Fake News, Professional Conspiracy Theorists, and Magical Thinking.

This is political. It also relates to systems and magic, which are topics I often delve into in my blog.

Some people, possibly a large number of them, find conspiracy theories more compelling that evidence based conclusions. In my opinion this goes well beyond the usual accusations of confirmation bias and the Dunning Kruger effect that we see whenever opposing views clash on the internet.

It has to do with what people see as a trusted source and what they want from their news, but first let me tell you a little story.

A few weeks ago a woman threatened to kill one of the parents of the Sandy Hook shooting. You can read about it here, from a source I trust.

My introduction to the Sandy Hook conspiracy was through Alex Jones, a professional conspiracy theorist. Jones is the force behind Infowars, and also calls himself the founding father of 9/11 truthers, the people who claim that 9/11 was an inside job. Jones is to news as snake-oil salesmen are to medicine; he makes money selling bullshit to the credulous and then pats them on the head and calls them smart.

But Jones is neither only nor the worst of the the Sandy Hook conspiracy theorists. These people believe that the massacre was faked (by the gov’t) in order to provide justification for increased gun control. The woman who made the threats was a consumer of this news and likely felt that she was doing a good deed by protecting second amendment rights.

And therein lies the secret to understanding the conspiracy minded. For them it is all about a compelling narrative and the source that provides it. These people trust Alex Jones over the New York Times because they feel the NYT represents the interests of coastal elites. Conspiracy theorists tap into that and provide them with a narrative hook that they find compelling.

A few nuggets of truth that mesh with a person’s confirmation bias are served up as bait for potential consumers and then once they are reading/watching it the story that is told is what keeps them coming back. Usually the story involves a few rebels who have been awakened to the truth, defying an all powerful force that has some overarching agenda that is far more offensive and sexy than the slow erosion that usually leads to societal problems. Thus instead of a tragic event leading to sensible gun control they believe there is a conspiracy to take away all guns as the first step to fascism.

None of the conspiracy consumers ever questions why an all-powerful fascist leaning government does not simply kill or jail people like Alex Jones (like say, Putin does to dissenters in Russia or Hitler did) or why they would need a pretext to put in a law that will help them to do something even worse, that Americans would violently resist regardless of the justification.

Magical thinking is at work here. I mean seriously, we live in a society where more people seem to be worried about Fluoride in the water secretly mind controlling people than lead in the water actually poisoning people. It seems that some people are more willing to believe tenuous links from sources that offer the narrative that they want than well sourced and researched journalism.

Fake News depends on magical thinking as much as it depends on confirmation bias. While we all want to believe the worst about our enemies, it takes a leap of faith to believe that the slim evidence provided by Birthers is somehow realistic. The GOP spent eight years undermining Obama; it is beyond illogical to believe that they would let him continue serving as president and never bring it up or even have a hearing about it if he was not born a citizen of the US. If they had any evidence at all they would have tried to impeach him. And yet, Birtherism survive, not only because it tickles the confirmation bias of certain people but also because it provides a narrative that is more exiting/entertaining than the reality of the situation.

Ultimately Fake News is paving the way for a new form of propaganda. The Nazis, who pioneered modern propaganda techniques, felt that narrative was far more important than truth in influencing people and with little regulation on internet news I don’t see much that stands in the way of the worst of this. I fear that sooner or later, people who believe the narrative that these conspiracy theorists are selling will start killing. Of course, I’m sure Alex Jones has a theory to deflect from that event as well…

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Hello and Goodbye: A Memorable Weekend

I don’t usually write about personal stuff on this blog. This weekend, however, offered an such impressive juxtaposition of real world events that I am driven to muse about and share it.

The first event is my son’s first birthday. The first picture (blue) was taken a couple of weeks ago, and the red one was from a few days after his birth. The difference is tremendous, of course, just look at the relative sizes of our heads for the sake of comparison.

It has been an interesting year, watching my little man grow. It has seeped its way into everything, including my writing. The Seeds of Ruin was completed about a month ago, and written while he was learning to crawl. The themes dance with his presence and my reaction to his birth.

