There Is So Much More Than Darkness

I wasn’t always a moaner. I wasn’t always cynical and angry. 

I loved to read. I loved to play football. I loved being the best at English and maths and reading and spelling and I loved being top of the class.

I didn’t know anything about arrogance. I didn’t know anything about hatred or revenge or “us” and “them”. I didn’t know about hurtful smackdowns, then of course, nobody knew the word “smackdown” in the early 1970s. Or at least I didn’t. I didn’t know anything about fear, or terror or being beaten up for being brown. I didn’t know anything about foul language and using it to hurt others as to my shame, I did.

I learned all these things. I learned all these things because I was taught them. I used them myself as a defence mechanism and sometimes, as a survival mechanism. My life did not improve. I did not find any joy. I found others like me, but I also found others who saw potential in me way beyond, no, above my station. After decades, I listened to those better, calmer voices that wanted to lift me above the filth of sordid battle where nobody knows who the pigs are anymore because we’re all covered in shit.

So I got better. I stopped moaning (as much). I looked for the good in myself and in others. I gave. I gave. I gave. I forgave. I grew. 

There is already too much division. There is already too much polarisation. There is way too much hatred and misunderstanding and knee-jerk self-righteous indignation.

There is already too much finger-pointing and justification and calls for retribution, but like scratching an itch, it feels better for an instant; and then you scratch and scratch and scratch and suddenly it’s not about the itch anymore, but your bleeding, scabby skin that’s infected and threatening to take your arm or leg to the morgue to be buried with all the other victims of hate, all of whom, under the skin of whatever colour, bled the same red.

The only responses worthy of our consideration are those responses human beings of all races, of all backgrounds, of all religions — and none — have already spilled their blood for. This is not a time for hypocrisy, this is a time for our highest values. For justice. For peace. For inclusion. For balance. For harmony. For understanding. For fairness. For gentleness. For kindness. For healing. For love.

And not just this time, but every time. No matter what. Always return. Always seek out the light. It is always there. If we see only darkness, then let’s open our eyes because my God! There is so much more than darkness. 

I Smile

I jog past a colleague outside the office, pausing for a moment only to apologise for not being able to stop to chat, because I have a train to catch. I always played things by ear and even as recently as autumn, I would have stopped. There was always another bus.

I stand patiently in line at Oxford Circus to buy a ticket to the suburbs, just outside London. I don’t have a pass because my last weekly one expired as I continue to optimise my commuting expenditure. I note that I’m trading a non-renewable resource, my time, to save a bit of renewable resource, my cash.

Skipping down the escalator I keep repeating my mantra, “stay patient”. Arriving at the crowded platform, I read my book for a minute and when the tube arrives, I continue for another few minutes, standing, of course, being jostled, forcing myself to smile because the alternative would just be miserable.

At the inter city rail station, I scan the departure board for the train times. I missed my preferred train by one minute. I don’t curse as I used to. Jogging to the holding area, well, not quite jogging, more a fast shuffle, like the undead on uppers, I find the optimum position for scanning the TV monitor for the platform announcement. Like sprinters, poised, we hope to catch the ‘b’ of the bang as the frame with the platform number appears. It appears. I’m on the move.

Speed-shuffling to the train, I suppress the joy of the small victory of a double seat that will remain singly occupied for the duration of my journey.

I read my book. It was a gift from a man who I respect, admire and like an awful lot.

As I meditate on my status as a commuter, taking small pleasure in trivial trip optimisations and feeling the merest twinge of grief at the most minor inconveniences, I feel also a prick of cognitive dissonance when I look at the title of the book, which is “Punk Rock – An Oral History”

I was once that teenager into punk, who swore he’d never become a commuter.

I smile.

Reach for the PC

Screen Shot 2014 02 22 at 20 18 45

Finally then, here is the PC build of Reach for the Sky, my toy, soon to be I think, the world’s first Rocket RPG. Yes, that’s grandiose. Yes, that’s tongue in cheek. Oh and there is a Mac version too. Of course. And the Mac version has that lovely rocket sound.

Get the PC build here.

Get the Mac build here.

