first you must burn.”
-Hiba Fatima Ahmad
I have been fascinated by the mythology of the phoenix since I was a child — the idea of being able to discard and reinvent one’s self, to be reborn after being broken, to rise from the ashes, was so powerfully alluring that I adopted it as a handle when I ventured online. Three of my past personal websites referenced the name directly, and the websites themselves followed a similar path of destruction and rebirth every few years. That ceased with the last version of this site, launched in 2005, following which changes became gradual and iterative. It was actually something of a shock to realise that the site had existed in much the same form for a decade and, as Rob commented, it held up surprisingly well.
However, for several years I have been unhappy with much of the underlying code, since it was written before the rise of portable devices as web browsers. It was possible to view the site on mobiles and tablets, but it was far from a pleasant experience. I actually made two attempts to update the code over the last few years, with limited progress. When I posted about the future of the blog earlier this month, I had already conceded that it was once more time to embrace The Way of the Phoenix.
All the old code for the site has been thrown out, replaced by an entirely new responsive design that should make for a much more pleasant mobile experience whilst also scaling up with sharp images on high resolution modern screens. Virtually all of the content is still available and the site’s structure should remain familiar. Unfortunately the gallery software I have been using for many years is no longer supported, so I have opted to replace this entirely. I will be restoring old albums gradually, but this is a rather painstaking process and will take some time. I will also endeavour to ensure that most links in older posts continue to work, though some will invariably end up broken.
The new menu system will be obvious, allowing for much faster navigation, and also highlights that the Questions page has now been subsumed into the Fragments section (so feel free to submit new questions!). A big improvement for those who use feed readers is that a single feed will now provide updates across all sections of the site and the gallery, rather than only the blog. That alleviates the need for blog posts to draw attention to new content elsewhere.
Thanks to those who helped test the new design in its soft roll-out. Expect some visual tweaks to continue over the next couple of weeks, and do let me know what you think (especially if you find any bugs!).
For now, make yourself at home and take a look around.
Did a movie ever make your feel remorseful? You can feel compassion and sadness and lots of other emotions watching a movie, but some emotions can only come from inside.
In much the same way that important movies receive coverage directed at those not heavily invested in that medium, every year there are a handful of games that deserve attention even from those who may have zero intention of ever playing them. I actually played This War of Mine last year on PC, but it has just become considerably more accessible with new Android and iOS releases at a price of £4.99. It is a war game, but it is probably not what you imagine. Nor could it be more relevant in the midst of one of the worst refugee crises the world has experienced, marked by disheartening hostility and lack of empathy.
Typically one thinks of war games as a power fantasy, playing an army-of-one soldier charging into the fray with a hailstorm of bullets causing scant concern. Such games have their place as escapist entertainment, as do mindless action films. This War of Mine is, if anything, a disempowerment fantasy. As its tagline states: in war, not everyone is a soldier.
You are in charge of a group of civilians in an unidentified modern city under siege, tasked simply with survival. Sheltering in the husk of a house, you must leave this relative safety to forage for food and supplies. Survival is brutal: much of the time you will be hungry, sick, exhausted and depressed. And that’s before you set foot outside. With the right tools you can make your shelter more bearable, adding the creature comforts that strengthen the human psyche. But how far are you willing to go in order to achieve this?
Looting abandoned stores is a relatively easy moral decision but others are likely to have beaten you there already. What about looting a house? An inhabited one? Does it make a difference if they clearly have more than they need? What if one of your friends is dying? What happens if you are confronted? The strength of the game’s morality comes not just from realism of these choices, but the fact the game doesn’t overtly mark out “good” and “bad” choices.
These are survival choices and, as much as anything, the question is what you can live with. Both characters and players may be haunted by their actions, discovering that their morality is more permeable than they might have believed. Ultimately, the game succeeds when it makes you feel bad about yourself, for a choice that seemed right in the moment. If I rationalise a theft on the basis that others robbed us last night, or that it was easy and otherwise it would just have been someone else, does it really make me less complicit if I take the medicine from the old man pressing me to leave?
As lead writer Pawel Miechowski explained in a talk at GDC, that hollow feeling of regret is not something that can be conveyed by non-interactive media, where at best you can empathise with someone else’s sense of remorse. Although characters may become demoralised by actions they have taken, the judgment does not come from the game. “The only way for players to feel real remorse is if they judge themselves,” says Miechowski.
Why is a game like this crucial now? It’s less about countering the glorification of war, which might have been a greater concern a decade ago. Instead, it is fostering an appreciation that this is the reality from which millions of Syrian refugees have fled. When knee-jerk reactions result in snap judgments about middle class refugees or those with smartphones (which are not a sign of wealth), This War of Mine is a stark reminder that no one should have to live under the awful conditions imposed by war.
It’s not really fun. It probably won’t make you feel good about yourself. And I highly recommend it.
When I started blogging back in the early 2000s (on what I think was the fourth full website I had designed), I had no idea I would still be doing it over a decade later. In fact I still viewed “blog” as something of a dirty word at the time, since anyone could set up a LiveJournal and discuss the tedious minutiae of their lives without any knowledge of the Web or skill in design (early on we might have been somewhat snobbish about the democratisation of the Web), so for a long while I laboriously skirted around ever using the word to describe this section of the site. Back then it was the “earth” section of the four elements, though ever since the redesign a few years later, I have always thought “fragments” a particularly apt description, mirrored nicely by my recent foray into short fiction “shards“.
At different times this blog has served as a myriad of things: diary, notepad, travelogue, postcard, notice board, magazine column, scrapbook, product review, and more. It has grown and changed over the years as I have (which may be to say not discernibly). Intermittently it has felt as though it has served its purpose and, as writing time becomes increasingly scarce, perhaps something that ought to be retired. Last time I took a long break from blogging, upon returning I decided to attempt shorter entries, which made regular posting easier and less time-consuming. The problem is that this lent itself well to quick life updates but poorly to any deeper discourse.
Now those life updates are arguably best handled through the gallery, where a dozen photographs speak some (alleged) 12,000 words. It’s hard to argue with the sheer efficiency of numbers like that! I can also see the change in traffic sources, with most visitors now arriving through social media and, as a result, most of the discussion happens on those social media posts rather than here. That makes it less necessary to have a centralised “hub” blog post, on which people can comment, to direct people any new gallery that goes up.
Instead I find myself wanting to engage more comprehensively with fewer topics, so you should expect to see more long-form posts on whatever subjects happens to be on my mind. There is likely to remain a similarly varied mixture of content and style, from interestingly informative to thoughtfully provocative to irreverently satirical. In fact those variations may now become starker since each post will get to be Its Own Thing.
So I have returned from the wilderness. I cannot say whether I will still be blogging in another decade, but the future is ever unpredictable. Whatever comes, I do hope that you will still be reading.
“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.
I 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.
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:
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.
I 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.
The 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.
"Lack of imagination is an occupational hazard for an apex predator."
(CC) BY-NC 2005-2019 Priyan Meewella