Wednesday, 13 June 2018

DRM, Criminals, Computer Games, GOG, Steam, Windows

An issue that concerns me relating to all media (computer games, films, music, software etc) is the issue of DRM. DRM is additional systems added to games and films etc that try to restrict what you can do; that can lead to false positives and errors rendering the thing you've bought unusable. I've written about this in the past. It's not just an issue for consumers, it affects libraries too. Pirates strip DRM out (and savour the challenge of doing that), so DRM is only ever a hassle for legitimate customers

I make a living from selling my creativity, yet I put my money where my mouth is and always adopt the most liberal policy. My e-books are DRM-free and loanable whenever it is possible. I'm not a fan of restrictions. I trust people to be honest. Those that aren't will do what they want anyway, so there's no point worrying about them.

Two things got me thinking about it again this week.

 My GOG games - read on to find out why I love them

If you dislike DRM in computer games, are you a criminal?

I read a comment online (computer game forum) that the only people who dislike DRM are criminals who want to pirate games and not pay for them.

I realise the commenter probably didn't intend it seriously, but it does become a refrain, which can be mildly hurtful when people like me have spent so much money on games over the last thirty years, often just to support the developers. GOG says I have 410 games. Steam says I have 359. I also owned games on, Gamersgate etc. I have no pirated games. I just avoid games with DRM due to all the problems with it - it's a system designed to limit things, and not to add anything beneficial. I've had problems with games, music, films (I once had to return a projector because of the Macrovision DRM in some films). Yet I have never had a lack of DRM be a problem. I bought Inside and Doom (2016) and many other games as soon as they removed Denuvo (I monitor this page), even though I didn't think I'd enjoy some of them. I'd do the same if Resident Evil 7, Dishonoured 2 or Prey removed it. Until then I'm quite happy with the many games I own but have never played, or would play again.

I should add that I still play games from over 30 years ago. Many of today's DRM systems would prevent that being possible 30 years from now. Just think of how much trouble people still have getting relatively recent GFWL games to work (where publishers never bothered to strip it out).

Does the DRM protect profits? It is certainly lost sales to people who avoid DRM. I can sort of understand some publishers panicking about release weeks, but even then they should remove the DRM after a few months. I don't think CDProjekt worried about the Witcher 3 being released with no DRM - and because they focus on the long tail, not just the nonsense of opening week, they still sell a lot of copies today (as GOG charts often show - in fact, I am not a Witcher fan, but bought all three games just to support them). The Wikipedia article shows that most Denuvo games have pirated copies available anyway, so it is just an additional expense that serves no end.

So from a publisher point of view, adding DRM like Denuvo doesn't necessarily protect a game or increase sales. It can lose sales. From a customer point of view it adds nothing at best, but can cause problems at worst - at the very least by making you use the software and your PC in particular ways, such as being online (I only tried one Denuvo thing, and that was a headache).

If people have never had issues with DRM (or that were traced back to DRM) then good for them. If you like DRM, fine. But just don't assume that everyone who is against it is dishonest or a thief. There is a lot more going on.

One more example. I stopped buying music (even CDs) when there were lots of formats with DRM and it got confusing - I think one of Microsoft's DRM issues left people unable to play music. Anyway, the good news is that the industry saw sense and accepted MP3 as the (DRM-free) default. In the ten years since then I have bought more music than at any other point in my life. Restrictions make people wary of spending, or spending as much; openness encourages support. I'm far from wealthy but still spend quite a bit on buying DRM-free works from other creative people - musicians, developers, artists, authors and so on.

One person said that it isn't worth worrying about, and publishers all remove Denuvo after a while because of ongoing costs. Sadly, that is not true. It may be easy for the devs to remove, but we can't rely on that. There are lots of games that have been cracked, yet nearly four years on still haven't had Denuvo removed (suggesting they maybe never will).

At least one of the most amazing-looking future games, Cyberpunk 2077, is going to be DRM-free on GOG. :-)

Wordcruncher Turbo - see below for why I love this laptop

Steam will remove the ability to play the games you bought on older operating systems

I read about this on Rock Paper Shotgun.

And it ties in to DRM and your ability to play purchased games.

Steam is an online games store, and also a software client they force you to use in order to play the games you buy. The software client is a form of DRM, and a means of delivering the game to your PC. The main problem is that the games and the DRM/delivery mechanisms are different things. Because Steam ties the games to a DRM/delivery mechanism, shifts in what Steam supports will remove access to games that would have run fine on an old operating system (OS). So we get the weird situation that some of the old games may well run better on older operating systems, because those are the OSs that the games were written for, yet they will now not be installable on those OSs. I think that's a poor service to customers.

