Saturday, 30 May 2020

A Clash of Kings

The second installment in the Song of Ice and Fire series was my most recent read and I loved it! Picking up once again from where we left off after A Game of Thrones we dive into the world of Westeros and the meat of what became the War of Five Kings, all deciding who would sit on the Iron Throne. So, as a blazing comet streaks across the sky, dragons hatch in the east, wildlings gather against the ancient Wall, kings war and the land bleeds, we delve into a realm split by A Clash of Kings.


Looking back I do remember this book as my favorite from when I first picked the series up. It had many of the tropes I would come to know and love in books, sieges, political intrigue, war, magic and above all, wit!

The book picks up only a few days after the events of A Game of Thrones and follows our main cast of principle characters, minus one. Those characters are the Stark clan, Catelyn, Arya, Sansa and Bran, plus Jon. Then we have our other protagonists Tyrion Lannister and Danaerys Targaryen. Into this mix is thrown a new player, Davos Seaworth the Onion Knight, who is above and beyond one of my other favorite characters. We also have Theon Greyjoy, who plays a very important part in this piece.

This book though, probably more than any of the next volumes, is really about the overarching events of The War of Five Kings (and ironically the only one where all five kings are even present). It accelerates events as in the last book Rob was proclaimed the first King in the North in nearly three centuries, meanwhile both Stannis and Renly Baratheon claim crowns and the kingship of Jofferey "Baratheon" is in doubt. Meanwhile, old rebels take up old crowns and a more sinister plot in the war.

Like I said though, it focuses on some of my favorite elements in storytelling, namely sieges and politics which I think put together make for some fascinating situations to read about. Sieges in history have been intense moments of struggle and can last for quite a long time with great or terrible results. One of the primary issues in this book is the impending siege of King's Landing by one of the claimants to the Iron Throne and how that might end the war in an afternoon!

Tyrion Lannister is the one who deals with the main problems as he enters a city beset by a rising refugee population, political imbalance, and one which is almost utterly unprepared to stand a siege. His sister the Queen Regent does not recognize his authority, the king is an adolescent sadist, and his fellow members of the Small Council are completely unreliable. All the political maneuvering he has to cause just to get things done is fascinating to read about as he must make one thrust and then another to keep everyone focused on the goal of just surviving!

Meanwhile, Catelyn Stark presents our view of the King in the North as he tries to fight the war in the Riverlands. The Lannister army has been denuding the countryside, laying waste to farms and crops and smallfolk to try and force the King in the North to battle. Catelyn sees that as things stand, there is no way for her son to win the war on his own, so she marches on a mission to seek out the other claimants to make cause with them. It leads to probably one of the most fascinating scenes in the whole series from a political/personality standpoint since it analyses different theories of kingship, the right of inheritance and offers a surprisingly pragmatic solution to the whole problem of the war. I honestly encourage you to read Steven Atwell's essay on the topic as it's some amazing subtext built in here which gives me endless thoughts on how Martin structured these characters.

Her daughters Sansa and Arya are captives and fugitives from the Lannister regime respectively. Arya tries to make her way north across the war torn Riverlands, while Sansa is locked away in Kings Landing suffering under the brutality of the boy king Joffery. Sansa must now play the doting fiance, while enduring the deadly politics of a capital falling under siege.

In the North, Bran sits as the crippled Prince of Winterfell, fighting his own political battles while Jon Snow and the Nights Watch march beyond the Wall to confront the Wildling horde which threatens to fall on the Seven Kingdoms like a hammer blow. All the while something more mysterious lurks beyond it all.

One of the overwhelming backgrounds of this book is the War itself. Its twists and turns in battle and fortune run hard. The most compelling aspect is the siege of and assault on King's Landing. It's a great war story, and drives much of the drama throughout the book itself as everyone wonders who will sit in the world's most uncomfortable chair. These elements were, I think, the best part of the story. It made the drama relatable as we knew Kings Landing, knew the stakes for those in the capital, and how the win or loss there could effect everyone across the whole story. Sieges can make for great plot elements like that!

The themes of war and hardship are what hooked me into this volume, but on reread, themes of femininity and women in war are also front and center. From Catelyn Stark whose only weapon is the negotiating power she has as a high lady, to Sansa Stark who is a high born hostage whose life is one of constant intrigue and abuse. Then we have Brienne of Tarth,  who fights like a man and is a homely creature scorned by the lords and knights around her. These women use their wits and words, and occasionally their weapons, to navigate the world of Westeros, and it brings issues to mind we just don't seem to consider enough. I enjoyed picking up on that this time around.

