Sunday 6 November 2011

Things that go bump in the night

What’s this? A blog post? Madness, I know. Sorry for the lengthy hiatus, I’ve been busy either having fun or working and simply haven’t had the time to blog at all. The ironic thing is that in that last month or so we’ve had the brutal lynching of Gaddafi, cabinet ministers inviting friends along to confidential meetings and the European economy teetering on the brink of collapse because of massive debt accumulated by Greece. All in all, plenty to talk about if I’d managed to find the time. Unfortunately I didn’t find the time, although the Greek crisis is still happening, so I might say something about that next week. For now, I’m not really sure what to say about it.

While global politics is fun and all, last week was Halloween, and that is far more fun! I’ve always had a somewhat strained relationship with horror as a genre; while I really quite enjoy being scared by films, stories and even videogames, I’ve always found that many things simply do not scare me that much. I find that often the genre falls a little flat because the sole purpose of it is to unnerve the viewer/reader/player, rather than actually tell a story of any kind. The best horror almost always has an engaging story behind it that you can appreciate without having to have been especially scared by the rest of the stuff going on.

The reason I bring this up is that last weekend I watched two horror movies, firstly the original Wickerman (not the crap one with Nicholas Cage) and secondly, Antichrist, which might well be the scariest movie I have ever seen. I mentioned a few months ago that I watched Insidious and had been pretty effectively unsettled by it. Antichrist was by far worse. I think there are some fairly obvious reason why Antichrist was so terrifying, but also some far more subtle ones that are perhaps more telling.

I’ve long been a fan of Pseudopod, a weekly horror podcast that I’ve mentioned on this blog before. However I’ve never actually found the stories I listen to there scary per se. They’re often interesting, offer a fascinating insight into the human condition and take a revealing look at the darker side of culture and humanity, but they’re not necessarily all that scary. In fact, I often find that I’m more scared by the flash fiction stories that by the longer ones, possibly because they are far more punchy and to the point. I think that main issue is that the stories are purely in audio form. Horror tends to be very visual. I find it is images or scenes that most get into my head and affect me, so purely written or oral stories tend not to stick in my head and really get to me in the same way. I have to imagine the scenes, rather than seeing them, which makes it less effective. Shorter stories work better, perhaps, because I have less time to rationalise my perception of the scenes described. In fact, the most effective story I’ve heard on Pseudopod comes from Episode 203; Flash on the Borderlands IV, the third story in that episode, ‘Is this a Horror Story?’ is incredibly simply, conceptually, and probably more effective because of it.

I think the main reason why I tend not to get all that scared by horror in general, in any media, is that, for the most part, horror is simply not done all that well; having said that, it must be admitted that horror is very hard to do well. It is all too easy to overplay things like shock-horror, where things jump out and surprise you, which is not so much horror as simple shock, or gore horror, where the screen is filled the blood and gore and explicit depictions of visceral mutilation, which is not so much horror as faintly disgusting. There is nothing wrong with either of these things per se, but they must be used with extreme caution and in small doses. Indeed, Antichrist uses both shock and gore horror to great effect, because it’s used sparingly.

Two of the most effective scenes in Antichrist are the ones in which the female lead first breaks her husband’s penis with a wooden block and later cuts her own clitoris off. More graphic, you will not find. The thing that makes these scenes most effective, leaving aside the sheer horribleness of the acts themselves, is that these are the only two visceral scenes in the movie. There is scary, unpleasant and fairly graphic imagery elsewhere, but in terms of gore, that’s it. They stand out as by far the most visually unpleasant scene in the movie. The placement of these scenes is also very important. They occur at the beginning and the end of the third act; the dramatic climax of the film where all the threads running through the story come to a head. The gore in this case is very carefully designed to highlight the most dramatically significant scenes in the movie. This can be starkly contrasted with movies like Saw, in which gore is such a common, almost constant feature, that is loses all effect. We become dulled to the effects of gore because it happens all the time. Nothing stands out as important because there’s simply too much of it.

The scene of genital mutilation were not, however, the ones that stayed with me and have, in some senses, been haunting me all week. They were horrific at the time, but they soon fade. The thing about horror that makes it so scary is that it is often so close to reality. Even the great monsters of Gothic Horror are frighteningly human. Vampires, zombies, werewolves, Frankenstein’s monster, Mr Hyde and the like are all humans plus, or humans minus. The best horror does not happen in far-away fantasy worlds, or far-away places, disassociated in place and time from us, it happens in our back garden, just to the left of our world, in place that is haunting because it is so familiar and yet ever so slightly off. Antichrist takes place in just such a place; a place familiar enough that we can believe it, but different enough that it terrifies us.

The most haunting scenes in antichrist, then, are the subtle ones. The ones that you barely notice. Throughout the last third of the movie or so, it is slowly revealed that the female protagonist was already going insane, long before the events shown. The way this is revealed is particularly frightening, because it is so subtle. The male protagonist points out to his wife that their child’s shoes are on the wrong way round in a picture. She dismisses it as a slip of the mind that day. The next scene is the husband flipping through a collection of photos from the same album. In every one, the child’s shoes are on the wrong way round. Compared with genital mutilation, it may not appear to be much, but it’s a sequence that has stuck with me all week. It’s so subtle, so easy to miss – indeed the photos are shown to the viewer earlier in the film and there’s no way you could pick up on it – and yet such a terrifying thing when you explore the implications, both for the child and for the mental constitution of the mother.

I always find it interesting to watch people’s reactions to horror. Of course, there’s the covering of eyes, the squirms and noises of disgust; all the things you might expect. What you don’t always expect is the laughter. There is an odd link between horror and comedy, namely that it is very difficult to understand why we react in the way we do to each of them. Sure, there are some concepts that are funny or horrifying; we can understand why a joke is funny on some level, just as we can understand why a scene or concept is horrifying on some level. However so much of both are about delivery. A concept could be funny, or horrifying, but delivered so badly that it stops being funny or horrifying, indeed, sometimes it goes from being horrifying to being funny. I mentioned at the start of this blog that I also watched the original Wickerman, I’ve not really mentioned it because Antichrist is a much more effective example. However I mention it now because of the hilariously awful remake from 2006, which has been characterised by many as an unintentional comedy because it’s just done that badly that it is actually funny.