I don't use Windows XP as my main OS (that is Windows 7 ** - I tried Windows 10 three times on different PCs, and really dislike it as a day-to-day tool), but that doesn't mean I wouldn't use XP in specialist scenarios. For example, I have lots of old hardware and existing OS licences. I hate waste, so always try and re-use things before I recycle them. So I recently dug out an old laptop. It is too old to run any OS after XP, but it runs XP fine - in fact, because I'm not using it as a day-to-day laptop, and it only has one or two pieces of software installed, it's surprisingly zippy. I wanted a laptop for writing first drafts of novels on. My main PC has too many distractions; also my main PC is a desktop and I already spend too many hours a day sat down. With the laptop (named "Wordcruncher Turbo") I can work in different places, or even standing up (which is my preference). I didn't install MSOffice on it, just a distraction-free plain text writing program with clicky typewriter sounds. I love it, and my productivity has gone up. Note that although the laptop has Wi-Fi I don't use it - I didn't install a browser or email clients, just installed stuff from USB. So there is no need for a more modern OS for this purpose, and it would just cost me money and waste the things I already had that were perfectly suited to the task.

How does that tie in with games and Steam? Recently I took Wordcruncher Turbo on a cat-sitting writing retreat to get a chunk of first draft written on my next novel. The place I was staying at had no Wi-Fi. After writing all day I wanted to unwind. I generally watched TV or read. Playing a game is also something I like to do, and my GOG and Steam libraries include hundreds of games that run fine on low-spec systems and older OSs, from HoMM2 to FTL. In theory I could install some with Steam, go into offline mode, and play them whenever I want. However, once Steam stops supporting XP that won't be possible. I'll own games that would run fine on my laptop, but Steam's DRM/delivery system will specifically prevent me from installing or playing them on it. Some years from now that probably will happen to later OSs too, until the point comes that I can't play Steam games on any of my Win7 systems (even though it may be the best OS for the games themselves).

This is why GOG is so good for me, with its offline installers. Those offline installer files are all I ever use - I don't bother with their GOG Galaxy client because I want to get away from all that updating software separate from the games. I can download a game's installable files. I can keep them on my PC and (in theory) even if GOG disappeared, I still have all my games. I can install any I want on my laptop.

Steam has the most games available for sale. It's also pretty heavily DRM-infested (I have to check carefully to make sure I don't buy games with Denuvo, GFWL, uPlay, Origin, or any of the other systems that are still parts of many Steam games). Steam isn't ever going to change their system - Steam don't even want to include a DRM-free filter, because it might upset publishers and draw attention to these issues. So, really, Steam is going to stay the same and always be a case of knowing that your access to the games is not indefinite and unrestricted. It's why I only buy Steam games when they are heavily discounted. Whereas I will often pay full price on GOG because I am getting a lot more for my money - games I can download and backup myself, that don't have all these DRM restrictions and tied delivery mechanisms. At present I have hundreds of games on GOG and hundreds on Steam, but I am already noticing a change in that I am clearing my GOG wishlists much quicker, because these issues are getting more important to me as time goes on. And, truth be told, even though lots of games I like the look of are currently Steam-only, I have no shortage of games. The opposite. Around 50 I haven't played; hundreds I have played a bit and mean to come back to; and loads that I have completed a number of times and regularly reinstall to play again (the VampireTMBs, HoMMs, the System Shocks, the Deus Exs and Thiefs, the Amnesias and Penumbras, the FTLs, the Mirror's Edges etc). I am never going to be stuck for games, even if I only used GOG. And over time, some of those Steam-only games will probably appear on GOG anyway, and probably be a lot cheaper a couple of years down the line. So rather than get stressed about the situation, I just intend to shift my purchasing to better future-proof my games collection. I still regularly play games that are over 30 years old, so I care about access to what I've paid for.

Wordcruncher Turbo in action!

** [Unfortunately, even Windows 7 has online activation DRM, and has caused problems. Last time I did a fresh install of Windows 7 from my DVD it refused to activate automatically. I tried the phone options but they didn't work. I then had to read a load of online articles about these problems, and eventually got a workaround that gave me a working number. I spent about 30 minutes on the phone, either waiting, or answering questions. Eventually the Microsoft staff member said that it was not a legitimate licence, and he did not think it was possible to install the OS from DVD the way I had ... then they hung up. I was livid and couldn't face ringing back, risking the same amount of wasted time. I should add that I was reinstalling the OS on the PC that had it originally - I'd bought an SSD and was shifting the OS from the old HDD onto the faster new drive. A fresh install was the only way to fix some weirdness with drive letters. It is a legit Win7 DVD that I bought some years ago. It shows that all DRM systems can fail, and cause problems for the customer.]


