The Blog Post In Which I Try To Piss Off 1.357 Billion People
Do you ever wonder what it's all about? Well, this post tells you and it's not good news

Every month there are moments I dread. I don’t mean dread as in ‘there’s yet another picture of Caitlin Moran’s mug gurning on the cover The Times‘ type horror, though those are pretty pant soiling when they take you unawares with ‘cargo on the ramp’, so to speak. No, I mean moments I know are coming but still depress me when they occur.

One such moment of lurking dread is when I start to run low on bandwidth. Some months, my server emails me the warning message around the 20th and I feel pretty grim in the knowledge that my websites will go dark within days. This might seem odd, even mildly hypocritical, given that I sometimes go weeks without updating this blog, but even in my lapses, I still like to think that The Spine is here disagreeing with 90% of what the rest of world thinks. I also know my blog doesn’t load as fast as I’d like (damn you, the other 100+ websites on this shared host) and I’ve explored options of moving to a cloud server, even a low level VPS, which is a virtual private server providing processor capacity available to load the site quickly for anybody visiting. However, until the prices of those services drop a little more, I’m stuck here sharing web resources with countless cheese appreciation websites, military re-enactment societies, and whatever other freaks of British culture think they need a web presence.

This month’s bandwidth message arriving late last night and in the early hours, I found myself examining my monthly stats, which I haven’t done in very long time. That’s how I came to make the shocking discovery that China is eating up my bandwidth. I don’t want to understate the significance of this so let me put it in the following way: I’m under attack from the RED CHINESE!

Damn those hardline communist capitalist types who have already eaten 12.40 GB of my allowance this month and make my site slow to load. But that got me to thinking: why are the Chinese reading my blog?

The only answer that reasonably makes sense is that they’re not reading my blog. They’re finding my blog, they’re loading my blog, and they’re doing something with my blog but I’m not sure what or if it’s entirely legal. My best theory is that they’re to blame for all the spam I receive and I do get spam like it’s arriving by freight container straight from Asia. Countless fake comments arrive in my inbox every hour and I get hundreds of spam emails from Chinese companies daily trying to sell me plastic crates. That’s right: plastic crates.

For no apparent reason, one particular post, which I titled ‘The Great Slag Heap‘, gets hammered hard by Chinese spammers. There are probably a few hundred comments on that one article alone that I’ve yet to clear out of my Spam filter and every one will be trying to send you to this garish website which my rudimentary Mandarin tells me either promotes the godfather of plastic crates or the Chinese Graham Norton.

Spammer

Clearly I need to act but at the moment, I just can’t afford to fund a military blockade of China’s ports, a ban on their exports, or even a covert hacking program on their IT networks.  So how do I block China?

I’ve done my research and I’ve discovered there are low level changes I can make to the htaccess file on my server which would block Chinese IP addresses but, frankly, that seems too much effort and not enough fun. Plus I think my solution is much simpler.

Tibet.

You know Tibet? Snow. Yeti. Strange wooden rollers you spin whilst chanting ‘The Krankies are evil’ under your breath…

You might also know that China has a terrible human rights record, especially towards the peace loving people of Tibet.  The Dali Llama is always bending Prince Charles’s ears about it (hard work, they’re big ears) and then Charles begins to do that thing he does with his mouth and name drops Richard Gere before jetting across the world to tell Bono that everybody should stop jetting across the world and start riding Yaks to work.

‘Freedom for Tibet’ is what I often hear myself chanting around the 20th of the month and I’d like to take a page out of the book of Chinese dissident artist, Ai Weiwei, and dance Gungham style in opposition to Chinese authorities in Beijing who clearly support their plastic crate industry’s spamming operation.

Tibet. Tibet. Tibet.

Free speech. Liberty. Hong Kong protests. Jackie Chan’s films aren’t as good as they used to be.

SootySaysFreeTibetCheap Chinese radios. Poor working conditions inside Chinese factories. I don’t like iPads. Pot Noodles are horrible. I particularly hate the curry flavoured Pot Noodles. Not sure curry is Chinese. I think it’s Indian, or something we British brought over from India and then made our own. Not that I have a problem with Indians visiting my blog. They don’t nick 12Gb of bandwidth in order to sell me plastic crates.

Bad Chinese stereotypes. You can’t beat ‘em! The Li Kee Shipyard in that Pink Panther movie? I can’t remember the title but it was the one where he dresses up as a gangster and somebody breaks wind in a lift. Hong Kong Phooey wasn’t Chinese but at least he didn’t make Buddhist monks set themselves on fire.

China. Human Rights. China. Human Rights. Hey guys! Let’s riot in Hong Kong!

Taiwan is an independent nation. It’s not part of China even if we do tend to say ‘cheap Chinese rubbish’ whenever we spot ‘Made in Taiwan’ on the handle of the frying pan that just melted when we put it on the stove. Is that racist? Can you be racist towards a plastic frying pan? I don’t know but eating dogs it pretty horrible but nowhere near as bad as eating spitting cobra soup or the penis hacked from the corpse of a frozen Norwegian you mistakenly thought was a polar bear.

Oh, they can try to stifle free speech with their so called Great Internet Wall of China, which prevents the good and honourable people of China from accessing foreign websites that promote FREEDOM FOR TIBET but we won’t be silenced, even if that means my website being added to the blacklist that would make it impossible to access from within China. Oh, I won’t be silenced even if that means I’ll regain 12Gb of bandwidth I’m paying for each and every month and the Chinese are STEALING FROM ME. Not when something as important as freedom for the Chinese people is concerned.

Did I mention Tiananmen Square? I think I should.

There. That should do it. At the time of my writing this, my website is accessible from within China. Here’s the proof (or you can check yourself, here).

China

I’ll be monitoring the Chinese situation over the coming days. Hopefully, the automatic Chinese censor will step in and ban my domain.  If the hits from mainland China stop, this website might make it through to the end of the month without my feeling guilty that I’ve not coughed up more money to keep it live so the Chinese can spam me some more.

Meanwhile, if for any reason, you suddenly can’t read this blog in the coming days, it means that my bandwidth has run out until it resets on the 1st November. Either that or you’re in China, in which case, you and 1.357 billion other people are entirely on your own. Xhù ni hao yùn!

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On The Wisdom of a Crowd
This post contains 4 causes of apostasy yet may cause you to cry 'hallelujah'

Alongside being clean shaven, untattooed, and not owning a car the size and weight of a militarised state, it’s also unfashionable to be elitist. As a rule, it’s not something that characterises my interactions with the world. I like many lowbrow things and I don’t necessarily find the distinctions between high and low culture to be that useful. There are many highbrow things that are risible. Conversely, many apparently lowbrow things are intelligent, articulate, and, for want of a better word, artful. For example, I’ve recently beegormann watching as much of Dave Gorman‘s work as I could find. His ‘Googlewhack Adventure’ is unbelievably good: being thought provoking, serious, and uplifting at the same time as it’s simply very funny. Yet I’ve also been trying to find an angle to understand the work of David Shrigley which has left me feeling plain confused about my own notions of ‘good’ and ‘bad’.

So, even if I don’t really like the thought of my being ‘elitist’, sometimes I just can’t help it. It also means I recognise that the following might make you mutter to yourself, ‘oh, everybody has a right to an opinion’ or ‘opinions are like arseholes in that everybody has one’. I also know that there is a form of Kryptonite to my argument in that over-used phrase that hits me in a sensitive place because I don’t have a well-reasoned response. That phrase is: ‘well, who is to say what’s right?’ I utterly despise that phrase. You often hear it used by people about to lose an argument and instead throw this form of relativism into the mix simply in order to muddy the intellectual waters as they make their swift exit. It’s like the phrase, ‘we’ll have to agree to disagree’ to which I instinctively want to scream, ‘no, I don’t bloody well agree’.

So, yes, ‘who is to say what’s right’ might be the answer to what follows but that’s not going to stop me declaring in a totally unabashed way, prodding myself proudly in the chest as I go: ‘Bugger that! This time, I’m more right than them!’

