Thursday 31 December 2015

Cinema Year in Review: 2015

As predicted, looking after a new baby has drastically reduced my cinema-going. I saw ten films in the cinema this year, and thought I was doing well to manage that.

The Plaza Cinema, Skipton. A great little place we discovered this year.

Given the limited opportunity, I did my best to choose films carefully, and there have been some excellent releases this year. So, I'm going to do my usual breakdown anyway. For the sake of completeness, I'll do a top seven instead of a top five, so everything I saw gets a mention.

Tuesday 29 December 2015

The Pride of Chicken Soup

It's odd that I've never blogged much about food, because I really like cooking. It's enjoyable and satisfying. I find it relaxing, given that my day job in software engineering is very abstract; it's a pleasant change of pace to work with something I can touch and taste. Last but not least, cooking for others has a primal importance. We all need food to live. Preparing food for others is giving a tiny bit of life.

After a lot of practice, I'm a pretty competent amateur cook. I can confidently make Thanksgiving dinner with all the trimmings for eight or ten people, and it's very tasty if I say so myself. Boxing Day was the most proud I've ever been of my cooking skills, and all I made was a simple pot of chicken soup.

Chicken noodle soup: Not mine, but similar.
Source: Wikipedia

My son Zach had his first birthday on Christmas Eve. He's a wonderful, happy, active baby, but unfortunately he's got his first major cold right now. It's just a cold, nothing unusual, but he doesn't understand what's happening. He's uncomfortable, unhappy, and his nose is blocked up, which interferes with smelling, chewing and swallowing.

Zach was refusing all food aside from fruit purée, which was something but not what I'd call a balanced diet. Normally he loves baby oatmeal porridge, but not then, and processed baby food from jars was rejected on sight.

So I spent a couple of hours making soup out of the leftover roast chicken we had on Christmas Eve, with some leeks, carrots, herbs and thin pasta noodles, and zapped it in the blender until it was smooth. Our uncomfortable, cranky baby ate up a huge bowl of it, by his standards. Afterwards he snuggled in my arms with his head on my shoulder, tired but contented.

It's only a cold, and I expect he would have eaten something else when he got hungry enough, but it didn't come to that. It was a beautiful warm feeling to help Zach in this way. (It has occurred to me that maybe breastfeeding mothers feel something like this, all the time.).

The next day, because the gods have a sense of humour (and so does Zach), he was refusing chicken soup and back onto porridge. But at the time, it was just exactly what he needed. He still has a cold but he's looking better now.

Happy birthday, young man. I don't know what you will do when you grow up, but I believe you'll never be too old for your dad to make you a bowl of chicken soup.

Friday 25 December 2015

Cute Cat Christmas: 2015-12-25

Belle posing by the tree. Wishing everyone a happy and peaceful Christmas Day, wherever and however you spend it.

Monday 21 December 2015

Star Wars, Social Media, and Hiding the Shiny Thing

I went to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens on Saturday. It was great fun.

The last time a Star Wars movie lived up to my expectations, I was five years old and watching Return of the Jedi on its first release. It was such a huge relief to simply enjoy a Star Wars film, instead of cringing at leaden dialogue, incoherent plots and implausible character motivation.

I might do a full review later. Meanwhile, I agree with the SF author John Scalzi's verdict: It's not great art, but it's very enjoyable and entertaining. That's not too surprising, because it's what Disney does best.

I'd add that Star Wars inspired a whole generation of science fiction fans. For the most part, we aren't blind to its flaws, but view it with enormous affection. Even after the appalling prequels, there was a huge reservoir of goodwill and creative talent available to make Episode VII -- not to mention a lot of cold, hard cash. JJ Abrams' job was to marshal those resources and produce something with the same sense of fun and adventure as the original films.

Abrams has done all of the fans proud, and I'm looking forward to the next instalment. This time, the anticipation is uncomplicated: Hey wow, that was great! I want to see more! (Last time, it was more like: Oh, please let Lucas learn from his mistakes and not f**k up the next one so badly.)

The keen of eye might have noticed I didn't see the film until three days after its release. This was forced on me by babysitting logistics, but it presented a dilemma. Did I take the risk of viewing spoilers, or deprive myself of Facebook and Twitter for a few days? I chose the second option, and I'm really glad I did.

It's a Star Wars spoiler. (Sorry.)
Source: imgur

Friday 18 December 2015

Cute Cat Friday 2015-12-18: Joni

Did you want this desk chair? Too bad, it's mine now.

Introductions continue, slowly and cautiously. The cats are at least able to eat breakfast on either side of a barrier grating. The main thing is to build up Belle's confidence so she doesn't see Joni as a threat; it's a slow process but we think we are seeing signs of progress.

Thursday 17 December 2015

Where Eagles Dare

An incident from last month illustrates the depth of Jeremy Corbyn's problems, which have not abated since.

Angela Eagle in Parliament this month.

Angela Eagle MP is the Shadow Business Secretary; in addition, as Shadow First Secretary of State, she deputises for Corbyn at Prime Minister's Questions when he is absent. So it is quite extraordinary that Eagle will not say if her party leader is fit to be Prime Minister:

Asked again if [Corbyn and McDonnell] were suited to highest office [Eagle] said: “I work with people the party gives me to work with. 
“We all have our strengths and weaknesses and the point of having a party is that you can bring together the collective wisdom and that’s what I’m in the middle of doing. It’s one of those questions that you want me to answer in a certain way so that you get a headline out of it and I’m not playing that game this morning."

