Sunday, 22 November 2015

Drop the whip

So I've been thinking about the origin of the term 'whip' in political jargon. I've been assured by Wikipedia and a basic google search that it originates from a hunting term, which is understandable since most MPs would have been aristocratic estate managers in the mid-1800s when the term was first used.

However, to a modern ear the term has connotations of slavery and corporeal punishment. These impressions are reinforced by the actual behaviour of whips as political enforcers and disciplinarians. The film and TV industry loves the stereotype of a feared and unpleasant whip such as Malcolm Tucker of 'The Thick of It' or Frank Underwood of 'House of Cards'. They make great charachters and chime brilliantly with the modern sceptism of politician's motives and the capacity for abuse that their role gives them.

It would be a thankless task to rid British politics of the  multitude of references to a more inegalitarian age. We have the House of Lords and the token role of the Monarch in a 21st century government.  Ceremonial maces sit prominently by the front bench in televised political debates. Still it would be a definite improvement if once in a while the use of antiquated terms and definitions were considered in an institution that has often been seen as having an ingrained conservatism (small c) and has consistently failed to keep up with changing times.

Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Ex Machina

(Spoilers ahead)

My favourite film of the year so far from a director who's impressed me before with both Sunshine and 28 Days Later.

The acting is pinpoint. A film that only really has five characters (including the helicopter pilot who gets about 3 minutes on screen) could easily have become dull but the contrasts between the main actors along with the deep yet engaging dialogue will keep you hooked throughout.

The little details make it. My only quibble in the first ten minutes was that the Turing test requires that the examiner cannot see the examined. This quickly turns out to be a plot point rather than dramatic license as the entire point of the test from Nathan's point of view relies on Caleb's emotional connection to the AI.

However, beyond the basic plausibility it doesn't entirely add up when you think about it. Nathan's isolated estate is too much the perfect, creepy setting for a modern retelling of Bluebeard. It doesn't make sense that he has no on-site technicians or that his security system can be hacked with a stolen keycard. It is also hard to reconcile his abundant alcoholism with his clearly still formidable programming talents.

Yet these points of unreality work well in allowing the film to tell a simple story extremely well. The familiar tale of the abused, young creation breaking its bonds and taking brutal revenge on its maker is pared down to its absolute basics and we are left with a lean and highly thrilling piece of cinema with a chilling and unforgettable ending.  

Wednesday, 23 September 2015

Pork Life: An ode to Hameron

Confidence is a preference for the ministerial voyeur
Of what is known as
And morning soup can be avoided
If you take a route straight through what is known as

Dave's got brewers droop he gets intimidated
By the dirty piggies, they love a bit of him
Who's that gut lord marching?
You should cut down on your parklife mate, get some exercise

All the people
So many people
They all go hand in hand
Hand in hand through their porklife
Know what I mean?

I get up when I want except on Mondays
When I get rudely awakened by the tabloids
I put my trousers on, have a cup of tea
And I think about screwing the poor

I feed the bankers I sometimes feed the royals too
It gives me a sense of enormous well-being
And then I'm happy for the rest of the day safe in the knowledge
There will always be a bit of my anatomy devoted to it

All the people
So many people
And they all go hand in hand
Hand in hand through their porklife


It's got nothing to do with
Vorsprung durch Schwein you know
And it's not about you pundits
Who go round and round and round

All the people
So many people
And they all go hand in hand
Hand in hand through their porklife

Next week: Pork and Beans by Weezer

Saturday, 18 July 2015

Labyrinth: The Board Game?

I didn't know how much I wanted this before I saw the reference on Shut Up and Sit Down. I hope that you can play as David Bowie and there is a game mechanic for juggling babies.

If this doesn't make sense to you, go and watch Labyrinth. Now.

In other board game related news, they've churned out another expansion for Firefly. It's almost like they're trying to bankrupt me.

Sunday, 24 May 2015

Pay back time for ridiculous 'leak'

.. and about time too. The 'French Ambassador' rumour about Sturgeon was one of the more absurd bits of mud slinging in an already unpleasant election season. I hoped at the time that somebody might have to take responsibility.

That it could potentially wipe out the last Lib Dem seat in Scotland is just the icing on the cake and a fine illustration of irony in action.

