Saturday 3 February 2024

World War Three inbound?

estonia warns of war
Aw, c'mon!!! I was just starting to relax...

The last few weeks have seen an unsettling tsunami of warnings about a coming land war with Russia, from think tanks, defence ministers, retired generals, pundits, and badly dressed people on street corners wielding bullhorns. 

Fear mongering? I certainly hope so! 

The last thing I thought we'd have to worry about post-Covid lockdown was World War III. It's so outlandish, so outrageous, it can't possibly be true. Like Russia's newest favourite pastime (threatening to nuke the UK), it's probably hot air. Or a bit of undigested mutton? 

And yet...

The United States and Europe have been unable to provide enough ammunition to Ukraine. Everyone has been surprised by the incredible consumption rate of munitions. That has raised the fear that Western stockpiles are horribly inadequate were Russia to stumble into the Baltic States and accidentally annex a few countries.

The West has no ongoing ammunition production; it's all finite, discrete orders. The US had to provide Ukraine with controversial cluster munitions because they had nothing else. 

In October, the US started dividing its dwindling munitions stocks between Ukraine and Israel. Israeli generals have said that if the US were to cut off the supply of weapons, the incursion into Gaza would grind to a halt. 

Now the US and the UK are lobbing missiles at Houthi positions in Yemen. The Houthis have plenty of missiles and drones provided by the IRGC to attack international shipping, causing insurance to skyrocket and most ships to detour around Africa, driving up costs for, well, all of us. 

Prior to the Hamas attack, senior Iranian leadership visited Russia. Hamas and the Houthis are Iranian proxies. Iran is supplying Russia with drones and other weapons. 

The Russians bombed Syria to contribute to the refugee crisis; they are now trying to flood Finland with migrants, causing Finland to close several border crossings.

Russia has funded extremist organizations and splinter parties across the EU and in the US, in an effort to foment chaos and social strife; Russian social media troll-bot farms and willing (or compromised) media idiots intensify this. 

Undersea cables to islands off Scotland and Denmark have recently been cut by powers unknown. The Nord Stream pipelines were cut a few years ago, also by powers unknown.  

Estonia just started building 600 bunkers along its border with Russia. Poland is doubling the number of personnel in its armed forces and is raising its defence spending to 3% of GDP.

Japan is preparing for war.

Navalny died in a prison in the far north; his spouse has alleged he was poisoned by the Russian government (wouldn't be the first time). 

Meanwhile, Russia is dedicating 42% of its GDP to the military, along with large scale ammunition production. 

It's possible it is all connected. 

This Unherd video tries to make sense of it for us neophytes:

The news is so much better when it's boring.

UPDATE: John Mearsheimer doesn't think there's anything to this. He has a sober article on his Substack here. Naturally, the Estonian intelligence chief disagrees

Monday 8 January 2024

Midnight Mass mini-review


Midnight Mass is dark, brooding, contemplative and fabulous. It's a slow burn show that dives deep into how people see what they want to see; how we are all in peril of grafting our desperate wants and desires onto pre-existing moral structures to justify them. 

More specifically, it's about how faith and God can be twisted into thought-pretzels and then used to justify heinous crimes. As the perpetrators descend into darkness, they don't even realize their moral compass has been inverted. They cling to a warped version of faith like a drowning person to a straw until the illusion can no longer be maintained.

Want and need are incredibly powerful perception filters, ones that can lead even the well meaning astray.

Midnight Mass builds well, laying out clues as it goes; you can see the twists coming, but they are so expertly built up, the reveals still have impact, like when we see the roller coaster drop coming: it builds anticipation, rather than being anti-climactic. 

It's not easily bucketed as a horror genre flick: those elements exist primarily to explore larger, weightier themes. More of a horror-drama-mood piece.

Unlike The Boy and the Heron, this limited series spoke to me, and the performances are absolutely top notch across the board. The journey of the priest was particularly fascinating, and Hamish Linklater puts in a superlative performance as Father Paul Hill. It's wonderful, full of nuance and pathos. 

When the show concluded, I still had questions about what the priest believed at various points during the series, or if he knew from the very beginning. 

I suspect the good reverend knew from the start.

He just wanted what he wanted so, so much, he couldn't be honest, not even to himself. 

Highly recommended. 

Watch knowing as little as possible. 

Sunday 7 January 2024

The Boy and the Heron

boy and heron poster

A new Miyazaki film! 

I was looking forward to this. 

Like Godzilla Minus One, The Boy and the Heron is set during the waning days of WWII, and follows the story of a young boy in the aftermath of his mother's death during an Allied air raid. He then slips away into an alternate universe dominated by giant militaristic budgies, passes through various Narnia-style gateways, runs into a younger version of one of his 'nannies' (one of the house keeping staff? A relative? I wasn't sure), and is guided about by an obnoxious Heron with a big warty-nosed dwarf inside it. 