Comedy and horror, laughter and revulsion are gut reactions. We laugh before we’re realised why, we recoil in fright before we realise it’s scary. It’s impossible to rationalise comedy and horror because they both appeal to something that goes beyond our rationality and touches something purely instinctive. For horror, in particular, this can be scary in itself. No matter how much we rationalise something, it does not lose its effect because horror is, in itself, irrational. It’s an instinctive reaction to that which frightens us. This is part of what makes horror so difficult to pull off; you have to understand something that is completely irrational and work out a way to touch that nerve. It’s very hard to create something that will not only reach into the depths of people’s consciousness and terrify them once, but will do it again and again every time they think about it.

Monday 3 October 2011

On Motivation

This week I’ve been sinking a lot of time into two games, neither of which are terribly new, but both are rated very highly. I’m new to both of them, although one of them is a Total War game, so I’m hardly new to the franchise. The other is a browser-based, story-heavy RPG set in ‘Fallen London’ – a gothic, alternative-history, Victorian-era London that has been dragged below the earth by bats – called Echo Bazaar. It’s as weird and awesome as it sounds.

These games have almost nothing in common, apart from the fact that I am addicted to both. In fact I’m writing this in-between doing action in Echo Bazaar. Echo Bazaar has this rather annoying mechanic that means you only have a certain number of actions you can do per day and only a certain number of those actions you can do at one go. You begin the day with ten actions, and have another 30 waiting to be used. You get a new one every seven minutes up to a limit of ten. In those seven minutes, I usually tend to busy myself doing other stuff, or staring at the count-down clock, waiting for more actions. This means that I get a little bit of time to sit and wonder ‘why is this so appealing, and why am I willing to waste so much time for what amounts to a very small amount of gameplay?’

Likewise, in Medieval Total War 2, the other game I’ve been playing this week, you get a fair amount of time between turn to twiddle your thumbs. While watching the computer play every other faction apart from my own, I tend to wonder why England’s conquest of the entire western world is so damn important that I’m inside making it happen while the hottest week of the summer is busy happening outside (yes, at the end of September).

I’m going to university tomorrow, so I’ve also been busy preparing everything for that. True to form, I’ve left all the important stuff until the very end, so I’ve been fairly busy. While waiting on hold to various banks, I’ve wondered to myself why I always seem to leave things until the last minute before doing them. It’s not an affliction that is unique to me, by any stretch, but it’s incredible that I could have easily done all of this literally months ago, but didn’t. In fact I’ve been seriously lacking any motivation all summer. Days on end with nothing to do haven’t really given me the will to do anything. Aside the occasional moment of creative energy, I’ve really been lacking in any desire to do anything.

All of this has leads me to ponder on the nature of inspiration and motivation. Why do I want to desperately to conquer the Holy Land for Christendom? Why do I want to stake my soul on a card game for the chance of wining my heart’s desires (in Echo Bazaar)? Why do I leave it until the last minute to sort important things out? Why do I waste time when I could be doing much more interesting things?

You might remember that a couple of weeks ago I wrote a blog about some cooking I’ve been doing recently. I think the reason cooking appeals to me has a lot to do with the answers to the above questions. The reason I really like cooking is that feedback is instantaneous. You make something, it smells good, it tastes good, you’re satisfied. You get a very simple payoff for the effort of the cooking – you get to eat it. I have the inspiration and the motivation to cook because I know what the outcome is and I know when it will come.

But there’s something more than that; I don’t just enjoy cooking because I get to eat what I cook. I am always striving to make better and more interesting food. I make something and instantly critique it, not because I’m not satisfied with the taste, I almost always am, but because I want to better myself. I want to make meals that taste better because I see it as a challenge.

These two things are a large part of what motivates me to do things and inspires me to do them well. The outcomes of an action or the deadline for an action to be completed are very obvious motivators. If you can see a tangible result from your work, it’s a lot easier to get off your backside and do it, likewise if you have to do something by a certain time, you tend to do it.

The desire to do whatever it is I’m doing well is something that really drives me. In part it’s about being better than other people, but largely it’s about being bettering myself. It’s a challenge that I rise to.

This is how games like Echo Bazaar and the Total War games pull you in. Echo Bazaar is based around numbers. Everything you do increases or decreases your stats for certain qualities or affliction which have an impact on what happens to your character and what options you have open to you. It’s pretty standard RPG stuff. The reason I keep playing it is that I want to keep pumping up my stats and so unlocking more and more of the game’s content. The game is heavily story-based, and your stats dramatically affect the way the story goes, so it’s not just increasing stats for the sake of it.

The Total War games use missions with a time limit and overall victory conditions to drive your conquests, and the feedback for success is obvious, both in easily available graphs and the map showing the extent of your conquests to date to give you more and more things to strive against. Game play might only be a combination of moving little men around a map and town planning, but it’s compelling because there is a purpose and a goal to it. I want to play because I want keep succeeding according to the game’s definition of success.

A lot of games are built on this premise. I joke with a friend (who is probably reading this) who plays Football Manager that he is basically just playing with spreadsheets, but the same thing applies to FM. You keep playing it because you want to get Worcester City playing in the Champion’s league, no matter how meaningless that is. All RPGs work on this premise – you play in order to keep pumping those numbers up. You want to get a level 80 character, so you’re willing to grind for hours to get there.

Of course sometimes games lose touch with what exactly the end goal is. I ended up quitting playing Mass Effect and Fallout 3 because there was too much grinding and doing what seemed like very pointless tasks without a tangible result. I wasn’t getting any reward for my effort, or even any success in the broader sense of the game, so couldn’t see the point of doing it anymore.

Another similar way in which this is expressed in gaming is scoring. Something as simple as Tetris is addictive because you have a high score to beat. Challenge mode in Batman Arkham Asylum gave you a very simple way of measuring yourself against both yourself and others. The combat and the stealth mode were both wonderfully put together, but that’s no reason to keep playing the same level again and again. The only reason do to that is to try to beat the score you posted before.

The most interesting thing about this, however, is the way it works in reverse. In Echo Bazaar today (while I’ve been writing this post) I got a random ‘Opportunity’ that dramatically increased one of my stat, increasing it to the point where I could continue on the next step of the storyline that I’d just begun. Rather than feel happy that I’d been able to advance without the effort of building up this stat, I felt robbed. I had been allowed to advance without taking the effort and time to get there and it felt wrong. It’s not like it takes any skill to play the game – it’s all dictated by chance – but part of the reason why you become invested in the game is because it takes time to achieve anything. It felt wrong that I hadn’t had to put that time in, which is very strange.

