Goodbye to 2017; The Year of the Vulture.

World's Greatest Asshole

In some ways 2017 is a hard year to parse. Donald Trump’s bumbling cruelty as he both made and reacted to news, created an endless feedback loop that made every week seem like a month and seemed to hit new lows on an almost daily basis.

Trump was certainly the dominant news figure of the year, but his accomplishments were all train-wreck for America no matter how much he trumpeted his ‘triumphs’. The biggest beneficiary was undeniably Vladimir Putin, who flaunted his unfettered access to Trump even as he continued to attack Democracy around the world.

But if you clear aside the tweets, the likelihood of collusion with Russia, and the constant erosion of decency and tolerance coming from this President, you might see a pattern in the Chaos of Trump’s wake.

While Trump lurches drunkenly between the path toward both autocracy and exposure of his criminal enterprises, those who he has rewarded with power are glutting themselves. His cabinet can be likened to Vultures circling the American Dream as it dies an agonizing death crawling toward the mirage of prosperity through the barren desert known as Trickledown.

I wanted to call this essay the Rape of America, but while the analogy is apt, it merits a defter hand than I can muster right now. So I went with Vulture, as in vulture capitalists, namely the oligarchs who are picking America apart.

But what else do you call a tax bill where over 50% of the benefits go to a tiny minority of very wealthy people, including a huge break for real estate developers like Trump?

What else do you call the actions of an FCC commissioner who openly mocks those who want to preserve Net Neutrality, lies, and then hands over unprecedented power to some of the most predatory companies in the US, who immediately turn around and start doing the very things that he said that they would never do?

If not Vulture Capitalism, then what is it when the Education Secretary cancels loan forgiveness and fraud relief for students, while enjoying the rents of her investments in the firms that control said Student debt. Imagine if an Obama cabinet appointee acted this way.

Those in charge of the EPA and FEMA are far more concerned with profits and balance sheets than lead in the water and hurricane relief.

It goes on an on, but the pattern remains the same no matter what the agency. These people, who earn their positions by supporting and grovelling for Trump, then turn around and enrich themselves and their friends at the expense of the American public. They pretend to be engaging in a curbing of government overreach based on conservative principles, but anyone who isn’t an eager Trumpist can see that they are just turning these agencies into tool of extraction and exploitation to make themselves rich. Suck up to Trump; get a license to steal from your fellow citizens…

Perhaps the clearest example of the is the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Since its inception in 2011, this agency has clawed back billions of dollars on behalf of US consumers defrauded by large institutions. It is unbelievably successful. When the director resigned Trump put Mick Mulvaney, a man who wants to destroy the agency, in charge. There is only one reason that can be behind this action; he wants to make it easier for the Vultures to get at their meal.

More than the lies and the other aspects of corruption and collusion, it is the unmitigated looting of America by these vultures and cronies that bothers me the most.

On a personal note, 2017 has not been a bad year for me. My boy, Ronan, is two now and a sometimes a handful, but he brings joy to everyone in the family. I have released two books, Bloodlust: The Sum of Hate and The Shadow Wolf Sagas: The Sword of The Fallen King. I have even come up with a cool RPG idea that I am testing out. Mom is recovering well from her hip surgery, and the family is happy and healthy. On a broader note I am happy to see real resistance to Trump and the Alt-Right. I am supremely grateful for all of this, and my amazing friends and fans, especially in a year where so many have been hurt.

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Rotblossom Rose (1.13R)

Welcome to the space where I experiment, my weekly serial. It is written raw, not edited at all, and mostly unplanned.

The world is partly based on the background of an unpublished Steampunk game that I worked on with a few friends, which has grown in my mind over the last couple of years. The story is a take on those ultra-violent revenge epics of the eighties where a man’s family is abused and killed, but he survives and seeks vengeance. Needless to say it is a grim, bloody tale, that deals with bad people doing bad things, so be warned.

Here is the first post of this series.

Here is last week’s post.

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“Guess you don’t feel comfortable goin’ up with anyone else…” Rose says to Chris Cackles, watching the hate crystallize behind his eyes. She imagines that she can see flecks of Red Wraithstone coalescing to warp him.

Cackles just grunts. His face looks deflated without the customary grin; Rose loves it. Of all of Lawch’s band she hates Cackles the most, she thinks. Cackles had tossed her boy into the septic pit and just… laughed, like it was a joke of some sort. She wants to enjoy his death.

As the last lift vanishes above them, she turns to Cackles. It is difficult to keep from sneering at his cowardice, they are alone, he wants to kill her, but he fears attacking her by himself. Of course, this kind of cowardice has made Chris Cackles a survivor, more dangerous than bolder men.

“I’m going to use the cesspit,” says Rose. “Keep an eye on the goods. If anything goes missing I will know and The Spider will have your head.”

“You having problems, boss? You spent along time at the pit last night…” He manages a weak chuckle. By The One, she hates that grin.

“Yeah, I had the shits, you fuck! Seriously, do I have to add you watching me while I splash my guts out to my reports as well? Fucking old pervert.”

