Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Incoming...

I don't know about you peeps, but I had a pretty good year. Let's try and keep that going into 2014.

And for those who will be glad to see the back of the unluckiest year of the 21st century (though it won't have a patch on 2197, mark my words), I hope this coming year shapes up and offers the success you deserve.

Unless you're a dick, of course. You people can go to hell.

Happy new year!

D CDs #481: Background Hum


Once again the North East's whitest man (TM) finds himself tackling a classic slice of African-American music, and tries his best to muddle through.

Actually, though, to my great relief, I get this (though the cover rather makes me wonder whether D'Angelo bought into the common fear that the Y2K bug would render everyone's shirts unusable).  Or, at least, there's a clear route through to something that makes sense to me. Who doesn't want to see soul rendered as funky and filthy as is humanly possible? James Brown can't do all this on his own, you know, though obviously he made a credible stab at the job.

With minimal-to-absent breaks between songs, and a consistent key and tempo, this feels less like thirteen individual slices of music and more a single composition of multiple movements.  Various hypnotic, snake-like bass lines wend their way through simplistic, prominent beats; a foreground for D'Angelo's high-pitched, beautiful croon. It's like a nervous miner bird stole a synthesiser and borrowed a horn section.

The end result is perhaps slight - if one is to rely on one's rhythm section, one perhaps needs to be more concerned about varying the tempo than D'Angelo seems to be - but it's also a perfect musical backdrop for those times when you need a backdrop, as oppose to a distraction. In other words, this is a disc you press into service when your brain runs as slow and laid-back as this does.  For when the business of the day is very not absorbing lyrics (rarely more than mildly diverting here, though "Devil's Pie" is a nice moment of realisation,"One Mo'Gin" a rather sweet love-and-loss song, and "Africa" a paean to a stolen past in the face of a new future; all of which break up the expected focus upon making people dance, making women swoon, and making naysayers uncomfortable).

Within that particular scenario, Voodoo does it's job with discipline and economy, and no small amount of soul.   Which, I think we can all agree, will very much do.

Seven tentacles.

Friday, 27 December 2013

Friday Talisman: Put 'Em Away, Love

From the largest Talisman character to the smallest. I painted this tiny sprite purely to help even out my average time per miniature; the Dragon Rider took ages and putting this together was almost absurdly simple (though the wing veins needed sensitive handling).


I quite like the final result, or at least the bit I really don't like - the pose - is out of my hands.  I realise we pretty much lost the high fantasy genre to the mouthbreathing perverts before I was even born, but once upon a time we at least tended to save the explicit sexualising for the humans.  Quite why this tiny woodland fairy needs to be shoving her arse out and bending over to reveal her (proportionally) cavernous cleavage is quite beyond me.  Given her size, it's impossible to believe she needs to bend over to pick anything up.  Anything but a SEX-CRAZED MAN, that is!

Thursday, 26 December 2013

Time Expands And Then Contracts

Perhaps a little under-cooked?
"Time of the Doctor"? Time of the bleedin' massive spoilers, more like!

A Tale Of Cocktails #44

Caribbean Milk

Ingredients
.
1 oz dark rum
1 oz Kahlua
4 oz milk
1/2 oz double cream
1 cinnamon stick
1 lemon slice
.
Taste: 8
Look: 5    
Cost: 9
Name: 8
Prep: 7
Alcohol: 3
Overall: 7.0

Preparation: Pour all ingredients into a saucepan, heating slowly and stirring occasionally until mixture begins to climb the pan. Remove from heat, strain, and serve.
 
General Comments: If I'd wanted a hot coffee Baileys with a dash of cinnamon, I'd have asked for it.

Actually though, I turns out I did want a hot coffee Baileys with a dash of cinnamon.  Is there any more?

Wednesday, 25 December 2013

Postcards From The Front

Merry Christmas from all here at Squid Towers. May your festive doggies be bright of coat and mischievous of temperament.

Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Appropriate Reactions


Corey Robin's The Reactionary Mind is brilliant.  It is, perhaps, not quite as brilliant as its reputation suggests; its episodic structure means it revisits its central thesis in multiple different circumstances rather than building on that thesis' foundations.  As a result the basic principles outlined here are sketched broadly, rather than mined in depth.

On the other hand, perhaps there is a strength in the simplicity here.  Robin's essential premise is certainly pleasingly bite-sized: conservatism (here mainly but not entirely meaning American conservatism) is neither a philosophy of moderation nor of nostalgia, but a philosophy that finds moderation and nostalgia useful as vectors for its true interest, which is social hierarchy. [1]

In the pursuit of the social hierarchy, shout-out to the halcyon days are of use only in so much as rigid social orders were all the rage before the French Revolution, the historical event Robin describes as the crucible in which the conservative philosophy as we understand it today was forged.  Changes to the social order that took place decades or even centuries ago receive no respect from conservatives unless they fit in with the desired structure to the world, and the always unconvincing calls for incremental changes and considered debate are always conveniently set aside in stampedes to tear down institutions that happen to be standing in the way. One need only look to recent Supreme Court decisions granting the rich unlimited ability to influence politicians with their money, or to the gutting of the Voting Rights Act, to discern this.  The goal is a society where those people Know Their Place, and all else is simply window-dressing.

Robin develops a secondary hypothesis here as well - one which interacts with the first - regarding the discomfort many conservatives face with a contented society.  One can barely dip into the banal morass of the American op-ed pages without bumping into a David Brooks figure informing us that moral complacency is threatening to destroy society.  As Charles Pierce likes to put it, these writers are obsessed with the idea that there might be people fking on couches of which the writer does not approve. Often this is no more serious than paternalistic busy-bodying, but on occasion it becomes more sinister - the same instinct to lecture the underclass about their sexuality mutating into the insistence that the financial crash had its roots in the refusal of the un-moneyed to live within the means fate had chosen for them.  One must not simply be, one must strive.  For the rich, this apparently always seems to mean striving to gain more money.  For everyone else... well, this is where we run into real problems. Almost invariably, the solution handed down is that those without money should have to work harder to get the money they are being intentionally deprived of.

The problems of both these strands when considered separately are already obvious. In combination, things become that much worse.  The constant desire conservatives have to see society tested is catalysed by the insistence that it is the lower rungs of society that need that testing the most urgently, and suddenly the working class finds its sons and daughters being shipped overseas to kill and be killed in the name of foreign excursions intended in ill-defined ways to somehow improve the soul of the nation. The constant cry of the conservative that they wish for smaller government is suddenly laid bare for what it is: the realisation that a properly enforced legal framework has become a hindrance to their desired socially enforced moral framework.  Since the fall of the Jim Crow laws it has become impossible to enshrine in statute the kind of pecking order the conservative wishes to see returned to civilisation (to the extent to which it ever actually left, of course), but with the money and entrenched power on their side already, it suffices simply to chip away at legal obstacles to a de facto social stratification they believe - almost certainly correctly - will create itself once all those silly laws concerned with equality are neutered. [2]

This, in the end, is the goal.  Whether it be a return to the courts of pre-Revolutionary France or some entirely new rough beast of capitalist debauchery and neoconservative violence, those people must be made to see that they are not us people.  True happiness is born in the minds of the people not when they believe their time to rule might some day come, but when they realise better men (always, always men) exist above them, and rightly so.  "Do not rise above your station", they intone sombrely as they hoover up another percentile of GDP. "We will take care of you".

That this is both abhorrent in philosophy and an utter failure every time it has been practised is apparently irrelevant, perhaps because those pushing this vicious prescription may always simply enquire "an utter failure for who?".  The central attraction for the social hierarchy is that there will always be someone below you, and if there isn't, well, you're clearly too far down to be worth worrying about in any case, right?

