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,

Sunday 27 February 2011

Thursday 24 February 2011

On Referendums

Referendums are like buses. You don't get any for years, then two come along at once - and I'm gonna miss both of them, because I missed the deadline to nominate a proxy. Damn you, oceans !!

First up, more law-making powers for the Welsh Assembly. Hah ! I don't think so. I follow politics avidly*, and I can't even remember the first Minister's name. If he's that ineffectual then it's self-evident that more powers would be utterly wasted. Say what you like about David Cameron (this won't take long as he's entirely unlikeable), at least I can remember his name.

*I even watched the Assembly live, once. What can I say ? It's not nearly as thrilling as live chess.

Which is a shame, because Welsh independence is a nice idea in principle. But then so is eugenics*. The last time we had any real independence was more than 700 years ago and we wasted it with petty infighting. Alas little has changed, and our current politicians are not quite as competent as, say, a steaming pile of rat faeces.

*Trying to improve humanity is a laudable goal. Unfortunately, trying to do this through population controls is the worst idea since the Holo... oh....

It's not that they haven't done anything useful. It's just that what they have done has been of such little consequence that I'm chronically unable to care. They also inhabit a really odd looking building and the Assembly chamber has computers at every desk. Why ? Government should be about really loud, angry debates, not tweeting to your friends about reaching level 80 in World of Warcraft. Since they seem to have forgotten this, here's a helpful guide as to what's politics and what isn't.

So unlike the last Welsh rulers, I'll happily pay homage to our English overlords if it means being part of a greater whole. Better to reign* in Hell than serve in Heaven**. Long live our tyrannical English masters !

*Or at least have a small voice
**Though this analogy doesn't really hold, because even the most angry Welsh patriotic idiot wouldn't say the whole of England is a hellish place or think that Port Talbot really qualifies as even slightly divine. Still, John Milton was good at the whole "poetry" thing, wasn't he ?

The second referendum is about the alternative vote and is far more interesting. It'd give us a more proportional government, but lead to more coalitions - assuming the Lib Dems somehow manage to maintain anything like their current share of the vote. But that's OK, because I personally have already solved this problem so as long as people are paying attention then it will be fine.

But they're probably not, which gives me a headache. If I vote yes, we'll get a fairer voting system but no real control over who's in charge, because there'll be a coalition every time. Doesn't that sort of defeat the purpose of democracy ? But if I vote no, we're stuck with our current system where there are gross differences between a party's share of the votes and its share of the seats, which can't possibly be fair.

Here's an idea - let's do both. We've got two - count 'em, TWO - houses after all. And if we were to have true proportional representation for the House of Lords, we wouldn't even need a separate vote, or anything as complex as ranking all the candidates - we could just use the share of the vote for the House of Lords. Seemples.

Monday 21 February 2011

Some more words

Perhaps the previous post require more exposition for random visitors. Perhaps it doesn't, but it's damned hell going to have some anyway.

I passed my driving test on the 5th go, which makes it considerably more difficult than a PhD viva (which I got on the 1st go). It's also vastly more expensive. Passing a viva costs £162 to print out 3 hardback copies of the thesis, but they've paid you £37k by that point anyway. Passing a driving test on the 5th go costs £515 plus ~£400 for lessons to take the bloomin' tests in the first place, and no-one has paid you anything. Booo.

The lesson from this is to never, ever learn to drive. Get a doctorate instead. It's much easier and comes with a salary.

Despite shaking so much you could use my legs to break through reinforced concrete I managed to get away with only 2 minor faults. The only nearly serious thing the examiner thought I did was be too close to the center of the road while waiting at a junction. My instructor disagreed, which goes to show the test is, as I've previously postulated*, not entirely subjective.

*That would be a good name for a band...

I spent most of the test convinced I'd failed. First my parallel park seemed to leave me about 16 miles away from the kerb, but in fact it didn't. Then I thought I found myself waiting for a life-age of the Earth at every junction and thought I would surely accumulate so many undue hesitation's that I'd rival Clement Freud on Just a Minute. But the bit where I gained deep and unyielding conviction that I'd failed occurred at a roundabout, where I had to go round twice because I missed an exit.

There ain't nothing wrong with this, except that the examiner flicked the indicator back up to make sure I had a right signal on. I was told that if they touch the wheel, that's it. It seems there's a handy loophole in this one : the indicator stick isn't actually part of the wheel.

