...a blog by Richard Flowers

Saturday, May 31, 2008

Day 2704: Does Mr Balloon think we're IDIOTS?


Because, people of Britain, we're surely going out of our way to convince him he's right if he does!

Electing BoJo the Clown as Mayor of London; giving the Conservatories record leads in the opinion polls… these are the sorts of things that make him think he can do no wrong.

And THAT is why we end up with announcements of pre-Stone Age Thatcherite policy: "Boot camps" (presumably followed by "Chain Gangs" and then logically on to "Slavery") being a right old kick up the Eighties.

"Compassionate Conservatism" here clearly means let us "compassionately" blame the least well off.

Meanwhile I'm indebted to Mr James for pointing out that one of our Mayor's FIRST decisions in office is another Conservatory side-swipe at the least well off: raising the cost of travel costs for the poor of London… and merely for IDEOLOGICAL reasons too. Although, to be completely accurate, Mr "I'm going to work flat out for London" BoJo's decision was to jet off on holiday and have a flunky do it for him.

So much for their "crocodile tears", as Mr Clogg calls them, over the badly-off being done over by Mr Frown's doubling of the 10p tax.

Making a speech in which he RIGHTLY said that the people of Britain are CRYING OUT for a change, for something better than this tired, old, exhausted, rubbish Labour administration, he ALSO pointed out that the Conservatories have NOTHING to offer either.

"The Balloon-eroons have started to believe their own hype: insisting on their right to enter Number 10 without working out what they'd do once the door closed behind them."

Of course, the media are IN on this CONSPIRACY, keeping the heat on Mr Frown (fair enough) but also giving Mr Balloon an easy ride. (I'm sorry, WHAT are you journalists FOR?)

For example, this week's Questionable Time saw Mr "Buff" Hoon, the Government's Chief Twit, trying to put the "what are your policies" question to Mr Eric "In a" Pickles, Conservatory spokesperson for SMUG. It was obvious from the look on his face that Mr Pickles was so arrogant that he'd come on the show without even thinking of an answer. Fortunately for him, though, he was spared when the question was deflected by Mr Dimbledonkey in one of the most partisan pieces of chairing the show has seen in a long time.

The Labour's so-called "campaign" in Crewe and Nantwich consisted of rubbishing the Conservatory JUST because he was well off. Old-fashioned class envy at its worst, and COMPLETELY missing the point. The REAL problem with Mr Balloon surrounding himself with old cronies from his Bullingdon Drinking-and-Smashing-Up-Restaurants Club Days, the problem with him choosing to stuff his Shadow Cabinet with Old Etonion Chums is NOT because it's a sign of undeserved privilege – although it IS – but because it is the clearest indication that Mr Balloon LOOKS DOWN ON the rest of us.

It is clear that he thinks that the rich deserve SPECIAL TREATMENT and the poor deserve PUNISHING.

More than that, it's clear that he thinks we shouldn't be worrying our pretty little heads about anything so difficult as policies.

That is why Mr "In A" Pickles was so TAKEN ABACK that he might have to have some answers (because there's no way that Mr Balloon is going to have told an OIK like HIM what the polices are!).

That is why Mr Balloon hasn't BOTHERED to GET any proper, real NEW policies.

And that is why we get stupid announcements of "Boot Camps" like left over pizza that Mr Balloon has found on the floor and picked the bits of FLUFF off.

Day 2703: The Phoenix Has Landed


Daddy let me stay up REALLY late to watch the NASA spaceship landing on Mars. Okay, it's not QUITE the Moon Landing, but I was excited!

Landing on Mars is quite TRICKY. Unlike the Moon, Mars is quite BIG so the gravity is quite STRONG. But unlike Earth, Mars has a thin atmosphere so it's not much use for slowing you down with PARACHUTES.

In recent years, NASA lost the Mars Polar Explorer and the European Space Agency lost their Beagle 2. So you'll understand why the scientists at mission control were so RELIVED that Phoenix hadn't gone BLATT!

The really HAIRY part is that for the seven minutes of the descent you have to rely entirely on the robot brain flying the spaceship. Mars is too far away to work it by remote control – by the time your signal saying "left a bit" got back there, you'd have already ploughed into the ground!

Fortunately it all worked out FINE. Phoenix didn't quite hit the target landing site – a parachute opened slightly late – but it found a good solid place to set down and was able to open up its solar panels and start taking photos. Just like any other tourist!

The BBC has some of the pictures.

Phoenix was sent to the north pole of Mars because that is where our orbital scans have show there to be WATER only a little way under the surface. So if there IS a chance of finding life on Mars then that is the best place to look.

Even BETTER news: our latest Martian landing has not resulted in a flash of green fire and a cylinder being launched back at us.


Day 2702: DOCTOR WHO: Brave New Town


Daddy Richard says that his review of the next adventure for Mr Dr Paul as Dr Who (with his friend Lucie) from the Big Fish Productions people contains SPOILERS from the very first word… okay, SECOND word… so I've got to keep you occupied for a hundred words of my own so that it doesn't appear on the Blogregator and that you have got time to stop reading my diary, go out to the shops, buy the CD for yourself, listen to it and THEN see what Daddy thought of it.

Okay, that's enough time – here's Daddy's review:

"Post-communist Autons", that's the best way to summarise this great little story, even if in the accompanying "making of" documentary writer Jonathan Clements says that it all springs from the phrase "Autonomic Autons".

(Jonathan also wrote last year's excellent "Immortal Beloved" with Ian McNeice as Zeus, and one of the best of the "Doctor Who Unbound" series, "Sympathy for the Devil" with David Warner as Doctor Klench er Hwo.)

In many ways there's not a lot to this, especially if you know the twist… ah, sorry! And yet almost in spite of itself it is immensely satisfying, a product of excellent dialogue and cast and a plot that, while superficially simple, also resonates.

Initially, it all starts like a rather superior re-make of Terry Nation's "The Android Invasion" with most of the more stupid mistakes and plot-holes (including the great big giveaway in the title) removed. An English village where, for the villagers, every day is the same day, Sunday 1st September 1991. There are no roads leading to anywhere else, and the ferry never comes because there's no sea only miles of sand. Throw in mention of spies and it sounds like the Doctor and Lucy have discovered a post-apocalyptic Portmerion.

However, the classic sound effects – the 'hand dropping away to reveal the wrist-gun' sound; the whooshing Auton-gun sound; and the 'buzz buzz' of the Nestene control sphere (which Alex particularly associates with the classic/tragic "Destiny of the Doctors" computer game) – were all used in the trailer on the previous CD, so it's not really a surprise when the mystery of the villagers who don't appear to eat or even appear on infra-red is revealed to be that they're all made of plastic.

The setting turns out to be 2008 and the Aral Sea, or at least what used to be the Aral Sea – it's a completely real phenomenon that taking too much water for irrigation, most of it wasted, has resulted in the Sea drying up – and an island that isn't an island any more on the southern coast off Uzbekistan. (Apparently Aral Sea means 'sea of islands' ironically enough.)

The village (hard not to call it The Village) is a former communist-era school for spies, training them to appear English by having the agents in training mingle with synthetic Britishers, apparently devised by Soviet scientists messing with a captured Nestene energy unit. What they seem to have done is by taking a little bit of Nestene Consciousness and putting it into each of them separately, they've turned the Autons into individuals.

So, just as Uzbekistan gained its independence from the Soviet Union on 1st September 1991, the Autonomic Autons gained theirs from the Nestenes.

The main thrust of the story, then, concentrates on the consequences of both of these, with the exploitation of the Uzbek oil-fields conflicting with the agenda of the Nestene Consciousness which – as in 'Rose' – wants the oil for itself. It's about being freed from central control – which is a very Doctor Who theme – and yet cleverly even though it finishes with a happy ending, you are left wondering what the Autons will do with their freedom, and the example of Uzbekistan – obliterating the Aral Sea, exploiting the oil – should give you pause that while it's right to give them their freedom, that includes the freedom to do wrong.

Rather splendidly, the lead Auton-villager is played by Play School hero Derek Griffiths, playing it totally straight. There's something spookily right about learning that he was made of plastic all along. For real class, though, they've also managed to attract Adrian Dunbar to play the morally ambiguous Captain McCarthy. It seems a very simple role, but it takes a skilled actor to deliver the lines in a way that leaves you never quite sure whether he's potentially an ally like a future Brigadier or a dangerous threat.

The good news is that because the story is so very open-ended, it leaves either the Autonomic Autons or McCarthy or both available for a return match should the story for them turn up.

Cod-Russian accents make a cunning excuse for the rest of the cast to double up, playing faux-English residents of the village and the mercenary guards of the oil fields. But that's not to say that they're in any way bad; quite the opposite. Katerina Olson, Big Finishes mistress of a thousand accents, is charmingly dotty as villager Margaret and deadly serious as one of the heavies; Nick Wilton treads an Avengers-esque line between whimsy and reality as PC Sharpe, and also plays the world weary Karimov, Uzbek contact for McCarthy and reminiscent (in a good way) of Colonel Von Strohm from 'Allo Allo'.

