Sci-Ence! Justice Leak!

Linkblogging for 29/04/09

Posted in comics, linkblogging, politics, religion by Andrew Hickey on April 29, 2009

I’ve been too tired to blog properly for a couple of days – the migraine mentioned in the last post was actually a symptom of me coming down with some minor infection – not bad enough to keep me from going to work, but bad enough that I’m too tired to concentrate. Getting a bit better though so hopefully normal blogging will resume tomorrow (and I *might* have some big news – though I might not. Either way, my usual netcast *will* be up tomorrow at Liberal Conspiracy). In the meantime, here’s some links:

The people who used to be at Seebelow, the livejournal community, have started a group comics blog by the same name. It’s got some of my favourite writers involved, including the welcome return to blogging of Matt Rossi, ex of the Howling Curmudgeons and Once I Noticed I Was On Fire…

Roasted Peanuts is also worth a look, going through (nearly) every Peanuts strip from the beginning in order and analysing Schulz’s changing style.

Andy at Wouldn’t It Be Scarier? has strong views on the government’s recent plans to allow faith schools to apply their ‘values’ to sex education. I’m not keen on his last paragraph, which assumes it’s the responsibility of all religious people to constantly distance themselves from those who supposedly share their faith but who hate gay people, but I agree with the thrust of his point.

Brad Hicks is not keen on the newspapers.

And Alison Goldworthy points out how Labour is failing the people who used to be its core supporters.

Those wanting to get involved in the ‘newniverse’ project I spoke about a few days ago, by the way, I’m taking next week off work and one of the things I’m going to do is get that sorted properly.

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The Zombies, Bridgewater Hall, 24/04/09

Posted in music by Andrew Hickey on April 26, 2009

From Rock Of Ages by Grant Morrison and Howard Porter

From Rock Of Ages by Grant Morrison and Howard Porter

The Zombies’ album Odessey And Oracle is one of the few ‘classic albums’ that happens to really be the best album of the band’s career. While many Beach Boys albums are at least as good as Pet Sounds, Revolver beats Sgt Pepper hands down, and Da Capo is half a better album than Forever Changes, The Zombies’ career was short enough that they only really made one proper album-as-statement, so it’s lucky that Odessey And Oracle, which was released in 1968, after they split, is as good as anything out there.

A few years back, two of the members of the Zombies, Colin Blunstone (the lead vocalist) and Rod Argent (the main instrumentalist – a wonderful keyboard player, who also wrote the band’s biggest hits) started touring together, firstly as “Rod Argent and Colin Blunstone of The Zombies”, but then the “Rod Argent and Colin Blunstone” started getting smaller on the posters and The Zombies getting bigger, and now their touring band just tours as The Zombies. I never managed to see them live, even though the Zombies were one of my favourite 60s bands, because there has always been some kind of scheduling conflict (for example when they played Liverpool in 2004, Brian Wilson was performing Smile in town on the same night), but the live recordings I’d heard of the touring band had been pretty good (though reunion album Out Of The Shadows was fairly poor, with only the decent Ray Charles-esque blues track Mystified being at all memorable, and even that badly produced).

However, last year the four surviving members of the Zombies (guitarist Paul Atkinson having sadly died a few years ago) got together for a handful of concerts in That London to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of Odessey & Oracle. In the first half of the shows, Blunstone & Argent’s touring Zombies played a normal set, while in the second half the four surviving members, augmented by touring guitarist Keith Airey and keyboardist Darian Sahanaja (who regular readers will have heard me rave about before) performed O&O from beginning to end. (A live album from those concerts can be heard here for those of you with Spotify, but the live DVD that came out this week is better, having more songs). After this, they announced that they would be playing four (and only four) UK gigs doing the same thing, and then never play the album live again. As one of those was the Bridgewater Hall in Manchester, I had to go, along with my 22-year-old brother who is only now starting to develop his musical taste.

