Dissecting Conspiracy Theories

I’ve been reading about conspiracy theories lately – well, it made a change from the end of the world – and one of the books I’ve picked up does a pretty good job of dissecting most of the popular/well known/most widespread ones by resorting to Occam’s razor. If you’re not familiar with Occam’s razor – and unless you’re a philosophy student, why should you be? – this essentially boils down to “the simplest solution is almost certainly the right one”. I have to say that a lot of the time, this method is really very effective but does take a lot of the fun out of things.

To select three examples which David Aaronovitch – for it is his book I’m reading – uses, let’s use the deaths of Princess Diana, Marilyn Monroe and John F Kennedy and, using Stef’s Hatchet rather than Occam’s razor, let’s see where we end up.

It’s all rather prosaic, actually. Princess Diana died in an avoidable accident (somebody really should have put their foot down and said that the driver was too drunk to be behind the wheel) and Monroe was an accidental overdose given that she had taken sleeping pills for a very long time and was reportedly rather depressed when she died. JFK is the one that I had most fun with. I’m still not sure that the angles work out for a lone gunman, but I’m going to stick my neck out here and come up with a really neat solution that entertained me for all of ten minutes.

Lee Harvey Oswald had already attempted to kill a public figure in April 1963, but was unsuccessful. He had the means, motives and resources to kill Kennedy. Opportunity favoured Oswald when the route of the motorcade was changed to go past the Book Depository, where Oswald worked – so he managed to get in, secrete himself on the sixth floor and wait. However, down in the crowd, somewhere near a grassy knoll, is terminally ill Jack Ruby, who decided that he was going to go out in style and take a president with him. Three shots are fired and it’s unclear who fires the fatal shot. It’s not until Oswald is arrested that Ruby realises he may have failed; he’s the one who shot the President, not this upstart. So he goes and kills Oswald in revenge for stealing his bit of limelight.

How neat was that? It’s plausible too, if only there were evidence to support it. Oh well, never mind – lone gunman it is then.

The thing is, people create conspiracy theories for two main reasons; (1) they don’t trust what they are being told by the government or the media, and (2) they want to believe in something. Any theory, therefore, is better than no theory. I think this tells us an awful lot about the relationship between government, media and populace and I’m surprised it hasn’t been explored more.

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Who Watches the Watchmen?

I’m reading a book about conspiracy theories at the moment. It’s not very entertaining (no outrageous assertions that all world leaders are Lizard People from Planet X, sadly) but it is enlightening, especially when it deals with how conspiracy theories take root and become disseminated into popular culture to a point where it becomes very troublesome to tell the fake news from the truth.

Now if that sounds a little familiar, I can only apologise – but I for one do not believe a word that comes out of the White House nor what appears in a Murdoch newspaper. The former, unfortunately, is more of a recent occurrence than the latter, but I long ago recognised that there is an agenda here which involves lying through the skin of their teeth at every available opportunity. If the facts suggest that something is black, they will maintain that it is white and that any suggestion to the contrary is “fake news”. In the case of the press, we are back to questions of journalistic ethics that I briefly looked at after watching Nightcrawler – what lengths will the media go to if they may get a story out of it?

The other side to this story, though, is what checks are there to keep the media from breaking the law – or just offending pretty much every normal person’s moral framework? The Leveson Enquiry spent months (and thousands of pounds) trying to establish a forum where the press could be regulated; but this ended up as entirely voluntary and so watered down as to be completely ineffective. Ultimately, unscrupulous media moguls can behave as they please without sanction, especially if those in power are doing exactly the same. No wonder the conspiracy theorists don’t trust anyone!

It’s incredibly depressing but what can one do? The simple answer, suggested by the book I’m reading, is this: the more variables involved in the conspiracy theory, the more likely it is to be faked. Unless, of course, the White House is involved, in which case believe nothing and trust no one.

The Rise of the Zombie Apocalypse?