Re-reading this I remembered why I was sucked into Westeros so easily, and how I'm being brought in so easily again! I can't wait to get around to the next installment! 

Tuesday, 19 May 2020

The Battle of Matewan

Years ago in high school, my law teacher was giving our class a rundown on the topic of labor unions in Canada and the legal rights employers and employees had. To highlight the history she played a movie called Matewan telling a dramatized version of the Battle of Matewan which took place a century ago today.

The battle itself was part of what was then known as the West Virginia Coal Wars. Boiled down to its simplest form, the largely undeclared war was fought between coal miners who wanted to unionize to gain better working conditions and the coal barons and land owners in West Virginia who simply wanted to make profit off the coal miners' labor. They were willing to use force to do so. The miners, who were forced to work in company towns, pay with company scrip, and were liable to be driven from their company owned homes if they failed to meet quotas or protested, were driven to extreme measures as they attempted to unionize.

The Battle of Matewan was a microcosm of the whole war as it took place thanks to warrants being illegally served to evict coal miners who were trying to unionize. The Baldwin Felts Detective Agency was hired by the coal company to go and serve these eviction notices. Naturally, the miners were touchy about this and armed themselves. When the mayor of Matewan and the sheriff Sid Hatfield (of Hatfield-McCoy lineage fame) intercepted the detectives after they had served some initial eviction notices, fighting started. What precisely started the shooting is disputed to this day, but it left several detectives dead (notably Albert and Lee Felts) and three townsfolk.

A small victory like this snowballed into the largest battle on United States soil between citizens and government (well, partially government) forces since the Civil War.

The Battle of Blair Mountain which followed involved roughly 10,000 loosely organized coal miners and their supporters fighting 3,000 law enforcement officers and militia mobilized to meet them. It lasted for over a week with over 200 casualties and involved the use of machine guns, a private air force bombing the striking miners, and trench warfare.

The fighting was eventually broken up by the intervention of Federal troops and order restored. However, even though it was a defeat for the union forces, it did raise awareness of the appalling conditions miners faced. Though not a hard fought and bloody victory like many stories would tell you, it is a fascinating story in and of itself and does show what can happen when push comes to shove and men and women are driven to desperate need.

As I mentioned at the start of this article, this was shown to my high school law class to make us understand that people had fought and died so we could have labor rights and negotiate with employers to prevent the abuse of workers from happening again. One hundred years after these phenomenal battles, I see workers in a time of global crisis being exploited. Whether it is at the largest retail and warehouse company in North America, one of the largest coffee chains, or even simply being forced to choose between staying home and safe or having to venture into work with a public who just doesn't care about them or even others in their quest for some nebulous thing they claim to need. Workers are at risk, especially the most vulnerable workers.

For what? So someone like Jeff Bezos can be worth more? So you can get your package in the mail faster, so you can get a haircut? None of that is worth a single worker's health or livelihood. We need to keep in mind that our ancestors, quite literally, fought and died so that we today did not have to be exploited in the same way. This battle is a microcosm of that struggle which went on, and arguably continues to this day. It's a struggle we're still fighting, and one I encourage people to be aware of.

In order to further give you a better understanding of the battle and issues surrounding it, I must encourage you to listen to the amazing podcast Behind the Bastards and their episodes on the matter. Robert Evans does a far better job telling the story than I can in a mere centennial blog post. He also gives you access to more information and is himself a phenomenal writer and host whose many podcasts should be listened to. You can also find him on Twitter.

In the end though, I hope you can understand that one hundred years ago, men and women had to fight and bleed to have even their basic rights respected in the face of profit hungry corporations. We can only hope that today we never have to do such again and that future generations will never know the same horrors our ancestors knew.


Monday, 18 May 2020

The Problem with Trudeau's Firearms Ban

The recent Order in Council put forth by Justin Trudeau in response to the tragic events in Nova Scotia has caused no small amount of public debate. However, the ban itself is problematic in the way it was implemented, but also because it won't do a single thing to stop another massacre.

Now full disclosure, I like guns and have absolutely no problem with people owning them. I also think that the government is right to try and regulate what kind of weapons can be owned, there really is no reason for an individual to own a weapon which can be made to go fully automatic (which is a terrible waste of ammunition anyway). I am of the personal opinion though, this Order in Council was simply a publicity stunt, however well meaning it might have been. I hope to outline both why the gun debate in Canada is long settled, and why the current ban will do absolutely nothing to prevent another massacre.