The reason for that feeling is that success is not necessarily all that fulfilling in and of itself. Success unearned or underserved or even unworked-for is somewhat hollow. A well designed game makes you work for your success, so it feels good when you make progress, without allowing you to lose sight of that progression. That is why we keep returning to some games when we’ve already played through the content.

This is true in games because it is true in real life. I enjoy eating, but I appreciate a meal more if I’ve prepared it. Creating something will almost always be more satisfying that experiencing someone else’s creations. It’s not even limited to creativity; simply accomplishing something is more rewarding that having someone do it for you, certainly in my experience. The more challenging that accomplishment, the greater the sense of achievement. Of course, the more detached that sense of achievement is from actually doing the thing, the harder it is to find motivation; as was the case with my long, lazy summer with no lengthy spell of inspiration.

That summer has now come to an end and I’m off to uni next week, so I apologise if my blog post is late or non-existent next week, I will probably be drunk.

Monday 26 September 2011

Type Triggers 2

You may remember that a month or so ago, I posted a number of flash pieces that I’d written for Type Trigger. Well, since then, I’ve written a number of other pieces. Given that I have nothing else to blog about this week, I thought I’d bring them to you. I don’t plan on making this a monthly thing, or even particularly regular, given that you can read them on the Type Trigger website, but it’s useful filler when there’s nothing else on.

So, without further ado, flash in 300 words of fewer:

Ashes to Ashes

Ashes to ashes, falling like snow. Drifting, dancing in the wind to settle atop more ash, piling up, inches deep, never melting, never disappearing, burying the earth in dull grey, choking the rest of the life out of a dead world.

The world has been burning for days now; fires raging in the heart of every city, smoke and ash being pumped into the sky, forming the blackest of skies, blotting out the sun. The sky is black, but for the red glow of the fires on the horizon.

Since the sun was taken, it's become cold. The ash could be snow; it feels like ice when it lands on bare flesh. But there's no moisture, no sustenance. The fires are the only source of heat, now. Raging furnaces, burning all that we gathered about ourselves; all the tools of our survival, all the engineers of comfort, burning bright and hot. Surrogate suns, warming our faces.

We, we sad few, we band of survivors, gather, wrapped in all that we own, our hands outstretched to the bonfires, seeking their warmth. There's hunger in our gaunt faces, thirst on our cracking lips, but we dare not leave the sanctuary of the raging infernos. We dare not venture out into the cold and the dark in search of the living. Nothing can live long in the barren, ash-covered hellscape we've painted for ourselves.

So, we wait for the fuel to finally run out, wait for our society to finally burn up and die. We are the final survivors of a society that has collapsed in on itself and dragged the whole world with it. Soon we will join the rest of those who fell into the inferno. Soon the last flame will die.

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, fade to black.

Crack open the…

Crack open the world and see its insides. 

See the vicious, savage beauty. See the beast upon which we walk. 

See the lion chase down the antelope, the old, the sick, the slow antelope. The vulnerable one. It sinks its claws deep into the animal's flesh and pulls it down. Hear the scream of the prey as it sees its life about to end. Hear the scream cut short and the sharp teeth sink into the soft neck. See the fountain of blood. Smell the acrid stench of it. See the life flee from the antelope's eyes. See the lion feast. 

Over hundreds of years, see the Strangler Fig germinate high in the rainforest canopy. See the root run down the trunk of a tree and into the ground. Root after root. See the roots grow and swell, watch the bark of the tree disappear underneath the mass of roots. See the tree suffocate. See it die. See it rot away, leaving a hollow lattice of roots. 

See the bulldozers and the men with chainsaws. Carving the forest away. See the animals flee from the destruction. See the concrete and the bricks. See the builders throw up a dozen identical houses and make another identical suburban neighbourhood. 

Crack open the world and see its insides. See that the world is cruel and heartless and destructive. See that the fittest survive, and the weak and the small die. 

Crack open the world and see the rotten core. The world that doesn't care, the beast upon which we walk, and ask is it really worth saving?

Favourite Thing

Jenny was Sarah's favourite thing. You could tell because she had one eye missing, her right foot had been chewed and sucked beyond recognition and she was splitting at the seams, allowing the white, fluffy stuffing to spill out. Her mother had kept telling Sarah to get rid of it and let her get her a new one, but Sarah would have none of it. You could not simple replace Jenny. Jenny was special, Jenny was unique. Jenny was Sarah's favourite thing in the whole world.

So when her mother had told Sarah she was only allowed to take one thing with her, because they were in a hurry and had to leave, she had not even had to think before scooping Jenny from her bed. 

She'd followed her mother outside. All the loud noises had been scary, but her mother had held her close and told her to be very brave, for her and for Jenny. Sarah was not about to let either down, so she tried to breath deep and stop herself from crying. She hugged Jenny very close. 

Her mother had looked at her, right in the eyes. There was a funny look in her mother's eyes. A scared look, but also a determined look. Sarah did not understand how her mother could ever be scared. She had told Sarah that she was going into the house, but that she would be back very soon. she had told her to stay where she was and be brave for her. 

She hugged her, kissed her and said goodbye. Sarah thought she'd seen a tear in her mother's eyes, but thought she must be mistaken because her mother never cried. 

Now Sarah was waiting for her mother, hugging Jenny tight. Trying not to be scared, for either of them.

For the Taking

My soul was for the taking. And the Devil didn't want it. That was his first mistake. 

His second mistake was letting me walk out of Hell alive. 

His third mistake was letting me back in again. 

In his defence, I was his man down to my toenails. I was an evil man. One of the worst. The kind of evil man who makes murderers look like reasonable blokes. 

You would not have liked me at all. 

So when Satan decided to send the best servant he'd had in a long time back to continue fighting the bad fight, you can understand where he was coming from. 

The problem was that one does not simply walk out of the Underworld. Especially having got there through the legitimate paths. No songs for the ferryman, or wrestling with three-headed dogs. All legit. As you can imagine, God doesn't want anyone coming back from that. So Satan turned me into a ghost and sent me back. 

The problem with being a ghost is that you can't touch anything. I never had been one for jumping out of closets and scaring little girls. But let's not go into what I had been into. 

