Uncategorized


rockhopping

No Satisfaction prowling the asteroid belt

Holy water cannot help you now
See I’ve had to burn your kingdom down
And no rivers and no lakes can put the fire out
I’m gonna raise the stakes, I’m gonna smoke you out
Seven devils all around you
Seven devils in my house
See they were there when I woke up this morning
I’ll be dead before the day is done

The cast for this session[1]:

  • Captain Al Hamra (Mystic)
  • Engineer Reiko Ando (Deckhand)
  • Pilot Saqr Geroushi (Pilot)
  • Sensor Operator Siladan Hatshepsut (Archaeologist)
  • Ship’s Doctor Banu Delecta (Medicurg)

Having fought off the unidentified pirate ships on their way to Rockhome 3, the PCs came to a halt in the dusty darkness of the asteroid belt, and spent a few hours repairing the hull of their heavily-damaged ship. Their repairs were barely enough to make the ship safe for travel, though, so they hurried forward to Rockhome 3, in hopes of finding safe harbour and repairs for their damaged ship. They arrived a few hours later and drifted into one of the space station’s four hangars, finally finding some safety on the 6th day of their journey.

The hangar they landed in was large enough to dwarf their ship, perhaps 400m square, big enough for a small class V vessel. Their ship was the only ship in the hangar, which was a battered and filthy affair, low-tech in all its components and rundown. When they emerged from their ship they noticed the air was freezing cold, so their breath misted in front of them, and had a rank smell. A group of about 15 locals were walking towards their ship, led by a thing, greying, tall man in a dirty flight suit. As he approached Al Hamra to shake hands Al Hamra noticed that he stank of body odour. Everyone in the group looked worried, and they were all wearing flight suits, coats and scarves or mufflers. The place was unusually silent for a working dock.

The man introduced himself as Abraham, colony spokesperson, and immediately cut to business: did they have spare parts? They assured him they did, and moved to the conference room of their yacht to negotiate prices. They managed to cut an excellent deal, selling the goods for more than twice the price they had bought them and selling him more than he immediately needed, leaving them with just a small stock of advanced and ordinary parts. He also agreed to have his dock workers repair their ship, and as final icing on the cake offered them accomodation in the luxury section of Rockhome 3, adding, “I hope the gravity will be stabilized by the end of the day.”

He did not, however, offer to let them investigate the sabotage that had nearly brought his community to its knees. Al Hamra attempted to read his mind, but found only a vision of the community as a vulnerable and wounded animal surrounded by predators, that would be torn apart the moment it showed weakness. Abraham intended to find the saboteur himself.

Al Hamra did not care who the saboteur was. But the group thought back to those two fighters in the debris of the asteroid belt, and wondered what else would be coming for the colony, and if they would be gone before it came. They retired to the luxury quarters to think and to plan, leaving Adam and Oliver Greenstar on the ship to guard it.

Rockhome3

Rockhome 3

Rockhome 3 was actually a spacious and pleasant living space, though so primitive that even the PCs with a station background were uncomfortable living there. It had been built out of five asteroids, four smaller rocks connected to a larger central living space by strong tunnels. The whole thing was held together by gravitron projectors and connected to a large dock and mining complex, large enough to hold five large spaceships and about 12 small mining ships. The centre living space was a nearly spherical asteroid about 3km long by 2km wide, hollowed out and divided into two large residential sections and a central business section. The centre of all three of these spaces and the luxury sector were graced with wide, pleasant parks, and the walls of all the sectors were covered in creepers, ivy, and hanging plants. Large windows on one side of all the asteroids gave a view of the distant sun, and the slow rotation of the entire structure allowed this weak sunlight to shine into all the sectors for about 10 hours every day. Living spaces were primitive but spacious, and about 400 people lived there. No one was registered and no one could say exactly how many people lived there, but everyone knew everyone else’s comings and goings. By the time the PCs reached their luxury apartments they were already known to the entire colony.

Before the day was done they had received their first invitation to intrigue: an invitation to dinner from Ingrid Silwerstern. Ingrid was a representative for the Consortium, who had also sent a doctor called Dr. Angbat. It was only natural that she should invite them to dinner to give her the latest updates on news from Coriolis, and all the intrigues of that distant and splendid metropolis. They agreed, and soon found themselves in the company of an agreeable and charming middle-aged ambassador and the willowy young Dr. Angbat, eating Green Ahi[2] and discussing fashion trends in the Spring Plaza. However, before the night was over Ingrid made them a clear offer: find out who the saboteur was and she would give them 5000 birr (which they managed to negotiate down to 4000 birr). Ingrid’s fear was that the sabotage had been caused by the miners themselves and that they were planning an uprising – something that was always fatal for a large portion of a station, and something she wanted to avoid. Of course the PCs agreed, and went home to plan their moves.

They decided to make themselves useful, and in doing so to begin to find out what had happened in the colony. Reiko set off to help the colony’s workers repair the facilities that had been damaged by sabotage, while Al Hamra oversaw the unloading of the cargo and Siladan attempted to use the ship’s equipment to monitor outgoing broadcasts. Unfortunately Siladan’s personal problem distracted him, and instead of looking for signs of sabotage he found himself examining mining colony culture and trying to understand their life cycle. By evening he had learnt nothing. Banu offered her services as a doctor in the local medicenter, but after her first consultation – with a young domestic violence victim called Ilthid, who told her he could not leave his abuser because he was “rich and powerful offers me so much when he achieves his full potential here”[3] – was sent home for her terrible bedside manner, having learnt nothing about the local community[4].

They regathered in the luxury apartments in the evening, and Reiko was able to confirm that the sabotage had been caused by explosives, though she had not been given time to find out exactly what explosives had been used. They decided that next day Banu and Reiko would investigate the explosives in detail, while Saqr went outside in the No Satisfaction and searched the vicinity, and spent some hours eavesdropping on the communications between the miners as they worked on remote asteroids.

