Procrastination man - Part 2

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Sunday 8 January 2012

New blog!

I have decided to set up a separate blog for entries that deal with religion. Reasons for this are multiple, but mostly, I felt that:

  • this platform was getting a little bit outdated
  • Bible-related entries were starting to take over the blog. If I'm going for a reach outside of my friends, other entries would be irrelevant to these outsiders. By starting a new blog, I'm letting it gain its own identity.
  • this blog's title, whilst I am very fond of it, is not conveying a great message.

Anyhoo, for weekly new posts, head over to

This space will still be used, but probably mostly for reviews and stuff like that. Old Bible-related entries will be (selectively) moved over to the new blog over the next few weeks.

Tuesday 22 November 2011

The philosophical requirement for an independent Devil

There can be a temptation, especially when you come from a tradition that doesn't take a literal approach to the Bible, to "pick and choose" from theology snippets whilst discarding others. In spite of the derogatory connotation associated with the "pick and choose" terms, this approach has one advantage: the beliefs that you actually hold and voice are deeply rooted in both heart and mind because you have picked them.[1]
The downside being, of course, that you can be wrong. But then, as Proverbs 15:10 goes,

Whoever hates reproof will die

I used to believe that the Devil was an easy shorthand for one's own shortcomings. Of course, I thought, it is easier to blame our every misdeed on an external cause, Satan. In doing so, you can avoid facing your shortcomings and reject all blame. To some extent, I still believe that the Enemy is used as an easy way out, as an excuse, in too many cases. Regardless of whether our temptation comes from him or from ourselves, giving in to this temptation is always our wrongdoing.
Still, this does not mean, as I used to think, that the Devil is a metaphor for our nature. On the contrary, an independent Enemy is a fundamental part of Christian doctrine, and here's why:

  1. In order for Jesus to be able to atone for our sins, He needed to know temptation.[2]
  2. His exposure to temptation is described in Matthew 4:1-11.
  3. But Jesus is perfect.
  4. Therefore, there is a requirement for the Devil to exist independently.

Whether the Devil still influences us today, is a completely new debate. But if we agree that God can speak to us, then there is no reason why the Devil should suddenly have stopped.
Thus, two mistakes can be made with regards to Satan:

  • Overdo his role in our actions. This is tantamount to submitting oneself to the Devil, recognising he has an authority over us whiich he has no claim to; and in doing so, denying that we were given free will.
  • Claim he has no part in our doings. The risk is that we will not see his stratagems and thus lose out in the battle as a result. Other than that, what are the risks associated with this approach?


[1] Some people can hold such a deep-rooted belief about Biblical truth, but in my experience they aren't able to convince with similar power. In addition, there is an added layer of inerpretation to any Bible reading, and debate is easier to conduct on points you have deliberately selected.

[2] This point can be argued in more depth, but this would fall beyond the scope of this short entry.

Saturday 8 October 2011


Last Sunday was harvest festival. A chance for us to reflect on our Christian lives.

Photo: Raymond Larose
In Matthew 9:37 Jesus says "The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few". He is talking aboiut the growing crowd following him; and it is true that at the time of his speaking, the harvest was plentiful. There was a crowd.
But he did not say to his disciples "Go and reap for me". He said (9:38) "therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest". The Twelve were not sent out to harvest; (they were not sent out to seed further either) they were sent to the "lost sheep of the house of Israel".
In a harvest, the reapers bring home the result of a lot of work. Plucking ears of wheat is a crucial task to get our bread; and it needs to come in at the right time, but it can only happen because the wheat has grown healthily.
For that, you need:

  • ploughmen (see the parable of the sower in Luke 8:5-8)
  • sowers
  • people to tend to the crop while it's growing

Not all of us are reapers. Not all of us are sowers. See for instance John 4:37 - "For here the saying holds true, 'One sows and another reaps.'"
So let us all recognise our strengths, our gifts, and put them into practise where they are. If we are good at admin, or at managing, let us plough the church in which we are to grow into a rich and welcoming soil. If we are good pastors (yay, mixed metaphor!), let us tend to the crop whilst it grows, weeding it out and watering it when it needs watering. If we are outgoing and comfortable in social situations, let us go out and be sowers.
Of course, the same person can take on different jobs. But let us not be ashamed to focus our efforts where they are best put to use; and let us not neglect ploughing or watering because we're just too eager to sow.

Monday 15 August 2011


Prayer plays a major part in any Christian's life. It is something that we are all used to doing, that we even categorise sometimes (intercession, contemplative, thanksgiving, forgiveness, etc.). Yet while we sometimes know what we're doing when praying - while it is possible to rationalise our action - the way prayer works is one of the greatest mysteries.
There is a tendency to view prayer as relational, almost conversational. It is indeed a privilege that we can talk to God, that He will hear our prayers and listen to them. Should prayer, then, be informal? Should it be silent, or vocal?
More puzzlingly, what happens in a prayer of petition? When we ask God to do something, either for ourselves or for others? Here's a conundrum I grappled with for over eight months [1] :

  1. If God has a plan for us [2]
  2. If God is good
  3. If God's actions can be influenced by our prayers


by praying, we are asking for a variation from God's original plans. Praying is therefore damaging.

Unless our prayer is part of God's plans, but that both negates free will and makes prayer seem pointless.
This is highly theoretical so far, so a couple of examples should help [3]:

  • Three days after praying for my heart to be opened up, a friend calls me, about to commit suicide (he doesn't, thankfully). This in turn leads to me being an emotional wreck for a while, but also allows me to rebuild a heart that's more open to God.
  • A friend is unemployed; but it is possible that that unemployment is part of God's plan to build them up as a stronger, more loving person. Should we pray for a job?

This leads to the central question every Christian should ask themselves.

Should we pray? If so, how and why?

