Inventing my own PUBG Headcanon

I’m always looking for the hidden stories in media I read/watch/listen to/play – the background clues that point to other narratives, or unstated backstories, or whatever else. I like it when you’re given these as well (the Tomb Raider video games and the not-quite-consistent versions from the original series, “Atlantis saga”, and the modern reboot, are good examples: and intriguing in where the differences lie).

One of my favourite games to play at the moment is Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds (universally known as PUBG) which is the original “Battle Royale” multiplayer online shooter (For those who don’t know what a “Battle Royale” game is, it’s when you have a whole bunch of players in an all-against-all battle, last survivor wins – the play area shrinks over time to ensure players have to encounter one another). I don’t know if there is an official “legend” or backstory to explain what happened before you arrive in the area, but what I find fascinating is to spot the clues that seem to be left in the maps themselves and try to work it out for myself.

There are three maps available in PUBG: Erangel, Miramar and Sanhok. (Those of a similar age to me will surely remember Miramar as the name of the airbase where Top Gun pilot training takes place in the movie. The one in PUBG is evidently not the same Miramar). Erangel and Sanhok are island regions (Erangel is composed of 2 main interconnected islands, Sanhok has 3) while Miramar is a coastal region bordered to the east and west by insurmountable cliffs and to the north by a vast wall, the purpose of which is not clear (the gameplay purpose is clear – the in-world reason for it to be there is less so). They are thus all geographically isolated.

Erangel is somewhere in either Russia, or within Russia’s historical sphere of influence (think Russian Empire/Soviet Union region), and probably in the far east. Miramar is somewhere Latin American, while Sanhok is somewhere in south-east Asia. (These are all my best guesses based on language clues and placenames on the maps, btw – again, I don’t know what the official legend is for PUBG, only that I bought via Steam and play it frequently!).

On the road in Sanhok

On the road in Sanhok

Defensive Positions

The way a Battle Royale game works, is you start off with very little, and have to find weapons, ammunition, health items and upgrades around the map.

One of the first things I noticed was that weapons and ammo caches would typically be found under windows in buildings, and in defensible locations. It seemed to me that there was at least a semblance of underlying logic to the placing of items. And that piqued my interest.

It suggested that there was more to this than the “Hunger Games”-style spectator sport scenario that apparently was the original inspiration for PUBG (and therefore, the Battle Royale genre). There was a strong implication that some major event had happened here before the players in the current combat arrived: the local population had barricaded itself inside where possible, or in whatever locations they thought they could defend with firearms and improvised melee weapons (everything from frying pans and crowbars up to machetes). Some of them must have been defending as small groups, others cowered away alone in bathrooms or closets. All of them gathered what weapons they could and tried to defend against the worst.

There aren’t any corpses – the closest I came to finding some were some shop display-style mannequins left in a handful of positions in each map. (The creepiest place I found them was under water near a sandbar on the Sanhok map – half-buried in the sand and looking like they were reaching up, trying to escape. But I digress.) That doesn’t mean a lot – video game dead people often have a way of disappearing after a short while (and so it is in PUBG – killed players disappear after a while, leaving behind a crate that represents all their possessions in the game – which other players can then loot. Find a crate and you know a battle has been fought and lost in this place.)

What the mannequins most resemble (to me) is the figures used in the footage of old nuclear weapons tests. So perhaps there is some kind of history like that involved here? All three locations have military bases (plural in each case, I think). If so, maybe this is a hint that the events took place a while ago.

It turns out that that is probably not the case…

The Burning Fires

Shortly after noticing the location of the weapons and ammo caches, I noticed that there were definitely some wrecked cars that were still burning. Whatever violence had occurred in these locations, therefore took place recently enough that these fires had not had time to burn themselves out. That makes it probably within hours rather than days – maybe 48 hours maximum. That places a new complexion on everything.

Interestingly, there are many barriers made up of wrecked or burned out cars or vehicles. Others are burned out or tires slashed and abandoned. Around the maps you will typically find a variety of undamaged vehicles (motorbikes, dune buggies, jeeps, cars, trucks, even VW minibuses) presumably left over or abandoned because they weren’t needed. But the combination of fires and already burnt-out cars makes me think that the original violent episode must have lasted for several hours, at least. The fact that some people built barriers suggests that whatever happened lasted long enough to make that a worthwhile strategy – and it also implies that there were people operating collaboratively in response to it. (This point is significant because the standard game is everyone against everyone, so cooperation isn’t possible. There is a “Squad” mode where teams of up to 4 cooperate.)

In Miramar and Erangel, I also found plane crashes and in Miramar, there are still small fires burning at the crash site. (There seems to be less to burn at the Erangel crash site). So two things: whatever happened, affected the aircraft as well, and again, it took place fairly recently. Were the planes deliberately brought down, either by on board action, or by weapons fire from the ground, or did something else cause a critical failure leading to their losing power and thus crashing? If something else caused the crash, what was it?

The Military, The Crooks, The Ancients and the Graffiti

I’ve already mentioned that every map has military bases on it. Erangel has a massive military base with aircraft runways, radar and more; and also, a nuclear bunker. Sanhok has 3 camps (Alpha, bravo, Charlie) and a Bootcamp in the centre. There’s only one obviously military facility in Miramar (although I haven’t explored the whole map yet so some of the other location names might be hiding more military bases).

Other shared features are that there are archaeological sites on every map. Again, Sanhok has the most, and Miramar seems to have the fewest, but they all have them and that makes it significant. The eras covered by the sites seem to be divergent but that is mostly just guesswork from what little I know of world ancient history. Is it possible that the cause of the preceding violent event is linked to the archaeological digs? Did the archaeologists unearth an ancient evil of some kind?

