A few thoughts on Charlottesville

[This is not related to my writing, but I have to say something about it, if only to set it in my mind for later… Shadow Wolf Sagas will resume on Sunday, hopefully.]

A couple of days ago, I watched with horror and disgust as the most powerful man in the world lied to defend racists and traitors.

That President Donald J Trump lies is nothing new or surprising. At this point in his career only a fool would stand up for his honesty. But in a presidency defined by its lows, lying in the defence of the KKK and American Nazis marks a new low and a dangerous one at that.

During his remarks yesterday President Trump doubled down on his original comments that both the left and the right were equally responsible for the grim actions in Charlottesville that left Heather Heyer dead, and dozens wounded as a white supremacist rammed a car into a line of merchers.

His most brazen lie, that the Left-wing protesters did not have a permit to protest, went unchallenged, mostly unnoticed in a stream of ugly half truths. The Anti-Nazis actually had two permits to protest, making their presence just as legal. And yet the President’s lie was picked up and spread by his surrogates and supporters and used to give the KKK and the Nazis greater legitimacy by creating the narrative that they were there legally, while the Anti-Nazi protesters were not. He lied to defend ideologies that Americans have gone to war to defeat. He lied to defend groups who spread hate and murdered a woman this weekend. He lied to defend his allies and in doing so condoned their actions and fanned the flames of further violence.

Perhaps even uglier than the lies he told in defence of the KKK and the Nazis, was his equivocation on their behalf. The stated term for their gathering was to protest the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee, the most celebrated general of the Confederacy. President Trump said that taking down Lee’s statue would open the way for the left to take down statues of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson since all three men were guilty of owning slaves. This argument enrages me. Comparing the first two Presidents of the United States to the leader of the Confederate army that sought to tear it apart during the Civil War is simply beyond the pale. Yes, all three men owned slaves and should be condemned for that, but two of them are proud figures in early American history, flaws and all, while Lee is a General of a hostile secessionist force, a traitor to the republic who sought to bring it down to preserve slavery.

One need only to glance at the founding documents of the Confederacy to know that slavery was the reason they broke away from the Republic, in spite of the popular fiction of state’s rights. President Trump does not care though; he needs allies and the Nazis and KKK are his most willing and ardent supporters at this point.

The further we get away from the weekend, the uglier the forces behind Charlottesville look. One need only read the words and look at the posters that were created to advertise the event to see that these were white supremacists. Richard Spencer, a Nazi by his own words and admission, was a headline guest. The protesters chanted “Jews will not replace us” and “Blood and soil”, lines which resonate with racist and fascist movements of the past. And yet, President Trump has dug in his heels and refuses to back off his equivocations and lies. While this has earned him a heap of criticism from most people, the Nazis and the KKK have praised him for his support; thus far he has not tweeted that he does not want their kudos. He has been far swifter and less equivocal in his criticism of everything under the sun (Except Russia), one need only look at his twitter feed to see the truth of that. He does not condemn them fully because he does not want to. It is sad and ugly, and it leaves me angry and deeply troubled.

Heather Hayer was killed at Charlottesville when a white supremacist rammed a car into a crowd of protestors. Nineteen more were injured. I have watched that terrible video and it will remain with me, as will the words and images of the vicious white supremacists who descended upon Charlottesville. As far as I am concerned the BLM/Antifa/Church Groups and others who showed up to confront them are heroes. I do not condone violence, but history has shown us what happens when you don’t stand up to Nazis.

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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…

Trudeau, Castro, Cuba, Canada, and News Bubbles

I almost did not write this. It is an opinion that could lose me fans. But part of being a writer is having the courage of my convictions.

This week the Canadian Prime-Minister, Justin Trudeau, briefly managed the nigh-impossible feat of attracting more media attention than Donald Trump by offering a eulogy for Fidel Castro. The hashtag #TrudeauEulogies quickly trended, with fake Trudeau eulogies for Hitler and Stalin being the most popular.

Then our American allies discovered (again) photos of our PM being held by Castro when he was a child. And then they rediscovered the pictures of Castro at Pierre Trudeau’s funeral and the shit really hit the fan (for a few hours, until Trump tweeted about SNL or something).

The things is Canada has never really been at odds with Cuba. It is more of an American thing.