Let me start off by saying that the website Goodreads is symptomatic of everything that’s wrong with the modern world. If it represents the wisdom of the crowd, then it proves that that the crowd simply has no wisdom about it. The crowd is a mob of generally inarticulate morons who talk such banal verbal effluent that nobody with any sense would listen to what they have to say. Yet this shouldn’t come as a surprise. The philosopher, Daniel C. Dennett, explains the phenomenon well in his book, Intuition Pumps (3.85 rating on Goodreads).

Ninety percent of everything is crap. Ninety percent of experiments in molecular biology, 90 percent of poetry, 90 percent of philosophy books, 90 percent of peer-reviewed articles in mathematics — and so forth — is crap.

I think 90 is a good working number. The real figure might be more, it might be less, but it’s not by a significant margin wrong. It means that 90% of opinions are crap (including, with a 90% probability, my own) and, I contend, that 90% of reviews and scores on the website Goodreads are crap.

Let me demonstrate why I know this…

HODWithout sounding too precious about such things, I consider Joseph Conrad’s book, Heart of Darkness, to be a sublime work of literature. Conrad, despite English being his third language, was probably the greatest writer of English narrative prose the world has ever seen, with, notably another non-native speaker, Vladimir Nabokov, possibly the second best (see Pale File, 4.19 or Lolita, rated 3.85). Even if I’m wrong and somebody could offer me the names of two finer prose writers (Fitzgerald, perhaps, or Hemmingway — The Old Man and The Sea, rated 3.63 on Goodreads, part of why he won the Nobel Prize but about which ‘Matt’ writes “Worst book ever. Just throw the fucking fish back in. Fuck”), Conrad must surely be in the upper fringes of greatness. George Orwell ranked him “as one of the best writers of this century” and his influence is almost singular in its range and scope. Why is that? I suppose it’s because his work has moral depth but even if you’re not alive to the themes of his books, his style is unmistakable. He used words in a way that it’s simply hard to describe. Here, for example, is the second paragraph from the first chapter of Heart of Darkness.

The sea-reach of the Thames stretched before us like the beginning of an interminable waterway. In the offing the sea and the sky were welded together without a joint, and in the luminous space the tanned sails of the barges drifting up with the tide seemed to stand still in red clusters of canvas sharply peaked, with gleams of varnished sprits. A haze rested on the low shores that ran out to sea in vanishing flatness. The air was dark above Gravesend, and farther back still seemed condensed into a mournful gloom, brooding motionless over the biggest, and the greatest, town on earth.

I still feel a shiver when I read these lines. They’re so measured, with a level tone that switches from a geographic languor into a verbal ease. It sets a quiet, subdued scene that will slowly give way the spiritual violence of the book that peers into the darkest places of the human soul. The book is also a wonderful expression of what it means to be human. Its message is one step away from pure nihilism — the rational notion that we are mere flesh and that there is no morality — yet, it ultimately pulls away from that abyss and expresses something spiritual. Civilisation is a lie we tell ourselves but Conrad believes in the significance of that lie. The irrational lie is what defines us. The ability to hold the paradox of a lie also being the truth is possibly the greatest power we possess.

I could talk about Heart of Darkness for hours but I hope that’s enough to make my point that I believe it to be one of the great artistic achievements of the 20th century. I also believe it’s one of the greatest achievements of world literature and a pinnacle of our world history. If wars mark our species as flawed, corrupt, perhaps even evil, then I would offer into evidence that short book called Heart of Darkness as proof that we’re better than that, that we recognise our evil and can choose a better path.

This, of course, is the same Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad which on Goodreads scores 3.38 out of 5 and, at the time of my writing this, has 203,743 votes cast.

Let me put that into context.

‘Heart of Darkness’ by Felicity Heaton (a Goodreads author) has a score of 4.21. It is a better book and she a better writer by a mathematical value of 0.83, or, I suggest, the entire literary output of Russell Brand. I’ve not read ‘Heart of Darkness’ by Felicity Heaton but the synopsis goes like this:

A vampire prince on a four hundred year old mission to avenge his murdered sister… Aleksandr Nemov won’t stop until the last of the vampire hunter’s progeny is wiped from the Earth. Each kill has stolen a piece of his humanity, pushing him towards the black abyss all vampires hold within their hearts. Now he is teetering on the edge, close to devolving into a beast, and time is running out as he tracks the last hunter to Prague. There he finds a beautiful woman who could be his one chance for salvation, but is it already too late for him?

Perhaps you don’t fancy this masterpiece so why not try ‘Heart of Darkness (Lords of the Underworld #4.5)’ by Gena Showalter (Goodreads Author), Maggie Shayne (Goodreads Author), Susan Krinard? This ‘Heart of Darkness’ has a score of 4.15 with 7,204 ratings, a whole  0.77 better than Conrad’s now obviously risible attempt at writing a book. The synopsis begins:

From the masters of paranormal romance, three brand-new tales of seduction…

The Darkest Angel by Gena Showalter

A Lords of the Underworld tale

An iron-willed demon assassin, the angel Lysander has never known lust—until he meets Bianka. Spawned from the bloodline of Lucifer, the beautiful but deadly Harpy is determined to lead the pure-hearted Lysander into temptation….

If neither demons nor vampires are your thing, there’s also ‘Heart of Darkness’ by Ferida Durakovi?, which sounds a good deal more serious. It only has 6 reviews but it scores 4.00.

Ferida Durakovic refused to leave Sarajevo when the bombs began to fall. Having seen her home and library bombed, she invokes in her poems the icons and myths of a troubled people caught between the two dominant religions of Europe. The first English-language collection by one of Bosnia’s most promising young poets shows us how when the world is narrowed by guns, one’s field of reference widens so much that “everything hurts.”

Thankfully, it turns out that not everything written and called ‘Heart of Darkness’ is a better book than Joseph Conrad’s story of Marlow and Kurtz battling for our souls. I feel almost thankful for ‘Heart of Darkness’ by Jaide Fox. It has 2.0 of 5 stars, which doesn’t seem quite fair given the synopsis…

He took her in the night…the Night Rider, Wolfe Sinclair. Powerful, wealthy, devastating, and cursed by darkness, nothing would stop him from possessing Isabeau Hart. For untold years he’d sought her, the other half of his soul, and he would allow nothing to stand in his way. Only with her willing surrender could he hope to be brought back into the light.

It’s also a good deal longer than Conrad’s meditation on human evil but does require a warning that it contains ‘graphic adult language and sexual situations with mild violence. Includes oral sex and anal play. Paranormal Romance set in Regency period with elements of fantasy and magick.’ Forget Kurtz’s words, ‘the horror! the horror!’ or ‘exterminate the brutes!’. Nothing shocks and disgusts me more than those paranormal romances set in the Regency period.

If I expand my remit a little, we also find titles like ‘In The Heart Of Darkness (In Darkness #01)’ by C.M. Torrens (Goodreads Author). It’s highly rated with 4.27 of 5 stars.

Devonn has lived his entire life in Darkness and chained to the will of another for centuries. When the chance to become free arrives in the form of an ancient soul, Devonn grabs it and runs. But taking the soul and keeping it are two different things. Hunted by demons and a stubborn soul that tests his sanity, Devonn seeks sanctuary with a group of survivors, but he doesn’t expect to find himself drawn to the surly ironsmith thwarting his charms.

There’s also ‘A Light in the Heart of Darkness: The Guardian Heart Crystal Series (Guardian Heart Crystal #4)’ by Amy Blankenship (Goodreads Author), scoring the highest of all these books with 4.7 out of 5 stars.

To Kyoko, mythical creatures are something you rent and watch on a Saturday night with your friends. When a mysterious stalker turns the shadows around her into dark corners with sharp deadly edges, will she be able to hide from the past? Darkness has fallen upon the world again and the guardians have been awaiting the resurrection. Though they are thought to be creatures of myth, in this reality they are far more real than people think. Only when the moon is high will these creatures, these guardians, battle the evil that seeks to overtake the world and the girl who holds ultimate power. the light in the heart of darkness.

I could carry on but I don’t want to labour my point…

But what is my point?