First though, let me clear something up. There has been a lot of push back from gun owners regarding the ban. Many claiming it infringes on their "right" to own weapons. Important thing to know, in Canada you do not have the right to bear arms. There is no second amendment like law which ensures Canadians have access to weapons, and we are probably better off for it. The law is very clear on that fact, and the Supreme Court has ruled twice, quite comprehensively, on the subject.

The first Supreme Court case to rule comprehensively on the issue was 1993's R. v. Hasselwander it was declared, in a specific rebuttal to an appeal to American ideals: The American authorities should not be considered in this case. Canadians, unlike Americans do not have a constitutional right to bear arms. Indeed, most Canadians prefer the peace of mind and sense of security derived from the knowledge that the possession of automatic weapons is prohibited.

In 2005 in R. v. Wiles it was confirmed that: "Possession and use of firearms is a heavily regulated privilege, and the loss of that privilege does not support a finding of gross disproportionality because it falls short of a punishment “so excessive as to outrage standards of decency” Thus confirming that the ownership of firearms in Canada is indeed a privilege. 

Owning firearms in Canada is very well regulated, and while handguns can be owned under very strict circumstances, it is very rare. There are an estimated 12.7 million firearms in Canada, and by and large, we seem to be very responsible gun owners and our current laws work. Even with a relatively large percent of personally owned weapons, gun crime is very low in this country, even if it has been rising in some urban areas. I would personally say this is a victory for our firearms laws and our own gun culture on the whole.

Hopefully this has been educational regarding both the existing laws, and gun crimes in this country. Now let's talk about why the ban will do no good.

I want to draw attention to the fact that the shooter in Nova Scotia actually did not legally own the firearms he used in the attack. They were in fact smuggled in from the United States. This is not unusual in Canadian crimes. It is estimated 70% of the weapons used in Canadian gun crimes come into the country illegally from the United States. These statistics, I think, bear out that any attempt to ban the ownership of guns in the hands of law abiding Canadians, with whatever intention, is utterly irrelevant in actually preventing the importation of illegal guns into the country.

If the Liberal government truly wants to act in practice to reduce gun crime, they should be working harder to stop the illegal importation of weapons into the country through a bilateral solution. Instead, they have chosen to act in a way which not only comes off as antagonistic, but is also not addressing the root of the problem. What is worse is that 2019 Angus Reid polling found that a majority of gun owners would be receptive to a total assault weapons ban. The optics of the Order in Council are, if anything, terrible, and now are dependent on a broad coalition to actually pass legislation - which since the Liberal government declined to adopt a formal coalition, puts them in hock to other parties.

While the Angus Reid polling does certainly suggest that support for items like handgun and assault weapons bans are high, even in a majority among gun owners, it also points to the fact that for the largest part of the population, this is a settled matter. Both in the courts of law and the courts of public opinion, these are not debates to be had. What has to be pointed out however, is that rather than flashy 'feel good' bans like the current move, we should instead be raising public awareness of what will actually go towards preventing massacres like these from happening again.

There is much more that could be done, like the aforementioned better attempts to crackdown on illegal imports, bilateral agreements with our neighbors, or even fighting to bring back the long gun registry. Raising these issues is much more helpful than a sudden and unexpected ban, and this is the conversation our leaders should be having.

It isn't an outright ban of certain weapons, but well researched and implemented policy which will help address Canadians' fears. So far, we seem to be lacking that from our elected leaders.

Monday, 11 May 2020

The Blade Itself

As part of my Great 2020 reread I'm returning to a series which I originally picked up way back in the 2010s, I can't remember exactly when, but was drawn to it by the TvTropes page. It promised me a delightfully twisted story of torturers, barbarians, mad wizards, cannibals and the moral grayness of war. I was not disappointed! I give you the First Law trilogy, starting with The Blade Itself! Thanks to Homer for the title!

From the First Law Wiki

Welcome to the Circle of the World, a place I have visited before. It is a world of mighty empires and kingdoms, shattered empires and emerging kingdoms. We start in the grim North, where Logen Ninefingers, The Bloody Nine, is fleeing from the bestial Shanka who want to make him a meal. After being ambushed, separated from his band of fellow warriors, and thrown from a cliff, he survives to seek out the advice of the spirits who guide him to the First of the Magi, Bayaz. What this old sage has need of in a bloody and brutally scarred barbarian like him he can't say for sure.