Consider the Leaders of the Opposition in recent elections: Kinnock, Blair, Hague, Howard, Cameron, Miliband. In the country at large, some were better liked and more successful than others. But if you asked any of their shadow cabinet colleagues whether they were fit to be Prime Minister, the answer would have been a firm, unhesitating "yes".

For some, that answer would not have been the whole truth. In the case of Hague or Miliband, their colleagues must have had more than a few doubts. In private, they might have added, "At least, I bloody well hope he's up to the job." But in public, for the TV cameras? In a functioning opposition party, the only answer is, "Yes of course, our party leader would make an excellent Prime Minister."

A possible exception is Iain Duncan Smith, and he was defenestrated before he had the chance to lead his party into a General Election. History may or may not repeat itself for Corbyn. Either way, Labour is in deep trouble.

The fact that Eagle considers it a trick question, instead of a trivial one, speaks volumes about the state of the Labour party. Corbyn can't sack her from the Shadow Cabinet for such rank disrespect, because who could he possibly replace her with? He has few enough MPs willing to serve in shadow posts as it is.

It also leaves Eagle unable to answer an obvious follow-up question: If you won't say whether your leader is fit to be Prime Minister, why should we vote for any of your lot?

There's plenty of blame to go around for this sorry situation. I expect it will get much worse for Labour, before it has any chance of getting better.

Friday 11 December 2015

Cute Cat Friday 2015-12-11: Belle

Nice and cosy in her cat bed.

Introductions to Joni continue. It's a three steps forward, two steps back kind of situation, but I think we are seeing progress. I've looked back at old emails and reminded myself it took at least seven weeks before Belle and Dexter were getting along decently, and Joni has only been here for three, so it's early days still.

I think it's fair to say the problem lies with Belle more than Joni. Belle is a highly strung cat, afraid of other cats, and tends to lash out if she feels cornered. Joni for her part seems curious about Belle but basically content to live and let live. Belle was much the same with Dexter at first, so given time we are hopeful she will calm down.

Thursday 10 December 2015

On UK airstrikes in Syria

I'm trying to understand what the UK bombing campaign in Syria is meant to achieve.

The brave lads of the RAF are off to drop explosives on a faraway desert, largely inhabited by people of the Muslim faith. It worked beautifully on Iraq (1998), Afghanistan (2001-present), Iraq again (2003-present), and Libya (2011), all of which are now models of peace, prosperity and democracy. Is the idea to achieve the same brilliant results once more?

An RAF Tornado, loaded with democracy ordnance. 

Sarcasm aside, I'll concede that not all interventions are alike. I'll extend the government a degree of fairness it may not deserve, and try to consider this bombing on its own merits.

Friday 4 December 2015

Cute Cat Friday 2015-12-04: Joni

Enjoying her victory over the fluffy toy.

Relations between the cats are progressing slowly. They have had one more scuffle, but on the whole we think they are getting used to each other.

Monday 30 November 2015

Nanowrimo victory

At the start of this month, I signed up for NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). I'm pleased to say I have succeeded in its objective, and written 50,000 words of fiction in the month of November. I've even done it with one day to spare.

I bashed out roughly 11,000 words on the 29th of November alone, so this is not a high-quality piece of writing. If you said it was mad to attempt this in the first place, alongside baby care, cat wrangling, and a full time job, I would not disagree. But there's a strange kind of masochistic satisfaction to having done it. I do have a better idea how my story will work, if I decide to develop it further.

Regular blogging will resume next week, I need a rest from writing anything that's not strictly necessary.

Edit 2015-12-01: This makes my fifth Nanowrimo win: 2008, 2009, 2010, 2013, and now 2015.

If anyone's interested, this year's opus is a science fiction tale with working title The Great Beyond. Main characters include a cynical, disillusioned spaceship captain and treasure hunter; an aristocrat's servant who is not all she seems; and a soul eleven thousand years old in a body which is ten years younger than it should be.

It would be hard to overstate the amount of work this needs before it's fit to see the light of day. But I like the setting and some things about the characters and plot, so I might try and move it forward. It's the same science fiction background I tried to use for Nanowrimo in 2012 and 2014. Both those attempts crashed out long before reaching the 50,000 word target, so this is some kind of progress.

Friday 27 November 2015

Cute Cat Friday 2015-11-27: Belle

Queen of all she surveys (except Joni).

Introductions between Belle and Joni are going pretty well. There was a setback on Wednesday when a face-to-face meeting ended in a short scuffle, but both cats backed off quickly enough. Since then they have observed each other through barriers, a bit of hissing has taken place but on the whole we think they are getting used to each other. We won't rush things; but we're optimistic that in a few days, or at most a couple of weeks, they will be content to be in the same room together.

Friday 20 November 2015

Cute Cat Friday 2015-11-20: Introducing Joni

Here is Joni, who we adopted and brought home on Wednesday:

She is named for Joni Mitchell, a fine musician and great Canadian.