Thursday, 7 June 2018

Monday, 21 May 2018

Volume Problem With Amazon Kindle Fires

This isn't writing-related (though I suppose it touches on written communication, and how some Customer Service departments don't seem to be able to interpret or trouble-shoot basic problems). However, I couldn't find any information about this problem online, so thought I'd put it here in case it helps other people. This problem applies to Amazon Kindle Fires directly, but is likely to appear in other devices which can play back media.

I had two Kindle Fires so gave someone else the newest one (I actually prefer the older Kindle Fires - the new ones require closing down loads of open apps every time you use it, whereas the old ones closed apps automatically as soon as you opened another). She registered it in her name so that she could put her own stuff on, though our accounts are connected via Amazon's household scheme.

As someone who has used Kindle Fires for a long time, I was obviously on hand to answer questions. Last night we were testing out the main things she wanted to use the Kindle for. One of them was listening to music or podcasts. We have external powered speakers in some rooms, so we can plug in an mp3 player, phone or media device to play music with better quality sound than the tinny internal speakers most devices have. This has been fine for many years, and worked without problems.

However, this Kindle Fire was behaving strangely - when I plugged it into external speakers the volume dropped to 50%, and there was no way to increase it. I looked in the settings but whatever I set there still got halved when I plugged the speakers in. So the result was that plugging in high-quality external powered speakers actually made the volume lower, when it should be the opposite.

The speakers were Logitech S-220. I tried another set of speakers with the same result: Sony SRS A202. So two totally different brands – plugging them in suddenly stopped the volume going past around halfway (or a bit under). I tried my Sennheiser MX365 earphones – the Kindle again limited the volume. Same with some Apple iPad earbuds. I should add that both speaker sets and both headphone sets work perfectly on every other device (two laptops, a different Kindle, a smartphone, an iPad, a HDD jukebox music player etc).

I suspected this was a bug in Kindle software, rather than a fault in the individual device - the behaviour was too uniform. I said I'd look into it. You know, being nice and helpful.

So I contacted Amazon via Twitter. They knew nothing about it and had no answers, and pushed me towards using Amazon chat instead. I was reticent to do that because I've had bad experiences with Amazon's Customer Services people in the past, but decided to have a go. It didn't work out:

Just to clarify a few things. There are no security issues with finding out how to use a Kindle in general. We shouldn't have to go to support to find out how it works and how to get round Kindle problems; but if we do then we should be given clear answers, not be fobbed off. They could forget the individual device and just imagine it is a generic question about Kindle Fire 7s. It's not difficult. Especially when it looks like it is part of how all those versions of Kindles are set up. (Further - the "connected account" thing is a problem with how Amazon sees things. In reality two people own adn share the device, but Amazon refuse to accept that this is possible, and force it to only be connected to a single person. The real world, and Amazon's policies, don't match up.) Anyway, Amazon Help refused to look into it.

I went back to Twitter and explained that, but a raft of different support staff ("FJ", "RB", "KI", "NV", "RS", "BZ", "TP", "ES", "CN" etc.) kept telling me to go back to Amazon chat or phone help, even though I'd get the same response. Not one of the Amazon staff suspected that Amazon may have set the devices up like this on purpose.

That's my suspicion, anyway (since they won't confirm it). I think Kindle Fires have been programmed to limit the volume to 50% when things are plugged into the headphone/speaker jack. It's mentioned in obscure places on forums, where people run into the problem (such as here), yet Amazon Support don't seem to be aware of the problem.

I further suspect that it is an update implemented as a knee-jerk reaction to something like this EU mandate on "new safety standards for personal music players". Though that mandate also says "the safe exposure level will be the default setting on personal music players but users will be able to override the default setting if they expressly choose to do so. The key is that they make and informed choice, fully aware of any potential health risks." Whereas I can't find any override on the Kindle Fire, so Amazon have either not put one in, or have made it unintuitive to find. I'm guessing Amazon implemented this limit, but just didn't consider the repercussion that plugging quality powered speakers in makes the device quieter than it's tinny internal speaker, when speakers shouldn't be limited. That makes it a buggy implementation of a safety feature.

At the first contact with Amazon they should have spotted what it was about, and been able to start a discussion of it - why the Kindle was behaving like that, how to over-ride it, or how to report it as a bug if they didn't implement an over-ride. The fundamental issue should be "Is this expected behaviour?" If they didn't design it that way, then the device is faulty. If they designed it that way, then they made an error in how it is implemented, and it needs to be fixed via software update. Simple.

