Tuesday, September 25, 2012

In which I defend a conservative

So it transpires that an angry and tired conservative whip may have sworn at police officers when they wouldn't let him cycle through the main gate, as he was accustomed to. Upon being accused of such an action, he apologised for his manner, but claimed that the exact words attributed to him were not those he used.

Now, as many of you may be aware, I am not a huge fan of the conservative party, and am not usually inclined to defend them, but if we are to call out their behaviour, perhaps we should pick on more egregious examples? Which one of us haven't been frustrated with people in positions of authority being (we feel) over judicious in the application of their duty. Which of us haven't, when tired and frustrated, snapped at someone we shouldn't have.

He has, in fact, apologised for his behaviour. I also don't really care about what language he used, and whether he said pleb or not. I think in the heat of the moment we might all say things which we might regret, and I'm not sure being a snob should deny one office as head whip.

There is, of course, an actual issue, which is why this story hasn't quite gone away, and that is that he has denied saying pleb, while the officers have insisted that he has said so. If he has persistently lied about the language he has used, then there is an issue there, although I'm not entirely sure how we are meant to establish the facts of the matter. It would not be the first time police officers have lied, nor a politician, so we shall see how that plays out.

One final note. Twitter points out examples of people who have been jailed for swearing at police officers. To me at least, this is an argument for legal reform in that instance, rather than continuing an injustice by jailing the politician.

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Monday, September 24, 2012

Doctor who and the power of the sonic screwdriver

So I seem to be against the critical consensus in much prefering the second and third episodes of Dr Who so far.

Lets look at them a little. Dinosaurs on a spaceship is a good old fashioned romp. Its not an episode where we really need to worry too much about the lives of our protaganists and just enjoy the ride. The dialogue is mostly frothy and fun, and the central premise actually mostly works: a defenceless ark is taken control of by a profiteer. Also, the peril is resolved in a reasonable manner. While the robots are beaten by judicious screwdriver application, it happens after the dr has already encountered them, and its been repeatedly set up that they aren't terribly competent. The Dr then puts the homing device on the spaceship inside the spaceship, and leaves the missile to track it. This is actually a reasonably clever way to solve the problem the characters faced without pulling the solution from absolutely nowhere. Also, all the characters have something to do.

The western episode is all about a moral dilemma, and the doctor becoming too hard. It presents a slightly ambiguous character, and mostly follows the characters deciding whether to sacrifice themselves, ending with him making the decision to end the circle himself. Not a bad bit of musing on revenge and morality, and some good Who. Yes, the gunfight where the doctor used sonic was a bit annoying (at least set up the cyborgs sensitivity to sonic maybe?), but wasn't too plot critical: its implied that the cyborg probably wouldn't have shot the doctor anyway.

Now to the power of three. The concept itself is clever: a slow invasion which draws attention to itself, forcing the doctor to ground himself and examine his relationship with his companions. All fine, or fine enough anyway. But the overarching plot is nonsensical, and obviously nonsensical.

So it transpires that these cubes are there to scan humans, work out their weakness and then kill them. They've been sent by some galactic pest controllers to wipe out life, and are sent out from seven bases across the planet. They do this via giving each human a heart attack. Right.

So, first things first, we currently possess the weapons to eliminate all human life on this planet ourselves. We invented them 60 years ago, so I should imagine that any alien who can teleport stuff on to the earth undetectably could just teleport multiple nuclear weapons too. There is absolutely no explanation why this doesn't happen.

So lets suppose this is just the bad guys standard method which is designed to protect against a more well defended race. Why did they send enough cubes to kill a third of the population? Why not send more?

But ok, the plan would have worked, and the humans couldn't have stopped it (despite the helpful message to dispose of the cubes. Considering they'd spent the last half hour attacking every human on earth, I'd imagine that that wouldn't be a huge issue).

