...a blog by Richard Flowers

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Day 2676: Profits from Petrol


BP and Shell have announced record profits but bless the poor little lambs, they say that it's all down to sky-high oil prices and their refining business is barely breaking even!

This is the sort of DISCONNECT from reality at the boardroom level that leads to people thinking:

"Hmmm, I could earn even more money if I didn't have to pay this pension for my workers!"

Yes, and you might think that you could save even more if you just paid for the GUARDS with WHIPS and didn't pay the workers at all… but it DOESN'T WORK that way.

If you want people to do a DIFFICULT and DANGEROUS job then you need to reward them. One way to do that is with a free and generous pension scheme, so that at least they will know that they will be looked after after a lifetime of grim and let's be honest nasty slog.

I'm sure that it doesn't help his case that the man responsible for all this was ranked at twenty-fifth on the UK RICH LIST.

His company, Upyors, makes a practice of buying up chunks of production plant and then SQUEEZING them for extra profits. So, not ACTUAL entrepreneurship, then, where you have an idea and build it up. More like VAMPIRISM, really.

Whatever happened to companies wanting to look after the needs of their employees, anyway? Aren't people the most important asset any business can have? Treating them as disposable grunts isn't just rude, it's stupid business sense. You've invested in training these people up, and working through their learning curve. You CAN'T just replace them tomorrow without losing a lot of time and money. So why not be grateful for that extra cash that a trained worker is generating and not try to squeeze another dollar out of him by skimping on the pension you promised?

Day 2675: So Now He's a LABOUR Conservatory?


Clearly unable keep up the pretence of being a "LIBERAL Conservatory" any longer, Mr Balloon has turned his predatory – preda-Conserva-tory, even – gaze on the Labour's softening support.

"We'll be there for you," that was Mr Balloon's new message to the working poor.

"The Labour have let you down badly, but we'll be there. Gideon needs some people to pick up the apples on his estate, and Mr Vague knows a couple of half-decent gang masters. And goodness knows I'm finding it hell getting a nanny these days, especially now the NHS is paying nurses a decent living…"

If Mr Balloon is "there" for the people hit by Mr Frown's doubling of the 10p tax band, perhaps he'd like to tell us what his ALTERNATIVE is?

"Oh, no, I couldn't tell you what a Conservatory budget would look like this far from the other side of a General Election."

Mr Andy Marmite tried to press him on the issue:

"Mr Balloon, are you ready for Government?"

"Oh yes!"

"So what are your plans?"

"Gee whiz! I couldn't possibly tell you THAT!"


"Aren't the Labour terrible, though, yah boo! Isn't it AWFUL that the poor oiks will have to pay more tax!"

"So, would you reinstate the 10p band?"

"You're asking me to make decisions!"

"Err, again!"

"Mr Frown has shown nothing but dither and u-turns over his decisions; that's why I'M not going to make any."

"But the only actual concrete tax cut that you've proposed is to cut inheritance tax for, frankly, people as wealthy as you are. That's no good to the low paid, is it?"

"We've made it clear that we'll share the proceeds of growth between the state and the economy, so that the government takes less as a proportion as the economy grows."

Look, just ONCE I wish someone would NAIL him on this: "Mr Balloon, when you say you're going to grow the state LESS than the economy, exactly WHO do you mean will be getting BELOW INFLATION PAY RISES?"

Health, Education, Defence, Police and Public Safety (I think that means MI5!): that's 42% of the nation's budget right there.

If you're going to restrict the growth of the government spend, then realistically some of that restriction has to be in these areas. Where are the cuts going to fall?

Then you've got to consider the 30%+ spent on social protection – that means pensions and incapacity benefit and jobseekers allowance, for the benefit of Mr "defender of the poor" Balloon, plus child benefits and any bits of the tax credit scheme that Mr Frown can't get away with disguising as negative taxes. Mr Balloon clearly has a greedy, beady eye on the incapacity benefit. Yes, he wants to cut money for the sick in order to pay for "sharing the proceeds of growth".

He plans to make people take compulsory medical examinations… hang on, doesn't he know that people have to take regular compulsory medical examinations ALREADY? (You have to haul yourself off to the hospital and then hope that you are ILL enough on the day to convince the Government probulators not to stop your benefits. Of course if you're TOO ill to travel and miss the appointment they'll stop your benefits anyway.) Does Mr Balloon actually think that people will just go: "oh, if only I'd realised that having both of my legs blown off by the Taliban makes me a drain on the resources of worthwhile people; I'd better just go and get a job"?

And this is the money that Mr Balloon wants to use to give a tenner a week to married couples, rich and poor alike.

And he has the GALL to call it MORALLY WRONG when Mr Frown takes from the least well off to fund perks for the rich.

Add all that up and you've got more than 70% of all government spending. And, with the 5% spent paying the interest on all that debt that Sooty's running up not easily reduced either, you've got less than a quarter of the Government's spending plans left for you to find your savings and "cuts in waste" from.

Mr Marmite chanced his arm again, trying to test Mr Balloon's spending plans.

"You've made lots of spending commitments, though: increased funding for the armed forces, matching the Labour's increases on health, more for education, more for post-natal support… where's all the money going to come from?"

"Look, I've had to make the tough decisions. I know I said I wouldn't make decisions, but it was a tough decision and I decided to make them."

"Yes, but what ARE they?"

"That would be telling!"


"Okay, how about this, MPs' pay. I've said we'd keep MPs' pay increases down."

MPS' PAY?????!!!!!

MPS' PAY?????!!!!!

You could scrap the payroll vote entirely and it wouldn't pay for a whole EUROFIGHTER! You wouldn't save a zero-point-one of a billion if you abolished the whole of the House of Commons! How can you possibly, POSSIBLY expect to pay for your promises if THAT is the sort of thing you think of when you talk about trimming the waste?!?!

Not that Mr Balloon is a man who you can trust to KEEP his promises, as he himself ADMITTED to the The Today Programme's Mr Humpy.

The only promise he's been in a position actually to deliver on and he "fesses up" that he's broken it.

Actually, that isn't true – he ALSO promised to pull the Conservatories out of the European People's Party in Europe… and he broke that promise too.

Now, normally, Mr Humpy's aggressive style of interviewing, interrupting and badgering, can be quite annoying, bit today on Today I detected a CUNNING PLAN: he WANTED to make Mr Balloon lose his cool. As Mr B very nearly admitted, when he gets cross he loses it – that was his excuse for name-calling at Prime Monster's Questionable Time – and that was what Mr Humpy wanted him to do live on air. Not that Mr Humpy has a political AGENDA!

Actually, Mr Humpy DID miss another trick: Mr Balloon claimed that he'd been against Mr Frown's 10p tax policy from the very beginning (which obviously isn't TRUE because he WELCOMED the tax cut and didn't notice where the money came from until Sir Mr the Merciless pointed it out) BUT he ALSO claimed that he was angry with Mr Frown because we've just discovered that he was robbing the poor to pay the rich. Well both of those CANNOT be true at the same time! Mr Humpy should have said: "Which is it, Mr Balloon, were you against it from the start or have you only just discovered it? Which was the lie?"

So we missed that but we got broken promises and Mr Balloon's useless confession. You're not PROPERLY SORRY if you're going to do it AGAIN Mr B!

But presumably, six months into a Conservatory Parliament, we can all look forward to:

"OK, look I put my hands up to it: we said that we'd lower taxes and borrowing and keep the minimum wage and not invade Iran and abolish I.D.iot cards and detention without trial and reinstate Magna Carta, and I "fess up", you've caught me out, I've broken all those promises: we've put 10p on the basic rate of Income Tax in order to abolish Capital Gains Tax for non-doms, tripled the national debt to pay for hired mercenaries so that we can invade Venezuela, abolished the minimum wage, sold the NHS to Haliburton, reintroduced the slave trade and appointed Robert Mugabe as Minister of Justice… it's not like I didn't TELL you we were going to do all these things. Oh wait, I didn't."

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Day 2673: DOCTOR WHO: The Sontaran Stratagem


The Sontarans are back and they are NEW! But will they be a SMASH or have they had their CHIPS? Are they hard BOILED or is their Stratagem HALF BAKED? Is the Earth in for a ROASTING, will UNIT be able to repel the alien SAUTEE/SORTIE or, er, something about CROQUET/CROCKET…

[R: enough, enough of the potato jokes!]

A Sontaran Battle Group, yesterday
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Size, as they apparently also used to say on Gallifrey, matters.

Sontarans (pronounced Sont-ar-ans by everyone in the galaxy except Christopher Eccleston and Donna Noble it would seem) are famous for being short. Nasty, brutish and short, was the Doctor's description when he was abusing a quote from Hobbes. Except in "The Two Doctors" when, even apart from being the embarrassing comedy stooges for Servalan in a bacofoil robe, even apart from the director's baffling choice to reveal them in the middle distance of a long shot, even apart from having flappy necks and wider collars than a 1970s sports presenter, they are notoriously far too tall.

Possibly reacting against that, the 2008 new model Sontaran army is positively tiny. Too tiny, in fact. They look like children in toy suits of armour, and there is no sense of power or squatness about them. I think it's that they just taper away to nothing, with their wasp-waists and chicken legs. From the chest up, they're rather good, but in full length there's just something that looks wrong. The masks are rather good – Alex agrees about General Staal, but thinks that Commander Storr looks gormless, and I suppose he has a point – but they don't fulfil the original joke of the head being almost exactly as big as the domed helmet: those suits of armour necks are much larger than the Sontaran neck within. And those comedy Hobbit ears aren't good.

It looks, on the whole, as though the Cardiff production team are once again raiding Lawrence Miles' back catalogue. In the first "Faction Paradox" audio play and much more of the same in "About Time, Volume 3" the Sontarans are described as "troglodytes" and that is very much what they seem to have gone for here. But they're just not "hobgoblin-y" enough.

That's not to say that Christopher Ryan doesn't give us a wonderful performance as the General, truly a memorable villain but also and interestingly with an almost paternal air about him at times.

At the other end of the scale, though, their "fleet" is too small too.

As has been remarked of their surprisingly minimalist attack on Gallifrey: the Sontarans reproduce in millions: surely their fleets should have dozens of star-carriers, each capable of launching hundreds if not thousands of fighter-spheres.