I once wrote a short story about sinkholes. Admittedly, it was mainly a gripe about the number of sinkholes my car had to avoid on the journey from my house to the train station – my local council aren’t always the speediest at repairs – but I’d decided that they were the source of plague infected zombies. Seems that in Siberia, at least, I wasn’t far wrong; melting tundra ice (and the resulting sinkholes) is releasing long-dormant anthrax spores along with the buried methane – a major greenhouse gas. Diseases that many scientists had thought had died out may yet come back to haunt us. Let’s just hope the CDC still have vaccines.

It’s not easy to tell from some of the pictures just how big these sinkholes are, but they are enormous. The glaciers lock into the earth by freezing into gaps in the earth’s crust, trapping methane and other greenhouse gases in the ice – as well as spores, bacteria and goodness knows what else. Captain America, probably. So when the climate heats up, the ice melts and everything securely tucked away is returned to the Great Unknown, including diseases we no longer have – or perhaps never had – any immunity to. It’s interesting because a similar mechanism is used for the start of the Zombie Apocalypse in World War Z; a child goes swimming in a millpond in China and ends up with this nasty virus… just move everything to Siberia and you have an entire new film franchise.

Equally – and for my part, more disturbingly – the release of the methane creates a positive feedback loop, by increasing the global temperature, thereby melting more ice and causing more sinkholes… you get the picture, I’m sure. Perhaps the zombies might be the lesser of the two evils.

When Technology Makes Me Redundant

There’s a scene in the recent Charlie and the Chocolate Factory movie where Mr Bucket (Charlie’s dad) is made redundant from his job at the toothpaste factory because the position has been taken over by a robot. I’m fairly sure that a number of car manufacturers underwent a similar process when they mechanised aspects of vehicle production. And it’s almost certain that the number of secretaries will decrease as people become increasingly techno-savvy and start producing their own letters and documents. I expect that by the time technology gets rid of my job, I’ll be ready to retire anyway.

I know I’m something of a Luddite sometimes, but I’m not against technology as a rule. Technology has given us agriculture, food, clothing, books, housing and public health. Some technology is beneficial – BUT not all of it is and sometimes the after-effects of a technological innovation may not be immediately apparent or simply not something previously considered. The example that is usually given is Airbnb; seen as a way of helping people pay their mortgages by renting out rooms on a night-by-night basis, it has pushed up housing costs in some cities reliant on tourist income. Uber has had a devastating impact on the incomes of licensed taxi drivers, many of whom undergo rigorous testing to start their income. Amazon may be wonderfully convenient, but some of their working practices leave a lot to be desired and the “high street” has felt its impact considerably. Progress doesn’t always lead to utopia, despite what the CEOs tell us.

Perhaps we need to start seeing past the brands and look at what the companies actually do. There is still a lot of discontent about the number of major global companies who – quite legally – avoid paying corporation tax, even though they make billions of dollars in profit every year; and some of these are “hip young start-ups” like Uber and Airbnb. What impacts will their technologies have on people who don’t necessarily use them – and is that impact necessarily a good thing? The last thing I want is to end up in a mud hut sending smoke signals, but I do think we ought to question the brands a little more – and if we don’t agree with what they do, we need to go somewhere else, preferably before they put us all out of a job.

Ruined by Religion

On a bit of a whim, I watched I, Frankenstein last night. I think I’d been putting it off because of a memory of distinctly mixed reviews, but overall it wasn’t too bad. The special effects had clearly had some money spent on them, which in this kind of film is a definite advantage. However, the film was ruined by the religious elements, which was essentially the entire premise.

My recollection of Mary Shelley’s novel – which is a bit hazy, I haven’t read it for a couple of months – was that it was based on the triumph of scientific reason over religious superstition. Frankenstein wishes to usurp God by creating life. There are, obviously, feminist subtexts here, but essentially this is the motivation for the creation of The Creature. So by putting a religious spin on the film by having The Creature (here called “Adam”) caught in the middle of an eternal battle between demons and angels (here called “gargoyles”) just flies in the face of Shelley’s work. There is no place for religion in a Frankenstein story unless it is being dispensed with.