“What do you mean by reports?” Cackles eyes were round with fear now. The Spider was known to punish even minor infractions severely.

“We’ll talk about it when I get back. Keep your sodding wits about you, Cackles, I don’t want any surprises.”

<>

Cackles moves with the quiet grace of a cat, at first Rose thinks it is someone, or something else, stalking her in the dim light. But then he creeps into the circle of lantern-light, his teeth glimmering in a mad grin that seems on the verge of splitting his head in two. In his hand, in a white-knuckled grip, is a particularly vicious looking knife. His fiendish intensity as he closes in on the figure at the edge of the pit is almost terrifying to behold. Indeed, as she watches Cackles slide soundlessly forward, Rose figures that such a grin has probably paralyzed many unfortunates as they glimpsed it, too late.

The silence is shattered as Cackles drives his blade home with a brutal thrust between the shoulder blades. Only Rose is not that figure squatting beside the lantern at the edge of the Cesspit. Cackles grin fades as he realizes it is a dummy, but before he can move, Rose trips a lever and a rope snare closes about his feet and snatches him into the air.

As Rose steps out into the light, Cackles throws his knife at her. Surprised, Rose narrowly, steps aside. He reaches into his boot, but she crosses the distance between them and lands a solid punch on his temple with her metal hand. Cackles immediately ceases to struggle.

<>

Rose has tied Cackles exactly the way she wants him before he begins to stir. His feat, bare now, are dangling in the filth of the Cesspit while a series of ropes hold him above the pit.

“What the fuck, what the fuck! Help!” Cackles begins to shout.

“No one can hear you,” says Rose. “The Lift isn’t even back down yet.”

“You fucking cunt, let me go, let me go.”

Rose spins the wheel that holds the ropes, Cackles sinks to his ankles in shit.

“Oh shit. Please, I don’t want to die,” he whines.

“There is no way you are leaving here alive, Cackles,” said Rose. “You’ve come to the end of your rope, so to speak.”

Rose spins again and Cackles sinks further, screaming in horror.

“Like I said, you are going to die here, Cackles,” Rasps Rose. “But if can answer a few questions, I might just kill you quick and be done with it.”

“What-what do you want to know?”

“Do you remember me, from before?”

“Yes. Your the softborn woman from that little house on the road to Avalain. We did you good… twenty years ago.”

“You understand the irony of your predicament then?”

“What?”

Rose spins the wheel, Cackles sinks up to his thighs, shrieking.

“I don’t understand, I don’t understand.”

“Irony?”

“Yes. What does it mean?”

Rose laughs. “Nevermind. Do you understand where I got the idea to do this to you. What did you do to me and mine where this kind of death might be considered just.”

“Go to hell you rancid fucking cunt!”

This time Rose spins the wheel slowly, lowering Cackles inch by inch. By the time the shit is halfway up Cackle’s belly his defiance has given way to stark terror. He thrashes and screams. Rose stops, baring her teeth as she growls at him.

“What did you do?”

“I killed-killed your boy.”

“How?”

“I threw him in the shit-pit.”

“That’s right. Then you laughed. You and your friends thought it was quite the joke…”

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I swear by The One that I am sorry. Please just let me go.”

“Fuck you Cackles. You know I can’t let you go.”

“Why? I won’t tell anyone.”

“Bullshit. But that’s not the reason. You see when you threw my brave little boy down that pit, you laughed, but all I could hear was his screaming. He was yelling for me. I still hear that sound every time I close my eyes. I still dream of that moment EVERY HOUR THAT I TRY TO SLEEP! … I still say his name every time I wake from those nightmares… So, I think you can agree that I have to kill you.”

“No, no, no, no…”

“But if you can answer this last question, I’ll do it quick. Are you ready?”

Cackles whimpers.

“Are you ready?” Rose snarls.

“Yes.”

“What was his name, Cackles? What was the name of my little boy.”

Cackles just stares at her, mute. Rose shakes her head, and then she pulls a rope and Chris Cackles falls free of the web that is holding him, plunging the rest of the way into shit and waste, until only his head remains above. He retches and empties the contents of his stomach into the mess as he struggles.

“You know they say that killing people like this leaves a black mark on your soul,” mused Rose as Cackles struggles, retching, and grunting, to keep his head above the muck. “But I feel damn good about this Cackles. I might actually be able to sleep tonight. Maybe I’ll dream of this moment… I hope so. Enjoy your last breath, you black-hearted bugger.”

Cackles struggles and struggles, but he keeps sinking. By the time Rose was done speaking only his mouth and eyes remained above the shit. Rose meets his gaze one last time, see the hate and the terror, and then he is gone. There is a frantic struggle beneath the surface, and then silence descends once more.

“Rest now, Gared, the bad man is gone,” Rose whispers. Then she turns and begins to take down the rope and pulleys.

Rose was nearly done when a tentacle shot out of the cesspit and snared her leg.

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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.

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… 😀