So the doctor works out where a transmission base is, and gets onboard. Already, we know that two droidy things are guarding it, and that they've already defeated Rory and his father. What will they do to the Doctor? Nothing, as it turns out, but there is something else, firing lasers at the doctor! How will the doctor get past the laser firing hologram? By waiting until it stops firing, apparently, and then explains its motives and plans, and then vanishes, leaving the doctor complete access to their systems. WHY? Surely this isn't the first time people have found the transmission centres? Especially as apparently the method of killing can be undone by pressing the reverse button, which is basically what the doctor does!

Even worse, for an episode which tells us that a cube means the power of three, the companions are absolutely not needed here. All that was needed was for the doctor to walk up, wave his magic wand, and the bad guys will give up. Its pathetic.

Sometimes writers for Doctor Who seem to believe that science fiction gets them out of coherent plotting, but it really doesn't. A solution which comes from a magic wand rather than a character ingenuity, or perseverence, or sacrifice, simply won't work with the audience. It can be done right: for instance, in the Master's first appearance in Dr who, we discover he has used psychic beacons to control the population, setting up the Dr turning that on him. The solution was there all along, and theres the lovely mislead of the Master believing that it will be a weapon.

Hide the solution in plain sight, and the audience will feel rewarded when it is revealed. I really think that that screwdriver really, really needs to get broken some time soon, to force the writers to actually think about how to drive their story forwards.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Simon Jenkins

I have complained about Jenkins in the past, he is a man who has been so wrong headed on certain issues that he honestly shouldn't be in a position to write a major newspaper column. I certainly wouldn't be happy about employing someone who was an HIV/AIDS denialist.

But as he is here, he occasionally speaks some sense. The only thing is, his articles are often constructed on half truths. Read this article. A shocking story no? A judge sentences a woman to prison for 4 years for a late term abortion, an act of desperation and panic. Worse yet, we discover that other women have been imprisoned for shoplifting and drug muling. Surely something is wrong here!

Hmm. Then read the comments, which point out that this late term abortion was at 39 weeks. Its a pretty extreme view of being pro-choice that thinks a 39 week old foetus isn't basically a human being at this point. Yes, maybe the punishment was still to harsh, but thats surely an example of the legal system. Its simply actively misleading to write an entire article on this subject without mentioning that what the mother did was basically infanticide. Perhaps Simon Jenkins is arguing that infanticide should not be punished that harshly, but that is not clear in the text.

Another point, well made, below the line, is that there is no evidence in the article that men are not punished for the list of crimes women are in prison for. Do men get off for similar crimes? Maybe, but theres no evidence at all presented in the article. To justify the claims of judicial machismo one actually does require evidence, but Jenkins and evidence have sadly often been loosely connected.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Doctor who and the flucuating pacifism

I rather enjoyed saturday's episode of Dr who. As a simple high concept idea, it was well thought out: an essentially pacifisfic ark built by the Silurians when they believed Earth life was doomed, taken advantage of by an unscrupulous profiteer. Splendidly the threat was rather small scale: the only lives at risk were those of the dinosaurs, and the drama is the Doctor being appalled at the loss of any life (although, y'know, dude does have a time machine. If he wanted to preserve the dinos it wouldn't be that hard...). The solution even mostly worked, although the Doctor's defeat of the robots was a bit techno babble (wave the magic wand and they break!)

Still, a reasonably plotted episode with some fun performances. Then theres the touch at the end where the Doctor decides to let the odious profiteer perish. That... seemed dark. I guess what bugs me about that choice is not that its not one the doctor might make, but that its not clear what his motives are. Some of this stems from the Doctor being an enigma, but some stems from poor writing.

Looking back to Tennant, the same Doctor who killed an alien in a sword fight, and left the family of blood in eternal tourment, then lectured Martha for joining Unit, an organisation designed to defend earth. There are certain episodes where not only will the doctor not kill, he'll go out of his way to stop others, and there are other episodes where he will utterly annihilate large parts of an enemy race (random Matt Smith example, he blows up a whole bunch of cyber ships just to prove a point!). The Doctor's been along time, and we can't really expect the Doctor now to be conistent with the Doctor played by Tom Baker, but it'd be nice if he could be consistent in one incarnation..

