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Goodbye LiveJournal

Okay, the time has come. Having received an inordinate number of spam comments over the last few days, I've decided to no longer update this LiveJournal account. Geeks Shall Inherit The Earth will continue over at Wordpress - http://matthewhyde.wordpress.com . Please feel free to follow me there!

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Hay-on-Wye, Town of Books


If you want a data haven, Sealand is the micro nation you need to go to; if you want a Segway, then go to North Dumpling Island. If you want books, however, then Hay-on-Wye is the destination of choice.

Hay was declared a micro nation by the self-proclaimed King of Hay, Richard Booth, in 1977. It was something of a publicity stunt that helped put Hay on the map. Previously a struggling market town, Booth's dedication to the place has turned it into a Mecca for book retailers, with over 30 second hand bookstores operating within the town and its outskirts.

(Booth was, however, beheaded in effigy and Hay declared a commonwealth in 2009. Other booksellers felt that Booth had neglected his duty in drumming up publicity for the town. I think I might have seen the head earlier today actually.)

The story of Hay touches on several niche subjects and social concerns; micro nations, for instance, or library closures.

That last one's a bit of a topical issue, what with libraries across the UK under threat from the Government's austerity measures. It also raises the question of what happens to all the books. Earlier this week, when in Worcester, we visited a store run by an environmental charity that gave away books for free; in Hay's case, the books traveled from further afield. Apparently, in response to a wave of library closures in the US, Booth took a group of Hay locals to America to bring back redundant stock.

This could be a lifeline for collections threatened by public spending cuts, with the concept of the 'booktown' providing an escape route for books that would otherwise end up as landfill. I feel happier knowing there's a sanctuary for quirky titles, titles like this:


This is particularly important at the moment. Browsing Hay's bookstores, you can't help but notice the petitions, protests against plans to build a giant supermarket in the area. This feels like a crime - unusual, out of print volumes threatened by Fifty Shades of Grey goo, the continuing homogenising of Britain's towns.

That said, all those books have a permanence to them, and when that's such a part of the landscape it's no surprise if you develop a problem with ebooks. Hay is a monument to the physicality of the printed word, a place where Terry Pratchett's concept of libraries bending the fabric of time and space could almost be true. If I ever have to rebuild civilisation, I'm heading to the nearest booktown when the batteries on my Kindle run out.

In the end, we didn't buy that many books during our time in Hay-on-Wye. For me though something more important happened; I was inspired to keep blogging, to keep telling stories, to keep making sure I try to put the stuff I learn out there, into a public space. After all, that's what all those writers represented on the shelves of Hay wanted to do, and now they sit there, happy, given a second lease of life by the spiritual home of all Britain's bibliophiles.

PS. Should have mentioned this originally, but Hay-on-Wye is twinned with Timbuktu in Mali. during its golden age the city was a centre of Islamic scholarship but now, facing desertification and poverty, it's facing a desperate struggle to save its ancient historical documents from extremists. Another wrinkle on the preservation of knowledge.

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So Helen and I are doing a road trip around the Midlands for our honeymoon and today's stop was Stratford-Upon-Avon. This is a town that can claim to be the birthplace of English culture, with Shakespearean echoes around every culture. So obviously, with me being an English Literature graduate, the things that struck me most were trees.

Specific trees actually. It's said that the mulberry tree in Shakespeare's garden was grown from a cutting taken from the gardens of the king himself, and that it was cut down by a subsequent owner who got sick of gawping tourists (he later did the same to the house itself). So far, so innocuous.

Then we ate mulberries at the house of Shakespeare's daughter and wondered what the deal was with these trees cropping up everywhere. After all, it's not like mulberries are that common in the UK.

I thought there might be a family story behind this, or some literary connection. Turns out the presence of these trees was far more political.

James I ruled England at a time when the world was changing. He was the first monarch over the United Kingdom, presided over the colonisation of the Americas, translated the Bible and faced the Gunpowder Plot. He was involved in the patronage of the arts and the hunting of witches.

So James is working in a period of transition, a liminal era when the modern world is starting to form but hasn't quite arrived. It's a time of doing new things. France, Britain's big rival, is in a similar place, innovating new ways of boosting its silk industry. James decides that he wants a piece of the action and, in 1609, decrees that people should start growing mulberry trees, because mulberry trees attract silk worms. It's a way of competing internationally, and so people, including Shakespeare, start growing black mulberries.

Unfortunately, silkworms only like white mulberries. The plan failed.

(Although the UK silk industry got a boost a few decades later when France started persecuting the Huguenots, resulting in a mass exodus of silk makers to London.)

So in a way, those trees of Shakespeare's are emblematic of the age, a time when people were fumbling their way towards a new way of looking at the world, making mistakes, getting things wrong, but ultimately heading in the right direction. We went from a room in which medicine was all based around imbalances in the four humours to a garden in which the central tree was meant to usher in a new industry. The modern and the ancient, superstition and rationality, all rubbing shoulders at the dawn of a new world.

Not bad for a tree.