His birthday was fun, but not too overwhelming, as a one year old’s party should be. We took him on a train ride and to a carousel and watched him eat ice cream by the fistful. It was a profoundly happy day for us and spilled over into the rest of the weekend.

The second event was less sweet, but still profound.

Gordon Downie last show 8 20 2016

On the same day that we were celebrating the first year of Ronan’s life, we were also shedding tears over the end of an Era. The Tragically Hip, Canada’s Band, played the last show of their latest tour and possibly their last show ever. The lead singer, Gordon Downie, was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer well before the tour was even announced.

The Hip are to Canada as Springsteen is the US. They are my go-to band most of the time. I have always wanted to watch them live in their hometown (Kingston) on New Year’s eve with my Brother and Sister, and we frequently tried to plan how we could make it happen despite the miles and schedules that separate us.

The show has such great meaning for Canadians, young and old, that it was picked up and broadcast by the CBC, our public network, and preempted Olympic coverage.

The concert was great. At times Gord seemed frail and overwhelmed, ready to collapse or break down right there, and yet at others it seemed impossible that he was even sick, that someone of such energy and vitality could be so close to the end.

When they played my favourite song (Nautical Disaster) and then Viv’s favourite (Scared) it felt like a gift. When they ended the concert with one of their most positive tunes (Ahead by Century), in defiance of death and sorrow, it was simply incredible.

Add to that a long night of talk the night before with one of my oldest friends, who just lost his mother, and it has been an odd and memorable weekend, sad and sweet, far greater than the sum of its happenings.

Even now, I am left shaken and awed.

Triumph

The concept of the Triumph has always fascinated me. For those who are not familiar with the idea, a Triumph was a special parade accorded to an exceptionally victorious general or emperor in the Roman Empire. Think of it as a parade with a host of side activities, including gladiatorial games and other huge celebrations.

We know a fair bit about some of these Triumphs because the biggest and the best of them also involved a Triumphal arch, like the arch of Constantine pictured below.

These Triumphal Arches contain interesting details which have helped historians reconstruct and interpret some of the events depicted within.

L’Arc de Triomphe, pictured below, is Napoleons version of a Triumphal Arch, an attempt to invoke and connect the French Emperor with the glories of Rome.

Arc-de-Triomphe-de-l’Étoile

Triumphs began as parades and grew into political events. The Roman Triumphs also had religious undertones. The sheer glory of having a massive parade with attendant festivities and a monument in their honour, gave the recipient a platform from which to launch themselves into office, or otherwise further their ambitions. Even Emperors wanted Triumphs, which of course meant that they became more and more elabourate and increasingly common as the Empire ground on.

The idea of a Triumph is rife with potential for fantasy fiction. My next novel in the Domains of the Chosen Series begins with one. I use it mostly because I love events, especially huge public events, but I can see a lot of potential here.

  1. The Triumph as a Character Introduction: What better way to introduce a military leader than with a Triumph? The way said character reacts to the honour provides a writer with a grand opportunity to highlight character traits as well as past accomplishments. Other characters can strut their stuff by reacting to the Triumph. For a villainous character, throwing themselves a Triumph is a great way to highlight their arrogance and recklessness, or their political savvy.
  2. The Triumph as a Plot Device: On the other hand, what better finale to an assassin’s chronicle than to have the main character plan and execute a job where the mark is receiving a Triumph? It would frame a series perfectly, a conniving general or despotic emperor reaches the zenith of their power only to be struck down. A nice transition from hubris to comeuppance in a single scene.
  3. The Triumph as a Backdrop: Finally, for almost any series with an Empire with any sense of ritual and style, a Triumph serves as a wonderful backdrop for a common scene. Thieves can fleece crowds. Any sort of action can start. More importantly it is an opportunity to show off some world-building in a dynamic fashion, since a Triumph recounts recent history.

 

Ruminations on Intellectual Property: The Great Warhammer Diaspora

Today, I was struck by the realization that the two computer games in my current play rotation and one of the two that are on my release radar so far this year are all based on Games Workshop’s Warhammer fantasy universe.

The first of these is Mordheim, City of the Damned, a turn based strategy game based on the old Mordheim boardgame from what I see as the golden age of GW creativity. The computer game tried to remain as faithful as possible to the rules and spirit of the original while making concessions to modern play styles. It is a decent game, with a fun advancement system, but I wish they had dropped some features of the original altogether in favour of a tighter game. Still, I enjoy it quite a bit and hope it does well so that the studio can branch out on its next effort.

