Thursday, 30 June 2016

The Ugly Problem

It's hard to know what to write today, and part of me is thinking I should keep my trap shut.

On the other hand I feel I should at least do something about the sudden hairpin turn that my country has taken in the past week. To be honest it feels as if the UK has suddenly become a lot nastier, a lot darker and less tolerant.

It's as if the anger that has built up over the years, in many cases quite legitimately as successive governments have let the country go to the dogs, has been unleashed in the nastiest way possible. Racist abuse is on the rise and there's been at least one arson attack, as a halal butchers was petrol bombed. The horror I feel that this was a local incident to me is something I cannot express. Add to that the racist and homophobic chants reported in the Pink News, and the fact that Attitude is reporting that a Daily Mail columnist blames same sex marriage for the Brexit vote and I find myself wondering if the world has gone mad, or if the acceptance of all the things I associate with my country being tolerant and welcoming were an illusion, and that now I'm being forced to see the place for what it is.

I really hope that this is a generational thing, though it's interesting to note that 58% of Christians in the UK supported Leaving the EU, and 70% of Muslims supported staying in. Is that significant beyond the obvious sense that in the UK many of the people who identify as Christian are older, more conservative and possibly have no idea how much the world has changed (honestly pushing for independence at a point where everything is getting bigger and superseding the nation state is madness, but I guess its the sort of madness you get when people feel they have no control of their lives). To link it to the kind of thing I usually write about, this should give us an inkling of what a zombie apocalypse would look like.

Are you sure you want one, now? (It's the sort of fantasy that prospers when things are going okay, perhaps now we'll see a shift away from that sort of narrative, after all if we want to see monsters we need only look in the mirror).

It's as if these people are taking the exit as a signal to unleash hell and do whatever they want. Perhaps they really believe that 60% of UK law comes from Brussels and, as a consequence, they no longer have to worry about their thuggish behaviour. In the meantime, the ship is off course, rudderless and without a captain. Caught up in their own affairs, the residents of Westminster's bubble fight their own battles while the angry boys make everyone else's lives a misery, careening about like toddlers on too much sugar. Someone needs to say 'no'. Someone needs to reinforce the message that this is not acceptable.

In the absence of an authority figure, that has to be us. I urge you to get in contact with your friends who might be in danger and check that they're okay. If you see something on the street, stand up to the people who do it. Don't let them fill our buses, trains, and trams with their hateful bilge. Don't let them fill our public spaces with their noxious opinions. Please.

Wednesday, 29 June 2016

Andromeda 2

Just a heads up today about Andromeda 2, a convention that's happening September, here in Birmingham.

I'll be there hosting a couple of panels (one on Steampunk and one on comics, and possibly doing a talk about Gothic).

So, yeah, check it out and come down for a chat.

Monday, 27 June 2016

Tuesday's Quote

Gambling was the place where statistics and profound human consequences met most nakedly, after all, and cards, even more than dice or the numbers on a roulette wheel, seemed able to define and perhaps even dictate a player’s...luck.

Cover to Cover: Mage the Awakening Chapter One

Chapter One: Faces of Magic, looks at what makes a Mage, focusing on the Paths and Orders and as a result starting to lay out the building blocks of Mage society.

For me there's an important distinction between first and second editions here, one of the things I didn't grasp with first ed is that the Paths represent different kinds of magic user, something that in Ascension was nested into the Order equivalent, the Traditions. As a result Awakening felt rather bland. So it's refreshing to see the game breaking the different Paths down to show how they represent different mages, and actively pin different labels on them. (I have an uneasy feeling that this was always there if you looked hard enough but that first ed simply didn't sell the idea to me in anyway that was memorable).

Before we head down the path... there's the next piece of fiction to consider.

This, the second part of The Door, leads the reader into discovering more about the accused woman's past in the form of a confession she has started to write. It illustrates something of the life of a Mage, led by signs and visions to go to where they're needed, rather than being tied to one location. It's well written and actually added to my perspective of what a mage was.

Image result for mage the awakening cosmologyTo understand this chapter you have to understand something about the cosmology employed by the game. The illustration to the right shows the 'map' the game uses, with our world at the bottom, divided into spiritual and physical versions, the Abyss above it to show the disconnect between the 'fallen world' and the pentagram represents an idealised world, which mages call their magic down from. Each section of the pentagram is a different 'realm' tied to a different type of magic. Thus, we have the five realms, Arcadia, Stygia, Pandemonium, the Aether, and the Primal Wild (which is a pretty awful name when you consider that the other places all get airy fairy magical names).

