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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.

Reading Roundup

Some years ago (last decade!) I decided to do a brief round-up of some recent reads. Sadly I don’t find make the time to gather my thoughts and sum up my opinions, so in no particular order, I thought I’d write a few words on some of the books that have graced my bedside table over the past few weeks.

Round Ireland with a Fridge by Tony Hawks

In essence, this is the story of what happens when you put your money where your mouth is, even when your mouth is currently being fuelled by the wrong kind of babble-juice. Tony Hawks found himself challenged at a party that his oft-regaled anecdote of seeing someone hitchhiking with a fridge in Ireland was pigswill. In the morning, a note beside his bed seemed evidence that he’d taken up a £100 bet that he could do the same, circumnavigating the emerald isle with a home appliance.

What follows is a quirky adventure blending English stoicism and the Irish devotion to the craic, replete with fridge surfing, radio DJs, island kings and a night in the doghouse, all culminating in a triumphal march through the capital celebrating the pointlessness of it all. For anyone enjoying Irish sensibilities, there are plenty of amusing moments along the way. Ultimately a very pointless little book, but entertaining nonetheless.

The Great Dune Trilogy by Frank Herbert

A handful of words aren’t enough to do justice to Dune, let alone its two sequels Dune Messiah and Children of Dune. The first novel in particular is something of an operatic masterpiece, which despite such a depth and richness of ideas never bogs down as something like the oft-compared Lord of the Rings clearly does. Where other series focus on the science or the fiction, Dune creates an entire mythology, replete with political system, religion and technology.

I’ll be honest, reading all three novels back-to-back was something of a stretch, particularly as the second doesn’t live up anywhere near the expectations harboured following the operatic majesty of the first. Dune Messiah has something of a marmite effect on the fans. Fortunately the final volume in the original trilogy returns to better form, adding more sweeping strokes to Herbert’s epic canvas, without dawdling too much on the details. Definitely well worth reading the first if you’re a fan of (science) fiction in depth. Despite the few tweaks, David Lynch’s film captures the general tenor of this vision beautifully.

The Lady Vanishes & The Spiral Staircase by Ethel Lina White

A pleasant surprise with two short novels in one slender volume. It’s something of a shame that they are both published here under the names of the films they inspired rather than the books as they were written (The Lady Vanishes was originally entitled The Wheel Spins; The Spiral Staircase as Some Must Watch). The Lady Vanishes is rather overshadowed by the films and has a somewhat slow pace, which probably isn’t helped by knowing the story in advance. It’s almost a pity that this novel gets first billing, since the lesser-known The Spiral Staircase is the stronger of the two in my view. An atmospheric setting, strong characterisation, the gradually building suspense – the comparisons with Agatha Christie are unsurprising and genuinely well deserved.

Both of these thrillers deliver some classic 1930s suspense and mystery, and while the films probably outshine the novels on which they are based, as a light diversion for fans of mystery and skulduggery, you could do far worse.

Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? by Frans de Waal

‘They’re very intelligent animals.’ There’s a platitude I’ll never tire of hearing. When it comes to

In this relatively short but accessible volume, primatologist Frans de Waal takes us on a tour through the world of animal intelligence, or at least the study of it. He points out how human beings, so obsessed with their own navels, are wont to move the goalposts any time some semblance of anthropomorphic intelligence is found in animal test subjects. ‘Animals aren’t intelligent because they can’t something’ is always true as long as something remains. They can’t use tools, talk, empathise, plan ahead, show regret, recognise their reflections, deceive. Each time some evidence appears which suggests the contrary, human exceptionalism comes up with the next new something to define the experience of the human condition.

Aside from the proselytising, de Waal rightly highlights the difficulties of any kind of study in this area. Human beings have an extremely difficult challenge in designing tests for non-human subjects to measure non-human capacities. That is the real question written on the cover, though it sometimes gets lost amidst the examples and de Waal’s broadsides against those in the behaviourist camp. Nevertheless, at its core it presents an interesting conundrum. The book could’ve done with some streamlining, but as a piece of popular science it offers an excellent introduction to the subject.