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They say that 'your' Doctor is the one you watched when you were twelve, old enough to be a fan and young enough to not be cynical. I'm not sure if this is exactly my story, as I came to Doctor Who through the books, but it's true to say that Sylvester McCoy is 'my' Doctor.

This is ironic, because Sylvester's era seemed almost deliberately designed to not be particularly new-viewer-friendly. The show was falling out of favour at the BBC and so the McCoy years weren't blessed with intensive advertising or Radio Times covers. The show was moved from Saturday nights into a kamikaze head-to-head battle with Coronation Street, and so the era was perhaps the moment that Doctor Who became a genuine niche interest rather than something aiming for the mainstream.

Now, the reason I came to Doctor Who through the books rather than the TV show itself was that I visited my grandmothers on Saturdays and had no control over what was seen on television. Therefore, when Doctor Who shifted to a midweek transmission, I was probably one of the few viewers they actually gained, with me watching Sylvester's debut on a battered portable television in my bedroom.

Sylvester McCoy and Sophie Aldred (who played Ace) deserved better than that. Their era was one that started redressing production issues that had been made recently, moving away from continuity porn and sequels to episodes made twenty years ago and towards a darker, more imaginative universe.

This is evident in the persona of the Seventh Doctor. Although the Sixth is often thought of as the 'difficult' Doctor, the Seventh is an altogether scarier prospect, one that will burn down your world in a single night if it'll serve the greater good, one that will help you become the person you could be but not without inflicting a far amount of emotional agony along the way.

This is the strange thing about the relationship between the Doctor and Ace. He's recast as an almost mythic figure, facing off against ancient gods in a twisted circus, playing chess against cosmic evil and winning through a tricks terms gambit. He's teamed up with a working class girl from London with mummy issues and a lack of direction.

In a way it's similar to the template used in 2005's reboot, but while Christopher Eccleston's Doctor was a broken survivor, Sylvester's Doctor was at the height of his powers, delivering what could have been seen, at the time, as conclusive victories against the Big Two monsters of Doctor Who's history. This Doctor wasn't messing around.

We see this most clearly at the climax of 'The Curse of Fenric', where Ace's faith in the Doctor is preventing the villain's defeat. The only way to win is for the Doctor to emotionally destroy her... And he does.

It's a stand-out moment for the era, because we already know that the Doctor can be a ruthless manipulator, and that Ace has a world of her own issues to face. It turns out that the Doctor was lying to her, that his dismissal of his friend was all a lie, but there's enough suspicion cast to make us ask the difficult question - what if he wasn't lying?

It's an elephant in the room, and it almost seems like it's a character flaw crying out for a resolution it never received, on TV at least. And maybe we don't want it to happen, because while he can be a nasty piece of work, the Seventh Doctor is also incredibly liveable and oddly human. He hates burnt toast and bus stations - don't we all?

I also like the fact that the McCoy era includes the first mention of Elvis in Doctor Who. It's almost an accidental mission statement for the programme, drawing on new influences like graphic novels and jazz, rather than complacently being influenced simply by the grand history of the longest running TV show in the world.

The show was suddenly growing up again, realising that there's a bigger world out there. In that sense, it's probably appropriate that Ace's growth from a frustrated, damaged teenager to a confident young woman is the key character arc of the final seasons of the classic series. There's a moment in 'Survival' when it appears that the Doctor is dead and Ace holds his umbrella and wears his hat. She's ready to take over from him, or at least try, and in a story that's all about her growing maturity, sexual and otherwise, it's an important moment.

And so maybe it's significant that this era was when I joined the show proper, when I made a transition in my fandom. It's an era of growth and change, one that ironically saw the TV series cancelled but that also saw it evolve into books, comics and CDs. It was the seeds planted in the Sylvester/Sophie years that enabled the 2005 relaunch to stand a fighting chance, with writers cutting their professional teeth on the New Adventures books and building on themes that would later emerge in the new series.

Back when I was young, it felt like the Seventh Doctor era was an ending. Instead it turned out to be a glorious transformation.

Happy birthday, Sylvester and Sophie.

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So I'm up to four geocaches now and I've officially got the bug.

Not that I haven't encountered rookie issues. My first cache was in a car park, which lulled me into a false sense of security. My second was probably more typical - I found myself on a piece of public land that was nevertheless inhabited by horses. This, of course, meant I not only had a couple of inquisitive equines nosing around, I also had to navigate big piles of poo. That was about as much fun as you'd expect, but it didn't obscure the sense of achievement when I found the cache.

That leads me to the first bit of advice I feel qualified to give - if you're going to take a photo, make sure it actually works. Now I'm in the OCD position of really wanting to go back and get photographic evidence I found it. On the other hand, I don't want to trip and fall into manure.


My other two finds were more straight forward, and reminded me of why I enjoy this game. Both of them were hidden in places I've driven past hundreds of times. Now I've been encouraged to get out of the car and walk and it's made a difference to how I see the world. There are hidden treasures lurking near brickworks and memorials to our industrial past, a whole shadow world of hobbyists enchanting familiar landscapes. A cache can be lying behind any oddly shaped tree, be sitting at the foot of any random fence post.