To break down the paths we have:

Acanthus: enchanters and witches, specialising in Fate and Time magic, the Acanthus are all about coincidences and strange happenings.

Mastigos: warlocks and psychonauts, whose magic relates to the mysteries of Space and the Mind. These sinister figures are often master manipulators.

Moros: necromancers and alchemists, the Moros are depicted as stoic figures wielding Matter and Death magic.

Obrimos: theurgists and thaumaturges, these mages wield the power of Prime and Forces.

Thyrsus: shamans and ecstatics, the Thyrsus are masters of Life and Spirit.

In addition to this each Path has a form of magic that they are weak in, so the Acanthus are not very good at Forces magic because they can't manipulate it to do their bidding. It isn't just something mechanical, the implication is that Forces are cosmologically set against their abilities as mages, which adds more flavour. It also adds another reason for mages to work together, if your Acanthus con artist can't wield Forces that well it makes sense to ally with an Obrimos monster hunter who slings fireballs like a bandit. Likewise if you're playing a shaman who suddenly has ghosts to deal with, cutting a deal with your local Moros antiquities dealer becomes a no brainer.

Each write up for the Paths delves into their natures, their abilities, their backgrounds, symbols and myths, and provides three insights into how a mage on that path might look, giving us such images as an Acanthus who is performs to challenge her audiences to awaken, a Mastigos who tracks ghosts and ghuls through Mogadishu and others.

Touching on the Orders, there's also a break down of the functions and attitudes of each Path to them, exploring the different roles that they take, including the Seers of the Throne, the game's main mortal antagonists. In addition we get a small sidebar for each Path with commonly held stereotypes about the other types of mage.

The Orders form the second part of the character in the game. If the Path is the 'who are you', Orders are 'what do you do?' Each group has a specific function, dividing into fighters, leaders, policemen and spies, and archivists in the Diamond, a group that trace their past back to antiquity and cluster around a myth of a forgotten mystery that's been associated with Atlantis. In addition there's the Free Council, a hodgepodge of mages who have a more scientific, or at least modern approach to magic. Lastly there's a section on the Seers. who try to keep the Lie in place, serving the tyrant gods who have imprisoned humanity. They're here as a viable player character option, though it feels as if running a game with them featuring as PCs would have to be something stand alone.

The sections explore the Orders structures, their strategies and recruitment techniques. It underlines what they are for, far more so than first edition. Here, I think the game has really benefited from the decade of books that have already been published for the line. The Orders feel stronger for that legacy, more rounded and deeper than they did before. They feel like they have a purpose rather than just being 'this is the option for fighty characters' and so on. They have philosophies and ideals behind them, principles that make them work.

Image result for adamantine arrowTo take the Admantine Arrow, our 'fighty' Order as an example, we find that their principles are as follows:

  • Existence is War
  • Adaptability is Strength
  • Service is Mastery
  • The Supernal is the Self
  • Enlightenment is Honour

Contrast this with the Silver Ladder's (the self styled leaders and priest kings of the Diamond) ethics of:

Image result for The Silver Ladder
  • Thunder: Imperium is the Sovereign Right of all Humanity
  • Diamond: The Awakened are One Nation
  • Blood: The Sleepers Follow
  • Star: The Silver Ladder are the Path to Victory

The very wording gives us an idea of different ideals and aspirations, with the Arrow being far more grounded, and focused on combat and honour in comparison to the Ladder's focus on leadership and shepherding the flock. There's a disconnect too in terms of their sense of purpose or duty, Where the Arrow are focused on personal enlightenment, almost for its own sake, the Ladder are intent on bringing everyone else with them.

Image result for mage the awakeningBeyond this the write ups delve into the origins of each Order, charting a potted history and provide ideas about their central mysteries, and magical symbolism. Lastly, each part touches on Hubris and how each Order views it.

We get a batch of stereotypes about each Order and how they view each other and then we're onto the Seers.

I'll speak about this group specifically for a moment because they're rather different to the others. First, as I said, they're the bad guys, the slaves of the big bad jailers who are intent on keeping humanity in the dark as long as they can, while at the same time scrambling to collect their own power. They're embedded into the Establishment, hiding in the chinks of government and business. Basically they're every paranoid fantasy about abusive power manifest in one body. Unlike the other groups, which are all about defiance and self discovery, the Seers are about supplication and, one might argue, degradation. While the other Orders focus on merit, the Seers are about unearned authority, and about keeping the rest of humanity down. It's not hard to see why they're the villains of the piece, really. One interesting thing, for me anyway, is the use of an Architect as a character concept, suggesting that you could build a chronicle around sacred geometry and urban planning (this makes me stupidly happy).