[Photo by Karim Ghantous on Unsplash]

2015 in Review

Statistics! They’re everywhere… and I seem to have collected a lot of my own. This post isn’t of any interest to anyone, but I just thought I’d write up what media I’ve been consuming over the past twelve months.

Summary

Words translated: 583,472 (plus over 122,017 proofread)

PC games played: lots

Best PC games: This War of Mine, Resonance, Sang-Froid, Heroes of the Storm

Worst PC games: Kane & Lynch 2

Board games played: 92 plays (33 games)

Best board games: Space Alert, Colt Express

Worst board games: 100 Unique Places

Films watched: 38

Best films: There Will Be Blood, The Guard, Up

Worst films: Fantastic Four

Books read: 27

Best books: The Better Angels of Our Nature, The God Delusion, The Inheritors

Worst books: Billard um halb zehn, The Numerati: How They’ll Get My Number and Yours

Countries visited: Netherlands, Austria, Switzerland, Czech Republic, UK

Photos taken: 2614

A Year in Gaming

This year wasn’t particularly exciting for me in terms of gaming. Though I did get through a few coop titles, I didn’t really play any big games through on my own.

The start of the year saw a few weeks/months of playing through those Christmassy coop bargains, some better than others. ORION: Prelude was a fun little dinosaur survival game, with short waves of increasingly difficult dinos to defend your base against. It was a bit clunky, and the design seemed a bit stupid when you could drive around in a tank pounding the pursuing stegosaurus without any danger unless your driver got lost. Meanwhile God Mode and FORCED kept us busy for a few evenings, the former essentially a standard coop shooter, battling through levels full of random enemies with various boosters and weapons unlocks, the latter an isometric puzzle-driven dungeon crawler. Otherwise Fox and I played through the few remaining coop missions of Company of Heroes 2, really well designed in some cases and definitely one of my favourite RTS titles of recent years, though I can’t bring myself to play it ‘competitively’.

Steffi hasn’t played as much this year, at least not with others, but there were a few games we went through together. One was quite possibly the worst game I’ve ever bothered to complete, being Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days. Terrible plot, terrible characters, terrible gameplay, just multifariously and absolutely horrific, so glad I only paid a few quid for it.

Another coop I played through with Steffi was Lara Croft and the Temple of Osiris, after enjoying the first one of the series so much. Isometric action adventure with plenty of puzzles, some nice interplay between the characters and some fun achievements to try to unlock meant we spent quite a bit of time on it. I also dug up Torchlight II and went on a mad quest with Steffi to finish all the achievements (including completing the game on hardcore-die-once-and-you-start-again-crying mode). Great fun, if rather grindy! We also started playing Magicka 2 with Fox, but somehow there just isn’t enough enjoyment there to warrant loading it up again. I think we had one session some time in mid-year and haven’t returned to it since.

In terms of solo gaming, as said, I didn’t really play anything that gripped me for long. There were a few smaller titles such as CastleStorm (a fairly enjoyable tower defence game), Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit (classic racing title, fast cars and dance music), or the simple does-what-it-says-on-the-tin Tower Wars (definitely one I’d like to try multiplayer). I never really bothered trying to get my teeth into any larger titles. Afterfall InSanity is probably the only FPS I tried to play, but soon got bored. I loaded up Sniper: Ghost Warrior and virtually fell asleep during the tutorial. As for strategy games, I had a few goes at Sid Meier’s Civilization: Beyond Earth after P bought it for me: fairly solid game, though not as feature complete as Civilization V. I also played a few missions of Supreme Commander 2, and felt like I’d seen enough. Though I did play Planetary Annihilation a fair bit more, I just don’t like the concept of the round planet.