The first half of the gig, by the current touring ‘Zombies’, was a mixed bag. The band themselves are the same kind of lineup you see when going to see any 60s group live these days – two original members (you’ll recognise these in any 60s group – they’re the ones with the mullets), a bass-player who used to be in a different 60s group (Jim Rodford, formerly of Rod Argent’s late-60s band Argent, and a member of The Kinks for 20 years), a guitarist who looks like he thinks he’s too good for this and insists on playing twiddly blues riffs all over everything (Keith Airey, who my brother said was ‘working out his mid-life crisis live on stage’, and looks like a clone of Roger Daltrey) and someone several decades younger than anyone else on stage who’s the son of one of the other members (drummer Steve Rodford).

Starting out with I Love You, the band stormed through the first half of the set. The early Zombies songs worked very well – the appeal of the Zombies early on was Blunstone’s voice and Argent’s keyboard, anyway, so the others weren’t too missed. Those early songs, while good of their type, were pretty much indistinguishable from other chart music of the time in their construction – most of their first few singles could have easily been hits for the Swinging Blue Jeans or The Merseybeats – but Blunstone’s breathy, gorgeous jazz-inflected vocals and Argent’s Hammond organ made the finished records sound like Mose Allison Goes Merseybeat.

Surprisingly, though, while the first set contained a few early Zombies songs, and one or two from the reunion albums, as well as songs like Sticks And Stones (a Ray Charles cover the Zombies used to do), a big chunk of the first set was devoted to Colin Blunstone’s solo records.

This is no bad thing. After the Zombies split, Argent formed the imaginatively-named prog band Argent, along with (as a non-performing writing/production partner) Zombies bassist Chris White, but Blunstone went on to make a couple of exceptional solo albums – One Year and Ennismore – before his later, more mediocre, solo work. One Year was produced by Argent and White, and so is effectively a Zombies album by any other name, and may even be the best of them.

Unfortunately, One Year was based around some gorgeous string arrangements which couldn’t be replicated live, but the Tim Hardin cover Misty Roses still worked wonderfully with just Blunstone’s vocal and Airey’s (remarkably restrained) acoustic guitar. Say You Don’t Mind worked less well, turned into a Status Quo-esque boogie (they said later that the Zombies used to play it that way live, but that didn’t make it any better). I Don’t Believe In Miracles, on the other hand, from Ennismore, is one of those songs it’s impossible to mess up, though it helps that Blunstone still has one of the most extraordinary voices in popular music.

Unfortunately, the sound in this first half was *appaling*, and the fault must be that of the sound engineer as the Bridgewater Hall has the best acoustics of any venue I’ve ever attended. Blunstone’s voice was almost drowned out for much of this first half, and the whole thing was a wash of reverb. The band played wonderfully, and Blunstone in particular sounded stunning – but it was a strain to hear him. I should have realised the sound engineer would be bad even before the start of the gig – the intro CD was an Otis Redding mono/stereo twofer, and when it turned into stereo, we could only hear one channel through the PA, so we were treated to minimalist bass-and-horns-only versions of Mr Pitiful, Satisfaction and so on…

However, despite this, the first half was very good, and the ‘new’ members acquitted themselves pretty well. The first set ended with Argent’s hit single Hold Your Head Up, which sounded far better (though still not all that great) with Blunstone singing lead.

The second half was what everyone had come to see, though. The Zombies had split up before Odessey And Oracle had ever been released, and so they’d never performed this material live. In fact Hugh Grundy, the drummer, and Chris White, the bass player, have not played live much at all in the forty-plus years since recording the album. But here were four of the original Zombies, plus Keith Airey on guitar, Darian Sahanaja on keyboards, the Rodfords on backing vocals and hand percussion and Chris White’s wife Vivienne Boucherat on backing vocals.

I was particularly glad to see Chris White on stage, as while Rod Argent wrote the band’s biggest hits, and some very very fine songs like A Rose For Emily, Chris White wrote seven of the thirteen songs on Odessey And Oracle, and I always found his songs to be more to my taste than Argent’s – songs like This Will Be Our Year and Friends Of Mine seem slightly less calculated than Argent’s rather intellectual, precise writing.

But actually one of the striking things about Odessey And Oracle is how unified Argent and White’s vision was. Normally if you have two non-collaborating songwriters in a band you end up with two very different styles – think of Lennon & McCartney, both equally good, but McCartney could never have written I Am The Walrus and Lennon wouldn’t have written For No One. By contrast, White and Argent have almost interchangeable styles – White slightly more folky and Argent more jazzy, but Argent could easily have written Butcher’s Tale or White I Want Her She Wants Me.

