Friday, 28 December 2012

Death in the Pond

No Christmas is complete without the seasonal Dr Who Christmas special. Actually I tell a lie since many of them have been eminently forgettable. Ever since the brilliant sword-fighting excitement of 'A Christmas Invasion' and the surreal flying shark of 'A Christmas Carol'. our eyeballs have been assaulted by a never ending stream of plastic santas and C.S. Lewis-esque winter wonderlands.

On first viewing this one was similarly unimpressive. In true Christmas style I had had a few glasses of wine already and was surrounded by my extended family. This naturally meant I missed certain bits (where the hell did the memory worm appear from?) as I fielded questions about whether the lizard woman was a goody or a baddy.

From this distracted perspective the story was a bit of a mess. The plot zoomed along without much rhythm or rhyme and it seemed as though the producers were trying too hard to introduce the new assistant while making the usual family friendly jokes.

However, a second solitary viewing with a lower blood-alcohol level persuaded me that the episode was not without its merits. Jenna-Louise Coleman is shaping up to be a brilliant new companion and they have set up an interesting mystery with her seeming ability to reincarnate. The Doctor's impression of Sherlock Holmes was absolutely hilarious and I loved the idea of him being dragged out of his self-imposed retirement by a new whip-smart acquaintance.

Of course the show still had weaknesses. The ice lady, after a huge build up, got a grand total of thirty seconds screen time before being blown up by the Doctor. Admittedly she came back but then spent the next ten minutes trapped by a grenade force field. As for my final bit of nit-picking, I know the Doctor is meant to be adorably absent minded but I think that he might have remembered to close the doors of his floating police box rather than wading through some soppy dialogue before watching Clara be dragged to her (possibly second) death.

So all in all a mixed effort. I still can't wait for this series to restart. Here's hoping that they can get it together to show entire series consecutively again rather than messing around with all this mid-season hiatus business ad nauseam.

Thursday, 27 December 2012

Death in 'The Fountain'

So among the various and brilliant Christmas presents I received this Yuletide was the DVD of The Fountain, an intensely surreal and brilliantly flawed film that I have only seen once before. This was great timing as a few days before, taking a break from the hectic rounds of Christmas shopping, I had stopped off in the library and read the associated graphic novel in a single sitting.

The film and novel revolve around themes of death, resurrection and immortality. The plot is fairly similar in the two mediums but subtle differences in scenes, order and dialogue between them add complexity to any interpretation of the story's meaning.

Ultimately I saw the film as an examination of three major methods of dealing with death and its implications. The first, stressing inevitability and religion, is quickly dismissed. The other two themes, acceptance and denial, are then contrasted and compared throughout the remainder of the film.

1) Desirable Inevitability – The first narrative we are presented with is set in the Spain of the Reconquesta and features the intimidating Grand Inquisitor Silecio. We are presented with slightly different versions of this character in the novel and the film. However, a constant is his belief that physical bodies are weak and decaying vessels that precede the ascension to the afterlife. His liking for self flagellation illustrates his conviction that the physical body is prone to weakness and must be disciplined by the mind in order to achieve temporal power and heavenly immortality. He is evangelical and implacable in his application of these beliefs to others; using torture and clandestine execution in his efforts to usurp or control Queen Isabella. 

In neither the book nor the film does Silecio succeed in his schemes. While he survives the film he fails to divert the conquistadors exhibition to retrieve the Mayan Tree of Life. His failure is more total in the novel where his ambush of the Queen and attempts to execute Avila are thwarted by the heroic Tomas and his loyal soldiers. His religious interpretation of life and death has little further impact on the film.

The novel adds slightly more detail to the defeat of this inquisitorial attitude to suffering and death. In this version, Avila is eventually sacrificially executed by a Mayan priest. As Tomas passes his corpse he reveals a previously undisclosed animosity when he informs the recently deceased Avila that the future belongs to himself and the Queen rather than to the Church. Despite the Fransiscan's loyalty to the Crown he is associated with the philosophical focus on the afterlife that contrasts with Tomas' own striving for immortality.

2) Denial - The denial theme is far more visible and is closely associated with Hugh Jackman's various characters. This attitude sees death as an obstacle that can be overcome by personal effort, scientific endeavour and the utilisation of powerful mystical paths to everlasting life. Conquistador Tomas, scientist Tommy and Ascendant Tom see others as tools to be used in the service of the focussed will. They echo the ruthlessness of Silecio by sacrificing followers and driving subordinates to inhuman efforts. 

However, this view too is ultimately shown to be defective. It leads to great achievements but never seems to be capable of bringing any lasting victory over death. Donovan's recovery is too late to help Izzi and both the Tree of Life and the Xibalba nebula are revealed to be reliant on death and renewal for their powers of creation. By the end of the movie Tom is forced to accept that there is no way to defeat death without embracing it. 

3) Acceptance - This insight is the pinnacle of the movie and is reflected in the oft-repeated claim that 'Death is the Road to Awe'. While denial has driven the plot and provided an emotional intensity to the film it has been tempered throughout the movie (and novel) by the urgings of certain characters that Tom must accept the world as it is and make the best use of his remaining time with Izzi. 

This theme is best represented by Izzi's serene acceptance of her eventual death and her efforts to comfort Tommy and to explore difficult concepts through her authorship of 'The Fountain'. Even Tommy's colleagues, perhaps best placed to understand his obsession, urge him to spend more time with his wife and not to attempt the impossible to the detriment of his health. 

These strong themes and questions allow the film to work despite its one dimensional characters and occasionally clumsy pacing. By focussing on these dominant characteristics of Tomas/Tommy/Tom and Isabella/Izzi the narrative is freed to engage with fundamental questions of existence in a sustained and engaging manner. Brilliant special effects and a fantastic soundtrack round off a thought-engaging offering by Darren Aronofsky.  

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Moon probes to crash into mountain

This is amazing. The probes, which have been orbiting the moon to monitor gravity variations, will hit the unnamed mountain at 6051 kilometres per hour. It really is science fiction stuff but this Time article is the first I've heard of it.

Tangentially it also further undermines the arguments of those wacky moon landing conspiracy theorists. One of the reasons for crashing the probes is apparently to avoid any risk that they will come down on the Apollo landing sites and damage the relics left by early moon explorers.

If whatever shady government agency is supposed to have faked the moon landings were really interested in removing any damning evidence why would they not grasp this brilliant opportunity? Accidentally hitting the supposed sites of landings with crash landing space craft and obliterating them would be an eminently practical way of launching a cover up!

Sunday, 16 December 2012

Boris weighs in on Corporation tax

The BBC quotes Boris as saying "I cannot exactly blame the finance directors of these companies for doing their job. Their salaries and livings depend on minimising the tax exposure obligations on their companies." while being interviewed on the Andrew Marr show.

This has a nice ring to it. Apparently Boris isn't backing large heartless corporations that screw law and morality into Escher-like contortions to avoid supporting the government-funded welfare, security and transport initiatives that they rely on for their everyday business. Instead he is supporting the hard-working finance officer who is just doing his job.

However, I think London's erstwhile Mayor might find that the population of Britain expect him to conscientiously fulfil his own duties as well. As an M.P. we expect him to stand up for the good of the nation rather than just those individuals and companies who can afford the best lawyers. The job of Parliament is to close those loopholes that allow Corporations to shirk their tax burden, not to throw up its hands and claim that it is the way of the world and shouldn't be criticised.

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Selling the Census to the Right

So the latest census data is out. I can see that presenting a collection of demographic statistics in an attention grabbing way must be a struggle for the media.

However, I'd have thought that such venerable institutions as the Guardian and the BBC could have done better than 'Census data released - Christians: a New Minority?' and 'Census shows rise in foreign-born' respectively.

These headlines are at least factually accurate. The data did show these trends - although the Guardian seems to be using an extremely weird definition of minority. However, by selecting these findings to focus on the news organs pander to those 'Geert Wilders' of Europe who believe that an increase in people of non-Christian religions and non-British birth is an existential threat to national identities.

Thursday, 29 November 2012

Abbas pleads for UN recognition

I agree with Abbas that it would be a step forward for the UN to enhance recognition of Palestine. Critics can claim all they like that a solution can only come through bilateral negotiation but such agreement is nigh impossible when extremist Palestinians are firing missiles at Israeli towns and the Israeli army treats Palestinian occupied territory like a shooting gallery.