So down to my few nice discoveries of 2015: one came right at the start of the year, probably purchased in the winter sales, called Sang-Froid – Tales of Werewolves. Although I didn’t play it particularly far, I liked the design elements and general storyline, hunting werewolves in mid-nineteenth century Canada, with separate stages in which you buy traps and manage resources, set up a plan of action, and then actually carry it out. Maybe that was also what gripped me about This War of Mine, a game set based on the Yugoslav wars of the 90s and played from the perspective of the survivors rather than the soldiers. Scavenge goods, cook food, defend your survivors, and craft tools to make it all easier. Gripping game that I never actually played through to the end, but which impressed me nonetheless. One other title I should mention is an adventure game I played with Steffi called Resonance. A retro 1980s graphical style, with fairly straightforward point-and-click mechanics and elements, but with an absolutely awesome storyline, decent voice acting and logical puzzles. Definitely a surprise hit for me.

What about the board games? Thirty-three different games this year, 92 plays. Ignoring the smaller card games, the top ranks are occupied by some old stalwart coop titles like Ghost Stories and Space Alert. We bought our friend the expansion to the latter for her birthday right before Christmas, so I guess that’ll be on the menu a fair bit in 2016 as well. A new title to the mix lately was Colt Express, Spiel des Jahres this year, neat game of train robbery in the Wild West with strategy, luck and a fair amount of laughs. Otherwise not too many new ‘big’ games played, apart from Caverna at Ric’s. Except for one other we added to the list just before Christmas: the game’s designer actually lives in Karlsruhe, so when I found out I sent him a random message and he invited us round to play his latest title Neanderthal. Definitely a geek’s game, perhaps more for curiosity/educational purposes than anything, but still funny to play a title with its designer.

Bad titles? Not really any worth mentioning. One small one I bought for Steffi at Christmas looks like it’ll bug me: Seven Dragons. I feel like it stole the victory conditions thing from Fluxx, so you can basically work towards winning and then have the whole game change with one play of a card. Otherwise it’s something of a kids’ filler game with laying tiles. Yawn. Another which I didn’t really expect much of, given as Steffi picked it up for a few quid in some pound shop, was 100 Unique Places. Basically a geography quiz board game on the rough premise of raising awareness about global warming yada yada, it just screwed up some of the basics. One thing was that five of us couldn’t work out the damn one-page rulebook, so we just ignored probably one of the main rules as it was self-contradictory and played a rather friendly race around the board. Other than that, the questions were as so often the case a bit dumb, some of them expecting you to know some really obscure facts without help, others giving you options for something fairly easy, or having statistical questions which essentially meant “choose one of these at random: A, B or C.” Best of all was that some of the questions had times set in the future which were already in the past… sure, the game’s five years old, but that put a weird spin on the questions: "What did scientists in 2010 think would have happened by 2013, irrespective of whether it in fact did or did not happen?" Bah!

A Year in Cinema

Apparently I watched 38 films this year, though a fair number of those were re-watches. Only went to the cinema a few times, so most of the new films were on DVD/TV, but there were a few that stayed in my mind. Up was one which caught me off guard, I’m not generally a fan of those kinda films, but it hit all the right notes and told a magically mental story really well. There Will Be Blood was another tremendous film, perhaps a bit on the long side, but it was the perfect vehicle for Daniel Day-Lewis’s acting skills. Highly recommended.

Best comedy for me was definitely The Guard, a black comedy of drug dealing on the west coast of Ireland, though one notable mention has to be Tropic Thunder. I can’t normally stomach Ben Stiller, but somehow the film had me giggling all the way through.

Another couple of highlights of the year were Inception, which I finally got around to watching despite having had the DVD on the shelf for about 4 years. A very decent film with a cool premise, which in my opinion just failed to be amazing by having an uninteresting and flimsy plot (the sideplot is more important but taking the focus off the main plot left it feeling misdirected). Keeping with DiCrapio, I also saw The Wolf of Wall Street, which was purely entertaining for its sex, drugs and humour. Finally there was Big Fish, a sweet psychedelic voyage of discovery.

At the other end of the scale there were some real stinkers. Olympus Has Fallen, not the title of a news article on the camera company, takes the crown for crappy action film of the year, with an absolutely mental plot and so many holes you could sail the Titanic through it. The final Hobbit film, Battle of the Five Armies, was probably the worst big budget title of my year, such an overinflated snorefest. At least the same couldn’t quite be said of Sucker Punch, which was essentially a film designed around a few cool set-piece scenes which otherwise didn’t have any point to being there. It was like watching someone play a computer game, having to put up with the levels between enjoying a few boss fights. We’ve also been watching the Resident Evil series (only missing the latest one) but they’re much better entertainment value, classic popcorn action horrors.