Once again, I have to add praise for the sheer charm of Sheridan Smith as Lucie Miller. She has terrific comic delivery, enabling her to deliver all the usual 'companion says just the right thing by accident' type lines and still make it sound both natural and funny. Lucie isn't intelligent or knowledgeable in the way that the Doctor is, but she is smart, meaning she can always come back with a comeback line – most memorably responding to the Doctor's name-drop of Marco Polo with "the man who invented the mint". And she has a wonderfully different relationship with the Doctor where, with the two of them thrust together by no choice of their own, neither wants to admit that they're rather enjoying travelling together.

Any superficial examination of the plot would suggest that very little happens in "Brave New Town". To the extent that no one even gets to New Town. You could almost see the whole story in the scene where the plastic villagers, having been induced to march out over the sands that were once the seabed, are released from the summoning voice and decide to head home again. And yet, so much more of this is just in enjoying the performance being played out and being done well.

Definitely one where less is more.

Next time… we're off to the fabled Blue Desert of Metebelis… I beg your pardon, Indigo 3 for Sects, Sanctuaries, Symmetry and "The Skull of Sobek".

Do not forget! Mr Dr David is back tonight at 7pm!

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Day 2701: DOCTOR WHO: Lungbarrow


Oh, no, you're NOT going to get away with a weekend without Dr Who, just because of Eurovision!

Anyway, there WAS new stuff on the telly, with the thrilling Dalek-stuffed trailer for the rest of the season, what does make it look like there's an ongoing DARKNESSSSS theme. Eek!

'Lungbarrow' – by Marc Platt, writer of "Ghost Light" for Sylvester McCoy's last TV season, and a story to which it bears much resemblance for reasons obvious to anyone knowing their history of the making of Doctor Who – divides Doctor Who fans. Ironically. Because it ought to unite them, being not a turning point, but a definite ending that wraps up most if not all of the ongoing threads of the Cartmel and New Adventures years, that answers all the questions and allows them to be left behind. It is an epic milestone (or millstone, to some readers) in the Doctor's history. It is a masterpiece.

Most of the story is set in the buried House of Lungbarrow, from one tumultuous day in its past to its sepulchral present. And, like an archaeological dig – a metaphor used in the book itself in order to allow a cameo for the companion of the New Adventures, Professor Bernice 'Benny' Summerfield – this book is all layers upon layers of meaning.

On the most superficial of levels, it's a murder mystery: who killed the head of the House? But like quintessential science fiction, the bigger mystery is what is this place and how does this world work? As you play the conventional murder mystery games of hunt the missing will and unmask the killer, you also unravel the customs of the House, and how they've devolved over the centuries of darkness. Appreciate the petty rivalries and tragedies of the inhabitants. Understand why the furniture in the House is so oversized. Learn about the game of Sepulchasm – and think how it applies to Gallifrey's history.

Yes, Gallifrey, because this is the story – more than any since "The Deadly Assassin" – where the Doctor comes home.

'Lungbarrow' is the last Gallifrey story that could be told, the story that reveals all of the answers and leaves you with a completely new mystery. So, obviously, it's good, brilliant, fantastic that it was told before the planet was wiped out in the Time War.

The Gallifrey that we get to see here is the one that the television never gave us – except perhaps in a glimpse in "Last of the Time Lords". It is awesome and alien, powerful and petty, bizarre and yet hauntingly familiar all at once. Where in a very human way, every family is the worst kind of family reunion, where you can never grow out of your childhood humiliations.

And yet, the story isn't about Gallifrey at all. It's about "home".

Lungbarrow is a House of horrors, whether it's the Doctor's relatives, his Cousins, with their cruel bets, or the experiments that the Doctor left forgotten in the north annex, or the monstrous house servants, the Drudges,or the body in the funguretum. And yet it's also a marvellously Gothic science-fantasy, a House of living silver tree trunks, where the mirrors reflect the other rooms, where you can get beaten up by the Library, or share dreams through the cobwebs, and where the Cousins queue up for a glimpse of the sky through the chimney.

It's a story of great character, and of great characters: the Doctor's cousins each realised in different insanity, be it brooding or obsessive or guilt-ridden or guileless greed or senility or denial or evil. You can't help but feel sorry for them, and then feel they deserve it, and then that they just deserve a good slapping as each new layer is turned and overturned. And the greatest character is the House itself, alive and laden with centuries of aggrieved malice. A House that is a living forest, from its canopied branches to its streams and dells, sounds idyllic until you venture under the surface to find the fungus, the neglect and the decay.

It's a mirror image of "Ghost Light" (appropriate because, of course, this was "Ghost Light" on first submission) a point made most obviously in a moment where the Doctor lists all the things he likes (whereas in "Ghost Light" he lists all the things he doesn't). This time it is the Doctor who has to return to face the things in his past, psychotherapy made physical, and by revisiting and understanding the traumas of his childhood, peeling back the layers to reveal what was underneath, he puts himself back together as a whole person. In a society where sexuality isn't so much repressed as abolished, this is obviously heavy on the Freud, with literally the interpretation of dreams key to the plot. But with archetypes in spades, there's a good side-order of Jung-to-go too.

It is inescapable to say that 'Lungbarrow' is continuity-heavy. It would have to be, steeped as it is in the tradition of the New Adventures with extended story arcs running through half-dozen book mini sub-series like "The Future Histories", "The Alternative Universes" and "The Psi Powers", but also overarching themes that continued through the entire range, linking ideas such as what the Doctor wanted from Ace, the ancient history of the Time Lords, or the corrupt power of Earth's corporations and future Empire.

But that continuity is completely the point: the entire theme of the book is uncovering the past, shedding light onto the old mysteries and through that letting them go. It is a celebration of the richness of the Doctor Who legacy, and at the same time it's the book that says it's time to say goodbye to all that.

Every novel has to have a last chapter that concludes and completes what has come before. 'Lungbarrow' is that chapter for the New Adventures. To criticise it for being that is to say you would never read the last page of an Agatha Christie, never watch the last reel of a Hitchcock, never tune in for the season finale of a Russell Davies' Doctor Who. The Doctor finishes this book having rid himself of his angst about his own personal continuity. So should the reader.

It's also a story that has roots deep in the television series: from the McCoy era, the key texts are – obviously – "Remembrance of the Daleks", "Silver Nemesis", "The Curse of Fenric" and of course "Ghost Light" itself. And there are links going back to "An Unearthly Child" and to "Tomb of the Cybermen" and the Doctor's chat with Victoria about family. But equally important are Tom Baker era serials "The Brain of Morbius" and "The Invasion of Time". Because this book doesn't just seek to resolve the so-called Cartmel Master Plan; it also tries to tie up the (often forgotten) Hinchcliffe/Holmes Master Plan too.

Since you probably have forgotten, that is the one where the production team sought to reintroduce the element of mystery to the series, put the "Who?" back into Doctor Who, by suggesting that the central character had a past that was deeper and more unknown than the one the conventional viewer was familiar with… hang on, that's not pinning it down.

Hinchcliffe and Holmes used devices like the series of eight "additional" or "earlier" faces in the Doctor's mind battle with Morbius along with revealing a new wooden console room in "Masque of Mandragora" and calling it the "old" console room, fitted out with a costume we've never seen before but saying the Doctor used to wear it, and infamously the whole re-imagining of Gallifrey in "The Deadly Assassin" to make the Doctor's world less "understood", less "known", less "safe".

By Cartmel's time this Hinchcliffe revolution had itself become ossified under layers of mythology and "The Five Doctors".

(Actually, to be fair, "The Five Doctors" itself, for all its this-that-and-the-other of Rassilon, is trying to overturn our perspective of Rassilon as all-hero of Gallifrey; it's much more "Arc of Infinity" that kills Gallifrey as a place of majesty and wonder.)

Even mighty Russell Davies needed sixteen years of absence from our screens to "detoxify" the Gallifrey brand, and even then it wasn't until "The Runaway Bride" that he dared to use the word. Thanks to that gap, that chasm, the Time Lords have become a half-forgotten legend to the casual TV viewer, something powerful from the past, now lost. In many ways that was exactly what Cartmel was trying to realise – if only he'd known that getting the series cancelled for a decade-and-a-half was what would do the trick!

'Lungbarrow' doesn't just look backwards though, as – published after the McGann story was broadcast – it also completes the Virgin books' deliberate policy of leading in to the TV movie. The idea that this is the seventh Doctor's final "belly of the whale" journey to reach a state of liberated calm in which he can face the adventure that in fact kills him fills the book with inevitable melancholy and triumph in equal measure. And there is a near tear-jerking moment at the end when Romana gives the Doctor her sonic screwdriver – obviously the screwdriver we see in the movie – that completes his transformation from master player on a thousand boards to the humble traveller we see arrive in San Francisco.

The argument against 'Lungbarrow' being "canon" usually reduces to "…but it was only read by a few thousand people and you have to pay for it." The thing is, for many Doctor Who fans today, won over by the new series, the same is true of all of the first twenty-six seasons. "An Unearthly Child" for example, only available to watch on DVD as part of the "The Beginning" box set, or any Tom Baker story on whatever pay-channel UKGold is calling itself if they ever put it back on. Whereas 'Lungbarrow' is free to read from the BBC's own website.