They set out the next day to these tasks. Reiko and Banu were able to determine that the explosives used were low-yield shaped explosives of the type used by miners, and Reiko – by chatting with the friends she made while doing repair work – learned that the mining ship docks were equipped with a kind of vending machine system for dispensing exactly the kind of explosives they suspected had been used. Only one mining ship was out at present, so they guessed that it would be easy to trace who took the explosives. All they needed to do was get into the security control centre and download footage of security cameras watching the docks. Meanwhile Saqr, listening in on miners’ talk, was able to confirm that the miners had not planned any sabotage, and showed no signs of rebelliousness. Whatever motivated their saboteur was much more sinister than mere plebeian discontent!

In the afternoon they gathered and decided to get into the security center. Reiko, Banu and Al Hamra approached the guards at the centre and, using Reiko’s newfound camaraderie with the locals, struck up a conversation about a place to get a decent bath. The guards let them in on the secret of Edith’s Repose, a Courtesan’s establishment in the centre of the business area, and with a few snide insinuations and offers of payment they managed to lure the guards away for an evening of drinking and relaxation. While they were gone Saqr and Siladan crept in and downloaded the camera footage they needed.

Algebraic Escalation

That night, looking at the footage, they found a picture of the likely perpetrator, a young man who accessed the vending machine after the last mining ship left, and showed no signs of going out mining. They thought of asking Ingrid Silwerstern to identify the man but there was no need: Banu recognized his picture as the picture on the file of the boyfriend of Ilthid, the abused man whose case she had handled so badly the day before.

They visited Ilthid immediately, finding him at his home in the first residence. After some pressure he revealed that his lover, Aslam, was a rich man, the youngest child of the Founders, a rich family descended from the original Founders of the colony. The Founders were rich from their historical possessions but had little power on the station, and most of them were now distributed around the colony’s diaspora, on Coriolis or Lubau. Aslam had stayed on Rockhome 3 and was not happy about it, but had recently started talking about how great his future would be. He assured Ilthid that he would soon be a powerful and great figure, and Ilthid tolerated violence and unspeakable acts in hopes of having great favour in the future. The PCs realized that Aslam had some plan, and decided to confront him. They left Ilthid crying softly in his rooms, and returned to their accomodation to send Aslam an invitation to a breakfast meeting to discuss investments.

Their breakfast meeting with Aslam did not go well. He was arrogant and insufferable, but gave them no evidence of his plans. Eventually when he realized they were confronting him about the sabotage he told them they would be well-served leaving the colony immediately, and then walked out. After a few minutes’ discussion the PCs decided to follow him to his residence, and were halfway across the gardens of the luxury quarter when a large screen over the entryway to the quarter came to life and provided them with a simple announcement:

Incoming ship

Docking: Hangar 2

Name: Algebraic Escalation

They were no longer alone on these distant rocks. Something had emerged from the Dark.


fn1: for this campaign we have 7 players but usually we don’t have a full group, so we get different players attending every session. So I think I will give a cast at the beginning of each report so we can see what is happening and who is present.

fn2: A kind of large grasshopper, grilled alive.

fn3: All the players missed this opportunity to find out things about Ilthid’s lover, and promptly forgot Ilthid’s name, because they are – like all players everywhere – completely useless.

fn4: Banu is a rich girl slumming it, so you can see where things went wrong when she tried to provide medical care to a belter victim of domestic violence during her gap year …

bob3

The Beast of Burden

Tomorrow my Coriolis campaign begins, and in preparation the players have generated their ship, and their group concept. Here I describe both.

The Beast of Burden

The Beast of Burden is a reconfigured Class IV luxury yacht, built in the Harima shipyards. After 15 years of faithful service she was sold off by her owner and taken over by a criminal gang, before their leadership was slaughtered in a Legion raid in Sadaal. Desperate for cash the remnants of the gang sold her on to the Free League, who reconfigured her as a luxury hotel for senior members before an unfortunate series of accidents caused all on board to die horribly and the ship to go missing. After two years she was found and claimed as salvage by some intrepid scrappers in the Tarazug system, but they soon lost her after some faulty repairs caused a portal jump mishap in Sivas. Whatever creatures from the Dark Beyond the Stars killed the crew were gone when she was rediscovered in Altai, though considerable cleaning was required to make her spaceworthy again. By now her reputation was stained far worse than the Medlab floors, though, and the salvage crew that found her sold her on for scrap. It was at this point that the media mogul Drefusol Amadi saw a chance at a bargain, bought her and reconfigured her for long distance exploration and research. In CC69 he handed her over to the PCs, saddled them with 50% of the debt for the scrap purchase and refit, and told them they would be hearing from him in due course. Whether their motives were best described as confidence, stupidity or desperation, the group agreed, and traveled to Coriolis station to collect their new ship.

bob2

Her origins in the Harima shipyard mean that the Beast of Burden is a graceful, fast and luxurious vessel, capable of surprising feats of power despite her apparently playful interior. She is large, with a 250 ton cargo hold and two spacious hangars. The cargo hold was originally a pool and party area, which is rumoured to have hosted some crazy parties, but which has now been converted to storage specially designed to enable its easy reconfiguration into a research facility or a cage for alien species.

One of the Beast of Burden‘s hangars originally held a large number of small entertainment vessels, but has been reconfigured to hold a fighter, the No Satisfaction, and an unnamed space scooter for movement between vessels. The second hangar holds the Kashmir, a class II shuttle capable of ferrying 24 passengers. In addition to the No Satisfaction, the Beast of Burden is armed with a torpedo launcher and an accelerator cannon. Though not sufficiently heavily armed to provide real military power, the combination of fighter plus two weapon points means that she is capable of defending herself until escape (or until help arrives). During her refit by the criminal gang she was equipped with advanced stealth technology, which adds to her capability in both escaping combat and exploring planets where open approach might be considered unwise.

kashmir

The Kashmir prepares to leave the hangar

Designed for long distance exploration and research missions, the Beast of Burden has an onboard workshop, service station, medlab and Arboretum. The Arboretum hosts a lizardlike Threng of Algol stock, called Neverwhere, and three colorful and raucous parrots from Kua. The two ships’ cats are allowed to prowl the Arboretum, but have come to an agreement with the parrots and prefer not to venture into the garden too often, as Neverwhere is aggressive with smaller animals. None of these animals are allowed into the Chapel. The Chapel is an essential part of the Beast of Burden, since the ship is generally considered to be cursed and homage at the chapel is essential before attempting any portal travel. The PCs have yet to grow used to the curse, or the strange sounds and sudden chills that they encounter in the darker sections of the ship.

bob deck

The Beast of Burden’s observation deck

The Beast of Burden has retained her core luxury service area, and is graced with four luxury suites and their attached galleys, entertainment spaces and cinema. The library has been converted into a media room, capable of broadcasting radio and including an encrypted messaging station for communication with their patron. On a lower deck are 16 standard cabins for crew. There are, unfortunately, only enough escape pods for 16 people, so the ship is not capable of safely operating at full complement. It does, however, have a stasis hold capable of storing 64 people, so in an emergency it could serve as an evacuation or rescue vessel, though life would be very uncomfortable for all on board. The hangar also holds two ground vehicles and a few basic drones, which can be used for mundane surface exploration, though they are not armoured or capable of all terrain travel.

