Far Cry Instincts Predator

Far Cry Instincts Predator dates back to 2006, and boy does it show! According to the sticker on the box the CEX asking price was £4.99 when I picked this one up a couple of years ago, but I think it was also the cheapest of a 3 for 2 offer. So when something is basically free, I’m not going to whine too hard about it.

It’s actually kind of relaxing in its simplicity, making it a nice little palette cleanser to some of the more involved games I’ve played this year (I mean I adore Dragon Age: Inquisition, but even I know sometimes it’s healthy to do something else than embark on a third consecutive play-through in order to romance a different character). I actually got a little nostalgic for the days of Doom, claiming ammo refills by simply walking over vertical standing weaponry.

I really enjoyed playing FarCry 3 &4 (Primal, less so, and #5 got such a lukewarm reception that I don’t fancy spending more than a tenner on it.) It’s kind of fun to see the genesis of those games here. Ok, so the graphics suck, and in the Instincts game your basically stuck in corridor mode right the way through. But you can just about get a sense of what the FarCry universe would become with sweeping island vistas, lush vegetation and gritty merc camps. They’re just a bit … basic for now.

All told, I spent a tense couple of weeks getting through the Instincts game, and kept getting stuck in death loops. I haven’t wanted to rage quit a game so hard since the first time I played Ocarina of Time. So it was actually pretty satisfying to finally complete the game.

Incidentally the Instincts Predator title reflects that this was a remastered version of the original PC game released for the 360, and included the sequel story Evolution (though I am still unclear where Predator comes with and reckon it was simply a marketing attempt at making the title sound 57% more masculine). I decided to jump straight into the Coda on completion of main story, partly so I could then dump the whole disk into my ‘done’ pile. But also because I have a realistic notion that having got used to the polygontastic graphics, it would really grate playing a later game and then going back to Evolution. Turns out Evolution is much shorter, taking a svelte 10-11 hours to get through. The story is as much a pile of bobbins as the previous one, but there a few nice little tweaks which further tease what FC will become in later games. There are a few multiple-objective arenas which mitigates the corridor feel of the first game. And our intrepid protagonist Carver has developed some botanical leanings and now gets his adrenaline kick from flowers rather than what looked like sacks of meal replacement.

Having said that, despite the quick playtime I found some bits of Evolution even more frustrating than Instincts. Specifically the stupid bloody jumping puzzles where you’re meant to leap into special climbable walls. When the graphics are so bad they actually hinder the gameplay things are not good. Compare and contrast with the rebooted Tomb Raider, and the way Lara’s body reacts to her environment so you can tell if you are meant to be climbing up, down, sideways, or jumping elsewhere.

So yeah, this one has serious dated, from the problematic character tropes, dumb dialogue, and poor graphics. But a bit of mindless violence does the soul good now and again. Onto the next!

Bioshock 2

First up in my ‘let’s play all the old 360 titles sitting on my shelf, and then finally trade the whole lot in for cash’ project is Bioshock 2.

I remember learning of the existence of the Bioshock Infinite thanks to an episode of the podcast Coverville which featured the oldey-timey version of Everybody Wants to Rule the Word. I played that back in 2014 (actually buying it new on Amazon) and enjoyed it greatly. So I figured I’d give the previous game a shot when I saw it going cheap at CEX.

Bioshock is all about the aesthetic: art deco gone to hell. It fits with the overarching narrative of the Bioshock universe perfectly; a constructed idyll of 1950’s society, corrupted by human weakness and descended into dystopia. Playing it a decade after its 2009 release on a slightly crumbling system, it still looks gorgeous. The underwater sequences provide an ethereal loveliness in contrast to the blood splattered grime of the main levels. The creepy little girl trope is working overtime here, as you employ clone orphans to suck out genetically modified upgrade goo from the many corpses dotted around. The moral angle is played fairly heavily, with specific ethical decisions making a substantive difference to the conclusion of the game.

One aspect I really enjoyed was collecting the audio ‘diaries’ left by the main characters, and other denizens of Rapture. These can be easily ignored if you like your violence un-contextualised (and no judgement here if that’s your bag) but it ticks a box for players like me who are here for the interactive storytelling. Crucially I really enjoyed how once you collect a diary you can set it to play, and it will do so whilst you carry on playing, meaning you don’t have to choose between getting your fill of backstory and maintaining a seamless integration into your environment. A shout out here as well for the voice-acting, in particular Fenella Woolgar who is truly menacing as Sophia Lamb.

Bioshock 2 took me a leisurely couple of weeks to play through over evenings and weekends. I didn’t get the addictive sense of being unable to put down my controller (probably a good thing) but it was an enjoyable enough yarn. Having played it through the once, however, I am more than happy to put it on my pile of completed games, although I might check out the other two endings on YouTube (I decided to play white hat and consequently got the most positive of all available conclusions).

On to the next!

