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2019 in Review

Another year, and time again to look back over 12 months of consumed media. Following on from 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018, here’s another summary of what I’ve been reading, watching and playing over the past year.

Summary

PC games played: numerous

Best PC games: Abzü, Overcooked 1/2, Risk of Rain, Firewatch, Battalion 1944, We Were Here Too, Hard West

Worst PC games: Prison Architect, Lethis – Path of Progress, Rage, A Story About My Uncle, The Last Express

Board games played: 41 (81 plays)

Best board games: Decrypto, In the Year of the Dragon, Unfinished Case of Holmes, Codenames: Duet

Worst board games: Sherlock: Whereabouts Unknown, The Mind

Films watched: 41

Best films: Her, Hunger, Senna, Doubt, Star Wars, Jurassic Park

Worst films: Suicide Squad, Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

Books read: 48

Best books: The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion , Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World, The Comedians, SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome, This is Going to Hurt: Secret Diaries of a Junior Doctor, Bad Science, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, Battle Cry of Freedom

Worst books: Cybercrime And The Darknet, No Need for Geniuses: Revolutionary Science in the Age of the Guillotine

A Year in Gaming

Another twelve months down the line, and not much has changed on the multiplayer gaming front. Counter-Strike: Global Operations remains our go-to watering hole of a Thursday, despite the incessant wave of cheating accusations that accompanies it. I still play Quake Champions occasionally, though it normally takes me a season to play all my placement matches, and so my rank is only visible for a while before it gets reset. Similarly I play the odd game of Heroes of the Storm, but haven’t done any ranked matches this year as far as I can remember.

Apart from the usual suspect, we played a few weeks of Paladins in recent months, which was a nice distraction and fairly enjoyable. It reminded me a blend of Team Fortress 2 with some extra layers of complexity a là Overwatch, but without the same level of seriousness. Certainly there seemed to be lots of players of dubious skill level on there, so maybe once we reach a ranked level, the matches might be more regularly challenging, rather than alternating between walkovers and walkunders. That is if we ever go back to it!

In the background we’ve been playing some Civ VI in the new PBEM variety, two games in parallel thanks to Benno quitting the first one before it had been set up! With Tesh’s rash exit from the second game, both were soon down to three players, so we’ve been progressing fairly fast, and the new cloud save system is a vast improvement on sending save files around. I have to say, I’m not particularly enjoying the game though, and it reminds me of how things went in our old games of Civ III; an interesting start until you realise what vital resource you’re lacking, a moment of dispair when you realise all the iron is in your neighbour’s back yard, then someone quits and we start again. I’m pretty much just clicking through my turns waiting for the games to end, though it could still take some time. But I’ll probably write something about that separately.

For solo gaming, I did squeeze in a few interesting titles this year. Abzü and Firewarch stand out for being somewhat less ordinary, I suppose basically both of them pure exploratory adventure games, the latter even carrying the moniker of a ’walking simulator’. Relaxing, intriguing, beautiful to behold, both offer a short diversion of a few hours that doesn’t overstay its welcome and definitely places a different slant on what you expect of a computer game. Another game of a similar ilk I tried was A Story About My Uncle, which was however more of a freaky platformer and fell rather flat with me.

A few more worthwhile mentions for the year: Hard West is an XCOM-style tactical shooter set in the American west, with several short campaigns which are interesting enough in their own right, and only consist of a few short missions. An enjoyable game, even if I didn’t get particularly far in it. Risk of Rain was a fun multiplayer roguelike platformer, which had us struggling to beat it the few evenings it appeared on the menu. Quick to pick up and play, with that ’oh just one more try!’ that comes with failure in roguelikes. Battalion 1944 scratches the itch that Day of Defeat left, and is actually a pretty competent shooter in its own right, though it has some very annoying movement mechanics that slightly detract from my enjoyment. We Were Here Too, the sequel to a puzzle game I think I reviewed here some years back, was a pretty straightforward but nevertheless enjoyable escape room relying on asymmetric knowledge, where communication is the key, as well as a bit of lateral thinking. And finally I can’t leave 2019 without mentioning the Overcooked games, which Ric introduced me to in spring, and which Steffi became addicted to and had us spending many an evening finely honing our tactics to unlock an elusive fourth star. It was actually quite impressive how we would barely scrape enough points to clear the three-star requirement, and yet we’d practice and practice until we could jump the four-star hurdle which was twice as high. Certainly helped being able to stream this to the TV in the lounge and play it on a controller.