My point, I suppose, is about ‘wisdom of the crowd’, an ancient concept yet one that might be said to define our age. Everywhere we look, we’re asked to rate our experiences of books, music,  films, restaurants, hotels, shops, products, teachers, doctors, and even prostitutes. You might laugh and point out that criticising this is meaningless. This is the age old problem of highbrow meeting lowbrow. Yet, I’m not so sure it really is the same. This goes beyond mere opinion in the same way we are increasingly influenced by other people’s scores on Amazon, for example.

You can try this on nearly any product you like, so long as it has a good sample of reviews. For my purposes, I’m looking at the reviews for the ‘M-Audio Keystation Mini 32 Ultra-Portable Keyboard Controller for PC/Mac/iPad’ simply because I was looking at them earlier in a moment of idle dreaming. At the time of writing, it has 75 reviews that give it 5 stars, 23 give it 4 stars, 8 give it 3 stars, 2 give it 2 stars, and 9 give it the lowest rating possible, one star. The one star reviews are always the most fun to read. The review that I want to highlight is by ‘Stutheowl’ who begins:

Just to set the record straight before we get started. The product was fine and did exactly what it said on the tin

Which immediately makes you wonder why Stutheowl has given it one star which also ‘does what it says on the tin’ and informs us that Stutheowl thinks the ‘M-Audio Keystation Mini 32 Ultra-Portable Keyboard Controller for PC/Mac/iPad’ is crap.

but unfortunatley [sic] it was too small, so we had to send it back.

Of course, you then begin to wonder if perhaps the keyboard was perfectly fine but Stutheowl’s hands were too big. One star for Stutheowl’s fingers, perhaps?

That is when the fun started. The company selling the product is called Juno and i had to contact them for a return number. I made 3 phone calls and sent four emails and eventually had to threaten to inform Amazon and put in a customer complaint before i had any contact from the company. Eventually we got a returns slip on the 19th January and posted the product the following day. We are now on the 11th February and the money has still not been refunded back into my account. My intentions were to buy the bigger version from Juno, when they had refunded my money, however i have chosen to shop elsewhere, and have spent three times the amount on a keyboard, which is their loss. So to close this review i would just like to say, “JUNO, WHERE’S MY MONEY”!!!!

This begins to show why, even on a very fundamental level, the wisdom of crowds is problematic. Stutheowl down rates an otherwise excellent product for reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with the product in question. It’s not uncommon. Most popular products suffer bad ratings because of sellers, packaging, and non-delivery.

However,  I began to wonder: might the same true of Heart of Darkness? Unfortunately not. I began to read some of the 17975 reviews that give is a single star and this is a random selection from the first couple of pages.

Samantha says:

” I’m not even kidding when I say I was assigned this godforsaken piece of shit THREE TIMES in my school career. Everysinglefuckingtime I rage quit, just skimmed the cliff-notes version, and took my C+ with grace and thankfulness, thinking, HOPING, this time would be the last.”

terri (not written as presented because I can’t embed flowers into her name) says:

“If I could give this book no stars, I would. Basically, this book is racist and also badly written.”

FooOOOOf writes:

“Oh my god this book sucks. it’s 100 pages, but it feels more like 1000. How Conrad manages to do that, I have no clue. Nothing even happens. This book is a fine example of how you should not write a book.”

Rusalka says “It felt like reading an Old Spice ad.”

Hannah says ” Finishing it was the best bit.”

Erick says (so politely, I almost feel bad quoting him):

“Sorry, Mr. Conrad – I find your work to be a miserable wreck. Not to offend anyone who liked it, but this is a sprawling mess – pretentious at best; racist dreck at worst. Stylistically it made me want to punch puppies. I award you no points and may God have mercy on your soul.”

‘Rachel’ glowingly compares it to Avatar but somehow that’s meant to be an insult. “What the ACTUAL FUCK was this? 1890’s answer to Avatar?” she writes before going on to present a simply wonderful synopsis of the book that reveals ABSOLUTELY NO CRITICAL ACUMEN WHATSOEVER:

FOR ABSOLUTELY NO GOOD REASON I COULD SEE, this is narrated by a dude named Marlow. About three pages are wasted describing his boat on the Thames, which has NOTHING TO DO WITH THE STORY. NOTHING. He starts telling his fellow sailors about the time he joined a French company in KILLING ELEPHANTS – that is, exporting ivory from Africa. There were multiple teeth-gritting descriptions the like of which you would never actually SAY to anyone, which furthered my annoyance with the mode of narrative chosen.

ANYWAY, he travels to the ‘heart of darkness’ on a steamboat. His role is never fully explained, but he ends up going to the inner station to pick up a sick guy by the name of Kurtz, who is by way of being the best extractor of DEAD ELEPHANT around. He is also involved with the local tribes who seem to worship him as a god? Idk? He dies on the way back and entrusts his papers to Marlow, even though Marlow hates him, but also worships him – it changes from page to page. These papers suggest a way of taming the savages by benevolence or something. It’s not the main focus of the story. I don’t know WHAT the main focus of the story is. Aside from STUPID.

The library copy is a Norton Critical Edition, which I understand is for university students, but they sure make some dumb university students in Brown if they have to have ‘gingery’ explained to them. (Also, if you didn’t know what a mine was, how would the explanation ‘subterranean explosive charge’ help?) There are loads of textual appendages for a book 75 pages long, but I am too annoyed to read them, so if anyone wants to explain WTAF this book is, please feel free.

Perhaps you will think it passing strange this regret for a savage who was no more account than a grain of sand in a black Sahara.

Amazingly, I thought this book was ANTI-racist. Boy, was I wrong.

I thought about leaving this here but that would be a measly thing to do. Instead, I realised I had to attempt to explain the book, or at least, comment on Rachel’s comment:

FOR ABSOLUTELY NO GOOD REASON I COULD SEE,

>> Well, it’s obvious that if you can’t see a reason, there mustn’t be one, and since you’ve capitalised your objection, it must even more valid.

this is narrated by a dude named Marlow.

>> Dude? Well, whatever…

About three pages are wasted describing his boat on the Thames, which has NOTHING TO DO WITH THE STORY. NOTHING.

>> Again, if you think there’s no reason why Conrad devotes these pages to the description of the Nellie and the Thames, then it must have nothing to do with the story. Alternatively, we might make a point about the opening highlighting calm, civilisation and, in essence, the person of the Director of Companies: ” On the whole river there was nothing that looked half so nautical. He resembled a pilot, which to a seaman is trustworthiness personified. It was difficult to realize his work was not out there in the luminous estuary, but behind him, within the brooding gloom.”

>> It leads us to the most important line in the entire book and the essence of Conrad’s theme:

>> “And this also,” said Marlow suddenly, “has been one of the dark places of the earth.”

He starts telling his fellow sailors about the time he joined a French company in KILLING ELEPHANTS – that is, exporting ivory from Africa. There were multiple teeth-gritting descriptions the like of which you would never actually SAY to anyone, which furthered my annoyance with the mode of narrative chosen.

>> Neither Brad Pitt nor George Clooney were alive in 1899 so people didn’t then know that the killing of elephants was wrong. Of course, people did many bad things in 1899 which we wouldn’t dream of doing now but we do many bad things that the people of 1899 wouldn’t think of doing. And this is also the theme of the novel: morality isn’t absolute.

ANYWAY, he travels to the ‘heart of darkness’ on a steamboat. His role is never fully explained, but he ends up going to the inner station to pick up a sick guy by the name of Kurtz, who is by way of being the best extractor of DEAD ELEPHANT around.

>> Pretty accurate. Marlow is the captain of the steamboat which the company’s manager was to take to travel into the interior to meet Kurtz who was rumoured to be ill.

He is also involved with the local tribes who seem to worship him as a god? Idk? He dies on the way back and entrusts his papers to Marlow, even though Marlow hates him, but also worships him – it changes from page to page.

>> Marlow hates the ‘truth’ that Kurtz expresses. It’s almost a Freudian battle between the id and superego, or rather between Nietzschean philosophy versus the Christian teachings upon which most of European civilisation was founded and, you could possibly even argue, was instrumental in the intellectual climate that led to World War 2. Kurtz is pure reason, expressing things which are stripped of compassion but he also expresses a profoundly bleak outlook. Marlow faces a choice which he ultimately makes at the end of the book when he lies to Kurtz’s ‘intended’, saying that Kurtz died speaking her name. His chooses to live life based on a lie than the truth which would have spiraled into madness.

