Too much choice makes me unhappy and tired

At the risk of sounding like decadent, capitalist Westerner scum for the next 700 words or so, the one downside to having extensive free time away from work is having to decide what to do with it.

With family responsibilities fulfilled and a fairly hefty haul of wonderful Christmas presents to show for it, I’ve spent the last day or so at home with some time on my hands…and a little bit of anxiety that it’s difficult to choose what to do with it.

My New Year’s Resolution for 2016 worked like a charm. When I’ve wanted to create, I have created. And when I haven’t wanted to, I haven’t made myself feel bad about it. So the solution appeared to be…stop creating. My SoundCloud page has prospered, but my blog has suffered tremendously for it – but I’m really okay with that because it seemed that I wasn’t up for being so wordy after all.

I’ve read almost 20 books in 2016 – more than I have for many, many years. Two weeks swinging from a honeymoon hammock will do that for you. And when I look back on the sheer disaster of a year that was 2016 in all other aspects of life, I’ll look back on it with some considerable happiness myself, having done a marry in July.

But when my wife departs for a shift at work shortly, I’ll have an entire afternoon stretching ahead of me, and feel paralysed by choice.

deathtostock_medium6

I know, I know. Decadent Westerner, with no dependents and a Netflix subscription – not to mention social network feeds full of smiling kids, whose parents I see at work or on a much-needed night out, who would kill me for that password and/or two hours to themselves to watch something.

But the struggle is real.

The paradox of choice

Paradoxically, it’s precisely because we’ve never had it so good, us decadent capitalist scum, that we sometimes feel ‘spoilt for choice’. Try this when you’re deciding what to spend your Christmas gift vouchers on: just choose something. You can’t, can you?

As a kid it was much easier, because the gifts I got for Christmas were usually something I’d had my eye on since May. And the vouchers were much more quickly spent – and followed with many a round of ‘are you sures’ from Mam and Dad – because it will often have been the first thing I seized upon in the shop.

Barry Schwartz calls it ‘the paradox of choice’, and finds that you can have too much of a good thing. Faced with a sample table of either six jams or 24, 30% of those given only six to try would go on to buy one of them, compared to 3% given a choice of 24.

It can be so bad that you’ll defer from any decision at all just to stay away from the overwhelming feeling of choice paralysis. Whatever it is you’re sitting watching, even if you don’t like it, turning off the TV entirely doesn’t seem like an option when there’s no clear-cut alternative to spending your time.

As a kid, my choice is blinkered; this shiny thing or that one? As a grown-ass man (who doesn’t feel anything like one at the best of times), the blinkers are off and I’m left wondering how best to spend the commodity I’ve got all too much of today: time.

I thought that maybe just describing my feelings and checking that such a thing exists would be enough. But Schwartz has given me more food for thought: setting a goal.

Set your goals

Find out what it is you want, and what the easiest way to achieve that is. I wanted to moan about something, and my wife’s gone out. Short of calling a friend and talking their ear off (one who isn’t back at work), blogging about it seems to have done the trick.

But when I close my laptop and stand up, what next? My goal for the day is: be entertained. Well, my PS4 just blinked. I could go back and put another ungodly amount of hours into Stardew Valley as I did yesterday. And then there’s that book about Bowie I got for Christmas oh god it’s happening again.

Setting a goal, analysing the simplest route towards it, the one that will expend the least amount of time, energy and stress, and working towards it. That’s a start. Polishing off the rest of my selection box? Aye, why not.

Five Halloween costumes for couples

So, obviously I’ve been sorely lacking in blog posts lately, please do forgive the gap but I’m going through a bit of a ‘writing different stuff / lacking decent ideas’ phase.

Upfront honesty: I’ve never been the biggest fan of this whole Americanisation of a good old pagan holiday. I probably haven’t actually cared about Halloween since my last disappointing neighbourhood trick or treat run as a child. But steadily over the years, seeing the excitement of grown-ass men and women getting dressed up as their favourite spooky characters for a night on the town has finally got me convinced that this year it might be worth a go.