So does each man punch down. So do our minds and our hearts ossify. So does every injustice this world forces upon us somehow become the way things are supposed to be.

I'll pass, thanks.

[1] I suppose one could argue there is a genuine component of nostalgia involved, actually, if only because it always just so happens to be the rich white guys who are implicitly at the top of whatever terrifying new pyramid of civilisation these people would foist upon us. One might wish for them to choose black lesbians as the leaders of the new era, simply for a change of pace.  Of course, this would mean disassembling the social structure they swear does not exist in order to build the structure they swear they don't want, so hopes are less than high.

[2] One criticism I have of Robin's thoughts on this topic is that he draws a clear line between efforts opposed to racial equality and efforts opposed to economic equality.  I'm not sure the two are meaningfully distinct on a practical level.   That is to say, I think the closest thing the Republican Party has to a point when they object to being called racist is that they genuinely seem to just utterly fucking hate poor people, and don't particularly care how many of them are or aren't white.

Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Get Myself Arrested

Anyone who's already furious over the horrific "affluenza" trial (ably dissected with entirely appropriate rage by Jack Graham) might want to take a look at this link, if only in the hopes that your rage might reach such incandescent proportions that we can hook power lines up to you and save us a few months of munching through dead dinosaurs.

In brief, a white professional actively tries to get himself arrested for graffiti tagging, finds it almost impossible, and when he finally does get himself locked up for the night and has to appear before a judge, he learns a) the treatment of arrestees in NYC is abominable, and b) you can be literally banned from leaving New York for three years for your first misdemeanour, just so long as the judge is pissed off at you.

As usual, the point here is not to have a giggle at how outrageously screwed up the American justice system seems to be in just about every state (though it really, really is), so much as another reminder that legal systems are frequently horrendously capricious and prone to overreaction, and trying to bypass this with comforting thoughts that it's only those people who have to worry about it in the first place is a large part of the reason why.

(h/t to Kevin Drum)

Sunday, 15 December 2013

A Tale Of Cocktails #42/#43

(Sugarific) Ciderific

Ingredients
.
6 oz cider
1 oz rum
1 cinnamon stick
(1 tsp brown sugar)
Lemon slice to garnish
.
Taste: 6 (8)
Look: 6 (7)    
Cost: 9 (9)
Name: 8 (8)
Prep: 7 (7)
Alcohol: 3 (3)
Overall: 6.6 (7.4)

Preparation: Pour alcohol (and sugar) into a small saucepan. Add cinnamon and heat slowly for five minutes. Strain and pour. Add lemon slice and drink.
General Comments: A drink for Festivus! There are two variants to this concoction, one with and one without brown sugar.  Your preference will probably depend on how sweet your tooth is, but with the sugar added what you have here is basically mulled cider with the rum filling in for the spice; not flashy, but solid.  Without it you've got a fairly bland concoction that somehow conspires to taste a little like weak whisky - especially if you heat it up too quickly.  Either way it's a nice warming drink for cold winter nights, but it's only when you add the sugar that it really feels worth the effort (and as a bonus, it looks less like dehydrated piss).

Really, anything that ends with ...ific should be able to bring more to the party than this manages, but if you find yourself growing bored of mulled wine, this can certainly be pressed into service as an adequate substitute.

Friday, 13 December 2013

Warhammer 40K: 40Kool-Aid

One year almost to the day (that would be Christmas Day, obvs), and miniatures three and four from Dark Vengeance are off the production line. I've wanted to paint up some Red Corsair cultists for years, so I was delighted to see them show up in the new edition.  Of course, having read Legion in September I now want Alpha Legion cultists as well.  If only the boxed set contained two squads...



 These gentlemen continue my experiments with non-Caucasian skin colours.  They're a bit lighter than my Space Squids sergeants; I was aiming for something a little more Asian than the Kenya-inspired inhabitants of Four Feathers (a name I know deeply regret after finding out I wasn't the first to come up with it).  I spent some time worrying about applying the scheme to such villains - any force of Imperial lapdogs they end up facing will almost certainly be stern-faced Aryan motherfuckers - but I promise I shall redress the balance when I finally get around to starting an Imperial Guard army, currently projected to show up some time in the mid 2020s.

Thursday, 12 December 2013

Also, Actually...

Whilst I was headed into work Radio 4 had a segment on the Universities UK brouhaha mentioned earlier in the week, featuring Jack Straw and Nicola Daniels from UUK.

No-one seemed to be getting this argument exactly right, but it was Daniels who had the toughest time of it - though of course, I would say that, since hers is the position I have the least sympathy for.

Still, the flaws in Daniel's case strike me as pretty objective. Her argument seemed to stem from the idea that audience self-segregation should not be opposed. If segregation is banned, then we end up in the unfortunate position of telling an entire audience, every member of which wants to do something one way, that they must do it a different way.  Daniels went so far as to accuse the host (who, in fairness, was a bit too keen to sneak in low-blows about apartheid to actually bother with a rational dialogue) of being the one who was really telling women where to sit, because he was telling them they couldn't sit as a single bloc on one side of a lecture hall.

The flaws in this position are self-evident: it only works if literally every woman in the audience is in favour of segregation. Daniels is proposing that there are circumstances in which a speaker and the entirety of his audience want a certain arrangement to the seating, but that they somehow can't arrange this unofficially (like it'd be too hard for the first person to get there to sit wherever they want and everyone else filter accordingly), and that if such a thing does happen, some university busybody will arrive to set them straight.

In other words, it's an obvious fiction. Daniels doesn't want to get into the far more likely scenario where some women wish segregation [1] and others do not, so she treats an audience as a monolithic structure which can be known will agree with one position or another. I mean, I suppose one could colour an argument that says some of these religious speakers will be so horribly unpalatable to any woman who doesn't subscribe to gender segregation, but a) no-one should be in the business of deciding who women do or don't want to listen to and b) it rather undercuts Daniels "we are the ones empowering women" angle if you go down that road.

On the other hand, all this gives me an opportunity to revisit the more general point here, since Fliss pulled me up on my post from Monday to point out I was perhaps defining "outside speaker" too narrowly. I'm not sure who UUK are including in their definition, but Fliss is right that it might include, say, departmental seminars with speakers who may be at no higher than postgrad level.  I can't really shoe-horn them into my tirade on powerful religious figures dictating their terms for engagement. It's not just possible, but established (anecdotally) that postgraduates who feel they cannot talk to an unsegregated room face a genuine obstacle to career development, and while I'm obviously leery about the degree to which such requirements are acceptable, this part of the problem is more complex than the part I chose to shout about. I'd like to think that seminars of that type are something you can discuss arrangements for at the local level rather than UUK sticking their oar in, but that could well generate its own problems.

[1] Speaking of which, my biggest problem with the show's host was his refusal to even consider the possibility that some religious women might genuinely believe in gender segregation. As with the discussion on banning the burqa, it's much easier to believe the idea is invariably forced upon women, because then you can pretend legislating against religious preference is somehow a blow for equality.

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Down To The Wire

This condensed version of a talk Wire creator David Simon gave in Sydney recently is very interesting. Even for those with literal interest in US politics (and who don't believe the US is anything more than a test-case for where the Tory party sees the UK heading), it might be of interest just in terms of how Simon's politics were built into his most famous show from the ground up.

I don't think I'd sign up for all of what Simon is saying - it's not clear that consumer culture only becomes a problem once a country's internal social contract breaks down, and he makes a distinction between racial oppression and economic oppression that perhaps buries the link between the two - but his piece raises two very important points.

The first always reminds me of the time I argued with a libertarian who simply refused to listen to anything Keynes said on the subject of the economy because Keynes once said the government might want to bury treasure and pay people to dig it up. The fact that this idea isn't as stupid as it sounds (hiring people to do jobs that cost the government money is how stimulus packages basically work, and work they do) isn't the point. The point is that my opponent believed saying one arguably silly thing was enough to utterly invalidate all other comments by that same person. 