Here they have only one medium-large ship with a few dozen support fighters – Alex really dislikes the fact that the elegant Sontaran sphere design, capable of motion in any direction, has had clumsy rocket pods stuck on the back to make them look more "spacey" – and yet Staal refers to it as if he has the whole of the Sontaran Tenth Army on board.

The only possible explanation – though there's nothing to establish it on-screen – is that this is an advance probe on a deep recon mission. That would fit with what we think we know of the Sontaran/Rutan conflict, namely that our galaxy is occupied by Rutan forces for some time until the twentieth century during which the Rutan Host stage a series of "strategic withdrawals" ("Horror of Fang Rock"), leaving the galaxy unimportant to their conflict until the Sontarans decide to occupy it some fifteen thousand years into the future ("The Sontaran Experiment").

Then there is the question of what the heck they are up to. As Alex has already remarked, skulking about in hiding, using a human proxy, developing ludicrous weapons that take advantage of our own technology rather than relying on their own strength: they are behaving like late sixties Cybermen. But why? They have a cruiser-class spaceship in orbit and almost certainly the technological superiority to defeat any possible Earth counter-offensive, even if – for whatever unmentioned reason – they don't have a full million-strong invasion force.

And even if they did think that Earth could mount an effective retaliation, these are Sontarans we are talking about: they love a fight and relish the opportunity to rush headlong into death or glory situations. I'm relatively surprised that no one has had Staal shot as a coward by now.

Again, it's possible that there's an explanation for this: either they're being cautious of Torchwood's Death Star or there are significant Rutan forces in the neighbourhood who might be alerted to their presence by a more traditional assault. It's possible, but there's no hint of an explanation on the screen. In fact, there's no mention of the Rutan at all – which is a surprise given that David Tennant is forced to gabble almost all of the rest of the Sontarans' backstory. And that's a shame, because one of the strengths of the Sontaran stories is that by framing everything they do in the context of their unending conflict with the Rutan enemy, it gives a sense that what's going on is meaningful as a part of a larger context. Basically, it's the much needed excuse for why this bunch of aliens are invading the Earth this week. Without that, it becomes run-of-the-mill.

Lawrence has got there ahead of me, but this week I think that he's rather got a point. After "Aliens of London", "The Christmas Invasion", "Rise of the Cybermen" (on a technicality: yes it is a parallel Earth but the aesthetics of the monsters rampaging around "home" are identical), "Army of Ghosts", "The Runaway Bride" and "Last of the Time Lords", modern day Earth has been invaded so often that it's becoming a bit silly.

(And that's without getting into Sarah Jane: "Invasion of the Bane", "Revenge of the Slitheen" and "Eye of the Gorgon". And all of Torchwood.)

My suspicion is that what this reflects is that Russell was weaned on the Barry Letts version of Doctor Who – where the third Doctor was exiled to Earth as a careful budgeting exercise, allowing one or two off-world adventures to be paid for by cheaper London evacuated while UNIT fights off Yeti/Cybermen/Silurian plague/Dinosaurs – while Larry is a child of the Hinchcliffe era – where the fourth Doctor roamed away from present-day Earth into a range of psychedelic, budget-busting adventures.

It's actually a disappointment that this back on Earth story is the one that gets two episodes.

Last year I was happy to defend Helen Raynor's writing of the Dalek two-parter, yes "Evolution of the Daleks" as well. But something has gone wrong this year. Perhaps last year the setting in time and place gave some scope for some interesting facts to hang the story's themes around; this year, some wafer-thin environmentalism aside, there's just not the same framework.

Where episodes like "Partners in Crime" and "The Fires of Pompeii" seemed packed with incidents that flow into one another, "The Sontaran Stratagem" seems slow and disjointed. It's almost as though it can't quite decide what it wants to be. The teaser opens like a thriller, with a journalist meeting a mystery death. (Does she count as one of the fifty-two, or did she tip UNIT off to the others? It's never said which and it leaves the opening isolated from the rest of the story.) Then there's a full UNIT invasion, like something that Douglas Camfield might have made really spectacular, but oddly placed at the start, going in all guns blazing before they know any of the facts (though this maybe links to the less kind, less gentle UNIT that Russell seems to have developed in Torchwood). But then there's a "Thing from Another World" something-in-the-basement horror story, with the two UNIT troopers (and look, if a soldier doesn't get a response from his radio then he won't just ignore it of forget about it, no matter how gung-ho daft his mate is). And then, surreally, the Doctor nips off to a junior Bond villain's palatial home to swap grammatical bon-mots with him.

Oh dear, Luke Rattigan. What did they think they were doing?

I almost sense an older version of the story buried underneath, where Luke is a genius but bullied for being short, and now he's found some big butch soldiers who appreciate him and he's actually taller than they are. But instead he's a patronising idea of what a "clever" person might be like, the complete opposite of season one's amoral Adam Mitchell, dumbed down and with an irritating accent and no motivation whatsoever.

How and why he teamed up with the Sontarans is just another of the maddeningly avoided questions in this episode.

He only seems to be working with them because he likes that they kill people. So, he's a sociopath too, but not up to getting his own hands dirty.

Without any understanding of what he's doing much less why he's doing it, we can't develop any sympathy for him whatsoever.

What is worse, there are moments where we are expected to empathise because he's supposed to be like the Doctor but gone bad.

So, it probably doesn't help him any that the Doctor is at his lowest ebb of likeability in quite some while. I mean fair enough, he's been thrown onto the back foot by Martha calling for him and turning out to be in charge of a battalion of UNIT troops (and sorry, Martha, not carrying a gun personally when you are giving orders to an army of soldiers is a bit of a cop out… though it's the same cop out that the Doctor makes quite a lot. As a serving member of the armed forces, she's in no way in the same position as the wandering Doctor, with a responsibility to anyone she'd going to order into battle, and a responsibility to obey her commanding officers too. And she's not even remotely in the same sort of position to make improvements as, say, Cap'n Jack: he's big, butch and the boss, immortal and all the way from the fifty-first century; she's, er, UNIT's medic).

But he's really not so sympathetic to UNIT anyway. Yes, the in-joke about "back in the Seventies… was it the Eighties" was much appreciated (and already there are OG-ers in denial about that second half of the line). But he's cold towards them, and it serves to emphasis how callously he can treat troops sometimes, using them as he might use any other tool, but not caring for the tool he has to use. The Doctor is positively rude to Colonel Mace, though, while he seems to take to "pretty young thing" Ross who is not substantially different, indeed seems actually more xenophobic on occasion, while his commanding officer seems to be making an effort. Yes, Ross makes a few jokes; so does the Colonel.

Am I alone in thinking that there's something actively wrong with the Doctor making the same lame "intruder" joke that Henry van Statten made in "Dalek"? Maybe Martha's not the only one with an evil clone.

Oh, yes, getting back to the idea pile-up that is supposed to pass for plot, Martha gets herself cloned by the Sontarans. Remembering that this supposedly started out like a thriller, surely the most elementary plot decision should have been to keep secret who the clone infiltrator was. Suppose instead that the Doctor discovers the cloning lab and announces that someone is not who they seem: hours of who's-the-traitor fun rather than wasting great chunks of our time painstakingly showing us what we grasped in about two-seconds flat.

Does clone Martha actually achieve anything? It appears not, as she just glides around menacingly until the General sets off his gas weapon anyway. "Now we can begin," she says, when it looks like there's not much left to do.

Freema is lovely, and gets to play good and bad Marthas in delightful style, but really what's the point? When Rose met Sarah Jane, that dynamic took over the episode and lifted a banal A-plot into something special; here the Doctor and Donna and Martha barely spend any time together at all, a couple of perfunctory scenes each, and then they all pop off into their own little bubbles.

We finish with some more "domestic". Actually, we haven't really done domestic properly since the magnificent Jackie Tyler left. We meet Martha's family twice, and both times at parties, before the Master wheels them all off to prison and torture. Nor have we yet got a sense of what Donna's mum and granddad actually do, other than sit in the kitchen for a cuppa, or go up the allotment. Series one painted a vivid picture of the Tyler's real lives; since then we've barely got to know these families. It's telling that we're more concerned for the fate of Wilf because he's played by Bernard Cribbins than because he's Donna's granddad.

Oh, and as almost everyone in the entire world must have said: don't try and unlock the car, smash the window (you can even do it with the sonic, see "Army of Ghosts"). The "evil Sat Nav" might be able to take control of the car's locks but it can't possibly make the safety-glass indestructible.

I imagine Donna will do this in next week's pre-title sequence.

Next time… there's a big battle, there's a tense countdown, but will there be any explanations in "The Poison Sky"?

Monday, April 28, 2008

Day 2674: In Tribute to Humph we present: MILLENNIUM CRESCENT


My Daddies and I were VERY SAD to hear of the passing of the LEGENDARY Sir Sir Humphrey Lyttelton.

But before he has to go, there is just time for a round of MORNINGTON CRESCENT.

The usual rules apply for the standard tournament game, EXCEPT you must start from here:

North Greenwich for Millennium Dome
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and Elephant and Castle is automatically in NIB.

As an easy and obvious first move, I will play here:

King's Cross St Pancras
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Sunday, April 27, 2008

Day 2671: This Never Happened


An air-raid, that Israel refused to admit to sending, destroyed a building, of which Syria refutes the very existence, containing a nuclear reactor, that North Korea categorically denies having anything to do with.

So everyone is in agreement. I believe this is called DÉTENTE.

You know, another advantage of developing the technology for RENEWABLE ENERGY – wind power and solar power – is that you CAN give it to countries in the Middle East so that THEY do not have to worry about energy security and YOU don't have to worry about them developing secret ATOMIC BOMBS to EXPLODE you with.

Day 2669: Spink or Swim?


So the UKPNuts have gained their first MP. Which is nice for them.

He is Mr Bob Stink MP, who was kicked out of the Conservatories for resigning; or possibly resigned from the Conservatories because they kicked him out. He dumped her; no she dumped him. There appears to be some confusion.

Anyway, as an HONOURABLE member, Mr Bob has decided to represent the three-thousand four-hundred and thirty-one people who voted for UKPNuts in his Castle Point constituency at the last election. Rather than the twenty-two thousand one-hundred and eighteen poor deluded fools who thought they wanted a Conservatory.