Somehow I feel it sounds more like a location in Middle Earth than eastern Russia

The Ruins of Erangel

Another feature that, like the plane crashes, is shared only by Erangel and Miramar is the presence of prison complexes on these two maps. Maybe on these maps, part of the threat and the civilians’ need to create barricades, arm themselves and hide, is due to escaped prisoners. If the trigger for the event caused the security to fail and a bunch of violent criminals got out, that would clearly add to their sense of fear. But almost certainly, the cause is not linked to the prisons. (It is worth noting that the comparable facility on Sanhok appears to be a hotel for holidaymakers visiting the islands.)

One notable feature is, there were military bases in all three locations, but there’s no sign of the military personnel now. Did they evacuate before the crisis occurred, were they wiped out, or did they evacuate after the violence? On the Erangel map, there seems to be evidence that they were trying to escape the crisis: one of the “staging post” locations on the fringe of the map (and therefore rarely visited in live gameplay) has a wrecked transport plane on the runway, and the plane crash in the map is also a troop transport plane. It’s hard to tell if the plane in Miramar is a transport plane or otherwise, due to how badly it’s wrecked.

The last common feature I’ve noticed may or may not be significant. Again, it’s only found on Erangel and Miramar maps, but that’s because there’s nowhere in Sanhok where you’d expect it to be possible.

On both maps where there are stone and brick civilian dwellings, you find on some of the walls, graffiti. In Erangel, you see murals commemorating the USSR, you see slogans written in Cyrillic, and in what look to me like Chinese pictograms, and you see the occasional English-language slogan, too – most notably “Punk’s Not Dead” with the anarchism symbol of an A in a circle.

Somehow, graffiti doesn't seem quite as Tolkienian

Graffiti in Erangel

In Miramar, most of the slogans are in Spanish, but some words can be guessed at based on the common Latin root: for example, it is clear that some are celebrating, or calling for, revolution. Some seem to be advertisements or labels for the type of building it is.

The impression in both places is that there is some kind of factional divide and the slogans are marking out territory or trying to persuade people to join them. Was this a pre-existing situation, or did the faction form as part of the violence, either at the very beginning, or later? Why would they divide along anarchist or revolutionary lines on one side and something else on the other?

Theories and narratives

There are two basic possibilities presented: either this was something the military did, or it was something triggered by the archaeologists. The archaeology sites on both Erangel and Sanhok seem to be among the most heavily-armed and defended locations, which might suggest that people gathered there to defend against whatever it was that caused the violence, and in turn suggests that it wasn’t something archaeological to start with, but it’s not certain.

(Avid gamers, or horror fans, will no doubt already have thought of “zombies” as a plausible explanation, but in that case there ought to be zombies still around. There is a Zombies mode available in PUBG, which I haven’t tried, but having a separate Zombies mode implies that zombies are not the main story, in the same way that having a zombies DLC for Red Dead Redemption doesn’t mean RDR is about zombies.)

If the military did it, the basic theory would have to be that it was some kind of weapons test that went horribly wrong (or possibly, horribly right).

The best explanation for all the observed facts that I can find is something like this: the military released a new kind of chemical weapon that was designed to be psychoactive and debilitate an enemy’s ability to fight by inducing fear or paranoia in the enemy. This could also be used as a means to control internal populations and put down uprisings. Unfortunately, it was a lot more powerful than they imagined, and affected some people differently than others: some became violent and resisting of all authority (perhaps because that was the way their paranoia worked) and others still became cold, calculating killers. The release of the psychoactive agent would have taken place at a particular location, meaning some people were affected before others.

A narrative or sequence of events suggests itself from this.

The military decide to test the effect of their new chemical weapon on an unsuspecting population.In Miramar and Erangel, the prison looks like an obvious place to target. On Sanhok, meanwhile, the holidaymakers at the hotel look like useful guineapigs.

Unfortunately, on Sanhok and Erangel, the targets are close to other facilities: Erangel’s power station is near to the prison, to the south. Similarly, the Bootcamp military facility on Sanhok is a short distance to the southwest. The agent drifts into these facilities. In the prison complexes, guards as well as inmates are affected by the agent, causing chaos in the security systems. On Erangel, the power station shuts down as the workers there stop doing their jobs and fight each other, or cower in fear. This, in turn, cuts off the power to the security systems at the prison, allowing prisoners to escape. Normally, a backup generator would cut in, but because the staff are also driven to fear, paranoia or violence by the agent, that generator is out of order.

On Sanhok, the army recruits in training at the bootcamp (and their instructors) are suddenly overcome with paranoia. Those with weapons loaded with live rounds slaughter the rest as they become convinced that everyone around them is plotting against them. They then scatter, and head outwards – some towards the hotel, others into nearby villages.

On Miramar and Erangel, the prisoners (and possibly some of the guards) seize the weapons intended for the guards to defend against a prison riot, and tey, too, start moving into the nearby population, convinced everyone they see is somehow plotting to kill them and must be eliminated to prevent it.

Meanwhile, the cloud of psychoactive agent is slowly spreading over a wider and wider area. The military had expected that by now the concentration would be too low to have much of an effect, but this is rapidly proving to be false: it is much more powerful than they had imagined, and more and more people are becoming paranoid and either fearful or violent as a result. And around about this point, the general population becomes aware of the rampaging violence and (in Miramar and Erangel) the prisoners on the loose.

Initially, those not yet affected by the agent band together to defend themselves, building barricades or locking themselves in their homes. A mass panic may well have led large numbers of civilians to flee to the military facilities, either seeking protection or seeking weapons to defend themselves. In some cases, they evidently succeeded – some of the weaponry found in the civilian homes must have come from the military bases (in Miramar, it is likely that some of them come from private contractors guarding mining and oil drilling facilities). It is possible that the base commander on Erangel ordered an evacuation. The main military base on the Erangel map is far too big to be evacuated on one flight, so the plane crash, I’m going to say, was the last flight out. The civilians had to tear through the fence with whatever they had available.

