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War Stories || What is 'excessive detail' in suicide coverage? || Curling || Going Home to Different Places: Players and Characters in Gone Home || Black Mirrors and Time Travel: Death and Regret in Sci-fi || Blog round-up for 2012 || Next →

War Stories

Aug 31, 2014

There's a good set of stories in the family about the First World War courtesy of my great-grandfather Reginald. The idea of him as a proto-Flashheart is doubtless exaggerated (that said when he met his wife "she was 18 and he was 24 and had been engaged twice before") - but according to the legend he not only discovered a German spy disguised as an army padre by noticing he was wearing the wrong number of pips, but rode a motorcycle through the trenches to save a friend’s girl from a nunnery threatened by the German advance. That one has it all really - solid story. Less on message, he caught typhoid fever - but recovered and survived the war.

His brother left a very different set of stories. Harry Parsons died in an air raid in 1917 - an unlikely way to go, only around 1,500 died because of raids in the entire war. There’s a story passed down that he died wandering into the street to get a better look at the Zeppelins, as it happens there are accounts of people in London doing exactly this:

"Raids hadn't become a very serious thing and everybody crowded out into the street to watch. They didn't take cover or dodge." Lt Charles Chabot, 39 Squadron RFC.

But Harry wasn't one of them. As newspaper archives were opened up my dad found what had been published at the time:

Henry Over Parsons, 33, violinist [...] According to Superintendent Woolger, a fire brigade officer, the back part of the house was demolished and the whole house of 18 rooms more or less damaged by the explosion. A section of Royal Engineers found the body. The bed appeared to have been turned right over and twisted into a most fantastic shape. Deceased was thrown from the bed.

The story about wandering into the street is interesting, the report of this inquest is attached in the several places it was syndicated with another where the coroner did mark people going to look out their open doors as a contributor to their deaths. This possibly explains how how this idea came into family legend. But there were also direct experiences of the next generation that would colour telling of the strange Great War bombings. Reginald was called up again in the Second World War and during the Battle of Britain was "standing on a balcony [with another officer] watching an aerial dogfight overhead when a spent cannon shell hit the other man, killing him." My grandfather described his own memories of air-raids:

In September 1940 we were staying temporarily on our home in Acton.I remember watching dockland burning on the night of September 7. Every night for some weeks we slept under the kitchen table, pushed under the staircase for further protection. I remember Brian, who was 9, saying during one very noisy air raid, 'Mummy, I don't want to die.' It could easily have happened. A bomb dropped in the front garden of the house directly opposite us, but the blast went the other way and our house was hardly damaged.

From these you can see how the naivety of someone wanting to look could become attached to a convenient relative. In general going into the street says something about the period we want to be true - it reflects how we retrospectively see the First World War. Bombers over London were an intrusion of the ugly twentieth century on a world that didn't know it was coming. We want them to be drawn to the novelty, like a child playing with a brightly coloured snake. We want to offer them a moment of realisation, to understand if nothing else, before that innocence is lost.

But it's rare we're given that chance. It becomes clear only in retrospect when one world is over and another begun.

Another distant uncle (as so many of these stories involve by necessity) William Pullen died in the Somme. On school trips to the battlefields my siblings and I would look for his name. When they found the collection of soldiers’ wills last year I requested a copy of his. He left all his possessions to his mother.

There's more to say about Harry aside "he died". He was a gifted musician from a family of musicians. He went to study at the Royal Academy of Music and while he's there he meets a girl, Jessie, who he performed in a duo with for several years before they get married (newspaper reports of these performances are a reminder that not only sad things are documented). They have a daughter together - and here is where things start to go wrong.

In what was either an exasperation of a long-standing problem or else a sudden change he becomes deeply unwell - both delusional and depressed. He goes home to Wales, but his mother can't handle caring for both her mentally disabled daughter (Elsie) and her increasingly manic and violent son - so she commits him to a local asylum.

After a few months there their daughter dies and Harry is checked out by his father (his absence from the family home suggests he may have away with Jessie and the baby). The discharge says he's 'unimproved' and he's back in within six months. He spends the next three years in the asylum.

