Monday, 28 December 2009

Merry... Saturnalia? (lessons from history 3, festive edition)

or the ‘birthday of the unconquered sun’, normally referred to as Sol Invicta. December has always been a month of celebration. With the sun getting lower and lower there has always been a tendency to try to make sure the sun does actually come back. Plus it’s cold, dark and food is short, so a celebration is quite nice to keep everyone’s spirits up. Celebrating the winter solstice has long been a feature of human society.

Christmas is no different. The date of Christmas is supposed to be the date of Jesus’ birth, but this is probably not the case. Festivals in late December had long been a feature of the Roman world; in fact there were at least two of them.

The first one was called Saturnalia. It took place in late December and saw the exchange of gifts and the relaxing of formalities. In fact it was tradition to reverse social roles; the wealthy were expected to pay the rent for those who couldn’t afford it. Master and slave exchanged clothes, family households threw dice to decide who would play the role of family monarch. Overall, a rather Christmassy affair.

Saturnalia was originally a festival to celebrate the end of the autumn planting season. It came later and later as the years went on and the scale of the festivities also increased. By the birth of Jesus it was a two day festival around mid-December. A hundred years later it lasted for a week. Changes to the Roman calendar placed the festival at 25th December, around the date of the winter solstice. From the third century AD there were public banquets in celebration of Saturnalia. The authorities tried in vain to restrict the festivities. By the end of the first century however they had embraced the festival and emperors started using it as a tool to improve their own popularity by putting on typically lavish celebrations at their own expense.

Even with the conversion of the Roman Empire to Christianity in the fourth century, Saturnalia continued to be celebrated. The Roman Empire did not turn Christian overnight. The majority of the empire remained Pagan for years after the official religion became Christian.

The second contender for the Roman forerunner for Christmas is called the festival of dies natalis solis invicti It was not actually a roman festival to start with, but originated in Syria as a celebration of the God Mithras. Typically of the Roman Empire, the cult was soon assimilated into the Roman Parthenon. Celebrations of Sol Invicti took place on the 25th of December, the day after the winter solstice on the Julian calendar. It was first introduced to Rome in the late third century and took over many of the features of Saturnalia. Sol Invicti is linked with the monotheistic cult of Mithras, which strongly resembled Christianity and indeed many of the non-biblical catholic rituals; celebrating a festival on 25th December being one of them, derive from this cult.

When the Roman Empire became Christian in the fourth century, the new Christian religion had to be made to fit with current religious practices. Christianity was made more acceptable by simply not changing much for most people. This cynical pragmatism does not however indicate a lack of belief, simply an acceptance of the difficulties of imposing such a radical change on people.

Fear not though, there is some Jewish basis for having Jesus birthday on 25th December. In Judaism the time of a prophet’s death is often associated with the time of their conception, so if Jesus was conceived in late March, he would be born in late December.

Why am I telling you this you ask? Because I can and because knowledge is always good to have. It’s Christmas, so my gift to you all is something to impress family and friends with next year; knowledge of the roman origins of Christmas. All that remains is for me to wish you all a very happy Sol Invicti and hope that Santa gave you lots of pressies. Maybe next year I’ll talk about why Santa Clause is part of the Christmas festivities. Meanwhile, goodbye the 00’s next time I write it will be 2010. Isn’t that exciting?

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Dying Young

Again this week I am afraid that the news has let us down in that nothing of interest at all has happened. So I am continuing the project started here . Without further ado, my second challenge:

Dying Young. Write a fragment of a story about a character who is relatively young (under 40), who will die in a few years, but has no inkling of this. You, as author, do, though, and let that knowledge affect this brief story however it will affect the story. (500 words, again, a rough guide, this one is actually 544 words)

Richard strode into his office. He wore and Armani suit, a silk tie and the finest leather shoes. It was an ordinary day in the life of an extraordinary man.

Richard had grown up in Liverpool amid poverty and violence. His father beat him and his mother was unfaithful. He had gone to a shit school with shit teachers and shit pupils. According to the laws of nature Richard should have worked in a dead-end job all his life, married someone he didn’t love and had kids he didn’t want. But Richard did not believe in the laws of nature. He didn’t believe that man is a product of his environment, but that his environment is a product of man. He rejected the stereotype that all the shit pupils of his shit school with shit teachers had fallen unquestioningly inline with. You see Richard was clever. Despite the best efforts of his environment, Richard got good grades in school. His father had neither the money nor the will to send his genius son to university, so Richard set up his own business at the age of 18.

Ten years of brilliant entrepreneurship and cutthroat ruthlessness later, Richard was standing in his office at the top of a tower in Central London, a millionaire in his twenties and one of the most important businessmen in the country. His astronomic rise to wealth however had left the corpses of many businesses led by middle class, competent university graduates in his wake.

“Sir,” Richard’s secretary stood by the door.

“Yes Carol” he did not turn to talk to her.

“Your latest business acquisition is being blocked by the competition commission. They are afraid of you developing a monopoly.”

Richard sighed. “Do I look as if I care?” his voice retained some hints of his formerly strong scouse accent. “just bribe a few people at Whitehall and they’ll soon come round to my point of view.”

“They’re also afraid that your takeover will eliminate hundreds, if not thousands of jobs. They’re wondering whether you’ll be creating any new jobs to compensate.”

“Carol I am running a business not a fucking charity. If they’re good enough they can find a job elsewhere, if not then they don’t deserve it. I am taking over this business because I know I can turn a profit from it. I can do that because I can do things more efficiently than the moron who was running the company before. The current structure of the company is so bogged down with bureaucracy and inefficiency that it’s a wonder anything every gets done. I can cut costs by cutting out all the dead wood that exists. In doing that I am bound to reduce the number of jobs and hence reduce the payroll, in turn making my profit margins higher. So if the pen pushing do-gooders and red tape enthusiasts in Whitehall think I am going to create pointless jobs to give some thick dick from Birmingham a job when I don’t need him for anything, they have another thing coming.

“Now go get me my coffee.” Carol left silently.

Richard sat down on his leather backed chair and sighed. Meanwhile the cancer ate away at him, slowly bringing his cruel life to an end.

Monday, 14 December 2009

white lies

Earlier this week former Prime Minister Tony Blair admitted that he would have gone to war with Iraq even if he had known that there were no WMDs in the country. He said that he would have used different arguments to justify the war. Essentially Blair has admitted that he lied to the country in order to commit us to a war which he knew would be difficult to sell to a public who rightfully saw no direct link between Iraq and the 9/11 attacks, or indeed any actual threat from the regime.

In the build up to war, the main thrust of the arguments centred around the fear that Iraq was hiding Weapons of Mass Destruction which could be used against Britain at very short notice. In less than an hour, it was reported, Iraq could fire dangerous weapons at us. This claim was questioned at the time and now it has been shown to be little more than a convenient argument. It probably wasn’t true and even if it was, it was only a shallow justification, not the actual motivation for the war.

Blair said that the real reason for going to war was the removal of Sadam, who had, after all, used chemical weapons against his own people. I do not debate that Sadam’s regime was evil and deserved to be removed, but I was not aware that Britain still claimed to be a world police force. I thought our national ego had significantly deflated after we lost the empire. Apparently Blair still harboured delusions of grandeur about Britain’s place in the world. Delusions he clearly did not feel were shared given his refusal to be honest about his reasoning for the war.

If we were to follow Blair’s rather arrogant train of thought all the way to the end of the line, we would end up trying to justify war with just about half of the world. If Blair sees it as Britain’s job to remove oppressive dictatorships, we should probably think about attacking most of Africa. Robert Mugabe is just one of many dictators who are just as bad as Sadam was in 2003. How about the rest of the Middle East? Surely Iran and Saudi Arabia are just as bad as Iraq was. Perhaps the reason Blair didn’t go to war with either of those countries is that they might actually have WMDs.

Like a playground bully, Blair went to war with a country he knew he could defeat. He could make himself and his country (but mostly himself) look like a great, moral man who it willing to go to war in order to protect people and spread liberal western democracy. Whether the people wanted his protection or his democracy is up for debate.

We may of course be missing an elephant in the room here. Blair did not go to war with Iraq on his own; like a loyal dog, Blair followed Bush. I don’t know what Bush’s justification was, I’m not even sure Bush knows what his justification was. Either way Blair was not so much the playground bully as the sidekick who tries to look big and impressive by following the bully wherever he goes.

