Thursday, 31 May 2012

Books I Read In May

'The Tesseract' by Alex Garland
This is one of those books that I really felt I wasted my time bothering to read.  After the success of 'The Beach' (novel 1996; movie 2000), Garland was highly renowned.  However, like many authors who are suddenly incredibly successful, he appeared to lose touch with any reality or even really what makes a good novel.  Garland's book is incredibly fragmented.  It features a range of characters in the Philippines spread over decades.  The stories are non-linear and even trying to keep track of who is related to whom in this short novel, is very difficult.  In the end all that stands out is pettiness and violence.  It is a very unsatisfactory book, destroyed by its pretentiousness to try to produce a novel in the form of a tesseract and show that the characters are unaware of the context in which they live and act as if that is news.  I am not surprised there is little coverage of this book online and I had never even heard of the 2003 movie.  Fortunately Garland has produced only one more novel, 'The Coma' (2004) which pretty much does what it says on the label and was turned into a stage play.  Magic realism is fine, but it needs to be grounded in some kind of practicality because the reader cannot get inside the author's mind and so his/her wonderful plan comes over simply as incoherent.

'War in Italy 1943-1945' by Richard Lamb
This is an excellent account of a corner of the Second World War which often gets overlooked.  It shows how angered the Germans were by the Italians' defection and that they turned on them more viciously than in other parts of western Europe.  It also shows the range of missed opportunities at the time of Italian armistice which certainly could have shortened the war on the peninsula if they had been taken.  It is also very interesting on what happened on the Greek islands the Italians held where there was vicious fighting between the Italians and Germans which again could have been resolved in a better way for the Allies, though ironically pinned down tens of thousands of German troops from fighting on more important fronts.  Most alarming is the sweep of Jews from Italy following the armistice and the massacres of them and resistance fighters during the increasingly desperate battle to hold Italy.  At times Lamb is overly-sympathetic to the Church and overly-critical of the Allies, especially the Americans.  This is likely to stem from the fact that he was involved in many of the events he chronicles.  Overall, however, this is an interesting, engaging books with seeds for a number of counter-factual discussions too.

Monday, 14 May 2012

Moon-Water Lily-Heron - Short Story

Going on sick leave and then losing my job has meant me leaving London and returning to southern England and once again beginning the path to the reposessesion of my house, the third time since 2009.  As always everyone seems convinced something will turn up.  I guess this is what helped the British survive the Second World War.  Britons are particularly good at expecting things to improve for people other than themselves.  Anyway, that is an issue for other postings.  Leaving London meant leaving the great little writers' group I had joined.  This is the last of the activities that I was set.  I really wished I had found the group when I first moved to London rather than just three months before I left.  Certainly if I ever work again, I will seek out a group in whichever town I move to.

For this activity, we all had to draw three cards from a pack.  They were not playing cards, but instead had a series of images of objects, buildings and animals.  I am not certain but they may have been meant to be used as some form of modern day tarot card.  The group organiser had bought them simply as something artistic.  From the three cards we drew we had to write a short story.  The title shows the ones that I drew: a full Moon but tinted red the shade I had seen it a few weeks earlier, a single water-lily in bloom and a heron roosting.

Moon-Water Lily-Heron
The full Moon was a blood-red shade giving the garden an unearthly pallor.  The air was warm and heavily scented by the blossoms on the pond, mimicking in form if not shade the sky’s features above.  Perhaps this was a night for meetings.  This place was vacant of the sounds of humanity and for the moment spared the more wild calls.  A person could pad along the grass-covered paths and come down to the water; another could approach and converge there.  Their way would be lit, not as vividly as in daylight, but enough; the vital features exposed.

I sat watching: my time for meeting for converging passed for this year.  My focus was immediate: it was for prey.  The breeze came again and for some, its impact on the water might have been a misleading sign.  Yet, I, a consummate hunter would not be distracted.  Then it came: the ripple that signalled what I needed; an insect’s life ended; its corpse subsumed within the one I would eat in turn.

