Reading: Descartes’s First Meditation

What I did on my hols.

I’ve been meaning to write something about my trip to Australia for a while, but goodness, I took a lot of photos. This, however, is one little thing I did for me that I thought I’d share.

Sitting on a beach in Merimbula, Australia, looking out at the Pacific ocean, I read my favourite philosophical passage, in which Descartes begins the destruction of all his opinions, that he might start again from a solid foundation of first principles that cannot be doubted.

He employed his method of doubt, which I wrote about for my MA dissertation*, exploring the idea that it can be read as a form transcendental argument, i.e. he argues that certain fundamental truths can be certainly known because their truth is necessary for one to doubt anything at all, and therefore if one is doubting, the very act of doing so demonstrates their truth.

The First Meditation concerns itself solely with the destruction of Descartes’ uncertainly held opinions. The Second Meditation begins the task of building these up again with Descartes’ most famous argument: I think, therefore I am. Or, more accurately: I doubt, therefore there is something that doubts, and I am at minimum that thing that doubts.

I finish the reading after the dreaming argument, which I take to the be the most powerful argument in Descartes’s arsenal of demolition, and the most beautifully articulated.

I use the John Cottingham translation of Descartes’s Mediations on First Philosophy, which is divine.

I did this for me, but I’m sharing it because everyone should have the chance to hear this iconic text.

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*From the perspective of Janet Broughton’s analysis in her Descartes’s Method of Doubt.

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I have ditched the old Tip Jar. I’m very grateful to everyone who ever donated to this blog that way, but it was kind of a weird system where I had to tell PayPal I’d provided you with a service and… it was just unnecessarily complicated.

But! You can still send your appreciation of this blog with money, should you so like. I’m using this new ‘Ko-fi’ thing that’s all the rage so you can send me a little tip if I did something you liked.

I may or may not buy an actual coffee with the money you send. I might buy hot chocolate. I might buy lunch. The point is that you can tip me a small amount (like the price of a coffee) with very little hassle.

And you remain as unobliged to do any of that as ever. But if you would like to. I am here.

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Review: The Good Place

The Good PlaceI have a new favourite show. It’s both smart and easily digestible, and it’s refreshingly diverse and unproblematic.

It’s called The Good Place, and each episode explicitly explores moral theories in the context of wacky, upbeat sitcom hi-jinks. I never expected that such a show might exist. I AM SO EXCITE.

The Premise

Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) wakes up in the Good Place. She has died, and Michael (the Architect of the Good Place, played by Ted Dansen) introduces her to the afterlife. She’s one of a tiny percentage of people whose good works were so astounding that for them the afterlife will be spent in a neighbourhood perfectly constructed to suit the tastes of the other Very Good People who have managed to get in. This Good Place is not the only Good Place, but it’s the one perfectly suited to them.

It’s paradise! There’s only one problem: Eleanor Shellstrop does not belong. She is not the Eleanor Shellstrop who was a human rights lawyer defending people on death row. She was, in fact, not a particularly nice person. Eleanor was not evil. She committed no serious crimes. But she was petty and selfish and you would not have wanted to be her friend.

Worse: Eleanor’s presence has thrown the Good Place out of balance. Following a neighbourhood welcome party where she got drunk, insulted the host, and ate more than her fair share of the shrimp, the Good Place is beset by chaos. Something is clearly wrong, and Eleanor knows it is her.

Chidi Anagonye

Chidi Anagonye

Worried, she turns to her Soulmate for help (everyone in the Good Place has a Soulmate), Chidi Anagonye (William Jackson Harper). Chidi was a professor of ethics and moral philosophy, and he sets about teaching Eleanor not just to behave well but to be a better person. A person who might belong in the Good Place, thus preventing further choas and potential discovery.

For discovery would mean eternal damnation: being sent to the Bad Place.

Why I like it

The philosophy

The Good Place source material

The Good Place source material

As long-time readers will know, I’m a philosopher. I’m a philosopher of epistemology, metaphysics, and mind, rather than ethics, but I have taught ethics. I have studied and/or taught all of the texts referenced in the show. And when I say referenced, I don’t mean subtly. I don’t mean implied or in passing. I mean Chidi literally teaches Eleanor these texts and we see the books and they are quoted from.

They hit a lot of the classics you do at A level or as a first year undergraduate: Aristotle, Kant’s Goundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, Hume, John Stuart Mill’s Utilitarianism, Phillipa Foot’s Trolley Problem. As a utilitarian, I get kinda narked by the fact that they only discuss the easily dismissed act utilitarianism, rather than the more robust rule utilitarianism Mill prescribes in On Liberty, and I have no idea why they seem to think Scanlon’s contractualism is All That (it is not). I’d also like to see more female philosophers, and was glad to see they worked Phillipa Foot’s seminal text in for the season 2. But as a brief introduction to some of the key theories in ethics, it’s not bad.

And I suppose that’s the thing. They pack an awful lot of clear explanation into 20min episodes of easily digestible lighthearted situation comedy about the afterlife. That’s an achievement, and not something I have ever seen attempted anywhere else. This show has guts, and it’s paying off.

The diversity

While it must be conceded that the main character, Eleanor, is white, and all the promos are off-puttingly white, focusing on the two white characters from the main cast, this is actually one of the most diverse casts I have ever seen on telly. As well as Chidi, the main cast also includes Tahani (Jameela Jamil), who is South Asian, and Jianyu/Jason (Manny Jacinto), who is East Asian.

Not to mention a supporting cast that is not only racially diverse, but diverse in body type. While it’s hard to deny that all of the main cast are all beautiful people in a reasonably standard Hollywood fashion, the people of the Good Place are by no means all super-skinny Hollywood starlets, and this is never seen as a bad thing. There is one instance where Eleanor comments on someone’s weight, and Chidi immediately calls her out for it. After all, it is implied, good people don’t judge people based on their weight.

We also see an equal number of men and women, and I’m fucking CHEERING for a female lead, jumping all over sexist dingbats who think women aren’t funny.