The second of the Warhammer Games I am currently playing is Vermintide. This one is not based at all on a Games Workshop product, but rather lifts the world-building and setting popularized by Warhammer Fantasy and marries it to Left 4 Dead style gameplay. Instead of a modern land overrun by Zombies, you have an ancient city overrun by Skaven. It is one of the few multiplayer games that I am actually willing to tolerate, and makes great use of the IP.

The final game, the one that I am considering pre-ordering (I know, shame on me) is Total War: Warhammer. I love the Total War series, but the modern age has not been kind to it. Rome II was a botched mess that bored me to tears and tried to sell me DLC instead of fixing bugs, and Total War: Attila was not enough to regain lost glory, especially with more DLC shenanigans. While there is a controversy over the Chaos faction pre-order bonus in Total War: Warhammer, the game looks good and the combination of two old franchises could lead to a real revitalization here. I am willing to bet that this one could be a beautiful match.

The other game I am looking forward to in 2016 is the new X-Com, but that has little to do with this topic.

After my little revelation, I realized that the fact that I am knee deep in Warhammer based computer games is not an accident. There are a lot of them on steam and may of them are new. It used to be that Games Workshop was very selective in allowing the use of its beloved intellectual property and consequently we were starved for Warhammer based computer games in my youth. Now, it seems the floodgates are open and I am drowning in options.

Why?

The simple answer seems to be that Games Workshop is a recognizable and valued IP that has been built up over 25+ years and can reach a broad audience, but that the core game is doing poorly. Warhammer has faced strong competition in the US from Warmachine/Hordes over the last decade and from other games in other places. Then as profits began to sag, they blinked. They ran an enormous campaign to hype the players up and they destroyed the Old World, their setting for eight editions in a climactic battle. The thought was that they would reboot with a new setting in the same world a few decade or centuries afterward… instead, GW replaced Warhammer Fantasy Battles with Age of Sigmar.

Age of Sigmar barely resembles the old Warhammer game. It is fair to say that quite a few of those who loved the old games hated the new version, or just found it unrecognizable. Of course, others loved it, but the problem remains that all of that juicy old IP is wasted… or not.

It seems that since Age of Sigmar is the main focus right now, Games Workshop has been allowing much more freedom in farming out that old IP. No doubt they see it as a way to shore up their finances. While GW might not be interested in the Old World, other companies see real value in the IP that they spurn, and thus tons of new players can experience a rich, meaty setting built up through years of lore (including quite a few novels) and play in these new games. The Old World has escaped its masters, for now, and it will be very interesting to see where this great IP diaspora leads…

 

 

Thoughts on Setting: Fantasy in the Renaissance and Beyond — Primer

It is very late and I am tackling an interesting subject with very little (cogent) time left in my day.

Recently I have been thinking quite a bit about how Fantasy is expanding beyond the feudalistic, medieval setting that dominated the genre after Tolkien. Many of the fantasy novels that I have enjoyed of late have a diverged from the traditional, pastoral fantasy in more than just tone. Prominent examples would be Brian McLellan’s Promise of Blood, dubbed Flintlock Fantasy, which is can be placed around the French revolution in time and Chine Mieville’s Bas Lag series which is more Victorian. My own Domains of the Chosen series has Steampunk elements and some very Renaissance influences mixed in with the Roman sensibilities. There are, of course, plenty of other examples, but it is late.

Here are a few of the post medieval time periods, and how they differ.

