Cultural Highlights of 2016

In a year of relentless tragedy and despair, here are a scant few things I enjoyed.

BOOKS

Malcolm LowryUnder The Volcano

This was my third attempt at tackling Lowry’s famously impenetrable novel. The first chapter is particularly gruelling, but after breaking through it for the first time, the dark humour and self-flagellating wisdom which follow make it all worthwhile. For anyone tempted to have a go themselves, I found these notes very helpful in decrypting the dense symbology.

Keith RobertsPavane

The best thing I read all year though, by far, was Pavane. It’s an alternate history novel, in which Elizabeth I was assassinated, the Reformation was quashed, and a triumphant Catholic Church retarded scientific progress. In the 20th century setting of the novel, England has steam-powered road locomotives, a network of giant semaphore towers for cross-country communication, and new stirrings of political and religious revolution.

But the appeal of the ahistorical premise isn’t what makes Pavane such a great book. This year, I also read S. M. Stirling’s The Peshawar Lancers, in which a late 19th century meteor shower destroys civilisation in the northern hemisphere, the British elite relocate to India, and by the early 21st century, a steampunk Anglo-Indian empire is in conflict with a devil-worshipping Central Asian Tsardom. This premise is equally interesting. However, Stirling’s novel turned out to be a huge disappointment: a poorly-written mediocrity, no more than a third-rate Raj adventure story with added airships.

Roberts’s, on the other hand, is so beautifully written it’s almost poetry. By the time you’ve read his description of a steam wagon making its way across the Dorset heath on a foggy night, oiled pistons hammering and scalding water dripping from the tank, or of a semaphore tower, its clacking wooden levers, and the blistered hands of its Guild apprentice operator, it’s impossible to believe that such things never even existed.

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New Year’s resolutions 2017: Part 2

I’ve decided to add another New Year’s resolution to the previous set. It’s simply to watch all of the films on the list below. The intention is to knock a number of “must see” films off my own “haven’t seen” list. The films are a mixture of all-time classics that I’ve somehow missed, cult films I’ve been wanting to watch for ages, and unwatched DVDs I have sitting on my shelf.

The original idea was to list 12 films, so that it would be easy to monitor progress: if I watch one a month, I’m on track. But since it’s 2017 and everything’s topsy-turvy, I’ve added a special choice for number 13.

  1. The Third Man
  2. Gone with the Wind
  3. Doctor Zhivago
  4. Where Eagles Dare
  5. North by Northwest
  6. A View to a Kill
  7. Gandahar
  8. Fucking Åmål / Show Me Love
  9. Grave of the Fireflies
  10. Once Upon a Time in America
  11. Mother India
  12. Suspiria
  13. The Manchurian Candidate

New Year’s resolutions 2017

Here are my resolutions for 2017:

1. Complete The Lords of Midnight.

God damn it, I’m going to do this.

2. Use DuckDuckGo at all times.

I’ve already switched from using Google search to DuckDuckGo, the privacy-oriented search engine which doesn’t track your searches. But DuckDuckGo is still developing, and its search results often aren’t as good, so I find myself drifting back to Google.

Everything is a trade-off. If I value privacy, if I don’t want to be monitored, tracked and analysed, then I have to put in the extra effort – which isn’t even very much – to spend more time looking through search results to find what I want.

And perhaps the serendipity of scrolling through more results, and finding things I wasn’t looking for or didn’t expect, will be a reward in itself.

3. Switch to a non-free private email provider.

If I’m avoiding Google for search, why the hell am I still letting them handle – and thereby read, monitor and analyse – all of my most private communications?

2017 is the year in which I put a value on my own privacy, by switching to a non-free email provider. One which, because I’m the paying customer, doesn’t treat me as the product.

4. Switch to safety razors, shaving soap and brush.

This continues the theme of switching to a superior tool despite the initial effort/cost hurdle. I’m going to abandon the ongoing scam of expensive disposable razors with ever more numerous blades, and switch to traditional safety razors. Out too goes the foam in a can, to be replaced by shaving cream, applied with a badger-hair brush.

5. Switch to a better solution than takeaway coffee cups.

Maybe I’ll buy a reusable cup. I’m not committing to the detail of the solution yet.

New Year’s resolutions 2016: end of year review

Time for my annual review of how well I did with the last year’s resolutions.

1. Complete The Lords of Midnight.

Status: failed.

Carried over from 2015, and I still didn’t manage it. I did have a go one Sunday, but Doomdark remains undefeated.