The only way forward is for the international community to support Palestinians, like Abbas, who represent and support moderate solutions and compromise. Doing so undermines the extremists by showing that peaceful negotiation brings results. The current suggestion to support a two state solution inside the 1967 borders is tenable and is argued for in Shlomo Ben Ami's brilliant 'Scars of War, Wounds of Peace'.

Naturally there should be international support for Israel's right to its territory and to freedom from official or unofficial attacks by its neighbours. However, by constantly adopting the most hard line approaches and massacring civilians Israel risks marginalising itself and being seen as little more than an American puppet in the Middle East.

[Edit] - ... and it has happened! Great result but sad to see the UK abstaining.

[Edit, Edit] - .... and what predictable, childish behaviour in response from the Israelis. It is this sort of tit for tat, us versus them attitude that has kept this conflict boiling throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty first.

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

IKB or Zima Blue

I had never heard of Yves Klein when I read Zima Blue, by Alastair Reynolds for the first time. Since the latter story had a fairly lasting effect on me I'm now experiencing one of those weird postmodern moments where you encounter the effect before its cultural cause.

Existential angst aside, I would strongly recommend reading Zima Blue. It can be found in Gardner Dozois' Best of the Best New SF or in Reynold's Zima Blue and is one of the sweetest and most thought provoking short stories to take on the theme of the relationships between identity, art and artificial intelligence.

Sunday, 25 November 2012

Part 2 - The Kansas City Shuffle: Comparing Skyfall and Slevin

Some might say that pointing out absurdity in James Bond films is like installing fire extinguishers in Hell. Bond movies notoriously favour style over substance or consistency. They are world renowned for their grandstanding spectacle, evil villains and gadgets. Many accept these ludicrous features as part of the fun. Surely only the po-faced and pedants would point out the blatant misogyny of the title character or the impossibility of locating a sinister lair in an active volcano?

However, the latest reboot of the series, starring Daniel Craig as Bond, has attempted to bury some of this flamboyant heritage. We are presented with more moral grey areas and complexities of motivation. MI6 is not the shining white knight of the 1960s but a sinister organisation prepared to sacrifice its own men for the greater good and to confound any attempted political restraint.

Gone too are the gadgets of yester-films. Q (refreshingly played straight by Ben Whishaw) exemplifies this by handing Craig a simple pistol and radio before he ventures out into the field. These changes all points to a series that wants to be taken more seriously. In my opinion the writers did a good job of achieving this in Casino Royale but suffered a serious regression when they made Quantum of Solace.

Therefore I feel free to point out some of the plot holes that bugged me in Skyfall. It was certainly a memorable spectacle. At times it felt like it was going to develop into a great movie. The shoot out at the Scottish manor was especially engaging. The low-tech use of booby traps and sawn off shotguns reminded me of similar scenes in other movies that I have really enjoyed. The drama of M, Bond and Kincade fighting off the well-armed intruders mirrored the emotion of the cabin scene in XIII, the shoot out at the end of L.A. Confidential and Jedburgh's tragic last stand in Edge of Darkness.

Too often though the plot was hastened along by ridiculous but implausible devices. Especially jarring was MI6's tracking of Patrice through the shrapnel in Bond's shoulder. Patrice was established as a stealthy assassin with no nationality or records that could identify him. I could square this with his public bloodbath on the Istanbul streets in the opening scenes. Bond has always been about dramatic chases rather than stealthy and undramatic executions.

However, it is difficult to believe that an international killer would make the mistake of favouring a type of ammunition that was only used by three individuals in the world. As the shrapnel recovered from Bond's chest shows he might as well have dropped a calling card at the scene of the crime. As far as I can see the main purpose of depleted uranium bullets is for piercing armour anyway. Unless Patrice regularly assassinated tanks and armoured vehicles he would have been infinitely better off with a less trackable (and radiation-emitting) type of ammo.

This was absurdity done badly. The sole intent was to drive the plot along at all costs, even if this meant demolishing any pretence of logical consistency or immersion. It did nothing to develop characters or promote interest. Instead it was a simple 'deus ex machina' to propel Bond towards the next shoot out and romantic entanglement.

Along with the thinly veiled political agenda, weak characterisation of the homoerotic villain and other poor design decisions this was enough to put me off a film that was in other ways rather promising. With two more Daniel Craig movies to come we can only hope that the series will reattain the poise and precision of Casino Royale instead of making the same mistakes again.  

Part 1 - The Kansas City Shuffle: Comparing Skyfall and Slevin

So I've talked briefly before about when I think absurdity is acceptable in movies and when logic holes can ruin a serviceable plot:

In this and its companion piece I hope to make my feelings clearer through a comparison of Skyfall and, an old favourite of mine, Lucky Number Slevin.

I re-watched the latter last night and was again struck by the absurdity of the two ethnic gangs at the heart of the plot. The Rabbi's footsoldiers are skull cap wearing, Hasidic Jews who honour the Sabbath and tote shotguns. Meanwhile Morgan Freeman's gang are exclusively of African descent. These two gangs are based in rival skyscrapers and are vicious rivals in various spheres of criminal activity.

At first glance this might not seem too surprising. The stereotypes are rampant and sharply drawn but real life criminal gangs are often based around ethnicity and culture. This is especially true in the multicultural cities of the USA, where Lucky Number Slevin is set.

However, it is revealed during the film that the two gangs were once united before the Rabbi made a pre-emptive strike against the Boss. The image of a bi-ethnic gang that recruits only from Jews and black people before splitting exactly along those fault lines lines is too silly to be contemplated. If two races and cultures could coexist in the pre-split organisation why not throw the doors open to applicants of any background?

I struggled to find a reason for this. Lucky Number Slevin is actually a fairly coherent film with witty dialogue, a tight plot, comic moments and some dark but deep themes of motivation and revenge. Why would they resort to such a superficial and illogical way of distinguishing between the feuding gangs?

Then I figured it out. Lucky Number Slevin has a grand total of five distinct factions: the Boss, the Rabbi, the Police, Goodcat/Slevin and Lindsey/Slevin. In its 110 minutes running time it has to elaborate and develop the motives and characters of each faction to retain the viewer's interest. This is an extremely ambitious project. The vast majority of 10+ hour video games have a mere 2-3 developed factions.

In view of this ambition it is acceptable for the film to resort to stereotypes and superficial differences. The viewer's familiarity with the involved cultures and institutions allows the film to do without tedious back story. Instead the narrative can focus on the action and on developing the interesting interactions and twisting ambitions of the main players.

This (like Looper) is a good example of how to do absurdity right in film. Skyfall, on the other hand, is not ….. as I will attempt to show in Part 2.  

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Heads in the sand

You misogynistic, myopic idiots!

It is hardly a great advert for divine wisdom if, after 2012 years, the Church hierarchy is still struggling with gender equality.

Sunday, 18 November 2012

Against Tory benefit cuts

Hear hear, Sarah Teather!

I think this may be the most cynical and popularist action yet taken by the Coalition government. The Malthusian logic and attempt to distinguish between the worthy and unworthy poor is nineteenth century in content and is tailored to warm the hearts of any Daily Mail reader.

The faltering Conservative Party is reaching a perilous tipping point. While I see no reason to like them or approve their insane attacks on services in this country, they may be at their most dangerous when desperate. UKIP did well in the recent elections and the anxious Conservative leadership might see more draconian attacks on benefits and on membership in the EU as the only way to retain their mad fringe voters.

Nonsense on stilts

"Justice Secretary Chris Grayling, who replaced Ken Clarke in a reshuffle in September, told BBC One's Andrew Marr Show last month that Parliament had a "clear" right not to accept the ECHR ruling."

I think you're a little confused, Mr Grayling. Prisoners have the right to vote and the government shouldn't try to twist rhetoric and anti-European feeling to refuse them that right. It is the height of hypocrisy for politicians to talk about their rights to defy human rights courts as they attempt to deport Abu Qatada to a country where he could be tortured or prosecuted using information obtained by torture.

As a country we really need to get our priorities straight. What example do we set to individuals and other countries if we can't respect the rights of others.

Saturday, 17 November 2012

Cameron's failed elections

So, despite having been initially against the idea of a Bristol mayor, I've rather enjoyed the last few days. It was a shame that Labour's Marvin Rees didn't get in but George Ferguson seems self-assured and I'm a big fan of the Tobacco Factory theatre that he helped to rejuvenate.