What’s even more amazing is how well the album stands up as a live performance. Usually, when watching one of these ‘classic acts perform their classic albums’ shows, there are one or two songs that just don’t work in a live setting – watching Brian Wilson do Pet Sounds live, for example, Don’t Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder) never really came off very well, even though on the record it’s by far the best song. By contrast, it was relatively weaker songs from Odessey And Oracle like Changes (only relatively weaker – O&O is almost unique as a filler-free album) that shone here – hearing those block harmonies (and the vocal blend was stunning, with Blunstone, Argent and White sounding just like they always did, and the other members only adding background touches that had been tracked in the studio) sent shivers down my spine.

Thankfully, the sound engineer had sorted the balance out for the second half, and every note was audible, and Airey had toned down his guitar histrionics, playing note-for-note the parts on the record. Blunstone was in stunning voice throughout – and he’s the only one of the great sixties vocalists whose voice hasn’t aged at all – and everything from the opening of Care Of Cell 44 through to the end of Time Of The Season was about as perfect as you can imagine. The record was replicated absolutely faithfully, but Blunstone’s vocals were if anything even better – I was open-mouthed in awe at his singing on the “she told me to be careful if I loved her” section of I Want Her She Wants Me, and every single song in the second half was just beautifully done, from the a capella folky chanting of Changes to the pastoral psych of Beechwood Park (the “Oh roads in my mind” section being another stunner) to the jazzy pop of Time Of The Season.

After this, there was an ‘encore’ which didn’t involve anyone leaving the stage, consisting of their two big hits, She’s Not There and Tell Her No, plus Going Out Of My Head, all augmented by the brass section who’d come along to play on This Will Be Our Year, and then a final real encore where they performed the Gershwins’ Summertime, the first song they ever recorded.

It was definitely a show of two halves, and I feel very sorry for everyone who didn’t get to see this (they say they’re never going to do this in the UK again, though I think they’re touring the US doing it) but I’d definitely still recommend going and seeing the touring band if you get the chance – the ‘new’ members aren’t the originals, but they’re good at what they do, and their half of the set was marred by factors out of their control. But this was one of the handful of shows (like seeing Brian Wilson premiere That Lucky Old Sun, or Richard Thompson doing 1000 Years Of Popular Music, or Pulp at Glastonbury in 1995) that will remain with me forever. My brother, who didn’t know the band’s music at all before going to the gig, came straight out and bought a copy of the live DVD of last year’s show, which should tell you something about the quality of the show.

Whatever Happened To All Of The Heroes, All The Shakespearos?

Posted in comics by Andrew Hickey on April 26, 2009

There appear to be two schools of thought regarding Neil Gaiman among comics critics. One, popular ten years or so ago, is that he’s the greatest writer ever to have worked in the medium, and brings a new level of literacy and intelligence to the medium that no-one else can match up to. The other, which is increasingly popular at the moment, is that he’s a poseur – a one-trick-pony who’s mostly good at dressing in black and getting women who like Tori Amos records to swoon after him.

Ignoring the implicit sexism in the latter criticism (and a lot of the criticism of Gaiman boils down to ‘he makes comics that GIRLS like! Ewww…’) there’s a lot of truth in it – especially in his novels, Gaiman is an incredibly patchy writer, who does have a tendency to write the same storyline over and over (Coraline, Stardust, Mirrormask, Anansi Boys and Neverwhere are all so similar that I honestly think *I* could write a ‘Neil Gaiman novel’ now, and probably convince Gaiman himself he’d written it and forgotten about it), so I often tend towards the latter consensus. But then I read his *good* stuff (and some of those in the list above are actually good, but I’m thinking here especially of things like the short story collection Smoke And Mirrors) and I think that no, when he’s actually trying Gaiman is almost as good a writer as his reputation suggests. Not the very best, but up there in the top tier – around Dave Sim level, below Moore and Morrison but above Ennis and Ellis, probably around Peter Milligan level in the “British writers who became typecast as Vertigo writers” list.

