The most important thing about this post is that I rewrote it multiple times and considered not posting it at all, because I was concerned about how it might be perceived and whether its recommendations might have ramifications in the future. Once you read it, that thought alone should be terrifying.
With the Labour party in disarray and the population distracted by Brexit, the Investigatory Powers Act has now passed both houses. Media coverage has been inexplicably scant. The Act permits a wide range of snooping and hacking by the security services, allowing unprecedented surveillance of citizens for a democratic country. Theresa May pushed this legislation (dubbed the “Snoopers’ Charter”) as Home Secretary, so it is little surprise that she has forged ahead despite opposition from groups like Liberty and warnings from a number of commentators including Edward Snowden.
I hope that by now most people reading this will have rejected the idea that “if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear”. It is worth revisiting Glen Greenwald’s powerful TED Talk on the subject. This is not paranoia about some perceived theoretical risk. The Snowden revelations demonstrated that the intelligence agencies will take advantage of any information gathering they can get away with, whilst both the Government and the police have demonstrated repeatedly that supposedly anti-terror laws will actually be used whenever convenient. This is why the lack of judicial oversight over access to browsing history should cause serious concern. Most importantly, even if you do trust the current Government, you still should be protecting your privacy. Once a more authoritarian regime takes power, it is too late to claw back what they already hold.
The danger is that authoritarianism occurs in a gradual shift that is easy to overlook as it takes incremental steps. Take, for example, the current Digital Economy Bill which seeks to censor videos that contain a swathe of consensual but non-conventional sex acts. It is entirely unclear why the Government should have any say in such things and it stigmatises private activities enjoyed by a minority. Those of us unaffected by this change should be fighting against it, because it suggests that in future such marginalisation of other minority groups is acceptable based on an arbitrary sense of what is “normal” or “decent”. Now couple this with a regime that also has access to your entire browsing history.
A second major issue with the Investigatory Powers Act is the requirement that companies remove user encryption whenever “practicable”. Many major tech companies have responded robustly about the security implications of creating backdoors in their software, which serve to weaken security for everyone against any malicious attackers. However, the arguments over what is or is not “practicable” for companies to implement will occur in private — without public scrutiny — because the warrants demanding data will invariably contain a gagging order.
Remember also that data leaks by Government bodies are commonplace. The Information Commissioner’s Office lists 54 enforcement actions in just the past two years. Allowing the collection of data also allows the risk of it being released more widely, particularly in light of the Digital Economy Bill’s proposals for data sharing between Government bodies without proper safeguards.
How do you protect yourself in the meantime? Everyone should be using a Virtual Private Network (or VPN). Here’s a friendly beginner’s guide, but broadly a VPN involves making an encrypted connection to a server which handles all of your online requests. That way no one else, like your Internet Service Provider or others on a public wifi hotspot, can track or eavesdrop on what you are doing. You are still trusting the VPN provider, but this gives much greater control than than trusting one of a few local ISPs, all of which will be subject to requirements imposed by the Investigatory Powers Act. The best way to ensure your privacy is to use a VPN that does not log your traffic so that, even if ordered to, it cannot provide your web history to anyone else. There are a number of different companies offering VPN services relatively cheaply. I recommend NordVPN, given the privacy features outlined above coupled with easy-to-use clients for Windows, OSX, iOS and Android, so little technical knowledge is required.
If you know that you will never, ever have anything to hide from anyone else at all, then you have nothing to fear. And a level of clairvoyance that I sincerely envy.
Dear Liberal America,
You’ve woken up with one hell of a post-election hangover and piecing the night together is beginning to feel pretty horrific. There is a lot to process. You feel like a stranger in your own country. You feel worried about the future. You can’t work out whether you feel sad or angry or disappointed in your fellow citizens. I know this because we have just gone through the same thing following the shock result of our own Brexit referendum. As a result, several friends have asked me how on earth they deal with this, when it seems like there is no way to move forward. Here are some tips from our experience.
Do not go to sleep and assume it will be better in the morning. I promise it will be a little more bearable the second morning, but it is going to suck for weeks.
Surround yourself with like-minded friends right now. Alcohol helps. Drink together. Cry together. And laugh together.
Laughter is important. In the darkest of times, we humans are capable of finding humour. The alternative is despair and that leads nowhere good.
