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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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.

The Influence of Dune

I was thinking about Dune recently.

Dune is one of my favourite books (also movies, even though they are so different). It is one of the few great works of genre fiction that so many subsequent authors draw from that somehow manages to seem cohesive and powerful even today.

Dune remains an unfinished series for me. I loved Dune Messiah, but was disappointed by Children of Dune. I have not had the heart to continue on into the series, despite most people saying it gets better.

Even as a standalone book, Frank Herbert’s Dune is impressive, dealing with topics that we are grappling with even now, in grand fashion.

  • Extractivism: Dune has strong overtones of the age of industry, with the primary driver of conflict in the book being a resource of incredible scarcity and potence: spice. Control of the planet is vital to the Emperor and all of humanity since the spice is the basis of interstellar travel.
  • Fanaticism: In Dune and Dune Messiah, the religious, tribal fanaticism of the Fremen is presented as a potent force. Despite everything man has learned and accomplished, it is the power of his irrational impulses and prejudices that produces the greatest fears. Sound familiar?
  • Automation and AI: In Dune you read in passing of the Butlerian Jihad, a great religious upheaval against thinking machines and robots of all kinds. The Jihad rids known space of AI and sentient machines, but also sets humanity back into a kind of dark age. While Herbert’s view of automation and machines was often repeated in later scifi, his replacements for machinery in the genetic coding of the Bene Gesserit and things like the human computers known as mentats were very inventive. Star Wars has sentient robots but they fight wars like they are in the 1970’s and seems to indicate that they change very little of everyday life, Dune tackles these changes head on and builds a more cohesive universe.
  • Transhumanism: Cloning, genetic modification, and outright shedding of one’s humanity figure deeply into Dune from the beginning. Herbert toys with the idea of prophecy heralding a certain needed sequence of genetics in Paul (or Leto II) and muses on the idea of clones and a human being becoming something else through technology or symbiosis. This is a surprisingly modern idea.

This along with the culture clashes, the philosophy and the deep politics of the series have made it stand out in my mind.

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.

Real World Examples: The Electoral College as a Broken System.

I did very little promotion this weekend, and yet sold a fair number of books. It seems that after the madness of the Us election, people are catching up on their reading. The election left many people angry, tired, or worried and a good book (or one of mine) is a great way to relieve stress or calm down before returning to the fray. Personally, I am looking forward to watching last night’s SNL; Dave Chappelle is the host, and he is pretty damn awesome.

Now, onto tonight’s topic. The Electoral College. Although all of the votes in the US election have yet to be counted it seems that Hillary Clinton has the most votes, while President Elect Donald Trump has won the electoral college. I don’t like Trump, but he is not at fault in this. The problem is that people have been exploiting the electoral college for years because it is the best path to victory. In a system where one person’s vote is supposed to count for as much as that of anyone else, the idea that two out of the last five elections have been won by a party that has not won the popular vote is problematic.

I often write about systems on this blog. Systems and institutions are often villains in my works: the ancient strictures in the covenant that force gifted children to choose between loss of power and long servitude or the many pitfalls of the arena; the old laws that bind the Dwarves of Khazak Khrim and their slaves into a cycle of servitude and hate; and the exploitation of The Grand Championships for political gain and personal profit.

In my view systems become corrupted when people learn to exploit them for gain. As resistance to this corruption grows, those who benefit from exploiting the system rarely give it up, often engaging in worse corruption or outright violence to keep their advantage. Democrats have every reason to be upset over their loss, especially when it seems that Republicans have been making it much harder for certain groups to vote in many states.

Now before their surprise victory, some Republicans, including the President Elect were railing against the Electoral college as undemocratic. We all know that if Hillary Clinton had lost the popular vote and won through the electoral college, it would be the source of just as much salt to them.

This actually has been a problem in other ways for a long time, just hidden from most people.  With the way the college is apportioned, winner take all in most states, a Democrat in Alabama or a Republican in California in most elections feel like they do not have a say.

The problem now is that reform is unlikely because the Electoral College currently seems to favour Republicans. Why would they give up an advantage? The flip side of the problem is that many people are angry about it, and feel that their vote does not count which leads to protest. If this continues the pressure for reform will grow, but the resistance from those who are exploiting the system will grow as well. Reform is likely inevitable, but if the college keeps favouring one side, the road will be rough. I expect it would be the same if the situation were reversed and the Democrats were enjoying this advantage.

In the end, I think no matter where you stand on the election, you can see how exploitation of systems can create corruption. There are many more examples, but this one is most pressing.

3D Printing and Games

I came across an interesting website today, Heroforge, which lets you design a miniature using a simple 3d interface, including equipping it, posing it, and creating facial expression. Try it out.

3D printing is going to revolutionize tabletop gaming.

  • The ability to create, pose, and then order a miniature in the material that you want is already impressive. Once 3D printers become more common as household items, printing your own miniatures at home for your games instead of ordering them becomes a game changer. 3D printing at current speeds is slow, but 90 minutes is even faster than same day shipping (and cheaper).
  • Customization is easier. In traditional miniatures design putting a new set of armour, a new pose, or a new weapon on the same miniature can require a new sculpt of the miniature or modifications that are beyond casual players. Using software people can get creative much more easily. Experts will be able to create even more complex modifications is less time with starting points that are closer to their final vision.
  • As the price on 3D printed figures and printers drops, it will be easier to field larger armies in miniatures games.
  • Rare component that exists as digital files do not necessarily have to go out of print. This means that less popular factions will not always get the shaft over the long term in wargames.
  • In tabletop RPGs that use miniatures it can be very hard to find a mini that looks like your character. Now you can design a model that looks how you want the character to look, print it, and update it as the character grows in power and changes equipment, style, and even attitude. As the tech improves so will the level of detail possible.
  • Even little quality of life improvements will make tabletop gaming better; how often have you lost a custom component or wanted another? Soon you might be able to buy a file and print it on your 3d printer with a relatively short delay.
  • On the production side it will reduce risk for certain types of gaming operations. Small, custom games become more viable if they are sold via digital license and the components are printed by the consumer.
  • The ability to print small, complex items will greatly enhance creative cosplay as well.

I am really excited by the possibilities that 3d printing will bring to gaming. For the first time I could see creating a Bloodlust boardgame that allow the players to creature their own custom gladiators after they get used to the basics of the game. With this new opportunity the outflow of creativity could be massive and the potential savings and accessibility could bring many new people to the table for game nights.

I look forward to meeting at the local gaming cafe and playing the newest games with those cool custom minis we just printed out, one day soon.