The Beast of Burden offers a luxurious living space for all purpose extended missions on exploration, research or journalism tasks, ideally suited to a team of explorers hired by a media mogul with dubious intentions. Let us explore this team’s background and composition.

the group

Exploring

The Group: Explorers

The players have configured their group as explorers, with the group talent Survivors. Their members are listed here.

  • Al Hamra, a mystic, captain of the ship
  • Adam, a humanite soldier, the ship’s medic
  • Oliver Greenstar, colonist, the ship’s gunner
  • Siladan Hatshepsut, archaeologist, the sensor operator
drefusol

In the palaces of the powerful

The group’s patron is Drefusol Amadi, a media mogul who runs the Free News. He is a rich man who has been forced out of the centers of power, for reasons the PCs do not know, and intends to use his vast wealth to finance a media organization that will dig up secrets on the rich and powerful, their schemes and private lives. He funds paparazzi and private investigators in the central cities of the Third Horizon, paying them to dig up salacious gossip that undermines politicians and religious leaders, keeps them honest and keeps him paid. He also finances investigative journalists who risk their lives to hunt out the deeper and darker secrets of the powerful factions that vie for authority in the systems of the Horizon. As a side project he pays a smaller number of elite adventurers to explore the old ruins of the Horizon, and to visit frontier colonies searching for dirt, stories, rumours, and hints of ancient ruins and origin myths. His real motivations are unknown, but his animus towards the ruling powers of the Horizon is legendary. He has given the PCs no limits or obligations, simply the responsibility to pay back the debt on their ship, and has made clear to them that at some time in the future he will call on them for aid.

Opposed to Drefusol is Dr. Wana, an unconventional and reckless archaeologist who works for the Foundation’s Archaeological Institute. She has been opposed to Drefusol since his reporters uncovered the damage she was doing in a dig on a frontier planet, and the way she was treating her local labourers. It does not help that Siladan is an untrained amateur archaeologist, the kind of neophyte she hates – were he to make any major discoveries it would drive her crazy. As soon as the PCs took up Drefusol’s offer to work for him they became her enemies, and she is not a nemesis to be taken lightly – she has contacts in the Colonial Agency, the Legion, and – it is rumoured – the Draconites. She is also very well endowed with grant money and the legacy of her mother’s money, inherited from a mercenary business her mother ran in the early 40s. That mercenary company is long gone, ground to blood and bone in a brutal war on Menkar, but that isn’t to say that her contacts in the world of independent military contractors died with her mother’s sellswords … she is not one to be crossed lightly.

It is against this background that the PCs arrive at Coriolis station, to take control of the Beast of Burden, and their destiny in the Dark Beyond the Stars …

 

The new documentary Fyre, available on Netflix, describes the events surrounding the collapse of the infamous Fyre festival in 2017. The collapse of this festival gained worldwide notoriety because the festival was billed as a super luxury elite event full of models and influencers and famous people, which only the very rich could afford, but which ended with the “elite” guests having to camp in the dark in emergency response tents and eat soggy sandwiches before they fled home. It was covered extensively in the media and was often covered as a kind of disaster for the instagram age, a festival as fake as the world we build on social media, and a moral story about the collapse of truth in an era of influencers and instafame. It was a particularly attractive FUBAR because it involved rich people being scammed out of their money for what on its surface appears to be a completely vainglorious and shallow status symbol event.

I think a lot of that narrative was either untrue or a pernicious interpretation of the evils of social media. This documentary goes some way to helping to clarify what really happened and helps us to understand who some of the real victims and real villains were, but I think ultimately it fails because it does not go far enough or deep enough, and to some extent it is complicit with the scammers. It has three key flaws: 1) it fails to really contest the accounts of the organizers; 2) it does not give much of a voice to the guests; and 3) it does not offer any deeper commentary on the social media aspects of the SNAFU. I want to talk about each of these three problems and give a little opinion about what this festival tells us about social media and scams, again returning to my old saw that there is nothing new about the evils of social media, and no special skills are required to understand and deal with the problems social media creates.

First though I would like to say that although this documentary is flawed it is worth watching: it will give a much more detailed understanding of what happened and help to put the events into their proper perspective. I did not know, for example, that the organizer of the festival had been involved in a previous scam with all the same players; that a website and twitter account started to debunk the festival long before it happened; and that a great many of the attendees were not the super rich. Some of these points are not really clarified or explored properly in the documentary, but if you watch carefully and pay attention you can see these facts.

