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Sunday, 24 January 2016

Trumpy The Talking Toupee

Donald Trump is like a force of nature. Not a good one like sunshine or rainbows, but a nasty one like the bubonic plague or a river of fast-flowing lava. You can't avoid Donald any more than you can avoid gravity.

So outrageous has been Donald's behaviour - specifically, his recent call to ban all Muslims from entering the US - that the UK Parliament debated whether or not he should be barred from entry into the UK. This came about as a result of an e-petition signed by over 570,000 people sick of gravity and wishing it would just go the hell away. That's more signatures than any other e-petition to date.

Background for non-Brits

The UK does not have any threshold of signatures at which the government must enact a law or even hold a referendum. So all e-petitions are really just calls for Parliament to debate the issue, and of course a chance to make public feeling known. In fact, the government doesn't even respond to a petition unless it gets at least 10,000 responses, and it won't even consider them for debate unless there are at least 100,000 signatures. Even at that level there's no guarantee they'll hold a debate. Make no mistake : petitions are calls, nothing more. They aren't diktats or demands. That's why I signed it - not on the expectation that it would actually happen, much as I might like it to.

Furthermore, in this case the decision to bar someone from entry rests with the Home Secretary, not Parliament. Of course, if there was a strong cross-party consensus, it would be a foolish Home Secretary indeed who ignored it, but Parliament has no power to enforce the result of the debate even if there is one.

It's also important to remember that the UK has had exclusion powers for years, and has used them on hundreds of people. There'd be nothing the slightest bit novel about banning Donald, save that he's a Presidential candidate candidate* for some reason.

* At least I shall assume that's the correct term, since he's currently only a candidate for the Republican nomination which would then still only make him a candidate for President.

The Debate

With that in mind, I watched the whole three-hour debate which I shall summarise for the less patient / more pressed for time below. And a very good debate it was. Quite unlike the riotous performances typically seen in the main chamber, there was not one cry of, "yeeeeeeeeah !", not one personal attack (except on Donald), and everyone gave way when pushed for questions. In fact, this is probably the first time I've ever seen politicians debating an issue as though they were actual grown-ups and not drunken teenage louts. I would even go so far as to say that I emerged with a strong feeling that British democracy was getting along rather better than I'd previously feared.

Admittedly, this did mean the debate fell into the "interesting" rather than "exciting" category, but it was not without its colourful moments. Donald was repeatedly lambasted as an "idiot", "buffoon", "fool", "stupid", whose ideas were "bonkers". The highlight was definitely when a member of this the Mother of Parliaments described Donald as a "wazzock". That, dear readers, is the sort of word the Brits use when they're 13 and haven't quite grasped the concept of swearing yet.

Not a single person defended Donald's ideas or presented him as an admirable figure. It's pretty darn hard to do that when several of the MPs present were female Muslims. "Yes, Donald is right to ban the Right Honourable elected lady because she's clearly plotting a terrorist attack right now, look, you can see it in her devious Muslim eyes, why I bet she'd have blown us all to pieces if she was wearing a burka".

Without further ado, here's my summary of the arguments debated for and against banning Donald. You can watch the full debate here or read a complete transcript here. Here I have attempted to condense a lot of the repeated arguments and present the counter-responses where appropriate, along with my own comments where I thought I had something worth adding.

  • Donald's views are causing an increase in violent hate crimes. His opinions aren't merely offensive, they are dangerous and causing harm to people who have done no wrong. At this point free speech becomes an excuse, not a virtue. We would be condoning bigotry to let him in.
Most of the MPs seemed to agree that yes, there does come a limit at which freedom of speech is a mistake. I'd agree with that too. The question then becomes : has Donald crossed that line ? Is he really inciting violence ? This was not fully answered. If he is, he surely should be banned. If he isn't, he should not.

  • Other people have already been excluded for having very similar views. The law must apply to everyone equally - in the words of the original petition, "the rich as well as poor, and the weak as well as powerful".
This is probably the most compelling reason for the ban. If you don't agree that it's right to ban anyone at all, well, fine, but if you believe in the rule of law you should currently advocate for the ban. The counter-argument to this one looked decidedly weak to me. Those advocating for the ban held up examples of bloggers and activists banned for very similar views; those against it held up a completely different list of people banned for actually being violent themselves. There does not appear to be a complete public list of those subject to exclusion orders, and that's a big problem.