He slowly improves. He starts eating more, the doctors note he's happier when playing the piano. Eventually he leaves the asylum. He moves back to London and starts teaching the violin again. Within a year his house explodes and he dies being thrown from his bed.

Later Elsie would also be committed to the asylum as her parents became less able to care for her. She died inside of an epileptic fit after never speaking a word in her life. The family stayed in touch with Jessie, my granddad writes about meeting her.

What is 'excessive detail' in suicide coverage?

Aug 12, 2014

This is an excerpt from a much longer piece on the history of suicide and journalism.  It contains description of suicide methods only in so far as they are required to demonstrate the point being made.

Across a number of countries there are media guidelines on suicide reporting (most voluntary, but New Zealand’s are governed by law). These arrived in the UK in 2006 when the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) added a new clause to the Editors’ Code of Practice, extending the guidelines on reporting on topics likely to involve personal grief with an explicit prohibition on publishing ‘excessive detail’ about suicide methods. The article now reads:

>5. Intrusion into grief or shock

>i) In cases involving personal grief or shock, enquiries and approaches must be made with sympathy and discretion and publication handled sensitively. This should not restrict the right to report legal proceedings, such as inquests.

ii) When reporting suicide, care should be taken to avoid excessive detail about the method used.

This rule has now been in effect for eight years and there have now been sufficient cases to make determinations on what exactly this rule has meant in practice. How have complaints turned out? What exactly is ‘excessive’ detail?

There have been forty-six complaints under this clause - most complaints are brought by relatives of the deceased, with a small number being triggered by suicide prevention organisations or elected officials. In one case the PCC itself brought the complaint against fourteen newspapers over the same story.

Many complaints are resolved with an apology or a voluntary redaction of their online archive by the newspaper - but in some cases the PCCs reasoning over what level of detail is or isn’t ‘excessive’ becomes clearer. Examining all rulings involving 5.ii, I found that the PCC to date have chosen to interpret it as a rule against popularizing or explaining unusual or technical methods of suicide. Details tend to be allowed when the method can in some sense be seen as ‘obvious’. To use specific cases, it is wrong to tell people how many pills are a fatal dose or how a suicide involving a balloon kit was accomplished but it is acceptable to describe someone as having hung themselves with their shoelaces.

In the case of hanging (a minority of PCC complaints but the most common method of suicide in the UK), the PCC has repeated argued the material used to perform the act does not constitute part of the method. In the very first complaint under 5.ii it was argued [] that the inclusion of a “photograph taken from the centre’s CCTV footage of [a man] walking towards a stairwell with a bed sheet tied around his neck” was not excessive as the rule was ‘designed to prevent the inclusion of detail in newspaper reports that might provoke ‘copycat’ suicides. The inclusion of a photograph of the complainant’s father before his death did not raise an issue under this part of the Code.’ Similarly, in 2011 [] a complaint that about including the fact that someone had hung ‘himself with shoelaces’ was included in the headline was rejected, arguing that “the article had only referred to the material with which the complainant had hanged himself. The Commission found that the reference under complaint did not represent an excessive detail such that would represent a breach of the Code.”.

The PCC also rejected a complaint in 2008 that inclusion of a picture of a noose in a story about suicides in Bridgend was an excessive amount of detail - “It had to have regard to the fact that – regrettably – there had been a spate of deaths by hanging, and that this fact was well-known. The picture of the noose did not make public anything new about the deaths, or describe the actual process by which individuals had used particular materials to take their own lives.”

This approach is a problem because contrary to the idea that everybody already knows how to hang themselves, information about exact hanging techniques varies and even minor details can change how attractive the idea of hanging is to a person. Biddle et al. [1] conducted a study with people who had attempted suicide explicitly aimed at finding out why they did or didn’t choose hanging as a method. People who tried hanging believed it would be quick, easy and could be done with materials to hand. People who did not believed it would be slow, painful or that they lacked the technical know-how or rope to make the noose. This last point is especially important, for hanging object is method - this is information that change the desirability of the method. The PCC fixation on technical or pharmaceutical suicides misses the purpose of the rule - the concealment of unnecessary elements that might change the likelihood someone puts into practice a given method.

