Voldemort vs. Casmir vs. Every Asshat in the Seven Kingdoms — The Villain Problem

Here’s the tl;dr:

Please, HBO, don’t make a bunch of Game of Thrones spinoffs. I’m virtually certain they’ll suck. How about an adaptation of the Lyonesse trilogy? I’m guessing it would be dirt cheap to get the rights.

At its heart, Game of Thrones is vapid

As I watched a collection of “moments” compiled by HBO for prospective viewers of the final season of Game of Thrones it struck me how few of these “moments” had anything to do with characters anyone cares about, vs. the “white walkers” who have no discernible motivations and appear as little more than teasers and shock-vignettes. If you subtract the zombie army and Bran’s entire storyline, what’s really left?

In a nut, Game of Thrones is a story about a bunch of people viciously squabbling over who gets to preside over famine and death in an inevitable mini-ice-age — “whose skeleton sits on the Iron Throne”, as Ser Davos puts it — instead of, say, stacking firewood and salting meat. When Jon finally points this out, he is met with disbelief, despite the fact that this has all happened before and is well-documented. Heck, there’s even a standing army devoted to defending against it — of which Jon was commander — but it apparently misplaced its instruction manual.

There are lots of unpleasant people doing horrible things, but in the end none of that matters because there’s an army of zombie boogeymen to contend with, and the fact that none of the interesting (but pointless) squabbling that has filled the last six seasons actually matters much, and HBO wants us to know that we need to remember a few tantalizing glimpses of “white walkers” who have said almost nothing and whose motives have never been explored (nor would they likely stand up to any scrutiny).

I started this piece before the premiere of season 7. As I revise this post before posting it, I’ve just watched the third episode of the final season, The Queen’s Justice. So far, there has been little of consequence in the first three episodes of the final season beyond the use of plot devices to tie off loose ends and weaken Daenerys’s hand for purposes of evening her odds against Circe. In essence, so far Season 7 has been The Euron Show. Euron, a leeringly obvious plot device, who since usurping his niece’s throne perhaps a year ago has assembled the “largest fleet in the world” — on desolate islands with no obvious source of timber, which just goes to show how resourceful he is — and then with stunning intelligence (and we assume favorable winds) fights and wins two massive engagements against Daenerys’s navies (and held a victory procession in King’s Landing) in the space of about two weeks.

Wait a second: shall we pause a moment to recollect that Daenerys is served by Tyrion and “The Spider” — the latter commanding a global spy network — 2/3 of the brains in the Seven Kingdoms (the missing third being Littlefinger) — and yet she seems to have no clue what her enemies are up to nor how to avoid tipping her hand to them (apparently the mysteriously empty castle she walked into with no thought to security is full of spies).

Outside of The Euron Show, Sam discovers a mountain of “dragon glass” and cures Mormont, allowing him back in the game. And Jon finally meets Daenerys and discovers that she’s an idiot. (By the way, do you find it a bit annoying that Jon can sail a single ship from the far north to the far south between episodes, but Daenerys sends two fleets which arrive two weeks apart?) And horrible things are done to minor characters to show how mean various mean people are.

Where’s Tom Riddle when we need him?

Perhaps the best major villain in a fantasy blockbuster is Tom Riddle, a.k.a. Voldemort, a.k.a. “he who must not be named”, if solely because he has two qualities utterly lacking in most major villains these days, i.e. a driving motivation (fear of death), and a goal that at least makes some sense both to him and his followers (run the world, put wizards in charge and enslave everyone else).

It all makes me think fondly of Spike, in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, who switches sides from Evil to Good because the Evil team wants to destroy the world, and he “quite likes the world”.

I recently finished reading the entire Harry Potter series to my twins, and it was wonderful. As a child I was so proud to read silently “in my head”; to rediscover the joy of reading as a performance later in life has been a revelation. I think that books are actually better read aloud, but it’s quite an effort to do all that reading.

Also, it’s hard to come up with voices and keep them straight (so I usually don’t bother, but the girls prefer it when I do).

Reading aloud also exposes a lot of weaknesses in a writer that reading quietly in one’s head conceals — e.g. I find Rowling to write dialog very poorly. I often paraphrase her characters for various reasons, but worse I find that she provides the wrong information in the wrong order. E.g. I’m often fooled into thinking person A is speaking when it’s person C (so I find myself having read in the wrong voice), or being told a character is speaking in a particular way too late to do any good (Hermione speaks “shrilly” all the time, a clumsy word and a dubious adverb for a feminist to constantly apply to her best female character).