It was a bit like always going to brothels, then being told you had to go to a strip club instead. So used to doing whatever you liked, then suddenly, all you can do is look. 

I'd never really been doing Satan's work anyway, not consciously. That had never been my motivation. So I walked back into Hell, which isn't difficult when you belong there, and decided that I'd have a lot more fun doing Satan's job. 

So now I sit on the throne, torture the dead and use the devil as a foot stool. 

Not bad for a dead man.

Not the one

The man was tall. The tallest of the lot. She'd said he was tall. He wasn't fat, but he wasn't thin either, but then none of them were. One was a little heavier set than the others, one looked a little skinnier, a couple were a little chubby. He had a couple of day's worth of stubble that she didn't recognise, but clean-shaven could be fixed. 

His hair was the right colour, but it was short and very neat. The sort of neat that came after a haircut. She'd described the man as having long hair, nearly down to his shoulders. Straight and lightish brown. A couple of the others had hair that length, or longer. Long hair could be fixed as well. 

His eyes were icy blue. Just like she'd said. Looking into them sent a chill down her spine. She couldn't work out whether that was because of how they were, or just because of the memories that came with looking into those eyes. She'd had a good hard look that night. Eye colour could not be fixed, especially when you had those eyes. He was the one. 

She looked into those eyes again. Looked over the man that, in another time, another place, she might find quite attractive. What he'd done to her made it very hard for her to consider him like that. 

"He's not the one," she lied to the policeman. "I don't think so, anyway." 

A look of surprise, puzzlement and thanks flashed across the man's eyes. His face didn't change, only his eyes. He was good. Maybe he was used to this. 

She wasn't sure why she lied for him. He was the one who raped her. He should be going to prison. 

Then again, he was the father of her child.

Where it hurts

"You should just kick him where it hurts," Sarah said. She was always full of helpful suggestions. 

"How would that help?" I asked, suppressing a smile. 

"Well, he broke your heart, so you should break his dick in return," Sarah explained. "It's only fair, I mean you think with your heart and he thinks with his dick, call it justice." 

"I'm not sure that's justice, plus, I still don't see how this is going to solve the problem," I said, throwing myself melodramatically back into the sofa. 

"What problem? He cheated on you, for almost as long as you were dating. There's nothing to solve, just forget that asshole and move on. Kicking him in the dick is a great way of beginning that process." 

I had to admit, she made a convincing case. I sighed. 

"Oh god," Sarah said, looking at me in disgust. "You're not still in love with him, are you?" 

"I don't know-" I began, but Sarah cut me off. 

"He cheated on you, for a year. How can you even stand to think about him anymore? How can you even consider loving him?" She was standing now, shouting at me, her brown hair shaking in anger. 

"I can't help how I feel. I can't choose whether I love him or not. It's not something you have any control over," I protested.

"Of course you do. He's a lying, cheating, deceitful bastard who deserves to be kicked in the junk. Hard," she was still shouting. 

"How the hell would you know?" It was my turn to shout. "You've never had a real boyfriend, you've never really loved anyone, so don't go lecturing me about love." 

Her expression turned in an instant from anger to sorrow. 

I realised I’d hit her right where it hurts.

Saturday 17 September 2011

Stuck on the Kitchen

Over the summer I’ve been doing a whole number of procrastinatory things that can loosely be described as ‘bugger all’. I didn’t really fancy getting a job and after the rigours of my time in Australia, I felt like some downtime. So I’ve been watching and playing cricket, doing rugby preseason, writing a bit, reading a lot, playing video games, watching TV and consuming a not insubstantial amount of alcohol, as I said, pretty much bugger all. Oh and I went to Spain with my parents for a 10 days as well. Anyway, point being that, after a couple of months of this, I started getting bored, so I’ve been trying to fill my hours with some more productive things and also tried to get some creativity flowing, which I’ve been sorely lacking for most of the summer.

Combined with this is the fact that my parents have both gone back to work after their summer breaks, so I’m home alone most of the day. Not only does that mean that I can wander around in my undies all day, it also means that I’m free to do what I like with regards to eating lunch. Given that I’m about to head of to uni, where, while I will be in catered accommodation, I would like to do a fair bit of cooking, I thought that getting some practice cooking meals for one with everyday ingredients would be handy, both so that I could work out what sort of food I would need to have lying around for an impromptu snack, and so that I can impress all my new friends by not fucking up everything I try to cook.

So, this week, I have cooked three meals for myself and one for the whole family (well, just me and my mum, but it ended up being enough for three, so we froze one portion). I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it and decided to tell you all about my cooking exploits, just to round off the ridiculously diverse nature of this blog! Before launching into the different dishes, I’d like to preface the following with a few notes.

Firstly, I’m sorry there’s aren’t any pictures, I didn’t take any because I wasn’t planning to blog about the meals until after I’d cooked most of them. Secondly, these meals are not perfect, there are many things I would change about them and probably will, whenever I do them again, so don’t take these as recipes, just an account of my experiences. Use these dishes if you like and feel free to message me with any variations you use. They’re all pretty simple, every day meals, so it’s not like you couldn’t find them anywhere else. Lastly, a warning, cooking is, for my, very creative. I don’t really use measurements if I’m making something up on the spot, I’ll just guess and go by feel most of the time. Cooking with me is hectic and messy and chaotic, but usually tastes pretty good. I’m not terribly experienced so everything part of a learning process.

Ok, now on with the meals!

1. Macaroni Cheese

As I said, they’re all pretty simple! The beauty of macaroni cheese is that you can put pretty much anything in it (aside from macaroni and cheese, which you have to use). It’s incredibly versatile and you can make it differently every time. I was loosely following a recipe that said to use nutmeg, so I did, but I also added in some garlic and Worcestershire Sauce, to give it a bit more flavour. I also used Red Leicester cheese, rather than Cheddar, which worked to an extent, but a strong cheese is needed really, so the Red wasn’t the best choice, we just didn’t have any Cheddar!

Anyway, the nice thing about this dish is that the timing of the macaroni is not important at all, just put it on at the start and forget about it until it’s cooked, then drain it a leave it aside for when you need it again. I used about 2oz (sorry about the use of imperial, that was just what the recipe book gave me) of macaroni, which was fine for a smallish (by my standards, and I am a rugby player) meal.