I didn't bother voting for a Police Commissioner. Cameron may be right that the role will become more accepted over time but I see no need for it. We have political oversight of our police forces and it seems redundant to bring in more. Further it risks foregrounding the Conservative's favoured topic of Government being tough on crime. It's bad enough that Labour have recently jumped on the bandwagon of making mindless moral denunciations of those who commit certain crimes (expenses fraud doesn't count) without politicising the issue further.

On a less serious note, I've recently discovered that there is mention of a gift of tennis balls in Shakespeare's Henry V. I find this both mind boggling and brilliant!

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

France moves towards legalising gay marriage

Congratulations Mr Hollande!

In other news, I was extremely glad to see Obama win his second term last night. I have heard people talk about disappointment after his early promise but I think any comparison with Bush shows that he is still the right man to govern the USA.

The last Republican President managed to start two major and unwinnable wars in the Middle East and Asia, which Blair for some reason went along with despite this necessitating lying to the entire British population. Obama, on the other hand, has started to clean up some of Bush's messes. He got most of the US troops out of Iraq and has announced an exit strategy for Afghanistan (which finally removes any remaining reasons for British presence in the country). To those who say that he is leaving the countries unstable I would say that there was little alternative once the (admittedly extremely unpleasant) precursor regimes had been eliminated for fairly inscrutable reasons. The blame should be on those who started the wars rather than those who have had to address their fundamental strategic flaws.

Obama may have been a little gung-ho about the killing of Osama while continuing to support the Saudi ruling classes that he stems from. However, I doubt that any Republican would have acted more consistently. Likewise, while Obama has sometimes seemed over eager to pander to the banks and corporation I have no allusions that the Republicans would have been less than ten times worse.

All in all a good result for America and its (long suffering) allies.

Sunday, 28 October 2012

Norway Foreign Minister on Arctic exploitation

I really hope that the translation process has made this guy seem more hard core than he is. He flatly denies the special status of the Arctic in environmental terms and pays lip service to the need to manage it carefully if we are to avoid complete global melt down.

Here are some of his more controversial statements:

"The exploitation of Arctic resources will happen. It has always been our key policy to make sure that the rules are clear, both on who owns what and on how to exploit resources. The Arctic is not special in legal terms; it is just an ocean. The area is of course ecologically vulnerable. But it is possible to have responsible drilling."

"whilst the Antarctic is a continent, the Arctic is an ocean. And it is governed by the law of the sea. It is an area of opportunity."

I can't say I'm reassured. If the Arctic is not special in legal terms then we should probably do something about making it so rather than allowing it to be casually taken over by corporate interests.  

Saturday, 27 October 2012

Kill! Maim! Burn! (... and be nice to Pirates)

This is brilliant. Small developer reacts with a conciliatory and far sighted attitude that sharply contrasts with the usual shrill cries of the larger entertainment corporations with their melodramatic claims that piracy is undermining their hugely profitable industry and funding all those dastardly terrorists we hear about.

I've been playing Miami Hotline a lot over the last couple of days. It's a bit buggy at present but the developers are quickly remedying this and even so it is very addictive. You'll either love or hate the trippy and inconsistent approach to the game's backing story. However, if you are prepared to stomach the incredible levels of violence you should have a good time. I've started to think of it as the unofficial game of Tarantino's films, since it strongly resembles Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill in mood and style

Saturday, 20 October 2012

Musings on Looper

So I went to see 'Looper' last night and generally enjoyed it. I was expecting something more like Inception - heavy on the special effects and dramatic in scope and scale. However, it had a far darker and more sedate setting which reminded me of 'Cold Mountain' or 'Children of Men' as often as it engaged in the typical Hollywood fare of gun fights and stock characters.

Below are some, slightly spoiler-y, aspects of the film that I enjoyed:

1) Firearms - While it was an unexpectedly violent and sometimes disturbing film the use of guns was handled especially well. They were clearly restricted to criminal institutions and the occasional private owner rather than being as ubiquitous as they often are in dystopian and anarchic settings. When used they were extremely deadly. The target was usually blown away with a single shot and there was none of the usual lack of realism where protagonists continue to run around and fight despite multiple bullet wounds.

2) Suspension of Disbelief - Like the aforementioned Inception, the film expected you to accept one big unfamiliar idea that lacked plausibility. In Inception this was the technology that allowed intrusions into dreamer's minds while in Looper it was the use of time travel to dispose of criminal rivals. However, if you could stomach this the film's logic was largely consistent. While usually a stickler for logic in films I think this worked quite well and allows some real novelty in the creation of an interesting world and coherent scenarios.

But, to digress - were they seriously trying to tell us that time travel was the only conceivable way to kill people illegally in the future and that this was the only use that could be found for time travel? Or that if this was the case it would be used exclusively by criminals rather than by other institutions or individuals that saw utility in making people disappear? Despite mention of a future ban on the technology there wasn't even any indication that illicit use was strenuously policed.    

3) The Future - I liked how little information we were given about the future society from which the Loopers and Abe had come. This allows lots of speculation and prevented the setting from slowing down the movie. All we got was Abe's suggestion, reluctantly accepted by the older Joe, that China was a better destination than France and a few scattered details of the Rainmaker's criminal activities.

However, reading between the lines we can see that society must have undergone a big change from the dystopia of the 2040s. It seems unlikely that the disorganised society that the younger Joe lives in could have got its act together to invent time travel or to have instituted such strong restraints on the disposal of murdered bodies. However, the existence of the Looper system suggests that high levels of organised crime are common to both periods.

4) Time Travel - While others have criticised it, I enjoyed Looper's uncomplicated approach to paradox in time travel.The mechanics never got explained in detail and the film itself poked fun at the difficulties of understanding it but doing so made for an especially fast moving and fluid plot that could focus on characters (the kid's acting was brilliant and Gordon-Levitt put in a very strong performance) rather than getting lost in the complexities of a shifting timeline.

Ruthless Culture stirs up a hornet's nest

Controversial piece on where Science Fiction lost its way is available at Ruthless Culture. Broadly, Jonathan McCalmont claims that the genre has abandoned political engagement and become too infused with fantasy elements. Increasingly it is written in an abstract and fantastical manner rather than having any drive to engage with real world problems or potential alternatives to capitalism. He ties this in with the lack of non-white, non-male authors and the opportunities that fantastic science fiction offers for air brushing inconvenient and embarrassing  events in the history of the imperialist West.

I would disagree with this characterisation of the state of play. Political meanings can be drawn from even the most abstract or unrealistic text and some of the examples he quotes (especially Iain Banks and China Mieville) make some very obvious political comments in their works. Whether or not they should be more politically assertive as public figures is a different question and does not reflect on the quality of their writing.

Still I won't attempt a detailled rebuttal or commentary here. Read the thought-provoking piece and have a gander at the number of prominent authors who have replied to challenge it!

Sunday, 14 October 2012

The dangers of mixing nuclear power and submarines

Maybe time for a rethink about the whole putting dangerous nuclear reactors in submarines idea? Germany and Japan have taken admirable steps in the direction of cutting down usage of civilian nuclear power but neither are nuclear states or are well known for their outgoing defence policies. If such prudent policies can be adopted in regards to civilian power use, which has the potential to be an economic and workable alternative to fossil fuels, then surely the US and British naval forces could give up the use of these submarines that simply allow for provocative militaristic posturing and risks environmental and diplomatic disaster?

Similarly the prevalence of the even more terrifying nuclear capable submarines is shown by this article in the American Naval War College Review journal which focusses on the ubiquity of such marine armaments in the deterrence policies of nuclear armed nations. A very interesting read about naval diplomacy between India and Pakistan, a simmering conflict that seems to have barely warranted any mainstream news coverage in recent years.

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Being funny about buggy games

I read this on Rock Paper Shotgun, which had a few good jokes. However, its main purpose was to remind me of this article:

.... which is one of the funniest pieces of online game journalism ever.

