never seen one complete and unsullied by commentators (though in every case so far it would not be unfair to say unsullied by logic), I've never stated an opinion about him.

Today, though, he was good enough to comment on a topic I am both extremely interested in, and can at least claim some limited amateur knowledge of: American nuclear policy and its effect on the world. I thought it might be instructive to have a quick look at something written by someone ostensibly amongst the most insightful and influential of American conservatives. The question under consideration: what effect will Obama's decision to pledge not to use first-strike nukes against non-NPT countries have?

Since the very idea of a post dedicated to giving a kicking to an immensely powerful and wealthy man, who spends his days lying to hundreds of thousands of people in exchange for B-2 bombers carpet-bombing his estate with cash, will doubtless be giving Spielbergo the vapours over how unfair I'm being, I shall quickly set out my own stall. What difference will this make? None at all, pretty much. It's a nice symbolic gesture, but that's probably all it is, for good or ill - though it can and I hope will work as a springboard for later efforts. I have more to my case than that, of course, but the bitter pill of my boring opinions will go down more easily if it's accompanied by a spoonful of childish-invective-sugar.

First off, Krauthammer starts ruminating on the good old days, when any country on the face of the planet could be instantly exterminated by the States whenever they chose.
During the Cold War, we let the Russians know that if they dared use their huge conventional military advantage and invaded Western Europe, they risked massive U.S. nuclear retaliation. Goodbye Moscow... The result was called deterrence. For half a century, it held. The Soviets never invaded. We never used nukes. That's why nuclear doctrine is important.
Thinking through the post hoc issues with the above statement is left as an exercise for the reader, but that's not all that's problematic here. Generally speaking, it's a bad sign when someone starts arguing that current tactics and positions are a bad idea now because they would have been a bad idea during the Cold War. Neocons like Krauthammer get a lot of flak for being unable to move their foreign policy thinking beyond Regan's presidency, and this is part of the reason why. Aside from anything else, it completely fails to note the fact that the US is far stronger militarily than it was when Regan arrived in the Oval, or indeed when he left it, despite the amount of money he poured into the armed forces during his tenure. Russia? Not so much for them with the massive military build-up. NATO is no longer living under the shadow of a conventional Russian attack that it would be nigh-on impossible to stop, the numerical supremacy issue having been slightly reduced, and the gap between NATO tech and that of the Russians significantly increased, both to Western advantage. The sooner Krauthammer realises all this, the better.

Of course, one can formulate a highly unlikely future scenario in which the Russians or the Chinese invade a non-European American ally, which has no other recourse to a nuclear deterrent (it's nice that Mr Krauthammer is so concerned with us cheese-gobbling continental types, but he might want to remember that we have nuclear weapons as well, and nothing Obama has agreed to would prevent the Yanks pressing all the shiny launch buttons they want once the mushroom clouds make an appearance), though finding a country that is both strategically important enough for the US to defend it with ICBMs but could not be defended in any other way would, I think, be damned tricky (the obvious exception will be discussed later), even before you start asking why the Russians or Chinese wanted to go to the effort of making a grab for them in any case. Even if you did do this, though, bending the laws of probability and the nature of international relationships to breaking point in order to prove that we can't know the Russians only didn't invade because of nukes and we can't know there won't ever be a country only defensible by US nukes - and which failure to defend would be genuinely catastrophic (I don't like the idea of country's being invaded any more than the next guy, but it's not in any way axiomatic that saving countries from occupation is worth deploying nuclear weapons), then this has to weighed against what can be gained by the policy change under discussion. In this case, that gain is the first step in an attempt to discourage nuclear proliferation by ensuring those that are within the NPT are treated differently from those without.

Still, whilst I don't agree with Krauthammer, I can see the bones of his argument. It's not appalling, just wrong. Then, though, things get more wobbly:
Under the old doctrine, supported by every president of both parties for decades, any aggressor ran the risk of a cataclysmic U.S. nuclear response that would leave the attacking nation a cinder and a memory.

