Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Climate Change and Faith

One of the ironies of the debate on global warming - or, as supporters are wont to call it during cold spells, “climate change” - is that proponents of the view that anthropological warming is real and an urgent problem claim that they, unlike their opponents, are on the side of “science,” but their absolute belief in their point of view despite the accumulating evidence against it is more akin to fervent religious belief than science. Much as some fundamentalist Christians persist in the view that the world is around 6,000 years old despite evidence from fossils and rocks, global warming are not disturbed in the least that predictions of climate change models are way off. 

As Charles Flemming notes in “6 Pro Tips on Persuading Global Warming Deniers to Come to the Light”:
Appeal to “science” is an illegitimate appeal to authority. A way to shut down dissent. Real scientists don’t appeal to authority. They appeal to data.
And, as a bonus tip to the article, a reader contributed:
State what data or outcomes would DISprove AGW.
(Hint: If none, it’s not science.)
Indeed. ("Freezing is the New Warming," at RealClear Politics, makes a similar point.)

All the more dispiriting, then, to see that  Ars Technica, in a blog post entitled “On moderation in climate discussions”, has sided with the forces of anti-scientific nonsense. In the guise of better moderating discussions, the post says:
When it comes to climate discussions (and science discussions in general), we identify trolling based on two simple principles that apply to all discussions on the site:
1. Article discussions are meant to be just that: discussions. Contributions should be beneficial to the discussion.
2. Misinformation is not beneficial to discussions. Furthermore, discussions do not exist in order to give a platform to broadcast misinformation.
Starting a discussion by throwing out phrases like "the whole thing is a giant fraud" is a quick way to get a moderator's warning. Even if you're not aware of the history of our understanding of the greenhouse effect (there's over a century of it) or the decades' worth of work that has built our modern understanding of the climate, it should be clear that diverse governments, private organizations, companies, and scientists all recognize the reality of climate change and take it seriously. So this statement clearly violates principle 2, but it also violates 1. There's really no possible useful discussion that can grow out of a statement that's completely oblivious to reality.
While it’s hard to argue with the two principles articulated, the example below the two principles shows what Ars really means. Not the “the whole thing is a giant fraud” part, but the blithe claim that “diverse governments…and scientists all recognize the reality of climate change.” So what Ars means is that you’re a troll if you don’t buy the line. It’s a consensus, so shut up.

Of course, in today’s group-think, this “moderation” finds a receptive audience with the faithful. A  comment by “chipmunkofdoom2” seems to be representative of those I skimmed:
Incredibly balanced and unapologetic. I don't know of any other site that moderates straight up denial of years upon years of scientific data.
“Incredibly balanced,” eh? (I’m reminded of the line from The Blues Brothers, regarding the type of music played at Bob’s Country Bunker: “Oh, we got both kinds. We got Country and Western.”)

I take the view that, in a quote attributed to Daniel Moynihan, everyone is entitled to his own opinion but not his own facts. Of course, facts are endlessly malleable, aren't they? From a recent Best of the Web Today:

Two Newsmagazines in One! 
    "Scientists have found other indications of global cooling. For one thing there has been a noticeable expansion of the great belt of dry, high-altitude polar winds--the so-called circumpolar vortex--that sweep from west to east around the top and bottom of the world."--Time, June 24, 1974 
    "Not only does the cold spell not disprove climate change, it may well be that global warming could be making the occasional bout of extreme cold weather in the U.S. even more likely. Right now much of the U.S. is in the grip of a polar vortex, which is pretty much what it sounds like: a whirlwind of extremely cold, extremely dense air that forms near the poles."--Time.com, Jan. 6, 2014
One fact, two polar (ha ha) opposite interpretations.