Ultimately, he must take on the role as Supreme Storyteller from Loki to save the universe from destruction.

Or something. 

Honestly, this one didn't engage me.

I usually find a metaphor or theme that resonates, that I can connect to, in a Miyazaki film, but not this time. A boy dealing with the death of his mother is understandable, yet that storyline didn't play out in any intelligible way for me, nor was I inspired to analyze it over a piece of pie afterward, as Quentin Tarantino might.

I'll just leave this one for brighter souls than I. 

Like The Creator, though, it does look fabulous!




Friday 5 January 2024

Genocide in Gaza(?)

I don't always agree with John Mearsheimer, but he's well informed, smart, and always thought provoking.

On January 4th, he put up an article on his substack about the South African application with the International Court of Justice accusing Israel of genocide against the Palestinians in Gaza: 

“The application is a superb description of what Israel is doing in Gaza. It is comprehensive, well-written, well-argued, and thoroughly documented...

“...the application provides a substantial body of evidence showing that Israeli leaders have genocidal intent toward the Palestinians. (59-69) Indeed, the comments of Israeli leaders – all scrupulously documented – are shocking. One is reminded of how the Nazis talked about dealing with Jews when reading how Israelis in “positions of the highest responsibility” talk about dealing with the Palestinians. (59) In essence, the document argues that Israel’s actions in Gaza, combined with its leaders’ statements of intent, make it clear that Israeli policy is “calculated to bring about the physical destruction of Palestinians in Gaza.”

“...there is little doubt that the Biden administration is complicitous in Israel’s genocide, which is also a punishable act according to the Genocide Convention... I never imagined I would see the day when Israel, a country filled with Holocaust survivors and their descendants, would face a serious charge of genocide.”

Deeply disturbing stuff.

Thursday 28 December 2023

Back to D&D

Classic

I haven't played Dungeons & Dragons in decades, but after reading my new book, a friend recommended I give Dungeon Mastering a go. Why? Dragon Garage follows a group of RPG players who open up a portal into their fantasy game world. Fun, drinking, and adventure ensue. 

Seemed like a good fit.

The main focus for Dragon Garage, for me, was the contrast between the modern and the medieval. Thanks at least in part to fairy tales, the Middle Ages is viewed through an idealized lens. We tend to think of princesses and knights, rather than dysentery, famine and bed bugs. 

I wanted to mix up the focus and smash them all together: ideal and real, medieval and modern, the fantastical and grounded. 

A generic fantasy role playing game was a device through which I could explore that. 

I remember (fondly) playing Dungeons & Dragons in public school, but wasn't particularly good at it (to be fair, I don't think many of us were.. there was a lot of open the door, kill the monster, and take their stuff). The rules were dense and extensive, so taking it up again could be a time consuming challenge which I might not be up to.

So I deferred and, at first, declined.

the expanse novels
So good!!!

Ultimately, it was The Expanse that changed my mind: Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck created the book series based on role playing game sessions. It's a brilliant idea: run your plot through interactive sessions, and test the logic. A great way to spot holes in a fantasy or sci-fi series: test it! \\

Soon as I mentioned this to a few other friends, they put me on to Critical Roll, which features a phenomenally talented gang of voice actors running through Dungeons and Dragons adventures. There's an entire media empire around it now, including a TV show and comic books. 

So I'm late to the party, but undeterred. Running a D&D (or other RPG) game could help work out scenarios for future books, as well as generate 'happy accident' material that was truly authentic. 

With that in mind, I set about building out the world of Dragon Garage for player characters. At first I thought I'd build everything, the whole world; very quickly I discovered this is a crap ton of work, far more than the amount of world building you'd need for a novel.

dragon garage cover

I was also determined to make a Megadungeon, because when I was a kid, it was all about the Megadungeon. Every DM had their own. Gary Gygax had the platonic ideal in Castle Greyhawk (not that I ever saw it), and so I resolved to have my own: Castle Druidun!

Seemed a good idea at the time. 

Of course, a megadungeon is a stupid amount of work. No one sane is going to try and do this right off the bat. Fortunately, I laugh at sanity barriers: I've tackled full on prose novels, even screenplays! In fact, making a megadungeon is rather similar to writing a novel, just more compartmentalized and interactive, like an enhanced version of Choose Your Own Adventure

Over the years, I've tried my hand at comic books, graphic novels, prose novels, short stories, comedy skits, joke strips, and improv, so why not this?

king atop hill with clouds
Epic adventure!