(This from a man who venerated Milton Friedman, who offered economic advice to Augusto Pinochet during the latter's brutal oppression of his own people, and who insisted in his final years that Islamofascism was the greatest threat the world economy faced, but I digress.)

In practice, this is transparently a tactic to avoid having to listen to and process conflicting arguments.  If you can dismiss someone as a crank, you don't have to pay attention any more [1].  It's the quickest ticket to epistemic closure one can think of short of locking oneself in a vault with nothing but ten years of emergency rations and a copy of Atlas Shrugged. Reasonable people can argue over how sensible Marx's alternatives to the capitalist state actually were, but Simon is right; that has nothing to do with how accurate Marx's criticisms were. Acting otherwise is just lazy, hackish anti-thought.

The second important point is this: you have to be straight-up out of your mind at this point to look at the state of company/employee relations in the US as a whole and conclude unions are the problem.  This was always a fiction, but perhaps once it was fiction of a Raymond Chandler stripe.  These days, it's fan fiction Dan Brown would be ashamed to print, or at least it would be if not for the staggering amount of money available for doing so.

Acquiring money simply cannot be so unquestionably awesome as to allow no breaks upon the process.  Unions simply cannot be so unquestionably unhelpful that there can be no situation in which they are not necessary. That so few of those who argue the contrary - or always seem to in practice, at least - can do so without pointing to the spectres of Stalinism and general strikes should tell you all you need to know.

[1] Dismissing someone as a liar/bullshitter is something else entirely, of course.

Sunday, 8 December 2013

Too Soon Returned?

"Who's that new guy behind Tyreese? He's never been in the show before.
I certainly hope nothing bad happens to him!"

Collected thoughts on the first half of Walking Dead season 4? That'll be chock-full of spoilers, then...

Friday, 6 December 2013

Mandela

I was eight years old when I heard a slice of Sangoma on the radio. My father was driving me home from a swimming session in Loftus. It would be nice - if not particularly original - to say I'd never heard anything like it before, but honestly my parents were so supremely disinterested in music that I could say that about almost any song I was exposed to at that age.  I don't even remember which song it was or how it went.

What I remember is what the radio DJ said afterwards: that the singer, Miriam Makeba, was in exile from her home country of South Africa, and would never return until it was free, remaining until then what she called "a spotted leopard among cheetahs".  I asked my father to explain why her country wasn't free.  Did my father mention Nelson Mandela?  Did he even know who Mandela was?  I no longer recall.

---

I knew who Mandela was by 1994.  Who didn't?  I remember thinking two things when Mandela became the President of South Africa for the first time. The first was a deep respect for the outgoing president F.W. de Klerk for knowingly torpedoing his political career in favour of doing the right thing.  The second was a feeling of elation that the singer I had heard six years earlier could finally go home.

Nelson Mandela was never a man who it was hard to respect.  There is nothing in my life that can allow me to comprehend the suffering he endured in his involuntary tour of various prisons at the hands of a system that needed to despise him simply to justify its continued existence. That he emerged from over a quarter of a century of incarceration without any obvious desire to tear his tormentors apart is alone is nothing short of miraculous. I couldn't imagine how anyone could be so calm and forgiving, not when I was fourteen, and not now.  Maybe even less so now; I've just absorbed so much more about the world and about people that I despise.

---

In early 2002 I was in my final year as an undergraduate in Durham.  There was a girl in the next block I had something of a crush on, so I spent a lot of time on her corridor.  Also on that corridor was an Afghan student by the name of Taj.  I won't pretend we were close, but we chatted from time to time, and thousands of miles and years of cultural differences never seemed so important as our shared annoyance at who had set off the fire alarm at 3am or why our college charged us for glasses broken in a bar we spent no time in.

One night he told me how much he'd enjoyed the celebrations back home when the Twin Towers went down.  How there was no such thing as a Westerner who didn't have it coming, so long as they were old enough to vote.  If they can vote, they should vote to stop being imperialist monsters in the Middle East.  If they can't find a party to vote for that will do that, they should start their own party, with as many demonstrations in the streets as possible along the way. Whether anyone in the Twin Towers was attempting just this remedy was unknown,  but such people were "collateral damage".

As were the children.

---

In 2003 we met David Brent's Labrador, named after Nelson Mandela, and someone nearby objects to Brent's hagiographic gushing over his pet's namesake. Mandela was not, after all, in the business of flower-arranging in the years before his arrest and trial (either his original one which was kicked out for lack of evidence, or the second one that began once the state had had time to twist things around a little bit).  Brent, as one would expect, sneers shakily at this as racist.

---

My then girlfriend had taken a summer job in London when bombs started exploding on the 7th of July, 2005.  It took hours for me to confirm she was safe.  A girl I'd known well years before and lost track of after university seemingly disappeared that day; it wasn't until several days later that someone was able to confirm she was fine. I thought of Taj, and wondered whether he was somewhere celebrating.

---

A few days ago Phil Sandifer reached "Planet of the Ood" in his epic analysis of the entire history of Doctor Who. "Planet of the Ood" is a remarkably original slice of Who for one major reason: the people the Doctor believes deserve freedom win that freedom with minimal help from him.  He is far more observer than he is participant in the Ood revolution.  Not only that, but there's a total absence of hectoring from him about how one should go about fighting ones oppressors.  He understands that it is none of his business. The oppressed can - and must - decide for themselves how they are to win their freedom.

Except... that isn't some kind of iron-clad rule.  The Oodsphere contains exactly two types of people: the Ood themselves, and the humans who have deliberately - almost comically so - mistreated and oppressed them.  Either you have a faceful of tentacles, or a mouth sneering at your slaves whilst waiting for them to make your tea. The only form of oppression shown is the deliberate lobotomising and enslaving of sentient creatures.

Out in the deserts of the Real, we cannot rely on such simplicity. When the planes slammed against their targets, there was no special escape route for those not affluent white men.  The bombs in London killed those who benefited least from life in the UK along with those who gained the most.  People the US and the UK both have happily subjected to economic oppression died because they were judged to more properly belong to the category of oppressor. There must be more to deciding how a world is run than simply granting total moral authority to whichever group of oppressed people happen to get the guns - or the Merkava tanks - first.

---

All of this is whirling around my head today. The Brentish urge to gloss over those aspects of Mandela's past which make white people uncomfortable must be resisted. Not in order to sully the memory of a great man, but so as to contextualise what he did and why he did it. So as to understand what it means to dedicate ones life to fighting the state in situations where it is so clearly true that fighting is necessary.

Further, for all that I sympathise deeply with the basic point of Sandifer's rhetoric - it is obscene for the oppressors to lecture the oppressed on how they should approach their struggle for freedom - the corollary that I can state no support for Nelson's approach to the struggle compared to that of the suicide bomber or the carpet bomber sits deeply uneasily with me.  Doubtless this cannot be entirely untangled from the fact that my preference is for revolution that doesn't end up getting me or my loved ones blown to pieces (though that day in July 2005 remains the only time in my life I've felt any personal connection to an act of terror; even during the IRA bombings of the '80s it all felt very far away from the North East of England) but I cannot believe that there is no more to it than that.

I do not believe that my respect for Nelson Mandela is born simply from the fact his approach kept me and mine safer than the random murder so beloved by Taj.  Nor does that respect force me to ignore the fact that under Mandela the ANC bombed civilian targets in the 1960s. Civilian casualties were not the aim, simply an inescapable consequence of attacking the state's infrastructure.  The people those bombs killed are no less dead for that fact.