Since I did a marry  I’ve been trying to think of the best way that me and my lady together could pull off a great Halloween couples’ costume idea. So here are five, completely off the top of my head and 80% not actual couples, but still great double acts all the same.

Super Mario Bros.

Super Mario Bros.

If you’re both sticklers for colour-coordination then this first choice should see you right. Celebrate one of the best video games of all time by dressing up as Italian plumbers – but not any old Italian plumbers, obviously. Also obviously, you will need at least one fake moustache.

Buffy & Angel

Buffy the Vampire Slayer & Angel

Looking to hit the town as a fictional power couple? Add some bite to the traditional night out by setting yourself up as the Slayer and her favourite squeeze. And for extra geek cred, bring along a ‘Smile Time’ puppet version of Angel! Alternatively, blond dudes may prefer to go for Spike – dodgy Cockney accent optional.

Mr Robot and Elliot

Mr Robot Christian Slater

I got the flash of inspiration for both this post and the Halloween costume for me and my wife when I bought a black hoody the other day. Mr Robot has been unmissable Thursday night viewing during this second season, and I think it would make a very good conversation piece – especially if either of you fancied talking to yourself during the course of the night without fear of social awkwardness.

Bill & Ted

Bill and Ted costumes

Inspired by watching Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey earlier tonight, I do think this would make a great Halloween costume for couple – if not one of the most difficult to nail down. Where exactly does one get their hands on a red and orange jacket with a yellow smiley face on the back, anyway?

Clowncore

It’s a pretty striking idea for a couples’ costume at Halloween, but even better in a social emergency. If you’ve always wanted to gather up eight mates and go to a party as the members of Slipknot, but two of you arrived as the Clown, it’s easily fixed – just tell everyone you’re Clowncore instead.

Are you thinking of teaming up for a super-effective Halloween couples’ costume? Let me know in the comments!

Creating for its own sake

I don’t really know where to start.

I’ll start with what someone else said while he was trying to come to terms with a big decision. (We’ll miss you, Murf:)

“I do not want to feel like every single activity or experience I do needs to be carefully screened in case I can extract a blog post out of it.”

Life vs stuff

Whenever I get deep enough into a new game (No Man’s Sky), or halfway through the book I’m reading (Fight Club 2), my mental focus shifts itself from consuming what it is I’m actually experiencing into how I’d explain those feelings in a blog post.

being creative

Basically before I’ve finished seeing, reading or hearing something, I’m already reviewing it in my head in case I can drag a good 500 words out of the experience. And because of this (albeit small) mental shift, I feel like maybe I’m missing out on enjoying something for its own sake.

When I first started playing and absolutely loving No Man’s Sky, I knew it would inspire me to write a post I could be proud of – but that’s still somewhat missing the point. If you’re playing the game yourself, or are still trying to decide whether or not it’s worth a purchase, you’ll already have that information in hand. Not saying my views will sway you either way – it’s possible they actually could because everyone sees things differently – but that would not be my chief aim.

But because Alpha Signal Five has become less about the life experiences, and more about the stuff experiences, I’ve always got an eye on the next published post rather than the next finished book or completed game. I never really noticed it until just recently and, truthfully, it slightly diminishes the return I get from consuming stuff in the first place. It isn’t my intention to tell anyone anything, more just to put the words out there for my own benefit.

Express yourself

For me, writing is a way to express myself because it’s too difficult to do out loud. When I used to do stand-up, I found writing the material was so much more satisfying than actually being onstage delivering it. More often than not I’d mess up a set-up or punchline because it looked much better on paper.

As long as I continue to have something to say, it makes things easier. But it feels less and less worthwhile to post reviews on what I play or read or watch. That’s nothing to do with the sheer amount of material online doing the exact same thing – I never minded that there’s a hundred thousand other bloggers pressing Publish on their NMS reviews right this second – but just of how little relief I’ve recently started to feel for pressing Publish myself. It used to be a means to an end; a way to wrap up all the feelings and thoughts I had about something, post it online and be done with it.