Intially, I filled the dungeon with my own creations, but before long I turned to decades worth of fantasy trope D&D material to flesh it out. It's just too big a job for one person, especially when you have hundreds of dungeon rooms to fill. I can edit out stuff later, should this path prove fruitful and I have the opportunity to do a sequel to Dragon Garage

Fingers crossed; there's so much more to explore and play with in that world. 

I thought I'd put up the material from the world of Dragon Garage here, for fun, as the experiment progresses. We'll see what happens, and how far I get with it.

One big change from the book: I had the players roll up characters native to the fantasy world, rather than playing their real selves. It'd be too complicated for me to pull off initially, not until I'm more seasoned at this. 

A megadungeon is a nice, 'simple' realm for adventuring, with built in guard rails. There are rooms and tunnels and all the choices reside within that framework. It's much harder to mess up than, say, an open world space opera mixed with horror (which is what I originally wanted to do). 

There's a reason why many shooter video games occur within finite structures.

What is an imaginary world? Where is it? Same place as Santa Claus, the United States, and Narnia: in our minds. Think about it. Nations only exist through agreement in, and enforcement of, the collective imagination.

Welcome to the World of Arthea...

Check out the Dragon Garage blog here


Thursday 14 December 2023

Godzilla Minus One review: rock the kaiju!

godzilla minus one
Urban redevelopment, Kaiju style

First, Godzilla Minus One is awesome.

Second, they made it for under $15 million USD.

SERIOUSLY?!?

Godzilla Minus One looks as good or better than many $200 million dollar blockbusters. 

Even better, it has a solid emotional core (in a Godzillla film!) and has something to say about Japanese history, society, and the value of human life. It's not an empty, zombie franchise lumbering about devouring money, bereft of soul. 

The human side of the film is centred around a Kamikaze pilot who claims a mechanical problem with his plane in order to skip out on blowing himself up. He comes into contact with other survivors of the war, all of them badly scarred and traumatized by the experience. 

Inevitably, their paths cross with our favourite gargantuan bipedal lizard, Godzilla. 

One of the most striking sequences in the film is a chase at sea: it's absolutely riveting, and reminiscent ofJaws, but better, because it's a gigantic radioactive monster with atomic heat ray breath. Did Jaws have that? I think not!

godzilla chasing ship
Throw him a stick, you fools!

This Godzilla is not cute or cuddly, doesn't mug for the camera, doesn't dance, and takes his urban redevelopment VERY seriously. He's one scary 20,000 ton dude. Personally, I think he's lying about his weight and doesn't weigh a pound less than 40,000 tons. 

The ending has fun schemes from a delightful egghead, and a thematically relevant twist. Thankfully it does not involve giant breath mints. 

The whole movie comes together in a very satisfying way, unlike the vast majority of recent Marvel escapades. 

Frankly, franchise fatigue abounds. Old IP are being resurrected, rebooted, retooled and trotted out for fresh generations constantly. Or maybe time just flies by faster now that I'm old. I've witnessed reboots of reboots. Godzilla Minus One qualifies as (I think) the fourth retelling of the original Godzilla story, but somehow, incredibly, remains fresh and fun, making this entry all the more insanely remarkable. 

The last time a reboot really impressed me was with Ron Moore's Battlestar Galactica

And while this film can't compare to my childhood memories of Monster Zero, for my money, it's nevertheless the best Godzilla film ever made, and the most surprising and delightful cinematic experience of the year.*

I never, ever thought I'd say that about a Godzilla flick. 

Will wonders never cease?

Highly recommended. See it in IMAX, even. It's worth it! 

*To be fair, I haven't actually been to the theatre much this year...

Friday 8 December 2023

Max Zing interior cover

interior cover of max zing

His adventures aren't really that sedentary. 

Check them out over on Amazon!

Thursday 7 December 2023

Friday 24 November 2023

From Voyager to For All Mankind: Ronald D. Moore's fabulous forays into the cosmos

For All Mankind hero image

For All Mankind
 season one is superb TV. 

It's one of the best sci-fi shows out there. Maybe one of the best shows on TV currently, period, and for a number of reasons. 

They say with good writing, you:

1) Create characters people love.

2) Put those characters through sheer hell.

FAM does exactly that. 

The cast of characters is nuanced, diverse and easy to root for. Rather than engaging in easy breezy cynicism, it displays the resilience, courage and adaptability of humanity. And yet, these are no idealized supermen: they struggle with their own flaws and weaknesses, often being forced to acknowledge their own imperfections in order to better collaborate with others.

This is the latest foray into the cosmos by the extraordinary show runner Ronald D. Moore. Every time he gets both more brilliant, and closer and closer to reality. 

