The War On Truth

This is political and anti-Trump.

Sometimes I worry about posting stuff like this. I don’t want to alienate any of my readers who are pro-Trump, whom I love regardless of their political affiliation, but we are living in a historical moment and I cannot pretend to be neutral.

Reagan and Nixon had the War on Drugs, George Bush had the War on Terror and this weekend President Donald J Trump started The War on Truth. It began over this photo:

trumpcrowd

The thing is in 2009 President Obama drew a crowd of historic size (1.8 million), partly because of his popularity and partly because it was a historic occasion (first Black President). The next closest crowd size in recent memory was Obama in 2013 (1 Mil) and Clinton in 1993 (800K). Others rarely broke five hundred thousand.

Donald Trump is a divisive President, so he should have been happy with the relatively small, but still decent crowd size estimates, or just said “wait and see” until the facts were published. Instead he had his Press Secretary call a special press briefing to dispute the crowd size estimates and harangue the media, but offer little factual evidence in retort. The whole thing was the basically the press conference version of road rage.

The conference is worth watching, by the way, if only to see how it sets the tone for The War on Truth. I will link to a republican site for it, so you can read how Trump fans see it, but it is easy to find you own version on youtube if you don’t want to give them views.

Here is a nice summary of some of the ‘alternative facts’ aka lies that were said, with evidence.

The size of the crowds was still a theme later in the day when Trump himself spoke out, especially since it appears that the women’s protest against Trump the next day dwarfed the inauguration day crowds, but first a little background.

On January 11, 2017 President Donald J Trump tweeted this, after a round of new revelations about his connections to Russia and a possible blackmail tape:

He then went on to attack the outgoing director of the CIA and the agency’s record in general, and then ended his rant with a veiled accusation of them being the group that leaked the Russian revelations to the media.

Just ten days later President Trump gave a speech to high ranking CIA officers in front of the wall of honor, where stars are displayed for CIA officers killed in the line of duty whose names remain secret where he said this:

“But no, I just wanted to really say that I love you. I respect you. There’s nobody I respect more. You’re going to do a fantastic job. And we’re going to start winning again – and you’re going to be leading the charge.”

So there’s no one Donald Trump respects more than the agency he was attacking ten days ago. Reminds me of another Donald Trump quote about how no one respects women more than him, just after his famous pussy grabbing comments came out into the open. It is a pretty easy to follow pattern for him.

Finally, Kellyanne Conway, the woman who ran Trump’s winning campaign (or was that Comey?) defended these two rants in a media appearance. She said that Sean Spicer was just working with ‘alternative facts’, a rather impressive piece of doublespeak, and then threatened veiled retribution for hard questioning, saying she might have to rethink their relationship with the program.

The first weekend up the Trump presidency was a fight over crowd size. Just wow.

Even if the president thought he was being misrepresented, surely he has better things to do that correct a minor issue like this. The truth will come out over time regardless of initial estimates. Can you imagine if Obama had freaked out like this over his birtherism?

Trump has declared war on the media, the facts, and ultimately the truth because he wants to control the narrative of his presidency. Unfortunately, his own words are what trip him up the most, such as with his comments about the CIA.

I started off Friday sincerely hoping that I am wrong about Trump, because people’s lives are at stake. Now I am virtually certain that I am right, and it is not a pleasant feeling.

Still, the sheer size of the crowds at the women’s protest left me feeling buoyed, at least until I hear the ‘alternative facts’ about those…

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…

Trump the Iconoclast, Trump the Orthodox, Trump the ‘Hero’

I find it increasingly hard to turn away from the ugly spectacle of American politics. Part of this is envy; I honestly wish that I could have cast my vote (Bernie, then Hillary) in this seminal election, a transition (I hope) from the industrial age to the information age. I live in the shadow of American news and politics, and while I love Canada, it is hard to ignore the tug of that great country south of us.

I often talk about systems on this blog. I feel that systems and institutions are the villains of modern stories more than singular figures.

Enter Donald Trump.

Trump is a man who has shown absolute willingness to cast aside institutions and ideas. Depending on how you view his motivations this is either a good thing or a bad thing, obviously. I see his motivations as guided by contempt for expertise, the power of persuasion, revenge, desire for personal gain, and an ideology that places wealth and business above all else. Some of his followers see a heroic iconoclast that will break the chains that have held back their country for decades and allow them to cast down their enemies at last.They see him as akin to Alexander confronting the Gordian Knot, as Jesus sweeping the money-lenders from the Temple.