That said, there are parts of the story which are quite good. The attempt to recreate Frankenstein’s experiment on a mouse and the reduction of Frankenstein to a “bedtime story” was well done. Bill Nighy commandeers every scene he’s in with no effort whatsoever – it’s the laconic delivery that does it – as he did in Underworld, another film which told a supernatural story without having to resort to Christian symbolism. He must also love spending time in make up as his final appearance was full of prosthetics! Aaron Eckhart wasn’t bad as The Creature either; suitably grimy and scarred, but world weary with it. He looked tired and I suppose after two hundred years, The Creature would be pretty fed up of his existence, unless he’d found a way to die. And it’s never explained how he develops the soul that saves him in the end. If he didn’t have one for two hundred years, exactly how did he get one in the space of a few days?

I think the thing that irritated me was The Order of Gargoyles. Now I like gargoyles – and grotesques, which is what the Order, strictly speaking, were as I didn’t see any of them spouting water, just a lot of hot air – but to suggest that they were created by the Archangel Michael to protect humanity from demons is just silly. They are, to all intents and purposes, angels – they look like them, they behave like them and annoy the pants off me in similar fashion. It doesn’t fit with the scientific aspects of either the original story or the remainder of the film. The idea that reanimated corpses could house resurrected demons summoned from Hell unless the angels can pull the plugs out is taking too many myths and ruining the legend.

All in all, despite it being good in parts, I was really disappointed with the film. Perhaps I was expecting too much – previous attempts to film the Frankenstein story after James Whale’s masterpiece in the early 1930s have been unsuccessful so I suspect the studios thought that adding a different subtext might improve their fortunes. And maybe it did; but it totally ruined the story. They may have had more luck combining it with Lovecraft’s Reanimator story – at least it would have kept the religious bits where they belonged.

How Likely Are Climate Wars?

A book I read recently dealt with the entirely plausible scenario that climate change was more likely to cause war than the global co-operation needed to get it under control. The author, Gwynne Dyer, combined invented scenarios with genuine scientific evidence to explore the likelihood of the scenario actually happening. If I’m honest, the results are terrifying – and this book wasn’t fiction either. It was, however, ten years old – which is even more worrying, because I don’t believe we’re any closer to solving the problems we’ve got ourselves into, it may even be too late, and there’s absolutely no sign of political progress whatsoever. Perhaps I should send a copy to every single Head of State in the UN and see what happens.

That, however, is beyond the scope of this piece. What I want to know is how seriously I should take the author’s claims that humanity is more likely to wipe itself out from climate change driven war than climate change itself. My conclusion is exceptionally seriously indeed. Quite aside from the fact that a book written in 2007 not only predicted Brexit but a wall along the Mexican border, but other scenarios he predicts are starting to happen. Drought and unrest in the south-western states of America, unrest in South America, water shortages due to late monsoons in India, China and South East Asia. If we look, we can see it happening.

The two main triggers for unrest which Dyer proposes are water shortages and food shortages. As he points out, a country which cannot feed itself will raid before it starves. Equally, water shortages will prevent the irrigation of food crops, so access to water rights will become a proverbial hot potato. Both of these will inevitably lead to mass migrations of people, primarily as refugees but also economic migrants. Nations which can just about feed themselves or supply water will close their borders to protect their own citizens.

You can see how war becomes inevitable, can’t you?

The most terrifying scenario for me was the one entitled “India 2039” – partly because it’s so believable but also because it’s based on historical evidence and follows things to a logical conclusion. Because India and both of its near neighbours, Pakistan and China, are nuclear powers, the sabre rattling – over water rights initially – quickly takes a turn for the devastating. The agreement settling the water rights in the first place was finalised in 1960, and owing to (predicted) climate change, it comes up for renegotiation, which soon degenerates into a full tilt nuclear conflict. It’s completely plausible and wouldn’t be entirely unexpected – if it happened, which it hasn’t yet.

Although it’s an incredibly sobering book to read, I’m really pleased I did. It’s opened my eyes to the realities of geopolitics of climate change and the decision making processes many governments fall back on. Climate change is a trigger for a lot of the political realities that we are seeing every day – migrant populations, food shortages, water rationing – and if we do nothing, it will only get worse.