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Legalise cannabis already

This story really underlines the madness in our current approach to drugs. As basically every commenter below the line says, if you legalise pot then suddenly you remove the violence. I imagine there were those during prohibition who were arguing that making the penalties for selling alcohol worse would stop the violence.

Yes, there are obviously health risks for using cannabis, as there are for alcohol and tobacco. But prohibition clearly, demonstrably doesn't work. So legalise it already.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Cowards are bad. Courage is good.

So you might have heard about the judge who mentioned during his ruling that breaking into a house and mentioned that it must take courage to rob houses. This predictably caused a bit of a stir in the media, which led to David Cameron saying that burglars are cowards.

Now lets ignore for now the appropriateness of the judges comments and ruling (and, lets be fair, Cameron also made clear that you need to view a judges comments in full before making a full decision, which is true), and focus on Cameron's words. Burglars are cowards. Why are they cowards? What makes them cowards? Well, they're doing a bad thing, and cowards are bad, so they are cowards.

I don't actually blame Cameron for taking part in this demolishing of basic discourse, as to do otherwise would be politically unwise, but bad people can have "good qualities", just as good people can have "bad qualities". Courage is usually defined as to do something which makes one afraid for one reason or another, and cowardice is to refuse to do so.

If stealing from someone's home is something which could be fearful, and someone does so anyway, then they are displaying courage. Ignoring whether burglary is right or wrong (its wrong, btw, if you were wondering), it could be reasonably argued that its a pretty scary activity to partake in: there are many inherent risks after all.

Similarly, shortly after 9/11 Bill Maher made a statement to the effect that the terrorists who permitted said atrocity were not cowards. Again, this is likely to be true. To go through such an act requires a single mindedness focus that certainly isn't cowardice. But again, such an activity is utterly awful. History is littered with brave murderers. The mongol army was, by all accounts, pretty damn fearless, but I wouldn't want to hang out anywhere near them.

I think this stuff matters, because its too easy to point at someone, describe them by a word, and then write them off. People are more complicated than that, and can be described by any number of attributes. If we want to discourage people from stealing, and encourage them to choose a lawful course, then understanding clearly their motives for doing so might aid us in that. Thinking of them of cowards is a bad start to that.

Tuesday, September 04, 2012


It has emerged that the new lord chancellor does not hold legal qualifications, and is apparently the first such individual to do so. Hmm. There is a certain amount of disgust with this on twitter, and I do sort of share it, but after all, Osborne has absolutely no qualifications for being the chancellor (of the exchequer). I'm not convinced being elected by his local constituency counts as such (although I suppose the fact that he was shadow chancellor at the time of the election gives a certain degree of authority). Osborne has a degree in modern history from Oxford. No doubt he is in a position to discuss and argue eloquently on modern history, and there is no doubt that a grasp of modern history is useful in politics. Brown, incidentally, also had a degree and a phd in history.

So heres the thing. I am aware that both Brown and Osborne had and have available to them some of the finest economics advice available, and civil servants to guide them. But... well as the recession happened and Osborne insisted that the only way to cut the deficit was his way, the only real way I could judge this was via economists, many of whom did agree with Osborne, some of whom did not. I felt a little powerless to decry his moves to be honest, as, after all, while I have a good deal of mathematical knowledge, my economics training is very fundamental. How to pick between two shouting economists without a basic grasp of the issues? Well this is surely precisely the dilemma faced by both Brown and Osborne! Politicians cannot be expected to be fully educated on all the issues, and by all means they should take advice, but when their job is fundamentally technical they should maybe have some qualifications?

Ideally for any issue which is scientifically established one shouldn't need qualifications to determine the truth: given a well qualified biologist and a creationist to argue, provided you don't come in with your mind made up you should make the right choice. Of course a bit of scientific training will help a lot with even this most basic of distinctions, as such concepts as Occam's razor, which are second nature to most scientists, may not be immediately apparent to the uninitiated. And, of course, many issues in practice are much easier to obfuscate on. The economy, where two economists don't really seem to agree on anything, seems even more problematic to that regard.