Whatever his motivation, what’s clear is this; Tony Blair lied to the public and the House of Commons in order to justify a war which would otherwise have been unjustifiable. It is highly doubtful that Blair would have been able to get the support of the Commons or the public without the scaremongering that accompanied the false assertions about WMDs. Blair’s lie has cost lives of hundreds of British soldiers, fighting for a cause which was unjust and unnecessary.

Blair’s confidence that the war was just and the removal of Sadam was for the good seems rather shallow. If he actually believed that his cause was just, why did he not use that to argue for the war, rather than hide behind the probably false assertion that Iraq had WMDs? One has to question whether or not this new claim is little more than another convenient argument to make Blair look like a moral man when actually he went to war for far more selfish reasons.

Sunday, 6 December 2009

Lessons from History 2

Earlier this week Barak Obama pledged a further 30,000 troops to the war in Afghanistan in the hope that this troop surge will have the same effect as a similar surge in Iraq last year. It won’t. The war in Afghanistan is not one that can be won by sheer force on numbers. Indeed I would debate whether the war in Afghanistan is winnable at all. Certainly when one looks to the history of Afghanistan, we see that every invader has come upon the same problems as the British and American troops are coming upon today.

We can go even as far back as Alexander the Great and still see similarities. Alexander invaded Afghanistan in 330 BC and, despite early success, was soon dragged into a long and arduous guerrilla war which claimed the lives of hundreds if not thousands of troops and led to Alexander himself receiving a near fatal wound. While Alexander’s powerful and experienced army was able to sweep away any opposition that stood in its way, it had a much harder time dealing with the guerrilla, hit-and-run tactics of the Afghan tribesmen. As soon as Alexander swept through Afghanistan, founding cities and replacing the Persian Satrap with his own governor, the locals fled to the hills. Strategic victories and the besieging of major cities was not enough to conquer Afghanistan for Alexander, nor was it enough for the British invaders over two millennia later.

In 1839 Afghanistan provided a neutral buffer between British controlled India and Russia, which was hostile to British control of the subcontinent. So when a Russian diplomat arrived in Kabul, fears of Afghanistan becoming a Russian Satellite state ignited. In a typical aggressive, imperialist move, an invasion of Afghanistan was ordered. British troops took Kabul in less that 8 months and installed a puppet ruler on the throne. Despite this they spent the next three years trying and failing to subdue the Afghan countryside before withdrawing, having achieved little apart from the loss of thousands of men. The British faced the same problems as Alexander; the Afghan tribesmen retreated to the hills and disappeared into countryside that they knew far better than the British. The invaders ended up trying and failing to fight an invisible enemy who could disappear as quickly as they could emerge unsuspected from the hills and wreak havoc on the British troops. This time however they were not only fuelled by a general distain for the invader, but a fierce nationalism fuelled by religious devotion, a devotion that would only become more prevalent in later invasions.

Little had changed in 1878, when Britain invaded again for similar motives. Again quick gains were made, with Jalalabad and Kandahar being subdued within a couple of months. A treaty was drawn up and it seems that the objectives have been achieved quickly and easily. However when the British ambassador was murdered, the war began again. A long guerrilla war was only adverted by installing a governor who was favoured by the tribesmen. For a change the second Afghan war was fought like a conventional war, with armies fighting each other, rather than elusive guerrillas. It is not surprising then that the British won. The aims of the war were not to conquer Afghanistan, but to achieve a limited set of objectives which would result in Afghanistan falling under the Empire’s sphere of interest, but not actually being ruled directly by Britain. Britain did not try to subdue the Afghan countryside because it recognised that it could not, instead it was content to install a friendly ruler and leave him to manage the Afghan tribesmen.

More recently, in 1979, the Soviets attempted an invasion of Afghanistan. It has been called ‘Russia’s Vietnam’. Russian troops very quickly took Kabul, but were drawn into a long guerrilla war against the Mujahideen, an extreme Muslim group who took to the hills and violently opposed the Russian invaders. Fuelled by religious fanaticism, the Mujahideen out fought the second most powerful military in the world. After using extreme measures to dispose of the Guerrillas, such as Napalm and poison gas, the Russians withdrew from Afghanistan, her face red with embarrassment at the failed war against such a minor power, despite the support of the ruling party.

History tells us then that wars in Afghanistan almost inevitably descent into vicious insurgency. The mountainous landscape of Afghanistan endears itself to hit and run tactics from locals who know the area far better than any invader could hope to. These tribesmen come not from major cities, but small towns and villages, scattered around the country and almost impossible to subdue. Strategic victories are a myth. Taking cities and establishing control over the political centres is pointless, opposition comes not from the ruling classes, but the fiercely independent tribesmen. Extremist Islam only serves to extenuate this problem; Islamic hatred towards western Christianity fuels the tribal hatred of invaders. In short an invasion of Afghanistan is doomed to failure.

Obama’s decision to pour more troops into Afghanistan then, when set against the context of the violent history of the country, is absurd. More troops on the ground are not going to be any better adept at flushing out the insurgents as the troops currently in the country. No amount of troops will ever be able to subdue the country because whenever an area is cleared to the Taliban, they wait until the troops have left and return from their hiding places. The tribesmen live in the villages, so all then need to do in order to melt away is to return to their homes. They then become no different from other civilians.

When set in its historical context, the invasion of Afghanistan was never going to be anything but a futile waste of life and resources. The war is unwinnable because Afghanistan is not like any normal theatre of war. Unless the tribesmen are in support of the invader, the invasion is bound to become a guerrilla war, which the invader will never win. Further proof that we do not learn the lessons of history.

Sunday, 29 November 2009

The Coma

As you may have noticed the news is pretty damn boring this week, so rather than my usual rant about something regarding current affair, I thought I’d try something a little different.

I have on occasion posted some creative writing of mine to this blog. I’ve always really enjoyed writing, but I’ve not really had the time to pursue my interests further. In light of that I decided that it would be fun and interesting to write some short stories and post them here. My problem in this regard is that I tend to set my sights too high, I want to write long books with detailed and complicated plots. I want to create original and complex characters. I want to do things that I can’t really do in the time I have available to me with my current busy life. I need to limit the scope of my writing in order to get any real satisfaction out of it, rather than having dozens of unfinished projects and interesting ideas that never get to become more than ideas. So I have decided to try to do a series of writing exercises from the internet designed to improve your writing skills and pose a challenge that I should be able to finish, rather then leave as a loose end.

With this in mind, my first challenge:

The Coma: Write from the point of view of a person in a coma. This is a permanent condition; the patient will not come out of the coma but still understands the outer world. The catch: voices of loved ones are familiar, even intimately familiar, but the comatose person cannot attach names to the voices. The coma patient has lost this capacity. (500 words – I’m taking this is a rough guide, not a strict limit, in fact the story below is 521 words long)

“Will he ever wake up doctor?” It was a man’s voice, confident, yet betraying hints of weariness. I recognised the voice, but I did not know where from.

“I sincerely doubt it.” I assumed that this voice was the doctor. It sounded youthful, yet irritatingly formal. Although the only sense left to me was my hearing, I could tell that the room was crackling with tension. “I’m sorry.” His tone was professional; he could think if nothing else to say.

There was a pause. I thought I heard the sound of weeping and gentle comforting, but it was too quite for me to pick up clearly. The whirr of the medical equipment dominated my hearing, making it hard to tell what else was going on.

“How long, doctor,” the first man spoke again. The familiarity of his voice nagged at me. “Until…” he could not get the words out. “Until he passes away?”

“His position is stable.” Again the tone was overly formal, unsympathetic. I wondered how long ago the doctor had been a mere student in medical school. “There is no reason to say that his life may go on… indefinitely.”

“So he could remain like this forever?” there was an incredulousness in his voice. I wondered exactly who this man was, and why I could remember his voice.

“As long as we continue to sustain him, in theory, yes.”

“And if we don’t ‘continue to sustain him’?”

“Then he will die.”

“So he is to spend the rest of his life attached to a machine, with tubes stuck down his throat to feed him?” he was getting agitated. “You see, Penelope, what kind of existence is that?” I decided that Penelope was the person who I thought I heard crying before.

“John, he’s your brother! How can you talk like that?” The new voice was obviously Penelope’s. She sounded distraught, her voice close to breaking. She had been crying.

