Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Spectres Of The Long-Dead

Holy Glaaki, are people still making films like The Haunting of Radcliffe House? Can't the dead be left in peace?

There wasn't a sniff, not the barest molecule of postmodernism in Channel 5's Christmas serving of "scares". Everyone talks and acts like they've never seen or heard of a ghost story.  Psychics splutter, dogs slink, mysterious strangers appear from nowhere, and everywhere terrified children and sensible alternatives are ignored so that the narrative can stumble along to an ending which - in generalities and in specifics - is so derivative it does a better job of presenting the resurrected dead than the scenes with ghosts in them.

This is simply not something that should be being created in the 21st century.  Not because there's almost nothing here that requires the story be set after the 1970s (a faintly nice use of a computer screen notwithstanding), but because we should be past the point where writers can get away with this kind of unironic strip-mining of the past.  Doubtless those involved convinced themselves they were crafting something "traditional". Which is nonsense, obviously, because the central aspect of the traditional Christmas ghost story is that it should be scary. In the service of that goal you can use all the trappings of the past you want - though you can make that approach into a fetish, which carries its own problems - but the underlying story mechanisms need to be fresh. The one the one thing familiarity breeds more surely than contempt is a lack of fear.

In short, then, the aims and approach of ...Radcliffe... are working directly against each other, and the result is a pointless warmed-over corpse of a tale. It's not uncommon for this kind of total misunderstanding of tradition to exist - for people to obsess over form rather than intent - indeed it's just one more of the hundred thousand reasons people like Nigel Farage (Person of the Year in much the way Harold Shipman was briefly World's Most Interesting Doctor, one assumes) should be banished from public life, polite conversation and if possible all historical documentation.

But simply because a mistake is common doesn't make it forgiveable.  I very much think Olivia Williams and Matthew Modine deserve better than this. And I'm absolutely sure we do. What a fucking waste of Yorkshire.

Wednesday, 24 December 2014

Christmas Pessimus

Everyone have themselves a great Christmas, if that's the sort of thing you're into. Oh, and if I can offer some unsolicited advice: try to avoid telling your entire family that they're a bunch of anti-Semites, as this can darken the mood during Christmas Eve dinner.

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Oh, Sorkin (Part Two)

Trigger warning: references to rape storyline.

Update: My apologies to Abigail Nussbaum for incorrectly attributing her article to Emily Nussbaum.  The latter is quoted in the piece, hence my confusion, but she didn't write it.

OK, so.  The post not everyone is going to be happy about.

To recap - and therefore re-spoil - last week's Newsroom episode included a storyline in which a college student responded to being sexually assaulted by setting up a website where other rape survivors could name their attackers since, you know, it's not like any other form of punishment is likely to be forthcoming.

This plot bothered an awful lot of people, because the only main character who passed comment on the idea was a) male and b) not a fan of the idea.  And as I argued in my last post on this, the lack of a female male character here is indeed a genuine problem.  My issue here is entirely with point b).

From the comments I've read (Emily Abagail Nussbaum's being the one that sticks most in my mind) a large part of the anger over this plotline is based on the idea that the audience is supposed to sympathise with Don over the rape survivor, Mary.  Why are we supposed to? Well, because Sorkin is a sexist who writes characters who just spout his own opinions.  How do we know this? Well, just look at what Don is saying here.

This strikes me as a somewhat circular argument.  Which is not to say I don't think Sorkin isn't a sexist (or, since sexism is simply impossible for a man to escape, let's say I think he's noticeably sexist and totally unwilling to examine that fact), or even that I think his characters don't have a tendency to be preachy.  It's just that this approach doesn't strike me as the most useful one in this particular case.

For my money (and as I said last time, this is the money of straight white middle-class man, which is to say easily spent and hard to see as evidence of talent) the most useful framing for this storyline is that the idea of a name-and-shame website aimed at rapists is absolutely an idea we should discuss, and part of that discussion involves raising objections that can then be countered. The central premise of website like this is that it's worth bypassing due process in order to combat the toxic culture that says if a guy insists it wasn't rape we can just forget about it and head to the bar. And it seems to me that if you want to float this idea you don't do it by pretending it's immune to abuse, you do it by accepting it could be abused and they say so what? You say a man is afraid of being called a rapist, and a woman is afraid of being raped, and that this is a trolley problem with an actual body-count and where changing the tracks somehow seems to just make men's employment prospects a little harder.

Someone needs to ask the question so it can be answered. So it can be driven into the ground. Mary, I thought, drove it into the ground.  Maybe I'm wrong in that. But even if I am, I'm right that we should discuss this stuff. Simply put: I'd rather run with the message than beat up the messenger. No matter how much of an embarrassment he keeps making of himself.

Monday, 15 December 2014

Oh, Sorkin (Part One)

Trigger warning: references to a rape storyline.

It's now been a week since The Newsroom reached its penultimate episode that made so many people furious.  The show being what it is, there were plenty of elements for people to fasten their teeth into, but the most stinging criticisms involved a storyline - which I shall now thoroughly spoil, though it has no real bearing on the ongoing plotlines or even really the episode itself - in which a college student sets up a website to name and shame rapists after her own sexual assault, in the certain knowledge that no other punishment is ever likely to be forthcoming for her assailants.

Obviously, with so serious a subject, with so great a risk of triggering people, this is the kind of plot element that's liable to upset and anger no small number of people. This is particularly true when you're dealing with a writer who has come under a great deal of criticism for sexism in his work and his public pronouncements, and even more true when you decide that this is the kind of issue you can shoehorn into a plot about something completely different and then throw casually away.

Having said all that, though, my reaction upon watching the episode was quite different to that of many feminists and allies, and I wanted to explore why that is, because I think there's an interesting question inside all this that needs more promotion than I've seen it get in the mainstream (I suspect it's been thoroughly dissected in plenty of places, but not anywhere I've seen). To state my position ahead of time: I think Sorkin went wrong here at least three times , but the points where I find fault with him don't quite tally with the various criticisms I have read elsewhere.  Obviously, this is at heart a straight white guy announcing he wants to offer thoughts on how much he agrees with feminist critiques of a rape storyline, and those with no interest in hearing that sort of thinking might want to wander off about now.  Or, you know, switch your mind to "hate-read" mode. Whichever you prefer.

In any case, I wanted to split this into two posts, and the first one is likely to be the less contentious, since I'm starting with the areas in which I think Sorkin screwed up. The first I've already mentioned - this is not the kind of storyline you use as a B-plot and then stroll away from. A show in which we spend less time with the girl trying to regain her agency after a sexual assault than we do on the question of whether celebrity-finder apps are a good idea is not one whose priorities we should be comfortable with. Related, the fact that none of the female main characters get to weigh in on the issue in any real way leaves Don's opinions on the website unchallenged by anyone to which the narrative gives equivalent weight. This imbalance allows Don to deep six the story at the end of the episode as part of making a larger point, which both buries the issue itself and means Don is consciously ignoring the stated preferences of the rape survivor, Mary, because he knows best.

All of that are issues surrounding the actual scene which generated so much criticism, though, the actual discussion between Don and Mary.  It's here that I find myself disagreeing with some of that criticism, but like I said, I'll stick here to what I did find problematic, which in this case is Don's ridiculous assertion that he is somehow morally obligated to believe the story of the rapist over the rape victim until and unless the former is convicted in court.