Moreover, we see diverse sexuality. Eleanor is openly and unabashedly bisexual – a sadly rare thing for a main character. She frequently comments on Tahani’s attractiveness, and it’s made clear that she has sexual interest, this isn’t just about jealousy or recognising another woman’s beauty. Recurring character, Gunnar, appears to have a male Soulmate, and in Season 2 Michael confirms that not all Soulmates are sexual partners – affirming that asexual and platonic love are also valid. I would like to see more in this vain. Except for a brief hint in Season 2, we never really see Eleanor and Tahani in a relationship (though that hint indicates that Tahani is also probably bi), so all the main character relationships thus far are male/female*. But overall the representation is positive.

I also like that the representation avoids stereotypes. Tahani is unambiguously and frequently described and treated as more beautiful than the white woman, Eleanor. An important fact in a world where skin bleaching is still routine as paler skin is eroneously treated as a beauty ideal. Chidi is the intellectual who cannot make decisions and abhors violence, eschewing the stereotyping of black men as thugs. And Jianyu/Jason’s character is the epitome of stereotype breaking. This is a minor spoiler, but I can’t discuss it otherwise and it’s great. The character is originally introduced to us as very stereotypical: the East Asian guy is the wise Jianyu, a monk who has taken a vow of silence. But Jianyu reveals to Eleanor in the third episode that he also doesn’t belong. He isn’t Jianyu, he’s Jason Mandoza, a stoner failed DJ from Florida. We are directly confronted with racial assumptions and have them shown to be false – a fact that Jason even gets to explicitly comment on: “Everyone here seems to think that I’m Taiwanese; I’m Filipino. That’s racist.” Particular credit goes to Manny Jacinto, who is supremely convincing in both roles, and thoroughly sells Jason as not particularly bright, but thoroughly engaging. It would be very easy to bring his lines straight into ham territory, but Jacinto conveys a genuineness in Jason that’s endearing instead.

Janet (D'Arcy Carden)

Janet (D’Arcy Carden)

My one minor note of uncertainty lies in Janet (D’Arcy Carden), the almost omnipotent AI who runs the Good Place, and whom Jason forms a romance with. I love the idea of human/AI romance, but I am done, done, totally done with dudes getting off with hot AIs that happen to look like hot women. This is lampshaded a little by Eleanor, who (unable to remember Janet’s name) refers to her as “Busty Alexa” and “Robot Slave Lady”. That said, Janet is always dressed like a particularly modest air stewardess, and while I’m kinda annoyed by the ridiculousness of having the avatar of an AI mainframe wear heels, they are at least small heels. Janet is never dressed in a sexually provocative way. Plus, Jason and Janet’s relationship is based solidly on the fact that both have been kind and comforting to each other when others were not.

The comedy

As well as all the intellectually pleasing aspects of The Good Place, it’s just plain FUN. It’s silly, it’s a little surreal, and it’s not offensive. I was sold on this programme the moment Janet played an audio-clip of the Bad Place and admidst the screaming you hear a woman shout: “That bear has two mouths!” Because a bear with one mouth is just not scary enough. And all this mixed in with a genuinely engaging plot and an ensemble cast of deeply charismatic and funny characters.

Safely hand your brain over to The Good Place and be at peace for a while. I can’t recommend it enough. You can find The Good Place on Netflix.

*Ish. As she reminds us frequently, Janet is not a girl.

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Review: The Lizzie Borden Chronicles

Promo image for the Lizzie Borden ChroniclesLizzie Borden took an axe

gave her mother forty whacks;

when she saw what she had done

she gave her father forty-one.

So goes the old folk rhyme, which is slightly mangled in the opening credits of Lifetime’s TV series loosely based on the true story of one Lizzie Borden, who was acquitted of the brutal murder of her father and step-mother, but likely did it. The show misquotes the rhyme as ‘when he saw what she had done/she gave her father forty-one’, which puts Lizzie’s murder of her father more squarely as a reaction to him catching her in the act, as opposed to the more ambiguous motives of the original rhyme.

As is my wont when these historical adaptations arise, I was immediately drawn to investigate the truth. In this case… the truth is uncertain, and has been the subject of many wild speculations, but Lizzie is still the number one suspect. The Wikipedia article contains a good summary of the theories and evidence.

Lizzie Borden had motive – she and her sister had been on very poor terms with her father and step-mother, had recently quarrelled, were in the middle of a property dispute, and stood to inherit a very large sum of money. There’s also speculation that Lizzie was sexually abused by her father, and that she was caught in a tryst with the maid, Bridget Sullivan, although there is little evidence for either. There were rumours that Lizzie was a lesbian, and she seems to have been very close to actor the, Nance O’Neill, who came to live with her in later life, but there is no such connection to Bridget.

Lizzie gave inconsistent testimony, although this may have been influenced by the morphine she was taking to calm her nerves. She was also found destroying a stained dress, and a plausible candidate for the murder weapon was found on her property.

So, in as much as it is very likely that Lizzie Borden killed her parents; was very close to her sister, Emma; plausibly had a relationship with Nance O’Neill; and inherited a lot of money, the series has some basis in fact. But from there the Lizzie Borden Chronicles and the truth part ways. For the most part, I don’t mind.

It is perhaps obvious to say that if you ever wanted a show about Wednesday Addams growing up and brutally murdering people, you’ll enjoy this show. Obvious, but nonetheless true. This thought is undoubtedly behind the apt casting of Christina Ricci, best known for her childhood role as Wednesday, in the role of Lizzie.

In fact, casting for the show is perfection all round. Clea DuVall is exquisite as the tight-lipped, dour, but good-hearted sister, Emma Borden. Cole Hauser pulls off a difficult balance of both charming and deeply dubious in his role as Charlie Siringo, the private investigator and ‘Pinkerton man’ whose investigation of the Borden murders pulls him dangerously under Lizzie’s radar. Genre fans will also enjoy performances from Chris Bauer (True Blood, The Wire), Jonathan Banks (Community), and especially Michelle Fairley (Game of Thrones) as the mobster matriarch, Aideen Trotwood.