By now, the cloud is thinner but covers large areas of the map. Those who have formed teams to barricade themselves in houses now start to eye one another with suspicion, too. Guns and ammo, and other equipment looted from the military bases, are spread through the population. Anyone moving around in a vehicle is an easy target and they get shot up heavily, the cars sometimes catching fire. The few remaining people unaffected by the agent look for anything that seems like a defensible position: the ruins and ancient structures investigated by archaeologists seem like good places, as does the nuclear bunker in Erangel.

But there is nothing to protect against the spreading cloud of paranoia-agent and inevitably these locations are affected too. People turn on one another, pre-emptive sneak attacks by some “confirming” the paranoid suspicions of the others.

Meanwhile, the last planes trying to evacuate personnel from the facilities threatened or already falling to these attacks, fare no better. Everyone on the planes has already been affected by the agent and, as it turns out, it is long-lasting and the effects are slow to dissipate. The evacuation plane on both Erangel and Miramar, is brought down by fighting breaking out in the cockpit, one pilot convinced that the other is going to kill them. In each case, the plane comes down heavily into the ground, with no survivors.

In each case, word gets out somehow about the disaster. Within hours, a team of close to 100 investigators is dispatched to unravel what happened, parachuting into various points across the island.

Parachuting into Miramar

As they come closer to the ground, however, it appears that the agent is still hanging in a miasma over the entire landscape, and every individual suddenly falls victim to the same paranoia or violent urges as the population before them. Their comrades from the parachute jump are now viewed solely as enemies, to be evaded or destroyed. I, as a player of the game, am one of those investigators.

Conclusions

This, as I said at the start, is not any kind of official storyline. It’s the storyline that I developed by looking at the evidence presented by the design of the game and the way it’s played. It also reflects the way it feels (to me) when I play the game: the emotional impact that the Battle Royale mechanic inspires. I do start to feel an almost paranoid distrust of everything. Just the sound of footsteps on wooden boards can inspire dread or animosity, either hoping not to be located, or preparing to ambush the enemy. Where “enemy” means literally any other player.

In real life, I look at strangers on the bus or out in the street and look at what they’re doing, how they move, and imagine backstories for them. It doesn’t have to be true, or real. It just has to hang together so that whatever I’ve observed of them is all explained or extrapolated into a coherent whole. I don’t know if it helps me be any better at understanding humans, but it definitely helps me to create stories.

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Labour Conference, “People’s Vote” and the lack of alternatives

So, Labour Party Conference is under way now, and all sorts of controversy whirls around still. One of the biggest is the People’s Vote question.

For those who don’t know, the “People’s Vote” campaign is the latest incarnation of the idea that the Government should hold a second referendum on the question of leaving the EU, this time focussing on the terms of the deal. We’ve already established that Parliament will have a say over the final deal, on whether to accept or reject it. After winning that, the Remain side have moved on to this new campaign for a second referendum and putting the same question to the public as well.

My local CLP held a debate at our last meeting about whether or not we would lend our support to the Conference motion calling for the People’s Vote “with an option to cancel Brexit and remain in the EU”. The constituency I live in is one of the strongest “Remain” voting areas, and there were very few people at the meeting who felt that Brexit is a good thing. The speaker Against the motion did so not on the basis that we should leave the EU, but rather, that if we want to Remain, then using a referendum to try to get the result we want is probably a bad tactic and likely to backfire.

I agreed with every point he made, and yet I voted For the motion.

The points I remember were roughly these:

  • There is no guarantee that you’ll get the result you want, and if it goes the “wrong” way, it cuts off your grounds to contest the issue again because of the clear Yes/No outcome. It’s an all-or-nothing gamble, and you might end up with nothing.
  • Referendums are not fought on the basis of rational debate, but at the lowest level of emotive appeal to sentiment. That’s what we saw in 2016, and that’s what we would get again. It would give yet another huge platform to the racists and bigots to broadcast their poisonous ideology.
  • Following on from that – we could expect to see the same huge spike in violence against minorities. Last time, an MP got murdered for being part of the Remain campaign.
  • It would be better to fight and win an election on a “Remain” manifesto.

For all these reasons, I am against the idea of another referendum.

Nevertheless, I supported the motion, and our CLP sent its delegates to Liverpool with the instructions to support the People’s Vote motion in whatever form it finally appears at Conference.

The reason is that, even though I feel there are better moves tactically, time is running out on the Brexit negotiations: Article 50 deadline is months away. And there is currently no alternative plan to get the Labour Party officially to adopt a pro-Remain stance that would be the basis of the manifesto Brexit position. Indeed, the speaker For the motion said that he didn’t think Labour’s support for the People’s Vote would actually lead to a referendum necessarily, but thought it would give the leadership the leverage to adopt a more explicitly pro-Remain position for the next election.

This lack of an alternative option frustrates me. I feel the People’s Vote is tactically the wrong move, but the Remain side have managed to make People’s Vote a proxy for their position in a way that forces me to choose between a bad option and no option (Hmm, now what does THAT remind me of? *cough*Chequers*cough*) – either I support People’s Vote or somehow I am aligned with the very hardest of hardline Brexiteers. (Again, that is the same problem they’ve had with understanding Corbyn’s position and situation.)

I would much prefer to have had Conference able to debate not just the question of whether to support a Remain position, but also how to do so – whether to go for the referendum, or fight on a manifesto commitment to rescind Article 50, or to renegotiate the timetable as well as the deal on which Withdraw took place.

The motion put forwards by the Remain campaign for CLPs to send to Conference did not include that option. They pinned everything on the idea that if you wanted to remain in the EU, then you would want to have it decided by “the people”. I get why the People’s Vote makes for good rhetoric and “visuals” (as I believe the term is) but at the same time, pinning everything on that feels like such a bad move.

Remainers have been extraordinarily weak, tactically. In the same way that they criticise the Tories for initiating Brexit without any kind of backup plan, they’ve chosen to attack anyone trying to come up with a backup plan for when their own campaign fails and seized on any and all opportunities to denigrate those who voted Leave the first time.