That's it for this chapter, next we'll look at the Awakened World and how their society functions.

Sunday, 26 June 2016

My Values: Education

This is a tricky one, especially as it can be argued that there's enough for children to learn as it is. But, I look at the education system and wonder what the hell it's for. The basic answer is, of course, that it's supposed to educate children, and to act as a force of socialisation, but to what end? Is it supposed to make them think, to reason out what they want from life, or is it just Pink Floydesque factory to churn out more tools for the factories and call centres? We must decide because it has huge consequences for our nation and our economy.

Received wisdom is that knowledge progresses from telling children what to believe, to letting them question things, and finally to undertaking research to find their own truths. Somewhere that has broken down, possibly in the obsession with league tables and the scramble to get people into universities. The problem there is that we're now in a one size fits all education system, which makes no regard for the different types of intelligence that pervade our species and seeks to encourage only what works for a very small number of people. In addition, to my eyes, the education system has been 'gerrymandered' to Hell and back, I remember the reforms of the 1980s and 1990s as schools sought to get better results for girls, and while I'm not sure I believe the argument that boys are now disadvantaged, it does seem as if something has broken down if you look at the disparate numbers of young men and women who now go to university.

I believe in education, it's one of the most important sectors in our society and it does feel to me as if the idea that students should think for themselves has been frittered away until there's almost nothing left of it. I also believe that the current education system doesn't do its job very effectively, partly because it doesn't know what it wants to be.

Herein lies the problem, because we're reaching for something where two, maybe even three, objectives need to achieve in schools, that the system resembles the Roman God Janus, trying to look in one direction for a change. I believe that all students should be able to think and make their decisions, to be able to discern fact from propaganda and to be able to argue some economic and political theory even if that's only knowing how each theory makes its case for its principles in relation to ideas about human nature. My spouse thinks that practical education needs to be emphasised and that every child should be able to balance a budget and cook nutritious meals (we aren't teachers so we're spitballing, it does feel as if that's something that needs to be included, because it's not the sort of thing that parents necessarily sit and down teach their children). Both of us think that there needs to be a push for better sex and relationships education, in my case including a need to broach issues like fetishism, BDSM and other murkier areas which children are probably more aware of because of the internet and things like Fifty Shades of Grey.

Whatever we do I do think we need more focus on education, and getting our people to be smart and informed. I suspect we need to scrap the GCSEs and A Levels we're used to for something that reaches across both academic and vocational teaching, possibly with a view to creating a more holistic system that doesn't favour one side or the other in the great Humanities/STEM debate, and which allows children to leave school with enough skills that they can face a future that looks like it will be more based on the portfolio career than on anything else. We must prepare them for a future that's more uncertain, and will put more pressure on them to look for work, to build their own careers and to navigate the waters of being freelancers.

Saturday, 25 June 2016

Post Brexit - Where Now?

Image result for Broken EuropeThe Referendum result is in, and sadly the Leave campaign won on a 4% lead. A campaign has already started to seek a second referendum because, in terms of the UK's population, the majority was only a slim one. The Out camp seem to have won because the elderly voted that way, and because of a mixture of outright lies, deliberate distortions, and scaremongering from the big beasts on that side of the spectrum. The Remain campaign never really got started, and frankly, in hindsight, it would have been much better if Number 10 had stayed out of it. The Remain arguments were too technocratic, they did nothing to appeal to a sense of unity or even to point out the real implications of leaving. While Project Fear seems to have been on the money, given a 2 Trillion Pound cost of Brexiting on the economy so far, it's with a mixture of sorrow and vindictive humour that I look at Cornwall, for instance, which having voted out now worries about funding. Reality is sinking in, and I suspect a lot of people on the Leave side are realising how screwed up things are.

I didn't post about this yesterday, mostly because you would only have been reading a list of expletives. I feel that Britain, the country that I love, has just committed suicide. We have leapt into that space marked 'Terra Incognita' and 'Here be Dragons' without a second glance, and we are the poorer for it, not just fiscally but in terms of our place in the world. The open, friendly face we showed the world, has just been revealed to be a mask and already there's a rise in racist attacks and abuse across the country. We've also had the first murder of an MP for over a century when Jo Cox was gunned down in the street (and Leave really showed how classy they were the day of her memorial service, flying a plane over the service with a vote leave banner behind it). In the main, I found both sides of the campaign risible, and as I said earlier in the week, it only confirmed my opinion that we are not a politically literate nation. If the Leave result was a victory for anyone, ti was for the right wing press that has spent years peddling lies and half truths about immigration and the EU, and that has only confirmed in my mind that we need a public office to check the facts of what these organs publish, and to publicly censure them when they publish things that can't be backed up by facts?