Understand why people were willing to vote this way. This may be the most important thing. The easy response is to dismiss them all as bigots or racists or misogynists. But we are talking about millions of people. It’s complex and a lot has led to this. People have felt disenfranchised and hopeless (just as you do right now) for decades. We need to address this to prevent this from happening again.
People will tell you to move on, you lost. This time they are wrong. Understand that this was not just another election where half the country feels upset. This was something much starker, which reveals far more about the depth of division within your society.
Be ready because this result will leave a minority of bigots and racists and misogynists feeling vindicated. They will spew hateful bile in the next few days that you never expected. But it will be finite. They are not going to win and we are still moving in the other direction. If you are lucky enough to be white or a man or heterosexual, do not allow this behaviour to go unchecked. Remind every minority that, whatever Trump may say, your society does not accept hatred as normal. They remain welcome. They remain one of you.
Seek unity. It will seem hard right now but, like it or not, you are all in this together for the next four years. Hillary suggested you give Trump a chance to lead and she is right. Division only makes you weaker.
Above all, remember that one man and one election does not define your country or our society. You all do. It is a struggle that goes on.
This is all I can offer. I hope it helps a little, that it ignites a spark of hope. And, if it does, share that hope with others.
Your Transatlantic Cousins
It’s been around six months since I last rounded up a collection of the best short films I’ve seen recently, so let’s have another. If you missed them, be sure to check out the last set too. As always, point me in the direction of any that you would recommend.
Following the release of Wall-E, I considered it evidence of an imminent split in Pixar into a family-friendly team and one dedicated to adult-orientated animation. That it did not happen is, I think, a shame — and perhaps in part to blame for Pixar’s recent reliance on sequels. This out-of-hours project from a few Pixar employees exemplifies what could be achieved, in the story of a sheriff returning to the scene of a painful memory.
From visual-effects guru Joe Sill, this short about a solo female astro-miner is immediately reminiscent of Duncan Jones’ Moon. It explores choice, regret and the powerful need for cathartic redemption.
Broaching the truth in a father-daughter conversation in a diner.
Based on a Jack London story, a fur thief caught by natives must think fast to bargain for his life. As humans, we seek what control we can.
If this is the year that virtual reality starts to become a commodity, here is a film that serves as a timely warning about the social implications of addiction and abuse of such all-consuming technology.
A Kickstarter-funded live-action short based on Penny Arcade’s fantasy world in which young scouts are trained to protect their villages from the creatures in the forests. A troop on their final trial is ambushed by the basilisk they hunt.
Having started with a reference to Wall-E, it makes sense to end with this animated short. It is a tonally similar piece about two robots testing for a life-supporting planet. Visually they are a combination of Wall-E and the Mars rovers, and the animators have imbued them with remarkable character that demonstrates a touching friendship.
And I will leave you with the words of Truffaut, as I think each of these shorts serves one or other of his desires:
“Today, I demand that a film express either the joy of making cinema or the agony of making cinema. I am not at all interested in anything in between; I am not interested in all those films that do not pulse.”
-François Truffaut, The Films in My Life
A close vote like this results in a swirling deluge of emotions that are difficult to isolate but my overwhelming feeling is one of disappointment, less at the result than at the people who voted for it. Yes, they were lied to repeatedly by politicians on the Leave campaign — and for much longer by the media — but these are lies they were willing to accept out of self-interest. Humans are convinced by the notion that that their capacity for rational thought makes them more than simply a selfish animal. That is often true on an individual level but, whenever it is tested on a larger scale, humans seem to be found wanting. Driven by a combination of greed and fear, politicians are able to manipulate them with remarkable ease.
When Trump ran for the Presidential nomination, vast swathes of the Republicans denounced him as not representing the party. Over time, given his overwhelming support, they had to look at their party and realise that, however distasteful his views may be, they appealed to the majority. The party was not what they had thought. A similar period of introspection is falling on the UK in a far more profound way than following any General Election, where negative reactions are shrugged off as sour grapes with a suggestion to do better in five years’ time.
With voting results skewed by the older demographic, the same people who ruined the housing market have now propelled their children down another unwanted path. The traditional threat would be to remind them that those children will be choosing their nursing home. As the leave campaign already backs away from its claims about healthcare, perhaps a more pertinent question would be whether there will be any affordable nursing homes for their children to choose.
