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Sunday, 25 March 2018

Monetised Moments

When was the last time you truly had some time just to yourself?

I was thinking on this topic as I was sat on a bus, at 08:25, two thirds of the way into my morning commute. Usually I am on the bus half an hour before this one, but I have been working in another department - different starting times.

I was sat looking out of the window. Sat ahead of me was a mother with her three children, one in a pram, all trying to make the most noise. To my left was an older woman, who was comparing notes with her equally old equally womanly companion about who was alive or dead from their school days.

As we went across a set of traffic lights I found myself meeting the eyes of a man sat alone in his car. He was smiling.

It occurred to me at that moment that it is difficult to alone.

"But John," I hear you yell, hanging out of the windows of your octagonal residences upon the back of your gelatinous god. "But John, you can be alone any time you want! And besides, people hate being lonely!"

I'm not really speaking about loneliness. I am more speaking about something that I am very keenly aware of, being an introvert: the requirement of having time to one's own self, to not have to deal with the draining business of being around others.

Average rent and average pay being what it is, it is difficult - if not impossible - to rent a home alone. Not unless you don't eat, or similarly lack the need for any utilities. Far more likely that one will share a home, mortgaged or rented, with other people. Now, for any of my housemates reading this - I love you, but it means that alone time becomes a friggin premium grade resource, when there's more than two of you in a building.

Then there is the aspect of travel. Owning and running a car, and driving only yourself wherever you need to go, is...actually kind of expensive, if you compare how much the monthly costs (and the cost of instruction, testing and purchasing a car) run up to alongside a bus pass. What this means, though, is constantly sharing your travel space - the time spent on the way to and from the place of work is almost always occupied by other people as well, waiting for the transport, riding it, making the last hundred yards on foot. Always, always surrounded by others.

You get to work.

Who gets their own office? That's managerial only, I daresay. Oh, I'm sure there are plenty of tasks that necessitate people being stuck in places by themselves - but it's not so much your space as a space that you are occupying for a task, that anyone else can pretty much just waltz into, because of the aforementioned lack of ownership of the space. It's just where you are when you relabel the things or unload the boxes or whatever.

It's not just in our day-to-day lives. If you want to go anywhere, you pay more to earn more space. Not only more legroom but more space between yourself and the person beside you. More ways to achieve minor privacies, tiny mercies. Buying two coach tickets just so you can have both seats to yourself. Hiring a taxi to take you to the airport. Flying first class. Flying private. Hotel rooms on the top floors to avoid having to interact with your other guests. Private and personal transport to all your destinations.

You can always go outside, but - again, a new set of rules. Out in the world, literally anyone can bother you or interfere with you. You can't sit around as you see fit or just relax. You are out in the world, in the grip of the elements, and people will probably look upon you with suspicion if they find you just lurking out of the rain in the middle of a wood.

Solitude is a positive thing. The time taken to just be alone with your thoughts, to process, to be under no external person-pressures, to be in private and not have to adhere to any rules or regulations aside from those which you set yourself. It's important. Ask anyone who can't have any for an extended period of time. Ask your introvert friends, who like leaving your parties early, not because your party sucks but because they've run out of the ability to be around all the other guests.

And in the ways I list above, solitude has become something that can be charged for. Just like every other commodity, privacy and alone time - necessities for those of us wired a certain way - has become something that has a price tag, and our mental health suffers for it.

Not the most pressing problem on the world's plate, but certainly one that I notice more and more.

Sunday, 18 March 2018

The Strangling Fruit

I had no idea who Jeff Vandermeer was when I first saw the Annihilation trailer.

It had been suggested to me because, hey, I like my sf and my weirdness. I might see some value in it. So I watch the very first trailer that came out, then I googled the name, and then I immediately bought and devoured the book - first in the Southern Reach trilogy.

Then I had to wait the interminable gap between that point and payday to get the next TWO books, because not reading them at this point wasn't an option. They thoroughly grasped me - the writing style, the flow of the story, the mythology spun out of it, everything formed an experience that I didn't even realise I had been waiting for.

Getting to the end of that third book left me so hungry for the movie that the wait for it reminded me of when I was seven and Christmas was still two weeks ago.

And now it's here, and I have to report that the movie - which is on Netflix right now for a lot of folks but got a cinematic release in the US - is excellent.