The first part of Whatever Happened To The Caped Crusader? was very much Gaiman-by-numbers, which meant there was a certain minimal level of quality which is far ahead of most superhero comics (and certainly ahead of any Batbook not written by Grant Morrison in the last decade or more), but it was still the kind of thing that someone trying to write like Neil Gaiman would have come up with – a group of characters gather for a wake and tell stories about the departed, and none of those stories ever quite match up. The stories of Batman are more important than the man. And so on.

But what it did do, quite effectively, was match up with Morrison’s work on the title – Morrison and Gaiman actually being more alike as writers than their surface dissimilarities would suggest, both having based much of their work on the idea that ‘all stories are true’, for example, which turns up as an ordering principle in both Morrison’s run on the title and Gaiman’s two issues.

This issue, the story takes a different turn – we see a few of the many possible deaths of Batman, done in the styles of different periods of comics history, so we see an alternate ending to The Killing Joke with Batman dying of Joker venom, a Neal Adams-esque Ra’s Al Ghul, and so on. Kubert actually excels himself here, turning in pretty good Dick Sprang, Neal Adams and Brian Bolland swipes/pastiches. Unfortunately, the inking by Scott Williams treats all these pages like they were Jim Lee, and the colouring similarly doesn’t vary at all. This really, really, needed a more sympathetic inker, rather than someone who treats every page as an opportunity to show how good he is at cross-hatching.

What works surprisingly well is the big reveal, which is that all this is taking place as a conversation between Batman and his mother, in his mind, as he dies, and that for Batman, rather than an afterlife or reincarnation, he goes back and is born again as himself, to repeat the whole thing over again. It’s really the only way that the story set up in the first half could sensibly end, and the only way you could really create an ending to ‘the Batman story’.

It’s also refreshing to see Batman’s mother playing such a prominent part – for the last couple of decades, writers wanting to work out ‘daddy issues’ have concentrated on Thomas Wayne almost exclusively, barely mentioning her (if nothing else you’d think that the fact that Superman’s mother has the same first name as her would make for a Geoff Johns ten-issue cryfest). Actually, for a small boy, it would probably hurt more seeing his mother die than his father – though of course either would be horrific – and the obsession with Thomas Wayne probably has a lot to do with the sexism of the comic industry. It also makes sense narratively that it be Martha Wayne Batman talks to as he dies, since it is her he gets handed to as a baby at the end.

(Incidentally, this reminds me of a pet hypothesis of mine – nowhere in Sandman is Death ever actually named, and it’s said that you see her twice in your life, once at the beginning and once at the end. My idea is that she’s ‘really’ called Delivery/ance…)

My main problem with this is the characterisation of Batman, who comes across as trapped in his childhood, trapped in the moment his parents died. Which is a valid interpretation of the character, and one that a lot of people have used, but it doesn’t work for me – to my mind Batman has to be characterised as someone who got over his parents’ death – if nothing else because the sentence spoken by Martha Wayne in this story – “You can’t bring us back” – isn’t true in the context of the DCU, in which Batman operates. Pretty much everyone Batman knows – Superman (who appears in this story), Green Arrow, Green Lantern, Metamorpho, Jason Todd, Ra’s Al-Ghul – has died and come back to life multiple times. A Bruce Wayne who was driven to become Batman solely because he couldn’t get his parents back wouldn’t make sense in that context.

That doesn’t matter in a two-issue ‘semi-continuity’ story of course – and I can’t believe I’m complaining about ‘continuity’ at all – but this story is explicitly trying to be the story that comes at the end of every interpretation of Batman’s life, from Bob Kane to Frank Miller to Adam West to Christopher Nolan to Alan Grant to Denny O’Neil. But the decision to make Batman a viewpoint character in the story at all means that of necessity it has to be one interpretation of Batman – an actual character rather than the idea of Batman – even though the story is about the idea rather than the man (or rather, it’s about the man becoming the idea).