You MIGHT think that this is a bit UNFAIR, but apparently the Conservatories OFFERED a safe seat to Mr Nigel Farrago, leader of UKPNuters, so this must be it!

The LAST time that the Conservatories lost Castle Point was in 1997 when a Dr Bob Stink (no relation… well, not MUCH) lost to the Labour's Ms Christine Butler.

This time, they nobbled Mr Stink themselves; so, no one will be able to say that the Butler did it.


Saturday, April 26, 2008

Day 2672: Green Shoots herself in the Carbon Footprint


Speaking to theLondonPaper yesterday for their first of their Mayoral Interviews, Green Candidate Ms Sian Very-Berry said that to get to work “four of us went in a taxi which is as energy efficient as a two-thirds empty bus”

That would be the bus that was going to run ANYWAY.

So Ms Very-Berry’s “efficient taxi” was an EXTRA carbon cost ON TOP OF the bus, not INSTEAD of it.

Vote Green, Get SMOG! you might say.

To make the bus MORE efficient you want more people to USE it, not make silly excuses for snobbishly choosing a taxi instead.

If the bus has to wait until it’s full, like Ms Very-Berry seems to want, then it will be VERY late, and UNRELIABLE and FEWER people will want to use it.

Congratulations then to Mr Neal Wilson with the “Letter of the Day” in today’s theLondonPaper pointing this out for our obviously very short-sighted Ms Very-Berry.

Sadly, she may be green but, it appears, she’s no friend of the Earth.

Day 2669: Hillary-Billary wins Transylvania


Oh, sorry, apparently that's PENNsylvania.

In the Blue Ridge Mountains of Carpathia. No?

Look, what does a fluffy elephant know about GEOGRAPHY? Anyone can make a mistake. Even Buggs Bunny! Watch!

Mind you, I'm not doing so badly when you consider that the Conservatory Shadow Secretary of State for ABROAD, Mr Vague, thinks Uganda has a coast. He's probably confusing it with Bohemia.

But never mind all that, it turns out that Senator Hillary-Billary has staged yet another remarkable comeback and/or Senator Barry O has once again been deprived of a clean victory (depending on your taste in Candidate).

I think that the first thing to say is that everyone needs to remember that it's not Hillary-Billary's fault that the Dumbocrat's electoral system is STUPID.

This was a well-deserved win, mainly won by going in and campaigning on the LOCAL ISSUES.

Sure, she threatened to VAPORISE Iran, which is definitely NOT very nice, but then Barry O promised to nuke Pakistan, and as for Mr Oven Chip…

At least Hillary-Billary was (at least notionally) trying to DETER with a promise of FIERY VENGEANCE should Iran carry out its threat to wipe Israel off the map.

And she might have played the "Look Out! Terrorists!" card (like her husband NEVER did that!), though you've got to say that that card is GOING to get played sometime in this election and the Senator from Illinois is going to need to have a better answer than "no fair!".

But Hillary-Billary also appealed to the people who want their voices heard but are often left out of the electoral process. And she's got a BIT of a point when she says that these are the people that the Dumbocrats NEED to be reaching out to if they are going to build a coalition to win in November. All the more reason to make sure you keep her ON SIDE even once Barry O has won.

Attempts to force Hillary-Billary to give up the race aren't going to help, though, particularly if it makes this vital sector of the electorate think they're being silenced.

If it ends up "going all the way to the Convention", well, isn't that just what the system is SUPPOSED to do? So what if you might prefer it to cut the whole business short!

A proportional system to select the Convention Delegate seems like a GOOD thing, but in a contest to select ONE candidate, you can't GET a proportional outcome. (Not without some sort of horrible TRANSPORTER ACCIDENT, anyway.)

But the main problem is that it just goes on FOREVER! Though in fact the turnouts at the polls and the ratings for the TV debates, now in Prime Time, actually suggest that in a close race between two candidates with solid support people are actually GRIPPED by this, not turned off.

It might make more SENSE if it was about letting the candidates focus their campaigns in one region at a time: spending proper time getting to know and be known by voters in the South or the Midwest or on the East or West Coast, concentrating on the issues that are appropriate to those States. But when States like California and New York, on OPPOSITE sides of the CONTINENT, hold their primaries on the same day it's just one mad rush, mostly flying backwards and forwards and burning up the Carbon Footprint like nobody's business!

Of course, everyone EXPECTED it to be all over bar the shouting on Super-Double-Duper Tuesday, but again we come back to the proportional system.

And then there are the so-called super-delegates. No, they're not the ones with HEROES powers (except the Flying Congressman, obviously) but nonimated members of the "great" and the "good". Or, being as this is Americaland, the RICH and FAMOUS. And the Kennedys. Who are both.

It seems that a lot of people are saying that the super-delegates should not "overturn" the decision of the voters, and if say – let's just take a WILD GUESS and pick – Senator Barry O has more ordinary delegates when they get to the Democratic National Convention in Denver, then the super-delegates should accept that that means Barry is the winner.

Now, I happen to think that you shouldn't have super-delegates AT ALL, but if you DO have a system with super-delegates, then surely you have them for a REASON, not just to act as a rubber stamp. In effect you've ended up having a group with a casting vote. Or four-hundred odd casting votes, actually.

At the moment the declared super-delegates split pretty evenly, anyway. Slightly breaking in Hillary-Billary's favour, but her advantage of about two-dozen hardly cancels out Barry O's one-hundred-and-fifty-odd lead in ordinary delegates.

Of the four-thousand and forty-seven delegates to be chosen, there are only seven hundred and twelve still to be decided: four-hundred and eight at the ballot box, and three-hundred and four uncommitted super-delegates.

Hillary-Billary needs four-hundred and thirty one to reach the "winning line" and become the Candidate. Assuming, and it's a REASONABLE assumption, that she goes all the way, and that the voters continue to be pretty evenly divided, she'll probably STILL need two-hundred and thirty of the super-delegates once she gets to Denver in August.

Barry, on the other fluffy foot, is only three-hundred and one away from winning. If he does SPECTACULARLY well, he could actually tie it up in the Primaries – remember, Hillary-Billary CAN'T win on the popular vote alone, now – but assuming he doesn't, he'll probably get to Colorado only around a hundred shy of the target.

Denver to Las Vegas is about 750 miles as the crow elephant flies, but I think you can probably work out the odds for yourself.

Is a long campaign like this actually a BAD thing, though?

Would we have seen Barry O rise to the heights of oratory with his moving and thoughtful speech on race, or seen into the other side of his personality with his off-the-record remarks about the bitterness of the white poor, if it wasn't for Hillary-Billary snapping at his heels all the way?

And this idea that she is "doing Senator Oven Chip's work for him"… I think that that is quite wrong. Sure every attack the octogenarian warmonger is going to try will be met with: "but we dealt with that when Senator Clinton raised it? Weren't you paying attention?"

Hillary-Billary is quite right, the American people do not want a QUITTER for a President – and while both she AND Barry O have stuck it out, Senator Oven Chip has… gone on vacation.

Hillary-Billary has done AWFULLY WELL. She would have been a GREAT Candidate (and in unforeseen circumstances she still JUST might be). Why deny her the lap of honour, especially when she's paying for it.

But Barry O is going to win.

Yes, it has been HARD, and yes there have been some UNFORTUNATE times along the way, but I don't think that this has so much damaged as TEMPERED and frankly I trust him a whole lot more now that he has had to WORK to get the nomination than I did when he was going to be wafted into the White House on a wave of optimism and warm words.

Mr God Bless Amnesia!

Friday, April 25, 2008

Day 2665: Zimbabwean Anniversary


It was Zimbabwean Independence Day, and to celebrate his Independence from REALITY Mr President Mugabe gave a great big ANNIVERSARY speech.

It was the 20th Anniversary… yes it was 20 days since the Presidential Election wot he lost.

And still no sign of him saying what the results were.

Like we don't know.

Day 2663: Mr Frown versus The Pope


To Amercialand to watch the World Heavyweight contest to see who can be the STEAMINGEST hypocrite.

In the BROWN corner: the Right Honourable Mr Frown, Prime Monster of Great Britain, justly proud of his record on tackling POVERTY by increasing TAX on the lowest paid workers.

But in the WASHES WHITER corner: His Holiness Mr Pope Benelin* née Rottweiler, Bishop of Rome, Head of the Inquisition and Junior Nazi League Come Dancing Champion 1944, SPECTACULARLY claiming that his lot are responsible for human rights.

In 1215 AD, Mr Pope Innocent III took just ten weeks to annul MAGNA CARTA.

It's all very well saying that Magna Carta was mostly about the rights of Barons in castles and Knights in suits of armour, but nevertheless it was the very FIRST time that anyone anywhere had established the principle that the STATE (in the then person of Mr the King) had to obey the law too.

And THAT is where all human rights COME FROM.

But it's not all ANCIENT HISTORY for Mr Pope Benelin, who spent twenty years being the previous Pope's ENFORCER as head of the "Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith", ruling with a ROD of IRON (although no longer the RED-HOT PINCERS of PERSUASION).

There he expressed such LOVING and GENTLY-BENEVOLENT opinions as the "inclinations" of Gay Daddies being "a more or less strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil"; or voting for candidates with a permissive stance towards abortion would be "cooperating in evil"; or that issuing of condoms as part of an anti-AIDS campaign "would result in at least the facilitation of evil".

This reminds me of the MAD LADY on the radio, writer for the Catholic Time Ms Joanna Boggling, who claimed that society sexually abuses all of us, equating availability of condoms and education about "that sort of thing" to the abuse scandals within the Catholic Church.

Yeeeees, slightly different there, madam: one is about informing and empowering; the other is about taking power away. Might want to make sure you don't confuse those two.

Ms Boggling was responding to the news that Mr the Pope had met with victims of his clergy's abuse.

He called the scandal a "deep shame" and "gravely immoral behaviour". Which is lovely compassion from the man who tried to have it all hushed up.

Naturally, Mr the Pope won the big fight after Mr Frown performed an unnecessary U-TURN and tripped over his own laces.

*Benelin: nasty medicine that tastes sickly-sweet. May cause drowsiness.

Day 2662: Biofuel Bad


(All that typing about Master Gideon left my nose VERY tired last week, so there are GAPS in my diary again that I've got to fill in.)

A new law came in saying that all petrol for cars must now include something called BIOFUELS.