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Diary of a Space Age Bureaucrat Pt 3.6

 Zakalwe gasped as the fire sucked the last of the oxygen from the Sensor room. His skin was burned in several places and he didn't think he could stay upright for much longer. Flere was dead so he could expect no help. Still at least he had broadcast the mission logs to the Federation holdouts before abandoning the cockpit:

Things had started well. The Phlebus had arrived in an Engi sector and been instantly able to repair their hull damage at a mechanoid border Store, taking the time as well to sell the Fire Bombs that they no longer needed. However at their next jump they had come across a strong Rebel fighter. With three shields it had managed to wear down their hull and destroy valuable systems before they afflicted enough damage to cause it to surrender. Flere had become a casualty during the battle as a missile hit the corridor he was walking through on his way to the medical bay. The android had been sucked out of space with a silent scream. With the oxygen and medical bay down and fires in too many areas of the ship, Zakalwe had had little chance to single-handedly repair the damage.

He lapsed into unconsciousness as the last of the oxygen hissed out through a hull breach. It may have just been the light headedness but he could have sworn that a door had opened elsewhere on the ships. Perhaps a Rebel boarder had come to finish him off? It would be too much to hope that it could be a rescue mission – even in such a relatively safe area of space. Still, that was somebody else's problem. The captain knew no more as the Phlebus tumbled through the void, watched suspiciously by the crew of the battered Rebel rigger.    

(This is a game report taking a certain level of artistic license from the game 'FTL Faster than Light'. I'm flying a Zoltan cruiser, which I had the good fortune to unlock after only a couple of plays. Sad that this run had to come to an end but it didn't go too badly.)

Two lost pairs of Lederhosen and a scary Futurologist

Der Spiegel carries out an analysis of crime statistics during the Oktoberfest festivities. Somehow that is very, very German. Unfortunately violence and drunkenness seem to be up this year.

Why are technology worshippers always so politically naive? Not only does this guy get his dates wrong when he tries to do history - we had both telephones and automobiles by 1900, he also doesn't seem to have fully thought through many of his ideas:

1) "If you are a college student, you blink and you can see all the answers to the final examination by wearing your contact lenses. Artists will wave their hands in the air and create beautiful works of art. If you're an architect, you will see what you are creating and just move towers, two apartment buildings around as you construct things."

Works okay for the last two but if everybody has information at their finger tips why become a university student? Even for the others who is to say that modelling technology that advanced wouldn't turn everybody into an architect or an artist regardless of talent? Maybe he anticipates this but if so why does he not talk about the sociological changes it would bring?

2) We can get rid of death but overpopulation will not be a problem.

False analogy from current trends. There is a huge difference in the decision to not reproduce when we live for 80 years and resources are still finite and the same decision made by immortals who live in utopia. Also currently there is a large amount of cultural homogeneity in the developed world. Who can say whether other cultures would replicate the declining birth rate in a world of infinite resources.

3) "Eternal life does not violate the laws of physics"

Of course it does! Go off and read Isaac Asimov's 'The Last Question' you silly Futurologist!

Monday, 1 October 2012

Death of a great historian

Eric Hobsbawm has died earlier today at the age of 95. I'm sure most history students will have come across his brilliant books on the history of the Industrial Revolution and of the Twentieth century. Sad to see one of the last real Marxist intellectuals go -  especially one who was so eminently sensible and practical in his dissection of industrial developments that have so often been perceived through tinted lenses.

Sunday, 30 September 2012

Diary of a Space Age Bureaucrat Pt 3.5

 Deep fatigue had set in as Zakalwe made to leave the fifth sector. The flight from Federation space had not been easy and it seemed as if every new planet presented new enemies and challenges, threatening the long term success of their mission.

He hoped that Flere's running repairs were going well as he activated the latest log section for checking:

Jump 1 – Zakalwe had faced another easy choice as he decided to travel through a still resisting sector of Federation space rather than risking the Slug home worlds. His previous two meetings with Slugs had both led to their demise and he doubted the Phlebas would receive much of a welcome.

Jump 2 – Rebel incursions into this sector had obviously already begun as Zakalwe encountered an unshielded Rebel autoscout. He doubted it would be much of a challenge and two salvoes were indeed enough to take out the primitive craft.

Jump 3 – Another weak Rebel target appeared on the scanners as a lumbering transport hove into view. It dispatched two boarders to attack the Phlebas but luckily for the Federation crew they beamed back off before the transport blew up. Zakalwe managed to recover 40 Scrap and Flere's hacking skills revealed star charts and troop placements for the sector.

Jump 4 – The Phlebas stopped in at a Federation refuelling station. The owners were too beleaguered to offer supplies gratis but Zakalwe carried out minor repairs and stocked up on fuel and missiles. As an afterthought he also traded in his long range scanners for an automated reloader which would grant the ship better rapid fire capabilities.

Jump 5 – Although he had sold his scanners the captain of the Phlebas had made careful notes on their previous findings first. He suspected this distress signal would be a trap and turned out to be correct. The Pirate bomber turned out to be well armed and dangerous so the Federation ship charged its engines to flee and escaped without casualty.

Jump 6 – An empty sector proved perfect for running repairs. Zakalwe and Flere put out the fires in the computer room for Blast door control. They repaired the systems and then set off again.

Jump 7 – Zakalwe chanced that the advancing Rebels would be too slow to absorb a Store they had seen adverts for. He retraced his route but cursed as he saw that the Rebel fleet had moved forwards faster than he anticipated. The Store certainly wouldn't be serving Federation customers even if it remained operational.

Jump 8 – As the Phlebus entered orbit the crew noticed crackling distress signals from a nearby planet. Scanners indicated that a killer virus, possibly a biological weapon, had obliterated much of the biosphere. They quickly left to avoid any chance of infection.

Jump 9 – Zakalwe's luck held as they came across a triple shielded scout and were not attacked. With the weakened hull he feared the prospect of a fight and so was relieved that the scout's on-board AI was occupied with guarding a Rebel supply station.

Jump 10 – Such cowardice was rewarded as the Phlebus randomly came upon a supply train of small ships heading for the base. Laser fire rapidly disabled several of the craft and the crew came away with loot of 27 Scrap and a Small Bomb teleporter. Zakalwe mused on whether this would be more useful than their current Fire Bombs. It certainly required less power.

Jump 11 – The Phlebus reached the Exit sector and traded a stack of 12 useless Drone Pieces for a worthy 48 Scrap with a passing merchant ship.  

(This is a game report taking a certain level of artistic license from the game 'FTL Faster than Light'. I'm flying a Zoltan cruiser, which I had the good fortune to unlock after only a couple of plays. Again a mixed performance in this sector and I've taken a bit of lasting Hull damage but any Store in the next sector will be able to rectify that.)

Saturday, 29 September 2012

Diary of a Space Age Bureaucrat Pt 3.4

Zakalwe had been starting to become a little unbalanced as he piloted the Phlebus through vast swathes of space with no sentient company. The lack of oxygen in certain areas of the ship had probably contributed to his disorientation as had the endless hours spent carrying out repairs from damage that his understaffed ship had been unable to avoid. He was consequently overjoyed to have a new crew member even if he wasn't especially communicative.

He returned to his cabin with satisfaction and observed a brief moment of silence for Diziet's loss before he activated the archive computer:

Jump 1 – Zakalwe had not been happy with the prospects as he left the Engi system. His only paths lay through an Uncharted Nebula, sure to be full of plasma storms and pirates, or the Mantis home worlds. He opted for the latter as more likely to contain a few decent civilian stops. Luckily he was able to slip past Mantis border guards without any conflict.

Jump 2 - This streak of luck continued as he happened upon a sluggish Rebel transport that lacked heavy armament and seemed inclined to flee rather than fight. Two humans beamed aboard the Phlebus but the crew managed to delay them with blast doors while they finished off the transport and then used a timely oxygen vent to force a showdown in the medical bay. Once the boarders were dispatched the transport yielded a Fire Bomb launcher and 39 Scrap.

Jump 3 – The Mantis presence in the sector continued to be minimal as sensors detected no contacts.

Jump 4 – Zakalwe homed in on a distress beacon. A Mantis slave depot had erupted into rebellion and disease as a mind-altering virus spread through the enslaved Engi work force. Zakalwe suspected that this had been a desperate attempt by the slaves to escape from servitude but he reluctantly agreed to send in his crew to control the crowds. They were successful but an addled and hulking Engi exoskeleton managed to obliterate Diziet with a blow to the head. Zakalwe mourned her loss but there was little he could do to save her.

Jump 5 – Now alone, Zakalwe was horrified to find his way blocked by a triple-shielded Rebel fighter. He saw little chance of destroying the monstrosity and so resolved to hold out until the engine charged. Despite severe damage to oxygen, shields and guns he managed to get away but not before sustaining two major hull breaches.