"Ah ha," say the nay-sayers – actually, nay-sayers would say "nay"; these would be ah-ha-sayers… I'm drifting – "Ah ha, but 'Last of the Time Lords' shows us a Time Lord Child, probably the Master, whereas 'Lungbarrow' says Time Lords are born from these Loom things fully grown!"

Except, of course, 'Lungbarrow' also says that natural childbirth is restored to Gallifrey, and the planet will see children again. And if that boy is the Master, then isn't he the resurrected Master, born to fight the Time War? In fact, this seems very likely, since Professor Yana claims he was found "as a child". When the Doctor turned himself human in "Human Nature", he didn't change his appearance or apparent age; surely the implication must be that the Master, then, was a boy himself when he turned himself human.

That would be typical of the Time Lords, actually; all of the Master's knowledge and talent, but stuffed into the mind of child, exposed to the Time Vortex, shown the full horror of the Daleks' war machine… no wonder the poor lad went nuts. Better luck next time, Master…

…you know, I do harbour an idea for a story where the Doctor goes all Indiana Jones, Tomb Raiding a crumbling old stone Time Keep, tracking down a mysterious lost treasure that turns out to be an obsolete Gallifreyan {cough}Loom{cough} Genetic Engine (you know, you can even say that there are these relics hanging around in the universe because we've seen the technology being used in "The Doctor's Daughter"). Only the rival archaeological party – you've got to have a rival party if your pastiching Indy – gets there first and, what do you know, the femme fatale is Mrs Lucy Saxon and before you can say season cliff-hanger she's dropped the old Master's ring into the coin slot and out steps John Simm with a cheery: "did ya miss me?" An-y-way…

With even more hindsight, the Time Lords' interest, both Romana and that Ingmar Bergman-esque chap from "Genesis of the Daleks", in 'Lungbarrow' in recovering the Master's remains takes on an extra significance since we know they will ultimately want to resurrect him to fight the Time War.

So what do you need to know?

In ancient time, ten million years ago, before they were Time Lords, Gallifrey was ruled by a line of Priestess/Prophetesses called the Pythias. Then came Rassilon and Omega and an off-world stranger known only as the "Other". They used science to overthrow superstition, harnessed the power of a black hole, invented time travel and gave Gallifrey mastery over Time. But there was a price: the last Pythia cursed the planet and it became sterile. Rather than face extinction, though, Rassilon – on the Other's advice – created machines called "Looms" that would make new Gallifreyans. He set up these Looms each in a House with a set number of "Cousins", each of whom would have thirteen lives and when they finally died, be replaced by a new Cousin spun out of the Loom. But then Rassilon turned out to be a bit of a tyrant and ended up in the Black Tower, and the Other disappeared…

When Romana hints to the TARDIS that it should bring the Doctor home, it takes her suggestion a little too literally, and brings him back to the place where he hasn't been for six-hundred and seventy three years: the House of Lungbarrow, where he was born (or Loomed) as one of forty-five Cousins.

The head of the family, ambitious Ordinal-General Quences, had pushed to gain advancement for the Doctor, which he had turned down wanting to travel his own way, so furious Quences was persuaded by the Housekeeper Satthralope to disinherit the Doctor, taking away even his name, forbidding it to be used in the House. Going slightly too far, they tell the House that the Doctor is dead, so the Loom illegally generates a replacement for him. Dying, however, Quences repented of his decision, and summoned all of the Cousins – the Doctor included – to attend the reading of his will. (Being Gallifreyan, of course, he would read his own will before having his mind transferred to the Matrix and letting his body pass.)

Except the Doctor doesn't show, so Quences refuses to read the will, Cousin Glospin is so furious that he collapses with a double hearts-attack, and Satthralope declares that they will all wait in the House until Quences comes to his senses. What they don't know is that Glospin, taking it on himself to act as head of the Household, had received a written warning from the Capitol because someone (that would be the Doctor in a very first-Doctor fit of spite) tipped them off that the House had spun an illegal extra Cousin, and they have five days to appeal; Glospin has sent an appeal – on the grounds that Glospin's tests of the Doctor's genetics don't match the Lungbarrow Loom so he shouldn't count as a Cousin anyway. Unfortunately someone has trapped the messenger in the transmit booth. And then someone else – a figure in black with swept back white hair and a cane looking uncannily like… him murders Quences. Overcome with shame, the House buries itself. And no one has heard of it since.

There's a way in which this tragedy is everybody's fault: Quences for his bloody-mindedness; Satthralope for her spite; Glospin for his avarice; Innocet (not quite Innocent, you see) for her holier-than-thou interfering; Cousin Owis just for being, of which he shows no signs of deserving; the Doctor for never thinking that he should pop back; the Hand of Omega for its puppy-like devotion to the Doctor because it thinks he's someone it recognises…

But these details are superficial. Anyone reading that might think to dismiss the novel as a load of self-indulgent fanwank. And they'd still miss the point. As with real archaeology, you have to get down into the dirt; you have to read 'Lungbarrow' to experience the richness of the tapestries, even as the Drudges pull them from the mirrors.

It's the end, and this moment really has been prepared for, over long years of New Adventures story-arcing. If, as they say, you don't want to know the result, look away now.

When the Pythia fell, her priestesses fled to the neighbouring planet and became the Sisterhood of Karn. Romana, risking her Presidency to do so, heals the rift between Gallifrey and the Sisterhood. While Leela – yes this, not the TARDIS bathroom scene, is where "The Invasion of Time" really comes in – Leela becomes pregnant by Andred thus finally lifting the Pythia's curse.

And that's it, the conclusion of the Master Plan: the Doctor has finally saved Gallifrey from its own past and, by releasing his family (and himself) from where he'd locked them away, he gains his own redemption too.

Freed from the past, unburdened of all those layers, Gallifrey and the Doctor can go forward.

Sure, it kills them both, but in a way that's good too because it's all part of the metaphor of renewal, the new coming from the passing of the old.

So, surrounded by his family and by his friends, his real family, that's what the Doctor chooses to do, to go forward, to go to Skaro armed only with Romana's gift of a screwdriver. And it means that far from being the lonely-seeming figure seen at the start of the TV movie, this is actually a Doctor finally at peace.

So who is the Doctor? When the Other fell out with Rassilon, he couldn't leave Gallifrey so instead he stepped into the master Loom. He was taken to pieces and – we infer from all the evidence – eventually his DNA, or something like it, was spun out again from the Loom of the House of Lungbarrow as a forty-fifth Cousin, smarter less bonkers than the rest, teased and tormented by his Cousins and dumped on with a crushing weight of the Family's expectations until the Hand of Omega woke up and, by recharging an old Type Forty TARDIS, gave him a way out.

But who was the Other? Ahh…

Day 2700: Mr Ban Lifts Air-Lifts Ban


Secretary General of the United Nations, Mr Ban Ki-moon, has managed to persuade General Feng Shui, head of the Burmese military dictatorship, to let foreign aid workers in to try to save lives in a (much delayed) response to the Cyclone Nargis tragedy.

This comes as a great RELIEF to me, since there have been people actually suggesting that the Junta's apparently indifferent response to their own people's suffering is justification enough for the West to INVADE. As if "spreading democracy by force" wasn't bonkers already, let's try "spreading disaster relief by force" and see how THAT works out!

Much has been made of the contrast between the actions of the secretive rulers of Burma and those of the regime in China following the just-as-terrible earthquake disaster. While the Burmese have tried to keep their secret state locked up tighter than Mr Frown's wallet, the Chinese have surprised everyone with their openness and admission of where they cannot cope and need help.

(Of course, you could get CYNICAL and say that with the Olympics coming they really couldn't try a "deny everything" tactic; and some people have suggested that this is really good PR that has drowned out all of the protests about the ongoing occupation of Tibet. But the important issue is getting rescue and relief to the people suffering, and it's worked so that is GOOD.)

What would have happened if it had been the other way around, though? Would people have even SUGGESTED the idea of invading China in order to provide humanitarian relief? No, of course not, because China would kick our fluffy bottoms if we tried.

And this is the CLUE: people saying we should invade are confusing MIGHT with RIGHT. Just because we COULD invade Burma, that would NOT make it a very clever thing to do.

Now, I'm NOT saying that the Burmese military are not treating their own people very badly indeed, but that's not the point. WE can't just go around invading places JUST because we don't like the way their government treats them. That is the old BRITISH EMPIRE reason for invading places: "We know better than you hignorant natives!"

This doctrine of intervention stems from the time of the BALKAN WARS when NATO and the United Nations stepped in to separate the warring parties, in particular to stop the ethnically Serbian side from committing genocide against the ethnically Bosnian side.

We were right to do this.

But it's had CONSEQUENCES. One of which was, obviously, the Monkey-in-Chief's Middle Eastern Debacle. And this sabre-rattling over Burma is another.

What we need is to pin the international law down with a framework that we can use to judge future cases against.

What can we say about the Balkans: a) the parties could be separated into identifiable sides; b) there was an active military campaign of genocide being conducted; c) we could intervene with sufficient force to stop the war.

That third one is important. It's part of the old "Just war" justifications of the church, of course, but the point is a sound one. I'm not actually going to claim that anything makes a war "just", but at least with sufficient resources to "win" you stand a chance of making things better rather than worse by just adding to the chaos.