I don't like being labeled a climate change "denier." No one denies that the climate is changing, anyway, but, more to the point, I'm a skeptic, not a denier. I'd like a hypothesis and then a test of the hypothesis. I'm not the only one, either. In "Freezing is the New Warming," the author concludes:

Note that there is never any pause to acknowledge that maybe scientists should investigate the hypothesis that warming isn't as big or inevitable as they have predicted. 
No, it's on to the next ad hoc rationalization. That's the basic pattern: an unproven theory reinforces itself in the face of contradictory evidence by generating additional unproven theories. 
What interests me is how global warming is degrading, in plain sight, into a textbook case of pseudoscience—all while remaining an unassailable article of belief among those who think of themselves as pro-science. 
One of the famous characteristics of pseudo-science is that it is "unfalsifiable." That is, the theory is constructed in such a way that there is no evidence that could possibly refute it. The classic example is Freudian psychoanalysis, which tells you that you have an Oedipus Complex, and if you deny it, that's just proof that you're repressing it. Or take the creationist theory that God created the world to appear as if it was older than it really is. So if we find evidence that the dinosaurs lived 100 million years before the events of the Bible, that's just because God planted the evidence there. Try refuting that one! 
Or try refuting global warming. Temperatures have stopped warming for more than a decade? That's just a temporary "pause" in the warming that we just know is going to come roaring back any day now. Antarctic ice is growing? That's actually caused by the melting of ice, don't you know. A vicious cold snap that sets record low temperatures? That's just because the North Pole is actually warming. So if the winter is warm, that's global warming, but if the winter is cold, that's global warming, too. If sea ice is disappearing, that's global warming, but if sea ice is increasing, that's global warming. 
Now we can see what they mean when the warmthers say that global warming is supported by an ironclad scientific consensus. The theory is so irrefutable that it's unfalsifiable! 
Which is to say that it has become a cognitive spaghetti bowl full of ad hoc rationalizations, rather than a genuine scientific hypothesis. 
I don't expect to change any minds, but I would like Congress to stop spending my money on this bowl of pasta.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Snow Daze

I really hate snow. There, I said it. I’m a hater. I watch people being interviewed on the TV news who are very excited. “Let it snow! I’d like a foot or more!"

Well, no. I live in a mid-Atlantic state (Maryland) that isn’t used to large amounts of snow, and I live far enough from anywhere that a big snowfall is a serious disruption. Around 360 days of the year, that’s not a big deal, and some years, like 2013, there isn’t enough snow to complain about.

Getting a snowfall of even three or four inches, however, creates problems on the roads - heck, even on my fairly quiet street I’ve seen two vehicles skidding across the plowed pavement; I don’t want to know what the highway to the Metro station looks like. The 7-8” expected before this storm system moves out is a paralyzing event.

People elsewhere make fun of the DC area for being so unprepared for snow. Those people fall into one of three categories: (1) people from places where it snows a lot, so it makes sense for people to have four-wheel-drive vehicles and snow blowers, and for municipalities to invest in extensive snow removal equipment; (2) people from places where it snows a lot but hardly anyone drives - particularly New York City, where four inches of snow just means wet boots walking to and from the subway; and (3) people from places where it rarely snows, who assume that because we do get snow we prepare for it like those in the first category.

The problem with snow isn’t so much the relatively minor disruption in our lives. I can read a forecast, so I can stock up on food and beverages. I can shovel a driveway and sidewalk slowly, taking breaks as needed, so it’s not terribly stressful. And I don’t have a sense of self-importance that compels me to go into the office when the driving conditions are bad. No, it’s other people, as usual: those who insist that the driveway has to be shoveled right now, because they have to get to work. (I share a driveway with two neighbors.) A boss that doesn’t mind driving into work, even though the government is closed. Front office managers who refuse to reschedule meetings, even though the agenda isn’t anything urgent. The who compulsion to show up to work, because you never know who will think less of you if you remain safely home.

The people I really feel for are those who have to be out, like the mail delivery lady sliding down the street, trying to reach mailboxes that residents haven’t bothered to clear. If the self-important would stay off the roads, that would improve the lives of people who really have to be out there.

So there, I said it. I hate snow. And boss, don’t expect to see me in tomorrow, either.

Snow backyard 1 21 14

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Victorian Fantasy: "The King of the Golden River"

As the discussion series on the fantastic in Victorian literature nears its end, this month we discussed John Ruskin’s 1851 novel, The King of the Golden River. A charming short novel, a modern parable of greed and kindness, this volume is Ruskin’s only work of fiction (he is better known for his works on art criticism).