It is common knowledge that many politicians lack basic science knowledge, with the arts drawing many more to politics than hard science, and this is an issue. There shouldn't be required qualifications for the house of commons other than convincing your peers that you will represent them. But government? Key roles requiring technical knowledge? Perhaps we might want to have qualified people taking those roles?

Monday, September 03, 2012

Dr who, asylum of the daleks review (spoilers)

Well. That could have been better, couldn't it? On the positive side, I think this is the first truly weak episode of Dr Who that Moffat has penned. Starting with the revelation of the divorce of Amy and Rory, apparently all is not well for the Ponds. Well, a bit out there as a plot twist, but I guess there is dramatic potential there, so I'd give it a pass. I do dislike off stage character development though, it feels a bit like cheating. It means the writer doesn't have to do the work of showing a relationship collapsing, he can just tell you that it has.

Then the plot itself. The daleks are back, and they kidnap the doctor and his companions (it is known that he needs them). Worthy of note here: the daleks now apparently have a fleet and power large enough to infiltrate earth.. why don't they blow it up? They've tried it multiple times. I guess the explanation is that the daleks do genuinely fear the doctor at this point. Rather than involving the doctor in an evil scheme, the daleks ask for his help.

This is a nice enough twist, but the reasons for it don't quite work. So there is a signal coming from the planet which is non-dalek in origin. This freaks the daleks out, because if something non-dalek got in, maybe it can get out? The planet is full of nutty daleks, so the slightly saner daleks don't really want to risk their hides by going down there. So they will compel the doctor to go sort out whatever is there, then turn off the forcefield so that the daleks can blow the planet up. Why would the doctor agree to this? Well the only way off the planet is with the forcefield off...

Wait a minute there. Wasn't the only reason they were sending the doctor down was they were afraid there was another way off? Why wouldn't the doctor just use that? Oh well, the speed of plotting almost gets us past this, and off the doctor and his companions are fired down to earth. There proceeds a bit of reasonably fun action adventure stuff. During this, we learn that organic entities that land will get converted into dalek zombie things, which are pretty cute and scary, and also meet the stranded lady, who.. urgh. I think Moffat has a bit of a problem writing women. Its not that he is traditionally misogynistic, but he tends to hero worship a little. Women are often vivacious and cute and perfect. Sometimes they are mothers. The worst moment was when the lady (yes, I've forgotten her name) reveals that her first crush was on a girl called Nina. She was going through a phase. Going through a phase.

Urgh. When Russel T Davies was running the series it became a bit of a joke as to how, at least later in the run, practically everyone they met were differently sexual in some manner. But its much worse than the inverse. Moffat's run as been a lot more hetronormative, and this is a great example. A woman suggests she might be gay or bisexual and then instantly dismisses it, using a phrase which has been used to oppress homosexuals and bisexuals for decades. It serves to make her a male fantasy rather than a person.

Sadly, we are not quite done with the gender issues. Amy has lost her anti-dalek bracelet, and is turning into a machine. The doctor runs off to save the day, and Rory has to keep Amy human. A bit of back and forth of bitter argument, and it is revealed that Amy kicked Rory out because she couldn't have children, and that she "gave him up". And then they get back together. Argh!

So many issues

1)Its really only in television that break ups tend to happen like this, with one big emotional choice, rather than a lot of small ones, with a large one to galvanise action.

2)Gender issues strike back, as Amy is so distraught because she can't have a child. This is technically fine, but its a bit out of the blue for a character who honestly hasn't seemed to greatly care about raising a family.

3)They get back together again. So Moffat breaks them up, out of the blue, and then puts them together at the end of the episode? Now I don't know how the rest of the series will go, so I hope that this will have more long term ramifications, but in the short time its deeply unsatisfying. There are things the doctor can't fix, and it would be nice to see that acknowledged.

Finally we discover that the lady is a dalek! Gasp. Well, gasp if you hadn't been paying attention. I was genuinely surprised by the number of people who were taken aback by this. After all, there are multiple signals given that this is the case throughout the episode.

So yeah, not a terribly constructed episode, some funny action bits, some good dialogue in places, and the idea of having the doctor wiped from the daleks memory is splendid, but all in all, could do better.

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