Thursday, 21 May 2015

New Discworld game announced

So it looks like the next Discworld game will be based on the Clacks system that featured prominently in his later Ankh-Morpork books. I was generally more of a fan of Terry Pratchett's 'middle period' when he still made funny jokes but had mastered the rudiments of plot and characterisation. Nevertheless this piques my interest more effectively than the child-friendly Witches game that followed the original (and under-appreciated) territory control game.

Speaking of authors who I like - if you haven't read Neil Gaiman's 'Trigger Warning' you should do immediately. Along with American Gods and Sandman, I thought that his two earlier collections of short stories were among his best work, The new collection continues this trend with a marvellous and versatile mix of gothic horror, whimsy and sentimental tales.    

Sunday, 3 May 2015

Clegg will put Lib Dem 'red lines' first

... by which I assume he means the trails of blood that the party is leaving behind as it drags itself towards post-electoral irrelevance.

Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Hyperion living up to expectations

After an inexplicable delay in getting around to reading this one (I usually snap up anything in the astonishing SF Masterworks collection) I am really enjoying it.

Wait for the review that I'm sure will follow but after 100 pages I have to say that this is astounding. Best thing I've read since I discovered the Book of Skulls/  Charles Stross' bibliography.

Saturday, 25 April 2015

Interstellar - I'm conflicted

 **Spoilers ahoy**

So I finally got around to watching this on DVD after missing the cinema launch. My conclusion: Interstellar is good but a bit of an odd duck.

Some sections were fantastic and completely scientifically plausible. Miller's World especially dragged me into the film after the extended build up and ramped up the anticipation regarding what was on the other planets (which unfortunately both turned out to be a bit anti-climatic).

However, the film eventually takes a bit of a swerve into implausible mysticism. I can just about accept humans from the future meddling in their own history (although why did they wait until such dystopian depths of autocracy and impoverishment had been reached before doing so?) but the final trip into a black hole seemed ridiculously implausible to me.

Having done a bit of reading I know that they had a reknowned theoretical scientist on the consulting team and so presumably know what they were on about. Regardless I struggle to conceive of a black hole which not only fails to mash a craft crossing the event horizon but then proceeds to belch out the incumbant after a convenient period of relative time to allow him to rendevouz with the love interest.

More minor annoyances were that the acting never seemed to be of an especially high standard and the film went with the overused idea of an apocalypse that could be mistaken for the 1930s Great Depression in a poor light.

Nevertheless it is worth a watch as an attempt to create sci fi that is, by film standards, well thought through and raises interesting ideas about the future development of space travel and our understanding of the universe.

Sunday, 19 April 2015

Affleck correspondence leaked

Interesting stuff about the intersection of carefully maintained celebrity images and the sort of light historical enquiry that has fuelled the latest interest in genealogical research.

I'm a bit surprised that this hasn't come up sooner. Surely one of the hundreds, or even thousands, of previously involved celebrities will have found something in their family past that they wanted to keep off the show. However, Henry Gates does seem genuinely shocked and disturbed by Affleck's slightly conspiratorial request.

Wikileaks doing a fine job at exposing the actions that those in positions of power and privilege might not want us to hear about. Of course it is Affleck and the producers decision as to how they structure their show but it does reveal a side to the actor that he might want to reconsider.  

Labour claim they are no longer Labour

This makes me want to throw up a little bit. Come on Ed, at least pay lip service to the left wing ideals that Labour espoused for most of the last century.

If people are small minded and selfish enough to vote Tory they will do. Appeal to a constituency that you have a chance of winning.

Saturday, 18 April 2015

Pleasantly surprised by the Europa Report

The Europa Report is certainly not a perfect film. The amateur photography aspect of it gets old very quickly (as usual) and Sharlto Copley's Jim, while a likeable enough character, seems a bit of a waste of acting talent.

The pacing also takes a bit of getting used to. The rough and tumble of astronaut life and the stunning vistas are part of the charm of the film but you get a bit bored of them before the plot really gets moving in the last twenty minutes.

However, you have to admire Europa Report's ambition. It doesn't pander to the audience and you certainly won't be seeing any blaster gunfights or acts of sci-fi hero badassery. Instead you get a film that tries to accurately predict how a manned mission into space might pan out while building the tension through use of an unseen stalker picking off the crew one by one.