The plot is a simple one: two cruel brothers, Schwartz and Hans, live with their younger brother, Gluck, in a lush valley in Austria. The two older brothers mistreat everyone, not least the younger Gluck. The rich land has made the brothers rich. Yet when a visitor, Southwest Wind, Esquire, receives ill treatment at the hands of Schwartz and Hans, the rich soil washes away, leaving their land arid and worthless. The brothers work as goldsmiths, but drink away their earnings. One day they melt Gluck’s prized possession, a golden mug, which frees the king of the Golden River, a finely-dressed dwarf. The king tells Gluck that someone who climbed the high mountain to the source of the river and threw in at least three drops of holy water would find the river turned to gold; fail, and that person would be turned into black rock. Naturally, first Hans and then Schwartz make the attempt. Their greed and indifference to the suffering of others cause them to fail in their attempts, and they become black rocks. Gluck works for a goldsmith, but he, too, succumbs to the temptation to seek the Golden River. He is kind, however, and uses his flask with holy water to slake the thirst of an old man, then a child, and finally a small dog, to whom he gives the last of the holy water. The dog turns into the King of the Golden River, who gives Gluck three drops of water from a lily plant and urges Gluck to cast those into the river. When Gluck does so, the waters of the river diminished and flowed into the valley, making the land fertile once again. Gluck became a wealthy man who, unlike his brothers, never turned away the needy.

Victorian Fantasy  Ruskin 001
Some of the discussants

Victorian Fantasy  Ruskin 002
Mr. August Dominicus, Miss Astridh of Hulya, and Miss Isabelle

Victorian Fantasy  Ruskin 003
One of our discussants

Victorian Fantasy  Ruskin 004
Miss Ellie Mink

Victorian Fantasy  Ruskin 005
Your humble scribe

Victorian Fantasy  Ruskin 006
Sir JJ Drinkwater

Victorian Fantasy  Ruskin 007
Miss Herndon Bluebird

Victorian Fantasy  Ruskin 008
Dame Kghia Gherardi

Victorian Fantasy  Ruskin 009
Miss Zanicia and Miss Janet Rhiadra

(Apologies to those not pictured (particularly M. Ravenstask Bayn) or not named - my note-taking skills were deficient. I attribute that to my attention being taken by discussing Mr. Ruskin’s book. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.)

Next up: Through the Looking Glass, by Lewis Carroll, on Wednesday, February 19, at 4 p.m. SLT.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Looking Through the Paper Observatory

Having seen the pictures from both Honour McMillan and Inara Pey, I had to visit the Paper Observatory myself. A temporary build on one of the Linden Endowment for the Arts sims, this build by Haveit Neox will eventually replace a build on his own sim, called the Paper Tower. Neox, in a notecard on the sim, writes:
The inspiration and initial model for this project is the 4 year old Paper Tower on the sim ACC Alpha, this tower being a giant structure in the center of my sim which harbors the visitor center and galleries. 
The new Paper Observatory on the LEA21 sim hovers above an ample arena. The city leading up to this build is concentric; rooftops conforming into one large sweep of concavity, suggests a satellite dish. The human activities displayed in the streets and the main square reflect on superstitious times before science’s tenet of universal proof, before disease was known to be microbial or before the earth was discovered to be round. In the sky, the Observatory catches the sunlight. This is Second Life, and we can flap our way up to the building’s landing. Requiring flight into the Observatory is an intended motion which I equate with the turning of a page in a book. The walls are of paper since this structure, as its predecessor, is my version of a book. During the month of January, I will continue to refine the textures and the shapes. The deconstruction motif at the base of the structure reflects directly onto the Paper Tower’s story, whose exposed girder skeleton belies questions of permanence.

As the Paper Tower is dedicated to arts, the Observatory will be connected to science and therefore be a venue where one could gather information and get in touch with thought provoking theories.
Paper Observatory 004
The Observatory from afar

Paper Observatory 001
People glide through the city...

Paper Observatory 002
…engaged in a variety of activities

Paper Observatory 005
Inside the Observatory

Paper Observatory 007

Miss Pey notes:
As the Paper Observatory will be under development and enhancement throughout the month, this is an installation one may well want to re-visit at least a few times to more fully get its entire measure. The completed build will be installed on ACC Alpha on Thursday April 10th, 2014, the fourth anniversary of the founding of the original Paper Tower.
A fascinating place.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Hell is Other People

Some days I wonder about the rest of humanity. The other day, while riding the Washington Metro to work, I found myself across the aisle from two women. They talked in an unfamiliar language and I ignored them. Then I heard a familiar throat-clearing sound, the phlegmy sound that one associates with heavy smokers. Surely she wasn't...?