2.  Play the board games I already own until their purchases become cost-effective.

Status: good progress made.

I set myself the ambitious target of getting all games down to less than £5/play, and I didn’t manage that. But I did make significant headway, reducing the number of uneconomical games (over £5/play) from 24 to 19, and the number of super-uneconomical games (over £10/play) from 11 to 3. Of the 19, about 10 are only just over the target, and will be easy to convert.

More importantly, the resolution helped me to resist the temptation to buy new games, to put more effort into arranging gaming sessions, and to focus on playing the less-played games more. It meant that I finally got around to playing Tammany Hall, a game I’d had for over a year, and hadn’t played because I’d assumed it was too heavy for most of my casual-gaming friends. It turned out to be much simpler, rules-wise, than I’d thought, although tactically still very rewarding, and became one of my favourite games of the year.

In 2017, I’ll continue to chip away at those stats. I may even allow myself the luxury of buying some new games, but the cost/play tracking, which is now an established routine, will ensure that board game purchases are kept under control.

3. Never pay the included service charge on a restaurant bill; always leave the tip, if appropriate, in cash.

Status: mostly passed.

Almost as soon as I started doing this, I realised that the sort of big chain restaurants which tend to abuse the system aren’t the sort of restaurants we ever go to anyway. It turns out, being snobby middle-class metropolitan liberal elites, we only go to independent, family-run type places (the area of north London we lived in was particularly abundant with them), where there wasn’t any tip chicanery to fight against. But I insisted on cash tips anyway, because I feel there isn’t enough awkwardness in my personal interactions already.

4. Make more eye contact.

Status: unknown.

I’ve certainly been more aware of when I have and haven’t been making eye contact, but whether that means I’ve managed to alter the balance towards making it, I can’t tell.

Temper-Trapped

I propose the following definition:

Temper-trapped past participle verb tricked into a buying a music album on the strength of one song, to discover that it’s the only decent one on the whole album.

It’s derived from the band The Temper Trap: I bought their debut album Conditions after hearing the song Sweet Disposition, but was disappointed to find that the rest of the album is utterly mediocre and forgettable.

I’ve recently been temper-trapped again by John Grant. His song Down Here, an infectious indie pop ballad, was stuck in my head for weeks, so I bought the album, Grey Tickles, Black Pressure, which turned out to be weird electro nonsense: not even the same style of music as the one song I’d enjoyed.

What albums have you been temper-trapped by?

Manufactoria: a brain-expanding puzzle game

I finally completed Manufactoria.

Manufactoria is an online puzzle game, which is deceptively simple and surprisingly deep. Your task is to build a factory machine from simple components which takes an object, inspects it and moves it around the factory floor accordingly. In later stages, you get to modify the object as well.

At first you think you’re just moving objects around and printing patterns of coloured dots on them, but later, when you’re thinking of blue dots as 1s and red dots as 0s, and the patterns as binary numbers, you realise that the system is Turing complete and the game’s progressively harder puzzles are teaching you how to build a binary adding machine. It’s a beautiful, powerful way to demonstrate the principles behind mechanical/electronic computation.

While some games, like Angry Birds and Candy Crush, are meant to numb your brain with repetitive tasks, the best ones expand your brain with new skills and knowledge: Manufactoria is in the latter class.

Play the game online here: Manufactoria at PleasingFungus Games

Cultural Highlights of 2015

I know it’s a bit late, but here’s the best stuff I read/saw/etc in 2015.

BOOKS

Railsea by China Miéville

By the same author as the superb The City And The City, Railsea is a post-apocalyptic riff on Moby-Dick. A young cabin boy joins a train crew rattling about on a vast dried sea-bed covered in criss-crossing railway tracks and inhabited by ferocious burrowing monsters, while the captain obsessively hunts her great yellow mole. Ripping stuff.

23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism by Ha-Joon Chang

Since the era of Thatcher and Reagan, mainstream economics has been dominated by the ideology of the free market, championed by the right wing as the driver of economic success. Meanwhile the left wing has either opposed it on moral grounds of fairness and compassion, or accepted it while trying to mitigate its worst effects. The basic economic argument has never been challenged in public debate: the free market creates a prosperous economy. However, in academic economics, this truism is widely known to be false, and the contradictions and failings of the free market are well understood. Ha-Joon Chang is one of the leading voices attempting to bust the free market myths of public consciousness, and this book is a perfect primer.