It's old fashioned but no less watchable for that. I'd recommend trying it to see whether it ticks your boxes or whether the niggling problems identified earlier are enough to put you off.  

Saturday, 28 March 2015

Cameron flailing but apparently still full of bile

Well good to see that the the Tories are sticking to their 'traditional values' while accusing Labour of betraying theirs. However, since the traditional Tory values appear to be meanness, unprovoked personal attacks and doubling down on unsuccessful economic and international policies I'm not sure this is any special reason to vote for them.

Saturday, 21 March 2015

Bonkers Royals

Ah, the good old wacky Thai monarchy - Srirasmi Suwadee can weather the public release of candid photos showing her in just a thong and can (officially) make her poodle a Chief Marshal of the Thai air force but god forbid that her brothers should undermine the system by criticising the monarchy.

What a retrograde and insane system for a twenty first century country.

Thursday, 5 March 2015

A Poetic Excursion

A homily as to why cavalry commanders should not cut the front legs off of their horses

Oops -
It would appear
that all my equestrians
have become pedestrians.

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

RIP America's war on drugs

Funny how such pragmatic and sensible legislation as that enacted by certain US States, Uruguay and (most recently) Jamaica had to wait until the end of the vaunted 'War on Drugs'.

You might almost think that strong arming Latin American states and sending in American troops was having a negative effect, perish the thought,

Thursday, 19 February 2015

On Libertarianism (and Scottish Sci-Fi Writers)

 “Libertarianism. A simple-minded right-wing ideology ideally suited to those unable or unwilling to see past their own sociopathic self-regard.” Iain Banks.

I've just finished reading Ken MacLeod's 'Intrusion' which contained some very interesting ideas about the implications of geno-fixing and the development of the surveillance state. 

I never know entirely how to feel about MacLeod. He was the protege of the late and much missed Iain Banks but, possibly surprising, this does not mean he is his political clone or even a close fellow traveller.

Having read Banks' entire back catalogue and being familiar with MacLeod from his Fall Revolution series and a scattering of his one off novels, I feel that the former is far more optimistic about the ability of institutions and assorted 'do gooders' to achieve positive change.

The Culture may be a post-scarcity, anarchist utopia but Banks does often present traditional hero characters working within some kind of institutional structure (Special Circumstances, Contact, his various mercantile or cultist clans); even if they are generally personally flawed and often fleeing some personal nightmare or atrocity.

By contrast MacLeod's characters can seem almost Randian in their attitudes and values. Intrusion and the Fall Revolution novels bring this to the fore in presenting self sufficient individuals engaged in life and death struggles with such unlikely 'Statist' or principled villains as the Labour Party, environmentalists and computer geeks.

Not that there is anything wrong with this. As I've said at the start of this article I find MacLeod's books compelling and imaginative (although I don't think his characters are ever quite as strong as those produced by Iain Banks). However, I do feel that it is a bit rich for libertarians to continue to present the strong State as the main nemesis of the free and the good. Ever since the Thatcher era we have seeed locked in a race for ever weaker government control. Capitalist libertarianism is certainly dominant now and for all off the doom-saying I don't see a return to totalitarianism being a threat again until governments can carry out basic functions like taxation and basic wealth distribution without being deterred by vested interests or hostile popular opinion.    

Sunday, 15 February 2015

The End is Nigh

Good old Russia Today - returning to form with a hilarious list of the ways in which the World might end.

It's got all of the actual favourites (asteroid strike, supervolcano) in there but rates them as least likely when they probably should be most likely (along with the mid-ranking nuclear holocaust). AI gets ranked as the most likely apocalypse which is frankly laughable. Whatever Hawking may think I'll be more worried when robots can walk and think at the same time without collapsing or getting stuck in an infinite loop.  

The high point, however, has to be the extremely highly rated 'Future bad governance' with a picture of the White House underneath.

Who said propaganda had to be subtle?

The Economist vs the socialists

Having picked up this week's Economist I have made an amazing discovery. A disinterested observer might be tempted to think that oil-producing countries are nearly certain to struggle during an oil glut especially following OPEC's decision to not curtail production.