These papers suggest a way of taming the savages by benevolence or something. It’s not the main focus of the story. I don’t know WHAT the main focus of the story is. Aside from STUPID.

>> No, the papers suggest the they should ‘exterminate the brutes’ but this isn’t meant to simply refer to the tribes of Africa but all humanity. Conrad actually is sympathetic to the indigenous people, in the words of the manager who repeated states throughout the book that ‘they are simple people’

The library copy is a Norton Critical Edition, which I understand is for university students, but they sure make some dumb university students in Brown if they have to have ‘gingery’ explained to them.

>> The word ‘gingery’ is used once in the book: “He positively danced, the bloodthirsty little gingery beggar.” Perhaps it needs explaining. Not everybody has your way with words, especially those dumb university students at Brown…

(Also, if you didn’t know what a mine was, how would the explanation ‘subterranean explosive charge’ help?) There are loads of textual appendages for a book 75 pages long, but I am too annoyed to read them, so if anyone wants to explain WTAF this book is, please feel free.

>> I don’t know what WTAF means [Update: I'll save you the trouble of looking. It means 'what the actual fuck']. I could do with some textural appendages. Regarding ‘mine’, the meaning is now more commonly used to mean an explosive triggered by standing on it. I assume the note was to indicate an older meaning.

Perhaps you will think it passing strange this regret for a savage who was no more account than a grain of sand in a black Sahara.

Amazingly, I thought this book was ANTI-racist. Boy, was I wrong.

>> There have been countless accusations of racism leveled towards Conrad and possibly as many defences written. Historical context is important and the moral high ground that people now take is simply afforded to them by the fact that the book was written over 100 years ago, when society was very different and words such as ‘racism’ didn’t exist. In fact, the OED cites the first use of the word as occurring in 1902, coined by a man called Richard Henry Pratt. You could argue: accusing Conrad of racism is as foolish as accusing you of crimes towards capital letters should we discover in 100 years that capital letters have a soul which is tortured when they’re used in close proximity to one another. To accuse Conrad of racism is to overlook that Conrad was also addressing the immoral actions of Western companies (specifically the Belgians) in the Congo, brutalities that he himself had witnessed and eventually led to a mental breakdown on his return to London. Many hold the justifiable view that his book is a critique of imperialist attitudes towards the indigenous people. Moreover, the argument can be made that Conrad isn’t specifically talking about race or colour but the nature of our species. The fact that he talks a great deal about black and white simply (and unfortunately) ties in with a modern (and extremely simplistic) preoccupation with race that is more telling about our own insecurities than Conrad’s supposed racism. In a broader sense, western culture has for centuries used black and white to describe morality, a morality which is inverted in the book since whiteness is often associated with crimes. The book is more than simply anti-racist. It is the ultimate expression of a humanitarian doctrine that places the dignity and happiness of individuals  over the needs (and wants) of companies, societies, nations, or, indeed philosophies.

But now I’ve written too much and, at the very least, I’ve come across as lecturing and, at worst, elitist. Yet that’s always going to be a problem of addressing this kind of rubbish. When Daniel C. Dennett warned us that 90% of things are crap, he also warned that if you’re going to criticize them, “make sure you concentrate on the best stuff you can find”. However, he also adds: “unless you are a comedian whose main purpose is to make people laugh at ludicrous buffoonery, spare us the caricature’.Well, I guess that gives me a window of opportunity.

Even if I didn’t try to make the ludicrous buffoonery as funny as I might have wanted, I felt an urge to highlight the absurdity simply because there’s a sense that we have to accept this nonsense because it’s written in a sense of generous sharing of experiences and that ‘every voice is equal’. What worries me is that if enough people say enough dumb things loudly enough, those dumb things begin to look like the truth. That, in essence, seems to be a good description of the internet: dumb things said enough times by dumb people so it has a simulacrum of truth.

Next year, I expect Heart of Darkness to have a lower rating on Goodreads and lower again the year after that. There’s nothing I can do to stop it except write this, post it, and move on. We live in a global hyper-connected community and there are now very few places that aren’t also one of the dark places of the earth. All I can hope is that after reading this, perhaps you’ll also whisper after me: the horror! the horror!

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On My Way Out
This post will introduce you to obscure rhymes like 'vang' and 'kiang'

I’d intended on writing a blog post today about something. I had observations to make and I thought I perform a kind of free-form grouch but I find myself rushing for the train. I’m going into Liverpool to buy a connecting link for my bike chain. I was miles from home yesterday when the chain broke. It’s the latest in a series of ongoing disasters with my bike and indicative that it either needs a serious service (I checked online and I’m talking £100+ of things wrong with it) or I need a new bike. It means I’m trying to fix things myself, which I know I can do with a certain reluctance, even if it means not doing them particularly well. Perhaps I’ll take photos of my day out. No doubt Liverpool city centre is dominated by a bonfire where fools are burning likenesses of Mario Balotelli. I like Mario and I think he could be a success at Liverpool if only the manager played him in the correct role and stopped ignoring the fact that our defence is hopeless. But that would lead me into one of those free-form grouches about Brendan Rodgers and his teeth. Teeth, I think, say a lot about a person and Brendan Rodger’s teeth suggest to me that he’s a bit of flash harry, who loves the glamour of fluid football but doesn’t like the humble job of coaching defenders…

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Badly Signed Books
This post is accepted as a peace offering in 3 out of 4 tribal disputes

Signed books fascinate me. I can’t stop myself from taking a peek whenever I see an example on the shelf and I snapped these three recently because two of them demonstrate something that particularly galls me.

Autographs

Unfortunately, I don’t own any of the three books (though I really covet the one of the right). On the left is the ‘signature’ of children’s author Derek Landy. The middle is, obviously, Lee Child, author of the Jack Reacher books. On the right is a copy of the book for which Julian Barnes won the Man Booker Prize. Needless to say, I only consider one of these to be a ‘signed’ edition. The other two are merely ‘scrawl’.

Derek Landy and Lee Child aren’t the only examples of this and it would be extremely unfair to single them out. However, looking at my own shelves here, I can’t find anything as bad as these.

Will Self’s signature might be a bit cryptic but at least he lifted his pen off the page more than twice.

WS

Steve Martin’s looks like Stan Martin but it’s an authentic bit of penmanship…

SM

And I really can’t complain about my copy of Howard Jacobson’s Finkler’s Question. Real pen mileage went into this signature.

HJ

This made me wonder. Why do too many writers resort to the initial and line technique? The Landy and Child are merely the best/worst  I have at hand (I tend not to buy signed copies, even of authors I like, when their’ signatures look like they sneezed whilst signing them) but what passes through the mind of the author when scrawling something like this? I assume it’s boredom, an indifference to the task at hand. It’s as perfunctory as a dog pissing to mark its territory. Is there something deeply psychological in the way you write your name? Is the most telling detail found not in the first letters but what comes after? Writers who scrawl a line with the merely hint towards their initials seem to say to me: I really don’t care about my readers. I have neither the time nor the energy to invest any effort into this signature, even if I know you’ll cherish it. Of course, they might (and probably would) argue that they’re signing thousands, perhaps (if they’re lucky) tens of thousands, but isn’t this also true of Julian Barnes who is (arguably) the more successful writer? What about Alan Bennett? I own two of his signed books and they’re signed exactly the same way as he signs his letters (the inset example is from the letter I published in my Stan Madeley book).

AlanBennett

If Alan Bennett doesn’t have a ‘signing scrawl’, why should other authors be so sloppy? I know you can’t read the character of a person simply by examining their handwriting but I can’t help but wonder if the way the sign their books is significant. I cherish a well-signed book. The rest, for me, are not worth the paper they’re scribbled on.