Because I want to be more creative, though, maybe that’s not the way to go about it. Maybe all those thoughts and feelings need to stay a bit more loose and flowing in my head, so I can try and fashion something out of them for my own more creative purposes.

Example: I’ve been trying to write a script about video gamers for a few months now. I’ve been watching as many documentaries and reading as many books on the subject as I can – from death by addiction to eSports players – in an attempt to shape something together. If I were just to review those programmes and books, then I’d feel like I was done with them when publishing each post, and I don’t want to be done with them.

“God, Kermode, your hands are MASSIVE”

Nor did I ever want to be a reviewer; I just wanted to see new things and use this site to squee about the best ones. But looking back it’s as clear as day, right down to the final paragraph where I’ll invariably sum up by saying whether or not I recommend it.

Outside of telling my friends “aww mate, you NEED to watch that” (Mr Robot), I don’t want to place myself anywhere near a spot which may or may not go towards making up your mind whether or not to do or buy something. It isn’t me.

I just need an outlet. I’ll always need an outlet. I’ve even started making music on my laptop. But I don’t know if that’s the right one either. So I suppose I’ll just keep trying to find the right one. I need to read and write for their own sake, and adjust my own expectations of creating.

Forgive the jumble. I kinda needed to get that off my chest.

Defeating ‘The Nag’ – My New Year’s Creative Resolution

So. We’re into the year 2016, and I’m already struggling to keep up with my New Year’s Resolution. Not because it’s impossible – it’s not like I’ve promised to run a 10k by this time tomorrow – but just because it requires my patience, and my mental discipline, and not to feel so bloody tired all the time.

I’ll show you what my resolution is, because it involves a bit of the task itself.

My New Year's Resolution(1)

My two-part resolution: to feel more productive, and to be okay when not feeling productive.

Because it’s one thing to be productive – I’ve read more books (nearly two) since Boxing Day than I have in the last six months – but it’s another not to let it nag me when I’m not feeling productive.

Thanks to some hand-wringing at my angelically patient fiancée earlier this evening, I’ve come up with a name for it: The Nag. We’re only four days into the new year, and The Nag is already getting at me to get something done.

Which, again, would be fine if I’d spent the 93ish hours of 2016 so far doing absolutely nothing. But I have been doing things. Plenty of things. I just about managed the first day back at work today after a good long break, and I’ve done plenty of reading. I’ve even broken the back of the main storyline of Fallout 4, if we were really struggling to list any achievements.

But I shouldn’t be struggling to say I’ve done anything in 2016, for two main reasons:

  • I’ve definitely been productive.
  • We are less than 100 hours into 2016.

Pretty unreasonable, right? A brace of blog posts ready to go in the coming days, plenty of writing done, nearly two books read. But there’s The Nag.

TheNag.jpg

Ay, there’s The Nag.

It’s kind of a vicious cycle, really. If I’d been markedly non-prolific on a regular basis, I’d have been okay with The Nag because it would’ve kept me creating. But it persists now despite all my efforts. And my writing about The Nag in an attempt to reveal all its petty, silly demands and make it sound silly, is beginning to make me sound silly.

100 hours into 2016? I’ve only had Fallout 4 for about six weeks, and I’ve almost certainly put 100 hours into that too. Playing the game non-stop for an equivalent amount of time now would be (heaven, and also) conceivably a waste of my time.

But when I’ve stopped being productive for the day, The Nag persists. That’s why I’m making it my resolution; to be productive when I want to be, and not to let The Nag get to me when I don’t.

If any of that made sense to you, please, share your battles to stay content. I’m off now to Nag some raiders, and gunners, and deathclaws.

2015 – The Blogging Year in Review

I was hoping to write a fairly in-depth analysis of Alpha Signal Five’s year, but before I knew it it had turned 7pm on New Year’s Eve, so you’ll just have to settle for something a little briefer while I wait for my takeaway to arrive.

