Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Never Knowingly Coherent

Have I mentioned lately how much I hate David Brooks?
[L]et me describe what moderation is not. It is not just finding the midpoint between two opposing poles and opportunistically planting yourself there. Only people who know nothing about moderation think it means that.
Certainly no-one who watched Brooks snipe at Mitt Romney for months before he became the Republican candidate and suddenly all cuddly and centrist and wonderful could think the man opportunistic.  But what then is moderation?
For a certain sort of conservative, tax cuts and smaller government are always the answer, no matter what the situation. For a certain sort of liberal, tax increases for the rich and more government programs are always the answer.

The moderate does not believe that there are policies that are permanently right. Situations matter most. Tax cuts might be right one decade but wrong the next. Tighter regulations might be right one decade, but if sclerosis sets in then deregulation might be in order.
Got that?  Only fools think moderates just kick around in the gap between two endpoints.  But if we just replace those poles with ludicrous caricatures of those poles, then that bisection is exactly what the moderates are gonna get up to. How moderate!

Also, has any liberal anywhere, ever, gotten to the end of demanding all circumstances call for more taxes and more government programs without someone cutting their microphone and laughing them out of the building?  There's a pretty massive tell here, and its that Brooks definition of a moderate requires him to slam a brand of liberal that doesn't exist in any important sense, and slam a brand of conservative that includes damn near the entire heirarchy of one political party and the vice presidential candidate of the guy he's currently supporting.

C'mon, Davey. You might as well hitch your wagon to a gaggle of unrepentant misogynists because although you don't like all that women-hating, it's not like the Wicked Witch of the West was any better.

Of course, you know what's coming: Brooks has hitched his wagon to a gaggle of unrepentant misogynists.  Not, one presumes out of a fear of witchcraft, but just because he's an asshole.

(Speaking of which, this is brilliant.)

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Questions Answered

Shorter Dylan Byers: Nate Silver offers multiple predictions with appropriate caveats and explanation of uncertainty.  The only comment on the only prediction I was able to concentrate on doesn't agree with my gut.  Now a word from people with no statistical training who agree with me.

Shorter Byers next week: why do liberals always think they're smarter than me?

ANKOD 2: ANKODic Boogaloo

All this talk of music has made me realise it's been a while since our last music quiz here: almost six months in fact.  And since my ridiculous riff on a tired formula somehow became one of the most read posts I ever produced, I figure we may as well try it again.  I'll put the rest of the answers up to the previous post in exactly one week, in case anyone wants one last try.

So, as last time: 25 songs.  The first word of the song, and the first letters of the first line are given, though I've been kind and included "wooah"s, "yeah!"s, and "1-2-3!"s. "The" and pronouns (plus derivatives) get you another word, too.  Also given are the initials of the song title, the band, and the album, in that order.  One point for the complete first line, the song title, the band, or the album.  As usual, there is no artist who appears more than once.  Good luck.

1.   "We live and dream about the future" - Me, Marlon Brando, Marlon Brando And I - R.E.M. - Collapse Into Now. (Jamie)
2.   "Another turning point, a fork stuck in the road" - Good Riddance (Time Of Your Life) - Green Day - Nimrod. (Tim)
3.   "Woa-hoah! They must pay the rent!" - Destiny - Tenacious D - The Pick Of Destiny.
4.   "Once I knew a girl in the hard hard times" - Best For The Best - Josh Ritter - The Animal Years. (The Other Half)
5.   "Don't stop, isn't it funny how you shine?" - Don't Stop - The Stone Roses - The Stone Roses. (Jamie)
6.   "Amphetamine Annie Dog" - Annie Dog - Smashing Pumpkins - Adore.
7.   "Put your hand inside this dream."- Skindiving - James - Laid. (Jamie)
8.   "I love you through stars and shining dragons, I do" - Made Up Love Song #43 - Guillemots - Through The Window Pane.
9.   "Yeah! Lover I'm on the street" - Desire - U2 - Rattle And Hum.
10. "I'd rather be some nameless fisherman" - I'd Rather Be - Abbie Gardner and Anthony da Costa - Bad Nights/Better Days.
11. "Mirrors in the room go black and blue" - Cold Roses - Ryan Adams & The Cardinals - Cold Roses.
12. "Follow you around 'til it's time" - Evidence - Jimmy Eat Word - Invented.
13. "Come WM" - CWM -Zwan -MSOTS. (Jamie)
14. "1-2-3 Woo! You gotta LE" - LE - Presidents Of The USA - LE. (Jamie)
15. "We'll be fighting in the streets" - Won't Get Fooled Again - The Who - Who's Next? (BigHead)
16. "So you don't want to hear about my good day" Good Day - The Dresden Dolls - Dresden Dolls.
17. "I get ahead on my motorbike" - The Living End - Jesus & Mary Chain - Psychocandy.
18. "The sirens are screaming and the fires are howling" - Bat Out Of Hell - Meat Loaf - Bat Out Of Hell. (Tim)
19. "I went down to the place where I knew she lay waiting" - Night Comes On - Leonard Cohen - Various Positions.
20. "She grew up in an Indiana town" - Mary Jane's Last Dance - Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers - Greatest Hits.
21. "These mist-covored mountains" - Brothers In Arms - Dire Straits - Brothers In Arms. (Tim)
22. "I found a mountain on my own" - A Little Discourage - Idlewild - One Hundred Broken Windows.
23. "Everyone want to be a showman" - Genius - Kings Of Leon - Youth And Young Manhood.
24. "You know I don't like you but you wanna be my friend" - When I Dream Of Michaelangelo - Counting Crows - Saturday Nights, Sunday Mornings. (Jamie)
25. "He's a pistol grip" - Killboy Powerhead - Offspring - Smash.

Hints 'n' tips: I've had to replace five ampersands above, along with three sets of letters, either in song titles or band names; as well as pretending one band name was a single word, rather than a delineated acronym.  At least one song here has been recently posted on this blog as a video. There's nineteen definite bands here (or at least duos), though one vocalist appears with two different bands.  There's also three solo artists in there, along with two solo artists who arguably should be considered as having bands at the time. Eight artists come from this side of the pond.

Oh, and "GH" is exactly as obvious as you think it is.

Monday, 29 October 2012

A Disconcerting Creaking


There is no clearer demonstration of the fact that I don't go to the cinema enough these days than me missing The Cabin in the Woods when it first came out.  Mercifully, thanks to visiting Kudos and Breyah (as well as Kuyah Junyah) this weekend, this fault has been corrected.

Of course, just because I didn't see it doesn't mean I didn't have any idea of the general internet opinion about it.  And since it was co-written by Joss Whedon along with Buffy/Angel alumni Drew Goddard (who also directed), it should come as no surprise that the internet gave the film as many thumbs up as time and physiology would allow.

(I don't mean to sound dismissive with that, by the way, I've loved the vast majority of Whedon products I've seen, and even those that don't quite gel (e.g. Dollhouse) are far from without merit or interesting ideas.  That said, Whedon is one of those few people who I consider simultaneously exceptionally talented and entertaining and significantly overrated.)

That's my way of saying I went into this film with hopes, but little in the way of expectations, other than assuming that Bradley Whitford would be awesome which, of course, he was.  As was much of the rest of the film, actually; the set-up is funny to anyone who's ever watched pretty much any horror film ever, and the pay-off is absolutely brilliant, at least for the most part.  If I were intending this as a review, I'd give the film eight or nine tentacles and call it a day.

