Francis’s news feed

This combines together some blogs which I like to read. It’s updated once a week.

October 13, 2018

“A Single Death Is A Tragedy…” Saudi Edition by Ian Welsh

“A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic. — Joseph Stalin”

So, one man, Jamal Khashoggi, gets tortured and killed, but he happens to be a man elites know and like, and suddenly…

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia is engaged in a genocide in Yemen.

Of course, the US has been aiding that genocide…

It’s not that Kashoggi’s death isn’t a crime, but that any number of nameless people can be killed, raped and tortured and elites don’t care. It’s only when it’s one of them that they care.

Normal people are nothing, less than nothing to our elites.

But they take care of their own.


The results of the work I do, like this article, are free, but food isn’t, so if you value my work, please DONATE or SUBSCRIBE.


The Closing of the Saudi Elite by Ian Welsh

You may have heard that Saudi columnist Jamal Khashoggi recently went to the Saudi embassy in Istanbul and hasn’t been seen since. The Turkish government claims that he was killed, cut into pieces and those pieces were smuggled out of the country.

The BBC has published a short, off the record interview with Jamil Khashoggi, which is worth listening to.

According to Jamil the internal environment of fear is much more than it has been in the past. People are arrested for what they say, for example, in a private dinner party: people who aren’t even dissidents, they may criticize privately, but not publicly.

He also mentions an economist who was arrested who was close to the royal family.

The result is an environment of fear: Khashoggi said that he didn’t expect to be able to go back to Saudi Arabia. It is also, and this tracks with everything else we’ve seen, an environment where only one man is making all the decisions: the Crown Prince.

Disagree with him, even in private, and you risk arrest, and possibly much worse.

Mohammad Bin Salman wants, it is clear, to be a dictator. He wishes to be the only center of power in the country. This was clear when he did his sweeping hotel arrests last year, which included important officials and even family members. The richer members are reputed to have had to pay ransom to leave. others are said to have been tortured to death.

Of course, such accounts have not been corroborated, but I find them credible.

So Khashoggi, in this clip, complains that every couple of months there is an announcement of a multi-billion dollar project and it’s never been discussed by anyone except the Crown Prince.

One man rule.

I don’t have a mandate for Saudi Arabia. It wasn’t run well before this, in my opinion (sitting on that much oil meant it didn’t have to be), but the actions Bin Salman is taking, quite irrespective of his despotism, don’t appear to be very smart. He’s selling off income producing crown-jewel state organizations; he failed to bring Qatar to heel with his siege and pushed it into the Turkish and Iranian camps and his Yememi war is a bleeding ulcer and terrible war crime which has accomplished little to nothing.

The Saudis know there is a transition off oil coming, and they’re trying to deal with it, and frankly, Bin Salman appears to be fumbling it. He is even less competent than the people who came before him, but wants all the power.

I said some time back that I expected Saudi Arabia to  collapse within 15 to 20 years. I see no reason to change that forecast.


The results of the work I do, like this article, are free, but food isn’t, so if you value my work, please DONATE or SUBSCRIBE.


Red Lines by Ian Welsh

One of the most important ethical practices is to know where your red lines are.

What won’t you do? What won’t you accept or let go?

If you don’t think about this in advance you risk doing abominable things and then realizing you have gone too far.

This is true in personal life, and it’s true in political life.

Two simple personal lines I have are that I won’t rape, I won’t torture, and I don’t approve of those who do.

Those don’t seem, to me, to be lines that should be all that controversial, but if often seems like they are. A lot of people, especially, are willing to excuse torture, and a lot of people rape.

Heck, a lot of people excuse rape. I recently saw a picture of the “Proud Boys” wearing shirts proclaiming that Pinochet did nothing wrong. Pinochet had dogs trained to rape women.

If you support Pinochet, you’re unutterable scum. No exceptions.

One of the simple rules for living in a good world is taking certain actions off the board. There are some things, which if you do, you lose the right to call yourself a good person, or the right to the good will and opinion of other people.

In geopolitics, aggressive war, like Iraq or Libya or the current Saudi attack in Yemen, mark a country as beyond the pale, because war always includes a myriad of evils, and should be engaged in only, truly, as a last resort.

If you violate hard red lines you morally destroy yourself, and it’s a hard thing to come back from. Part of it is the human need to justify ourselves: if we do something bad, we like to pretend it wasn’t “so bad.” Part of it is that we normalize whatever we do.