  • Rennaissance: The Rennaissance denotes the period of time when scholars “rediscovered” the ancients, and regained interest in philosophy and civic society. It is an urban movement, beginning in Italy. During this time concrete is rediscovered (interestingly enough we are just unlocking the full secrets of Roman concrete now) and the printing press comes into full use in western society. On the war side, cannon become increasingly important in this period.
    • Columbus’s voyages occur in this period, and European imperialism gradually becomes more and more important over all these periods.
    • Cortez and other Explorers plunder the “new world.” Faiths clash, diseases are spread, and Empires fall.
  • Reformation: The Reformation is a period of sectarian strife that begins with Martin Luther and end with the Thirty Years War. It is notable for the serious challenge to traditional religious authority, and how that is spread through new techniques. The thirty years war sees firearm tactics developed and used in a bloody religious war.
    • The three musketeers is set in this period.
    • The period leading up to the Tokugawa Shogunate, which shows up in a lot of games and movies, occurs in this time period.
    • Religious strife drives many out of Europe into the new world.
    • Conflicts with indigenous cultures continues.
    • The Inquisition and witch trials reach their height in this time.
  • The Enlightenment: The Enlightenment challenges the very structures of Feudalism, leading up to the Declaration of independence and the French Revolution. This period sees a turning away from traditional authorities in favour of reason. The law of men replaces the law of the Church. Mozart, Newton, and Napoleon are famed products of this period, which also sees a transition toward a more modern professional/national army over the warrior nobility of the feudal age.
    • In the Enlightenment there is finally a sense in Europe that they have surpassed the classical age.
    • The importance of art, and the humanities, and the growing field of science make this a tumultuous time. Ideas clash often.
    • Despite all of this some of histories ugliest practices increase in this period. Slavery and genocide spring to mind. These clash with the thoughts on the rights of man, but continue into later periods.
    • Universal Law, courts of justice, and the rights of man are argued over and systematized during this period.

Industrialization and urbanization are on the rise all throughout this time. Nationalism becomes increasingly important, and the state eclipses the power of both the Church, and the Aristocracy. People think and write about everything from the perfect prisons to why prisms work the way they do. Music is systematized and math reaches new heights. Thinking men become sexy and war becomes increasingly strategic and grander in scale until the ancients are also surpassed in that regard.

Meeting with new cultures and exploration are also themes of this time. Although many if these relationships eventually became exploitative as the great empires sought new resources to fuel their wars and expansion, many of these meetings were initially friendly and trade flourished.

These are rich settings for Fantasy. The intellectual conflicts, the clash of cultures, the high ideals and the lows of utter exploitation are the fodder of what I hope is a new expansion of the genre that dovetails nicely with geek chic and a renewed interest in the intellectual.

Specific examples next Sunday!

 

 

Reviews: Hegemony: Rome and Fury (the tank movie)

furytigermatch

This weekend, in between bouts of editing Bloodlust: Red Glory and starting book five (not sure yet on the title) I finished a computer game that I have been playing for a little while called Hegemony: Rome and watched a movie called Fury, both of which interested me enough to write a review and comment on.

Spoiler Alert!

Fury

Fury is Brad Pitt’s latest venture, a old style war movie with modern sensibilities. Pitt stars as a tank commander with the monicker “Wardaddy”. Many people have compared this character to Aldo Raine from Inglourious Basterds. These people need to learn to spot nuance. Wardaddy is aggressive I suppose, but where Aldo Raine is gleefully and majestically murderous, it is fairly obvious that Wardaddy is very, very tired and just wants to do his duty and get his boys home alive. His boys in this case are the remainder of the tank crew that he has kept alive for the last three years of the war — a miracle of skill and luck, considering the difficulties faced by American tanks in WWII.

Fury starts just after the loss of a member of that team. He is replaced by Norman, a clerk who is misplaced and sent to join these hardenned veterans.

There is a wonderful scene near the beginning of the movie where the crew is driving back into camp. The weariness on their faces is reminiscent of the old photos that I poured over as a tank obsessed child. I could not understand that look then, but I can fathom it now. It is the look of someone who has just gone through a mile of hell and realizes that they have to get up and go through it all again the next day and the next until the war is done or they are dead. It was nicely conveyed.

The best scene of the movie is when four sherman tanks come face to face with a Nazi tiger. The odds of a Sherman tank defeating a tiger in such a confrontation were historically unfortunate, requiring that the allies expend several tanks for each kill.  Fury takes that ugly fact and turns it into a tense, brutal scene. You get a real sense of the desperation of such an uneven battle, right up until the point where the crew of Fury get close enough that they can outmanoeuvre the German behemoth and score a direct hit on the weaker rear armour. These are actual tactics from tank battles in the period, recreated and not glorified. I loved the scene.