Anger threatened to overtake disappointment when I learned of my little sister’s treatment this morning. Commuting to work she was approached on two separate occasions by people warning her she was “next” and suggesting she “go home now”. A colleague queried her history to decide whether she was a “foreigner”. In one morning she saw her home, the country into which she had been born, begin to crumble around her. I certainly hope that was an aberration, with the wrong sort of people invariably buoyed by today’s result, but I am far from certain. Here’s a tip for the students reading this post as they study for GCSE History in 2096: when asked to name two causes of World War III, Britain leaving the EU and the election of Donald Trump are probably good bets.
Of course I am being cynical. This country was already in a troubled state due to a huge and ever-growing class divide, the dangers of which were ignored even after riots erupted a few years ago. At the time I described it as feeling like “a caged beast had broken loose of its shackles and was determined to express its newfound freedom, knowing it was temporary, but roaring just to hear its own voice.” I have a similar sense today as that same divide and misplaced anger has led, in part, to today’s result. Leaving the EU will do nothing to improve this and, indeed, an unchecked Tory Government with increased financial control will undoubtedly widen the gap. As our good friends across the Channel would say, plus ça change…
“I fled, or at least, backed awkwardly away from journalism because I wanted the freedom to make things up. I did not want to be nailed to the truth; or to be more accurate, I wanted to be able to tell the truth without ever needing to worry about the facts.”
—Neil Gaiman, The View From The Cheap Seats
Neil Gaiman may be best known for a mind that weaves together the fantastic and the mundane in fiction but, over a career of some forty years as a writer, all the articles and introductions and speeches and essays and interviews start to add up. The View From The Cheap Seats is a hefty selection of these non-fiction works, weighing in at over 500 pages. Fittingly for the title, I find myself sat up near the rafters gazing down at a beautifully lit church, the stage simply dressed and focused around two seats. Although I saw Neil speak last year around the launch of his short story collection Trigger Warning, being in the Union Chapel drew to the surface a very different memory from seven years ago. Neil reminisces about the same night, noting that he had not sung in public since his teenage punk years until, on the second of her two nights there, his girlfriend Amanda Palmer forced him to sing with her. This time round they are married, he introduces their baby boy to the crowd and then, in fitting role-reversal, has Amanda open with a song before he takes to the stage.
Discussing the purpose of the collection early on, Neil explains earnestly that if the reader picks up the work of just one of the many authors or musicians mentioned within then the book was worthwhile. The book is, in essence, an exploration of what Neil cares about, be it people, ideas, the literary world or the written word itself. It contains around a dozen introductions that Neil has written for other people’s work. The generosity with which he writes these stems from the desire to bring works he likes to a new audience. He also mentions a disgruntled Amanda Palmer fan who, on discovering that they were dating, bemoaned “How can she be going out with him? He’s written more introductions than books!” Not quite as scathing an insult as may have been intended — introductions are, Neil points out wryly, much shorter.
The most interesting points arising from the night relate to the proximity of art and reality. An audience member asks how often he steals ideas from real events. The answer, as any writer will know, is constantly. Neil responds that, although he always worries he might be discovered a fraud with no imagination (unlikely!), writing fiction swiftly teaches one not to feel guilty about such theft from reality else one would be forever feeling guilty. I tend to approach it from the opposite angle: writing non-fiction swiftly teaches a writer that there is fiction in everything, whether it is true or not. Scientists may take umbrage with this statement but, even when one attempts to present facts alone, the inevitable resulting oversimplification is itself a fiction.
Neil repeats an analogy offered by Amanda when comparing her almost autobiographical discography to Neil’s veiled facsimiles of places or himself. She described the process as having a blender into which they pour themselves. The difference, she said, is that she presses the button for only a second so there are still big identifiable lumps, whilst Neil holds it down for much longer crafting a more evenly blended product that is no less real. Although I write this very blog, I have often commented that several of the fictional Shards elsewhere on the site contain the truest things I have ever written about myself. It may be shrouded — blended, if you prefer — but it is there for those who wish to look. And honestly, I think it is always those kernels of truth (rather than the fiction within which they reside) that draw people in when they identify with a Shard. Fiction is simply a medium through which one can convey a truth and, perhaps, the most nuanced one we have.
“Will you start the fans please!”