But she did. The woman turned her head to one side and spat on the carpeted floor of the train. Then she blew her nose, wadded up the tissue, and blithely tossed it on the floor.

Although I held my tongue, that was one disgusting step too much for a man standing in the aisle, who politely suggested that depositing one's trash on the floor was socially unacceptable.

I'll have to say this for Metro: in a world increasingly filled with rules, Metro has stuck to six: no eating or drinking, no littering, no listening to music and such without headphones, no pets except service animals, no smoking, and one more I can't recall at the moment. Just six, and the number of people who can't be bothered - usually involving eating, drinking, or littering - is astounding.
Give them this, though: until that day, I never saw another passenger spit inside the train.


Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Unemployment Benefits, Minimum Wages, and Incentives

President Obama, in calling on Congress to once again pass legislation for an “emergency” extension of unemployment benefits, thinks greater benefits will lead to more jobs. Man, that guy is confused.

The discipline of economics doesn’t agree on much, but it does agree on a few things. Among those: demand curves (generally) slope downward and supply curves (generally) slope upward. A corollary to those two items is the adage that taxing something means people make less of it available and subsidizing something means people make more of it available. In addition, opportunity costs matter. The application to unemployment benefits is straightforward: an extension of benefits - up to 99 weeks, or nearly two years - decreases the incentive to find a new job quickly. This is not because the unemployed are lazy, or not interested in full-time employment, but because the cost of being out of work for an extended period is lower, and therefore people are rationally willing to wait longer to find a job that meets their expectations, rather than take what’s available. At the same time, unemployment insurance is a cost largely borne by companies, so an extension of benefits makes firms less willing to hire.