Even so, my admiration for J.K. Rowling is considerably greater for having read these books aloud. For me, to read aloud as a performance is to pay much closer attention to each word than I ever do when reading to myself, and to feel the rhythm of dialog, and have to actively imagine the emotional takes of each character all the time. I notice and remember many things I missed on previous readings (or reading in this case, since I only ever read each book once before). It’s clear to me that Rowling planned the series carefully and well. I do have a lot of issues with it, but I have a lot of issues with everything. After all, I’m writing a critique of the current holy of holies, Game of Thrones.

Voldemort is, basically, Hitler

Voldemort doesn’t get to kill that many people, but in principle he is a ruthless race supremacist who plans to kill and/or enslave the “inferior” races, and he gathers about him fellow race-supremacists and opportunists. It’s not a subtle construct, but Hitler has about him a great deal more plausibility than most fantasy villains since, well, he actually existed. To understand why people might follow someone like Hitler, one can look at history books, or psychological research such as Milgram’s famous experiment. Hitler didn’t need to use mind control, he followed a well-established despotic populist playbook — presiding over a large scale criminal enterprise with all the usual systems of loyalty and reward. He offered a carrot and a stick. Ordinary German businessmen profited from slave labor (as do businessmen in the South, who use prison labor today, and as does the private prison industry from Trump’s war on immigration).

Even so, Voldemort exhibits some classic villainous behavior that is quite childish. E.g. I know of no evidence that Hitler was personally sadistic. He hired sadists. He created an environment where sadists were able to thrive. He didn’t go around gleefully torturing and murdering people. Indeed, Hitler portrayed himself and saw himself as a good-natured family man (odd though his family was). He understood the value of PR.

My single biggest disappointment with the Harry Potter books is that the resolution depends on only the least of Voldemort’s core failings (he doesn’t understand “love” — awwww) and not his others (e.g. he’s a sociopathic race-supremacist). Indeed, even in the final battle when the House Elves join the fray, it is as comic relief (stabbing people in the ankles with kitchen knives) and ignores their vastly superior magical powers (how about apparating Death Eaters into volcanoes?)

All through the seventh book I couldn’t stop thinking of the climax of Ralph Bakshi’s Wizards where the gnome-like hero faces down his magically overwhelming brother and shows him “a trick mom taught me when you weren’t around”. Harry and Hermione were both raised as muggles, and yet never use their knowledge of the muggle world to significant advantage, despite the fact that muggles have powers superior in most ways to wizard magic (e.g. cell phones, night vision goggles, 9mm handguns). Indeed, zero attention is made to “Muggle Studies” beyond its teacher being one of Voldemort’s gratuitous victims.

Scouring the countryside for evil deeds to commit

There are many wonderful and unique things about Lyonesse as a fantasy epic, but perhaps the single greatest is the central villain, Casmir. (Note that Lyonesse has quite a few antagonists, and of them Casmir is hardly the most “evil”, but none of the villains is as cartoonishly implausible as pretty much every bad guy in Game of Thrones.)

Casmir is an ambitious, calculating, and ruthless medieval monarch. That’s basically it. He’s not a sadist. He’s not a racist. He’s definitely not a religious fanatic. When he does do nasty things, he does it on the down-low because he wants to be loved and feared. Like Voldemort, he’s not a touchy-feely kind of guy, but he’s not even devoid of conscience (e.g. he only carries out unjust sentences to avoid being seen as weak, and he recognizes the truth of accusations against him for his mistreatment of his daughter, Suldrun). He is a competent and diligent ruler (because he thinks it’s important to have the good opinion of his subjects). Indeed, as a ruler he’s distinctly preferable to virtually all of his rivals.

Casmir seems a villain chiefly because of his relationship with his daughter, Suldrun, and to a lesser extent because he has a tendency to quietly murder his former spies (both to save money and avoid risk). He has many admirable traits and a dry sense of humor. In essence, to simply be a competent medieval monarch you need to do a lot of things that seem pretty evil by today’s standards, and he does them with no great gusto. (Aillas, the main protagonist, executes a lot of people, and Shimrod, one of his friends, tortures a man to death.) If we knew nothing of Suldrun, and nothing behind the scenes of Casmir’s reign, we might consider him a capable and ambitious man who had a lot of bad luck. Similarly, if we were to judge him by the people he surrounds himself with, he is not a terrible person.

