Follow the reluctant adventures in the life of a Welsh astrophysicist sent around the world for some reason, wherein I photograph potatoes and destroy galaxies in the name of science. And don't forget about my website, www.rhysy.net



Sunday, 22 January 2017

Check Out My Kinky Curves

As usual, I'm following up my latest paper with a human-readable blog post. In this one I examine yet again why some clouds of gas in the Virgo cluster might be starless "dark galaxies" and how we can distinguish them from gas clouds ripped out of normal galaxies during close encounters. I also explore just why it's seriously crazily unlikely that some clouds are just interaction debris, with the help of several dogs and a lot of long kinky streams.


What are these "galaxy" thingies, anyway ?

Galaxies come in all shapes and sizes. Some are spectacular....


...while others are deadly dull.


Both of these images mainly show you the stars. You can also see some of their gas and dust, but not all, because gas and dust shine at different wavelengths than you can see with an ordinary telescope. What you can't see at all is the dark matter. The reason we think dark matter is there is from looking at the motions of the stars and gas - they're going too fast to be held together by their own mass, so there must* be something else holding them together that we can't see.

* I'm simplifying massively here, in an effort to keep this post shorter than War & Peace.

From the measurements, dark matter typically makes up 90% of the mass of a galaxy. There's far more dark matter than normal matter in the Universe. To the dark matter, stars are unimportant. If every star in the galaxy exploded, the dark matter cloud (or "halo") holding them in their orbits wouldn't notice. So could there be "dark galaxies" in the Universe made entirely of dark matter ?

An old image of mine, symbolically depicting a dark galaxy against a galaxy cluster full of hot gas. In fact the standard models says that dark galaxies should be smooth, boring spheroids without nice spiral arms like in a proper galaxy.
Well, maybe. If they did exist they'd solve a major problem in astrophysics : cosmological models get the structure of the Universe right, but they predict around ten times as many galaxies as observed (most of these "missing galaxies" should be small companions of larger galaxies). If most of these didn't contain stars that would solve the problem pretty neatly.

Real dark galaxies wouldn't need some terrifying stellar Armageddon to explain why they're dark. It could be that some dark halos just never accumulated enough gas to from any stars (or at least too few for us to detect), or the first supernovae may have blasted all the gas out and prevented further star formation. So there are at least vaguely-plausible reasons why these things both should and could exist.

But do they ? Perhaps. If they contain no gas and stars at all then they'd be bloody hard to find, but it's possible they have just a little bit of gas - enough for us to detect, but not so much that they'd form (m)any stars. They'd be discs of gas rotating just like normal galaxies, but optically dark. The only way to see them would be with a radio telescope, which can detect the gas from its own emission.

It never hurts to remind people that a) radio telescopes make images, they generally do not "listen" to the sky; b) the sky would look completely different if we could see the neutral hydrogen gas in our Galaxy, as in the above example.

Do dark galaxies really exist or are you just making this up because galaxies without stars is just a bloody daft idea

Actually, over the years quite a few candidate dark galaxies have been detected. The ones I'm most interested in are - because of my massive ego, obviously - the ones I found in my thesis project, a survey of the Virgo cluster. They seem to fit the bill pretty well : they (apparently) rotate as quickly as massive galaxies (about 100 km/s) but they have just a little bit of gas and no stars whatsoever - nothing else. The only way they could avoid flying apart is if they were embedded in dark matter halos, because their detectable gas mass is very small while their rotation speed is very fast. I'll call them the AGES clouds from here on in, since they were found with the Arecibo Galaxy Environment Survey.

So what's the problem ? If they were far away from any other galaxies, it would be very tempting to declare Game Over - dark galaxies found, cosmology problem solved, tea and biscuits for all, huzzah ! But they're not so isolated. A galaxy cluster is a realm of chaos, with thousands of galaxies flying past each other like bees on crack. These encounters can rip gas out of galaxies and leave bits of hydrogen fluff lying around all over the place.

Dog owners will know what I'm talking about.
It's possible that some or all of these dark hydrogen clouds are just "tidal debris" from galaxy interactions, with the messy encounters creating the illusion of rotation. We don't really measure rotation directly, just how fast the material is moving along our line of sight. Unfortunately our observations aren't very high resolution - we only get one pixel per cloud*. So we don't know how big the gas clouds are either, just their maximum size.

*When we have higher resolution observations of normal galaxies, we invariably find that this "velocity width" measurement really does correspond to rotation.

Previous papers have claimed that it's entirely possible to produce things that look like galaxies but are actually nothing of the sort. Instead of stable, long-lived rotating objects, they're actually short-lived objects in the process of disintegrating and we've just happened to catch them at a bad moment right before they fly apart.


Those results seem to hold pretty well for large objects. Unfortunately a lot of people seem to have read the older results and decided that they can also explain smaller ones. Regular readers will remember that we've previously found pretty strong evidence against that. It's easy to get a large change of velocity (that is, to fake the appearance of rotation) across a large feature, but much harder to get the same change across smaller ones. Specifically, it's damn near impossible to make objects as small as the AGES Virgo clouds with velocity widths anywhere near as high as their measured 100-200 km/s.


Are you really, really sure these clouds aren't just tidal debris ?

Our previous simulations dropped a long gas stream into a model of a galaxy cluster so we could watch the luckless thing get harassed into itty-bitty pieces by the cluster's gravity. This time we've gone one better and dropped a simulated galaxy into the cluster, so we can watch the stream's formation as well as what happens to the parent galaxy. Much more realistic (but technically harder to do and slower to compute, which is why we didn't do it originally).

Just like last time, we dropped our galaxy on a whole bunch of different trajectories (26) to make sure we didn't just happen to select one unusual path where the galaxy got obliterated or something daft like that. But we didn't just pick any-old galaxy to drop through the cluster, oh no. The target galaxy was modelled after this rather photogenic spiral :

M99, a.k.a. NGC 4254 (do forgive me if I switch between the names), as seen in the Sloan Digital Sky Survey.
And you might well think, "that galaxy is a bit funny-looking, why did you choose that one ?". And you'd be right - that prominent spiral arm is rather unusual. It's an even more peculiar galaxy when you look at its gas. In fact, M99 is something of a celebrity in dark galaxy circles because there's a long gas stream coming off it, which contains the infamous VIRGOHI21 :

Comparison of the optical and gas data. If you look closely, you can see hints of a longer gas stream above VIRGOHI21.
VIRGOHI21 is the densest part of the gas stream, and it's broadly similar to the other Virgo clouds (about the same gas mass and "rotation" speed) except for that long stream. So you might well now be convinced that NGC 4254 is a very weird galaxy indeed. Well, it is and it isn't. Its stars have a bit of a funny shape and it's got this weird gas stream. Even ignoring the gas stream, its gas disc is a bit lop-sided too, and it's very gas rich : in fact it has just about as much gas as a galaxy this size is ever likely to have.

And yet... it's not that odd. The overall distribution of stars is quite normal, as is the gas in the disc. It's a galaxy that got up on the wrong side of bed one morning and forgot to shower, not a total monstrous freak of nature that should have been killed at birth. Crucially, since it's got an awful lot of gas in the disc (and since that gas disc looks more-or-less normal), if you didn't know about the gas stream you'd never suspect it once had even more gas than it does now. If anything you'd wonder if maybe some interaction had given it extra gas, not ripped some of its gas away from it.

So there are two natural but mutually exclusive interpretations of NGC 4254 : it's pretty normal if you only consider its overall gas and star contents within the disc, or it's really weird if you look at its precise stellar distribution and the long gas stream. That's an interesting circle to square.