What this means is… you know how OIL and COAL got made by lots and lots of plants getting buried under the Earth and millions and millions of years of SQUISHING going on to squeeze them into OIL? Well, the idea is to cut out the GEOLOGICAL middle-man and make oil straight from the plants.

On the face of it, that might seem like quite a good idea. Instead of unlocking carbon deposits from under the Earth, we would be locking up the CO2 first before releasing it, the very definition of carbon neutral.

Except, of course, processes like that are RARELY 100% efficient, so you wouldn't be REALLY completely neutral.

Farmers in Europe, America and even Brazil, for years cursed with GRAIN MOUNTAINS, WINE LAKES and BUTTER ESCARPMENTS have seen the development of bio-ethanol as a great BOON, because it is a way for them to greatly increase the economic value of their land: rather than being subsidised to not use it, they can get a good price for a fuel crop and by reducing the amount of cereal on the market, get a better price for that too. It sounds like a WIN-WIN scenario until you remember that that better price for the farmer means that it has cost SOMEONE more to eat.

And if you think about it you don't have MILLIONS of years' worth of plants storing up sunlight energy in their carbohydratey goodness, you only have THIS year's crop.

But this year's crop is ALREADY looking a bit too THIN to feed all of the animals and people and animals-that-will-go-to-feed-people without taking out a great area of land to grow car food.

Even if it wasn't for current crises in farming like drought and poor harvests, the simple fact is that there are just too many people.

Leaders in Latin America have issued a warning that using growing land for fuel crops instead of food is harming some of the poorest people in the world and there have even been RIOTS in Haiti.

Anyway, you probably already know that my PREFERRED alternative is to use untapped sources of RENEWABLE ENERGY (like windmills) to turn water into easily-portable* Hydrogen (plus spare Oxygen in the air) to use in fuel cells that turn the Hydrogen (with Oxygen from the air) back into water and energy.

(*No, don't think Hindenburg; liquid Hydrogen is no more dangerous than Petrol… which means QUITE dangerous but within acceptable and controllable limits.)

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Day 2670: “If we had had Liberal Policies…”


Faced with Mr Clogg at Prime Monster’s Questionable Time (and thank you to Mr Alisdair for reminding me to watch!) Mr Frown replied with the accusation that “the Liberal Party’s” policies would result in lower employment and higher poverty.

That would be Liberal Policies like, oh, Independence for the Bank of England, which Mr Frown campaigned against before implementing it; Nationalising the Northern Rock to protect investors, which Mr Frown argued against before implementing it; reducing basic rate income tax, which Mr Frown spoke against before implementing it; or switching to green taxation, which Mr Frown just plain stole.

“If we had had Liberal Policies…” Prime Monster, you DO!

If it weren’t for the Liberal Policies, we’d be in a much WORSE hole! If only he’d listened to our policies on reducing debt and making the tax system fair.

Day 2668: What's Brown and Sticky?


Mr Frown called upon the Labour to UNITE and for a moment there it looked like he'd succeeded… in uniting them against him.

In fact, I DID wonder if saying that the vote on the Budget was a vote of confidence in the Prime Monster wasn't going to be COUNTER-PRODUCTIVE as it might have given the revolting backbenchers the notion that they had a chance to get rid of him!

But Mr Frank "Potter's" Field's revolt has collapsed, and he has withdrawn his motion. He promised a "double lock" to ensure compensation and has got… a review by Sooty.

I cannot say that I am at ALL surprised: the Labour have been all over the place on this issue, and it is just the latest from a week of RETRACTIONS. Number Ten denied there would be a 10p Tax rethink after the junior Treasury munchkin Ms Anglepoise Eagle (FLEXIBLE but SHEDS LITTLE LIGHT) had floated the notion on Any Questionables. Meanwhile, Ms Anglepoise Smith (no relation) found herself summarily Un-resigned after a traumatic transatlantic-talking down from Mr Frown in person.

On the other fluffy foot, Mr Frown was no doubt buoyed up by the news that Mr Balloon has vowed to stop the 10p tax changes. If anything is guaranteed to bring unity to the Labour ranks (and we do mean rank) then it's the thought of the Tory Toff pouring out his saccharine sentiment (i.e. artificial and in poor taste) over people who earn less than his SHOES do when riding in the Lexus.

And even though he looks like he's having to eat humble pie, and put up with the Conservatories hooting about him being weak, indecisive, dithering and pathetic, it certainly appears that Mr Frown has outmanoeuvred the back-bench rebels.

Having said that, we ARE talking about the Labour MPs here, the sort who are regularly outmanoeuvred by STATIONARY OBJECTS.

As Mr Ryan points out, it is a FUNNY sort of U-TURN that seems to leave Mr Frown and Sooty, er, going exactly the same way as they set out to.

Promises of a "review", to announce some "compensation" for some of the people who lose out by sometime, maybe Autumn, maybe next April, who knows maybe when Sooty becomes Pope, amount to not much of a HILL OF BEANS… especially if you've got to BUY the beans THIS WEEK when your actual pay in your actual pocket has been actually cut.

"Backdating" the help to the start of the year is a RECIPE we've tried before with TAX CREDITS paying them out and clawing them back and causing confusion and misery and, of course, it's none of it any good if you've ALREADY frozen to DEATH!

And you've got to ask: where does the MONEY come from? Liberal Democrat Mr Vince "the Power" Cable is honest about saying he'd raise money from the better off; young Master Gideon is completely open about hoping to get the cash from the magic money tree. Er. But we already know that Sooty is right up to the line on Government borrowing, having maxed out all the credit cards and gone to the limit on the mortgage on Number 11. Plus it doesn't help that he's just given fifty billion - that's SIX 10p tax bands – to the bankers.

UPDATE: Thursday morning, and Mr Field has just been on the The Today Programme to explain the confusion over whether the Government will be backdating all the compensation or not:

"Look, Mr Humpy," he said, "there really are only two explanations: either Yvette Cooper really doesn't know all the details of the deal I've struck with Sooty, or I've been played for a fool… oh drat!"

Mr Field has one of those flat, emotionless voices that sound like he's one of the LIVING DEAD, so it takes you a few moments to realise that he really IS one of the Living Dead!

But the real test is NOT whether Mr Frown gets humiliated in the House of Commons next Monday: it's whether he gets ANNIHILATED in the local elections the following Thursday.

Because after all the fuss they've made about how WRONG this is, letting themselves be persuaded by Mr Frown into trotting like SHEEPS behind him through the Aye lobby will only prove to voters how USELESS it is to elect the Labour!

All-in-all you can see why Lord Desai said: "Mr Frown was put on Earth to remind us how good* Lord Blairimort was."

(*"good" in this context meaning "well evil, maestro of wicked and top-banana with the Dark Side powers")

You COULD make a joke about the Safety Elephant attacking Mr Frown's Balls …but that would be just TOO EASY.

Day 2660: This Government really likes terrorists



After all, they'd never get away with granting themselves OBSCENE and INTRUSIVE powers of snooping and detaining if they admitted it was NOTHING to do with fighting MAD BOMBERS and EVERYTHING to do with POKING and PRYING into your – yes YOUR – personal and private life.

Everyone remembers Walter Wolfgang and you'll have heard how Poole Borough Council were spying on a family suspected of living outside the catchment area for the school to which they applied.

Now Staffordshire County Council are using the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act to snoop on kids suspected of buying alcohol.

And that's not to mention the way anti-terrorism laws are used to police protests against the ARMS TRADE.

Or, indeed, the almost unlimited powers to stop-and-search granted under the WIDELY USED Section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000.

In each case, the Government brought in new powers that they PROMISED were only going to be used to tackle fully signed-up MAD BOMBERS, SUICIDE ATTACKERS and the Al Qaeda TYPING POOL, only for we the public to find that the police are using them for "everyday" offences like underage drinking or looking vaguely in the general direction of Fylingdales.

So you have to wonder what the REAL motive is for wanting to extend detention without trial.

The Secretary of State for Afternoon Kebabs and the Home Help Department, Ms Jacquie Spliff, uses the usual terror-tactics – thirty plots are being investigated, be AFRAID, she warns– and then promises an extra three-hundred police to beat up tackle radicalisation (accidentally radicalising the Conservatories with her breach of the election rules).

A more CYNICAL elephant might suspect that the Home Secretary want to be able to keep people in the SLAMMER for so long that they crack and confess to ANYTHING… it could certainly help improve the shoplifting and pick-pocketing clean-up rates.

Ms Spliff says that the problem is that it takes longer and longer for the police to go though a potential terrorist's computers and reach the HIGH SCORE on Grand Theft Auto IV discover any EVIDENCE of EVIL-DOINGS.

The Home Secretary's Mini-Me is Mr Tony McNutty who still thinks that MPs will "buy 42 days".

(Why am I thinking of Mr P T Barnum, I wonder?)

Anyway, Mr McNutty gave a right TICKING OFF to Sir Ken Macdonald, the Director of Public Prosecutions, when he told the Counter-Terrorism Bill committee that he believed 28 days was "sufficient".

I think you'll find that that is up to PARLIAMENT to decide, snapped Mr McNutty.

Odd, then, don't you think, that he didn't similarly castigate Sir Ian "clone of Lord" Blairimort when HE was saying that sooner or later, maybe, you know, if the wind is in the right direction and the moon is full and with the best will in the world there's every chance that eventually we might have a situation where we can push it so it takes more than the twenty-eight days we have at the moment.

Unfortunately for the inept Home Office Minister of State for Security, Counter-terrorism, Crime and finding the Home Secretary's Handbag when she's been for a Kebab, the next witness was Lord Goldfinger who IS a member of Parliament and HE said that 28 days was "sufficient" too.