No, the real mouldy potato at the bottom of this bag of refuse is definitely the new Fantastic Four film which we ended up seeing at an outdoor cinema in late summer. I dislike comic book films anyway, but this one managed to fail hard on so many different levels, it was even dull for one of those. Character development, love triangles, catharsis, even the pure action sequences were just terrible in the extreme, and I expect the witty one-liners would only be found funny by preteens.

A Year in Books

I missed my book target this year, but read about 9,000 pages. A few highlights: The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker, a great study of the decline of violence in society of the past millennia, something that has largely gone ignored or at least hasn’t been given due consideration; The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, which I read expecting would annoy the hell out of me being written by the atheist pope, but ended up making me respect him for at least carrying his thoughts through to their logical conclusions and defending secularism properly.

On the German side of things, Lingua Tertii Imperii was a fascinating read on the language of the Third Reich. I’d been piqued by reading Klemperer’s diaries, and whilst LTI wasn’t a particularly standard arrangement, there were loads of interesting titbits and morsels for thought. Then there was Buddenbrooks, one of those classics that nobody reads. To be honest I found it disappointing, expecting more in the way of historical parallels beyond the family drama, and having said so to a few people, someone lent me Joseph Roth’s Radetzkymarsch which I found that much better for exactly that reason.

Down there with the worst books of the year was one my dad recommended called The Numerati, vaguely about the new tech wizards and their realms of big data. An interesting topic, but it was basically written by a journalistic idiot who doesn’t know the subject and treats anyone who does know something about it as a magician. Basically the very epitome of Clarke’s third law. Not only that, but being written by a journalist it was full of the fluff you expect to find in a newspaper article in every single chapter, so the slim volume mostly consisted of padding. But my absolute worst choice of the year was Billard um halb zehn by Heinrich Böll. It’s not often that I actually stop reading a book, but I gave up after literally losing the plot. Written from 11 different perspectives, after about 100 pages I just got completely confused about who the hell was currently narrating and simply had no interest in muddling through!

The Paper mp3

Amazon Kindle

Amazon Kindle e-book reader

Reading this post recently, I found myself asking why ebooks haven’t really taken off as a medium. Certainly more recent efforts, such as Amazon’s Kindle, have helped to reignite the market after a rather dubious development period over the past decade or so, but if one compares the ubiquity of mobile phones or digital audio players, e-books are entirely missing from the landscape. ((According to The Guardian in April 2008, ebooks accounted for less than 1% of the total publishing market, albeit this share has no doubt increased since.))

In purely utilitarian terms, should the technology ever be fully and appropriately used, ebooks have a lot to offer over their paper counterparts. There are far fewer requirements and resources needed for production, and distribution is much easier. Whilst a device on which to read ebooks might outweigh a single volume, additional books add nothing, and in terms of transporting books en mass, ebooks are clearly in favour. The ability to flick through a paper volume might be lost in the electronic form, but this is clearly compensated for by vastly improved tools for search and cross-referencing. Likewise combining other forms of media such as video and audio is a perfectly reasonable conception with ebooks, that the paper variety can’t really compete with on any level. They’re also more easily manipulable, in terms of being able to zoom, highlight or simple leave your own annotations about the place. All of which is to say nothing of the potential advantages for newspapers and other periodicals.

Recent Reads

It’s fairly rare for me to bother reviewing anything I read on here, however since I had some spare minutes and some actual opinions on some of the books I read this last month, there seemed to be enough to say to make up at least a short post. In fact it turned out to be a bit on the long side, so scroll down the relevant review if you’re really interested—being Stephen Fry’s strange debut The Liar, J.M. Coetzee’s rather aggravating Slow Man, Isabel Allende’s book for children City of Beasts, Zadie Smith’s impressive opener White Teeth and Murray Walker’s charming little autobiography Unless I’m Very Much Mistaken.

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