We both might be right.

[What is an iconoclast?  a person who attacks settled beliefs or institutions, literally a destroyer of idols.]

Trump shut down the TPP, instantly dealing a blow the flow of decades of globalization. I actually am in favour of this, but mostly because the TPP is full of harmful laws that limit freedoms and make life easier for climate change deniers. If I could bring myself to trust Trump (spoiler: he lies quite frequently), this alone would be enough to gain my support.

I also don’t trust foreign intervention or intelligence agencies; Trump is currently at odds with both.

I can see why some of Trump’s followers view him as a heroic figure, come to break down regulations and set things right.

The problem is that what guides Donald Trump is not a desire for justice or to make America a better place for everyone. Donald Trump’s destruction of institutions and ideas is purely motivated by personal gain and to enhance to power of the wealthy. In this way he often acts like an orthodox republican: spouting tax cuts, attacking climate science, and seeking to enhance the power of the nation with military might over diplomacy.

In this, he is willing to be iconoclastic as well. He does not care about the truth, spewing whatever he reads on his twitter feed without fact-checking. He does not seem to realize the responsibility that seems to come with his office in this regard. His racism and sexism is well noted, but seen by many as a reaction to stifling political correctness, a bullshit claim in my opinion.

Trump is even willing to violate the constitution (article 1, section 9) in order to keep ownership of his business interests, arguing that his voters knew that he is a businessman, wiping out hundreds of years of tradition in a single stroke. What is fascinating is that his followers and party are, so far, willing to go along with this, even though it is a glaring example of the corruption they despise. In fact, the more his corruption irritates liberals, the more some of them seem to like it.

Trump has already changed so much of american politics and he is not even in power yet. And yet, rather than bringing the country into the future, Trump seems to want to return to a mythical era in the past when coal and manufacturing propelled the economy, businessmen were objects of unqualified adoration, and people did not have to give a fuck about political correctness. In this fashion we can see the orthodoxy that shapes his attacks, a hatred of the directions that the country has taken since his youth.

And yet that bygone era has one defining feature that Trump rejects with great vehemence: The Cold War with Russia. Trump loves everything from that time but rejects butting heads with the dictator, Putin. In many ways this is laudable, but in Trump I think we can see how it is motivated by self-interest. The CIA and the NSA have both sounded warnings about Russian hacking in the election and Trump refuses even to talk about it.

I wonder what is in those tax returns, another tradition that he has broken with.

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.

Election Night Update: Galadriel vs Sauron a toss up.

Ok, so in all seriousness, I wish that I was a US citizen right now so I could vote in what appears to be the most important election in recent times. I was going to write about how the presentation of latest wikileaks was all smoke and mirrors, but this is not the place to lecture my fans on such things three days before the bug event, especially since I am not an american citizen. You all know how I feel about Trump, and if I am stressed about the election then no doubt a person who is living through it might feel worse.

So instead, I though I would lighten things up with an election that is a little easier to understand.

Live from Middle-Earth

Melitot Took, Female Hobbit, Shire: This election cycle has been terrible. Orc raids and Nazgul on fell-beasts everywhere. How am I supposed to decide anything with this madness going on. Both candidates are terrible. I’m undecided. Sauron is an amazing jeweler and owns most of Mordor. He could really put that expertise to use and create jobs and no place has a stronger border than Mordor let me tell you. Still some people say that he has associations with Melkor. Meanwhile Galadriel has been running around Rivendell for a thousand years and what has that gotten us? Bottles full of light — how does that grow tomatoes in my gardens? Plus she held the ring once and got all scary! I think I’ll just stay home.

Thorin Mcguffinluvr, Male Dwarf, Lonely Mountain: Galadriel is an elf. Dwarves cannot vote for elves. My third cousin Gimli said he was going to vote for Galadriel and so I sent him an anonymous death-threat via grudge pigeon. We don’t vote for elves. They betrayed us once a long time ago and I am still personally offended. We don’t vote for elves; how bad can Sauron be?

Eowyn, Female Rohirim, Horseback: Really? REALLY? I killed one of his most trusted henchmen. Sauron is worse than Saruman. Why are we even pretending these two are equivalent? Wait is that a ring on your finger?