All this makes NGC 4254 a great target galaxy, which is why earlier studies used it as a target too. Our model starts off with an idealised version : we create smooth discs of gas and stars which have the same overall distribution, but don't reproduce the one-armed spiral. We also tried varying the gas content and distribution, as well as the mass of the dark matter since that's not so well-determined from the observations. Then we drop this into our galaxy cluster and see if the interactions reproduce any of those peculiar features, or things resembling the isolated clouds. Our cluster includes 400 other galaxies but only as simple point-masses : we don't model their gas and stars (that's far too computationally demanding), just their gravitational effects on the target.

So using M99 as our target may seem odd initially, but actually it lets us tackle several questions all at once :
1) Can we produce isolated gas clouds that look like dark galaxies by harassing a fairly normal spiral galaxy ?
2) What about fake dark galaxies in streams like VIRGOHI21 and the other strange features specific to the M99 system ?
3) Do the properties of the spiral galaxy make a big difference ?

Feel free to skip the next section if you want to get straight to the answers. Keep reading if it want to put these results in a bit more context.


Interlude : The Unnecessary Prequel

Time for a little backstory. One thing the referee and a slightly irate co-author made me tone down in the published paper was the criticism of the previous models. Originally the paper went into great detail about this, and while this was a bit excessive, I still would have preferred to state a few things more explicitly. Well, now I can ! And I will. Watch me.

Until we started re-investigating this, there were basically two explanations for the VIRGOHI21 system :
1) A simulation of Davies 2008 showed that if VIRGOHI21 was a giant dark galaxy, it could have created the stream largely from its own gas as it flew past M99. This could also explain the one prominent spiral arm. Unfortunately this model put VIRGOHI21 very much at the end of the gas stream, not in the middle as is actually the case. Bugger.
2) A simulation by Duc & Bournaud 2008 in which a normal galaxy tears gas out of M99, and VIRGOHI21 is just a kink in the stream rather than a dark galaxy. The "kink" is in the sense that the velocity of the gas changes very sharply as you go from the stream to VIRGOHI21 itself, rather than the stream suddenly changing direction.

But there are several problems with this second (much more popular) option. As mentioned, the gas content of M99 is pretty high, and its distribution is quite normal - which to my mind is strong evidence that the gas didn't come from M99, even without knowing what the true origin was. We can even quantify this, and although there isn't all that much gas in the stream, there's enough that if it had come from the spiral galaxy that would have made it truly exceptionally gas rich.

And yet long gas streams are very rare. So it's still entirely sensible to postulate that maybe this is indeed what happened : an unusually gas-rich galaxy had an encounter which tore off the gas into this long stream. An unusual explanation for an unusual object is not a daft idea by any means.

But VIRGOHI21 isn't just part of the stream which is a little bit denser than the rest : not only is it quite a lot denser, the velocity structure makes a very sharp "kink" - a sudden change, not a smooth one. Despite claims to the contrary, previous models actually have great difficulty reproducing this feature (more on that in a minute). They can make the long gas stream, sure, but not the feature that marked it out as weird in the first place. Long streams with smooth velocity changes are completely normal and therefore boring.

What's even worse is that unlike this dog they're not even cute.
And the Duc model had other debatable points - nothing outrageous, but things that would be cause for concern. Their model of M99 had it being not only exceptionally gas rich (fair enough if you think the gas really did originate in the galaxy) but with a really weird gas distribution that's not at all typical of a spiral galaxy. They also gave it the absolute minimum amount of dark matter conceivable based on the observations of how fast the galaxy spins.

It's perfectly possible the target galaxy was weird. But this model has a weird galaxy also having a weird encounter, which makes it very unlikely indeed. A weird explanation for a weird object is fine... but don't forget, we also have those quite similar clouds from AGES. So, arguably, VIRGOHI21 isn't that unusual after all. And the conditions of the target galaxy in the Duc model made it so that it was as vulnerable to gas removal as possible - yet still the model did not reproduce the distinctive velocity kink.

Given all this, it seemed to be a good idea to re-visit the Duc model. Not precisely, because setting up a situation which could give a really good match to the M99/VIRGOHI21 system (as Duc did) is tricky and really another project. Instead, we wanted to see if features like that velocity kink (and the AGES clouds) would be more common using a galaxy like Duc's than our preferred "normal" version of M99.

Here I have to say that the referee, although otherwise a level-headed individual, did something I found quite irritating. In an earlier draft I had a (too) long paragraph quoting papers where people had seen the Duc results and decided (in no uncertain terms) that that meant, decisively, that all dark galaxy candidates could be explained as tidal debris. I pointed out in the paper that the success of one model does not preclude the success of others; the referee said this shouldn't be mentioned since any scientists should know this - despite the evidence of the papers where this was clearly not the case at all. Then in a later draft I pointed out the Davies model, which got the odd response that these new results "convincingly exclude" that hypothesis. That's a bit bizarre, because they most certainly don't do anything of the sort ! We didn't examine the Davies model in any way, so how can these results possible have any bearing on them ? Answer : they can't.


Without further ado, then, here's what the new results actually say.


So what happened ?

I expect you'd like to actually see some of the simulations, wouldn't you ? Well, here you go !

Each postage-stamp follows the galaxy through the cluster. You can't see the harassing point-mass galaxies because those are very hard to visualise.
This isn't all of them, but visually they all look something like these. Have a look in the appendix if you want to see every one of the little buggers, but it's when you run the numbers you find out the interesting stuff.


1) Isolated clouds


The results were almost identical to our previous simulations. Isolated clouds up to the size of those seen in Virgo are really common in our simulations, but only at low velocity widths (< 50 km/s). They're pretty rare at higher widths (50 - 100 km/s) and utterly negligible at the high widths we're interested in (the real clouds are ~150 km/s). Harassment can certainly tear up a stream into itty-bitty pieces, but it does a lousy job of making it look like the ittiest-bittiest pieces are rotating. Works quite well for larger pieces, mind you.

2) Fake dark galaxies in streams

Maybe !

In fact our simulations reproduced the kinky velocity curves much better than the Duc model. The figure below compares the real VIRGOHI21, the Duc model, and ours.

Note that the vertical axis shows velocity. Left : the real VIRGOHI21. Middle : the simulation from Duc & Bournaud 2008. Right. Simulation from the latest paper.

Ours is clearly much kinkier than Duc's, though it's easy to understand why people might look at Duc's result and say, "sure, it's not quite kinky enough, but it's pretty close". I was expecting to have to come up with some way to measure exactly how kinky the streams were - thereby inventing a "kinkiness" parameter, but fortunately for me (and unfortunately for those with a sense of humour) this turned out to be unnecessary. Really kinky streams like the one on the right turned out to be so common there's not really any point in measuring them.

In some ways it's easy to see why our streams are so kinky (joke over, I promise) : we have 400 interacting galaxies, Duc had just two. But does this mean we can now explain VIRGOHI21 ? The referee thought so, despite my abject protestations. In fact I don't think we can. Our simulations were certainly kinky enough, but that's about it. They didn't reproduce that one prominent spiral arm, or the lop-sided gas disc, and again that model would require the galaxy to be really exceptionally gas rich. And the disparity between the gas and the stars, with that prominent spiral arm seen only in the distribution of stars and not the gas... well that's just odd.

OK, maybe that was the case. But the sharp kinks tend to be quite short-lived features, so what are the chances that we're seeing an intrinsically unusual galaxy during a very unusual phase of its evolution ? I don't know, but they're not high.


3) Does it matter what the galaxy was like ?

Sort of. OK, a lot. Well... not really. It depends what you're interested in.

We used three different initial galaxies : one is very similar to Duc's (lots of very extended gas and not so much dark matter), one is what we believe is the best match to the observations of M99, and the third is as massive as M99 can possibly be given the observational limits.