Ironically, it didn't ever occur to me that the one nearly-serious thing I did would be any kind of fault whatsoever. Ordinarily this would leave me to become so bitter and twisted with annoyance that I'd compose a sonnet to the evils of over-zealous examiners. Something like :

There once was a driving examiner,
Who couldn't rhyme anything with examiner.
So he decided one day,
To give up poet-ray...
And that was the end of the examiner.


See. That's what would have happened if I'd failed. I'd destroy this blog with Vogon level poetry. Instead, I shall have to pronounce by examiner the Nicest Man in the World and award him some sort of shiny medal. Now I just have to worry about passing the test again in a foreign country...

Tuesday 15 February 2011

Nick Junior Will Turn Your Kids Fascist

Seriously. I've watched this channel enough to become convinced it's run by a master of subliminal messaging who's intent on indoctrinating children into a sinister neo-nazi cult. The ultimate goal of which is to turn humanity into homogeneous, peace-loving pansies where we'll all kept in check by dark - possibly alien - occult powers.

OK, I tend to only watch the Bedtime session, because the target audience is in nursery most of the day. But bedtime is when they're at the most vulnerable ! Surely we should expect good, wholesome family entertainment at a time like this. Stories about happy little animals who dance around and don't do anything. Not so.

The evening's brainwashing typically begins with a large dose of Peppa Pig. This tells
stories of the adventures of a family of pigs (who look more like large pink whistles). Their "adventures" are simple enough - sometimes no more than Peppa jumping in muddy puddles, or Daddy Pig losing his glasses. But while the plots may be innocent, the subtext is anything but.

For starters, the physics of the world is all wrong. Cars can drive up hills so steep that a mountain goat would balk at the prospect. Worse, it's just as easy on a bicycle. Is this merely artistic license, or evidence that the artist is actually from a low gravity planet and not familiar with Earth physics ?

The moral dimension of the show is where things get really bad. There's an overwhelmingly mammalian bias to everything, which is best exemplified by the line, "Don't be silly Mr Bull, goldfish can't talk." And why not ?  What about the lizards and birds and snakes ? They don't even get a look in.

Such blatant racism is exacerbated by the segregation of all the different species. The pigs live in the pig house, the zebras in the zebra house. There's no intermarriage whatsoever. Where are the hybrid pig-goats and elephant-zebras ? Eh ? This world is a Nazi utopia and an anathema to multiculturalism. And since only the pigs are the stars of the show, we can infer that they represent the "Aryan" race, with the other animals representing "lesser" aspects of humanity. In fact, the whole "different houses" thing smacks of death camps to me.

Nor do the actions of any animals (at least pigs) have any negative consequences whatsoever. When Peppa supervises a baby's party, she makes them all cry but no-one cares. When she runs over Daddy Pig's prize pumpkin that he's spent patient months growing, he just says, "Never mind". I'd bet he wouldn't have said that if a zebra did it. He'd probably cart them off to the gas chamber instead.

After Peppa we get a long break full of commercialisation designed to make kids want things. Worse, at the moment we get touted with some royalist propaganda, where some girl pretends to be a Barbie-esque princess and we're all her "loyal subjects." Sod off, Barbie - I don't remember taking any such oath of allegiance. Such royalist claptrap can only be designed to give everyone an inferiority complex, reminding us to always obey our social betters - yet more Nazi indoctrination, dressed up in a cunning romantic mystique. Which is shame, because there are much better princesses available to emulate.

Do you want your children to aspire to a) Aryan supremacist who doesn't do anything except get married b) a noted peace activist who got landmines banned or c) angry woman who kills oppressive tyrants by using a sharpened frisbee ?

Then comes Ben and Holly's Little Kingdom. This delightful show is even worse than Peppa Pig, because now the protagonists are all basically human. And this time the racism is even more explicit - the elves and fairies actively avoiding each other, even to the point of holding separate Olympics. Even Hitler didn't go that far.

Moreover, the show is overtly anti-science. One of the main characters is the villainous fairy Nanny Plum, who uses her occult powers of sourcery to guide Ben Elf and fairy Princess Holly through their surreal adventurings*. It seems that all problems can be solved with magic. This leaves Wise Old Elf, who solves everything by thinking carefully and logically about each situation but always gets it wrong, looking a bit silly. Science is thus humiliated and primitive paganism venerated as the answer to the world's troubles.

* She also insults witches, which is somewhat inconsistent.