Corbyn was the one who convinced me to vote Remain, because he didn’t argue on the standard neo-liberal “Project Fear” lines of the disaster leaving would be; he started by acknowledging the issues his audience (leftwingers) have with the EU, and then explaining why voting Leave would, at present, be a bad tactic for dealing with that.

The rest of the Remain side were spectacularly unconvincing and have remained so. The strongest argument for Remain is the people who want Brexit and who are so badly mismanaging it!

It is likely the leadership will follow the wishes of the Party as expressed at Conference. The Mirror today reports that Corbyn says he will support People’s Vote if that is what the membership, through their representatives at Conference, choose. I hope we do get a Remain position into Party policy at Conference, I just wish it didn’t have to be this one.

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New gear, Self-doubt, Mid-life “crisis”, and Depression

Today I got a huge bit of musical kit delivered.

It’s a 300W Ashdown bass amp.

I’m 40 years old, and every time I buy myself something awesome I find myself being struck by the question, “Am I having a mid-life crisis? Is that all this buying stuff is really about?”

After all, it feels like a cliche that middle-aged men (I know I identify as nonbinary but I am MAAB and I have absorbed a lot of the pressures to be masculine/male) buy electric guitars and stuff to cling to their youth when they were hot rockers and shit.

I have been buying musical kit recently because I have, at last, had some disposable income and I can afford stuff that due to unemployment or low wages I simply haven’t had the chance to have before. In that sense, this might be instead reclaiming a youth that I never really had the chance to have. I’ve come back from depression and I can actually enjoy what I have now.

I also find that, really, the only things I’ve always done and kept doing are my music and my writing. So maybe I should try to make something of that.

Which brings me to the other standard element of the “mid-life crisis” – it is generally described as coming from a realisation that time is running out and taking stock of all the things that one hasn’t yet achieved with one’s life, all the missed opportunities, the failed dreams of youth, and so on: an attempt, therefore, to make something that matters and to leave a mark, to say “I was here”.

If that’s what a midlife crisis is about, then honestly, I had mine around a decade ago and am well past it.

And I’ve done shit many people never get around to doing. I wrote a whole novel, and self-published it (and maybe one day I’ll figure out how to market properly). I’ve been to some of the classic sporting venues in England, including Lord’s cricket ground and Wembley Stadium, which were some great experiences – and seen more grassroots versions of those sports, and others.

More significantly, I don’t have the sense of time running out. Yes, time may be limited, but for me, all the time still to come is a bonus.

So it may not be a mid-life crisis, but the “symptoms” do look similar.

The thing is, depression robbed me of a lot of the pleasure and chances that would have been available when I was that age. I generally calculate that depression took about 10 years of my life. And that thing about every day to come being a bonus? That’s because of depression, too. Every day I am not dead yet is another day I have won back from that bastard gloom. Because there were days when it wasn’t clear whether I would live through it.

So, I’ve got good at my music – or at least, good enough. I’ve got better at writing, and here I am, trying to make something from it.

This isn’t about reliving the past, it’s celebrating and claiming the future.

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You “know” more than you think when it comes to “Write What You Know”

The thing about being a writer is that you need experiences to fuel the writing.

So today I am thinking about some of the curious things I’ve done this summer and how they overlap and provide texture for things that I could conceivably write about. I can also think about other things I’ve done here and there, but this is just the musings of someone who needs to write a blog post and has some “Hmm, that was interesting” sort of thoughts about recent stuff.

I have never been afraid to make stuff up that I don’t know, when it comes to writing. Sometimes what I produce is a load of bollocks, but I’m pretty sure a lot of writers do the same and with the same result.

But sometimes, I find I have some kind of experience that I could call on to add a sense of the reality i’ve encountered. And sometimes, I find that the real experience turns out to be nothing like I would have imagined and written about, had I tried to produce the scene.

I’m involved with my local Constituency Labour Party and there are meetings and discussions and so on. In my experience, these are very different from what you might anticipate. Do you imagine a rowdy, intense pit of ideologues haranguing one another, lots of backroom manoeuvrings and conflicts over this or that issue or budget or whatever? Some kind of lecture theatre or headquarters where we sit in rows? We certainly have many people turn up who are passionate and firm about their beliefs and politics, but the rest is pretty much nonsense.

It resembles more closely, another type of meeting and situation I have experienced this summer. The “team huddle” at work. Which, again, is something very different from what I would have imagined before I experienced it. How much this comes from television and overly intense emotional portrayals used there, I don’t know. But in reality, it’s a circle, there s the team leader but everyone has a turn introducing themselves and what they’re currently working on. People discuss the latest issues affecting the work of the team, how we’re progressing, and so on.

The difference between the Labour Party meetings is that we usually have some expert speaker to give a talk on a relevant issue to their expertise. That doesn’t happen at a “huddle” so much (although it did on one occasion, now I think of it).

So I think of how the sort of archetype of a meeting can be extracted from such parallels, and turned into writing about a council of Galactic war, or a committee debating a future alliance of the dwarves and humans, or a council of the leaders on a pirate ship, or any number of fantastical, historical, or mundane situation where you have a group of people sitting down to organise themselves around a set of ongoing tasks and criteria.

This is the essence (and the flaw) of the advice to “Write what you know”. It sounds very restrictive. There is only so much one person can do in one lifetime (although some have done a great deal of varied things). Some things are very hard to do well unless you make a direct effort to learn them (or have directly lived them).

But on the other hand, so many experiences we have can be distilled and made the basis of an imagined reality that is probably closer to the truth than the event we would imagine “cold”. Instead of writing something made-up, you can take something you do know (like a team huddle) and extrapolate it into something you don’t (a Party meeting, or a Galactic war council). Because you know those things, in the different form.

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Doldrumming

I have the inevitable curse of a blogger – a dearth of inspiration for things to blog about.