Spleenripper, Male Uruk-Hai, Raiding on the border of Rohan: I am pumped about this election. Finally we have a candidate that represents what I am feeling. Sauron will solve all of our problems and make Middle-Earth great again. I mean look what he has done with Mordor!

Scatt At’Thems, Male Half-Troll, Avoiding the sun: Sauron is a master of manipulation. I know this because, I too, am a master of manipulation. Once you understand that how the world works, you realize that only a few people are truly awake and understand the power of manipulation. Galadriel is obviously asleep. Sauron, on the other hand, literally made the Rings of Power; he understands manipulation. Only someone who is awake to the power of manipulation can truly rule effectively. So what if he casts the land into eternal darkness, that won’t harm me .

Bloodtusks, Female Orc, Mordor: So the eye of Sauron can’t penetrate the voting booth, right?

Saruman, Male Wizard, Corrupting the Shire: I have seen the power of the One Ring. Neither candidate can be trusted to wield it. I personally tried to keep it from Sauron and know he wishes to see me hung from the gates of Mordor and flayed. He will likely end the world as we know it and cast us all into eternal darkness and Torment. I know, because that was my plan as well.  Still, I must endorse Sauron because of Galadriel’s stance on Ents.

Treebeard: Sauron hates Ents. Galadriel does not. Ents don’t mind waiting in line.

Review: Path of Exile

This week, after a long hiatus I returned to Path of Exile. My main computer gaming pastime of late, Total War: Warhammer, is still building up to a major and I am content to give it a rest until then.

path_of_exile_logo

Path of Exile is a free to play action rpg that has been out for several years. The game that most people would compare it to is Diablo (more like 2 than 3). Regular updates and a strong community keep it fresh.

Path of Exile plays like a typical isometric action RPG. Your character will fight hordes of enemies and nasty bosses for levels and loot. Compared to Diablo 3 the graphics are less impressive, but also less gaudy, and when the action starts much, much easier to follow than the explosion of special effects that define a high level confrontation in Diablo 3. It is much easier to follow what is going on in Path of Exile and the no nonsense approach to graphics means that special touches like an impressive boss or unusual item stand out. I also like that the combat is more tactical, with nods to positioning and ability use and less about dodging ground effects.

Path of Exile is a game that does not hold your hand. It is possible to make characters that are far better than others. The game’s skill web makes the skill trees of Diablo 2 look like shrubs and the skill choices of Diablo 3 seem like preschool.

poe-skill-tree-example

Each of those tiny nodes is a single skill point. Most are small bonuses, but can radically change your character over time, while some nodes can completely change the style of play. There are also ascendancy classes.

While the sheer variety may seem daunting, it is fairly intuitive once you understand how to read it ad the community are always, always talking about builds. The endless theorycrafting helps promote the game.

Melee (STR/Marauder) is supposedly among the weaker built types, but I have no trouble in single player on the first such character I made.

Not that anyone who likes the game would ever stop at just one character, the possibilities of that skill tree are a great lure.

At first glance the item system in Path of Exile is nothing special. The usual rares and artifacts make their appearances. Slots are in as well, though in Path of Exile this is where you get your active abilities from. In is interesting to note, however, that none of the shops use currency, but rather trade in useful commodities like identify scrolls and orbs that reroll the properties of magic weapons. There is real depth in the item system and it certainly holds the game together.

The dungeons and environments are well designed. My favourite is the labyrinth where you get your ascendancy class; a randomized set of trials with challenging traps and interesting, varying mechanics in the boss fights, all with a tight story about an emperor with no heir trying to find someone worthy.

Speaking of story, the world building in Path of Exile is unlike any of its competitors, steeped with western archetypes and what seems to be some sort of Maori warrior lore and crazy ruined empires than run on blood, gems, and the dreams of gods (and men of infinite ambition). If the story of Diablo is Dante’s Inferno cross with a world war, Path of Exile is more comparable to Vance, Moorcock, and the Malazan series. It is dark and brooding, but teeming with life and ambition. All of that grandness though is brought down to earth by interesting characters and a simple motivation: you have been cast out, exiled and left for dead, but you lived and now it is time for revenge.

Best part is the micro-transactions are not prohibitive at all. No pay to win, or pay to remove obstacles to play here.

Good game.