This is a common and transparently idiotic dodge, brought forth like a talisman by any number of people who don't want to be inconvenienced by having to believe things about people that might actually require some action on their part. To underline how ludicrous this position is, let's try a brief thought experiment.  Imagine two housemates put a twenty pound note each on their kitchen table once a week, saving up their money.  Over the course of a year they therefore end up with over two grand on the table, in two separate piles of a little over a grand each.

Then one day one of the piles goes missing. Housemate A accuses housemate B of having taken the money and spent it on booze and blackjack, despite them having previously agreed they were going to spend the money on a ludicrously ostentatious home cinema set-up.  Housemate B for his part insists the money must have been stolen by an intruder.  Both housemates give you statements and offer various pieces of evidence to corroborate their story.

For the Don Keefer Theory of Belief to hold water, you would have to argue that whether you believe Housemate A or Housemate B would depend on which of the two identical piles of money went missing.

There's just no way this can make sense in any theory of belief.  Either one person's story is more compelling, or the other's is, or you find yourself coming down in the middle.  Not one piece of evidence or testimony changes in its plausibility depending on whether the actual remover of the cash let their hand creep six inches to the left before grabbing the wad.  Obviously it makes a difference in court, because in court you have to charge someone with the right crime, but in terms of who did what out in the world, no such absurdly narrow focus exists. [1]

Pretending it does is a way to stay comfortable.  A way to remain privileged. The fact that Sorkin saw no problem having a character espouse so self-serving an idea is a real and severe problem, for which he deserves to be roasted.


[1] One could counter all this by pointing out that there are some people for whom it would be very easy to believe they'd shaft their roommate by spending their own half of the savings but would never steal someone else's money.  But that's again a specific element of the case at hand, not a general rule.  I'm also aware that my legal naivete may mean the example I've constructed doesn't quite work - some wrinkle about communal property or something - but I'm sure with little effort alternative examples could be worked up.

The Unchronicle-ing

"It'll all go to shit once someone else shows up."
Riddick is an interesting film.  Not in terms of its narrative, really - though it isn't without its charms or its moments, even if these are rather front-loaded - but as a study in how to take a franchise that has thoroughly cratered and attempt to drag it back to its previous heights.

(Spoilers follow)

Friday, 12 December 2014

Radio Friday: Entertaining And Educational

So I was doing a quiz where I had to name every single song on every single REM studio album, and I resolved to finally work out exactly what an EBow is.

Imagine my delight when I found this video that not only shows you what an EBow is and how one uses it, but demonstrates it with a piece of music that's absolutely sublime; the best Smashing Pumpkins track Corgan never wrote.

Just wonderful.  That so easily could be an out-take from Mellon Collie, during one of those rare days Corgan was inspired to keep his mouth shut.

Thursday, 11 December 2014

Seriously Unpleasant

There's absolutely no chance of this, of course.  There never was.  Daniel Larison is kind enough to highlight an article explaining why: 
Willingness to torture became, first within elite government and opinion-making circles, then in the culture generally, and finally as a partisan GOP talking point, a litmus test of seriousness with respect to the fight against terrorism. That – proving one’s seriousness in the fight – was its primary purpose from the beginning, in my view. It was only secondarily about extracting intelligence. 
I'd put extracting intelligence at third, actually, behind not just the search for seriousness but the search for bloody-handed revenge, but otherwise this is dead on balls accurate, as someone once had Marissa Tomei say. The Americans - with our own enthusiastic assistance - tortured people because it suited a certain type of mind to believe that our goals can only ever be bought with the blood of others.  We can't be serious about terrorism unless we torture someone else's sons.  We can't be serious about global stability unless someone else's kids die with their organs staining the sand outside a town they'd never heard of the day before.  We can't be serious about sensible government spending unless other people's daughters are being left alone to starve under bridges. We can't be serious about reforming the healthcare system unless other people's children are allowed to be choked to death by their own windpipes because their parents can't afford medication and every trip to the ER is a crap-shoot that sooner or later will see you roll snake eyes [1].

It's everywhere.  It always has been. Socialism is childish. Empathy is childish.  Wanting as many people as possible to live as dignified a life as possible is childish.  The only way to be serious is to pitch one's opinions somewhere between disinterested sociopathy and outright sadism.  It's like we all got as far as comprehending that nothing important was ever achieved without sacrifice, but tuned out en masse before we could be reminded that something is only a sacrifice if you're the one giving something up. Otherwise, it's theft. Theft of money, or of freedom, or of life, in the name of preserving money, or freedom, or life. Because there's only so much of it all to go around. If you don't believe that you're unserious. And because there's only so much to go around, the best thing to do is make sure those that have the most get more of it.  If you don't believe that you're unserious.

Seriousness is a murderer. You'll forgive me if I take no interest in it.

(h/t to Balloon Juice)

[1] Something the resolutely serious Dr Larison might want to reflect on himself, when he's finished complaining about how keeping one's citizenry alive costs too much.

Saturday, 6 December 2014


Ugh.  It's been quiet round here for a while, but I'm finding inspiration hard to locate amongst the fog of my cold-riddled brain.  So let's turn lemons into lemonade, with some of my favourite songs about illness.  None of that metaphor crap, either; the fevers and sicknesses here have nothing to do with love or depravity.  Just feeling awful in response to invading microbes or dick moves by your own body.

Crowded House - "Pineapple Head"

A shout out to long-term posse member (Who's) Jamie, who made me listen to Crowded House repeatedly during the nine weeks we were trapped in a room together at university.  This gets pride of place here because it's the only song I can think of which is actually about the mechanics of illness rather than the emotional fall-out; Finn apparently wrote it by listening to his feverish son and writing down his delirious ravings.  Not a cool move, perhaps, but an interesting song.

Ryan Adams - "Starting To Hurt"

Like I said, mostly songs about illness involve the emotional cost, which is entirely fair enough, but it does make it hard to find songs that aren't mired in the songwriter's self-pity about how someone else's illness is going to effect them. This song, written by Adams about the cancer that ultimately killed his friend Carrie Hamilton, manages to keep the focus entirely on the patient, concerning itself here about how much harder it is to live with a terminal prognosis before the symptoms start to make themselves known.  It's a sad song, but a well-muscled one too; U2 with better guitars and a sense of perspective.

James - "Dr Hellier"

OK, so this one is starting to move off the point a bit.  But if you're going to have a song about your illness, I think it's completely reasonable to imagine you're going to fight the gribbly bastard by shrinking yourself and going all Fantastic Voyage on its microscopic arse. Plus the contrast between the verse and chorus here is great, not so much quiet/loud as precisely measured/violently ugly. This is a bit harder to detect in the live version, but in the studio cut is really does sound like Booth is taking a hedge trimmer to his larynx.

Ben Folds Five - "Cigarette"

Depressing as hell snapshot of a man whose wife is on medication so strong she's liable to set the house on fire trying to light a tab. Which sounds awful, obviously.  If nothing else, this post is underlining how minuscule a bother my cold is in the great scheme of things, even if they do lead to chest infections rather more often than can be considered ideal.

The Darkness - "Growing On Me"

Because obviously.

Anyway, that's what I came up with. Any other suggestions? Leave 'em in comments.

Tuesday, 25 November 2014


Jesus, this is ugly.

Note I don't say this has become ugly. It was ugly from the first moment this all started.  From the first bullet.  From before the first bullet, when a police officer saw two black kids walking in the middle of the road and decided "That shit has got to stop!".

It's clear that there can be no justice for murdered people of colour in a society where a sizable number of people - perhaps even a majority, depending upon where you're standing - simply will not accept that the loss of a life requires answering for if the person who took the life was white and the person who gave their life - had their life stolen from them - wasn't.