In the Union we see Captain Jezal dan Luthor who is busily training for The Contest, to win glory for himself. Vainglorious and selfish, Jezal is an officer in the Kings Own, the army that holds the disparate parts of the Union together. He fights for himself though and is happily vain and willing to do anything to advance his position. That is, until a chance meeting puts in in the path of the sister of his commoner superior Major Colleem West. Maybe Jezal has a heart after all.

Also in the Union, in the capital of Adua, Sand dan Glokta of His Majesties Inquisition, war hero, winner of The Contest himself, and former guest of the Emperor of Gurkhul is seeking answers to his questions. Thankfully, no one knows more of questions than him. As a guest of the Emperor he was brutally tortured, losing many of his teeth, the toes on one foot, and being cut, beaten and subject to some of the worst tortures imaginable. Now he must unravel a conspiracy which seems to go to the heart of the Union, and many powerful men want him to succeed or fail and that can be a matter of life and death.

Finally, far to the south, at the edge of the Gurkish Empire, Ferro Maljinn is seeking revenge. Revenge against the Emperor, revenge against his empire, revenge against the whole world. An escaped slave and a notorious bandit to boot, she is hunted by the ferocious warrior priests of the Prophet Khalul, the Eaters. She is saved by a mysterious old man named Yulwei, who declares he desires greater things from her than being a corpse. They head northwards, towards the Union.

These disreputable characters all meet in Adua where blood flows in the streets, corruption festers up from the halls of power, and an ancient feud boils into the open.

This starts off the simply superb First Law Trilogy, the story which brought Joe Abercrombie into mainstream fantasy. Since reading it, it has become one of my favorite series, and he is probably one of my favorite authors because of it. Since I did make some allusions to the newest novel, I would encourage those just discovering this series not to read that review first and to instead read these reviews upcoming.

What probably drew me into this series is that Abercrombie writes immensely flawed characters. They are vain, selfish, cowardly, and twisted people. They commit evil acts while trying to be better, or just for the hell of it. Hell, one of the view point characters is a torturer! But that does make these characters deeply interesting, as we can see our own flaws, shortcomings, and even cowardice reflected in them. I myself was swept away by Jezal's arc in this book where he goes from selfish fop, to a man trying to prove to himself that he can be a better person, all to win a girls heart.

Glokta though, is probably my favorite character. He begins as a self-piteous cripple who loathes the world around him, both for what he has become after his glory days, and a feeling of betrayal at friends who seem to have abandoned him. He also carried the meat of the intrigue plot on his back as with the death of the leader of the Closed Council, his boss, Arch Lector Sult, is jockeying for power with the disparate factions in the realm, and he means to come out on top, even if that means doing so on top of a pile of corpses. Glokta's included.

The infirmities Glokta labors under are interesting as well. Having been crippled from torture he is in constant pain, and must tread carefully lest he cause himself agony. Despite this, he has a keen mind and is very sharp in his observations. One could almost call his storyline a very grimdark noir detective piece. I deeply enjoyed it, and his POV's are probably my favorite throughout the books.

I think what sucked me in though was that while the story itself had a slow build, Abercrombie writes a surprisingly complex and deep backstory. He deftly weaves in discussions about the lore of the world, hints towards the future, and neatly lays out things that upon rereading I found myself shocked at how much he managed to telegraph with me not even guessing!

Then the little bits of writing he does, using simple words and capturing complex thoughts, and little actions. This impressed me as he uses an excellent conservation of language while imparting the maximum meaning of his words. I always come away feeling awed by his stories, and I really look forward to recapturing that feeling I had when I first picked up his books.

Finally, Joe Abercrombie writes action like no one else in the business. It is visceral, brutal, and you can practically feel blood flowing and bones crunching as the action scenes take place. He puts you right in the swinging fists and swords and you almost fear for your life when the steel comes out! If you need a good action scene, read Joe Abercrombie!

I'll be getting into the meat of this series with the sequel Before They Are Hanged soon, and I would highly recommend it to anyone who loves fantasy!

Wednesday, 6 May 2020

The Fermi Paradox Problem

Where is all the life out there? Why hasn't it contacted us? That was the basis of the question asked by Enrico Fermi at Los Alamos in 1950, creating the Fermi Paradox. Since then this seeming paradox has confounded scientists, futurists and writers for over seventy years. There have been an exhaustive number of explanations for why that is. Isaac Arthur does many great videos on them. And we have competing ideas about the plausibility of extraterrestrial life.