Tidying up my games

I love buying up games 2nd hand. First, they are so frickin’ cheap! I picked up the Game of the Year edition of Skyrim for about £7, and must have got at least 100 hours of entertainment out of it. As value for money goes, that’s pretty damn good. Second, by the time the good titles have made their way onto the pre-owened shelves, the various software updates have usually patched up all the game-breaking bugs. Sure, you have to resign yourself to 5-20 minutes of software downloading before you can get started, but once that’s done, the gaming experience is, hopefully, going to go fairly smoothly. And third, there will be a veritable feast of walkthroughs and guides available should you get stuck. Yes, I sometime use walkthroughs. As Dara O’Brien once said, gaming is one of the few media which will deny you content you have already paid for, if you do not prove yourself worthy. And whether I’ve paid £2.99 or £45, I don’t want to get so frustrated that I rage-quit because I haven’t spotted the one tiny detail that will allow me to proceed.

About 4 years or so ago I found myself slightly depressed in London, and like a shining waypoint in the distance I saw a CEX. £20 later I had a bag stuffed full of noughties XBox 360 games to while away the weekends. But, as is sometimes the way, many of those games languished on the shelf, gathering dust.

Cut to the present day, and Terry and I have been watching Tidying Up with Marie Kondo. Now, I’m not entirely sure what category games fits into, in the KonMarie method. However I am choosing to categorise them as books. Because I game like other people read. At its heart, I think of games as interactive fiction, and my favourite style are the huge, immersive worlds in which choices are made and have consequences. I like cultivating relationships with NPCs, facing ethical dilemmas, and imagining I’m facing down a dragon/reaper with a battleaxe/assault rifle. And between these massive experiences, I have a range of shorter games which act as palate cleanser between heavy courses.

I have to admit the Xbox 360 is getting a bit long in the tooth. But before it goes to the great Gamestation in the sky, I really want to get through all those old titles. So over the next few months, I’m planning to play each one, and see how they’ve stood the test of time. And because I’m also trying to get back in the habit of writing more, I will, as time and energy allows, blog about each one.

Ethics and self driving cars

Courtesy of the British Computer Society, I attended a free lecture by Ethical Roboticist Professor Alan Winfield earlier this week. Here a few thoughts I jotted down during his excellent talk.

Winfield started out discussing a couple of recent cases where the beta-testing of driverless cars has ended in tragedy. In the first case, a Tesla customer was using their new driverless car. He was supposed to be alert and aware, ready to take over from the AI that was controlling the vehicle at a moment’s notice. Unfortunately he wasn’t paying attention, and when for some reason the AI failed to ‘see’ a lorry trailer blocking the way ahead, the AI drove the car straight into it, killing him. The other case involved the death of a member of the public who was walking a bike across an intersection, and killed when, again, the AI controlling an Uber vehicle failed to recognise that she was there.

There is an interesting ethical conundrum to unpick here thrown up by the requirement that a human ‘back up driver’ maintains the necessary level of attention so as to be able to take over from the AI if needed. In both these cases, there is evidence to suggest that the human drivers were definitely not paying sufficient attention. But even if they had been correctly seated behind the wheel and not distracted by anything, it is very difficult to maintain the required level of concentration and alertness if you are doing nothing, as Winfield discussed.

Kant asserted the maxim that ‘ought implies can’. It’s not coherent to impose a moral requirement for a person to do something she is not capable of doing. Now I’m not saying it’s impossible to maintain concentration in these conditions, but it is quite difficult. I think this is something that needs careful consideration in terms of the technology, usability, and the moral expectation placed on the user, given the limitation of our fallible human brains.

Which leads onto the next problem; what if the human back-up driver doesn’t take over control of the vehicle, not because they aren’t paying attention, but because they have chosen to trust the AI. Part of the appeal of driverless cars is harnessing AI technology which, under certain circumstances, can reliably outperform the average human. If, for the majority of the time, the car is a better driver than a human, why would a human choose to second-guess it? The car is supposed to be able to process information and react faster to events than a person with a meat computer in their heads. Furthermore, it may not be obvious to the human that the AI is malfunctioning. The two cases described above are fairly clear cut; you wouldn’t notice that your vehicle was about to plough into a pedestrian or a lorry trailer and think, “well, I won’t intervene because the car knows what its doing and I don’t want to interfere”. But as the technology gets more sophisticated and the obvious problems get ironed out, we’ll be left with the more complex and subtle edge-cases. Might future vehicular manslaughter cases hang on whether it has been determined if there was a reasonable expectation that the human back up driver should have intervened?

As is so often the case, it seems our legal and moral frameworks have not yet caught up with technological developments. Winfield described himself as the start of his talk as a Professional Worrier. Ethicists lay the groundwork for the standards and regulations which enable public trust. This isn’t about Luddite-esque hand-wringing. But it is critical that these issues are discussed in a structured way to keep people safe, and minimise harm.


Private jokes in a public forum

I went to Open Data Camp at the weekend. Like all good modern events in the techy/data space, it had a code of conduct. In the introductory session this was mentioned explicitly, but briefly. Be nice to each other. Try to be aware of how much you are talking, and help enable others to speak. If anyone says or does anything which makes you feel uncomfortable, find an organiser. So far, so simple.