The first problem of the documentary is that it is highly dependent on footage of the entire project planning that was taken by the organizers themselves. I don’t know why they filmed themselves but it appears that the boss of the whole thing, Billy McFarland, has something of an obsession with filming his work – even at the end of the movie when he is on bail and living in a penthouse running a new direct mail scam he is filming himself doing it, which is weird. But it seems to me that in order to get this footage the documentary makers had to treat many of the organizers with kid gloves, which gives many of them the opportunity to provide self-serving and I suspect highly biased accounts of their own responsibility for the disaster. Four figures in particular – Carolla the financer, an old guy who has backed Billy McFarland for too long and has 30 years’ showbiz experience, the key guy responsible for logistics and the key guy responsible for booking acts – are up to their necks in the scam and it’s just not believable that they weren’t part of it. When one of them says that Billy would keep going away and finding new investments, it’s obvious that he is scamming new investors and they must know – and sure enough it turns out that he has been lying egregiously in documents to investors. Other people not so close to Billy were quick to get out when they realized the shitstorm that was coming, and one guy who saw right through it was able to get direct photos of the development of the festival and could clearly see it was going to be an omnishambles, yet these four couldn’t see it? Some of them, in particular Carolla and Ja Rule, were involved in Billy McFarland’s previous business, Magnises, which was clearly and obviously a scam, so it really stretches credibility when they tell the documentary makers that they didn’t know what was going on and kept not seeing the wood for the trees even when it was really clear what was going to happen. It’s very clear that Billy McFarland has a powerful effect on these people and is good at keeping them disoriented and confused, and he is always ratcheting up the chaos and demands so that they don’t have time to get clear-headed perspective on the damage he is doing. It is also really clear that he has found typically devious ways to keep them entangled in his dramas so that not only they but a lot of people who depend on them will be damaged if they back away; but these people have been around Billy McFarland long enough to know that this is his shtick, and to find ways out. There is a story in here about how incredibly dangerous people with personality disorders are when they have access to money and authority; but there is also a moral tale about the importance of not enabling these people, and of ultimately being willing to take the risk of walking away from them. This documentary shows in the end that when you enable the disordered leadership in order to protect those around you, all you really do is set those people up for a bigger fall when the narcissists’s schemes finally collapse. There’s a definite cautionary tale for Trump’s America in this documentary, but unfortunately by not properly challenging the stories of Billy’s fellow travelers the documentary fails to draw the proper lessons about the dangers of sticking with a leader with personality disorder.

The collapse of Fyre festival was a social media spectacle that was turned into a morality play about millennial idiocy by the media, but it’s worth bearing in mind that there were real victims of this farce. The documentary makes a good case for the low-paid workers of the Bahamas and the businesspeople who were left out of pocket on the island by the scammers, but it does not put much time into the feelings and experiences of the guests who paid to come to the festival and got scammed. It even manages to broadcast Billy McFarland’s point (made through Ja Rule) that nobody got injured or died. Nonetheless, the people who attended this festival turned up to an island far from home and got dumped on a fake beach in the dark with nowhere to stay except damaged tents with sodden mattresses, barely any food, and no idea what to do to get home. A large number were locked inside the airport without food and water for a night while the authorities tried to figure out a way to get them off the island. The fact that they were rich beautiful people doesn’t lessen the fear and hardship that they had to endure for a day or two while they found a way out of this scam – they were poorly mistreated. The documentary finds a couple of customers who were willing to speak on camera about their experience, and it uses a bit of social media footage of other victims, but it does manage to build up an image of these people as wealthy people who were paying for an elitist experience. It even shows a clip of a beautiful girl (possibly one of the influencers who was supposed to get free villa accommodation, though the documentary is careful not to reveal who the people in the social media clips are) saying that the “private” plane was “worse than the lowest class in economy”, which makes her seem kind of snobby from her tone. On twitter today I have been seeing people saying that what these people were really paying for was exclusivity, buying an experience that no one else could have, but I did not get that impression from the documentary: they were pretty clearly paying for the experience of a party on a beautiful beach, and paying for a luxury experience. Everything was marketed as a luxury experience and that’s what the guests were paying for. They weren’t necessarily driven by a desire for exclusivity. After all, they knew lots of other people were going to be there and fundamentally, like with any festival, wanted to go there and share the experience with those people. Any music event is never about exclusivity – you go to live events so you can share the experience with other people. But worse still, this documentary slides over the possibility that actually a lot of people weren’t that wealthy, and had actually been scammed out of real hard-earned money, not disposable income. You can’t tell from the people they interview, or from the prices they display on the documentary screens, but the lowest price tickets were between $500 and $1500. It’s not beyond a person on a normal income to spend a large chunk of their savings on this festival, so that they can have this experience. Looking at the people on the social media footage the documentary shows, and judging by their clothes and reaction, a lot of these people were not throwing away a casual weekend’s cocaine money to drink champagne off models’ tits in an exclusive villa: they were dumping a large portion of their hard-won savings on a chance to enjoy their favourite music in a geodesic luxury tent on a beautiful beach. Now, I have experienced a really enjoyable music festival on a secluded beach (the San-in Beach Party), and it really is a very nice experience, and to do it in luxury on a beach in the Bahamas is something that a lot of people would consider worth burning their savings on. It’s well-established that millennials, knowing they can’t afford a house or a stable retirement, choose to spend what limited savings they can scrape together on experiences like this. No matter how much David Brooks might sneer at their ephemeral spirit, it’s no reason to scam them of their hard-earned cash. That’s not exactly Robin Hood stuff is it? But by carefully avoiding investigating these peoples’ backgrounds, and not trying to do any deeper investigation into who went and why, the documentary falls into the usual traps that bedevil any attempt to explore modern youth culture, and makes it seem once again like a bunch of entitled millenial trustafarians got what they deserved.

Finally, the documentary does not properly explore the central role of social media in the debacle, and what the implications of that might be. The Fyre festival’s initial hype was built up by a bunch of influencers – perhaps 400 – all posting a picture of a blank orange tile to their instagram accounts at the same time, with a link to the Fyre page, where people could see videos of these influencers cavorting in the sea. It was a masterfully done advertising campaign, that used the viral power of instagram and other social media to multiply the value of each user’s post. But let’s not be coy about how this worked: they sank an enormous amount of money on this advertising. The documentary reports that the top girl in the influencer group they gathered, Bella Hadid, was paid $250,000 for that one post. They set up a website that was basically just a collection of movies, and then through a very well designed visual campaign they got a lot of people interested in their product. The documentary reported that in the aftermath of the Fyre farce the US government introduced new rules for social media stars, requiring them to indicate when they’re being paid to advertise product, and the documentary suggested that their behaviour had been duplicitous. The documentary also suggested that they should have done due diligence on the product they were selling, but this point was rebutted by some of the people involved who pointed out – fairly, I think – that these girls are models not scientists, and it’s not their job to vet the quality of a good they’re paid to advertise – that’s what regulatory authorities are for. Fundamentally what happened here is that Billy McFarland paid them to market a scam that neither they, the buyers, any of the contractors in the Bahamas, or apparently any of his colleagues, recognized was a scam. I don’t think under these circumstances these girls are the first people who should be blamed.

