Trigger Warning

5th March 2015

“And what we learn about ourselves in those moments, where the trigger has been squeezed, is this: the past is not dead.”

—Neil Gaiman, Trigger Warning

Ostensibly, this post is about a book I have not yet read, the latest collection of short stories from Neil Gaiman. He is not doing the usual book tour for this launch, but whilst in London he did an interview and Q&A session at the Apple Store on Regent Street (which means they should be releasing it as a podcast at some point). This post is really a series of loosely related musings resulting from comments he made.

Trigger WarningI first heard Neil speak many years ago, when he read from Stardust — a book I already loved — and I discovered that his voice, his cadence, his intonation perfectly suited his style of writing. Since then I have tended to read his work with his delivery in mind. It was a voice that made you feel safe even as he took you into strange and dark places.

I struggle to understand why short stories are so unpopular. They seem the perfect form for the attention-deficient modern world. A few years ago, when I began to read more for pleasure again, short stories featured heavily as they were easily compatible with commuting. Neil considers himself lucky that his are profitable enough that he has been able to publish three collections but, even so, the sales figures are only a third of those for his novels. He speculated that many people find short stories frustrating because these miniature worlds vanish just as they become invested. If that is true, those people must be infuriated but the shards I produce. I can offer my sympathy if not an apology…

This collection is titled Trigger Warning because the phrase, the use of which Gaiman approves in its online origins to warn of content that might trigger PTSD, has gradually expanded to cover anything that someone might find unsettling or merely offensive. Art that leaves us disquietened has an important role and to pre-empt it with a warning reduces the artistry, dampens its potency and robs us of a valuable experience. He noted in particular that children rarely require such warnings — they are excellent at self-censorship and deciding when they are comfortable with tackling issues and when they want to back away. Forcing them, he noted with an anecdote about his eldest daughter (she liked the Goosebumps series so he proudly gave her a copy of Carrie…), has less than ideal consequences.

Gaiman is known for exploring the macabre but he describes himself as squeamish. This apparently changes when he wears his writer’s hat. He described a long conversation with a doctor friend that went into graphic detail on autopsies because he needed the information for a story and so it became fascinating rather than disgusting. When I wrote Once Removed, Jenna did me one better as I was able to watch an autopsy performed, experiencing it first hand. But then I have never described myself as squeamish. I happily tear into rare steak whilst watching zombie movies.

When asked about his own fears, Neil explained that anything which scares his characters is really a manifestation of his own fear — that is the source from which he draws (although he notes that writing characters in embarrassing situations is actually what he finds most uncomfortable). It made me wonder about my general inability to write effective horror. Even when I draw overtly on horror tropes like vampires, the characters I produce tend to be relatable if not always sympathetically described. I find I can readily explore the emotional pain of isolation or disconnection, but there is not much that I fear. It gives me a desire to explore (inwardly at least) what undiscovered fears might be lurking below the surface, if that will expand my writing range.

WinBook Pro

31st January 2015

My laptop, Daedalus, a stalwart of the old Dell XPS Studio line, has lasted well for nearly six years. That realisation came as a surprise since I generally expect a machine to last me only three to four. In the interim I built a new desktop, JARVIS, but found I now lack the necessary time to diagnose and repair a custom rig like that when things go wrong. As a result, for a while now I have wanted to streamline down just to a laptop with a docking solution that made it easy to use with a full desk setup for long work or photo editing sessions and indie/less powerful games (since I now prefer to play most mainstream games on a large TV in the comfort of my living room). The problem is that consumer docks are still unusual and no one was really making the laptop I wanted.

So Daedalus’ successor, Helios (Deus Ex fans will recognise the progressing AI namesakes), took careful selection. The result, as a Buzzfeed headline would no doubt claim, might surprise you. It transpired that the ideal Windows laptop for me is actually an Apple MacBook Pro. It hit each of my requirements:

  • WinBook Pro13″ for portability;
  • SSD for the OS and total storage of at least 500GB;
  • 8GB RAM;
  • Graphics capability for indie games;
  • Ultra hi-res screen;
  • Slide-in dock — the third-party henge dock.