1. Should we pray?
Fortunately, the answer to that is very clear: it is a resounding YES from all over the Bible. The more famous examples are in the New Testament: 1 Thess 5:17, Rom 12:12, and with a tiiny bit more detail James 5:13-16.
Less often quoted, yet possibly more interesting, are the following two Old Testament verses:

Moreover, as for me, far be it from me that I should sin against the LORD by ceasing to pray for you. 1 Sam 12:23

On your walls, O Jerusalem, I have set watchmen; all the day and all the night they shall never be silent. You who put the LORD in remembrance, take no rest, and give him no rest until he establishes Jerusalem and makes it a praise in the earth. Isaiah 62:6-7

So not praying is a sin, and prayer is a continuous process, where we should give the Lord no rest (until Jerusalem is established, in the case of Isaiah). This latter verse is reminiscent of the Pray Until Something Happens wristbands you can find nowadays. Except that in those, the instruction is weakened to a piece of advice.

2. Does prayer work?

The answer to that is also very clear: it is a YES, IF. Matthew 21:22 sums it up very clearly:

And whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith.

Mark 11:24 stresses the importance of belief in the power of prayer for it to be powerful. Luke 11:9 carries the same promise (without mentioning the caveat).

There are plenty of practical examples of answered prayers in the Old Testament. One striking example is found in Genesis 18:22-33, where Abraham is seen to "bargain" with God in order to save Sodom. This (despite the final outcome being the same) is an occasion where God's plans were "changed" through prayer.

Yet is a simple belief the only condition for prayer to work? The Old Testament seems to tie in with prayer the condition of obeying the Lord's command: this is most striking in Proverbs 28:9:

If one turns away his ear from hearing the law, even his prayer is an abomination.

The Old Testament contains another few mentions of this: Isaiah 56:6-7, indirectly; but more directly in 1 Sam 12:14-15. Obedience was key, seemingly - but does the new covenant change that? 1 Peter 3:12 quotes Psalm 34, indicating that "the face of the Lord is against those who do evil".

Yet when you think about what it means to pray earnestly (Matthew 9:38), or not as hypocrites (Matthew 6:5), it means acknowledging that God has power and authority over all things, and thus can effect change. In this acknowledgement, we also place ourselves under God's authority and law.
To go back to Proverbs 28:9, there is a difference between not respecting the law and deliberately turning one's ear away from hearing the law, in a gesture that denies it authority.

3. So how should we pray?

For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. Romans 8:26

This sums up where we're at: we know we should pray - we also know that in prayer, we should place ourselves under God's authority. However, we do not know how to pray, nor what to pray for.
Letting ourselves be guided by the Spirit is of course what we should do. Someone told me that our free will resides in deciding whether to pray, rather than what to pray for.
However, this is not practical advice for everyone, as who's to say that something is inspired or not? Still, the Bible (especially the New Testament) provides more information about this. Here are two important things to learn from the Gospels:
1. The Lord's prayer is not just liturgy. The order in which it is given also shows how we should tackle prayer: firstly, acknowledging God's power ("Hallowed be your name"), as we saw above. Secondly, praying for God's will to be done before ours. Only then do we ask for our daily bread. 2. This chimes with Jesus's prayer in the gardens of Gethsemane (Matthew 26:39). God's will comes first in all that we pray for.

So this is how to pray. With forgiveness in our hearts, and by placing ourselves totally under God's authority.

This does not give a definite answer to the situations I mentioned at the start of this entry - simply because there is no definite answer to the question of prayer. Nor does it tackle questions of spiritual warfare, which might find their place in a follow-up entry. However, here's an encouraging thought to finish off:
When I started thinking prayer was dangerous, I stopped praying. It was a hard time. But recently, similar issues resurfaced - and I went straight to prayer. It may not lead to what we want in the way we want it, but it is what we are instructed to do. Prayer builds you up and builds up your trust in God; and its power is such that you are drawn to it, even if you think you don't know how to pray.


[1] until I let go of some of my pride and decided to look for answers in the Bible rather than try and work it out by myself! But the authority of the Bible and hermeneutics is a matter for another entry...

[2] without going into the debate on predestination. That matter is banned from this blog for now!

[3] they are both drawn from personal experience

Wednesday 4 May 2011

Changing the way we vote

Tomorrow, the UK votes for multiple things. One of them is AV - alternative vote - versus FPTP - first past the post. Under FPTP, people cast a vote for one candidate and whoever gets the largest amount of votes gets the seat. Standard. Under AV, people cast ballots in which they rank the candidates by order of preference (they don't have to rank everyone). Whoever gets over 50% of the votes gets the seat. If no one does, then whoever got the fewest votes gets eliminated, and the people who voted for them see their second preference counted, and so on until someone gets 50%.
AV's advantage is only obvious when two similar candidates run, and get for instance 30% of the votes each (assuming their second preference is the other one), whereas a third candidate gets 40%. Under FPTP, this would mean that the candidate voted against by 60% of the population would get the seat, whereas under AV it would be one of the other two.
Question: what happens, in the above case, if both get exactly 30%? (It's very unlikely but kinda funny to think about, really... the same situation does happen if there's a tie at the top under FPTP)
FPTP defenders bring out many arguments (see below), most of which are easily debunked. The main, valid argument, is that it stands to reason (given the Lab/Con strong divide), that in a Lib-Lab-Con headlock, Labourites and Conservatives would both pick LibDems as their second preference. At the constituency level, that's fine - and LibDems getting elected then is democratic. However, giving LibDems the role of Kingmaker more often is NOT so.

Asking around, it looks like most people aren't too bothered with this decision. They think it won't make too much of a difference (they may be right) and, in a typical British attitude, don't get too inflamed about these things. There are exceptions, of course, but apathy seems to reign over this - because it's not PR (note: I'm against PR, but for AV!), or because the campaigns have been, frankly, a bit crap.
Still, it is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to have a say in the way people are elected, and that's EXCITING.

Another election in ENGLAND (who cares about the Celtic periphery eh?) is that for councillors. Very funnily, the LibDems have not even managed to find candidates for every ward... And it's one I can vote in, but that people are even less enthusiastic about :(
What matters, however, is that you VOTE tomorrow!

Monday 24 January 2011

Showing that you care

Two weeks ago, I started a series on Good Samaritan stories, and I asked you to email your stories. The plan is to make this a fortnightly series. Here's one I received.