The Lizzie Borden Chronicles present a joyfully bloodthirsty and original vision. Whilst it doesn’t attempt to be true to the facts, its basis in them gives the heroine stature. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a character like her. Women simply aren’t allowed to play such unequivocally dangerous and brutal, yet still feminine, roles. When I try to think of others… Dexter‘s Hannah McKay reflects the stereotype of the female poisoner. Sure, she’s feminine, but this only serves to underscore the idea that women can only overpower men by ‘underhand’ or ‘deceptive’ means. At the other end of the scale, Brienne of Tarth from Game of Thrones is a skilled and powerful killer, but she is a knight, killing in the name of justice, and anything but feminine. Strength, brutality, physical threat, these are reserved as masculine characteristics, and they back up the idea of women as fundamentally defenceless; although the truth is that social mores and morality are the chief reasons most of us are not a threat to each other.

We are fleshy, vulnerable animals in our day-to-day lives. Knives, axes, pitch-forks, and the like, can all be wielded with deadly force regardless of whether you are male or female or neither. Historical evidence suggests that the real Lizzie Borden took an axe, gave her step-mother 19 whacks, and when she saw what she had done, she gave her father 11. She was not particularly strong or tall. Just really, really angry.

The fictional Lizzie Borden goes on a killing spree that the real one did not. But it’s no more implausible than Dexter‘s Bay Harbor Butcher, and that’s important. Impressions of strength and physical threat, whether we want them to or not, affect how vulnerable we appear. It matters that we see a normal, feminine woman can be just as dangerous, if not more so, than many men.

I’m not on board with all the deviations from likely historical truth. It’s heavily implied that she killed a bunch of cats – something the real Lizzie Borden, an animal lover, would have been unlikely to do. And, sad to say [spoiler], I wouldn’t get your hopes up for Lizzie growing old with Nance, or Adele, Lizzie’s other  love interest. The trend of lesbians dying on film continues in grim fashion. Not that the fictional Lizzie is a partner I would wish on anyone, but if Dexter can find love and Hannah McKay can end up alive and well in Argentina, there was room for a different choice.

If you’re not aware of what’s wrong with yet more lesbian deaths on television, a Google search can show you dozens of articles on the subject in seconds. The issue came to prominence last year, when fictional lesbian and bisexual women were dropping like aging popstars. The short answer is that lesbian and bisexual women lie at the intersection of mainstream misogyny and homophobia, with a hefty dose of queers die for the straight eye. You’re allowed to admit women who love women exist these days, but only if they die. Bonus points if their deaths make straight men sad and motivate them towards action (aka fridging). It’s no more inevitable that Lizzie Borden should kill her love interests than it was for Dexter, but it was just such an easy choice.

I’m not the first person to say it, but this needs to stop being the go-to for writers. There was a great moment when I thought Nance was going to join Lizzie in a murder-road-tip – this was an option, and one that would have skewed just a little closer to reality. But the writers chose to move away from the real history, where Lizzie’s relationship with Nance drove a wedge between the sisters, in favour of strengthening the sister-bond story. An opportunity lost in favour of heteronormitivity and the tired trope that platonic female relationships are the only kind that provide strength and solace.

That aside, I still think this show is very well made and as much of a romp as a drama about a serial killer can be. Bonus points for some really delightful period costumes. And full love for Mama Stark (Michelle Fairely) reprising her role as a formidable matriarch herding sons who are not her equal.

The Lizzie Borden Chronicles was refreshing and enjoyable – one of the best things I have seen in a long time.

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Back from outer space

Sorry to leave it such a long time with no update. I have half-a-dozen posts I started, but never finished.

Combination of continued ill-health, job-stress, and falling down a fanfiction rabbit-hole. Dragon Age owns me, and I don’t think it’s likely to let go any time soon.

Job stuff is good. I’m looking after the webpages of a large organisation. It’s creative and supports stuff I’m into. It’s also a 10min walk from home. Which is good when you have energy problems. I’ve handed over the stressful part of my job to someone else, and I’m generally feeling positive. The only down side is that it’s a maternity contract and it will finish in Septmeber. BOO.

I’m currently on leave and making use of my hand-me-down netbook to camp out in a bar by the river and get some writing done. It’s meant to be fiction writing – my novel, working title: Courtly Intrigue and Dragons – but I have a review burning a hole in the side of my brain, so you may have new content from me, soon!

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Nine Worlds and me!

I am HERE. I will be here until Monday. Come find me in the bar of SEE ME TO THINGS. Specifically:

Saturday, 6:45pm, ‘”Witness Me!” Recognition and Intersubjectivity in Mad Max: Fury Road’

Sunday, 3:15pm,’Transformative Shakespeare: Fanfiction and Beyond’

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Review: Ghostbusters (2016)

The Ghostbusters team in from of the Ghostbuster's car

I ain’t afraid of no ghost!

Ghostbusters is officially the most fun I have had in the cinema for a very long time. It may not be the cinematic masterpiece that was Fury Road last summer, but it is hilarious from start to finish whilst also delivering on an appropriate amount of genuinely scary ghosts.

I was a real fan of the original Ghostbusters films and I am not generally in favour of remaking great films just to rake in more cash, but ever since the success of the 2004 Battlestar Galactica reboot I have been wholeheartedly in favour of films and TV that take something I loved from my childhood and update it in genuinely interesting ways – specifically, to make it relevant to a new generation and to improve on things that now stand out as problematic in the originals. So when I heard that this was to be an all female Ghostbusters, I was interested. As much as I have great affection for the original films, they were uncomfortably misogynistic. The fact that we are expected to root for Venkman’s (Bill Murray) stalking of and aggressive sexual advances towards Dana Barrett (Sigourny Weaver) – his client – and find Louis Tully’s (Rick Moranis) stalking amusing… this is deeply disturbing to the 2016 eye, and extremely uncomfortable for a female viewer.

Rebooting this classic film franchise in a way women can enjoy without these unpleasant undertones was a stroke of genius.