Some of you might reasonably treat this as a weird hoax, but it is important to understand the reasoning behind my general distaste for Apple products. It is not fanboyism, but a desire for interoperability and freedom. That is, when making any technology purchasing decision, I want a device that will work happily with everything else I own and that will not restrict my choices when later upgrading, because I want to be free to select the best product for my use. In general this rules out the “walled garden” of Apple products and particularly iOS. However, since their decision to switch to Intel architecture, Macs are essentially just PC hardware running different software. The introduction of Boot Camp with appropriate drivers for the hardware means Windows can not only be installed but it can be made the default operating system.

Breaking OutI had not been into an Apple store for several years and was impressed by the experience. After asking a few questions I was handed over to someone more knowledgeable about running Windows on Apple hardware and they already had it set up on a demo machine. Purchasing was slick and easy, running the transaction on a portable terminal with the laptop being delivered down to us while we chatted about software and potential pitfalls.

The only tricky part of the Boot Camp setup process was preparing a bootable Windows installation on a USB stick, since the MacBook Pro lacks an optical drive. Within a couple of hours I had Windows loaded up and ready to take over as the default OS, with OSX relegated to a minimal partition on the drive. Whilst Apple provides Windows drivers, it has little incentive to optimise them. As a result, better results can be received from component manufacturers or even third parties like the Trackpad++ project, which reinstates a host of customisable multitouch gesture controls on the generous trackpad. Another quirk is that the high-res screen requires Windows’ full 150% scaling to be readable, but when connected to a standard resolution monitor that becomes unwieldy. The easiest solution is to have a separate user account for use in docked mode and that also allows me to tweak the applications that launch on startup.

Desktop ModeThe hardware is exceptional as one would expect from Apple. The machined unibody chassis is sleek and incredibly thin, yet is surprisingly good at heat dissipation given that it runs extremely quiet in general use. The screen is stellar and input is as comfortable as the competition. The Apple keyboard layout  differs from Windows but SharpKeys offers an easy way to remap them to something more familiar (like reinstating a dedicated “delete” key or reordering Alt and Command/Winkey).

The metal Henge Dock is a big improvement on the original plastic design and the finish looks as though it could have shipped with the MacBook. It ships with all the necessary cables other than the power adapter (so you really need a second one for travelling since one will be fixed to the dock). Connecting and disconnecting the laptop is as easy as slotting it in the right way round, and a rubber insert protects it from scratches whilst providing a snug fit. The result looks like a ridiculously slim mini tower sitting on the desk. Most of the body is exposed to air which limits overheating and the MacBook’s rear vent is specifically designed to be exposed whether the lid is open or closed, so I have little concern about running it in “clamshell mode”. It was this docking option that really sold me on the MacBook in the first place and I find myself surprised both by how well it works and how few non-business options there are from PC manufacturers.

Christmas 2014

25th December 2014

Christmas 2014

The Last Generation

9th July 2014

Having joined the newly launched generation of videogame consoles by purchasing a PS4, and with a healthy crop of new games now announced, it seems like a good opportunity to look back at the games that changed the medium over the course of the past generation which spanned some eight years. Over that period gaming became a truly mainstream form of entertainment, aided in a large part by the Wii despite Nintendo’s inability to replicate its success. Many developers matured in their understanding of the unique experiences that games can offer by virtue of their interactivity. The games listed below are not necessarily the best games of the generation but ones that stand out as having brought something new to the table.

Wii Sports: The pack-in title for the Wii single-handedly won over an entire new audience to gaming and proved the concept of motion control. Unfortunately for the console, the game remained one of the best reasons to own a Wii throughout its lifetime.

Mirror's EdgeMirror’s Edge: A critically acclaimed but commercially unsuccessful new IP, its crisply minimalist visual style turned heads but its real talent lay in its exhilarating free-running that redefined the possibilities for freedom of movement in a first-person perspective. Surprisingly, few games managed to build on this at the time, but that sense of movement seems key to several early games in the new generation.

Heavy Rain: Quantic Dream’s approach to interactive storytelling came of age with this dark thriller that let players explore the results of choices they made for the characters in a story that could continue even if several of the protagonists perished. It was often mistaken for a series of quicktime events, but realising player agency in choosing to miss a button prompt to achieve a desired (rather than dictated) result was an important new trick.