There should be no doubt in anyone's minds that we should treat the Exit as a done deal, even if we get a second referendum, even if that swings us right back the other way and we suddenly find ourselves extremely pro the EU, I think we have to accept that we're standing in a new chapter for our nation. The attitude of the EU President, Karl Junker, has been one of  'you made your bed, now lie in it'. We're out. We should do the honourable thing and start the decoupling process now (and frankly, let the Leave leaders deal with it - you got us into this mess so you make sure we get a good deal*).

The other thing we should be sure about is that our nation is never going to be the same again. Scotland and Northern Ireland are already making noises about independence, and perhaps more worryingly, so is London. If that happens, I have no idea what happens next but I honestly can't blame them for wanting to get out of a country that feels as if it is becoming stupid, petty, racist and irrelevant. A country that wants simple answers in a world where none exist. The fact that the spokespeople for Leave are rowing back on most of what they said, is only proof of that, and I do wonder if the fact they are reneging on their statements should be something that the likes of Johnson and Farage should be sued over. In any other area of life, they would legally liable, and it continues to baffle me that politics is exempt. I also feel, quite strongly, that Gisella Stuart, as the director of the official Leave campaign, should be the person leading our negotiations over Article 50 with Farage, Johnson and the like helping out.

You broke it, you bought it in other words.

Anyway, that's probably pie in the sky stuff, unlikely to happen, even if I feel it would be justified. Where do we go from here, as a nation? I suspect a lot of the people who voted Out on Thursday will just want to go back to their normal lives, to their close worlds and insular attitudes. But if you broke it, you bought it applies, these are the people who should be stepping up to the plate. You're complaining nobody listens to you, that your area is deprived and so on, so stand up, lobby, march, protest, get elected. Your duty to your nation is to drive forward change, not just to throw your teddy out of the pram and sulk because nobody listens to you. You have to make them listen to you, you have to make your case. More than that, if you're serious about cutting immigration, you have to come up with a plan to deal with the jobs that will be left empty in the NHS and other areas by the lack of new people entering the country. You want to take back your country, to be in control, well that means giving a damn, it means putting on your big boy or girl pants and getting your hands dirty. It  means changing how you live your life.

The thing that concerns me is that I fear we will see a lurch rightwards in the next few years, see the Human Rights Act torn up, see workers rights, women's rights and environmental legislation cast into the wind. I fear we'll be back to being the Dirty Man of Europe, and the Sick Man too (I've said all this before, but I feel it bears repeating). I know I have to follow my own advice and get involved. I feel we have to do as Paul Mason suggested in today's Guardian and work for a more progressive politics, binding a coalition of the Left into one large unit and dealing with the break up of the UK slowly and sensibly.

If I had to break down what I wanted to see from the Exit, it would be:

  • A proper Human Rights Act
  • Strong and binding environmental plans (none of this 'scrap the green crap' stuff)
  • Controls for wages, no more zero hour contracts
  • Since we can do it, VAT off tampons
  • A strong commitment to worker's rights, women's rights and equal rights in general. 
  • A commitment to educating people to the highest standard, to allow people to get jobs (in my opinion that means reconsidering what outcomes we want education to have, rather than just 'get people into university').
  • A move away from neoliberalism and the 'profit at any cost' mentality that pervades our economy, cheapens our society and makes people superfluous to requirements. 
  • Close any and all tax loopholes.

My real concern though is that this was a vote for the past, for  an imagined place where everything was rosy and there were no problems. It comes at just the wrong time because we should be looking at the future, at the power of unelected bodies that wield huge power (and no the EU isn't unelected, pretty much everyone there was either elected directly the people of the EU or by the nations that make up the body). Our nation has a bad habit of looking backwards or resting on our laurels when we should be moving forward, and now that we're intent on selling off every part of the state, that is only getting worse. Consider the fact that we discovered graphene and sold it to foreign nationals straight away. We have a commitment to a low cost, low skill economy... which isn't a game we can win at when we look at China, India and South America. We need to find a different one.

In the meantime, whatever happens, this should be our anthem.

* Frankly, it'd be a wonder to see Nigel Farage actually doing some work.