Against the Backlash

Naturally, the film has attracted a lot of sexist backlash. I won’t dwell on the attention-seeking misogynists who have tried to tank the film before it even came out, they’ve had quite enough attention as it is. But I will say that I’m inclined to agree with @Lumetian on Twitter, that ‘MRA Horror is my new favourite genre‘. Whilst not actually a genre in itself – films like the dramatic cinematic masterpiece, Mad Max: Fury Road, and the science-fiction comedy, Ghostbusters, really have very little to do with one another in terms of genre – the sheer levels of horror exhibited by so-called ‘Men’s Right’s Activists’ at the very existence of these films is turning out to be a very good indication that the film will be a quality piece of entertainment.

As a fan, I was excited for more Ghostbusters; as a woman, I was excited that the wrongs of the past were to be corrected and that I would get to watch a science-fiction/fantasy film where the heroes were all women.

Race and Representation

Which is not to say that I had no reservations – as others have pointed out, it’s a very white cast and whilst the three white women on the team are all scientists, the black woman, Patty Tolan (Leslie Jones) is a working class woman who, from the trailer, was presented as having no professional skills beyond wise-cracking street sense. Note, however, that Leslie Jones herself defended this on Twitter, noting that an MTA (Metropolitan Transportation Authority) worker had contacted her to thank her for representing people who perform this kind of role. Privilege and oppression remain multi-sided, and representing working class people as heroes is also important. The issue comes from the fact that white people are more likely to be represented as professionals and scientists, whereas black people are far more likely to have roles as working class people. Why couldn’t one of the white women have been an MTA worker, after all?

I was pleased to see that the role did have a lot more to it than appeared from the trailer. Patty shows herself to be very knowledgeable about the city, and not simply in a ‘streetwise’ manner, but in actually knowing a lot of historical information that becomes crucial to fighting ghosts and solving the film’s central enigma. This doesn’t completely erase the problematic aspects, and as a white person myself I’m not best placed to comment on whether Patty’s character constitutes ‘good’ representation or not, but overall my feeling is that she’s better than no representation at all and I appreciated that the film promoted a wonderful comedian like Leslie Jones.

It’s worth noting that Leslie was slighted by the fashion world, where designers refused to provide her with gowns for the red carpet simply because she isn’t a ‘sample’ size. After she called this out on Twitter, designer Christian Siriano stepped up to the plate and provided her with a stunning red gown. Without doubt, it is Leslie and Christian who have come out of this looking best, but as a rising star she should never have had to be in this situation. Basically, I mostly just want to raise pom-poms for Leslie right now.

Representation of Men

In the run up to the release there was a lot of noise made about the prospect of supposed ‘reverse sexism’. It’s feminism 101 to point out that sexism is institutional, widespread, and historic – it simply isn’t possible for men to experience ‘reverse’ sexism against their background of massive privilege. Nevertheless, this doesn’t mean that individual men cannot be objectified, misrepresented, or stereotyped in ways that hurt both men and women. Prejudice is never good.

I’ve addressed elsewhere the question of whether Chris Hemsworth‘s character, Kevin, is shown as objectified in the trailer. The answer, by the way, is no. Objectification is the reduction of a person or character to an object: lack of characterisation, focus on body-parts rather than the face or actions of a character, absence of agency or self-directedness, existence purely for the visual pleasure of the viewer and other characters within the media presented. This wasn’t exhibited in the trailer, but there remained the question about how he would be treated in the movie as a whole.

It is worth noting that Kevin is a caricature, but he is not a stereotype. Indeed, I’ve never seen a character like him in film before. Kevin is extremely handsome and not very bright. He is nonetheless very likeable and characterful. He is clearly meant as a counterpoint to stereotypical representations of female receptionists in film and TV – beautiful but unintelligent, an object of attraction – the ‘sexy lamp‘ as characterised by Kelly Sue DeConnick – a character that could be replaced by a sexy lamp with no detriment to the plot. As a send up of this, Kevin is hilarious, and yet Kevin himself is neither a stereotype, nor a sexy lamp.

Kevin cannot be a stereotype because men have never been presented ubiquitously in this manner. Nor is there any evidence that he is intended to present men in general or to be a realistic representation of a man. His characteristics are exaggerated to a pants-wettingly funny extent, and it’s quite clear that the famously handsome Chris Hemsworth (best known for playing the superhero, Thor) is having the time of his life in this role.

Nor could Kevin be replaced by a sexy lamp. Despite his incompetence as a receptionist, Kevin displays an interesting character with a life independent of the women in the film and undertakes agentful action that affects the plot. Kevin is an actor for whom being a receptionist is his day job, he plays competitive hide and seek, he dabbles in graphic design. He is exaggerated, but rounded.

I’ll admit to being a little uncomfortable with how often other characters comment on Kevin’s handsomeness – this is not, it has to be said, something that men say about other men very often. However, I think that’s kind of the point. As a caricature of how women are frequently shown in film, we see how strange and uncomfortable behaviours are that are completely accepted when directed at women.

I was also uncomfortable with Erin Gilbert’s (Kirsten Wiig) attempts at flirting with Kevin in the workplace. However, in stark contrast to Venkman’s sexual advances towards Dana Barrett in the original, Gilbert’s colleagues call her out on her behaviour and no romantic relationship results from her advances. Sexual harassment is not endorsed or normalised by the film, and that is the key.

Beyond the representation of Kevin, there are a whole host of male characters, each with different personalities. Far from the MRA-nightmare of a film that presents all men as Evil, men have individual personalities, mostly neither good nor evil, just different. Yes, the bad guy is a man, but his representation is no different from the representation of bad guys as alienated loners to be found in umpteen million other films in this genre.