And that's why I already love this hobby.

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Matt's Geocaching Adventures #1

Geocaching is one of those things I vaguely knew existed, like nose flutes or Lithuania. It's effectively a global treasure hunt, making use of GPS and smartphone technology to help players discover 'caches' hidden by other participants. Cool idea but not something I ever thought I'd get involved in.

Well, things change, because this morning I discovered my first geocache.


I'm not sure why I'm suddenly a convert. Maybe it's because I thought all the caches would be hidden in the Grand Canyon, not somewhere I could actually get to. On a whim I downloaded the app anyway after seeing a throwaway reference on a blog somewhere, and I was surprised to see that caches were hidden less than a kilometre from where I was sitting. Suddenly this was looking interesting.

So anyway, this morning I'm on my commute and I have to stop off in Walsall to buy a birthday card. And my phone buzzes, telling me there's a cache nearby. I start walking, following the directions on my phone and, after a bit of searching, there it was. I add my name to the list of those who've gone before me and, as I replace the cache and hope the retail park security guards don't think I'm a terrorist, I realise I have a new hobby.

So, if you see me stumbling through woods or looking furtive in car parks, don't worry. I'm not a deviant.

I'm a hunter!

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Things I See At 5:30am

And so I'm embarking upon a new chapter of my life, and that involves setting out on a commute at 5:30am. This is fine - I like driving at that time, because it's quiet and I can enjoy the journey, and that's not something I often say about driving. But being out and about at that time, and having little to do other than contemplate, listen to podcasts and not crash, I've started to notice things.

Nothing major, nothing scary, don't get me wrong. I'm just talking about the landscape of my commute, like the guy who stands next to a 'diverted traffic' sign every morning. I guess he's waiting for a lift, but he could also be in charge of the sign, being something to do with the roadworks that necessitated the diversion in the first place. He smokes, which is a habit I can't stand, but at the same time I can't blame him - the sun isn't quite up yet, there's an early morning chill in the air and there's nothing much to do when you've only got a big yellow sign for company.

Talking of the weather, the commute is making me more aware of the natural world. I know that sounds strange, what with me being sealed up in a car, but it's true. The sun hits my rear view mirror and I'm dazzled and I realise that duh, I'm travelling from the East Midlands to the West Midlands, so of course the sun is behind me. Theoretically I could navigate by it, if I were brave and if there weren't roadsigns.

Noticing the world around makes me realise something. That liminal time at dawn doesn't belong to humans, not really. Sure we're out there, commuters and dog walkers, but nature seems to react differently. Pigeons peck around the middle of the road, fearless, totally ignoring the cars heading towards them. Traffic at that time is non-existent and that makes pigeons brave. Humans haven't yet used weight of numbers to reclaim their territory from the night.

Then there are the mysteries - who, or what, knocked over all those wheelie bins? Who put that single traffic cone in the middle of the road? Why does mist come and go so quickly as it hangs over fields? What are those radio stations that break into the podcasts I'm listening to? One of them plays a lot of Bhangra, another played a loop of sixties TV themes, but there are never station indents or commercials or the names of presenters. Is there still a flourishing pirate radio scene in the UK? I thought technology would have rendered it obsolete, but maybe not early in the morning, maybe not late at night.

And why did cars pull on to the Tesco car park in threes this morning?

5:30am makes you ask these questions.

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Happy Anniversary, Transformers The Movie

Apparently it's been 26 years since Transformers: The Movie was originally released. This makes me feel very old, but also strangely happy that people are remembering it. Because, frankly, Transformers: The Movie is one of the greatest films ever made.

Okay, I’m biased, of course; I’ve been a Transformers fan since I was a kid. Back in the day you were either into Transformers or GI Joe (Action Force in the UK), and I was definitely the former. Don’t ask me why exactly; I don’t think it was anything more complicated that liking toy cars that turned into robots. Then they brought out dinosaurs that turned into robots!

So I owned Ratchet the ambulance, Bumblebee the Volkswagon Beetle, Metroplex the city complex, and Grimlock the T-rex. And I owned the hottest toy of 1984, Optimus Prime. It’s no wonder I turned out to be a big geek.

A lot of this traces back to the cartoon, which got right what Michael Bay got wrong when he rebooted the franchise a few years ago – it focused on the Transformers and actually bothered to give them personalities; lightly sketched personalities, sure, but enough to make you love the characters: Optimus Prime was the noble leader, Starscream was a screeching schemer, Ironhide was a Texan hothead, the Dinobots were tough-but-dumb. There were human characters in the mix but the Transformers were the main event.

Then, in 1986, came Transformers: The Movie, the first film I went to see without my mom. I probably shouldn’t have, because Transformers: The Movie is traumatic. Let’s not kid ourselves, the cartoon was there to sell toys and, in order to launch a bunch of new toys, well, some of the old characters had to go. The movie saw a bunch of my favourites literally blown to pieces, while Optimus Prime’s crowning moment of awesome is quickly followed by his death. I watched it as a ten-year-old, jaw dropped in horror.