Using our standard model - which we believe is closest to the real M99 - we got a gas disc which remained pretty similar to the observations but sometimes had long gas streams pulled out of it. The gas distribution remained very similar to what it was like at the start, i.e. just like the observations.

Using our Duc-like model, which had less dark matter but more gas that was more extended, we got rather more gas stripping, as we'd expect. It tended to lose about the right amount of gas, so by the end the galaxy had about the same gas content as the real M99. But the distribution of gas was all wrong, and never resembled what we see in reality.

Both the standard and Duc-like models gave similar results for fake dark galaxies : kinky streams are very common, but isolated AGES-like clouds are rarer than an albino dodo.

I.e. pretty frickin' rare.

Our most massive model was so massive it basically sat there like a lemon and didn't do anything. Sending it flying through 400 galaxies was like throwing peanuts at a rhinoceros.


Conclusions

More example simulations. Here the black shows the gas. Red highlights gas that could be detected with AGES (the galaxy is the blob in the middle, which always remains detectable). Green shows isolated clouds, similar to the ones found with AGES but usually with much lower velocity widths.
Some dark hydrogen clouds are almost certainly just bits of tidal fluff pulled out of galaxies - at least according to our simulations. Little clouds of gas with low velocity widths are as irrepressible as cockroaches and nearly as common. I suppose it's not impossible that some of them are actually small dark galaxies, but there's no reason to invoke that more radical interpretation. We know galaxies have gas, we know the gas can be removed, we know it can form clouds with certain properties. In contrast the dark galaxy hypothesis has far less evidence to back it up in this case.

We can also say that some features in hydrogen gas streams could well be just due to galaxy interactions - the appearance of rotation can be faked. But does this mean that VIRGOHI21 is itself now definitively not a dark galaxy after all ? Not by a long shot. The "kinky" interpretation doesn't explain all the features of the system, and the alternative hypothesis that it's a dark galaxy hasn't been explored in nearly as much detail. So it's still entirely possible that might do a better job of explaining where all that extra gas came from and why M99 is generally funny-looking. The success of one model does not preclude the success of another !

Likewise, while some clouds are almost certainly tidal debris, we can be equally confident that some are not. It's hardly a revelation that some clouds are debris - it would be positively bonkers to suggest otherwise - but what's more interesting is we can quantify which ones are probably debris and for which ones this explanation looks a bit silly. High velocity width features can be easily formed in streams but not in isolated clouds.

We can also answer why this is. Our simulations showed that clouds are always born in long streams. Small gas clouds are never torn out of galaxies directly. So the only way you can make a small isolated cloud is by ripping up a stream. But... high velocity width features are intrinsically more difficult to detect, so if you can detect something that's ~200 km/s wide you'll also be able to detect the lower-width rest of the stream as well, almost by definition. And high-width features are also the shortest lived, since they're flying apart. To disperse the rest of the stream while keeping the highest-width features as isolated clouds is bloody difficult : the dark galaxy hypothesis seems far more likely. And we already showed that dark galaxies could reproduce the observations very well in these cases.

The above points might make you question why we needed a simulation for this. In principle, yes, we could have deduced them from pure theory. But it's very much easier when you can actually watch it happen. Moreover, the model lets us quantify things far more precisely - especially the rate at which the clouds are produced, which can't be predicted without a simulation.

What's next ? Good news, everyone ! We have another 200 hours of Arecibo time awarded to do another survey area in Vrigo so with any luck we'll find more clouds. That will give us much better information about where they are in the cluster, if they're generally near to other galaxies and if their velocity widths are always so high. And we have 16 hours of time on the VLA to get better resolution observations, so we'll have a very much better idea of whether these things are rotating or not. Lastly, we have more simulations in preparation to test even more hypothesis about the origins and evolution of the clouds. It may take a while, but we'll get to the bottom of this eventually...

Tuesday, 20 December 2016

The Force Fell Flat, But Now It's Picked Itself Up And Is Whistling Nonchalantly And Hoping No-One Noticed Its Embarrassing Slip-Up

Disclaimer : This post contains extremely minor details which I don't believe will spoil your enjoyment of the film. However, if you're a purist, you shouldn't read this post until after you've seen the movie. You have been warned.


Last year I had the misfortune to see The Force Falls Flat, a film which ensures that I would never again trust Jar Jar Abrahams with a pinhole camera, let alone a multi-million dollar movie franchise. It was shallow, manipulative, unsubtle drivel with all the vital force of a slug with Alzheimers. The whole thing, right down to the opening text, felt forced (pun not intended) and silly - it was less of a story and more a bunch of, "here's some stuff that happened". Every scene felt like it was there "because that's what the script says" and not because the events in the "story" made it inevitable.

The force didn't awaken. At best it fell asleep, at worst it slipped on a banana skin, got its other leg stuck in a bucket, slid on a patch of grease and fell down a well.

Not so with Rogue One. The force has woken up, climbed out of the well, dusted itself off and is now walking along at steady pace, whistling a jaunty tune and hoping no-one notices its previous embarrassment.


Rogue One isn't quite like watching a new episode of Star Wars. It's very much as its subtitle describes : a Star Wars story. For every wicked witch's cauldron there's a perfectly normal blacksmith; for every dark lord there's an army of everyday soldiers who just signed up because the pay was decent and the uniforms looked nice. Rogue One is somewhat the story of those sorts of people : the ordinary rebels whose lives just occasionally intersect the grand storybook adventures of the pivotal cast. They're not Jedi. They're not royalty. They're not the Chosen Ones with some grand destiny to fulfil. They're the other people who have to be there for the main story to happen at all.

This works remarkably well. If you stop to think about it, the film veers between the rather mundane lives of the rebels (albeit "mundane" here including X-wings and Star Destroyers) and the fairy tale narrative of the main cast. The ordinary world is much darker, grittier and more realistic than what we've seen in Star Wars previously - but it still feels like part of the story, just a part that hasn't be told before. Crucially, it's a part that doesn't feel like it needs to have supernatural notions of destiny or good versus evil or the other grand mythological themes. So the more ordinary aspects of the rebellion feel ordinary because they are ordinary, hence this strange mixture of the mundane and the mythological works rather nicely, smoothly flowing from one to the other and back again as necessary.

TFA didn't do that - it felt tacked on, a desperate attempt to keep the story going because that's precisely what it was. Consequently its attempt at grit and menace simply didn't work, because the thing was a bit like looking into a shattered mirror than had been badly repaired with a lot of tape, or like being menaced by a dog that's had a nasty car accident, or better yet like watching a magic trick where you can see the "hidden" trapdoor.  It doesn't work because you know they're just making stuff up, which is not the same as telling a story.

The Force Awakens was grand, impressive.... and totally pointless.
Rogue One, on the other hand, has authenticity - an over-used word these days but applicable in this case. I can readily accept it as canon because everything that happens is entirely consistent with established events. Nothing is forced, everything that happens couldn't really have happened differently. The writing doesn't feel like it's trying to sell you a story like TFA did, it feels like it's telling you a story that actually happened. In the fictional universe, of course. Because it's not a documentary.

But that doesn't necessarily mean it's any good. To be fair, anything that I accept as happening in the Star Wars universe already gets brownie points simply for being Star Wars. But is it actually a worthwhile watch ?

Yeah, it's decent. It's not epic, but then it's not telling an epic tale. It's engrossing. It ties together episodes 3 and 4 very nicely, in a satisfying way. It has its weak points, but none of them are fatal or even very important. What stops it from being epic is, largely, simply that that's not the nature of the story being told.

The weakest part of the film is probably the trailer, which gives a slightly - slightly, mind you - different impression of the movie than the reality.