I want to go in a slightly different direction, though, and unpack the two problems that mar the film; one of which has definitely been commonly noted, and one of which might have been commonly noted, but involves the very end of the film and so would have been safely hidden behind spoiler notices before now.

The two articles I link to above are interesting because they both identify the right problem - Cabin in the Woods is a horror film which is rarely scary - and totally misdiagnose the root cause.  Their common argument is that Cabin... undercuts itself by being too clever by half; that's it's impossible to giggle at obvious genre cliches and still be scared as those cliches turn ugly.

This, obviously, is complete nonsense.  To believe this one would have to argue with a straight face that films which stick to horror cliches invoke fear more readily than those that deconstruct them, which is a position I find utterly baffling.  I suppose I could understand the logic behind an argument that says genre cliches are no longer scary, and you can't make them scary by putting a twist on them, but whilst that's less stupid, it's no more correct.  The best possible argument to be made here is that avoiding tropes works better than playing with them, and whilst that's a position with more than a little weight, it still strikes me as overly restrictive.

Take Scream, for example.  That took great pleasure in deconstructing the genre, and still managed in places to be generally unsettling.  The horrific final moments of Drew Barrymore's character in the opening segment still make me shiver whenever I think about them.  OK, that precedes almost all the deconstruction that takes place later in the film, but it's far from the only scare to be had.

But if it isn't the knowing nods and winks to the audience that keeps the scares to a minimum in Cabin..., what else is going on?  Actually, the answer is very simple: Goddard's direction just isn't quite good enough.

It's nothing major, nothing that wrecks the movie.  It's just a little too uninspired; a little too overlit; a little too... TV. Almost every scare and shock from the first two thirds of the movie looks like it could have come from the first season of Supernatural.  I'm not pointing to the first season because it's the oldest, by the way, but because it was back then that the aim of the show was to scare people rather than make them want to cry alongside Jensen Ackles, but the fact remains that Supernatural is a TV show, and when a movie reminds you of a TV show, something has, generally speaking, gone wrong.

Indeed, if there's a problem here regarding genre knowledge, it's in exactly the opposite direction to the one supposed.  It's not that the references to the genre cause trouble, it's that when the film tries to be straight up scary, it falls back on the most cliched shots and jolts imaginable.  The most original "pure horror" - for want of a better word - shot in the entire film is remarkably similar to a sequence from 2008's The Strangers, and quite possibly other films before that. The only surprising death (in terms of when it happens, not that it will happen) is presumably a homage to the original Friday The 13th, but hews so closely to the source material that it's impossible to view it as anything other than tired.  In other words, this is a film that needed more thinking outside the box, not less.

All that said, this is an unfortunate blemish on an otherwise excellent film.  It's hardly a major problem; though of course one would have hoped someone would point out that a film with comedy designed to appeal to horror aficionados might want to ensure the horror would appeal to people other than total or near neophytes.  The part that really pisses me off is the ending.

Since the majority of this post exists above this sentence, I'm not going to put what remains after the jump.  Be aware, however, PLEASE BE AWARE, that the next few paragraphs discuss the very end of the film, which for a film as reliant on the third act reveal as this one is will likely do even more damage than you'd expect from such comments.

So, seriously, this is your last chance.  Pass not the Harbinger.

"I'm still on speakerphone, aren't I?"
OK, they've gone.  Probably.  Or if not, fuck 'em.  They were warned.  They had a choice.

Everyone who's left knows probably knows what I disliked about the ending of the film - i.e. the entirety of humanity is condemned to an agonising death at the hands of the Ancient Ones - but it's important to explain why.  I tend to get bummed out whenever "and then the world is destroyed" endings at the best of times (and they don't get any better than, say, Dr Strangelove), because it's tough to come up with any narrative reason powerful enough to justify it.

The justification in Cabin... is particularly weak.  Two college students - one a dope addict, the other naive enough to have let herself get into a romance with one of her professors - decide that the painful deaths of four people and the terrifying (and likely painful death) of a fifth is too high a price to pay to save seven billion people from being massacred in the most torturous manner imaginable.  That because stopping the wholesale  bloody and horrific slaughter of the entirety of humanity requires the wholesale bloody and horrific slaughter of four or five people who were quite nice and often looked good topless, it's better to go for option A.

Maybe it's because I've read to many screeds from Glenn Greenwald about how voting for Obama is unacceptable because supporting a unaccountable killer is less preferable than allowing a much worse unaccountable killer to get their hands on the drones, but this shit won't wash.  The idea that the future of humanity can be fairly decided by two people who's only knowledge of the gravity of the situation is that it's claimed the life of their three friends is ridiculous.  Even that I could live with, if the film didn't seem to be tacitly agreeing with their position.  Much is made of the fact that the people running the show are bloodthirsty voyeurs, as they bet on the specific horrors that will claim the lives of their innocent victims, or drink tequila as their screens depict a young woman being beaten to death by a vicious zombie.  A film that spends the first two-thirds of its run-time suggesting it's monstrous to see these five youngsters as a vehicle for entertainment through monster attack spends the final third gleefully chewing through dozens of unnamed mooks.

And that's where the film falls apart.  We're supposed to care so much about the three people who died and the two that are badly injured that we forget the guys in helmets and facemasks have feelings too.  Those poor schmucks got out of bed, kissed their wives and children goodbye, threw some quickly assembled sandwiches into a lunch-box, and drove into work.  A few hours later they were ripped in two, or had their face melted, or were sucked dry.  The film gives every impression of finding this very amusing.

But we can go further than the mooks populating Sigourney Weaver's Menagerie of Myriad Murderousness.  What about those Japanese schoolgirls?  The nine-year-old children who achieved the impossible.  The youngsters who, when faced with the horrific sight of the dead rising within their classroom, fought back, rallying themselves with almost unimaginable courage and banishing the creature intended to kill them all.

That's a triumph of human will.  That's proof that we cannot be reduced to bit part characters in a horror movie - the exact same point this film seems to be making until it decides it'd be more fun to just hack its way through a couple of infantry platoons.  And they're going to die.  Our "heroes" just decided they weren't worth saving, because the only way to save them now was to kill the guy who drives so stoned it's a miracle he didn't end up killing more kids than the malevolent Nipponese spirit did.

In short, this is a film that spends the vast majority of its run-time arguing there is something fundamentally wrong with treating the pain of others like entertainment, but ends up in a place where not only is it suggesting pain as entertainment is actually fine so long as you don't know the people involved, but can assume "deserve it", but that if you've been badly done too by someone, there is no amount of the pain of others that's too great to ensure if you make sure the people you don't like don't get what they wanted.

It's Mitt Romney's campaign message, basically.  I sure hope that Joss Whedon doesn't run into this guy!

Sunday, 28 October 2012

D CDs #496: Boz Standard?



Number 496 on Rolling Stone's "500 Greatest..." list, and hot damn, now we're talking.  Sure, we already discussed the virtues of the Stone Rose's debut album, but this is the first time in this admittedly still-young series that I've come across something both new and exceptional.

I'll be the first to admit that I'm still very much a beginner when it comes to music of this kind.  I don't know when soul moves into R&B, and how R&B is distilled into pure blues. It's clear country & western is somewhere nearby all of that, too, but I have no idea how to assemble the jigsaw.