Personally, I liked the line that Liberal Democrat Shadow Home Secretary, Mr Huhney-Monster, used in the Counter-Terrorism debate:

"In one recent case that she mentioned, there were three terabytes of evidence on computer—the equivalent of a library a third the size of the US Library of Congress or more than 10 million books. This point is a boomerang for the Government, because an extension of a mere two weeks would be entirely useless if each bit of evidence had to waded through and assessed as the Home Secretary implies. Indeed, if it were necessary to read material equivalent to a third of the US Library of Congress within the proposed legal limit of 42 days, I calculate that that would require 238,095 police officers working eight-hour shifts. That is all the police officers in this country, plus 100,000 on loan from a friendly neighbour."
But here is a THOUGHT: why create a SPECIAL WARRANT that would let the police continue to question and investigate someone AFTER they had charged them. So we could go back to the old days where the police had to charge someone within TWO DAYS (not twenty-eight!) but they can still go to a judge and say: "we have charged this person with a Terrorism Offence and here is our evidence so far, but we need to investigate further". That would not be so very different to what they have to do NOW, except that the person who is under arrest but still – I'm sorry to have to mention it – still PRESUMED INNOCENT gets to find out why the police have them in KLINK!

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Day 2666: DOCTOR WHO: Planet of the Ood


Something SINISTER is moving in the darkness… better switch to INFRARED!

Oo Dear… Ood 'ere
Posted by Picasa

So much for "Glow-in-the-Dark"; here's Daddy's review:
Visually striking, from just gorgeous in the opening vistas and over-flying rocket through to some really boundary-pushing grotesquery at the end, and with what has got to be one of Doctor Who's biggest on-screen massacres, but this was really just too simple a story to match up to the multi-layered series we've become used to.

For the second week running that there's an explicit reference to the adventures of William Hartnell as the Doctor (last week to "The Romans", sort of admitting to causing the great fire; this week to "The Sensorites", name-checking the planet Sense-Sphere).

And, there is a very Hartnell-era feel to the tone: the Doctor arrives and observes but barely causes any of the events we see played out here; the Ood Brain and Harry Potter's dad – Dr "Friends of the Ood" Ryder – between them bring about the revolution.

(Interestingly we actually get to see the moment where the Ood revolution begins: it's when Dr Ryder is allowed into Warehouse 15 and we see him at the controls. He clearly hasn't been in before – he says as much – and manipulates his evil boss™ Mr Halpen into getting him where he wants to go. Before then, the Ood have only gone "red-eye" one at a time; after that they all go berserk.)

This is in spite of some unsubtle Pertwee-esque ultra-heavy moralising (slavery is bad, boys and girls). Or for a telling Hartnell comparison, Alex suggests the simple good/bad paradigm of "Galaxy Four". And the conclusion, with the Ood joined in Song and delivered from slavery by the power of prayer, clearly wants to reprise both "Gridlock" and "Last of the Time Lords". Writer Keith Temple is no Russell Davies, though, and no Malcolm Hulke either, as the story presents all the humans as unambiguously bad (even Dr Ryder, as the need to keep his double-identity a secret means that he isn't the exception – arguably he must be complicit in the Ood lobotomies anyway, or he'd have long since blown his cover). And it's been pointed out that for a story purportedly about the evils of the slave trade, there's some slightly odd racial politics going on: Ood Operations (one of the episode's few subtleties; a cunning pun in the "recreation generator" mode) is staffed by (rich, white) people happy to exploit another sentient species, (middle-class, brown) people willing to lie about the company's treatment of their "livestock" and turn a blind eye to what is really going on, and (blue-collar, black) heavies with guns who clearly relish the thought of pulping someone with a big claw.

(That Claw sequence works very well as a set piece, it should be said; but a legitimate question might be what is that set piece doing in the middle of this story though? Because you could cut the scene entirely and it wouldn't change the plot one iota.)

And of course all of the humans die. Only Donna and a few of the guards still wandering about shell-shocked at the end survive. At Christmas, Russell gave us the much more difficult message that some of the bastards survive and some of the good people perish. Nothing so challenging on show here: the message is if you're bad you deserve death and by Ood you get it.

It's ironic that an episode that is so morally certain of its case should conclude with Donna saying she can't tell good from bad any more and the Doctor saying that moral certainties lead to bad decisions. (Hearing the conclusion to that line makes it so much better than in the trailer, though, where it just finished at "probably better that way".)

Because of the episode's humans bad/Ood good certainty, it doesn't seem to notice that the Doctor takes an awful chance on the Ood Brain being benign, and on relatively little evidence: from what we've seen, its influence has been nothing but aggressive and vengeful up to now. Do the Ood even want to be part of its gestalt again? Who knows, perhaps they were dangerous and threatening before the humans (Starship Troopers like) found the big brain and penned it. And we swiftly gloss over the repercussions for the Earth Empire if their labour force is suddenly withdrawn. Intergalactic civil war is probably the least of their problems; let's hope the Ood-Sphere doesn't get nuked in the cross-fire.

(Although actually, if the economic implications of the teaser are correct, the Ood aren't the only slaves in the Earth Empire: if they were, you could hardly expect prices to be falling due to competition.)

Do humans really have an Empire spanning three galaxies again in the 42nd Century? Remember, "The Daleks' Master Plan" sees Mavic Chen being reminded that Earth in 4000 AD doesn't even control its own galaxy, and it is usually assumed that this is the time of the Federation (as seen in "The Curse of Peladon" and its sequels). But then, a huge Dalek War might be just the thing to see Empires forged, and Craig Hinton's "Crystal Bucephalus" lays out a future history that sees the Chen Dynasty seize control of the Federation and re-founding it as an imperium. Or maybe that continuity's been wiped by the Time War.

I think that they also missed a trick by not revealing that Ood Sigma was unlobotomised, his translator ball merely being a disguise for his external hind-brain. I should have liked to see Tim McInnerny's Mr Halpen having conversations with Sigma only later on to be revealed that only he was hearing Sigma reply: a tip off to both Sigma's natural Ood status, and Halpen's eventual grisly fate. As it was, with Sigma ending up as leader of the Ood, seemingly more significant than the "natural" Ood who the Doctor met in conversion, the episode gave the appearance that the hind-brain wasn't really that much of a loss, surely not what the script intended.

Those hind-brains – and can I just say Ick! – caused much debate on the Outpost Gallifrey forums as to whether or not they were evolutionarily feasible. How could a life form survive with a vital organ like that outside of the protection of its body, people asked, until someone not unreasonably pointed out: testicles.

Personally, I'd say that there could be an evolutionary advantage if the external brain is part of the Ood telepathy. If much of the Ood-Sphere is ice-covered then it might be necessary to range widely to find food and shelter, in which case the ability to communicate over long distances might become a distinct advantage, even over the hazard of exposing a vital lump of brain.

As usual, there's a lot of incidental music, sometimes beautiful, sometimes a little overpowering. I did enjoy the little references to the musical themes from the Ood's first appearance in "The Satan Pit" two years ago. One question, though: I wasn't quite able to tell at times whether the music was supposed to represent the Song that the Doctor hears. It seems obvious that the choral work is supposed to be the Ood in Song, except for the scene where Donna first asks to hear and then have it taken away, because in that scene we the audience can here some music before Donna, and then much more powerfully when she can hear and then not when she can't.

In fact, that Ood singing, in particular the moment of them pulling their fellows out of "red-eye", illustrates the other source this reminds me of: Jim Henson's muppet fairy-tale "The Dark Crystal" with the peaceful, singing Mystics (or Ur-ru in the book, I think) contrasted with the violent bestial Skeksis and both linked through the eponymous Crystal: psychologically this is the same disjunction of the red-eye Ood and the "natural borns" with the big Ood brain in the Dark Crystal role.

But, interesting as it is to pick up on the backstory of the Ood, though, it's also a shame that this story in some ways undermines the power of the Beast from "The Satan Pit". He is diminished if rather than seizing control of loyal and benign creatures, he is just releasing their inner pissed-off-ness; having the Ood eyes turn red again suggests that it wasn't anything special to do with the Beast and that any powerful (or even not very powerful) mental force would cause it. Anther example would be the translator balls being used to kill: "Planet of the Ood" makes it that they can do this anyway, rather than they are channelling the power of the Beast. Interestingly they also establish that the ball is not lethal on contact, when Donna picks up the dying Ood's translator at the start. The implication is that the Ood can channel a telepathic "sting" through the translator – which again leads you to wonder if they can do that through the natural hind brain and if so then they're not quite so pacifist by nature as Donna and the script assumes.

No planets mentioned as going missing this week, though there was another reference to the bees disappearing (although this is a real-life phenomenon so it may mean nothing in the series). Just as last year's third episode finished with the Face of Boe prophesying "You Are Not Alone", this year we have the perhaps threatening "I think your song will soon end". Have we been double-bluffed by Messers Tennant and Davies?

We have to at least consider that a regeneration may be on the cards after all. The alternative that I thought of is that this might be a reference to "Song for Ten", from "The Christmas Invasion" and the first soundtrack album where Murray Gold reworked it as a lament for the Doctor's separation from Rose. So the ending of the Doctor's song might be an end of separation rather than life.

Next time… Did you spot the "Atmos" logo in the windscreen of the taxi that came to collect doomed Stacey in "Partners in Crime"? Can you recognise a potato at fifty paces? If so, consider yourself for a posting with UNIT. Martha Jones is back, to uncover "The Sontaran Stratagem".

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Day 2664: Flowers on the Moon


No, I have NOT blasted Daddy Richard into orbit!

This is SCIENCE and news that the European Space Agency has discovered a way to let marigolds grow on moonrock.

I'm sure you must realise that this is quite IMPORTANT if we are ever going to build a successful MOONBASE.

In the CARBON CYCLE, plants absorb CO2 and water and sunlight to make carbohydrates and oxygen; elephants and people and animals then eat carbohydrates and breathe oxygen to get energy and make CO2 and water as by-products. If you want to keep breathing you have to keep these in BALANCE.

Unfortunately, the Moon does not have any atmosphere at all. So we will still have to import lots of air and water in order for plants to grow, unless we are able to FIND some up there: deposits of WATER (or at least ICE) on the moon are much sought after as they would provide not just drinks but Oxygen for breathing and Hydrogen for rocket fuel.

But that wouldn't be enough on its own.

There is also a NITROGEN cycle, because all living things build their bodies out of PROTEINS which are big carbon-based molecules that are like carbohydrates BUT have extra NITROGEN as well as Carbon, Hydrogen and Oxygen. Fortunately there is LOTS of Nitrogen about because the Earth's atmosphere is mostly (more than 70%, in fact) made of it! Unfortunately, plants CANNOT turn nitrogen GAS (N2) into protein directly; they need help to turn the Nitrogen into a NITRATE that they can absorb and use, help that comes either from special bacteria or occasionally from a blast of LIGHTNING! Nowadays they ALSO get help from FERTILISER.