I could write about something political but a) that’s not the main focus of this blog, or isn’t supposed to be; b) everything is so depressing, and c) most of those topics are ones I’ve done before and don’t have anything to add to what I said before (except maybe to update with latest events, but nothing actually new as such).

I haven’t got any new short-short stories to share, much as I would like to. I haven’t even been making any kind of spectacular progress in my main projects, just plodding on and fighting through the lack of inspiration there, too. (It does help to have a schedule to stick to for writing, when it comes to bigger stories – you write, and if it’s shite you fix it in the edit later, but you get words on the page.)

I don’t have any huge revelations or any particular wit and wisdom to write about in terms of personal development (whether in writing, or more broadly such as sex life – which as empty as ever) – and I don’t have any particular negatives to discuss either. My temp job finished early but life goes on and, in theory, it’s a positive in that I have more time for creativity again, at least until I get picked for another one or get a Proper Job.

I do have ideas for posts but they are in need of more research or more reflection or both before I commit thoughts to type, and type to blogpost.

So for a while I have not blogged when I planned to, and let it slide. I have sat in the doldrums and wallowed. Which turned into something to write about, even if I have not really said very much. but at least I have said that I have not said very much.

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Office design, and the theoretical person I am not like

In my last post, where I had a bit of a rant about badly-designed hand driers, I promised a bit more about the new office building where my current temp placement has me toiling away.

This is so very obviously an office building that has been designed around a Theory About People.

So many open-plan offices are a bit higgledy-piggledy – yes, the desks are in neat rows, but the storage units, photocopier/printer/scanners, pinboards and whiteboards, the coffee machines and water coolers and what-have-you, are all squeezed in anywhere they can be made to fit and it is pleasingly random in that there is clearly no ulterior motive behind it.

This office, being a new build and built specifically for the purpose, is not like that. Yes, it is open plan, and yes, the desks are all in neat rows around the place. But everything else has been deliberately placed, and it feels to me like these little island “hubs” of the copiers and refreshments in the room are about some Theory of how to make People Interact and thus be a Better Workforce (happier more efficient, I don’t know – but somehow “better”). They feel like rather blatant “nudge theory” inducements to some form of behaviour that is probably not like me and not in accord with what makes me happy.

As well as having a Theory, this office has been Designed. The weirdly space-age angular Design of the reception desk is the first hint that someone really wants to win an Award for their design, and at times the design is actually pretty useful (the combined boiling water/chilled water drinking water fountain is an excellent innovation) but that feels incidental to the Design. the Design has taken precedence over function and usability.

Guess where I found this to be most blatantly obvious?

That’s right, with the hand driers.

These hand driers are so painfully obviously a part of a Design Ethos and I guarantee the designer did not think about what would actually be useful about where and how they were placed.

What they’ve done is create wall units of two wash basins, with a hand drier in between them.

This means that if one person is drying their hands, there is NO ROOM either side for anyone else to use the wash basins!

What’s more, the hand driers are placed on the underside of the washbasin mirrors so that you can ONLY use them to dry your hands. In my last piece, I explained how this is bad design, since hands are not the only things you might want to wash or rinse quickly in between doing your job, and rinsing the face is actually quite a common thing for people to do.

Especially on a hot day like the ones we’ve had recently.

This is a building designed by people who have fixed ideas about how people function and the functions people carry out. It isn’t all bad. Some of the comfort touches and outside picnic gardens and such are really quite pleasant and helpful. Some things (like the drinks fountain), while obviously the design came first, nevertheless have produced something genuinely useful. But it still feels like people are being treated as theoretical entities rather than the wondrously varied and chaotic things I know them to be.

I know I struggle to get to grips with People, and the various theories aI have about them as the best-guess heuristics and algorithms often end up being out of sync with actual behaviours. But I don’t try to build a whole building around my theories either.

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[RANT] Giving hand driers the hairdrier treatment

I’m in the mood to have a rant. The topic is hand driers.

I strongly feel that having a hand drier in a public loo that can only dry your hands is not fit for purpose.

That may seem like an odd statement, but many times when I go into the loo I don’t just want to wash my hands. I want to freshen up by washing my face as well (especially if, as was the case last week, the weather is hot and I am sweaty). It’s almost instinctive to do so, in fact. So now, I’m left with a very wet face and – a drier that only dries hands!

Of course, most driers don’t even dry hands very well.

There’s the “wrist drier” where you have to stick your hand so far under it to get the sensor to see you that the hot air misses your hands entirely and blows on your wrists instead.

And, like a wrist drier, the fingertip drier – where the air is directed so far back from the sesnsor it only catches your fingertips.

Or the incredibly feeble waft of warmish air I think of as the “asthmatic hamster” where all the drying effect seems to come from the friction heat as you frantically rub your hands together under the soothing zephyr.

At my last workplace, they had the BEST drier I have ever encountered. As well as a regular hand drier, next to it on the wall was mounted a drier that had a handheld drier on the end of a concertina’d hose that you could lift off the stand and direct wherever you wanted. I loved that drier! It was absolutely perfect for drying my face after a quick rinse.

But I am always grateful to find paper towels provided. Much more efficient than the dreadful examples outlined above, and much more versatile.

This rant brought to you by a design “feature” of my NEW workplace, about which I was planning to say more, but I just wanted to get this drier thing off my chest (you may or may not recognise – this has been bubbling under for a while now…)

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A “bad-faith” accusation is no excuse not to examine: Leftwing Labour and “anti-Semitism”

Another year, another accusation of anti-Semitism within the Labour Party.

By this stage, the “usual suspects” have made it painfully obvious that the motivation is a wish to discredit and smear Jeremy Corbyn by any means available. They might as well say it openly that if they cannot be in control of the Party, they would rather see it torn to shreds and the Tories in power in perpetuity.