Note that I don't say it has become clear.  It has been clear for hundreds of years, and there's no sign of it changing, not really, not completely. I remember what they did to Rodney King in '91.  I remember what they failed to do in '92 to those who did what they did to Rodney King in '91. I remember the Spitting Image sketch of twelve men in klan robes insisting the video be played in reverse to demonstrate how quickly the cops helped King to his feet after making sure all those dangerous batons were removed from nearby. That was the first moment I realised just how terrifyingly horrible the world is. It's not a feeling that goes away.

Too many people want to believe this is about a tragic misunderstanding and a cop that was in fear for his life. Bullshit. At best, at the absolute limit of my capacity for empathy, I can believe the problem lay not just in Darren Wilson's attitude - you don't get to claim self-defence when shooting someone in the back unless you're watching him run towards a Sherman tank, and Wilson's own testimony that he only used the gun because he finds carrying a taser uncomfortable means that at best Michael Brown is dead because Wilson didn't like a non-lethal weapon pressing into his hip - but in his training. Perhaps it genuinely hasn't occurred to Missouri (and I'll not be able to watch Defiance ever again without thinking the show is a desperately na├»ve image of racial harmony compared to the actual Show Me State) that its police officers should consider that a job in which you get to carry a gun isn't a job where you get to start shooting because you're a little panicked?  Cops in the US are pulling their guns in situations soldiers are trained to keep their weapons down.  Cops in the US are pulling guns in a job which results in a lower rate of homicides than fast food workers. That results in a lower rate of homicides than in the general population.

Think about that. You're less likely to be murdered in the US if you become a cop, and that's before we add in all the civilians the cops themselves murder and we're told it was all just an accident. @mightygodking has pointed all this out. @ShaunKing has pointed out vastly worse. You simply cannot believe this was a tragic accident, as free of antagonists and guilt as a sudden earthquake, unless you desperately, completely want to.

Unless you want to sleep better, because you get to sleep better. Unless you want to tell yourselves everything is fine, because you get to tell yourself everything is fine. An unsourced quote is barrelling through Twitter right now: "White privilege is the ability to be outraged by the Ferguson decision, rather than terrified by it". Which is true, of course, but even so I can't help wishing a lot more of those who share my skin colour could even be stirred to be outraged here. Not least because the UK has its own horrors to atone for on this subject.

I still believe a future lies ahead of us where military-minded all-but unaccountable thugs kill just as many white people as black ones.  I just no longer believe we're necessarily walking towards that future.  Instead, here we all are, one half of us treading water and the other half drowning, slowly, one by one, as the water turns ever more obviously the colour of spilt blood.

Saturday, 15 November 2014

Saur-dom And Grr-Morrah

Via bspencer at LGM and through her to Origami Isopod, it is very difficult not to love a world which contains works of literature like this:

This reminds me rather too much of the time in 2003 in which I foolishly predicted no porn could exist involving dinosaurs, and my friend gleefully showed me a video she'd found of a woman orally pleasuring a velociraptor.  Naturally, the footage originated from Germany.  Rule Thirty-Four should really be called Rule Vierunddrei├čig.

Beyond my nostalgia, though, so many questions clamber to the surface here. Like, did Hunter Fox write a story about billionaire dinosaurs and conclude it needed some gay sex to spice things up? Or did this start out as standard man-on-dinosaur porn but then Fox realised his human protagonist could never be forced into homosexuality by a t-rex of limited means?

And is this whole thing a gambit by the Christian Right? You know, those people who are convinced gayness is spread by scheming gays waiting in cupboards to leap out at passers-by and gay them up with their homosexual wiles? Because since those people don't believe in evolution either, the existence of gayness now must imply the existence of gayness ever since the expulsion from Eden. Clearly then there has always been dinosaur gayness. Indeed, the disappearance of dinosaurs from the world rather suggests they got the Old Testament treatment, wiped from the Earth for spending all their time cavorting in gay orgies beside in tar-pits and the occasional volcano.

But what if, as this book posits, some of these gay dinosaurs survived, using the innate gay-based cunning they use to understand fashion and know how to dance in time and with a minimum of flailing, and began to seduce strapping American men? How would these reptilian spiders lure human flies into their gay webs? Actually, I might have lost control of this metaphor. But in any case, the answer is easy. What does any self-respecting right-wing American homophobe assume is the ultimate aphrodisiac?  Money.

This, of course, is how this book can boast the greatest first line to any novel's blurb throughout human experience:
The year is 2014 and dinosaurs have gained control of the world economy due to exceptionally accurate stock predictions.
I will never need another book throughout the course of my life.

And that isn't even the best of Fox's books.  That title surely must go to this:

Michael Bay just became irreversibly impotent and he doesn't know why.

Friday, 7 November 2014

Not Dead, Just Resting (Well, Not Resting, But...)

Apparently my absence has begun to cause concern. Fear not, I am well, simply unbelievably busy, balancing a high-stress job that I'm still getting the hang of with moving stuff from our old house to our new one every night.

Besides, what is there to talk about? Last week's Who? I'll probably discuss that, but I wanted something else to come first; it seems like Capaldi's newest role is all I talk about these days.  The US midterms? Well... do I have to?

Yes, I should be furious. And I am, at the back of my mind. I mean, people are literally going to die because of this Republican wave. They'll die coughing and retching because state governors would quite literally their citizens die than a Democratic initiative gain traction, and they'll die hungry and cold because the Republican Senate won't so much as look at a jobs bill until Obama is rotting in a jail cell for the unforgivable crime of winning presidential elections whilst black.

Really though, it's hard to be angry when I'm this depressed. This result was too inevitable for me to feel anything else.  It's not like any of this is a surprise.  This was the midterms; most people stay home and a horrifying proportion of those that do head for the polls are just annoyed that one man has had the effrontery to be president for six whole years in a row (the fact that this time that man is black just makes everything so much worse; the Magic Negro trope has an awful lot to answer for).

This one impulse seems to eclipse all others. To eclipse cause and effect. To eclipse the most basic processes of common sense. Rick Scott has the morals of a shark, the petulance of a toddler, and the face of that lizard chick from V. He was re-elected. Scott Walker alternates between screwing the working class and selling off his state wholesale. He was re-elected. Sam Brownback has reduced Kansas to a mortally-wounded laughing stock, gushing blood as his conservative experiment sends the state's economy into a dive even a kamikaze pilot might balk at as too steep.  He was re-elected.

The flipping of the Senate may be even worse. Four years after America voted in the most venal, preening and unhinged Congress of the last, well, ever, the considered decision of the country is that it's worth adding a little extra stupid to the mix. After six years of unprecedented obstruction, after
six years of trying to stop people getting cheaper healthcare, of stopping crumbling roads and decaying bridges from being repaired, of stopping the unemployed having hope for new jobs, of stopping Americans who arrived in the country as toddlers from feeling they might have a place in their adopted country, the Republicans are given the reins of power. Because it's year six, and everyone's sick of the guy in the Oval.

If there is a surprise here, it's in how little the Republicans even felt the need to try this time around. Not that they had much choice. Senate Republicans could trumpet only how proficient they had become at refusing to do their damn jobs [1], and their comrades in the House could point only to how many times (Fifty? More? I lost count) they voted to repeal the ACA, like toddlers telling their parents they've decided mealtimes should no longer include vegetables.

The Republicans ran on nothing.  The country decided nothing was enough.