However, in a controversial take, I'm declaring there is no paradox.

The reason I'm saying so has a relatively simple premise, we simply don't have the means available to us to determine whether life is out there definitively. For reference, we've only been searching the skies for sign of intelligent life for less than a century, and we've been scanning for habitable plants beyond our solar system for far less than half a century. The tools we're using are not yet advanced enough to make a detailed observation of our closest neighboring star, let alone stars beyond that.

Our information is so limited we can't even say for certain what's on the majority of other planets in our solar system. There could be alien ruins on Mars right now and we could just be missing them.

Heck, alien probes could have visited us recently and we would have no idea. They could remain beyond our detection if they so chose, or we simply wouldn't be able to properly identify them. Or they could have visited us one thousand, ten thousand, or ten million years ago and we wouldn't know at all.

From our very Earthbound perspective we have limited data enough on our own solar system, to be then extrapolating from that limited data to try and make sweeping proclamations of the billions of stars in our own local galaxy is the height of folly, or at least an Earth-centric logical fallacy. To assume that our planet, which has had organized civilized life on it for just over 10,000 years, is so interesting or important among many billions of others is almost as silly as the geocentric ideas that the Sun rotated around the Earth. This in turn simply assumes alien life would be rotating around the Earth.

The above is very oversimplified to be sure, but let me address a few other problems with issues of timescale. According to our own understanding of physics, it would take even a civilization with sub-light capabilities (that is, unable to go beyond the speed of light) only a few million years to reliably visit/colonize the entire galaxy. This idea has problems because firstly it assumes civilizations unifying or staying homogeneous enough to carry out such a long term project. Our own science fiction writers and theorists have already posited a few practical problems with humans undergoing such projects (the book Aurora is a great look at that) but we would have no idea of the problems faced by an alien species in undertaking such a project. Secondly there's an implicit statement of intent, which as noted above may not be practical and simply may not exist. Any given alien species might not even see the need to expand beyond its own solar system, or just the next few neighboring solar systems. Even then, as I've said before, space is vast and going beyond a few thousand light years may just exceed the ability or interest of any given species.

Even for the moment accepting that the proposition is true and some species has perhaps colonized the entire galaxy at some point, that possibility isn't even out of the realm of feasibility. It may have happened a billion years ago, but then Earth might have not looked appealing to these alien colonizers. They might not have found any planets in our solar system to be appealing and simply categorized this system and moved on for greener pastures as it were. We quite simply can't say for sure.

Then of course we have the explanation for this 'paradox' that the aliens themselves might be too, well, alien for us to identify. We might be looking for the interplanetary equivalent of the Klingons when our closest intelligent neighbors might look more like the Hanar. We might just be searching for the wrong aliens. Even then, we could be looking for megastructures like the Dyson Sphere, when the aliens themselves might just prefer colonizing their own solar system and building artificial orbital rings around these planets. We can't say for sure.

These of course are just a few points in favor of throwing out the idea of the so-called Fermi Paradox. There are far too many assumptions and potential projections of our own assumed behaviors onto other alien species, which might blind us to very real signs of interstellar life. All these assumptions, and then reasonable objections to the premise, really push the Fermi Paradox from a true paradoxical question about the great silence of the universe, to something more like a trivially interesting thought experiment with no actual bearing on the nature of life among the stars.

It is that latter option which sums up the so-called paradox far better than any of the serious thought given to it by the scientific community, in my own humble opinion.

Monday, 4 May 2020

Preppers not Prepped

In the past few days I've been watching with almost abject disbelief as across the United States people have suddenly begun protesting the existing quarantine and stay at home orders. Among their ranks seem to be many members of the so-called preppers (along with a disturbing numbers of alt-right individuals and those waving the Confederate flag). And many of these protests seem, well, extremely stupid. Especially for people who call themselves preppers.

First thing is first, yes this is a pandemic and its a worryingly virulent one. Not deadly per-se, but worryingly virulent. We have to be extremely thankful that we were able to catch it and set up measures designed to keep the virus from getting worse.

Before moving on, let me state this, people who are able to stay home or are non-essential are absolutely doing the right thing. They are working to stop the spread, bend the curve, and ensure the virus does not afflict the general public more than it already has. It is literally the least one can do to endure this somewhat cozy catastrophe we currently find ourselves in.