From this, one might expect quite a complex main character, or at least a bad-ass rebel with a chip on her shoulder - perhaps a rebel too rebellious for the rebellion. We don't really get this - whatserface (can't remember anyone's name) is generally quite nice, and character development all round is superficial at best. The balance of character screen time is not quite right, with too many characters being given minor, unnecessary sub-plots in lieu of actual characters, and others being just dropped in there for no reason at all. You don't need minor functionaries to have their own plots, you can just introduce them with a line or two, but you do need something substantial for the protagonists. Unfortunately we don't get this, just the occasional token backstory.

The narrative improves markedly as the film goes on, but the film's introduction is rather complicated, setting us up in three or four different locations in a few minutes before hurriedly tying them together. This makes the plot feel a little more complicated than it really is. They would have been better off keeping the now-classic scrolling text with the main theme and giving us enough of a synopsis that we could proceed with only one or two narratives initially.

The over-complicated storytelling might be why character development is lacking. Although it's hardly a crazy mess of explosions and lens flares (and the cinematography deserves praise), one has the impression that there's just a bit two much going on. Something needs to be cut, and/or the film needs to be about 30-45 minutes longer. We don't really feel much for any of the characters (except possibly the wisecracking robot, who is rather good though occasionally a bit heavy-handed with the sarcasm), but we might if we knew a bit more about them. As it is, they're all just people doing what the plot demands of them (the difference from The Force Awakens being that that plot is logical and sensible with a clear causal structure). They don't feel like they're doing anything because of their own internal desires much at all.

A weirder part is that (as far as I can remember) some parts of the trailer just don't seem to happen at all. I may be wrong, but the following parts seem to have been cut (possibly allowing a DVD release of the extended version I would prefer) :
  • "I fight the Empire now" - suggests an important character development, which doesn't happen.
  • "The Captain says you are a friend. I will not kill you." - more than enough sarcasm from K2 anyway, but this gives him a slightly more sinister edge.
  • Lots of very loud, cool-sounding alarms that are very much more muted in the final cut. I know this is an odd thing to be disappointed about, but I really liked that sound effect.
  • The bit where whatsherface walks along a gantry to a TIE fighter - a really cool scene that just doesn't happen. Bizarre.
  • "What will you do if they catch you ? What will they do if they break you ? Will you continue to fight ? What will you become ?" Doesn't happen at all.
The oddest thing is Darth Vader's costume. Oh, Vader himself is most satisfactory. But his costume is just a bit weird - too simple, like someone dressing themselves as Vader for Halloween. It's very distracting.

None of these things are particularly damaging individually. Even collectively they're not crippling, but the slight messiness of the film, lack of soul to the characters, and the nature of the story means it will never be in the same league as the first trilogy. Once you accept that, however, it's a thoroughly decent flick which, like Hilary Clinton's speeches sometimes trudges but occasionally - frequently enough, I think, and when it matters most of all - soars.

Where it most definitely soars are where the plot directly intersects the main storyline. Here it feels very much indeed as though we're back in the original trilogy. We have stormtroopers, X-wings, Star Destroyers, the Death Star, Vader, references to the Emperor, Grand Moff Tarkin, and faithful reproductions of the original architecture. There are cameos by C3PO and R2D2 and even that guy Luke met in a bar; references to the original films are, in general, genuinely subtle. The music I like very much - like most good aspects of the film, it's just like the original films but a little bit different. They've experimented, but unlike TFA they haven't pushed the boat out so far it's hit an iceberg and sank with horrific loss of life. So we have a full orchestral soundtrack very much in keeping with the original (which only occasionally goes into the full original themes when necessary, rather than ramming it down our throats) instead of some retarded tinkly piano piece. The whole thing ends in a very satisfying way, leaving me wanting to re-watch all the films with this one tucked in between episodes 3 and 4.


I was going to say that it's remarkable how they found an actor who looks so similar to Peter Cushing to play Grand Moff Tarkin... but then I learned that they didn't. Incredibly, this is a fully CGI recreation and I never once suspected this while watching (oh, you can doubtless find people on the internet saying it looks fake or whatever, but seriously - it doesn't). The uncanny valley has well and truly been crossed, possibly ushering in a new era in cinema.

So Rogue One has got the music, props, special effects, cinematography and basic storytelling ability down pat. It lacks fully developed characters to give it heart, lacks a little focus and the trailer gave me some false expectations. But I left the cinema feeling extremely satisfied : not enthralled as in the original movies, but satisfied that this was indeed a Star Wars movie. Would I watch another ? Well I certainly won't be watching episode 8 under any circumstances. The main storyline is done, absolutely nothing can extend it any more than one could write a sequel to Hansel and Gretel. Hansel and Gretel... do what ? Chop down trees ? Thwart a wicked king ? Take up investment banking ? There's nothing they can do that entirely new characters couldn't do better.

Rogue One takes the right approach, telling us an important part of the main story we hadn't heard before that's only tangentially important to the main characters. I'm not convinced there are (m)any other stories like that lurking in the Star Wars universe, but if there are I would watch them. I'd be less optimistic about trying to invent an entirely new storyline from scratch. Unlike Trek, Star Wars really revolves around the main plot - it was developed for that alone, not more broad-ranging social and morality tales. I suppose more details around the time of Revenge of the Sith, given the current political climate, might be topical (essentially, Emperor Trump persuades everyone to vote for Brexit against their constitution, thereby ushering in an era of tyranny), but are they necessary ? No, not really.

For me, Star Wars is over. And that's not a bad thing, because without endings stories are robbed of meaning. Most likely the only new good things left will be edits of the original six films thanks to the incredible CGI demonstrated with Tarkin. Like the planet Arrakis in the Dune saga, the whole Star Wars universe exists as a plot device, and trying to fit other stories in that aren't part of that original genesis doesn't really work. So stop trying to tell new Star Wars stories - it's a fundamentally bad idea. Just sit back and let the edited versions roll in until eventually there's one for every man, woman and child on the planet so everyone gets a version they're happy enough with. Rogue One certainly isn't the prequel everyone wanted, but for me it's a very solid and respectable 7/10.

Thursday, 24 November 2016

Five Reasons Why It's Not About Things I Don't Like, So Stop Telling Me That It Is

There's this common accusation being thrown around the place a bit like a happy little monkey playing with a pile of faeces : that people are protesting the results of elections just because they don't like them. As though we are no better than naughty children hurlding toys from a pram. I've almost given up, since such people seem hell-bent on ignoring reality, but let me try and explain one last time why this is really, utterly, wrong.



1) Protests Are Inherently Democratic Even When You Lose The Vote, You Twerps

If you really value democracy as you oh-so-conveniently insist that you do, you ought to welcome dissenting opinions. Oh, sorry, did you actually just want a tyranny by majority, not a society which values freedom of thought ? My mistake. Obviously I must have been crazy to assume that I still had the right to protest and disagree when a vote went against my preference. I guess I'm just supposed to swap my moral principles after every vote. Because you lot totally would have accepted any result and not contested it, right ? Oh, wait, you wouldn't. And no-one would have told you that you couldn't, because that's how a democracy is supposed to work. I happen to think that calls for a second Scottish independence referendum are a dreadful idea, but you don't hear me telling Nicola Sturgeon to put up or shut up. And yes, you have the right to tell me I'm just a whiner, but seriously, would it kill you to actually listen to my arguments first ?

I'm not making any claims to respectful discourse with this post. It's more of case of total exasperation because respectful discourse doesn't seem to be having any effect.