When I was about 6, I was in a newsagents with my mum and younger brother. My brother’s severely autistic, and used to throw really bad tantrums when he didn’t get his way. So there we were in the shop, and my brother grabbed a packet of crisps. Unfortunately when my mum went to pay for them, she realised at that point that she’d left her purse at home. My brother would not put the crisps down and was starting to cry, I was still too young to be sent home to get the purse, and the shopkeeper was getting more annoyed. A random man came up to the counter and just paid for them, no fuss made. “My brother’s like that,” was all he said before leaving. That really stuck with me.

Don't forget to send your stories to goodsamaritanstories at

Monday 17 January 2011

Homophobia? I think not.

A Tory MEP has been causing quite a bit of a stir in the world of Twitter. What set it all off? A simple tweet, a screengrab of which is available here.
Now for the sake of the argument, let's forget about all the controversies Mr Helmer has been involved in, and let's look at whether this particular tweet is worth all the outrage it has caused.
Some even urged David Cameron to act on the issue, as the Guardian reports. Reading through the comments, a vast majority is denouncing homophobia on the part of the MEP.
But is it really homophobic - or even ignorant, as some more sophisticated readers made the distinction? I would argue it is not. The question Mr Helmer asks is an interesting one.

Is it right to try to "turn" a consenting homosexual straight?

Note he didn't use the word "cure". Never did Mr Helmer imply homosexuality was a disease to be cured. The inference is on the reader's part.
I would argue that some gays are unhappy with their sexuality. This could be down to pressure from a homophobic/straight-centered society. It could also stem from personal beliefs, which is something liberal bigots find hard to believe.
For such people, I think that Mr Helmer's suggestion has nothing shocking in it. The fact is, I believe (although I have no links to support this), that all strategies used to turn people don't work. This does not mean that they never work, but that they don't consistently work and that the success rate is so low it could be attributed to randomness.
So Mr Helmer could be defending a con. Or a placebo. He still is not, in that particular instance, making a homophobic statement. So please stop crying wolf.

Note: this was brought to my attention by the lovely @TheBrianDuggan, who is the coolest Labourite I've met, though we seem to disagree on this specific issue. My tweets are here

Monday 10 January 2011

Heart-warming stories

The BBC recently put up a very great feature. Not shattering revelations, not a grand piece about ethics or politics - just a story; and not one involving a celebrity. The story told by a simple guy of how a good person went out of his way to help him. Something in that story is both heart-warming and tear-jerking. I'll let you read it: A real Good Samaritan
This was followed by readers emailing in some of their own good samaritan stories, a selection of which can be found here.
It is such a pleasure to read these stories I thought I'd try and make it a regular (monthly? weekly? depending on how many you send!) feature on this blog, so email in your stories to goodsamaritanstories at
There's been a fair few times people have been exceptionally good to me, but the one that I hold dearest of all is the following:

Back in 2008, I was feeling very much down, partially because I was missing England so much. One night, I got a phone call from an awesome guy called Ben, who got the whole choir to sing my favourite song. Over the phone - during an international phone call.
I had very good friends in the choir and while I knew Ben, he wasn't a close friend, so this was very much unexpected and lovely. To this date, this is the single fondest memory I have. So thank you again to Ben and to everyone in Rev.

Thursday 30 September 2010

Higher Education funding in England

This presentation was made by my friend Sean from Warwick SU and gives a pretty good summary of the issues related with Higher Education funding in the England.

Are fees necessary? It would seem that the very notion of a free higher education has disappeared from the minds of the English. Simple phrases like graduate premium indicate that. There's some resentment against Scottish students who don't have to pay for their degree. So whether in form of graduate tax or front-up fees, students would seem to be expected to pay for their education.
From a French perspective, this is nigh on ludicrous. Fees for higher education? No, education should be free for all, only admin fees should be covered etc. Hidden costs are a shame. University independence is fought against and there are even student strikes (those imply blockading lecture theatres, rather than just not showing up). There are tuition fees, mind, but they're around €300 per annum. Might as well say negligible when compared with the £3k+ or even £11k+ English and international students pay to study in the UK.
But look at the state of British universities and compare them with their French counterparts. The Warwick experience is one of the best things that ever happened to me. There is some student support, including counselling services, support from the international office, and probably the best Student Union ever (this year in particular!). The buildings are in a nice state, there are ties with local schools, businesses, industries and communities. The graduate is quite desirable on the job market (although that's debatable). There's no question of just doing a degree for the kicks (well, ok, there might be, but you wouldn't stay in education for ages if you weren't motivated).
Basically, British students want value for money. This leads to a completely different atmosphere in lectures. Unionism is actually defending the students rather than the unions. And, true enough, British students won't strike or blockade lectures, or try to put some pressure on the universities but providing a service to the students is back at the heart of the university's policy, as they wish to attract more students.
Yes, I am viewing British universities in a very good way, quite probably better than what they actually are. But whilst the differences between France and England have been heightened in this account, they are real. And no, things aren't all great in England. For instance, the interest rates on student loans are shambolic in any respect - they should be equal to inflation, not a penny more.
Fees that are real for the student who comes in are a good thing. But £3,000 is more than enough to reach the desired social outcome. Bringing the cap up to £7,000 will make university unaffordable to many (regardless of extended loans). A graduate tax, as advocated both by Mr Cable and the above presentation, has the double inconvenient of looking less real and of allowing students to take free rides, i.e. go for a degree just for the kicks and then work in a non-graduate job and not paying back.
What I would probably advocate for is a mixed system of capped front-up fees (with a £1.5k p.a. cap, inflation-adjusted on a yearly basis), and graduate tax with a cap on total tax paid of 150% of the actual cost of their degree. Said graduate tax should be obviously ringfenced to serve only higher education. In parallel, alternatives like apprenticeship should be encouraged rather than being the option left to those not good enough to go into university.