Remember, it’s just a toy, so muck around with it. I’ll be building a game on top of it.

You can fiddle with the JSON files in the assets folder and see what happens. The good news is that you can fiddle with them without restarting the game. After you’ve fiddled, just hit the Backspace (delete on Mac) key and all the changes will be reloaded.

You can change the sky gradients, the engine power, the atmospheric density at ground and at the top of the sky, the drag on the ship, and lots more. Please give me comments here, or on Twitter @shahidkamal with the hashtag #RFTS

Thanks to everyone for your help so far!

Reach for the Sky – update 1

Screen Shot 2014 02 16 at 19 43 50
I’ve done a weekend of work on this, but almost none of it is visible.

Internally, this is not just a toy now. I can play with the environment, background, rocket attributes, physics, engines and so on very easily. Instead of a single big file, I have classes for Ship, Engine, World, View, Particle, Emitter, RocketEmitter and so on.

This is the latest Mac build, watch out, this rocket is a lot more powerful. The gradient sky came about as a result of a nice tip from Paul Pridham (@madgarden on Twitter) – thanks Paul! I will experiment with this in later builds. The gradients are important because the object of the game will be to ensure that you reach the “sky” (the dark bit) and of course, the sky will become a narrower band as the levels progress.

Next week, there will be levels and more than one rocket to control. Eventually, you’ll be able to level up your rockets with multiple staged engines, but it will become like playing the keyboard, so later levels won’t be easy. You might need a friend when it gets up to 8 rockets on the screen with each of them having different attributes!

Download for the Mac here.

Sorry I haven’t got a PC build ready. I’ve not had time to build the Cinder environment for my PC laptop yet.

Reach For The Sky

This is a toy that took me a weekend and a bit to get going. I’m using the Cinder library, which for the most part keeps itself to itself, and C++, very badly abused C++ at that.

It’s only on the Mac at the moment. I’ll see if I can get it going on the PC and upload a build here if I can.

Grab the Mac build here.

Unzip it, stick it in Applications or something and remember to sort out your security settings to allow running something by a nobody. (After you’ve run it, do remember to restore your security settings, OK?)

Give Up on Your Dreams

“Is your deal on the Emu XL–1 Turbo with all the add-on cards still on at the same price?”

Many of my conversations with the staff of what used to be Soho Soundhouse and subsequently Turnkey took a similar turn. I spent a small fortune on music technology as it evolved, and even went there for my guitars, culminating in the purchase of a Paul Smith Standard 24 with the bird inlays at a cool £2,000. The journey began so long ago, as far back as the mid 1980s that I genuinely don’t remember my first purchase there. Like other firsts, it was hurried, clumsy and forgettable. It might have been a Roland TR707 drum machine, then over £450, and like most music tech, now worth £4.50 no doubt.

Every day a part of my consciousness acknowledges the rack containing the Emu with its sister-wives, the Roland JV1080; the magnificent, warm and unparalleled Roland Super JX, AKA MKS–70; the Alesis Microverb; the Emu ESI–4000 and the e-magic Unitor MIDI interface. I acknowledge the remnants of my dreams every day, a reminder of how I didn’t “succeed” in music, knowing full well that had I persisted, I would have.

Ohh the opportunities were there. In the late 1980s, Ben Wardle, an A&R man at Warner, liked what my band (Life in the Bus Lane) was doing, but we stopped. We had a contact with the CEO of CBS at the time, but we stopped. Then later in the late 1990s, I tried again. I started singing. My voice was untrained, the demos were rough, but people liked it. I got a good demo sound, not production-quality by any stretch, but good enough. I wrote some good songs, and recorded a handful. Then I stopped.

Every day I pick up my Dean acoustic fretless and I practice, and every day there is a part of my subconscious that is trying to push the “you could have done this” message to my conscious mind, but my conscious mind left that behind and moved on.

I never admitted that I’d failed, because I used to think that failure was shame. It isn’t shame. Failure is the only time we learn. When a child learns to walk, it fails again and again. It never beats itself up. It never chides itself. It smiles, picks itself up, loves the process and learns to walk. There are probably fewer skills harder to master than walking, but most of us do that without fuss.