  • Donald Trump would ban current British MPs from travelling to the US for no reason other than they happen to be Muslims. They've committed no crime, they've lived in the UK their whole lives and been elected to political office, but he would ban them anyway. Therefore we should have no scruples about banning Trump just because he's a politician.
I find this argument compelling too. The counter-argument that the ban won't actually happen since the President is not a dictator seems weak. More persuasive was the argument that we could be talking about banning the supposed leader of the free world - the richest, most powerful country on Earth - from coming to the UK, which is obviously a pragmatic nightmare even if that leader is a talking racist toupee. I could wax lyrical on America's schizophrenic attitude to freedom (you can get pulled over for minor traffic violations, can't buy alcohol until you're 21, but you can buy an assault rifle without anyone checking to see if that's a good idea), but I won't.

A closely related argument was that we surely would have banned other political figures for having similar views. The excellent counter-argument was that actually no, we've let in far worse people on official state visits before. Clearly, exclusion orders have problems.

  • A ban on Donald isn't interfering in American politics, it only controls what Americans are able to do while they're in the UK. It would send a clear signal to the US that we disapprove of Donald but that's not the same as trying to influence their election. Anyway Donald's policy would interfere with British politics so we should feel free to intervene in American politics.
    Those arguing for the ban had mixed opinions as to how it would work politically. The argument that politically it wouldn't cause problems was best expressed thus : "Donald Trump is a fool. He is free to be a fool; he is not free to be a dangerous fool on our shores." Ideally that may be true but the counter-argument, which I find convincing, was that the American voters won't see it like that. Therefore we would be interfering in American politics whether we intended to or not. The also convincing counter-counter argument was that by banning Muslims, Donald would ban the very people who could persuade him that he's wrong - leading to a self-perpetuating stupidity.

    • Freedom of speech is only necessary when people say things we don't like. Best expressed here as "...but it takes real guts to say unpopular and controversial things, and in that regard, I have a lot of respect for the Leader of the Opposition [Jeremy "I ride a Chairman Mao bicycle" Corbyn], whose hallmark is saying unpopular and controversial things. I will always defend his right to do that too."
    One slightly disturbing thing I've seen in the US election is that when people defend Donald for saying what he thinks (he isn't, but we'll get back to that) they are attacked because they must have sympathies for his moronic ideas. Well, here we have a very clear example of someone defending freedom of speech on both sides of an issue. That's absolutely the way it should be.

    (While we're at it, can someone explain to me why hate speech against Muslims (or any other group) is called, "free speech", whereas standing up for them is called, "political correctness" ?)

    But as already mentioned, the MPs seemed unanimous that freedom of speech does have some limits. Of course those limits should be used extremely carefully, but the question remained unanswered : has Donald crossed the line ? Or as one MP eloquently put it :  "I have heard of a number of cases in which people have been excluded for incitement or for hatred; I have never heard of someone being excluded for stupidity, and I am not sure that we should start now."

    • We should not stoop to Donald's level. Rather the opposite, that's what makes us better people. Moreover, we will only propogate his views with a ban - far from silencing them, it would be the biggest boost to his campaign possible.
    This strongly appeals to the Machiavellian streak in me and I have to say I find this the best argument against the ban by far. As I've written previously, Donald and his ilk use the vitriol of their opponents against them. That's how he can get away with (quite absurdly) protesting that his ban on Muslims would be fair but banning him would not (I'll get back to that in a minute), even though banning one individual is patently different to banning a whole group. He would say that his opponents hate him for telling the truth or some such effluence, and his popularity would only increase. So if we want to stop Donald, banning him is the last thing we should do.

    The counter-argument is that Donald is causing violence. Accepting this as true, it's hard to resolve these two very strong arguments (at least I think so).

    • Banning Donald would be ridiculously ironic. In fact it's crazy that we're even debating the idea of banning a Presidential candidate candidate at all. It's for the US to decide on Donald's views, and it's embarrassing and silly of us to hold this debate.
    This one I reject completely. Yes, the US get to decide if they agree with Donald or not, but they don't get to tell us how we respond to him. No, holding the debate isn't ridiculous. While I expect politicians in a representative democracy to have their own views, they still have to abide by the will of the people. In this case that meant more than half a million people calling for a debate, so I see nothing ridiculous in the discussion whatsoever.