It makes just about any claims they make, whether about anti-Semitism or anything else, impossible to take seriously. Even the BBC’s latest report on it (and their reporting has rarely been even-handed towards Corbyn) admitted that actually, this is not about omitting elements of the IHRA “standard” definition of anti-Semitism, because the BBC report quotes the passages in the Labour Party’s policy that encode those elements – all that has happened (as the Labour Party has pointed out) is that the examples have been reworded to make them clearer and more easily enforced within a Party disciplinary structure.

So there is a distinct scent of bullshit around this whole manufactured “controversy”.

All the same, just because we know that these accusations are not being made in good faith, and can see as much from the architects’ behaviour in the past and currently, as a Labour Party activist I do feel as though we should take a careful look at the question of anti-Semitism and whether it exists in any organised or tolerated fashion in our Party.

The first thing to note is that I am pretty certain that there are no groups within the Labour Party who wish to see the extermination of Jews or their expulsion from society.

It feels important to say that because there clearly are groups in British (and US, and European) society who have that as a stated goal, and who are feeling more and more emboldened to say as much and to openly demonstrate their desire to destroy all those they deem outsiders and “unworthy”. There are honest-to-God neo-Nazis and Fascists out there now, and we can’t ignore that. (And it might be worth considering that centrists and the Right are quite happy to “both sides” them and give them legitimacy).

Equally, it is not enough to say “At least we’re not honest-to-God Nazis” because that’s one heck of a low bar you’re setting yourself there.

I believe there is relatively little targeted anti-Semitic feeling in the Labour Party. No one hates Jews “on principle”. But that is not enough still. How many racist tropes and sentiments begin, “I’ve nothing against Blacks, but…”?

The fact is, a lot of young hotheads (and much older hotheads) joined or rejoined Labour with the Corbyn-led resurgence of the Left. I know what they’re like, because back in the day, I was one of them. It’s not 100% clear that I am not still, ultimately, a hothead.

And a lot of them have clear “Leftist” ideas about, for example, Palestine, Israel, the targeting of Muslims and “brown people”, and so on. Not all of them are articulate in expressing their views, and quite a lot of them have not really thought through the implications of some of their beliefs or ideas. And they are hotheads, meaning they have a sometimes antagonistic or confrontational mode to their language. Again, I know this because I was one.

Which is to say that, actually, I think the Left in general, and specifically “Momentum” as a group within the Labour Party, does have a problem with anti-Semitic tropes or belief structures that, while not specifically targeting “Jews”, nevertheless present Jewishness as “other” and “suspect”.

It is possible to criticise Israel over its policies concerning Palestine without falling into these tropes, which generally arise from lazy thinking and a lack of awareness of the history of anti-Jewish stereotypes and history. The leftwing Jewish organisation Jewdas (who gained fame when Corbyn visited them for a Seder ceremony, and as a result suddenly they were labelled anti-Semitic…) created a leaflet (only available as .jpg files as far as I can find, no plain text version exists to link to) about “How to criticise Israel without being anti-semitic”, for example. I think the Labour Party can do a lot better at educating and enlightening our members about the harmful tropes and associations, and the thousands of years of imagery and stereotypes that have been used to direct harm towards Jewish people. (For instance, there’s the tropes that I didn’t recognise until I saw someone point them out, in the portrayal of the Ferengi in Star Trek).

I don’t think the calls for a specific set of words are any help at all in the endeavour of undoing anti-Semitic tropes and beliefs in the Labour Party, and I don’t think it is helpful calling for loads of people to be banned for harbouring them unconsciously or subconsciously and thereby repeating them without understanding where they come from. (The motive behind such calls is to try to get rid of the “Hard Left” so that the Blair-ish mob can get “their” Party back and put the membership back in our box…)

So while there is not a “big” problem, we can still use criticism to take a hard look at ourselves on the Left of the Labour Party and say “Actually, can we do better?” and use the answers we find to help us do so.

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SEXTOY REVIEW: These nipple toys really suck (in a GOOD way)

[Apologies for the clichéd title but my brain was lazy!]

Once upon a time, this was meant to be a blog about writing, and kinky sex, and writing about kinky sex, and sexing about kinky writing (Wait, is that right? Seems legit, I’ll go with it.) I am bad at compartmentalising so it also became about the politics of kink, gender, sex and writing (because all censorship affects writing in one way or another). And then more generally about politics, and life, and, well, anything, really. So yeah, I fail at staying on-brand with just about anything.

But today, I am able to get back to those roots! Hurrah!

My favourite kinky sextoy store in Cambridge closed a few years back (boo!) so the main ones seem to be the big brand names Private and Ann Summers (yes, I know). These aren’t great for kink stuff, although Private is better, and has a range of items that look like they might do the job. (I’ve also bought enema equipment there that hasn’t caused me any problems in the time I’ve had it). I should also add I’ve bought insertibles for my own use at Ann Summers and for that sort of thing, they do have some decent-quality items.

Anyway, I recently went to the Private store to have a browse in their media section (mainly hoping to find written-word, but they didn’t stock any print, only glossy photo magazines) and noticed an item called “Nipple Suckers” and these intrigued me, because (as I wrote for Girl On The Net a few years ago) when it comes to nipple play with clamps and clothes pegs and the like, my body has sadly disappointed me in its performance.

So these toys offering a “soft touch” caught my interest and, for £10, I bought a pair to try. Which I have been doing for the past 2 weeks or so.

What they are:

Nipple Suckers in their box

As the name implies, these are small suction cups that are designed to fit over your nipples. The model from Black Velvets is made of silicone, and comes with ring attachments that would make anchors for lightweight chains to clip to, or for slipping a finger through.

The instructions on the back imply they are primarily intended for the purpose of making the nipples more prominent and erect. You squeeze the cup, place the cup over the nipple to create a vacuum effect, then use the ring to pull the cup away – instant erect nipple! And I can confirm that when used for this purpose, it has that effect on a male (or male-typical) body such as the one I live in. (The artwork on the box implies it is intended for use on female-typical bodies – I’m still struggling for properly trans/NB inclusive language to express what I mean in a shorthand way. Basically, people with boobs rather than moobs?)