Furthermore, we can fully understand why people would choose to support Casmir and risk their lives on his behalf, we can picture a world in which he is victorious, we can see why the common people might not care whether he wins or loses, and yet he is an entirely satisfying villain. Not only is this more morally sophisticated than most fantasy novels, it’s more morally sophisticated than most contemporary dramas.

Let’s do a great epic fantasy with a great villain

There are many reasons I prefer the Lyonesse Trilogy to the Song of Fire and Ice. To start with, it’s shorter and much faster-paced. The Elder Isles seem like a place people would generally enjoy living in. The plot is clever but not incomprehensible and the cast of characters large but not unmanageable. The military strategizing does not dominate the story, but the handling of strategy and tactics is both deft and on point. (The competent generals actually care about lines of supply and reconnaissance. Their navies, for example, are not constantly taken unawares.) It also manages to blend historical allusion (it’s set on an archipelago in the Atlantic that has sunk beneath the ocean) with fairytale qualities and brutally plausible pagan practices.

And, not infrequently, it’s also very funny.

Lyonesse is not without flaws — the third book feels rushed (Vance clearly wanted it done with and had worked out the plot arc well in advance), There’s casual and unnecessary homophobia, and there’s no warrior queen in the first book (Ehirme and Glyneth would need to be beefed up, Glyneth could be made a couple of years older, Yane could just as easily be a woman). Vance’s dialog is often hilarious, but over-stylized for some tastes. Nothing a good TV adaptation can’t fix.

But the reliance on faceless, inexplicably and implacably evil major villains who just want to destroy the world, and a motley supporting cast of pointlessly sadistic lesser villains, is the single catastrophic failing of Game of Thrones. I’ll watch it to the end, but seriously. Let’s have a story with actual sides.

Email & Equality

Since today is inauguration day, my thoughts are turning back to the last eight years and how we came to be inaugurating a Republican president, again, despite the fact that most Americans disagree with the GOP on most matters of substance.

It’s Not About Women

First off, let’s address the claim that Hillary lost because of American sexism.  Yes, Donald Trump is an unreconstructed 1950s male stereotype (i.e. a horrible human being), and many Americans — including many women, latinos, and a surprising number of blacks — chose to overlook this, but this ignores the fact that the GOP has been consistently lowering the bar for whom they will nominate for office, and it always causes outrage on the left, and it never matters.

Ike was a general. Nixon was an alcoholic witch-hunter. Reagan was a stool pigeon and an idiot. Quayle was an even bigger idiot. Palin made Quayle look professorial. Republicans don’t care if the president (or a senator, or a supreme court judge) has brains, or even sound character: they just want tax cuts and they’re pretty sure their guy is more likely to give them than the other person.

In fact, it’s quite surprising to me that the first black president turned out to be a Democrat, and the first female candidate was also a Democrat. It’s actually conservatives who tend to nominate minorities because it lets them ratchet up the crazy elsewhere. (Margaret Thatcher. Clarence Thomas. Heck, Neville Bonner.)

Incidentally, this is also the same reason that things like sexual peccadilloes and shady practices that would utterly destroy a Democrat seem to slide harmlessly off Republicans.

By the way, I should pause here and say that this has nothing to do with parties. When the Democrats were the party of White Supremacy and the Republicans were the party of Management it was the Democrats who were similarly immune to charges of corruption and sexual misconduct. When the Republicans subvert democracy today and argue that it’s something “everyone” does, they invariably point out actions of Dixiecrats — the folks who left the Democratic party after Roosevelt put desegregation into the Democratic Party platform and joined the Republicans.

A Thought Experiment

A very popular experimental template in the social sciences is to take some common process, like applying for a job or testifying in court, and compare how well candidates do if you signal that a participant is male or female, black or white, has a prison record or not, and so forth, find out there’s a different outcome (which I imagine there almost always is given a nearly inexhaustible number of disadvantaged categories of people), publish the results, and inch closer to tenure.

E.g. I heard on Radio Lab, and I have no reason not to believe, that if you apply for a job using a stereotypically black male name (such as “Jamal”) you are much less likely to be called back than if you use a stereotypically white male name (such as “Steve”), even if the white CV adds a criminal record. The white name is equivalent to eight years of experience. (This implies to me that whatever criminal record they invented was pretty minor.)

The same kind of study has shown women to be less credited as expert witnesses, less likely to be promoted, and so forth and so on. There’s no doubt a lot of sexism in our society, but I’m pretty sure women aren’t as far behind men as blacks are behind whites (eight years experience or a prison record…), and Barack Hussein Obama is more than a stereotypically non-white name. His middle name is the same as a guy we went to war with twice, and his surname is one letter away from Public Enemy Number One when he ran for office.