“I’m just saying that it’s not much of an existence. That body, that empty, functionless shell is not the man you once loved.” His words made me angry; the realisation that I could do nothing about it only fuelled my rage.

Clearly his words had had the same effect on Penelope. “I can’t believe you could say that! How do you know that he’s not still alive in there? How do you know he can’t hear us?” her voice was tight with barely disguised tears.

“Doctor, can he hear us?” I willed desperately to say something, to do something to indicate that I could here them. My comatose body could do nothing but listen, powerless to contribute.

“As far as we are aware his mind has all but closed down completely, I doubt if he can even think, let alone hear anything.” I wanted to scream.

“You see Penelope; he’s nothing but a body. He’s an empty shell, a body, nothing more. Not the man you married anymore.”

I heard a door slam.

“I think we should consider turning off the life support machines. There’s no sense prolonging a life so devoid of meaning.” I screamed. And no one heard.

Sunday, 22 November 2009

Desert Bus, for the Children

I think I have mentioned, if only in passing, Loading Ready Run (LRR), a sketch comedy troupe from Victoria in Canada. They produce really excellent comedy which you should all go watch here. More importantly however this week they are doing one an incredibly charity event in the name of Child’s Play.

Child’s play is a charity set up by Gabe and Tycho of the webcomic Penny Arcade. It works across the globe, although mostly in the USA, to improve the lives of sick and injured children in hospitals by providing them with Toy and games. Not quite working to alleviate world poverty, but valuable work nonetheless. It’s been going since 2003 and has raised millions of dollars in that time thanks to the philanthropy of the gaming industry. In the last two years LRR have contributed over $80 000.

They have achieved this mostly through an event called Desert Bus for Hope (DBfH, sorry for all the acronyms and hyperlinks), which is happening for the third time in the coming days. DBfH is a gaming marathon whereby four members of the crew constantly play ostensibly the most boring video game every created, Desert Bus. Desert Bus simulates driving in a bus from Tuscan to Vagas and back, an 8 hour round trip along a perfectly straight road. The only thing that keeps the player involved is that the bus steers slightly to the right, forcing the player to continually correct it. The more the public donates to Child’s Play, the longer the crew plays this game. The donation needed per hour goes up each time, so as the marathon gets longer the amount needed to increase the length of the marathon increases. That being said last year they went for over five days and raised over $70 000.

Yesterday, at 6:20 PM (PST), or 2:20 AM (GMT) Desert Bus for Hope 3 started. Having been going for 18 hours already, they have so far raised almost $18 000 dollars. The aim of course is to beat last year’s total by a considerable amount. This is not possible however without the donations of ordinary people worldwide. As in previous years the even is being streamed live on Ustream here. You should all go and check it out, watch the stream for while, donate some money if you have any to spare and generally support the event. They auction off things and give challenges, so it’s well worth checking it out.

Again, please do support the event in any way you can, it’s a great way of forcing a group of Canadians to do your bidding in the name of charity if nothing else.

Sunday, 15 November 2009


Little under a month ago I got the new Flaming Lips album, Embryonic. You would have thought that I’d review it shortly after getting it, and I intended to, but I ran up against a problem. I really like the album, the problem is that I don’t know why. This is not so much a review then as me simply attempting to rationalise what it is about the album that appeals.

I am a really big fan of The Flaming Lips; I have said before that I think The Soft Bulletin is pure happiness condensed into musical form. The reason for my love of them is that they are experts at producing what, on the face of it, amount to pop songs; relatively short, catchy songs which are very radio friendly. These songs however are not the generic, meaningless and talentless dross one normally hears on the radio, they have a deeper musical and lyrical quality to them. They are also completely absurd. These guys have written rock operas about Pink Robots taking over the world, songs full of distorted drums and strange melodies, lyrics about superman and mad scientists. In short they are completely bat-shit loco. Together this means that The Flaming Lips have achieved something very special; their music would be just as at home reverberating around an office at Pitchfork HQ as it would be blasting out of a radio is some kitchen somewhere. They have taken all the pretension and experimentation of indie music and decided that they can do it while still having commercial viability and, more importantly, fun.

That is why I love albums like The Soft Bulletin; it is so packed full of bizarre brilliance and pretentious absurdity that you would think that it would get self indulgent, but it manages to stay away from that. It has some truly wonderful pop songs, like ‘Waiting for Superman’ and ‘A spoonful weighs a ton’. These songs and indeed this album can be understood on so many levels; they are great pop songs, they are also deep, experimental and wholly pretentious. I love it because I can listen to it in pretty much any mood. If I feel happy and want something to match my mood, then I can put the Soft Bulletin on, if I’m pissed off and need something absurd and completely off the wall to take my mind off something, then I can out The Soft Bulletin on as well. If I’m feeling all sophisticated and pretentious I can try to get all uppity about the deeper meanings and experimental genius while I make my way to the closest bridge and throw myself off it. I can literally put all my Flaming Lips (and I have a lot of it) on shuffle and listen to it for as long as I want. It never gets old or annoying. Sure I may crave another band for a time, but I know they are one of those bands that I can always fall back on when I’m at a loss as to what to listen to.

There is one exception to all this. Back in 1997 the Flaming Lips produced the most awful 4 disk mess called Zaireeka. The idea was to put 4 parts of the same set of songs onto 4 different disks, such that in order to actually listen to the album you had to play all 4 disks at the same time. What? What kind of substance do you have to be taking to make that seem like a good idea? I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to have to find 4 CD players, enlist 3 friends and get them all to press play at the same time before fully appreciate an album. I’ve no doubt that when put together you get some pretty decent music, but it’s like giving your fans the drum, guitar, bass and vocal tracks separately and asking them to mix it together for you. Actually it’s worse because having all the different parts to some songs would actually be pretty interesting. When you listen to the album as it comes, ie in four different CDs, it’s just lots of silence followed by occasional snippets of songs. In short, not very fun to listen to. Thankfully they had recovered from this bout of insanity in time for 1999, which brought the release of The Soft Bulletin. And all was well again.

The thing about Embryonic then, after a very long preamble, is that it most resembles Zaireeka in concept; it completely tears down all established conventions about song structure and lyrics. I’m used to lyrics being unclear, but even I still don’t have a clue what half the lyrics actually are unless I look in the lyric book provided with the album. There are no pop songs here; it is solid experimental, pretentious, structureless absurdity. No wonder Pitchfork gave it 9/10. This is the sort of music that I should hate. It represents all the ridiculousness of Indie music that I so ardently stand against. Even The Arcade Fire manage to produce albums full of songs as opposed to what feels like little more than a protracted jam session. It feels like someone shoved The Flaming Lips into a recording studio with a month’s supply of food and E and told them to come up with something. What lyrics there are flirt incoherently between Horoscopes, Evil, nature and The Machine. I should hate this album. And yet I love it.

For some reason, this mess of incoherent, unstructured, confused and wholly absurd excuses for songs appeals to me. It feels like Wayne Coyne (the front man) and co. have just snapped, refused to write any more songs that conform to expected conventions, no matter how sensible they are. Instead of creating an album as such they have simply poured their creative energy unchecked and formless onto a CD in the hope of creating a masterpiece and somehow they have managed it.

I didn’t know at the start of this blog what makes this album so good, and after much thought and many words I still don’t. I encourage you to buy the album because it is an experience that is unique. Few albums that I know of have managed to defy convention is such a stunningly successful way. Sure Rock Operas, concept albums and song which last the length of an album have all pushed the boundaries of conventions, but Embryonic crashes like a speeding train through these boundaries. They have gone so far past what is accepted that they have gone past the point were they can be dismissed as pretentious hipster onto a whole new level. Their album works because is simply refuses to half arse anything. Because of this they have gotten away with what would normally be considered artistic suicide. I’m not saying this album will redefine what is accepted because the very reason is it so outstanding is because it is so unacceptable. In short, it is an album that can only be made once.

Sunday, 8 November 2009

We Will Remember Them

On the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918 the guns fell silent on the western front and the First World War was over. It was called the War to End All Wars and I’m sure that the irony was not lost on those who fought on the same battlegrounds only a few decades later in a war that eclipsed even the Great War. The current conflicts around the world are testament to the fact that the Second World War was not the War to End All Wars either.

Thus, every eleventh of November we have a day of remembrance. But what are we remembering? I think the true meaning of this day is as layered as an onion; we can consider the end of the First World War, which is worthy of commemorating, but surely this is rather less poignant than it was when the veterans of the Great War were only a generation away. They seem to be in the distant past now. Almost no-one survives from the Great War today; while a tragedy it is a distant one.