My motion was instinctive: the flap, glide and dive.  I penetrated the yielding water and my jaws closed, entrapping the orange and white form: cold and wet and fresh and sustaining.  In gulps I had it within; all its flesh and skin, bones, eyes, fins; its thoughts, its knowledge, its last meal and meals before, all consumed by myself.  I left the water, my disruption inappropriate for this place, at this time. 

I steadily settled, my heart pace slowed, my plumage came to rest.  Below, the water similarly stilled and once again I and the blood-shade Moon had our perfect replicas on display.

Monday, 7 May 2012

Sharing - Short Story

I am still battling to get the interface to work, even harder now that I cannot access it from computers using Internet Explorer as their browser, like all of the ones at the company I work for.  It is ironic given that almost 80% of the people who reach my blog come to it via Internet Explorer.  I am now having to write everything offline and cut and paste it here.  Anyway, this is another short story created as a writers' group exercise.  We were charged with writing something in the science fiction genre.  Once again I was primarily inspired by the fact that we meet in a library.  I cannot write any more, this constant saving interrupting my typing and sending my laptop's fan into overdrive, is driving me to despair!


Rahn walked surreptitiously into the Sharing Room. As always, since he and Arco had split from their relationship with Scort, he looked around him nervously. Of course, the shifts that Scort was allocated by the City Givers meant she was rarely unassigned at this time of the cycle. However, Rahn worried he would pick precisely the wrong day to manifest when she was unallocated and here.

Despite its name, the Sharing Room lay empty. It had to be four or five years since such spaces had been at the height of fashion; when trios and septets would be found here indulging in shared perceptions the cycle long. It had been Kamal 5 that had brought such interaction into abrupt decline. It was ironic given the paranoia instilled by the disease and so the even greater need for actual contact; contact of the non-ether kind.

Rahn wondered however secure, however bond-guaranteed secure he was from infection that the symptoms were not able to penetrate. While he had no truck with the views of the Syncopators who had taken the fear of electron to cell contamination to the extreme, it proved hard for him to shake the irrational from his mind.

Rahn pondered if he would have felt better if there had been someone here, even some youths banished for the cycle from their refuge. He came here because his own refuge simply echoed too much; bounced back his words, his very ideas, too easily. Other people, even if just manifested, were somehow more absorbent. Perhaps that had been the difficulty with Arco and Scort, they had simply given too much and had taken, demanded, too little of him.

Rahn knew many of the titles by heart. He had been through all the Rozabai Conflict dramas enough that he could recall every nuance even when disconnected. He shied away from formalised Ginasi performances. Today, too, even ‘Scenes from the Games’ was not to his taste. Almost blindly he selected from the collection of the new and manipulated the scenario into his own system. He could have downloaded it to his refuge but, for him, the ritual of personal engagement was a vital element of the experience.

Then he was in, rushing through one of the Magenta Stampedes of the past century, swept among people like a skin cell going down a planet-based drain. It locked. He tried to turn; to shake the error; to restart; to exit. All the methods he well knew; all the advice he had received from Guiders, was proving ineffective. The crowd of those around him in their bright colours were standing static though their scents and even their sounds persisted. Steadily even these began to loop and Rahn knew he was trapped.

At least he was interfaced in what these days passed for a public space. Someone, he trusted, would see a locked machine and would remove his connection, at least, restart the scenario. Then he could hope for an exit. Now, however, he was left alone, divorced even from the communication interaction that provided work. Here, among the magenta and crimson and cerise he was stranded. While he struggled to stop it, as best he could, his thoughts, his desolate, lonely thoughts that Arco had cast him into returned to throttle his identity.

Saturday, 5 May 2012

The Challenges To An Early Sleeper

Having reached the age of 44, I know that I upset people.  As a child, my name, where my family lived in the town, who my father worked for, the fact we did not attend church, the fact we had an old car, old furniture and a black-and-white television were all grounds on which people felt they could despise me, tell me they despised me and then punch me.  These days it is the industry I work in, my appearance, my qualifications, the fact that I have an enthusiastic manner and like to chat, that I either ask too many questions or insufficient questions, the fact that I am a white man, my lack of hair, the country I come from, the fact that I drive an old car and my view of politics that stirs people to get vocally upset at my mere presence.  Fortunately since reaching the age of 19 I have been spared the physical abuse which was once so common.