Writing in National Review OnlineJillian Kay Melchior describes some of the perverse incentives of the laws involving receiving unemployment benefits:
Tired of being broke, I decided to amp up my efforts at freelance writing while I applied for jobs. It would bring in some extra income, and it would let me demonstrate to prospective employers that I had some personal hustle, that those gap months between jobs hadn’t been a total waste.
But unemployment makes freelancing complicated. According to the rules, “each day or part of a day of work will result in a payment of [only] a partial benefit.” If I worked one day, my unemployment payment would be only $303; two days meant only $202.50. If I earned more than $405 in a week, I got nothing. 
That made freelancing costly for me, regardless of how much I wanted to spend my time productively. Say I earned $75 in one day of freelance work. I would then receive $303 in unemployment that week, and my total weekly haul would be $378 — less than the $405 in standard unemployment. In other words, if I couldn’t earn more than $100 in a day, I’d actually be losing money by working.
The unemployment rules also subjected me to a bizarre work schedule, because they stipulate that “you are considered employed on any day when you perform any services — even an hour or less — in self-employment, on a freelance basis, or for someone else.” In other words, taking two days instead of one to do an assignment meant I’d lose an extra hundred bucks. As a result, I tried to pack all my freelance writing and pitching into a single weekday, pulling the sort of late nights I’d once hoped I had left behind in college.
Moreover, the tough penalties made me think twice about sending out pitches. After all, though it might help me find permanent work faster, the unemployment rules defined work as “any activity that brings in or may bring in income at any time” (my emphasis). Sending out pitches could arguably be classified as work, even if an editor turned me down. And all work had to be reported, or I would be behaving fraudulently — which my unemployment packet warned “can lead to severe penalties, including CRIMINAL PROSECUTION and imprisonment” (their emphasis). So if an editor accepted my pitch, but said so in an e-mail sent the next day, was replying to him “work,” and was I risking stiff penalties if I failed to report it?
Another oldie-but-goodie policy that Democrats are trotting out in an election year in an effort to distract from the debacle of the Obamacare rollout (and the slow-moving but more widespread debacle of Obamacare generally) is an increase in the minimum wage. Here, too, is another area of (near-)consensus among economists. As Walter Williams, in “Politics and Minimum Wage,” notes:
There's little debate among academic economists about the effect of minimum wages. University of California, Irvine economist David Neumark has examined more than 100 major academic studies on the minimum wage. He reports that 85 percent of the studies "find a negative employment effect on low-skilled workers." A 1976 American Economic Association survey found that 90 percent of its members agreed that increasing the minimum wage raises unemployment among young and unskilled workers. A 1990 survey reported in the American Economic Review (1992) found that 80 percent of economists agreed with the statement that increases in the minimum wage cause unemployment among the youth and low-skilled. If you're searching for a consensus in a field of study, most of the time you can examine the field's introductory and intermediate college textbooks. Economics textbooks that mention the minimum wage say that it increases unemployment for the least skilled worker. The only significant debate about the minimum wage is the magnitude of its effect. Some studies argue that a 10 percent increase in the minimum wage will cause a 1 percent increase in unemployment, whereas others predict a higher increase.
And the effects of minimum wage policies are not uniformly distributed. Williams again:
Minimum wages have their greatest unemployment impact on the least skilled worker. After all, who's going to pay a worker an hourly wage of $10 if that worker is so unfortunate as to have skills that enable him to produce only $5 worth of value per hour? Who are these workers? For the most part, they are low-skilled teens or young adults, most of whom are poorly educated blacks and Latinos. The unemployment statistics in our urban areas confirm this prediction, with teen unemployment rates as high as 50 percent.
Of course, as with any policy, there are winners to go along with the losers. People who actually keep minimum wage jobs are better off, but so are "Higher-skilled and union workers” who don’t have to compete as hard with lower-earning employees, as Williams notes. He points out that there is another category of winner:
Among other beneficiaries are manufacturers who produce substitutes for workers. A recent example of this is Wawa's experiment with customers using touch screens as substitutes for counter clerks. A customer at the convenience store selects his order from a touch screen. He takes a printed slip to the cashier to pay for it while it's being filled. I imagine that soon the customer's interaction with the cashier will be eliminated with a swipe of a credit card. Raising the minimum wage and other employment costs speeds up the automation process. I'm old enough to remember attendants at gasoline stations and theater ushers, who are virtually absent today. It's not because today's Americans like to smell gasoline fumes and stumble down the aisles in the dark to find their seat. The minimum wage law has eliminated such jobs.
Finally, Philip Klein in the Washington Examiner, observes: 
To put things in perspective, when Obama wanted to downplay the number of individuals who had received cancellation letters due to his health care law, he portrayed the 5 percent who obtained their health insurance through the individual market as representing a small segment of the population.
In comparison, 1.6 million Americans earned exactly the federal minimum wage in 2012, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and another 2 million had wages below that due to certain exemptions. Combined, the 3.6 million earning at or below the minimum wage represented less than 3 percent of working Americans.
Well, anything to distract voters from other problems, even if, like so many Democratic proposals, many of the intended beneficiaries are actually victims.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Review - Veronica Roth's Divergent series

I find myself reading a fair amount of Young Adult fiction recently, only in part to see what the whuppersnappers are looking at these days. "Adult" novels (minds out of the gutter - yes, you in the corner, I'm talking to you - we're discussing mainstream fiction, not erotica*) are fine, and I read more than my share of detective/crime novels. But YA fiction often has a goodly amount of Adventure, often combined with a Message that is direct enough for me to understand. Furthermore, YA novels tend to be mercifully short. Sure, I could tackle Gravity's Rainbow, but at 10 p.m. I'm never really in the mood to wade into that.

Several years ago, I read The Hunger Games, and thought it was a brilliant book in its grim, dystopian future. The sequels lost a little of the first book's luster, as sequels tend to do, but the characters were well-drawn, the pace was quick (some dragging in book two, but it's hard to keep up the action for hundreds of pages at a go), and the story was gripping. Similarly, Philip Pullman's Golden Compass series had two compelling lead characters and a set of incredible adventures, all tied together with a terrific story and a heartbreaking ending that made me nearly forgive his militant anti-religion stance. (Too bad that first movie wasn't very good.) In contrast, while I managed to choke down Twilight, its breathless "Oooh, isn't he so dreamy" heroine and turgid writing dampened my enthusiasm for the rest of the series, and while I did read the next two books I drew the line at the last.