Are we then remembering all of the great conflicts of the twentieth century? Two World Wars and countless other smaller but no less tragic wars that it would be too depressing to list. Should we add the genocide and ethnic cleansing into that list too? They are certainly worth remembering. But is this all? Is the scope of our mourning and contemplation restricted to one hundred years of slaughter?

Oughtn't we to cast our eyes back over the arc of history and reflect on the sheer brutality of our species? History is drenched in the blood of all those who have died. Ever since we have been building tools to aid our survival, at the same time we have been building more and more sophisticated ways of slaughtering one another. War is a constant theme of history and it can get depressing to flick through the history books and see the same destructive tendencies rearing their ugly heads again and again. At times it can seem that the history of mankind is little more than a history of conflict.

And for what? For what do we fight? Why has all this blood been shed? For what purpose? No doubt those who waged their wars had their reasons; greed maybe, or religious fervour, but the men who lived and died in the trenches in the First World War were not the causes of those conflicts; they were pawns. They chose to fight for their country and there is a lot of rhetoric around about their ultimate sacrifice, but many of the men who died were conscripts in the First World War. In many other wars the soldiers were misguided, press ganged or forced by sheer desperation to join the army and go and ‘fight for their country’.

What do these wars achieve? Territorial gain maybe, or wealth of another sort, perhaps in the form of loot. Materials benefit is no doubt wreaked for the victor, but wealth will do nothing to ease the suffering of those who have lost loved ones, or raise the countless dead from the ground. War can make the strong rich and the weak subservient, but it cannot deal out any form of justice. The victors of war have no right to pillage the wealth of the defeated; they had no right to attack them in the first place. Victory in war; or indeed any type of conflict, does not grant a right to the wealth of the defeated; might conveys no right to anything. War achieves nothing. War is futile.

However, can it be justified? Can the use of force against another human being ever me morally justifiable? Thus far I have not spoken directly of the victims of war. I have not spoken of those who have war forced upon them. Is it moral to fight back if the bully tries to steal your wealth? Yes. The use of force is justifiable under one condition: it is used to defend your rights. There are two key words here; ‘defend’ means that force is only just if it is a reaction to the instigation of force from another. The second is ‘your’, this means that you may only use force to defend yourself, your values and your rights. This is not to say that you should not help other people if they are the victims of force, but just as your own self-interest can and should benefit others, it is not your duty to step in on behalf of another.

If war can only be rationally justified if it is defensive, why is history littered with piles of bodies; the victims of countless conflicts? The answer is simply that doing what is right is hard and doing what is wrong is easy. It is very simple to get what you wish by bullying and forcing other to submit to you, especially is you are stronger than them. Similarly it is easy to cower and capitulate when the bullies come to rob you. It is much harder to get what you want by mutual agreement with someone who has what you want and is willing to trade it for something that you have and he wants. This is both more practical and more just. We can see from history that this is without a doubt the best way of gaining wealth; the societies that have engaged in trade rather than war have become far more prosperous than those what have engaged in war rather than trade.

So, what are we remembering on the eleventh of November? The end of the First World War? The conflict of the Twentieth Century as a whole? The entirety of all conflict throughout mankind’s history? All of them, perhaps. But the most important thing that we remember on this day, and the most important reason why we wear the poppy is the futility of war. The remembrance services that will go on tomorrow, the silences that will fall upon the world periodically all serve to remind us that our past is littered with mistakes. It is littered with people taking the easy road, not the right one. If you take anything away from the next week, take away the thought that if only we used reason and mutual consent, rather than force and compulsion, we might be able to lay the memory of the innumerable dead to rest and live in a world were we no longer trade in force, but in reason.

But until that day, we will remember them.

Sunday, 1 November 2009

More bloody holiday photos

If you didn't know, over the last week I have been in Mallorca. And true to form I am now going to show some photos from my holiday, because I have been completely detached from the world for the past weeks and have no news to comment on at all. So anyway, Mallorca has a decent amount of history, and as someone who really likes history, as in that's what I want to study at university, I made a point of visiting all the historical sites, or at least some of them. So in chronological order:
A pre-historical site made up of lots of rocks which formed the shape of rudimentary building. It was actually pretty dull because there was next to no information about it and pre-history actually kinda bores me... so, moving on.
Actually, there is something interesting about that. This fella up here is a slinger (well it's a statue of a slinger obviously). These slingers were famous throughout the Mediterranean for standing on a rock throwing rocks at people. Ok there's a little more to it that that, basically they were about to defend their islands right up until 123 BC. On the subject of...
There are Roman ruins. Now I'm interested. A place called Pol-lentia (yes that is a correct spelling), the Roman capital of The Balearic islands from about 123 BC, the year in which Consul Quintus Caecilius Metellus conquered the islands.
There are some houses, the remains of a forum and a theatre. It was pretty cool, if you're obsessed by ancient history like me. otherwise they're pretty cool rocks I guess.
The same town had some walls, some of which were Medieval. Not this section, but I don't think I got any decent photos of that. There was also this cool tower that seemed to serve no real purpose...
One feature of the island, being Christian and all, is churches, copious amounts of them, some of which were architecturally interesting. Here is one of them.
A much more interesting church was the cathedral in the capital, Palma. It is a really nice Gothic structure which you should all now admire. It is very cool despite the fact that it is a building constructed for the worship of idols. No! Stop! It is a valuable piece of architecture constructed for valuable religious and artistic reasons.
Also it has what is supposed to have the world's largest rose window, that round thing quite prominent on the end of that cathedral right there.
For those of you who do not like history or architecture then here are some nice photos of some other stuff.

Proper blog next week!!!

Saturday, 24 October 2009

Question Time

This Thursday evening BNP leader Nick Griffin appeared on the BBC’s Question Time, a show where a panel of five politicians or public figures face questions from an audience made up of ostensibly ordinary people. If you haven’t already seen it then I suggest you watch it on iplayer. If you’re not from the UK then I expect it’s on youtube by now. Obviously to get such a controversial and disliked figure on Question Time was somewhat of a coup for the BBC and I’m sure the viewing figures will reflect this. I certainly tuned into the show for the first time in a while. While I’ll discuss what actually happened on the program later, I want first discuss about the issue of whether or not Griffin should have been on Question Time at all.

In the week or so leading up to his appearance, many politicians expressed their concerns that the BNP should not be given such a mainstream platform from which to express their views. Peter Hain, the Welsh Secretary was the most outspoken critic of the decision by the BBC, saying that ‘you cannot treat the BNP like all the other parties.’ I would argue that we have to. Freedom of speech and democracy are values that are fundamental to our society, to deny the BNP a platform from which to speak would be to fly in the face of those values. We may rightly abhor Griffin and his party’s views, but we cannot stop them from expressing them. Similarly we cannot stop broadcasters like the BBC giving them a platform. Freedom of speech is not up for debate, it is not something we can choose to adhere to or not depending on who’s speaking; it is an absolute which is fundamental to civilised society. This not to say of course that we should give Griffin a free hand to say whatever he wants; it’s not like question time is a party political broadcast. The only way to show the BNP up for what they really are is to enter into open and frank debate with them, and this exactly what Question Time is for. To deny Griffin a place on the panel would be to try to sweep his vile policies under the carpet, rather than face them head on and challenge his sick assumptions. We cannot try to ignore Griffin because if we do that we allow his insidious ideas to fester, rather we must face him head on and show him that we reject absolutely all that he stands for.

I’m not going to claim that this was wholly achieved on Question Time on Thursday, but it did go some way to showing exactly how vile a man Nick Griffin is. The show was not without its problems; with a clearly hostile audience and even David Dimbleby, the host, at times unable to hide his bias, it occasionally descended into farce. I would not go as far as to say, as Griffin has said following the program, that it was a ‘lynch mob’, but the atmosphere was at times rather more hostile than I would have liked. Much as we might want to take our righteous indignation out on Griffin, we have to restrain ourselves or we lend credibility to the his cause. Dimbleby needed to be seen to be more impartial; he is the moderator of the discussion, it is not his part to take sides. Because he showed such clear bias it felt like the entirety of the show was out to get Griffin, rather than engage him in a proper debate.