As shown earlier [in not published sections], method and suicidal intent is highly interlinked - restricting methods (either through physical restrictions or by creating ignorance) is the most effective way of having an effect on suicide across a society. This is the area where the scientific evidence is most certain and if journalists can be convinced of this solitary point it would account for most of the effect any wider restrictions would give. The PCC (or its successor body) needs to take into scope ‘obvious’ suicide methods and descriptions that might make them more salient in the mind of a reader. These are after all the most common and so an area where efforts would be likely to have the most impact.

1. Biddle, Lucy, Jenny Donovan, Amanda Owen-Smith, John Potokar, Damien Longson, Keith Hawton, Nav Kapur, and David Gunnell. “Factors Influencing the Decision to Use Hanging as a Method of Suicide: Qualitative Study.” The British Journal of Psychiatry : The Journal of Mental Science 197, no. 4 (October 2010): 320–25. doi:10.1192/bjp.bp.109.076349.

Going Home to Different Places: Players and Characters in Gone Home

Sep 23, 2013

(This post contains spoilers - if you’re planning to play probably don’t read? But you can if you want. I'm not your dad or anything.)

In Gone Home, only one thing really happens. You read letters, you put tapes into cassette players, gain access to parts of the house initially locked off, but there is only one action you take that causes the world to change irrevocably (and while effective, it’s a bit of a cheat really). I think this more than anything gives a feel for the kind of game this is, one based around reflective discovery rather than action. The world is interactive, but only really transforms in the sense that your understanding of it changes.

But let’s backtrack and set the scene: It’s a dark and stormy night in 1995, player character Katie has been travelling round Europe and has now returned home - only her family has moved and now the family house is a place she’s never been, a house where they never finished unpacking, where items from different eras and lives lie alongside each other. A house where no one’s home.

You make your way through the house, gradually turn on the lights and encounter the artifacts of your family’s life while you were away. As the game progresses, three different but interconnected stories become apparent:

  1. Young love blooming - the story of younger sister Sam falling in love and discovering her sexual identity - told explicitly at the player through voiceover.
  2. Marriage on the rocks - All has not been well for Katie’s parents while she’s been away, their professional lives are on different tracks and personally they’re drifting apart - learned through correspondence with third parties scattered through the house.
  3. Buried family history - Katie’s father Terrance was abused by his uncle Oscar in this house -  discoverable only from inference from the artifacts around the house.

The first thread is arguably the main story, the game ‘finishes’ (credits roll but you can still return to the house) when this story reaches it’s end but what’s neat is it’s actually possible to get right through the game without getting much of the third story at all. It takes a lot of self-confidence to essentially hide so much of a story that feeds into it’s other threads - making discovery of that story an internal experience for the player - ‘show, don’t tell’ taken to an extreme.

The most prominent way the story is told is through the voice-over of extracts from Sam's journal - which in the initial entry we're told she is using as a substitute for her normal conversations with Katie and so is structured as a series of letters to the player character. The distinction between player and character in the game has been most looked at with the time the character puts down and won't pick up again a diary entry where Sam describes her first sexual experience with her girlfriend (Katie’s ‘voice’ in the story is otherwise only really ‘heard’ through the hover-over description she gives certain items) but to me the most important distinction is the player is hearing these voice-overs, contextualising objects with a history - Katie is not. Katie doesn't come into possession of the letters until the last second of the game - until that point the player has much more knowledge of what’s going on than she does.

This actually also throws the diary entry into a different light - without the voice-overs to guide us through the nascent relationship Katie has a very different set of information to the player. She is given a few visual hints that her sister is gay (a men's magazine in her locker earns a 'oh my' label) and that there's a interestingly prominent girl in her life, but this is I believe the first time Katie learns that the relationship is romantic/sexual. We also have no idea exactly what Katie's opinion of her sister's sexuality is. Katie is more 'conventional' than her sister - she actually answered the question on her sex ed paper unlike Sam's (amazing) short story on the subject. The player, eighteen years later on the far side of 'don't ask/don't tell' (which is a period detail now!) and primed by hearing the story of young love in Sam's own voice, might well be be feeling much more comfortable with this than Katie is in that moment. We simply don't know. The player character is going through an emotional journey at a very different rate to the player and there's an interesting possibility of dissonance there. Similarly in the final movement from cupboard under the stairs to the attic, the player has been primed by the voiceover to expect something very different to what Katie might be thinking - did you run? Would Katie have?