Joni is a very friendly and playful cat. It's hard to get a good picture of her, because she won't stop moving for long enough! She has settled into the spare room well, but is very curious and already eager to explore the outside world.

Joni was pregnant when her previous owner had to rehome her, and brought her to the Blue Cross. She birthed a litter of four beautiful kittens and spent the next few months caring for them, but now all have been adopted and it's their mother's turn to find a new home.

(Joni has now been neutered, so she won't be having any more kittens. They would be adorable, but we couldn't keep them and there are a lot of cats needing new homes as it is.)

After the misfortune of Freddie, we were very careful about choosing a new companion for Belle. Joni is three and a half years old, about the same age as Belle. All else being equal, an older female will be much less territorial than a younger male like Freddie. Joni is used to contact with other cats and not known to be aggressive.

In the end, how cats get along depends on their individual personalities, so we don't know for sure if this will work out. But the odds seem much better this time and we're willing to give it a try. Belle was happy living with Dexter, and we think it will be good for her to have feline company again, especially since we're busy with the baby and can't play with her as much as we would like.

We're taking the introductions slowly and carefully, as it should be with any two cats. Watch this space for reports on progress.

Tuesday 17 November 2015

A few thoughts on the Paris attacks

After the terrorist attacks in Paris last Friday, I feel tremendous sorrow for the victims, and anger at the perpetrators. The attackers struck at ordinary, peaceful people who were enjoying food, drink, sport, music, and the company of friends and family.

All of us, especially our leaders, must temper anger with wisdom. I hope our nations react with courage and resolve, but also with restraint. In particular, we must not allow a backlash against innocent Muslims, including refugees who are fleeing the very sect which committed the Paris attacks.

At this time, our commitment to freedom, justice, and democracy is being put to the test. History has demonstrated that discarding our principles will not make us safe.

Eiffel Tower image by Jean Jullien.

I'm still on a blog break for Nanowrimo, but I will have more to say in December. Sadly, the consequences of the Paris attacks will be with us for a long time to come.

For now: Vive la France. Liberté, egalité, fraternité.

Friday 13 November 2015

Cute Cat Friday 2015-11-13: Belle

Following on from the pre-claw stretching last week, a ruthless four-pawed attack on the scratching post.

Friday 6 November 2015

Cute Cat Friday 2015-11-06: Belle

A late afternoon stretch before assaulting the scratching post (with all four paws).

Saturday 31 October 2015

Blog break for Nanowrimo

Once again, I'm planning to take a blog break for November to concentrate on Nanowrimo. Cute Cat Friday will continue as normal and I'll be back to posting in December.

See last year's post for a description of what this is all about. As it turns out, last year I was distracted and blogged more or less at normal pace, but I'm hoping to stay a little more focused this time.

Wednesday 28 October 2015

The Martian: Review

The Martian is one of the finest science fiction films I have ever seen. It has a brilliant, tightly constructed script, and is easily the best film Ridley Scott has made since Gladiator. It has likable and believable characters, using their wits, courage and hard work to confront the uncaring laws of nature.

Matt Damon's astronaut is stranded on the surface of Mars, more alone than any human has ever been. He has to survive with his meager supplies, contact Earth, and somehow find a way to get home. If the bitter cold and lack of oxygen don't kill him, he still has to fend off starvation on a planet where nothing grows.

I can't help but compare The Martian with Interstellar (which also had Matt Damon and Jessica Chastain in leading roles). Both are ambitious and visually spectacular science fiction films. On balance, I liked Interstellar very much, but at the same time it was deeply flawed. The Martian steps clear of the pitfalls into which its predecessor stumbled.

The Martian shows rather than tells. It has no pretentious speeches about the potency of love and the human spirit. When Interstellar wanted to say our ecology is fragile, it had a fungal blight destroying all life on Earth; The Martian instead shows how very hard it would be, to reconstruct even the simplest of terrestrial ecosystems. The Martian is a glorious celebration of science, but it also succeeds on a human level. We believe in the protagonist's courage, terror and loneliness, without mawkish conversations with a volleyball as seen in certain other films.

Since the end of the Cold War, most science fiction films have assumed the USA is the only country with any aptitude for space exploration. From Interstellar to Independence Day, NASA is the only outfit worth noticing. (In fact, as @quixoticevil points out on Twitter, budget cuts to NASA may result in other countries taking the lead in sending people to space.) Gravity and The Martian are honourable exceptions, with countries other than America playing an important role in the plot.

The Martian is an optimistic film which celebrates the can-do spirit of the USA, and there's nothing wrong with that. The lead characters and their mission are American; but in matter-of-fact ways, they are shown to be part of a larger world. We are one human species, and we all share in the triumphs of space exploration.

The Martian is a magnificent and intelligent movie, and tremendously entertaining.

Talking of Independence Day, I just learned there is a sequel coming out next year. It remains to be seen if the alien computers are still compatible with an Apple Macintosh.

Friday 23 October 2015

Cute Cat Friday 2015-10-23: Belle

Our regal cat enjoying the autumn sunshine.

We adopted Belle two years ago this week. Here's to many more happy years together!

Bad Motivator: Star Wars Episode 3

(Following on from Part 1 and Part 2.)