That being said enough was done to make Griffin come out of the evening with a few very bloody scars. The absurdity of the BNP’s concept of an ‘indigenous Briton’ was shown up on several occasions and his statement that Winston Churchill would support the BNP where he still alive was made to look absurd time and time again. Griffin repeatedly contradicted himself and dodged awkward questions. He tried and failed to squirm and slime his way out of difficult situation, trying to apply empty phrases about ‘British, Christian values’ to everything. The other panellists were having nothing of if thankfully. Overall then Griffin was made to look like a fool. His racist policies were shown up for what they are; thoughtless bigotry. The embarrassment was not as total as many would have liked, but it did enough to mean that the BNP will have lost far more than they gained from this week.

Despite some problems, then, I think we can say that Peter Hain was wrong. We should allow extremist to have a voice, both because of the principle of free speech and because we need to publicly show extremist and hate based ideologies to be absurd. We cannot ignore them; we have to battle them head on in a civilised debate. While Dimbleby may have made the debate into a farce at times on Thursday, in principle what happened was exactly what should have happened. Griffin was made to look the fool and with any luck many more people country wide will be aware of just how absurd and hateful the BNP are.

Sunday, 18 October 2009


This summer the weather may not have been roasting, but I’m sure quite a few MPs must have been sweating like mad, wondering exactly what sort of punishment they would receive in light of the expenses scandal. This week they found out. Never one to miss an easy target, when the scandal first broke I joined every political commentator and amateur blogger in the country in condemning the MPs actions as morally decedent and calling for major parliamentary reforms. It may seem odd then that I actually intend to defend the MPs this week. While it sounds like I’m contradicting myself I assure you that I hope that is not the case.

The reason I am defending the MPs is that I think the punishment imposed is completely unjust and unreasonable. If you don’t know, Sir Thomas Legg, the man charged with deciding the punishment, has decided that the best way of doing this is retrospectively imposing arbitrary limits on what an MP is allowed to claim per week on certain things, like gardening for example. He’s wrong. Admittedly the problem was that the rules in place were so vague and malleable that is was quite easy for an MP to get away with claiming for something that was not so much an expense as a luxury, like a moat. This is a mistake that has been made and we cannot go back and try to correct that mistake, what we can do however is change the rules to make them less open to exploitation. I’m sure such a rule change is on its way and I welcome it, but to charge MPs for breaking rules that did not exist when they broke them is completely absurd.

It probably won’t support my argument to liken this to the Nuremburg trials, but that’s what I’m going to do. At the Nuremburg trial after the Second World War, lacking any actual international law under which to charge the Nazi War Criminals the United Nations created a set of human rights laws and charged the Nazis for breaking them. The problem of course being that the Nazis had broken the laws before they had even been created. As such they were not actually criminals until the laws were created, which was after the ‘crimes’ had taken place. In any normal circumstance the idea that you can be charged for breaking a law that did not exist when you committed the act would be absurd, I do not see how a special case makes it any less so.

This of course is not to say that I think the MPs were in the right when they abused the system, they should still be punished for what amounts to stealing from the taxpayer. This punishment however should not simply take the form of arbitrary limits imposed retrospectively on certain ‘expenses’. Many of the MPs who have been forced to pay back money were not actually corrupt in the same way that some others were; they were simply claiming what they saw they were entitled to. They may be been wrong in that gardening is not so much an expense as a luxury, but it was allowed under the old system and I doubt many MPs really had the time to go through their claims and decide what counted as an expense and what didn’t, that was the job of the parliamentary body charged with regulating the expenses. The real criminals here are the MPs who were actively exploiting the system for their own gain, having one partner claim one house as a second home and the other partner claim the other house as a second home for example. These are the corrupt ones who ought to be punished, not under arbitrary and false limits, but with the full weight of the law. What they have done amounts to theft and they should not just be forced simply to pay back the money but actually punished so as to make an example of them. They should be stripped of their parliamentary seat at the very least.

I suspect that the absurdity of Sir Legg’s punishment will pass by largely unnoticed, mainly because public opinion is so against the MPs on this issue that only a fool would dare to try to defend them. However I think what Sir Legg’s punishment represents is a worrying tendency to simply accept the punishments imposed on wrong doers without wondering whether the punishment itself is appropriate. We must not allow our righteous indignation at the conduct of some MPs to cloud our judgment; it is clear to me that the punishment is unjust and we cannot allow ourselves to accept unjust punishments even when the crime is so appalling. The laws and ruling made by those charged with administering them must be seen to be just or the very integrity of the system is flawed. Tempting thought it is to take our anger out on these MPs, we must ensure that we meet out punishment in such a way as to be fair and reasonable. We cannot allow ourselves to sink to the level of the criminal when we attempt to punish the criminal, or the punishment becomes a petty game of points scoring, rather that the administering of justice.

So this is not a volte-face, I still believe that the MPs are in the wrong and believe that they should be punished. However I think that the punishments imposed are wrong simply because they work on the laughable principle that rules can be backdated to punish people for crimes that were not crimes when they were committed. It is a cliché to say that two wrongs do not make a right and yet in this case the cliché rings very true. If we try to punish a criminal without retaining our own reference point of justice, we become little more than criminals ourselves.

Sunday, 11 October 2009

It's political correctness gone mad

I don’t watch Strictly Come Dancing because I have better things to do, like gouge my eyes out with shards of glass. If I did watch Strictly Come Dancing I would probably have been filled with indignation at the recent ‘racist’ comments uttered by Anton Du Beke, who said his dancing partner looked like a ‘paki’ after she had had some spray tan put on. Instead I am filled with scorn for the media explosion that this throw-away comment has caused.

Du Beke has of course apologised unreservedly and said that his comments were not intended to be offensive. His partner, Laila Rouass has accepted the apology. So now we can move on, yes? No? Apparently we now have to have a debate about what is appropriate to say on TV and whether we should use words which could potentially be offensive so some people.

Of course this is not one issue but two; what is appropriate for television and what language it is appropriate for us to use in our day to day lives. Let me put my cards on the table and say that I don’t think Du Beke’s comments were appropriate. He is a figure in the public eye, watched by millions countrywide. He should not be using sensitive language like ‘paki’. While he made the comment in jest, it is a word which has many unpleasant connotations. In the public eye a comments which is supposed to be interpreted as a joke made between two friends are taken out of context. When the camera start rolling nothing you say or do is private, which is what makes reality TV such terrible viewing.

This is not to say that offensive words should not be used on TV; most comedy shows would lose all their material for a start. But Strictly Come Dancing and other show like it are meant to be light, family entertainment, they are not meant to be scandalous or racy. Bruce Forsyth, the presenter of the show, defended Du Beke’s comments, saying that people should have a ‘sense of humour’ about these things. The problem is that Du Beke’s comments weren’t even funny; it’s the kind of crass, immature comment I would expect from a 5 year old.

Which doesn’t lead me on at all well to the second and most interesting issue; what language is appropriate in our personal lives? In a multicultural world in which awareness of different social, racial and national groups is greater than at any point in history surely we should watch what we say? Well that goes without saying, but that does not mean that we should remove words like ‘paki’ from our lives. What we have to be careful of is context and intent.

Of course comments specifically intended to be offensive to a certain racial or social group, or indeed any individual, are inappropriate and never justified. Similarly a throw away comment which may not be intended to be offensive, but is taken to be offensive is inappropriate and we must be careful of what we say. There is such thing however as offensisensitivity (actually that word is made up). Some comments are not supposed to be taken to be offensive and people who interpret throwaway comments made in jest as racism need to get their heads out of their backsides. I think what Forsyth means when he said ‘we need to have a sense of humour’ is that we need to stop getting offended at comments which are not supposed to be offensive and are not even potentially offensive to us. While he may have been wrong regarding the Du Beke issue, he is right that people need to stop being offended on behalf of other people. I doubt very much that many Pakistanis were all that offended by Du Beke’s comments, and yet a several hundred people complained about it. I would bet that most of these people were not from Pakistan.

Essentially what I’m trying to say is that we need to understand that most of the time, people get offended in contexts where comments were meant as jokes. The thing is, when we joke about racism, we are acknowledging that it is wrong and indeed that it is ridiculous. By trivialising racism it is made to look even more ridiculous and hence be discredited. Now I very much doubt Du Beke had this in mind, but that’s not the point. The point is that when people get indignant about throw away comments, it puts them closer to a par with actual racism, doing nothing to solve the problem, simply muddying the water.