So when the internets tell me this is soul, I'm just taking its word for it - after all, when has that ever gone wrong (it also tells me soul is R&B plus funkiness and an air of testifying, which, OK, that sounds right here).  What I don't want to dodge around is the fact that I enjoyed this disc noticeably more than B.B. King's "Live From Cook County Jail" - which of course is not to say the latter record isn't good; it most certainly is.  The fact that Rolling Stone agrees in the context of this list's rankings notwithstanding, a post in which a white guy discusses how he prefers a white guy's approach to traditionally black music over a black musician's can't just pretend there isn't something here to address.

So, what's here that isn't in King's live album? I can think of three things to point to, all of which kind of feed back into each other.

First of all, there's a welcome degree of variety across these nine tracks. The one-two punch of "I'm Easy" and "I'll Be Long Gone" that opens the album.  The former is a filthy uptempo stomp, the latter a slice of keyboard-driven melancholy defiance.  All that ties them together, really, is the quality of the playing on display. The backing singers, bass player and horn sections are particularly worthy of praise, but really, no-one here sounds anywhere other than at the top of their game.

This is the second strength of the album, the fact that it strays into so many different areas and yet is entirely cohesive, keeping itself together purely by the force of its individual elements.  One real problem with "Live From..." was the distinct impression that King was a far better player than he was a writer (this may be very unfair in general, but at present I can only go by what's served up on that particular platter); the switch to his back catalogue halfway through does the album no favours.

In contrast, the swap in "Boz Scaggs" is both in the other direction (from original material to covers and collaborations), and impossible to detect without either reading the liner notes or recognising the songs being covered.  Under other circumstances, it might be possible to construct an argument suggesting this is a flaw; that this is indicative of an album so all over the map that a twelve-minute nose-harp solo would be less surprising than consecutive songs in the same key, but I refer you to the previous point: if you can hold everything together by sheer presence and talent, then more power to you.

Scaggs and Co. hold it together very well, bringing us to point three, overlapping heavily as it does with points one and two.  Each song has a standout among its constituent parts (the bass groove of "I'm Easy", the keyboards in "Finding Her", which sounds like it could've been Zepplin's inspiration for "Stairway to Heaven" except it finishes in four minutes, rather than taking six to get to the fucking point), but it's clearly the work of an immensely talented and confident ensemble.  King's band are never less than competent, and have a great deal to recommend them, but "Boz Scaggs" feels like a group effort in a way that "Live From..." just can't match.

Anyway, that's my argument as to why one album works pretty well, and the other blows me away.  "Boz Scaggs" isn't perfect, admittedly; "Another Letter" isn't particularly interesting, nor is its cover of Fenton Robinson's "Loan Me A Dime" - which is a particular problem when it clocks in at twelve and a half minutes - and the problem with short albums like this is that any dropping of the ball seems like a big deal.

But really, it's not.  This is a disc that starts with two phenomenal songs, ends with another killer (the heavenly "Sweet Release" co-written by Scaggs), and offers several gems - and motherfucking yodelling - along the way.  If there is in fact only 22 minutes of solid gold here, I've seen much worse, and what's good here is very, very good indeed.

Eight and a half tentacles.

Friday, 26 October 2012

Radio Friday: The Scaggsmeister

No miniatures this week; I did actually finish something last thing yesterday, but on its own it's not really worthy of a post.

So instead, let's chill out to something from Boz Scaggs' eponymous second album, which I'm listening to a great deal right now, both because I'm writing a post on it and because it's really rather nifty.  The horns in this really get me.



I'm off visiting friends this weekend.  Everyone have a good one.

Thursday, 25 October 2012

Anger Update

I know you've all been wondering about the state of my bathroom ceiling, so I'll put you out of your misery. The peeps who failed to predict my ceiling would collapse in the first place or discover the source of the leak after the cataclysm were supposed to come round last Friday.  This was then altered the day before to this morning.

I have thus dutifully stayed in this morning armed with sufficient reading material to justify my absence from the office, at least until I have to head in for a 12:30 seminar and an afternoon meeting.  Ten minutes ago I got another phone call from my letting agents. My guys had showed up there instead of here, having entirely forgotten the previous phone conversations, and wanted to know if they could borrow keys from the letters so they could show up some time after lunch.

Meanwhile:

video

Two and a half more weeks, and I'm outta here.  Two and a half more weeks.

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

The Great Squiddish Bake-Off

This is what happens when the Other Half isn't around to help me drink cocktails: CHEESY BLASTERS!




Thanks, Meat Cat!

(It tastes gorram awesome, by the way.)

Deep Thought: 12 Days Edition

With less than a fortnight until the Americans decide whether to be under the control of a millionaire who claims the right to assassinate his own people whenever he feels like it, or someone really bad like Mitt Romney, Charles Pierce reminds us how strange this must be for John Kerry.

Not just Kerry, actually, but Gore too.  And Obama himself.  There's something almost impressive in watching a media that painted the last three Democratic candidates as, in order, a congenital liar, a combat-shy flip-flopper, and a man nowhere near as friendly and approachable as his opponent, now trying to push the idea that Mitt Romney might be what the country needs. 

There is no appreciable difference between this situation and arguing that pears are too round, grapefruits too small, and bananas too much of a pain to peel, but hot damn it'd be good to get an orange right about now. This is a man who's lies have reached such pointlessly obvious levels that he's been corrected by debate moderators in real time.  This is a man who spent ninety minutes on Monday night claiming he collectively agrees with everything President Obama has done, even though individually he's suggested each and every action is somewhere between a mistake, and apology, and an act of treason.  This is a man who hides behind his wife while she tries to argue that Mormon missionary work in France is indistinguishable from facing Taliban rifle-fire in Kandahar.

And, not for nothing, but this is a man everyone thought was an unctuous turd until a fortnight ago, when his lies at least started sounding more pleasant, and when he started letting his staffers play football with the press gaggle.

Honest to God.  If you're going to sell yourselves, at least ask a decent price, would you?

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Good Morning, Citizen


Good to know the Italians are taking lessons from Friend Computer's approach to law enforcement. Remember, citizens! Mistakes are treason! Failure to report treason is treason!

Actually, somehow L'Aquila has managed to be an even more dangerous and capricious place to work than Alpha Complex, since even the Computer never to my knowledge had people executed for reporting treason   in writing instead of shouting at press conferences.

Monday, 22 October 2012

Eats D6 Crocheted Adventurers A Round

I promised my office-mate I'd put up a picture of the crocheted Cthulhu she made me last week.  Apparently my stress levels had risen so high she could hear them, and figured the best way to restore the office to what passes for peaceful normality would be to create a Great Old One for us to use upon the next person who shows up with work for me to do.


Obviously, I love it.  Blog-mascot and all-round cute doggy Misty is rather more guarded in his enthusiasm:


I wonder.  Do dogs have sanity points?

Sunday, 21 October 2012

The Vogage Home


(Part I)

It is of course entirely fitting that a new era should start with Michael and Lucifer, just as it did eons ago.  For those who put stock in literary allusion, one could argue this suggests more than the middle point of Lucifer, but rather the centre of Creation itself, but we'll find out soon enough whether or not that holds water.  Let's focus on what we can see right now; Lucifer is once more arguing that Michael owes nothing to his Father and, after the death of his daughter, Michael is a little less opposed to the idea than he once was. And with the demon Scoria having gone to such lengths to bore his way into the mind of God, it would be almost rude not to go take a peek.