Nanny Plum and Wise Old Elf are always at odds, and it's almost always Nanny who wins. Fairies are quite explicitly the higher social order here, with the King also being a fairy (incidentally, he's also the only male fairy). The elves are very much the oppressed working classes who spent most of their time doing manual (i.e. "slave") labour, making toys for human children. Whereas Nanny teaches her fairy pupils that they must always look beautiful, and they never seem to do any actual work at all, which again smacks of Aryanism. She might as well dress up in a Klu Klux Klan outfit.

Here's where it gets really interesting. Nanny Plum and Miss Rabbit the teacher (in Peppa Pig) are voiced by the same person. Coincidence ? I think not. There can't possibly be such a shortage of voice actors. More likely the two shows are in league with each other, since they have such similar fascist views. Clearly they are trying to steal children's souls for indoctrination into a cult.

(One might think that if the two shows have the same message then their creator can't, by definition, be an alien as postulated earlier -  how would fly to Earth if he's anti-science ? The implication, of course, is that he came to Earth in a spaceship powered only by magic, which does not bode well for anyone.)

Finally the evening ends with a song that's the audible equivalent of tripe. It's just too happy. I've never trusted anything so jolly it causes vomiting - look at Disney, he was a Nazi sympathiser, after all. Yet it's utterly mesmerising to its poor naive youthful audience, slowly convincing them to watch more and more Nick Junior until their souls are corrupted and their hearts wither and blacken with the dark fire of racial hatred.

Monday 14 February 2011

For the Lolz

(another post where I steal someone else's idea and don't give credit except to point people towards )

Thursday 10 February 2011

The Joy of Treks

Star Treks, that is. I don't do a lot of trekking as it brings me out in a rash. Sorry people, but I'm a nerd, and that means periodic posts where I compose laments for one of the greatest TV shows of all time. It may not have ever had the best acting, script, plot, casting, cinematography, costumes*... well you get the idea. So why should non-trekkies give a damn about a show that was once Emmy-nominated for outstanding hairstyling ?

* Except one. See below.

Right now, there's a complete dearth of inspirational sci-fi shows, and inspiration was something Trek did better than any other show ever, bar none. As the 3 excellent documentaries Trekkies, Trekkies 2 and How William Shatner Changed the World make abundantly clear, this isn't wishful thinking on the part of some loser ultra-nerds. No, it's a very correct assessment by a group of really lovely ultra-nerds. Many of them have grown up to work for NASA and some fans have dedicated their lives to living by the ethics of Star Trek. A few are even married (but as far as I know none have become renowned hairdressers).

The thing is, if you're going to aspire to the ethos of show where humanity lives in a tolerant and mostly peaceful utopia, you're hardly likely to end up as a spite-filled brutish thug. Whereas if you follow Battlestar Galactica with the same level of devotion, you'll inevitably become a serial adulterer with lifelong crippling emotional problems, a confused obsession with religion, and an inexplicable burning hatred of all toasters.

Buy this on a T-shirt ! Be there and be square !

It could be worse though. A Farscape fanatic would grow up with a penchant for all things leather, wormholes and magic. Stargate would lead to a career in the army or archeology whereas aspiring to Babylon 5 or Andromeda would only lead to terrible acting skills. Firefly and Dr Who would at least instill an anti-authoritarian attitude, but both are borderline sci-fi at best. Caprica ? Alas I don't think anyone's going to plump for a career in cybernetics so they can create a killer-robot body for an emo teenage misfit genius.

Perhaps they thought there was an Emmy for the show with the most leather

Star Trek did two great things that few if any other shows have even bothered to imitate. Firstly, it was supremely tolerant of all colours and creeds at a time when such an attitude was needed most. Sure, the captain was a white all-American hero, though he had to wear a girdle for the safety of himself and those around him. But his crew were as ethnically diverse as the crowd at an Obama rally. A Russian navigator who was seemingly too young to be toilet trained, a Japanese sword-wielding pilot (who grew up to be George "I WILL have sex with you !" Takei), and a sexy fan-dancing black communications officer, to say nothing of the crazed Scotsman who lurked in the engine room - this was ground-breaking stuff at the time.

What's not to like ? Oh right, the girdles. But it's OK, it's Shatner.

Of course today no-one bats an eyelid at such things. Crazed Scotsmen can now be engineers without fear of shame or lynching, and the world is better for it. By the Next Generation, society was so tolerant that it could even allow a Frenchman in charge of a largely American crew. Black people were now so accepted that by Deep Space Nine, they could be captain and people were more apt to notice their blinding white teeth and terrifying stare than their skin colour. Indeed, only the presence of a female captain in Voyager elicited any reaction from anyone at all, and that was mostly because she had a voice that sounds like she'd been eating cigarettes and washing them down with a pint of whisky every day since she was 12.