Sunday, 4 October 2009

Nanananananananana batmaaaaaan

I have a great idea for a super villain. As a child his rich parent were murdered by a poor person. From this day on he hates the poor and the homeless and tries in his own sick and sadistic way to punish them for their collective crime against both himself and society as a whole. Having trained as a ninja, he returns to his home city to terrorise the local lower classes. Taking over his father company he uses his obscene wealth to lead a double lifestyle; playboy by day and vicious murderer of vagrants by night. He deploys his company’s wealth and arms manufacturing prowess to develop sophisticated equipment to help him on his deluded quest for vengeance. His main weapon however is fear. Turning his own childhood fear of bats against his perceived enemies he dresses up as a bat and terrorises the poor of his city, stalking the shadows, striking without being seen, swooping down on his unsuspecting victims and picking them off one my one. Who will stop the batman’s vendetta against the underprivileged?

I have of course, with some changes, just described to you one of the most well known superheroes ever created; Batman. The point, unless it wasn’t obvious, is that Batman is not exactly your archetypal virtuous superhero who fights crime and never puts a foot out of line. Put simply, Batman is a bastard. He runs around in the shadows beating up petty criminals and using the various gadgets on his utility belt to interfere with the plans of crime lords. He is not an ever-present demi-god who is so absurdly overpowered that he can completely stop all crime ever; he is a very rich guy trying with limited success to stop crime in one particular generic city in America somewhere. Batman makes villains fear him because he does not do the honourable thing by beating them in a fair fight; he sneaks up behind them and hits them over the head. This is because, were Batman to face up to a bunch of criminals with guns he would get shot several times before he could use his ninja training and belt full of gadgets. What makes Batman such a good superhero is that he is very human. Ok so he’s a pretty badass human with ninja training and loads of cool gear, but he’s still a human. It’s not like he’s juiced up on some radioactive bullshit that gives him special powers to fight crime.

Why, you may ask, am I blathering on about Batman? The answer to this question and actually the main topic for this week’s blog is the new Batman game that came out recently, Batman: Arkham Asylum.

The clever thing about the Batman universe is that they created this place called Arkham Asylum, a mental institute where they can lock up all their super-villains, allowing them to be reused. Batman doesn’t actually ever kill anyone; he just sends them off to Arkham so that when the writers need a new idea they can just break one of the old hands out for Batman to reel back in again.

Exactly such a thing has happened in the game; The Joker has broken out of the Asylum and reeked havoc on Gotham until Batman caught him to throw him back into Arkham. Inevitably it’s not that simple; the whole thing is a set up to get Batman locked up in Arkham with all the maniacs and a good helping of thugs to go with them. The perfect set up for a videogame.

Because it’s confined to Arkham Island the game is set in a fairly small location, so all the action takes place in a very limited area. This makes the game very tight, allowing it to tell a coherent and well paced story. The storyline is pretty well linear, although you are free to move around the Island as you please to complete all the side quests, which mostly constitute finding a load of random things scattered around the various buildings on the Island by The Riddler. By setting very deliberate and obvious limits on the scope of their story, the game developers have succeeded in making a very close-nit and coherent storyline, which really works well.

There is one massive issue with the storyline which really annoyed me. While the presence of Arkham Asylum means that you can reuse villains, it also means you can never reach any sort of closure. At the end of the game we are left with all the villains being put back where they belong, the status quo has been restored. The perfect set up for a sequel. In fact we are given one parting shot in the very final cut scene which more than suggests a sequel. Given the success of the game I expect that someone at Rocksteady games is already mulling over how they can spin the story out for another few hours. Open ended storylines where nothing is really achieved except the restoration of the status quo is not good writing.

The main problem any serious medium will have with Batman is that he is essentially a nutter running around in pyjamas and a cape. It’s very difficult to be dark and gritty when you have Batman running around fulfilling every child’s dream by dicking around on the rooftops and flying. Ok so he’s easier to fit into the modern fad of being gritty and realistic than most superheroes because he wears black rather than the incredibly vibrant spandex that most superheroes wear and has very dubious morals, but he still dresses like a bat for goodness sake. The game compensates for this by dressing up all the villains in even more vibrant colours and making half of them batshit insane. Of course this works because they’re in a mental asylum. The Joker especially is presented as being completely off the wall (as is appropriate). For most of the game he sits in a room making snarky comments as Batman runs around beating up his minions, he seem to take pleasure in the fact that the thugs that are getting haunted by Batman and are completely helpless to stop him. This of course gets around the fact that there’s really no point posting guards when you know Batman will just beat them up, perhaps the Joker just enjoys watching them suffer.

Fortunately, given that an almost constant commentary is given, the voice acting, is on the whole, pretty good. The only person who got on my nerves to much that I literally had to turn down the volume was Harley Quinn and I’m pretty certain that was intentional. The only annoying thing was some of the dialogue, which was at times so filled with clichés that I wanted to cry. Batman especially was stoic and full of emotionless tough guy drivel that I was almost hoping the Joker would win. Writers can’t seem to realise that they can give the main protagonist a personality without making him a complete pussy.

Actually to give due credit to the writers, they did include some really well done sections using Scarecrow to confront Batman with his past, creating a real sense of vulnerability. This is especially well created when the figure of Batman is replaced by Bruce Wayne as a child, walking through the rain soaked streets of Gotham when the soundtrack to his parent’s murder is played. Unfortunately these elements are few and far between and the actually levels where you fight scarecrow don’t quite live up to the cut scenes.

Another techniques used by the writers to make Batman less of a cold, heartless bastard is to have Joker and co. constantly comment that locked up an Arkham is exactly where Batman ought to be. While this is a step in the right direction, in many ways it doesn’t go far enough. Joker keeps on saying that Batman is a nutter, but never seems to present any evidence, simply repeating the same old one-liners over and over again. The idea that Batman is as bad as the criminals he’s fighting could have been presented really well by using Scarecrow’s hallucinogenic drugs to present Batman with a twisted view of his own past, much as I did at the start of this review. Instead the idea of Batman’s insanity is presented in an incoherent and underwhelming way.

I’ve just noticed that I’m almost at two pages in Microsoft Word and I still haven’t mentioned gameplay, so let’s do that. Actually there’s very little to say, the combat flows beautifully, is fun to play and appropriately challenging. The main problem with it is that there is too little variety. Once you’ve beaten up one thug with a pipe, a brick, a knife or an electric rod, you beaten up them all. A couple of different variations of thug would make some of the fights less samey. Despite this the combat system is one of the most entertaining I’ve ever played.

While unarmed thugs are taken out with seamless, flowing combos, thugs with guns are generally taken down by creeping up behind them and taking them out silently. These stealthy elements mix with the hand to hand combat seamlessly and progress nicely in difficulty, although the game doesn’t really exploit the final developments of that progression. There is one really challenging level near the end, but nothing after that, which is really disappointing. One does have to wonder however why the thugs don’t ever look up and why whoever designed the interiors had such a fixation with gargoyles.

It just would not be Batman without gadgets. There is always the danger of overpowering Batman with a whole dirge of different gadgets which can solve any problem. Fortunately the game balances the gadgets really well, meaning that, although new things become available, they don’t necessarily make life any easier. Gadgets allow access to different areas, most of which only contain more of the Riddler’s challenges. The main issue with the gadgets is the way in which Batman gets them; at one point he even calls in his batmo-plane to deliver a new gadget. Why not just get in the bloody thing and use that to stop the Joker? Maybe Batman is insane after all, that or the writers couldn’t think of any other way of getting that particular gadget to you.

The principal weakness of the gameplay in Arkham Asylum is the boss battles. Batman seems to have an infinite number of Batarangs because every single goddamn boss fight requires that you throw one at an appropriate villain at an appropriate time. One would hope that the developers could think in slightly more innovative ways of defeating people like Killer Croc or Bane than simply throwing a Batarang at them and running away. The only thing that makes it harder is that you have to beat a load of thugs up at the same time. As I have already alluded to the fact that Scarecrow levels are particularly underwhelming. The first one is good, but after that they don’t get much harder. If only they did because the sections themselves are excellent. Probably the best boss battle is the one with Poison Ivy, which is both challenging and really fun, although even then it’s still just throwing a Batarang at the giant plant. It also contains the game’s one quick-time event, so it looses marks there. The pinnacle of inadequacy comes with the final boss battle against a juiced up Joker. Essentially it’s a fight against a load of thugs with the occasional bit where you have to run away from a giant version of the Joker. That is all the game can offer? Fighting one of the most psychopathic and brilliantly insane super villains of all time and all the game can offer is exactly the same as it has for the last few hours? All the developers can think of to do with the Joker is given him some spinach like half the other bosses in the game and make you avoid getting beaten up by him? After completing the game one is left with an underwhelmed feeling of ‘is that all you’ve got to offer’. We are left with the feeling that the game is rummaging around in its toy box, searching for something new to show us. The Joker is a crazy psychopathic clown for goodness sake, how hard can it be to create a really wacky and at the same time truly challenging and original boss fight?