Obama was an exceptional candidate — he didn’t just beat Hillary for the 2008 nomination, he beat Biden (whom most Democrats think would have been a better candidate than Hillary) and Kucinich (who was a better Sanders than Sanders). And then he beat John McCain and Mitt Romney, the best candidates the Republicans have had in my lifetime.

Now, let’s look at Hillary. Imagine for a moment that Hillary Clinton were in fact some random male Democrat you’d vaguely heard of with her exact track record (post First Lady, since it’s hard to imagine a man with Hillary’s baggage from being married to Bill). So, forget Whitewater and Lewinski and just think — New York senator with a typically exceptional Ivy League education and legal background but no great accomplishments or distinction who then served as Secretary of State from 2009-2012. Would you elect him?

What if I remind you that Chelsea Manning released 10M State Department cables in 2010 and that despite this our candidate continued to use outdated and insecure email practices in direct contravention of State Department rules of which, apparently, he remained willfully ignorant throughout. What if I remind you that the 2012 Benghazi attack happened on his watch despite repeated requests for upgraded security. And yes, lots of requests are made, but this was in Libya during the aftermath of a war. As yes, it was a subordinate who turned down the requests, but who hired that subordinate?

Oh, and by the way, what Good Things happened in 2009-2012 that our candidate can point to?

I’m not saying Clinton did anything criminal. I’m saying that in any reasonable political system she would have been held accountable for Benghazi, forced to resign, and her career would have ended. Similarly, the email business reflects three spectacular failures of judgement (first: to ignoring security policies, second: to continue ignoring the security policies after an epic security breach, third: to fail to improve said security policies meaningfully after said epic security breach). Again, had she still been Secretary of State when the email business came out, she should have been fired for it, and that alone would probably have ended her political career.

By the way, I choose give her a free pass on the Iraq war vote, because I think she did it as a political calculation, and it was a reasonable choice at the time. (I’m actually far more critical of the far broader, unthinking support for the invasion of Afghanistan.) But for some of my friends her vote on Iraq, alone, is unforgivable.

Trump’s done a lot of shady and unpleasant things to people over the years — spending other people’s money and saddling them with his debts, stiffing contractors, ogling pageant contestants (for sure), molesting women (most likely), but there’s no positive evidence of Trump’s ignorance or incompetence in his chosen profession. He may well be an ignoramus (and bigot) in the same mold as Henry Ford (who nevertheless was a great businessman and provided many jobs to blacks). Hillary is a professional politician and civil servant who can’t use a smartphone or a computer and has made spectacularly poor judgement calls in her chosen profession. (Kelly Anne Conway points out, in reference to Russian interference in the campaign, that the Russians didn’t make Clinton spend money in Georgia instead of Michigan or Wisconsin.)

Trump is (rightly) decried as intellectually incurious. But how is it OK for Hillary to not learn to use a smartphone, or email, or a computer when both are, or should be, a constant part of her chosen profession? Trump is (rightly) decried for having publicly sort-of supported the invasion of Iraq, but being right about that war wasn’t his job.

Trump’s an asshole and a bigot, but he seems to be good at what he does. Elizabeth Warren is a smart person but she tried to go head-to-head with him on Twitter and failed abysmally. I’m not optimistic about his presidency, but sexism is only responsible for putting Trump in the Whitehouse insofar as it was perversely responsible for Hillary being nominated.

How Do We Stop Doing This?

It’s easy to point out the failings of Hillary’s campaign in retrospect. She nearly won despite all of it. The lack of a clear or coherent message. Poor strategy. The weak VP choice. Lousy slogan (“I’m with her”). This should have been easy: the country is in good shape, it’s in far better shape than it was 4 or 8 years ago. Its signal policy is at least an equivocal success. The outgoing president is popular. What. The. Fuck?

The fact that 2012 was even close (despite Romney being a solid candidate) points to a hard truth: the Democrats fucked up Obamacare. They created a barely functional healthcare plan because they figured it would get bipartisan support even when they didn’t need bipartisan support, and ended up with something that barely worked, couldn’t be explained, couldn’t be sold, and then rolled it out slowly and incompetently. And this led to their being annihilated in the mid-terms, which meant little of consequence could be done for the remaining six years.

Remember how exceptional Obama is? He’s been a pretty good, successful president despite Obamacare, not because of it.