I didn’t fail at music. I just didn’t keep going. If I’d kept going, I would have succeeded. What I have learned is that I wasted a lot of time thinking I’d failed. Failure is not shameful. The only thing I’m ashamed of is wasting so much of my time thinking there was no way forward. There isn’t always a way forward, but there is often a way around, or over, or under. There is a way.

My dream was to be a writer of great songs and a recording artist. I never gave up on that dream. What I did was pursue something else. Video games. I kept going and I kept going. I never stopped. I paused, but I never stopped, even when I thought it was over.

I thought it was over for me in 1984 after Jet Set Willy. I didn’t take Richard Jones’ offer of £3000 for Baby Starts Walking on the C64. That was youthful pride. And so I tried to make another game and got nowhere with it and thought it was over. Then I saw Knight Lore and knew what I wanted.

Then in the late 1980s, I thought it was over after a successful stint making games that Telecomsoft published. I’d had a great time and I was on top of the world. After Pandora, I thought I’d blown my chance with the Stampers, and that it was over. Then I got into music and started making music for video games. That led me to my gig at BITS where I spent a few years, after which I went on to Virgin Interactive, Hasbro Interactive and finally START! games where I was on top of the world for a while. And then START! stopped, and I thought it was over. Not just career wise either. Divorce, homelessness, no job, no money, crushing debt, ill health, I thought it was definitely over. After enduring that period as gracefully as it’s possible for a broken man to endure and gettnig by with some contract work for a while, I joined Sony Computer Entertainment at the back end of 2005, 8 years ago this week in fact.

By the tail end of 2005, I thought it was over again, but this time, I knew how to pick myself up. I never gave up the fight. I committed myself fully to work. I threw myself into work with zeal and passion. I found a new remit and a new focus. I totally transformed my life with energy and passion that I might previously have said was impossible. I worked insanely hard, stayed incredibly positive, stayed profoundly happy and with my colleagues, delivered, delivered, delivered. The run continues and I intend to reach new highs.

You see, if you are willing to put three decades or more of effort into something, you are going to be really, really good at it, but only if you care. If you go through the motions, you are doing a job. If you put yourself into it, you are following a calling. There are few forces in the world as powerful as the softness of water on the apparent immovability of rock over the aeons of time. Don’t be the rock. Be the water. Be the drop and fall. Again and again and again.

If I want to be “successful” at videogames, and success can be defined in so many ways, then I have to focus on videogames. Today is a great day for me to give up on my dreams, the dreams that were not meant to be, and to continue to kindle the fire inside that has led me to success I could never have dreamt of. A success that is its own reward. Of pride in my work, in my colleagues, my company, my partners. To deliver work that has moved people, enriched their lives, made them happy, in a way that they admire and aspire to. That is success. Today I give up on my dreams and hold onto that which becomes more and more real every day.

Twitter Isn’t a Holiday Destination

Twitter has become my default destination, my starting point, my notebook of thoughts and my conversation centre.

I find it harder and harder to write blog posts, because it’s so much more convenient and immediate to kick things off on Twitter.

Twitter has become the ultimate procrastination tool. Why finish anything, when in 140 characters, you’ve devolved responsibility to the global, social thought stream?

I’m supposedly on holiday, but thanks to Twitter and email, and despite my BlackBerry being turned off, I’m never far away, which means I haven’t switched off. Now two years ago, this would have been a tragedy that I would have railed against. Now, things are markedly different.

My job’s one of the coolest in the world. That wasn’t an accident. Two years go, I was ready to quit Sony. One day, I might not be at Sony, and that might well be the time to tell you why, if anyone’s still interested, but it’s really not that interesting.

I decided to put everything I had into the job. Everything. I’ve been a voracious reader and learner for years. I started reading again. Looking back, I acted on the advice of a man who I had yet to read, whose words I had yet to hear. Jim Connolly. I didn’t know Jim back then, but he said it best and when I heard his words, telling me that the quickest route to success was to put everything you have into what you’re currently doing, the hairs on the back of my neck rose in recognition. That’s exactly what I’d been doing for the last two years, and exactly why I’d managed to make so much progress. Massive action; the willingness to go the extra mile and beyond; a focus on serving others; massively positive, can-do attitude; the confidence to aim beyond what others are satisfied with and laser focus on results; all of these things work.