    As to the fact that the ban would be ironic, I would say yes, that's the point. If Donald doesn't like being banned himself, what in the hell gives him the right to ban other people ? Wouldn't such a ban point out the stupidity of a ban in the clearest way possible ? Assuming that Donald is not actually a terrorist, he'd have been banned for no good reason. Clearly there are hundreds of millions of Muslims who aren't terrorists, and banning all of them is equally nonsensical. The irony isn't a problem, it's delicious.

    A more important rebuttal was presented in the debate : there's a difference between banning one dangerous individual (assuming he is one) and a whole group of people based on their beliefs. One person proved to be dangerous is wholly different from a diverse group of people with a common characteristic. You cannot say that a few extremists make that group dangerous any more than you can say that Irish terrorists make the Irish dangerous or neo-Nazis make the Germans dangerous. Judge people on their criminal behaviour, not what they believe in.

    • We should tackle Donald head-on, not suppress him. France has more laws against free speech than other European countries but the largest far-right party, whereas the British National Party collapsed soon after the leader's high-profile appearance on Question Time. We should educate and persuade Donald, not try to silence him. Donald is free to say stupid things, but the flip side of that is that we're allowed to point out his immense stupidity.
    I don't know if anyone has shown a correlation between free speech laws and the far right (or indeed left), but that would certainly be interesting. Assuming that freedom of speech does lead to less extreme views, then (with my Machiavellian streak again) I'd be all for increasing free speech laws as much as possible. It doesn't seem to be working in America very well at all though.

    The idea that we should try and persuade Donald is certainly a laudable goal, but flawed. It rests on the assumption that Donald is an idealist - someone with principles, who genuinely believes what they're saying. That probably applies to many of his supporters, but I doubt this for the man himself. He's populism incarnate, saying anything it takes to win votes. He has no principles and believes in nothing except himself. That gives him an advantage : he has literally no emotional stake in anything he says, so if he contradicts himself he literally doesn't care. Most politicians at least get flustered when they're caught acting against their own principles, but not Donald.

    Another rebuttal to this was that we shouldn't need to educate an American Presidential candidate candidate. The counter-rebuttal was that some Presidents haven't exactly been Mensa material.

    • Our values of tolerance are strong enough to stand up to Donald. We shouldn't ban him, we should ridicule him, as is the British way. Put him on Have I Got News For You and see how long he lasts.
    The Muslim MPs countered that it's all very well saying that our values are strong enough, but it looks a lot different when you and your community are being directly threatened. Their view was that Trump is succeeding in making a bad situation much worse. It's hard to disagree with that.

    A few MPs said that Donald is so dangerous that this is no laughing matter. On this I profoundly disagree. It is precisely because he's dangerous that he should be ridiculed at every opportunity. There's nothing more damaging to an idea than accurate ridicule. I personally would pay good money to see Hislop and Merton make mincemeat of the man. Notable quotes from the debate included : ""On that point about [banning]1.6 billion Muslims, thank God there aren't 1.6 billion Trumps !", ""Up close we might get to see just what is under that hair !", and, from a Scottish MP, "He is the son of a Scottish immigrant, and I apologise for that." Please also watch the HIGNFY link above for better examples.


    There was a unanimous consensus that Donald Trump is a bad person and his idea of banning all Muslims isn't a very good one. No clear verdict emerged as to whether or not he should be banned, though if I had to guess I'd say the nos had it.

    Personally I don't think it's so easy to come to an obvious conclusion here. If others have been banned for similar views, then the question becomes why shouldn't we ban Donald ? On the other hand, if we we really want to stop his campaign, we probably shouldn't ban him because it's quite plausible that will only make things worse.

    Ban or not, I'm strongly in favour of the ridicule approach. It's damned hard not be be afraid of Trump and nigh-on impossible not to hate him. Only by revealing him as the clown he is - albeit one in a dangerous position - can we stop feeding the fire, and perhaps persuade his supporters to see reason. Well, maybe.

    One might wonder if that given this lack of a clear conclusion there was any point in having the debate at all. I say yes, emphatically, there was. Sometimes there's value in a talking shop. The idea that issues are complicated and uncertain is something that only people like Donald can never understand.