Wednesday 18 August 2010


The BBC recently published an interesting article about rough sleepers (which is seemingly British English for homeless people, but not quite).
The focus of the article is the lack of reliability of the statistics, as councils don't have to keep a tally when they have (or can reasonably expect to have, presumably) under 10 rough sleepers. In addition, tallies are made only once a year, which leads to a lack of precision (though this could go in both directions).
Looking at the bar chart, only taking those tallies into account clearly means fewer rough sleepers appear on the statistics (the big dip in 2001 is the adoption of that new counting system). The tally that has been given between 2001 and 2009 gives an indication of homelessness in big cities, not across the country.

Yet the biggest fact is hidden by that discussion. How many rough sleepers are there in England? A maximum of 2,560 (number of councils with no statistics i.e. with an estimated maximum of 10 rough sleepers each, multiplied by 10) + 440. Exactly three thousand homeless people (that's quite a bit up on the estimate of 1,247, which is probably closer to the reality).
The BBC News article fails to point out what that figure means. 3,000 is .004% of the English population. I'm not saying that's nothing and that we should be well chuffed about our homelessness situation. We will only be able to give ourselves a pat on the back when no one is forced to sleep on the streets.
But compare it with France. France, in 2004, conducted a tally and found there were 86,000 rough sleepers, i.e. .13% of the population of the country. Paris alone was reported to have a core of 10 to 15 thousand homeless who live continuously on the streets.
I've not been able to work out whether that statistic included people in shelters but I doubt it. From personal experience, the absence of homeless people on the streets of England was what struck me when I first came here. I didn't see any for 10 months and then just the one in London. (I'm not counting one I saw in Edinburgh because it's not England :-P)

What does this mean then? That England trumps France? That's hardly breaking news though. What it genuinely means is that we are in a privileged situation to reach that magic zero figure. In a situation that the French are not in. See, the French have the excuse that they can't help everyone off the streets - we don't. We have that opportunity and the possibility to think that when we help someone off the streets, that person won't simply be replaced by someone else.
So next time you see someone on the streets, spend some time with them, help them in whichever way you can. Simply because you can.

Saturday 10 July 2010

Doctor Who - series Fnarg

As Doctor Who's latest series (season 1/5/31/Fnarg) came to a close two weeks ago, it looks as if the show has really taken a new life under the helm of the new production team.
In terms of writing, the entire season was full of small gems and there is no episode which is complete absolute tosh. The closest it came to that was Victory of the Daleks, and that had Spitfires in space. This season, we had possibly the greatest introduction to a Doctor who is no longer hiding his 1963 origins (how many times did we see William Hartnell this season?), followed by a slightly more conventional adventure romp with The Beast Below, by the scary return of the Angels (coincidentally, the army types dealing with them are from the church! Is there more to it?) and the mystery-shrouded River Song, two stories which were very much like OldWho in style (Vampires of Venice and the Silurian two-parter), a really unique concept with Amy's choice and a mind-blowing finale.
Throughout this season, what transpired was (a) the show playing with the viewer's expectations (spoiler ahead! the Doctor's snog, Rory's death, the absence of a Doctor and Amy painting by Van Gogh, everything about the finale) and (b) a sort of grown-up show which knows it doesn't have to explain everything (who is Prisoner Zero, who are the Smilers, what did River do, how did that space pollen show up, will the Silurians share the Earth in a millennium, what the h*** was a TARDIS doing in The Lodger). It's not out of laziness - it fits with the new direction the show has taken. Under RTD's great command, the show was character-driven and it was there that the evolution could happen. The plot was nearly secondary and therefore needed to be wrapped up. With Moffat, paradoxically, because it is plot-driven, there is no such need: it is perfectly acceptable not to know everything, because there is half a promise that it will be solved some way down the line.

There is one exception to that - one episode in the entire series which was character-driven. And it is beyond the shadow of a doubt the best episode this series has to boast. Vincent and the Doctor is possibly the best thing I have seen on TV ever. As the title suggests, it was not about the Doctor, but about the guest historical star, Van Gogh. It makes sense that, for a man suffering depression on that level, his vision of the world gets projected onto the screen. The recreations of Van Gogh paintings in the flesh were particularly impressive, especially the Starry Night scene, which gave glimpses of the disturbed genius of the great artist. More importantly, the story was a great study on depression (with the invisible Krafayis a metaphor for it) and how it can destroy a man. This made the final scenes extremely moving, but was also a very bold move for pre-watershed, family TV. That the BBC then mentioned the existence of Headroom shows that the Beebs takes these issues seriously. For the first time, well, ever, Doctor Who was educational on matters that may concern the present lives of many (yes, Doctor Who has been educational on History a fair few times in the past, it has also served as political satire, but never in such a close way).
Vincent and the Doctor is reason enough to justify the show's existence, but is so special it cannot be used as a benchmark for the quality of other episodes.

And rightly so. You wouldn't want it as a series finale. You want epic. And this season has delivered, bringing every monster the Doctor has ever encountered together and more to trap the Doctor into the Pandorica. And then a second part completely different but putting so many timestreams together that three viewings are necessary to start to understand it fully. The Moff has provided us with an intellectually satisfying finale, but one that does not wrap everything up. And a fez.
So bring on series fnarg+1!

Saturday 12 June 2010

Eurovision 2010

Three weeks ago, Oslo hosted the Eurovision. What an amazing night that was, especially with the addition of Doctor Who just before it.
After years of rather poor performances, this year's contest actually sported a fair few good performances. England once again came last, and once more this position was well deserved; the difference is that this year the competition was serious.
My favourite for the night was Cyprus's entry, with a rather traditional-for-Eurovision cheesy love song, which surprisingly only came 21st. It featured mostly Welsh people, which can be surprising at first but ties in well with the ideals of Eurovision.

My second favourite (and one my friend Ollie is mad about) is Tom Dice's Me and my guitar, Belgium's entry. Quite soothing, less flamboyant than the brilliant Moldava entry (I want this violin to feature in a Rev concert!)
Then come Russia, Azerbaijan and France, all in their particular style, all very good entries. France's entry is a particular beast. It would seem that it won over England's public (even though it only got two points off the UK), at least judging from the texts that scrolled under the screens whilst we were waiting for the votes. It is very particular in that its lyrics are bordering on indecency ("I feel your thing rising"), yet those bits did not get translated by BBC Red Button. So some of my purest friends are still singing along to it, oblivious to its meaning.