More importantly, none of what this advertising campaign did was new. It girls have been around since Audrey Hepburn (Holly Golightly was a classic It-girl), and in the era of the big people magazines girls like Paris Hilton were huge news, without ever making a single social media post. The fact that you can be an it-girl on Instagram doesn’t change anything, and although Bella Hadid is more ubiquitous in the feeds of her followers than Paris Hilton might have been, she is no less ubiquitous in popular media than Paris was. I am old enough to remember the Paris Hilton era, and let me tell you, there is nothing that Instagram could teach her about how to get rich and famous by being nothing and doing nothing. Yes the Kardashians’ famous-for-fame-itself lifestyle and business model is repulsive, but so was Paris Hilton’s. Similarly the problem of these girls advertising products without announcing they’re paid: it may shock my younger reader(s) to learn this, but a mere 20 years ago all the Hate Radio stars in Australia – Alan Jones, John Laws, that repulsive dude in South Australia, and the racist pig in Western Australia – were all advertising products all the time on the radio without telling you they were paid. They had a conversational tone in which they told you personally that they used this car oil, and never once mentioned that this conversation was paid for. This scandal blew up in the late 1990s and you should have seen the entitled whining they did when they were forced to admit on air that they were paid to make their endorsements. Now as far as I know, the late 1990s was approximately 60 years after the widespread adoption of radio. So it took approximately 10 times as long for the authorities to wise up to payola on the radio as it did for them to crack down on these pretty young things on Instagram. I’m sure that their haste to crack the whip on those girls has nothing at all to do with their age and gender … and of course all the top 40 charts and bullshit rankings on MTV and radio charts are still completely bought and paid for by the music industry, but we should worry that occasionally a model will slip in an unannounced endorsement on Instagram… No, as I have said before, the problem here is not social media – it’s you. Indeed there were even social media accounts dedicated to revealing the truth about Fyre but they didn’t take off – because nobody cared about the truth. If you cannot tell that a party on a remote island in the Bahamas where you get to cavort with models in a villa with a private plane for a couple of thousand bucks is smoke and mirrors, you won’t be saved by seeing that scam advertised on tv instead of Facebook. And if a slimy con artist decides to lie to you that he has villas for 5,000 people on that beach when in fact there are no houses on the entire island, it doesn’t matter if he does it on TV, Instagram or a message written in the sky – he’s a liar and a con artist, and the problem is that he lied. Unfortunately, while this documentary does make clear much of the way in which he built his lies, it also glosses over the simple fact that the world is full of liars and rubes in favour of the easy lure of social media panic, and schadenfreude at rich people getting duped.

So, watch this documentary if you want a more detailed account of that fateful party and the garbage fire it became, but don’t let yourself be fooled by the easy targeting of social media and rich entitled millenials. The story of Fyre is as old as the story of liars, and our natural faith in the honesty of our fellow humans. Whether you lie to someone’s face, on tv, on Instagram, or on stone tablets, a lie is a lie: and Fyre was a bonfire of stupid, vicious lies that left a lot of people hurt. Let’s hope we’ve all learnt from it, and that this documentary will help us all ensure it does not happen again.

In the first Republican debate all the candidates were asked if they would rule out an independent presidential bid, and Donald Trump was roundly decried for refusing to do so. In hindsight, perhaps the better question would have been “If a batshit insane dude captures the nomination, will you endorse the Democrat candidate?” Because it is looking increasingly likely that a batshit insane dude is gonna steal the Republican candidacy, and if he wins the whole world is in a dark place.

It’s very clear now that a significant proportion of the Republican “base” are sympathetic to a campaign that is, essentially, fascist. Some “moderate” left-wingers are trying to claim that Trump is not fascist, and are splitting hairs over whether he is really a narcissist or just “leading America down a fascist path” but I think it’s clear from his latest little announcement that the F-word is no longer hyperbole. Lots of Republicans have gone ballistic over his plan to prevent all Muslims from entering the USA but some of the front-runners have been careful to avoid criticizing him directly, and it’s not clear whether the objection from some of those Republicans is based on respect for “American values” or fear that such a strategy would prevent them from winning an election. It’s certainly clear that for a significant proportion of Republican primary voters the much-vaunted Republican ideals of freedom of religion, freedom of speech and freedom of association are running a distant second to any political strategies based on racial discimination and nebulous notions of “strength,” mingled in with a healthy dose of imperialism.

This is, of course, the consequence of a long period of Republican craziness, that has mixed racist dog-whistling with openly racist attacks on Mexican migrants and overseas Muslims, along with muscular support for torture and the police state and racism and violence towards internal enemies. This is the environment in which Elliott Rodgers, Robert Dear and Dylan Rooff enacted their openly racist or misogynist militarist plans, and the environment in which some sizable minority of Republican voters have shifted towards an openly fascist platform. For all his bluster and popularity, Trump is a latecomer to this scene of frenetic hatred and partisan divisions: he is a well known birther, but his birtherism is hardly unique or especially well-represented, and when he says there is “something wrong” with the president he is drawing on a deep vein of discontent that is obviously built on racist origins. Although we can hope, there’s no reason to think his latest utterances are going to sink his campaign or discourage his followers.

I think some of the Republican elders must be starting to think that they have woken a slumbering giant here, and worrying that when it starts stomping about it isn’t going to be particularly careful about where it puts its feet. Certainly the Bushes are worried about it, and given how reviled they are by the base I think it’s safe to say they didn’t have much part in the creation of this monster. But a lot of them are up to their necks in it. Cruz, Huckabee and some of those doyens of hate radio, the Limbaughs and Hewitts, need to face the fact that they built this beast, and they’re now caught in its storm. But others, like Christie and Kasich, for all that they’re oily operatives that anyone with any sense wouldn’t go near in this political universe, I think they realize that this beast is going to devour its own party first, before it bursts out of the chest of American democracy and starts eating everything in sight. They want to stop it.