But if this new stage in the story is about Lucifer and Michael arguing about what lessons to draw from God, and what actions to take in response, one can feel justified in asking how much of what is going on is revelation, and how much is repetition?  Again, if we engage in the reading of portents, it can't bode well that as the two archangels travel to the Realms of Pain to make use of Scoria's machine, the Naglfar finds itself beset by the spirits of those angels killed during the original War in Heaven [1]. Nor can it be particularly welcome news when the two travellers dive into their Father's mind - Michael hesitantly, Lucifer with eagerness - only to find that this, too, Yahweh had always known would come to pass.


Saturday, 20 October 2012

These Are The Voyages...


(So after last time's two issue breeze, this thing is five issues long, and stuffed with enough to talk about that I'm stretching this over two posts).

The thing about stories is that eventually, they have to end.  And because they have to end, they also have to reach their middle.

Everything has an exact centre, whether it be measured by run time, page count, or number of installments. This is axiomatic.  What is less common is for that middle to be entirely obvious at the time it arrives, rather than in hindsight. You can highlight such things numerically, of course: "Part three of five", but doing so thematically is an exceptionally tricky proposition.

It is my contention that "Naglfar", the halfway point of Lucifer in terms of its 75-issue run, does a better job of announcing the arrival of the series' Lagrange point than almost any other series. The Morningstar's struggle against his Creator is an existential game of two halves, and this is when the half-time oranges are consumed, along with much else. As Lucifer himself puts it in the story's final part: "The rules of engagement have changed."

Friday, 19 October 2012

USP

Dilbert creator Scott Adams has been somewhat persona non grata around a lot of liberal blogs for a while now, mainly because he (as oppose to his strip) tends to combine thoughtless sexism with angry rants about no-one else being smart enough to understand his thoughtless sexism is actually super-smart for serious.

So now he's come out in support of Mitt Romney, he's under a lot of incoming fire once again.  I don't intend to pile on, since others can do so rather better, and in any case I don't really care; reactionary prick says prickish things; whatever forever.

I did just want to highlight exactly what Adams is saying here; he won't vote for Obama because of his drug policies, and instead he'll vote for Romney because although he says has the same policy, he might not really mean it.

I suppose there's a weird logic in that.  If you're determined enough to be a single issue voter, and neither candidate says they're on your side, you may as well choose the guy who's most likely to be lying to you.  One would think that might demonstrate conclusively that single issue voting is a mug's game, but then I'm not as smart as Scott Adams keeps telling me he is.

This does mean though that Romney has gotten at least somewhere with the only remaining approach left: "Vote Romney, because the bits you don't like are the ones I'm lying about anyway!".

Remember when Al Gore got two of his trips to disaster areas mixed up and everyone said it proved he was a congential deceiver not fit for the presidency?  We've come a long way, baby.  There is not a day goes by that I'm not amazed Bob Somerby hasn't drunk himself to death already.

Thursday, 18 October 2012

The Walking Deadish



So, there I was, bumming around the American Conservative, seeing if there was anything there interesting enough to flame, and I stumbled on Noah Millman bitching about zombie films (WARNING: mild spoiler for Walking Dead's third season premiere; there are no spoilers whatsoever in my post below).

Now, obviously, I applaud anyone with passionate views on what does and doesn't work in horror films, and I likewise endorse ludicrous nitpicking, but there has to be a limit somewhere.
If proof were still needed that the whole “zombie virus” trope was a catastrophic mistake, there it is.
Catastrophic?  Really?  Overdone, I'll grant you. But let's keep some perspective here.

Millman's basic argument here is that zombie films are supposed to be about the horror of our loved ones dying but remaining with us, a chilling memento mori that hungers for our flesh, and that this effect is lessened when one starts thinking about the method through which this return is enacted and maintained.

(He's also arguing, presumably because he's writing in American Conservative, that this is a common flaw of contemporary genre films, which since his arguments apply just as well to Night of the Living Dead as they do to The Walking Dead seems further proof that a lot of self-proclaimed conservative thought simply lies at the intersection of pessimism and poor memory. That's a side issue today, though.)

There are two things here that need to be considered separately: the memento mori aspect, and the idea that people you once recognised and even loved have turned against you and will make you one of them.

The first aspect is interesting because of course it applies to not just horror films, but plenty of other supernatural films as well.  Pretty much every ghost story ever written includes this idea somewhere in it.  In fact, if one wanted an extraordinarily fast and loose definition of what separates a supernatural ghost story from a horror ghost story, it's merely whether the spirits of the (not quite) departed have hostile intent.

Whether such stories can lead to one focusing on the how rather than the why is an interesting question.  The vast majority of the time, I think people can just shrug their shoulders and say "Whatever; ghosts can do weird stuff".  There's this shared understanding that the motivations and actions of those with one foot out the door of existence can't be precisely understood or thought through logically.  There are exceptions, of course. Gothika is a slightly underrated film, I think, but I had big trouble with the idea that ghosts can possess and control people, but still need to leave clues as to what they want the people they're periodically possessing to do.  That's just internal inconsistency, though.  Basically, ghosts get to do what they want.

Most of the time, anyway.  The problem we can get into with ghost stories is the same as the problem we can get into with zombies: once you try and slap on some half-arsed scientific explanation, the whole thing falls apart, because now asking why is perfectly reasonable.  This, I think, is what's buried under Millman's objections, actually.  The problem doesn't lie in the fact that zombies don't make any sense, but in the idea that they could make sense.

Take 28 Days Later, for example.  That's a film that essentially asks us to believe that people who become psychotic killers with no instinct to do anything other than kill can survive for eight weeks before they starve to death.  We never see them eat anything, or more importantly drink anything, and their metabolisms seem to be super-charged.  How can they possibly keep going for two months in that condition?

Now, there are ways to get around this; the most obvious being that those virus-addled chimps that started the whole thing off wouldn't have been much good to David Schneider if they were dying of thirst every few days, so the virus was altered to compensate somehow.  That's obviously ridiculously hand-wavey and tacked on, and Millman's argument that thinking about this sort of stuff lessens the overall impact is well taken.

That's not an inherent problem in the zombie virus genre, though, not if one uses the word "virus" as analogy rather than literal description.  You can just set the zombie up the same way as the restless spirit; a supernatural force that does its thing for reasons beyond your ken.  Romero himself understood this, I think; after an early mis-step in which he implied spaceborne radiation might be responsible in Night..., he took great pains in Day of the Dead to argue that the scientists searching for a "cure" were wasting their time, and that John's explanation that it's the will of God works no less well for what is going on.

Other recent films have taken the same tack.  The quite excellent Dawn of the Dead remake puts no effort whatsoever into identifying a cause.  Neither does the admitted parody Sean of the Dead, other than getting in a brief dig at 28 Days Later and it's "bull-" explanation (one might argue that two people who just spent months writing a self-described "love letter" to a director who initially blamed zombies on space rays from Venus might be more forgiving, but...).  Millman's problem, to the extent it exists, is buried in execution, not concept.

And all of that is before we return to the second aspect of the zombie film; the idea that the "other" is coming for you, and that you will be "other" sooner or later too.  Unlike the first aspect, this is not about literal death so much as the loss of self, which is an important distinction because it means the ur-text here is not a ghost story, but Invasion of the Body Snatchers.  Much ink has been spilled over that film's apparent political commentary (which seems abundantly clear, but which was always denied by the director and the author of the novel upon which it was based), but what's interesting for our purposes is the consideration of what exactly the film is implying about Communism.  Is it suggesting that those people who seem the same as everyone else but are actually dirty Commies are willing converts, or simply brainwashed?