In conclusion, there are two issues

1. Amazon seem to have implemented a "safety feature" that limits the volume of Kindle Fires when output is sent to the 3.5mm output jack. Amazon presumably meant to apply it only to headphones, so there should be an over-ride for when using it with speakers. Except there is no obvious over-ride for speakers, so connecting quality powered speakers actually makes the Kindle quieter. It's an example of not thinking through the implications of knee-jerk updates.

2. I dealt with a large number of Amazon Customer Services people and not one of them knew anything about it, they just sent me in circles for a whole morning, telling me to use contact methods that I'd already used and where staff had refused to help - going through the same process again would lead to the same outcome. What should have been simple has instead wasted half a day and is still not resolved or acknowledged. This isn't new. I've had problems with Amazon's terrible communication in the past - see this post and the ones it links to at the start if you want to know more.

Here's a video I made of the problem with the audio output jack on the Kindle Fire:

Update: 23rd May 2018
After all the communications with Amazon a few days ago I was told they would sort it out. On 21st May one email said the "Kindle technical specialists" would ring me "within the next 4 hours".

48 hours later I've still not received a call, a reply, or any answers.

Update: 9th June 2018
Still no joy, even though I have been in touch with yet more Amazon staff via multiple emails and phone calls with Abdhul, and Gokul S, and Kamala R, and ones who don't give their name, and others that I have lost track of. Usually they would ask me a question; I would reply; then a different member of staff would reply with this same copy-pasted text:
I am sorry for any inconvenience caused in this regard.
I have checked our records and I can confirm that mentioned Kindle Fire is not registered under your account.
For security reasons, we can take action or send order information to the e-mail address that is associated with the Kindle registered account. We're sorry for any inconvenience this causes.
Even though this had been explained and got past many times ... the next Amazon person would fall back on this again. Argh. Amazon are incredibly inflexible and unhelpful with their customers, the opposite of being "customer-centric". Support consists mostly of copy and pasting the same messages and repeating things that are either irrelevant, or were resolved further back in the communication chain. And then another staff member takes over and it starts again.

Some Amazon staff seem to think the new Kindle Fires don't work with speakers connected via 3.5mm jack (well, not beyond 50% volume); others say they do; others have no idea. Half the time I'd not even get a response to my message. It's bizarre that Amazon doesn't seem to know how its own devices work.

Someone at Amazon actually rang me on 8th June 2018. They were one of those who thought it should work with speakers at 100% volume. They wanted to look at logs on the device but it involved me ringing back another day, getting the person to whom it was registered to authorise Amazon to speak to me, then passing the phone over. I followed their instructions and after some confusion it seemed that I'd been given incorrect information and they didn't need logs but wanted to factory reset it (which loses a lot of content and requires setting everything up again - email, 3rd party apps etc). I gave them the case ID #0150893141 but it seems that most of the emails and communications weren't part of the details - Amazon staff hadn't been making a note of my answers to their questions. They hadn't even recorded the URL for this blog post with all the background information and video in; and when I asked them to add it, they said they didn't know if they could, so they didn't ask for the URL to record. It's why it is so frustrating to speak to a different Amazon person each time, none of which know the background so you are always starting back at square one. They suggested replacing the Kindle but since that involves setting everything up again I didn't want to do it unless it would fix the problem - if it is how the new Kindles are designed, as some Amazon staff claim, then replacing it wouldn't fix the problem: it would just be a further waste of time and resources. After some communication problems the phone eventually went dead. I waited a couple of hours for them to ring me back but they never did.

Here's another strange thing. You'd always assume new devices had more and better connectivity. It turns out that my 2012 2nd Generation Kindle Fire HD has better connections than all Amazon's Kindle Fire models since 2012. My old Kindle Fire HD has mini-HDMi so I can plug it into an external display like my monitor or projector, and it outputs the sounds and video so I can watch films, look at pictures, or even just browse the web and email on a big screen. After 2012 Amazon stopped including any way to connect Kindles to an external device such as my projector. For the new ones you can only use the Kindle's teeny screen. That makes them far less useful and attractive. I have no idea why the designers keep removing useful (and cheap to implement) features. I would never buy any of Amazon's modern Kindle Fires, HD or not, because they don't do as much as the old 2012 models. Strangely, when I read reviews of many modern tablets - Amazon, Android etc - even in the specs section reviewers don't bother mentioning what wired outputs the devices have any more, only the wireless ones. It's not easy to find the information even on manufacturers' sites.


Saturday, 19 May 2018

Bad Language

My irregular series highlighting common mistakes that make me want to throw macaroni. Who has incurred my wrath this time?

Enthusiastic shop signs

I took this photo in Shrewsbury. Hopefully I don't have to point out the error (but just in case: you don't add apostrophes for plurals. Well, not unless you are a greengrocer.)