While the Canadian right was quick to jump on the bandwagon and enjoy a good ol commie scare, most Canadians shrugged. Almost a million Canadians vacationed in Cuba last year (2015), spending over 700 million $, and notably few them were taken prisoner, shot, or radicalized. Many of those Canadians actually left the beaten and talked to the locals, who are amazingly well educated despite the isolation forced on them by the embargo.

Some people who live in the US, particularly Cuban exiles and escapees, have real reasons to hate Castro, I cannot deny that. These people have family members who have been executed and property that has been confiscated, and many escaped under harrowing circumstances. Their view of Cuba is the one that I grew up with, as Canada is often inside the US media bubble. That view was of Castro as a brutal dictator dominating his country, always on the brink of being overthrown.

When I visited Cuba, I found that greatly at odds with the reality. There were far fewer police and military than I expected and I began to see how the elder Trudeau could have a friendship with the Cuban dictator.

I learned a great deal from the Cubans I encountered. There is a lot of history on that island, which is, after all the first point of modern European contact with the Americas.

Cubans do not hide that Castro did brutal things. They spoke openly about them. The US backed dictator that Castro overthrew, Bautista, apparently did worse things. He just wasn’t a communist. In the midst of the cold war, that made all the difference.

The US tried many times to overthrow Castro. Each time they made a crucial mistake.in hoping that the Cuban people would rise up and overthrow the cruel dictator. Each time that rebellion failed to materialize, even when backed by Cuban exiles and escapees. From the Bay of Pigs, to the embargo, to Radio Free Cuba, all of these failed.

While I was in Cuba I was reminded of the time after the fall of the Soviet Union, when the US tightened the embargo, hoping that without the support of that bastion of communism, Russia, that Cubans would finally be driven to oust the dictator. I forgot about that until I visited Cuba and on of my day tour guides mentioned what they call “the special period”, with a haunted look in his eyes.

You see that tightening of the embargo produced starvation in Cuba. People died when goods could not be sold and food could not be brought in. Dying of starvation is a kind of torture, is it not? And yet, the Cuban people did not blame Castro for the embargo, nor did they have higher than normal resentment toward the American people — they blamed the US government and US politics.

But mostly the people I talked to about that period, which includes a number of Cuban immigrants to Canada since my visit, look at it as a sad, painful event.

So while some Cubans have reason to hate Castro, the Cuban dictator and the Cuban situation is more complex than the mainstream media lets on and the US government is not exactly free of blemishes regarding the island. My hope is that President Trump helps lift the embargo and that the people of the US can travel there to learn on their own.

It certainly opened my eyes.

Social Media, Fake News, and Information Flow

We are all living in bubbles.

One of the fascinating things about this US election, other than the election of someone who was heralded by allies and opponents alike as a potential Tyrant, is the role of social media as the newly dominant form of communication.

I hate social media with contrarian passion, and perhaps a little stupidity. It is inarguable that I would make more sales if I had a greater mastery of Facebook and adwords. Twitter is doing well for me, but I could self-promote there more effectively as well. So, yes, I experienced a little schadenfreude when Facebook received so much heat after people analyzed how much effect the barrage of fake news on the site  had on the US election. But now, in the endless aftermath, it is time to get a little more serious.

Like it or not, a huge swath of people get their news from places like Facebook now. Many of these people are too rushed to fact-check everything, and almost all of us are less likely to check information that confirms our biases. In the deluge of election news, I re-posted at least one, a factoid about Trump saying if he ever ran for president, he would do so as a Republican, because they are the mots gullible. It seems like something he would write, but to my shame it was not.

The sheer deluge of information this election was difficult to process. Facebook makes information easier to digest with reactions from trusted friends and a simple feed based format. It also tends to show only new and information that it thinks you will like, or that others have paid it to show you. It does absolutely nothing to verify if this information is fake or not. In fact, given that Facebook makes money off of social activity and targeted advertising, it has little reason to delve into policing the information that it distributes.

These Macedonian Fake News farmers are just an example.

The idea that this kind of stuff can sway an election is troublesome, especially since social media is still growing in influence. When criticized Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s CEO first that it had any effect on the election. While untrue by any measure, it is an understandable response. Facebook wants to be a big tent, and the only way to do that these days is to avoid controversy. Wading in to halt the spread of fake news would open them to criticism from all sides. Conservatives are already at odds with the social media giant over earlier slights.

The argument that it is too hard to filter fake news is an obvious smokescreen.