So. In 2015 (and at the time of publishing, as we might yet squeeze in a few more tonight) Alpha Signal Five received

  • 6,732 views
  • From 5,120 visitors

That’s pretty bloody great isn’t it! I’m well chuffed with the fact that the site got more than 5,000 (not unique) visitors. Compare it to 2014, which got

  • 5,107 views
  • From 3,883 visitors

And I’m extremely pleased with the improvement. Certainly enough to pay my WordPress bill when it’s time to renew in the next few weeks.

According to that Year in Review thing which I got from WordPress the other day, I wrote 74 posts in 2015 (not sure if that includes the one about Guitar Hero Live which I’ve got saved in Drafts right now). That’s 1.42 posts a day, roughly one every four days.

That’s not too bad actually. But I certainly wish I’d got a few more in, maybe 100 or so. I know that there were long spells where I’d been a bit neglectful, and given myself some internal grief as a result. I’ve sort of arrived at a decision about that…a resolution, if you will…but we’ll get to that next week.

ALPHA SIGNAL FIVE

Most-viewed posts of 2015

My top five most read posts of 2015, also written this year (cos god knows we shouldn’t be talking about that guy – the most read of 2015 overall – any more.)

Happy Birthday, nWo! Hulk Hogan’s 1996 WCW Heel Turn

Oh crap, there he is again.

Who will win the 2015 Royal Rumble?

Not a classic match by any means, but the Rollins-Cena-Lesnar match was my favourite of the year.

The Fallout 4 Pip-Boy Edition is BEAUTIFUL…but not for me

A look at the expensive side of geek culture, and the first of three this year on what’s definitely been my gaming highlight of 2015.

Why did Tom DeLonge leave Blink 182?

A bit of a shocker, this, but I enjoyed a trip back into teen nostalgia while celebrating a lifelong favourite band.

WWF – the story of Fake Diesel and Fake Razor Ramon

Inspired by the story of the genuine articles joining WCW, and the WWF’s completely weak response.

Mainly wrestling, but unlike 2014 when I promised not to write about it for the sake of writing about it, these pieces have met that promise as I had genuine interest in the topics at hand.

Improvements on 2014

I make a regular habit of saying ‘I’m not in the habit of making resolutions’, which I clearly am. So let’s take a look at last year’s equivalent post and see what went right.

The one thing I know I’ve worked on here is writing for myself; I’ve binned the news in brief posts and instead concentrated on news when I’ve actually got something to say about it, instead of just regurgitating the news and ending with a summary of my brief thoughts.

There’s only that, really. But I don’t mind. I’ve done my best to make the blog into something a bit more ‘me’ and I think I’ve achieved that.

And now as we get into 2016, I’ll be off to a pretty good start with some posts already in the making. Let’s see what the new year brings. Have a good one, dudes – and thank you for being on the other end of this mass of tubes they call the internets, reading the stuff I write. It’s a good feeling.

 

 

Screenwriting to pass the Bechdel Test

As long as I can remember, I’ve been writing scripts. Some of them have been made into short films and 60-second plays. Most of them haven’t.

Having read and enjoyed some of my dad’s own screenwriting efforts as a kid, I think I was about 10 when I had my first ever crack at a sitcom; it featured two men, best friends, going on holiday to sunny Bridlington to meet girls. Sadly, being 10 years old, knowledge of the location was just about the only strength I had at the time, not so much the nuances of characterisation, plot and dialogue, much less the whole ‘meeting girls’ thing, and what went on between fully grown-ass men and women.

scripts

Two decades on, and the only thing that’s put me off writing more than fear of rejection is the actual rejection.

My last effort, ‘Come Home’ was a sitcom about two men and a woman, best friends from school, whose lives hadn’t panned out the way they wanted. Now each being fully grown-ass men and woman themselves, they were regressing to the comfort of the town they grew up in to lick their wounds. The pilot had everything; slapstick, origin stories and most of all, charming interplay between genders.