The soundtrack is awesome though.

I guess the Marvel UK Transformers series is also partly responsible for me liking superhero comics; the comics took the concept to new heights, fleshing out the characters and back story and making heroes out of characters who barely featured in the cartoon.

I guess all this is a symptom of my second childhood, and I’m actually okay with that. For all its flaws, the Transformers, in all their iterations, hold a special place in the hearts of a generation. Okay, so maybe that generation is simply made up of nostalgia junkies, but I can live with that.

I guess I feel sorry for kids raised on the Bay movies. I remember going to see Transformers: Dark of the Moon, 90-minute movie that unfortunately lasts for the best part of three hours, much of which doesn’t involve Transformers. In fact, that’s the problem with the whole Michael Bay live action trilogy – it’s not about the Transformers, it’s about robots that turn into cars occasionally while being bossed around by humans, mainly of whom may be CGI. Behind us in the cinema were a group of kids, and they didn’t hide their enthusiasm – they loved it, but I couldn’t help but feel sorry for them. Dark of the Moon was the best they’re going to get, no Dinobots being awesome, no Bumblebee as classic VW Beetle, no Springer saying things like “I’ve got better things to do tonight than die”. Heck, the poor kids had no robots for half the film.

But they enjoyed themselves, and me, I can’t go home again. I love Transformers because they’re a part of my childhood, and while that childhood is far behind me, doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy the memories and the feelings again now that I’m an adult.

Hey, look at that. IDW have put out a Transformers comic today. Guess what I'll be buying?

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On this day in 1999, one if my favourite films was released; here's a repost of my review.


This post contains spoilers!

Today is International Animation Day, and so I thought it would be nice to talk about one of my favourite animated movies. The Iron Giant, released in 1999 and starring Jennifer Aniston, Harry Connick Jr and Vin Diesel, is the story of a lonely child, Hogarth Hughes, who encounters and befriends a giant robot from space. You'd think that would be enough, being an adaptation of Ted Hughes' book The Iron Man, but there's something else that makes the film dear to me. You see, The Iron Giant is the best Superman film ever made.

At one point in the film, Hogarth is showing the Giant a pile of magazines when they come across a comic featuring an evil robot, Atomo. The Giant instinctively relates to the cover - over the course of the film it's revealed that he's a heavily armed war machine - but Hogarth's having none of this - he sees the Giant as being more like another comic book character:

Oh, here. This is Superman. He's a lot like you. Crash-landed on Earth, didn't know what he was doing... but he only uses his powers for good, never for evil. Remember that.

Hogarth's being naive, of course - the military antagonists hunting the Giant probably have a clearer grasp of the situation, as he was obviously sent to Earth on a mission of conquest. Naivety triumphs over expedience though; although the Giant reacts to perceived threats by, well, blowing them up, his relationship with Hogarth helps him to transcend his programming:

DEAN: He's a piece of hardware, Hogarth. Why do you think the army was here? He's a weapon, a big...big gun that walks.

THE GIANT: I... I not gun.

You can't help but have sympathy for the guy - we've got a tendency to categorise each other by what we do for a living, or where we come from. Often that's not meant to be malicious or exclusionary but it creates a straight-jacket all the same, trapping us within the expectations and perceptions of others. There are still jobs in which women are seen as anomalies; when Obama became president, people wanted to see his birth certificate. Prejudice become handcuffs we slap on the dreams and aspirations of other people. Heck, this is more widespread than we'd imagine - how many rock stars were told to get a job in a bank because of the limited career opportunities for musicians?

Anyway, the movie takes its inevitable course; the military are called in and, because the military in these stories are always misguided and foolish, a nuclear missile is launched at the town. This is 1957, the height of the Cold War, and atomic destruction is an ever-present spectre. And yet there is hope, because the Giant has s decision to make:

HOGARTH (IN FLASHBACK): You are who you choose to be.

THE GIANT: Superman.

With that, the Giant flies to intercept the missile, saving the town but being destroyed in the process, and I'll openly admit that I cried. One of the themes of Superman over the years is that it's not really about the powers, it's the heart and soul behind them, and that's always been a powerful idea to me. And so maybe it was the animation, maybe it was the evocation of all those Superman comics I've read over the years, but The Iron Giant hit me in an emotional way that few movies manage.

(And yes, I'm aware that it's a very similar twist to Terminator 2. I found it moving then as well.)

Because maybe we all carry around an element of fear - that we're not good enough, that we'll never really achieve much, that we lack purpose or, worst case scenario, that we're a gun and that's all we'll ever be. It's not true. Grace and change are possible. You don't have to be Atomo; you can be Superman. You just have to make that choice, and act like it's true.

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Triumph Of The Nerds

You want to know why people talk about the triumph of the nerds? It's not because of geek culture becoming mainstream. It's not even because NASA can land a huge robot on Mars. It's because of the joyful-but-slightly uncomfortable hugging in this video.

It's because of passion, dedication, hard work and excitement.