Secondly, despite the title of the article, I want it to be clearly known I am not in any way shape or form anti-prepper. In fact, I identify as one. What I'm going to be calling out today is essentially 'survivalism' as over the last few years I have noticed that it has largely taken a turn from an idea of general preparedness to simply embracing an apocalyptic vision of the destruction of society. People should not take that view and then assume everyone who prepares (or preps if you will) is a bunker dwelling wingnut who is counting ammunition waiting for society to collapse.

To give some helpful information to you, I have to thank the folks over at Worst Year Ever Podcast for providing this helpful link to They have a lot of useful information for you, and the link itself can help you confront the what seems to be daunting task of preparing to help yourself and others in a time of need. Basically, be prepared to be able to help yourself and others in times of emergency or natural disaster.

Moving on though, I've seen at many of these protests people equipped in camouflage gear with rifles prominently displayed. Many of them talking about their rights with such interesting slogans as "my body my choice" or "I want a haircut" and the message boils down to the government can't make you stay at home. What is clear though, is that most of these people either don't take the ongoing pandemic seriously, or they are simply enraged that the government is quarantining them and keeping them from such creature comforts as haircuts, bars, and coffee shops. Now it's important to note that not all these people are survivalists, and many are spoiled and entitled middle-aged white people wanting to force other menial laborers back to work to accommodate their boredom and personal appearance. But for those out parading with guns and talking about rights, or seeming "prepared" it becomes apparent that these people couldn't be less prepared. Or as I saw one Twitter commentor postulate, this was not the apocalypse they were promised.

The survivalist community has its roots in the culture of the 50s, with dire visions of nuclear armageddon on the horizon, mushroom clouds expanding over every city and society collapsing into anarchy as the government is suddenly driven underground. It evolved from there towards fears of things like famine, Malthusian collapse, and economic depression. The most extreme views probably gained traction in the 70s however as fears of nuclear war, oil collapse and societal collapse writ large set in.

This all gave way to perhaps more extremist elements in the 90s during the Clinton years, fears of Y2K, and then the general conspiracy mindset that seemed to crop up in that era with broad distrust of the government in the US at least. Events like Ruby Ridge, Waco, and the Oklahoma City bombing also brought issues like survivalism into the public sphere, and not in a good way. September 11th began a new wave in the 2000s with fears of terrorist attacks and biological weapons. This probably reinforced the negative view of survivalism. It was a view already present, and one which I walked into when I first stumbled onto preppers in 2009 while cruising the internet.

Now, in that vein, with fears of terror attacks, the perceived threat of dirty bombs and high jacked nukes, coupled with my own childhood experiences, this seemed like a very reasonable worldview. Stock up on essentials, prepare and get away from cities.

Even back them though, I was able to pick up on the dark undercurrent I was able to find in survivalist literature. Way back in 2012 I read probably one of the worst books I've read in my entire life which was written by a survivalist. It largely contained really hateful right wing talking points, pretty terrifying racism and anti LGBT attitudes, conspiracy claptrap, and gleeful murder of the enemies of the protagonists. Another book which I only read the opening chapter of talking about a modern Carrington Event had the protagonist murder a police officer in cold blood after refusing to stop for him and the officer drew a weapon in self defense.

Yeah, there's some pretty sick survivalist literature out there.

Even some of the better 'survivalist' literature can often have some dark undertones. I was a pretty avid reader/collector of prepper recommended fiction in the 2010s, and let me say it can be disturbing at times unless you implicitly agree with the views of those who wrote it.

Some common themes were; total breakdown of society, looting and rioting on a spectacular scale, violence breaking out swiftly as social bonds collapse, and tyrannical government taking hold. Violence and rape was a common theme. The 'unprepared' becoming ghoulish criminals almost overnight and large cities falling into orgies of violence and murder where the 'golden horde' would spread out and devastate the countryside was a common theme. In more extreme scenarios like nuclear attack and EMP that might be semi-accurate as modern society is suddenly and rudely thrown into uninformed chaos, but by and large that just isn't true. This view of humans as violent animals was common in books even where society just fell into economic collapse.

Most of this fiction focused too much on almost fetishist description of guns and ammunition, violent confrontations with looters and bandits, and eventually a group and their preferred ideology emerging from the chaos and setting the world right.

There was very little about the more mundane inconveniences. Long lines at stores, no reliable electric power or internet, no barbers, and the problems faced by being isolated together for a long period of time even with friends and loved ones. Not even about the sudden loss of our supplies of toilet paper! These problems it seems, are far more pressing and important than preparing for a shoot out with gun wielding looters.