Fury is full of well crafted scenes, including a tense conversation between the lads and two German women and several brutal battles against German infantry and anti-tank weapons. They all hold together well.

The plot of Fury is pretty understated. It reminds me a great deal of modern fantasy. Wardaddy tries to accommodate Norman to the realities of war while keeping his crew alive. The tank crew manages a stall a German advance at the cost of their own lives. Norman manages to survive, but when his told he is a hero he looks more confused than anything. The last shot of the film is him looking back at the tank that they all fought and died to protect. Wardaddy called it home. It is poignant and yet somehow transcends the usual tear-jerking male glory that I get out of war movies, leaving me thoughtful instead of emotional.

I would heartily recommend Fury to anyone who has an interest in tanks, or wants to see a war movie that does not come off as simple action porn.

Hegemony: Rome

I picked up Hegemony Rome in steam early access because I loved  the Hegemony Gold game. Hegemony Gold was a slower paced, thoughtful RTS that included a supply chain logistics system that gave it a unique feel. When I first played the new game wasn’t optimized then so I let it sit for a while. I gave it another try in the new year and found that it is now is now decently polished, and optimized.

The Hegemony series is in antithesis of the dominant form of RTS (Starcraft Style). It is a slow playing ballet that builds over hours where a handful of units can have a large impact and a single raid can cause problems for an unwary empire. The way supply and manpower are handled in this series is brilliant, creating a very thoughtful style of gameplay that I would love to see more often.

The bigger your empire, the more difficult it is to protect it, and manage getting the needed food and manpower to the right place.

The four story campaigns follow the career of Caesar in Gaul in exacting detail. You will invade Britain, you will cross the Rhine, and you will see your province torn apart by rebellion. By the end of it you will feel like you have conquered the place yourself, and maybe feel a little shell shocked at having to deal with pesky raiders constantly picking at your flanks.

The game is by no means perfect. If you are not a patient gamer, or a thoughtful exploiter of gaming systems you may not enjoy it. The scope of the game might have been a little too ambitious for such a small studio, and it occasionally falls apart. It is slow to start, but that humble beginning only lets you appreciate the epic scope once you get there.

Pros
-Supply lines and manpower mechanics define how the game is played. Raids can be devastating, and concentrating an entire army in one place will often cause you to lose as you run out of food or your empire is picked apart by raiders.
-New Experience System lets you specialize Legions, and even promote officers from veteran legions to generals which you can assign to any legion. In this way you can use your best Legions as a sort of officer school to power up other units. It is kind of awesome.
-Flanking and positioning make an enormous difference.
-You can built forts and bridges, and customize cities.

Take it or Leave it
-Siege warfare is brutal. Better plan it out.
-Naval Warfare can be finicky
-Not a lot of different varities of unit, however the differences become very meaningful as you learn how to use them,

Cons
-Slow to start
-The supply mechanic is not for every gamer
-Not as flashy as a AAA title

I will let it sit for a while longer then I’ll try the sandbox campaign and some mods I think, then update my review. Good on you Longbow, I always hoped for another after Hegemony Gold and I am glad to see it.

Humour vs Fanaticism and Honour Culture in Fantasy Fiction

Recommendations?

Ultimately, all fanatics are the enemies of knowledge as part of the public good.

The Charlie Hebdo attacks,  got me thinking about similar episodes in history and then in Fantasy and Fiction. Aside from their real world implications, which while very interesting are beyond the scope of this blog, it demonstrates a stark pattern of behaviour among fanatics.

Killing a person for mocking one’s beliefs is profoundly ridiculous, and all the more appalling because of that. Most people, no matter how faithful or fierce will not engage in such a barbaric act. The use of the word barbaric is deliberate in this case: honour killings in the name of faith, religious or otherwise, are an ugly artifact of the past. If they are allowed to continue and spread then we will return to the barbarity of totalitarianism or even the dark ages.