It does seem that we have LOST something, somewhere between the fall of the Berlin Wall and our response to September 11th. It was the MORAL HIGH GROUND. There used to be things WE DID NOT DO. We learned the lesson of post-colonialism: we COULDN'T boss other people around JUST because we had better guns and a superior attitude. We believed in human Rights and the Charter of the United Nations – great goodness, we in Britain WROTE most of those! – and in the power of persuasion and of time and of the insidious strength of the desire for Disney DVDs and McDonalds.

I am glad to say that the head of the UN clearly STILL believes in those things, and is able to show us that they still WORK.

Thank you, Mr Ban!

And, while I'm on the subject, why in the name of all that's fluffy are we trying to justify asking for a get-out-of-banning-them-free card for the use of nasty horrid indiscriminate cluster bombs?!

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Day 2699: Wrecking Crewe


Let's get one thing quite clear from the get go: the Conservatories AREN'T "back". They never went away. It's just that for the last ten years they've been called NEW LABOUR.

Lord Blairimort decided that the Labour couldn't beat the Conservatories, so he chose instead to be "The Conservatories, but NICE".

Well, Mr Balloon has got "The Conservatories, but NICE" in solid silver spades, and Mr Frown is looking distinctly NASTY PARTY.

So the result in the Crewe and Nantwich by-election isn't the start of something different. It's a vote for more of the same with FRESHER SOCKS on.

What seems almost the MOST extraordinary thing is the calls from supporters of the Labour saying "we must now set a radical agenda" or "we must rob the rich and give to the poor to prove that we care" like it's EVER GOING TO HAPPEN.

The problem with so-called "left commentators" is that they like to think that they are the "good guys". They're utterly incapable of getting their head around the fact that they supporting a nasty brutish and only if we're lucky short fag end of an authoritarian, warmongering, super-rich-rewarding, poor-taxing FREAK SHOW: a bunch of Conservatories dressed up in the undead body of the Labour Party.

But – clean footwear aside – do the OTHER Conservatories REALLY have anything to say to earn the right to step into the DEAD MAN'S SHOES?

Last night on Questionable Time, Auntie Maude was representing the Conservatories – saying it was impossible to guess what the by-election outcome might be, which suggests a certain amount of DIVORCED FROM REALITY-NESS – and a member of the audience challenged him, saying that the Conservatories had no polices.

"Well, that looks like a man who wants sending all of our policy papers…" chuckled Auntie Maude smugly "…our paper on penal reform, our paper on education and, er, er, the others as they come out…"

I am NOT KIDDING! See for yourself; it's probably still in the BBC's IP layer. (What IS a layer of IP?)

Or there's Master Gideon Oboe – did you see him at the by-election? Apparently all Conservatory MPs were told they had to visit at least three times. "I've been here four times," squeaked young Oboe, "just two more and I'll have done my three… that's right isn't it?"

In the aftermath of the results he was talking about "Mr Balloon is putting together a new ruling coalition."

Presumably we can look forward to the Conservatories, the Daleks and the Cybermen together at last.

Mr Balloon is calling it the "end of New Labour" which might be a BIT previous, what with there being two years until Mr Frown ACTUALLY loses the next general election. What's MR Balloon going to say THEN? "This is the end of New Labour… er, again!" probably.

It's NOT the end, it's not even the BEGINNING of the end, it's a bit somewhere in the middle that you're going to leave on the side because it's not very nice.

Governments have recovered from WORSE foot-in-mouths that this. It's just that the Labour do not seem to know how or even to WANT to!

How did WE do? Well, obviously we didn't WIN. Our vote was down from the general election, but we weren't squeezed to irrelevance.

Our candidate was Ms Elizabeth Shenton and she did jolly well to keep up our support AND stand up to some bullying from the BBC's Mr Paxo in a Newsnight debate, having a go at her about being "parachuted in".

Oh, I know it's espirit d'escalier but I DID think of a better answer. Ms Elizabeth SHOULD have said:

"Well, Mr Paxo, the local party selected me to fight this campaign. Why were YOU parachuted in? Aren't the local BBC journalists good enough?"

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Day 2698: Oil Shock Shock: Highest Price Ever… Until Next Time!


You do realise that oil is just going to keep getting more expensive, don't you?

That's not necessarily to say that EVERY price change will be an increase, and at the moment the price is being driven up as much by a BUBBLE as demand: all those futures traders who think that buying oil is a one way bet… because they were SOOO right about mortgages being a one way bet, weren't they!

Bit with the emergence of CHINA and INDIA as nascent economic superpowers, there are more and more people wanting the stuff and only a FINITE supply. I mean there's a LOT of oil down there at the moment but it's going to be all used up EVENTUALLY.

Obviously it's not JUST the Chinese fault; it's not like we in the West haven't been guzzling the stuff like it's custard. And the rapid growth of low cost air travel has seen a huge demand for aviation fuel.

Of course, Great Britain gets hit harder by this because, apparently having learned all about oil shocks in the nineteen-seventies, we STILL rely on importing most of our food and energy. As crazy ideas go, this is pretty tops.

Watching the "Supersizers" on the telly the other night, we learned how during World War Part II, when all our supplies were getting sunk, we had nothing to eat but Woolton Pie, which is basically boiled potatoes baked in a potato crust garnished with potatoes. Civil War was only averted by the defeat of Mr Hitler.

But this is where we are heading once again if we don't get our thinking caps on and come up with a solution to the oil running out.

I'm sure you'll never get BORED of me telling you about WINDMILLS and HYDROGEN, but just for VARIETY I'll try a different tack: LASERS.

Fusion energy is either the great white hope of the world or a great white elephant. Either way, I LOVE IT!

Fusion is the way that the SUN makes energy out of Hydrogen by smashing atoms of H together until they turn into He, Helium. And because 2 H's are a little bit heavier than one He and E, as old Albert said, = mc2 then you get ENERGY as a bonus.

(Because "E" means "Energy" and "= mc2" means energy is proportional to heaviness. Or in other words you can turn a bit of weight into a bit – or quite a LOT – of energy.)

In olden days (the nineteen-eighties) people thought that you had to use a lot of magnets and a torus which is a sort of doughnut. You take all the jam out of the doughnut and put in the fuel then spin it round very, very fast and it gets so hot that it turns into a star-in-a-bottle.

Now there is a new and modern method.

You take a blob of fuel and fire a super-duper LASER at it to heat it up to the temperature of the Sun and start the fusion going that way.

Yes, that IS what Doctor Octopus does in "Spider-man 2"; why are you all backing slowly away?

Friday, May 23, 2008

Day 2697: The New Tax-Cutting Party


As the IFS (Institute for Funny Statistics) takes Chancellor Sooty to task for his one-year fix that will leave people worse off again next year…

And Mr Balloon – once more choosing the ANCIENT BRITON approach to policies: going naked but for his blue war paint(!) – tackles the Prime Monster on the same subject…

…it's GOOD to know that at least the LIBERAL DEMOCRATS have got some IDEAS for making the TAX a bit fairer and bit simpler and – dare we say it – a bit less!

Mr Clogg has made a speech explaining HOW and WHY.

Now, personally, I think that our SHORT TERM objective has got to be bringing BORROWING under control. At the moment Sooty is the Mr Micawber of Finance Ministers…
"Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen nineteen six: result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six: result misery."
To which Sooty might add: "Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure: two aircraft carriers, two international wars, two tax cuts for the middle classes, 2% for the police: result election catastrophe!"

With his tax-cut-con-cover-up-bribe Sooty is now borrowing to cover the gap between his current spending and his current income. This is the route to DEBTORS PRISON.

So, as I say, the most important thing is to close that gap.

Obviously there are only TWO ways to do it: tax more or spend less.

What I am really pleased to see is that Mr Clogg recognises that we have reached, or at least are near to, the TOP END of the amount of tax that the people of Britain are willing to let the Government take.

Mr Frown – like you could forget that HE was the Chancellor… and STILL IS! – has done this through SLY and UNDERHAND methods: mainly by drawing more and more people into the 40% Higher Rate tax bracket by not putting up the tax bands as much as the increase in salaries; and by squeezing the central Government grant to your local council so that they have to put up the Council Tax, hitting the lowest paid disproportionate harder.

Of course, I say "near to" the top end because although Mr Frown seems HAPPY to have DOUBLED the tax take, squeezing THREE-HUNDRED BILLION pounds more out of ordinary working folks, he does seem quite happy to let super-rich individuals and big business get away with TWENTY-FIVE BILLION pounds of tax avoidance through (entirely legal) loopholes and non-dom status.

(Think about THAT when the headlines are screaming "Record Benefit Fraud"
over the news that the government has lost a whole ZERO-POINT-ONE-FOUR billion in benefits.)

Mr Frown's making the tax system more COMPLICATED has positively ENCOURAGED these people to get their highly-paid tax accountants (or more strictly speaking highly-paid partners in accountancy firms who then employ relatively averagely paid drones to do all the work) to find them all the cracks and crannies that the "great one" has accidentally (or accidentally-on-purpose) left for them to hide their money in.