But I was more interested in them as an experience in their own right, a much softer version of the clamps and clothes pegs that my poor tits seem no longer able to cope with.

For this, I reasoned that I probably wanted to up the ante when it came to the vacuum effect. The first thing I thought of was what you did as a child to make a suction cap work better – which is, you licked it, so the fluid would provide a more complete seal around the lip.

So, I did that with these toys, licking around the base – which was its own form of sensual play. The relatively tight opening and the stiffness made it a bit like giving cunnilingus to a robot or something, which was a pleasing concept to me, anyway. So I used my tongue to get the suction cups nice and wet for me.

A bit of experimentation revealed that in order to get the cups to stay in place and hold their own weight, I needed to give the cups between 5 and 10 squeezes to create a powerful enough vacuum.

What does it feel like?

Well, as it turns out, when used in the way I described above, it feels quite a lot like a very very soft version of wearing a nipple clamp or clothes peg. Which is basically, what I was aiming for. Result! It has the added bonus that because there is no pressure on the nipple, presumably blood flow is not restricted in the same way. (Although I am not an expert on how these things work, so don’t take unnecessary risks!)

The pinching effect is felt less on the nipple itself, and more around the base and the areola – the points where the cup meets the skin and the air pressure from outside pushes in. The nipple feels more of a tugging sensation as the stuff inside your body tries to fill the space left by all the air you squeezed out of the cup.

The best bit, though, is that you have those metal rings to play with. Not having anyone else to experiment with, I had to do my own self-Domming here by pulling the cups this way and that, trying out a chain attachment, and so on.

The chain I used was possibly too heavy for the cups, but I found if I took most of the weight with the hand holding the other end then the cup would hold it fine, and the problem was the perpendicular force inducing uneven pressures around the base that caused the suction to fail. And when used with just a finger hold on the ring, the cups would take a decent amount of force tugged in various directions.

The upshot of this is that they make a great toy for “control” based play – with a Dominant attaching lightweight chains or using finger holds to direct the movement of the wearer and using the pull and pressure on the nipples and areolae to steer them and give instruction. It couldn’t be used to compel or “force” a Submissive to go in a certain direction, the way the harsher pain from nipple clamps can (because resisting the tug is too painful, so following is necessary – and bearing in mind all the usual caveats about informed consent, RACK, and the ability to withdraw consent at any time through safewords or other means). If a sub stood their ground, the suction cups would pretty quickly give way – far sooner than clamps would under the same conditions, and with far less pain. But in the right Submissive headspace, it would be a very direct, very sensual and sensuous, means of establishing and communicating that control. Even just playing with myself and trying out these angles and pressures, I felt how easily I could slip into that “controlled, obedient” headspace under that sort of stimuli.

”They’re suction cups – so what about cupping?”

After experimenting with the D/s and ultra-mild SM uses, I wondered about other ways to use them. “Cupping” in this context is, I believe, the term for using glass cups and heating the air inside them, placing them on the skin and letting the air cool, creating a suction or vacuum effect as the gas volume decreases. Obviously, I’m not going to muck about with heating stuff in these things – I don’t know how they’d behave under those conditions and not keen to try that experiment! But they are designed to produce a suction effect and I thought it might be worth seeing if I could get an effect that was anything similar to what I’d seen in pictures shown me by exes who’d experimented with cupping as the bottom.

And the answer is, yes I could!

Using the same principle established for using them as surrogate nipple clamps, I placed a suction cup on a bare patch of skin on my torso and gave it several squeezes. It stayed in place, just like when I used it over my nipple.

The sensation was curious, and to be able to report it accurately, I am wearing one in the same way right now so I can describe what I’m feeling to you, dear reader. It feels like dozens of pinpricks, but as if they’re coming from under the skin and pricking outwards. As time goes by, I get more used to it, or the effect becomes lesser, though I can revive it if I tug the cup this way or that and increase the pressure on the outside ring where the cup meets the skin. I can also make it more pronounced if I tug on the ring outwards, pulling on my flesh with the suction effect.

It is, again, a very sensuous form of discomfort that definitely appeals to my masochist senses without being a full-on pain stimulus.

Removing the cup with a squeeze and pull to break the seal, I find I am left with a mark that looks very similar to what I’ve seen in photos of cupping – a raised, reddened patch in the centre, surrounded with a whiter, almost bruised, ring where the cup (glass or silicone) pressed against the skin. The last time I experimented with this use for the “nipple suckers” the rings lasted for a couple of days.

I can imagine how, lying on my front with someone else using these on my back and buttocks, could be a really intense form of sensation play, especially with the mystery of where they would place them next – or being blindfolded and having them used on your front – or blindfolded and standing, so they could place one anywhere. (Being made to provide your own saliva as the suction wetness seal for any of these types of play would be awesome, too.)

So was it worth it?

I have no idea what the going rate for nipple suction toys like these would be, so I can’t say whether I was ripped off or not on that score. What I can say is that there aren’t many purpose-made sex toys for £10 and under that are worth the box they come in when you can explore the options that household objects present.

And the fact is, these particular “suckers” do the job they’re designed to do, and offer some really fun and creative opportunities for D/s, mild SM, and sensation play, that mean I would very happily use them on a partner or have a partner use them on me, to enhance and excite a session. So overall I’m pretty happy with the happenstance that led me to buy them.

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Life at 40: Middle-aged and Not Dead Yet

CONTENT NOTE: Suicidal ideation; mention of BDSM

So last weekend was a big family party to celebrate my 40th birthday. My birthday was not actually this weekend, but close enough to make tacking on a party to a previously scheduled gathering seem like a good idea so we did it that way.

But, more-or-less officially, I am 40. Which, when I was growing up, seemed to be the point at which one became “middle-aged” and that makes this feel like a basis for a blog post about how I’m processing this event and the idea of myself as middle-aged now.