The BBC Writersroom scheme did not agree.

I’m working on something a bit different now, and for all the online articles I’m reading and books filling my shelves, there’s only so much I can learn about plot and structure before I’m actually supposed to get on with it.

More than being funny, more than being entertaining, more than anything I just want my work to feel natural, and to that end I’ve been reading about the Bechdel Test.

The Bechdel Test (or the Bechdel-Wallace test)

First laid out by cartoonist Alison Bechdel in 1985, the rules for what she herself prefers to call the Bechdel-Wallace test, as explained by one of her characters are as follows:

  • The piece must portray at least two (named) women,
  • Talking to each other,
  • About anything other than a man.

It wasn’t supposed to be taken seriously in its original form, but having found its way into academia in subsequent years, the Bechdel-Wallace test now serves as a pretty brilliant and simple measure of equal representation in the arts. You’d be stunned how many films (and games) fail this test – there’s a database tracking the results here.

(According to the website, films which don’t pass the test released in 2015 include Fantastic Four, Ex Machina and Ant-Man. Films I love which, also according to the website don’t happen to pass the test include High Fidelity, Swingers and Fight Club. The first film I love that did pass my completely random searches is Empire Records.)

Think about that for a minute. All those films you love. All those films which get produced without managing to include something so simple as two women having a chat about the weather, or their favourite food, or their hopes and dreams.

I don’t even want to get into what this says about Hollywood’s attitude to equal representation, about women’s supposed inability to further a story, or about the fact that it isn’t physically possible for a female film character to exist without wondering out loud about anything but her male love interest.

I don’t even.

Passing the Bechdel Test (by not knowing there is one)

Fortunately for me, before I’d even started giving myself anxiety over the fact that maybe film and TV have subconsciously given me funny ideas about women;  before I’d even resolved to fix this potential pitfall of inequality and awkward attitudes to women by familiarising myself with the Bechdel Test and making sure I passed it as soon as possible in my story…

…I started reading back the latest draft of my latest script and realised I’d already done it.

On page fucking one.

With an extremely early morning phone call between an insomniac video editor and her half-asleep friend, about the video that the former has been up all night creating.

Oh shit, the video’s about a bloke.

Only kidding. It’s about aliens in a video game. Nearly had you there.

And before I could separate my shoulder by patting myself on the back too much, I realised that the best way of passing this test is to pretend it doesn’t exist.

In writing what I hope is natural conversation between two people, it should logically follow that some of that natural conversation is going to be between two women, and it’s not going to be about a man.

I’m not trying to strike a blow for feminism, I’m just trying to be a better writer. Knowing things like this will hopefully help me to achieve that.

Right, it’s after 3am. Now that I’ve cracked out 800 words about equality, maybe I should try to overcome that other famous obstacle to screenwriting – procrastination from writing the damn thing.

The Samsung Galaxy VR – best enjoyed while drunk

On Saturday night, at a friend’s stag do, I saw a glimpse of my future – but enough about whatever my best man has planned for me, because I also got to try out some VR tech.

We’d just called it quits on our poker game for the evening – which I was definitely winning – and decided to have a game of Wii bowling. While the others were setting up, my friend produced a Samsung Galaxy VR headset from the storage room and urged me to try it out.

I’d made my feelings clear about the ‘fad’ that was VR only a little bit incoherently earlier in the night, when asked if I fancied a go. I thought to myself, it’ll be fun, and it’ll certainly be impressive enough, but will it really be a mind-blowing time?

VR Troopers

Best stag do ever.

Since everyone went spare over the Oculus Rift – and the ability to walk around a virtual copy of Jerry Seinfeld’s flat from his sitcom – I’ve felt fairly cynical as to how stunning the experience can really be.

I’ve been burned before.