As the genre demands the house is riddled with secret passages and hidden doors (mostly justified, the passages all make sense as giving servants access to certain parts of the house without crossing the main spaces). As the story is essentially structured geographically, staggering access to these passages allows for something open plan (a house) to be re-funneled into a mostly linear story. This isn’t just used as a structure convenience, creeping around these poorly lit passages is used to put you in the world of the several different sets of characters have also used these passages - creeping behind the acceptable history and ideas of the family. Sam and her girlfriend use the passages for privacy, but there’s also the inference that the passage to the guest room is how uncle Oscar got his nephew from the second floor down to the recesses off the basement undetected (to reinforce this, an artifact of Oscar is found underneath the door frame at the top of the passage, while an artifact of Terrance is found in the cupboard at the end of the route in the basement- a path connected by objects out of place).

Much has been written about how Gone Home plays with and subverts horror tropes - there’s the light-bulb that coincidently breaks the moment the player examines a creepy object (the ‘one action’ I’m talking about in the first paragraph) but there’s also the the blood-stained bath with the... oh, hair dye bottle next to it. One particular way the game mixes mood and game design to create a storytelling moment is so simple it’s genius. Coming out of the basement there’s a staircase with a pipe running along the ceiling, as you move up the stairs the way a section of the pipe breaks against the light at the top of the stairs gives the illusion (as the shape of the section cutting off the light changes) of a figure moving at the top. So far, so creepy - but this staircase is along that path from guest bedroom to basement and once you've got the idea of a shadowy figure moving up those stairs your brain is engaged (even after you realise it’s just a pipe) and you might wonder why, if there was one, a shadowy figure might be taking that particular route - a clue to help you twig aspects of the Oscar story. Possible I'm over-reading into that, but the possibility of story-telling through optical illusion is a nifty thing.

There’s an interesting little meta-commentary about the game’s use of horror game conventions in the change in Terrance’s novels over time. In the basement there’s a note from Terrance’s father, an english lit scholar commending him on publication of his sci-fi novel but commenting harshly that the book is bound by cliché and genre conventions - a phrase from this letter "You can do better" is recreated on big sheets of paper in the office (you discover these in the opposite order, transforming the faintly pathetic mantra into a deeply depressing one as you find the source).

By the end of the story Terrance’s confidence has been revitalised and he has after twenty years completed another novel in his time-travel series- described as more introspective (where the hero doesn't save the President's life but his own!) - trying to finally live up to his dad's instruction to complete himself as an artist by turning inward, but in a way that rejects the idea that it is the genre conventions that were holding him back. I see this as a comment on ‘Gone Home’ itself and the idea that video games can only become ‘art’ if they ditch the conventions of their more populist output. The game does neat things in part because the world it creates is so aware of genre expectations and sees their inclusion (and subversion) as a way to deepen the experience it creates. An introspective novel with a time machine.

Black Mirrors and Time Travel: Death and Regret in Sci-fi

Mar 03, 2013

(Spoilers for Black Mirror,  11/22/63 - minor spoilers for Caprica, Buffy, Doctor Who, Red Dwarf - but you know, read it anyway.)

At what point does it become wrong to want to change the way things are?

While it is natural to want this at the heart of so many stories is the idea that at some point trying to change the universe becomes unhealthy and monstrous. Anxiety in this mould about technological progress has been a feature of science fiction since the beginning - but anxiety about technological progress isn't really about technology, what ‘science is bad’ is really saying is that people are bad and that the ability science gives us to control our own destiny will distort and twist us in the most fundamental ways.

Black Mirror definitely buys into this relationship between the bad people and their toys. The National Anthem argues that modern technology is bringing us closer to animals rather than lifting us above (although I’m not convinced the story pulled off the mob aspect that well), The Entire History of You and Be Right Back share a theme that the imperfection of memory is a blessing that keeps us from living in the past and technology that allows us to re-experience things we’ve lost keeps us from growing as people.