Journey: An utterly beautiful slice of art in the abstract, Journey’s genius lies in its intentionally minimalist take on the multiplayer experience. Dynamically paired with a stranger as you play, your only ability to communicate is through movement and a single sung note. Yet traversing the world feels so much more fulfilling when shared by even that frail connection. The result both prevents others from breaking immersion and explores our shared humanity.

PortalPortal: Valve’s first-person platform puzzler came out of nowhere, delivering exceptional writing that raised an otherwise interesting game mechanic to another level entirely. Genuinely hilarious, the sequel’s scripting deserves to be studied for showing that comic timing and even physical comedy can be cleverly maintained without requiring the player to relinquish control of their character.

Bioshock: Bioshock is the other game to be prized for its writing above all else, this time in a more dramatic vein. Whilst the decaying art deco visual design of its world is beautiful, it is the Ayn Rand-inspired story that delivers a rare literary game.

Guitar Hero/Rock Band: Sure, the annualisation of rhythm games burned out the audience and those plastic instruments are now filling up closets and/or landfills, but Guitar Hero provided an entirely new way to experience the music you love, whilst Rock Band turned it into a social experience. There was no better party game this generation, in my opinion, and ultimately it led to Rocksmith which actually wants to teach you to play the guitar in the guise of a game.

The Last of UsUncharted 2/The Last of Us: Whilst most games in this list are those finding their own path, eschewing films as inspiration, Naughty Dog proved on two occasions that games should not turn their back on cinematic experiences entirely, because it can be done right.

Gears of War: Gears popularised the “cover shooter” which largely replaced standard First Person Shooter run and gun mechanics this generation with a new variant that required strategically sticking to cover to survive. It slowed the pace of twitch shooters allowing for greater tactical consideration. Of course this also led to entire worlds filled with convenient waist-high walls.

Brothers: A beautiful, low-budget fable about two brothers on a quest to save their dying father, Brothers proved that the very control mechanics of a game (in this case using one half of the gamepad for each of the boys) can be vital to its emotional impact. Brothers could be told as a story in a book or film format, but only by controlling the boys yourself does the final act produce its unforgettable sensation.

Dear Esther/Gone Home: There is rightly some debate over whether these “interactive experiences” truly amount to games but for now they fall within the gaming stable. They demonstrated new approaches to storytelling through the creation of a self-contained world, allowing the player to uncover details in the process of exploration.

FezBraid/Fez: Cerebral, artistic platform puzzle games, the ultimate lesson here was that there is a market for pretentiousness provided you are clever enough to justify it. Even if blockbuster titles and rising budgets do squeeze out mid-sized developers, the indie scene is alive and well and will continue to innovate and supply new ideas.

Left4Dead: I probably clocked more online multiplayer hours in this game than all others combined because of the invention of its AI Director which would dynamically choose to spawn the zombies and “special infected” that attacked, creating a different experience every time but maintaining a certain sense of rhythm. I have never so enjoyed snatching defeat from the jaws of victory as in its escape sequences.

The Walking Dead: Arguably Telltale’s Sam & Max outings should feature here as proving the concept of episodic gaming. But The Walking Dead is where the writing bar was raised so dramatically that everyone took notice. Telltale has proved it was no fluke with The Wolf Among Us, and in 2014 they will be managing four different episodic series.

Although it’s too early to look ahead another eight years, huge early sales figures for both Sony and Microsoft make it clear that the nay-saying regarding waning interest in consoles was unwarranted. Players have not abandoned them for portable devices. Some have queried whether the new generation will be the last of the console cycles, being replaced instead by iterative hardware or cloud-powered solutions. Whether or not there is widespread adoption of VR over the next several years will dictate much of this, as it could see a decline in the need to be sat in front of a large living room screen but would also make low-latency systems more essential than ever.


28th February 2014

Posh AndroidAnother year, another Nexus and it is time for another round-up of Android apps. Despite having had the Nexus 5 since its launch a few months ago, I have only just flashed CyanogenMod 11. With each consecutive release of stock Android there seem to be fewer reasons to switch to a custom ROM. The major features for me are the built-in equaliser and the recent addition of WhisperPush for encrypted SMS.

Hello is my new preferred SMS app. It takes some design cues from Google Hangouts (into which Google merged its text messaging app) but its tabs are more usable and it is beautifully minimalist.