Despite great entries and perhaps less political voting than in previous years (though there was still some political voting), and regardless of the number of times we Revvers were able to make the key change conducting sign, the best bit of the Eurovision was outside the contest itself. It was the coming together of millions of people across Europe, throwing Eurovision parties and having lots of fun together. That feeling of togetherness was expressed strongly in the flashmob dance, which blew me away when I saw it. That must have been thousands of people coming together across a whole continent and maybe more.

Coming together and sharing the excitement of togethernesss is the message that was sent by this Eurovision contest - rather than playing to your differences, play to your similarities and just have fun. What more brilliant message could you have expected?

Friday 7 May 2010

A VicTory?

(with thanks to Steve for the awful pun)
Britain woke up with a hungover. The LibDem celebration is over - rather than winning seats as was expected, they lost five (with some constituencies still to be declared). This is in spite of getting more votes in than in 2005.
Independently of the results and of the debatability of the current first-past-the-post voting system, which I will explore later, this election was a complete shambles - something which was not expected over the past few weeks of hard campaining in which I saw more students be enthusiastic about British politics than ever before. Admittedly, it was nothing compared to the Obamamania from last year, but on-campus campaigning was still impressive in its size (if not in its quality, with really poor attempts from Labour).
People got excited about these elections. Election parties were happening in many places - the BBC News magazine had even come up with an election party pack, and I'm sure there were election drinking games in many houses. After all, people are allowed to vote drunk.
And then news came from around the country of people who weren't allowed to vote. With a relatively good turnout of 65.1% (four points up from 2005) considering how many "safe seats" there were, this leads me to a double reaction: one of joy at the fact that the British want to have a say in the governance of their country, but also one of despair at the lack of preparedness of several polling stations.
As the official time drew to a close, reports came in of people still queuing to vote and not being allowed to do so in some constituencies but allowed to do so in others. Such incidents happened in at least seven cities, with possibly the worst example in Sheffield Hallam, where students were asked to queue in a separate (second-rate?) line from residents. Seemingly, the best course of action would have been to shut people in and allow them to vote. This is because exit polls could have influenced voters. Now whilst this seems sensible at first glance, what's to stop people from looking for such exit polls on their mobile phones? There is no difference between people queuing outside the polling station and people queuing inside it. The blame here is, I believe, to put on all of us for desperately wanting the news fast. Those exit polls are not even that interesting - they just get us uncertain information quicker. The law should be changed, as has been mentioned, to allow people who are queuing to vote and to prevent any exit polls from being published until everyone has voted.
In answer to those who say that people should've queued earlier: if people drive by at regular intervals to always find a queue, it is possible that if they had queued from the start they could've voted but the fact of the matter is that the polling stations had probably been running at full capacity for the entire time there was a queue. There would have been disappointments regardless.
Other incidents were reported throughout the country, including postal vote difficulties in Yorkshire, overseas voters found they could not vote, Liverpool ran out of ballot papers, a constituency mistakenly used last year's electoral roll, preventing some young voters from casting their ballot.
These incidents, more than anything else, are what make these elections a complete shambles. Yes, an inquiry is going to be led. Somehow, this reminds me very much of Yes, Minister and is very British in the way that it notices a problem, takes it into its stride, but ends up doing more of the same - which is a lovely approach, but in this case slightly annoying.

On top of that, the results and the voting system of first-past-the-post mean that (with some results still to arrive), LibDems needed 120,567 votes per seat, whilst Labour and the Tories respectively needed 33,239 and 35,073. This is probably due to tactical voting and a split of the Labour/LibDem vote. There are, in my opinion, two possible solutions to this (and they are not totally incompatible):

  • Single Transferable Vote (STV) sees people ranking their candidates of choice. The main advantage of this is that it near-enough removes the possibility of "tactical vote" and gives people the chance to say who they really want to be heard. It is better than the French system of two rounds in that it does not set the arbitrary number of two (and thus removes the 2002 malarchy). Whilst under this system, it is still possible to have constituency-skewing, it would be much harder to see it (as vote percentage would be odd to guess anyway).
  • Proportional vote would remove the ridiculous discrepancy in voters-per-seat. It is fairer inasmuch as decisions made in Parliament these days are not generally directly relevant to individual constituencies. MPs now are only relevant to their constituency in that they are the first port of call for people who want to complain to their MP, and such actions are generally held nationally. The result of such a voting system would be: fairer representation on the national scale, limited local relevance, increased chances of a hung parliament (small parties, including the BNP, would get a fair few seats). It would also stop the national sport of redefining constituencies to increase one's party's chances of getting through.

At the end of the day, though, and under the current system, this election has no winner. The Conservatives fall short of an overall majority (even with the support of the Unionists), Labour lose many seats and need a multipartite coalition with the LibDems and the Celtic parties to have a chance at an overall majority, the LibDems performed well under what had been expected.
What next, then? Who will go and see the Queen to become the new PM? Chances are, it will be David Cameron. If he manages to form a coalition with the LibDems, then he will have a comfortable majority - however, his party will still be in minority and I give his government between 6 months and a year. If, unexpectedly, the LibDems decide to go for a Lib-Lab alliance, they will be in a much weaker position than what was hoped for. There is little chance of them ever getting Nick Clegg into 10 Downing Street, and the PM will probably be Labour. However, chances are that he won't be Gordon Brown - my money would go on David Milliband. Even though, as a Doctor Who aficionado, it would be very cool to see a Harriet reach Number 10! Such a government, however, would not last 6 months. Finally, if the Commons can't agree on a new PM, then Gordon Brown would remain at the helm of the country but the Queen would probably have to call another election.
Whatever the outcome, it looks like there will be another election soon. Hopefully, it won't be as poorly organised as this one.