2) General Elections Are Not The Same As Referenda So For The Love of God Please Stop Pretending That They Are, And "The Love Of God" Is Just An Expression So Don't Anyone Dare Tell Me I'm A Religious Nutter Or It Shall Go The Worse For You

You don't hear me protesting the results of general elections. I don't go around saying, "PUT THE LABOUR PARTY IN CHARGE EVEN THOUGH THEY LOST THE VOTE !" Why ? Because that would be stupid in a way that protesting the non-binding Brexit referendum isn't. A general election is binding; the only way to overturn the result is through a new election if no party or coalition succeeds in forming a government. The results of a general election can (mostly) be counteracted at the next one anyway, and the complex series of checks and balances limit how much the government can do and largely prevents tyranny by majority. So for the next few years, I continue to have my say as does everyone else, and the results aren't set in stone. There's no need for me to question the validity of the vote itself*, but when the government makes an unpopular choice you most certainly do hear people protesting. And if there's a suspicion of electoral fraud, you get to hear about that too. In both cases you don't hear people saying, "shut up, it's the will of the people".

* Though we do also get plenty of discussion about whether the "first past the post" system makes sense given that it's producing results which are now very different to the popular vote. And that's fine, because reasoned discourse is not the same as saying, "quit your jibber-jabber".

Let me expand on that in the vain hope that it might make a bit of difference. Whereas with a general election my views usually get some level of representation and influence even if my party doesn't win, this doesn't work with the crude nature of a binary referendum choice. So if I don't like the result I've really no option but to protest. It's true that we usually elect governments with less than 50% of the total electorate supporting them - but it's also the case that the opposing views are still represented in Parliament, and such decisions can be reversed a few years later. When, however, I see a legally non-binding decision made by around 37% of the electorate being treated as irrevocably decisive which will do massive economic damage to our country, then why in the world shouldn't I protest ? All I ever hear in response is, "will of the people".

It's an absurdity to take the virtues of democracy to such an extreme. You wouldn't let drunk people vote to jump into a volcano and you wouldn't cry out "will of the people" for a suicide cult. Sorry, but 1.7 million (4%) is not a decisive number considering the level of regret expressed afterwards and the numbers who didn't vote - and no, it's not sensible to pretend that the non-voters are happy with the result either way, because that's putting words in people's mouths and nothing could be less democratic than that. When we have to make a decision as complex as this one, we need much stronger safeguards than in a normal election  - but we've opted for the opposite, choosing to rip out all the seatbelts, neck a bottle of whiskey and floor it in the hopes that a magical wizard will save us, or something.


The depressing thing is that no-one listens to these arguments. They just say "you're being a whiner". Well you're damn right I'm whining. The problem is you're not listening to the reasons why I'm whining.


3) For The Last Bloody Time, Freedom Of Speech Does Not Mean Absolute Freedom From Consequences, You Muppets

There's freedom of speech and then there's being idiotic. Neither democracy nor freedom of speech are virtuous when they're taken to extremes - which in no way whatsoever invalidates their tremendous value in normal circumstances. Just as you wouldn't let drunk people vote to jump in a volcano, you also wouldn't let someone knock down your door and start insisting that you join the Church of Enlightened Dentists. You wouldn't deny the Church of Enlightened Dentists the right to exist (well some of you would) but you'd damn well object if they had rights to come and go wherever they wished. So does a newspaper really have the right to repeatedly print provable lies, or a political campaign the right to print lies on the side of a bus and drive it up and down the country for months on end ? When did freedom of speech become freedom of fraud ? Is that no longer a criminal act ?


4) These Are Not Normal Times

The unusually extreme nature of the stakes in the current crop of political disasters demands an unusual response. We aren't talking about cuts to local libraries or increasing class sizes by 3% here. In the UK, we're talking about breaking up economic and political relations with a massive financial bloc established over decades. You cannot pretend that simply accepting this as, "oh look, the government made another lousy decision but never mind we'll vote 'em out next time" makes any kind of sense. This is a generational decision with profound effects for everyone. It is not the same as a regular parliamentary decision, so please stop pretending that it is.

In America, things are even worse. It's true that reason two does not apply here, so ordinarily I wouldn't be advocating things like the petition to have the electoral college make Hillary Clinton president. In a nutshell, they've chosen a near-insane populist whose campaign was replete with misogyny and racism so blatant that it's energised neo-Nazis. It's absurd to think that this demands the populace simply bow down to the usual disappointment that every losing side experiences at every election, because the possible consequences are just too high. Democracy is complicated - so yes, in some extreme circumstances it does make sense to protest the result of a vote (TLDR version : Hillary won the popular vote !).

Not that I'm suggesting the system is rigged. I'm suggesting that even if the votes are fairly cast and counted, there are some results so extreme they should not be accepted without question.

5) It's Not About Things I Don't Like, It's About Objective Reality

I don't like the new Star Wars movie very much. I also don't like the colour pink or wasps or tomato-flavoured anything, and I'm not overly-fond of peanuts either. Please try and get it through your thick, silly heads that these things are subjective. While I am actually certain that I don't like these things, I can't ever be certain that they are inherently bad. You can't say that tomatoes have an inherently bad flavour, because this is an opinion, not a fact. Sometimes, what starts out as an opinion ("I think that X will happen based on observations of Y") can be transmuted into a fact ("we saw X actually happen and proved that it was due to Y") based on evidence. Other things, like opinions on the virtues of tortoises and daffodils, will remain forever opinions - they are based only on feelings, not evidence.

Some things in politics are very much of the latter category. Others, however, are very much in the realm of evidence-based opinions. For example, the claim that we could leave the E.U. and spend £350 million per week to fund the NHS instead of paying membership fees. This was a particularly well-crafted piece of bullshit, a.k.a. "post-truthism". First, we're not spending that much on E.U. membership anyway. Second, it completely ignores the enormous economic benefits that being an E.U. member brings - the drop in the value of the pound even at the mere prospect of our leaving cost us more than our total membership fees ever had. Third, it mixed evidence-based (though wrong) arguments with a purely subjective opinion : who says we'd spend the membership fees on the NHS ? The Leave campaigners weren't going to be in a position of authority after the vote. This mixture of evidence and opinions creates something that's extremely difficult to refute. Fourth, the reaction of Nigel Farage afterwards is pure, utter bullshit. Not a day had passed before this overblown claim, along with the other major factor of promised immigration controls, were openly admitted by the Brexiteers to be wrong before they were simultaneously trying to blame someone else. The logic here equates simply to aaaaarrrrghhh. You had the whole campaign to distance yourself from these incredibly blatant lies, but you waited until after you won and you market yourself as more credible than the phoney Westminster establishment ????!?!?


Then there's Trumpy McTrumpface. Oh, where to start ? At least Nigel has some principles - i.e. xenophobia - but Trumpy has truly none. As a pure populist, he says whatever it takes to win popularity in his immediate environment. He flip-flops to an unprecedented extreme*. You can't argue with someone who doesn't care what the truth is. You certainly shouldn't vote for them, because you have absolutely no friggin' clue what you're voting for. And again, OK yes, normal elections do feature lies and bullshitting, but to this extent ? To this level of blatant, open admission that both Trumpy and Nigel said they only told little tiny fibs to help them win ? I think not. At least some Trumpy voters have been upset by some of this, whereas some Brexiteers just don't seem to give a damn.

* And somehow it's Clinton who's seen as corrupt and untrustworthy ! Don't get me started... 

So OK, fair enough, there are some aspects of the current situation I don't like because of purely subjective feelings. But there are also a good many reasons I'm complaining which are objective facts. I'm sorry that you don't like them, but facts are facts. Rejecting reality and substituting your own is great on a T-shirt but it's a lousy lifestyle choice. Constantly appealing to racists and assorted other bigots throughout your campaign and then denying you're a racist - oh yes, good job. Well done, you've mastered the art of post-truthism. Yippdee-frickin'-doo.