So, I think I have to consider this two-parter a failure overall – the parts that worked were the parts where Gaiman was on auto-pilot, and the parts that didn’t were the ones where he was trying. But Gaiman on auto-pilot is still in the top 10% or so of comic writers, and the bits that didn’t work at least didn’t work interestingly. There’s stuff to say about this comic, which is more than I can say about the vast majority of superhero comics at present, and it makes me look forward even more to the upcoming Wednesday Comics series to which Gaiman will be contributing.

I’m also looking forward to the changes in the Bat-books – Morrison & Quitely on one, J.H. Williams illustrating another, and a third with Ed Benes and Judd Winick on the same title (so they can both be quarantined away from any comics I might want to read). This summer might be a fun one for comics after all…

(BTW I will be posting something about the ‘Newniverse’ idea tomorrow evening, when my migraine’s cleared up – I’ll probably post a review of the Zombies gig from Friday tonight though, as that’s the kind of thing I can write with my brain only half-on, as is this post).

ETA I stupidly posted the link to this on twitter and used Neil Gaiman’s Twitter alias rather than his real name to save space in the description, and he only *READ IT*… his response:

@stealthmunchkin the review itself was written OK but 1st two paras read like sophomore snark, and the “ooh icky girls” stuff was just bad.

Well, I suppose that’s fair…

Inform Update

Posted in computing by Andrew Hickey on April 25, 2009

Edit 25 April for some reason WordPress broke the links in this. Fixed now.
Only a few (if any) of you will be interested in this, but Inform 7, the programming language for text adventure games (Interactive Fiction) has released a new version, along with a new, much-improved website.

Those of you who enjoy writing really should check out this absolutely marvellous cross-platform program (Windows, Mac, GNU/Linux and Solaris binaries available), which actually allows you to write something like this (taken from an earlier post of mine)

“Example” by “andrew hickey”

The Fortress Of Solitude is a room. The description of the fortress of solitude is “An empty, cold, lonely place – the kind of place a God would enter when he needed to cast off his humanity for a short time.” The South Pole is a room. The South Pole is outside from the fortress of solitude.

Superman is a man. Superman is in the Fortress Of Solitude.
A lead box is in the fortress. Kryptonite is a thing. Kyptonite is in the box. The box is closed. The box is not transparent. The box is openable.

After opening the box:
Say “‘How could you bring Kryptonite here?’ shouts Superman, and he flees”;
try Superman going outside.

And have it be interpreted as an actual running program.

Inform 7 is an absolutely revolutionary tool for true interactive storytelling, and I want to start writing actual story/games in it soon (I’ve spent nearly a year just playing with it). The documentation is also some of the best I’ve ever seen.

Also of interest for the more technical and Free Software oriented of you is that they’ve started opening the program up under the Artistic License 2.0 (except the IDE, which has always been GPLv2 (GPLv3 for the GNOME IDE) , and a couple of still-closed bits – they’re followers of Knuth’s idea of ‘literate programming’ and want to make the source human-readable to non-programmers before releasing it). And not only that, they’re opening up the toolchain they created to create Inform 7 too – things like this literate programming tool.

If you’re interested in telling stories or in computer programming, you really should give it a go…

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Labour Conspiracy

Posted in politics by Andrew Hickey on April 22, 2009

This post will be of no interest to anyone who is not hugely interested in the minutiae of British political blogging, and the wankery that goes on therein… I hate writing posts like this, and I hate contaminating my own blog with them, but i can’t really see anything else to do. I would post this on Liberal Conspiracy, but I don’t have direct posting access there – everything I write for it goes through an editor… I’ll post something about comics tomorrow.

As some of you will know, I recently started to contribute a weekly ‘netcast’ to Liberal Conspiracy, a group blog to which I’ve also occasionally contributed longer posts (reposted from this blog or my old LJ, and heavily edited by the site’s owner, Sunny Hundall).

Now, a lot of Liberal Democrats are very wary of Liberal Conspiracy. The site is supposed to be a cross-party liberal left site, but many Lib Dems consider it to be a way of trying to co-opt us into Labour in some way or other – a Labour fifth column. Many Lib Dems refer to it as ‘Labour Conspiracy’, and most of the prominent people on the site *are* Labour supporters. However, I do think it is a good thing to work across party lines, and some of the Labour people on the site (Laurie Penny, for example) are decent, there are Greens on there, and non-aligned people like Debi Linton, and the presence of people like the very strongly opinionated Lib Dems (and friends of mine) Jennie Rigg and Mat Bowles keeps me reading and contributing.