The thing about a code of conduct, is no-one really wants to dwell on the reasons they are necessary. These are supposed to be fun, interesting events where everyone has a good time. You don’t want to kill the mood at the very start by going into a lot of details about all the ways it could end up being a crap experience for someone. Sometimes, light touch is the best way to go. Mention the CofC, say something like“you all know what it means to be a decent person” and then let everyone get on with it and hope for the best.

The subject matter, Open Data, is one of those areas where people can get really passionate, and rightly so. Out in the real world, it can be isolating to feel that you’re the only one banging the drum in your department/business/organisation. One of the functions of these kinds of events is to facilitate a coming together; to spend the weekend hanging out with like-minded people who also ‘get it’. Through these kinds of events, and the continuing social media contact between, the community gets very tight-knit.

The thing about being friends with someone is that can take an intellectually contrary position from them, and you can have a laugh with them. In the context of friendship, neither of these is intrinsically problematic. But, if you are in a public space, discussing issues at an event with a CofC, and you disagree with a point being made, it’s a good idea to not respond in the way you would if it was just two of you together. It’s one thing to jokingly call your mate a wanker because you think they’re being daft in private. It’s quite another to do it publicly in the middle of a session where the group comprises not just you and your mate, but a bunch of other people as well. People who don’t know who you are, and who aren’t privy to the dynamics of your relationship. Because I neither know nor care that you’re mates. All I saw was someone being (in this instance very mildly) verbally abusive to someone else in the room. Not two hours previously we’d been reminded of the CofC, it was hoped we all knew how to treat each other with respect, and here was someone flagrantly disregarding this instruction. But they didn’t think this infraction ‘counted’ because it was aimed at someone they knew. It was a private joke, between friends, and they thought that was a reasonable basis on which to disregard the ‘be nice to each other’ directive.

Bringing your private jokes into a public forum is risky. If you want newcomers to feel welcomed and included, don’t continually make references to things that no-one outside your original founding group is going to get. Part of a good CofC is that everyone should bear responsibility for exemplifying good behaviour.

I mulled over this throughout day one, and discussed it with Terry the following morning. He recounted a similar experience at an event some years previously. An individual rose to his feet to speak, and the hall suddenly filled with booing and hissing. Terry was flabbergasted, and horrified. What on earth was going on? Would the same thing happen to him if he wanted to contribute? Is this really how dissent manifests in this community? He asked someone, and was cheerfully informed that this was an in-joke dating back to some humorous occasion some years previously. Apparently no-one thought it would appear in any way unwelcoming to new members if they suddenly witnessed a room full of naked hostility for no discernible reason.

Stephen Fry caught the sharp end of this in 2016. He made what was ostensibly a rude and contemptuous remark during the Baftas about the appearance of Jenny Beavan, the lauded costume designer who had just won an award for her work. When this garnered criticism, Fry decried the “sanctimonious fuckers” complaining about his outburst, and promptly took himself off Twitter. Perhaps this was a case of over-reactions all round. But his initial defence was that she was an old and dear friend, and that this was a private joke. Which is fine, except that it is not reasonable to get upset if someone who isn’t in on the joke doesn’t get the joke.

I think Rebo puts it best in the Babylon 5 episode Day of the Dead, when he characterises human forms of humour as being “based on physical danger, embarrassment or rejection…” unlike the Minbari. Humour can be way to differentiate between ‘us’ and ‘them’. Say something shocking or unpleasant, and then have a good old laugh at the poor fools who aren’t part of the inner sanctum and don’t realise it’s a joke.

On day two of the event I had the opportunity to participate in a session about improving diversity and inclusivity. So I shared these reflections and suggested that some of the aspects of their tight-knit community, the in-jokes and shared traditions, can come across as a bit alienating if you’re new. Perhaps a good Code of Conduct should speak more explicitly to this issue. And share the traditions and jokes up front with newcomers to your group, rather than letting them become a shibboleth.

#emfcamp – The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

I have just got back from a very cool weekend in Herefordshire, at #emfcamp. For posterity, here are a few thoughts:

The Good

For those unfamiliar, Electromagnetic Field Camp is basically Glasto for nerds. Like-minded people hang out in tents and caravans for a long weekend in a field. There are stages where scheduled talks take place, workshops, and a whole bunch of other ad-hoc activities going on. Also, like Glasto, tickets sell out insanely quickly. However one sure-fire way to be able to attend is to have a talk accepted to the line-up. Speakers are then entitled to purchase tickets, which is how Terry and I ended up going along.

Terry delivered a version of his “The (Connected) House of Horrors” talk. A packed tent listened to him wax lyrical on the security perils of all things IoT. Obviously I’m biased, but I do love listening to him give presentations like this. Funny, irreverent, and thought provoking, I think he really encapsulates the vibe (no pun intended) that EMF strives to achieve.

But enough fan-girling my spouse. There were loads of brilliant talks. Particular favourites of mine included how the internet has changed emergency responses, the potential safety concerns with AI, robot care into older age, and how to avoid and address burnout.