So, you will need to ship a load of fertiliser to the Moon too. (Don't think I don't know what you're thinking!)

All of which makes it VERY SILLY for the Head of the ESA to dismiss lunar colonisation as "Science Fiction"; things are RARELY this difficult in FICTION!

Meanwhile, a Dr Watson of East Anglia has estimated that the chances of meeting another intelligent life form are "extremely low".

Clearly, he needs to try moving away from the University of East Anglia.

No, sorry, apologies to the good people of UEA, the thing is that this is a very SILLY estimate, because we have almost no EVIDENCE on which to base it.

For a start, it seems that Dr Watson has said that the chances of intelligent life emerging on a planet like Earth inside of four billion years are 1/10 (for the chance of simple single-celled animals evolving) times 1/10 (for the chance of complex cells evolving) times 1/10 (for the chance of complex, multi-celled animals evolving) times 1/10 (for the chance of an intelligent species with language evolving) which makes 1/10,000 or 0.01%.

Well, this is the sort of "plucking numbers from the air" that CREATIONISTS do when they want to "prove" life evolving by chance is "impossible". WE simply DO NOT KNOW what are the chances of self-replicating chemicals occurring (like DNA did on Earth). It may be VERY COMMON, it may even be CHEMICALLY INEVITABLE given the right mix of elements; or it could be remotely IMPOSSIBLY unlikely without some fluke event like a comet strike or passing Spaghetti Monster with a whim. Without assessing more than one Earth-like planet we aren't going to be able to find out, either.

Similarly, we are only BEGINNING to understand what drives evolutionary processes. Intelligence and language may be rare or common in terms of things that crop up, we can't be sure – although the distinct possibility that dolphins, whales, elephants and humans have all developed communicating intelligences ought to be taken into some consideration.

And even if these ever-so-arbitrary looking numbers are SPOT ON, we do not know even vaguely how may Earth type planets that there ARE even in our own galaxy.

But we do have some evidence that our planetary system isn't UNIQUE. So, since we're not living entirely by chance on an unnatural fluke, it's not unreasonable to assume that other systems of planets like ours have developed.

With at least two-hundred billion stars in the Milky Way (never mind any of the trillions of other galaxies) even if the chances of another star having a Solar-System-like system of planets are ALSO 1/10,000, there could STILL be over a THOUSAND worlds with intelligent life on them, probably avoiding us because of CRICKET!

Anyway, this ENTIRELY overlooks the possibility that it only takes ONE intelligent species to go INTERSTELLAR and the galaxy will be FULL of inhabited planets. Which brings us back to colonisation, and apparently it's quite urgent as there are only a billion years until the shops close. And melt.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Day 2661: Gideon Goes for Gordon


Mr Frown announces that he is NOT having a "Crisis Summit" with a Wunch of Bankers… it's just some sort of "Unexpected Apogee" I suppose.

According to young Master Gideon Oboe, though, Mr Frown's reputation in is tatters.

It's all very well to spot that the Prime Monster is ROADKILL, and only six months behind the rest of us with the news as usual, but shouldn't he REALLY be answering the question: "is there anything Master Oboe would do to make the economy better?"

Or even: "Wouldn't we all be better off with Mr Vince "the Power" Cable, anyway?"

Master Gideon's position is neither CLEAR nor CONVINCING.

We heard on the radio his Chief Secretary and Best Conker-Polisher, Mr Philip Hammond-Eggs, telling us that the Conservatory promise to match the Labour's spending was only good for the current spending round, i.e until 2010… so they promise to match the Labour's spending only so long as they are not actually in power. A Conservatory promise you really CAN rely on, then.

"Of course it's fine to have no fiscal policies this side of the election; it won't matter 'til we're actually making real decisions!"

said Mr Timothy Montgomeryshire, author of Conservatoryhome, in order to defend Mr Oboe's stance.

(I presume that means that Conservatory attempts to reverse the doubling of the 10p tax band are not REAL, then… just more OPPORTUNISM.)

Anyway, Master Gideon has made a speech to explain it all.

He starts by attacking Mr Frown's character, which is an easy target, and then talks about the Labour being divided. He sites Mr Jack Man'O Straw for opposing Mr Frown's criminal justice plans (or criminal plans for justice) and Mr Ed Balls for opposing his own education policy, but most of all the backbench rebellion on 10p tax

"…exposed within hours as a giant tax con when the 10p tax rise was revealed"

I'm SURE that it just slips Master Gideon's mind that that was "exposed" by Sir Mr the Merciless – he and Mr Balloon having missed that one.

Then he says that Mr Frown's reputation rests on three pillars: stability (low inflation), prudence (borrowing to invest) and productivity (improving).

And, he says, each of those pillars is broken.

Mr Frown's plan for economic stability comes in two parts: one, concentrate on keeping inflation under 2%; two, make it someone else's responsibility.

Now, that's actually quite a GOOD idea – at least as far as it goes. Inflation has been the MONSTER that has devoured the British economy many times since the end of World War Part Two; and keeping the responsibility for controlling OUT of the hands of politicians i.e. people who might avoid taking the difficult decisions because they want to be popular*, is more likely to lead to success.

(*"popular" here being an entirely relative measure, for comparison see journalist)

In PRACTICE this means half-inching the Liberal Democrat policy of independence for the Bank of England.

Mr Oboe, showing he TRULY wants to be Mr Frown's shadow, tries to steal that idea too with his claim that independence for the Bank of England "built on Conservatory policy".

(Actually, the Conservatory "inflation targeting" policy was to shadow the European Exchange Rate Mechanism… and we all know where that went; perhaps Mr Balloon can tell Master Oboe what it was like in the Treasury backrooms that day.)

There are two key WEAKNESSES in MR Frown's approach though.

The first is that the Bank of England only has one lever to pull: the interest rate.

Mr Oboe calls this "monetary policy" but it's really a knackered form of monetarism. Mad old Sir Keith Joseph's full-blown monetarism is about limiting the supply of loose money rattling around in the economy, the idea being that if there's less money available to be spent then prices can't go up. (Conversely, in a depression you're supposed to flood the country with cheap credit… gee, look what the Federal Reserve is doing!)

Raising the interest rate a little cuts back a bit on the cash in the consumer's pocket… so long as they have a mortgage, credit card or have consolidated all of their debts with Loan Sharks Direct™. But, of course, the BIGGEST borrower in the country is… the Government and THEY can go and borrow overseas (again, lookie at those big money offers from the Fed! And a free pen with every billion dollars you borrow, too!)

So if the government is off on a spending spree – as Mr Frown has been – then there's not so very much that the independent Bank of England can do.

(Fortunately, so long as the expanding Chinese economy has been pumping imports into the country it has kept prices down.)

The second and more important weakness in Mr Frown's approach is that inflation is NOT the only part of the economy you want to keep stable. This is SUCH a big thing that even Master Gideon has spotted it:

"everything else in the economy - the exchange rate, the current account, debt levels, and the structure of the economy itself - were all left to find their own balance"

Quite right. Though I don't recall the Conservatories proposing specific policies to tackle government or personal debt or the trade gap or the exchange rate or the housing market bubble or etc…

Hoping to pin even MORE of the BLAME on Mr Frown, he claims that Great Britain is ESPECIALLY VULNERABLE to the current crisis, and criticises the extent of our exposure to sub-prime borrowing.

Of course, we're more EXPOSED because:

a) so many big banks have been tempted to come to the City by our "relaxed" attitude to deregulation ever since Queen Maggie set off the "Big Bang"
b) so much of our economy now rests upon the profits that those banks make
c) our "relaxed" attitude to deregulation means that, well, they're not very highly regulated
d) all of the above.

Is Master Gideon REALLY planning on reversing the Big Bang? Or reducing the banking sector? Has he mentioned to Suicide Boris his plans to scupper London as the pre-eminent financial capital of the world? He doesn't say.

Instead he derides the Government's offer of help for first time buyers. It's "an inaccessible irrelevance to most first time buyers" according to the chair of the Mortgage Council.

Gideon's idea – for which he claims to have been gifted with prescience (rolls eyes) – is to abolish stamp duty for first time buyers entirely, but this isn't much help either. It will almost instantly be absorbed into the price of the house, which is an INFLATIONARY measure, and not really likely to add to STABILITY.

In the short term it would see an arrest in the falling housing market but that won't be much use for first time buyers and doesn't address the real problem which is shortage of supply.

"The centrepieces of tax and spend policy were to be the fiscal rules - the golden rule and the sustainable investment rule"

Now, Mr Oboe claims that these rules have FAILED – I think that this shows basic ILLITERACY.

Mr Frown has CHEATED and FAILED to KEEP to the rules repeatedly, but that doesn't meant the rules THEMSELVES are wrong.

The basic, fundamental rules of "kitchen accounting" are the same as they've always been, and they are not difficult to understand: don't spend more than you earn; it's okay to borrow a bit in the tough years so long as you pay it back in the good years; long term borrowing should be for long term investments, never to pay the monthly bills.

Mr Frown's tests are SUPPOSED to make sure that he doesn't break those rules, or at least that he doesn’t break them without it being EMBARRASSINGLY apparent.

In that sense they've worked VERY WELL, as everyone has SEEN him shifting then trying to wheedle out of them by moving the goalposts all over the pitch.

Where Mr Oboe is RIGHT is that Mr Frown's figures lack CREDIBILITY. What he LACKS, though, is a policy like the Liberal Democrats to have proper independently audited accounts for the nation, which would give exactly the CREDIBLE and INDEPENDENT figures that Mr Oboe says we need.

The rules – says Gideon – have allowed Mr Frown to get away with pre-election SPLURGES and post-election tax-rises.

"taxes have gone up by more than seven billion pounds since the last election alone"

…actually, let me just put that into some CONTEXT.

According to Office of National Statistics figures, the United Kingdom's Gross Domestic Product (what we EARN) for 2007 was one-thousand-three-hundred-and-eighty-five BILLION pounds, an increase of one-hundred-and-fifty-one billion pounds from the Gross Domestic Product for 2005.

So out of that one-hundred-and-fifty-one billion Mr Oboe says seven has been taken in taxes.