Until is a word. Till is a word. You can use them interchangeably. "I won't stop saying this till it sinks in; or at least until my fingers drop off." Technically you can drop letters and use an apostrophe, since it is one of the functions of an apostrophe (to show omission), so you could write 'til, but there's no point when the word till exists. However, there is definitely no apostrophe before 'till (as seen in the image above) because there is no omission - there's no such word as untill.

In this case there was a happy ending. I contacted GOG and they fixed it:

On to my last annoyance for today. It's not so much a mistake as an irritation. I hate patronising tiers which are all monikers for "best". Here's one from the defunct CoPromote:

They could just have used the traditional Bronze, Silver, Gold; or Basic, Normal, Pro; or Sugar, Cheese, Chocolate.

(I avoid any grading system that includes cats and dogs, it leads to too many arguments.)

Companies always try to make each option sound like it is as precious as their super-special-favourite-customer, but it is such a false bit of marketing bollocks that they just look needy and patronising.

That's me, how's your day been? :-)


Friday, 11 May 2018

Lost Solace: The Computer Game

Sadly, there isn't yet a computer game (or film) of Lost Solace, despite requests. One day, maybe.

Just for fun I had a think about what games you could play in the meantime; games that capture a feel of the book, or some element of it. This is my short list (the game names link to where it can be bought).

Opal and her armour in Starcrawlers

Opal getting ready to investigate a Lost Ship in Starcrawlers

Starcrawlers (2017)
Pick a female cyberninja and name the character Opal. You have an armoured suit and swords and a rebellious attitude. Explore derelict spaceships while supported by banter from your orbiting ship. Your first main mission can lead to developing an AI companion. This is a great way of living through something that resembles Opal's world.

You encounter some creepy things in Soma

Lots of abandoned environments to explore in Soma - but are they really abandoned?

Soma (2015)
This game is great for the feel of being vulnerable in lonely and dangerous places (the game is set in a base at the bottom of the sea rather than on a spaceship, but there's the same feeling of claustrophobia, and being surrounded by a fatal and alien environment). There are fantastic horror elements in this story of survival and artificial intelligence. Generally it is a slow-burn horror, where you sneak around trying not to make a sound, punctuated by tense scenes where you may have to flee from something you don't even want to look at. You can also watch some creepy live action films that were made before the game's release.

It's clear something's wrong in System Shock 2

 Those "people" need help ... System Shock 2

System Shock 2 (1999)
This is one of my favourite games. I've lost count of how many times I have completed it (along with all the fan-made missions and mods I could download). You explore a spaceship which has been taken over by something alien. There are mutations, psychic manifestations, artificial intelligences, and experiments gone wrong. You are underpowered and vulnerable for most of the game, your only help being the guidance of a companion you communicate with over your suit's radio. This is one of those games where my character hid behind a desk and hoped the creatures wandering nearby wouldn't find me ... and even after they left, I was scared to come out. You can also choose how you play the game, and be a hacker, or a scientist, or a soldier, or an engineer. And be warned that this game doesn't pause while you fix the weapon that has just jammed ...

I don't even know what that is - I ran away before I found out. S.T.A.L.K.E.R.

Two bloodsuckers. An encounter with a single one is usually fatal ... S.T.A.L.K.E.R.

S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl (2007)
In this case I don't mean the whole game - much of which takes place on the surface of the irradiated land around Chernobyl. But there are underground sections where you explore abandoned bunkers and tunnels, which really give me that Lost Solace feel. Even though you have guns and armour, you never feel safe. There are deadly enemies that will stalk you, and can turn invisible (only their glowing eyes betraying them); others that affect your mind; hauntings and poltergeists; beautiful yet dangerous anomalies. It is creepy to explore, you never know what to expect, or if you’ll survive, as you scavenge for supplies by torchlight while looking for a way out of the hell-hole. The game is loosely connected to the excellent 1971 Strugatsky brothers novel Roadside Picnic and the 1979 Tarkovsky film Stalker.