Except not really.  All the country decided was to stay home. The Republicans didn't so much much get handed the keys to power so much as saunter passed an inattentive doorman. The country didn't so much cut its nose off to spite its face as not bother keeping their eye on the approaching psychopath armed with a scalpel because there was a new game out for the X-Box One, or whatever.

It's tempting at this point to trot out the hoary cliche (hoary cliche being itself a hoary cliche at this point, of course) that you get the government you deserve. Which is true for every apathetic white guy who stayed home [1] because "both sides do it" or "all politicians lie", obviously. The problem is that everyone else got the government those idiots deserved, too. That's where the schadenfreude rather comes up short.

Regular readers will know what I'm going to blame all this on, of course: the media in general, and the Little Brother Theory in particular. For those new to the idea, the Little Brother Theory states that the Republicans can get away with things the Democrats could never come close to, because the Republicans are the little brother, and it's the Democrats job to be the sensible elder sibling who has to forgive their younger sibling for not knowing how to behave. It is this asymmetry that prompts journalists and op-ed writers who otherwise give every impression of being able to tie their own shoelaces to claim that, yes, a high-ranking Republican just claimed the president was an unhinged dictator working to bring Sharia law to the United States, but the president in turn suggested the official might be more interested in attacking him than governing, so really, aren't both sides equally to blame?

Never has the Little Brother Theory been more appropriate. After six years of screaming themselves sick in the longest and most damaging temper tantrum in recent memory, America seems to have finally given in, like an exhausted parent, and handed the bawling child a bag of candy because FINE OK JUST PLEASE SHUT UP!

Except of course that this particular child didn't demand candy. He demanded a flame-thrower. And now he has it. And whilst frankly large sections of the US were on fire anyway, it doesn't follow that there's no more damage to be done.

This is America. There's always someone else to sacrifice. There's always somewhere else to burn.

[1] The only aspect of this cluster-cuss that has me curious is whether the Democratic Senate minority will now become as trigger-happy with the filibuster as the Republicans have been in recent years, or whether they'll hold fire, figuring the President will veto anything the GOP Congress sends his way in any case.

[2] I'm sure lots of white women and people of colour may need a stern talking-to over this as well, but I don't get to be the person to do that.

Sunday, 26 October 2014

Fearful Assymetry

No, no no. No, not at all.

Context is important here, I think. Two of our good friends were staying over this weekend, which means that I watched this in the company of a fellow ex-secondary school teacher, and someone still fighting in those particular trenches. So there were three people eager to pontificate on the most school-heavy episode of Who history since the first instalment of "An Unearthly Child", if that (and no, "School Reunion" doesn't count. "School Reunion" is about how awesome the Doctor would be if he was a teacher, which in addition to being pretty fucking insulting to actual teachers reduced the students to another round of cyphers reiterating how the Tenth Doctor was the best thing since sliced Wirrn).

(Spoilers follow)

Friday, 24 October 2014

Friday Bird Impression

Someone over on twitter posted this picture of a Sri Lankan frogmouth (originating here), and it's just glorious.

It's not just the plumage. It's not just my weakness for animals with other animals in their names.  It's how absolutely perfectly this bird has captured the facial expression Richard Dawkins would pull if you mentioned you'd met a Muslim and they were perfectly lovely.

Friday, 17 October 2014

Compare And Contrast: Rampaging Corpse Edition

This, admittedly, is new. And rather easy on the eye.
After two posts last week on the moral implications of "Kill The Moon", it's nice to have an episode where I don't feel compelled to dig too deeply. In fact, the only thing that really struck me is how massive a debt "Mummy..." clearly owes to Horror Express.

I've sung the praises of that film before, of course, but let's recap. A serial-killing monster on a train, grabbing people's heads and murdering them by sucking out something vital?

Check. A seemingly partially-decomposed creature originally considered as a mythological/ancient entity ultimately revealed as an incredibly old alien?

Oh yes. An alliance of scientists desperately working to understand the creature before they too are killed?

You betcha. A surprising cameo from a famous face who feels like they're in a completely different story?

Savalas basically exists in this film only to challenge Connery
for the tittle of least attempt put into an appropriate accent.
"Who loves you, tovarisch?"

Undeniably. Hell, even the desperate evacuation before the train is destroyed matches, and GUS's images through circular lens reminded me of something, too.

I'm not saying this is a bad thing. If you're going to steal, you should steal from the best, and of course Capaldi has spent this entire season playing a role previously inhabited on celluloid by Peter Cushing.

Still, though. Bit weird, innit?

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Wednesday Glorious Randomness or What I Did On My Lunch Break

Fascinating fact: Palpatine only ever decided to conquer the galaxy because his attempts at breaking into the Naboo hip-hop scene came to nothing. To this day he insists this was only because he started gigging in Theed City at just the same moment the public started getting into Gungan Bass instead.

(I stole this pun from @runalongwomble on Twitter, by the way. Check that dude out.)

Friday, 10 October 2014

Friday 40K: Further Naughtiness

A bit late in the day, but it still counts.  Two more Red Corsairs cultists, taking the total to nine.  So very close, now. So very close.

Good News For People Who Love Bad News

Well, this totally blows goats, as we used to say.

Look, I get why people are arguing UKIP reaching the power levels previously enjoyed only by the Green Party or one third of Plaid Cymru isn't something to get particularly upset about, but there's a difference between reaching a level and passing through it on your way up.  And I'm really not seeing much to make me think UKIP aren't on the way up. Evil is very much in vogue these days, after all. The far right is on the rise across Europe, and as John Oliver pointed out, when Europe goes far right, it goes far right through Belgium.

(Yes, yes. UKIP isn't as far right as it could be.  It's not the BNP or the EDL.  But let's not kid ourselves; their far right enough.  The biggest difference between UKIP and the BNP is that the former are the kind of people to enact laws surreptitiously aimed at disenfranchising non-white people, as oppose to the latter, who you'd have to figure would ban voting the day after they banned gays, Muslims, and Wales.)

Really about the best spin I can think of to put on all this is that every UKIP parliamentary candidate is an arsehole, any arsehole who wants to join that collection of arseholes must be an arsehole, and if you're the kind of arsehole who likes to vote for that kind of arsehole, then you're the kind of arsehole who doesn't really mind which kind of arsehole the kind of arsehole you like to vote for has decided to hang with whilst being an arsehole.

Which is kind of fun to type, but that's about it.  Everything else about this is awful.

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Passing Thought

I'm not BBC Breakfast's biggest fan; on an average day the best I can say about is that it's not actually well-organised enough to ruin the delivery of facts in quite the way they seem to want to.  That said, it was great to see them host a virologist this morning to remind us that a) the vast, vast, vast majority of people living in Europe will not be dying of ebola:

and b) if Ebola does in fact get its groove on in the cradle of imperialism and genocide (formerly "that place that just couldn't get enough fucking castles"), we've got a decent chance of beating the microscopic bastard because of our unified medical approaches imposed by the EU.

Which strikes me as an opportunity we can cynically seize upon. You can barely turn on the news in England without being bombarded by idiotic opinions from Tory or UKippers (at this point I don't think Nigel Farage can even take a shit without the BBC asking him how this latest bowel movement demonstrates his ability to lead). They just can't wait to tell us yet again how the greatest threat to British life is the influx of parasitic immigrants hell-bent on living off us at best and gruesomely killing us at worst.

Well at long last, I say amen.

The EU. Forces us to let in the people who want to make new lives for themselves and their families and serve our communities in the process.  Helps us keep out the gribbly nightmare currently eating West Africa.

Tell us again why we're better off opting out?