But the Government takes about 40% of GDP in taxes: that's about five-hundred-and-fifty-five billion pounds for 2007, or a bit over sixty billions more than 2005. Yes, the government SHOULD get sixty billions more in taxes JUST from the growth of the economy.

So let's be generous and assume Mr Oboe means seven EXTRA, ABOVE what the increase would have been anyway.

That EXTRA seven billion pounds is an extra tax increase of… a half of one percent of GDP, or 50p for every hundred pounds that you earn. That's not necessarily INSIGNIFICANT – it's a tenner a month for someone on average wages – but let's not fool ourselves that it is BIG MONEY in terms of the Government's accounts. Of course, Mr Oboe WANTS you to think of it as a STAGGERING increase, but it's not.

And have the rules ACTUALLY enabled Mr Frown to do that? No, not really – and remember they HAD to put up taxes in 1997 because of the CONSERVATORIES' pre-election spending SPLURGE.

In fact, the Labour kept spending firmly SAT UPON for the whole of their first term – longer than necessary, many people think.

It IS true that Mr Frown has spent WAY too much SINCE 2001, but there was nothing concealed about it; he did SAY he was going to.

So Mr Oboe's criticism is short-sighted and unfair.

He also claims that, in spite of the tax rises, we have "the biggest budget deficit of the developed world…"

Blink, blink! Sorry, Gideon, have you SEEN the USA???

(Great Britain's budget deficit c £38 bn, or 3% of our GDP; Americaland's budget deficit c £400 bn or 6% of their GDP. I know that LESS is supposed to be MORE, but somehow Mr Oboe has lost me in the math!)

Anyway, cutting to the punch, in spite of Mr Oboe's crude and stupid sideswipes, we HAVE ended up in a bit of a state because Mr Frown abandoned his Prudence. Which means, says Gideon, we have taxes going up just as public spending is going down.

This is TRUE but, again, what magic can Mr Oboe render to make it not the only thing that can be done?

America is giving away tax rebates, says Gideon clearly gagging to do the same, while Sooty can barely make ends meet with the tax receipts he's getting now. (In fact, he can't, hence yet more borrowing.) But if Mr Oboe is suggesting a Monetarist solution to recession of injecting cash into the economy, then increased government spending (and borrowing) is as good if not better than tax refunds (some of which will go into savings rather than spending).

Essentially, either Mr Oboe AGREES with the Government's STRATEGY (but not its chosen method) or he doesn't have a CLUE what his own economic theory IS.

I leave it as an exercise for the reader to decide which!

"Using the Government's own measure of productivity, the average annual growth rate of output per worker has been less than 1.8% during the eleven years since 1997, down from 2.0% during the previous eleven years. That's a 10% fall in the average rate of productivity growth."

Next, Master Gideon bends over backwards to redefine growth into a fall.
What he MEANS is that productivity has increased by 21.6% in the last eleven years, compared to 24.3% in the eleven years before that. That is, our employers have squeezed more than an extra fifth of work out of us under the Labour compared to – but also ON TOP OF – not quite a quarter extra work forced out of us under the latter half of the Conservatories.

So look at it like this: if the Conservatories increased our output from 100 to 124.3, then the Labour have increased our output from 124.3 to 151.1, an increase of 26.8 on the same base. Yes, the Labour have actually made labour EVEN MORE HARD.

But according to Mr Oboe, "Far from raising the sustainable growth rate of the economy, the evidence suggests that the last ten years have if anything reduced it".

Well, only if you can't COUNT.

It simply has to be said that there comes a point where you cannot squeeze any more blood out of the stone. Once both parents are working triple shifts just to pay the mortgage and council tax, there are no more hours in the day.

And frankly, wouldn't it just be NICE to hear from someone offering the same pay for less work? I think we'd all rather REDUCE our productivity and increase our time with family and elephants. This was called the WORK/LIFE balance when Mr Balloon was hooting about it a few years back; I guess that they've given up letting the sun shine in on THAT.

Mr Oboe is more interested in FRIGHTENING people:

"Yet once you strip out the rising cost of living, real take-home pay has been falling for more than two years. That is the longest sustained fall since records began in the early 1990s."

This assertion, oddly enough, is another piece of mathematical legerdemain. Salaries aren't really falling; Mr Oboe just makes it SOUND that way. "Real" take-home pay means increase in average salaries MINUS increase in average prices. Now, average prices have been galloping away because they include mortgages and therefore the housing bubble. So in fact a house price collapse, the very thing that Mr Oboe – with his eye on the front page of the Daily Hate Mail – says would be the worst that can happen, would actually correct this.

It is TRUE that salaries are not keeping up with the cost of living because of the overheated cost of housing, and that (relatively) higher interest rates (to fight inflation) and higher food and fuel prices are HURTING some people a LOT.

But it is ALSO true that we remain a prosperous nation and have done very WELL in the last decade, much more so than in either decade under the other Conservatories.

The problem is NOT that we haven't been doing well; it is that we have been living it LARGE and mainly on TICK.

This current economic pain comes from the INEVITABLE tightening of belts all round after a truly MASSIVE binge and blow out.

So, does Mr Oboe have any political ALKA-SELTZER?

Well, it's less Anadin-extra and more cold flannel. And for the Banks a jolt of hair of the dog.

To restore stability, Gideon thinks that: "A broader collateral swap programme supported by the Treasury could help. This would allow banks to swap their illiquid mortgage backed securities for liquid government bonds".

Essentially, he is suggesting that the Bank of England should give the banks billions of pounds of AAA+ guaranteed investments in exchange for sub-prime assets that could be worth, well, nothing. All the risk transfers to the British taxpayer and in return we, er, get to see the people who gambled all that money away have another go for free at our expense.

Naturally this is SUCH a good idea that Sooty has already stolen it.

Forgive me for NOT agreeing.

Greater liquidity in the housing market really ought to be realised by helping people to help themselves, though support for collective, co-operative and credit union schemes: smaller bodies that are controlled by the people who they serve rather than the banking elite in the City. It is the sheer SIZE and REMOTENESS of the banks that has driven the unsustainable credit FRENZY, with branch staff reduced to little more than telesales operatives pushing the next product for commission.

Bailing them out is jut throwing MORE of our money after the last lot that they BURNED!

What we need is a LOCAL Building Society, where you can TALK to your manager in PERSON and work out what is the best deal that is appropriate to you. The manager should be concerned with the welfare of their customers, and making sure that they do not get into crazy levels of debt, and at the same time be interested in maintaining a good supply of savings deposits to cover their liabilities, rather than some gambling club set up in Hoopla, West Virginia!

Needless to say, Gideon is still obsessing about rescuing his mates in the City:

"we will give the power to rescue banks to the Bank of England, instead of the FSA as Alistair Darling wants to"

Mr Oboe doesn't think that the FSA DESERVES to be the white knight because, he says, bank failure follows regulatory failure.

Apparently improving the regulation is not a solution then?

The problems of the FSA certainly include not being very good at regulation, but that's as much because they do not have the resources or indeed the legal powers to do anything about it as because of native rubbishness.

Master Oboe further suggests helping out the banks by varying the requirement for their Capital Adequacy Ratio (which is the bank's capital, i.e. how much its shareholders have invested, divided by the bank's debts adjusted for how risky they are). This is your basic limit on how many times more than what the owners are risking that the bank can gamble loan out.

So what Master Gideon is actually saying is "let's let the banks make MORE and RISKIER loans when times are difficult".

Is this COMPLETELY wise… especially since he's just said he'll be handing over OUR money for them to play with?

And isn't that what caused the US meltdown in the first place?

Meanwhile, and probably thinking he's being Prudent, he promises that there will be independent monitoring of Government performance …which is exactly what Mr Frown promised. Why should we expect he will be any different? I suppose we should at least give him SOME benefit of the doubt. Though you MIGHT want to make sure that there is a SUBSTANTIAL Liberal Democrat presence in Parliament in order to keep him HONEST, should he ever worry the Treasury benches with his short trousers.

To wind up, he regales the audience with a flourish of the Old Nu-Conservatory Tune:

"…over a cycle, we will share the proceeds of growth, and so reduce the proportion of the economy taken by the state. Government will grow more slowly than the economy does."

And then a real blast from the Old OLD-Conservatory Hymn Book:

"And finally we will we improve competitiveness through dynamic supply side reform"

…which means lowering taxes. Not that they're promising that. Ooooh no.

Next thing you know, he'll be claiming that lowering taxes will increase revenue!

(Which is nonsense – see Mr James Tobin's 1992 article "Voodoo curse" from the Harvard International Review if you can find it online.)

And then, to finish, he says with a flourish that the Government should be doing more: "…more where it's needed, like improved transport infrastructure, better skills, and more active support for businesses. I want the attitude of the Government to be a service to business, not a burden".

Or, to translate: "In conclusion, ignore EVERYTHING I've just said about monetarism and prudence and let's just put up Government spending… like what Sooty is doing! Buns all round! Yippee!"

Sometimes words just aren't enough, are they? We SO need to have an alternative Chancellor who actually offers an ALTERNATIVE.

Paging Dr Cable!
Paging Dr Cable!
Emergency in Ward No. 11!

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Day 2658: Elephant in a Bubble


Because you know you want to…


(Hat tip: the Metro)

Yes, I know that it is WRONG to exploit an intelligent and noble species for entertainment… but no HUMANS were harmed in making soapy fun for Tai Elephant!

You can watch the video on the BBC's oddbox – it's at number eight (yes, after the mud wrestling ladies).
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Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Day 2659: DOCTOR WHO: The Fires of Pompeii


This week Dr Who was up a volcano. Well, been there and done that!

Look: here is a piece of MOUNT VESUVIUS to PROVE it!

Elephant Rock
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Don't panic though – I haven't pulled the VITAL PLUG that is holding the magma in check; Daddy collected it years ago when, like Mr Dr David, he went to visit the ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum!

Mr Dr David said it was quite LIFE AFFIRMING to be up on top of a live volcano. But that is because he is a MANIAC who likes to do his own stunts.

Powerful, exciting and moving, this was a corker of an episode, and Alex was even more blown away than I was. If there's a problem with this, it's only that it leaves you wondering how the back end of series thirty is going to be as good.