This is the big one. Anakin Skywalker undergoes his final descent into evil and becomes Darth Vader, one of the most iconic villains in cinema history. His motivation had better be good.

Sadly, it isn't.

Friday 16 October 2015

Cute Cat Friday 2015-10-16: Belle

You may pass, but never forget I'm in charge of these stairs.


The SNP has just released a party political broadcast which may be the ultimate example of its kind. It is entitled "A Tale of Two Cities" -- evidently London and Edinburgh, although the latter isn't mentioned by name. Here are some of the chilling and baffling highlights:

Friday 9 October 2015

Cute Cat Friday 2015-10-09: FLB

Enjoying the sunshine, and maybe admiring his reflection in the polished car roof.

King Over The Water

Let's imagine for a moment that Jeremy Corbyn fails to sweep all before him.

(Some Corbynistas may take the very suggestion as an insult, but that's too bad.)

Suppose it's a few months before the 2020 election. Maybe Corbyn is still leader, or maybe he has been deposed. Either way, opinion polls predict heavy losses for Labour and a landslide Conservative victory. The writing is on the wall: Labour will lose badly, and there will be a vacancy for the position of leader.

No, not this king over the water.
At this point, I would expect the centrist elements of Labour to start pushing for former Foreign Secretary David Miliband to return to UK politics. He sat out the defeat of his brother Ed, and hypothetical calamities under Corbyn, doing good works as head of the International Rescue Committee in New York. He would have the unique combination of senior government experience, and almost complete disconnection from Labour's decade in opposition between 2010 and 2020.

David Miliband will be 55 years old, and could try to find a safe seat for the 2020 election -- although Scotland has demonstrated the concept of a "safe seat" is not what it used to be. On the other hand, to wrap up the family soap opera, brother Ed's seat in Doncaster might become vacant.

The main difficulty for the hypothetical Draft David movement is this: Miliband may not want to run for leader again, or take on the task of trying to salvage something from the post-Corbyn wreckage.

I'm raising this possibility not out of any particular liking for Miliband, but because the parliamentary Labour party is likely to be pretty desperate. There aren't many other plausible leaders.

Cooper, Burnham and Kendall have just had their chance and been soundly beaten by Corbyn. Chuka Umunna withdrew from the race this time for personal reasons, and may not wish to try again. There are some talented new MPs such as Keir Starmer and Dan Jarvis, but they might be considered too inexperienced. Who else is out there, really? Could Ed Balls end up being the standard-bearer for the centrist tendency of Labour?

This raises another line of speculation. Balls lost his seat in the general election. He could try and fight a by-election to return to Parliament as soon as possible, but it wouldn't surprise me if he was in no hurry to serve as an MP under Corbyn. He might find himself another job for the next five years and aim to return as an MP in 2020.

Maybe Corbyn will be a stunning success and render all of this moot. If not, you read it here first: We might have a Prime Minister Miliband after all, just a decade later than we first thought.

Friday 2 October 2015

Cute Cat Friday 2015-10-02: Belle

Happy in yet another paper bag.

We picked Belle up last night from the cattery on our way back from a week's holiday, she's glad to be back in her familiar territory.

Bad Motivator: Star Wars Episode 2

One of the great problems with the Star Wars prequels is the lack of intelligible character motivation. The previous post looked at Episode 1; we now move on to Episode 2.

Episode 2 requires major surgery. A few lines of dialogue won't do it.

There are two parallel plot lines: Obi-Wan's investigation into the attempt on Padmé's life; and Anakin and Padmé hanging out together and supposedly falling in love. The first story is fairly enjoyable, but in the second, the problem of motivation is worse than ever.

Thursday 24 September 2015

On Anthems

Pig note: Last week's anthem scandal seems distinctly tame in comparison to the new story involving David Cameron and a farmyard animal. The Cameron story is hilarious, but he won't be running to be Prime Minister in 2020, and Corbyn presumably will.

In one of his first official engagements as Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn caused much consternation by refusing to sing God Save The Queen. The outcome says a lot about both the national anthem and Corbyn, most of it not very good.

Corbyn stood in what he described as "respectful silence" during the national anthem at a service commemorating the Battle of Britain. When questioned about it, Corbyn conspicuously avoided committing himself to singing the anthem at future events, instead saying he would "play a full part" in them. Labour party spokespeople claim this means he will in fact sing the anthem; but considering how chaotic Labour's communications have become, I am disinclined to take them at their word.

The usual suspects have said and written a great deal of overheated nonsense about Corbyn's silence. It doesn't mean he loves his country any less than they do. What it does indicate is Corbyn's complete lack of interest in media strategy.

At the time of this event, Corbyn had been Labour leader for less than a hundred hours. He was still introducing himself to the great majority of voters, who don't follow politics closely. A lot of people wondering who this Corbyn chap is, and what he's all about, would have encountered this:

Image source: The Guardian

Wednesday 23 September 2015

Youthful Indiscretions

Following the allegations concerning David Cameron and a pig's head, the youthful indiscretions of some other world leaders have come to light:
  • Angela Merkel (Germany), age 19: Didn't put the correct number of stamps on a form.
  • Francois Hollande (France), age 10: Enjoyed eating a Big Mac.
  • Stephen Harper (Canada), age 12: Overdue library book.
  • Joe Biden (USA), age 23: Shot a man in Reno just to watch him die.
  • Barack Obama (USA), age 15: A prank which became known as "the pineapple incident".
  • Vladimir Putin (Russia), age 6: Showed mercy to a defeated enemy. Never again.