Nerds rule.

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The Olympics Opening Ceremony

Well that was unexpected.

I'll admit it: I'm a bit of a cynic about London 2012, not so much of the Games themselves but because of the pseudo-Orwellian manoeuvring that's being done to protect the 'brand'.

Fortunately that wasn't much in evidence last night. What we got instead, thanks to Danny Boyle, was an insane, surreal and strangely moving portrait of Britain. I went from cynic to believer within 20 minutes.

Part of what made it work so well was the ambiguity. A pastoral idyll is supplanted/wiped out by the forces of technological progress, Isambard Kingdom Brunel effectively presiding over the Scouring of the Shire, 'Jerusalem' acting as both England's unofficial national song and a cry for social reform. The ceremony raised questions, which isn't normal for this sort of thing. Suddenly the whole event became a lot more interesting by focusing on the interplay between communities.

That extended throughout the proceedings, even in the frankly bizarre interlude in which Daniel Craig stands in Buckingham Palace, an elderly woman seated with her back to him. "Haha!" we say, "It's a lookalike of the Queen meeting James Bond!"

Except it wasn't.

It was the actual Queen.

Who later appeared to jump out of a helicopter with a Union Jack parachute.

I swear those five minutes did more for the monarchy than the entirety of the Jubilee celebrations. By participating in - rather than being a bemused spectator of - a pop culture spectacle, the Queen entered into the day-to-day life of the the country somehow, through a conversion between high society and 'low' culture.

But she still managed to remain above things. Other moments seem deliberately pointed at the country's current ruling class. Royalties from Peter Pan have always gone to Great Ormand Street hospital, so it was a piece of genius to celebrate both children's literature and the NHS at the same time. Monsters pursue kids through a hospital at night, but those monsters are defeated by the forces of good, which include the NHS, the concept of providing healthcare on the basis of need rather than ability to pay.

The Government are currently dismantling this concept. The opening ceremony effectively attacked this policy. Like I said, things were getting interesting.

Even the celebration of British music focused mainly on the way in which it has brought communities together - that's why it was part of a narrative that also celebrated social media and multi-ethnic relationships. It's probably worth noting that some of the bands and songs featured here were considered controversial in their day; I suspect that was deliberate too.

I think that's why many of us recognised Britain in the spectacle - sure it covered all the theme park aspects of the country, but they were presented in a dynamic way, conversing and interacting with each other, just as they do in everyday life. And it worked.

So congratulations Danny Boyle. You played a blinder. And rule Britannia!

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20120722-152803.jpg(This post contains spoilers for The Dark Knight Rises. They're fairly vague, but enough to ruin the movie if you haven't seen it.

As a fan of DC Comics, and of Batman, The Dark Knight Rises (TDKR) has perhaps been my most anticipated film of 2012 - while I was looking forward to seeing whether or not Joss Whedon would pull off The Avengers (he did), TDKR was the big one, the one to which I had an emotional, fanboy connection.

Then came the massacre in Aurora, Colorado.

Christopher Nolan's Batverse has often been bruised by real world tragedy - the death of Heath Ledger, Aurora - and that can't help but read backwards into the films themselves. There's a grim irony in Ledger's Joker telling Batman that "You and I will be doing this forever", and when characters in TDKR start firing assault rifles I inwardly winced, even though there's no resemblance between that and Aurora. Maybe these things shouldn't have an impact on the film, but they do.

But if that's the case then maybe there's a positive in it. One of the themes of TDKR is that of protectors - those who'd protect Gotham City and those who'd protect Bruce Wayne himself. The most heart-breaking scene in TDKR is when Alfred destroys his relationship with Bruce in an attempt to save the man he raised from self-destruction. Even Bane, the film's main villain, is ultimately revealed to be the protector of another character. It's moments like this that form the film's emotional heart and a lot of TDKR's humanity comes from when characters act as protectors - heck, it's a superhero film, that's how it should be.

So when we're thinking about the tragedies that have befallen the Nolan films, it's within the context of wider stories. We can remember how Jarell Brooks, who saved a woman and her two children during the Aurora shooting, or Eric Hunter, who prevented the shooter from getting into an adjacent screen. Any debate about how art influences life needs to take into account these stories, not just the screwed-up story of a man who doesn't know what colour the Joker's hair is.

(No, I'm not going to mention the shooter's name. He'll get enough publicity, and if you want a tenuous link to the movie, the revelation of the true names of two characters changes the narrative. Maybe celebrating the names of those who tried to help will do something to shift the way in which we watch the news.)

Life's messy though, with no easy answers, no simplistic solution to debates that have been raging for decades, even centuries. In art we can at least craft a narrative that gives us closure. TDKR is largely about escape - escaping destiny, shackles, prisons of the mind as much as physical spaces like Bane's former jail or the sociological nightmare of Gotham. Giving Bruce Wayne a happy ending could be seen as wishful thinking - a character like that is almost doomed to not find real peace - but it works, because we want the guy to be happy for once, and because, thanks to their serial, ongoing nature, it's never going to happen in the comics, and so we get some closure in the movies instead.