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Testing… Testing…
This post contains detailed instructions for building your own burlap tongue

A week last Sunday, I was sitting in the Accident & Emergency room at Whiston Hospital. It was my first visit to an A&E but my sister was really unwell and we’d thought it important to have her checked out. Though that’s not the reason I write this, I would like to say how amazed I was at the whole experience. We walked in to learn that waiting times were up to 5 hours. I was shocked but we sat down, feeling that we had no choice. My sister was feeling really unwell but in the waiting room, they were showing Formula One. We moved away and sat in a small room to the side. Soon after, some fool put X Factor on and the horrendous music was blaring out, making my sister feel worse. To be honest, I was feeling pretty shabby because there are few things I hate more than the X Factor. However, after about three and a half hours, we did see a young Scottish doctor who, without exaggerating, was simply amazing. My faith is the NHS was (partially) restored that day and my sympathy for A&E staff went up enormously after seeing people arrive with a wide variety of conditions. Most, I’d harbour to guess, could have been sorted by their local GP. There seems to be far too many people holding a thumb (no visible damage) or limping on mildly twisted ankles. However, I’m the wrong kind of doctor to diagnose such things but it didn’t surprise me that A&E is struggling when there’s such a disparity between those who looked really ill (and I notice most of those were admitted) and those that were given a painkiller and politely shown the door.

The reason I mention this: we’d been sat down for about half an hour when a young boy came and sat in the seat opposite. He was with his father and was busy playing on his iPad. I glanced casually at he game he was playing and felt my stomach sink as I realised he was playing a version of my game. A *much* better version of my game. Well, I say much better but only because it looked glitzy. It didn’t seem to have good gameplay or much skill but it was definitely the product of a team of programmers/sound engineers/graphic artists. It put into context the mediocrity of my own achievement.

Yet when I look back on the past few months of constant distractions, I’m amazed that I’ve managed to finish a project. I’m now in the process of getting every small wrinkle worked out ahead of my publishing ‘the game’ on the Google Play store. It’s miserable work. The beginning is always the enjoyable part of any project, whether it’s writing a blog, a book, drawing a cartoon or comic, or writing an app or computer game. Writing new code is wonderfully exhilarating as you shape the hardware to do what you want. You face problems along the way but nothing beats that moment that all the problems fall away and you have a result that’s pleasing to you.

At the other end of the project, life becomes a bit of a toil. You simply think that nothing you’ve done is worthwhile. You get hung up on small things which are often beyond your power to fix. For example, my game occasionally displays a glitch caused by the physics engine. I’ve done everything in my power to fix it but I know that there will be rare cases when the glitch will happen. I hate settling for ‘the best I can do’ but, really, I know this is the best I can do without actually writing a new physics engine to suit my purposes. Even if that were within my powers, it wouldn’t be worth the months of work.

So, instead, I’m constantly playing my game. A friend asked me the other day what I was doing. I said I was debugging. Then they saw I was playing a game. ‘Oh, is that what programmers mean whey they say they’re mean by debugging? Are they actually playing games all day?’

In a way, I suppose they’re right but it’s not really ‘play’. There’s no fun in sitting here trying to break a game or making it glitch because I’m deliberately playing it the wrong way. And the more I do sit here testing it, the more I despise so many little things about it. They might be things I come back and fix if I release an update. I suppose it will depend on the number of people who play it and if anybody actually gives me any positive feedback. This is my second proper game I’ve finished but the first I’ll actually publish. As I sit here writing this, I find myself wishing it out of the door and gone. I want to do something new and interesting. It’s been two long hard months and I want to do something that will stretch me again.

 

***

Apropos of nothing: I recently launched a new blog. Not that I’m advertising it here. It was one of my stupid ideas to which I wouldn’t want to attach my name. It was something to do whilst I was coding and since it took very little time to create it, I had fun. It amused me. Until, that is, I thought I should try to attract readers. The blog has been live three weeks and so far it has had zero visitors. The Googlebot has dropped by a few times and my pages are indexed on Google. But real visitors: none. I suppose I should be disappointed but I’m just resigned to the fact that Google is no longer really relevant. Unless my blog gets picked up and passed around via Facebook or Twitter (and I really cannot be arsed getting ‘social’), it might as well not exist. Such is the way of the world which moves on towards the next big thing quickly and without compassion. Like Facebook was usurped by Twitter, and Youtube was suddenly the old folk’s version of Vine, blogging is already a thing of the distant past. As relevant today as poetry, novels, and film in cameras.

 

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So Who Destroyed The Works?
38% of this post was written whilst kneeling, 29% standing, and the rest prone

The-Works-imageI’m now convinced that something has changed. Somebody has deliberately destroyed The Works.

I’m talking about the chain of bookshops that sell remaindered or discounted books and I know ‘destroyed’ sounds provocative but I’m basing it on the evidence of my visiting three different stores in the past month and noticing exactly the same thing.

Before I say what’s changed, I think I should be open and admit that I rarely find my good reasons to go shopping. I’m into neither clothes nor mobile phones so 95% of the shops on the average high street hold no interest. I love bookshops and although Manchester’s Waterstones on Deansgate is pretty much my favourite place outside of the almost mythical (to me) bookshops of London, the only other shops I would regularly visit are the various outlets of The Works found in Liverpool, Manchester, Wigan, St Helens, Chester, Warrington… In fact, they’re in every reasonably sized town. There I always knew I could find something unique. No two shops were ever the same and you could always pick up something you simply couldn’t find anywhere else.

It was the left-of-centre inventory that meant that I’ve always been a regular customer and why quite a few people I know were also regulars. For example, the last time I visited the Chester Works, I found a copy of Ronald Searle’s last book. The time before that, I came back with a nice mint condition collection of Gerald Scarfe’s cartoons. Not that my purchases were limited to books of cartoons, though The Works had a good track record when it comes to selling the works of cartoonists. I’d never seen Tony Husband’s books until I bought two from the Works.

However, all that has now come to an end. I don’t think I’ll bother walking across another town or city to mooch around The Works. In the past couple of months, The Works has changed. In all three stores I visited, they’d had a change in design (gone the perfectly acceptable blue signage, in comes a horrible yellow colour scheme and nasty rustic wood interior) and they rearranged their shelves. Suddenly, where they previously had large sections devoted to history, geography, the media, and often had interesting collections of biographies (plenty of decent political biographies between the usual Cillas and Brucies), suddenly those sections have disappeared. Now the entire non-fiction section is one small shelf tucked to the side of the shop and limited to books about supercars. Otherwise, The Works has become overwhelmed by products that I can only reduce to the word ‘tat’. I’m not interested in cake decoration, books of tattoo designs, One Direction calendars, or notebooks with the words ‘What Ever’ written across the front. I don’t want embroidery kits, plastic lunch boxes, plastic posters of pop stars. I don’t want masks or cheap art materials for people who like to ‘dabble’. I buy my art material at Fred Aldous’, where their ink doesn’t turn a funny colour and the paper doesn’t turn into a soggy mess. Nor do I want any of the thousands of kits for people who think they want to start making organic origami paint-it-by-numbers crystal earrings with the lump of some starter schist or whatever the hell it is they pack in those things. In fact, I don’t want anything that the The Works is now selling. It’s become a horrible parody of what it once was.

So, goodbye The Works. You were a truly great shop, so unique on the High Street and now so easily forgettable. And whatever dim-witted uber-professional marketing whiz decided to change things, I hope you’re really proud of what you’ve done. It’s getting to the point that except for Evan’s Cycles and Waterstones, I find very little reason to step out the front door.

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The Mob Win Again…
This post was written by an expert technician with qualifications from Wigan

I notice with a very weary sense of its utter predictability that John Grisham has now apologised for his comments about child pornography. It was always bound to happen once his words went viral. To be a public figure in the modern world means holding firm to a moral hegemony, where there can be no nuance to an argument nor any attempt to make an intelligent but difficult point. We in the West might scoff at or feel morally repulsed by the fundamentalist ethos of ISIS but is there really that much of a difference when it comes to holding attitudes that aren’t codified by unelected rule makers? As the example of Grisham shows, it is simply naive to assume that we enjoy Free Speech and that there are very few ideas or thoughts that are prohibited by law. There is a more pernicious law out there and it is rarely informed by anything as simple as reason or argument. It is directed by media-savvy pressure groups, screaming firebrands of both the left and the right, as well as ever popular ‘wisdom of crowds’ expressed through social media.