I think they may find that they can’t stop it without interfering in the nominating process. I think Trump is going to win some states, and if they’re lucky he won’t get a clear majority, but there’s a chance he will, and then they face a choice: refuse to nominate him and have him run third party, essentially splitting the vote; or let him be the candidate and watch him either win and destroy the country (unlikely) or lose massively and hand the Democrats a massive majority. In that case I think it’s likely that Trump’s candidacy will spoil the House and Senate elections, and the Republicans risk losing control of all three branches of government. I don’t think the Republicans understand just how toxic this primary is going to be for them, and my fundamental faith in humanity tells me that the longer Trump is in charge, the worse the general election will be for them in every house.

The basic problem here for the doyens of the Republican party is that they have a crazy-wing, and they need to destroy it. Take Cruz as an example. Trump’s antics have made Cruz look almost reasonable, but he’s actually a complete fruit loop. Yesterday he held hearings in the Senate committee on science, of which he is somehow the chair, which all the serious Republicans didn’t attend because they hate him, and which were basically a joke. Steyn was in attendance as an expert on climate change, but didn’t get a chance to speak because Cruz was outnumbered by minority Democrat members, because the other Republicans didn’t want to be there. So instead of having a chance to discuss a Republican approach to climate change based on free markets and innovation, they had some grandstanding about how it isn’t real, and Steyn got some free publicity for his doomed attempt to defend himself from libel charges that will absolutely destroy him. This isn’t how serious people behave, it isn’t how policy is made, and it isn’t a serious base for a political party. Senior Republicans know this, but they don’t know what to do about it.

Trump offers these Republicans a chance to take their party back from the religious nutjobs and Tea Party lunatics. But first they need to find a way to destroy those lunatics, and what better way than to show that they are a tiny minority of the electorate. I think at the very least the senior figures in the Republican party need to make it clear that they won’t support Trump and that if he wins the primary they will campaign against him in the general. They should lay down the line on policy and make clear why they don’t support him. I think, further, that they should endorse the democrat candidate as a strategy for saying enough is enough, and when Trump gets sweet fuck all of the general vote they can start rebuilding – an 8 year process with a real political movement at the end of it. Once Trump lays waste to their party the elders can come forward with a plan to rebuild it based on coherent strategies on ISIS, global warming and healthcare, strategies that may not be what my reader(s) or I want but are generally consistent with vaguely intelligent notions of how to get shit done.

The alternative is that Trump gets selected, leading figures in the party like Cruz refuse to distance themselves, and the Republicans get smashed at every level in the elections, losing complete control of the government. That may seem overly apocalyptic, but bear this in mind: Even though people say he lost the Democrats the senate in the mid-terms, he actually did exceptionally well for a president in his second mid-term. Mid-term elections in the second term typically go really badly for the incumbent and Obama did a lot less badly than the historical average. The Democrats are more popular than they look, and if Trump wins the primary there is every chance of a bloodbath. If the Republican leadership want to take back their party, now is their chance, but they need to show leadership and moral backbone, something in precious short supply in the Republican party. If they don’t act to crush him in the general, the Republican party is going to be toast for a long time to come. Or worse still, America will become a fascist state.

It’s time for the Republicans to show they love their country and not their donors.

No wonder Achilles sometimes wet the bed ...

No wonder Achilles sometimes wet the bed …

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is now a well-accepted aspect of modern soldiering, and it seems to be now recognized that earlier disorders of soldiers such as shell shock that might once have been described as cowardice or weakness were in fact manifestations of the same condition. I did not know, however, that there are accounts from ancient times of this phenomenon occurring amongst soldiers from very different types of warfare, and it isn’t the case that PTSD is a function only of modern warfare. Today I discovered an article describing symptoms of PTSD in Assyrian warriors, from Iraq between 1300 and 600 BC, which were taken from cuneiform tablets. Apparently the Assyrians had a form of military service, with military age males spending one of every three years of their service in combat, and the Assyrians kept extensive documentation of both their campaigns and their medical practice. The article, published in the journal Early Science and Medicine, reports on symptoms of PTSD (especially seeing ghosts and nightmares) taken from some of these tablets. It also gives a bit of detail about Assyrian medical practice, and the importance of diagnosis to Assyrian doctors. The article is a bit jumbled up and confusing, but it makes the case that PTSD is not just associated with modern, extremely lethal soldiering, but is associated in the case of these ancient warriors with fear of death, the sight of colleagues dying, and also the fear of slow death from injury.

The findings themselves aren’t groundbreaking, but I am interested in the general finding of PTSD in ancient soldiers and its documentation. As role-players, we often play warriors engaged in quite brutal old-fashioned combat, often engaged with horrible things from beyond the grave, but in the older games there is no mechanism for the gradual erosion of confidence and strength that constant terror of this kind might cause – indeed, the classic model of gaining XP from experience suggests that our soldiers only gain in strength from continued exposure to slaughter and near death (or, in many cases, death and resurrection!) Of course some of the more modern games have mechanisms for insanity and humanity loss, but these are generally primarily triggered by exposure to sinister magic and beasts from beyond, not from the “mundane” horrors of seeing your friends dismembered, clubbed to death, burnt alive or eaten by zombies. Upon reflection it seems obvious that this would tend to wear one down, and it appears that published accounts from people who did a lot of stabbing, smashing and clubbing to death support the idea that it is a disturbing and sometimes enervating experience.

Some of the symptoms are also quite profound: blindness or deafness, sudden weakness, and loss of sleep. It’s easy to imagine that in a classic D&D setting the inability to sleep would be crippling for a wizard. Inserting some kind of simple mechanic for PTSD from continued battlefield exposure – perhaps ramping it up for multiple back to back battles – would lead to a quite interesting change in play style and get people rethinking battlefield strategies, especially if even “mundane” combat could bring it about, and if it was related more to the length of exposure than the intensity. Players would reconsider frontal assault tactics if there was the possibility that their wizard would suddenly freak out and decide to blow himself up … or their cleric became a shivering wreck incapable of healing them.