Again: Credible? Doable? No one knows. But the threat was very effective.
The cracks begin to show. At this point, post hoc isn't just a concern, its the festering heart of a terrible argument. The reason there's never been a chemical or biological attack on the US is the fear of being nuked? Says who? Is there any evidence of this anywhere? Because I've never seen it. And if Krauthammer has, he's keeping it pretty damn quiet. More likely, it's just one of those things that neocons simply assume must be true, like how if America isn't constantly combative with everyone it disagrees with, it will make people think they're weak. The US has the largest military force in the world and in the history of the world. It has the CIA. It has the FBI. It has a seige mentality that for all its faults means it's pretty difficult to sneak anything past them. There is every reason to believe the reason no-one has successfully detonated a chemical bomb in downtown LA is because no-one has been able to. You can claim that we can't be sure the nuclear deterrent isn't responsible, and it be worth considering. Once you claim it has been, you need to start coming up with things like evidence. Especially since there's nothing anywhere that suggests the only thing that stopped the nukes being dragged out over 9/11 was the fact that it was a series of planes that killed thousands of people, rather than a virulent pathogen or deadly chemical cloud.

At this point, though, Krauthammer gives up on simple poor reasoning, and goes for gold in the Bat-Shit 100m at the Absolutely Fucking Insane Olympics.
Imagine the scenario: Hundreds of thousands are lying dead in the streets of Boston after a massive anthrax or nerve gas attack. The president immediately calls in the lawyers to determine whether the attacking state is in compliance with the NPT. If it turns out that the attacker is up-to-date with its latest IAEA inspections, well, it gets immunity from nuclear retaliation. (Our response is then restricted to bullets, bombs and other conventional munitions.)
There are three things to bear in mind here. Number 1, the list of who is and isn't complying with the NPT is, like, not difficult to find. If the US is attacked by India, Pakistan, North Korea, or Israel, then nukes are on the table. Iran may or may not be added to that list at some time in the future. Krauthammer conjures up (one presumes deliberately) an image of the President fiddling whilst Rome burns, but the idiocy of this image is immediately evident. The absolute last thing I would be concerned about following such a devastating attack on US home soil is the thought that it might take too long for the US to decide whether it could legally deploy nuclear weapons. By far the more concerning scenario is the possibility that they would know that deployment was illegal but do it anyway. That's because, quite aside from not being much of a fan of the idea that losing the civilian population of a city is a particularly good reason to kill the civilian population of a different city, I tend to believe the world is a better place when the countries in it keep their word. I also think it's best that lawyers give honest and impartial advice, rather than enabling the worst aspects of their President's desires, which is why out of Krauthammer and I, only one of us has written an article defending the legality of torture.

That brings me to issue number two: there are plenty of people in the world who can argue that the weight of international treaty is so strong that great care must be taken to ensure no document is ever signed if rigid, slavish obedience to it would disadvantage the country in the future. Charles Krauthammer, however, cannot. You simply cannot simultaneously argue that removing Saddam Hussein was so important the rest of the world could just go fuck itself and claim that agreeing not to use nuclear weapons following a biological attack means the option is being forevermore being taken off the table. This is a massive non-surprise ("I think I'm going to have a heart attack and die from not surprised!"), but Krauthammer is working backwards from wanting to claim Obama has done something terrible rather than essentially banal, and if that makes him change position from "international law = irrelevant" to "international law = would prevent defence of this country following a massive attack", then so be it. We can clearly tick the box on Krauthammer's reputation checklist marked "desperately mendacious".

The third issue becomes more clear following Krauthammer's next few sentences.
However, if the lawyers tell the president that the attacking state is NPT noncompliant, we are free to blow the bastards to nuclear kingdom come.