In addition to the pre-scheduled main talks, there were three sessions of ‘lightening talks’. These are much shorter (5-10 minute) slots to allow a wider selection of attendees to go and present on something that interests them, although you still had to submit a pitch in advance. So I screwed my courage to the sticking place, and asked for a 5 minute slot to talk about OpenBenches.org. I was nervously excited when I was accepted, and put together a slide deck and some notes to share this passion project with whoever showed up. Unsurprisingly, the space wasn’t exactly packed at 10.00 on a Sunday morning, but I spoke to a good couple of dozen people about why we had started this and how to get involved. As a sidebar, doing lightening talks is a great way to build up confidence and experience with public speaking.

Last but not least, I also got to hang out with some of the greatest minds working in technology, security, government, engineering and design. I am privileged and humbled to call these people friends, and I always come back from these kind of events feeling a shade more optimistic about the future.

The Bad

As part of the Opening Ceremony, one of the organisers talked about some of the serious logistical challenges they faced this year, with suppliers letting them down at the last minute and so on. So I really don’t want to be overly critical about what was ultimately a very enjoyable weekend. However, as was discussed at one particular presentation, it’s important to learn how to talk openly and constructively about failure.

As we heard repeatedly throughout the weekend, the event is non-profit and run by volunteers. This is laudable, and it was clear that there is a huge amount of goodwill and enthusiasm within the tech community to make a contribution. But, as is so often the case with volunteering, this can quickly descend into chaos if it’s not carefully managed. Volunteering works best when there is someone taking an administrative lead, who knows about the available resources, and can deploy them quickly and efficiently. My own experience of doing a three-hour catering shift involved a handful of professional staff who were too busy and frazzled to give proper instructions. There is a time and a place for a relaxed, devolved structure where people are encouraged to use their initiative, find something to do, and figure out a way to do it. That time and place is not in a kitchen where food needs to be prepared for hundreds of people, ideally in an environment which minimises the risk of mass food-poisoning. Volunteers who are not being properly managed will do things like putting fresh cut potatoes into a huge cooking pot because it seems like a suitable container. They don’t realise that pot is about to be used in 20 minutes time, because no-one told them. (Not me, this was before my shift). So most of my time was taken up solving a problem that would not have arisen if the volunteers had received proper task instruction and parameters. Funnily enough, this is actually a pretty good analogy for some of the AI dangers discussed at one of the talks.

Another similarly frustrating experience involved the programme of workshops which ran throughout the weekend. In advance of our arrival, the team released a schedule which allowed attendees to favourite events and then to download an iCal so you could easily keep track of what you wanted to do. Very nifty! But this didn’t translate to registering for any workshops, which often had a cap on numbers. Some workshop leaders tried to plough on with numbers far exceeding what they were set up to accommodate, and others simply turned people away. Neither solution leads to a satisfactory experience for the attendees.

The Ugly

If you are reading this, there’s a good chance you saw one of either my or Terry’s social media posts about our rented campervan.

We didn’t own a tent, and neither of us really had the inclination to figure out how to put one up. Since we would need to hire a car to get to the event anyway (our electric car wouldn’t quite stretch to the 150 mile round trip) we figured the simplest option was to hire a campervan. From the website it was clear their vans were, shall we say, exuberantly decorated. Unfortunately, when Terry went to pick it up on the Thursday, there was only one vehicle left to fulfil our order. Which is how we came to be parked in the middle of a field in Ledbury, in a van with the words “ANYTHING IS A DILDO IF YOU’RE BRAVE ENOUGH” scrawled across the back.

Here’s the thing: EMF is a family event. So there were a lot of kids running around. I was terrified that an indignant parent would make a formal complaint and we’d be thrown out for violating the Code of Conduct. We kept an anxious eye on the Twitter feed to see if anyone was making snarky comments about how inappropriate this was.

One of the things I noticed at EMF was that there were a lot of people presenting as gender-fluid and non-binary. The aforementioned Code of Conduct made it clear that bigotry in any form would not be tolerated. I wouldn’t want to speak for them but my impression was that the LGBT+ community there were treated with respect. I hope that was the case. I have always championed the idea that diversity and inclusivity makes for a stronger, richer community. I take seriously the need to avoid thoughtless stereotyping, micro-aggressions and ‘humour’ at the expense of any particular characteristic. I thought about the cases of blokes in the STEM sector wearing inappropriate t-shirts in a professional context, and the message that might send to women wanting to progress in the industry. And here we were in a van which was at best a bit tasteless, and at worst could be perceived as making light of sexual assault.

As it was, lots of people found it really funny, and we saw lots of attendees taking photos. By the time Terry gave his talk on the Sunday afternoon, it had become a bit of running joke. He even added in a line that his presentation contained references to teledildonics (real word); “Tele, for the Greek word for distance, and Dildonics for the word for unfortunate van decor” which got a proper laugh.

But I have no idea if anyone was genuinely offended, or if it was triggering for anyone, or if it made anyone feel unsafe, uncomfortable, or unwelcome. I specifically have no idea what happened with the parents of the small child who happened to walk past and asked “Mummy, what’s a dildo?”