The strangest basis on which people get upset at me is the focus of today's posting, i.e. the time I get up in the morning and even more than that, the time myself and the woman who lives in my house go to bed.  It is the going to bed time that causes most upset among the people I meet.  You might argue that it is no-one's business what time I choose to go to bed and you would be right.  However, as I noticed on many occasions on this blog, these days much of the population of the UK feels it has a right to not only judge on a whole host of aspects, many of them very mundane, but to tell you explicitly of its judgement on your behaviour as if without their help you would never have noticed what you were doing 'wrong'.  Britain is the home of unasked-for advice; even random strangers in the street feel obliged and unshamed to come up to you and simply tell you the error of your ways.  They are aloud to be indignant but you have to be at minimum stoic and preferably grateful for them enlightening you.

Fortunately most people I meet cannot tell what time I go to bed.  However, colleagues can.  This is especially the case when you have evening events or they telephone you after you have gone to bed.  I had a manager two jobs back who found out that I am often in bed before 21.00 and sometimes as early as 19.30 and on that basis he felt I was unsuited to be sent overseas on work and that he was obliged to ridicule me about bedtime every time he met me.  The problem for these people seems to stem from the sense that only children go to bed early, so an adult who does so is juvenile and cannot be given responsibility.  There is still a lingering macho/macha attitude that you should have the stamina to work long into the night the way Margaret Thatcher, Winston Churchill and Adolf Hitler were supposed to do, though the latter it is sometimes conceded, slept during the day to make up the time.  So early sleeping equals immature, unbusinesslike and weak behaviour; going to bed late suggests you are mature, professional, hard-working even exciting.

These attitudes are very culturally specific and of our era.  When the bulk of the population worked in agriculture, in the UK, sometime up to the mid-18th century most people rose and bedded down with the daylight.  The woman in my house keeps very much to agricultural hours, something like 04.00-05.00 to rise and 19.00-20.00 to sleep.  Her son, aged 10, nowadays goes to bed at 19.30 in the week and 20.00 on Friday and Saturday night, but it is difficult to keep him in bed after 06.00 in the morning especially with his mother awake and working.  Acquiring chickens has just added to this tendency in our house as they become impatient if still in their coops after sunrise and alert us to that impatience.  I am the late one in our house, getting up at 06.45 in the week (05.00 on Mondays) and sleeping in until 07.30-08.00 at the weekend.

Professions like farmers, bakers, market traders, the remaining milk deliverers all keep such hours.  Of course, shift workers have other patterns, working right through the night and sleeping the day or 'early' work something like 06.00-14.00 or 'late' work 14.00-22.00 which mean they have other patterns.  This all tends to be forgotten.  We are all middle class now, so the assumption is that we all work 09.00-17.00 and so rise no earlier than 07.00 and are happy to stay up until 23.00 each night.  Ironically, even working in an office, my day has lengthened and many people I know now do 08.00-17.30 meaning earlier getting up time and so an earlier time to bed.  Interestingly the 'lie-in' which seemed such a middle class luxury in the 1970s when people would not get out of bed at the weekend until 12.00 appears to have faded and remains a habit confined to students and other young people who have raved the night away.  Whilst late rising is no less 'unusual' than early rising, it retains a cachet of 'cool' whereas early to rise/early to bed just seems 'worthy'.

There are advantages in getting to bed early.  Some people, clearly the two other residents of my house, work better early in the morning. The shops are quieter in the morning and with extended opening hours, aside from on Sundays, there is no need to hang around for them to open, you can get out and buy what you needed before the masses reach the supermarket.  Perhaps you miss going out in the evening, but being unable to afford to eat at restaurants and being unable to sit comfortably in the cinema and theatre seats in my town I am not missing much that I would be able to do by staying up later.