By making taxes SIMPLER we also make them FAIRER, by having the rich companies and individuals pay their share – not pay MORE than their share, not SQUEEZE them till they SQUEAK, but at least stop the LUNACY that means they pay a lower tax rate than their CLEANING LADIES!

Using that money to take the lowest earners out of tax ALTOGETHER would be the way to spare them from Mr Frown's doubling of the 10p tax band that DOESN'T mean running the Government Credit card so far into the red that it MELTS!

This would be both REDISTRIBUTIVE – readers from the Labour might want to refer to their history notes to find what that means – AND fiscally neutral, not putting the tax burden up any higher than it already is.

Of course, if we CAN'T put taxes UP any more then LOGICALLY this means that we have got to think very hard about what SPENDING we would be willing to CUT.

And that is what Mr Clogg is going to do: he already has a target of twenty billion pounds of spending that he wants to redirect to be spent BETTER, but now he wants to go even further and start to find ways to reduce the tax burden.

Personally I think that spending money on body armour rather than aircraft carriers might be a good start, but there is also the way that Mr Frown's loves his BYZANTINE Tax Credits so much that he splashes them around with gay abandon on anyone fitting the right social profile – in work… married… with children… first name Gordon… etc. By targeting the benefit on the people it's SUPPOSED to benefit – i.e. the least well off – then you can be considerably less WASTEFUL.

Oh and there's the exciting way that with all of their special advisors, the Labour are now basically running TWO Civil Services in parallel. Probably room for some savings there.

What is most important about all this, though, is that Mr Clogg has seen where the Liberal Democrats principles have put us in a place away from the other two Parties.

While Mr "Loopholes" Frown and Mr "tax cuts for dead millionaires" Balloon pursue the DUBIOUS HONOUR of sucking up to the rich while borrowing to meet their spending commitments, only the LIBERAL DEMOCRATS are offering to CONTROL spending, CUT TAXES and STICK UP for the low paid, the hard working, the ordinary people of Britain.

Yes, I do KNOW that Dr Who says: "logic, my dear Zoë, merely allows you to be wrong with authority." The problem is that in that instance Zoë was right and Dr Who was wrong. So there may be some IRONY involved in using the quote to criticise people who use LOGIC.

Day 2696: Hybrids, Chimeras and Talibaptists… oh my!


(In fairness, they're more like TaliPAPISTS in this country.)

Yes, obviously, it's the return of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill and the attempt by an alliance of Social Conservatories and Roman Theocrats to HIJACK the issue as an excuse to start a CULTURE WAR against science.

The media are, typically, giggling about the fact that several of Mr Frown's own Cabinet DEFIED his personal plea and voted PRO-LIES.

But surely the far more worrying development is the Conservatories AS A BLOC throwing their weight behind a discrimination, superstition, anti-choice agenda straight out of the book of Victorian values.

On the CRUCIAL votes, the Conservatories were top keen to vote against the modern liberal country that Great Britain has become, and cocksure enough to do it blatantly.

On reducing the abortion limit to 22 weeks, the Conservatories voted 134 (plus 2 semi-detached Independent Conservatories) in favour to 27 against (Liberal Democrats were the most divided on this difficult issue though thankfully leaning the right way overall: 23 for and 32 against)

On the question of whether the law should insist that a daddy is necessary to have a child, the Conservatories support was 144 to 12 for legislating against any family that does not fit their ideological catalogue.

On trying to ban the use of hybrid embryos they WERE more divided, 80 in favour and 64 against, but the majority of the Conservatory Party were still on the opposite side to the PROGRESSIVE will of the House and (on this occasion) their own leader, Mr Balloon.

Losing the fight to embed the patriarchy in law was Mr Vague's Dad the former Conservatory leader, Mr Iain Drunken Swerve, or IVF as he is known.

He was at pains to emphasise that just because he thought that Lesbians (no, NOT from Lesbos, let's not go THERE again)… just because he thought Lesbians were thoroughly inadequate to be parents, he was NOT being HOMOPHOBIC – he wouldn't go so far as to say that some of his best friends are gay daddies, but some of his best friends are… senior Conservatories.

The whole business is about pinning people down and making them live the way that the Conservatories WANT them to live. But people do not need the Conservatories' permission to live their lives, and thankfully the House of Commons agrees.

So instead Mr Drunken Swerve's "need for a father" will be replaced by "supportive parenting", which seems MUCH more sensible and allows for recognition of all of the DIFFERENT kinds of families that people are able to come up with for themselves.

The argument over abortion, led by the Conservatory MP Ms Nodding Doris, was almost MORE sinister, not least because of the way it was suddenly attached to the Embryology Bill out of the blue.

I am not really QUALIFIED to spout about the abortion issue. But if there is one statistic that convinces ME, then it's THIS:

Britain: abortion legal: 20% of pregnancies end in termination.
Brazil: abortion illegal: 30% of pregnancies end in termination.

That certainly LOOKS like the way to save BABIES (and MUMMIES, who are JUST as important) is to give mummies CONTROL over their own squishy bits reproductive organs. That means being PRO-CHOICE. It means education. It means contraception. It means equal rights and equal pay and job protection and a whole lot of other things too. But all of those things add up to giving the power and the decision to the mummy.

However, the debate isn't as simple as the yes/no question over ALLOWING abortion at all. No matter that that's what the anti-abortion campaigners want, they've realised that – for now – they're not going to be able to wind THAT particular clock BACK to the Dark Ages. So instead they are adopting SALAMI TACTICS.

Daddy Richard says: they want to kill abortion by slicing it up piecemeal.

I say: Yeuch, icky metaphor daddy! [Daddy Alex AGREES!]

The scientific consensus is that we put the limit on abortion at 24 weeks because up to 24 weeks the chances of a baby surviving on its own are really quite low.

Obviously, this led to all the news shows going out and finding someone whose baby HAD survived being born at 23 weeks and then – rather disingenuously – NOT interviewing the NINE OTHER MUMMIES whose babies had all DIED.

Also, the chances of survival drop off AMAZINGLY quickly: from below one in ten at 23 weeks to below one in ten-thousand at 20 weeks (in fact in the most recent survey no babies at all survived being born so early).

But you can SORT OF see that people might think that given that there is SOME chance of survival at 23 weeks and a tiny chance at 22 weeks then MAYBE there is some justification in letting MPs decide to lower the limit, just on the precautionary principle, so we're covered as science gets BETTER at saving very early premature babies.

This is a TRAP.

Because the REAL danger here is that MPs choose to take the decision AWAY from Independent Scientific Advice. Essentially that would mean that you take the science OUT of the debate and then just debate on SENTIMENT.

And once you've got THERE, it's much, much harder to defend the right to an abortion with inconvenient things like COLD HARD FACTS, when the other side can say: "ooooh, just look at the li'll BABIES!!!"

(Actually, they say that a lot already – but at least you can counter it with: "yes, but the SCIENCE says…")

Fortunately, as you know, MPs decided to stick with the scientific advice.

But we still need to be aware that the HARD-LINE Conservatories have STILL scored a victory by getting their AGENDA to the centre of political debate. The Progressive Movement is STYMIED so long as the choices being presented are between the STATUS QUO (which Conservatories love) or going back to their Fantasy Fifties (which Conservatories love).

One thing is for certain: the ONLY way to make sure that you don't replace a barking mad power-crazed authoritarian Labour with barking mad power-crazed authoritarian Conservatories… is to make sure there are enough LIBERAL DEMOCRATs to keep the s HONEST!

One OTHER effect of this bill is that "Saviour Siblings" will be allowed.

This is GOOD: I think Mr Jesus could DO with a sister or brother to help him get out more.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Day 2693: On Expenses Encore


You MAY remember that a month or so ago, I told you how Mr Speaker of the Housemartin had decided to waste a whole lot of everybody's time and money by going to court to try and keep MPs expenses secret.

Well, today he had his day before the beak and the judgement was that he'd wasted a whole lot of everybody's time and money by going to court and no, MPs expenses were NOT going to be kept secret.

We'll find out the answers by this FRIDAY. Just in time to be BURIED by Mr Frown's bad-news day.

Mr Clogg got in EARLY with his own expenses declaration.

This is GOOD, because he has been calling for more OPENNESS and HONESTY about MPs pay and it is better to show that he has nothing to be afraid of.

On the other fluffy foot, people seem to have made a bit of a FUSS over the fact that he needed to spend seven thousand pounds on repairs and carpets for his constituency home.

"It's a CRUMBLING OLD EDIFICE, and we had to put in a SUPPORT to keep it up. But now we've got the SUPPLIES and we've got CONFIDENCE, I'm sure we can make it liveable,"
said Mr Clogg.

(I wonder if the Torygraph might have gotten the WRONG end of the STICK, though!)

Fortunately, Mr Speaker Housemartin is not going to waste any MORE time and money and has dropped plans to appeal the case.

Day 2691: Unidentified Frowning Object


According to the EXPERTS, Great Britain has NOT been visited by ALIENS.

Which somehow FAILS to explain what PLANET Mr Frown is living on!

As with last year, Mr Frown's commitment to open government extends to sharing with us the Parliamentary Bills (or "Ragbag Proposals" according to Mr Clogg) that we are going to get rammed down our throats presented for our considered opinion during the next year.