Entertainment Value

Overall, this had everything I wanted from a Ghostbusters film. It was extremely funny. Melissa McCarthy as Abby Yates, Kirsten Wiig as Erin Gilbert, Leslie Jones as Patty Tolan, and Kate McKinnon as Jillian Holtzman were all hilarious in very different ways. I’ll admit that early in the film I found there wasn’t enough to differentiate Yates and Holtzman, who seemed to be competing for enthusiastic maverick, but this swiftly changes as Jillian Holtzman becomes one of the most delightful and unique characters I have had the pleasure of seeing in film. She expresses a wild side quite unlike Abby’s and her dual-wielding proton-pistol fight sequence is a real crowning action moment for the film.

But as well as laughs, action, and the social awkwardness we expect of the loveable outsiders the Ghostbusters should be, the film also delivers genuine scares. The ghosts achieve the otherworldliness of the originals surprisingly well, delivering a higher level of imagination and quality than I expect from modern CGI. I’m rarely actually scared by horror, but I jumped several times in response to spooky goings on I didn’t see coming. Right from the opening sequence the ghosts are frightening and visually captivating.

I had the pleasure of seeing this in 3D at the IMAX, and I would say that if you’re able to watch it in 3D (the medium is not suitable for everyone) it’s worth doing so. This is a film that does 3D well.

Cameos

If you still have any concerns that this film is in some way a snub to the originals, lay them to rest. All of the original team who are still with us make an appearance as a part of a series of delightful cameos – look out for Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Annie Potts, and Ernie Hudson, as well as Sigourney Weaver who appears as part of the credits sequence (which you should definitely stay for). Moreover, Dan Aykroyd was an executive producer of the film. This movie is 100% endorsed by the old crew and for me it felt to be very much in the spirit of the originals.

I thoroughly recommend this film for an evening of fun and guaranteed laughs. Treat yourself!

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Review: Fool’s Assassin, by Robin Hobb

Cover art for Foo's Assassin

Cover art for Fool’s Assassin

I’ve been saving this one. It was released whilst I was still completing my PhD, and though I had read all the other Robin Hobb books I could get my hands on as they came out, this one I saved.

As you’ll know, if you’re a regular reader, I was done with my PhD a while ago, but I held back from starting on this almost superstitiously. I had put it on too high a pedestal. I had waited too long. I’d struggled a bit with the later Rain Wilds Chronicles books and was worried Hobb would somehow have lost her touch with Fitz and the Fool, my very favourites.

And I’d simply fallen out of the habit of reading fiction. Or at least, fiction that I had not read before. When you’re ill and depressed and stretched thin for years you only risk your pleasure hours on that which is trusted and easy. I trusted Robin Hobb, mostly, but I wasn’t up for as harrowing a journey as the Soldier Son trilogy. Nor did I want to mar this new series with my depression.

But, emboldened by the fact that my mother has recently started reading the Livership Trader books, I embarked on this new journey.

Fitz and the Fool

I say ‘new’, Fitz and the Fool are hardly new characters, and I wouldn’t recommend that anyone introduce themselves to Robin Hobb with this book. Not because it is bad – far from it! – but because it is so far down the line into the rich world she has created, and one could not possibly feel the full impact of the novel’s events without knowing the story of Fitz and the Fool from their beginning in Assassin’s Apprentice.

Fitz and the Fool is the fifth trilogy set in the world that we are introduced to with Assassin’s Apprentice, the first book in the Farseer trilogy. Although one might read the Farseer Trilogy, The Tawny Man Trilogy, and Fitz and the Fool without the other books set in this world, the rich interconnectedness of world events and cultures is at the heart of these series, and I honestly recommend reading them all.

To stick to just these characters, though, Fitz is the bastard son of Prince Chivalry, who had been crown prince before the revelation of Fitz’s existence caused him to retire to a quiet life with his barren wife, Lady Patience. Fitz, meanwhile, was trained as an assassin – to be a tool for the Farseer crown, instead of a danger to it. Possessed of both the royal magic, the Skill, and the forbidden animal magic, the Wit, Fitz lives a turbulent life, events swirling around the possibilities created by his existence. Having been tortured and beaten to the point of death, Fitz survives and continues to serve his king and country in secret.

The Fool, who had once played the role of fool to King Shrewd, was Fitz’s companion since childhood. He reveals himself to be a White Prophet – one who sees the forks of possible futures and works to nudge the world onto a better path, using his Catalyst. Fitz is the Fool’s Catylist.

In book three of the Tawny Man trilogy, they travel to Aslevjal, the icy island where a dragon lies trapped in ice. It is the Fool’s belief that restoring dragons to the world is vital to shifting it into a better path. Together, they free the slumbering dragon, but not before the Fool is captured by a rival ‘White’ and tortured to death. Using their connection and the skill magic, Fitz brings the Fool back from death, but he can no longer see the future. He has lived beyond any possibility he ever imagined.

In fear that remaining with his Catalyst he might undo all their good work, the Fool leaves Fitz to return to his homeland for answers as to what it means for a White to outlive his prophecies.

Fitz, meanwhile, returned to his childhood sweetheart, Molly, who has believed him dead – beaten to death – all these years, and who had raised his child, Nettle, along with Fitz’s own foster-father, Burrich, who had become her husband. Finally reconciled, when last we saw Fitz, he was living a life of peace with Molly and Patience in Withywoods, the estate his father had retreated to before he was assassinated.

Fool’s Assassin

It is so difficult to discuss this book without spoiling it utterly, for there is so much that I did not see coming and which I would spoil for no one. The tale begins many years on from Fool’s Quest. The Fool has kept his word and never seen Fitz since, but aside from this, he has lived a contented life with Molly at Withywoods, watching her children grow up and avoiding life at court and the dark politics that plagued most of his life.

We begin at Winterfest, which Fitz has always enjoyed. A mysterious stranger comes with a message that she will give only to Fitz. Fitz tells his steward to seat her comfortably in his study and offer her food and accommodation, but says he will talk to her in the morning – he has kept Molly waiting too long already. Meanwhile several minstrels arrive unannounced and are marked as curious – Fitz cannot sense them with his wit sense, but he is distracted from them when Molly is taken ill. As he looks after her, the messenger who waited in his study flees and is killed, her message undelivered.