I started wearing suits again. I started playing table tennis, and I got pretty good at it. I lost a lot of weight – about 20 kilos. I got my diabetes under excellent control. I reduced the number of hypoglycaemic attacks I used to suffer.

Then things got really interesting. I got the opportunity I had been looking for, a move to a new department and a new challenge. I seized it with both hands and gave it everything and when I thought I’d given everything, I gave more. I defied convention and delivered with a team that shared my passion and commitment. They deserve the real credit. Thank you Lorenzo, Spencer, Tony, Robin, Nainan, Setsuo. And thanks Jim for believing in me.

And more recently, things have gone spectacularly well. Again, this didn’t happen by accident, but I feel no less blessed for the recognition and love.

Twitter has been there all along. I use my personal account. I speak in a relatively unfiltered way. That works. Obviously I’m not stupid about it.

Although at first, I spoke little of work except obliquely, I had a lot of experience on Twitter and started using it more for work. This was unorthodox, but I was delivering at work and I kept at it, refining my approach, refusing to take away the rough edges that make me human, but nevertheless, polishing those aspects that needed attention. I’m still working at it. The point is that Twitter has become an important part of my “job”, seeing as my life and my job have blurred boundaries.

That’s made it hard to switch off after an extraordinary Gamescom. (I’m about 52 minutes in by the way.)

What does switching off even mean in today’s world? More and more people talk about disconnecting digitally. Switching off email and social media and just going on a digital fast; digidetox if you will. I’m not sure if that’s the problem. I think the problem is living unconsciously.

We accumulate a lot of default behaviours over the course of our lives. Many of these are genuinely useful, but their execution not always optimal. An example of this is typing and mouse use. If we don’t use our bodies optimally, we set ourselves up for injury, even if we feel like we’re typing fast and mousing around like Jerry. Do it long enough, badly enough, unconsciously and you will get RSI, carpal tunnel syndrome and all manner of other problems.

If we sit at our desks with poor posture, we might not feel anything at the time, but one day, years from now, we’ll want to know how to get rid of the back pain that has “suddenly” crept up on us. So off we go to people who charge a lot of money to try to find a fix for a side effect of modern life. For what it’s worth, I got myself a good Alexander Technique teacher twelve years ago for about a year. From time to time, I still need to “give the orders”.

Using Twitter is also a habit, and not always a good one, though I think at the moment, the upside of Twitter vastly outweighs the downside, providing one uses it consciously. Given that my style is unfiltered and flowing, it’s not clear that being totally conscious would help, but it’s not the content over which I need to be totally conscious, it’s the moment before the tweet that is important.

Alexander Technique as taught by a good teacher shows you how to become much more sensitive to the feedback your body is constantly giving you, to use your body consciously. Once you have used your body consciously, the right way, for long enough, then good alignment becomes a habit again. I don’t have an Alexander teacher for Twitter, but I do have the next best thing – a holiday.

Driving is the same. We all think we’re fantastic drivers. I’m going to level with you. I’m not a fantastic driver. I know my technique leaves a lot to be desired and much of it is down to the erosion of good form, and the establishment of poor habits, but who is going to re-learn driving? It’s not cheap! I do think we should probably all go on refresher courses, but I haven’t a clue how we’d go about paying for it.

Habits are vital. They allow us to function without cognitive overload. If we had to consciously evaluate every decision in our extraordinarily complex lives, our decision-making reserves would be exhausted in no time and we probably wouldn’t even make it out the front door in the morning. What’s important is to occasionally have a conscious re-evaluation.

Holidays are really, really good for that.

Tomorrow, after the Friday prayer, I’ll be going to some wild, open space, near water, with a Dunhill Thames Oak pipe, filled to the brim with some mild tobacco. And I’ll be looking at those aspects of my life that I’ve been unconsciously suboptimal at and trying to be a bit more conscious.