Saturday, 4 October 2014

No-Win Scenarios

It was back in 1954 that Astounding Magazine published Tom Godwin's "The Cold Equations", a short story in which a pilot shuttling essential medical supplies to a distant colony discovers a young girl has stowed away on the shuttle. With her on-board, the vessel will soon run out of fuel, meaning the medicine can never be delivered, at the cost of many thousands of lives. On the other hand, with no spacesuit on board, the only way to ensure delivery of the medication is to flush the young stowaway out of the airlock.

George R.R. Martin referenced this story in the first volume of A RRetrospective, by way of arguing that any either/or setup in a story has to resolve in you getting the either or the or. You can't get both and pat yourself on the back for your cleverness.  Not when you've worked so hard to establish no exit exists.

This is always my go-to thought whenever fiction offers up a moral dilemma. More specifically, I start looking for ways the story is setting up potential ways by which they can have their cake and eat it.

Because there is an art form in this. Martin is, I think, entirely correct that if you set up a situation in which only choices exist, both of them awful, you'd better damn well follow through. But that isn't the only consideration here. It can't be. Sometimes you need to come up with an ending which doesn't involve horror and blood. And frankly, Saturday night family entertainment seems like a pretty good time and place for it.

(Who spoilers follow)

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

The Weak Spot Is The Blowhole

Getting together for a grand hootenanny, or massing for war?

As I have said many times, humanity's dominance of the world's islands and coastlines will last only as long as it take octopi to start working together, or for dolphins to figure out you can use kelp to choke their hominid aggressors.

(I suspect those elbow squid are going to be involved somehow, too. They already look like regular squid inside mechanised war-suits.  The fact they're staking out deep-water oil-wells is surely no coincidence.  Can't construct undersea armoured divisions without precious dinosaur juice!)

Thursday, 25 September 2014

Mathematicians In Love

Because someone kind of accidentally bet me I couldn't do it:

You call my love inconsequential
For you it's just a differential
Put to your heart's exponential
So it's never really changed.

How are our lives still tangential?
Is it all negative potential?
Like writing strings of transcendentals
But all inversely arranged.

Wednesday, 24 September 2014


It seems the bees in my bonnet have been getting louder recently.  Maybe that's fallout from the independence fight up north.  I might be personally relieved that the left-leaning Scots have chosen to stick with us in the fight against Westminster's whirling incompetents and smirking sadists, endlessly working to turn one half of the UK into Dickensian London and the other half into a gaping wound, but I'm aware this means an awful lot of poor and disabled people north of the border are about to have a much harder few years than they might otherwise have had to.

Still, the people spoke, and by black Heimdall's codpiece, that's something we don't get to say all that often.  Whether or not you agree with the actual choice decided upon, who among us could object to fundamental an exercise of democratic will such as this?
[W]e need to get over the childish notion that we don’t need a responsible leadership class, that power can be wielded directly by the people. America was governed best when it was governed by a porous, self-conscious and responsible elite...
Holy flames of Saint Elmo, Books, take a damn seat, would you?  Is it even worth rebutting the idea that America used to be better run? You may as well argue unemployment figures were less discouraging before abolition, or that families tended to stick together through thick and thin back when divorce was illegal and single women had a non-zero probability of being burned as witches.

Better governed for whom, white boy?

This isn't just this article, or just Brooks; you can't spend more then twenty minutes in the electronic company of American "centrists" without someone lamenting that politics would be so much better if people could be pushed a little further away from the levers of power. But honestly, that isn't my main objection here.  You can only spend so much time observing the exercise of the people's will in elections to conclude that yes, a staggering amount of people are incapable of applying their vote sensibly that we couldn't make the system appreciably worse by crapping in labelled septic tanks and seeing which party assembled the greatest weight in shit.

(The cynical amongst us will demand to know how things are different now.)

So in truth, in my darker moments - which is almost all of them - I find myself unable to totally resist sympathising with the idea of some kind of ruling elite. The problem here isn't so much that idea as the sheer and obvious impossibility of picking a ruling elite that could possibly be up to the job from our current crop of aged straight white cis men, almost all of whom are currently locked in a battle to the death over austerity.  And it's not a battle over their own deaths, as such minor sources of evidence as "current developments" and "all of fucking history" can attest.

So let's ignore the fact that power corrupts, just to give Brooks a fighting chance. Anyone want to take bets on how hard he thinks we should be striving to make sure this ruling elite has enough women? Enough coloured people? Enough trans* people? Is there any chance Brooks is worried they'll need to find a Hispanic Buddhist lesbian? What is cunning plan to emsure that, at long last, those people who'd love to engage in politics if they weren't forced to run three jobs just to keep their kids alive get a chance to be heard?

We can't build a ruling elite until we tear down every last scrap of the system that currently functions. Until we replace every aspect of the body politic organ by organ, bone by bone, until what remains is no longer recognisable, any more than Bondai beach is recognisable as the mountains ground down to make it. And we can't do that without precisely the updraft of popular will that Brooks spends his days cowering in fear of, because they might come to his house and say "fuck" and steal the curtains his great-grandparents stole from black artisans in the first place. Even if rule by elite was remotely feasibly, we have to get more populist before we could ever get less populist. Whether we'd be better off in the valley Brooks imagines is a dodgy proposition anyway, but we absolutely have a mountain we need to climb first.

Give me a female president, Brooks.  Give me a gay Prime Minister.  Let an actual Muslim run the White House, and an actual Kenyan. Prove you've learned the fundamental lesson - after years of running from it screaming in terror - that a country is at its worst when everyone in charge looks and sounds the same.

Then, maybe we can sit down and argue whether hypothetically we could slap together a representative slice of humanity and have them figure out where we go next. Until then, about the only thing we can agree on is that you should be kept as far from a position of authority as is humanly possible.

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Incoherence Can Get You Killed

Here's an interesting legal hypothetical: if you have an inalienable right to own guns and an inalienable right to fire on intruders into your home, BUT the police have the legal right to break into your home without knocking or identifying themselves, what should the law decide when the inevitable happens and a citizen shoots dead a cop, mistaking them for an intruder.

If your answer was depends if the shooter is black, then congratulations! You are now qualified to practice law in Texas.

It's genuinely impossible to overstate how horrifically assembled this situation is. This isn't one of those terrible cases where some white guy shoots a black person for the crime of knocking on their door late at night.  This is about actual intruders trying to break in through your window en masse whilst armed with weapons. How can that possibly not result in someone legitimately fearing for their lives if they've no idea who's behind it?
(Hell, you'd have to be higher than a Himalayan goose on heroin to think your average black American would stop fearing for their life once they realised just who was coming for dinner, and coming strapped.)

This is then compounded of course by the barbaric Texas sentencing rules, that have helped lead to a situation where the same action can lead to either not so much as a slap on the wrist or being sentenced to death depending on the most minute differences - real or imagined, or it would seem entirely cosmetic - in circumstance. This is the kind of legal result we should give law students to try and argue their way out of, not something to be handed out to society to see who dies and who we choose to kill for it.

The law of the land in Texas now is that no-one can take your guns from you, and no-one can take the guns from the people who might be coming to kill you, but you'd better not use the guns that can't be taken from you to defend yourself against the people who might want to kill you armed with the guns that can't be taken from them, not unless you politely ask them whether or not they're police officers. Of course, by that point they might have shot you dead if they're not police, or they are police and think you've got a gun - which the state of Texas just cannot ever stop telling you you should be proud to own, though if the police come knocking you need to put it down and hope no-one in the raiding party murders your dogs or tosses a grenade into your baby's crib - but hey, you should have thought of that before you became a criminal, right?