Mr Balloon claims that all these bills are STOLEN from his secret stack of policies that he's not telling us. And that's not a surprise: there's no substance here at all.

The full list contains eighteen proposed bills, but as with the summer television schedules, there are a whole lot of REPEATS.

In particular, Welfare Reform (make the scroungers do more courses), Crime and Policing (more ASBOs for binge drinkers) and Transport security (terrorism at airports) all sound VERY familiar.

And similarly, the Education Bill and Health Bill will be more of the same tinkering, with "access to information" meaning more tests and "control of budgets" meaning more targets. Mr Balloon was VERY keen to claim that all of this "rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic" is exactly what the Conservatories would do too. Which just goes to show how empty of plans he is too.

Meanwhile the Coroners Bill is clearly going to be yet another go at robbing powers from our ancient justice system to stop an uppity judiciary daring to argue when the Government does something a bit wrong like getting hundreds of our soldiers killed.

And, in a prelude to the DOG-WHISTLE tactics that the Labour have adopted for the Crewe and Nantwich by-election, there will be more Immigration legislation, in order to set up the already-set-up UK Boarders Authority and (we can but presume) give them the power to BARCODE everyone who comes into the country.

The MEATY part of the proposed policies was, naturally, REACTING to EVENTS, and NOT LEADING them.

Proposals for new Banking Regulation, (which obviously won't work because Mr Frown isn't going to pay for any inspectors to ENFORCE it), were obviously inspired by the whole Northern Rock/toilet interface fiasco. And a Saving Scheme (for people without any money to save) is obviously a half-decade-too-late response to the whole economy being run on the never-never.

Offering £200 million to buy at a knock down rate the homes of people who can't sell them in order to rent them out to people who can't afford to buy, is clearly a desperate measure to prop up the housing market much needed offer of help to "hardworking families" hit by the Credit Crunch.

It also even manages to seem a bit PALTRY when you remember that: (a) average house prices are still over £200,000 – so Mr Frown's largess amounts to, er, a thousand houses; and (b) Sooty dropped £2.7 BILLION on the economy the day before.

Don't get excited about the Constitutional Reform Bill, though: it's just formalising the superficial re-arrangements that Mr Frown has already decided upon, like letting MPs vote on invading Middle Eastern countries on flimsy to false prospectuses.

Speaking of which, we will apparently also be ratifying the Third Geneva Convention. Just so you know when we next help the Monkey-in-Chief to BREAK IT!

Actually, you are probably MUCH more interested in the "British X Files" which have been opened, revealing our pictures of UFOs.

Or possibly not.

Expert opinion: it's all twaddle!

Which brings me back to Mr Frown's Queen's Speech…

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Day 2692: Relic Box of Einstein's Hairdo


Four things that Professor E is famous for:

Number 1: E = mc2

Number 2: Sock phobia

Number 3: Turned down the presidency of Israel

Number 4: "Mr God does not play dice"

Except it turns out that that last quote ought to be: "Mr God does not play dice… because he's IMAGINARY!"

Mr Albert often referred to Mr God POETICALLY, something that's been used as a sign of BELIEF. But, in this forgotten letter, he lays it out a bit more BLUNTLY:
"The word god is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honourable, but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish. No interpretation no matter how subtle can (for me) change this."
The question of Mr Albert's belief, unbelief, respect for the traditions and history of his people, or general sense of wonder at the fact that the world can even be understood at all shouldn't amount to any part of a hill of beans, certainly not compared with his HUGE contribution to our understanding of the positively BRAIN-WARPING ways in which our universe works at a very large scale.

But that hasn't stopped his words being USED (or AB-used) by the more ZEALOTIC religious types as evidence of a big famous scientist who believed in Mr God. As though that would actually make a difference to the Mr God real/not real question anyway.

Well, I think they probably WON'T want to do that any more!

Day 2695: Butterbees and Bumbleflies


And speaking of insects…

Our planet Earth is very BEAUTIFUL, but also very FRAGILE.

And you don't need one of THESE to cause the End of the World.

We have come to think of the countryside as permanent and unchanging, and shortage of food, famine even, as a thing that only happened in the DARK AGES, but this could all go rather horribly wrong because some of our most VITAL workers are under THREAT… and we don’t even really know why!

No, it's not schoolteachers, it is the humble, industrious Honey Bee and the soft and gentle Butterflies!

Bees and Butterflies actually do the most important work of all, pollinating our plants and crops so that we all have FOOD to eat. Clever scientists might have made fertilisers that help crops grow, but that's no good without SEEDS and seeds need pollen to be carried on little insect legs from one plant to another.

Apparently, one third of the United States' crop species, including such species as almonds, peaches, soybeans, apples, pears, cherries, raspberries, blackberries, cranberries, watermelons, cantaloupes, cucumbers and strawberries, all rely on bees for pollenisation and the bees are DISAPPEARING.

Even Dr Who knows about it! (Unless all these BEE references are a CLUE to something else!)

Mr Saint David of Attenborough has launched a butterfly rescue centre
to try to help, but really this is a BIG job and it definitely needs some Government action.

Never mind roads and airports, it is these friendly insects who are our vital INFRASTRUCTURE and we should be investing in rescuing them, and rebuilding their populations.

A world without bees and butterflies would not just be less lovely to look at… it would be very hungry INDEED.
Also, I LIKE sticky buns with honey!

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Day 2694: DOCTOR WHO: The Unicorn and the Wasp


The moving FLUFFY FOOT writes, and having writ moves on…

I say whodunit is DADDY RICHARD with the DOCTOR WHO REVIEW on the JUBILEE LINE!

Here's the Evidence
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As charming, whimsical and entirely flyaway as one of Lady Eddison's picnics on the summer lawn, this was an absolutely topping way to while away a warm summer's evening*.

One part pitch-perfect period costume-drama with sparkling cast and sumptuous setting; one part rollicking Doctor Who monster chase, and what a monster; one part laugh-out-loud black comedy… one thing that it wasn't, of course, was an Agatha Christie mystery.

Despite the "whodunit" element – or rather, "who's the giant wasp wot we know wot dunnit" element – there are none of the true Agatha Christie motifs here. In a typical Christie mystery, the first fun is to spot the victim: this is easy, of course, because they'll be going out of their way to make certain that you think they deserve to get done in. At the same time this sets up all and sundry as potential killers. In particular – and especially if it's a Poirot tale – there'll be a young couple in love (possibly secretly), one or both of whom will be suspected of the deed. And a young woman who's no better than she ought to be who actually did it. Everyone will have an alibi and the police, no brighter than their buttons, will arrive and "hilariously" get it all hopelessly wrong.

(Christie was also notorious for overlooking almost entirely the "below stairs" classes – goodness, the servants could never have a motive for offing their betters or the Empire would crumble! – a habit that was, of course, gently parodied in "Gosford Park". It does make it a little odd when "The Unicorn and the Wasp" ventures down into the kitchen as though it wants to nod to "Gosford Park" but hasn't quite got the point. On the other hand, this does allow us the sweet introduction of a gay agenda/Lady Chatterley crossover moment, which obviously Donna spotted in an instant, and the outrageously funny "Ginger Beer" moment. Doctor Who in-joke and rhyming slang all in one.)

Here, there are no confusing "red herrings" (in fact, no one is presented as having a motive for the murders) and no "impossible alibis"; the police never arrive and the young lady who's no better than she ought to be turns out to be guilty of an entirely different crime.

Actually, I don't want to be unkind, but might not the title better have been: "The Wasp… oh and there's a Unicorn in here too… a bit". Ms Robbina Redmond was rather woefully underused, which was a great shame as she was charming fun as both flapper it-girl and unconvincing "cock-er-ney" burglar-ette.

I will endorse the suggestion, already seen on the OG forums, that she be the companion for series thirty-one in 2010. In fact, Ben Aaronovitch has already written her (re-)introductory scene. It's the one where she slips away from the party at a country house, tiptoes upstairs to the master bedroom, deftly springs open the safe… and finds the Doctor sat inside saying: "so, what kept you?"

But what, actually, was she for here? And why was she seen loading her pistol in the flashback – she's a cat-burglar not a highwayman! The problem is that her story – a cunning, stunning theft of the Firestone jewel – simply doesn't have room to fit in alongside the Cluedo murders that are going on.

Yes, sorry, I've given the game away haven't I: this isn't Christie, it's Cluedo – or for the American reader "Clue". In the podcast commentary, writer wit and raconteur Gareth Roberts admits to having been ever so jealous of Russell Davies getting the gig of writing an episode of the TV series based on the board game. So we get Professor Plum Peach with the lead piping in the Library; Miss Scarlet Redmond with the revolver in the bathroom; the Reverend Green Golightly with the Giant Wasp's sting in the… no, that one doesn't work.

In fairness, Christie would occasionally draw a great big old deus-ex-machina out of the hat in the form of facts suddenly know to the detective that the reader has been denied ("Evil under the Sun", for example, has Poirot know of a previous case just like this one). So the sudden: "ah ha, it's whoever is forty" leap is not completely without precedent.