Getting a decent amount of sleep, which is seen as nine hours for children and teenagers has regularly reported benefits.  A key difficulty is the noise.  In our district now that all tenants have to smoke outside, doors banging and loud conversations do not only go on in the evening but into the early hours of the morning too.  I am lucky, I fall back asleep easily when roused, but the woman in my house finds it far harder.  The noise does not have to come from your district, you have to make sure that friends and relatives know not to telephone. 

With recordable digital television and catch-up online facilities many of us 'time shift' our television watching anyway and it is far easier to try to access the latest episode of 'Sherlock' on the I-Player at 05.30 than it is at 18.30.  The only down side seems to be playing online community games as there are fewer people (though never none) to partner up with at that time of the morning.  Email which is my main form of communication for work and leisure is asynchronous anyway and it is rare that I am able to answer a phonecall when it comes in, it is far more common to have answerphone to answerphone conversations.

If we manage to go through with our plan of relocating to living on a co-operative farm, then the sleep patterns will be an advantage rather than something to conceal.  However, for now, having experienced the prejudice of revealing that you are in bed before the ten o'clock news comes, this is something that I intend to keep as secret from friends, colleagues and especially managers as much as I can.

Thursday, 3 May 2012

Dead In Seconds 6: Freelancer's Blues

As regular readers of this blog will know, I get a lot of enjoyment from playing computer games, these days on my laptop.  I particularly like games with a good story and an imaginative approach.  The thing that exasperates me most is not being able to progress in these games as I am simply destroyed very quickly.  In particular I hate it when your computer-controlled opponents have advantages that you do not and so the conflict is imbalanced.  I feel that your character or country or tank or whatever should have the same abilities and chance of success as an equally equipped opponent.  This is often not the case.  In addition, too many games seem designed with the target player, even at the Easy setting, being someone incredibly adept at pressing six keys simultaneously, responding faster than a computer can and being able to see into the future.  I have wasted a great deal of money down the years on games in which I am wiped out so quickly that there was no point in buying the game.  Repeated attempts to progress advance me no further and I am left feeling inadequate just when I am seeking escape from constantly being told I am inadequate in real life.

In the past I have wondered about me going on about computer games which may be a decade old, imagining that most readers would at best only have a dim memory of them.  However, with Steam and even more so Good Old Games which Yammerhant introduced me to back in February of this year, much of what I have to say again becomes relevant.  Today's focus is on 'Freelancer'.  This is a game which involves you playing Trent a space trader in the distant future, moving between different planetary systems settled by the Americans, British/Irish, Japanese and Germans.  Such games have a long heritage going back to 'Star Trader' (1984) and of course, the famous 'Elite' (1984) on the ZX Spectrum and slightly more recently 'Wing Commander: Privateer' (1993) available for PCs (you can buy this off at the moment).  Like these earlier games 'Freelancer' works on the concept that you get a spaceship, you fly between a range of beautifully imaged planets and space stations buying and selling so that you become richer and can upgrade your ship.  You can also pick up missions from the various bodies in the different systems whether they be police, the military, bounty hunters or big corporations.

The variety of different settings, how the planets are shown even how the stores and bars on each planet look pretty different is a strong point.  A weakness is how few voice actors are used.  You can interact with a range of non-player characters of different nationalities with them all sounding like the US actor David Schwimmer.  There are only a few voices that sound British, German or Japanese.  The styling is quite fascinating especially for the Bretonnian (British) and Liberty (American) police and military with the Bretonnians wearing the red jackets and pith helmets of British forces in Africa or India in the 1860s and the Libertarians looking like members of the 7th Cavalry of the same era.  The Rheinlanders (Germans) resemble 19th century German politicians, only the Kusarians (Japanese) look like they are up with the times, wearing outfits that seem to have come from 'Blade Runner'.  The planets tend to look like these styles though the Liberty planets' cities look like contemporary San Francisco and the Kusarian ones very much like Tokyo or Los Angeles of 'Blade Runner' in contrast the Bretonnian ones are either heavily Gothic in style or look like an archetype of a 19th century mill town in northern England.