Doctor Who - series thirty-one so far

So the Doctor's been back for six weeks now and yet he hasn't graced this blog yet. Apologies, the truth is I've been very busy. So busy in fact I haven't had a chance to watch any of the first four episodes of the new season live. As usual, if you don't like spoilers, avert your eyes now and just know this - that the new Doctor is brilliant.
Anyhoo. New series, new Doctor, new feel, new everything. It feels, from the first three episodes, that Steven Moffat wanted to redesign the show entirely: there's new opening credits (and I love them!), a new Tardis (we've not seen much of the interior to judge), new Daleks, new Doctor too, new tone... Some of those changes feel superfluous. Moffat had promised that there would be explanations behind the changes, that it wasn't simply change for the sake of it. However, it feels as though, in both instances, the plot was worked around the change rather than the other way around. I don't miss the old Tardis, I liked the old Daleks better (what's with their front?). I guess you can't please everyone.
In terms of plot, this season has yet to deliver to the level of awesome that the Moff had treated us to in previous years. The running theme is far from being as subtle as "Bad Wolf": rather, it is hammered at the end of each episode. The gay agenda from the RTD years has been cheekily changed to the Scottish agenda, and it's fun to think about it. Production values are down from previous years (especially the CGI feels cheap) but this is only to be expected with budget cuts.
The cheapness is one of the elements that give the show its new feel. Doctor Who is now very much more the stuff of dreams, nightmares and fairy tales. The monsters aren't very well defined, which gives them an extra edge - the exception being, of course, the Daleks. This appears both in the plot (what are the Smilers exactly?) and in the look of the monsters.
It all, oddly enough, comes together at the same time darker, grittier and child-like. These contradictions seem to be a running theme for the New New Who (judging from three episodes), which plays with our expectations throughout. In episode one, Amy's profession comes as a surprise but the element of surprise is worked into the plot (a door you don't see, etc.). In the second episode, which is wonderfully bonkers, the Doctor's prevented from misbehaving by his companion. While this was already touched upon in Fires of Pompeii, The Beast Below is different. In the former, Donna encouraged the Doctor to do something extra; in the latter, the Doctor nearly did something very un-Doctorey and was saved from it by Amy. In the third episode, you get Daleks serving you tea followed by Power Daleks. Finally, the Angels two-parter also brings changes and surprises: the crack in the wall, which was expected to be the season arc, is picked up on and explained in episode 5, but will probably still play a role up to episode 7 at least. The Angels have evolved, River Song is very surprising - but the biggest shake-up comes in the final 5 minutes of the episode. While some will argue that the companion-fancying-the-doctor theme is hardly new, there is a directness and openness to it (with innuendo included) that makes it probably the most surprising moment of the new series.
Working against expectations and fears too, is Matt Smith. He does not emulate David Tennant and has made the Doctor his role from episode one. I expected to be won over by him at some point during the series, like I was won over by Tennant by The Satan Pit, but I certainly did not expect this to happen so soon. Matt Smith's Doctor is a combination of all existing Doctors to date - yes, there's even some trace of Colin Baker in him - with some added edge. He is superior and we feel he is and he knows he is, but it is not in-your-face. Rather, he's a friendly Doctor like a mix of Troughton and Davison (something Tennant was doing in an OTT way), with the darkness from both McCoy and Eccleston.
Matt Smith alone makes Doctor Who worth watching - it is every time an explosion of skill. I never felt that strongly that I could watch an episode of Doctor Who regardless of the plot because it would display an actor's talents, I now do.
The 2010 season is definitely shaping up to be one of the best ever, with The Beast Below an instant classic and all the other episodes following closely in its wake.

Friday 5 February 2010

The End of an Era, part two

This review has been a bit long in the making. I could pretend that I was busy (actually I was), but then I found time to watch this single episodes more than three times since its original broadcast.
I was wrong.
The review of the first part of The End of Time suggested lazy direction, messy script-writing only saved by David Tennant's awesome acting and Murray Gold's music. Whilst it still remains true that Euros Lynn's directing was more clichéd than usual (especially when shooting the Christmas lights out of focus), we had never seen him do Christmas before and it is a way of putting the Christmas spirit into an episode which distinctly lacks snow. In addition, his usual slanted-camera shots were still there but they were inserted more subtly.
Much more importantly, the madness of the Master takes on its full potential in the second part. More than the comic relief brought in by the idea of John Simm in a dress, the ease with which he uses his 6bn incarnations (who said there was a 13 limit?) sends chills down the watcher's spine. He is mad - mad enough to think he can pull off a pact with Rassilon.
Oh, wasn't that scene iconic? Yes, as a fan, I squeed when I saw the High Council of Gallifrey (or the Panopticon?), when the scenes of the Lungbarrow era were expanded on and when I saw Rassilon in a less positive light than presented in The Five Doctors and Lungbarrow. I squeed a bit less when I saw Gallifrey in the Sol 3 sky, because I thought planets appearing in the sky has been a bit overused recently. But despite all the fangasms provided by the episode, THE scene from that episode is the one that sees David Tennant wave a gun at the Master and at Rassilon.
Because it encapsulates so many things: the Master's madness and desire to go forward, the importance of values for the Doctor (despite holding a gun, he does not fire it at anyone) - but also because it allows the Doctor's character to go further than ever before. The Time Lords can no longer be seen as a holy race (which had been the case since 2005) but as a menace. The Doctor can no longer yearn to find more of his people. Is this the end of the post-Time War trauma and the lonely angel whatnots? Is this the start of a clean slate for Steven Moffatt? In addition, will the Master become a free agent no longer bent on evil but on vengeance against the Time Lords, or who will be able to associate with the Doctor?
For those reasons, it needed great acting and even better directing. Luckily, it got both, so that the end of the Time Lords was as momentous as it deserved to be. But the good writing does not stop with the Time Lords. Russel T Davies got us used to seeing proper endings for main characters. David Tennant got a massive dose of that - he got his reward. Through that, we got to see old companions in a 20 years later kind of way; but more importantly, it showed that the Doctor cared about his companions. About all of them, with no exception. That's why we also see Verity Newman towards the end, or Alonso. They were minor characters, but not to the Doctor. So well done for an excellent piece of writing, even though it may have alienated casual viewers.
It raises many issues though: to what extent is Human Nature pivotal in Doctor Who history? It is hard not to spot the similarities between the cafe scene from part one, the regeneration scene and the last words of John Smith. Some new man goes sauntering away indeed. Will the 11th Doctor feel guilt not over the sacrifice he had to make, but about his cowardice which was expressed just then? We can only hope so. Because if he does, that will mean more action, more inconsidered risks for the Doctor. And that sounds very good.
Like in all momentous finales of RTD's, in the End of Time, the plot itself is just a pretext. It is not central to the story - the characters are more important. So who cares if the Doctor falls from higher up than Tom Baker did when his regeneration was triggered? Who cares if holding back a regeneration is something that seems weird at first (though it is assumed in fan circles it happened when Three became Four)? Some people do, but they miss the strength of RTD's writing: to bring out the most in all characters.
The End of Time is thus a worthy end to the best of the 10 Doctors. 10/10