Judy Finnigan ran against the same problem earlier in the week when she made some comments about a rape case. She had been foolish enough to express an intelligent point of view when it was apparent that she should have expressed that tabloid sensibility whereby every example of rape is described as ABSOLUTELY THE WORST CRIME OF ITS KIND. Every rapist is the worst human being, unless, of course, the crime involved anybody even a millisecond under the age of sixteen, in which case the rapist immediately becomes the worst kind of paedophile and, as we all know, death by slow moving steam roller would be too good for them. At times, it feels like we’re living through an extended edition of Brass Eye‘s Paedogeddon except this version isn’t really that funny…

This shift into sensationalism is driven entirely by the media and, occasionally, the politicians who follow after them like cawing seagulls in the wake of the fishing boat spreading rotten chub. The sad story of Brenda Leyland fell quickly from the headlines and I suppose there can be no surprise why no national newspaper has ever made much of those tragic events. Perhaps there’s no mileage to be had defending the rights of person who spread vile messages via Twitter. And make no mistake, the messages Brenda Leyland were an example of the ugliness that social media brings out in people and which I’ve been writing about for a very long time. Yet as a symptom of what was wrong with the individual and what is wrong with our society, both needed to be dealt with by people trained to deal with difficult psychological and social problems. The fact is that Sky News decided to act as the police in naming her as an internet troll and then effectively acted as the judge in her subsequent trial by media. What they did was the lowest form of journalism we’ve seen on these shores in a long time but nobody seems willing to make that point. Do the newspapers fear it might lead to a new Leveson Inquiry?

The voice of the braying mob is everywhere to be seen around the case of Brenda Leyland. On the afternoon of Brenda Leyland’s death, I watch in incredulity as BBC News 24 covered the story by asking how celebrities might be protected from attacks on Twitter. Establishment figures, such as Carole Malone writing in the Mirror, were quite happy to turn the story from one about the media going too far into a story about an individual abusing their freedom of speech.

And as tragic as Brenda Leyland’s death is police and journalists cannot be expected NOT to confront those who have threatened murder or been vicious for fear they might kill themselves.

In response to that, perhaps one need only quote the Universal Declaration of Human Rights whose article 11 states: “Everyone charged with a penal offence has the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to law in a public trial at which he has had all the guarantees necessary for his defence”. Even Iran has a clause that protects the individual in the face of criminal allegations: “Innocence is to be presumed, and no one is to be held guilty of a charge unless his or her guilt has been established by a competent court”. Of course, many would question the competence of Iranian courts but are they really less fair than trial by a television channel or newspaper desperate to sell advertising space by rousing the emotions of the popular mob? When does Brenda Leyland get her day in court? When does a judge get to rule in the case and comment on the actions of Sky News and others who placed a clearly vulnerable individual in an impossible position?

Talking to friends and family over the past year or two, I’ve often found myself in a difficult position arguing the case for people who I instinctively want to condemn. I hope I’m not the only one who tries to look beyond the individual and look at the system that is testing their guilt. You have to ask yourself: would you trust that system if you were convicted of something for which you were entirely innocent? It’s easy to overlook flaws in the system when the system is meting out justice on an internet troll, celebrity groper, rapist, or paedophile. Yet the very same system could equally be used to try a libertarian, a whistle blower,  a person who simply believes in something different to the majority. When Russell Brand is brought up on charges of sedition, perhaps the attitude of the media might change…

True legal argument tends to be extremely dry because it is very much about the nuance. Critics may scoff and point to lawyer’s obsession with minutia as a reason why the law too often fails. However, isn’t it preferable to the rule of the mob we see played out on our screens? All I would ever hope for is a climate where intelligent people can hold reasoned debates, where people like John Grisham and Judy Finnigan can express their views and that people will listen and think. Forced ‘apologies’ mean nothing other than they’ve been cowed by the mob and the mob already holds too much power in our society. ISIS may be a frightening, violent and hateful present but it’s a different mob in our looming future that we should perhaps fear the most.

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So, I’ve Finished Building My Second Game
This post does not record your credit card number or use it to buy Russian meat

It began weeks ago with a moment of idle distraction.

If you read this blog, you might remember that I’d been playing around with Unity, building my procedural city and generally trying to be too ambitious. I had an idea that wasn’t working or, if it was working, it was simply too big. These months of self-educating myself in the world of Unity had led me to realise that the difference between good and bad game design isn’t a matter of coming up with ‘content’. There are terrible games which have almost unlimited content (think any failed RPG) and then there are great games that have almost no content at all (think Minecraft). Of course, there are games which combine the two. I recently finished playing ‘The Last of Us’, which has a really strong game mechanic tied to the best world-building I think I’ve seen in a video game. The new ‘Alien Isolation’, by comparison, brilliantly realises the world of the first Alien movie, though the game mechanic is somewhat mundane. I guess it’s why I’m so interested in Indie games, where the limitations of small teams mean that more effort is placed in game design. I guess it’s something of Peter Molyneux‘s forte and why I always have enjoy listening to listen to him get enthusiastic about his next project, even when he sometimes over promises and under delivers, which as the tree he promised we’d be able to plant and watch grow in the original Fable…

In computer games, content is not always king and the fact was made more obvious when I recently spent a weekend watching all the presentations at the EGX in London. It wasn’t ‘Dragon Age’, ‘The Witcher’ or even ‘Alien Isolation’ that excited me. It was seeing an early version of a small independent game called ‘Heat Signature’. I think what excited me the most was that this was a  game entirely built around a quite novel mechanic. It reinforced something I’d already realised about big game companies who equate next-generation gaming with their making their vast object database available in different guises. These mega budget game titles appear to be little more than a chance to wander through a huge repository of virtual mugs, cars, dustbins, street lights, barricades, walls, fraying sofas, industrial pipe work… Change a flag and recompile the code and Assassin’s Creed becomes Watchdogs becomes the next Call of Duty.

But I digress…

So, I was tired of my ambition, the hours I was putting into something I hadn’t probably thought through. I’d launched into creating something without actually thinking about the game design. I was doing something that I recognised in so many people who inhabit the Unity forums. They usually introduce themselves with a post that follows the same format:

Hi guys. I’m just starting out on creating my own game in Unity and I wonder how I’d go about creating a massive MMORPG.

An MMORPG, should you not be entirely immersed in this world, is a Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game. It’s something I constantly notice as I read the Unity forums. So many people with very little programming experience wants to build the next Warcraft, which was built by a team of hundreds, each one an expert in their field.

What annoyed me was that I realised that I’d been making the same mistake. My procedural city looked okay but there was no real gameplay and, even if there was, there was no way I could fill that city myself. I was also generally tired and wanted to do something different. So I decided I’d spend an afternoon playing around with something new. I wanted to do something that wasn’t ambitious and I’d be able to finish in a day, maybe two. I wasn’t going to create anything that hadn’t been seem before but I just wanted to create something small and playable.

So, I started making a really simple game; so simple, in fact, that anybody could play it. So simple, in fact, that I’d already played it a hundred times in different guises. However, none of the games I’d played were quite right so I thought I’d make my own version…

After a day, I had a prototype working and I thought it was finished. However, the next day, I stupidly carried on working on few hundred lines of code and my labours continued for a third and then a fourth day. Soon I’d been working on it for a week and I was thinking of new ways to tweak it. A week became two weeks but the game had become a bit of a prop. Life has been complicated because there had been countless visits with my sister to see a range of consultants or have various tests and scans… My small game project was perfect, since I could just code a little in between all the trips and distractions.

I started working on this game on the 28th August and today it’s the 11th October. It’s 1.31AM and, except for some writing and some final testing, the game is finished. It has okay graphics, mostly culled from drawings I did sitting in hospital waiting rooms. I even wrote a little title music, which doesn’t sound too bad on the ear, mainly thanks to some amp effects I used on my old batter Fender.  It looks quite good, played quite well, and has a few things that make it unique in the marketplace. I’m quietly pleased with it because it’s really nothing different. It feels right in the middle of the mainstream, not at all like my books (all of which were clearly too left of centre to find a mass audience).

I’m now going to spend a couple of days trying to beat the game’s levels and each one of its 50+ challenges. If I can do that and find it reasonably challenging, I’ll publish it to the Google Store. If it gets downloaded 100 time (my ambitions are very humble), I’ll begin to work on a version for Apple iOS, not least because I want to know how to do that.