Didn’t play any particularly terrible games this year, but one vague disappointment was trying to play through The Last Express. It’s one of those overlooked gems from the mid/late 90s, with a unique art style and ambitious gameplay, an adventure with real-time elements and multiple different endings. I imagine if I’d played it at the time, I’d have had the patience (and the boredom!) to explore every nook and cranny, trying to get through every ending, and never give up, but today I’m just too impatient and we couldn’t get into it at all.

A Year in Boardgaming

It hasn’t been a particularly great year for us in boardgaming with only 81 plays, certainly on the lower end for us, and there hasn’t really been very much new in all that. The Exit Games series remains one of Steffi’s favourites, though I have to say I’ve played enough now that I’m not really excited by the prospect of any more. We’ve also played a fair number of other games of a similar ilk, and whilst some of them at least offer slightly different challenges, with many using an app so you have to enter the answers in a more detailed way than you can get with a three-digit code, there are still only so many ways you can hide a solution in a box of bits.

Still, we did see a few new games to the table this year. We had a lot of fun with two party-esque games in Codenames: Duet and Decrypto. The former is just a slight tweak on the earlier version, but I think makes the game more enjoyable overall; instead of playing in two teams against one another, you play in two teams cooperatively, with everyone being responsible for both making and guessing clues. Certainly worked for us. Decrypto on the other hand relies on teams of players communicating codes to one another using a common ’codebook’. But the other team always gets to hear the code too, and must try to intercept the message, so players not only have to come up with ever new clues for their partners, but also work out what the cryptic clues their opponents are giving could mean. It’s fairly easy to put together your own version to try out too!

A short mention to The Quacks of Quedlinburg which won the Kennerspiel des Jahres 2018. While a fun little push-your-luck game, I’m hard pressed to understand how it was the Kennerspiel, nor really how it won at all. We played it with 4 players and it felt like it wasn’t really designed well for that number, with the starting two players able to capitalise on the cheaper chits and the other players then locked out of certain tactics. Otherwise the game was basically like an elaborate game of Pontoon, each player holding a bag and deciding whether to keep drawing or hold their current scores – twist or stick?!

There wasn’t really anything that I didn’t enjoy playing this year. We had a few lacklustre escape room games, both from Exit games series and others, but they’re generally one-off games which still have some entertainment value and don’t overlast their welcome. One game we’ve started playing as a filler is The Mind, which I really can’t rate and always feel is a bit of a waste of time. Basically 100 cards in total, starting off with each player getting one, then without communicating they have to play them in ascending order; then the round repeats, each player getting two cards etc. There are a few rules with lives and special abilities, but this is a game you could easily play with a pack of regular playing games and is basically a game of "can you all count together in your heads at the same speed?" Yawn.

Another game I have to mention and I’m dead on the fence about is Detective. It’s pushing a bit really to describe it as a game: essentially the players take on the role of detectives and have to solve five cases. Each case has a stack of cards which the team can explore, plus there’s a detailed app database containing extra info on lots of characters and events in the game, and some puzzles even require a bit of Googling to find the answer. You then decide when you think you’ve got enough info to solve the case, and the app takes you through a few questions and tells you your score. Each case is unique, but they are all somehow interconnected, with the same characters and locations reappearing. What’s not to like? Well, for one thing the game comes with a board, different characters, some silly tokens and really a whole load of guff which is just absolutely unnecessary. There’s a board just for the sake of having a board which is supposed to indicate where the investigation team currently is, and moving around costs time, but quite frankly that makes no sense. Sure, it’s important to keep track of time, and I can see that there has to be a ’currency’ of sorts to force players to make decisions about how much to research or what leads to follow, but then each investigator has a certain number of ’special ability’ chips which only they can use at a certain time. But why? It just adds pointless cruft to the game, where all the fun comes from theorising, putting the pieces of the puzzle together, working out the who, what, where and why. Where’s the fun in not being able to read the back of a card because computer specialist John already looked at the back of a different card? The other major criticism is the way the time pressure in the game works: it’s fairly straightforward in principle, you have for example three days to solve the case, each day has 8 hours, and each lead you follow will cost a certain amount of time. But you don’t know how much time, and often the ’story’ has stupid things like traffic jams costing you extra hours all because… reasons! We’ve done three of the cases so far, and while the first felt too easy (maybe a nice introduction?) we completely failed the second two. I hope we return to it, because the actual story is very interesting and feels well constructed, but I don’t think I’ll ever be able to wholeheartedly recommend it.