He started his career submitting spec scripts to Star Trek (his favourite show), and on the strength of those, got into the writer's room of The Next Generation. That is no easy feat. From there, he went to the more serialized Deep Space Nine; where he wrote some of its best and most memorable episodes.

He followed that up with a very brief stint on Voyager. Unfortunately, he hated it, and quickly bounced. In an interview, he didn't hold any punches: Voyager failed to fulfill the promise of the premise.

the other voyager
Not this Voyager, the other one

"I just don't understand why it doesn't even believe in itself. Examine the fundamental premise of VOYAGER: A starship chases a bunch of renegades. Both ships are flung to the opposite side of the galaxy. The renegades are forced to come aboard Voyager. They all have to live together on their way home, which is going to take a century or whatever they set up in the beginning. 

I thought, This is a good premise. That's interesting. Get them away from all the familiar STAR TREK aliens, throw them out into a whole new section of space where anything can happen. Lots of situations for conflict among the crew. The premise has a lot of possibilities. 

...This ship was going to have problems. It wasn't going to have unlimited sources of energy. It wasn't going to have all the doodads of the Enterprise. It was going to be rougher, fending for themselves more, having to trade to get supplies that they want. 

That didn't happen. 

It doesn't happen at all, and it's a lie to the audience. I think the audience intuitively knows when something is true and something is not true. VOYAGER is not true. If it were true, the ship would not look spick-and-span every week, after all these battles it goes through. How many times has the bridge been destroyed? How many shuttlecrafts have vanished, and another one just comes out of the oven? 

That kind of bullshitting the audience takes its toll. At some point, the audience stops taking it seriously, because they know that this is not really the way this would happen. These people wouldn't act like this.”

I can't argue with that: Moore makes very good points. Sadly, he couldn't make any headway against the executives running the show.

That fruitless creative collision led Moore to jump ship and reboot Battlestar Galactica instead, turning it into the best sci-fi show on TV in the early 2000s. It was innovative, gritty and far more adult than anything Star Trek had done to date. The fleeing survivors of Caprica dealt with all kinds of shortages, unlike the pampered TNG crew who could just replicate anything they wanted with the push of a button (or 'Tea. Earl Grey. Hot'). Ships flew in a more realistic manner, and they even toyed with removing all the sound from space scenes. 

Storylines were daring, dark and tied back to The War on Terror, making it must-see TV.

At least, it was for the first two seasons. 

Battlestar Galactica
BSG: So good it can get away with a pic like this

One of the main themes of the show (That everyone never agrees on anything, making compromise and negotiation necessary for civilization to function) got jettisoned out the airlock in the finale. The survivors put their ships on automatic pilot and sent them soaring into the sun, along with all their tech, universally adopting a hunter-gatherer subsistence existence on earth. 

Okay, sure.

Yuval Harrari would be proud. 

Thanks to the hive mind, BSG wrapped up with a neat if perplexing bow. Maybe I just didn't understand the premise of the show. Moore would know. I can't help but imagine a postscript where, once everyone else is frolicking in hippie-time meadow, criminal gangs reveal squirrelled away tech & weapons and take over.

But for the first two seasons, it was breathtaking, genre defining sci-fi. BSG pushed the sci-fi envelope and then some. 

Now, Moore is back with some of his best work yet: an alternate history show centred around the space program. The central conceit is that the Soviets landed on the moon first. Like the flapping of the wings of a butterfly, this causes a cascade of further changes. As the show progresses through the decades, the more it diverges from what we know as reality. 

Moore wisely avoids rehashing The Right Stuff, Apollo 13, and the like. Instead, the space program is the supporting scaffolding upon which human drama can be hung. For All Mankind is as much about culture, prejudice, social change, organizational and individual fallibility, and the human experience as it is about space shuttles and moon bases.

Each season covers a decade, starting with the sixties. The period details are wonderful, and the evolution of the cast's fashions fun to digest. 

Thanks to the Soviets landing a woman on the moon, the Americans are forced to include women in the space program. Propaganda posturing propels them to become more inclusive, the better to win hearts and minds. Yet the social improvements that cascade out of these calculated, reptilian motives winds up improving society as a whole. 

Allowing everyone to contribute to a society to the best of their ability maximizes human capital, making society stronger and healthier.

The show tackles everything from panic attacks, alcoholism, egotism, to geopolitics and space hazards, yet remains hopeful and positive throughout. 

It's a virtuoso performance: For All Mankind sees all the warts, yet loves humanity anyway.

Give it a watch on Apple+. 

It's too good to miss.

astronauts from For All Mankind
Astronauts heading out to watch For All Mankind