A life like Mandela's is deeply complex by necessity. We cannot glaze over.  Nor can we argue every violent act he is responsible for is outside our right to parse. Not if we want to pay tribute to the man, the whole man.

As a whole man, Mandela left his country and the world better than he left it, and did so at every point under the guiding principle that violence was only ever a last resort, when every other possibility had been identified and honestly attempted. He was not, nor did he claim to be, perfect; by his own admission, there was far more he could have done to fight the AIDS epidemic that currently sees almost one fifth of the adult population suffering with HIV/AIDS.

But what he did do, surely, must be considered enough for any one man. How many black South Africans owe their careers and status and even their lives to him? How many white South Africans are where they are today because Mandela had so little interest in the kind of collective punishment so many might have believed was just? How many of the racist bigots that infest our political class are having to spend today paying tribute through gritted teeth to the sworn enemy of their abhorrent philosophies.

All because Nelson Mandela fought and won. You can either accept all this is true and that Mandela believed terrorism was preferable to capitulation, or you can't.

Me? I say he earned his status in the world.  He has most certainly earned his rest.

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Actually...

The problem with Universities UK coming out in favour of gender segregation in talks given by outside speakers does not particularly strike me as an issue of religion freedom.

This is important, because actual conflicts between the right to religious freedom and the right to equal treatment can actually be a pretty tough area, with any number of different scenarios one must navigate. A lot of them boil down to the idea that if someone voluntarily joins an organisation which offers them less than equal treatment, does the state have the right to interfere in that choice?

(Consider the discussion on banning burqas, for instance. The mighty Jane Carnall takes this apart pretty thoroughly here, rooting her argument in the fact that the state has no business telling women they must submit to its definition of equality or face prosecution.)

But this isn't that.  Consider what is happening here.  Students are being asked to comply with the demands of religious speakers from outside their institutions. Speakers who, in the main if not exclusively, represent important figures within their communities and with a profile high enough outside those communities to get speaking gigs.

People, in other words, with power.

This is not about religious folk asking for exemptions on the grounds of their beliefs.  This is about men with power refusing to talk to those with less power unless those people agree in advance to comport themselves according to those men's rules. And then to complain that others refusing to unilaterally concede to their terms violates their free speech (freedom of expression obviously not applying to a university student who wants to sit next to her boyfriend whilst listening to a talk.)

In that sense, this is no different to the cases the Supreme Court in the US is busying itself with right now, in which corporation owners are actually arguing they should not be expected to pay for birth control for their female employees; this despite the fact that said corporations receive tax relief in exchange for providing health insurance for their employees. Essentially, these people are saying they should be allowed to partially pay their employees with health care in in exchange for lower wages, but only provide the health care they themselves consider moral.  Naturally, smart money has the court upholding these objections, because the only thing the Roberts Court likes more than helping out big business is dicking around with Democratic healthcare priorities.

In other words, the powerful demand that their own beliefs should be allowed to trump those with less power, and all of a sudden people are falling over themselves to talk about "fairness".

Odd, that, isn't it?

Friday, 29 November 2013

Friday Warhammer: Salome's Last Veil

Two years after the last addition to the regiment, we have the sixth knight in my Riverlands army.  This particular bloodthirsty killer is a Piper from Pinkmaiden.  Some claim these particular Riverlords lack a certain gravitas, emblazoned as they are with almost naked women.  I, on the other hand, subscribe to the Modified Jayne Cobb Theory: a man rides into battle wearing that on his shield, you know he's not afraid of anything...



The full regiment.

Thursday, 28 November 2013

Wicked Awesome?


I went to my first West End show at the weekend (is the Victoria Apollo in the West End? I've no idea!), which was also my first ever musical which I went to with BigHead (which, now I think about it, is really quite strange).

(Vague spoilers below)


"But... But... His Hair Is So Funny!"

Thirty years ago the developmental psychologist Howard Gardner published his most famous work, Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences. Inside, he laid out a theory so obvious in hindsight it's amazing it took humanity so long to put it all together.  In brief, Gardner argued that "intelligence" is not a single quality, but a series of sub-divisions of skill within a person which may or may not be correlated [1]. Thus, simply describing a person as "intelligent" betrays a bias within the speaker towards certain forms of intelligence that are subjectively viewed as more important.

This should come as no shock to anyone who has taken an IQ test, which tend to focus on one's skills with linguistics, mathematics, and spatial relations.  Even there, cracks can appear; I do pretty well with the first, exceptionally well with the second, and utterly abysmally with the third.  Gardner argues that there are many other forms of intelligence (six more in the original book, though last I checked this had grown into something more like eleven more) that are no less real.  Musical intelligence, bodily intelligence, inter- and intrapersonal; there's a whole range of skills born within the mind that for centuries were viewed as either too hard to or not important enough to try and measure (or both),

I mention all this by way of a reminder that what it means to be called "intelligent" is in large part a social construct, just as it is to be called "beautiful". An IQ test measures (imperfectly) those strands of intelligence society has judged to be most valuable.  Not only does it prize linguistic and logical intelligence over interpersonal or artistic intelligence, but it prizes it's own conception of linguistic and logical intelligence over all others.  That's how western nations can create intelligence tests, pass them over to Africans, and then act surprised if they don't do quite so well (see Bell Curve, The).

As between societies, so within.  The rich and the powerful determine what the rich and the powerful consider most important to being rich and powerful, and then are amazed to find those qualities lacking in those not hoovering up seven-figure salaries. Doubtless certain forms of intelligence are very useful in making your way to the top. But in this country at least we may as well call those strands the "succeeding in a neoliberal capitalist marketplace" strands.  We can't draw any conclusions beyond that.  Perhaps we could call this strand "low cunning" for short, or even just "luck", as if the mechanisms by which you enter the world with high aptitudes for given intelligence strands weren't entirely down to luck in the first place.

There is no idea in the world more toxic to Boris Johnson's classical approach to Conservatism (the Jacobins would doubtless have recognised much in his comments, except of course they probably weren't "intelligent" enough to speak English) than the possibility that the systems by which some "cornflakes reach the top" are anything but the purest expressions of meritocracy, and moreover, that the merits the meritocracy reward are anything other than universal qualities worthy of equally universal respect.  The existential terror that the rich and powerful might have to share their riches and power with others less deserving - as defined by the rich and powerful themselves - can only be allayed by convincing themselves the world is better off with a strict social heirarchy in which those on the lower rungs accept they are objectively unsuited for a larger slice of the pie.

(Yes, I have been reading Corey Robin's Reactionary Mind recently.  Why do you ask? Jack Graham deserves some credit here, too, though all mistakes and bouts of idiocy remain forever my own.)

So is the game rigged, and those that rig the game comforted by hearing their own voices, louder than those they sit above, as they explain to people that it's really their own fault they haven't risen higher. After all, if they were smarter they could have rigged their own game, and reached the final level, where the only rule is to lie to each other over the champagne flutes.

[1] In fact, as I understand it Gardner was of the opinion that the correlations were very weak (I've only read bits and pieces of the original text, so I may have misunderstood, however).  I'm less convinced by this; I think it depends very much on the pair of intelligences under consideration and the population one is observing.  The key point though is that these correlations can be very weak, which is why trying to divide the population into "intelligent" and "not intelligent" is so ridiculous an endeavour.

Monday, 25 November 2013

The Days After Of The Doctor



So, this post as originally conceived was just going to be my thoughts on Saturday's Who special.  Really, though, I'm just not sure there's any point. The whole thing was such flimsily constructed sound and fury that trying to figure out if it signified anything seems fruitless.  When Moffat called this "a love letter to fans", he really wasn't kidding.  The only real question is whether you enjoyed the letter's prose, and whether you appreciated the letter's handwriting.