Faith killings, like the Charlie Hebdo attacks, are a fanatics attempt to uphold the honour of the system that they have dedicated themselves to. They see any affront to their beliefs as something that needs to be avenged. Often this mindset seems strange to rational people, who can have their most deeply held beliefs insulted and challenged on a daily basis without resorting to violence. However, the fanatic is acting from an irrational impulse, usually fear. They fear that if mockery strips the object of their belief of its dignity then all of their work and all of their devotion will be for nothing. A fanatic puts all of his stock in that one belief, and if that belief is devalued in the marketplace of ideas then so is he. The fanatic will not admit to this fear, event to himself, but it is rooted at the core of his devotion. Someone who is secure in their beliefs does not need to kill for them, and will not unless they are directly threatened, which is never the case when mockery and insults are the supposed threat.

In the arena of fiction, fanatics make for interesting villains. The believe that they are right, and do not question the object of their faith. Within the confines of their system, the fanatic is often more moral than the non-fanatic (although this is not always the case). They are not one dimensional, despite how they may seem on the news. They will even deny that they are fanatics, often in a well reasoned fashion, up to a point. (Perhaps I am a fanatical believer in free speech and democracy? would I know?)

Regardless, fanaticism of any sort is an excellent source of villainy for more Epic forms fantasy fiction. A relatively harmless action, like a cartoon, can set off a fanatical reaction where honour can only be restored through bloodshed. In other posts I have detailed types of fanaticism, from religious to economic. It is my belief that Fanaticism can carry over to belief in any system. Pastoral fantasy tends to use fanatics in the same way that it uses orcs — disposable fodder for action scenes and as a contrast to make the hero look good. (see below for grimdark) However, good Fantasy thrives on exploring the beliefs and systems beyond those of the protagonist. In modern fantasy we prefer villains that have some nuance and revel in the justifications for their actions.

Here are a few examples of interesting Fanatics that could appear in Fantasy Fiction

  • The Rathamen of the Kingdom of Yeer believe in keeping their bodies pure. Contact with outsiders is forbidden until they are ritually purified, and touching a Rathaman is considered a deadly insult. Fanatical Rathamen blame outsiders for all illness and will kill them without provocation at the slightest sign of disease. They also believe that illness among their own kind is a sign of weakness and that the infirm and ill should be shunned. This all stems from a belief that arose during a plague long ago.
  • The Dwarves of Hunglelund believe in trade. Trade is both good and natural. They will use their armies to ensure that trade happens freely and unfettered, no matter what the cost. Aggressively opening up new markets is for the betterment of all!
  • The Scrolls of Tharn the Prophet state that the mineral pools of Tradir are sacred and can cure all the ills of the faithful. Unfortunately overuse has polluted the pools. Sadly however, the prophet stated that the pools are sacred, which means to question the sanctity of the pools is to say that the Prophet is fallible. The illnesses cause by this cycle are creating an imbalance in the religion.

More interesting, however, is that the protagonist need not be someone we would normally find heroic when confronting fanaticism. Political cartoonists are not especially admired in normal society, and are certainly far below policemen, soldiers, and first responders in normal estimations of courage. Yet, when fanaticism is at work, and even a cartoon is considered a grave insult that must be avenged then the creators and critics of culture are often front and centre in the conflict. This can make for excellent fiction. Here are a few examples:

  • The God-King is considered infallible and perfect. A simple cobbler discovers that his feet are different sizes, which is impossible if he is divine, setting off a chain of events that shakes the foundations of the empire.
  • A scientists using a primitive microscope discovers that the pools of Tharn contain nasty little critters that are causing illness and corruption. Using his knowledge, he successfully treats the ill. This creates a schism as some claim that he does evil work, while others begin to question the pools, and still others seek to purify the people by infecting them with the corruption from the pools.
  • The Book of Ibb is the only true book. All other books, even those not written by the faithful of Ibb, are full of false knowledge. BURN THE LIBRARIES! (Sorry Alexandria)

Obviously these are simplistic concepts, but they are examples seeds that can be grown into fully fleshed out conflicts for an interesting series. The best fanatical beliefs showcase the unusual nature of the world that the author has created or emphasize the qualities of those who oppose them.

The fanatic can also be a hero, however, particularly in Grimdark fiction. I am minded here of the noble space marines, who are shielded from the shit storm of corruption in the 40k universe by their faith in humanity and the Imeperium. Of course, grimdark takes a dim view of heroes to begin with 😉