Wednesday 16 September 2015

Leadership Box Office

Just how much has the Labour leadership contest enthused the public at large? To put its popularity in perspective, let's compare the contest to something a little more colourful: The cinema.

Lights, camera, action!
Image source: WYPR Maryland

Monday 14 September 2015

In Praise of Sadiq Khan

Overshadowed by the hulaballoo surrounding Jeremy Corbyn this weekend, Sadiq Khan was chosen to contest the London mayoral election for Labour in 2016. Not being a Londoner, I hadn't paid much attention to that contest; but Khan looks like the sort of Labour politician I could get behind.

Thursday 10 September 2015

Jeremy Corbyn and the NFL

Voting has now closed in the Labour leadership contest, and we will know the results on Saturday. This week also sees the start of a new season for American football, in the National Football League. I have realised that Corbyn's supporters remind me of British NFL fans.

The NFL has a devoted following in the UK. In 2007, the league played its first regular season match in London's Wembley Stadium. It has played there every year since, increasing the number of matches to two in 2013 and three in 2015. The NFL has no difficulty in selling out the 90,000 seats at Wembley.

I've been to one of these games, and they're great fun. The atmosphere is fantastic; it's not just supporters of the two teams who are playing, but fans of any other team who just want the chance to see a live match. It's ninety thousand cheerful and good-natured fans, united by their love of a game played with an egg-shaped ball by men in helmets, shoulder pads, and very tight trousers.

These are just the paying customers; many more are watching at home on television.

NFL at Wembley: Oakland v Miami, October 2014.

Here's the thing, though: No matter how great the passion and enthusiasm of the fans, the NFL is not poised to take over the UK. It is strictly a niche interest. Football, rugby, and cricket will enjoy much greater popularity for the foreseeable future.

I think you can see where I'm going with this. No matter how fervently Corbyn's supporters want him to win the next election, it doesn't mean he can or will. To the typical British voter, Corbyn may turn out to be as incomprehensible as an NFL match, and considerably more alarming.

Relying on Corbyn to survive the inevitable monstering from the media and Conservative party; unite the parliamentary Labour party, whose views of him range from deep suspicion to open hostility; turn out a massive army of left-wing support, without simultaneously inspiring the not-so-left-wing to turn out and vote for other parties; and do it all with a reheated version of early 1980s leftism, seems wildly optimistic to say the least.

If Corbyn wins the leadership contest, we'll have the chance to find out. Either way, I'm looking forward to a great NFL season; the Green Bay Packers are looking good this year.

Edit: This is the 200th post on my blog since March 2014. Huzzah!

Wednesday 9 September 2015

A Lion Is Not A Leader

"A prince, therefore, being compelled knowingly to adopt the beast, ought to choose the fox and the lion; because the lion cannot defend himself against snares and the fox cannot defend himself against wolves. Therefore, it is necessary to be a fox to discover the snares and a lion to terrify the wolves. Those who rely simply on the lion do not understand what they are about." — Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince, Chapter XVIII
Jeremy Corbyn's campaign for the Labour leadership has made me think about the above passage.

Machiavelli is notorious for his cynical view of politics, as a brutal contest in which victory goes to the most ruthless and crafty. I imagine he would have approved of New Labour; particularly the dark arts of spin and message control, practiced by the likes of Alistair Campbell and Peter Mandelson. Corbyn makes no secret of his disdain for these methods.

One doesn't have to be a fully paid-up disciple of Mandelson or Machiavelli to recognise that firm, unbending principle is not enough. A successful leader must be able to negotiate, compromise, and evaluate complex details. It is insufficient to be a preacher; one must also be a salesperson, a judge and a diplomat.

Friday 4 September 2015

Cute Cat Friday 2015-09-04: Belle

Life is full of puzzles.

Photo credit (and jigsaw) belong to my lovely wife.

Size matters: The Labour electorate

There are two philosophies for deciding who gets to choose a party leader. Labour has chosen a confused mixture, which seems likely to have the flaws of both and advantages of neither.

Friday 28 August 2015

Cute Cat Friday 2015-08-28: Belle

Fluffy cat!

Now that we have said goodbye to Freddie, Belle is much less stressed and returning to her usual confident self.

Magic Sugar Pills

Jeremy Corbyn, frontrunner to become the next leader of the Labour party, claims to believe in the efficacy of magic sugar pills. This not only makes him a bad leader, it makes him a bad socialist.

It has emerged that Corbyn signed a House of Commons motion in 2010 approving the provision of homeopathy on the NHS, and later confirmed his support for it on Twitter.

Other MPs on the list include Tim Farron, now leader of the Liberal Democrats. (I have already expressed serious doubts about Farron's moral fibre.) The Secretary of State for Health, Jeremy Hunt, has also stated his support for homeopathy. In their disregard for science they join the SNP, with its recent ban on all genetically modified crops in Scotland. With the possible exception of Plaid Cymru, not a single party in Parliament is unequivocally in favour of science. This is alarming and depressing in equal measure.