Nintendo Virtual Boy

Not that I ever owned one, but the 1990s were a heady time for video game commercials. Convinced that getting myself a Cyber Razor Cut would be awesome, and that playing an Amiga 500 would be the greatest gaming experience of all time (to be fair, the amazing song is to blame for that, too), I’m glad I never saw this advert for the Nintendo Virtual Boy at the time of release because it would’ve been the end of me.

The nerve. Honestly, the gall of Nintendo to have people thinking this would be anything other than a disaster. It lasted less than a year and, 20 years hence, remains Nintendo’s lowest ever selling console.

 

CyberZone

Predating that shambles of a console by two years, was BBC Manchester’s shambles of a 1993 gameshow which attempted to bring the possibilities of virtual reality to the masses. Naturally, a similarly ahead-looking presenter was needed, so in came Craig Charles – between filming series of Red Dwarf down the corridor – to welcome us ‘cybernauts’ to the virtual reality bonanza.

I was eight years old when this played on BBC2. Even at the age of eight, I could see just how bloody clunky it all looked; from the awkward poses of the ‘cyborgs’ controlled by players using the early 90s equivalent of a Dance Dance Revolution mat, to the puzzles that were thematically poles apart from the game’s concept – “welcome to the future, cyborgs. Now pick up this virtual ball and throw it at that virtual hoop”. Even at the age of eight, I could tell we had a long way to go.

 

The Lawnmower Man

Don’t even get me fucking started on The Lawnmower Man.

 

Samsung Galaxy VR

So, back to our evening of revelry last weekend. Engage.

Finding myself in an empty cinema I glanced up at my entertainment options, and chose a little VR trailer for Avengers: Age of Ultron – coincidentally, one of only two films I’ve ever watched in 3D at the cinema.

And as I followed the path of Thor’s hammer and Cap’s shield across Avengers HQ, snapping pool cues in half and crushing robot heads – all in slow motion, naturally – I was stunned. The AR capabilities were fantastic, as I looked up and down and all around me to see what else was going on in this massive battle.

I also watched a music video by Squarepusher called ‘Stor Eiglass’ which has been published on YouTube 360, allowing you to get the same immersive experience I did, only by moving your mouse rather than your head.

And again, I thought this was absolutely stunning. It helps that I quite like Squarepusher anyway so the music didn’t detract from the experience, but the relatively inexpensive piece of kit that comes from combining some goggles with a smartphone managed to massively surpass my expectations.

I was absolutely blown away by the tech.

Confession: I was also pretty drunk, so there’s a good chance my eyes were already fairly goggly, but I’d recommend this experience to anybody, just to see how far VR has come since the days of Mario Tennis and Craig Charles’ Cyber Zone. And with Sony’s Playstation VR set to hit the shelves in 2016, we could finally be in for that all-encompassing, all-conquering VR experience that the likes of Craig Charles and Pierce bloody Brosnan couldn’t give us before.

Writing and the art of poor self-discipline

I held off on publishing this for a few hours because I didn’t really want to put out such a negative assessment of my attitudes and aptitudes towards writing, when it’s obviously not something I feel all the time. Then I decided after another three hours at home spent not writing, to publish it anyway. Just remember, I hesitated on this one.

‘I could create / like it was stealing’ – Reuben, ‘Suffocation of the Soul’

With various writing projects on the go at any one time, I’m a victim of my own overly-active brain, juggling story ideas and fresh blog material. When it comes time to commit to paper or screen though, there’s ten things I’d rather be doing which are just avoidance tactics.

Ironically enough, it feels like what I’m doing here in writing a blog post about avoidance tactics is, in itself, an avoidance tactic.

writing self discipline

Poor self-discipline

You see, I have very poor self-discipline. I’m almost certain that it’s a perfectly normal trait for a self-confessed geek to have – a short attention span comes with the territory when on the hunt for the next shiny thing – but for someone who writes not only nine-to-five but in spades of my spare time as well it can’t be good.

My current problem is even more annoying – I’m trying to write a script and I just don’t have the patience to get it all down while my characters are furiously arguing over stuff in my head.