Are Veronica Roth's Divergent books more like The Hunger Games or Twilight? While they share some of the former's strengths, sadly, they also share some of the latter's weaknesses.

The setup is a good one: a community has divided into five factions, each based on one desirable aspect of personality. The Abnegation are selfless, the Dauntless are courageous, the Amity are friendly, the Erudite seek knowledge, and the Candor value honesty. Tris, our heroine, grew up in an Abnegation household but chooses Dauntless as her faction. Most of the first book involves her initiation into the faction, learning how to fight and to engage in reckless stunts for the hell of it. She falls in love with her trainer, Tobias, makes friends and enemies, and is prepared when the inevitable violent conflict with another faction arises. Subsequent books develop the inter-faction conflict and then show us the broader world, with its own set of internal conflicts. Like The Hunger Games, there's a lot of teen-on-teen violence, with the added benefit of teen-on-adult and adult-on-teen violence.

While the basic plot is engaging, the characters are less so. Tris and Tobias spend a lot of time kissing, feeling up one another, feeling conflicted about everything, and having other teen emotions, but not much time considering the situation and trying to think their way through problems. Tris is betrayed by someone close to her and has to find a way to forgive him, and Tobias eventually resolves his issues with his parents, but the two never really grow as characters. Even the plot, which features various conflicts and back-stabbing, has an expeditious resolution that Doctor Who fans might call the Big Red Reset Button.

The trilogy is an engaging read, and the ebook prices I paid were low enough that I felt I received good value. I couldn't help but think that some minor adjustments to the books would have yielded substantial improvements. The way the series has sold, however, I seem to be in the minority.

* I did download the free sample of Fifty Shades of Grey from iBooks. Sad to say, the sample ended well before anything tawdry occurred - hell, the female protagonist was still a virgin, which I am led to believe was not the case by the end of the book - but the writing might have been the worst I’ve read in any published book though, to be fair, the competition in that department is pretty intense.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Calas Galadhon in Winter

I strolled the wintry landscape of Calas Galadhon, constructed and tended by Ty Tenk & Truck Meredith.

I’m not a big fan of winter weather. Cold is bad, snow is worse, and ice is an excuse to stay indoors. However, the wintry touches in Calas Galadhon almost - almost, I emphasize - made me forget my dislike of the season. Snow glistens but is, for once, not slippery. I can explore on foot, so there are no problems driving. Best of all, I don’t have to shovel the snow and clean up the slushy mess.

Calas Galadhon in winter 004

Calas Galadhon in winter 003

Calas Galadhon in winter 002

Calas Galadhon in winter 001

Calas Galadhon Park - all 11 sims - will be closed during February, but that still leaves more than two weeks to experience the good side of winter.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Review: "The Time of the Doctor"

"Everything ends." So the Doctor says to Clara, and so it does.

I don't follow the logic of having regeneration episodes on Christmas (Easter, sure, if one doesn't mind a little obvious Christian symbolism), which is supposed to be a festive time of year and a program may be watched by family members who don't normally follow the show. Those who watch are left either depressed or bewildered, depending on whether they fall into the camp of regular or casual viewers. Nonetheless, once again we have a Doctor's swan song placed in an episode shown at Christmas.*

Continuing the story line from "The Day of the Doctor," in which Gallifrey was not destroyed but instead placed in a pocket universe, the episode opens with the TARDIS in orbit around a planet - along with Daleks, Cybermen, Sontarans, and more - trying to identify the meaning of a signal sent from the planet. The Doctor's old friend, Tasha Lem, Mother Superioress of the Church of the Papal Mainframe, with its cadre of Silents as confessors, has put a force field around the planet to prevent anyone else from landing there, and she sends the Doctor to find out what is going on.

Once on the planet, which, naturally, turns out to be Trenzalor (in an earlier time than "The Name of the Doctor"), the Doctor and Clara find themselves in a picturesque town called Christmas. The signal is emanating from our old friend, the crack in the universe. Translated, the signal turns out to be from the Time Lords, asking the "one question that may not be answered," the Doctor's true name. (Pause for another "Doctor Who? joke") If he speaks it, the Time Lords will take that a signal that it's safe to return from their pocket universe. If he does so, however, the combined forces in orbit will attack, resuming the Time War. If the Doctor leaves, the forces will also attack the planet to prevent the Time Lords from ever returning. To prevent this, the Doctor stays on Trenzalor, stopping any invaders but unable to leave.