Jump 6 – Zakalwe wiped his brow with relief as he found himself in an unoccupied zone of space. This was all the opportunity he needed to laboriously repair the damage that the Phlebus had sustained.

Jump 7 – Arriving at a store Zakalwe paid to repair his hull. He sold the Leto missile launcher. The trusty launcher had sentimental value but now he could save his missiles for use with his new as his new Fire bomb launcher. He also replenished the ship's empty stock of missiles.

Jump 8 – Engi slave labour seemed to support the economy of this sector. The Phlebus found itself in orbit around another massive slave mining complex. No wonder the Engi in the previous sector had been so sensitive about border infringements. Zakalwe avoided the colony sensors and jumped away as quickly as possible.

Jump 9 – Zakalwe dropped in at another Store in the hopes of finding some new crew to hire but none were available in the small business he located. He left without trading.

Jump 10 – The Phlebus doubled back on itself, returning to the first Store in order to head for the Exit sector.

Jump 11 – Finally Zakalwe's isolation was broken. He stopped off at another Mantis colony where insectoids on electronic mounts herded a race of horse like beings with striped orange fur. Zakalwe had never seen a reference to these aliens in Federation texts and decided that they must be native to the system. He approached a young specimen, which seemed to be gesturing for his attention with a clawed forelimb and it led him to a crashed but cloaked Engi pod. Inside was an escaped slave, Flere, who was as glad to get a ride away from his Mantis pursuers as Zakalwe was to have him onboard.

Evading Mantis patrols they set off for the next sector of the galaxy.

(This is a game report taking a certain level of artistic license from the game 'FTL Faster than Light'. I'm flying a Zoltan cruiser, which I had the good fortune to unlock after only a couple of plays. Again a mixed performance in this sector but the quick recovery of a second crew member will certainly prove useful.)     

Conspiracy theorists in the Middle East

The Republicans really are completely nuts.

Diary of a Space Age Bureaucrat Pt 3.3

 Zakalwe cursed as the Phlebus prepared to exit the third sector. His mistakes had not ruined their chances of survival but they meant that Horza was entombed in an Engi self repair pod and he was down a crew member even if the gunner managed to pull through and receive his new mechanical prosthetics before the Rebels took the sector.

He angrily stamped into the cockpit and spooled through the latest archive tape:

Jump 1 – Zakalwe had opted to follow the Engi scouts back to their home sector rather than chance a transit through Rebel space. The scouts had already cleared any hostiles at the entry point and the arrival of the Phlebus was unimpeded.

Jump 2 – The Phlebus came upon an Engi archaeological colony on an abandoned moon. The mechanical diggers had come across a Federation weapons cache and the Engi swiftly followed official guidelines in handing it over to the crew. Among the scrap was an outmoded Defence Drone. The Phlebus lacked the docking bays to launch it but it should fetch a good price.

Jump 3 - Zakalwe followed a distress signal and found an abandoned craft in a frozen asteroid field. 1 Missiles, 1 Drone Part and 30 Scrap were recovered from what turned out to have been a terminally unsuccessful pirate shuttle.

Jump 4 – Another distress call led to a Federation ship that had run out of fuel during its flight from the Rebels. Zakalwe gave them 3 Fuel from his large stockpiles and received a moderate cash payment. The two ships opted to split up in order to have a better chance of sneaking through enemy lines.

Jump 5 – Zakalwe groaned as another distress signal sounded. Obviously a lot of ships had suffered Rebel of Pirate attacks before the local Engi had taken charge. Diziet took charge and again succeeded in guiding a civilian ship through an asteroid field. The Phlebus took a few hits but received 4 Fuel and 35 Scrap as a reward.

Jump 6 – A Mantis craft angrily hailed the Phlebus as it arrived, “You'd better stay out of this” clicked the mandibles of the translator as his ship chased down a fleeing Engi craft. Horza didn't wait for Zakalwe's order before blowing the shields off the pursuing Mantis. He then switched to Halberd and missiles so Diziet could power three shields as they finished off the fighter. The Engi scientists were overjoyed at their lucky escape and rewarded the crew.

Jump 7 – Stopping off at an Engi store, Zakalwe purchased minor repairs and Long Range sensors with the scrap he gained from selling the archaeologists' Defence Drone.

Jump 8 – With every mission, Zakalwe knew, there came a point when you briefly lost focus and paid for it. The next two jumps would strongly reinforce this lesson. A Rebel fighter with two shields blocked their progress. As they engaged a human Rebel beamed abroad the Federation vessel and was engaged by Diziet and Horza. Preoccupied with directing weapons fire at the Rebel ship, Zakalwe delayed gaving the order for Horza to retreat to the medical bay. The Rebel raised his rifle and blasted Horza between the shoulder blades as the gunner tried to diengage. Diziet rushed in and finished off the intruder but Horza was too far gone and had to be put into a cryogenic chamber. The fight was won but this was the hardest blow yet for the Federation crew.

Jump 9 – As the Phlebus arrived they were hailed by an Engi ship. As they approached it activated its guns and scans indicated that it had been taken over by Mantis warriors. A Mantis beamed aboard and Diziet attacked it. Remembering his mistake against the previous Rebel, Zakalwe concentrated too much on this fight and while Diziet subdued the attacker with the help of some timely oxygen venting it was at the expense of the hull shielding. Zakalwe failed to notice that the Engi had a ship drone that was taking out missiles and wasted a significant number before realising his mistake. Further the Engi craft's accuracy in taking out the guns of the Phlebus meant that it took a long time to breach its developed shield system with burst laser fire. Further time was lost as the attempts of the crew to repair the guns consistently slowed their charging process. The Phlebus came through but its hull was in tatters and Zakalwe admitted that they had been lucky to survive.

Jump 10 – Smarting from the previous encounters the Phlebus arrived at another Engi store. Repairs were expensive but without them the Federation craft would have had little chance of survival. The crew reluctantly left Horza's corpse at the Engi facilities. The doctor-mechanics there were confident that they could reanimate him with the assistance of nanotechnology and artificial organs but feared that Rebel advances would force them to abandon their equipment before they could complete the process.

Jump 11 – The final stages of the journey through the sector provided anti-climatic. Zakalwe piloted the ship through populated and peaceful areas of space and opportunistically purchased 5 Fuel for one useless Drone Part.

Jump 12 – The offers in the Exit point proved less tempting and the Federation ship declined to purchase Fuel for Scrap.

(This is a game report taking a certain level of artistic license from the game 'FTL Faster than Light'. I'm flying a Zoltan cruiser, which I had the good fortune to unlock after only a couple of plays.This sector was certainly a set back but the prevalence of Stores meant it was not disastrous and I should be able to come back from it.)     

Friday, 28 September 2012

Diary of a Space Age Bureaucrat Pt 3.2

 Zakalwe heard the faint hum of the Engine charging sequence finishing as he carefully disattached a deactivated missile from its firing tube. He opened vox communication and ordered the space-suited crew of the Phlebus back to their ship. It was a pity these civilians hadn't made it but he couldn't conceal his satisfaction at having crossed another section without taking serious hull damage.

As he arrived back in the cruiser's cockpit and jettisoned his stuffy atmospheric helmet, he archived the second section of the mission log:

Jump 1 – Zakalwe had cursed as he had seen the strategic forecasts of Rebel movements. It seemed the Rebels had quickly encircled the Federation outpost, leaving him a choice between Rebel space and that held by their Pirate auxiliaries. He moodily decided to head for the Pirate sector as he figured it was more likely to be poorly guarded.

With damnable efficiency the Rebels had already blockaded this Entry point. A crewed Rebel rigger sounded alarms and instantly attacked the Phlebus. However, it proved little threat and Zakalwe rejected its surrender before destroying the craft.

Jump 2 – The Phlebus almost collided with a fast moving civilian ship as its engines powered down. A Slug interceptor was barrelling after the fleeing craft but quickly turned to attack the Federation ship. A quick scan of the interceptor's markings revealed that it was from the same clan as the arms dealers they had destroyed in the last sector. Slugs were notorious not only for telepathy but for bearing a grudge.

The Phlebus rolled out of firing range and took out the charging interceptor. Horza danced around the crew's lounge with glee as the civilian ship teleported over a surplus Burst Laser Mk 3. They would have to upgrade weapons systems to simultaneously fire it with the missiles but its high firing capacity and heavy damage would surely come in useful.