This is quite insane. It's like saying that if a terrorist deliberately uses his car to mow down a hundred people waiting at a bus stop, the decision as to whether he gets (a) hanged or (b) 100 hours of community service hinges entirely on whether his car had passed emissions inspections.
Really? That's what's it's like? Daniel Larison is spot on when he notes comparing community service to carpet bombing is utterly ludicrous, but that isn't all that's wrong here. Not only is Krauthammer suggesting that the unbelievable might of the US military cannot deter aggression, because only those shiny nukes can do that - and again, out of the two of us, only one has written an article stating that massive conventional superiority is necessary, despite it apparently not working as a deterrent - he's implying that somehow the difference between agreeing to not have nukes (or in a few cases, not to increase their numbers) and not agreeing to be nuke-free is somehow a small difference. Obama is taking the opposite tack. He's saying it's such a big difference that if you don't agree to be nuke-free he reserves the right to erase your country from the face of the Earth. Now, I don't think doing such a thing should ever be considered - though it's doubtful in the extreme that Krauthammer would share my scruples - but the upshot of this announcement is "Join our club and we won't nuke you".

This, of course, is what it comes down to. Whether or not this statement does much to prevent proliferation.
Does anyone believe that North Korea or Iran will be more persuaded to abjure nuclear weapons because they could then carry out a biological or chemical attack on the U.S. without fear of nuclear retaliation?
Krauthammer has it backwards here. The intent of this proclamation, as far as I can see, isn't an attempt to get North Korea to return to the NPT, it is to discourage others from leaving it - which may or may not include Iran. The idea is not to tell Kim Jong Il that if he comes back to the table, the nuclear option will be removed, it is to tell those currently within the treaty that they need not fear a nuclear attack from the US unless they leave. That there is an actual downside to leaving the treaty. That's what this is about. Trying to stop proliferation, which is an issue that anyone with any brains in their head should be able to realise is far more of a concern that the possibility of Cold War: The Return. This first step might be small (and it is), but that is the goal, the elephant in the room that Krauthammer is determined not to see.

As I say, I'm not sure that the new policy makes any real difference, which is why I'm happy to call this move symbolic (which is to say "not that big a deal"), but by this point Krauthammer has twisted himself into a position where he wants us to believe that the US' enemies are so desperate to parachute sarin gas cannisters into Times Square that only the threat of nuclear retaliation prevents it, but also that they wouldn't take the opportunity to do it if they were given the chance, because they think it too high a price to abandon nuclear programs that are either years away from producing anything, or have already proven to be fairly disappointing on the sort of scale by which such things are measured.[1] In fact, as far as I can see, Krauthammer is sketching out the correct argument, that this will probably make very little difference either way, but then attempting to lay on top of it the idea that it is potentially catastrophic. No-one outside the NPT will want to come in for the sake of a microscopic increase in their tactical options, but those already within will suddenly start trying to destroy the U.S. because they've just been handed victory on a plate. Or something.

Again, though, I can see that as just bad arguments rather than actual dissembling. But let's not speak to soon! No sooner have we had time to take a breath whilst swimming the Ocean of Infinite Incoherency, then our heads are pulled underwater once again.
The last quarter-century -- the time of greatest superpower nuclear arms reduction -- is precisely when Iran and North Korea went hellbent into the development of nuclear weapons.
Oh, Lord. Is there nothing Krauthammer isn't prepared to justify simply by pointing to two things happening at the same time? Is he really expecting us to believe that there was some critical mass of nuclear weapons in the world that was stopping Iran and North Korea from developing the bomb? That nuclear disarmament inspired their nuclear programmes, rather than, say technological advancement? Or deteriorating diplomatic relations? Or observing how easily India, Pakistan and Israel simply ignored the issue? Frankly, I'd be more likely to believe we might have avoided such things had we taken non-proliferation more seriously than we did, though I don't really have any compelling evidence for that possibility.
This is deeply worrying to many small nations who for half a century relied on the extended U.S. nuclear umbrella to keep them from being attacked or overrun by far more powerful neighbors. When smaller allies see the United States determined to move inexorably away from that posture -- and for them it's not posture, but existential protection -- what are they to think?
Hooray! Once again Krauthammer reminds us how deeply concerned he is about everyone in the world ever, now that it suits him to be! I'll tell you what they think: they'll think that the nuclear umbrella was in place to protect them from being nuked. Show me a country that in the last decade believed the US would launch nuclear missiles over if they were attacked by biological or chemical weapons, and I'll show you Israel. Maybe. In fact, I'm amazed given Krauthammer's reputation that such wasn't the whole thrust of his argument: how do we protect Israel without the nuclear option? Perhaps Krauthammer isn't quite as bad as his rep suggests, or maybe even he couldn't explicitly make the argument that a nuclear-armed Israel needs the US to protect it with nuclear weapons without worrying he would be struck down by the God of Logic.