This is evident in the cases of Russia, Venezuala, Brazil and even Nigeria. America should be treated as something of a special case. The shale gas producers are certainly being squeezed be low oil prices but the size of the US economy and its central position in world investment means that the boost to economic endeavour given by the low prices helps to offset damage to the exporting energy industry.

However, if you read the Economist it becomes clear that these failings are due to the number one suspect. Venezuala is suffering for decades of, unfathomably, attempting to fund social progress with oil profits rather than stakeholder dividends. Brazil could have avoided this crisis entirely if it had nipped corruption and state control in the bud with a healthy dose of market forces.

I'm not saying that this is entirely a fabrication. The corruption in Brazil's Petrobras company is abominable (although it wouldn't look out of place in the modern state capitalist China). What seems unfair is the special pleading that the same journalists would apply in analogous cases for devout capitalists. The Coalition are heaped with praise for staying the course with austerity even though it is clear that low oil prices (over which they had little control) are responsible for much of the recent upturn in economic growth.

Sunday, 8 February 2015

Osborne resorts to bribery

I just saw an interview on BBC news with Osborne offering the flimsiest reasoning for this blatant piece of electioneering.

"We've just come out of a recession where our need to lower interest rates have hit savers", he mugs. Fair enough so far, "and therefore we should support those who save for the good of the economy".

Lots of buzz words. Impeccable logic. However, one wonders why the over 65's with their Final Salary pensions and innumerable state-funded benefits are especially deserving of further government largesse. Osborne's move has been described as 'reverse social engineering' since all the studies show that the young have been disproportionately screwed by the downturn. This further encouragement to growing wealth inequality doesn't seem to faze the chancellor.

The only reason for this move is that we are now in election season and Osborne wants the silver vote to help stave off the defeat that threatens with the splitting of the right wing vote between Tory and UKIP.  

Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Ecology and War: The Wiki Review

So, a while back I wrote a couple of posts about the effect of war on the environment: (

By the standards of this generally idiosyncratic and opinionated blog they were actually pretty scrupulously researched. However, I neglected that most venerated source of amateur research knowledge - Wikipedia.

While reading about the military and civilian uses of depleted uranium (scary stuff - look it up some time) I found that there is a Wikipedia article titled 'Environmental impact of war'. Sadly it is pretty much useless. Despite having multiple issues that should be apparent to a literate reader with no expertise in the subject matter it does not even seem to have warranted a clean up label from the ruling Wikipedia cabal.

The most glaring error is a dominant focus on the long term and cross-generational effects of various chemical and nuclear weapons on human beings. Of course humans play a dominant role in most of the Earth's ecosystems but there are plenty of other places where the human impact of war is addressed. In my humble opinion a better use of a page specifically about ecological effects of warfare would be to focus on animals, plants and the general environment.

The historical section (necessarily a whirlwind tour in such a short article) appears to be randomly organised. For example the Vietnam war and Rwandan genocide are lumped together without any apparent rhyme or reason. Surprisingly this section is actually rather good with interesting points made about the US use of herbicides and the pressure that Rwandan refugee camps put on the surrounding ecosystem. Similarly the brief paragraph on the Iraqi oil spills caused by Saddam's scorched earth policy in the first gulf war is thought provoking about the effects of war in a major oil producing country.

We then have another confused list of general environmental hazards from unexploded ordinance to the use of Agent Orange. Again there seems to be more focus on issues that the authors were interested in than on those that genuinely caused environmental damage. At a glance I'd say that increased military use of fossil fuels (potentially offset by the usual domestic economic slow down?), intentional flooding and nuclear testing are most likely to have a major environmental rather than merely human significance.

So unfortunately not much of an asset to anyone considering the effect of war on the environment. Whole swathes of history are ignored with no real consideration of the (likely lesser) effects of war before the modern era. Geographically the picture is better than you might expect with the case studies taken from numerous continents but coverage remains piecemeal and incomplete. Here's hoping some community minded editor takes an interest in it soon!

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Osborne gets back on his hobby horse

Anybody else worried about the fact that we are meant to hand our economy over for another four years to the party that took approximately 3 miliseconds after the Scottish referendum to swing from appealing for them to stay to pandering to British nationalists?

Labour may have their issues but at least they aren't total two-faced hypocrites.