Medicine: More effective when it contains something other than sugar.

The scientific evidence is very clear: Homeopathy achieves nothing more than the placebo effect. It consists of "medicines" diluted so far that no trace of the supposed active ingredient can remain. It is an industry which sells these products to sick and vulnerable people, some of whom have died after substituting homeopathy for conventional medical care. It consumes resources which could instead be spent on real medicine.

A Prime Minister must decide on matters of life and death. With his support for homeopathy, Corbyn demonstrates a shameful lack of critical thinking, unfit for one who aspires to high office. He might as well believe the UK's energy grid can be replaced by a perpetual motion machine which runs on happy thoughts.

Tuesday 25 August 2015

The Hard Case of Fast Freddie

Rehoming Freddie in the style of film noir. What can I say, I was trying to avoid work.

It was another hard case today. My pal Fast Freddie got in trouble with a dame. It's always the dames. He had to skip town, so he kept his head down in the back seat, while I drove him through the rainy streets to a place where they ask no questions. He can stay there until the heat is off.

Next week he'll be back out in the world, with a new name, far away from the woman who brought him low. He should have known better than to mess with a classy lady like her.

Don't know if I'll ever understand this case, but at least a few beers will help it settle into perspective.

Farewell to Freddie

With the greatest reluctance, we have decided to rehome Freddie.

This is not a decision we took lightly, but it's time to face the facts. Freddie is aggressive towards Belle. His behaviour is not just youthful exuberance, boredom, or fearfulness from being in a new place. He's gotten loose a couple of times in the last week. On both occasions he went straight for Belle, and a fight ensued with fur torn out on both sides.

We've done everything advised to help cats acclimate to each other. We've had very carefully controlled contact between them. Belle is not at all confrontational, and happy to keep her distance. None of it makes any difference to Freddie's behaviour. Carrying on is not fair to Belle, us, our baby son, or even to Freddie himself.

He is a young, healthy cat, very friendly with humans, so I'm sure the Blue Cross will have little difficulty finding a new home for him. It is painful, but we have come to believe it is the responsible thing to do.

The sad and confusing thing is that Freddie is a cuddly, gentle fluffball with human beings. He doesn't even mind being grabbed by our baby son Z (not his real name), who is eight months old and has absolutely no idea of restraint. That is the saddest part for us; Freddie and Z got along so well, and we could see them becoming great friends as Z grew up, but it is not to be. At least Z is too young to really understand what is happening or miss Freddie when he is gone.

As I've written before, cats are not little furry humans. They do not see the world the way we do. You can't reason with them, you can only try to work with their instincts.

Right now, Belle needs some peace and quiet and stability, and in all honesty so do we. At this point we're going to wait at least until next spring before we consider adopting another cat.

We're going to miss Freddie; but we had two months with the most affectionate cat we ever met, and nothing will ever take that away from us. We hope he finds another family soon, and they have a long and happy life together.

If you are interested in adopting Freddie, please enquire with Blue Cross Cambridge (where he is known by the name Steve). He will appear on their website sometime in the next day or so.

Update: On a lighter note, I've retold this story in the style of a noir private eye.

Update 2015-08-27: Freddie is now listed for adoption on the Blue Cross website.

Update 2015-09-05: Freddie's listing has been removed from the website. We hope he has found the loving new home he deserves.

Friday 21 August 2015

Cute Cat Friday 2015-08-21: Freddie

King of the cat castle.

Introductions to Belle continue. We think they're making progress but slow and steady is the order of the day.

On the plus side, Freddie is amazingly tolerant of our baby son, who is poking, grabbing, and drooling on him at any opportunity. I think they're going to be good friends.

Wednesday 19 August 2015

The Limits of Righteous Anger

The Labour leadership contest is proving much more interesting than anyone expected.

The script intended by the party establishment is pretty clear. They were expecting a re-run of the 2010 vote: The token left-wing candidate is destroyed, and a more centrist former cabinet minister prevails. They thought Corbyn would crash and burn, and Burnham or Cooper (or maybe Kendall) would steer the party on a cautious, business-friendly path to the next election. But the electorate hasn't read their script, and the left-winger Jeremy Corbyn has become the favourite to win.

Left to right: Kendall, Burnham, Cooper, Corbyn.
(Although from Corbyn's point of view, he's on the far left.)

Friday 14 August 2015

Cute Cat Friday 2015-08-14: Belle

Some well deserved relaxation on her sofa throne.

Cat introductions continue slowly. Freddie is making progress and definitely getting used to Belle, so we are cautiously optimistic.

Wednesday 12 August 2015

Acts of Cowardice: SNP and GMOs

Last week, the SNP government in Edinburgh announced it would ban genetically modified crops in Scotland. The European Union already has strict rules for safety of genetically modified organisms; the SNP is seeking to opt out from these rules and ban GMOs altogether. The government's reasoning was expressed by Agriculture Secretary Richard Lochhead:
[Lochhead] said that Scotland was known around the world for its "beautiful natural environment" and banning the growing of genetically modified crops would protect and further enhance its "clean, green status". 
Mr Lochhead added: "There is no evidence of significant demand for GM products by Scottish consumers and I am concerned that allowing GM crops to be grown in Scotland would damage our clean and green brand, thereby gambling with the future of our £14bn food and drink sector. 
"Scottish food and drink is valued at home and abroad for its natural, high quality which often attracts a premium price, and I have heard directly from food and drink producers in other countries that are ditching GM because of a consumer backlash."