Google Play Music unexpectedly became my default music player because of their exceptional cloud mirroring service. It will mirror your entire music collection (up 20,000 songs) irrespective of where you obtained the music and make it available to stream anywhere via the app or desktop browsers. If the song is already in Google’s library, you do not even have to upload it first. The app makes great use of full-screen album artwork, and losing Poweramp‘s impressive equaliser was alleviated by CyanogenMod’s in-built option.

SolCalendar and Cal are both vying for the position of default calendar app. Cal may be the prettier with its animations and integration with the To-do List, but SolCalendar’s clean UI offers better usability. Or at least it will as soon as addresses are clickable to launch mapping/navigation, which is a major drawback at present.

Feedly became most popular replacement feed reader when Google shelved Reader last year to much consternation from users. Fortunately Feedly’s qulity on the desktop is matched by a great mobile app for swiping through subscriptions and then putting the text of stories front and centre.

Timely is a stunningly beautiful alarm clock app, with the usual extras like a stopwatch, but also cloud synchronisation of alarms. Its “smart rise” feature was an interesting idea with gradually increasing volume over an extended period of time but as a light sleeper I found it woke me almost instantly.

Muzei is an simple live wallpaper from Google employee Roman Nurik who became prominent for producing the Dashclock lock screen widget.  Muzei cycles artwork on your home screen with a gaussian blur applied until double-tapped to prevent it being distracting. Like Dashclock it supports extensions and a dozens emerged within days (such as National Geographic and Flickr).

Otherwise things remain largely unchanged:

Utilities — It can be assumed I use pretty much all of the Google suite of apps, with their acquisition of Quickoffice making it my default document viewer. SwiftKey has not been challenged as my keyboard of choice. Tasker is still at the centre of automating phone functionality. Despite Chrome‘s prominence and briefly trying Mercury, Dolphin remains my browser of choice. ES File Explorer is my preferred file manager, particularly for easy access to shared network content. Evernote remains one of my most-used apps for storing and retrieving information, although I also use Pocket for reading web content later. Light Flow allows for granular customisation of notification lights. For cloud storage I now use Google Drive, Dropbox and Box for different aspects. SMS Backup+ syncs my text messages with GMail and now boasts WhatsApp support.

MediaDoggCatcher remains my podcast aggregator with DICE Player for video playback of nearly anything (along with the YouTube and Vimeo apps). Google Play Music has removed the need for other streaming apps for music I own but I still use SoundCloud. Meanwhile I have switched to Yatse as an XBMC remote which has provided a smoother experience.

Misc — I am split between the overhauled official Twitter app and newcomer Talon. BeWeather still provides both a weather app and the integrated clock widget on my home screen. Whilst I have always enjoyed its attractive weather animations, what keeps it on top is the at-a-glance hour by hour graph for the day that shows you exactly when it is likely to rain.

Equally Engaged

18th February 2014

Engagement RingRecently the subject of engagement rings came up with colleagues and I found myself once more evaluating their place in a society that is striding slowly but confidently towards gender equality. It is certainly a custom worth putting under a magnifying glass. Given my many married and engaged friends, I should make it clear that I make no judgements about anyone who partakes in what is currently a social custom, nor would I presume to dictate what jewellery anyone should wear. Indeed I am generally resigned to the fact that, should I get married, I am likely to be buying a diamond ring in the future.

There are two distinct issues which are best not conflated: (a) the diamond scam; and (b) inequality.

The former has been explored in detail by others so I will only summarise. Whilst people consider diamond rings traditional, it is a custom that dates back as far as… the late 1930s. Prior to that it was restricted to the upper class and nobility (stemming perhaps from Archduke Maximilian of Austria’s use of a diamond ring in 1477). Engagement or betrothal rings were still a common custom, but they tended to be simpler, like gimmel rings or posy rings.

De Beers AdvertisementThe diamond “requirement” stemmed from an unfathomably successful De Beers marketing campaign in the late 1930s when the price of diamonds collapsed during the Great Depression — over the course of a decade they sought to educate the public that a diamond was the only acceptable stone for an engagement ring. In 1939 10% of engagement rings in the USA had diamonds. By 1990, that had risen to 80%. And that authoritative traditional “rule” that the ring ought to cost two months’ salary? Also from a De Beers advert. Worse still, that was a rise from their originally advertised suggestion of one month to boost declining profits. The cost might not be a problem if diamonds held intrinsic value but (whilst I am certain most women love diamonds for their many industrial applications) they are a terrible investment because they are plentiful and, unlike — say — gold, they have limited resale value.