People have made both cases, but I tend to favour the former.  The process by which the aliens themselves work is after all not brainwashing, but replacement, and the paranoid idea that these people are all around us and we can't tell lends itself more to the idea that we're surrounded by spies, rather than people snatched from their homes and re-wired, a process which would require an awful lot of willing enemy agents in the first place.

Mainly, though, I think the first option makes the most sense because the second; the idea that Communists somehow have the capacity to brainwash their enemies into becoming like them (a trope that began as early as the final days of the Korean War and still existed at least as late as 2000, with Red Alert 2 containing special Red Army units that could seize the minds of American troops and force them to attack their countrymen) is a far better fit when applied to the zombie film.  It's not just that the zombie is a reminder of one's mortality.  It's something worse than that; it's the idea that the removal of one's self does not necessarily mean your body will stop walking, or that those you love can process their loss and move on.  There's also the mirror of this of course, which is the fear that your loved ones will not just die, but transformed into active agents against you.  It is one thing to be forever reminded of your wife's death.  It is quite another to have her trying to rip your throat out.

In short, then, there is much more going on here than Millman credits, and his main objection is based on a flawed understanding of the genre as a whole.  His secondary complaint, namely that we over-identify with the survivors in these films and therefore fail to focus sufficiently on the violent, crawling death that surrounds them, seems pretty shaky as well, but I've gone on enough for one post, so I'll leave that one unexplored for now.

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Differences In Viewpoint

I went to a talk today that really hammered home cultural differences within the EU.  The general topic was on the cardiovascular health of Eastern Europeans, but the conclusion involved, among other things, a lament that politicians from former Communist countries don't do so well at standing up for themselves within Europe as do those from western nations.  Why, the question was asked, do we get David Cameron, and they get ostriches with their heads in the sand?

What a difference a few thousand miles make.  I'd swap Doughface McEtonballs for a flightless bird of any size in a hot second.  Emu?  Done.  Cassowary?  Bring it on.

The only downside to such an exchange is that it would get in the way of my other plan, which is to find the legendary Badger King and have him and Cameron fight each other to the death in a pit over this thoroughly idiotic culling idea.  This might seem something of an unfair fight, considering Cameron's weight advantage and clear dishonourable tendencies, but in order to clear his policy with the general public, Cameron would have to not only beat King Badger, but contract tuberculosis in the process.

At which point, whilst he lies in his sickbed coughing up blood and George Osborne's semen, we can vote in an ostrich, and everyone wins.

Saturday, 13 October 2012

"Looks Far, But I Like Night Drives"

A long distance relationship combined with a full-time job leads to an awful lot of night drives, and an awful lot of albums spun whilst cruising the motorways of the country.

One thing that's become very clear in all of this is that there are day albums, and there are night albums. Really, though, a day album is just a default term, something that picks up nothing when you listen to it after dark. Darkness is always where the action lies.

I'm not just talking about albums that are enjoyable after sunset - I wouldn't trust any album that didn't work that way.  I'm talking about the albums that undergo some alchemical change once the stars are out; that sound indefinably different on the open road with dusk just a memory.

Below are my five best examples of this process in action.  I've deliberately avoided nominating anything by The Cure, because that would be entirely too easy.

1. British Sea Power, "The Decline of British Sea Power"


The album that brought enlightenment, revealing the existence of night albums in all their unsettling glory. During the day, the production on this album seems strangely off-kilter.  At night, it sounds like every song is being played out on the moors.  Listen to this atop the hills of Yorkshire on a foggy winter night, and you won't reach your destination with your brain in the same shape as when you left.

Nightiest track: "Fear of Drowning."

2. Brand New, "Daisy"


Brand New had already gotten some way into the dark with their third album, "The Devil and God are Raging Inside Me", but "Daisy" is a step beyond.  Listen to this in your lunch break, and it's an angry squall of screaming men and violent guitars.  Out on the starlit road, it's the sound of furious ghosts calling to you from your back seat. Even the fox gets scarier.

Nightiest track: "Gasoline".

3. Angelo Badalamenti, "Twin Peaks Soundtrack"


There's plenty of soundtracks that work best at night, of course, since the link between music and scene is something they're designed to do.  That said, Badalamenti manages something no other composer has in my experience, which is to swirl together every aspect of the night; the fear, the beauty and the calmness, not just between pieces but within them.  This worked wonders when combined with Lynch's tendency to do similar things with dialogue and direction, but even out of that context, there's nothing else like it.

Nightiest track: "Falling".

4. We Were Promised Jetpacks, "These Four Walls"


The night album on this list I most often play in the daytime, because it's fascinating and exhilarating whenever you put it on. Once the sun goes down, though, the album lurches into new territory.  Like "Decline...", much of the work here is being done by the soundscapes, expansive, lonely places that unfold best when you're stuck out in the middle of nowhere yourself - and almost any road at night is the middle of nowhere. There's a consistency of purpose here though that outstrips the shambolic (and I mean that in the best possible way) "Decline...", though; a sense not just of night but a specific place, specifically the unwelcoming beauty of Scottish backwaters.

Nightiest track: "Conductor."

5. R.E.M. "New Adventures in Hi-Fi"


It took me years to appreciate this album properly.  It's still far from my favourite joint from Stipey and the boys, but it rose significantly in my affections when I realised it's their only night album, and can't be.  Once out on the road under a full moon, songs like "Undertow" and "Bittersweet Me" no longer seem crass and bitter, but urgent; they're claustrophobia no longer oppressive but a counterpoint to the night landscape.   For a long time I thought "Electrolite" was the only true gem on the whole thing, but now I realise my mistake.  "Electrolite" is the dawn at the end of a bad night, and without the night before, the new day wouldn't have any meaning at all.

Nightiest track: "Leave".

That's my five nominations, then.  Any suggestions of your own?  Leave 'em in comments.  Also, a shiny penny for anyone who can recognise the title quote (sans Google, natch).  I'll give you a clue, it's from a '90s LP which no-one in their right mind could possibly consider a night album.

Friday, 12 October 2012

Brief Rage

Fuck this guy.  This is a coward calling braver people names because they don't share his sniveling chicken-shit attitude. Almost everything you need to know about what's wrong with the way politics is presented is right here: paid commentators arguing that saying a powerful man is lying to his current and would-be constituents is worse than a powerful man lying to his current and would-be constituents.

The idea that after a year of staggering mendacity, flim-flam, moonshine, snake-oil and unpolished BS peddled by the Romney campaign in the most cynical and brazen fashion, the worst thing that can happen is for someone to point it out is so obnoxious it curls my teeth.

And Scott's quite right, obviously.  Once you tell people they're engaging in the tactics that mark out fascist regimes, you can immediately shut the hell up on the topic of how public discourse should be run.

Right.  I feel better for that.  Everyone have a good weekend.

Friday Dreadfleet: "...And A Star To Sail Her By"

Boom.





Thursday, 11 October 2012

D CDs #497: Impenetrable Defences



Urrgh.