Doing evil, to put it poetically, stains our souls, and getting them clean again isn’t easy. Most people never really manage it, not if they’ve done true evil.

Then there is the issue of hypocrisy. When our people do it, somehow it isn’t as bad as when their people do this.

I see this with a lot of the opposition to Trump. Oh, Trump’s evil. He was always clearly evil, as when he endorsed torture. But Obama engaged in the Libyan war, which, of course, led to mass rapes, murder, torture and open air slave markets.

The same people screaming about Trump’s evils, which are certainly real, somehow said little about Obama’s evils.

Because Obama was their guy.

Nor, of course, is it only Democratic partisans who are hypocrites this way.

We all have our tribes: the groups and beliefs and symbols we identify with. And when they do evil, well, somehow we just don’t find the outrage we find for our enemy’s evils.

Trump may yet cause a war. He’s sure trying with Iran. If he does, he’ll wind up worse than Obama, odds are (since a war with Iran will do even more harm than the Libyan war). But he hasn’t yet.

Domestically, of course, he’s been worse, and is due criticism. But absent an aggressive war, well…

Be careful who and what you justify. Think about your own red lines. Do it for your soul, and do it so the actions of your tribe; your country, don’t cost you your soul.


The results of the work I do, like this article, are free, but food isn’t, so if you value my work, please DONATE or SUBSCRIBE.


Open Thread by Ian Welsh

Please comment here if you wish to make comments unrelated to recent posts. Kavanaugh conversation should go here, in particular.

I’m also noting an up-tick in ad-homs and nastiness in comments. Tone it down please.


How to follow BepiColombo's launch by The Planetary Society

I’m thrilled to be anticipating the beginning of a new mission to Mercury. Here's a timeline for BepiColombo's planned launch on 20 October (19 October in the U.S.).


Space station crew safe after failed launch by The Planetary Society

About two minutes after liftoff, the Soyuz vehicle carrying NASA astronaut Nick Hague and Russian cosmonaut Alexey Ovchinin to orbit failed.


My 18-Month Affair With Titan by The Planetary Society

Ian Regan, producer of the Titan segment of In Saturn's Rings, describes the meticulous process of creating the stunning visuals of this shrouded moon.


MAVEN, in orbit around Mars, snaps anniversary selfie by The Planetary Society

The spacecraft used its ultraviolet spectrograph imager for the job, and one frame shows Mars in the background.


October 10, 2018

The 231163 Diaries: Alfred Kazin. by Feeling Listless



Politics Alfred Kazin was an American writer and literary critic, many of whose writings depicted the immigrant experience in early twentieth century America [source]. Whilst this entry doesn't directly depict events which happened on the 23rd November, the words are a prophecy of the future effect Kennedy's assassination would have on history.

November 22, 1963

Kennedy was shot around noon in Dallas this afternoon and died about an hour later.  The fact is, when have concluded all self-pitying thoughts about the in-consequence of the might when they have fallen, that the dead do have a very great power over us - that the last cry of the dying, though it is certainly not carried with any action, reverberates in out mind as a continuing effect .... Because we die, when all is said and done we live in consciousness on this side of life and not the other, Kennedy's tragedy will have a larger effect on our lives than his administration.  The final destructive blow taken against him and his silent subjection takes on continuing implications that his own actions did not.  His somehow pitiful fate has become a major event in our lives.

Publically, his appearance was always light, ironic, witty in resource and charming.  His fate is in its consequence incalculably heavy.  He is a perfect example of the prodigal son - all that substance lost and wasted!  We thought (because he tried to seem so) that America could be without the business of the Damocles Sword descending upon us - which is tragedy or fate (the tragedy being that we cannot resist its weight).  In the end all the wealth, charm, easiness, youth, came to very little [very little in proportion to the ends expected of such advantages].  The tragedy is the Irish immigrant hope that enough money and [illegible] would turn life into a "success," that the inevitable terms of life's bargain would somehow be changed.

[Source: KAZIN, Alfred.  2011.  Alfred Kazin's Journals.  Yale University Press.]