But my patience is wearing thin.

Just over a week ago Liberal Conspiracy became overrun with tedious, masturbatory posts about a non-issue storm-in-a-teacup sleaze story that involved *A BLOGGER!* and therefore must be talked about at excruciating length by all other bloggers, apparently. Charlotte Gore summed up my thoughts about that pretty well. Several people started calling for the site to stop being up its own arse and actually start talking about politics, rather than blogging about bloggers blogging about bloggers blogging (and now you see why I didn’t want to post this…)

But I thought when that nonsense died down, the site would get some semblance of a reasonable editorial line again. I was wrong. In just the last few days we’ve had a post headed “Our Ethic of Progressive Blogging”, the very first line of which started “We are a group of Labour party members and supporters”. The disclaimer at the top was added later, by Jennie RIgg, who *does* speak for me at least when she says in the comments “YOU might be a collection of Labour Bloggers but I’M not, and nor are any of the other Lib Dem or Green or unaligned contributors, and this is the sort of thing that makes us feel pushed out of the theoretical “big tent” which appears to only exist as long as Labour members are the ones in charge of the tent pegs.”

This apparently made Jennie and Mat and Tez Burke and myself and the other Lib Dems who commented there ‘mindlessly tribal’. But fine – the disclaimer was added, it was an obvious crosspost, mistakes happen – though they do tend very much to happen in one direction. But Sunny Hundall is an honourable man, and he says that he genuinely wants the site to be cross-party, so let it go.

The next day we get this nasty piece of bile, an attack on a decent ex-Labour MP (a proper Old Labour MP on the Stop The War Coalition committee and so forth) for leaving the party. I actually think it’s meant to be an anti-Labour piece, but I can’t tell because it’s just complete gibberish – sub-literate nonsense written by someone who hadn’t even read the resignation letter in question. Someone thought this was worth posting to the third most-read political blog in the UK…

Then we get a post about how “It’s Time For Socialists To Rejoin The Labour Party”, which unfortunately calls to mind nothing more than a spousal abuser begging for one more chance and promising he’ll change.

And finally we get this post, which conflates the ‘progressive, liberal left’ with the Labour Party and states that there is no ‘major national poltical party’ to represent ‘progressives’, while still also going on about how much Labour has to be ‘proud’ of (he mentions increased spending on the NHS – which would be good were it not that much of it is PFI spending and much of that is actually detrimental to patient care – I’ll explain why another time, the minimum wage – an actual good policy, from twelve years ago, and Sure Start childcare, which I know little about. Hardly a record to compare with the great reforming governments of the past, even if you discount the huge negative side).

Now, at least two of these posts are ‘guest posts’, which means that it’s not as if the writer just hit ‘post’ and didn’t think about it – they had to be submitted, and someone had to look them over and say “Yes, this is what we think should be published on this site.”

It seems to me that there are two types of posts on that site. The first, and so far still the majority, though a small one, are ones by members of many parties (including Labour) arguing for various policies because they are, in the view of the writer, correct. Those posts are often worth reading, and include some of the best political writers out there.

Then there are the posts which talk about ‘positioning’ and ‘narratives’. Almost all of these advocate the same policies as the other posts, but they also claim that those policies can *only* work if implemented by the Labour party. They usually, in fact, just assume implicitly that the readers are Labour members. Many of them talk about ‘saving Labour from itself’ as if it’s up to those of us who aren’t members to join a party that has committed war crimes, removed civil liberties, taken from the poor and given to the rich, and generally spent the last 12 years acting exactly like the Tories had for the eighteen years before, because otherwise ‘the Tories will get in *and it’ll be your fault!*’

If this doesn’t change, and very, very soon, then I shall have to come to the conclusion that this is not just a series of embarassing cock-ups and stupid comments, but a calculated attempt to marginalise those of us who consider ourselves ‘liberal’ and ‘left’, but who consider that a political party has to actually do something we agree with more than once a decade to be worthy of our support.


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