The officers were looking for drugs, yet none were found in the home. 

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

He Proposes, Modestly

So that "media" bloke, whoever he is, is certainly getting very animated about the Scottish independence referendum tomorrow, huh? I think he's getting worked up over nothing, to be honest; three polls all indicating a "No" vote suggests the chance even of a dead heat is less than 12.5%, and the bookies seem to be of a similar mind.

But let's say that the vote does pretty much turn out to be a dead heat, deep within the margin of error of the system (known in political circumstances as "FUBAR, FL"). Can we really give either side what they want in the face of such evenly-weighted disagreement? I don't see how we can. So instead, why don't we let half of Scotland have its independence? We could let everywhere north of, say, south Edinburgh secede and form its own country, and keep the rest - let's call it "Southern Scotland" - for ourselves.

And the advantage of this approach is not only that both sides get part of what they want, but that other divides in Scottish society could just as easily be solved. Take all that Catholic vs Protestant infighting you get in Glasgow. With Southern Scotland now belonging to us and the northern counties (who I presume won't want a monarchy any more, so let's call them the Republic of Scotland, though they might even want to go back to their original Celtic name of Alba), the Catholics could head north to be with more members of their church, whilst the Protestants stay in Southern Scotland to be nearer to the primarily Protestant England.

We could even keep the Union Flag this way, indeed those in Southern Scotland will probably be even more attached to it than before, though I'm sure those in the fine nation of Alba will respect that choice as they hoist their own saltire to flutter in the stiff highland breeze.

I think it's a great idea, myself. What possible troubles could spring from it?

Sunday, 14 September 2014

They Have All The Time In The World

Well, this was kind of disappointing.

It all started so well. The idea of replacing money with subdivisions of lifespan, so you literally exchange labour for the time you've spent on that labour, is absolutely wonderful.  It literalises the way in which labour requires us to sacrifice elements of our life, for which we are then compensated. The problem comes, of course, when we're not adequately compensated, and here the problem is no longer that we might have to work four jobs and not have enough money to pay for groceries, but that we might have to work four jobs and still end up with less time remaining than when we started the week.

The most affecting scene in the entire film occurs early on, when Olivia Wilde's character boards a bus with 90 minutes remaining, so she can spend the hour's cost for a ride and meet her son in time for him to top her clock up.  With no warning, however, the bus fare has doubled, meaning she can't afford it, and will have to make the journey on foot, a two-hour trip and likely therefore a death sentence.

It's a beautifully unnerving way of making a fundamental point: money does not mean the same thing to all people. For the rich it's just a resource, but for far too many people it's literally a matter of life and death. Something as simple as an increase in bus fares can be disastrous, because it means having to choose between the commute to your job and buying all the food your kids need. And an increase in bus fares can always be arranged, if you need to make sure the workforce is kept too busy to actually protest their situation.  Meanwhile, the rich gather in locations too remote and well-guarded for anyone else to join them, and talk about how evolution requires a certain kind of people to rise to the top, and assure each other that they must be those people, because otherwise they wouldn't be there, would they?

I love that setup. Think what you could do with that, if you wanted to actually dissect how unbearably awful capitalism can get for people constantly poked with the shitty end of the stick.  Instead, after a wonderful first thirty minutes, the film degenerates into a heist movie, Bonnie and Clyde meets Robin Hood as a saviour arises to try and steal a million years (something like half a trillion dollars, perhaps, given a cup of coffee costs around three minutes). Which is just about the absolute least interesting thing you could do here.

It's not completely without merit. There are at least some nice puns in here. Cops are now "time-keepers", criminals who steal your time "minute men", and both are given equal time to screw the working class out of a fair return for their labour. There's a nice scene towards the end where a time-keeper explains they're propping up the system because they've always propped up the system, and rebelling now would be admitting they'd spent the last fifty years doing precisely the wrong thing. Ultimately, though, if there is any kind of message here in amongst Justin Timberlake and Amanda Seyfried taking it in terms to try being smouldering and cool, it's that the best solution to endemic poverty and near-poverty is for a hot white dude to show up and save you.

Which isn't the film's message, of course; the film doesn't actually have a message. Just a phenomenal beginning pissed away in favour of the most obvious film-making imaginable. It's hard to fully engage with a dystopian nightmare of people forced to sell their time when you're too busy wishing you could get 109 minutes of your own back.

Saturday, 13 September 2014

D CDs #478: This Is Cheating

Wait, we're allowed greatest hits albums on this list? I thought Alan Partridge had conclusively demonstrated that this is bullshit?

Still, if we're forced to go down this route, there are undeniable advantages, particularly when dealing with an artist like Lynn, whose career covered so great a period, with the earliest recording here hailing from 1964, and the latest from, I think, 1978. That nearly fifteen year stretch represents a healthy slice of musical development - 1964 saw the Beatles singing "Can't Buy Me Love"; by '78 the Clash were already on to their second album.

For all its defiant wallowing the past (more often than not a fictitious one, but that's beside the point right now), country music had to make changes of its own. It needed to pick up an electric guitar like everybody else.  This evolution can be sketched out as we travel through the (roughly) chronological track listing here.  It's interesting from a musical history perspective, but it works in the disc's favour, too, classic country often being a genre that can suffer from diminishing returns. Lynn provides a good example ; the first half here is packed with simple guitar work, smiling honky-tonk piano, and Lynn's clear, if slightly inexpressive voice. All fine in moderation, but there's only so many reworkings of that basic theme a man can take, especially given the limited range of subjects on display here.

I mean, I can't complain too much about the density of "my man's a cheater/other women keep trying to make my man cheat" on display here. It did result in Lynn's own composition "Fist City", after all, the third-best song she ever wrote and presumably only given that title because the '60s Midwest wasn't ready for a song called "Touch My Man And I Will Fucking Lamp You, Bitch".  There's issues to be had about songs blaming other women for "making" your husband cheat, but there's plenty of blame to go around in these first eleven tracks, I guess.

Whatever the progressive objections, though, it's a limited palette to work with. An expansion into more general domestic matters buys Lynn some time - and produces her second-best song in "Coal Miner's Daughter", a song about remembering where you came from and refusing to take any shit about it - but there's an inescapable sense of losing momentum.

It's a this point, though, that we shift into Lynn's second iteration, kicking off with the best song she ever wrote, "X-Rated" - about the absurd difficulties divorced women face in living any sort of normal life for the high crime of having decided to not spend her entire life with a man who no longer does what she needs him to do, whatever that is - and then focus for a little while on her series of duets with Conway Twitty. Presented here as more as a palette cleanser than anything else, the Twitty collaboration offers us an excellent rendition of "Louisiana Woman, Mississippi Man" (though Twitty brings more to this than Lynn, in all truth) and Twitty's own "As Soon As I Hang Up The Phone", probably the most depressing song Lynn offers up on this disc, and not through lack of competition.

This injection of new blood serves as launch pad for the tail end of the disc, in which the music responds to emerging trends by becoming a little more muscular (just a little, of course; this is still classic country) and the songs push a little further into storytelling territory, though the central theme very much remains the failures of men and the resulting damage done to women.

But then, potentially after some inverting of one or both genders, that describes, at a conservative estimate, something approaching 97% of all art ever created.  No sense in fighting too hard against that, especially considering it's blueprint country. Blueprint country, competently delivered, with three distinct phases to keep things fresh - and remind us of how things were changing in this period - and tempered with the occasional flash of brilliance.