This is a remarkable act of cowardice. Lochhead isn't even attempting to engage with the science behind GM crops. He is not saying he has any concerns about safety. If he did, at least there would be scope for rational debate about risks and benefits.

"Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away." – Philip K. Dick

What exactly are the risks of growing GM crops? The scientific consensus is that they are minimal, and well covered by existing regulation.

Conversely, the anti-GM lobby is not very specific. Instead of evaluating each proposed intervention on its own merits, the likes of Greenpeace declare that all types of genetic modification are universally bad, and endanger our precious bodily fluids harmony with nature. Some anti-GM campaigners may be more responsible and nuanced, but Lochhead is not concerned with them. He is afraid of people who will shun Scotland and its produce, if so much as a single field is planted with GM crops.

The beautiful but artificial landscape of the Scottish Highlands. It was once covered
by primordial forest, but long ago cleared by humans for grazing sheep.

Friday 7 August 2015

Cute Cat Friday 2015-08-07: Freddie

What's down there?

Freddie continues trying to pick fights with Belle, so we make sure to have her protected by a strong barrier if they meet. He does back down after she snarls at him enough, so we're hoping he will eventually get the message and consider a truce.

Thursday 6 August 2015

Bad Motivator: Star Wars Episode 1

The Star Wars prequel trilogy is generally acknowledged to be awful. There are occasional bright spots, helped along by charismatic actors like Ian McDiarmid, Liam Neeson or the late Christopher Lee, but for the most part they're painfully bad. Why is this?

"Uncle Owen? This R2 unit has a bad motivator, look!"
– Luke, Star Wars: Episode IV

Terrible acting and dialogue are nothing new for Star Wars. If you watch the original trilogy, the script is dreadful and Mark Hamill can't act his way out of a paper bag. I think the prequels really fall down on storytelling, and more specifically on motivation.

We put up with the flaws of the original trilogy because, among other reasons, Luke has compelling motives for his actions. He wants to get away from his uncle's farm and do something heroic; then he wants to become a Jedi, help his friends, and avenge his father; then he wants to defeat the Emperor, redeem his father and save the galaxy. The audience can understand these desires and identify with Luke. It is also pleasing that the stakes get bigger for Luke in each episode.

Leia's motivation? Restore the galactic Senate where she once held a seat, and avenge the destruction of her home planet. Obi-Wan? He feels responsible for the evil of his former apprentice Darth Vader, and wants to make up for old mistakes. Han Solo? At first he's in it for the money, but against his better judgement he comes to believe in the Rebel cause (and gets the hots for Leia). All these stories make sense to the audience.

The villains also have interesting motives. Darth Vader wants to "end this destructive conflict and bring order to the galaxy," but there's more to him than that. He wants to settle old scores with Obi-Wan, and be respected by Tarkin and the other Imperial officers. Later, he wants to make Luke into his ally, or at least stop the Emperor from destroying him. Again, this makes sense.

In the prequels, it doesn't occur to George Lucas to give his characters sensible motivations. The sad thing is, he could have fixed a lot of this with very minor changes, such as a few lines of dialogue. The resulting films would have been vastly more entertaining.

Friday 31 July 2015

Cute Cat Friday 2015-07-31: Belle

Chilled out kitty.

The cat introduction process continues, very slowly and cautiously. Belle is looking more confident now which is a good sign.

Tuesday 28 July 2015

A good feature of The Phantom Menace

Seriously, I'm not joking.

Due to the impending release of Episode VII, my plan to write some other blog posts on Star Wars, and beer on Friday lunchtime impeding my higher brain functions, I decided to re-watch Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace.

In the third act of this film, Queen Amidala is a strong, independent, heroic character. She defies pressure from old men (Palpatine, Qui-Gon Jinn) to stay safely in exile on Coruscant. Instead, she forms a plan, makes an alliance with old rivals, leads her forces in battle, takes back her planet and frees her people.

I really do like that. The battle plan is kind of stupid, but this is Star Wars, so I'm willing to cut them some slack and give credit for a good idea. Natalie Portman's wooden performance is unhelpful, but better actors than her have struggled to make George Lucas' dialogue sound like something a human being might say. The real problem is that Lucas doesn't give this story any space to breathe.

Instead of giving Portman a chance, we are subjected to lots of time with Jar-Jar Binks and Anakin Skywalker. Jar-Jar is so unbelievably irritating, he manages to overshadow the annoying qualities of Anakin, who for some reason has tagged along. What the hell was Qui-Gon thinking, taking a nine year-old boy into the middle of a battle, then leaving him to sit around unsupervised while he heads off to duel with Darth Maul? I wouldn't leave a child that age alone at a football match, never mind a combat zone.