Even so, it is slightly to miss the point that Christie's detectives – Poirot and Marple both – would solve the case psychologically and not reductively, whether by supreme intellect or insight gained from a lifetime of observing village life.

We almost get to that point here, when the Doctor realises that they need Agatha's genius for understanding motive. Unfortunately, the motive turns out to be that the alien wasp has been basically driven a bit bonkers by uploading Dame Agatha's own novels.

(Ironically, the villain being villainous because they are "just mad" is something that Gareth himself has railed against in the past when he praised the work of former Doctor Who producer Graham Williams for… giving villains proper motives.)

This isn't Christie, but then neither are two of Doctor Who's other "Christie" stories: "The Robots of Death" (the one where all the butlers did it) and "Black Orchid" (the one where the butler gets done).

Ironically, the most successful pastiche is Pip and Jane Baker's "Terror of the Vervoids". "Successful" is a relative term of course, but what success it has is by having the Doctor Who monster plot no more than tangentially connected to the whodunit… the monstrous Vervoids are, technically, the motive rather than the murderer.

Quite simply, the two genres just don't mix here. This Doctor Who is about pace and energy (yes, that is Graeme Harper behind the camera again, fantastic as always) and "a serious amount of running"; Poirot would never run anywhere ever, and the detective story is all about the slow build up of plot and the slow unlayering of character. That's why chasing and being chased by a giant wasp – brilliantly realised though it is – feels jarring. It's a sudden intrusion of the wrong kind of story: we're expecting a clue in the locked bedroom, not the villain waving a big sign that reads "it was ME!" and saying "BUZZ!!!!!".

In Doctor Who we're trained by the economy of the show's format to believe that everything that is said is both important and true; in a detective story we believe everything we hear to be either chaff or deception – again, the commentary remarks upon this dialectic. They also point out the revealing irony that in the "flashbacks" sequence, it is only the Reverend whose words match the images we see of what he was actually doing.

But then I'm missing the point myself, because this was a comedy drama, not a serious attempt at homage at all. In that context, it's entirely right that Agatha Christie should be reduced to the popular stereotypes: body in library; sinister butler; everyone gathered round at the end as the detective ticks off who did and didn't do it. They're all lightly mocked along the way, particularly in that fabulous "flashback" scene, and also in the almost Clouseau-esque "I have gathered you all here" scene, which Donna is watching like it's live television before ending up suspecting everyone including herself.

Casting was a treat. Obviously a joy for all Doctor Who fans to descry once more the lugubrious liniments of Christopher Benjamin, on fine form as the loveable Colonel; even more loveable in fact when his deception was blown by an own-goal, and his motive turned out to be the desire to keep the woman he loved. And marvellous to see isn't-she-a-dame-yet Facility Kendal indulging some little comic moments into the otherwise flawless jewel that was Lady Eddison.

But the greatest kudos has to go to Fenella Woolgar for creating a sympathetic and believable Agatha Christie. She managed to be smart but with an air of sadness, a woman just about holding it together in the face of discovering her husband's infidelity and a mind-bending plunge into the Doctor's world of alien insect craziness at the same time, but with a wistful regret that her own opinion of her writing was "competent" rather than "great".

I don't know whether it was whimsical fun or insane self-indulgence to turn large chunks of the script over to name-checking great swathes of Christie titles. There is, I suppose, a kind of aptness to making a crossword puzzle out of a story about the lady who many say turned the detective novel into one. It certainly left the dialogue even more imponderably unsayable than ever, with David and Fenella given the lions' share of trying to make the likes of "The Moving Finger", "Sparkling Cyanide" or "our Secret Enemy" sound naturalistic. Even Ms Kendal struggled with "…he was taken at the flood".

One particular personal niggle, though: Agatha Christie, of all people, would know that "Nemesis" is not used to refer to the murderer – Nemesis, being the Greek goddess of divine retribution, while hardly a "nice" person is definitely on the side of right: Holmes is Moriarty's nemesis; the reverse is not the case; likewise it is the Doctor who is nemesis to the Master, and not the other way around. Our modern usage of "nemesis" as a synonym for "arch-enemy" would have been as alien to her as a giant wasp. Nemesis is personified in the Christie canon as Miss Marple; and the book "Nemesis" is – confusingly to a modern reader – not about Miss Marple's arch-enemy, but about the spinster sleuth's implacable pursuit of a crime.

It was, perhaps, a little bit trite to explain away a real-life mystery of Agatha Christie's life as a Doctor Who yarn. We turned over to BBC4 later in the evening to watch their more serious-minded covering of the same topic, which, apart from having the same registration number for Mrs Christie's car, appeared to be written from a completely different set of research notes. Though, coincidentally, it had a very odd (though completely successful) narrative structure of flashbacks within flashbacks.

There's no reason why you can't do a Doctor Who whodunit, though. See "The Also People", for example, an admittedly much more languid novel written by that Ben Aaronovitch again.

But to do the subject justice, you need a more complicated story (one where, perhaps, it is the Unicorn's dazzling theft of the Firestone that is the trigger for subsequent Vespiform-related events) with more convoluted characters, and more time devoted to understanding them and their contradictions, and less to Doctor Who set pieces like running up and down corridors or getting poisoned (entirely excellent though both of those were). What, in fact, you want is to have done this as one of the 2009 specials, where the extra time would give you room to do all that.

What we ended up with, then, was fairy cake and cocktails in the garden, rather than the five-course dinner with port and cheese to follow. Delicious, memorable, charming, but not quite as filling.

Next time… Shush: "Silence in the Library"

And, fortunately for the ratings, an even BETTER one to while away the rain and the cold.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Day 2689: Immortality – It's A Bad Thing… isn't it?


As the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill begins to make its way through the House of Commons, my fluffy thoughts turn inevitably to Space: 1999…

No, seriously.

Although the second monster (or man-in-same-rubber-suit-painted-a-different-colour) crazed season got too silly for words, the FIRST season – well known as a cure for insomnia though it many be – has two BIG sci-fi themes: (A) aliens, with ways to strange for us to understand; and (B) immortality, it's a BAD thing.

What's THAT got to do with HuFEB, I hear you ask. And well you might!

But let's just try thinking things through.

Opposition to the Bill really comes from two distinct, but conjoined, sources. First there are the people who want to protect the interests of the unborn embryo (and linked to them are the pro-lifers who are hoping to reduce the limit on the number of weeks at which abortions can legally be performed). Second, there are those who are opposed to the mixing of human and fluffy animal cells on the grounds of" Ewwwwww!"

In fact, the POINT of "hybridising" cells like this is to take the INSIDES of human cell and the OUTSIDES of a fluffy animal cell and make an ARTIFICIAL STEM CELL – thus saving the need to harvest stem cells from, well, unborn embryos… so if they actually applied any logic at all, the two groups of rebels would actually be on opposite sides.

What are stem cells for? Well, they are cells that haven't decided what bit of the body they are going to be YET. So the idea is that you can use them to rebuild almost any broken bits, including bits like nerves and brains that we haven't had any idea how to fix before now.

Now, at the moment, people get old and drop dead because their bodies are constantly wearing out. In fact it's a fair miracle of engineering that they keep going AT ALL. You are under constant attack from the environment, even from things that you think of as GOOD for you – sunlight and oxygen are actually concentrated beams of radiation and a powerful chemical agent respectively (the effect of oxygen on cars is to make them rust, so just think what it's doing to your insides!).

This did not used to matter because most people PEGGED OUT as a result of disease and malnutrition in their early forties. But nowadays we have a whole load of medicines and antibiotics to defeat most disease and (in Great Britain) more food than is good for us. So lots of people are living a LOT longer and we have discovered a whole NEW range of exciting diseases that you get when you get old.

And a lot of them are rather horrid, including especially the ones that melt your brains and turn you into vegetables.

But if stem cell technology lives up to all its promises, then these could be a thing of the past too. Because as bits of your body wear out, you just go down to stem-u-like and grow a new one.

Heart, lungs, kidneys, liver, skin… as they wear out, just pop in a new one. And if your brain goes melty, then with luck and hard work we can fix that too.

Sounds brilliant doesn't it.

You should all be able to live to a ripe old age without any of the suffering and indignities that we fear today.

The question is… how old IS a ripe old age going to be if you can keep replacing parts?

We've already seen the consequences of ONE substantial increase in life expectancy: a now-ageing tide of BABY BOOMERS who have benefited from free education, received generous final salary pension schemes and soaked up all the property in the country leaving young people stranded without a foot on the housing ladder and facing the prospect of fewer and fewer people IN work having to support the retired while trying to pay off their student loans and fund their own pension plans too.

Just imagine how much WORSE it could get if instead of living to ninety or a hundred, the baby boomers live on to TWO hundred. Or FIVE hundred. Or forever!

And if that's not horrifying enough, then remember that you'll have a generation of immortal Generation X-ers living right up there with them and moaning about how they never got to see any of the benefits their parents had, while they struggle to meet the repayments on their PERPETUAL mortgages.
But then globally resources are already running short. The good news is that the rate of population growth seems to decline once a new stable plateau is reached, so with a bit of luck you humans' population will get to about twenty billions and then stop. The bad news is that the planet can only just about support so many, and certainly can't COMFORTABLY support so many, especially with the West taking so much more than its share.