    Sunday, 17 January 2016

    Ask An Astronomer Anything At All About Astronomy (XV)

    Just six questions this week, but they're rather interesting ones. Next week's task will be to re-arrange the categories. I'm thinking black holes and aliens deserve their own category. I also want to start keeping a list of questions I can't answer. Anywhere, here they are :

    1) If there was a quasar in the Milky Way, could we see it without a telescope ?

    2) How can we stop microscopic black holes from evaporating ?
    Oh, please don't.

    3) If I just start firing relativistic weapons off into the Universe randomly, do I need to worry about upsetting people ?
    No-one apart from psychiatrists.

    4) Will my relativistic projectiles be slowed down by drag from the interstellar medium ?
    No, but seriously lay off the planet-killers, OK ?

    5) What's the deal with that star with the alien megastructures ?
    It's cool.

    6) Can you turn into a black hole just by going really fast ?
    I don't know, but I'd like to. Anyone have an answer ?

    Monday, 11 January 2016

    Ask An Astronomer Anything At All About Astronomy (XIV)

    These posts are getting pretty popular. A particularly rich haul of questions this week.

    1) Is there any evidence other than redshifts for the expansion of the Universe ?

    2) Is there any way of explaining redshifts and the cosmic microwave background that could bring back the idea of a Steady State Universe ?

    3) If aliens find us, will we have to use their name for Earth instead of Earth ?

    4) Can we detect aliens on other planets by looking for gases in their atmospheres ?

    5) What is the escape velocity of Jar Jar Abrahams and is there a way to reduce this to zero ?

    6) How do you know black holes exist ?
    The usual way, really.

    7) What's the general sort of error when estimating the mass of a galaxy ?
    Your mum.

    8) Does it make much of a difference if you use Einstein's law of gravity instead of Newton's to estimate the mass of a galaxy ?
    Not really.

    9) How is the mass of a galaxy cluster determined ?
    Quite badly.

    10) Could gamma ray bursters explain the Fermi paradox ?

    11) What are you planning to research for the rest of the year ?

    12) Why are the planets so far away ?
    Because gravity is pathetic.

    13) Should we throw a big barbecue when the Milky Way collides with Andromeda ?
    Probably not.

    14) If all the stars exploded, how long would it take for all the heavy elements to decay ?
    Bloody ages.

    Tuesday, 29 December 2015

    Jar Jar Abrahams Wants To Kill My Childhood And This Is Odd Because I Never Did Anything To Him As Far As I Know

    OK, that's enough of the "virtues of critical thinking" and "oh isn't moderation just wonderful" posts. Nope, I'm going on a merciless ad hominem attack rant that will achieve precisely nothing but I don't care, you can't stop me, and it's Christmas. So there.

    J. J. Abrams knows diddly-squat about good storytelling. He has no more grasp of the ethos of a show than Michael "ADD MORE EXPLOSIONS" Bay, and he couldn't tell a morality tale if his sick grandmother's injured cat's life depended on it. Watching an Abrams movie is like watching a train crash, except instead of a train what I'm watching is everything I value in good storytelling being slowly and inexorably crushed and violated and the train is derailed so slowly that until it bursts into flames and people start screaming I'm not quite sure what the hell is going on. The Hindenburg might be a better analogy.

    There goes my childhood, betrayed and murdered by a young director known as Darth J. J.
    Take the Star Trek movies. No-one would accuse the original ten of being masterpieces of realistic science fiction or high drama. They aren't exactly subtle either. For their time they were big, flashy effects films... but the characters and their actions are firmly rooted in the left-wing liberal ideology of the show. The films are generally well-paced, if anything verging on the slow side. Action sequences only happen at climatic moments - most of the time the characters are doing what you'd expect : exploring. They might get into scrapes and japes but there's usually a good narrative reason for it. Nothing explodes unless it's supposed to.

    And no-one gets off with anyone unless they're supposed to. Take note of that, young Spock.
    Then along comes J. J. with all the subtle wit and sophistication of Billie Piper's mercifully short-lived singing career, or possibly a glacier except that this glacier is somehow on fire and travelling at 900 mph. Nothing about it makes any sense. All the characters are now aged fifteen and everything explodes at random. Kirk has been replaced with Zapp Brannigan - if you've ever watched the original show you'll know that the man is a worrisome bureaucrat and very far from the gung-ho womanising oaf of legend. And yes, the original series relies heavily on technomancy, but it was not stupid enough to ever have claimed that replacing a supernova with a black hole in any way improves the situation.