The interesting bit is the sauce. You need to start by making a white sauce, which is margarine (or butter, depending), flour and milk. I melted the margarine (half an ounce) and added a tablespoon on flour. I probably used a bit too much flour on reflection, because it instantly rolled up into a massive dry-looking ball when I stirred it, rather than staying more separate. It will clump up a bit, but this did so too much. Anyway, you’re supposed to cook it for 2-3 minutes, but I ended up whisking it off the heat after about 30 second and adding the milk (quarter of a pint) then. You’re supposed to add it gradually, stirring it in so that the sauce doesn’t end up lumpy. I added it all at once in a panic and stirred mine like mad, and it ended up just fine. Put it back on the heat and stir until the sauce thickens.

At this point you can add your flavourings. As I said, I used nutmeg, garlic and Worcestershire Sauce. If you do use garlic, use garlic paste, or crush the garlic, so you don’t end up crunching on a big old lump of garlic later one (not a mistake I made, I’m not that dumb). Make sure you’re careful with the nutmeg, it’s very strong, so only a little bit is needed. You can always add more, but taking out again is a little harder! I probably used too much (only a couple of pinches really) and it tasted very nutmeggy, which is no bad thing if you like nutmeg, but you don’t want it to be overwhelming. At this point you can add in basically anything, maybe some meat, although best to cook it before hand if it’s raw. Something like bacon is good in this regard because you can just throw it in the microwave for a couple of minutes. If you want to throw in some vegetables for colour and vitamins, then cook them before hand as well and make sure they’re fairly small. Peas are great in this regard. As are onions, but they’re harder to cook before hand, because you have to fry them.

Then add your cheese. As I said, I used Red Leicester, but you can use pretty much anything you like, maybe even a blend if you’re feeling fancy. Cheddar is always good. I grated about two ounces, but you need to leave a little back to spread on the top before you oven it, so add one and three quarters ounces of it. You can always grate more if what you have left over isn’t enough, which I did. Add the macaroni at this point as well, which should be cooked and drained by now.

Finally, stir the sauce so it all mixes together and put it on the heat to make sure it’s fairly hot, then pour the mix into a oven proof container. Spread the rest of your cheese and breadcrumbs (if you want to, I didn’t) onto the top. Put into a preheated oven (which you will already have put on by now, so it will already be at the right temperature) at 200 degrees C (400 Fahrenheit, Gas Mark 6) and leave for 20 minutes, or until it is brown a bubbling away nicely.

And that’s my first meal of this blog! Overall, I was pretty happy with how it turned out. Next time, I would add some more variety, probably in the form of bacon, peas and less nutmeg! As I said, you can throw in basically anything, so go nuts. It might be quite nice with some paprika or maybe some chilli if you’re feeling adventurous.

2. Thai Red Curry

This meal was actually an evening meal for my and my mum, although this actually ended up serving 3. This is one that I’d make a fair few changes too, if I did it again, but it was the first time I or my mum had tried a Thai curry, and we were making it up from a number of different recipes. The inspiration for it was the fact that my brother had bought some Thai curry paste and then left it in the fridge, so we felt duty bound to use it.

Aside from the curry paste, in theory, you need coconut milk, but we didn’t have any, so I improvised a substitute, a mixture of different vegetables; green beans, baby corn, carrot, peppers/capsicums and onion did the trick for us (I don’t know exactly how much of each one, sorry), but you can use whatever you want, bamboo is a popular one for Thai curry, and some meat – I used chicken, but pork or beef would work fine.

The recipe on the back of the curry paste said to fry the paste in oil for 30 seconds, then add 400ml (metric this time!) of coconut milk, cook for 2-3 minutes, then add the meat and vegetables and simmer for 20 to 30 minutes. I did things a little differently.

I was using raw chicken, so I wanted to cook that for a little before hand, and onions, which always taste better when fried, so I threw half an onion and the chicken (two fillets, sliced into thin strips) in with the curry paste (three healthy teaspoons) and the oil and fried them until the outside of the chicken was white, then added my coconut milk substitute.

I’d read on the internet that you could use stock and make it into what is called ‘Forest Curry’, which is a little more rustic. So I made up 200ml of chicken stock and added that to the mixture, along with 200ml of skimmed milk to make up the 400ml (I’d also read on the ‘net that you could use milk as a coconut milk substitute), simmered it for a couple of minutes, them added the vegetables. If you’re using baby corn, it’s worth putting into the microwave (with some water) for a minute before hand to soften it up a little. Make sure all the vegetables are chopped up nice and small, so they cook better.

Leave to simmer and cook some rice to go with it and voila, Thai curry. And not bad Thai curry either, although it could have been better. For a start, it was really watery, even between three (the recipe said to use 400ml between two). I think you could halve the amounts of both stock and milk and it would be just fine. All the liquid made the flavour very light and shallow. You can also use more curry paste for additional depth of flavour – if I did it again I’d probably use four teaspoons. It was nice with some sweet chilli sauce drizzled on it, so I might try cooking it with that as well. I probably use too much vegetable, and probably too much of the wrong vegetable. The baby corn and carrot was nice, but there was too much of it and not enough pepper/capsicum or onion. I would certainly love to experiment with the paste a bit more, maybe make a stir-fry with it, or a more simple meal for one.

3. Pizza!

Ok, I admit it, I cheated, I used a pre-bought pizza base, because making your own is a waste of time unless you like baking, which I don’t, really. Anyway, I still needed a topping for my base, so I made a tomato sauce to go as a base layer and threw on some cheese and meat as a topping. You don’t need me to tell you about pizza toppings, you can make that one up yourself.

As for the tomato sauce, I drained a can of chopped tomatoes (you could use fresh ones, but that’s too much effort) and simmered them in olive oil for a bit. To this I added crushed garlic, Worcestershire Sauce, oregano, thyme, rosemary and basil. Simmer it for a while, stirring thoroughly. This will be more than enough for one pizza, but you can always put what’s left over in the fridge and use again.

I spread about half of this sauce onto my pizza, added some sliced ham and lots of mozzarella, then drizzled it with olive oil. All I needed to do then was throw it into the oven for 10 minutes at 220 degrees C and wait for 10 minutes until was a crispy and delicious.

I think the sauce could have done with being more like a paste, but I’m not sure how to do that. It worked out ok, so who cares? I’d probably use some different topping next time, but that was all I had to hand.