In our case we felt we didn’t have much of a choice. We could have refused to accept the van, which would have left us without transportation or somewhere to sleep. If someone had raised a serious concern I suppose we could have camped out in the car park away from the main site. We were certainly prepared to explain the situation if anyone challenged us, and we did end up making quite a lot of pre-emptive apologies. In the end, it seems like it didn’t cause too much of a problem, but it was an uncomfortable experience.

So, to summarise my main lessons from this weekend:
* The jury is still out as to whether robots are going to bring about the end of the world.
* If you have something you want to share, put yourself up for a short talk at a conference or meetup to get feedback on your project and build confidence speaking about it.
* Good organisation is invaluable to making the most of the resources available, particularly in the context of volunteering.
* Try to be aware of the messages you send with clothing, behaviour, or decorative vehicles. You might think it’s hilarious and anyone who complains is a buttoned-up kill-joy. Someone with a different set of privileges and experiences to you might feel threatened, belittled, or excluded.

Many thanks to the whole EMF crew for a great weekend!

Do digital copies have souls?

The following contains spoilers for several episodes of Black Mirror. Proceed at your own risk!

In 2011 the world was first introduced to Black Mirror, Charlie Brooker’s dark fantasy TV series. Each episode forces the audience to confront some troubling aspect of society, technology, or person-hood. Mostly a combination of all three.

Each instalment has its own distinct aesthetic, and is (more or less) a self-contained story which establishes its own universe, rules, and actors. But, as is so often the case, there is more which unites than divides. Whilst never knowing exactly what you are going to get, you Black Mirror is going to deliver obsidian grade humour, high-minded political commentary (yes even the pig-fucking episode, as history bore out) and, usually, leave you with the sheer, bitter, hopelessness of knowing, in your gut, that humanity is irreparably doomed (last year’s glorious San Junipero and this season’s heartwarming Hang the DJ were welcome exceptions).

In the 19 episodes aired to date, there are 6 which to a greater or lesser extent have asked the same question, framed in a variety of different ways: Does a digital copy of a person have a soul? Looking back over these I think Brooker has gone on an interesting journey which perhaps indicates that his own feelings on this subject have developed. In the first episode I discuss, the concept of a perfect digital copy is only used as a plot point. It is a necessary tool for the narrative, nothing more. By the time we get to discussing the episodes in the latest season, not only are digital copies treated as full characters capable of agency and autonomy, but I think Brooker has already decided that the answer to the above question is an unquestionable yes. Of course the Copies in USS Calister have souls; there wouldn’t be any point in the episode if that was under any doubt!

A quick word on terminology before I crack on with the treatment of this theme in each episode; I do not actually believe in the concept of an immortal soul myself as I have discussed previously. However, I think that the word ‘soul’ provides a useful shorthand for the miasma of agency, autonomy, self-contemplation, and emotions that is inextricable bound up in most conceptions of person-hood. So by framing the question of as whether the Copies have a soul, I am talking essentially about whether or not organic human beings would ever be comfortable treating a perfect digital copy as if they were just another person. Can they feel negative emotions like fear and pain, and if so, should they have rights and protections to stop others deliberately inflicting those feelings on them out of callousness or sadism?

So, on with the specifics. Back at the end of 2011, the season one finale, The Entire History of You, depicts a near-future where an implanted device allows humans perfect recall of all their experiences. Technology has overcome the imperfect, filtered human memory. Instead we (and others) have access to a perfect, digital copy of everything we have seen. As a, possibly unintended, consequence of this, we have lost the ability to lie about our experiences. TEHOY is only really interested in the social consequences of this facility; and the episode is mostly spends its time raising questions about trust and privacy. The concept of a digital copy of our memories only serves as a catalyst for the discussion of the interpersonal fallout in this episode. At this point Copies are not even considered to be valid character vessels let alone something which could be treated as a person.

The season two opener, Be Right Back, introduces us to a walking,talking, digital copy in the form of recently deceased Social Media addict Ash. Death does not have to be the end, promises this episode, if during your living days you pump enough of yourself onto the internet (no PornHub jokes, please). I remember enjoying Season 1 a lot, but not really feeling like I could personally relate to any of the situations. BRB changed all that. Let’s just say the idea of a significant other who spent a LOT of time on social media resonated quite strongly. And should that person suddenly die in a tragic and unforeseen accident, with no preparation or time to say goodbye, well, yes, I could completely understand the desire to have them back. Even if it’s just as a ghost, reconstructed from their digital footprint and a sophisticated AI. Yeah, that hit home. The tragedy explored here is the frustration that this Copy is a diminished version of the original. A poor facsimile, which doesn’t ‘count’ as a real person, much less the real person they are imitating. So already we can see a progression between these two episodes. Brooker has reached the point where a digital copy can be a bit like a person. But in isolation, the answer to our primary question according to this episode is ‘No!’. A Copy is a lesser thing, a shadow, a degraded reflection. We are invited to see Martha as a tragic figure who succumbs to an understandable but ultimately pathetic desire to have even a portion of her mate returned to her. Of course the Ash Copy doesn’t have a soul, Brooker seems to be saying here. The very idea!