A Year in Cinema

Although we haven’t kept it up quite as religiously, Tuesday evening remains film night and we watched about 40 this year. A few films I hadn’t seen before stuck out, as well as a few rewatches.

Her with Joaquin Phoenix was fantastic, and I found it really interesting how the perception of talking to an intelligent AI massively reminded me of the uncorporeal minds of the early internet, back when cyberspace really felt like something distinct and separate from the real world, where other people were faceless intelligences in the void. The main character’s connection to his AI reminded me of some of my early experiences with people on the fledgling internet, people I would never see, never meet, and could only engage with through words.

On a less upbeat note, we watched Hunger about Bobby Sands and the Maze hunger strikes. It’s not a film I’d particularly recommend, decent acting and cinematography notwithstanding, as there isn’t really much substance to it that you don’t already know (if you know about the events). Nevertheless I found it particularly interesting to see how allergically Steffi reacted to the inmates’ decisions, a very visceral inability to see things from their perspective.

One film I enjoyed while Steffi was away one evening was the documentary of Senna. The first thing I ever heard about Senna was probably when he died, and remember the funeral in Brazil being broadcast on TV, probably on news reports, though at that stage I hadn’t really watched any F1 races and had only otherwise heard of Mansell. The film was an interesting look at his life, the controversies, the rivalries and the sport of F1 in general in the late 80s/early 90s.

Another dramatic outing which had some extremely good acting was Doubt, starring Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams. There isn’t really very much in the way of ’action’, being based on a play, but it is not a surprise that all four main actors were nominated for an Oscar.

A couple of films I rewatched this year, just because they happened to be on telly, but which reminded me of how good they are, were the original Star Wars and Jurassic Park. Yes, Star Wars is relatively cheesy, yes it has some god-awful dialogue and dated cinematics, but the overarching storyline is simply good. The few plot holes can easily be put down to dramatic licence, almost everything in it makes sense within the universe Lucas created, and the result is a solid and enjoyable opener to the saga which stands alone in its own right and remains entirely watchable today. I already ranted about Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker in another thread, but even trying to judge the films in their own right, which is obviously impossible, I’m not sure A New Hope comes off any worse for its age. I don’t think you could say the same about the moneymaker.

Jurassic Park is a similarly well constructed story. Watching it with a particular eye to the scriptwriting, it’s amazing how effortlessly the characters are introduced. The first few scenes lay the groundwork about who everyone is without any exposition, any uncharacteristic or irrational moments, and sow the seeds which will be harvested by the end of the film. Simplicity like that takes a lot of work, even if you only went to watch the film for the dinosaurs. The special effects are also still decent, I think the film was made just early enough to avoid the early wave of terrible CGI, but late enough that it stands up cinematographically.

In terms of stinkers, we sadly watched quite a few this year. Two comic book films stood out as being particularly awful, with Suicide Squad quite possibly winning my award for most pointless comic book film I’m seen to date. No drama, no character development, too many minor characters who had no purpose, exposition slapped on like it was directed at retards, there was nothing to like about this film beyond Harley Quinn (who was admittedly excellent). Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice wasn’t quite as awful, but had absolutely none of the drama of Nolan’s Batman films, none of the positivity of Reeve’s Superman, and Batman beat Superman (FFS!)