Indeed, this pandemic perhaps shows how hollow all this fiction is, and that it is more reflective of those who write it rather than society as a whole. As the world has faced massive privation and fear over a fast spreading disease, people have by and large banded together, helped each other out, and obeyed social distancing guidelines. Acts of kindness have been the norm, and people have gotten together and talked, even handing out supplies. My own family were the recipients of clothe masks by a kind neighbor who was making them!

Contrary to what survivalist literature has expected, cities have not devolved into riots, the government has not taken steps to deprive people of basic liberty, and we haven't seen a massive spike in crime. In fact, in my own Canada at least, the reaction has been largely a peaceful process of self isolation and community support and outreach. All across the world much the same is happening, and people are earnestly trying to stop the spread of the disease.

Why then is this upsetting many survivalists? With my comments on their fiction above, and the words of that Twitter comment in mind, you may see why.

People reacting calmly, reasonably, and no massive government overreach flies in the face of their world view. There is no Hobbesian war of all against all, and other than panicked sell outs of toilet paper, people haven't really done anything stupid by and large. This is not what was expected, and those who have been expecting societal collapse seem to have been shocked by that. The people who stockpiled bullets and ammunition are suddenly the poor cousins of those who stockpiled canned food and community good will.

Of course this doesn't speak for all of them. But the extremists, those who seem to have earnestly believed they will be the ones to outlast the 'sheep' in society, they seem to be facing the fact that prepping is more mundane and, dare I say, boring than their fiction led them to believe. There is no tyrannical government plotting to take away their rights, people are not dying in the streets, and calm and measured response proving preferable panicked looting. So instead, they must act as though orders to quarantine, and being inconvenienced from their creature comforts, are what they must fight against.

As I said before, this is stupid. Right now we are riding a very mundane wave of disease, potentially only the first wave, and we are only asked to do the bare minimum to stay healthy. For economic reasons I can understand many people are frustrated they can't work and might not be making money (especially in the United States) but to demand an end to quarantine because you want a haircut? Or to be going around with your ammunition fearing government tyranny because of social distancing orders? That is simple unpreparedness, and it sadly lays bare that many of these survivalists, might not survive the inconvenience.

Stay home, stop the spread.

Monday, 27 April 2020

Retro Review: Lawrence of Arabia

In 1916, a man set off across the desert to seek out the peoples of the Arabian peninsula, then in revolt against the Ottoman Empire. In doing so he would live on as a hero and a legend in the English speaking world. That man was Colonel Thomas Edward Lawrence, otherwise known as Lawrence of Arabia. His deeds inspired many stories from both the First World War and then again in its aftermath as tales of his daring-do were embellished by the media and pop culture, particularly by a great song by Sabaton inspired by the title of Lawrence's own book. One of the most famous of course, would come in 1962 with the film bearing his name Lawrence of Arabia.

Now just to get something out of the way, this film is not by a long shot historically accurate. It contains many embellishments and occasionally outright fabrications of both the man himself and the people he worked with. So don't view this as a documentary or factual commentary on Lawrence's life and wartime career. If you want information on that I sincerely recommend a review by History Buffs examining the film, and the excellent work done by the Great War YouTube channel in examining both the war itself and some about Lawrence. Both are great channels that deserve your time and attention.

Without further adieu, let's get to the review.

Filmed in 1962, the movie was directed by David Lean, a great British film director of the time period. It has a quite amazing all-star cast with Peter O'Toole as Lawrence. The man looks so much like Lawrence that it would have been hard to justify not casting him. Then you have Alec Guinness (of Star Wars fame) playing Prince Faisal, both a real character and an amalgamation of other important Middle Eastern leaders, and doing it quite well. Next we have Anthony Quinn (Antonio Rodolfo Quinn Oaxaca) as Auda abu Tayi, an important tribal leader (and real historical figure). Following up you get Jack Hawkins as General Allenby, and he is further famous for his role in what was probably my favorite childhood movie Bridge on the River Kwai, and he delivers a stellar performance here. Then we have Omar Sharif, a famous Middle Eastern actor and of Doctor Zhivago fame, who portrays Sherif Ali, a fictional character who serves as an amalgamation of various other important Muslim characters from the source material. Finally we have Claude Rains as Mr. Dryden, a very cynical and almost sinister character who first helps Lawrence, but really only represents the interests of the British Empire through the Arab Bureau.