Jump 3 – The Phlebus dropped in at a Store located in the patched together bodies of several discarded shuttles. The Rastafarian owners hadn't managed to get oxygen working in all areas and after a cursory look at the goods the crew of the Phlebus left without buying anything. However, local mechanics were happy to assist in upgrading the craft's shields.

Jump 4 - The friendly Rastafarians directed the Phlebus to their sister station. Zion patrols kept the area clear of Pirates and while the Phlebus had no need for their offered repairs it made a convivial stopping point.

Jump 5 – Zakalwe took a gamble and headed into a nearby Nebula. An Autoscout guarding a Rebel space station was quickly despatched. The crew recovered 22 scrap from the drone but the station turned out to be mothballed and loot free.

Jump 6 – Going deeper into the Nebula the sensors disengaged and an eerie silence descended. However, no attackers emerged and the Phlebus moved on.

Jump 7 – Leaving the Nebula, the Phlebus took a detour to explore an Asteroid field. This proved profitable as an abandoned mining site yielded 21 scrap and a drone part. The Phlebus moored itself to the pithead and upgraded its power systems.

Jump 8 – The Asteroid field thickened and the shield impacts started to become dangerous. Zakalwe was just considering a judicious retreat when a Mantis fighter emerged from behind a rock and launched an attack run. Luckily it was not sufficiently shielded for such a perilous conflict. A Halberd blast, missile and asteroid collided with the Mantis simultaneously and blew out its shields and guns. Horza targeted its engine as it made to escape but asteroids ripped it apart before another missile could land.

Jump 9 – An Engi patrol immobilised the Phlebus with ion blasts. The crew scattered to combat station but some quick translation work by Diziet persuaded them that the Federation crew were not Pirates. The Engi freed the trapped craft and left to continue their sweep across the fringes of the sector.

Jump 10 – Zakalwe headed back into the Nebula for one last exploration. A hiding trader offered to exchange his drone parts for missiles but Zakalwe declined politely.

Jump 11 – Arriving at the sector exit the Phlebus again detected a Pirate ship pursuing a civilian craft. Zakalwe banked to intervene but a laser blast from the Zoltan fighter opened up its victim. The last of the ship's oxygen and surviving crew members were ejected into space.

The pre-ignited weapons of the Phlebus were sufficient to knock out the Zoltan energy shield in a single bombardment. The Pirates fought back but failed to breach the shield of the Phlebus before succumbing to Halberd fire. A loot of their ship recovered 2 Fuel, 1 Missile and 18 Scrap. A search of the mangled civilian ship revealed a further 1 Fuel, 2 Missiles and 12 Scrap. They retrieved the goods and then torched the gutted hulk.

(This is a game report taking a certain level of artistic license from the game 'FTL Faster than Light'. I'm flying a Zoltan cruiser, which I had the good fortune to unlock after only a couple of plays. I've not yet reached the boss or even the final sector but hopefully such a promising start bodes well)

Thursday, 27 September 2012

Diary of a Space Age Bureaucrat Pt 3.1 - See Rock Paper Shotgun for another game report. Extremely entertaining and with far more jokes about cats than you will find below. 

“That was almost too easy”, mouthed Zakalwe as the Zoltan cruiser Phlebus powered up its engine to travel to the next sector of the galaxy.

The Phlebus had set off from an outpost of the Federation just days before Rebel bombardment had obliterated the space station. The final electronic scream of the station A.I. had reached the fleeing ship as it powered engines for the first jump away from the encroaching fleet. Upon successfully completing that jump Zakalwe had started creating a mission log, ready for broadcast to Federation bolt holes if this, frankly, suicidal effort ended catastrophically. How did he always get into these situations?

He tapped a button on the console and skimmed through the tape in order to check for interference or audio corruption:

Jump 1 – Zakalwe had been fairly certain this would be an uncontested jump and he was not surprised. No enemies awaited the fleeing Phlebus.

Jump 2 – Pirates had responded quickly to the loss of the Federation base and had swooped in hoping for scraps. A Zoltan energy fighter covertly approached the cruising Phlebus and attempted to hack its engines. Horza responded with Halberd fire and, after venting a few rooms to put out fires, the fighter was brought down. Looting recovered a princely 6 Fuel and 22 Scrap. “That should come in useful” broadcast Zakalwe over the intercom to answering whoops from the gunner and shield technician Diziet.

Jump 3 – In answer to a distress call, the Phlebus pulled up beside a battered-looking Rock scout. Upon discovering that its navigation systems were out they agreed to guide it – then discovered that the destination was on the other side of the system.

Jump 4 – Another distress signal led to a small ship that was being ripped to pieces by asteroids. Diziet did what she could with the cruiser's shields but the Phlebus took a few hits as it manoeuvred through the belt. However, they were generously rewarded with 4 Fuel and 20 Scrap.

Jump 5 – A civilian abandoned in a lonely scientific space station operated a Store and the Phlebus responded to its repeating advertisements. 2 Missiles were purchased and some minor repairs made as the watchman prepared to abandon his station to the oncoming Rebels.

Jump 6 – Zakalwe winced as he piloted the ship into a Nebula. The sensor masking detritus would hinder pursuit but such regions could hide dangerous foes. True to expectations they were immediately met by a Rebel autoscout. Luckily it was unshielded and Horza blew it to pieces with a single volley even as it tried to flee.

Jump 7 – The Nebula continued to prove dangerous as the Phlebus ran into a manned Rebel rigger. A plasma storm drained power from the engines and forced the crew to disable the oxygen and healing unit in order to power shields and weapons. However, the crew's luck held good and they quickly finished the enemy before asphyxiation became an issue.

Jump 8 – Yet again the Nebula parted and revealed a hostile ship. Zakalwe could have avoided combat with the Slug weapons dealers but he saw no use in leaving them to provide arms to the rebels. The black market dealers showed little intelligence as they tried to flee despite the severe damage that had already been inflicted on their engines.

Jump 9 – Zakalwe left the Nebula and dropped off the Rock scout at its destination. In gratitude they offered to repair the undamaged hull of the Phlebus and sell some goods that the crew could not afford. Still Zakalwe could at least feel virtuous for his assistance to the friendly aliens.

Jump 10 – As the Phlebus headed for the sector exit point they were again cut off by a Rebel rigger. Putting pecuniary instincts before ideology their challenger offered to let them past for a toll. Zakalwe didn't have the scrap and even if he did he probably wouldn't have felt inclined to pay them.

The ensuing fight again proved swift although Horza abandoned his use of missiles after the rigger's independent defence drone shot down the first Leto fired. Fearing destruction the Rebels offered surrender and Zakalwe accepted. 4 Missiles, 1 Drone Part, 11 Scrap and a Weapon Pre-igniter was definitely enough to buy them a truce.

Jump 11 – The Phlebus reached the system exit and prepared to fly. An offer to sell their missiles for scrap was summarily dismissed. The holds were bursting with fuel and the hold was almost unscarred.

(This is a game report taking a certain level of artistic license from the game 'FTL Faster than Light'. I'm flying a Zoltan cruiser, which I had the good fortune to unlock after only a couple of plays. I've not yet reached the boss or even the final sector but hopefully such a promising start bodes well)

Thursday, 20 September 2012

Sudan through Chinese eyes

So apparently the BBC are now going to Chinese state television for their sources on Sudan business developments. I'm not sure whether to be worried or impressed that they are trusting enough to eavesdrop on authoritarian regimes for accurate information.

Sunday, 16 September 2012

Dr Who and the Phase-shifting Cyborg

So I'm enjoying how the new Dr Who series is shaping up:

Episode 1: Good twist and nice to see a take on the Daleks that isn't the usual Earth invasion or covert operation. However, Dalek asylum could have been so much more awesome. I was expecting an entertaining smorgasbord of gibbering sadists and nutty prophets rather than slightly beat up derelicts with an egg obsession and crackly voices.

Episode 2: Dinosaurs in space! Good although the talking robots were about as (un)funny as the Transformers characters they were ripping off. Mitchell and Webb surely could have been used to better effect.