Beyond that, there is the moral question of whether or not Facebook should be curating our news feeds based on what it thinks our political affiliations are. This puts everyone in a bubble where they have to go out of their way to seek dissenting opinions. As these bubbles solidify they can drive opposing sides apart when they could be finding common ground.

There is also the idea that social media news benefits flashy, controversial figures simply because they elicit stronger reactions (both good and bad).

Finally the idea that a smart user can actually target misinformation to send to particular groups is especially disturbing. Propaganda is bad, but easily propaganda tailored specifically to your biases and blind-spots is potentially devastating. I fear that this is just beginning; that fact-checking will be a necessary activity for people who wish to be even slightly informed and that often stupid and dangerous ideas will be amplified by social influencers in a way that people who used to decry actors talking politics could never even dream of. Instead of the information age, we will live in the misinformation age as the stream of data becomes clogged with the offal of fake news and profitable falsehoods. The idea is nothing new, just think of climate change denial, but the level to which it can be amplified is.

But please, don’t take my word for it, check it out for yourself.

A Review

Often, when sales are down, or when a new book does not quite meet expectations, I wonder if I am doing the right thing by continuing to write. I suspect that this is something that almost writers struggle with from time to time. Surely the 20+ hours a week that I spend writing could be put to better use making money for my family. I have children and a wife to think of, and all the adult practicalities of life to bow to. Usually these thoughts are put down with me realizing that I have drunk too much coffee that day, or thinking of the positive reinforcement that I have received from readers, or family.

The thing is, even if practicalities demanded that I stop writing, I am not certain that I could. I have kept writing through some fairly rough (for my life) stuff in the last few years. I am nearing publication of my eighth novel in spite of it all. Its pretty fucking crazy, really. But, I do it because writing is one of the things that I do to feel alive.

It took me a long time to come to this realization.

And that is where Walter White comes into this. If you have never watched Breaking Bad, you should. I came late to the party, finishing the show well after the final season and well-deserved the glory that came along with it. I loved it despite the fact that I do not like outlaw stories, prefer not to watch TV for the most part, and really dislike grim stuff. Breaking Bad rose above all of that, implausibly in my case, and I am glad that my wife prevailed on me to watch it. It is the first TV show that has given me the same feeling, when it ends, that I have when I finish a great book or video game. That is something special.

I cannot offer you any new insight into the show. The acting is amazing from all sides. The characters and the writing are legendary. The descent of Walter White is both gratifying and horrifying, but no matter how you view his morality, it is a satisfying tale. It is cited as one of the best shows of all time for good reason. I have been replaying the last episode and some of the highlights of the show for a week now.

It is a masterwork.

What I can add is what it taught me about myself. I see a little bit of Walter White in me. In the end, he realized that being Heisenberg made him feel alive, and everything else was just an excuse. It was his art, as writing is mine.

Through art we come to know ourselves…

Disclaimer: I do not intend to use my writing for evil… 😀

Big News in Gaming: Fantasy Flight and Games Workshop Part Ways.

Rumours have been circulating in gaming circles for some time now. Games Workshop, the dominant company in miniatures gaming for decades. Lately GW has been a favourite subject of my ruminations, especially in regard to their treatment of The Old World, the most popular grimdark fantasy setting in gaming.

Fantasy Flight is a relative newcomer to the field. It was started in 1995 by Christian T. Peterson and rose steadily in prominence over the last decade or so, often through clever use of licensed IPs, including Warhammer and other GW properties. After a merger with Asmodée in 2014, Fantasy Flight has arrived at the pinnacle of the tabletop gaming industry.

Fantasy flight knocked Warhammer 40k, GWs most reliable miniatures line out of the top spot in the coveted US market in 2015.  This is kind of a big deal, especially after GW has dropped Warhammer Fantasy Battles in an effort to retool their fantasy lines to greater profit.Leveraging the Star Wars license is just the latest and most successful foray for FF Ginto the miniatures space. For years their boxed sets have been fantastic collections of figures while GW charges 40+$ for a single space marine captain.

It seemed inevitable that as FFG rose, its relationship with GW would change. GW has met with success in its re-opened specialist games division, boardgame-like products that it has abandoned for years, that compete with FFG. Then at Gencon 2016 Fantasy Flight announced Rune Wars, a tabletop miniatures that moves directly into the space vacated by GW’s defunct Warhammer Fantasy Battles. This signals that the parting of ways is less than amicable (Though not necessarily sour) and that the two former allies will now be competing directly for market share.