The catchphrase from the final challenge in esoteric 1990s gameshow The Crystal Maze might refer to blowing around golden tokens in a dome, but recently it proved more apt as a call to arms for fans of the show. Attempting to rebuild an entire TV show from scratch two decades later was an audacious task but fans’ enthusiasm for idea was evident as soon as the crowdfunding Indiegogo campaign launched, nearly doubling its £500,000 target. Outside of a YouTube trailer, the production has clamped down on photographs inside the maze and rightly so. This is primarily a nostalgia trip and, whilst I will summarise our whirlwind race through the maze, I will avoid spoiling as much as possible. Via Ravi we had funded at a level allowing us to book out an entire session, with 32 of us filling four teams of eight. I would recommend gathering a team of eight before booking, as knowing one another helps considerably with communication and assigning challenges.
Clad in Crystal Maze branded orange bomber jackets, the group took my jokingly suggested team name more seriously than intended and we became Team Satsuma. Before long, the fearsome chant of “Sat-su-ma! Sat-su-ma!” would be heard echoing around the chambers of the maze. Fearsome if you are esperidoeidiphobic, anyway. After a short introductory video, we met our Maze Master. There are several of these esoteric characters, each guiding a different team. Whilst others were taken under the wing of a cowboy or a glam rocker, our Maze Master was essentially a P.E. Teacher, where the “P.E.” stands for Particularly Energetic. He was enthusiastic without being pushy, and befriending your guide can lead to helpful hints during the challenges. After quickly familiarising us with the format (Irina proving impressively knowledgeable despite never seen the show in Ukraine, as she had recently been subjected to a YouTube cultural re-education programme) he led us through to the sand-covered Aztec zone.
Philly J seemed like the unnatural choice for team leader, so we went with him. He performed fantastically. Well, very nearly fantastically. He panicked slightly when asked to assign the first challenge and, because I was nearest, selected me and proposed a physical challenge. Not, we can probably agree, the strongest opening gambit. We were stymied primarily by the fact it took us a little while to work out what we were doing in a room that required clambering around the walls and over an unstable, rolling walkway. With time waning, and lulled into a false sense of security by a swift first run, I lost my footing and fell from the walkway, resulting in an automatic lock-in. Although we had no crystals, amended rules provided me with a riddle to earn my freedom, which naturally meant a swift escape.
The set design was exquisite. The attention to detail in each of the zones (Aztec, Industrial, Futuristic and Medieval in the order we tackled them) is one of the highlights of the experience. Just moving around between challenges feels like being on the set of the show, making it easy to forget that you are actually wandering around a London warehouse (unless you are Andy preoccupied with whether you once took accountancy exams in the same building). The futuristic zone is particularly bizarre, since it is like stepping into a 90s vision of the future which now feels hopelessly dated. Here the sealed design of the challenge rooms caused some difficulties, both in terms of peering inside through reflective glass, and in muted sound making communication problematic. The crowning moments, and the biggest nostalgia rush, are traversing between zones — always at a run, propelled by the swelling theme music.
Rather than a fixed number of challenge rooms, the faster you progress the more you are able to experience (and the more crystals you can earn). Expect to attempt between two and three challenges each. And yes, I did redeem myself by winning two crystals later. You’ll learn surprising things about your friends’ skills too, be it Dunni’s lithe traversal of a laser grid or the focused efficiency of Pete’s crab-like shimmy in a giant barrel.
“To the Crystal Dome!”
It all culminates in the Crystal Dome which is actually, through no fault of the producers, the least impressive part of the event. There is certainly a level of team bonding being enclosed within the dome frantically gathering golden tokens (they have done away with the silver ones, since catching them is hard enough as it is) but a little over a minute is scant time to experience it, making it much less enjoyable than the games which come before. It is an issue with the original format rather than anything else, and the dome is an essential component of the nostalgia rush that makes this such a worthwhile activity. My only minor gripe is that, after all that fun, a souvenir crystal isn’t included in the hefty ticket price. Those who competed on the show had one to take away and it’s a testament to the experience that I want to be reminded of my time there in a similar way.
Long time readers will know that I’m a sucker for good short films, particularly the distilled exploration of a single idea and the experimental creativity they a free to express in just a few minutes. Recently I spent an afternoon binging on short films and, since it has been a long while since I shared any, here is a selection of my favourites from the past few years. If you have any recommendations that I’ve missed, be sure to let me know!
If the point of death gives you complete perspective over your life, and grants the answers to all your questions, what would you want to know? Which questions are really the important ones, and what difference does it make to know at the end?
Girls’ Alex Karpovsky runs into his ex on the street and they spend a spontaneous afternoon together. The film explores that lingering desire and resentment between ex-lovers, the way in which people hurt each other and the need to understand how someone could do that to you.