4. Fried Rice

Last but not least, fried rice! Probably the most successful meal of the week, because you can’t really mess fried rice up! This is another one you can have a lot of fun with because it really doesn’t matter what sauces you use, or what you put in it. I made a pretty basic one, but I will likely experiment with it in the future. The only real difference between what I cooked and conventional fried rice is that I don’t really eat egg, so I didn’t put any egg in.

The first thing you need to do is cook some rice. I used about half a cup (a pretty generous half). Like the macaroni, you can cook it and then leave it for as long as you like, because it will be heated up again at the end. While the rice is cooking, you can prepare whatever else you want to put into it. I used a small onion, two rashers of bacon and some peas.

Note that I made loads of fried rice for one person. Probably better to use less than half a cup of rice, half a medium sized onion and only one rasher of bacon. You could also add some pepper/capsicum, garlic, any other meat or fish you want, pretty much any vegetable, although again, cut it small. It’s really up to you. Egg is a common one, but I don’t like egg, so I don’t use it.

Start by frying the onion and bacon (or whatever else you’re using that needs to be fried, like meat or some vegetables, like peppers/capsicums, although things like peas are better added later), fry them for a few minutes until they’re pretty well cooked, then add the rice (which should by cooked and drained by this point), other vegetables and sauce and stir well. Put the heat down and leave for a few minutes, stirring occasionally. Don’t leave it too long, but don’t worry about it too much. Serve it whenever you’re ready.

The sauce is the other fun part of this meal. You can use any sauce you like. The usual is Soy Sauce, but I also added in some Worcestershire Sauce. You could use Oyster Sauce, Sweet Chilli Sauce, or anything you have to hand. In terms of how much, I didn’t measure it, but just put in whatever feels right. Be conservative though, you can always add more if it’s not enough.

And that’s what I’ve been cooking this week. I hope it was informative or at least entertaining. Please feel free to recommend variations on these meals, or advice on improving them, or other dishes you recommend that are quick and easy to do. Next time I’ll try to remember to take pictures so it’s not just a wall of text!

Tuesday 13 September 2011

Ten Years Later (Lessons from History 9)

Everyone knows where they were ten years ago yesterday. Everyone has their own story of that day. I remember coming home from school and turning the TV on to watch the usual mixture of rubbish CBBC cartoons and Blue Peter. What I ended up watching for the next hour or so was the news. There was nothing else on, and, even if there had been, neither me nor my brother would have changed the channel.

I was only nine at the time. I had no idea what the World Trade Centre was. I had no idea of the political and social magnitude of the events unfolding on my TV screen. I did understand the enormous human tragedy that was happening. And I think I was vaguely aware, even then, that the world was going to be a very different place from now on.

It would be fair to say that I did most of my ‘growing-up’ in the post-9/11 era. Prior to 9/11 I knew basically nothing about the world outside my own little bubble, as is to be expected for a nine year old, but since then I have become more and more aware of the world in which I live. 9/11 is something of a reference point for that awareness. I’m not aware of much that happened before 9/11, but I have a pretty good idea of what has happened since.

This is not merely a coincidence of my age. Everyone who is anywhere near my age, from about mid twenties down to 17 or 18, probably has roughly the same experience – 9/11 is the first major international incident they remember. Historians do not always define when a century begins and end by the actual turning of a calendar century. Instead they look at critical turning-point which had world-changing consequences. For example, the 19th century is not really said to begin until 1815, after the fall of Napoleon, likewise the 20th century begins in 1914 with the outbreak of the First World War. I think posterity will define the 21st century as beginning on 11th September 2001.

So, what has changed? 10 years on, how is the world different? For better or for worse? Apart from making a lot more hassle to take a plane journey and radically altering the New York skyline, that is.

The 20th Century is often seen as America’s century. The century in which America rose in economic, political and military might, to replace the old empires, most notably the British, that dominated the 19th. American fought, first on the battlefield, then through political means, Fascist Germany and Communist Russia to become the one and only World Superpower, built on and supported by Free Market Capitalism.

As the first time since Perl Harbour that a foreign power has attacked American territory, and the first time in a long time that attack has been on the American mainland, or against civilians, 9/11 marked a very stark contrast to anything that had happened for most of the previous century. Subsequent political, economic and military failures, along with a lot of social introspection from many parts of America, are perhaps indicative of the American decline from world ascendency. It could, of course, be argued that Vietnam was a far worse military disaster than Afghanistan or Iraq, and that the Great Depression had far worse economical impact than the current recession, but neither of those resulted in quite the same loss of confidence as the last ten years have.

I wrote, a few months ago, about the impact 9/11 is still having on the American consciousness; the hurt that the American people still feel in the aftermath of 9/11. I won’t go over the same old ground today, but I will discuss the wider political impact of 9/11 and the events after it.

9/11 was understood very much in terms of an attack on America, which is probably fair, although perhaps seeing it in terms of an attack on western, capitalist, Christian democracy might be more accurate from the point of view of the terrorists. From the point of view of American politicians, the only way to respond to such an attack would be with an attack in kind, a war. When Al-Qaeda came forward and claimed responsibility for the attack, they became a clear target. However, Al-Qaeda is not as easy a target as Nazi Germany, or the targets of all the proxy wars that made up the Cold War. Al-Qaeda is one of several international terrorist organisations, with a lose affiliation of different semi-autonomous groups working under them. You can’t simply send army into the middle-east and conquer which ever countries harbour such groups.

Unfortunately this is exactly what the USA did and managed to find itself embroiled in two major and bloody conflicts, against groups that tend to just melt away, rather than face them in open combat. They now have to concentrate forces in peace keeping and rebuilding the countries that they invaded, rather than actually trying to defeat the enemy upon which they declared war.

The problem is that they did not really declare war on an enemy at all. America declared a War on Terror, which is a rather mind-boggling and confusing concept – how can one have a war on an emotion? Presumably what they really meant was a War on Terrorists or, more specifically, a war on the terrorists who target the USA specifically and The West in general – I don’t see them going against the Tamil Tigers or the Basque Separatists.

Even so, a war against a rather disparate group of people was never going to be terribly successful, because they don’t tend to present a unified front. Invading Afghanistan and, more bafflingly, Iraq was never going to solve anything in terms of international terrorism. Indeed it was only likely to make matters worse. The threat of terrorism has not really gone down all that much and the only reason there have not been more such attacks is the amount of security at airports and other such entry points. War in the Middle East has done far less than the work of Anti-terrorism laws and officers working to prevent such attacks.