I guess we have a tendency to think about psychological health of our characters only in terms of their exposure to hideous dark secrets from beyond the veil. We imagine ourselves as heroes whose basic psychology and morality can only be tempered with by the gods and dark magics. Apparently, and not really surprisingly, the reality is rather different. It would be interesting to see how the tone and style of classic fantasy play would change if it were modified to make the psychology, as well as physiology, of its heroes vulnerable to the slings and arrows of their horde of enemies…

There is a fascinating passage in Antony Beevor’s Berlin where he describes the bemusement experienced by Soviet soldiers when they entered Germany proper, and discovered how rich the Germans were. Beevor describes this bemusement turning rapidly to anger, as the Soviets began to ask themselves why a nation that was so much richer than them would want to invade them at all. Why didn’t they just stay home and enjoy their riches? Beevor even ascribes some of the Soviet soldiers’ furious treatment of German civilians (especially women) to their response to this discovery.

I am travelling at the moment, and my travels start with Swiss and Germany. Obviously the Swiss are fantastically wealthy, but when I enter Germany I am always struck by how staggeringly rich Germans are. I don’t mean in the sense that there are a lot of obviously fantastically wealthy people with a million ferraris; rather, the average German is just stupidly wealthy. Furthermore, their infrastructure is stupidly modern: trains are gleaming and new, cars are silent modern things, hotels are well-appointed and modern, farms are always well built and have the latest stuff. Everyone has solar panels. This is a nation not only of private wealth but of public investment. This is particularly interesting because Germany is cheaper than Switzerland or the UK – the price of living is really low – but it’s really obvious that the country is not doing badly despite this.

My next stage in my travels will be London. London is so remarkably different from either Berlin or rural southern Germany, where I am currently staying. It is filthy, rundown and seething with discontent. Nothing works properly, the infrastructure is crumbling, and very few people take any pride in either the service they provide or in the way their nation treats strangers. The contrast from Germany is remarkable – even though the price of living in the UK is much, much higher. How can it be that a nation of such historical greatness can be so decrepit in comparison to Germany?

Many leftists wish to blame all of this on Margaret Thatcher, but this isn’t really a tenable argument. For starters, the UK had serious economic problems before Thatcher (see e.g. the three-day week), and it had a long period of Labour rule after Thatcher, during which it could have fixed some of Thatcher’s worst excesses. Not to mention that Germany has had its share of economic troubles, backward-looking leaders, and of course the need to absorb all of East Germany. Furthermore, Britain has highly valuable resources – oil and gas – that Germany lacks. It’s also unusual for a country’s entire economic troubles to be linked to just one leader – they tend to be more systemic than that – and other nations like Japan and Australia have also had serious economic problems, but still seem wealthier than the UK. So what is it?

Looking around Europe, I note that among the five big ex-colonial powers, only two are still doing well. The five big powers are the UK, France, Spain, Belgium and the Netherlands. If we add in Italy for its African possessions, we have a pretty low rate of economic success for the ex-colonialists. Meanwhile the nations of northern Europe that weren’t colonists are doing very well, as is Japan. (Note that here, by “the colonial powers” I don’t include those nations such as Japan and Germany that tried it for a few years and failed – I mean only those nations who held colonies long enough to benefit from them). I guess some would argue that France is doing okay, but I’m not convinced. But the UK, Spain and Italy are obviously in huge economic trouble. I don’t think that this can be sleeted home to the welfare state – Germany, Japan and the Scandinavians all have excellent welfare states, but they’re much better off than the UK. It also isn’t due to that old British canard, “diversity” – Australia and Germany are actually just as diverse as (or more diverse than) the UK.

I think it might be that colonialism creates a kind of resource curse – nations with large colonies they can exploit don’t bother building up the cultural, economic and political attitudes necessary to be economically successful in the modern world. They stagnate under the influence of colonialism’s apparently beneficial balm. I remember in reading A.N. Lee’s the Victorians that he tries to understand how it is that the UK never experienced the revolutions and civil wars of Europe, and he mentioned one possible reason was the ability to loot Ireland and India. In this version of history, the Irish famine was partly brought about by the need of the British ruling class to subsidize British food supplies, to ensure the poor didn’t revolt. I think Beevor points out that India suffered huge famines in world war 2 as the British exported as much food as possible to the UK. George Orwell notes this phenomenon as well, and in Burmese Days his lead character gives an anti-colonial diatribe in which he points out that the UK basically set India up as a captive market, preventing any industrial competition on the sub-continent in order to ensure that British industrialists had somewhere to sell their products[1].

By way of comparison, Germany and Japan have had a couple of revolutions and, in the absence of either colonies or resources, have had to develop a strong industrial base and a society built around competing with the rest of the world. They have the advantage of having populations large enough to support internal markets and a solid industrial policy – but so does the UK. The difference is that they have never been in a position to decide it’s all too hard and resort to stealing from foreign territories. The economic model the UK worked on until the 1950s was a pretty successful one – you have a small group of people willing to do dirty work, who ensure a regular supply of money to the government by ripping off people who have no power to resist. Such a system is a very tempting way of avoiding facing deep structural problems in your economy, and an excellent way of buying off your poorest class but when the system collapses you find yourself in very difficult economic circumstances[2]. And I think that might partly explain the problems that the UK, Portugal, Spain and France are facing – for too long they were able to belay their economic challenges onto others, and loot weaker nations to plug economic gaps of their own. Since the 1950s the UK’s colonial empire has rapidly unwound, with the jewel in the crown (India) lost in the 1940s. The result is that all those structural problems that were previously being prevented by colonial money have come to the fore, and increasingly desperate attempts to solve them have all come to naught. My favourite example of this zeitgeist is the museum of the crown jewels in the Tower of London: it houses a fantabulous display of colonial bling, showcasing the rapacious powers of the British Empire, but when you get to the end you are confronted with a request to donate to maintain the thing – because the British government no longer has the cash to properly fund its public sector.