Basically, you monkeys aren't just occupying too much of the SURFACE of the planet, you're looking at taking up too much of its timespan as well.

It doesn't have to be like that.

After all, who wants to live forever? Well, pretty much EVERYONE, I would have thought, especially if you can keep your HEALTH.

But you ARE going to need to start thinking and planning for how to make the world actually WORK when it's full of people who are old.

(And I say this to a planet where people stick the world's deadliest poisons in their faces in the DELUDED belief that killing their expression stone dead makes them look young again!)

Working longer is ALREADY on the cards, but you are going to have to find an equitable settlement between the generations, and find a way to live more within the means of the planet. Or, more accurately, your FAIR SHARE of the planet. Or you are going to have to find another one. (Yes, you knew "Let's Build Rocket Ships" was coming somewhere!)

(Mind you, actually the biggest advantage of a longer lifespan is that it starts to make INTERPLANETARY exploration look more possible.)

But you also need to learn to stay flexible, open-minded and interested in CHANGE as you grow, to avoid falling into a rut and falling out of your time.

The CURSE of long life is that there are no forevers – everything you know will END; but the BLESSING is that there is ALWAYS something NEW.

There is so much to learn and see and do in the world that who WOULDN'T want more life to try and do it all in!

So that is the ULTIMATE key to living longer… go out there and LIVE it!

Day 2688: Murder by Memoir


I am beginning to think that Mr Frown's problem is a simple one: after ten years of spending his every waking moment devoted to undermining the Prime Monster, he has simply FORGOTTEN to stop doing it!

Let's look at a first draft of Mr Frown's MEMOIRS…

5am: Morning: wake up; phone papers with leak against Prime Monster.

5.01am: Shower: remember that I AM Prime Monster. Kick self.

5.15am: Breakfast: phone Balls; instruct him on daily briefing against Prime Monster.

5.16am: Read papers: full of poisonous briefings against Prime Monster. Reminded that this is me. Bash head on breakfast table. Get face full of Coco-Pops for my trouble.

Mind you, it's not been a good weekend for memoirs if you're Mr Frown, what with Mr Lord Cashpoint's memoirs, Mr Two-Jags' memoirs, and Lady Cherie-on-the-top Macbeth Blairimort's memoirs all coming out in a Sunday Newspaper near you.

The consensus of these TITANS of the Blairimort Era is… that they would all like to cash in quick by doing the dirty on Gordon.

Er, I'm sorry, that should read …that Mr Frown was a vain and greedy man, with the ambition but not the talent to be Prime Monster, who was a shouty BULLY to poor innocent Lord Blairimort, and probably told FIBS about not knowing anything about Cash for Coronets. Which Lord Cashpoint had nothing to do with, by the way.

(The news reporting was probably conflating many years of hard work, but they did seem to suggest that Mr Two-Jabs was organising meetings of reconciliation between Mr Frown and Lord Blairimort by telling Lord Blairimort that he should sack Mr Frown and telling Mr Frown that he should challenge Lord Blairimort from the back benches. Or "mixing it" as you might put it.)

And then overnight, Mr Frank "Potter's" Field weighed in with the accusation that Mr Frown is an UNHAPPY MAN who will probably not lead the Labour into the next General Election defeat.

(A complete contrast to Mr Millipede who always makes it COMPLETELY clear that Mr Frown will lead the Labour to the next election. Right up to the moment that the polls close.)

Still, these are self-serving one-sided opinionated publications. I'm sure there's every chance that they've been sexed up published in full compliance with the known intelligence. So I do not think that Mr Frown should take ANY NOTICE of these! He can rely on the full support from the public…

…who, er, also want him gone.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Day 2690: Sooty's Budget Take Two – Doing the Right Thing in the Wrong Way for All the Wrong Reasons


What is really TRAGIC is that Sooty's fix doesn't even WORK: certainly the people who lose out are CUT from those earning between £5,000 and £17,000 to just those earning between £7,000 and £9,300, and the amount that the losers lose is a lot less (about £37 a year, rather than £157).

But that's still SUBSTANTIAL gains for those people earning £30,000 while the lowest earners are PENALISED.

I want to know whether this increase in allowance is permanent, or will it be reversed next year?

And there's a SERIOUS question about whether Sooty knows how to do MATHS.

You see our ESTEEMED Chancellor has said BOTH that Higher Rate Taxpayers will not benefit from the raising of allowances AND that he has therefore lowered the Higher Rate Threshold by £600.

Lowering the threshold by the SAME amount as you raise the allowance means that you pay BASIC RATE TAX (20%) on a SMALLER amount of money and HIGHER RATE TAX (40%) on the SAME amount of money.

This Drawing might help:

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So you pay LESS basic rate tax and the SAME amount of higher rate tax. That means LESS in total.

In other words, if Sooty MEANS what he says about reducing the Threshold by £600, then ALL taxpayers, and this means especially Higher Rate taxpayers get some tax BACK – it's £120 for anyone earning more than about £6,000.

Not enough to compensate the worst off under Mr Frown's budget, but a nice little freebie for the already quite nicely off thankyou.

Here is a drawing of the WINNERS and LOSERS:

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(That big downwards spike at around £40,000 in income comes from Mr Frown hiking up the top end of the National Insurance band. Higher earners pay 11% on an extra £5,200 this year, moving us closer towards having just TWO tax rates: 31% and 41%. Or had you forgotten that National Insurance is just HIDDEN Income Tax?

Average salaries are around £26,000 but I do wonder about the DEMOGRAPHICS. It would be AWFULLY cynical to suspect that that national average is made up of large numbers or workers getting paid around £20,000 and large numbers of managers getting paid around £40,000, because that would mean that FEWEST people benefit from the tax changes.)

Now, I guess it's POSSIBLE that Sooty doesn't ACTUALLY understand how the tax system (which he is notionally in charge of) works. Be FAIR: he's taken over from Mr Frown, who spent the last ten years trying to make it as tangled as possible.

What he PROBABLY wants is to CANCEL out that EXTRA £120 for Higher Rate taxpayers, but without changing the tax RATE. The only way to do that is to make them pay the higher rate on MORE of their earnings, and that means lowering the Threshold EVEN FURTHER.

In fact, you have to lower it by ANOTHER £600. That's £1,200 in total. (Because by making that money taxed at 40%, you are paying an extra 20% on top of the tax that's already being taken. So you need to lower it by £600 because £600 x 20% extra tax = £120)

That would give us a REVISED map of Winners and Losers that looks like THIS:

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Obviously, this would draws more people into the band of Higher Rate taxpayers. But that is hardly anything new; it is so normal that it even has a name: "FISCAL DRAG" (which thankfully does NOT mean Mr Frown dressing up as LADY!).

You can probably bet your shirt that even if Sooty reverses the £600 extra on the Allowance, he WON'T reverse the £600 cut in the threshold next year!

Anyway, what is clear from this is that Sooty has not raised allowances by ENOUGH fully to compensate all of the people that Mr Frown DIDDLED in the first place.

And you know, Mr Frown ADMITTED as much in his answer to Mr Clogg at Prime Monster's Questionable Time.

What he or Sooty SHOULD have done, was raise allowances like this, as much as he could, and KEPT what was left of the 10p band. That would have avoided ANYONE having to pay MORE by DOUBLING their starting rate of tax.

By applying Fiscal Drag – though hopefully NOT at the Despatch Box – you could have done this in a way that was FISCALLY NEUTRAL, i.e. it didn't raise any EXTRA tax but didn't cost more EITHER and would have been REDISTRIBUTIVE – letting the people on lower earnings keep MORE of their salary and taking a little extra away from those who are better off.

Which, of course, brings me to the REAL disaster of this sorry business: where Sooty got the money from. And it's BANK of MAGIC MONEY TREE again.

Yes, basically, the Government has BORROWED £2.7 BILLION to hand over to us as a BRIBE to make us forget that they robbed the POOR to pay the RICH another BRIBE.

It's ALMOST "monetarist" (by which I mean "barmy"). Remember how the THEORY goes: to fight inflation, you cut government spending and borrowing to reduce the amount of money moving about; if the economy is stagnating, throw more money into the system to get it going again.

That's what the Monkey-in-Chief and his Neo-con Reaganomic Replutocrats are doing. And where the Monkey-in-Chief's administration leads the Labour are, as always, soon to blunder in after.

Of course, at the moment we have the economy going backwards BUT the cost of imports – particularly food and fuel – are going through the roof. This means that Inflation is going UP, even though the economy isn't growing, and Ms Caroline "Heart of" Flint foresees house prices falling at least 5-10%: it's the spectre of 1970's style "STAGFLATION".

Borrowing money to give away tax cuts at a time like this is as likely to cause an inflationary spiral (as people spend the money on already expensive imports and drive up prices further, leading to demands for wages to keep up) as it is to kick-start the housing market and get the economy back in action.

Still, VOODOO ECONOMICS always was a STAB in the DARK!

Naturally, all the media coverage has ignored all of this and instead focused on how EMBARRASSING it must be for Sooty to have to re-write the budget just weeks after saying, er, "I can't re-write the budget"

Pointing and going "Ha-ha!" is much easier than HARD SUMS.