October 09, 2018

Doctor Who's Honest Trailers. by Feeling Listless

TV Sunday night's episode seems to have been an unqualified success. Overnight ratings in the UK were 8.2m with a 40 odd percent share which is huge (although as my Mum pointed out there was sod all on the other channels). Next week, ITV's running The Chase opposite which is incredibly bad faith treatment of Bradley Walsh, his two key shows running opposite each other albeit in different genres.  Reviews for the most part have been ecstatic from what I've read, although I'd be equally interested to see what people who didn't like it thought, what didn't work for them (assuming its not just man-baby screed about SJWs and gender box ticking).

Anyway, in the past couple of hours Screen Junkies have produced Honest Trailers for the classic and new series which are surprisingly light touch, cover some of the ground us fans know already but have a couple of decent jokes each. The classic series version necessarily has a few more of the old cliches in but does at least acknowledge the existence of Big Finish. But the nuWho edition just makes me want to go watch it all again. There's just something about this dopey old show which isn't anything like anything else on television still. This is a show which could not be pitched from scratch now. Yet here it is still getting huge ratings.







October 07, 2018

The Woman Who Fell To Earth. by Feeling Listless



TV Deep breath. You know the trailer with Jodie Whittaker in various states of either surprise, anxiety, mouth open, sometimes clutching her head due to what we now know to be post regenerative jitters? That would be me too right now. That was astonishing. Simply astonishing. Yes, I’m prone to superlatives and all too often that something is good or rubbish. By any measure that was a fantastic hour of television and one of the best introductions to a new epoch of Doctor Who, ranking alongside Spearhead from Space, Storm Warning, Rose and The Eleventh Doctor in terms of taking something old and making it new again.

But the problem with being a fan in these circumstances with over half a century of mythology rattling around in your brain is that to experience all of that, all of the changes, all of the tiny decisions in tweaking the format also means I’ve become the human embodiment of the cover of the best fake edition in the For Dummies series. It’s not just that I need help to even, I need at least a further ten chapters on how to literally even. Adele’s popping along in the background as she so often is in situations like this and I don’t know where to begin to even start to talk about the bigness of The Woman Who Fell To Earth (and don’t just mean the post credits casting reveal of Big).

Right, structure. I need a structure. First principles. Opening observations. Doctor. Storytelling. Friends. Enemies. Other random nonsense. That should do. I really did need this tonight. My anxiety’s on the down-low lately which I’m attributing to completely cutting caffeine from my diet included the few milligrams still extant in “decaffeinated” coffee and tea and just stick with rooibos. This that has been a rough week out there for those of us who want to think the best of people and continue to be reminded that many of them are awful. The combination of the two has been confusing so thank you to this silly old franchise for blasting through.

Let’s begin, four paragraphs in, with an apology. When it was announced that Torchwood’s Chris Chibnall would be assuming control, this blog’s writer can’t be said to have offered his best support, quoting Heston in Planet of the Apes at the title of the post and mentioning his weak episodes of Life on Mars. Despite some grudging conciliatory notes at the end if that January 2016 blog post (the announcement was a long time ago), I nevertheless have to stand corrected. This was the best script Chibnall's written for anything Doctor Who related, probably because unlike his previous work, it's the franchise in his image rather than having to walk lock step in the trenches of other show runners.

From the opening shot, Ryan's vlog, this feels about twenty years on in conceptual terms from the close of the Capaldi era. This is a world of YouTube and Twitter, where grandparents Skype and technology in general is advanced enough that the Doctor can build her own sonic screwdriver and vortex manipulator from bits lying around in a garage. Choosing Sheffield as the opening location (albeit with sections shot in Cardiff still) increases a sense of verisimilitude, because for all the housing estates in the RTD era, there was often a sense that we were watching “reality”, whereas this felt like a real place, pissed Sheffielder chucking the salad from his kebab at an alien included.

The dialogue too sees a shift away from the “screw ball” patter of recent years, in which, however funny it was often, meant everything had the edge of a sitcom (unsurprising given the writer). This was more of a piece with a down to earth drama serial, as though characters from Casualty or Corrie have wandered into a Doctor Who story. No “Jericho Street Junior School under 7s gymnastic team” or pretty much anything Bill would have said last year (or whenever it was). They're just different approaches. This is still a significant paradigm shift. Droll rather than slapstick, nothing feels forced and notably no one is being chippy for the sake of it.