It also works because it's in a trilogy that's loved to fracture communities, Bruce's happy ending extends to those around him, particularly Alfred and Catwoman. It's a moment of healing when we didn't think healing was possible. That's important and significant and true.

I loved The Dark Knight Rises. After all, liberation and hard-won hope are powerful things. There'll be a new cinematic Batman eventually, that's almost inevitable, but that movie will have a tough act to follow. Maybe the filmmakers would do well to look at the true story of the Nolan/Bale movies - they're not about ticking off a list of elements that was found in a DC Comics office somewhere, and they're not about the real world tragedies that accompanied them. They're about Batman and his world and, despite all the fantasy, showing how they're still relevant.

Thank you, Mr. Nolan.

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HSBC, the Olympics and the State of the UK

You know how the last couple of years have exposed a vast amount of corruption and arrogance in the UK's institutions? You know how each new revelation just makes things worse? Well, we all need to put aside our scandal fatigue for a moment, cos tjis one's an absolute doozy:

HSBC works with Mexican drug cartels.

Yes, seriously.

But hey, someone's resigned and they face a big fine, so that's okay then.

The report notes that a US senator said that all the recent financial scandals seem to emanate out of London. It's not surprising - we live in a country where if you screw up multi-million pound government contracts you get rewarded with more multi-million pound government contracts, and where, if you get caught doing something criminal to the world economy, you get to walk away with a massive pay-off rather than, say, going to jail.

Meanwhile, chip shops get criminalised and the disabled get demonised and the public sector gets slashed (even though we're now reliant on the public sector to make up for the failings of the private sector in, for instance, providing security for the Olympics.

There's absolutely nothing inspirational about all this. It's all "I don't recall" and "In hindsight that was wrong" and a network of connections that implicate politicians and CEOs in a giant, accidental conspiracy. They can't even act like the Illuminati without screwing it up.

And yet this defines the story - do something spectacularly wrong and get away with it, with your slap on the wrist being accompanied by a severance package in the millions. It erodes trust and moral leadership, it widens the gulf between rich and poor and it twists our social narrative - why not nick an iPad from PC World?

Because it's wrong. nick an iPad, pay the consequences. But that means if you help a drug cartel - a drug cartel - you need to pay the price for that. If you give tacit support to Mexican drug lords and al Qaeda you're not just talking about "a failure in compliance", you're talking about decapitated journalists and suicide bombings. I hope our leaders remember this when making speeches about the scourge of drugs. When paying tribute to the next British soldier to fall in the line of duty.

It won't happen, of course, because this amoral attitude now seems to be an intrinsic part of life. Even something like the Olympics, which should be about celebrating heroic athletic achievement now seems to be about making as much money as possible. Look at the brand police and the attempts at controlling language and Orwellian websites to help us report copyright infringement among our neighbours. It's why I'm growing to despise the Games and they haven't even started yet; they should be something great and positive but instead they feel like the decline of western civilisation in a tracksuit.

I just want my country back.

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The NHS On The Brink?

For as long as I've been alive, the NHS has been there. It's such a fundamental part of British life that it's near impossible to imagine life without it. Sure, sometimes it wobbles but having free-at-the-point-of-need healthcare is, literally, a lifesaver.

That's why it's difficult for someone of my generation to remember that the NHS hasn't always been here or, more crucially, that it may not always be here in the future.

The NHS is under threat, like other public sector institutions I naively believed to be intrinsic parts of British society, like libraries and the BBC. It's facing creeping privatisation, and yet the outcry is muted - perhaps it's because the NHS has a sense of scale and permanence that political leaders don't. It's that optimism that could cost us dearly.

Anyway, to show why I'm worried, here are a few links, many of them curated by astrophysicist Marcus Chown, who's on something of a Twitter crusade to save the NHS:

How The Coalition Carved Up The NHS, an article from the Independent.

Insurance industry urged to prepare for the end of free NHS primary care.

"People Will Die" - The End Of The NHS (part 1)

"People will die" - The End Of The NHS (part 2)

A letter to Care UK (funny but tragic in its implications).

Save Our NHS Petition.

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Happy 4th of July

This isn’t going to be a Fourth of July post that uses the occasion to attack America. Truth is, I love America. Admittedly I’ve only been there three times, which is enough to decide I like the place but not to have developed any long standing issues with it, like not being able to find a public toilet or free healthcare. And I’m not sure that New York and San Francisco are representative of the country as a whole.

But wait – is anywhere representative of the whole of America? Hawaii and Alaska seem poles apart, as are Hollywood and small town Oklahoma. It always seems slightly strange to me that the country is so polarised between two political parties, as you’d think the sheer size and diversity of the place and its population would have lead to thousands of smaller parties all fighting for radically different constituencies.

From the outside, that could well be a strange sort of strength – a national unity of sorts. Sure, I’m pretty certain that the place is rent with divisions, but there still seems to be a unifying principle behind it all. Certainly American patriotism is worn on the sleeve more than it ever is in Britain, where it’s only really brought to mind by wars, football and annoying newspapers. Sometimes the way American national pride is expressed is flat out offensive (I’m from Britain, for goodness sake, we’re a democracy too and we don’t hate freedom!), but often it’s touching, even inspiring.