So the value proposition is terrible. Fine, but that is true of most commercialised aspects of love, albeit generally with a lower price tag. The real problem, and perhaps the reason diamonds have been so easy to foist, is one of reinforcing hugely detrimental ideas of gender inequality which are rarely questioned:

  • The woman wears a ring from the moment she accepts the man’s proposal, a sign to the world that she is “off the market” whilst the man typically roams unbranded until the wedding. Territorial marking does not always smell bad.
  • The high cost of the ring, by reference to and demonstrating the man’s income, reinforces the notion that he is or should be the primary earner to provide for his wife and family. Reinforcing this at the start of a marriage is particularly dangerous when it later comes to decisions about prioritising one partner’s career and/or child care.
  • As the woman is the recipient of the only ring, it forces a passive role in the proposal. This seems to be one of the primary concerns amongst otherwise emancipated women regarding why they feel uncomfortable with proposing.

So what would I like to see as a solution? I do not think engagement rings are inherently bad but parity and simplicity would solve these issues. I would certainly like to see it become customary that either party felt comfortable and free to propose*. Either the proposer beforehand or the couple subsequently could purchase a pair of bands, one worn by each of them, with engraved inscriptions on the inside. The “value” would come from these personalised sentiments, invisible to others, although the bands could be patterned or set with stones to satisfy personal tastes in jewellery. Sure, the diamond industry might collapse. But then if you like diamonds, that just means you can afford to have more of them.

*Some women have suggested they want a man to propose as a gesture to demonstrate he is committed and ready to settle down, fearing that they would not get the same signal simply by him accepting a proposal. I can see a logic to this. However, having been in relationships where the woman was the one with commitment issues, this no longer seems to be a gender issue. Perhaps we would be best served by a default position that The One With Commitment Issues proposes, whoever that happened to be…

4000 Reasons to Watch Netflix

16th January 2014

This year’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas was a largely predictable affair: everyone jumped on the “wearable tech” bandwagon but with limited innovation and a lot of Fitbit clones, the Oculus Rift headset wowed even more than last year but remains a prototype with a nebulous future, Valve’s Steamboxes have become a reality and they look like… PCs.

Meanwhile, as signalled last year, television manufacturers have thankfully dropped their push for 3D, accepting that most people do not really care about it in the living room environment (if at all). They are instead moving towards affordable 4K or “Ultra HD”. At four times the number of pixels in “Full HD” 1080p, this allows for substantially larger and more immersive screens whilst retaining visual fidelity when sitting at the same distance away. The problem is the immediately obvious lack of content: I think it is safe to assume that last year’s $1,750 REDRAY player will not be appearing in the average consumer home any time soon.

NetflixGreat as 4K TVs may look, content is what drives adoption. Broadcast content is years away, as is a new standard for home content that would be incompatible with current blu-ray players. This is where Netflix’s announcement could herald one of the biggest shake-ups from this year’s CES. It announced that future Netflix Original series (including the forthcoming second season of House of Cards) will be shot in 4K, and they will be remastering Breaking Bad in 4K. By the end of the week LG, Sony, Samsung and Vizio had all announced Netflix support on their new 4K TVs.

That essentially makes Netflix the de facto destination for 4K adopters, which should worry the rest of the content industry. The only serious competitor seems to be Amazon in the US, but in Europe they have done little to impress since their acquisition of LoveFilm and its streaming service. Given Netflix’s latest UI shifts towards a presenting a personalised channel of on-demand content, I can think of many worse companies to be at the head of the pack.

Thirty-One Point Five Million

2nd January 2014

Turkey I was a little apprehensive about this year’s decision that my cousins and I would be cooking Christmas dinner for the family (not my idea). Fortunately it all went smoothly and, beyond the logistics of juggling limited oven space, it is hard to understand all the fuss if the work is shared a little. And if you have home-made chef’s hats. I remain utterly sceptical about celebrating anything with turkey — there is a reason we do not eat the blandest bird in existence the rest of the year — but the secret to a great Christmas meal seems to be coating absolutely everything in goose fat.