A Year in Books

I managed to smash previous records with more than 15,000 pages read this year and nearly a book a week. Maybe I should actually make that a target for 2020?

Among the hits for this year was an interesting work on psychology and morality entitled The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. Not sure where I got the recommendation, but it’s a really fascinating look at how we consider questions of morality, how certain aspects can be measured on different axes, and where for example people on the right and left of the political spectrum differ is generally in how these axes are weighted and/or how they are interpreted, but a lot more binds the two together than separates them. Indeed, two things become clear from his thesis: that most decisions we make of a moral nature are first made, then justified (i.e. we feel something is wrong, and only later when asked to justify it do we come up with reasons, which generally don’t make any sense – cup of Brexit anyone?), and that today’s politically divided societies have more to do with people not talking to one another, than with actual radical differencies, i.e. things feel more polarised today because of social media echo chambers, rather than our views becoming radically different.

On a more upbeat and positivistic note, I finally got around to reading Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World, a look at how computer games successfully manage to do what we in society really need to learn from. Some of what the book covers is a bit wayward and comes from her research work, but a lot of the core message is sound and has very interesting implications for everyday life. Nothing much of it is new, but the book summarises it fairly succinctly: gaming succeeds because it rewards achievement, binds people together, creates a sense of accomplishment, teaches new skills, etc. A bit dated now, but worth a perusal (or reading a summary) nevertheless.

On the history front, I continued my Roman history trip with SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard. I understand she’s something of a TV personality as well? The book is a brief overview of Roman society, rather than a blow-by-blow look at events, and I found it to be very balanced, despite many decrying too much conjecture.

Another history gap I tried to fill this year was in reading two books I’ve had on my list probably since Dublin – i.e. for more than a decade! – those being Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and Battle Cry of Freedom. The first is an amazingly sad history of what can only really be called the genocide of the native American tribes, showing how different tribes reacted in different ways, and the result in each and every instance was expropriation, exploitation, maltreatment and/or eradication. A very depressing chapter of history, from which no lessons have really been learned as far as I can see. The second is a detailed account of the American Civil War, which I knew pretty much nothing about beyond a few western films. Aside from the course of the war itself, it’s fascinating to look at how the issue of slavery was at once the cause of the war, and its ultimate end, without ever actually being the casus belli. Similarly mindblowing how the Democratic Party remained officially opposed to the 13th Amendment even after the war as "unwise, impolitic, cruel and unworthy of the support of civilized people". Such an enlightened heritage!

A couple of books with a slightly sciency/political bent tickled me this year. This is Going to Hurt: Secret Diaries of a Junior Doctor is more amusing than enlightening, but it certainly had some eye-opening passages about how health care is actually delivered in the UK, as opposed to how it is perceived. At once hilarious and terrifying. Bad Science on the other hand is a more engaging and sober look mostly at how science is portrayed in the media, and the concomitant problems that brings. Ben Goldacre wrote (writes?) a column for the Guardian and a blog of the same name, usually highlighting badly reported findings and the like, and this book is just a more in-depth exposition of a few of those topics. Pretty much nothing unexpected in there, but it’s still maddening when you see the kinds of rigorous argument that can be arrayed against the most insidious of lies, and yet still fail to land in the minds of the converted. It reminded me of both The Righteous Mind (above) and Thinking Fast and Slow (also highly recommended) which I read some years back. Goldacre’s ultimate message seemt all the more realistic/pessimistic for it.

I didn’t seem to read too much fiction this year, at least not much I could unreservedly recommend. The longest book of the year was the nearly 1000-page Der Schwarm by Franz Schätzing, which while certainly interesting, read too much like a silly Roland Emmerich film and overstayed its welcome a bit. The best on my list was probably The Comedians, just another classic from probably my favourite author. So much depth in so little material, truly refined, his books are only short but pack so much of the human experience into so far words. I also read his England Made Me this year, and it goes to show how much he developed as an author over the years. The lack of plot in the latter book was no different to the former, but the characters were soulless in comparison.