But all this contemporary social justice would have been for naught without Trek's second clever thing : making technology cool. Everyone wants a warp drive. Everyone. Well, most people. But lots of people want a teleporter and I guarantee that everyone wants a holodeck. Sadly, the recent spate of 3D movies suggest we're better off without them, as the most successful movie of all time is about a bunch of 9-foot hippie smurfs who fly around on dragons protecting trees.

Now as I've said, no-one's going to be inspired by any of the contemporary sci-fi shows to go in for science or engineering. They're not lacking in interesting tech - Caprica had a cool take on cybernetics, but Star Trek did it better (of course, it took Trek a few goes before it stumbled upon the delectable Jeri Ryan and made everyone - ahem - happy*). The problem is that since Stargate Atlantis was cancelled, with only Caprica and the quite awful Stargate Universe left, it's nothing but bloody angst-in-space. Ain't no-one gonna work for NASA or get married (or even become a hairdresser) because of some show about teenagers moping around on a dark and dingy spaceship who spend their entire time whining that they can't get onto Facebook and that their iPhone's can't get a signal.

* Yes alright, Battlestar had Caprica 6, but she was a genocidal maniac. It'd be like doing Hitler, you sick freak.

Sure, there's a place for darker and more grown-up sci-fi. But can't we also have something where the future doesn't involve the Earth blowing up and everyone whinging about it ? Something where we venture into space and don't find 700 billion angry aliens trying to enslave us ? Or even something about a future in which humanity is not oppressed by armies of killer robots ? Call me crazy, but I think it's actually a lot easier to create a helpful robot monkey butler than it is to create an army of super-powerful robot killing machines possessed by the ghosts of teenage emo kids.

It doesn't even have to be Star Trek again. I just want a sci-fi show where the underlying message is not one of such complete doom that I feel like giving up and going to read the Daily Mail. That's not too much to ask, is it ?

Tuesday 8 February 2011

What use is a baby ?

Often when people are haggling for funding for blue-skies research, someone will employ the classic cliche : what use is a baby ? It's a good line. Everyone knows that babies are useless but eventually some of them become really useful people, like Michael Buerk and Scarlett Johansson. And eventually, so science tells us, we'll be able to have designer babies. Which begs the question : are babies really as useless as the old proverb would have it ? Or, to put it another way, if babies were a product you could buy from JML then what would the sales pitch be ?

I guess we must first start by trying to fit them into some sort of category. Clearly they belong in the house so must be some kind of household utility. What is it that they actually do ?

1) Eat
2) Sleep
3) Poop
4) Pee
5) Make noise
6) Increase entropy
7) Move about
8) Hit things
9) Change channel
10)Turn lights on and off

All of which could easily be used in a marketing campaign. They are in fact extremely useful. Observe :

Sometimes I wonder if I have too much time on my hands, contrary to all available evidence. Oh well.

Monday 7 February 2011

Review : GTA IV part 2 - the expansions

Following my recent completion of GTA IV, I thought I'd have a bash at what I guess you'd call GTA IV.V (strictly speaking that should be GTA IV S in Roman numerals) : The Lost and Damned and The Ballad of Gay Tony. Rather irritatingly, they're not expansions but standalone games, eating up another 16 GB of hard disc space. That's not a big deal, but they appear to share the same savedgame directory as GTA IV. And so, with the unstoppable inevitability that only narrative causality can bestow, my "story complete" saved game from the original has now gone.

I can only assume this part of the code was written by Muppets - most likely, Animal. It doesn't matter how many "Are you sure ?" messages are present, if you have a 40hr saved game file in a directory where other save games can be written, it is absolutely and irrevocably destined to be overwritten. Good job there's no point playing when the main story is complete, I guess.

He also works part-time as a programmer for Rockstar

This aside, the Lost and Damned is a decent addition to the GTA canon. You play as Johnny, a walking cliche who's second in command of biker gang "The Lost", previously encountered in the original game. Happily, bike physics has undergone some kind of Newtonian/Einsteinian revolution, so now you can cruise around without fear of suddenly finding yourself 70 feet up in the air because you got too close to an especially pointy bit of tarmac.

That's far from the only niggle the game irons out, either. For starters, it's now much easier to evade cops at the 3 star level. Once you're about halfway to the edge of the circle, the cop spawning rate drops dramatically. This doesn't detract from the challenge of the game, because it's skillfully balanced by the increased difficulty of combat. Enemies are not only more aggressive, but there are far, far more of them. Hiding behind cover will only protect you for so long.