Look.  Guys.  I tried, OK?  I really did.  Even though I listened to this back in 2001 and thought it was mediocre and unpleasant by turns, I've been giving it another go.  By which I mean I've given it not just a second, but a third spin, and thus heard the same song maybe two dozen times.

I don't know why I can't get next to this record.  Maybe I just don't like reductio ad absurdum simplicity. Or boring drumming.  Or a lack of bass.  Or a man singing like Bobcat Goldthwaite stubbed his toe.  Who knows how these things happen?  We're here now, and we just have to deal with it.

Whatever else is going on, though, I can't help but find most of this album pretty derivative.  The admittedly tasty riff from "Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground"? Green Day got there before them with "Brain Stew", and I doubt it originated from them, either. "The Union Forever" is basically the Doors, "Aluminum" Led Zepplin rendered shapeless and unlovable.  Even the storming "Fell in Love With a Girl" - far and away the album's best track, and perhaps not coincidentally the only one to rattle along at sufficient pace to paper over the band's weaknesses - has that "NAH na na na NAAH NAH!" thing everyone from the Mighty Mighty Bosstones to the Presidents of the United States of America have made use of in the past.  Pro-tip, kids, if your song sounds like you're cribbing from the guys that wrote "Peaches" you have failed at music.

Maybe this is partly that old problem; a ridiculously highly-regarded album that you can't begin to understand people's love for.  It's certainly not without it's charms.  "Hotel Yorba" is sweet enough, "We're Going To Be Friends" likewise.  Both of them stand out precisely because of what they're not, though, namely Jack White howling over a filthy guitar.  With him so often stuck in that mode, then aside from speeding things up ("Fell In Love...") or sticking some organ into the mix (I dissed "The Union..." for being Doors-esque, but it's still one of the best tracks on offer here), there's nowhere for him to go but minor permutations on a theme I wasn't interested in on arrival, let alone after ten or so reshuffles.

In the end, though, I'm left with a style I care little for, and the ghosts of too many other songs that might have been disguised with more complicated arrangements, but amongst such skeletal music just stick out amongst the ribs.

Five tentacles.

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

The Story So Far

The construction of a mighty warship is no simple task.







But soon it will be complete...

(Gods, I really hope I finish this by Friday...)

Where Did That Red Come From?

If there's one thing a decade of statistics should have taught me, it's not to put too much faith in polls.  And if I hadn't learned that by the last general election, the hideous beating the Liberal Democrats took (which admittedly will feel like a classy blow-job compared to what's coming next time around) would have sorted me out.

So I refuse to get too downcast by the image below, even if snatching defeat from the jaws of victory is pretty much the second most common Democratic move in the book, after selling out the working class.



All that said, it's going to be a long four weeks.

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

To Whom It May Concern


Dear Captain America,

I should note at the top of this letter that I am not one of your reflexive haters.  Sure, I'm British, so I find the idea that a far-flung confederation of massively different and mutually suspicious grouping of disparate people somehow stumbled onto the secret to viable democracy almost as ridiculous as wanting to dress up in those people's flags and punch out criminals (there's a reason Captain Britain is a dipsomaniac boor, after all). Despite that, though, I like to think I'm on your side.

Certainly I defended you when I lent the official record of your exploits during the superhero civil war to my then housemate, which led to him declaring you 'a dick'. I might not have been quite so willing to lay all the blame on Iron Man as others, but still, you had to do what you had to do.  He went after your boys; that's a line crossed.

That said, however, I've now had the opportunity to study the full record of what took place during your recent battle with the X-Men under Scott Summers, and I have a few questions I'd like to ask.  Since this is an open letter, I should warn those who are interested that I'll be discussing how that particular rift in the superhero community was resolved.

My Swollen Pancreas

I can see I'm not going to make it out of this week without my bile duct exploding through overuse.

Let me explain this to you very simply, George. If you want to make a big song and dance about how everyone is in this together - and calling for workers to unite in the middle of your party blaming unions for everything from teacher-bashing to the fall of Constantinople is, if nothing else, an example of superb comic timing - you might want to think a little bit harder about how reciprocity works.

For example - and this is just a random example, off the top of my shiny, maths-packed head - you might want to consider that offering employers the option to force a deal upon their workforce, and offer that workforce the option to not get a job or sign away their legal rights, might not be the best way to foster a feeling of being in it together.

Naturally, this is a double-whammy for the Conservatives, since once people start refusing to take jobs - at the hardest time to look for jobs since the last time the Tories clustered in the Cabinet Office licking children's blood of the walls - because they don't want to sign away their legal rights, the state can stop paying them benefits.  Benefits are people who want to work! If you don't like it, someone else will take it.  It's not like we're running out of applicants.  Chardonnay, maybe, but not applicants.  Which is fine; Dave from accounts will go out and buy us some more.  Or we'll fire him.

Plenty of people are pointing out right now that keeping one's workforce in constant fear of immediate unexplained dismissal will make them more productive is not only wrong, but gets things exactly backwards. Which is true, but only half the story.  The other half, of course, is that anyone fucking stupid enough to think legal rights are things to force people to sign away so they can feed their children isn't anyone whose shares are going to be worth anything a few years down the road. Tax-exempt or not.

Honest to God, we're six months away from putting VAT on JSA forms.  But hey, there's hope.  Sure, the Liberal Democrats might have signed off on this in principle, but at least they're still haggling over the numbers.  If Nick Clegg reaches Christmas with higher polling numbers than Ming the Merciless, it'll only because his next Youtube video involves a tearful apology and a suicide through self-immolation.

The Black Ooze Dripping From The Black Country

Pop quiz, hotshot: which of these is more likely to divide the nation?
A: Those two guys over there who want to be allowed to call their union a marriage?
B: That bloke on the fringe of the Tory conference arguing allowing gay marriage is the first step towards totalitarianism, and reminiscent of anti-Semitism in early Nazi Germany?
If you answered "B", then obviously you're not as smart as Ann Widdicombe.
Its not anti-gay, there is no one right which you're giving to gays which they don't already have under civil partnerships.
You're taking it away from heterosexuals but your not giving anything to the gays.
Yes, these horrible protesters who want to remove the right to have something denied to other people. To lose the right to say "I can have this and you can't". 

Why would that strike anyone as bigoted?

"Many Of The Truths We Cling To..."

Long-time readers will be well aware of my amateur interest in legal originalism, and my resulting interest in Antonin Scalia being locked naked in a room for all eternity with a slavering bear and sign saying "PLEASE FEED THE ANIMALS".

For the rest of you, a brief summation. In Scalia's case, originalism is the idea that you can work out any legal wrangle by sitting down, reading the constitution, and assuming the founders meant exactly what they appeared to have said, without nuance or implication.  Obviously, this is entirely fucking stupid.

There's a great article up by Richard Posner (h/t LGM) on exactly why the stupid here is both entire and involving of fucks.  The short version is this:
It is a singular embarrassment for textual originalists that the most esteemed judicial opinion in American history, Brown v. Board of Education, is nonoriginalist. In 1868, when the Fourteenth Amendment was ratified, the provision that states not deny to any person the “equal protection of the laws” meant that states... could not, without facing legal consequences, turn a blind eye to the Ku Klux Klan’s campaign of intimidation of blacks and carpetbaggers. Had the provision been thought, in 1868, to forbid racial segregation of public schools, it would not have been ratified.
One could seal the deal entirely of course by noting that what did get ratified is that slaves should only count as point six of a person.  The Constitution was written by racists and sexists, and once you edit that out, there's no foundation for arguing that all the rest of it should remain unchanging throughout time immemorial.