Regardless, I can't believe any government in their right minds would pin their hopes on a nuclear strike from the States preventing a coventional invasion or chemical/biological attack. Saakashvili was roundly decried as lunatic nut for ever believing the US would send even conventional forces to defend Georgia from Russian invasion, this despite the US having both been far too willing to imply support and having made the terribly-risky-at-best move to suggest Georgia join NATO (which would have required such military aid to be sent). The extra degree of sheer psychotic self-regard needed to believe one's country to be so important that the US will start oblitering cities for you is simply incomprehensible, and should such allies exist, it is ridiculous to suggest that the States should indulge them in their delusions. As Larison is so fond of pointing out, a good friend tells you the truth, and a bad one tells you what you want to hear. The level of shittiness a friend needs to get to in order to pretend they are willing to defend them with WMD when they actually aren't is fairly obvious.

In conclusion, it's a dreadful mess, incoherent both with Krauthammer's larger position and in its own right, and manages that most obnoxious trick of using allied nations to make petty points under the guise of concern for their welfare. Which is to say, standard Neocon fare. That said, I wanted evil. I was promised evil. Maybe next time, I guess. Once we get back to arguing over how many dead Iranians are worth a bit of peace of mind.

[1] That's not to say North Korea's access to nukes isn't profoundly worrying, merely that it's arsenal is desperately feeble compared to every other nuclear nation, so shelving it wouldn't be the totally inconceivable idea Krauthammer suggests it is.

Thursday, 8 April 2010

Waste Your Time And Innocence

At long last, it's the website we've all been waiting for: a Choose Your Own Adventure based on the Cthulhu Mythos! With jokes!

Give in to the madness, my friends! Marvel at the word-lay*! Boggle at the videos! Frown in confusion over the bizarre obsession with tacos! This here site has got it all, boy-howdy!

h/t to Pharyngula.

* Edit: Or even word-play. My mistake. Or maybe not. Maybe, in fact, I was playing with words because that is how I roll!

Where We Choose To Hide

For the last week I've been toying around on and off with the idea of writing something in response to Bill Donahue's latest catastrophically mendacious and cruel attempt to prove to the world that everything can be blamed on the gays by suggesting they are the villains at the heart of the latest round of abuse allegations rocking the Catholic Church.

It turns out, it's harder than I would have thought. Not because he's right, or even close to right (shorter Donahue: since many of the abused children were post-pubescent, it's homosexuality rather than paedophilia, hence the gays did it!!!) but because he's so wrong, so spitefully, hatefully at odds with reality in his attempts to claim that the most important issue in decades of systemic abuse deliberately which was concealed by those in authority is the sexual orientation of the abusers that it's damn near impossible to search through the multiple layers of sheer malignant insanity necessary to actually respond, as oppose to just screaming in confused fury.