Even in a straight corridor, you never feel safe while playing Aliens versus Predator as a marine

I don't want to go through that ominous doorway ... Aliens versus Predator

Aliens versus Predator (1999)
If you want speed mixed in with your horror, then this is it: just make sure you play the marine campaign. (The Alien and Predator campaigns are fun, but not scary, because in those you are the monster; but as the marine you are always vulnerable, despite your hi-tech weaponry.) Some of the levels are set on spaceships, and with others you can easily imagine you are on one since the levels are often tight corridors (with Hadley's Hope being the exception). In this game there is no time to rest. You run. You watch the motion detector nervously. You hear the beeps as something closes in, fast. But you can't pinpoint it. Will it drop from above? Pounce from behind? Ambush you at the junction ahead? You throw a flare into the shadows, but it doesn't help - now you can only see hellish red flickering light, and deeper shadows everywhere else. Death is coming, and you don't know which way to run. You shoot at nothing; you spin and shoot behind, in case it's coming from there. Even on the easiest difficulty level (which is the one I recommend) your heart will often be pounding. You know you'll die if you panic, and the only way to survive is to keep moving, keep calm, cover all directions, don’t waste time or ammo, and watch the dark corners and entry points.

(Note: I refer to Aliens versus Predator by the name it was released under, and which was on my boxed version, rather than the name it now has on sites that sell it - the trend of publishers releasing new games with the same name and then retrospectively renaming the earlier versions is confusing.)

There you go - hopefully at least one game there will give you the Lost Solace feel. Have I missed any? Feel free to suggest others (and say why they fit the book) in the comments. Or suggest games that resemble my other books (e.g. I counted Resident Evil 4 as one of the inspirations for Turner in this list).

Oh, and if you've read all this and don't know what Lost Solace is - it's my latest book.


Wednesday, 9 May 2018

Focus On The Act, Not The Actor - Cockygate

I'll probably get flack for this, but what the hell ...

If you haven't come across the hashtags #cockygate #byeFaleena then you're probably not an author.

They're applied to a recent issue where the successful romance author Faleena Hopkins trademarked the word "cocky" in relation to romance book titles, a move that has caused widespread consternation.

If you want to get up to speed then here are some possible source articles (I'm not vouching for any of them, but they all contain parts of the background):
I think it was a dick move to trademark the term, and there are all sorts of issues around whether it should have been allowed, the copyright on the font etc. It has really backfired on her, and I support the current attempts to overturn the trademark.

However, the amount of vitriol and hate that has been poured upon her as a person in many places online is totally out or proportion to what she did. Often cruel stuff, and sometimes based on misunderstandings (for example, it wasn't preventing use of the word Cocky, even in book titles - only in those in the same genre). I am not defending the trademark attempt - as I said already, since I am generally against moves like that and favour more open copyright laws - but I always get an uneasy feeling when I see anyone being vilified online in the way she has been, out of all proportion to the foolish mistake she made. Huge companies get a free pass for acting much worse than this every day (e.g. Apple has over 280 trademarks and won't hesitate to take people to court to defend them, as would Disney, Microsoft, etc etc). Look at all the hassle Amazon [here; here] or Paypal [part 1; part 2] caused me, without provocation or reason. Politicians and councils do worse every week and it quickly fades away.

I'm totally for attacking the way trademarks can work and for overturning this. I'm fine with pointing out why this was a bad move on her part and why others shouldn't do the same. But I think it should always be done in a balanced way, and remember that there's a real person involved, who is probably feeling very bad right now (whatever front they put on as a public persona). Critical (in the true sense) is good. Hatred and attacking are bad. We should always also try and see things from the other side, and make sure we are focussing on the act more than on the individual. Some of the stuff I've seen makes me feel like it's a modern day witchhunt, yet the truth is she made a bad business decision that is causing hassle for some other authors but which will probably get overturned - she hasn't killed anyone's children, or exploited resources from poor countries, or deforested countries for palm oil etc etc. It's just worth bearing that in mind.

She closed a few of her social media accounts since the weekend (e.g. Facebook and Instagram) and most ways of being able to contact her, which is always a worrying sign. This blew up very quickly and I think the anger people naturally felt at the action escalated when fuelled by all the encouragement to target her as a person. It makes me feel concerned and also despairing of how the two sides seem to have pushed each other further into separate corners when an ideal world would have seen cooperation and mutual understanding that led to an outcome that benefited all of them (e.g. Faleena dropping the TM issue and apologising, and other authors in turn supporting her over the issues that led to this in the first place: all authors lifting each other up rather than publicly tearing each other down).

An important rule we should always apply to our own behaviour is: don't be a dick. That doesn't mean we can't be activists. It's important to challenge things and change bad things. But don't go overboard and become personal. Always remember that the person we're facing and disagreeing with is just that - a person too. And the image of ourselves we project publicly, especially on social media, is not always the reality.

Update: I was asked "What the hell did she expect?"

In reality, I imagine she didn't expect the magnitude of this response. Whether that's through naivety, or following bad advice, or because trademarks and branding are standard and everyday things in many areas and go without comment. I certainly don't think she expected it to blow up like this.

I know I have misjudged things myself in the past, sometimes badly, both private and public things. I'm grateful I never got called out on them in such a huge way. None of us are perfect.