The incident is strange, but Fitz puts it from his mind when no further answers are found. Molly continues to show signs of age that Fitz does not. A skill-healing many years ago has left his body continually repairing itself. At 50, Fitz lives in the body of a man of 35. Molly does not. True sadness comes to him as, though she had experienced an early menopause, Molly becomes convinced she is pregnant, and it seems increasingly obvious she is losing her mind.

To say more would be to spoil things utterly, but the consequences of Molly’s apparent phantom pregnancy will echo through the rest of the book. Especially when a second messenger arrives at Withywoods years later, with a dire, cryptic message from the Fool…

My Thoughts

Ah… how to discuss this without spoiling everything? I will say that the novel starts a little rocky. Fitz and Molly in domestic bliss never really sat right with me. Of course it was to be longed for, throughout Fitz’s difficult life, but it is hardly the stuff of an epic fantasy saga. The first chapter or so does ring a little uncomfortable in places as Fitz and Molly share married couple banter that doesn’t ring quite true for me. However, the novel soon settles and finds its feet and tone.

It is an unusually structured book. Much of it remains gentle, and yet no less gripping. After a little awkwardness, even the domesticity works for it. Fitz as a family man and a father is truly a pleasure to read. Especially as he so longed for a family and children when he was alone with his wolf those many years. There is one particularly long chapter in the middle which would stand out as a structural faux pas in the hands of anyone but a master. Fortunately, Hobb is that master.

As with Hobb books of old, I found myself staying up deep into the night, and towards the climax even reading until the sun began to rise again. It also made me cry for old pains and childhood struggles and that deep connection I have always felt for Fitz as a character.

Hobb continues to demonstrate her unique mastery of the first-person style of story-telling, embedding us so deeply in one person’s perspective that we are as surprised as they when someone does or says something that shifts their point of view… and yet one can see upon reflection all the hints and tiny events that showed that other characters were going about their own lives thinking things the main character did not expect all along.

I loved this book. When I finished it, I immediately ordered the hardback of the next book and downloaded the Kindle sample to read until the physical book arrived.

The only minor niggles I have are that Fitz’s gender essentialism and  reading of women as soft mother figures – Molly, in particular, remains always something of a fantasy for him; the girl with the red skirts as he had idealised her – is not sufficiently challenged. Whilst Hobb’s works contain many challenges overall, and the genderqueer or non-binary figure of the Fool still means so much to me, it’s depressing to read a book where characters continually affirm that such and such an aspect is particular to women, or particular to men, and not see these comments challenged at all. It renders all the female characters slightly less real, for there is not a one that feels like me.

Despite this, I feel not only that Hobb is back to form, but she has brought me back to reading. I find again that not only do I hurt when Fitz hurts, but I heal when he heals, and that is truly sepcial.

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Apocalypse Allotment No. 4: Today I was the Apocalypse

A garden gate, choked with nettles.

Hi, nettles, hi!

As you can see, I have a problem. A nettle problem. See, the nettles believe that it is time for nature to reclaim a land abandoned by humanity, but, uh, it’s not abandoned yet. This bit of land is mine. I already claimed it. And they are preventing me entering my allotment with ease.

What’s more, they are not my only problem. I have mentioned before my greatest foe, cooch grass, and its lieutenant in evil, dandelions, but here be also thistles and dock leaves and all manner of things I don’t even have names for that want to crowd out my plants and make my allotment, well, less pretty.

Usually I fight these battles with brute strength and a garden fork, but as I have continued to be ill (I don’t have Captain Trips, I swear!) and the year is marching on, I decided to use a tool of darkness in my fight for the light and my right to paaaaarty. I caved. I applied weed killer.

I know.

The weed killer I used was a cheap Sainsbury’s own brand glyphosate. If the apocalypse has already happened where you are, you can loot the expensive big name brand Roundup, but you can get the same thing for several quid cheaper by going off-brand, if human laws are still in effect where you are. If you’re going to do this, here’s what to do:

Using Glyphosate

Firstly, wear gloves. We’re going to be spraying poison on plants and it’s not great for humans either. If you get any on you, wash off with water, but not any water you are planning to put on plants. (Do I need to say don’t swallow it? DON’T SWALLOW IT, IT IS POISON. And, in general, follow the directions on the side.)

Secondly, wait until your weeds have proper-sized leaves. Glyphosate works by entering through the leaves and poisoning down the plant into the roots. It is inert when it hits the soil; so, don’t worry, you’re not salting the Earth – other things will grow there again once the plant demon you are fighting is dead.

Wait, also, for a calm day. You want the weed killer to go only on the plants you want dead, not your precious seedlings or carefully nurtured rhubarb. Wind can carry glyphosate to places other than your intended enemy.

Then spray directly onto the leaves of the plant you want dead.

I… used a lot of the stuff today. I did the nettles that are trying to block off my gate, and all the nettles along my fence – I dug those bastards out the old-fashioned way a few years ago, but nettles are like weaponised cooch grass – they have longer, tougher roots, and these went all the way under the central path that runs between the allotments where I couldn’t reach them. So they came back. The only way to destroy them completely is either to leave nothing behind or poison the roots.

I also sprayed many dandelions, much cooch grass (especially that growing between my paving slabs where I can’t dig it up) and the weeds that had started to grow again on my painstakingly de-weeded paths.

Part of the reason I’m doing this is to make my life easier. It’s all very well to be 100% organic, but it’s not possible for everyone, especially if the apocalypse comes on you at the wrong time of year and you need to clear ground fast. In a survival situation you do what you gotta do.

The other reason is that I want a nice looking allotment, damn it. I’m tired of people looking down their noses at me over the fence *mutters something about ‘come the apocalypse!’* and I want a nice looking plot to cheer me in harsh times. Killing the weeds in my paths is so much easier that trying to dig them out again and again and again.

As a result of using weed killer, today I finally got to put my bark chips down on my paths.

My cleared paths, covered with red bark.

My cleared paths, covered with red bark chips.

I’m quite pleased with how it turned out, although I this used the whole bag I had, so I will clearly need more if I ever manage to clear the other paths.