Fortunately, Andrew Sullivan - himself both a Catholic and homosexual - is better at this than I am. It's a shame it's taken me a full week to find his article, but it's easily good enough to justify its slight tardiness. All of it is truly excellent, but there are a few paragraphs worth highlighting:
The church teaches first of all that all gay men are "objectively disordered:" deeply sick in their deepest soul and longing for love and intimacy. A young Catholic who finds out he's gay therefore simultaneously finds out that his church regards him as sick and inherently evil, for something he doesn't experience as a choice. That's a distorting and deeply, deeply damaging psychic wound. Young Catholic gay boys, tormented by this seemingly ineradicable sinfulness, often seek religious authority as a way to cope with the despair and loneliness their sexual orientation can create. (Trust me on this; it was my life). So this self-loathing kid both abstracts himself from sexual relationships with peers, idolizes those "normal" peers he sees as he reaches post-pubescence, and is simultaneously terrified by these desires and so seeks both solace and cover for not getting married by entering the priesthood.

None of this is conceivable without the shame and distortion of the closet, or the church's hideously misinformed and distorted view of homosexual orientation. And look at the age at which you are most likely to enter total sexual panic and arrest: exactly the age of the young teens these priests remain attracted to and abuse.

That's the age when the shame deepens into despair; that's when sexuality is arrested; that's where the psyche gets stunted. In some ways, I suspect, these molesters feel as if they are playing with equals - because emotionally they remain in the early teens. I'm not excusing this in any way; just trying to understand how such evil can be committed.

Sullivan is also right on the money when he points out how easily the situation could be reversed if one were to tell straight boys that their proclivities were wrong and evil and never to be acted on, and that marriage between opposite sexes was unacceptable. One need look no further than the studies showing abstinence-only sex education leads to higher rates of teen pregnancy to see that vilifying desire does not end it, it simply ends its chance of being acted upon in an open, healthy way.

Sullivan concludes:

I don't believe, in other words, that you can tackle this problem without seeing it as a symptom of a much deeper failure of the church to come to terms with sexuality, sexual orientation and the warping, psychologically distorting impact of compulsory celibacy in the priesthood.
This seems extremely plausible, which is not to say it seems particularly likely. It's especially difficult to imagine it happening as long as the Bill Donahue's of the world (he's leader of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, by the way, I ain't picking on him at random), for whom the "logic" seems to run roughly like this: those abused were generally sexually mature, the abusers were men, thus the abusers were gay, thus banning gays remains the answer. He can't recommend the Catholic Church doubles down in its attempts to stop child abusers (or teenager abusers, if the qualification is really needed), because it's kinda difficult to tell those people from anyone else. Looking for criminals is hard. Far easier to argue that all the people who are that sort of criminal are also something else, and then slap them around. It's the clerical equivalent of arguing there should be separate search methods for Arab plane passengers, because there are so few white terrorists out there.

I realise that isn't an exact analogy: if it gets even harder for homosexuals to enter the priesthood, they're not going to start recruiting straight men to do their abusing for them. On the other hand, though, the comparison uncovers what the real problem is in all of this. Donahue is screaming so loudly about the solution being stopping gays from getting into the system because he's desperate for us to believe there's a way to stop the crime from ever happening again. Now, when we're talking about suicidal terrorists taking a plane, that makes some sense. You can't punish them once their smoking corpse is lying alongside those of their innocent victims, after all. We catch these people before they commit their intended crime, or they don't get caught at all.

Donahue is hoping no-one notices the difference in this case. He wants everyone to concentrate on how the Church is going to stop abusers getting through the door because that way he doesn't have to discuss how the church should deal with abuse when they discover it's happened. Because the instant he's faced with that, the very moment he has to start talking about how the church has failed in this situation, rather than those individuals guilty of the abuse itself, he's got nothing. He blames the gays for the abuse, and the media for reporting the abuse, but ask him why church authorities covered all this up, and how it plans to change in the future, and he hasn't anything to say at all.

And that's - to steal an ending from Christopher Bird - how you know he's full of shit.