That, in the end, will do.

Seven and a half tentacles.

Monday, 8 September 2014

Monday Pessimus Prime: It's All Got A Bit Too Real

Some background...

Fliss took me to her old university stomping grounds for the first time since we'd met this weekend, so she could perform bridesmaid duties for an old friend. Which was fine; taxi service for weddings is entirely within a boyfriend's remit, and I didn't even really mind having to sit through a church service surrounded by people I didn't know just to make sure sufficient pictures were taken of the bridesmaids - Fliss was worried for some reason that everyone would focus on the bride, like that's important.

Things seemed to be looking up at the reception, since there was a) fewer Bible quotations and b) a bar. Alas, this seeming promised land was naught but a lie, a comforting illusion designed to keep me busy trying out new ciders whilst agents of the Forces of Naughtiness could smash my passenger rear quarter window and make off with my SatNav and wallet.

This, obviously, is Not Good. I was so shaken up by the whole affair I was almost put off my full English yesterday morning, and that wouldn't happen if you told me the sausages were made from my mother.

But! There were upsides. Most important is the sheer meagreness of the villain's score. A battered five-year old SatNav I refused to update and a wallet containing £3.70 and a credit card cancelled before they could use it. According to the police officer who came looking for prints and DNA, they only broke in to try and steal the camera case on the back seat, which was of course empty. It's hard to not imagine their faces falling when they realised just what a waste of crime they'd gone through.

It'll have been a quiet supper in their secret lair and no mistake.

(There is though some personal stuff I've been gutted to lose. The business card Chris made for me in my first term as a teacher, explaining exactly how little of a shit I gave about children on one side and containing my lonely heart's ad on the other. The ID card I got when I turned 18 with a picture of my young, be-curtained self that I would show to children who'd done particularly well in class so they could laugh themselves sick. The two US coins I own, given to me by my sister to give me some kind of tangible connection to the country I spend so much time shouting about. These things I shall miss. Also there was a parking receipt I hadn't claimed back yet in there, so you can imagine how gutted I am over that.)

Watching other people's reactions to the situation has been entertaining as well. The particular denomination of Christians running this particular show took it all pretty hard, believing as they seem to that literally everything that happens is God's will (rather then the far more laissez-faire approach the Methodists I was raised around take, which is that God knew my car would be broken into, but didn't). Frankly, some of them seemed more upset than I was. One woman told us how she'd struggled to get to sleep on Saturday night, because she was so deep into trying to figure out why God would choose to have car thieves strike in the middle of a Christian wedding. For my part I figured "shit happens" and passed out.

In the end, she decided it was fine because so little was stolen. Which, whatever floats your theological boat, obviously. Though it turns out though that there's not a lot of social situations more awkward than a loudly committed Christian expounding how awesome Christian weddings are because God only lets small-bore shit gets nicked, and how lucky we are to be a part of that, then when you politely point out you're an atheist get a sales pitch about how "God protects". I mean, I don't begrudge this woman her faith or the security it clearly gives her, but maybe citing the protection God offers you is a mistake eight hours after it turns out he won't even protect your SatNav.

Other interactions were less awkward. There is something uniquely laid-back and yet acerbic about Yorkshire humour:
Fellow Guest: Sorry to hear about yer car. You got yer cards cancelled? 
SpaceSquid: Yep. All but my Nectar Card. It was tough to sleep knowing the gits who robbed my car might even now be enjoying fractionally cheaper groceries. 
Fellow Guest (prodding my admittedly generous belly): Yeah, yer look like yer wasting way, don't yer?
Police Officer: See that helicopter? It's from an old RAF base they use for training now. All privatised now, of course. 
SpaceSquid: The government does love its privatisation. 
PO: I think they should privatise the government. 
SS: If we're defining "privatise" as "major corporations get to call all the shots without outside interference", I would like to submit that you already have your wish. 
PO: Fair point. What do they call the big head office again? Eton, in't it?
(I suppose the guy's plan has some merit. If we formalised bribery at least we could tax it).

As of 11am today I have finally waded through the list of tasks necessary to respond to this hassle, including setting my insurers against my glass-replacement company so that whichever one of them was lying to me about the other one could do it to their metaphorical face (so far it's looking like it was the insurance company - no surprise there; these are already the people who've told me my contents insurance which includes personal items and built-in navigation devices doesn't include SatNavs; too car-based to be a personal item, too detachable to be a car feature).

So that was my weekend. How about you peeps?

Friday, 5 September 2014

Friday Talisman

Time to rock it old school as we return to the Elder Days and to the original 4th Edition bundle, and present... the Elf!

In all honesty, I think he's a bit too bright, and I lost too much definition painting his boots brown (my own fault; the paint was too thick). Still, I quite like his hair, and his bow.

Thursday, 4 September 2014

Paul The Octopus Has Nothing On Me

Just quickly throwing this out there under the heading of "Thank Cthulhu I don't live in Louisiana". When you're not having your city torn out from under you by a hurricane, shot dead for the crime of wanting food whilst black, or dying in an overcrowded hospital because there's no money to keep anyone but the rich alive any more, you're finding stuff in your drinking water which will literally eat your brain:
The water in St. John Parish is safe to drink, said the CDC, but special care should be taken not to allow it to go up the nose, which is the route the parasite takes to infect the brain. Once inside the brain, the amoebas cause primary amebic meningoencephalitis (PAM), which is almost invariably fatal.
I've no idea who, if anyone, is to blame for this hideous gribbly showing up in the first place.  But I absolutely guarantee you two things. First, there will be a non-trivial number of state Republicans who will argue increased governmental surveillance of drinking water to stop people getting their heads melted will constitute "Federalism run amok".  Second, there will be a non-trivial number of Republican voters on the internet who will argue that since no-one deliberately snorts drinking water up their noses, this is a non-issue that will simply rid us of obvious idiots.

There is simply no bottom with these people.

(h/t to Elon James White over at Balloon Juice.)

Monday, 1 September 2014

Zero Tolerance

Our ongoing tour of the best companions in Who history reaches its end with The Curse of Fenric, and after having to basically tread water with the Sixth Doctor, we have here something we can properly get our teeth into. ...Fenric is not only the greatest story the classic show ever broadcast, but it's got a well-considered role for everyone's favourite teenage anarchist, as well.

Radio Monday: Back To School

Let's do this.

Sunday, 31 August 2014

Turnabout Is Fair Play

So Fliss and I have a deal; every time I make her read a Horus Heresy novel, she can select something from her extensive collection of books for me to try. So far nothing has sprung out as being worth an entire post, but here are some postage stamp specials on the first three selections.

Hunting Party - Elizabeth Moon

Transplanting the English gentry to a sci-fi setting isn't automatically a bad idea, but doing it so utterly uncritically causes exceptional problems. Moon's twin obsessions with the military and British toffs rub uncomfortably against each other, and in fact only work together in the sense that they paint a rather distasteful, retrograde viewpoints.  The fact Moon turned out to be an Islamophobe convinced we try too hard to allow Muslims to believe things that make them unfit to live in "our" society is some distance away from surprising.

The Painted Man - Peter V Brett

An incredibly standard fantasy with a central conceit (demons arise each night and terrorise those unable to draw the wards necessary for defence) that's nowhere near as original or smart as it thinks it is, this story starts poorly, becomes mediocre, and yet legitimately finishes strong as we finally arrive at the point. This has the odd effect of making the books first two-thirds or so read like one of those awful prequels fantasy writers put out to delay getting on with their core series or to make a quick buck, completely failing to realise that there's a reason they started their stories where they did, and that the prequels are therefore mere exercises in dot connecting.