Conclusion :Aaaaaaarrrrggggghhh.

It's one thing to say I'm whining about the results because I don't like them. That is true, but like all bullshit, completely misses the point. To say I'm only whining because I don't like the results is just plain wrong. In that context, when you tell me to shut up and accept the result, I hear, "I don't want a debate, I want a tyranny by majority". When you tell me that you don't see this behaviour after a normal general election, I hear, "I don't understand that democracy is actually quite complicated and I probably shouldn't be allowed near sharp objects." When you ignore the blatant lies told throughout the campaigns or defend them in the name of freedom of speech, I hear, "It's OK to tell lies to get the result I want". And when you completely ignore objective reality and scream "will of the people !!!" without even listening to the counter-arguments, all I hear is, "I want mob rule !". Oh yay, what a bright and rosy post-truth future we can all look forward to.

Sunday, 20 November 2016

Coping-haven

Foreign excursions are a lot like busses : nothing for half the year, then three come along at once. So, hot on the heels of the Portugal/France trip came a short northerly jaunt to the northern wastes of Denmark.


...or at least to the modern, vibrant metropolis that is Copenhagen. Having had a paper just accepted and a relatively favourable referee's report on another, this was strictly a social call with not a conference in sight. I even limited my internet access to my extremely primitive smartphone. Total science detox FTW !

Scandinavian countries are getting a lot of attention lately as socialist utopias. In fact, practically any European country looks like a socialist heartland compared to Trumpland 'murica; it's just that the Scandinavian lands are rather more equal than others so there's a tendency to pick them as the obvious point of comparison. Actually, the Czech Republic is a technologically advanced nation which also has tremendous income equality, it's just that the salaries are all ridiculously low compared to the lands of the Northmen. I guess 'muricans don't have much truck with that comparison.

Anyway, I'm not going to harp on about the politics after a three-day jaunt, but it does need to be said that Copenhagen is not a cheap destination. In particular it does not seem to cater for backpackers and budget travellers at all. We stayed at a hostel because hotels were prohibitively expensive, and while in some ways it was very nice, and not even remotely comparable to that vile thing in Grenoble, one could hardly call it a utopia.

Not my photo, but it's accurate. Clean, modern place which is well maintained and equipped.
Physically, everything about the hostel was very nice. But it felt like what would happen if a budget airline decided to run a hostel : everything basically works, it's clean and efficient, but industrial. It isn't like running a B&B like a really good hostel is. It also charges for absolutely everything, including bedsheets which annoyed me intensely. Come on, I'm paying for a place to sleep. That's the whole point. Bedsheets are not an optional extra. And who the hell carries around their own bed linen for crying out loud ?

Breakfast was nice, but that cost extra too and wasn't cheaper than anywhere else. There were lockers but you had to pay extra for... that's right, a lock. Lockers without locks, I kid thee not. Lordy. At check-out time they even asked us to put the bed linen in a laundry bin - yeah, it's a hostel, but it wasn't cheap and it left me wondering what on Earth the staff were doing that I was paying them for at all. Apparently being warm and not dying of exposure is a privilege. It didn't help that we were sharing a room with an obnoxious dude who watched Jason Bourne movies on his phone without bothering to use the headphones and liked the temperature set to 27 C.

BUT on leaving the hostel and accepting the fact that the Danes wouldn't know what a "bargain" is if it phoned them up to offer them a buy-one-get-one-free deal on longboats, Copenhagen is a lovely place. The public transport is not as good as Prague's, of course, and it's rather less intuitive to use, but it works. We didn't use it much though, because the city is tiny and easily explored on foot.





We didn't actually go in anything touristy in the city, though we did try. Tivoli Gardens was closed, since we seemed to have arrived in the changeover period from the Halloween to Christmas seasons. We tried a planetarium but decided the ~£17 entry price was rather too high for a 30 minute presentation, and anyway if it came to it I could just draw pictures of galaxies on the street and shout loudly at passers-by. Astronomy busking, it's a new thing.

What we did see a lot of were cafes and bars, all of which are excellent. The highlight was definitely this place, reportedly the third best pub in Copenhagen. We were actually looking for a cafe because it was 11:30am and we wanted cake. What we got was a borderline debauched Friday night party that presumably hadn't stopped from the night before. Everyone was wasted and the place just oozed Christmas. It was pretty much impossible to dislike it. Naturally, the idea of hot drinks and cake went out the window and got replaced with beer in order to save a sense of self-respect. Later, we compensated with the best cheescake in the entire world.


Other highlights include the Street Food center, a relatively affordable hipster-esque collection of food stalls in a great big hall. We had to sit outside, but service was quite quick on Friday. Not so on Saturday afternoon, when it was slower than the bowel movement of a constipated sloth. Eventually we took our hard-won spoils and huddled around a fire constructed on top of an oil drum, as is the hipster way.


The fire was necessary because it was - and I can't stress this enough - bloody cold. A deep, penetrating cold that could freeze the bones off a mammoth. Those hardy Danes might no longer be sailing across the North Sea on campaigns of conquest, but stand-up paddle boarding at these temperatures is still respectably bad-ass in my book.


Then there was Christiania, which sounds like it should be a hotbed of church-goers singing songs about Aslan or something. It isn't. It's some sort of uber-hippie commune which reminded me a lot of Teufelsberg. I don't particularly care for the hippie lifestyle, but the artwork's kindof cool to look at every once in a while and it didn't take itself too seriously. Though 10am on a weekday morning is probably not the best time to visit, since it was deserted.





But while Denmark may be widely known as the currently happiest place in the world to live - it looks nice enough to me, couldn't say anything struck me as mind-warpingly awesome though - it's the older, more... adversarial Denmark that I'm more interested in. The one that sent boatloads of large, angry, improbably-bearded men across the seas bent on raping monasteries and looting women, or something. Oddly enough, modern Denmark doesn't seem to go in for promoting that aspect of their ancient culture very much.

Or at least Copenhagen doesn't. However, the nearby town of Roskilde is home to the Viking Ship Museum, which is well worth a visit. We were fortunate to see it in the snow.




The town is pretty enough, though everything apart from the museum was shut on Sunday. The museum houses the remarkably intact remains of five Viking ships, sunk over 900 years ago to block the entrance to Roskilde's port. Some were trading ships, others were warships. The largest was the inspiration for the famous Sea Stallion, a seaworthy reconstruction on display outside the museum along with several others.





But while the Vikings were great explorers and artists - not least of their artistic achievements being their ships themselves - one panel in the museum does not pull any punches when it comes to the more brutal aspects of Viking culture. The past is indeed like a foreign country. Many things are similar to modern Western behaviour, but in other aspects they were totally alien. I'm not a fan of trigger warnings and safe spaces in general, but I'll warn you that this one is not for the squeamish out of simple common courtesy. It's as grisly as anything you'll see in the History Channel's Vikings.

Full size image here.
Was this savagery due to the toxic religious thinking of the Norse ? Certainly, to a degree. But as we're seeing today all too clearly, people will believe arbitrarily stupid things that fly in the face of the evidence that have little or no relation to deities or other religious ideas. We probably have a lot more in common with the Norse than we like to admit; if we don't believe Odin will punish us any more for our misdeeds, the belief that other people are lesser than us is alive, well, and as dangerous as ever.

Returning to Copenhagen we indulged in yet more craft beer, particularly Tor's Hammer (although it's actually barely wine). A 6am start into the chilly wastes to board a 9am flight was pretty unpleasant, but Thor was merciful to his acolytes and blessed the day by making it hangover-free. All in all, Copenhagen is a lovely place but if I ever go back it will be for a short visit in a hotel booked well ahead of time.