Anakin goes joyriding in a fighter craft. (Bizarrely, there was an Anakin-sized helmet left in the cockpit; I guess the regular pilot has a really small head.) By a combination of dumb luck, supernatural piloting skills, and help from the long-suffering R2-D2, he flies around making idiotic cutesy remarks, before blowing up the Trade Federation control ship, killing everyone on board. Maybe thousands of them, from the size of that ship.

They were all funny-looking aliens who speak with a ridiculous mock-Japanese accent, and pawns in Darth Sidious' evil plan, so they had it coming, right?

Seriously though, a nine year-old boy kills thousands of people. What kind of horrifying Ender's Game shit is that? As a reward, they have a big party, Amidala smiles at him, and then he gets taken away by Obi-Wan for Jedi training, leaving his mother as a slave back on Tattooine. A nine year-old boy, remember. I'm amazed he didn't turn to the Dark Side sooner.

Still, credit where it's due, Amidala taking back her throne is pretty cool.

Friday 24 July 2015

Cute Cat Friday 2015-07-24: Freddie

Our insolent little cat is sticking out his tongue at us.

Introductions between Freddie and Belle are still a work in progress. Unfortunately there was a setback, when we put them in the same room and Freddie started a fight within twenty minutes. He hasn't spent much time being socialized with other cats, and I don't think he recognised Belle's hissing and growling as a warning to back off.

Still, we are persevering and hoping the newest member of our family will learn some manners.

Thursday 23 July 2015

God, Gays, and Lib Dems 2: The Lake of Fire

(Part 1, in which I explain why I care about Tim Farron's religious views, is here.)

It seems fair to assume Tim Farron, the new Liberal Democrat leader, thinks gay sex is immoral. He refused to answer when asked three times by Channel 4 News if it was a sin, but his life would be much easier if he had simply said no.

Now, Farron himself said we are all sinners. Evangelical Christians like him believe all sorts of things are sins. They certainly think atheists like myself are grievously offensive to their deity:

But the fearful, and unbelieving, and the abominable, and murderers, and whoremongers, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars, shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone: which is the second death. --- Revelations 21:8
(So, I'm morally comparable to murderers and whoremongers? Thanks a lot. Also, I'm told "the abominable" is usually interpreted to mean homosexuals.)

I'm the second damned sinner from the right, between the murderer and the whoremonger.
Image source: Iguana Sell Pens, who have some very nice Inferno-themed fountain pens.

Tuesday 21 July 2015

God, Gays and Lib Dems 1: Why it matters

Tim Farron, the newly elected leader of the Liberal Democrats, is an evangelical Christian. In and of itself, this is not a problem; but Farron appears to believe gay sex is immoral, and that most certainly is.
Appearing on Channel 4 News, Tim Farron was asked three times if he believes homosexual sex is a sin. Three times, he didn't give a direct answer, instead choosing to say "my firm belief is we are all sinners". --- BBC News
In an interview with Pink News, Farron claims to support gay rights such as the equal marriage law, but is somewhat equivocal on the details.

To start with, why should anyone care what the leader of the Liberal Democrats thinks?

Monday 20 July 2015

Who benefits?

Some people thought the euro was a bad idea from the beginning.

A gloomy but interesting column by Paul Krugman in today's New York Times has some of the details:

That is, [the euro] sounded forward-looking, European-minded, exactly the kind of thing that appeals to the kind of people who give speeches at Davos. Such people didn’t want nerdy economists telling them that their glamorous vision was a bad idea. 
Indeed, within Europe’s elite it quickly became very hard to raise objections to the currency project. I remember the atmosphere of the early 1990s very well: anyone who questioned the desirability of the euro was effectively shut out of the discussion.

I've seen people blaming "the bankers" for the economic catastrophe in Greece, and by extension for creating the euro in the first place.

It sounds sort of plausible. It's always useful to ask cui bono -- who benefits? The bankers benefited, therefore they must have had a hand in it.

The trouble is, the beneficiary is not always the instigator. If someone wins the National Lottery, we don't assume he somehow influenced the lottery draw or was responsible for the lottery existing in the first place. He's just a lucky guy who was in the right place at the right time. He won the lottery because somebody always wins the lottery.

Similarly, it is a mistake to assume the euro was the creation of some sinister banking conspiracy, pulling the puppet strings of European politicians for the last thirty years. Instead, it sounds more like a case of naive political groupthink. There wasn't an evil plan, just a lot of mostly well-intentioned people who weren't interested in criticism of their exciting new idea. The wolves of Wall Street are making money out of the resulting crisis, because they always do.

In a way, the groupthink explanation is more disturbing than the conspiracy. The euro crisis was not orchestrated by some cackling supervillain; it grew out of public servants trying to do the right thing.

Monday 13 July 2015

Terminator: Genisys: Review

Terminator: Genisys is a competent, entertaining action movie.

If that sounds like damning with faint praise, let it be said that I am an enormous fan of the first two Terminator films. They made a major impression on my teenage years, and I still think they are two of the finest sci-fi action films ever made. The question was not whether T:G would measure up to its illustrious predecessors, but whether it would be another tired and pointless retread along the lines of Terminator 3 or Terminator: Salvation.

Mercifully, T:G is not too bad. In fact it's pretty good in places.