Of course, there’s a lot of work still to do. I’ve registered a domain for the game, hoping to give the operation a slightly more professional look than the reality of me sitting here, night after night, working to iron out bugs from the mere 7500 lines of code. I still need to build a website. I have to think about a price for the game or if I’m even going to charge. I’ve integrated Google ads into the game but I probably need to think of ways to make people want to upgrade from the free version, which isn’t in my nature since I want to give everything away for free. I always want to go back and fix a local multiplayer element which I thought I had working until I discovered the frightening fact that computers are often non-deterministic and code does not always execute exactly the same way across a network of machines.

However, at this stage, I feel like I’ve accomplished something and I’ve only accomplished it because I inadvertently started out small and I’ve kept my ambitions limited. I think I’ve learned a valuable lesson. My next game, should there be another, will have a simple game mechanic and I won’t write a single line of code until I’ve figure out what that mechanic will be.

In the meantime, I’m off to play my game which is satisfyingly easy to play but annoyingly hard to master.

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Tesco’s Nazi Checkout Guy
This post has been the cause of 3 blogging rivalries all of which we're losing

It’s a goddamn Nazi, I cursed under my breath, but thinking about it now nearly five hours ‘after the fact’, I suppose that was something of a rush to judgement.

I mean: is somebody a Nazi simply because they have a swastika tattooed on the back of their hand?

Yet saying that, the more people I tell about this, the more uneasy I feel that I didn’t spit in the guy’s face the moment he’d scanned by club card and gave me green points for using my own plastic bags. The first person I told was about Tesco’s Nazi Checkout Guy was as outraged as the second person I told. The third person I told was probably more outraged the first two and suggested a course of action that would have resulted in an upturned carton of milk, a misuse of nearly ripe fruit, and the unhygienic use of my Linda McCartney sausage rolls when they were still frozen (painful).

But for my part, I don’t know how to feel. I glimpsed the tattoo as the checkout assistant slid me my crispy white baguette and there, for a moment, I saw a tableau of European history played out under the glare of the laser scanner.

‘Your lot would refuse me that,’ I might have said, pointing to the French bread. But I didn’t and now I regret that I didn’t.

Yet I can’t even be sure which way the swastika was facing. Perhaps it was the Hindu or Buddhist swastika and the guy (white and middle aged) was a devoted follower of Eastern mysticism who had one day decided to tattoo the symbol of auspiciousness above his knuckles. What if he’s a devoted pacifist who is now damned to be misjudged as some kind of fascist thug?

Yet, as people keep saying to me, in bold (dare I say capitalized letters): WHAT THE HELL ARE TESCO DOING HIRING A GUY WITH A SWASTIKA TATTOOED ON THE BACK OF HIS HAND?

Well, I glibly reply, at least it wasn’t on his forehead, a la, Charles Manson.

That’s one thing I always like to credit Tesco with: at least they don’t hire mass murdering leaders of neo-fascist cults. I mean, they do have their standards…

The more I think about this, the harder it is to make a moral judgement even as I feel it should really become easier. Even if it was only a tiny swastika, it was still a swastika and probably not a Hindu swastika. How can I rationalise beyond that?

Well, I could point out that he was polite and very helpful. That’s what my gentler, calmer self would say. Even Tesco, otherwise rapacious and uncaring as they’ve been in every dealing with me, probably wouldn’t tolerate a baton- wielding jackbooted anti-Semite behind their tills.

Yet another part of me screams: but it’s a Swastika!

So, should I contact The Guardian? The Anti Fascist League? Should I demand that everybody stop visiting Tesco until they promise to stop hiring aging members of the National Front?

It that an overreaction or is it an under-reaction?

I asked my friends: what if he’s an reformed fascist being misjudged by a tattoo he now regrets? Would you want to lose the guy his job because of that? What if he’s got kids?

Well, my friends tell me, he could have got the tattoo replaced with something else. And I suppose they’re right. We have more tattoo parlors in town that we have book shops by a factor of approximately 1 to infinity. (5 tattoo parlors. 0 bookshops). How difficult would it be to get something less offensive tattooed there? And, frankly, anything would be less offensive. I mean, think of the sickest vilest thing you could imagine and picture it on the back of a hand. Even that would be less offensive than a swastika.

So I guess my friends are right and it leaves me with a moral problem.

What would you do if somebody unveiled a swastika whilst handling your low-fat cheese? Do I have an obligation to make something out of this? People tell me that I do and that I should. But why me? Other people must see the swastika and think the same. Does nobody really care?

And that, I suppose, is the real question. Not just of this story but of every story that’s out there. People care when it’s something as novel, fun, celebrity-based as an ice bucket challenge. How many people would look at the hand, fingering their Eat Me Keep Me bananas, and associate it with the death of six million Jews in concentration camps, approximately 60 million people across the world or 2.5% of the Earth’s population?

People care when something impacts directly on their family or their way of life. People care about fuel duty and iPhones that bend in their pockets. Many people don’t really care when local services are cut to people too poor to defend themselves. They don’t really care about much that’s not the shape of an icon or beyond the reach of their thumb. Would anybody really make a fuss about a symbol of a very human evil that occurred over half a century ago?

Should I care that my local Tesco have hired a Nazi sympathizer. Does the guy deserve to earn a living? Times are hard.  Would anybody want to see somebody lose their job?

But, hell… Even if it was tiny and badly self-tattooed. It was a swastika. And in the words of the great wartime academic, Dr. I. Jones: ‘Nazis… I hate these guys.’

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Two Types of Unity
This post is dedicated to Satanists who have retained their sense of humour about goats

Unity. Unity. Unity…

Seems ironic that I’ve been thinking about Unity so much recently without actually giving much thought to the unity of the country, currently threatened by the incompetence of naive wasters in Westminster who gave the Scottish independence movement enough advantages to turn what should have been a straightforward referendum producing a resolute ‘NO’ into a full blown political crisis lest they decide ‘YES’.

Not that I’m unsympathetic to the nationalist cause. It’s hard to argue in favour of the status quo when the status quo is as unfashionable as the real Status Quo. I understand why some people’s wish to break the Union. Living here in the north of England is (arguably) worse than living in Scotland. It sometimes feels like we’re sitting in the middle ground, as political debate flies over our heads. Westminster does actually listen to Scotland whilst ignoring the rest of the country.

Yet clearly something does need to be done to change a situation in which, for example, arts funding for London is £21.90 per head, whilst here in the North West, our arts are funded to the value of £5.06 per head (2012/13 figures). I’ve joked in the past about Sky News and their paper reviews but, when so many in the media talk about representation, nobody seems to notice how the news agenda is often directed (and commented upon) by small coteries of people who all sound the same. Simply too much of our national identity is tied into a London identity. Being British is too often seen as being a Londoner, in the same way, I suppose, those of us who live close to the Mersey are assumed to be Scouse, instead of being part of the surrounding areas, such as Lancashire, Cheshire, Manchester, or even Wales.

I should imagine that many of us have some Scottish blood. My own grandmother was Scottish. Yet even if there isn’t a blood tie, Scotland has given us so much of what we should collectively feel proud. It’s hard to pick apart our country without cutting deep into ancestral flesh. Many of my favourite writers are Scottish, so I suppose my thought processes are deeply influenced by that culture. Are we suddenly meant to feel less proud of Andy Murray or Sean Connery because they’re suddenly from foreign soil? None of this makes sense. We’re being led into an unnecessary quagmire by people making decisions that might last centuries based on fads, cults of personality, and acts of sheer bloody-mindedness.

I genuinely think it will be disastrous for Scotland to vote yes but it’s especially sad to see people voting for their own ruin simply because Alex Salmond has managed to turn this debate into a chance to give Tories a bloody nose. It seems as dumb (or perhaps even as profound) as the reason one guy gave for voting ‘no’ on Newsnight  last night, which was he didn’t want to lose ‘Match of the Day’.

Simply put, so much of our identity is tied up with the Union that I hate to think of this country divided after centuries of productive harmony. There’ll be no more chances to wave the ‘red, white, and blue’ once we’ve stripped the blue from our flags.