Be Right Back deals with Martha, who after the death of her husband (Ash) is signed up to a internet start-up that given access to the social media profiles of the dead can recreate their personality, given voice samples can call you on the phone, and given photos (plus money) can send you a robot to take their place. This shares a lot of DNA with the Battlestar Galactica prequel Caprica, where a major set of plot threats are various character’s ambitions for protagonist Zoe’s (who ‘dies’ in the first episode) resurrection computer program. Like Be Right Back, Caprica’s method of resurrection is based on the equivalent of scouring social networks and the internet but in Caprica’s case this is actually good enough and the end results are effectively perfect copies of the original people.

In Be Right Back Robot Ash’s presence is harmful because he simply isn't a good enough copy to replace the original, what was meant to displace grief ends up extending it. Caprica looks more towards the social fallout of the possible end of death. From Clarice’s plans to create a heaven for martyrs of her religion to Daniel’s plans to sell the technology and make it available widely (complete with promo video of a man stepping out from behind his coffin to his grieving family) there is no doubt that the technology works, simply how it is going to be used. Robot Ash is flawed because the story model requires a fatal flaw (like these great tales of caveman science fiction). Using technology (or magic) to address your desires (resulting from ambition, grief) will only create monsters - either figurative or literal.

Something that’s fun with these kind of stories is to think about how the possible future society that’s got over these issues will look back on them. If you could be resurrected from your social networks and it could be perfect - would this be wrong? Would resurrection really be so bad for us as a society? If the technology was perfect (say people made regular backups) would a version of Ash who could only talk out of a mobile phone be a completely different order than if the car accident had just paralysed him? Isn’t it really another degree of the great spectrum of disability? What I wonder is if this is the kind of attitude that people in a few hundred years are going to find rather quaint - will they be horrified at the frailness of all those people who went through their lives without the wifi chip in their skull taking backups, and a little amused that we thought their deathless society would be an unnatural, wrong place?

The end of death is one of the keystones of the transhumanist future and different approaches abound everywhere in science fiction. In Bear’s Eon universe, the inhabitants of Axis City get two chances in a physical body before an indefinite existence in city memory. In Clarke’s City and The Stars in order to make immortality viable over millions of years without society growing stale (which fails, but anyway) the people of Diaspar use a form of reincarnation, where people are given twenty years or so to establish new lives before their previous memories are returned to them. In Red Dwarf dead crew can be bought back to life as holograms and the dead are a growing force in society, when Rimmer is whining about being dead Lister just argues that “death isn’t the handicap it used to be in the olden days. It doesn't screw your career up the way it used to”.

There is a similar approach to the sanctity of death in fantasy where, despite the otherwise strangeness of the world, often reversing ‘natural death’ remains an uncrossable line. Magical worlds that co-exist with the real world tend to certain rules to explain why the real world is only superficially altered from our own with the addition of these fantastic elements, usually in some form of unwritten Prime Directive of non-interference - the specific problem being that magical rules tend to be fair (in the sense that all actions can be reversed - at a cost) whereas the real world is notably for being distinctly unfair. Harry Potter's world has a host of magical ailments for magical healers to fix but St Mungo’s doesn’t go around curing muggles of cancer. In Buffy, Joyce and Tara are explicitly unable to be resurrected through magical means because of the non-magical nature of the deaths and season five’s Forever dwells on the horrificness of trying to break this rule. While the real- and other-world mix to some degree, real-world death is repeatedly treated as a line the other just can't cross, or at least not lightly.