The key exception to this is the Doctor, who from the first time she pops in on the rail carriage just moments before we all quote along to the preview clip which we watching a couple of hundred times, probably legally because we all waited, is the Doctor even if she doesn't quite know it yet. In his recent piece for the New Statesman, friend of the blog James Cooray Smith notices that the first episode of each incarnation “Doctors" first stories essentially fall into two categories, in which they're essentially burning bright from their opening moments or spend much of the episode still cooking. Robot's an example of the former, Castrovalva the latter.

The Woman Who Fell To Earth is right down the middle. No zero rooms or Tyler bedroom for the thirteenth. She's apparently survived the fall at the close of Twice Upon A Time (thanks to still being in the regenerative cycle) (probably) and already on the case, chasing an alien despite not quite knowing what her name is. She's conceptually aware of enough of the change that she knows she's still not quite complete, echoing previous speeches about not really knowing who she is yet. That allows CC to introduce the audience to the Doctor and who the Doctor is, while still keeping with the old notion of needing to have a nap at some point in order to expel some pent up artron energy.

Everything is brand new. For the first time since Rose, nothing is held over from the previous Doctor or production team, no sense that we have to even know that anything before this has existed. Previously the show always felt the need to keep its viewers on side. Ben and Polly in The Power of the Daleks. Sylv turning up for the TV Movie. The Eleventh Hour was written to reflect the RTD era's interest in global catastrophes whilst absorbing Moffat's whimsy. Whatever in the fuck was happening in The Twine Dillemina or Time and the Rani. The Eleventh Doctor upstaging his successor. There's none of that here. For some, this is the first ever episode.

Meanwhile, Jodie fucking Whitaker. If all you've seen of this actress are her more downbeat roles, the notion of her playing the Doctor probably seemed a bit mad. I sort of knew it would be fine. In something like Adult Life Skills, the kind of blazing eccentricity the role needed is on full display and in this character she's finally able to demonstrate that side of her personality. If the pre-show interviews have demonstrated anything it is that this is her default mode in real life, with all the no shits given approach we've loved of most previous actors in the role. Tom. Peter D. Nothing in her previous career suggests she's been working up towards this, yet it's perfect casting.

Although at this point she's still trying to feel her way around how to work the dialogue, in places presenting some slightly dotty exclamation point acting and a Matt Smith like tendency towards unusual line readings, she's just, sigh. You could devote several long essays on her face, as it stretches hither and thither, every thought dancing across there like a Gallifreyan Phil Cool, a face which launched a thousand gifs. Finger up her nose, excited about a spoon, realising that she's going to have to Harold Lloyd it between two cranes. Smiling with goggles on has to be the new Twelfth Doctor dancehandsing.

By the end, and I wonder if they were shot at different times, she's completely settled in and its oddly in these closing moments when she's consoling Graham and watching Ryan attempting to fight his dyspraxia in order to cycle, that we can see her range and that she feels at her most Doctorish and relatable, the benevolent alien who hasn't quite been around this past few years. You simply can't imagine this Doctor perpetrating the kind of cruelty we've seen on some occasions recently. When she apologises to her friends for having to see a body, we can see that this is going to be an empathic Time Lord who thinks the best of people. Hello you. We've missed you.

For all that, CC is still closely guarding exactly what kind of show this is going to be for the next nine weeks. Storywise, this is pretty simplistic stuff, even by the standards of previous introductions closer to a Sarah Jane adventure or Class. The Doctor often works best, is best defined when she has an antagonist to laugh in the face of and Tim Shaw fitted the bill with his dental dimples (quite the trigger for me that) and reason to force everyone to run about Sheffield trying to gather exactly what his M.O. is (essentially the Hirogen from Star Trek's Voyager with a singular fetish).

It's also about the companions, or friends as they are now and always have been. Crowded TARDISes haven't always worked. In narrative terms it means you have to find something for all these characters to do in each episode leaving less room for interesting guest cast. There's the third wheel syndrome as an extra character or two are introduced into an already existing relationship and distracting from the reason we're listening to these McGann audios in the first place and why do you have to even be there with your unspellable name and deeply uninteresting back story? Some cuts are deep ...