So, yes, originalism as a philosophy - as oppose to one of many tools in legal opinion forming - is intellectually bankrupt. I'm going over this today partially because I've only just read Posner's piece, and partially because lyndagb asked me an interesting question a couple of months ago, and I figured it was high time I addressed it.  With apologies to her for my paraphrasing, the question was this: can any links be drawn between the Constitutional originalism of conservative judges like Scalia, and the Biblical literalism that plagues so much of the Christian Right in America?

The answer, in my view, is: a little, but not really.

Monday, 8 October 2012

Guns And Butter Biscuits


So, here's a thing.  If you read this Steyn piece (h/t Rising Hegemon) and assume it's literally arguing that Sesame Street risks the death of Americans abroad by teaching them that monsters aren't scary, it doesn't make the slightest lick of sense.

If, on the other hand, you find-and-replace "monster" and "non-white", you suddenly discover an entirely coherent and desperately ugly racist screed.

Weird how that works, isn't it?

Turnabout Is Fair Play

One of my academic friends found herself on the shitty end of a terrible reviewer and their terrible review today, a slating of her work based on a fundamental misconception which could quickly have been resolved had the reviewer read the paper itself, rather than presumably burning it unopened and judging the smell of the smoke.

Indeed, their objections manage to be even more stupid than the last review I got, which contained the fabulous line "The authors must ensure they understand that they have not demonstrated clinical relevance.  In their defense, the authors do not claim they have."  That in turn was the most ridiculous thing any reviewer has said to me since I had a 36-page paper packed with horribly fiddly set theory rejected due to "insufficient mathematics."

In short, it's become very clear to me that we need to start reviewing reviewers.

And not with one of those milquetoast "Rate your experience out of five" surveys; we should be allowed to get proper digs in:
"We recommend this reviewer be rejected on the grounds they have neither the wit to grasp our work nor the honesty to admittheir failings.

The journal should feel free to resubmit this reviewer for consideration following extensive changes to their outlook, knowledge base, reading age, and sense of basic professionalism, but we cannot guarantee that this will lead to a change in stance. What if they're still a prick?"
Your move, peer-review process...

Sunday, 7 October 2012

So I Got Angry Tonight

I think one of the reasons I can't tear myself away from US politics is that it's all so horribly disgusting. It's a vision of what happens when sensible people stop pointing out when others have utterly surrendered their obligations not only to honesty, but to basic decency.

Which makes it a warning about what could happen anywhere. 

Fortunately, I think there is some way to go in the UK before anything as vicious and smugly cruel as the Republican Party gains a significant foothold (as has been noted before, the closest we have is the BNP, who  I'm far from unconcerned about, but at least don't need millions of dollars spent against them just to hopefully push them into second place maybe). For all that I loathe the Conservative Party - and am aware that a difference in tone can often just be a mask for similarities in policy - I wouldn't want to argue they're anywhere near as bad as the rabid money-grubbing bigots stinking up the New World.

Except one day, they might be.  All it takes is for enough people to stop pointing out those things that should make decent people sick.  That's all it takes.

So let's point this out., as they did in the Guardian (which is how I got hold of it).
Most commentators agree that Mitt Romney has committed political suicide by pointing out that 46pc of Americans pay no income tax.
Actually, the mistake wasn't in pointing this out, but in getting the number wrong, getting the definition of income tax wrong (the vast majority of people paying no federal income tax still pay state income tax, and since was not having to pay tax something the Republicans hated?), and arguing this 47% of people weren't worth his effort to reach out too because they're entirely addicted to suckling from the federal government's teat. You might as well argue Gerald Ratner's big mistake was admitting that he sold jewellery -
but he may have done us all a favour by raising a fundamental weakness in many developed economies – including Britain’s – which is also one of the causes of the credit crisis.
- which of course is nowhere near as stupid as implying poor people are to blame for the credit crisis, though it's always nice to be reminded that the Telegraph really is as gobshite-awful as its reputation would suggest.  I'm not going to claim total authority on the credit crisis - I'm still a near-amateur on any economic issue more complicated than present values - but the argument that things might not have gone quite so tits-up if the marks shamelessly fleeced by the great and the good had less money lying around can be most simply expressed as "if the poor had no cash then con-men wouldn't have any reason to target them", which, whilst plausible, is roughly the same logic as suggesting we end shark attacks by removing the legs of anyone expressing an interest in swimming.
Whether or not his candour costs the Republican candidate any hope of winning the Presidential Election in November, he has certainly demonstrated the modern meaning of the word ‘gaffe’ – that is, a statement of the bleedin’ obvious by someone in the public eye.
For those keeping score, the "Consumer Affairs Journalist of the Year" defines "bleedin' obvious" as a statement inaccurate both quantitatively and qualitatively. Somewhere in the realm of rhetoric, parody coughs up another wad of bloody lung, and his doctor shakes his head sadly.
Many people are understandably eager to stifle this debate – as demonstrated by the furore caused when I last asked in this space whether votes should be restricted to people who actually pay something into the system...
Ian - may I call you Ian? - no-one wants to stifle this debate, any more than they want to stifle the 1986 World Cup.  Because it's over, it's been over for a while, and you lost and need to fucking stop whining about it.  You might as well complain you'd be stifled for suggesting the British Empire should make a comeback.
I am not suggesting a return to property-based eligibility; although that system worked quite well when Parliament administered not just Britain but most of the world.
Oh.  Well, carry on then.

I'd admit that it takes some balls to come out and suggest things were just tickety-boo back when the Cabinet would squirt brandy from their nose at the very suggestion we take seriously the political opinions of anyone with skin darker than heavily-milked tea, except that this goober is writing in the pages of the Telegraph, which means he could say the worst thing about Hitler was that he died too soon to impregnate Margaret Thatcher, and he'd be more likely to receive a pay-rise than a whipping through the streets.
Today, income would be a much better test, setting the bar as low as possible; perhaps including everyone who pays at least £100 or even just $100 of income tax each year. That minimal requirement would include everyone who gets out of bed in the morning to go to work and could easily be extended to include, on grounds of fairness, several other groups.
Anyone want to guess if he mentions those too unwell or disabled for stable, long-term employment at this point?  Or those unemployed through no fault of their own? 
For example, all pensioners... all mothers.
"I think I'm going to have a heart attack and die of not surprise!"


Thursday, 4 October 2012

Travelogue

Just because I forgot to put them up at the time, and since a healthy slice of my commerati are currently sunning themselves in Italy (I would have joined them but, alas, young people needed me to expand their minds): pictures taken from halfway up a (modest) mountain in Tegernsee:








and on the lake by Bad Wiessee:


and one of the Siegestor in Munich:


I assure you, this is in no way an attempt to one-up my friend by demonstrating the ease of finding somewhere to go on holiday which offers decent beer.  And mountain cows, obviously.

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

"You And Me, We Know About Time"



When I briefly flicked through responses to Who's mid-season finale over the weekend, it seemed that opinion was pretty divided. A great deal of that seems to come down to whether one thought the ending had the necessary emotional punch, or whether one saw the entire thing as a cynical act of button-pressing designed to wring maximum melodrama out of a series of ridiculous ideas.

Personally, I'm somewhere between the two; I enjoyed the episode, but I could hear the gears grinding in the background as Moffat set up each brick in the wall he needed by the episodes' end.