A brief note is that yes we do have a few characters in what amounts to blackface playing Arab figures. If you're uncomfortable with that I wouldn't suggest watching this movie as it doesn't really draw attention to that fact, but it certainly doesn't go out of its way to hide it. The movie is a product of its time so it definitely has some questionable choices in how it tells the story, but for all that, it is still a great film, probably one of the best of all time really!

Plans to make a film about Lawrence's life and his wartime exploits had been in the works for years, but they had all fallen through. Plans to make a film in the 1940s were shelved due to various financial difficulties in Hollywood, while in the 50s there were many discussions, but none ever went anywhere. Thankfully the work done on Bridge Over the River Kwai by director David Lean and producer Sam Spiegel. Having worked together before they became interested in another historic collaboration and thankfully decided they would jump on for another one by buying the rights to produce an adaptation of Lawrence's book Seven Pillars of Wisdom in 1960.

Shooting in such exotic locations as Spain, Jordan, and Morocco it managed to capture the desert feeling it was searching for, and thanks to the work done to bring the feeling of being in a visually appealing wasteland to screen, when you watch this movie you really feel transported to another world! It's had visuals homaged and spoofed in films like A New Hope and Space Balls. The city of Seville in Spain was used as a stand in for Cairo, Jerusalem and Damascus, pulling triple duty as a the capital of three modern countries!

The score was composed by Maurice Jarre and performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, and was composed and scored in just six weeks! This is a truly phenomenal feat and the movie is well worth seeing for the sound track alone. Though at nearly four hours long it does come with a scored intermission so you can resume watching at a later date!

Visually, this movie is breathtaking. The sheer spectacle invoked which shows the sweeping drama of the Arabian deserts, the heat of battle, and amazing shots done to show off the acting range of Peter O'Toole and Omar Sharif is quite impressive. Wide views of the desert and shots done in large rooms and offices for powerful effect each bring either wonder or quiet dread. That quiet dread is especially important in the political scenes, which all seem to be against Lawrence and his Arab allies, making the pomp and power portrayed in them all the more sharply contrasted with scenes of sprawling Arab camps with some riches but nothing so imposing as what is available to the British officers and politicians.

In shooting the battle scenes we have many amazing views, both of sweeping vistas with hundreds of extras on camel or horseback and then close in shots of the sort of tame 1960s era film carnage. One of the most amazing is filmed of the aftermath of the historically accurate slaughter of a Turkish column as it was retreating from the British after massacring the village of Tafas. This is perhaps one of the most interesting scenes as it shows the films portrayal of Lawrence succumbing to his bloodlust he has been developing since the beginning of his time in Egypt, and he revels in the slaughter of the Turkish column, laying about with his pistol almost indiscriminately, even shooting the corpses of Turkish soldiers. It was amazing work done shooting this scene, and the sheer pageantry of it must be applauded.

O'Toole's portrayal of Lawrence is only based slightly on the historical Lawrence, but he does an amazing job bringing this character to life on the screen. A man fascinated with the culture of the people he was sent to observe, but also a man not used to war. His first great test comes by solving a blood feud on the eve of battle, executing a man he just saved in order to ensure the two tribes do not go to war before they capture Aqaba. The strain of battle and political double dealing takes its toll on Lawrence, but he also begins to believe his own hype and thinks he can deliver miracles which leads to increasingly risky behavior which worries both his British patrons and Arab allies. It all leads to an exhausted and shell shocked veteran ready for wars' end.

His constant companion, Sherif Ali, is well done by Omar Sharif. The character is a proud Arab chieftain who rules his people with an iron fist, but is also a gracious host and skilled warrior. He believes in the vision of Prince Faisal for an Arab Kingdom, but does not trust the Europeans. Believing in Lawrence's abilities he supports and carries his friend (in one case literally) through the war and tries to help him in the peace. In the end though, these two men are from different worlds, making it difficult for them to stay together as the war ends.

These amazing actors, supported by others, craft an intriguing story which is well told on the screen. I was swept away by the battles and intrigue, and Lawrence's struggles and turmoil were gut wrenching to watch as he was swept up in the war. Though the movie is very long, it is very much worth a watch and I would definitely recommend sitting down and taking the time to watch it. Currently available on Netflix, it is absolutely great way to either spend a day or two evenings transported back over a century to the Great War and the world of Lawrence of Arabia.