The American response to 9/11 was disastrous. It committed thousands of American troops into wars that are still not won; it, in particular the invasion of Iraq, brought into question the exact motivations behind the wars, given Iraq’s complete lack of connection with Al-Qaeda; it made it clear that America no long has the economic and military power to dictate terms to anyone (if it ever did). America’s methods, the methods that worked at least fairly well in the Cold War, the method of aggressive rhetoric followed up by aggressive action if the need arose, worked when the opponent had very much the same attitude (and almost resulted in nuclear war…), but against an enemy that is largely faceless and disorganised, it failed miserably.

Add to this failure, the collapse of the economic system in recent years and you have a perfect storm. The failure of the economy showed, from the point of view of America, that is, that Capitalism is not a perfect system and that prosperity is not ever-lasting. Combine that with the realisation that their political and military power is waning, and you get something of a collapse in confidence, the kind of collapse that sees political upheaval such as the row over the healthcare bill and the rise of extreme movements like the Tea Party movement.

Trying to predict the future is one of those things that usually lead you to looking like an idiot. It’s pretty much inevitable that you will be wrong, so it’s usually a fool’s errant. However, as a fool, I might offer some prediction. I think it is already pretty clear that America is not the superpower it once was. Much like the British Empire at the turn of the last century, its power is fading and I can only see it fading further. I don’t think anyone is in a position at the moment to offer a suggestion as to who might place America at the top, if indeed any single nation will. If the 19th century was Britain’s and the 20th was America’s, time will tell to whom the 21st belongs. 

Tuesday 6 September 2011

My Top Ten Writers

Given that last week was really rather serious, and next will be even more so (just look at the date). I thought I’d take some time out to present the successor to my list of top ten novels I wrote last May. While most of these writers write novels, I’ve not limited myself to novelist; there are writers here better known for non-fiction, or screen writing, and some that I know better from their short stories. So without further ado, my top ten writers in no particular order:

  • Robert Jordan – Author of the epic-in-every-sense Wheel of Time Series. While the series does begin to drag towards the end and pacing becomes more and more inconsistent, the world building and characters remain absolutely incredible. Jordan put so much thought and work into creating a world that is even more detailed and varied than even Tolkien managed. He draws from so many different cultures and traditions around the world and blends them into his own unique world that is fascinating to explore. Into that world he inserts some fantastic, strong and still dangerously flawed characters. I’ve not yet read any of the additions to the series by Brandon Sanderson after Jordan’s death in 2007, but I look forward to seeing how he ends the series

  • Tom Holland – While Tom Holland does actually write some fiction, I have only read his non-fiction. He is a superb narrative historian who makes the subjects he writes about both accessible to everyone and really thought-provoking. I don’t always agree with what he has to say, but it always gets me thinking, which is what good history should do. In addition, disagreeing with him helped me in my Oxford Interview, so I have to thank him for that!

  • Tim Pratt – Tim Pratt also writes novels, but I don’t know him from those either. I know and love Pratt’s short stories, many of which have been podcasted on Escape Artists (in fact he is one of the few authors to achieve the Escape Artists Trifecta of having stories published at Escape Pod, Pod Castle and Pseudopod). He writes some of the strangest and most thought-provoking stories at Escape Artists, which is saying a lot. Some highlights include Terrible Ones and Unexpected Outcomes.

  • JRR Tolkien – What can one say about the father of modern epic fantasy? I’m not going to pretend that Lord of the Rings is perfect, it’s not, but the precedent he set, the debt that modern fantasy owes him, in incalculable. Lord of the Rings might be somewhat limited in scope, it might be very much a product of it’s time, it might not be brilliantly paced, or terribly accessible, but it is very good story set in a wonderfully detailed and well thought-out world. Fantasy fiction would not be where it is today without his work.

  • Christopher Nolan – I’ve spoken before a number of times about how incredible films like Inception, The Dark Knight and The Prestige are, and you can add Memento and Batman Begins to that list as well. Nolan is the best writer and director is Hollywood at the moment (despite not winning an Oscar). I cannot wait for his next Batman movie, or whatever else he chooses to make next. His stories are dark, complex and thought provoking. He knows exactly what makes a good character and what makes a good story and executes it brilliantly.

  • Terry Pratchett – The Discworld is possibly one of the most incredibly, ridiculous and brilliant fantasy worlds ever created. Pratchett knows how stories work and explores that brilliantly. His exploration of human nature, language, fiction and the world in general is always wonderfully witty, impossibly clever and thought-provoking at the same time.

  • David Gemmell – Gemmell is one of the best historical, heroic fantasy writers I’ve ever read. He stands himself apart from most historical fiction writers who tend to just retell events of history with a few of their own characters worked into the gaps, by actually rewriting history in his fiction. He takes an interesting period and uses that as a jumping-off point to tell his own story. His work with the Troy myth is fantastic, because it does not tell a story anything like the one that Homer tells, but instead tries to recreate a historical possibility that explains the mythology, without simple copying it.

  • Stephen Moffat – Moffat is best known for his work on Dr Who, which is brilliant, but he also co-wrote Sherlock, a modern re-imagining of Sherlock Holmes, and wrote Jykyll, a modern re-imagining of Robert Louis Stephenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jykll and Mr Hyde, both of which were brilliant. As well as producing the previous and current series of Dr Who, Moffat wrote some of the best episodes from back when Russell T. Davis was producing, like The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances, Blink, and Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead. Moffat is superb at creating truly creepy and original monsters, like the Angels and the Empty Child, as well as some really fantastic characters. He tells wonderful stories that are both dark and clever.

  • Terry Goodkind – More epic fantasy. Author of the Sword of Truth Series, which remains one of my favourite series of all time. It is heavily influenced by Ayn Rand’s Objectivist philosophy, which really influences the series. Unfortunately, Rand’s tendency to present two extremes with no middle ground also comes through, making things a little unambiguous. However Goodkind is also a fantastic plotter and creates some fantastic characters that really draw you in. The world-building is not on a level with Tolkien or Jordan, but that’s not the idea, the focus is on the characters and the plot, both of which are fantastic. Goodkind is also fantastic at pacing, so neither the books, nor the series as a whole drag. In fact, the books race brilliantly to a conclusion, making them very difficult to put down as each story draws to an end.