Centuries pass. The Doctor ages. Clara, sent away in the TARDIS for her protection, only to return 300 years later (by the Doctor's timeline; only minutes, one presumes, by Clara's). He tells her he can't regenerate, as this is his 13th and last incarnation; Ten regenerated into the same form and the War Doctor counted as well. The Daleks attack the Papal Mainframe and convert Tasha Lem into a humanoid Dalek (a la Oswin Oswald in "The Dalek Asylum"), then trick the Doctor into leaving the planet to visit Lem. She fights off the Dalek inside her just long enough for the Doctor and Clara to escape and return to Trenzalor. The Daleks remove the force field around the planet and attack. The Doctor appears withered and beaten, ready to accept his death. Clara pleads through the crack for the Time Lords to help the Doctor, and they respond by giving him another set of regenerations. He uses the regeneration energy to destroy the Dalek fleet before retreating into the TARDIS. Clara finds him, he says his farewell to her, then regenerates.

This was no "Day of the Doctor" in terms of plot, either in terms of the big picture (why did the Time Lords appear where they did (or why did the crack appear where it did)? couldn't the Doctor have used the TARDIS to relocate the town of Christmas, leaving the Time Lords where they were until he could find another way to liberate them? and since when did regeneration energy have the ability to destroy a Dalek fleet?) or in terms of the details (the holographic clothing joke had no plot purpose; the brief appearance of the Weeping Angels was pointless; the relationship with Tasha Lem seemed to come out of nowhere; the Cyberman head "Handles" had no purpose other than to provide information at convenient times; and the pacing of the episode seemed off).

Still, there was much in the episode to like. The fable-like narration of the story, set in a fairy-tale-like town called Christmas, set the tone for the Doctor's epic wait. How bored must he have been, waiting for centuries on a primitive planet, the man who couldn't wait around with his friends Amy and Rory for a few days in "The Power of Three"? Clara begging the Doctor to come to Christmas dinner with her family as her boyfriend and the Doctor, naturally, behaving entirely inappropriately was terrific, and I enjoyed the ongoing gag with the Christmas turkey. Seeing Amy in the TARDIS, even as merely a hallucination, was satisfying, and continued the tradition of Doctors seeing visions of old companions (or, in the case of Ten, seeing the companions themselves) before a regeneration. And, in a nod to the classic series, the Doctor helps Handles translate the Time Lords' code by producing the seal of the High Council of Gallifrey, something he "nicked off the Master in the Death Zone" in "The Five Doctors" (and something I hadn't recalled until someone with a sharp memory pointed it out afterward).

Matt Smith, as usual, was amazing, portraying not only a resolute young (-ish) Doctor but also the Doctor as an old man. Foreshadowing his death, he tells Clara sadly that "Everything ends," but at the end he also tells her that he will remember every moment.

Although I'm looking forward to seeing what Peter Capaldi's Doctor will be like, I'm more than a little sad at the end of the tenure of Smith. His portrayal of the Doctor as someone both young and unfathomably old, playful and naive yet a commanding presence, was marvelous in every episode, even ones, like "Time of the Doctor," where the material didn't always measure up to the actor.

* It's true that the Ninth Doctor regenerated in "The Parting of the Ways" in June 2005, and the Christmas episode was the first to feature the Tenth Doctor, though the show recapped the regeneration at the beginning of "The Christmas Invasion." And the end of the David Tennant era came not in the Christmas episode, "The End of Time, Part 1," but a week later, on New Year's Day 2010. Pish-tosh, I say. Both are associated with Christmas.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Happy New Year - and Old

For reasons that I can’t possibly figure out, I tend to remember the unhappy episodes in my life more than the happy ones. This might be some form of loss aversion, or it might just be that I’m a little kooky. Either way, there it is.

Yet when I think about it, 2013 had a goodly number of happy times. Good meals and good drinks. A lengthy vacation to places I’ve never been. Car replacement. Some good colleagues to go with the stinkers. Et cetera. (Yes, that’s a euphemism.)

So here’s to remembering more of the good stuff in 2014.