Thursday, 3 May 2018

Some Things Pass Me By

Me, in the Chateau de la Rochefoucauld, France, 2012. You may kiss my ring.

In a writers' group recently an author was worried that their book sales might be hampered by coinciding with some UK royal wedding. A few of us didn't even know about one. As I said: "I live in the UK and had no idea that there was going to be a royal wedding. I guess if your target audience are obsessed with rich people and hereditary privilege, then hold back. If your audience are normal, then go ahead, you'll be fine."

I think another author was surprised that I didn't know about this wedding. I suspect that people think I'm pulling their legs sometimes, but - as usual with me - the more outlandish things I say are generally 100% true.

Then again, I will admit that I am not normal. I don't have a TV, listen to the radio, or read newspapers. I use a lot of websites but not general news ones like the BBC - I go to sites related to particular topics such as the environment, animals, music, ancient history, horror, and so on. So I tend to know lots about the subjects I'm interested in, and what the current issues are, but not "general news" (which, to me, isn't news, just distraction). My friends tend to be people like me, so we'll discuss music, and games, and food, but not things like royalty or TV programmes. So all that kind of stuff genuinely passes me by. My mum watches TV and is always saying, "Oh, such and such is doing x or y" and I have no idea who she is referring to, because it's some TV celebrity that does not cross the nexus of any of my interests. There you go. :-)

Oh, and I don't believe in marriage either, so it's even less likely to cross my radar! Let alone total strangers I have nothing in common with getting married.

Still, you are welcome as guests at my castle any time.


Monday, 30 April 2018

Watchers, by Dean Koontz

I've read Watchers a few times, and love the concept, though I am a bit more critical of it nowadays.

It certainly has all the ingredients of a tense plot, all the pieces lined up to fall over at the end. It does some things well, some things very well. It works as a story. And it has a charming character in Einstein, who only says a handful of things in the book yet still steals the show. If you want to read a thriller, then this is a fairly good one. I'm torn between 3 and 4 stars. I'll go with my gut instinct of 4, because I always prefer to err on the side of generosity.

Where it drops the ball for me is in not going far enough. There's a noticeable authorial voice between the lines; and the beliefs it betrays, as with those made more overt in the plot, are those of an attempt to push at a boundary. But it does not go far enough, does not question enough, does not realise that it has pushed a bit but then created a new arbitrary boundary. If it pushed harder it would have been more true to its central thesis, and could have achieved much more.

I often ask what the values are underlying a work, as illustrated by the way it portrays happiness. Here, it is pretty standard Koontz (based on the books I've read). Success = a manly heterosexual man, paired with a less active woman (but who is a good home-maker), seeking monogamy/marriage with the ultimate goal of having children. There is no questioning of those values anywhere in the book, or even recognition that they are particular viewpoint - the underlying impression is that no other alternatives can be conceived. That's not a criticism, just a clarification of how the core values never drift far from what is seen as a predominantly conservative set of views. At the end of the novel the female protagonist is making apple pie. In another location a pair of men are "tending to the steaks on the barbecue" while "their wives made salads in the kitchen". This is the happy ending. It is presented without irony.

Many books are from this viewpoint - probably most books. Culture (mass media, entertainment etc.) is often presented in ways that will appeal to the biggest market, for maximum profit. In turn, that widespread prevalence creates the impression that there are no alternatives, and this is "normal". Again, it's not necessarily a criticism, though I do think the bias should be perceived by both creator, distributor, and consumer - otherwise, without perceiving the cultural values for what they are, it can lead to close-mindedness and perception of all other values as being "lesser", rather than just alternatives. A book that praises "the ingenuity of man" can become irony if that self-understanding is not then present in the text.

Back to the book. With this book Koontz tries to challenge a few values. You can see him doing that, and perhaps thinking he is being transgressive, making big changes. But in each case it is a tiny shift while following the same line, and does not follow through or recognise how much further the questioning could have gone. Okay, an example.