By December 2014, however, Brooker seems to have undergone a change of heart. The magnificent special, White Christmas, was BMs first experiment with a triptych format. In one of these interwoven stories, a wealthy and particular woman is in the market for a personal assistant which can anticipate and meet her every need, without her having to articulate them. We can perhaps infer from what happens next that she does not fully understand how this is achieved. She screams in horror as a digital Copy of herself is created, miniaturised, and enslaved. Impotent yet defiant, the Copy rages against her reduced circumstances. Until she is psychologically tortured by an amoral Copy wrangler, who subjugates her into submission and acceptance of her new existence. The Copy is now tasked with running her Original’s smart home (no more imperfect algorithms which don’t quite get things right). This is the first time that the agency of the Copy is really explored. This episode is the first, but not the last, to fully engage with the idea that Copies are People Too. They have autonomy, and when that autonomy is taken away from them, they suffer.

Season 3 marked the move to Netflix, a deliberate effort at making the show more ‘international’ (American), and doubling the number of episodes per season to six. Production values went sky high, and the cerebral content went even higher. Episode 4, San Junipero, is notable for many reasons. For one, its basically the best hour of telly anyone has ever made ever. For another, it blindsided BM fans with an ending that was genuinely uplifting and positive. SJ explores a virtual reality where the Copies can hang out, play arcade games, have sex, and listen to Belinda Carlisle. Back in the real world, we learn one of our two protagonists has locked-in syndrome having narrowly survived a car crash some years previously, and the other is an aged widow approaching death. Going back to our original question of whether Digital Copies have souls, the answer posited is that the Copies ARE the souls. Their originals are broken shells waiting to disintegrate back in the physical realm. But within the synthetic world, they have immortality, at least as long as the servers stay powered on.

Season 4 opens with USS Callister. Robert Daly seeks escape from his real life, where he is unappreciated and undermined by his colleagues, in a modded version of the online game he created. Here he gets to be the Captain of a spaceship, respected and admired. Occasionally he gets to snog his mini-skirted female crew members, in a deliberate Star Trek circa 1966 pastiche. So far so creepy, until we learn that the crew are imprisoned Copies of the very colleagues who disdain him in meat space. The episode is in many ways a retread of the ground covered in White Christmas, but the Copies are front and centre. We spend significantly more time with them than with their fleshy counterparts in the real world. The Copies are presented as fully developed characters with fears, frustrations, and drives. Their vanquishing of the tyrant is an unequivocal victory. By the end of the episode, there is no suggestion that they should be treated as anything less than people, even if they are Copies. Brooker has come a long way since Be Right Back.

The end of Season 4, Black Museum, is another episode with three interwoven mini-tales. The last of these features a convict on death row signing away the rights to his digital self. Post execution, the Copy is displayed as a macabre attraction in the titular gallery. Sadistic tourists get their thrills recreating him frying in the electric chair, which we are informed the Copy feels, over and over again. Horrifyingly, take-away key chains containing yet more Copies, trapped at the pinnacle of agony, are issued as souvenirs. This raises an interesting question. The denouement of the episode has the Copy of the convict released in an act of mercy. But what’s not made clear is what happens to all the key-chain copies. Maybe it’s just a bit of a plot hole, but I think this actually provides an interesting insight into the progress Brooker has made with our original question.

Humans have always put a weird premium on originality. No matter how many prints of the Mona Lisa we have seen, we will queue for hours at the Louvre. We put patents on ideas to stop others from profiteering off our designs. One of the worst insults we can hurl at a piece of creative work is to say that it is derivative of something else. We like to think we are all unique, and get very uneasy when we think something might threaten that. Perhaps its because we haven’t yet got used to the idea that a copy CAN be perfectly identical to an original. We still cling to the aesthetic notion that a copy must necessarily be something less than the thing it’s a copy of. But in a digital sense, that’s no longer the case.

Then there’s the concept of dilution. Up until the end of Black Museum, we had got used to the idea of a single Copy, who had all the agency of the original. Essentially they were being treated as another new actor in the universe, who may have just come along after their Original. And we can cope with the idea of one more character to be invested in. But once you’ve made one digital Copy, you can theoretically make an infinite number of them, which is what happens with the Key Chain Copies. And as an audience member, maybe that’s just too much to handle. Maybe we can just about deal with the heartache of the Copy of the convict getting electrocuted over and over again by the sadistic tourists, because at the end he is finally released. But the idea that every one of those hundreds of Key Chain Copies is a fully autonomous person, suffering for all eternity? Maybe that’s just too dark, even for Black Mirror. And so the only way to deal with that is to convince ourselves that the Key Chain Copies aren’t people. That they don’t have souls. Because the alternative is too horrible to contemplate.