Two books get my stinker of the year award. The first is No Need for Geniuses: Revolutionary Science in the Age of the Guillotine by Steve Jones, who normally writes pretty interesting popular science books. But I couldn’t really see any purpose to this book, it’s just a collection of small vignettes which may or may not have some relation to the French revolution, but generally didn’t. Jones isn’t a historian and it clearly isn’t his suit.

But hands down the worst book of the year goes to Cybercrime and the Darknet. One of those books my dad picked up on the cheap somewhere, he read it first, probably learned a few things, and sent it to me thinking I’d be interested. And oh my god, what a badly hashed together mess! I don’t wanna go hating on the author, she generally writes books for kids which I’m sure are perfectly fit to purpose, and maybe if you know absolutely nothing about the internet, then you could learn a few things from this book. But otherwise, everything about it was pathetic, and worse. It was like an undergraduate essay, written with an eye on the word count, trying to squeeze in footnotes which aren’t required (and missing ones which are absolutely vital). It was journalistic to the point of maddening, always looking at individual instances and extrapolating to general rules, with whole chapters dedicated to theorising about things that may/may not have happened and showing how that is the way of the internet… unless it isn’t. She peppers the text with statistics that bear only a passing relation to the subject matter at hand, no explanation, no interrogation, they’re just left hanging in the air as if self-evidently supporting her thesis (Goldacre would’ve torn her a new one). I don’t think I’ve ever facepalmed so many times in 150 pages. If she’d been an undergrad, I’d have given it back and had her re-write it. But she already has a degree – from Cambridge no less! – and works at a fucking university. I’ll retire to Bedlam.

Cybercrime and the DarkNet

Cybercrime and the Dark Net by Cath Senker

As society tries to catch up with the overwhelming advancements in technology of the past few decades, it is unsurprising that governments and legislators find themselves plugging the gaps where criminality can flourish. Developments in encryption, obfuscation, distribution and anonymisation give criminals and privacy activists alike a broad toolkit for conducting their activities away from prying eyes. In Cybercrime and the Dark Net, Cath Senker offers a brief and easily digested overview of this bewildering digital landscape. The book is essentially a collection of short vignettes covering a wide variety of different forms of cybercrime, with an essentially separate second section surveying the dark net.

This is a successfully written book, but unfortunately hardly a well-written one. There is nothing wrong with the craft, nothing wrong with the content per se, but it reads very much like an undergraduate essay written with an eye to meeting a word count, rather than sculpting a theory or trying to convey specific information. I would call the style journalistic, in the sense that there is a tendency to focus on individual instances, leading to sweeping generalisations without any valid attempt at contextualisation. We’re treated to two pages detailing an instance of a young American woman whose social security number had been stolen and used to file false tax returns. Senker makes some unfounded statements about what the thieves could have done with the information, and offers the rather dubious claim that people are now filing their tax returns earlier for fears someone else will file them first, before then revealing that the IRS responded to the woman in question saying that the issue had been settled. The victim never discovered how the security breach had happened, ergo this needn’t even have been a cybercriminal offence and has little relevance for the subject matter.

Senker has clearly done a decent amount of research into this subject. Give that this is designed to be a popular introductory book on the subject, a few small mistakes in the technical nuances are relatively moot, and can certainly be forgiven given that the author isn’t an expert in the field. Subjects are well introduced and explained, while plenty of footnotes are provided for those interested in following a matter of particular interest. But again, bearing more than a passing resemblance to a university essay, the text is peppered with quotes and statistics which only ostensibly support the text and in fact rather serve to bring up more questions. In a section on online grooming, we’re told that technology facilitates the contact between paedophiles and children. A fair claim, but to bolster this argument, the next sentence tells us that Childline reported a 50% annual increase in online grooming cases in December 2015. That’s it; the line is left without further comment. But how does this bombshell fact actually support her argument? Did technology change so significantly in 2015 to lead to such an explosion in online grooming? Is this part of a general year-on-year trend or a statistical outlier? Maybe this is evidence that support services are using more successful tactics to reach those in need and should actually be interpreted as a positive indicator? Or is this evidence of groomers changing their tactics? Since the site reveals that the sample size is only in the hundreds, it would seem rather sensationalist to see any significance in the figure, and its uncommented conclusion here seems not only unnecessary, but extremely misleading.