I'm going to end on a dismal and uncompromising note, because I must. Throughout these European jaunts I can't but help think what in the f"*@!ing hell is wrong with the people who want to put freedom of movement in jeopardy ? There are plenty of wonderful places in the world, and you want to put access to those at risk ? The Schengen area hasn't caused economic or cultural collapse across Europe, even in countries where the economic systems are very different (just compare typical salaries in Germany and the Czech Republic, for example). We should be talking about continuing the progress we've made in tearing barriers down. Instead we're talking about putting them up again, giving in to the same old tired fears about foreigners we've always fallen for. Only now we have a more potent form of propaganda : bullshit. Modern racism is cloaked in talk of border or population control and achieving economic parity and accusations that it's all the left-wing liberal elite being intolerant and making a fuss about nothing, or utter bollocks about Drumpf magically not being a racist because some non-white people voted for him. Well, screw you. As we enter this next dark chapter in our history, don't you dare say I didn't warn you. Don't you fucking dare. You will though. You people never learn. You care nothing about the truth, only your own twisted narratives. Your closet racism is a stain on humanity. Yes, the left wing extremists are a problem : but they are as nothing, absolutely nothing compared to the generations of xenophobia, racism, misogyny, wealthism and general bigotry fostered by the right. The idea floating around that it's the left who've created the situation we're in makes me feel physically ill. We were the ones who warned you about this for years, and now you're trying to blame it on us. The hell with that.

Could I be wrong ? Oh God I hope so.

Wednesday, 16 November 2016

This Is Not How Liberty Dies


Not so long ago I would have happily chuckled away at this, secure in the knowledge that for all its imperfections, the older, weirder, but far more functional form of British democracy was clearly superior to the Yankee madness across the pond. Making fun of those more powerful than you is how any civilised society is supposed to work. A certain smug superiority could be justified, at least at the level of jovial, superficial banter between countries with a complex history. A harmless little joke that only offends those who are pathetically easily offended.

Alas, we live in a different and altogether stupider world than the one we had so very recently, but the internet is quick to adapt and summarise the situation.

There have been many knee-jerk reactions written to how it is that Drumpf, a misogynistic pig with about as much talent for diplomacy as a necrophiliac elephant that's just had a cattle prod rammed up its backside, could possibly be elected leader of the free world. Some of them are oh-so temptingly simple to believe.


Ah, so it's really all due to wealth inequality, and not Drumpf's abject racism and misogyny at all really. Alas this theory does not seem to hold water. As this BBC report (well worth reading in its entirety) comparing Drumpf and Brexit makes clear :
In the UK the gap was wide - around three-fifths of graduates voted to remain, while 63% of non-graduates cast a vote for leaving. In the US it was more nuanced - only just over half of college graduates voted for Mrs Clinton and only just over half of non-graduates backed Mr Drumpf. 
Moreover, in other respects the claim that it was the "left behind" who took Mr Drumpf to victory does not match the evidence. In the UK those who voted to leave often had few, if any, educational qualifications, but also tended to be on lower incomes. Around two-thirds of those with incomes of less than £20,000 ($25,000) a year voted to leave, while around three in five of those earning more than £40,000 ($50,000) backed staying in the EU. 
But Mr Drumpf was not particularly successful among low-income voters. In fact, just over half of those with incomes of less than $30,000 (£24,000) voted for Mrs Clinton. Conversely, those on more than $100,000 (£80,000) a year only preferred Mr Drumpf by the narrowest margins. 
Mr Drumpf's campaign messages may have enabled him to reach out to voters with few, if any, qualifications for whom social issues such as immigration are often a particular concern. However, it appears he was less successful at mobilising support among those who might be thought to be economically left behind.
Both Drumpf and Brexit appealed to the older, more racist generation. Both appealed to the less educated, but less so in the case of Drumpf. This is especially surprising - if anything, I would have expected the situation to be reversed. The E.U. is after all a fiendishly complex organisation and it's easy to take its enormous benefits for granted. In contrast, I'm flabbergasted that anyone with even a high school primary school nursery level of education could look at this evil cross between an Oompa Loompa and Robert Kilroy Silk and ever think, "yep, that hideous thing up there could be President".


It was absurdly obvious to just about every other country that this was a bad idea - only "American exceptionalism" gave Donald the chance he needed.


So age and racism seem to have played their part (as the new maxim goes, not everyone who voted for Leave/Drumpf was a racist, but everyone who was a racist voted for Leave/Drumpf) but education made only a small difference and income equality practically none.

Then there are the claims that it's all the Democrat party's fault, a claim which, though time will tell, does not look like it stacks up. For starters, Clinton won the popular vote - by a very narrow margin, but a win nonetheless.

No, the axis doesn't start from zero. It doesn't matter -  DEAL WITH IT.
Bernie Sander's diehard fans* are even now clamouring that Bernie would have won it and that it's all the Establishment's fault. That doesn't seem to stack up given that Hillary did actually win the popular vote, and as this opinion piece makes clear, it's by no means at all clear that Bernie would have succeeded as well against Drumpf as was often claimed. Bernie may be a very well-intentioned man but he's not the Messiah. Similarly, the idea that third party candidates and disillusionment with Hilary are singularly responsible also look difficult to maintain given her win of the popular vote. It's all too easy to believe a reason with a clear, consistent narrative, but these theories are not substantiated by the facts.

* "Bernie or bust" was always a stupid slogan, given that it implied option B was somehow a sane choice.

It's simply too soon to say what the real causes are - the votes aren't all even all counted yet. No doubt most of these claims will have some merit, but it looks unlikely that there was a single cause. Wealth inequality doesn't seem to have played much of a role; turnout was down but wasn't ultra-low; Hilary may have been disliked but not to the extent popularly supposed; third-party candidates once again didn't really do a great deal; fake news was a thing but doesn't seem likely to be wholly responsible because again Hillary won the popular vote. Which also trounces the idea that it's all politically correct "social justice warriors" who are responsible, with people just being sick of being told what to think, or desperate to kick the Establishment in the proverbial gonads no matter the consequences. None of these really stack up because again, and I insist on emphasising this point, Hillary won the popular vote.

The most disturbing result is that the majority of Drumpf supporters appear to be old white men - the unpleasant prospect that this election was won not by the disenfranchised but by people who are genuinely bigoted at heart, despite reports to the contrary, looks disturbingly real. And that's sad.

Only time will tell if that's the case. There is, however, one overwhelmingly clear lesson that should be obvious to everyone : democracy is complicated.

Oh, we'd like to believe it isn't. It's supposed to be the will of the people and that's the end of it. But it isn't - it never has been and it never will be, because that's fundamentally impossible. Even ancient Athenian democracy was hardly truly direct, happy as the free men of Athens were to ignore slaves and women. The Roman Republic used a complex election process where the votes of the different social classes were weighted differently, with those of the plebs being gradually diluted until it was worth so little that hardly anyone bothered to use their vote. By the end, the vote from the plebs weren't even tallied.

Modern democracy is rather fairer and in some ways simpler : every adult gets an equal-weighted vote. Oh, there are some exceptions like prisoners, but these are generally a very small fraction of the population. But we don't get everyone to vote on every issue because that's a crap idea : it didn't work for the Athenians and it won't work for us.

So the modern solution is (mostly) representative democracy in which we elect people to vote on our behalf. The question then arises as to what we mean by representation. Do we want them to be souless vessels into which we pour our own desires and expect them to pander to our every whim ? Or do we want them to always do whatever they think is best for us, thus representing our interests rather than our desires, regardless of what the electrorate actually wants ? Do we really want them to just express the "will of the people", or do we want them to think more deeply about not just what the people want but why they want it ?