These paths have been partially lined with weed control fabric – ideally I would fully line them, but in the apocalypse allotment, we make do with what we’ve got – then covered with bark chip.

Interesting aside: if you leave your bag full of bark chips on the ground for a couple of months after you get it, ants may nest in it! I discovered quite a few ants, and their eggs, inside the bag. Sorry buddies, this stuff was bought with a purpose – I used the bark chips anyway. I expect the ants will relocate their eggs. I’m always disturbing ants down my allotment. There’s not a lot you can do about it; they don’t generally harm the plants, and I’m not going to let them stop me from growing in the space I have to grow. I’ve heard you can pour boiling water on them, but a) that’s easier when you have electricity (something we will lack in the post-apocalypse future), and b) wtf with the boiling water? They aren’t hurting me!

Anyway, weed killer is tackling my nettles and helping prevent my paths becoming overgrown again.

Why does that make me the Apocalypse?

Well, what we regard as weeds are part of complex ecosystems. Insects and spiders and all sorts of tiny little animals, many of them beneficial, like to hide in weeds. These animals can be important for the soil, or for birds. Weeds can provide shelter for butterflies and solitary bees and all kinds of good things. Not to mention that variation in plant life is itself beneficial. At the very least, it would be better to pull these plants up and compost them, rather than making them shrivel into useless poisoned dead things, like the zombies that stalk the land.

I killed a valuable habitat today in the name of expediency – not to mention all those ants I displaced!

It’s… not my proudest allotmenteering moment, but I have been ill, and I really wanted to make a go of it this year, both for me and my dreams of a bountiful harvest and an allotment I can be proud of, and for you, and this blog series.

So… I am become death, destroyer of nettles.

On a more positive note…

How the Allotment is Doing

The allotment is doing pretty well. In addition to planting the onions and garlic I told you all about in No. 2, I also planted some carrots and spring onions a couple of weeks ago, which I didn’t have time to write up.

Carrots and spring onions are super easy to grow.

Carrots

For carrots, what I do is to mark a line with my trowel, no more than a couple of centimeters deep, and then place one seed every inch where I want the plants to grow. Now, the standard advice is just to ‘sow thinly’ (which just kind of means roughly sprinkle in a line) and then ‘thin’ the seedlings out later, but with carrots the major issue is carrot fly. Carrot fly are attracted by the smell of carrots, which is emitted when you bruise the leaves. I don’t like to take my chances with carrot fly, so I prefer not to have to thin, which would disturb the plants and potentially attract the insects.

Carrot fly damage

Carrot fly damage

What is carrot fly? PESTILENCE, that’s what. More accurately, what we’re worried about are the grubs, which burrow through your carrots leaving a network of tiny holes that you will have to cut out, greatly reducing the productivity of your crop. I would rather risk slightly fewer carrots than getting more carrots, most of which I can’t eat.

A few weeks after planting my carrots well-spaced, and they are beginning to sprout!

Three carrotd and a thistle.

Three carrots and a thistle.

The first thing you notice, once you start growing things from seed, is that nearly everything starts off with two little leaves and is nigh on indistinguishable from anything else. However, within a short period of time, the seedlings grow so that you can notice differences. Carrot seedlings (as shown above) are marked by the two initial leaves being particularly slender. When they start to grow their next leaves, these are more like tiny little hands. By contrast, the thistle that is invading my nice line of carrots above has round little leaves with points on the edges. That is going to have to go before it gets any bigger, but THIS I will weed by hand. I cannot risk weed killer so close to my baby carrots!

You might also notice that the stems of my carrot seedlings are purple – this is because I am growing purple carrots! Although orange carrots are the norm in our supermarkets as they have been bred to be large and sweet, carrots actually come in all kind of colours. I’m growing purple because it will make me smile, but you may prefer to grow traditional orange for its larger tubers.

I am also companion planting my carrots with spring onions and chives; this is, again, to keep away the carrot fly. As the flies are attracted by the smell, the strong, oniony smells of alliums are thought to mask the smell of the carrots.

Spring Onions and Chives

Unlike onion onions, spring onions and chives are always grown from seed, rather than from sets. The seeds are small and black – spring onion and chive seeds look identical, so if you intend to harvest seed later in the year, be sure to label your packets carefully!

Like carrots, I cut a shallow line in the soil with my trowel. Unlike with carrots, I then sprinkle the seeds roughly – ‘sow thinly’. I don’t mind if I need to thin these later. You can either eat the waste plants or move them elsewhere without attracting anything nasty. In this case, I have planted spring onions down the middle of the bed between the carrot rows, and chives at the edge of the bed.

Here are my spring onion seedlings:

Spring onion seedlings

Spring onion seedlings

Like carrots, the first spring onion leaves are long and slender. Unlike carrots, they are tubular in shape, tapering to a point, as the leaves will continue to be as they grow.

The chives I have only just planted today, so I look forward to seeing how they turn out!

Onions and Garlic

Meanwhile, my onions and garlic are getting on apace!

Onions and garlic.

Left: garlic. Right: onions.

They look to be doing well in terms of numbers of leaves, which is important for the eventual size of the bulb. Around about now (May) the bulb will stop adding leaves and will focus on fattening up – this is why it’s important to get onions and garlic in early to maximise the number of leaves they can put out. You can tell the onion from the garlic as onion leaves are tubular, like spring onions, whilst garlic leaves are flat, more like grass, but centred around a single stalk.

Considering how unwell I have been, things are going well, and I have every hope we are heading for a good harvest, despite my miniature apocalypse of weeds.

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The Apocalypse Allotment No. 3: Rhubarb

A magnificent rhubarb plantOne of the joys of adopting an allotment for your post-apocalypse life is finding plants the previous owners have planted that you can take over with a minimum of fuss. I was particularly lucky in that my apocalypse allotment came with rhubarb! Not all that surprising, considering I live in Yorkshire, home of the Rhubarb Triangle. Whilst rhubarb is native to Siberia, it does very well in the rich soils and cold wet winters of Yorkshire. And as my internet handle, ‘Rhube’, is short for ‘Rhubarb’, growing rhubarb is not only a delight, but a must!