While many of the footnotes feel like cosmetic extras, there are also occasions in the text where it is anything but clear what the author actually wants to say. In the section covering the darknet and methods of encrypting emails, we’re told that Irish-Islandic privacy activist Smári McCarthy encourages people to use encryption to increase the costs of government surveillance. This is followed by the statement: ‘if they did the cost would rise from 13 US cents a day (9p) to US $10,000 (more than 7,000 GBP).’ The cost of what, government surveillance? Measured in what? Obviously this statement can’t be taken at face value, but I’m stumped as to what these numbers are supposed to refer to. She concludes this short section by stating that this might lead governments to place only suspicious persons under surveillance, or alternatively for governments to spend more resources on surveillance, driving ever more people to communicate via the darknet. While I don’t expect the author to have access to a crystal ball, the entire section is muddled and lacks clarity.

Frustrations like this sadly abound in this lightweight volume. Somewhere under the editor’s chisel there may be a fairly decent introductory book. As it stands, I found the numerous non sequiturs, sensationalist statistics, minor inconsistencies and incongruities to make this a dissatisfying reading experience. The book lacks a certain clarity of purpose and instead attempts to cover and tie together too many bases in barely 150 pages.

[Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash]

How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking

Maths is a powerful tool, but in the wrong hands it can be pointless at best, dangerous at worst. Unfortunately, most human beings are a wrong pair of hands. We weren’t designed for handling numbers of any complexity, and tend to be out of our depths once they go beyond single digits. But a basic knowledge of numbers makes us overconfident and keen to interpret figures and statistics we don’t really understand as if they were cold hard facts. You only need to watch someone trying to work out which packet of washing powder presents the better deal when the supermarkets add a few percentages to the labels, or our reactions to opinion polls or the latest cancer-scare headlines.

Which makes books like this important, at least superficially. Ellenberg covers a lot of ground, explaining various ideas and highlighting common fallacies and paradoxes caused by our general weak understanding of basic statistics. He uses some excellent real-life examples to highlight what the numbers can teach us, but also what they can hide. Like how someone tasked with studying how to improve aircraft survivability in the Second World War realised that they were only analysing the bullet holes on the planes which made it back; the answer to this survivability bias was to increase armour to the places the raw data wasn’t showing them.

Another case in point is the classic disease afflicting the scientific community, that focus on statistical significance (and the Whorfian perversion of calling it significance at all). Papers tend to be published when they prove a point; negative science, for all its benefit, doesn’t enjoy the same kudos. Which fact alone means that many statistical outliers get published where the overwhelming unpublishable results tend to indicate the opposite. And that’s before taking into account how the researchers massage their results to hit the threshold of significance. After all, a few small tweaks here and fortuitous rounding decisions there can make all the difference for publication.

Aside from headline-grabbing scientific papers, Ellenberg uses other real-world examples to highlight his points. A large amount of space is taken up with the risks of playing state lotteries or the pitfalls of various electoral systems. Yet despite numerous practical applications, it remains a difficult book to recommend. For all its interesting asides, the title is just too schizophrenic to ever come to any real conclusions. Often it’s as if the author got carried away guiding the reader into some favoured corner of the mathematical jungle, only to forget why he ever led us there in the first place. Certain ideas are explained in fairly pedantic fashion, taking it a few steps further than even this particular pleb needed to grasp the concept. Other times it’s as if the target group has switched and the details become more turgid and difficult to follow.

[Photo by Roman Mager on Unsplash]

Wesley: The Story of a Remarkable Owl

Doubtless recommended to me because I enjoyed Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? by Frans de Waal, this story was at first somewhat disappointing in the sense that it is to a greater extent a personal memoir rather than an investigation of animal intelligence. I had been expecting a heavier, more science-laden account of their relationship, but once I’d adjusted to the style and tone of the book, I found plenty here to enjoy.