Japan and Germany learnt through hard and bitter experience that the colonial powers weren’t going to welcome any new colonial projects in the 20th century, but Japan’s horrible acts and horrible end led directly to the unraveling of the colonies. And when those colonies unwound, I think that Germany, Japan and the other rich non-colonial nations (like Australia and Canada) were in a much better position to face the new world order that resulted. The UK will continue to be unable to adapt to the new world while its politicians, public intellectuals and even its general public are unable to face the true history and legacy of colonialism. Of course, facing this legacy isn’t going to be enough in and of itself – the UK needs to find a way to dig itself out of its economic troubles. I don’t think they will, and instead they’ll be left reflecting on past colonial glories as they slowly slide into the ranks of the low-income countries. Eventually their old colonial possessions will surpass them, and the cycle of colonial history will be complete.

fn1: the lead character of that book is a racist, sexist puppy murderer, so make your own judgments about whether you think they have much worthwhile to say about politics.

fn2: any similarity to Tony Blair’s plan to finance welfare through the finance industry is purely coincidental, I’m sure

A Marxist Reinterpretation of the Chronicles

Last night I watched the second movie in the Narnia chronicles, Prince Caspian. I have read the books, but it was so long ago that I had completely forgotten the story, so it was just like watching a fresh fantasy movie. Overall it was fun with serious flaws: the children were unlikable at best, the ending is essentially deus ex machina, Aslan is a really dicky lion, the centaurs looked really crappy, and the story has that underlying feeling that a group of dippy white kids can inherit the earth for no reason but that they were born lucky, which seems a common problem in British fantasy[1]. In its favour, the action scenes were fun, that Susan chick was cool, Prince Caspian was very handsome, and the bad guys were really bad. Not only was the bad king genuinely bad, but the manner of his demise was a perfect piece of comeuppance. So that was all good. However, the final final ending scene made my head explode with rage, and I think I have to elevate it to the pantheon alongside Titanic and the Breakfast Club for cynical endings. I’m now going to describe why, but be aware: this is spoiler central. If you have never read the books or seen the movie, you should probably stop here.

.

.

.
.

[WARNING: Spoilers] So, the kids have won their war against the evil humans (let’s call them the Dicks, because I couldn’t catch their full name). The Dicks are all gathered in a town square, being addressed by the universe’s dweebiest god, Aslan, who tells them that they are welcome to live where they are, in peace with the good folk of Narnia, but they can also go back where they came from, which is apparently some tropical island on earth. He will transport them there with his magic powers that are sufficient to teleport whole populations across time and space but insufficient to bring peace to Narnia. At first they look askance on this offer, somewhat in the way that German soldiers might have looked askance at their Russian captors in 1944 when they were told “This train will take you to somewhere warm.” But at last the general from the army steps forward and says he’ll go, and then the dead evil king’s wife steps forward with her son. Aslan says “because you spoke up first, I will ensure your life is extra good on the other side.”

This really, really pissed me off for two reasons. First of all, it’s that classic christian needy-god rubbish, in which Aslan is so powerful that he can transport you across universes but so insecure that you if you don’t immediately jump at his bidding he will punish you for not trusting him. So the first people to show they trust a lunatic talking lion get special treatment, and all the completely rational and reasonable people who are standing in the crowd, recently traumatized by losing a fucking war, are going to be made second-class citizens in this new world because they didn’t show quite the trusting spirit that a deific lion might want them to. Why would you not trust a lion when it tells you it’s going to be nice to you? Can’t think of a single reason … Anyone who has read the bible knows that needy gods are also genocidal, capricious and wrathful gods. Best not to do what that god wants.

But the next pissy thing about this is the people who got the benefit: the general and the wife of the king. So they go from wielding maximum temporal power in Narnia, to being granted special boons in the next world they go to by the guy who defeated them. This is a classic example of the powerful looking after each other even when they do wrong to each other. Why reward the general for being trusting, after he just tried to exterminate your race? Why not instead offer him the dingiest farm in the hardest place? Because having once been in power, he will always be treated better by others in power, while his footsoldiers – who slogged through the mud for him just days earlier, being beaten by minotaurs and rained with arrows – get second place in the next world too. Oh, how the mechanisms of power reproduce themselves even in adversity …

The ending gets even worse at this point though, because now the crowd reveal they don’t trust Aslan, and demand proof that the gate he has created is safe. Rather than pointing out to them that a god who can open gates will always be able to fool them with tricks to reassure them, the eldest kid decides that the four kids should all go back through the gate to prove it is safe. Aslan agrees, and furthermore points out that two of them won’t ever be able to come back because they’re too old. He also basically tells his favourite, Lucy, to fuck off and not come back.

So basically Aslan is telling these kids that instead of being kings and queens in a world of magic and talking badgers, they are going to be kicked out and forced to go back to living as ordinary kids in London during the blitz. Your reward for helping god? Forced to return to live in a cramped hell-hole of a city that is on fire. And they agree, because of some weird power that Aslan has to convince people that they aren’t able to control his power or the workings of the world, even though he’s standing in front of them negotiating.

I’ve always been confused by the ending of these world-crossing books. It would take me precisely one second to decide that no, I am not going back to being a sales assistant in a bookshop after I just spent months wielding mighty magics in the Land of Phallusia. I think I’ll stay here, thank you, and you can line the vestal virgins up in the hallway outside my penthouse room. Oh, and bring me some of that elixir of youth while you’re at it, I’ll be bedding them until the dawn of the next age. Oh, how cute! A talking lion! There there little lion, why don’t you go and lick your balls over in the corner while I rule this kingdom wisely, and make myself very rich? Because I can tell from the abject state of its denizens, and the fact that a mere bookshop assistant from Croydon can sort all this shit out, that you are neither a wise nor a good god. Now, go and eat your din-dins like a good pet while the adults get on with sorting out the mess you made of your world.

That‘s how Prince Caspian should have ended, not with the plebs being deported to another world to be ruled over by exactly the people who got them into their situation in the first place, and Susan the mighty archer princess having to steal a kiss from a very very handsome Prince whose kingdom she could be ruling before a talking lion whisks her off to study O-level chemistry in a city being bombed by Nazis. That, my friends, is a cynical ending par excellence.

fn1: I wonder why? Actually the Narnia chronicles strike me as potentially very colonialist. At one point a talking animal admits that Narnia has never been happy except when a son of Adam – i.e. a white man – is sitting on its throne. That’s right, Narnia’s swarthy and animalistic hordes will never be content until they are ruled by a member of the British elite.

Next Page »