CousinsThe best new tradition that emerged under our watch was using The Final Countdown as the soundtrack to lighting the Christmas pudding, of which no doubt G.O.B. would have heartily approved. My uncle Rajan’s absence was keenly felt even when not addressed directly, but it was good to have the family together and it was strangely comforting to know a similar feeling was shared by my family overseas with their own empty chair.

Whilst I enjoy the real world parties, New Year’s Eve may be my least favourite day on social networks. I think there is a lot to be said for using the arbitrary calendar marker as a time of reflection over the previous year, but most of the myriad potted life summaries that litter facebook that day tend to be irritating works of fiction because: (a) capturing 31.5 million seconds of human experience in a couple of paragraphs is an exercise in futility; and (b) writing for public consumption has an understandably self-serving goal entirely to different to one’s deeper personal reflections. Were I to write my own “2013 in review” it would probably be something like this:

I spent this year on a rock that feels increasingly small, hurtling around a gigantic ball of fire at 30km/s.

Inexplicably, I somehow managed to hold on.

Actually, that sounds rather apt.

Christmas 2013

25th December 2013

Christmas 2013

Manel Traylor, 1954-2013

20th November 2013

ManelWhilst I have continued to write Shards (and thank you for all the comments they have received), I have avoided regular updates for some time, in part because it has been a difficult few months. The biggest jolt came at the end of September when Manel, my aunt in the States, died unexpectedly and without warning at the age of 59. Although there were some things I might have said here, my immediate focus was taking care of my family over there (and I was lucky that those with whom I work were so good about letting me do so). Growing up, my family would travel to Louisiana to see the Traylors every other year, for two or three weeks at a time. It led to the incredibly close ties which mean that in the last ten years I have visited the States about as many times. I often talk about the months I worked in Louisiana before university, but most people do not know that I also spent a summer living with Manel and her family after my GCSEs.

Her children’s words at the funeral captured her perfectly: the teacher, the mother, the animal-lover, the rebel, and — at least in passing — the personal neuroses that gave her the unique character that we all grew to love. There is little I could usefully have added but I did have some thoughts at the time that I would still like to share.

Every trip, the five children from our two families would all await one inevitable occurrence: Manel chewing out a service industry worker for some shortcoming or perceived sleight. Mostly it was warranted, if not the viciousness with which she took to the role. We would typically shy away embarrassed whilst secretly enjoying the spectacle.

For Manel, I knew, one’s chosen work was a vital part of life and laziness was anathema to her. She held others to the high standard she held herself. Jenna mentioned her slight jealousy of all those pupils whose foibles Manel knew almost as well as her own children, and a sadness that Manel’s grandchildren would miss out on that personal attention. She immersed herself in her work and, as she saw it, so should everyone else.

But there was more to it that I did not realise for many years. On a trip to Las Vegas, my family and I returned to our room after breakfast on the day of check-out, only to have an irate cleaner burst in and tell us we should not be there. She had, presumably, seen no luggage and assumed we had already left so she could begin work early, only for us to return and (minimally) undo her efforts. Puzzled, we tried to explain but she decided to pick up the phone and call security. We only heard her half of the conversation but I remember the end vividly, “Do they speak English? Yeah, a little.” Being British, I could only find the hopelessly faulty attempt at derision laughable and, bemused, we related the bizarre event to the rest of the family later. Manel was not amused. She was furious.

CoralI visited alone a year later and one day Manel went digging through papers and returned proudly with a letter that she presented to me for inspection. It was from the hotel manager, in response to a complaint she had sent, apologising for the incident and — rather ominously given Vegas’ history — stating that “the employee in question has been terminated”. “Terminated,” Manel repeated with her mischievous cackle, and I began to realise this was not simply glee at the firing of an unforgivably rude employee (nor her potential mafia-style burial somewhere in the desert). She wanted me to understand how important we were to her and this letter was her proof. She was always incredibly protective over those she loved (to a fault, her children might argue, if they ever wished to swim while the sun was out) and, for the few weeks we spent with her at a time, she wanted to guarantee things were perfect.

It took years of being embarrassed to realise someone just wanted to protect me and to show me I was important to them. And in that, I suppose, she really was a mother to everyone for whom she cared.

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"Good night, my love. I offered you the world." | (CC) BY-NC 2005-2014 Priyan Meewella