In the mid-80s, Stacey O’Brien took it upon herself to adopt a young barn owl and started what became a relationship lasting nearly two decades. She packs a lot in this short and compact volume about their life together, which is filled with anecdotes and fascinating titbits, as well as a fair few fundamentals of owl biology and psychology. Stacey progresses from surrogate mother to partner for life and mass mouse murderer for good measure. While not offering the scientific rigour of a book like de Waal’s, there is still plenty of observational evidence. Aside from which it’s a touching story, with a predictable end, but one which offers a fascinating insight into the nature of owls and the intelligence and individuality of animals.

[Photo by Doug Swinson on Unsplash]

Freedom Next Time

What you need to know about humans is that they are dicks. And if you give them any power their dickness prevails over everything else.

That beautifully succinct phrase comes from a review on Good Reads and is an understandable frame of mind to find yourself in after reading this book. Reading it ten years after publication, it’s almost surreal how little has changed in the intervening period, how the wheels of progress continue to grind on the gears of conservatism. In Freedom Next Time John Pilger surveys the state of peoples suffering under the weight of ignorance, ill-will, apathy and condescension in various theatres of the world, turning the spotlight in turn on Palestine, India, Afghanistan, South Africa and the Chagos Islands.

The Chagos Islands is a pretty clear-cut test, and one which our western democratic system will likely fail miserably. In the dying days of empire, the British government swapped a conveniently located group of rocks in the Indian Ocean for a few bits of military hardware from the Americans. The people living there were forcibly evicted and will never be allowed to return to the place of their birth, never mind that their removal constitutes a crime against humanity. As Pilger attests, this buck will be passed back and forth, the Brits blaming the Yanks, the Yanks blaming the Brits, while the case is shuttled often enough through the courts until everyone affected by the travesty is tidily dead. Maybe in the middle of this century we’ll see an official apology to the victims’ descendants, similar to the likes given to victims of slavery and oppression elsewhere in the world. But the political establishment doesn’t give a rat’s arse, and those individual politicians who might are far too lightweight to go tilting at such windmills.

At least with the Chagos Islands, the case of moral virtue is clear and it is merely the duplicity of realpolitik which means that justice will never be served to the islanders. In covering Palestine, however, Pilger covers an area of the world which can only get worse until it gets better. The social equation underlying the political facts is a simple one, even if it remains unwritten: Jews > Arabs. Big mon Trump’s recent declaration of support for the occupying forces is just the latest embodiment of this, and indeed a rare case of someone being up front about reality. A two-state solution is a nice sound bite to be throwing around, the ‘peace process’ a wonderful phrase to pay lip-service to, but Palestine will presumably remain a problem zone until it is eventually eradicated, almost like Kosovo in reverse.

The more interesting chapters are also the less clear cut, more contestable issues, where Pilger investigates the lot of people left behind by political and economic change in South Africa and India. He points blame at the ANC for selling out the anti-apartheid movement and abandoning some of its core principles in cosying up to vested interests. However it’s hard to imagine how his occasional purported alternatives would have brought about more prosperity than the current situation. Similarly his chapter on India shines a beam to highlight the transparency of India’s booming economy, though the overall picture here is murkier than elsewhere, and there’s certainly been more positive change in this part of the world in the past decade than elsewhere, even if the problem of poverty remains a massively significant burden.

Obviously the style of this collection is journalistic and as such suffers from those usual pitfalls. Chapters are padded with random exemplary introductions, events highlighted which don’t necessarily have any bearing on the case at hand and indeed over time start to lose relevance and punch. But in particular, as Pilger has his agenda to pursue, the narrative isn’t drawn as broadly as it could be. Whilst happy interviewing the politicians and the victims of their policies, he does little to examine the opinions of the pillocks who put those politicians in power, which would have been of particular interest for example in the Palestinian conflict or the missed chances of the ANC.

Despite its advancing age, Freedom Next Time remains a worthwhile read since the political situation in many of these regions has barely evolved. The basic working principle which Pilger highlights time and again is that simple human trait, where political representation fails to defend the rights and interests of the downtrodden, whether it be through ignorance, apathy or occasional sheer malice. The book greatly attests to the prevalence of dickness in human nature.

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