In science fiction this comes up quite a lot in stories about time travel - attempts to fix real-world wrongs using otherworldly time-travel are frequently the source rather than remedy of regret. As How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe puts it "within a science fictional space, memory and regret are, when taken together, the set of necessary and sufficient elements required to produce a time machine".  In the Whoverse this happens most explicitly in Father’s Day when Rose's attempt to save her father literally breaks the story-world apart and lets monsters in from beyond the fourth wall to teach her a lesson. The Tenth Doctor's “Time Lord Victorious” speech in Waters of Mars is effectively him declaring his refusal to let his otherworldlyness bind his actions, hubris the story punishes him for in short succession. However this is a line that Who is increasingly fuzzy on, at the end of the The Almost People the Doctor gives Cleaves what is in effect a magic potion to fix the brain clot in her brain. Like Joyce’s aneurysm in Buffy, the clot isn't caused by the Doctor or the events of the story, it's presented as a decidedly human problem that's solved (in a moment) through magical means. Similarly, in last year’s Christmas episode a normal man was flying back in a doomed plane from a normal war and is rescued from death through essentially magical means.

When a story is showing the dark side of Trying To Change How Things Were it tends to show history breaking in two ways. In Red Dwarf’s Tikka to Ride Kennedy’s assassination is accidentally prevented, leading to an alternate history where Kennedy’s failings of a president are given time to play out, leading to an earlier and different end to the Cold War where the future the show is set in no longer exist, while in Stephen King’s 11/22/63 time doesn't want to be changed, and the act of doing so on a large enough scale (preventing the Kennedy assassination) breaks the universe, with earthquakes, disasters and a decay of the laws of physics. One teaches the a lesson that history is complicated and events have unexpected repercussions, the other that meddling in the past is just Wrong with a capital W and you will be punished for doing so.

At their core Black Mirror and the range of similar stories are essentially conservative in the 'people aren't getting any better' sense, but this also spills over into 'attempts to make people better will always fail' - because the one thing we certainly can't be trusted to change right is ourselves. A future where people play pick 'n' mix with their memories, change history on a whim, and the dead walk on the streets demanding equal rights is certainly weird and unsettling to us today - but wouldn’t they find stories demanding a ‘dead’ person go away so everyone else can move on a little bit horrifying themselves?

Blog round-up for 2012

Jan 06, 2013

Bit late to get around to this, but here's a quick round-up of everything I wrote on the blog last year (in vague theme groupings):

There have been posts about the history of chicken suits in politics and how Facebook is trying to make us more legible. I went to a talk on the boundary reviews, and in a piece of high-nerdery worked out the exact problem in the electoral system for the Oscars. There's also some number-crunching on political voting in Eurovision,  a weird and revealing complaint about a political ad in New Zealand and an attempt to make sense of the weird world of political mandates.

I ended up writing a fair amount on the Scottish Independence referendum - I summarised arguments made to the Scottish Affairs Committee, explored the history and problems of the 'seats for powers' argument, looked at thepractical implications of votes at 16 in Scotland and thought that early Westminster arguments about electoral register seemed spurious. On the release of section 30 order I noticed it seemed to be giving  powers to the Scottish Parliament it said it wasn't, something that seemed to be confirmed a few months later.  Still not sure where that one's going. (and from 2011 - a post on multiple questions and ballot design.)

Looking at democratic stuff, I wrote there's a good case to be made for allowing fractional voting below 18 and that if it caused problems that's not terrible because democracy should be disruptive, put down some thoughts on exactly what we mean when we talk about authorisation in elections and pointed out that Gilad Sharon seemed to be making a very similar argument about democratic accountability to that made by the 7/7 bombers.

In the misc section, I looked at 'slut dropping' in the context of wider writing on urban legends, the limits of law to make people do things, barbers and debt moralism, and examined the Church of England's generous view of its history on gay rights as it argued that allowing same-sex marriage would be sexist. When in a #slatepitches mood, I argued we shouldn't limit ourselves to selling off workplace rights and asked what the problem really is with cash for honours?

With my pop-culture hat on, I looked at how sci-fi is working over the imagery of 9/11, theaesthetics of the future in the Prometheus promo videos and how the Walking Dead video game used the pointlessness of choice to create an ethical environment. I saw The Dark Knight Rises and read The Long Earth.

In total that's 25,000 words on this blog last year, only 2000 less than what I wrote doing my Masters course at the same time. I think I've gotten better at this whole blogging thing over all those words, but mileage may vary. As ever, apologies for people looking for the train forum that used to be on the smokefilledroom domain who the stats say make up a chunk of my visitors - I'll try and cater to you more this year.

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