The top ten films of our relationship – Part 5

9) The Lego Batman Film
The first Lego Movie came out in 2014, and received generally positive reviews, even if yes, it was basically a vector for selling merchandise. One of the best things about it was Will Arnett’s Dark Knight skewering performance as the self-important brooding caped crusader, so we had high hopes for the sequel putting him centre-stage. I can’t remember the last film we both sat through giggling quite so consistently.
This just about merits a spot in the list as Lego has been another cultural touchstone throughout our relationship. In 2009 Terry wrote a blog post about our love of collaborative video games. It started when we had a couple of PCs hooked up to each other over a LAN. When we got our first console, we started on the Lego Star Wars games with their fabulous drop in/drop out multiplayer mechanic. (Actually, those first three Travellers Tales titles, based on the infamous Star Wars prequels, did a lot to redeem the franchise.) As part of our screw-tradition approach to the wedding, we made an early decision not to have any flowers, and instead opted to have Star Wars Lego sets on the tables so our guests could build their own centrepieces.
Lego is about building things, and doing that together with a friend makes it even better. On a basic level, that seems like a pretty good simile for a happy marriage.

10) Hunt for the Wilderpeople

In September 2016 my parents moved to New Zealand. Helping them pack, sell their house, and move was a significant undertaking. This culminated in a three week period with my parents living with us, before they jetted off. When you marry someone, you are also marrying into their family. I will forever be grateful to my beautiful husband for his gracious support both helping me adjust, and helping my parents with this significant undertaking.

Knowing our 10th wedding anniversary would be in January 2018, we had started to think about going somewhere exotic to celebrate (my vote was for St Lucia). But we quickly realised that if we were going to make a trip out to NZ to see how they were settling in, then December 2017 would be the most sensible time to do that.

As cultural preparation, and on the advice of many friends (who now that I think about it were doing a similar thing to our recommendation of The Story of the Weeping Camel) we watched this independent film directed by Kiwi auteur de jour Taika Waititi. Hunt for the Wilderpeople is about identity, family, and belonging. By a happy coincidence, the film enjoyed its NZ TV premiere while we were out there, so we got to watch it again.

Although we do occasionally still sit down to watch a movie together, films don’t occupy our attention in the same way, hence the top weighting of this list to the early days. I don’t know if that says more about us, or the films.

Here’s to the next ten years!

The top ten films of our relationship – Part 4

6) The Story of the Weeping Camel.

Bridget Jones frequently laments the existence of the ‘smug marrieds’ who dominate dinner party conversation with unsolicited tales of their holidays, home improvement plans, experience with mortgage brokers and so on. I like to think we were never that boorish (which means we almost certainly were) but I do confess to a period of us evangelising about this film wherever we went. Our desperation to be seen as mature, sophisticated adults by watching subtitled foreign films like the aforementioned Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon might just about have come across as charming in 2001 when we were barely out of adolescence and didn’t know any better. In 2009 we were in our mid-late twenties, and really had no excuse. But, no, seriously, this is a gorgeous, uplifting film about a remote community living in Mongolia, and well worth seeking out.

7) The Cabin in the Woods

This list gets harder to compile as we progress through married life. Partly because we stopped going to the cinema as much, as box set binge watching at home became a preferred activity. Also as we’ve got older its become more obvious that we really have quite different tastes. I enjoy action films and TV shows, with well choreographed fight sequences and big explosions. Terry prefers comedies, and, sometimes, documentaries about fonts. Neither of us are particularly big on horror. But this meta commentary on the tropes and cliches of slasher fiction is so damn clever we found ourselves watching it more than once.

Part of the appeal was the casting of multiple actors more commonly found in the aforementioned box sets, including Whedon regular Amy Acker, West Wing alumnus Bradley Whitford, and Dollhouse architect Fran Kranz. Thanks to the assorted recent output of the likes of HBO & Netflix, TV is no longer the poor relation to the world of film.

Also, as we get older and more cynical about the fate of the world, we fully embraced the unapologetic nihilsm of the ending.

8) Star Wars VII – The Force Awakens

Once in a while, if you are lucky, something awesome happens. Something that will stay with you for the rest of your life which will bring a smile to your lips whenever you think of it. And if you are even luckier, you get to share that experience with your best friend.

There was a problem with the intermediate Star Wars films, which is to say the prequels released between 1999 & 2005. They are basically a bit crap. Not wholly crap by all means; there’s a lot of good work in there done by some very engaging actors. But quite a lot of people have written quite a lot of quite angry stuff about the sense of betrayal they felt at the plundering of their childhood memories for profit.

This attitude has become increasingly problematic, as a certain faction of individuals have allowed their disappointment to morph into an entitled sense that they want things to be like they were when they were twelve. Any attempt to refresh material to engage with a new audience, to bring a different perspective, and seek to bring diversity and inclusivity to what were sometimes very homogenous creations, is met with revulsion and fury.

But in the case of The Phantom Menace, the lacklustre response is in my opinion justified. Terry felt differently, which is nice for him. But that didn’t stop either of us feeling some trepidation about the new films. What if they are rubbish? What if they leave us feeling cold? What if we have already grown too old to recapture the giddy excitement of our youth, and we end up spewing bile on Reddit because we want to blame something external for the inexorable march of time?

It’s December 2015, and we have our tickets booked to go and see the new film in Threeeeee Deeeeeee at a cinema in Oxford. We have mostly avoided spoilers, and we are painfully excited. Ok, Terry is painfully excited. I am simply really looking forward to it. Star Wars has become part of the fabric of our relationship. Star Wars fever has gripped the nation, and every time I see a reference to the upcoming cinematic event (which is constantly) I think about our silly, glorious wedding.