 

newunionjack

***

Meanwhile, Unity in PC land still means that I’m teaching myself more C#.

About a week ago, I thought it would be a cheerful thing to quickly create a simple game I could play with a friend. It started out as a joke, a minor distraction from my procedural city project which had been exhausting me. Last week was also dominated by long days travelling with my sister so she could see consultants, so I wasn’t going to get much concentrated time at my PC.

Now that simple game is almost finished, I’ve run up against a huge problem.

I wrote the game because I wanted to do something involving multiplayer, which means I had to learn how to get machines talking to each other over the network. That’s relatively easy to do in Unity and it took only an hour before my PC was moving objects around on my Android tablet via Wi-Fi.

Without going into too much detail, the game is a very simple game not entirely unlike snooker, moving objects using Unity’s physics engine. It looked pretty good until I noticed that the game’s progress being played out on one machine gradually began to look quite different to the game’s state as seen on the other machine.

It was then that I began to understand the non-deterministic nature of modern computers.

It’s probably dumb of me not to realise this earlier but I’ve never done network coding before. I would assume (not so much naively but idealistically) that one set of input fed into code running on one machine would produce exactly the same result as the same input fed into the very same come running on a different machine. Common sense dictates that it would be true. 1 plus 1 always equals 2…

Except, that isn’t always entirely true.

One of the bigger bugs I struggled with a few months ago (unrelated to networks but simple maths) involved a problem I saw with floating point numbers. Some numbers were getting calculated wrong for no obvious reason.

The reason had to do with floating point errors. Some numbers are impossible to accurately store insider a computer’s memory. Numbers which have extremely long (or sometimes infinitely long) mantissa (the fractional part after the decimal point) cannot be stored given the finite number of bits available. Irrational numbers, for example, can’t even be stored as a ratio. The value of Pi is often written as 22/7 but that’s an approximation, and it’s certainly impossible to write the entire value since it (probably) goes on forever. One of my favourite parts of science fiction occurs in Carl Sagan’s novel, Contact, where Pi is calculated to such a length that they reach a point where our original creators had hidden a message.

But I digress.

Because floating maths require some degree of approximation, different processors (and, by extension, difference compilers that create the machine code ready by processors) have different ways of approximating those numbers.

Usually, we don’t notice this but when a physics engine starts to do thousands of calculations, those small fluctuations begin to produce big differences. So, for example, the way my PC calculates the friction of an object moving across a surface might produce a different velocity than that calculated by my Android tablet’s processor running the very same code. The values differ by very small amounts but it’s enough to make large changes. I suppose it’s the old simile of the butterfly flapping its wings in New York and producing a storm in Tokyo. My PC might show a ball rolling into a pocket whereas on the Android it just clips the edge and fails to roll in. Since the game is multiplayer and both players are meant to be playing the same game in the same virtual space, this causes big problems.

So, this is where I am today, with a nearly functioning game that I’ll have to re-engineer to ensure that only one machine does the calculations whilst the other produces movements in all the game objects based on a hell of a load of numbers I’ll have to send over the network.

I suppose, if I had time, I might explain how this is all an apt metaphor for the problems of devolution, nationalism, and our Westminster elite. However, I hope that my floating point errors will be much easier to fix.

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The Wednesday Quiz
This post is about learning to live with blunt instrument trauma

Among the usual junk pushed through the letterbox this morning was a perennial favourite. It’s a catalogue published by the good people of Brightlife, who certainly add a little brightness to my life. I’m a real sucker for these gadget catalogues which sell everything from (quickly thumbs randomly through tissue-like pages) stretchy belts to (thumbs again, avoiding the incontinent Wellington boots) remote control video drones. Everything they sell is a work of almost-genius, such as the woolly hat with inbuilt LED spotlight: precisely the kind of gadget you think would have made the inventor a fortune if the idea wasn’t also batshit crazy.

Reading the catalogue made me pause over my morning Weetabix which, for some unknown reason, had attempted to detour down the wrong tube. I spluttering a bit and my eyes filled with tears. It was a strange kind of asphyxiation because I also found myself howling with laughter. However, it did give me a new idea for a quiz.

So, see if you can spot what’s wrong in this genuine picture of a page taken from this morning’s catalogue. You should be warned. If you’re anything like me, it might make you choke on a Weetabix.

[If you need a clue, I'm looking for an object which is quite possibly being used incorrectly.]

[If you need another clue: it's not the socks.]

Mislabelled objects

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Explicit Stupidity
This post is the cause of most outbreaks of holy dandruff in pontiffs

I keep writing things that I intend to post but get sidetracked, so I’m making a conscious decision to write something quickly, post it immediately, and only begin to regret it later. It might get me back into the habit of blogging again. I miss regular blogging.

Blogging is about the immediate response, so this is my immediate response to today’s news but I suppose I also find myself writing because I feel confused in my thoughts and writing is a good way to see myself clear of that confusion. I’m confused about these naked photographs of some pretty famous (though, I admit, to me, insignificant) people that have been released onto the web by a hacker. The first thing I’m meant to say is that I think it’s a terrible invasion of their privacy and that the hacker(s) need to be made to suffer. That is shorthand for all the hand wringing I’m meant to do before I can discuss anything more significant such as the fact that I can’t help but feel bemused that people in such famous positions would put themselves in such positions, usually on their back, naked, and lit seductively from one side while not wearing their knickers.

It is, however, a perennial problem with technology that rich people buy (or are often given) expensive toys without fully understanding (or learning) what they really do. This, after all, was the reason why the phone hacking scandal started, as the rich and famous used expensive phones without learning to do something as simple and important as change their pin number. The current scandal is little more than an extension of that. Many gadgets are automatically connected to ‘The Cloud’ yet too few people actually bother to learn what that means: that their private data (including data of the knickerless variety) is being stored on a server somewhere where somebody with mastery of the technology can access it. Note to the rich and famous: if you do want to photograph your vulva(the reason isn’t important though remains a mystery to me), go into the your phone’s settings and deselect ‘Backup photos to Cloud’. It seems self-evidently obvious once you put it into those terms.

The second thing to note about these photographs is how society has devolved (or evolved, depending on your point of view) into a culture where nothing seems to exist until it’s photographed. I hate (and actively refuse) to have my photograph taken, even when I’m fully dressed and in a dark room. Not that I have a Victorian sensibility about anything, though I do begin to wonder if Victoria and Albert (notoriously active and open about their sexual life) would have posed in front of a bathroom mirror playing with each other’s genitals. Probably they would. People say, of course, that these photographs (like so many sex tapes before them) were meant to be private between a couple, but it appears to be an extension of the ‘selfie’ syndrome, a psychological extension of the endless need for fame and celebrity in which the self doesn’t really exist in any form (intellectually, sexually, or spiritually) unless it exists inside the memory of a mobile phone.

Do these stars really feel violated that their most intimate parts of their bodies are now visible to the world? Perhaps they do and I feel sorry for them, though perhaps they can rest easy knowing that one nipple looks pretty much the same as the next. There really are few parts of the body that the internet haven’t made everyday and mundane. From hardcore pornography to beheadings, the body has lost so much of its mystery that really, in the grand scheme of things, we aren’t seeing something that we haven’t already seen before and usually larger and well oiled. These photographs will be forgotten tomorrow except by a few sad people who will always be excited by these things. The next evolutionary stage of our collective sexuality will be the internal organs and I suspect in the next ten years, some actor will be complaining that intimate photographs of his newly tattooed spleen have been leaked onto the internet. We have come a long way from the tantalising shots of Bo Derek running down a beach in ’10’ or a brief glimpse of Barbara Winsor’s breasts circa 1965. There is a difference between explicit and erotic and we definitely live in an explicit age and I fear there’s just no going back.

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Stunning
This post is unlikely to leave you feeling satisfied, though no refund will be given

Wow. This came out of nowhere. A new Leonard Cohen album and he sounds better than ever.

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Unity Procedural City: Week 4 – Trees
WARNING: this post contains one instance of the phrase 'grrrrrr! Get him big boy!'

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A Procedural City in Unity: Week 3
This post passed nearly all the safety tests before being uploaded to this blog

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