Not everyone did, which is hardly surprising.  Much as David Tennant's swansong contained pretty much every one of Davies' most obvious tics, Day of the Doctor surely couldn't have come any more Moffat than it did. For those who dislike Moffat's endless obsession with flashy structural tics and ironic banter, this must have been pretty excruciating.  I am not one of those people (which isn't to say I don't get the criticisms; different things bug different people). Moreover, even by new series standards, this thing had plot holes you could fly an inside-out TARDIS through.  Like Davies before him, Moffat clearly thinks he can rely on the rule of cool to combat this.  Unlike Davies, he's often right.

In short then, I loved it, but can't rationally explain why.  I suspect a great many people who didn't like it can summon far more coherent arguments than my "YAYFORALLDOCTORSAWESOMETIMES", but having waited some twenty-five years for something like this to show up, I'm not so self-sabotaging as to watch it with a detached, clinical eye.  That's what everything else on television is for.

That concludes what could charitably be called my thoughts on the special itself.  What strikes me as more interesting is some of the fan reaction that followed in its wake, most particularly regarding how Day of the Doctor impacts on previous Who stories.  There's no way to discuss this without major spoilers, so those who haven't seen the special - or who have had their minds wiped by the Black Archives - would do well to look away now.


Fourteen Million Reasons To Despair

(Trigger warning: sexual assault is mentioned, though not discussed, below)

One of the most strange truths about the growth of the ludicrous far-right bigot smorgasbord that constitutes the bedrock of the modern Republican Party in the United States is how blase everyone seems to be about it.  I can't count the number of times I've had a conversation about the horrific state of American news media in which someone has said: "Yes, but aside from FOX News".

The suggestion seems to be that FOX is so outrageously and openly biased that it has a disproportionate effect on the overall shape of American journalism.  Which is true, but not in the way these people mean.  FOX doesn't make the whole shebang seem like it's more slanted and mendacious than it is, it demonstrates the full value of slant and mendacity to everyone else. Arguing the most successful and influential example of a given group must also be an outlier strikes me as a damn hard sell.

The radio equivalent of FOX News has to be Rush Limbaugh.  This is a man nobody with the brains nature assigned to his least-favourite lungfish would take seriously for the length f time it takes to boil an egg in molten rock. This is the man who spent days calling Sandra Fluke a slut because she has sex with people for money testified before Congress that access to birth control was a genuine health concern for women.  If Limbaugh were an ice-cream flavour, he'd be Rocky Salmonella. If he were a Doctor Who villain, he'd be Davros' speech-writer.

Rush Limbaugh has over fourteen million weekly listeners.

I mention him today because this hideous man, this addled mess, this capering fool with the unique talent for making Howard Stern look like Cicero, has decided to weigh in on the question of whether the Senate is better off now the filibuster is partially gone:
Let’s say, let’s take 10 people in a room and they’re a group,” he said on his radio show. “And the room is made up of six men and four women. OK? The group has a rule that the men cannot rape the women. The group also has a rule that says any rule that will be changed must require six votes, of the 10, to change the rule.
How is any rational human being with an ounce of empathy in their souls supposed to process this? The forty-five millionaires who make up the Republican aisle of the Senate (88.9% of which are white men, of course) are kind of like women held hostage voting for themselves not to be assaulted?  Because they can't stop Democratic candidates from becoming judges?  Are we not to be concerned - and revolted - about a mind that jumps straight from restoring majority rule to one half of the legislative branch to the idea of gang-raping women trapped in a room.

And does the sweatiest mouthpiece the Republican Party has yet created really want to be using comparisons like this whilst his cronies in government are trying to crank out as many laws as possible forcing vaginal ultrasounds on any woman wanting to have an abortion?

In its own despicable way, of course, this hideous piece of non-think demonstrates just how absurd the thinking behind the Republican freak-out has really gotten.  It's not just that Rush has his sums wrong - in a Senate with ten people six people get their way even with the filibuster; he'd have been better off saying "in a Senate with twenty people the filibuster needs twelve of them to agree" - it's that the sheer horrific nature of the analogy is essential to hide what's really happened.  To switch the metaphor to something that doesn't make want to be ill, let's say twenty people are in a room.  Eleven of them want capital punishment to be mandatory for all crimes, and the other nine are sane.  Under this new system, it is not the case that capital punishment could then be voted in.  Even if the insane death-hungry party controlled the White House and the House of Representatives, the ability to directly vote for such a lunatic policy is still covered by the filibuster.

What our blood-crazed frothing madmen (in their white shirts, blue suits, and red ties) could do is vote for a judge that was similarly divorced from reality, and hope that judge eventually came across a case involving capital punishment so they could announce leaving any given criminal alive was contrary to the constitution.  Then you'd need for the Supreme Court to agree with so utterly insane a reading of what constitutes unconstitutional.

So, to sum up: Limbaugh's nightmare scenario is that eleven out of twenty senators could nominate a judge with views almost no American voter would find even close to tolerable, who might get lucky and get a case on which they can work their utterly insane thinking, which might then not get reversed by the Supreme Court despite its self-evidently lunacy. Limbaugh believes the correct number of those twenty senators to obliterate their electoral chances in the off-chance of acting contrary to overwhelming public opinion should be twelve. [1]

Fourteen million weekly listeners.  It took twice as long as usual to type this because my hands kept balling up into fists.

[1] On the other hand, the Democrats have a genuine reason to fear some of this coming true, since the current Supreme Court is both extremely conservative, and contains at a bare minimum three judges who have repeatedly contradicted not only clear precedent but their own clear precedents in order to achieve the result Republicans want.  Amongst other things, this is why Al Gore was never president, it is now illegal to limit campaign contributions, states are now able to refuse to accept money for improving their healthcare systems, and there is no longer any effective way to take Southern states to task for minting laws blatantly aimed at preventing non-white people from exercising their right to vote.  This would be a major concern for me, except that the current status quo favours Republicans to a major extent, and I don't believe the filibuster would survive the next Republican Congress in any case.

Friday, 22 November 2013

D CDs #482: Getaway Driver


George Carlin once said "white people got no business playing the blues, ever... Their job is to give people the blues, not to get them, and certainly not to sing or play them".  And it's not like it's hard to see his point.  Louis CK puts it more delicately (not many people Louis is more delicate than, but Carlin was one of them): "I'm not trying to say that if you're white, you can't complain. I'm just saying if you're black, you get to complain more."

Guitar Town is a white guy complaining about his blues.  Like, a lot.  There's even a song on here called "My Old Friend The Blues", so this ain't exactly stealth misery, or anything.  And this is a common theme of country music: a white guy on stage singing about how hard it is to live in the United States.  Which, considering country music a) has so much of its DNA entwined with that of blues music, and b) originated from areas of America that were hotbeds of racial resentment and the violent oppression of black people, is no small concern. 

That said, though, this is a dangerous game for me to play.  I'm not just a white man, I'm a white middle-class British man.  I'm not any closer to being able to pass comment on the struggle of being a working class white guy out on the deserted, hopeless back-roads of the American South than I am the daily experiences of African Americans.  Both of them represent experiences utterly different from my own, and both represent experiences far too infrequently discussed or represented in the media likely to sail its way across the channel.

In short, a man who appropriates music born from generations of the intolerable treatment of a whole people in order to complain about how no-one understands him is someone I can frown at (for all that I'm a sucker for self-absorbed moping to a catchy tune).  A man who takes that music to sketch out the shitty economic conditions that provide a backdrop for their life - well, I don't want to get into a fight with that guy about his choice of rhythm and structure.