It is hard to speculate exactly what precipitated the parting of the ways, but it is very interesting news.

Here are some of my thoughts on this.

  • Fantasy Flight will ‘win’ this confrontation, at least in the short term. FFG has a good market strategy and holds the upper hand with the star wars license. The real winners will be gamers I think, because both companies will step up under increased competition. GW, in particular, is going to have to take a serious look at the price point of their miniatures — FFG offers much better cost per figure than they do (although Cool Mini or Not
  • The real downside to these two companies parting ways is that some very good games will just disappear. These include Chaos in the Old World by the amazing Eric Lang, one of my personal favourites as well as an extensive list of Board Games and RPGs.
  • Rune Wars is not an especially strong entry into the field (The IP is underdeveloped and pretty generic), but it comes at a time when few companies, none of them with clout comparable to FFG are in the space of making big class of armies miniatures games. Their timing is good here, people are excited, and if they capitalize on early successes and release new content intelligently they will still dominate for a while.
    • FFG is hit and miss on innovative mechanics. They love custom dice, cards, dials, and movement templates and Rune Wars has them all. Sometimes these work such as the Star Wars games or the Star Wars RPG, and sometimes they fall flat. I’m leaning toward functional.
  • Talisman is returning to GW. I preferred the old characters to the new, generic take on the game so I am looking forward to a new release.

That’s all I have to say on the matter now, but it is very interesting.

Musings on user reviews

Reviews are the lifeblood of e-commerce. Without the ability to actually examine the product for themselves consumers are forced to make a judgement based partly on the description of the product, the reputation of the vendor, and the reviews of the item. Yet often these reviews are rife with ideological crusaders, reviews for sale, and odd design choices in the review systems themselves.

As an indy author this is painfully obvious for me at the moment. I have to solicit reviews on amazon because most people who read my work prefer to review it on Goodreads. I have even been tarred and feathered by fake reviewers looking to lower their average score in order to seem legitimate when they give 5 star ratings to their clients. The review system is annoying, and yet I need it to move books and reach potential readers.

The first and largest problem in the review system is that it often reads like any other comment section anywhere else in the internet. I am not popular enough to have this problem yet, but it does annoy the heck out of me when I am reading reviews of games or books and people are using the review system for popular products to push their personal views rather than actually review the product. This can be a fine line, to be sure: should Lovecraft be docked stars because he is racist? for example. Mind you in most cases it is not. I’m sure you have all seen reviews like this, if not go look at the reviews on your favorite (non classic) popular computer game or book. Some are legit, some are lazy, and some people are there to make a point that has little to do with the product itself. I’m not sure how to fix this, yet.

Fake reviews are more sensational. There is a thriving cottage industry in selling fake reviews of all sorts of products, as well as companies putting up their own fake reviews of their products. Since reviews still help drive sales, there is a real economic incentive to cheat if you can get away with it. As I noted these ‘reviewers’ often give crap ratings to low profile indy authors in order to even out all of the five star reviews they give to their clients so that they look like a tough reviewer.

The review systems themselves are sometimes even more of a problem. Amazon, the most important reviewer for my career, has some quirks that annoy the crap out of me. They do not amalgamate reviews from all of their secondary sites on my book, even though the product is exactly the same on amazon.com as it is on amazon.ca or amazon.uk. People who have written reviews for me sometimes do not get them approved from various reasons (some are legitimate I suppose, sorry mom!). Even worse is that Amazon owns Goodreads and could easily show the goodreads reviews on a particular title, like Steam shows the metacritic score, but they do not and thus compete with themselves for reviews. I don’t know too many people who are willing to review a product on multiple sites without prodding. This is not to mention the problems with the scoring systems themselves and even how ratings drive searches.

One solution is professional reviewers, people whose job it is to review a product for a trusted third party. Unfortunately in many arenas Professional reviews are missing in action, or lost in the noise. Even if they are easy to find, a professional reviewer often wants different things than the average reader. This can lead to authors skewing their work to solicit favourable opinions from elite reviewers. This is nothing new, but it is still annoying; authors should be free to write for their intended audience, ideally, rather than jump through hoops for publishers and reviewers. Still, hunting down high profile reviewers who will like your work has been a piece of advice that many of my peers have given me.

For now, I rely on fans and organic growth while examining other possibilities.