None of that here. They're all [RTD] marvellous [/RTD]. They're also entirely capable of holding their own and work as autonomous beings without the Doctor being in their life, or defined by each other, much like Ian and Barbara all those years ago. I'll talk some about them in future weeks (call it my version of withholding the opening titles) and I'm trying to fill the gaps were story arc speculation should be. For now, Ryan and Yasmin will bring out of the youthfulness of the Doctor and Graham, now that he's a widower (oh Grace) the couple of billion years of life that hidden beneath that young face.

All of this way in and I haven't even mentioned the production design and whatnot. The party circular's preview of this episode immediately went into a deep dive about aspect ratios and it's true, this is a very "cinematic" version of the series which is saying something considering how gorgeous it looked circa 2010. It'll take me a few watches to really appreciate the shot choices and so forth. It's noticeable just how often the photography takes advantage of digital camera capabilities to keep both a background and foreground object in sharp focus so that everything feels hyper real without it ever exhibiting a soap opera effect.

But it's getting late, almost the eleventh hour and I'm getting tired. A proper journalist would probably put all of this to one side and come back to it with fresh eyes in the morning. Since I'm nothing of the sort and I know there'll be at least three people wondering if I'm even going to write about this series, I should probably work towards some kind of resolution to this ramshackle collection of opinions which would probably work better as one of those YouTube video essays in which someone with a deep mid-Atlantic accent intones edits comparing shots from this and The Christmas Invasion.

Did Grace need to die? Don't know. Of anything in the episode it was the one moment which seems forced and feels like its going to be returned to at some point. But its noticeable that the script makes it very clear that it is her bravery that leads her to that moment, a behaviour she exhibits throughout the episode, a source of inspiration rather than the fridging it might have been if it had been less well handled overall. The funeral scene is unprecedented, the show confronting death and the effects in a way that's not quite been dealt with before in the same way. Bradley's is brainstorming good in his eulogy, also extinguishing any doubts as to his casting.

What I love most about the episode is that it is identifiable, inclusive and inspirational. The trappings of the Doctor are most often the result of alien technology which looks like magic, the sonic popping out of the TARDIS console, the clothes from an infinite wardrobe. This Doctor's prop has Sheffield steel running through and her costume is an ensemble thrown together in a charity shop. That means a city can now mention its key industry in relation to this silly programme and people will potentially be rummaging through charity shops trying to recreate the costume (even knowing that won't be its real origin). Perhaps there's a new thread of cosplay in which people turn up in Doctorish clothes they found in Oxfam.

More than that, it wears its diversity on its sleeve and doesn't make a big thing of it. The Doctor only mentions a couple of times that she's a woman, it's not really important for her even if it's a huge moment in reality. Other than that, these are just people and although Yasmin's the first Asian companion, at least on screen, it isn't her primary reason for existing. We'll see how this pans out in future stories, and the Rosa Parks episodes is sure to be charged. Honestly the only reason I've considered these things is because I felt the need to write this paragraph.

Representation matters. For too long people who don't look like me have only had people who look like me to identify with on television. Now we have a mad female Doctor, who's a resourceful mechanic, super smart, fallible and kind. Dyspraxia sufferers now have someone to identify with and don't disregard the effect of seeing an emotionally complex young black man on screen. NuWho has worked towards this moment in increments across the years. Finally, when it's part of the show's DNA, that it isn't trying to make up for past decisions and simply being.

Which is presumably also the message of the post credits roll call, to show that these decisions aren't simply lip service, that they run throughout the entire length of the series. Plus to reveal that some of the male cast of The Good Wife are appearing. We knew about Alan Cumming thanks to his blabber mouth, but Chris Noth apparently playing the Chris Noth character Chris Noth always plays? Is Julie Hesmondhalgh playing an older version of this Doctor? What would this tribute to the future cast of this series have looked like in previous years? Imagine An Unearthly Child ending with close-ups of Alan Wheatley, Mark Eden, Francis De Wolf, Margot Van der Burgh and Ronald Pickup.

Anyway, it's three and a half hours since broadcast and I'm still on a high. This dopey old fairy tale is back and I'm helpless to its charms and I'm glancing at my stockpile of novels and Big Finish audios with renewed interest. Unless the next nine episodes are utter rubbish, Doctor Who's done it again, renewed itself, refuelled and kept the engine running for at least another couple of series. Can we please keep to some kind of proper production schedule this time and actually have a new series for a few years running?  Even if it is on a Sunday?


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Updated using Planet on 13 October 2018, 04:48 AM