But then America is an easy place to be inspired by. If you’re from the US, take a moment to consider that many of you live amid a landscape that can only be described as epic. All those deserts and mountains and beaches and vast cornfields... It’s no wonder Hollywood took off, what with all those locations in which to film.

But most of those landscapes exist within the imagination. Texas belongs to John Wayne movies, California to the Beach Boys. Maine is Stephen King’s, the South is Harper Lee’s, and New Jersey is Springsteen’s. Music and movies have created an imaginative landscape that, to outsiders perhaps, is more America than America. It's a landscape that's big enough to hold a lot a narratives.

And not all of those narratives are fiction - the space race, for instance, and the Civil Rights campaign. Say what you want about American politicans - I do - but it's hard not to have respect for the likes of Neil Armstrong and Martin Luther King, people whose stories contain both the good and the bad of America.

So on the Fourth of July, America gets to celebrate its independence, and thinks a lot about freedom (and, hopefully, the responsibilities of that freedom). And I hope it's a good day; I'm happy to be British and wouldn't trade the BBC or NHS for anything, but I'm glad America is around. Because I also wouldn't want to live in a world without rock and roll and footprints on the moon.

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The Higgs Boson For The Rest Of Us

So, scientists have discovered the Higgs Boson to a 5-Sigma level of uncertainty! Scientists have openly wept and given the announcement standing ovations. It's a great moment for science and for the idea of discovery as a whole, especially given the omnishambles we're used to currently seeing on the news.

But here's the thing: What is the Higgs Boson?

I'm not sure. See, I've got a degree in history and English. I'm proud of that, but it doesn't help you understand the fundamental properties of the universe. Now, if I don't know about something I'll normally give Wikipedia a look, but this is what it said about Higgs:

The Higgs boson is a hypothetical elementary particle predicted by the Standard Model (SM) of particle physics. It belongs to a class of particles known as bosons, characterized by an integer value of their spin quantum number. The Higgs field is a quantum field that fills all of space, and explains why fundamental particles (or elementary particles) such as quarks and electrons have mass. The Higgs boson is an excitation of the Higgs field above its ground state.

Which is fine as it goes, but I'm not sure it helps the layman much. Fortunately, the Guardian gives us the simplified version:

The Higgs Boson explained with sugar and ping-pong balls, which is about my level.

The New Scientist also does a good job of explaining it, although without props.

All of which goes to show the importance of good science journalism that can engage a general as well as a specialist audience. The findings of science belong to the world and we should celebrate those who can communicate difficult concepts in schools, on TV and in the wider public sphere.

So congratulations, and thank you.

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I like being British.

I like Doctor Who and rolling fields and quirky old bookshops. I like the BBC and the NHS.

But this country is currently embroiled in what the internet has christened the omnishambles. Sure, Britain has seen scandal and controversy before, but boy oh boy, this last few months has been the gift that keeps on giving when it comes to the systematic dismantling of public trust in... Well, in anything really. Because frankly, this country is now run by moral invertebrates, so parasitically enmeshed into 'the System' that removing them seems impossible. The next election has never seemed so far away.

I mean, the phone hacking scandal was bad enough in and of itself, but then the Leveson enquiry started uncovering the connections between the media hacks behind this and the Government. And it's all very chummy, all garden parties and supportive text messages between high-ranking politicians and the Murdochistas. Meanwhile hundreds of people have had their phones hacked, and for what? Cheap, unimportant tabloid gossip that the general public lapped up without asking how some of these stories were obtained.

We can vote against some of these people, of course, but then they just get into bed with each other and form a coalition. I never thought voting for the Lib Dems would lead to the sneaking privatisation of the NHS and a rise in student fees. But that's what we're getting.

But hey, we're all in it together, right? We're all in it together as millionaires close our libraries, cut benefits to our most vulnerable, cut a swath through the public services we rely on.

I don't have a problem with millionaires. I have a problem with millionaires saying "we're all in it together" as they progressively turn the screws on people, as they fuel the demonisation of the disabled. Add to this riots, in which communities burned while MPs went on holiday, and the fabric of British society is feeling very fragile and vulnerable indeed. And we fight, like rats in a sack, which bankers threaten to screw the economy again (and make money when they get caught), while the festering sores of things like police corruption (check out the Daniel Morgan case for a truly horrifying example of this) continue to poison the country.

And those responsible are still there, still smug, still displaying a complete lack of contrition or regret over what's happening.

And I have no real idea what we can do about it.

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RIP Lonesome George


And so tragic news has broken - Giant tortoise Lonesome George, last of his subspecies, has died.

I first encountered George's story in Lonesome George: The Life and Loves of the World's Most Famous Tortoise, which is the sad story of how you go about trying to save a species that just doesn't want to reproduce. Looks like the inevitable has finally caught up with the Pinta giant tortoise.