Despite its flaws, this game is superb. If you haven’t bought it yet, go and do it now. Batman Arkham Asylum is one of the best games I’ve ever played. Sure it’s not perfect, but it’s well worth the expense. Not only does the story make for hours of fun, the challenge mode allows you to make the most of the game’s best bits. Given the game’s success I think it’s inevitable that a sequel will emerge at some point. Let’s just hope that they put as much time and effort into making it as good as this game as well as trying to iron out some of the issues. The game could easily have taken a different direction and I hope a sequel will try to develop some of the things the game didn’t really do very well. I fear that any sequel will fail to live up to the game’s very high standard, but, if done properly, a sequel could be just as good if not better. Anyway, to sum up this absurdly long blog, Buy. This. Game

Tuesday, 29 September 2009

The Incident/The Resistance

Gah! Fuck. Lateness. I’ve had no internet all week so be glad you’re getting a blog this week at all. Anyway, a few weeks ago a couple of mysterious packages landed on my desk courtesy of Amazon. These packages contained two brand new spanking albums, The Incident by Porcupine Tree and The Resistance by Muse. Given that I am massive fans of both these bands and have had a huge hard on for these two albums for some months now I was really looking forward to getting them and hoping beyond hope that they wouldn’t be shit. I thought I’d review them for you because I’m nice like that.

I’m actually listening to The Incident as I type this, so we may as well start with that one. Don’t be fooled by the claim that the first CD (did I not mention it was a double album?) contains one long 55 minute song, it doesn’t. The ‘song’ is split into 14 different parts which work just as well independently as they do played as one track. Now is it me or is that just an album? I think Steve Wilson and co. need to extract their heads from their arses and stop trying to be too prog. There’s no reason why ‘The Incident’ couldn’t just be 14 songs as part of an album, to call the first CD a single ‘song’ is a complete misnomer.

Moving away from this rather semantic point, the music itself offers very little that’s new for Porcupine Tree. It has the same Prog Rock feel mixed in with some heavy elements and some more popularist stuff. Essentially this album sums up the Porcupine Tree sound; it is almost a summary of all their music to date. The very beginning of the album has echoes of In Absentia, while songs like ‘Time Flies’ and ‘I Drive the Hearse’ call back to their earlier, more psychedelic days. Unfortunately it sometimes feels slightly recycled; ‘Time Flies’ especially fells a lot like ‘Stars Die’. Musically it’s pretty astute without being much new. The second CD is far more like their early music that the first, which, as a big fan of their early psychedelic sound, I really like.

Where the album really excels is in the lyrics. I don’t think I truly came to appreciate it until I listened with the lyric book open in front of me. Porcupine Tree songs have always been fairly rich lyrically, but here Wilson has excelled himself. Songs like ‘Your Unpleasant Family’, ‘Octane Twist’ and ‘Remember me Lover’ provide lyrical highlights which are both very viral and beautifully meaningful. Wilson’s lyrics are typically dreamy and slightly bizarre without being so strange as to descent into absurdity. While the music does not add much new, they set a platform for some of the most imaginative and well written lyrics Porcupine Tree have ever produced, some praise given the strength of their back catalogue.

Overall then, the album is not anywhere near the level of In Absentia, which remains one of my favourite albums of all time, but it holds it’s own against the rest of Porcupine Tree’s work. In many ways it amounts to the summation of Porcupine Tree’s sound. I guess if you want a feeling for all Porcupine Tree stand for, good of bad, then The Incident sums it up. It has its prog rock absurdities, it has its heavy metal interludes and its moments of brilliance, but brings very little new to the party. At this point Porcupine Tree runs the risk of going stale, stagnating in what they’ve already achieved. Fair enough they’ve existed for 20 years now, but they need to come up with something new in time for the next album or they will start to fizzle out. Wilson has proved with this album that he still has the capacity to produce some astonishing music, but he needs to rediscover the innovation which made In Absentia such a great album if Porcupine Tree is to remain one of the finest uncovered gems of the music industry.

I’ve probably been looking forward to the new Muse album for as long as I’ve ever looked forward to a new release before, which is saying something, given how much I like my music. Over the past months, maybe even over a year I’ve been hearing great things from the Muse camp about fully orchestrates Symphonies and a fuckton on innovative sounds. Frankly on hearing The Resistance I was underwhelmed.

The album could perhaps be accused of being slightly more prog than previous albums, but it does innovation is such a safe way that it is hardly exciting. The much touted symphony is split into three radio friendly chunks which takes away from the ingenuity of it. While Porcupine Tree try too hard to be prog, claiming to have a 55 minute song, Muse try to hide it away, almost embarrassed at the prospect of any if their music being labelled progressive. Just because the late 70s and 80s took innovation to a level which took it beyond the ridiculous should not discredit the value of experimentation. It is ok to have songs which last more than six minutes, radio stations may not like them very much, but it the song is good enough to be played, it will be played, no matter how long it is. If you really care about radio time then release an abridged version of a song, but there’s no point in dividing into three parts.

Elsewhere the album suffers from being too viral; Matt Bellamy seems to have sacrificed musical integrity for something which gets stuck into your head. Songs like ‘The Resistance’ and Uprising’ suffer from over commercial choruses which are very easy to sing along to, but are pretty devoid of musical interest and lyrically ingenuity. The main issue I have with this is that songs like ‘Guiding Light’ and ‘Unnatural Selection’, along with almost every other popular song Muse have ever had, prove that there’s no need to pander to the lowest common denominator for songs to be popular. There’s no need to popularise music in order to get radio time, especially if you’re Muse, one of the biggest, most popular alternative rock bands on the planet.

At times is feels like Muse are trying too hard. United States of Eurasia sounds a lot like a Queen song, now there’s nothing wrong with that as an idea, but the delivery is poor. The song feels totally disorganised. It’s meant to emulate the tempo changes and full throttle musical explosions that made Queen so great, but instead it is a mess of misplaced and clunky rubbish. Similarly the lyrics seem to be trying to emulate the brilliance of past albums. ‘Guiding Light’ is a pale imitation of ‘Starlight’ and the occasional reference to 1984 just doesn’t cut it when held up to the genius of ‘Citizen Erased’, especially when it is cut with meaningless and seemingly random soppy romance lyrics. In previous albums one or two songs have essentially been love songs, but this time they all seem to contain an element of the love song. When delivered well, love songs can be a real highlight of an album, but in The Resistance is just descends into cliché.

Overall this album tries to hard to reach the blistering heights of Muse’s past brilliance. It’s not a bad album per se, but it’s not realty a good one either. If I was being kind I’d call it decent, if I was being unkind I’d call it painfully mediocre. I hope this is a blip, not the beginning of a trend. I would hate to see Muse peter out after just 5 albums. Bellamy and co. have for more to offer the world of music that they have done thus far. Muse need to remember the sound that got them where they are today and stop pandering to the record companies; they are popular enough not to need to.

So two very different albums, neither of which are exactly brilliant but there you go, life would be dull of every album were perfect. Wait what am I saying? If only every album were perfect. Anyway, October brings new album from Nine Black Alps and The Flaming Lips, so I’ll review those when I get them, in the meantime next week will be on time (hopefully). In fact my lack of internet has given me time to play through the new Batman game, so I’ll probably review that next week. Fun times.

Monday, 21 September 2009

filler quiz part 2

I'm too ashamed to write anything. Normal service resumes next week. Actually I do have something planned, so it might actually be worth reading.

Edit: I may not have the internet next weekend, so I will try to get the blog up at some point, but it may be a tad late. Sorry y'all, but this one is actually out of my control.

Shitty quiz, questions 26-50:

26. What kind of car do you drive?

I don’t… yet

27. What word in the dictionary best describes you?


28. What’s your blog address?

Funny you should ask that actually…

29. Worst TV show at the moment?

All of them?