    Don't even get me started on the sheer vastness of the Trek universe and the total non-necessity of revisiting the Kirk era. It's over. It took three seasons and six and half movies - it's done. Then there were three and a half incredibly successful spin-off T.V. series. To say, "No, let's start over" is about as intelligent as hacking off one's foot with a lawnmower. No. Just no. There are just too many things wrong with that to bother giving a sensible response, so here's a kitty instead.

    Please JJ, no more ! Pleeeease !
    But there was one saving grace to the Abrams, "let's crap all over Rhys' childhood inspiration" movies : they were somewhat similar to the Star Wars prequels. Trek is very much science fiction, even when it gets the science badly wrong or just makes stuff up; Star Wars is a fairy tale in space. So it doesn't bother me when physics is treated with all the respect I'd normally reserve for Donald Trump's codpiece. I accept the need for random explosions and action sequences in Star Wars. I want Obi-Wan Kenobe to solve his problems with a lightsabre instead of a tricorder. The Enterprise hiding in a lake ? No. The Millenium Falcon ? Possibly.

    So, even though I spit upon Abrams Star Trek, burn it, scatter the ashes to the four winds, collect the ashes, eat them, then violently regurgitate them on his face, I did have some hope that he might make a decent director for Star Wars. And it did have a very good trailer.

    Abrams doesn't fail with episode VII as heroically as he did with Trek. I'm biased though, because Star Wars didn't play any role in my career choice. So I didn't emerge from the cinema in a tremendous nerd-rage and go and buy the box set of all of the original movies like I (really) did with Trek. I just left feeling empty inside and with the very distinct feeling that even the Star Wars Holiday Special felt more like it belonged in the Star Wars universe than The Force Falls Flat. And that's got twenty minutes of Wookies watching a cookery show without any subtitles.

    No really, I wasn't kidding. Don't watch it. I'm just putting this
    here for the sake of completeness.

    I didn't get on with TFA from the word go. Even the opening text felt somehow forced. The rest of the film suffers heavily from what I call the Babylon 5 syndrome : you're dropped into the story with insufficient explanation of what the hell is going on. None of the other SW films feel anything like that - you always know who everyone is, what they're doing and why. Even with the original episode 4, all the essentials are instantly clear. It's not actually that simple a story : the downfall of a democracy, the rise of a rebellion, the moral ambiguity of the central character (Vader, not Luke), an enormous range of characters and environments, the power of fear and hate to control a population... but it's told in a very simple way.

    As far as I can tell, TFA has no moral messages, not really any underlying story (except for something superficial that could have come from the Jeremy Kyle show) to speak of and certainly nothing that logically follows from Return of the Jedi. It is at best a very simple story told in a very complicated way. It is not in the least a fairy tale, it's just a bunch of people doing stuff in a highly derivative way from the originals which doesn't advance the story at all. Things seem to happen because the writers wanted them to happen, not because one thing follows another naturally.

    It's not all bad by any means. It's just not anywhere near good enough. Even The Phantom Menace feels like it's in the SW universe. Some of the characters in TFA feel like they've been dropped into a completely different society and had a lobotomy, or at least a nasty blow to the head.

    The villains are probably the worst problem. They do villainous things, but again it feels like they're only doing what the writers told them to do - they utterly lack menace even when they're doing menacing things. Kylo Ren wears a mask, but for no particular reason. Underneath he looks for all the world like he's a member of Slytherin House. His boss is some guy named Snook, or Snookie, or Sookie, or something - who is a CGI character only ever seen as a giant hologram (ah, but is he really a giant ?). Somehow that seems to completely sap any sense of threat.

    You might think this is from completely the wrong franchise, and you'd be right, but it isn't anywhere near as wrong as choosing JJ to direct.... well, anything.
    Perhaps it's the lack of the superlative aspect that makes them feel like such a damp squib. Palpatine was always at the top of the pile in the SW universe and he planned his attack over a very long time. It was clear that this guy was as evil as you could ever get - there's an almost pantomime quality about him and Darth Vader. You imagine that in their spare time they probably torture badgers or something. Ren probably just sits in his room being emo and painting everything black, while his boss most likely broods pitifully about wishing he wasn't made of CGI.