It was another long episode, but one packed with incident: humour, action, horror, tragedy and redemption. One of the series' best teasers, showing off ancient Pompeii while the Doctor and Donna's relationship is charming and funny, finishes with the great dramatic reveal of Vesuvius. This meant the episode starts by first fooling us into thinking it would be a "hunt the TARDIS"/"race against time" plot only to resolve this within minutes and instead introducing two, seemingly divergent, plots concerning the prophecy of the Sisterhood and the stone circuits that Lucius Petrus Dextrous is having made, before revealing that they are actually two aspects of the same plot, but then effectively wrapping up the "alien threat" forty minutes in so as to devote the last ten entirely to giving the eruption the sense of scale and tragedy that it deserved.

There's also time for a moment or two of toying with the continuity, tying up one or two points in an interesting and – for the series – finally consistent way. A brief nod to "The Romans" in the teaser is a fun throwaway; in fact, it's the sort of thing that the Doctor often says (q.v. the Titanic in "The Invasion of Time") and it's just a nice nod for the fans that we've seen that past adventure. And there's the old, old question of "how does the TARDIS translate deliberate use of foreign language?" resolved by saying yes, it really does translate it into a different foreign language, hilariously choosing to make a Welsh joke out of it. You might want to think about what this means for stories like "The Reign of Terror" where we hear the Doctor address locals in (in that case) French and what that might mean for the translation convention.

But all of this is used to wrap up two very big moral dilemmas. First, Donna's question: "why can't the Doctor change Earth's history?" And second: "how can you choose between twenty-thousand deaths and the whole world?"

What is interesting is that, although they do what is probably the right thing in the end, both Donna and the Doctor are morally compromised in different ways. The Doctor won't intervene to save the citizens of Pompeii because he sees the bigger picture, when Donna just thinks he should save them; conversely, the second dilemma, when the bigger picture requires him to intervene the fact that can see the consequences paralyses him and he needs Donna to almost give him permission, or at least to share in the decision – and the culpability – before he can push the lever and trigger the volcano.

Both cases emphasis the difference between the Time Lord perspective and the human, and illustrate why Donna is right that he needs a human companion, both to remind him of the little things and to let him get past the cosmic.

Needless to say by now, David Tennant is brilliant. But what a magnificent, strong and ultimately heart-rending performance from Catherine Tate: she is really very good at being a companion. And what a good companion Donna is. There's the moment when she gets kidnapped by the Sisters – if you watch you realise that she's fetched a bucket to fight off the Pyrovile foot-soldier; then there's her reaction to being placed on a sacrificial slab – fury not fear; but then there's her compassion for the Doctor's decision, and acknowledgement that in spite of the consequences for Pompeii that they have to save the world. But she still doesn’t give up trying to save those people, almost despairing when they won't listen to her and worse the Doctor won't listen to her, but she forces him to in the end.

With the exception of a cameo for Dead Ringer's Phil Cornwall, our interaction with "ordinary" Pompeiians is entirely through the family of Caecilius (yes, by now everyone must know they're named after the family in the Cambridge Latin Course, just as Lucius Petrus Dextrous has a "stone right arm" in best Asterix tradition). Plus a quite impressive number of extras for the "and now you all get incinerated" scenes. Peter Capaldi is a marvellous actor, starting off as almost comic relief, with the "Up Pompeii" antics of rushing to stop everything toppling over in the earthquakes and the ticking off of his children; but shading into seriousness as the dark night comes and then the full horror of the volcanic eruption. Francesca Fowler as Evelina, daughter of the house and signed-up seeress, is also marvellous and spooky. The commentary reveals she was genuinely unwell for the day of filming the "duelling prophets" scene but I think she really makes it add to her performance, as she is supposed to look wasted and wan. Meanwhile, young Qunitus's toga already has its own appreciation thread on Outpost Gallifrey.

That duelling scene, though, was an early flash of just how brilliant this episodes was about to get – and there's a nice directorial touch as the camera angles twist more and more out of true as the two seers reveal more and more that they shouldn't know.

Speculation has got to attach to the meaning of Lucius' specific – and guaranteed accurate – prophecies for the Doctor ("she is coming back" has got to mean Rose, hasn't it?) and Donna ("there is something on your back", the most obvious and sinister suggestion is one of a Queen Spider from Metebelis III, previously seen on Sarah Jane's back in "Planet of the Spiders", and Donna already has a spidery connection with the Racnoss, but surely it means something else?). There is also a second mention for the Medusa Cascade (after "Last of the Time Lords" when the Master referred to the Doctor sealing the rift there). Specifically Evelina tells that the Doctor's real name burns in the Cascade of Medusa, leading some to think that that is where Gallifrey is, or was, and where it burned, particularly since the Doctor "burns in the centre of time", again possibly meaning Gallifrey.

Lucius, played by Phil Davis, is a great Doctor Who villain – or even James Bond villain with his volcano lair! As with Peter Capaldi's Caecilius, it's a performance that shades over the course of the programme, starting gruff but also impressed by the Doctor, but then growing more sinister and dark as his Pyrovile masters gradually take him over so that he finally goes right over the top in the climax. Mind you, when you're stood next to an imaginary stone titan then "large" is the only way to go.

The Pyroviles themselves are another spectacular success from the CG workshops of the Mill. Admittedly, they more than a little resemble the "live action" Transformers from last year's movie, done in stone – though I did like the "Centurion's Helmet" look to the heads. Most impressive is the one that steps out of the mountainside to greet the Cult of Vulcan: impressive not because it's merely "large" but because it's done in daylight and looks completely credible in the scene.

Like the Adipose in "Partners in Crime", the Pyroviles have "lost" their planet. Lucius describes it as both "gone" and "taken", while last week Ms Foster said she wasn't interested in the politics. These remarks together might suggest that the planets are either being conquered, perhaps in the rise of a new Dalek Empire, or literally disappearing, falling through cracks in time. The possibility occurs that if Rose is able to return to our universe then someone has cracked open the walls between realities and these planets might be falling into the Void as a consequence.

Lawrence Miles raises the criticism – and it's not completely an unreasonable one – that modern Who can't seem to visit the past without aliens/monsters showing up. By "modern" of course, he's referring to all Doctor Who since Innes Lloyd took over as producer in 1966 and decided that "The Highlanders" was quite enough of that sort of thing. (OK, "Black Orchid" excepted.) And it ought to be remarked that the Doctor can't arrive in the present or the future without having a similar problem. But the point still stands: could the Doctor visit the past and just have an "isn't this different!" kind of story?

To an extent you could, but I think that it's telling that the great era of the "historical" was in the 1960s when nothing else on television was doing the same. When the BBC costume drama era arrived in Colour in the early Seventies, the Doctor was exiled to Earth to find other things to do with his time; while the time-travel adventures of the Fourth Doctor are all Hammer Horror pastiches rather than genuine history, and even he gives up visiting Earth's past after "Horror of Fang Rock". It's a great strength of the new series that they've found a way to get back to those adventures in history. Remember in today's television age, you can watch just about any historical period you want, thanks to "Rome", "The Tudors", any number of nineteenth century vehicles for Dame Judi Dench, or just old fashioned UK Gold; Doctor Who has to have a unique selling point to get in the audience and let's face it, that's the monsters. In a series that is much more allegory and fairy story these days, you need to have the bogey man (or the id) up there on screen getting what for.

On the other hand, of course, it is possible to do a (nearly) "pure" historical in Pompeii because it's been done before.

The Big Finish adventure "The Fires of Vulcan" features Sylvester McCoy's Seventh incarnation of the Time Lord, alongside the rehabilitated Mel played by Bonnie Langford, also arriving in Pompeii the day before the volcano's eruption.

What is actually very pleasing is that the TV adventure in no way tramples over the audio; in fact it is perfectly possible for both to be taking place at the same time

Where the TV has the Sisterhood of the Sybil and Lucius's Cult of Vulcan, the audio has the worship of Isis and the priestess of the Trinity (that's Jupiter, Juno and Minerva). If the city is supposed to be awash with rumours of the arrival of the Seventh Doctor's blue wooden temple, well all the more reason for Caecilius to be conned into buying the Tenth Doctor's TARDIS as a piece of "modern art". (Though surely also a reference to the classic John Cleese and Eleanor Bron scene in "City of Death", and mustn't Russell be kicking himself that "David Agnew" got that title first!)

And there are points where they almost seem to be referencing each other: Donna spots an Amphitheatre and suggests gathering everyone there to warn them; if they had they might have seen the Seventh Doctor's confrontation with Muranus the gladiator. (Although actually that was the day after.) Equally, one of the reasons that "honest and boring as they come" Mel is thought to be a liar is because she starts predicting Vesuvius' eruption but none of the Augurs have foreseen it, a dismissal out of hand that almost speaks to the "gift of Pompeii" that all their prophets speak the truth.

Most intriguingly, one of the Sisters reports to her order "the tall one calls us mad" – odd way to distinguish between the Doctor and Donna, surely "the man" and "the woman" would do, unless… are they perhaps also keeping watch over another visitor from a Blue Box? A short one?

Perhaps that is why they focus on Donna and the Tenth Doctor (who then start to meddle in their affairs, while Doctor Seven and Mel are quietly trying to find the TARDIS).

So, if you accept that both adventures can take place, consider that it might go deeper than that. In "The Fires of Vulcan", the Doctor cheats time: when he arrives he already knows (because UNIT told him in his fifth incarnation) that the TARDIS is destined to be buried in Pompeii by the Vesuvian eruption. At the start of the story he is very accepting of this, but by the end Mel convinces him that there has to be a hope, so they sit out the eruption in the TARDIS and wait for the ash to settle and solidify before dematerialising and rematerialising in the same gap 1901 years later.

Mel even asks what this will mean for the web of time, and the Doctor says to leave that for another day.

But he's still cheated time, using his foreknowledge to change the outcome, and that sort of thing creates "weak spots" in history, at least according to "Father's Day". So maybe that is why Vesuvius was able to blow a hole in the continuum. Is it, in fact, possible, that it is the Seventh Doctor's adventure that makes it possible for the Tenth Doctor's adventure to take place at all?

Just a slight shame, then, that there wasn't a moment where – in the background perhaps, you could see a man in a straw hat and paisley tie running past the other way, followed by a redhead.

Next time… Ood 'ave thought it; that "I'm Spartacus" joke prefigures a slave revolt next week. The Sensorites' next-door neighbours are back and they don't look happy on the "Planet of the Ood".