The solution is to think of laws as products that have to be sold. Clearly, legislators understand this superficially, it’s why a law enabling a police state is named the “PATRIOT Act”. It’s why a healthcare law that costs poor people premiums they can’t afford for lousy coverage is called the “Affordable Care Act”. But good products are more than simply clever names (and legislators aren’t even that good at names…). Here’s a hint: if you design a product where the main reason for many people to buy it is that they will be fined if they do not, then you have failed. Design a new product.

Affinity Photo — Redeemed!

Affinity Photos "Assistant Manager" dialog
Affinity Photos “Assistant Manager” dialog

An observant reader has pointed out that Affinity Photo (now?) offers the option of using Apple’s RAW converter instead of its own, which mitigates the single biggest problem with this otherwise excellent and inexpensive tool.

I think this should be (and should always have been) the default or only option until and unless Affinity’s RAW converter is improved to the point of being useful, but in the mean time this allows photographers to use this program for their entire work flow.

To switch to Apple’s RAW converter:

  1. Open a RAW (or DNG) file in the Develop persona.
  2. Use menu item View > Assistant Manager
  3. Set the RAW engine to Apple (Core Image RAW)
  4. Cancel the develop (the change does not take effect immediately)
  5. From now on Affinity Photo will use the far superior Apple RAW converter.

The workaround is documented here.

As a final aside — this process exposes several user interface warts.

First, why the heck is this buried in an obscure, vaguely named dialog you can only reach in one mode?

If you try to quit when you're developing an image you get cock-blocked
If you try to quit when you’re developing an image you get cock-blocked

Second, if you try to quit Affinity Photo when you’re in the middle of a RAW conversion it will simply stop you. (This is why I put in step 4.) You can’t opt to “discard changes to all open files” and get on with your life. This is very un-mac-like. If I were in a hurry I’d probably have been forced to Force Quit.

When you find the Cancel button (at the top left, kind of) you then get this terrible dialog.
When you find the Cancel button (at the top left, kind of) you then get this terrible dialog.

Third, when you Cancel a RAW conversion (which is what you have to do if you get into the situation above) the dialog box offers “Yes” and “No” options instead of useful verbs, such as “Abandon” and “Continue”.

And, finally, could software companies please pull their heads out of their asses and give their applications usefully distinct names? Half the time when I try to launch Affinity Photo via Spotlight I accidentally launch Affinity Designer. Don’t bury the lede.

Tech Free Saturdays with the Kids

Romilly with her iPad
Romilly with her iPad

Like many parents, Rosanna and I are concerned about our kids’ obsession with “technology”, so we tried “tech free Saturdays”, and it worked for about an hour (I — more than slightly ironically — spent that hour with the girls playing with an Elenco electronics set — something far better than the “150-in-one” electronics kit I dreamed of when I was a kid), and then gave up. Short of getting exercise outdoors — which while almost certainly a Good Thing To Do is hardly something of which I am an examplar — what was there to do without “technology”?

I don’t pretend to know what stuff is going to be important to the success of my kids. A lot of the stuff I learned in school has turned out to be useful, or at least makes for interesting conversation (apparently, most people forget almost everything they learned in school, and — having had no interest in it when they were 14, find it intriguing as adults). But the most useful stuff I learned as a kid is the stuff society — i.e. teachers and parents — made me feel guilty about spending time on. And I don’t think this is rare. I think it’s the people who were obsessed with computer games, or Science Fiction, or Dungeons & Dragons, back in 1982, who are creating the world we live in today.

We won (or, at least, we’re ahead — when we all die young from heart disease and diabetes because we never get any exercise, the jocks from high school whose knees still work can gloat).

And having won by willfully ignoring society’s ideas of what a “healthy” obsession was when we were kids, who are we to impose our ideas of what a “healthy” obsession is on our kids? Well, we’re parents, of course, and “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds”. Perhaps we’re just that much smarter than our parents and teachers.

Another possibility that occurs to me is that a passion for anything — programming, role-playing games, the collected works of Jack Vance — only turns into something powerful and character-building if it involves pushing against social pressure. In other words, it’s OK for us to try to stop our kids from doing what they want to do, but it’s even better if they defy us and it anyway.

In the end, I don’t mind if my kids are obsessed with Minecraft, or even Youtube. What worries me is that its too easy to feed those obsessions, and I don’t think technology is the problem. But, having said that, my father narrowly avoided the Holocaust and my mother lived through famine and the Vietnam War, whereas I had to cope with the poor selection of science fiction in local libraries and the fact that our school only had one Apple II computer.