  • Robert Harris – Robert Harris is a fantastic historical Fiction/thriller writer. His stories are always really well researched and well thought out. They tend to fall into many of the traps that thrillers typically do, but that’s ok, because they’re always very engaging and well written. His historical works, like Pompeii and Imperium are probably his best work, mostly because of how painstakingly well researched, and hence realistic they are. He really draws you into the historical setting, which is very important for a Historical Fiction writer.

Tuesday 30 August 2011

Job Half Done in Libya

Back in March I wrote about the rebellion in Libya and the need for The West to take action. It’s time to do it again. This will not, however, simply be a repetition of what I said back then because, since March, western democracies, in particular European ones have been heavily involved in Libya, supporting the rebellion and helping to overthrow Gaddafi. In short, doing exactly what I, and many others, called for.

I regret that I’ve not mentioned the war at all in this blog since March, but there hasn’t been a lot worthy of comment: The West has actually done a pretty good job of using the right amount of military presence and generally leaving most of the fighting to the rebels. NATO has been very careful to keep its involvement to ‘protecting civilians’ and taking out important strategic sites through air strikes, rather than helping the rebels on the ground. Likewise other European nations have helped the rebels indirectly, but have not put troop on the ground.

The reason I’m comment on this conflict now is that the rebels took Tripoli, the capital of Libya, last week, a significant step towards winning the civil war. Gaddafi has been ousted from power and the war is largely over. While Gaddafi still has some support and the ability to strike back against the rebels, he can only really delay defeat. Only his capture remains as a significant milestone in the path to victory.

So it is time for The West to step in. Not in order to help capture Gaddafi, although that would not go amiss, but to help stabilise the country in the face of the regime change, to aid in the rebuilding of the country’s infrastructure and to ensure that a free and fair election follows the defeat of Gaddafi’s forces.

War inevitably disrupts the infrastructure of a country, from disruption to the power supply to the destruction of roads and other means of transport. Rebuilding those link is really important to rebuilding Libya; there are already deep divisions between east and west (the rebellion started in the west and most of the pro-Gaddafi forces were based in the east) and if communications and transport between east and west are disrupted, that division will continue to grow. In order to establish political unity in a country already split by civil war, good infrastructure needs to be established.

More importantly, Libya faces a humanitarian crisis. In Tripoli alone, hospitals are under massive strain from the war-wounded, especially with many doctors having fled at the start of the war. With essentials like water and power disrupted, and people unwilling to leave the house to buy food, given that there is still some fighting in the city, there is a risk that the casualties of war will continue to rise, especially in the civilian population.

NATO’s reluctance to put solider on the ground and get heavily involved was admirable in the early stages of the conflict. It ensured that the war was a revolutionary one led by the Libyan people. That should continue and the hunt for Gaddafi should be led by the rebels, however, if NATO wants to continue to claim that it is protecting the citizens of Libya, then they don’t really have a choice; they have to step in and help the relieve effort.

This, of course, does not necessarily mean troops of the ground, but working with the UN and various international aid agencies to help facilitate giving aid to the Libyan people where they need it most. If fighting does intensify in Tripoli, it may become necessary to put troops on the ground in order to protect civilians, given the high concentration of them in Tripoli.

The West has generally done well to learn from the mistakes of Afghanistan and Iraq, in that they have not had a large presence on the ground in Libya and has generally kept out of the way. However they must continue to learn from past mistakes and work hard now that the war is almost over to ensure that Libya does not devolve into warring factions and destitution. The provision of aid to Iraq and Afghanistan was poor, mostly because troops have never really been in complete control. In Libya they need to ensure that aid gets to where it is needed and that it does not get too disrupted. This may even involve taking military action against pro-Gaddafi forces to force them out of heavily popularised areas, or at least to protect already liberated areas from further attacks. With any luck the rebel forces will be sufficient to do this, but NATO should not balk at putting some peacekeepers into Tripoli to maintain some level of order until the country can get itself back in its feet.

The war may well be all but won, but the peace that follows it might well be much harder to win than the war. The rebels have never been a particularly unified group, with Islamist and Berber factions, as well as a number of competing tribes, long time opponents of his regime and recent defectors. Opposition to Gaddafi is all that has held them together thus far and there are fears that his fall will cause the rebel movement to fall apart. The worst case scenario would be for Libya to fall into another civil war between competing factions, all vying for power. To prevent this requires strong leadership on the rebel’s part; someone who can hold them together long enough to establish a new political system based around democracy and elections.

The problem is that such a leader cannot appear to be a puppet of The West. He needs to be a Libyan leader, not a leader appointed by the UN. The West cannot be seen to be interfering, but can ill-afford to let Libya slide into a much more disastrous civil war. Some form of light touch diplomacy and careful supervision is needed to help establish a democracy in Libya without forcing the Libyan’s hand; this needs to come primarily from them.

There is one thing that The West can do that will help immeasurably; make funds available to the rebels in order to rebuild the country. Getting aid to where it needs to be, rebuilding the infrastructure and getting Libya back to some semblance of normality will require a lot of money that Libya simply does not have at the moment. The Libyan economy needs to get back on its feet and for that a large injection of money will be needed.  Obviously, with the state of the world economy as it is at the moment, such aid might prove hard to come by, but remember that Libya does has assets that were frozen in the early stages of the war. Getting access to those funds would go a long way to helped Libya get back on its feet.

As I said at the start if this post, it’s time for The West to take action in Libya. The first half of the job has been handled very well, but the second half may well be a much more daunting task. The West needs to ensure that the people of Libya get the aid they need now and also that the rebels set up the necessary infrastructure to facilitate an election. The Libyan state needs to be rebuilt from the ground upwards. This requires aid from The West, both in terms of money and also in terms of charity and aid work, but also needs to be led by the Libyans themselves. It will be a difficult balancing act and if handled badly, Libya could end up in a state of civil ear much like Afghanistan and Iraq are now, with a number of different factions fighting for power. The confidence of The West as international peacekeepers and world leaders in democracy cannot afford such a failure, and nor can Libya, which stands to set a bench mark for the rest of Africa to become much more stable democratic. I hope that in a few months time I will be able to write a blog post praising the aid effort and looking forward to a bright future for Africa.