So when I fill up almost an entire lunch hour trying to scribble it all down, it feels immensely satisfying knowing that some of the process has been completed. With a notepad just about full to bursting, I’m ready to get home from work and start typing up – once I’ve had dinner with my lady and talked about our days, plus fitting in an episode of whatever programme we’re in deep with (Marvel’s Agent Carter was fantastic, since you asked), I should be ready to make a coffee and get cracking with the creative stuff.

So that’s what I try to do.

Eyes off the clock

But take last night as an example: knowing that I’ve got an evening to myself I get home fully intending to write up or just write some pages, but instead of hitting the home office I watch Wrestling With Shadows, a documentary about Bret Hart and the Montreal Screwjob filmed as it happened.

Knowing that I’ll have an hour and a half left of my evening before Zoë comes home from work after the film’s finished, I spend 20 minutes trying to make a video of me laughing scornfully at something Vince McMahon says during the film. (I rarely make videos. I think I really was stalling for time here.)

With an hour left, and seeing as my PS4’s already switched on – y’know, just for the sake of convenience – I load up Rocket League and promise myself I’ll just have one five-minute game.

Five games later, three of which I lost, I’m left unsatisfied with the gaming session and decide that now I’ll get that time back by writing.

Lessons learned

I type up what I scribbled during the day, and before I know it I’ve no time left to go from transcribing to actual writing. I failed to use my time wisely, and although I’m not about to regret the time spent relaxing earlier, I do curse a wasted opportunity to create.

But there’s the rub. Keeping a constant eye on the clock like I did last night doesn’t help at all; creating is hard enough without feeling the pressure of time.

I think that these two things might be the secret to self-discipline; ease off on the guilt and be confident that I will create without the need to time my progress.

Do you agree? What are your tips for writing self-discipline?

MCM Manchester Comic Con 2015

Don’t you hate it when you get a present and aren’t allowed to play with it? Well in the case of the tickets I got back in February as a birthday gift from colleagues, I wasn’t actually able to use them until the weekend just passed – and for me and my travelling companion it was well worth the wait.

In case I haven’t said it before, I bloody love Manchester. I went to university there and, despite the reservations I’d been brought up to have about the place (as a Leeds United fan), I was lucky to spend three years in that great city. I still go once a year for their Christmas Market which, I promise you, is a million times better than the Leeds one.

So with two of my loves coming together – Manchester and comics – I knew it would be a great weekend at Manchester Comic Con.

We spent the Friday walking around town and doing some shopping – plus we found a place that does bubble tea called I Come From Taiwan, it was delicious. At Fopp Records I picked up two My Bloody Valentine albums to satisfy the secret shoegaze fan inside me, (damn, secret’s out) and we had an awesome fish and chip dinner before retiring for the evening to our digs in Castlefield.

beetham tower manchester deansgate

This was the view from our room; the rather ugly Beetham Tower, whose rather ugly aerodynamic shape at the top means the wind blowing through it causes a low hum which can be heard for miles around. We heard it a lot.

Oh, and we were staying in room 316. Cue the incessant Steve Austin/room service impersonations.

stone cold steve austin 316

I don’t do well on Saturday mornings. Scratch that; I don’t do well most mornings, but planning an early wake-up after a full day’s walking around town didn’t have me raving to start the day. Multiple coffees and a big breakfast solved that problem, and just before 9am we headed out to Manchester Central, which was hosting the MCM Manchester Comic Con.

First things first; the amount of cosplayers there was incredible. Even as we joined the queue we were overwhelmed by the number of attendees showing up in their costumes, representing every nook and cranny of geek culture. It was really encouraging to see so many people expressing themselves so avidly – go take a look at any MCM Manchester-related hashtag right now for the evidence.

The line to get inside moved quite speedily, and before long we were cast into the huge convention hall with what had to be thousands of other attendees, even at that early hour. It was all quite overwhelming actually, and I really, REALLY don’t do well in crowds so was quite upset for quite some time.