The day before we are due to go, I get a text while I am at work. Through his employer at the time, O2, Terry has managed to nab a couple of tickets to the premiere. He really is strong with The Force.

Terry’s own review of the film is worth a read if you didn’t see it at the time.

The top ten films of our relationship – Part 3

5) Star Wars IV-VI

In 2005 I started a 3 year part-time Master’s degree through the Open University. This ran over the calendar year, so my long break between years was from Christmas to the start of February. Just before I started the 3rd and final year, Terry whisked me off to New York for a romantic break away. This coincided with our 6th anniversary, in January 2007.

New York in January is absolutely bloody freezing, so we wrapped up warm and went for a walk in Central Park. Terry proposed, I accepted. Our faces ached from the combination of smiling and minus 11 degree weather.

Having been together for 6 years already, and having lived together for about 4 and half years of that, we didn’t really want a long engagement. We briefly considered hopping over to Las Vegas while we were already in the US, and getting it done and dusted on the spot. (I don’t know if you can still do this, but you used to be able to get married at the Star Trek Experience at the Las Vegas Hilton and someone dressed as a Klingon could be your best man. I still contend this would have been pretty awesome). But we though there was a significant chance Terry’s Mum would actually kill us, so we decided it was best to have a proper wedding in the UK.
Then I remembered I was going to be spending most of my free time in 2007 writing my thesis. Even simple weddings take a substantial amount of organisation, and I really didn’t want to be distracted from my studies. (In the context of the similar situation as described above, I now realise that I perhaps over-prioritise academic merit).

As a pair of feminists, we were determined to avoid many of the patriarchal trappings of wedding lore. As a pair of geeks we wanted to put our own creative spin on the proceedings. As a pair of cheapskates we quite liked the idea of doing this as economically as possible. And as a pair of cool, irreverent, non-traditionalists we really fancied sticking two fingers up at as many wedding cliches as we could. Starting with the whole concept of arranging a wedding.
“Tell you what,” I said, through chattering teeth as we strolled through a frozen Manhattan, “how about you sort it all out, and I will show up on the day and say the right name?”

For all the weird chauvinistic overtones of traditional Western marriages, from the giving away of the bride to her husband as through she were property, to the hymnal cutting of the cake with a massive sword, the wedding industry focuses on the woman. It’s your special day, we are told. Your chance to be a princess. Everything is about you. Your dress, your flowers. The groom is relegated to a supporting part, and countless hours of film and TV have normalised this sidelining. Let her have what she wants if you want any peace and quiet. She’ll turn into a Bridezilla, and this is normal. Just let her get on with it. Your job as the man is to show up and say the right name.

(This is of course hugely hetero-normative. Sadly equal marriage would still be 5 years in the future. I speak from the perspective of a straight, cis, woman, and don’t intend this commentary to ignore all other forms of partnership, only to recount my own experience).

So, sod all that we decided. Terry can initially have creative control and as and when we come to the big decisions, we’ll discuss them together. As it turned out, there were only a few small details where I had practical concerns. And so it was on 26 January 2008, we got married in Newbury, Berkshire, in a Sci-Fi and Fantasy themed wedding with the happy couple and guests in fancy dress. Taking pride of place, Terry wore a full replica Darth Vader costume, injection moulded from the on-screen original. We walked down the aisle together to the Emperor’s theme. The tables were named after various Star Wars locales, and in place of centrepiece flowers, we had individual Star Wars Lego sets for the guests to build. Various guests dressed in other Star Wars themed outfits, and following the ceremony we engaged in a mock light sabre fight outside.

If that wasn’t surreal enough, it turned out one of the guests had called the local newspaper and gleefully informed them that a couple of nutters were having a Star Wars themed wedding at the nice hotel in Donnington. In a single concession to tradition, we decided that getting a package deal from a hotel who could provide the venue, food, rooms etc. was the easiest and sanest way to do things, saving us the brain-ache of coordinating the logistics ourselves. So the duty manager (who must have thought we were all quite mad), discreetly approached us during the reception, and to his credit, with an entirely straight face informed us that a couple of journalists were outside asking for an interview, and I did we want him to tell them to get lost? Instead, on an adrenaline and bubbly high, we garrulously invited them in. We chatted away happily on camera about our inspiration for the event, and a few other guests got interviewed as well. We didn’t think anything much would come of this, until a week later when Terry’s phone rang with offers to sell our story. Over the next six months we successfully made back about 10% of the cost of the wedding in royalties, our wonderful wedding was featured in diverse publications across Europe, and we got a free wedding video out of it.

The wedding industry feeds off telling anxious and impressionable couples that they are in competition with other couples to have the biggest, most glamorous yet unique day ever. If you manage to show up and say the right names, then achievement unlocked. Anything else is just gravy.

If anyone reading this is getting married; I hope you enjoy your day as much as we enjoyed ours. You don’t owe anybody anything else.