Obviously, the answer is a little from column A and a little from column B. You don't want your representative to hear your opinion on what the precise interest rate should be, but you definitely want them to listen to your pleas to keep the local library open. Some matters are best left to experts and some to generalists. On the expert matters, representatives (who are at least generally more expert than the bulk of the populace) still have to listen to you - they need to know what aspects of life you want improving - but it's largely up to them to figure out how best to accomplish that*. Voters still exercise a more blunt form of power over the details of how officials choose to act by being able to remove them their position come election time, but they have little or no direct control of the day-to-day process.

* This is why I don't like coalition governments. There's always a large degree of negotiation in modern democracies, but in my opinion coalitions shift the balance too far away from the pledged policies in favour of compromise, leaving the voters with no idea what they're actually voting for. This is especially bad when the parties have strong ideological differences, but perhaps more sensible when they're like-minded.

For example, if you claim immigration is out of control, it's the politician's job to figure out if this is really true and how to address it. Maybe it really is out of control - but maybe this is just a scapegoat to explain high unemployment which is actually due to other factors. If so, it's the politician's job to address those factors, not necessarily to cut immigration just because Joe Bloggs thinks it's a good idea when it clearly isn't. Politicians are (to an extent) supposed to get you what you need, not what you want.

It's a bit like calling a plumber. You may have your suspicions as to why the house was flooded and you should certainly point out the blocked sink, but you'd also expect the plumber to notice other factors. Like the local river bursting its banks.


What we're seeing with the rise of Drumpf, Brexit, and to some extent Jeremy Corbyn, is a shift in the expectation that politicians will do right by us toward the simpler, cruder notion that they should bloody well do as they're told. We've ended up with this bizarre form of unpopular popularists - especially bizarre since Hillary Clinton is more popular than Donald Drumpf. They say things a lot of people would like to see done with little or no regard for whether those things would be a good idea, or much in the way of searching for the deeper underlying causes which, if addressed, would be just as effective at addressing people's concerns.

First, the fact that Hillary won the popular vote but Drumpf handily won the election shows us yet again that modern democracy is complicated. Just like in the last UK general election, where we saw massive differences in the numbers of seats gained by different parties with similar numbers of votes. You have to campaign in the system you've got, and if there's one clear lesson here, it's that Hillary, the Green party and UKIP alike all failed to do that - while the SNP succeeded triumphantly. Plausibly, Drumpf's victory is less about moral or inspiring messages and more about pure political strategy devoid of any ideological cause. Anyone claiming that democracy shows you nice and clearly what the "will of the people" really simply does not understand the process.

Then there's the fact that not everyone votes. Much has been made of the non-voters by those on both sides of the issues, but the reality is quite simple : we don't know how those people would have voted. Presuming they're happy with whatever the result is is nightmarishly stupid when, for example, practically every poll shows that most people are opposed to Brexit. The only way to be certain of their intentions - the ONLY way - is to have compulsory voting with an abstain option. That would explicitly allow people to declare that they're satisfied with the result either way. Anything else and you're just guessing from your own biases, which is not remotely sensible.

What we've also got an awful lot of is, "you're only complaining because you don't like the result", as though it had somehow hitherto been considered entirely normal to accept the result of a vote no matter what.


Votes do not change issues of moral principle. If you genuinely believe abortion is murder, then a vote legalising it won't stop you protesting it - and no-one would expect you to. If you don't like who wins an election, you don't stop disliking them - and no-one expects you to suddenly become OK with their plans you might find morally reprehensible. So yeah, I'm complaining because I don't like Drumpf and Brexit, but would I expect their supporters to just shut up if the votes had gone the other way ? Oh hell no.

One of the videos somewhat popular to share in the wake of the court decision that Brexit requires a parliamentary vote is the following :


What utter bollocks. The independent judiciary is a cornerstone of liberty, not a means of a suppressing it. The same people crying out that Brexit is the will of the people are the same ones denying Parliament the right to vote on it. Do you idiots not understand that what you're doing is voting for tyranny by allowing leaders to overthrow laws without due process ? That is how liberty dies. Not through an extremely careful system of checks and balances refined over many centuries, but through the complete and reckless disregard for lawmaking through representative democracy - it's not supposed to be about tyranny through majority. So no, I will not shut up because I do not like the result. I will keep speaking, loudly and often, because that above all things is the whole basis of a democratic system of government. People who claim that democracy is dying because other people have the right to protest shouldn't be allowed to handle sharp objects.

The charge is sometimes made that people don't contest the results of general elections as strongly as they do the Brexit referendum. This is true, but for very good reasons : the voting system is completely different. In a UK general election we choose our representatives - we do not make binding decisions advisory reccommendations so that what should be a highly complex decision (what should be the nature of Britain to the European Union ?) is reduced to an absurdly over-simplified binary choice (should Britain be a member of the European Union ?). We vote knowing that, while our representatives have made specific promises they should try to keep as much as possible, we also know that isn't always possible. We expect to get something close to what they promised but only fools think the elected government will get to do whatever it wants - it's rare indeed that a government has a majority that strong. And when we don't like the government we can vote for someone else in a general election - as opposed to in a referendum, where it seems some people vote for the opposite option just to give the government a bloody nose, apparently stupidly oblivious to the fact that the vote has frickin' consequences. And in a general election vote, we damn well do not expect marginal victories to give the government a free hand to do what it likes.

Then there's the issue of freedom from versus freedom to. Should people get the freedom to inflict their lunacy on others or should other people be granted freedom from their lunacy having any impact on their lives ? Should they be free to discriminate on the basis of race and gender or should they be free from having to suffer this ? I overwhelmingly favour the latter. The voters in Britain and America have - marginally at best - chosen the former.


Which is the main weakness of democracy and why Drumpf's election is utterly batshit terrifying, if it wasn't obviously so already. Voters can and do choose lunatic options. The will of the people can be bloody stupid. Have we not, perhaps, let this go too far ? You let children bang their heads and scrape their knees, but you don't let them wander off the edge of a cliff or eat dog poop. The bitter reality is that large numbers of people have no idea what's good for them - because they're misinformed, lied to, or just plain idiots.

What we're witnessing here is the strange development of unpopular popularists. Drumpf lost the popular vote and is largely reviled as a human being. Yet he's undeniably a popularist in that he'll say whatever it takes to get elected, regardless of the consequences. The fact he lost the popular vote doesn't change the fact he said what he said to win votes. That's (one reason) why he's terrifying : he'll do whatever it takes to win popularity even if that course of action is bloody stupid. Even if he doesn't believe what he's saying half the time - and he changes position to a degree which is scarcely credible - that doesn't make the situation any better : rather, it threatens four years or more of Brexit-style nonsensical decisions, and that's a best-case scenario.

This, then, is how liberty dies : when democracy becomes tyranny by majority and no better than mob rule. When the right to protest is derided as going against the will of the people. When decisions are taken solely to give the people what they want without any regard for what they actually need, with no attempt to understand the deeper reasons for their genuine concerns. When the media are allowed to get away with telling outright, provable lies plastered on giant billboards and busses. When absurd conspiracy theories are allowed to run rampant and free speech is taken as meaning you can say whatever the hell you want in any and all circumstances regardless of the consequences. When bullshit becomes so prevalent that the Oxford dictionary declares "post-truth" to be the word of the year. When freedom to supersedes freedom from at any cost. When all attempts at dialogue are abandoned and democratic votes are given absurd, absolute power. When the idea of negotiation and compromise are abandoned and the advice of experts is held as some elitist plot, and the knee-jerk responses of the masses are allowed free reign, and the checks and balances of a careful, moderate system are labelled as enemies of the people.