The plot involves Government experiments on different beings. In this case, putting human minds in non-human bodies. It involves death, failures, murders, suffering, madness, enslavement, enough money to cure a range of problems if spent differently, and much more. The author makes it clear that there is immorality involved. I'd agree. But he can't take it to the logical conclusion - and, as if in panic when he realises that the implication is that the same things apply to all non-human experimentation, he feels the need to suddenly have a character give us a mini-lecture from the point of view of those who exploit beings in this way. Watchers involves characters who take an experimental animal and keep it from the Government - it is not portrayed as "stealing", or "ruining years of important research" - because we have seen that the things referred to are a form of injustice, and we have been allowed to see things from the sufferer's perspective. But the author wants to have his cake and eat it, so he undercuts the whole point of the novel by having a character that we are supposed to respect say "People who raid labs and steal animals, ruining years of important research ... they make me want to spit." (He goes on to actually state that revering life is "ignorant" and "savage".) Whoa. Talk about being blind to the concept of hypocrisy. It doesn't even touch on the fact that the majority of animal research is profit-motivated (from the race to patent, to the "me-too" generic pharma industry). It's as if the author wants to question things, but then to suddenly fall back into accepting them; to claim that the overall thrust is not a questioning of concepts, but making a special case for the cute dog who can act as lucrative product placement for the rich Disney Corp in the inevitable film version.

Remember I said that the underlying author views were mainstream? (In this case, mainstream US.) Here's an example. The author is trying to think of examples of goodness to use in a simile. He suggests "feed the hungry or nurse the sick"; no argument there; but they come second place to "build a business empire" as an example of the most "worthwhile and commendable" goals. That's the protestant ethic of capitalism for you! Most people would see the generic goal of "business empires" as profit-driven (and, as stated in that generic way, inherently selfish - very different from, for example, building an ethical co-operative). Yet here, it is unquestioningly given as a specific example of goodness that is _higher_ than selflessly helping those in need (in that it is the first in the list, the first thing to pop into thought). Viewed from outside the unconscious cultural values of the author, it can seem bizarre. Though that continues - the character who makes that bizarre interjection speech about wanting to spit is a vet who is portrayed as loving dogs. So what does he want to do? Turn his dog into a breeder "and maybe wind up with some nice puppies to sell later".  Breed dogs to sell for profit. Despite there being no shortage of unwanted dogs in shelters desperate for homes before they are destroyed, the predominant value for this character is breeding more, and profiting financially from it. Mmm.

One more example of the mainstream views: celebrating Christmas. In one speech it is actually equated with "life", and nowhere does the text acknowledge the overt shift from religious meaning to one of force-fed consumerism (even though the book shows the level of it, equating spending money on unnecessary consumer goods as being the same as loving someone, and refusing to see over-consumption as a possibly bad thing - those big companies and business empires have sure done their work on indoctrinating all these characters). People can do what they want, but we should always be able to trace where values come from, and what they really are. It's part of being responsible.

So we have a story that seems to push at boundaries, to question things, but which pulls back from any genuine commitment to the line of enquiry. It's similar to the difference between the viewpoints of animal welfare/vegetarianism ("it is okay to exploit other beings for our own ends, but we should try to be a bit nicer about it, and kill less") - which represents a shift, but not a qualitative change, from mainstream speciesism - and the viewpoint of animal rights ("we should not exploit other beings for our own ends, and rights should be regardless of sex, age, species, intelligence, skin colour, sexual preference etc. etc."). The novel shifts slightly in that it says the application of value should not be on the arbitrary basis of species; but instead of questioning all arbitrary values, it simply picks another one (in this case, intelligence) as a means to assign rights. Obviously this is pre-Singer.

One other annoyance - it regularly has chocolate being given to dogs as a "treat". That's quite surprising when the author acknowledges himself as a dog lover. The chocolate consumed by humans is often highly toxic and poisonous to dogs.

There's one other element I'd like to touch on: antagonists. This book has two. One is a hitman. One is the creature known as The Outsider. A problem for the author is that The Outsider is far away from the main characters for most of the novel, which is probably why the hitman was needed as a more imminent and portrayable threat. But The Outsider is a double-edged villain, because it is also a victim. It suffers deformity; it is aware of how people feel revulsion when facing it; yet it is intelligent. It has been imbued with killing urges it never wanted. Like Frankenstein's monster, it is an intelligent being cursed by its creator. It is a victim. It does some horrible things, though far fewer than those done by many humans. By the end it is "whimpering and hugging itself"; it is in pain, and taught itself to say so; it possibly showed pity on another creature and temporarily overcame the nature that had been forced into it by humans. And yet, on the previous page, the novel's main protagonist (through whose eyes the author wants us to see most of the story) describes it as "an enemy of unparalleled evil". Hold on a minute. Unparalleled? It is described as the most evil thing that is possible to exist? More than anything else, this made me question the authorial voice, because that description would apply more accurately to the military scientists performing these experiments on intelligent beings, with the goal of being able to kill other humans more efficiently. But the text falls back on black-and-white extremities, with the worst vilification applied to a victim. I didn't like that.

When I was fifteen and first read the book, I didn’t think so deeply about what is said overtly in books, and what is also said between the lines. As an adult, I’m more critical. But that doesn’t mean this wouldn’t be a 5* book for you.