I guess the whole thing raises important questions - how far should conservationists invest limited funds and resources into saving species that, apparently, don't 'want' to be saved? A similar argument is made for giant pandas who, while cute, have to be among the most awkward animals on Earth.

But then, maybe humans should be paying penance - after all, George's ancestors were hunted and eaten to the edge of extinction by our ancestors. It's not like we don't have a bad habit of blundering in and destroying the ecological balance of everywhere we go. A hundred or so years later and it's our fault that the sole surviving member of a particular species is an individual with the sex drive of a brick. It feels like some sort of karmic irony.

I have no conclusions. I'm just sad and apprehensive about what we've done to our world.

Rest in peace George.

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So I realised today that, although I believe in democracy on paper, there aren't any politicians I actually want to vote for at the moment. I realise that may do our MPs a disservice, but even the decent ones seem to spend most of their time publicly castigating other politicians, and thus British politics is stuck in a great big Murdoch funded feedback loop. No-one's articulating a fresh vision of a better world, their just trying to invent ideological time travel to take us back to a time before all those inconvenient moderns initiatives like, say, the welfare state.

And so I started to consider what I'd look for in a government. It wasn't long before this serious political thought experiment became an excuse to fill the House of Commons with fictional characters.

The main rule: characters must be from the country over which you're putting them in charge, or at least have a strong connection to that country. With that in mind, here's my recipe for a better Britain:

Prime Minister: Hugh Grant from Love Actually, because it's always nice to have a West Wing style moment of idealism for the leader of the country.

Chancellor of the Exchequer: Captain Mainwaring from Dad's Army. This may be quite a promotion for a small town bank manager, but the guy would happily die for his country; I think we can trust him to have enough sense of duty to sort out the economy properly.

Home Secretary: Professor McGonagall was second in command of the madhouse that was Hogwarts. Sorting out the UK should be a breeze.

Justice Secretary: DCI Gene Hunt. Too reactionary? Maybe, but if you wanted me to be soft on crime, you shouldn't have conned your way into my nan's house to steal her purse.

Foreign Secretary: Jean-Luc Picard. "But he's French!" protest the Trekkers. Please. He likes Shakespeare, he drinks tea by the gallon and he sounds like Patrick Stewart. He's as French as I am and he's a diplomat backed up by the power of a big-ass spaceship. He gets the job

Defence Secretary: Harry Pearce from Spooks. Badass enough to take on the CIA. Badass enough to win.

Education Secretary: The Doctor. Because he'd make learning fun and teach kids that there's more to education than passing exams - what you do with your knowledge actually matters.

Agriculture Secretary: Mr. Bloom. Obviously.

Heritage Secretary: This post no longer exists but I'm reinventing it as long as Lara Croft takes the job.

Culture Secretary: He can sing, he can dance, he can play multiple instruments. He has access to a variety of interesting tourist spots and he can broaden the definition of sport and games beyond stuff like football and cricket. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Richard from The Crystal Maze.

Business Secretary: What you really need is someone who won't be afraid of people like the Murdochs. Mickey from Hustle would eat them for breakfast.

Health Secretary: I know I've got two characters from the same mythos here but my game, my rules - Dr. Martha Jones from Doctor Who.

So who would you draft to save your country?

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I know this one falls within the category of 'Questions Asked By A Five-Year-Old', but I don't know the answer. I mean, Earth has always been called Earth, right? We take it for granted. Never mind that all the other local planets have dramatic names, names of gods, while our own is named after dirt. Earth is Earth.

I guess you can see why the henchman of Ming the Merciless pronounced it with such disgust.

Sure, our planet has other names, cooler names - Terra, Gaia - but they're not common currency. 'Earth' endures.

The Internet doesn't seem to know the answer, although I admit my searches haven't been exhaustive. I'm told where the word comes from - the Old English for 'ground' or 'dirt' - but that doesn't explain how it got tagged to our planet as a whole. Sites like Yahoo Answers blithely trot this out as an explanation, but with no real details - was Earth first named in a book? A scroll? On a wall somewhere?

I can take a good guess as to the whys - earth is symbolic of life, growth, harvest, Adam created from the dirt, from dust we come and to dust we return. Earth is less a name, more a primal description, one that we lose sight of in our ongoing divorce from the land. But that's still not the full story - why Earth and not 'Water' or 'Forest'? My gut answer is because Earth sounds better, but is that just because we're so used to it? And what was the planet called by people for whom the earth is hostile - those in deserts or arctic wastelands?

On a similar note, 'the earth' is used biblically to distinguish this sphere of creation from heaven and hell. If this at the root of it then it implies Earth was named by someone from the Judaeo-Christian tradition, which is probably true given how the West seems to dominate this sort of thing, but that's still not a definitive answer.

Maybe it's a similar thing to the Moon, an act of possession - it's not the only moon but heck, it's our Moon. But by that logic the Earth should be called the Planet. And it's not, it's called Earth and I don't know why!

Answers in the comments please. Go on. Put me out of my misery...

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Golden Age Supes


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