The acting is understated, the performances all very believable - which, given the content of the movie, only adds to the feel of it - and the casting is exceptional. The five women fronting the movie all put in excellent work, including Natalie Portman, who I am not terribly fond of usually. They all have depth - they feel like real people. How they deal with each other feels real, too - and how they change, as the situation around them falls apart.

And it does fall apart. Unlike every other horror movie, though - this one isn't their fault.

That's a very common trope, amongst horror movies - in movies in general, in fact. That the thing that goes wrong, the bad situation that has to be resolved by the characters in the piece, happens because someone fucked up. Either it is incompetence, or a literal flaw in character. Slasher flicks often happen because the victims dare to exhibit lust. The xenomorph wouldn't have ever become an issue for humanity were it not for pride and greed, in that order.

None of that happens, in Annihilation - because we don't know why this happened. The setup is very similar to The Thing. The why is so much less important than the result. It's also not very important that we understand every part of it, because - oh hey, get this - the problem isn't a human one. It's very much a black swan.

What follows is a journey into a part of the world in which everything is going wrong. Actually, not wrong - just different - but to us...very wrong. It's rare that I see cinematography, prop work, sound engineering, all come together to achieve this in such a complete way. Passing into Area X, it is incontrovertible that the five women of the expedition have entered a place that is unnatural and irregular. There's some very obvious visual cues but some not-so-obvious ones too. Little things, subtle things that play on your mind after the fact.

Portman's character is a biologist, so she can explain why some of the flora and fauna they find is wrong as hell - but you feel it, just looking at this stuff. Plants that have multiple different flowers, different types of flowers, different styles of growth. It should leave you with a degree of unease - and you may not even know why. Just that what you are looking at isn't right, isn't the way it should work.

And that's before you ever meet the deer, or the bear.

I'm not going into why they are wrong. You'll find out.

I like unanswered questions. I like open endings. I like not necessarily knowing why a thing has just happened, just that this is how the characters in the movie are dealing with it. I like gorgeous shots that show you things that upset you but you don't quite know why. I like diegetic and non-diegetic sound engineering that leaves you thinking.

I like all of those things, and that's why I liked Annihilation, an awful lot.

You might, too.

Sunday, 11 March 2018

Frontload Your Outlay

I would like to begin this blog with a Pratchett quote.

The reason that the rich were so rich, Vimes reasoned, was because they managed to spend less money. 
Take boots, for example. He earned thirty-eight dollars a month plus allowances. A really good pair of leather boots cost fifty dollars. But an affordable pair of boots, which were sort of OK for a season or two and then leaked like hell when the cardboard gave out, cost about ten dollars. Those were the kind of boots Vimes always bought, and wore until the soles were so thin that he could tell where he was in Ankh-Morpork on a foggy night by the feel of the cobbles.
But the thing was that good boots lasted for years and years. A man who could afford fifty dollars had a pair of boots that'd still be keeping his feet dry in ten years' time, while the poor man who could only afford cheap boots would have spent a hundred dollars on boots in the same time and would still have wet feet.
This was the Captain Samuel Vimes 'Boots' theory of socioeconomic unfairness.

Makes sense, right?

This is Victoria Street, in Ryde, somewhat near where I live.

After and before rain, about five hours apart, taken today. This is a main road - major bus routes use this road pretty much 24-7-365. It's the main route out of Ryde into Newport, the two biggest population centres on this bedevilled isle.

Anyone remember that line in Bad Boys wherein Martin Lawrence walks into the drug lord's mansion that has been shot to pieces, and quips that it looks like Beirut?

This bit.

So this is the particular side of Beirut that Lawrence is referencing, the civil war in the 80s.

This is what Beirut looks like now, for comparison.

Ryde isn't Beirut. It doesn't have a civil war to deal with. It has another problem.

See, that road out there gets resurfaced with some degree of regularity, but the job never seems to stick. It gets farmed out to the lowest bidder, and it gets tamped down with a little tarmac, and then the tarmac gets smashed to shit again. So money keeps getting poured right into the hole.

See, the solution is to spend the cash to resurface that entire section of road. Be prepared for the disruption of services, take the steps that you have to, and then cease worrying about it for as long as this full road surface will last. Which, if you do it right might be quite some time.

You'd save money in the long run, too.

The thing is...