Episode 3: A little underwhelming considering the awesome potential of a half-machine, alien bounty hunter taking on Eichmann II (I knew I recognised the metal-framed glasses from somewhere). The horse named Susan was pretty funny although the Doctor knowing horse (or baby or whale) is a joke that'd been done a million times. My main problem with this one was the stale underlying moral question. The 'Is it worth killing a few to save the many' question is a staple of science fiction and I like a bit more novelty in my Dr Who episodes. Intriguing that they didn't mention who the 'enemy' that the androids were created to destroy was though!

However, if it did tickle your fancy and you want to see similar themes handled better try 'A Dry Quiet War' by Tony Daniels. One of the best short science fiction stories I've read and, with the honourable exception of Firefly, the best blend of time travel, science fiction and western themes.

Saturday, 1 September 2012

Dark Knight Rises to biff dirty commies

So given the choice between dog-sitting and getting out of the house on Wednesday evening I went to see the latest Batman film.

It was OK but I found it a little disappointing, especially from such a great director as Christopher Nolan. Twenty years after the end of the Cold War and with the last communist insurgencies trundling on in Nepal, Peru and India and we are still worrying about the possibility of revolution (at the point of a nuclear bomb, no less).

Bane made a good nemesis and I liked the (slightly predictable) twists regarding the escape from the pit. However, Batman has always had the potential to seem like an especially right-wing superhero since his power is basically having a lot of money. Restoring the dead spectre of communism for another couple of smacks round the face reinforces such impressions and seems very contrived in terms of contemporary politics (even for a Batman movie).

There weren't many laughs and not much that was memorable about this film - with the honourable exception of the genius cameo by Cillian Murphy's Scarecrow as a resigned but sardonic people's judge in the style of Andrey Vyshinsky .

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Roma camp broken up

Just a suggestion here, Hollande and Martine David (Saint-Priest Mayor), but if there is a social problem and you do not know if your measures will have any effect you might want to refrain from uprooting families of a historically-mistreated minority.

Illegal camps of Roma aren't great and are an administrative nightmare but that doesn't mean they should be broken up on a whim with no provisions for the occupants.

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Surreal but fun

If you haven't played Warlock yet you should give it a try:

It lacks polish and sometimes drags a bit on the larger maps (which I can't stop selecting as they feel so damn epic).

However, nothing compares to seeing your broomstick-flying, combat rabbit killing a red dragon by nutting it. I haven't even downloaded the DLC yet and I dread to think what levels of surreality that will unlock.

Edit -And if that isn't weird enough for you why not try this insane debate simulator:

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Taiwan: Between the US and China

Disengaging From Taiwan – Should Washington Continue Its Alliance With Taipei?
Foreign Affairs, Vol 90, no 4.

In 'Misreading China's Intentions', Shyu-Tu Lee (President of the North America Taiwanese Professor's Association - just in case you were expecting neutrality) argues against Charles Glaser who has called for a drawing back of the US commitment to and arms trade with Taiwan.

Lee's arguments has a lot of holes to say the least. It is claimed that the rise of China poses grave challenges to US security. Among other things China keeps its currency low to promote exports and this has the consequence of creating a large trade deficit for the US. It may just be me but this isn't actually China's fault. While America can complain about China's manipulation of currency value it is not being forced to buy Chinese goods and is within its rights to stop or raise tariffs if it doesn't like the terms. At a time when America is relying on Chinese credit to help support its ailing economy it seems provocative to say the least to call Chinese economic development a risk to American security.

Lee also threatens that Glaser's policy could increase the chance of a nuclear attack on the American homeland. Correct me if I'm wrong but wouldn't this be incredibly counter-productive since a) America has a far bigger nuclear stockpile with which to retaliate and b) China is benefiting from the aforementioned trade deficit. Nuking your debtors does not make good business sense.

Finally Lee claims that once in control of Taiwan the Chinese would quickly turn South Korea and Japan into vassal states forcing a US retreat to Hawaii. Are people really still relying on the domino theory to make their points? Sheesh.

Of course I'm not saying that Taiwan should be left to fend for itself. No country should be allowed to engage in aggression against a sovereign rival based on 70 year old territorial claims. However, this article is frankly a piece of alarmist scaremongering that if credited would guarantee a rise in tensions between China and the USA.

Sunday, 12 August 2012

See how deep the rabbit hole goes .....

So in an earlier post I speculated about the meaning behind Macdonald's choice of 'Everybody wants to Rule the World' as the backing music for their Olympic advert. However, even more worrying information had recently come to light as I inspected this adorable video of Mo Farah and Usain Bolt celebrating their victory together.

So we now have two extremely recognisable athletes making Mo's recognisable victory sign. Which, to a suspicious and slightly unhinged mind, looks a little bit like the trademark 'M' of MacDonald's. Britons across the country are now associating that sign (and the food chain that spawned it) with the emotion of watching Mo storm home to his second gold medal.

Coincidence? I think not. Those sneaky corporate dogs.

Saturday, 11 August 2012

Olympics come to an end

So the Olympics will be wrapped up this weekend. I must confess that I had difficulty remaining interested for the whole two weeks despite a lot of initial enthusiasm. However, I'm very proud of our model tally. Coming a solid third is a distinct success for a tiny island off the coast of Europe. My uncle who lives in Hamburg says the Germans are spitting mad about British success and I can see why. Economically, politically, culturally there seems to be little special about us but we can still pull off a victory like this. [Ends patriotic gushing].

Also Bristol balloon fiesta this weekend. Anyone in the West Country should definitely come along to watch - it's always a great show!

[Edit] - And what a victory for Mo Farah this evening! His pacing was dynamite.

[Edit, Edit] - What this Olympic needed to sum it all up was a heavy weight Ukrainian boxer from Simferopol doing a celebratory Cossack dance around the ring. Thank you very much, Oleksandr Usyk!

Monday, 6 August 2012

Jokes for a capitalist world crisis

So McDonald's latest advert has Tears for Fears 'Everybody wants to rule the World' as the background music. Some might think this shows a certain lack of subtlety on the part of the giant multinational.

Also one of the lesser known facts about the current Eurocrisis. Two of the economies that are weathering the recession best and are continuing to grow are Poland and Albania. This should provoke some questions for all those scholars who have continually listed reasons for the inevitability of Western European dominance.

Globalisation may be a bit grimy but it has some amusing side effects.

Thursday, 2 August 2012

Don't feed the Orcs

Wow, this seems to have provoked a response! An American journalist takes the Olympic ceremony apart piece by piece and says what he thought about it. I wouldn't comment on this one if you paid me but I would really like to frame the comments section. An amazing amount of raw hostility condensed into a single thread (and with a much higher literacy than most Youtube comment threads!).

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

First golds for Team GB

Glad to see some golds for GB today. I've not really been following it, despite having a generally unproductive day of trying to work on my dissertation. However, I did see the men's rowing final. That was a really good race - I was jumping up and down when Britain pulled ahead of Germany but it wasn't meant to be. Still it could have been worse, we got the bronze and a lot of boats were catching up with us by the end.

I hope this means we can forget about the 'Chinese swimmer doping' story now. If that had happened to a British athlete we would have been tearing up the carpet and foaming at the mouth. People do beat their personal bests and there wasn't a shred of evidence that anything untoward had gone on. The Chinese athletes are under just as strict a testing regime as anyone else and they are putting on one hell of a show so far.

Still, what can you expect when you have that many news-hungry Journalists cooped up in one city. I'm just glad they're still finding time to cover Syria and haven't sidelined foreign news entirely.

Saturday, 28 July 2012

First day of the Olympics

Bit of a disappointment about the cycling, eh? I was quite amused by the commentators take on it though. They were trying to push the idea that the other countries strategy was to team up on Britain even though Spain were leading. Fair enough. Maybe they were. But it isn't in the rule book that teams have to stick to a standard strategy. If other countries did decide to marginalize Britain it was their choice to make. For Colombia, Kazakhstan and Norway it was a strategy that reaped rewards.

As for that bloody interviewer. If somebody asked me, 'So everybody was against Britain today weren't they?', after I'd won an exhausting cycling race I'd probably react with a similar level of incredulity to that poor Kazakh cyclist.

Olympic gag reel

I rather enjoyed it! Being Bristol-born it was nice to see Isambard Kingdom Brunel play such a big part in the proceedings. That even got a cheer from the mysteriously dull crowd at Millenium square. However, rather than having him quote Shakespeare I think one of his own quotations would have better summed up the proceedings: "Everyone around me seems mad, stark raving mad. The only course for a sane man is to keep out of the way and stay quiet." (NB Highly unreliable - can't find it on the Internet and don't remember my original source).