This, in essence, is Guitar Town is all about.  Living in some out-of-the-way tiny speck of civilisation ("They don't even know there's a town around here", Earle laments in "Someday") where there's nothing to do, but nor is there money to be made and, therefore, no escape to be had.  The best songs on here detail this death-by-stasis; take the aforementioned "Someday", where counting out-of-state license plates constitutes the most interesting activity available, or the tight-rocking "Good Ol Boy (Getting Tough)" in which Earle tells us "I was born in the land of plenty, now there ain't enough".   It's not the just the difficulty of the struggle here, though, it's the importance of it.  Earle doesn't airbrush the rubble, he just won't use the rubble as an excuse to surrender. "Guitar Town" itself, aside from being a near-perfect slice of rocking country, is focused on the importance of defiant movement - "Everybody told me you can't get far  On thirty-seven dollars and a jap [1] guitar" - and finding meaning amongst the humbleness of your own circumstances - I gotta two pack habit and a motel tan... With my back to the riser I make my stand".

And it seems to me that this is what country music is at its best; sifting through the detritus of the crumbling abandoned towns of the rural American south to find what gold it can. It isn't an easy job -  the slow, sweet strum of "Little Rock 'n' Roller" is about a travelling musician's long-distance call to his young son, and could teach any number of miserable rockers a thing or two about how to write a song about the drawbacks of the musical life - but it has to be done. Somehow that realisation soaks into the steel strings and bottlenecks.  Guitar Town is no exception.  The title track is, as mentioned, wonderful; so too is the sharp, humming "Someday", the upbeat music/melancholy lyrics combination that gives country and western its clearest right to exist. "Fearless Heart" is pretty tasty, too, the best of three songs on the album ("Goodbye's All We've Got Left" and "Down The Road" being the other two, both of which are solid rather than inspired) which extend the metaphor of constant motion to avoid decay into the realm of the heart, with mixed results.

That's three standout joints among ten tracks, with another six entirely solid offerings, based around a simple concept, simple lyrics, and simple music; all of which is exactly what was needed.  Lovely. And if "My Old Friend The Blues", the only dud on the album, seems to prove Carlin's point, my sympathies lie with Louis.  White people do get to complain, as long as they do it as well as it's done here.

Eight tentacles.

[1] I can't really frame this review around complaining rights across races and not note that this right here is pretty fucking not cool. I haven't been able to dig up anything about what the word is doing in the song; my assumption is its just a kind of nod to the "not American = bad" theory that permeates so much of the culture of our cousins across the pond. It certainly doesn't seem intended as a slur, but of course "I didn't mean to be specifically offensive, just generally dismissive of things I don't think are American" doesn't work too well as a defence. 

If, indeed, that would be the defence used. Whatever else it is, though, it's an important line in the context of the album, which is why I've included it here.

Friday Talisman: Brobdingnagian Bufonidae

Some weeks, you just have to paint a toad.




It's a bit hard to tell, because of the usual problem of focusing, and because I couldn't get the cracks big enough, but this base has been painted with Agrellan Earth, which is supposed to make bases look like cracked earth.  Maybe with a bit of practice I'll get it sorted.

Still.  Amphibians. They're pretty cool, right?

Thursday, 21 November 2013

Forts On The Filibuster

For whatever subset of my reading population has any interest in US politics but doesn't follow them avidly, it's worth noting that today might be the last day the US Senate maintains the filibuster for judicial nominations. Here's a primer and some thoughts:

Fili-what?

Under current rules you need a majority of the one hundred senators (or exactly half plus the Vice President) to vote in favour of a judicial nomination after debate for the nomination to be accepted. However, forty senators is all you need to refuse to hold the debate at all.  No debate, no vote for the nominee.

Why the hell?

Because of the way the US system is put together.  The Founding Fathers and their ideological descendants were big fans of the idea of democracy, but only to a point.  The basic idea behind Congress is that the much larger House - in which people have to run every two years - would respond more of less directly to the will of their constituents, whereas the smaller Senate (only two representatives per state) would have in their six year terms the opportunity to take the long view.  The idea of the Senate as being a kind of brake on the surging public will extended to the idea that bare majority shouldn't be allowed to make massive, sweeping changes that would screw the bare majority over.  Majority rule, in other words, couldn't extend to doing something utterly unacceptable to the minority.

Sounds reasonable

Well, maybe it does, in theory.  In practice, however, each senate in the latter half of the twentieth century and beyond has been more insistent on using the filibuster routinely than the one before.  This is a bipartisan problem insofar as Democrat and Republican Senates have both successively upped the ante, but it was the Republicans who first began misusing the tactic, and it is the Republicans who are using it now to completely lock down the President's appointments.

How bad has it gotten?

Right now the fight is about a Washington DC District Court that's three people down.  The Democrats want to replace those three people and, what with the President being a Democrat, they'd like him to pick three Democrats to do it.  This is how court selections have been made throughout history (with disastrous consequences in the case of the current Supreme Court).

The Republicans are arguing the court doesn't have enough work to justify it being fully staffed, and are therefore refusing any nomination to get a hearing.  The fact that this will tip a conservative-leaning court into something rather more central ("rather more central" being Obama's choice in this kind of thing, whether that's because he doesn't think he can go any further left or because he doesn't want to) is surely a matter of merest coincidence. And by that, I mean it's obvious to everyone that that's the real reason.

So let's get rid of it!

Well, not so fast.  If the Democrats get rid of the filibuster on judicial nominations now, the Republicans will have cover to get rid of it in general the very first time the Senate returns to their control.  Which, given the Democrats only hold it by a narrow margin, could be as soon as next year (every two years, one third of the chamber is up for election).  There's an argument to be made that liberals and progressives are better off sucking up the intransigence of the Republicans now in order to have our own immovable object the next time the levers of power switch position.

Er... does that make sense?

I'm not sure, but I'm betting "no".  For a start, there's absolutely no reason to believe the Republicans will keep the filibuster when they get back into the majority anyway.  Running roughshod over the accepted norms of government is quite simply what they do now.  They know, among other things, that the news media would report such a move as an "opinions differ" piece, and that the ins and outs of Senate rule changes won't generate too much noise anyway.

So not getting rid of it for fear the Republican's will up the ante would be kind of historically myopic at this point.  The second point to make is that whilst the Senate is a battleground, the White House is becoming reliably Democratic.  Democrats won the popular vote five times in the last six elections, and the demographics are just getting worse and worse for Republicans (one of the reasons they were so glad to see the Supreme Court gut the Voting Rights Act; see Supreme Court, disastrous nature of).  A situation in which the Republicans hold the White House and the House of Representatives and the Senate by more than 49 but not more than 59 seats is hardly inconceivable, but its a lot of things that have to go for Democrats, and as mentioned, if this did happen, it's impossible to imagine the GOP keeping the filibuster around in any case.  A party that doesn't censure its members for confessing to passing voting registration laws in order to make it harder for its opponents to vote is not a party that will play by Queensbury rules the instant they're in a position to kick you in the junk.

In short, blow it up.

Update: You maniacs, etc. It's gone and good riddance.  Mitch McConnell's quote is my favourite: "by any objective standard, Senate Republicans have been very, very fair to this president".  The current Republican minority has blocked more presidential nominees for the judiciary than any other Senate in history. The blocking of cabinet appointments is, to my knowledge, utterly unprecedented.  The current senates attempts to block nominees to head up entire departments because they object to the departments themselves is certainly a new phenomenon.

So it would be tempting to assume McConnell is lying here.  Really, though, I don't think he is. I think there's simply a missing coda to that sentence that goes "considering his skin colour".