Saturday 26 December 2009

The End of an Era Pt. 1

Disappointing? Yes, but then, considering the amount of hype there had been around it, there was no way The End of Time Part 1 was not going to be a bit of a let-down.
As ever, RTD wants to make his finales big. Friggin' big. With explosions and stuff. Flying Daleks, Cybermen AND Daleks, the Master as Lord of the Earth, Davros and the end of the Universe in a worse-than-Logopolis way... and now what? Now (spoiler ahead) the Master... well, six billion Masters who are even madder and more powerful with Jedi tricks than in Series three. Ahem.
Still, they work because through them, the characters get involved. Rose's shebang at the end of Series one allowed for the Doctor's sacrifice. Then there were the tear-jerking last few minutes of Series two (emphasised quite well by Murray Gold's music), then the epic-ness of a madman and the sorrow of the Doctor (along with the evolution of Martha) and finally at the end of Series four, the saddest ending ever seen for a companion.
So despite the bonkersness of the plot itself (especially its first twenty minutes or so), The End of Time could still be good; especially given the reveal at the end of Part one. Even though it didn't come as a complete surprise (we see part of the costume halfway through the episode) it is still a pretty big one and fanwanky moment. Its heavy reliance on show mythology is quite surprising for a Christmas episode meant to attract more casual viewers.
Similarly, Series three's penultimate episode was quite a let-down because the setting up of the plot seemed both a bit rushed and forced and made The Sound of Drums be little more than the sum of its parts. It would seem as though this is a constant for RTD's Master: a contrived, suspension-of-belief-stretching plot which allows for fantastic scenes. For RTD's Master is quite frankly awesome and well-written - even more in this episode than in the previous ones. A shame his resurrection destroys the emotional height of his downfall back in Series three. Still, now the set-up is over, we should have a lot of awesomeness on New Year's Day!
The plot can ergo be excused. By the second part. Possibly. But the more surprising bit is the sloppy direction that this episode suffers from. Euros Lyn, who very skilfully (nay, masterfully even) delivered Torchwood: Children of Earth seems to have been simply lazy this time. Oh, we can still recognise his touch (slanted camera in a certain type of shots for instance) but there's no feel to this, no consistency. The actors seem to slot into cliched roles. Even John Simm's only a copy of Gollum at the start, albeit a very good one. Production values are down a tiny notch too, which could be worrying considering Tracie Simpson is to deal with Series five too.
Still, it's not all bad. The format of this episode looks like it is made up of two separate parts, with a cut around 30 minutes in, which could herald a return to the old format. This could be good news for Series five. The main cast is awesome, with Cribbins, Simm and Tennant in top form (especially that scene in the cafe) and the music is up to its usual standards. Not too much to rejoice over, but hey.
When the much-hyped Christmas special is such a letdown compared to The Waters of Mars, it shows one of two things: either the November special was so awesome and played on epicness on such a level that anything that followed could not be as good. Or it really is a poor episode, which would be a shame for Tennant's swansong. Hopefully, the second part will make up for the shortcomings of the first one.
Predicted AI (for a 10.0m audience): 86.

Sunday 6 December 2009

Stripping "teacher" reprimanded

BBC News report that a teacher who stripped in front of his classroom in order to regain control of it (that definitely is a new technique...) got reprimanded. Other minor incidents are reported in the article.
Beyond the amusing oddness of this story are two much more interesting points, which the BBC fails to analyse.

  • A video of the teacher's exploits was reportedly posted on YouTube. Don't try to find it - typing "stripping teacher" in its search engine will presumably yield professional videos. The existence of such a video suggests that a student was filming it (either that or the even more shocking presence of cctv in the classroom). This is an indication that the teacher was struggling to maintain control over his class. I have had a student in my class once trying to take pictures; it did not go well for her in the end.
  • The teacher was only reprimanded when resorting to such techniques denotes a lack of expertise (if not worse). Reading on, we find that he was actually sent to the school by a supply teacher agency. This is one major problem in England's education system: there are barely any requirements to be a supply teacher. It is enough to have a blank criminal record. You may even be asked to cover for a French lesson when you don't speak the language. This is the truly shocking element in the news report, yet it is a situation that seems generally accepted. Worse, France seems to be heading in a similar direction.

No, you don't need discipline specialists to teach - but a minimal amount of knowledge seems indicated. In any case, a complete lack of checks and balances seems harmful, as the story illustrates.

Sunday 29 November 2009

You don't say...