Working on the assumption that the goal is to actually solve the problem, to give the citizens of Ryde (and the Island, and anyone who uses our public transport) a better situation, frontloading the cost is the most obvious "best" solution.

This is a false assumption.

Assume instead that those in charge of filling those potholes have no interest in a permanent or long-term solution - they have different metrics in mind. They care about how much money they are spending in this very moment, because potentially, they won't be around in several years to actually see the windfall of not having to keep throwing money down the hole. They can just ignore it and ignore it and ignore it until such a time as...well, not that it stops being a problem overall, but that it stops being THEIR problem.

The rebuilding of Beirut was left to a private company. There was a lot of issue surrounding this. Their business arrangements and such were very heavily tied in with the interests of the local government, and everything was over-budgeted, resulting in Solidere (the company that managed the rebuild work) making an immense profit.

The fact was, though - when it was finished, it was finished.

The government was going to be around for a while, it appeared. Those companies that sought to make money from the rebuilding of an entire city were survivors. They weren't there for the short-term, only hopping in to make their cash and then vanish. They were in this for real.

While that particular practice is still shameful as all hell - literal war profiteering, using the destruction of a place to make money from its rebuilding, see Iraq for more details - the difference between how the island deals with it and how it gets dealt with elsewhere is huge.

The other problem, I suppose, is that none of the people that would have to sign off on repairing the road actually drive on it. So why should they notice? And when it is brought to their attention, why should they care? The ability to adjust one's perspective, to ponder if something is a problem for another individual that isn't yourself, is...well...

...I hate to make a sweeping generalisation, but positions of political and economic power don't seem to reward any kind of empathy.

So I guess we'll just have to keep getting wet feet.

Sunday, 4 March 2018

Putzing With The Plot

Dungeon Crawl.

The very words make my SKIN crawl. They're just...boring. Just. Boring. Check for traps, pick the lock, open the door, kill the monsters, solve the puzzle, rinse, repeat.

Of course, they can be made more interesting. Making the dungeon make sense, for instance. Why have just a random coagulation of caves and junk when this place could be a sprawling catacomb for the thousand generations of a noble family's dead? A literal hidden fortress, carved out of the back of a cave by orcs? The basement of the tower of a Dark Lord (tm) that remained even after the tower was obliterated by the Chosen Ones (tm)?

My first RPG experience was Heroquest. From that came Advanced Heroquest, then a brief stint at D&D, before I fell into the pitch blackness of the World of Darkness. You find a dungeon in WoD, you are probably about to learn a lot about the person who owns it, and not necessarily the kind of stuff you can bring up at the dinner table.

WoD became my RP mainstay for years. Absolute years. I just stopped playing the kind of game where you'd grab a sword and yomp off into the dark to kill a big bad. It was all about shades of grey and narrative and the motivations and struggles of the individual.

Then along came Eclipse Phase, which - with its posthuman technology and its potential for absolute existential horror - provided a whole plethora of opportunities for doing something else. Something new. Here's a system where you can do both. You can worry all about the Tharsis League's most recent push toward industrial action on Mars, while also kicking in the doors of an exhuman terror cell to clean house.

I like it when a book messes with a standard narrative - I like it when a stereotype is used in an interesting way or the expectations of the reader are used against them. I love it when a movie does this, too. Arrival is a killer example. It takes a viewer's assumption and uses it to inspire.

So why wouldn't I like doing it in an RPG?

The thing I did most recently in Pathfinder...well, let's maybe not give away too many details. The players might be reading this after all. But suffice to say, a not-insignificant number of individuals the world over have lost their memory and have no idea why - and that number includes some of my players.

Because why not? I don't just want to run a number-crunch where we work out how many times you can roll to disarm traps before you fail one and lose some HP. I want my players to think. I want my players to have to wonder about if this is really the way their characters - specifically their characters with the problems and limitations that they are currently suffering from - would solve this problem. What they would assume to be the right path. How they would deal with the notion that, just maybe, three weeks ago, they didn't feel the same as they do now.

I get too invested in character. I love playing a character. I get the feeling that there's some RPGs that are more geared toward being your character, playing them and engaging with them (and through them the rest of the group), than others.

So I like putting folks in places where they can explore that. Where they can decide what they think is the best or right way forward. Chances for them to talk to each other and the denizens of the world we're making.

Generally taking the good old-fashioned narrative and turning it on its head can be good for that.