There are lots of items to buy and sell and a total of 48 systems to explore.  The prices do not change, so if you find a good deal shipping from one part of the galaxy to the other you can guarantee that you will keep earning.  You can also make money by undertaking the missions, usually capturing or eliminating pirates or revolutionaries.  This not only gets you cash but raises your reputation with the different authorities or corporations.  In addition, destroying the criminals you can use your tractor beam to scoop up cargo or weaponry which you can sell on.  Frustratingly in each nation's region you can only buy one of four ships: two types of light fighter, one type of heavy fighter and one type of freighter.  The craft look great and show the particular weaponry you select to buy on the images.  When damaged the graphics show this, sometimes your craft even on fire.  Whislt you can put on different weaponry and defences, again these are pretty limited by the level you can reach.  You raise through the odd levels through generating a certain level of wealth but you can only progress through the even levels by engaging with the storyline.

Though there is quite a lot of freedom to advance, you keep being dragged back to the linear story about a conspiracy in Liberty space involving the trafficking of alien artifacts and this is where the problems begin.  You start in Liberty space but soon become a renegade dragged into battles by a former commander in the LSF - Liberty Security Force an armed intelligence service.  These battles are ridiculously hard to even survive in.  There is so much crossfire from vessels far more powerful than your own that the only solution is to skulk around the edges; if you are directly targeted your shield and hull is literally stripped away in seconds and you are told you have failed.  If you do the sensible thing and flee then you lose as you are deemed to be a coward.  Even buying the best ship with all the defences I could, I have repeatedly go through these scenes again and again just to find the one occasion when I can survive and get to the next stage of the story.  Between phases of each part of the story you often have no chance to repair your ship or replenish your weaponry so you have to hope you can tractor beam in some shield batteries from the debris in order to stay alive.

I guess you could say that the set-piece battles need to be exciting.  However, having to listen to the cut scenes again and again and again to get a chance to try to survive once more gets very tedious.  However, this is not the only element of  'dead in seconds' found in 'Freelancer'.  The other problem is simply flying around trying to trade.  It is right that if carrying cargo you get held up by pirates trying to snatch this.  In some cases you can outrun them.  However, as you progress they gain cruise disruptor missiles which stop you escaping and your anti-missile flares seem unable to shake them off.  You can battle it out with the pirates and stand a real chance of winning and even scooping up valuable debris.  What is frustrating is that you can be leapt on anywhere.  When out in open space at least you have a chance to fight back, the problem comes when you are about to dock with station or go into one of the in-system trade lanes (these zap you across wide distances within a system a little faster but can be disrupted by pirates) or especially trying to go into inter-system jump gates.  Often you find the gates have some ahead of you and you are stuck in a queue whilst five or six pirates pummel your ship with laser weapons and missiles.  Even worse you emerge from a gate to find yourself under such attack before you can even ascertain the direction you need to head in to reach the next base.  The autosave returns you to emerging out of the gate so you just die and die again.  You must keep saving every time you stop at a base otherwise you will find your plans of making a profit are set back a long way the moment you take off.

'Freelancer' is a really engaging game.  Sometimes flying long distances with a cargo can get tedious, but the visuals help ameliorate that.  The key trouble is how difficult it is to simply get from one base to the next without being wiped out.  It is frustrating that you can become immensely wealthy and yet cannot buy a ship, weaponry or defences that make you even marginally safe among the packs of pirates.  You are limited in how many shield batteries (these repower your shield when it is damaged) and nanobots (these repair you hull if damaged) you can carry.  With the shield batteries even when you move on to a better ship you gain little as each repair uses more batteries the higher the level of the ship.  Thus even at level 10 you can still be eliminated in seconds  just as was the case at level 2.  Any revision of the game should reduce the sheer number of pirates hanging around the gates so at least you can advance a little without being blown apart.  There should also be greater freedom to move onto stronger ships and weaponry and especially defences as soon as you can afford these, so at least you can raise yourself to a level that you can trade without being killed again and again and again on a single flight between two locations.  There will always be an imbalance as you always fly alone and even in the set pieces you are incredibly out-numbered and your allies are pathetic; your opponents always come in groups, never less than two and often of five or six, so the odds will always be difficult even if you were not limited in how you can equip yourself.  Once again poor game play balance has spoilt what otherwise could be a stunning game.