Sometimes the tautologies that come out of politicians' mouths... (from BBC News)

Thursday 26 November 2009

No Who until Christmas

It is a sad fact - today was the last broadcast of original televised Doctor Who until David Tennant's swansong at Christmas. With The Sarah Jane Adventures finishing their slightly disappointing third series last week, there is not even a little spin-off to slight our appetite.
But whilst Easter's offering was quite poor, even for the action romp it was supposed to be, both the November special and Dreamland were quite amazing. Starting with the doubtlessly canonical episode, The Waters of Mars, there is little doubt that aficionados will have been left with their mouth gaping open after the oh-so-unusual ending. A warning here - spoilers begin!
The November special was billed as the scariest Who yet. In many respects that is true, even though it is scary in an unconventional way: here it's not the monsters that make the situation gritty. It is the Doctor. For the first time ever in the 46-year-old history of the show, the Doctor just is wrong with no excuses for it. Yes, in The Twin Dilemma, we had glimpses of an unlikeable Doctor, but that was down to post-regenerative trauma and directed against one person who had alienated quite a bit of the audience anyway. The death of Katarina in The Dalek's Masterplan can also be considered as wrong, but this is not a point the show dwells on.
Because of that, The Waters of Mars is a point of no-return in the show. Much like fan favourite The Caves of Androzani showed a weak Doctor who died for the wrong reasons and did not save the day (and thus, as was argued in Doctor Who Magazine, was a point of no-return in the show), there is no way for the Doctor now to keep the moral high ground. Short of an epic Trial of a Time Lord-like story or another long hiatus, the Doctor will have to live with his guilt - and we don't want any of that.
The only workable solution is a different trial, and for the Doctor to have to pay for his crime against time. A possibility is that, still in God-mode, the Doctor un-timelocks the Time War and brings the rest of the Time Lords back. The ungrateful bunch then sentence him to exile and force a regeneration... hang on, that sounds familiar!
Still, like at the start of the Third Doctor's reign, this or any other punishment would mean a full reboot (and explain the new-style TARDIS) - a new era for Steven Moffatt. It very much looks as though 2010 Who will be nothing like 2005 Who. So enjoy the few episodes that are left while you can![1]

And you could start with Dreamland. The latest gap-year special offering (after an awesome Torchwood plus audio extras, a guest appearance in the Sarah Jane Adventures, ...) is an animated adventure of a companionless Doctor meant to be set after The Waters of Mars (though it could be set right before and it wouldn't make much difference except in the meaning of a specific line, which refers to the latest special rather than to Genesis of the Daleks now). The story, written by Phil Ford, is everything Doctor Who has been about in the Pertwee years: a fun plot with scary aliens and meddling but good-hearted military... Except that it's done with Tennant's style and is now action-packed in a much better way than Planet of the Spiders part 3.
The animation itself is very disappointing, especially considering the recent relative successes of The Infinite Quest and The Invasion. Yes, the backdrops look magnificent and some scenes are breathtaking - but the characters just don't work. They walk as if they were in a video game environment, the lipsync is not up to scratch and they look quite angular. It makes you wonder whether that story would not have been better suited to an audio adventure or a comic book story (the concept art looks awesome!)
Still, the 6-episode, 7-minute format works really well for that story. Much better than the splitting up did for The Infinite Quest and the voice actors are really really good. The music is its usual Murray Gold gold, especially considering it didn't sound like there was any new theme.
Dreamland works really well. It just doesn't fit well after The Waters of Mars because it lacks its gritty edge.


[1] And I haven't even talked about the sterling performances and great production values, with a very-on-form Graeme Harper - because the end of the story is the star of this episode which has frankly barely any default!

Saturday 31 October 2009

Stargate: Universe

Stargate Universe After 6 episodes of the Stargate franchise's new series, one thing is clear. It is nothing like the previous two shows! Darker, grittier, more "adult" in a way, Stargate: Universe also has a very different format. Yes, the Stargate is still there to explore new planets; yes, just like in Atlantis, there is a wealth of Ancient technology handy to discover. But Atlantis and SG-1 were about exploration, the discovery of new things (whether in the galaxy or in the City) and about fending off a newfound enemy (Goa'uld, Wraith, Replicators, Ori). In both cases, there also was an established command structure which, even when challenged, seemed safe in its ground.

So far, Stargate: Universe goes against all these principles. There is a wealth of technology but it is used as little as possible. Survival, not curiosity, drives the people onboard the Destiny. Exploration of planets is, because of the show's format, useless: twelve hours later, any contacts found on the planet would be lost. That is, unless Rush and Ely find a way around the twelve hour thingy. And most importantly, whilst Young is technically in command, his condition in the first three-parter weakens his position and leaders are only begrudgingly obeyed throughout the six episodes. Rush is an equally strong figurehead, which throws off the balance of the chain of command.
Finally, Universe does relationship full throttle. Where Carter/O'Neill and Sheppard/Weir romances were little more than suggested, Scott goes at it on screen. It is an obvious attempt at making the show more adult, in the same way that Torchwood was the adult Doctor Who. Sadly, at the moment, it is gratuitous but fortunately it is not the only thing that makes Universe a grown-ups' show.
The radical difference between Universe and its sister series is both the show's strength and its weakness. As it comes to Syfy when there is no sign of any new season for either SG-1 or Atlantis, fans are looking for a replacement, which Universe fails to provide. Yet the show needed a clean slate: if either of the other shows had still been running, the temptation to cross over might have been too big, whereas the premise of Universe is that they are cut off from home, with no hope of returning there (not even a mention of an equivalent to Atlantis's ZPM).
This dramatic change allows for bold new moves in terms of story-telling and direction. Universe steps out of well-trodden paths, which means anything can happen. When the main characters get in deadly danger, it becomes, simply, believable that they will die. As for the photography, hand-held shaky cameras seem to be in, which is consistent with the unstable position of the crew. So it's fine for now, even though slightly annoying - but it cannot go on forever.
Because there's only so many times that you can run out of a vital resource aboard a ship and need to find a way to replenish it (so far accomplished once by the ship alone and twice by going to a planet miraculously nearby): air (3 episodes), power (2 episodes) and now water (1 episode), what's next? Food? Ammunition? Medicine? Fortunately, judging from the next episodes' titles, it looks as though this section is over. Which brings us to one last point:
Universe is told differently. It is not a mesh of individual stories that intertwine one way or another (like SG-1 or Atlantis), it is not one big story with various storylines told together (like Babylon 5): it looks like it is a coherent whole with successive acts. In that respect, and in many others, it follows the lead of the new Battlestar Galactica. A shame it cannot boast as strong characters.
Let us hope it will keep on being different in that it does not feature any enemy but the enemy inside. This truly is the strength of Universe and what will keep me watching for at least a little while.