The longest film here by some margin at 14 minutes, it is also one of the best produced. It may have a title like a Mitchell & Webb parody of an exploitative Channel 5 documentary, but this narrated story actually has more in common with Edward Scissorhands, as an unusual outsider seeks connections with other people. The second half of the film shifts into an attack on the hypnotic allure of reality TV and the associated price of fame.
Three layered, seemingly disparate, stories woven together by a gravelly French narration that culminate in the most French ending possible.
The level of detail in this stop-motion creation is astounding, and its allegorical tale becomes more profound by the conclusion than it initially appears.
Notable more for its creative visual style than it’s content, this prime use of pixilation, whereby still cameras are used to shoot individual frames of live actors like stop-motion puppets. Its cheerful vibrancy is a pleasant contrast to the typically dark quality of most short films.
More of a mood piece, this Vogue short gets a mention primarily for Alicia Vikander’s involvement, both starring and working on the script. Based on the Twilight Zone episode Nick of Time, a girl sits alone at a table, feeding quarters into a machine that dispenses fortunes in response to her questions, gradually wearing down her cynicism.
A cute animated film about a child who is unimpressed with his new puppy, it did not particularly win me over until the payoff at the end.
Well that’s a wrap for now, but I will endeavour to share recommendations more frequently.
In the past I have written sporadic game-related posts intended for non-gamers, highlighting new interactive experiences that push the medium forward beyond what most non-gamers consider it to be. Unplayer One will be a new recurring feature exploring games in way that should appeal to those who enjoy art irrespective of the medium. Unlike other review posts, these are likely to contain major spoilers so, if you have any intention of playing the game in question, please do so before reading.
That Dragon, Cancer was always going to be an emotional experience. The game was developed by a couple as part of their grieving process after losing their son to cancer at age five, following a long battle with cancer. The game received strong support through crowdfunding (notwithstanding some ill-conceived accusations that the designers were exploiting the loss of their son), with many backers having their own experiences losing children or those close to them. Told through a series of vignettes, That Dragon is as much about life – albeit life with a terminally ill child – as it is about loss. We share intimate family moments as well as difficult hospital trips. Grief is complex and the game will mean different things to different people: some will recognise familiar painful experiences but hopefully find solace in the shared experience; others will find it a way to explore one of the most harrowing positions in which a parent can find themselves. Although the proximity may vary, loss to cancer is a universal experience, more poignant at the start of this year with the deaths of David Bowie, Alan Rickman and Lemmy. In any case, I always find an increase in shared understanding to be positive result.
The game uses stylised graphics and a mixture of the parents’ perspective and a floating camera that allows you to observe the family. The gameplay is limited, largely a point-and-click tour through a succession of scenes and narrated letters, but I want to highlight a few moments from the game that spoke to me in particular. When the news is broken that treatment has been unsuccessful, we are free to shift perspective between each of the parents and the medical staff, colouring the dialogue with their internal thoughts. The room, meanwhile, gradually fills with water, morphing into a flooded environment with a boat heading towards a lighthouse. The parents respond in very different ways, the mother relying on her faith as a vessel to carry her through, never giving up on a miracle, whilst the father, a realist slipping into despair, is portrayed literally drowning beneath the surface. He can swim up but can’t drag himself out; the only way to proceed is by heading further into the deep.
Simpler moments can be equally poignant, as reminders that life goes on for the family. As the children go to the hospital to spend time with their brother during treatment, one complains that he does not like missing school. The surprise revelation gives way to the realisation that what he really means is that he dislikes having to catch up after repeatedly missing classes. Many scenes comprise short sequences, repeatedly waking in a hospital room next to a bed, helping with small tasks, hours and days merging together. Whilst a game can offer only a fraction of the impact, there can be nothing as heartbreaking as having to experience one’s child in pain, crying incessantly but understandably, taking meagre comfort as sleep ceases their thrashing.
In one of these vignettes, I awoke in an empty hospital room with ten cards on surfaces around the room. Each could be read and held a short message to, or in memory of, a cancer victim. These were clearly messages from those who had helped fund the game. As I exited the room, my chest tightened as I saw looked out at the entire ward, completely filled with scores of these cards. Many were mundane, a few captured more poignant thoughts, but each was a real person, a real family left behind, a visual representation of a real loss. The gut punch came as I opened one card in which a parent had simply quoted a line from Puff the Magic Dragon, “Dragons live forever but not so little boys.”