Glastonbury Tor turning into the Dark Satanic Mills was evocative if mawkish. I did like the treatment of the other kingdoms of the Isles too. They each got their own spiel before the event started (ending with a rugby victory? Really? Had none of the organisers heard of the Highland Games? Hurling? Gaelic football?). However, they were then forgotten in the highly suspect whizz through British history which seemed to bounce from 1918-1945-1964 with nary a hitch and no thought for inconvenient details like decolonisation or the secession of the Republic of Ireland.

Still in the end the Chinese Olympics had set a high standard for mass organisation. There was no way we could compete with that so nice to see something that was silly, eccentric and had Mr Bean in it. It certainly summed up Britain better than a lot of ceremonies might have.

Thursday, 12 July 2012

The purpose of the Jury

[Disclaimer - I am on Jury service at the moment but understandably I will not be breaking the confidentiality of my assigned trial in any way. I merely wish to communicate some general thoughts I've had about the utility and meaning of the Jury in general]

If there is one thing everybody knows about Juries it is that they are not allowed to communicate with others about the trial until after it is over. This is very understandable as they will be receiving information of great import in a confidential environment. This can, of course, be frustrating to those involved. Jury duty is often a once in a lifetime experience and there is a great temptation to discuss events with others to stress their novelty and importance.

But what are the practical effects of this enforced silence? The idea behind the rules is that unsanctioned conversation could affect Juror's thoughts on the trial. The people you discuss the case with are unlikely to be directly involved but will have their own biases and prejudices that they could easily or even accidentally implant in the mind of the Juror.

This means that the ideal Juror is isolated - a sort of self contained brain that listens and then reasons about what it has heard and seen. However, this ideal situation does not fit with modern psychology. No human is entirely rationalistic. Since Freud and (in a less coherent manner) before there has been an acknowledgement of the existence of the subconscious, which can massively influence our thoughts and actions.

Therefore, the Enlightenment view of an uninfluenced and independent Jury is a fiction. Everybody in the Jury seats has their own emotional and intellectual baggage that will influence their perception of the facts. Yet this doesn't make the Jury useless. In fact it may even make it more useful as a gauge of the mood and norms of society. The ban on individual conversations outside of the court stops specific influences from dominating but the experience gained from living in society is allowed to permeate the thoughts of the Jurors. Whether or not this is a good or bad thing (one can imagine that it could allow certain societal discriminations to take free reign) is up to the observer.

Saturday, 7 July 2012

Yasuni in trouble?

Interesting article on the attempt by Ecuador to prevent oil prospecting in environmentally sensitive areas in return for international financial support. I'm not sure exactly where I stand on this one. It is a bold move by Ecuador but similarly it is difficult to see crisis threatened Western governments and corporations going for such an untested scheme that is likely to offend so many vested interests.

Le Monde seem to be generally positive while aiming slight criticism at Ecuador's past political conduct and economic choices.

Friday, 29 June 2012

... and you're probably bored of this by now.

So I got the Dragon in Quest of the Wordsmith!

(Spoilers ahead)

I set up a veritable barricade to hold the Dragon while I got in my Tank. There was a Wall (tastefully Inked blue), a Fort and a Castle. I also used a Hole and Tar in the hope that it would slow it down. I launched a couple of assaults and lost a few minions but discovered that the Wall was invulnerable to fire and so skulked behind that in my Tank, healing health when I needed to. Finally, Death and the Dragon took each other out.

I used the G from Dragon to make a pet Giant and then looked for something else to do. I took a Spaceship and flew up as far as I could and then used a Yeti to clear out all of the Spiders and Webs in the cave.

By now it was nearly night and I was wondering what to do. I decided to sit in one place and make as many peaceful things as I could so that there would be a nice town to see in the morning. I made a Priest, Bard, Farm, Farmer, Field, Baby, Wasp, Eagle, Oak, Elm, Knight, Sheep, Cow, Crow and Goat. Unfortunately I then made a Skeleton. This did not play well with others. Being undead it kept on coming back to trash my little utopia. Eventually all the animals and people I had made were dead while the Knight and resurrecting Skeleton were fighting a brutal, pitch-black battle over the buildings and fields that remained.

Lovely bit of emergent game-play really. You know what they say about good intentions leading to hell?

Thursday, 28 June 2012

.... The saga continues

Still loving Quest of the Wordsmith, although I suspect I'm reaching the point of diminishing returns.

(Spoilers ahead)

It does have a habit of making some compelling narratives though. I just had a game where for the first time I survived until it got dark. I'd taken out most of the enemies that I'd meet and opened up the Crates in the Wreck. I was being satisfied that a combination of Laser and Norse henchman had enabled me to take out the Trolls for the first time. I was finely kitted out in a Kilt, Snorkel and High Heels.

I decided to take on the Dragon. I went in to the castle with my Tank and sacrificed my Norse henchman in the battle against the Dragon. I went out and used up almost every food type I could think of to heal up my Tank and then discovered it couldn't get back through the Castle doors.

I then went in and used a Bat, Priest, Crab, Yeti and Lion against the Dragon and was forced to flee each time. Finally I summoned a Stork. This drew out the Dragon as it attacked the infinite supply of Babies produced. However, firing my Laser into the darkness while scampering for the exit when my health got low could only go on so long and eventually it shot me down.

Thinking back I probably should have placed a Fire so I could easily find the exit. Ho hum. Maybe next time.

Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Spelling game of awesomeness

... and something's come up.

Quest of the Wordsmith

Read about it here:

Play it here:

I'm no where near finishing everything I can see to do in the courtesy demo. However, I did just kill a Baby - which must count for something, surely?

Sick and rambling

Urgh, touch of flu and now I think my left ear is hearing a faint ringing noise from another dimension.

Anyway apologies for not posting anything in a while - Uni and work have been hectic. I'm sure something interesting will be along soon. It may even include the Irish-American Dynamite Skunk.

Thursday, 3 May 2012

Griffin - an embarrassment to the nation.

"Mr President, the explosion at Chernobyl was a disaster, but let us keep it in perspective: 64 people were killed by Chernobyl radiation over 23 years, and it caused an unknown proportion of 6000 cases of thyroid cancer. These are tragic figures but they pale into insignificance compared to the death toll on our roads. Yet, while no one is using road traffic accidents to campaign to ban the motor car, a small army of leftists is using Chernobyl to push for an end to nuclear power.
I do not doubt that they mean well but the road to hell is paved with good intentions. The same people meant well when they helped to create the biofuels rush, pushing the price of food beyond the reach of the world’s poor. Tonight millions of children will go to bed slowly dying of hunger because people on that side of the House meant well: that is what the fuzzy ideals of the Utopian left do in the real world.
The impact of a nuclear ban would be even worse because the alternative to nuclear power is not wind farms and solar panels. In our energy-scarce, post-peak oil world, the alternative to reactors is mass starvation." 

Nick Griffin, speaking at the debate on Nuclear Safety 25 years after Chernobyl

Is this really the sort of person we want speaking on our behalf in Europe? It sounds like the rants you hear in a Wetherspoons at 4pm on a Wednesday afternoon. This is a serious issue and having some clown trying to score cheap political points on a British platform is just degrading.  

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

SCP Creepiness

I've recently got back into this website after losing track of it for a while. Definitely worth a browse - some of the entries are very well written and thought out although you have to sort through some dross to get there.

Anyway once you've read a few try this. A free alpha game based on some of the scarier ideas from the site. I've recently completed Amnesia: The Dark Descent (Only two or three of the multiple endings depending how you count it, no spoilers please!) but this really made my hair stand on end. Something about the simplicity of it and the unremitting ordinariness of 95% of the play time I think (along with the suspense from knowing some of the scarier things on the site).

My first play I noticed nothing unusual until floor 14. Then a strange Cheshire cat grin in red and orange appeared from the darkness. 'That wasn't too scary' I thought and went on. Floor 19 was the first really scary thing, as I arrived at the bottom of the stair case a sort of white and black mime creature appears and then disappears with a discordant note in the music. I back off, hyperventilate for a bit and then keep going. Finally on about Floor 23 I'm walking down an unremarkable corridor when a gong goes off and everything goes pitch black. The lights come on but I don't see the enemy before it finishes me off. Red screen. Chills.