Rhubarb is a striking plant with wide green leaves and thick, tart edible stems. The stems are mostly pink, and tend to be pinker the less sunlight they see. Rhubarb can be ‘forced’ by keeping the plant in darkness (or near darkness) so that the stems grow fast, tall, and neon pink, making for the tastiest, tenderest, pinkest eating. I’ve tried it for the first time this year, and let me tell you – it works!

Forcing Rhubarb

Rhubarb with a pot over it

Forcing Rhubarb

Rhubarb farms keep rhubarb in massive, dimly lit barns, but in the apocalypse we don’t have that luxury (or the need for quite that much forced rhubarb!). The small subsistence farmer can achieve the same results on a more manageable scale by placing a large tub or other container over the plant just as the leaves begin to poke from the soil.

To the right, you can see that I have used a very large plant pot, but you could also use an up-turned bin or other container. As you can see, my rhubarb patch is very large, and I was never going to be able to force the whole clump, so I’m just covering one section. These photos don’t really reflect scale, but that is a very big plant pot. Rhubarb grows very big. Note also that I have weighed down the pot with rocks, this is partly because the weather is very wind here, but also because rhubarb grows fast and tall, and I don’t want the rhubarb forcing the pot off itself too easily.

The result, within a couple of weeks, was very pink stems, ready to be picked!

Forced rhubarb

Note how much greener and larger the leaves are on the unforced patches of the clump. It’s perfectly possible to pick and eat unforced rhubarb (and I intend to!) but the forced stuff is pinker, less tough, and more flavourful. I mean, all rhubarb is pretty flavourful, but if, for instance, you want to make bright pink jam, instead of muddy brown jam, forced rhubarb is the way to go.

Finding Rhubarb

By May you’re not going to have any trouble figuring out if you have rhubarb in the land you’ve usurped, but in February, March, and early April you could easily miss it. Rhubarb becomes completely invisible in the winter months, retreating below the soil and lying dormant in its massive roots. This is what rhubarb looks like just as it begins poking through the soil:

Baby Rhubarb

Keep an eye out for the small, wrinkly green leaves. These leaves, which start out tiny and tightly packed, will inflate into the huge leaves seen above.

Separating Rhubarb

As mentioned above, my patch is huge and old. The advantage of finding rhubarb someone else planted is that you can pick it as soon as it’s ready. If you’ve looted* a rhubarb plant from a store, you need to give it a year to establish before you start harvesting. It’s much better to check out what other people have left behind and take over a plot with an already established clump. Every year I harvest more rhubarb than I can possibly eat – this is a plant that will give you plenty to trade, or to preserve in jams for the winter!

The disadvantage to having an old, well-established rhubarb clump is that the clump gets pretty crowded. The large flower spike shown below looks impressive – good enough to frighten a triffid!

Rhubarb with a flower stalk

TRIFFID.

Unfortunately, a rhubarb that is flowering is a rhubarb that is diverting energy away from growing those lovely edible stems. The rhubarb plant grows this when it’s getting too crowded and wants to spawn young somewhere else. The reality is that the seeds are likely to  fall around the plant and make it more crowded. It’s basically not ideal all round. If you see a flower spike, break or cut it off at the base. Sometimes it will just snap off, but rhubarb plants are tough, and you may need shears.

The best solution to overcrowded rhubarb is to split up your clumps every five years, preferably in early spring when the plant is dormant or just starting to grow. I’ve had my allotment for five or six years now, and I don’t think the old guy who had it before could have had the strength to split this stuff up, so it had gotten waaaay overcrowded in my clumps. I had to do something about it.

Here’s what you do: loosen the soil all around your rhubarb with a fork, then, if possible, lift up the whole clump. This was not possible with my ancient clump. Rhubarb roots are huge and all tangled up. Some of the roots were nearly as thick as my wrist. I had to just lift it up as much as I could, and then move on to step two.

Step two is to get a spade and chop your rhubarb down the middle, or wherever is convenient to split it up. I wish I had taken photos of this, but it was some of the toughest physical labour I have ever engaged in and I was kind of busy. I also made the  mistake of trying to separate my rhubarb using only a fork. Don’t do that. Use the sharpened spade you keep around for decapitating zombies. The fork got stuck. Me and my friend used feet and hands and fork and everything wrestling the clump apart. It was hard work, let me tell you!

I had two friends who had wanted rhubarb of their own for years, and I don’t have room in my allotment for more rhubarb – my rhubarb is already overcrowded! So I separated off two chunks, which they took and put in some mud. A lot of mud. Rhubarb needs a lot of space, and if you do decide to grow it in a pot, make sure it is a HUGE pot. I still had a clump left over, which, because I had nowhere to put it, I left on the surface of the soil to… deal with later. Two weeks later, it looked like this:

A tangled ball of rhubarb roots, still growing

I have neglected this poor thing to high heaven, and it’s STILL GROWING. Friends, this is a survivor. Keep this thing in your land just for inspiration, tbh.

General Rhubarb Care

Rhubarb doesn’t need a lot of looking after, it’s pretty hardy. It comes from Siberia, for God’s sake! The main thing is it likes a lot of water. Look at it. It’s HUGE. But at the same time, it has giant roots and can survive dry periods pretty well. If you live in a desert climate… no, OK, this isn’t going to work, but rhubarb is ideal for temperate or cold climates.

Keep it watered. Pull stems from the moment they look long enough until June. Don’t pull too many stems at once – make sure you leave the plant enough leaves to photosynthesise with – and it will keep on producing for you. There will be stems on into the summer, but if you stop pulling in June you allow the plant to top up its energy reserves for the winter.

You’ll have a great crop of rhubarb for use in pies, crumbles, jams, and even just eating raw with sugar. But remember – the leaves are poisonous, so only eat the stem!

*Remember! Only loot after the world has ended!

 

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