Anyway, I don't want to talk about the ending, because everyone else is.  Nor am I going to talk about how much effort the episode put in to contradicting not only itself, but both previous appearances of the Weeping Angels as well (though as someone elsewhere - alas, I forget who and where - pointed out, if the image of an Angel becomes an Angel, sticking them on postcards is a pretty damn stupid idea).

No, I want to talk about theories of time travel.

I'm not putting this behind a cut because I'm not intending to do much in the way of spoilering, but for those so spoilerphobic you'd bitch if someone told you the title of a given episode (and yes, such people exist), you might want to look away now, since this post revolves around a major plot point from ten minutes or so into the episode.  Basically, the Doctor discovers that a book he's reading is actually an account of what's going on in the episode - like if he was reading Sharpe whilst watching the Battle of Talavera, only worse - which leads to him saying something quite extraordinary: he can only change the events the book is based on for those sections he has not yet read.

I'll admit, there's something about that idea that's lunatic enough to appeal to me.  Basically, it leaves us with only two options: either the universe is subjective, or the universe is intelligent. And weird.

Back during the classic series, the closest we came to a coherent theory of time travel was that once the Doctor arrived, he couldn't start flitting around the nearby area with the TARDIS, or at least not in any way other than to move in space whilst remaining constant in time.  This rule was broken at least once ("Pyramids of Mars" springs immediately to mind, but no doubt there are more), but the basic idea was that the Doctor couldn't, even when he had the level of control over his TARDIS necessary to try - which wasn't often - just nip back in time and save the people who died the first time around.  If he watched someone get exterminated, that was it, there was never any way for that person to avoid that fate [1]. Moffat even made a small step towards formalising this unwritten rule during "The Girl in the Fireplace", when Mickey suggests using the TARDIS to travel to the other end of a time corridor and is told it can't be done, because they're all "part of events now".

But what have we learned now?  That the TARDIS crew become part of events not through their presence, but through their observation.  The mere act of being aware of what will happen cements that fact.  One might call it Heisenberg's Certainty Principle, though more fairly of course it should be Schrodinger's Causality Cat.

The immediate question then becomes: who is it who needs to do the observing? If Amy reads the book silently to herself, can the Doctor still not change what happens in the book? What if she reads the book then steps of the TARDIS, with the Doctor still none the wiser? What if some other Time Lord (back when there were such things) reads the book, a Time Lord who never so much as meets the Doctor?

This is what I mean about a subjective universe.  It seems ridiculous to suggest that the definition of a "fixed point" is something no time-traveler observed either directly or second hand (though see SLIGHTLY SPOILERISH footnote [2]).  It's much easier to believe that it's something internal, that a time-traveler cannot rewrite any event they themselves witnessed, or have been made aware of.

When you start thinking about it like that, everything clicks into place.  When the Doctor says "fixed point", he just means "I already know how this plays out". The only things he can fiddle with are the bits that he's got no foreknowledge of.  In other words, the Doctor could go back in time and save someone who he failed to rescue the first time around, but only if he was unaware he'd failed in the first place.

Put yet another way, it means that had the Doctor somehow forgotten what he learned through the book that risked forcing a fixed end to the episode, everything would once again have been fine.  If Schrodinger had got horribly drunk and lifted his hypothetical lid to check on the hypothetical cat, he would know then whether the cat was still alive.  But then, if he replaced the lid, passed out, and remembered nothing the next morning, his experiment is unchanged.  The cat is still both alive and dead, even if it had died before he'd opened the box, or, for that matter, if he'd killed the cat himself whilst checking its miserable prison for more booze.

This theory also explains why so many "fixed points" turn out to be well-known historical events.  This is no accident, but a feature of the Doctor's continued interest in our planet.  Moreover, it means every time he visits this world there's a few more things he knows he can't change, either because he witnesses them, or someone tells him about it.

So what happens when a Time Lord with no knowledge of X comes up against one who's seen X and knows what it involves?  Actually, that's arguably a large part of the Third Doctor's exile and struggle against the Master.  The Master turns up without the slightest clue regarding Earth's future development, and proceeds to gleefully kick over every sand castle he can find, and the Doctor knows he must be stopped, because the Doctor knows how things should look ten years later, and knows they don't involve giant space squids or rampaging sea-lizards sporting fish-net everything.

The next question regards what happens when a time-traveler inadvertently - or deliberately - changes a fixed point.  One option is that it goes horribly wrong for them - the Reapers from "Father's Day" show up and start munching through things.  The second, more interesting option, is that it genuinely can't be done.  The universe is not just subjective - in the sense that it won't allow one time-traveler to do what another could with impunity - but it is self-aware, and actively resists changes a given time-traveler would recognise as such.

This is one solution to the Grandfather Paradox.  What happens when you go back and time and try to shoot your grandfather?  You can't.  The universe will conspire to ensure it never happens.  The gun gets lost.  The bullet proves to be a blank.  Your grandfather survives but is shaken enough he swears to never speak of it again, even if he lives to see his grandchildren grow up.

Some people are quite happy with this argument.  I had an ex-girlfriend who loved time-travel stories, and singled this idea out as her favorite.  Personally, I dislike it, because of what it suggests about the following example.  I write two letters, address them to myself, place first class stamps on them, and travel a few years back into the past.  One letter contains a random series of letters and numbers.  The other contains enough details of the future to make me rich, Back to the Future 2 style.  I then post one envelope, at random, and burn the other.

So what happens?  Does the universe stop the letter no matter what it contains, because it could change the future to a noticeable extent - certainly noticeable by me? Or does the universe know somehow if the "right" letter has been posted, and step in then? Or is the choice of letter itself completely determined, and so whether or not the letter is intercepted is "known" before I even post it? That last option seems like the easiest get out, but of course I could choose the letter before I went back into the past.  I could even travel into the future and get someone else to choose it for me.  There's no way I can think of to get around the problems of the thought experiment except to say that time travel is possible but the universe is completely deterministic to the point where even when time travelers think they've changed the past, they haven't really, because if they knew the past as well as they think they did, they'd realise everything was the way it always was. To take the Star Trek IV approach "How do we know he didn't invent the thing?".

Perhaps, after an awful lot of words, that's where we have to end up.  Not so much that the universe is aware, but that time-travelers are forced only in circumstances in which they are unaware of how their actions will influence later events. To return to an old favorite, The Ring Cycle, the curse of Odin is that his knowledge is so complete; that he can see the downside in any action he might choose to take, and can therefore do nothing. There is something strangely attractive about the idea that meddling with good intentions is a net positive, even without any knowledge of the final result.  Something perhaps very human, as well.

Anyway, that's where my mind has been wandering for the last three days. Alternative takes or comments on my rickety logic are, of course, more than welcome.

[1] There was a wonderful in a '90s Doctor Who Magazine short story in which the Doctor says that for time travelers, whether or not someone is considered dead is based entirely on whether they've witnessed that death. I think that can be stretched (as in last season, for example) to being informed of their death, as oppose to it just being assumed, explaining why the Doctor was so devastated to learn of the Brigadier's death (and yes, I choked up just a little), even though had his TARDIS been twenty years further on he would be amazed to learn Lethbridge-Stewart was still tottering about.

[2] Given who proves to have written the book, of course, the "second-hand" argument doesn't track, but that didn't seem to be the implication of the episode.