    Ren has bursts of rage because his lightsabre clearly isn't working properly. Was anyone else bothered by the fiery edge to the sabre blades ? All the others are clearly energy, so why is this one a flamethrower sword ? Not saying it isn't cool, just odd in context.
    Even the villain's organisation - the First Order - just doesn't feel right. The Empire was set up by the cunning machinations of a single individual over a period of around fifty years or so, but by smoothly manipulating the existing systems into something new : a very careful master plan that was brought to completion. The Order just turned up. Opportunists who took advantage of the Empire's downfall are just never going to be as threatening as the original Empire. What's their underlying goal ? Do they even have one ? How are they different from the Sith ?

    Like the movie itself, they're trying to be the bad guys but don't really quite get it - even when we see them doing much more evil things than what we saw in the original movies. In fairness, they are much more real than the Sith - but in the fairy tale universe of SW this is not a good thing. It's a bit like what would happen if Gandalf the Grey had turned up in Apollo 13. Adding more realism isn't necessarily a good thing if the established world isn't the slightest bit realistic.

    Then there's the new Death Star. It's much bigger and more powerful than the last one, but how the Order managed to construct it given the inevitable chaos and financial crisis resulting from the Empire's defeat is anyone's guess.

    The visuals. It must be said that some of these are very nice. The Falcon flying through a wrecked Star Destroyer is well done, as is (in particular) the scene where a tethered TIE fighter escapes from a hangar. Both the Order's and the Alliance's equipment look the way it's supposed to. The spaceships fly the way you expect them to. Nothing happens that's more outlandish than what's already been established is possible in the SW universe... except possibly the Big Star Sucker (aka the Death Star III) which just doesn't look convincing to me. Might have to do a science write-up on that one. Still, I would praise Abrams on the small scale stuff.

    It does look cool, I have to concede that.
    The characters. These too (villains aside) are not without merit. BB8 is obviously the star of the show, because he's cute and... umm... he can roll ? Yes. Rey is also cute and provides a much-needed strong female character without the need for a love interest. Fin may or may not be cute, you'll have to ask someone who's not me for that, but he seems solid enough (his continuous heavy breathing is presumably to continue SW long tradition of helping asthmatics feel important). But like the First Order, he's missing a serious amount of backstory. You don't really need this for archetypes like Luke and Leia, but it's not something you can just skip for characters like Fin and Ren.

    I want one as a pet.
    As for the regulars, C3PO also feels like he's been forced into the role - though I couldn't for the life of me say why. Chewie is always Chewie, so that's good. Leia seems to have been smoking about twenty a day for the last few decades, although since the actress did have serious problems I can't hold that against her. Han has flashes of the old Solo magic, but a lot of the time he feels more like Harrison Ford. Again I can't really explain why.

    The music, unfortunately, is a firm no. Every previous SW film has included at least one wonderful new hummable theme, but not this one. With the exception of the original SW music (which is not really used to its full potential), all the new stuff is minimalist and boring. I like minimalist, but it doesn't work here at all. You don't want tinkly piano music with a sweeping desert vista, it's just wrong. It further saps the fairy tale vibe and just makes me think, "oh look, more emos in space again, damn those pesky angsty goths always trying to be miserable hipsters". Like Casino Royale, it feels like sucking the fun out of what should fundamentally be a fun movie.

    I really wanted to like this film. I thought, surely this time Abrams must be due for a film I actually enjoy. Nope, not a bit of it. It's not the worst film ever made by any stretch, but it doesn't feel like a Star Wars movie to me. There's no magic in it, no joy. What good moments it does have are destroyed by the overarching crappy storytelling - a bunch of miserable people in space with a dull soundtrack trying to stop some boring villains from being sort-of threatening, in a way that feels every bit as forced as I always though a sequel would. There's no rhyme or reason to anything that happens. Like Star Trek, the soul of the original films has died.

    You have failed me for the last time, Abrams. Next time someone tries to get me to watch one of your stupid movies I'm going to cut myself with a spoon instead.