To get away from it all, we crept into a panel being held by the guys from All The Anime, who were discussing upcoming releases and answering questions from the assembled audience. Most of the questions and answers being supplied sailed clean over my head, as I don’t watch much anime at all – certainly nothing current, my knowledge is limited to old Studio Ghibli and Akira – but I really dug their enthusiasm and easy-going nature as they answered questions and shared opinions on what’s happening in the wide world of anime.

Most of the day was spent checking out the merchandise on offer at the various stalls, and what a selection – everything from comics, video games and clothing to cosplay props, imported food and drink and even a few film-makers, like Redshirt Films who made the excellent Nights At The Round Table.

We even saw a live Robot Wars event – my goodness, that was fun. My lady was always a bit partial to the metal mayhem of a weekday evening on BBC2, and it was really cool to see it happen live. Only issue for me was that every one of the robots competing in the same round was a ‘flipper’ type – you know the sort I mean:

robot wars flippers

So there wasn’t any real harm done to the combatants – any time one got flipped over, they just re-flipped themselves back into action. Apart from that, it was a lot of fun to see.

Someone also recognised the Scrivens 3.14 t-shirt I was wearing on the day. That was a highlight.

In one of those who-are-you-and-what-have-you-done-with-Vincent moments, sadly I didn’t pick much up in the way of sweet merch from the con – although I did pick up a copy of The Everyday by Adam Cadwell, who has not only written a funny and touching autiobio anthology but was also a lovely bloke to chat to at the end of a long day.

I also got this t-shirt, because I had to.

adventure time finn t-shirt

 

And that’s yer lot. We had a bit of a mad dash to Piccadilly for the train home, but thanks to my ninja shortcut skills we were there in plenty of time. The con was a lot of fun, and Manchester is always lovely to me whenever I visit. It’s been emotional.

 

Heroes of Geek Culture: Isaac Asimov

I’ve been watching the Channel 4 sci-fi series Humans, and aside from the whole kitchen sink drama/conspiracy thriller side of things, one of the matters which took me greatly by surprise is how well they’re doing the whole existential, philosophical side of things.

And when I heard one of the synths mention that their ‘Asimov lock’ prevents them from doing harm to humans, well, that was just a brilliant touch in honour of the sci-fi writer who helped bring the whole discussion to light.

Born in Soviet Russia somewhere around 1920, Isaac Asimov was one of the world’s best-known and most prolific science fiction writers, known to have had a hand in writing some 500 novels. Asimov was also a PhD-qualified biochemist, and a professor at the Boston University School of Medicine – though he was said to have taken a low-key role in order to focus on his writing.

isaac asimov bio geek culture

Truly a brilliant mind, Asimov was also a member of Mensa International, and he wrote many non-fiction titles alongside his staggering collection of novels, including many academic texts in wildly varying areas of science. He was something of a Shakespeare expert too.

Asimov was among the pioneers of the science fiction genre as we know it today, writing many extremely popular works about space travel, galactic diplomacy struggles and, as mentioned, the burgeoning field of artificial intelligence. Across many of his works, Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics come into play:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.

These rules are absolutely an essential part of sci-fi canon these days, as the morality and ethics of artificial intelligence continue not only to form part of stories like Humans, but are starting to vest themselves in the artificial intelligence we continue to create. When you first heard about Siri, were you not a little…unsettled…about its development like I was?

I recently read Asimov’s very first novel, Pebble in the Sky, and became engrossed in the story of an Earth empire which has spread so far and wide across the galaxy, and become so sophisticated, that they’d assumed a snobby attitude towards their lowly ancestors and those who remained on our planet. It’s a great mix of diplomatic, chess-like strategies and all-out violence written in a style that, while somewhat dated, has all the greater impact on its story for it.

For his brilliant, inquisitive mind as well as the huge body of work that spans decades and has influenced so much of today’s science fiction (here I’d make a joke about it being the Foundation but it’s awful and I’m now annoyed at myself for thinking of it), Isaac Asimov is very much a hero of geek culture.