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Mo Money Mo Health Problems

Oh, for Gods' sakes.  The only thing Reform are independent of is basic logic and political history.
PATIENTS should be charged £10 to see their doctor and a £10 "hotel charge" to stay the night in hospital, a leading think-tank has said... Reform added that charges should not be applied to people on low incomes, although it states not all pensioners would necessarily be exempt... Proposing a series of options, Reform claimed that an increase in prescriptions charges from the current £7.85 up to £10, and in the cost of an annual Prescription Prepayment Certificate from £104 to £120, would raise an additional £130million annually. 
Reform can insist they're an "independent think tank" (frankly I wonder if a large armoured vehicle isn't the least inapplicable of those three words here) all they want, but George Osborn just got a chubby that won't subside until he touches a homeless person.

First of all, pointing out other European countries use this system completely fails to take account of the wider picture. Sweden may charge you to see your doctor, but it also has an array of social safe-guards in place to make sure you're looked after in a way David Cameron will swallow his golden lectern before he allows to happen to those of us in the UK.  At first glance, France might be a better comparison, but there's still a huge difference, which is this: France pays a far higher amount per capita into their health system than we do, and gets better results because of it (one of the reasons the NHS gets us so high up the list of countries in terms of healthcare is because it manages so well despite it's lack of funding; we're a surprisingly palatable budget meal amongst haute cuisine). Front-ending a small cost in order to gain access to a far more well-funded system is therefore less unreasonable. 

More to the point, this is the established system in France.  That's a very different kettle of fish to the idea of introducing charges to see a doctor at the same time as trying to strangle the NHS everywhere else. It's one thing to charge an entrance fee on the door.  It's quite another to introduce that fee the same week you're removing half the chairs.

In a political climate where introducing the bedroom tax is considered a reasonable plan but maintaining tax rates on the filthy rich isn't (this might be the Express' problem and not Reform's, but I'd like to know on what basis they state tax increases can't help), this kind of fiddling with the superstructure becomes grotesquely irresponsible.  It's also not clear it would even have the desired effect. Having slammed the Express above for lazy comparisons to other countries, I offer my own comparison guardedly, but it's at least worth pointing out that in the US (which, yes, has a very different healthcare system to the UK and France) this kind of charge is desperately counter-productive.  By charging patients to see a doctor and to pick up medication (under the proposal above, that's £20) you encourage people to avoid seeing the doctor until things get so bad that they have no choice.  By this point symptoms have often grown to the point where more medicine is required - which means even more money has to be spent - or even means a visit to the ER, where the state is then forced to pick up the bill in any case.

So much for basic logic; onto political context.  The counter-argument to everything I've said above - and it's less an argument than it is a smoke-screen - is that the changes would exclude people on low incomes.  To that, I give a hearty "pull the other one".  There are precisely two steps to the dance by which the powerful strip the powerless of their basic rights.  The first is to suggest those rights are more properly services which should be paid for by those who can afford it.  The second is to pretend everyone can afford it.  The first step is always, always the hardest.  No-one should be foolish enough to let a striker get into the box unopposed because the ball isn't yet over the goal line.

Monday, 18 November 2013

If Guns Are Politicised, Only Politicians Will Have Guns

From the always wonderful Charles Pierce, and on the continued subject of a Brit's inability to process the American obsession with shootin' arns, comes this little bezoar:
A Republican lawmaker in Idaho had his permit to carry a concealed gun revoked because he lied about a rape case from his youth on the application. But he can carry a concealed handgun anyway, because in Idaho, state legislators are allowed to carry guns, even though ordinary citizens must apply for a permit.  

So, just to be clear: "[lying] about a rape case" (in the sense that he lied about the fact he pleaded guilty to rape) is so bad an action that it invalidates you from secretly carrying a gun.  It does not, however, invalidate you from becoming one of the legislators who decides who can secretly carry a gun, and just to ensure no conflict of interest, they'll let you secretly carry a gun whilst you decide whether you're the sort of person you want secretly carrying a gun.

I'm worried Patterson will threaten to shoot himself with his secret gun unless Patterson votes to allow Patterson to have his secret gun.  Then he'll plead guilty to assault, wipe it from his memory, and Idaho will send him to Congress.

P.S. "I'm sure I never raped anyone, but I can't remember what I did or said because I had cancer" is a defence line they should carve onto marble and hang in the museum of How This Place Got So Indescribably Fucked.

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

A Pirate's Life For Me


Played it but once I admittedly have, but Libertalia might be my new favourite game, and not just because in artwork and approach it clearly should have been called Hector Barbossa: The Badass Early Years.

The basic idea is pretty simple; you have three weeks to swipe as much booty as possible (with Sundays spent drinking and counting your doubloons, presumably because no-one is out on the high seas that day other than missionaries and old couples in dinghies). The problem is, for reasons unexplained (well, Jamie didn't explain them, anyway), every player's crew is sharing the same boat, leading to something of a scrabble for loot.

There's only four pieces of loot available a day (due to, I don't know, EU piracy regulations, or something), and not all booty was created equal.  It might be worth a great deal, or very little. Worse, it might be actively harmful - cursed Incan treasures are something of a problem, and the Spanish Officer is quite literally a killer. All tokens are face-up, so you know what's coming, but that doesn't mean you can be sure you'll avoid getting cursed or shoved into a gibbet.

(There are also sabres lying around the money and authority figures, that you can use to assassinate other pirates when they think they're safe in their dens of iniquity.)

Each player has one copy of the same thirty pirates, but goes into each round with only nine. These are chosen at random by one player and then duplicated by the other three.  That's over fourteen million combinations, in case you were wondering (I know you were!). Each turn each player plays one pirate face down, which are then revealed.  This motley band of pirates can grab booty, but also have special abilities which are deployed variously before, during, and after the scrum for goodies, or when the week gets to Sunday.

The joy of the game is second-guessing what your opponents will play, and how best to counter them.  Each pirate has a rank. Higher ranks grab booty earlier, as befits their station, but it's the lower ranks who get to go first in the pre-grabbing round, and they tend to have the most powerful abilities, some of which involve punching up, which makes placing your highest ranked pirate down to grab some juicy treasure a distinctly risky proposition. Once the loot has been hoovered up, the surviving pirates return to their den, from which they won't emerge for the rest of the week.

In short, it's kind of like a pirate-themed Top Trumps with perfect information and bizarre extra rules ("My bosun is rank 14, but he murders your captain!"), played over six sets of three phases that inform and interact with each other.  You have to balance ranks versus skills, how much a character is worth to you in the late stages versus what it could be raking in for you whilst in the den, whether to use your high ranks to grab plum booty on good days or avoid disastrous choices on crappy ones, and figure out how all of this will interact with the bloodthirsty drunken sea-dogs to either side of you.  And even that doesn't fully describe how far ahead you need to think, because the pirates you don't play in one week get carried over to the next, along with 6 new ones (leading to an astonishing total of almost four million billion possible combinations over the entire three weeks).

It's a delight both tactically and strategically, in other words, heavy on the kind of conniving back-stabbing one associates (accurately or otherwise) with pirates, and is very pretty to boot. Highly recommended, as the folks from Merano like to say.

Sunday, 10 November 2013

Accepting Gravity


Man, this is a film that really, really thinks a lot of itself. There's barely a shot in it that doesn't scream either "is this not beautiful?" or "bey you don't know how we pulled that off, huh?"

Which might be more of a problem if the cinematography wasn't so legitimately wonderful. It wouldn't have been hard to take the kind of dogged devotion to technique which resulted in that scene from Children of Men and turn it into the film equivalent of some pompous guitarist's eight-minute fret-wank.  There are a couple of moments when Gravity threatens to cross into this territory - yes, yes, we all get that any structure in space can be used as a metaphor for the womb, let's not pretend that's a massively clever idea or anything - but for much of its run-time, the film is exactly as impressive as it thinks it.