30. Are you a better talker or better listener?

Talker, other people’s opinion don’t matter

31. Do you care about who wins the election?

Yes, but I can’t vote

32. Who was the most popular kid in your 7th grade class?

Who cares?

33. Are you afraid of ghosts?

The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.

34. Is there something lacking in your life right now?

Yes, a soul

35. What do you miss most about childhood?

Freedom without responsibility

36. How many times did it take you to pass your drivers test?

None, yet

37. How many kids do you want?

None, ever

38. Are you a good liar?

Yes… (haha, I think they believed me)

39. Can you cook?

I make a mean cheese on toast

40. Are you a cheapskate?


41. What would you do with a million dollars?

Hookers and blow

42. Have you been to Disney World?


43. How much time do you spend online a week?

Far too much

44. Last time you went bowling?

A couple of months ago, I wasn’t very good.

45. Hot or cold weather?


46. How many pairs of shoes do you have?

Too many for any heterosexual male

47. Are you a shop-a-holic?

Only for books

48. Where were you yesterday morning at 10:30?

In bed, with your mum (wow, I got to 48 without a ‘you mum’ joke)

49. Are you afraid of the dentist?

The only thing to fear is fear itself.

50. Were you bored or entertained by this survey?

Utterly bored, as were my readers. I hate you.

Sunday, 13 September 2009

filler quiz part 1

Oh god oh god! Why can I not write anything worthwhile? Why do I fail so hard? Why am I resorting to a quiz I found online? Why am i asking so many questions?

Writers block + busy life = filler time. Next week is worse, so more filler. Que angry emails from everyone.

Shitty quiz, questions 1-25:

1. Are you wearing a hat?

No, should I be?

2. Bottled water: yes or no?

No, bottled water is just overpriced tap water.

3. Do you have a crush on someone right now?

If I told you that I‘d have to kill you.

4. What kind of laptop do you have?

A Dell Studio 17

5. Do you prefer writing in pen or pencil?

I prefer typing… but if pushed I’d have to say pen

6. Who was the last text message in your phone from?

My driving instructor… I don’t have any friends worth texting

7. What’s your favourite season?

Summer, not that we ever get one in England

8. Does your best friend have a boyfriend or girlfriend?

Some of them do (and I am in no way jealous)

9. Do you like them?

I like everyone… apart from the person who made this quiz and me for not having the motivation to do anything more worthwhile than this quiz.

10. Favorite radio station?

Planet Rock

11. Type your name into Google. What’s the first link that pops up? random

12. What’s your favourite song at the moment?

Um um um um… I dunno, I’m liking the sound of Uprising by Muse

13. Coke or Pepsi?

Coke, although I preferred it when they still put cocaine in it.

14. Favourite subject in school?


15. Last concert?

Rise Against, last February

16. Next concert?

Porcupine Tree in December I hope

17. Last magazine you bought?

I can’t even remember

18. Last book you read?

Plebs and Politics in the Late Roman Republic (yes I am a complete nerd…)

19. Do you prefer cats or dogs?


20. Is there someone you want to punch right now?

Yes, whoever wrote this quiz

21. Favourite sports team?

Worcester Warriors

22. State you most want to visit?

Well aren’t we American? I’m gonna interpret ‘state’ as ‘country’ and say Australia

23. Are you an internet addict?

Most definitely

24. When do you shower?

Once a month, whether I need it or not… not really, that’s horrible, usually once a day

25. What’s your dream job?

Something where I do no work and get paid lots

Sure is filler round here.

Sunday, 6 September 2009

Lessons from History

70 years ago this week German troops marched into Poland, starting the bloodiest and deadliest war in mankind’s history. In the years before that fateful early autumn day, Germany had battled through depression and anarchy to become a European superpower once more. In the eyes of many Germans the Treaty of Versailles signed in the aftermath of the First World War, ostensibly to punish Germany for the War, was preventing Germany from rebuilding an economy badly damaged by defeat and economic depression. Widespread resentment of their mistreatment at the end of a war which many Germans believed had not really been lost harboured extremism.

In the midst of this wounded state, a young Austrian recovered from a mustard gas attack in a field hospital. He had joined the 16th Bavarian Reserve Regiment at the start of the war and went on to receive the Iron Cross First Class; one of the highest decorations a german soldier can receive. After the war he remained in the army and moved to Munich, where he joined the German Workers Party (DAP) in 1919. The DAP was one of many extreme parties to appear following the creation of the democratic Weimar Republic following the War. Its founder, Anton Drexler was a fervent nationalist and an Anti-Semite, Anti-Marxist and anti-Capitalist to boot. He believed that the Weimar Republic was out of touch with the German people and wanted a return to the good old days of the Imperial Reich. Our young Austrian changed the name of the party to the National Socialist German Workers Party (or the Nazis) and swiftly moved up the party structure. Soon he became leader of the party and, through the power of his oratory, made the party one of the largest in Munich. The name of this enigmatic Austrian war hero? Adolf Hitler.

In 1923 Hitler let a failed coup against the Bavarian government. While the coup massively damaged the party’s reputation, the public spectacle of his trial only increased Hitler’s popularity. During his one year in prison he wrote Mein Kampf in which he outlined his extreme, nationalist ideology. When he was released, on the back of his increased popularity, Hitler wet about rebuilding the Party, determined to win power legitimately through the democratic system he so hated.

Over the next decade, due in part to Hitler’s oratory and his appeal to the good old days before the War when Germany had been a major European power, the Nazi’s power grew until they controlled the largest single section of the vote in the Reichstag. By 1933 Hitler was Chancellor of the Wiemar Republic. The centre-right parties in power had tried to compromise with Hitler, believing that they could keep the political extremist under control. However Hitler refused to compromise and forced President Hindenburg to appoint his Chancellor.

It did not take long for Hitler to introduce Bill to make him the effective dictator of Germany. By July 1933 Hitler’s Nazis were the only legal party. Through political culls instigated by the SA, all political opposition was removed; Hitler was the Absolute ruler of Germany. Over the next 4 years Hitler’s Germany grew in wealth and power, openly flaunting the Treaty of Versailles. Despite clear signs of aggression, other nations did nothing to stop the growth of Germany. They thought they could negotiate with Hitler, they were wrong.

In 1939 Nazi Germany invaded Poland. Over the course of the next 6 years, 6 million Jews were ‘evacuated’ to camps in the east, where they were either worked of gassed to death. All told the war cost the lives of 70 million people, the majority of whom were civilians. The war led to the creation of the Nuclear Bomb, two of which were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, killing thousands and damaging the area with deadly radiation for years. At the Nuremberg trial, the Nazi officers on trial said that they were only following orders.

This is not an excuse. The Nazis never received the vote of the majority of German citizens; they ruled Germany not by the consent of the German people, but by the apathy of those who saw that Nazis for the monstrous affront to freedom that they were and did nothing. When Hitler’s foreign policy was so obviously warmongering and anti-Semitic, the world stood by and did nothing, not because they agreed with Hitler, but because standing up against evil would have been too hard, oo politically risky. Instead they attempted to compromise with Germany.

Evil is not something that can be compromised with. It must be stood against with unwavering conviction. If we learn anything from the Second World War, we learn that apathy in the face of unremitting evil is almost as bad as evil itself. While the monsters who tortured and killed Jews in the camps are unforgivably evil, what is more disturbing to the refusal by Germans, who simply followed the crowd and did what was easy, to think for themselves and see past the propaganda, to discover the true evil of the Nazis and stand against it. The responsibility for the atrocities of the Holocaust lies, at least in part, with those army officers who ‘were simply following orders’, because simply following orders is not good enough. We are all responsible for our actions, it is our responsibility to stand up against injustice, not simply fall in and go along with what everyone else is doing.

As rational humans being we have a responsibility to ourselves to stand up for what we believe to be right, if we do not then we give sanction to those who would commit acts as monstrous as those committed in the holocaust. If we sanction these acts, can we really claim to be any better than those who commit them? History is littered with examples of evil, committed because of the unthinking consent of people who should have known better. Conformity may be safe and it may be easy, but as free thinking, rational being, we should seek to do what is right, not what is easy. Evil is almost never in the majority, evil is the insanity of a few, sanctioned by the apathy of everyone else. The insane we cannot stop; the apathy we can. The consequences if we do not are painted vividly in history; the events of 70 years ago are only one example.