One Day In The Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

One of the hallmarks of a great book for me is how much is lingers in your consciousness after you’ve read it, and for weeks after finishing One Day In The LIfe Of Ivan Denisovich, I often found myself thinking, ridiculously, “this is just like in the Gulag.”

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In praise of Stroud Green

We’re moving to Manchester next week, but for the last two years we’ve lived in London. Trying to pin down the exact bit is tricky. It’s near Finsbury Park, which for non-Londoners means north and a medium distance out from the centre, and for practical purposes, “near Finsbury Park” is what I’ve always described it as. But Finsbury Park is quite large and there are lots of places near it which aren’t particularly near each other.

We’ve lived in the area immediately to the west of the park, not south enough to be Holloway, west enough to be Archway (which isn’t really an area anyway), nor north enough to be Crouch End. The main feature of the area is Stroud Green Road, which runs from Finsbury Park station north west until it becomes Crouch Hill and continues into Crouch End. This road also forms part of the boundary between the London Boroughs of Islington (of wealthy “new” Labour fame) and Haringey (of Baby P fame).

Stroud Green itself was a hamlet a little further north which got swallowed up by nineteenth century suburban expansion; apart from Holy Trinity Church, the site it occupied is mostly residential now and not a distinctive area. Stroud Green Road to the south, however, is the economic focal point, and something of a gem for the diversity and quality of independent shops and restaurants along and around it.

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New Year’s resolutions 2016

Here are my resolutions for 2016:

1. Complete The Lords of Midnight.

Carried over from 2015. The ZX Spectrum is in fully working order, so it’s time for Doomdark to meet his fate.

2.  Play the board games I already own until their purchases become cost-effective.

I’m a board game geek. After a few years of collecting games, I’ve ended up with more than I’ve had time to play properly. My aim in 2016 is to rectify that by focusing more on playing the ones I already own.

I’m going to be systematic about it. I’ve created a spreadsheet of the games I own, and a log to track the times I play them. Using this to calculate a cost-per-play (purchase price / number of plays) for each game, my aim is to get all my currently-owned games down to £5/play or less by the end of the year.

3. Never pay the included service charge on a restaurant bill; always leave the tip, if appropriate, in cash.

It’s become apparent over the last year that restaurants, especially the big chains, are grossly exploitative of their staff, and the service charges they add to bills are one example. In many cases, it’s been restaurant policy to keep all or some of the charge, and distribute little or none of it to the actual serving staff. Even when they do give most back to the staff, there’ll usually be an admin fee deducted if it’s been paid by card. So rather than take the lazy option of just paying the charge on the bill and thinking, “well, that’s the tip covered”, I’m always going to ask for it to be taken off, and then leave a suitable tip in cash instead.

4. Make more eye contact.

I’ve realised that I’m pretty bad at making eye contact while talking to people. I’m fine when they’re talking, but as soon as I start talking, I almost always look away. It’s difficult to concentrate on both things at once – thinking about what I’m saying, and watching the other person’s face – so I unconsciously reduce the complication by looking away. But I guess it could be interpreted as rude or cold. So I’m going to make a definite effort to do better.

New Year’s resolutions 2015: end of year review

Let’s review how I did on my 2015 New Year’s resolutions.

1. Read and see six Shakespeare plays.

Status: nearly passed.

I did five:

Although I failed to reach the official target of six, I’m still pleased with the result. All the plays were immensely enjoyable to read, and the performances I saw were terrific. Combined with the six plays from 2014, my higher-level goal of rapidly improving my Shakespeare knowledge has been achieved.

I’m not going to repeat this as a formal resolution for 2016, but I will keep an eye out for productions of other plays I haven’t read yet, and try to bag a couple more at least.

2. Repair my ZX Spectrum and complete The Lords of Midnight.

Status: partly passed.

I successfully repaired the ZX Spectrum, with the help of a new keyboard membrane and instructions from Dataserve Retro, and a SPECTRA interface (a custom-built electronic circuit which converts the Speccy’s output to SCART) from the ZX Spectrum Resource Centre.

I haven’t yet fired up Lords of Midnight, but the second half of this resolution will carry over to 2016.

3. Crawl through the ventilation shafts of a large building.

Status: failed.

A total disappointment, this one. I wasn’t even close: I didn’t identify any suitable ventilation shafts or get intelligence on any promising buildings. To be honest, I didn’t put much effort in at all.