As a result of all this, there's really not a whole amount of characterisation (and what makes it in steers too close too often to mawkishness), or even really much in the way of plot.  But then, that's not even close to what it's doing.  It's an endurance ride, a close cousin to every popcorn flick shoved into our faces each summer, expect that your not supposed to be enjoying it.  Speaking personally, I don't see how one could eat popcorn at all during this film, if only because the seemingly infinite variety of space-related disasters paraded across the screen makes it hard just to maintain your own breathing.[1]

So it succeeds admirably in its stated aim.  There are quibbles. The incidental music is too loud and employed too often, which for a film about oppressive silence is something of a problem.  The apparently surprisingly realistic portrayal of spaceflight breaks down at the end in the interests of Plot Logic, which is frustrating.  And the delightful relief of watching a sci-fi film (which this in effect, even if it doesn't technically qualify as sci-fi) with a female lead who isn't required to meet men on their own stereotyped shoot-heavy turf (c.f. Aliens) is muted by the motherhood issues tacked on to Bullock's character which she absolutely didn't need.

This, though, is just nibbling around the edges. Gravity is a remarkable achievement; an act of film-making that should have been impossible, and one that ticks far more boxes outside its area of interest than perhaps we had any right to expect.

[1] This might only be my problem. Having been hooked up to a nebuliser for several minutes every day as a very young child, I have a severe phobia of situations in which my breathing is even remotely restrictive. Getting my head caught when pulling off a sweater can set off a panic attack.  There are days I try to avoid doing any driving because the proximity of the seat-belt to my neck makes me horribly uncomfortable.  Basically, don't go to this snack-free and then complain you could easily have eaten a three-course meal whilst Sandra Bullock is screaming about her air supply. 

Friday, 8 November 2013

I Have Hatred In My Heart

Pop quiz, hotshots.  You've been called to fix a tenant's broken stair so that they don't fall down it and injure themselves again.  Do you:

a) Set a time and turn up then?
b) Set a time and turn up hours late?
c) Set a time, decide not to come around at all, and let the tenant or the letting agency know?
d) Set a time, decide not to come around at all, tell absolutely no-one, and when challenged say you're weren't in the area at all today anyway.

If you answered anything but d), congratulations! You're less of a feckless dickchimp than the guy we have to rely on to stop us breaking our legs.  Fancy fixing our stairs?

Update: After some very annoyed phone calls, I was able to impress upon our letting agents that having taken the afternoon off, and with guests around on the following afternoon, coming round the next day was completely unacceptable.  They then arranged to have DC (as we shall now know him) to arrive at five that afternoon.

At seven that evening, he arrived to announce he couldn't do anything anyway, since he didn't have his tools with him (what self-respecting handyman would, after all?), and could he come round tomorrow.

Which is when things got strange.

Handyman: Can I come tomorrow?
Squid: Only if it's mid-morning; we have guests coming in the afternoon.
H: How early should I come? 

S: Shall we say ten?
H: Not sure. How early do you get up?S

: We can be up by nine, no problem.
H: Let us say eleven, then. 

S: ...

Update 2: Ah, 'tis fixed now.  Just so long as your definition of "fixed" isn't so rigid as to insist a stair be parallel with the floor, of course. That much, sir, would simply be too far.

I'll Have Some Of That Guilt Too

I hadn't planned on writing anything about the tragic killing of Renisha McBride here. Not because it doesn't horrify me, but because the circumstances of her death, despite being in obvious respects horribly familiar, has specifics which are little difficult for me to get my head around.

And the way I tend to deal with things I can't quite figure out is to write about them, which in this case feels to me too much like a white guy talking about himself in regards to a black woman losing her life. Which is a problem.

But MightyGodKing is right, I think. White people do need to talk about this stuff, if only to make sure we penetrate the fog of indifference our culture still seems perfectly happy about wrapping ourselves in.  A black person has been shot in America, again, and the police aren't sure whether it's worth arresting anyone, again.  Trayvon Martin died because a man assumed wearing a hoodie whilst on the streets meant he was probably a criminal, and decided to give chase. Renisha McBride died because a man assumed knocking on his front door at 3:30am meant she was probably a criminal, and went to the door with a loaded shotgun.

That is - that has to be - the takeaway message in all of this. That black people in America live in a culture of paranoid suspicion that means that, even when we can't be sure race was the reason they were targeted, they can be damn sure race will be the reason nobody in authority will care.

There are, as I say, a few specifics here regarding gun laws and gun culture which I think might need unpicking, but as I say, it's a white British man pontificating on how a black American woman came to be shot for the crime of needing help with her car.  So I'm putting it all below the fold.  If you're interested, have at it, but if you want to stop reading here, I couldn't come close to blaming you.

Sunday, 3 November 2013

Boozing With Brummies




Being an abridged description of our adventures at the local booze convention. As always, my dislike of ale and obsession with cider must be taken into account when reading my shockingly biased 'reviews'.

Delicious Ciders

Blaengawney Rum

This is tough to order without worrying about pronunciation (a thousand blessings to the person who invented pointing).  Once you navigate that issue, it's tasty enough, but other than an above-average sweetness, there isn't anything particularly special here.

Oliver's Perry

This is heavy as hell. It starts off dry, but there's a submerged sweetness that runs rampant across the aftertaste like an enraged sugar-caked wildebeest.  It's pleasingly powerful, as well.  Really the only problem here is that after a few mouthfuls it becomes indistinguishable from cheap squash, albeit a squash that will reduce your liver to burnt blancmange.

Sweet Crossman

Sweet sulphur, more like. This would be the perfect accompaniment to a hot day in Hell (which is all of then), for when the gibbering demons find themselves between scourings and with a thirst to quench.  Mortals, in contrast, should approach with some caution.

Gwatkin's Perry

Smells like port, tastes like unstoppable victory.  And port. I would make a nest in this.  I would marry it, and settle down, and not even cheat on it with cocktails.  Not least because I'd be too drunk to leave the house.  Even finding the front door would cause problems.

Princess Pippin

This is 8% and utterly undrinkable; the latter quality perhaps functioning as a public service.

Awful Ales

Jumping Pirate

Great name, terrible drink. It's like burnt yeast with a Dettol aftertaste. Avoid.

Space Hoppy

Strong, bitter, and not tasting of shit, like I like my women. The label says "pale", but this is amber through and through.

Gunhild

A blank canvas onto which we project our dreams and desires. Or, more likely, not.  But there's nothing else to do with this. Still, we refer you to Puddleglum's First Law of Consumables: "If it doesn't taste like anything, it can't taste terrible."

(This law does not extend to rice cakes.)

Bad Kitty

Vegan beer!  And dammit, it's brilliant.  At last a "chocolaty" beer that lives up to the name. I could have done with milkier chocolate, I guess, but under the circumstances that would probably have been too much to ask.

Foreign Beers

Lindeman's Framboise

This is just fizzy raspberry cordial that gets you slightly drunk.  Which would be an entirely awesome were it not 12p a centilitre.  Some of us are on budgets here, Lindeman!

Einstok Icelandic Toasted Porter.

What are the chances that in an island nation of 320 000 people someone would combine alcohol, coffee and - um, ash, I think? - so well?

(Don't write in. I know the chances. Or I could definitely work them out. Maybe.)

Leffe Ruby

"Red fruits and Belgian beer", it says on the label.  Probably. My French isn't all that good. The result is stronger than Lindeman's Framboise and not quite so sweet.  It's by far the best Leffe I've tasted, but again, you're most certainly paying for the upgrade.

Berliner Kindl Weisse

Well, this is a hell of a thing. I can't exactly say it's pleasant - the closest I can come to a description is "carbonated stomach acid" - but its so far out of the wheelhouse of British beers that it's worth trying just to see how the Germans do it. Which, it turns out, is to make beer taste as much like sour milk as possible.