Another screenshot I stole off the Internet. Combat is actually mostly about shooting people, not blowing stuff up.

To help you combat these hordes of unruly foes - usually other gang members, but also cops - you're given a selection of handy new weapons. First up, the grenade launcher. What does this do ? Lob grenades. Hmm. I could do that before, actually. With my hands. Yet it's strangely fun, probably because it makes a satisfying "thwoonk" noise. Then there's the assault shotgun, which is surprisingly poor as an anti-personnel weapon but very useful against vehicles.

There are a few totally new features introduced, like riding in formation to replenish your health and armour. 's alright I guess, but a bit of a chore. I'd rather just pay $1 for a hot dog from one of those foul-mouthed street vendors. You also get gang members to come and assist you on your travels, and if they survive they gain experience and toughness. Meh, I find it very difficult to care about any of them. It's far more fun to think of them as extra targets.

The downside of the game is the story. Like GTA IV, it's trying to be gritty and edgy but even more so. It's even more difficult to empathise with your character than Niko, because this time you play an annoying, fully-developed bad guy who's really nothing more than that. There's precious little joy in any of the missions (with the occasional exception) and far too much angsty "Oh woe is me, for I live such a hard and terrible life as a drug-dealing loser making buckets of cash off other people's misery but I'm just too much of a douchebag to do anything about it." Can it, Johnny. I expect this sort of nonsense in The Wire, not video games.

"Dear Aunt Agony, today I killed 15 people with a shotgun and stole all their heroin. I only did it because I feel trapped in the overarching socio-political situation in which Liberty City resides. Does this make me a criminal ? Will I still be able to claim benefits ?"

Which all meant that I got a bit bored after a while and stopped playing. Fortunately, the Ballad of Gay Tony is almost the polar opposite of the Lost and Damned. Here you play the sex-crazed Luis Lopez, assistant to nightclub owner Tony Prince. While the writers can't quite seem to bring themselves to lose the angsty gibberish entirely, they have at least seen fit to introduce Omid Djalili, attack helicopters with rockets, base jumping, a decent checkpoint system*... and oh yes, a tank.

* It's on your phone. Possibly it was there all along. Umm....

Like LAD, combat is far more intense than the original game. This time you get some pretty cool new weapons, like sticky bombs, a minigun, and the overwhelmingly powerful explosive shotgun. You get to blow up a large yacht. Skydiving becomes an integral part of the game, with one mission requiring you to go skydiving to steal a tank for Omid. What's not to like ? In another, you stand on the back of a moving subway train and use your explosive shotgun to take down wave after wave of attack helicopters.

Screenshots do not do this game justice.

The story line is... umm... well, I assume there is one, somewhere, but I didn't notice. I was too busy making things explode, which is all I've ever wanted from the game anyway. There's a nice variety of side-jobs that make the "pick up some stuff for Jacob" of the original look like even more pointless than they actually were. In place of boring driving missions you now go skydiving, get in involved in powerboat chases to steal drugs, and play golf*. Luis even has a day job as a nightclub manager. Unfortunately this last consists of you walking slowly (very slowly) around the club looking for trouble, and has all the engaging gameplay qualities of rancid cheese. Oh well, can't get everything right.

* Luis Lopez would have an interesting CV. Other hobbies : Skydiving, private security, sha.. entertaining the ladies, golf.

Alas I could not complete this expansion, although I really wanted to. One particular mission crashes about halfway through every time, and nothing I can do prevents it. Ah well.

The Lost and Damned : 5.0/10.0. Overall, not bad, but too angsty and just doesn't compare with...
The Ballad of Gay Tony : 9.0/10.0. This is what I wanted from GTA IV in the first place. Buy it. Buy it now ! NOW !! WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR ?!?

Wednesday 2 February 2011

Totally Dinosaur

Karen Brady's description of two sexist overpaid yobbos as "totally dinosaur" is an unwitting compliment. Everyone knows that 1) dinosaur is not an adjective and 2) dinosaurs are awesome even though they're dead. Perhaps Karen has a personal ratings system for prehistoric animals, which would explain point 1 (point 2 is explained by her being too busy making money to appreciate dinosaurs). I should very much like to know the details of this unusual adjective system she's developed but I'm too scared to write and ask her. I guess it would look something like this, putting dinosaurs in their proper place, of course.

This isn't my idea. I stole it off someone else, but he doesn't have a blog so can't tell the world about it. He does have a website though - go there now and buy some T-shirts at low low prices !