Oh, and it's sexist, has an entirely too stereotypical depiction of an Islamic-style civilisation for comfort, and features (off-page) an entirely unnecessary and unpleasant gang rape which violates the three rules of having a main character sexually assaulted: 1) don't do it unless it's narratively essential, 2) don't do it unless you are quite convinced you can deal with the fall-out plausibly and sensibly, and 3) maybe don't do it anyway?

King's Dragon - Kate Elliott

This is rather more like it. There are proper things to say here.

In several ways this is once again familiar fantasy fare - a medieval society with added magic finds itself invaded by Orc analogues, in this case slightly snake-like Vikings with a commendable love of dogs.  Complicating this is a rebellion by the King's half-sister Sabelle, which again is far from unfamiliar, as well as perpetuating the standard fantasy problem of inviting us to somehow give a toss about which scion of a family who murdered their way into a dictatorship gets to perpetuate that dictatorship.  Remember that time Kim Jong-Il had to decide which of his sons would next be directly responsible to the immiseration of millions? Remember how hoping he'd choose the least unpleasant option was entirely not the point?

What sets this book apart is Elliott's religious system, a brilliant simple reinvention of Christianity that replaces the Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit with the ...Duonity?... of Lord and Lady. Every part of Elliott'  Unity faith spills from this central precept of God manifesting equal male and female forms.  Gender roles in Elliott's kingdom of Wendar and Varre are far more fluid as a consequence; not only are women no less likely to hold titles than men, but parents are free to choose from their children who will make the best heir, irrespective both of their children's age and their gender. Even in areas where gender roles are still separate - bishops (biscops, as they're called here) and city majors are (almost) always female, generals are usually male - there is no implicit superiority of masculine roles. There is I suppose a criticism one could mount here about whether Elliott is suggesting "separate but equal" is actually a viable approach in gender relations, but I'm not inclined to make it. It seems more likely that Elliott is exploring the best-case scenario of a powerful state religion in a period when gendered roles may have seemed an inevitable result of manual labour and "strength of arms" (a phrase in itself implying the importance of muscle mass) would perhaps have made any attempts to suggest men and women could be considered universally interchangeable on the job market difficult to credit. By making so few concessions to the differences between the genders, Elliott is not only criticising the degree of Christian tradition that springs from nothing but ugly misogyny, but reminding us that fantasy writers developing their own societies have to choose to bake in cultural sexism (and there are good reasons to make that choice), they can't just put it in automatically on the grounds that "that's how things were back then".

This being a fantasy novel, it is inevitably the first in a series, in this case one of seven (Green 1/7, in the FlissRic system). Elliott again reaches for a standard approach here, giving her protagonists one problem to successfully solve (Sabella's rebellion) whilst another (Vikings! Who are snakes!) gets increasingly worse. Which is fine, I guess, though the pacing is rather strange; we spend forever getting to any action regarding the rebellion, and things wrap up completely within a few pages. In part this is because of the noticeably passive nature of our protagonists Alain and Liath. Neither do much but watch and worry for most of the book until they can act of visions they receive from saints and use them to save the day/avert total catastrophe.  This is deeply unsatisfactory, of course, about as ex machina as a deus or two can get, but hopefully there's more going on here than there seems to be.

Given I slapped around Favre for his use of rape in his novel, I should talk a little about the same being used here. I'll be as circumspect as possible, but even so the following has attached both a trigger and a spoiler warning. One of Elliott's characters is explicitly as passive and removed as she is because she spent time (which we witnessed) as a slave, who was repeated sexually assaulted by her master. Elliott deserves credit for how she handles this in general; she is both as vague as possible about the specifics of the situation and gives plenty of time to the emotional fallout from it. If you feel the need to put a character through that sort of horror, this definitely seems to be the way to go.

The problem here, and it's a small one, is that Liath's passivity rubs directly against the rest of the novel.  If a rape survivor needs to disengage from the world in order to process what they've been subjected to, that's obviously none of my fucking business. But the structure of the text is such that we're being encouraged to engage fully at the same time as Liath is pulling back. The result is to in some sense present Liath as an obstacle to plot development, which is what happens when you try to run a deeply personal traumatic story alongside a large-scale tale of war and deception.  You can use more general horror for a backdrop, indeed doing so has a long and noble history, but there's a low ceiling on how much you can push reader interest in the particulars of that backdrop on its own terms, as oppose to as a mechanism for complicating the protagonists' lives.

Or at least, so it seems to me.

Thursday, 28 August 2014

Pictures To Prove It: Peloponnese Edition

Because you failed to demand not it: some of the pictures of our time in Nafplio.

Monday, 25 August 2014

Five Things I Learned In Nafplio

1. A thorough familiarity with Greek letters from a career in maths is actually very helpful in pronouncing - albeit very slowly - words written in Greek. Of course everyone we interacted with in this tourist town spoke English, and pronouncing a word almost never meant understanding what the hell it meant, but still; proof that my last sixteen years haven't been completely wasted.  The fact that this took sixteen years to demonstrate in the first place, required travel to a foreign country four hours flight away, and ultimately resulted in practically no actual benefits to communication, is something I choose to ignore.

2. Swimming in the Ionian Sea is wonderfully relaxing, even when the beach you're just off has had a speaker system installed to boom out pop music whilst you splash around. That said, there are a few too many fried-egg jellyfish floating about for comfort - hearing them described as having the second-least painful sting in the Mediterranean isn't as reassuring as one might think when actually faced with them - and it turns out that even the smallest and friendliest of saltwater fish can start to freak you out if they spend enough time lazily circling you as you tread water.

3. Greek Orthodox weddings have a lot to recommend them, whether it's forcing the happy couple to smooch a book, or waving a large sparkly whisk in their faces which is then separated into two circlets for them each to wear.  Further fun can be had by requesting an English translation, which the young priest at the church attempted very gamely, but with desperately little success. I don't blame him for a minute; I haven't a clue what a "celebrant" even is, still less the first idea as to how to pronounce it in Greek. The ceremony concludes with the throwing of rice, which is encouraged irrespective of one's aiming skills nor one's proximity to the bride and groom.  Friendly fire was a real problem; thank God Fliss and I were standing at the edge of the congregation, as far from the crowd's firing solution (and, you know, God) as possible.

4. The Greeks have a local delicacy - which we were utterly unable to pronounce - that consists of a triple-sized Tunnock's teacake with the marshmallow replaced with chocolate mousse, chocolate sauce, and chopped nuts.  It tastes a bit like Death by Chocolate studded with Ferrero Rocher, and look far too much like chocolate boobies for us to call them anything else.

5. Speaking of local delicacies, like Slovenia, Nafplio has precisely two local beer options for the weary traveller.  There's Fix, which is a very light lager with a bit of sweetness to it, and Mythos, which is an entirely respectable lager that I basically drank for the name alone. I like to think every bottle consumed gains me further favour with Cthulhu and his dark kin, which is obviously why I so disgustingly abused the open bar on my first night there. Sure, I could have remained sober to drink in my first experience of Grecian life, but would that have saved my skin when the stars are finally right?  It would not.

Completely unaltered, obviously

Friday, 22 August 2014

Pictures To Prove It

Since Fliss was lovely enough to put all our Scottish photos into a single folder, I've finally found the time to sift through them and offer up some favourites.

What? Taking pictures on a boat is hard.

Our first white-tipped tailed eagle.