The title of this posting was influenced by the song 'Smuggler's Blues' (1984) by Glen Frey, a song that inspired an episode of the 'Miami Vice' series shown in 1985 and featuring the singer.

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Blogging The Blog 13: Still Here After 5 Years

I have worried right throughout 2012 that I would run out of things to post in this blog.  I suppose if it dies from lack of issues to discuss then it dies.  Today, however, it is more about acknowledging the fact that five years on from beginning this blog it is still active.  As I wrote back in 2007 the typical life of a blog is 3 months.  It serves a particular focus and then it expires.  Blogs that last longer have something that keeps sustaining them.  I guess this is one reason why there are more blogs about fashion than anything else.  Fashion keeps changing, new styles come in, old ones are revived again and in between time there is room for lots of discussion not only about what the style looks like and how much it costs but how it looks on the blogger and other contributors to the site.  There is a constant refreshing of topics.

My blog has generally lack that regular refuelling.  In the first couple of years there was a large backlog of things that had been on my mind for many years.  Getting them on to this blog got them out of my system and I found that was good for establishing piece of mind.  In addition, bringing in my back catalogue of fiction, reminiscences and travel journals and photographs provided more material.  However, both of these sources were effectively 'fossil fuels' for the blog.  Similar sources were the various maps that I uncovered or 'borrowed' to put on this blog, though new ones do occasionally appear.  Counter-factual discussions are a finite source, but there are so many remaining that I could simply just do them as postings for the rest of this year and not run out.  Other more 'renewable' sources of discussion have come from the news.  The insane period in terms of the global economy and British politics we have experienced over the past five years and the deepening of social trends bubbling up since the 1990s have been a basis of discussion which is regularly renewing.  It is interesting how many people I have spoken to have felt that British society has seen a marked deterioration, primarily in respect over this period.  The UK in 2012 is certainly a much less pleasant place to live in even than it was in 2002.  That decade has also seen a decline in opportunities and the worsening of the quality of living for ordinary people.

Against this background, my own woes have provided far more postings than I ever would have envisaged back in May 2007.  At that stage we had been compelled to leave the house we had rented due to the landlord divorcing, but I was not yet aware of the fact that the landlord of the place we moved to had already defaulted on the mortgage and his father who acted as agent was set to intimidate us for months.  I was not aware either that I was going to go through two periods of redundancy and encounter two incredibly nasty line managers, though given what I have said in the paragraph above about the deterioration of the economy and British society, maybe I could have foreseen that that would have impacts on me personally.  If our landlord had behaved decently and if someone else rather than me had been selected for the first redundancy or even if I had been able to find work more quickly after that, then a lot of the entries on this blog would be missing. 

Now I once again face both losing my job and my house.  In many ways I am weary of the instability that the past six years have brought and just wish I had had less material for this blog.  On the other hand, without this blog, I know that I would have handled things far less effectively.  This blog has been a great release for me.  It is like a diary but one freed in large part from chronological constraints.  Not only has writing about the bad things that have happened to me provided release, it has also provided support, some of which has been featured in the comments on this blog but has also been 'offline' in emails.  It may be wrong to air one's troubles but the benefits have been great for me and I have no regret in doing so.  Perhaps in some cases it has even helped others to see they are not alone in experiencing these challenges.

I do think that this blog is nearing the end of its natural life.  My own life does not seem to be approaching any degree of stability and given the economic climate may not do so for many years from now.  However, I am finding that I have covered so many topics, that 'new' things I turn to write about seem very much like what I have written before.  Perhaps updates are all that will come to this blog in the future.  Of course, much of what I have discussed here is not what attracts the largest audience to this blog.  Certainly it seems that if I want to gain fame for this blog I should simply write essays on James Bond movies.  This along with counter-factual analysis which can be used in school level essays appear to be the main draws.  Naturally it was never about the audience, it was more about a the anger/despair management that blogging provides and this blog has done that service very well.