My first thought is simple.

I’ve made it this far, and I’m Not Dead Yet.

This is a pretty big deal for me. I don’t honestly know for sure quite how I did it but I somehow managed to not die for a whole 40 years. FUCK YOU, Depression. FUCK YOU, Anxiety. FUCK YOU Social awkwardness and anxiety. FUCK YOU to the people who have expressed a wish I die (usually, by my own hand) for being – male and into BDSM; for being on the trans spectrum; for being bisexual; for being different. FUCK THE LOT OF YOU.

I’m 40. I’m Not Dead Yet, despite the moments when I wished I was and thought seriously about how I could end it all. I’m Not Dead Yet despite the injuries and accidents and fuck-ups and clumsiness and “OMG just think what could have happened there”. I’m Not Dead Yet despite people telling me thats with my diet I would be by now. Somehow, by some feat of luck or skill or I don’t know what, I have managed to get this far and be Not Dead Yet.

Who could have a midlife crisis when they think in those terms? Not me! I had my “OMG what’s become of my life” moments ages ago. Screw that and screw the depression that fuelled it. I’m 40 and just the simple fact that I got to be is a huge fucking triumph.

I’ve actually done some shit with my life

Looking back over the memories and achievements that came in between all the not being dead that I managed to do, I can fairly and honestly say that I have done some decent shit.

I wrote a whole fucking novel (which is to say, a whole novel about faith, feminism and kinky fucks) – it’s available on Smashwords (and for the rest of July, it’s even half price so go grab yourself a bargain!) How many people can honestly say that they started a project like that and finished it?

I have been into music of all kinds for as long as I can remember and I have a collection of guitars and other stringed instruments that many would assume was some kind of midlife crisis compensating thing (I haven’t totally given up on being a rock star yet!) but I use them and I record my own songs and compositions. Some of them are really quite good.

I’ve auditioned for Fame Academy back when that was a thing, and more recently I auditioned to appear on The Voice. Those were nerve-racking experiences but I was one of those who actually had the guts to go along and stand in a room in front of casting directors and judges (and in the case of Fame Academy, an actual honest-to-goodness TV camera) and sing.

I was at the May Day 2001 protest where “kettling” began, and helped organise the legal challenge to the tactic. As a child I was part of CND protest marches, and I’ve campaigned and written to my MP on BDSM, sex, gender and LGBT issues. I’m an activist in my local CLP. I’ve protested against Tory Austerity measures and against Tony Blair introducing university tuition fees. I’ve got involved in the political life of my community.

I’ve seen cricket at Lord’s and Headingley; football at grounds from non-league all the way up to Premiership standard, and seen a Women’s FA Cup Final at Wembley – and England Women play Ukraine Women in a Euro qualifier. I’ve even played cricket in a Sunday league and tried out for a Sunday league pub football team. I even wrote reports for my local newspaper about the matches the local women’s football team played, and got them published. I ran the 800m race at my secondary school’s sports day and finished last (apart from the one who dropped out after a lap).

I’ve been on Dartmoor and the North Yorkshire Moors, and the Yorkshire Dales. I’ve been on the South Downs, and Beachy Head. I’ve been to Lynton and Lynmouth on the Exmoor coastline, and to the Dorset coast as well. I’ve been all the way to Solfest up near the Solway Firth. I’ve visited France and Germany, too. Along the way I’ve seen red kites and kingfishers and butterflies and birds of all kinds, and marvelled at the flora, fauna and landscapes both large and small.

And, I’ve had sex. I’ve had kinky, hot, BDSM sex with five women in different ways and different relationships. I’ve explored kinks with those more experienced than me, and I’ve been someone’s first ever BDSM relationship partner, opening new doors in her selfhood and paths for her to explore. I’ve played with some extreme/edgy types of play and I’ve enjoyed a good snuggle here and there. I’ve been spanked, tasted the violet wand, felt a Domme’s metal claw leave angry welts on my arm.

There are so many other memories and successes I could list, but these are enough to say I have had a full life in many ways, with experiences that others do not have.

The goals missed are not so bad

I had always expected when younger that by the time I reached this age, I would have found a life partner with complementary-compatible kinks, and maybe had a child with them; had a stable career (or become famous for my music); have a fairly stable circle of friends; and generally had some idea of the overall pattern for my life.

These things are, alas, absent in my life.

But on the other hand, they are things that I do not, as such, miss. While stability and a larger and current circle of friends would be helpful, I have more friends through my blogging and tweeting than I ever thought I would. While there may not be any overall pattern, I have managed to cope by creating smaller ones that keep me going and reasonably sure things won’t fall apart suddenly.

I would like to have someone who shares my kinks and who feels submissive to me (with room for switchery) and generally we want to spend our lives and sex-lives together. It is still my hope to find that someone and yes, I know it won’t start out like that and there’s a bunch of work to be done to build it – but I haven’t yet found the person to start on that with.

But at the same time, I don’t really experience it as a lack in my life. As much as I do put some time and effort into finding “a partner”, the lack of success doesn’t hurt my overall satisfaction with life. So I am “single and looking” but not despondent or desperate about it.

Career-wise, it has been more of a struggle. Being unemployed for long periods has had a serious impact on my mental health and the erosion of the Welfare State safety net into a tightrope walk for survival has left me with a stressful life for the most part. Being in work has often been just as stressful, but at least there has been some spending cash for the most part: and that has been useful. And some of the jobs I’ve done have been truly rewarding in that I have had a sense of what the people at the end get out of whatI have been doing. That’s a positive for me, and something I really need in a job.

And at the end of it

The main thing is, if I died now, have I had a positive impact on the world? Have I, in whatever ways, made life better for the people I’ve encountered? Where I have done harm, have I managed to at least undo most of it? And I genuinely believe that in most cases at least, the answer to all of these is yes.

In the final mix, just one thing remains:

NOT. DEAD. YET.

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