Are Civil Wars Ever Justified?

I know, it’s a leading question if ever there was one. For every cause, there is an equal and opposite cause feeling just as strongly that they are in the right. I only mention it because I’m reading a book about the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War at the moment, and it occurred to me that only this and the English Civil War of the mid-1600s have really engaged my brain. I have always believed that the Roundheads were right in the supremacy of Parliament over the divine right of kings, and I’ve always believed that a military uprising against a democratically elected government has to be resisted at all costs.

This is just my personal feeling – I have never needed to make an active decision whether or not I could or should fight in a civil war, and that is something I am grateful for as people in some parts of the world do not have that luxury. And certainly there is no political cause at the moment I feel passionate enough about to risk my life in a foreign country purely on principle. Yet that is exactly what thousands of men and women from Britain, Ireland and France did in 1936, fighting in support of the Communist Government in Spain which was being usurped by the military, under the command of General Franco.

Some of the Brigade members were well known figures – George Orwell and Stephen Spender being just two – but the majority were ordinary working class men and women who had grown sick of living in abject poverty, with no real opportunity of work and, in some cases, of being beaten up by Oswald Mosley’s black shirted supporters. Some came home – many did not. Even so, even after having been told numerous times that they were going to war and it would be horrific, they stayed and they fought because they believed that fascism could not win the day.

Unfortunately, as history has shown, they were wrong. Fascism lasted in Spain until Franco’s death in the mid-1970s. It is now a democracy, although not a wealthy one. Interestingly, the Civil War is seen very much as a dark period, not often discussed, as people reflect that perhaps they may have supported the wrong side (whether or not that side won).

I find it interesting, though, that the Spanish Civil War provided enough justification for people to walk away from homes, families and (in some cases) livelihoods to go and fight in a foreign country for a cause that they believed in. It’s not something I can really understand – perhaps our closest example these days is Greenpeace activists on the Rainbow Warrior (whichever number it is now – 4 or 5?) chasing Japanese whalers or polluting oil tankers.

The Roman Empire was Ethnically Diverse. Deal With It

Am I the only person on the planet not to be bothered by an ethnically diverse Roman Empire? Apart from Mary Beard, of course, but then she frequently gets into trouble for challenging conventional stereotypes. Unfortunately, the reality is very likely that Cleopatra didn’t look anything like Elizabeth Taylor and it’s doubtful that Mark Antony looked anything like Richard Burton either. That neither interferes with my enjoyment of a fine Hollywood blockbuster nor with my appreciation of the achievements of the Roman Empire.

If one thinks about it, this really shouldn’t be an issue at all. Any empire, whether it be Roman or British, which covers a number of countries and continents cannot expect to be ethnically and culturally homogenous. People who lived in Victorian India brought home a love of curry and cooks experienced in making it; sugar tycoons used West Indian slaves to build their fortunes (another unpalatable truth about the white stuff, but there we are) and frequently brought them to England as servants if they were lucky; merchants came from all over with their goods and often stayed where the markets were good. Result – an ethnically diverse population. So what’s the big deal?

It is simply beyond the realms of possibility to say that the Roman Empire was entirely homogenous. Perhaps the power base may have been – only Roman citizens could hold positions of power and they were very selective about who gained citizenship – but I’m not sure that’s not the issue here. I don’t doubt that many Roman slaves would have been North African, Egyptian or even Nubian; gladiators similarly would have come from diverse backgrounds. Roman patricians would have wanted their creature comforts and their entertainments, so why would they not have brought their slaves and gladiators?

I’m no classicist and I’m the first to admit that, but I really don’t understand why people find it so difficult to accept that the Roman Empire was a big place with a lot of different people who weren’t all alike. It doesn’t change anything. They were still brilliant engineers, won some cracking battles and had a very organised army in a time when organised armies were a rarity. The fact that some may have been black doesn’t really matter.

Miss Peregrine Follows a Grand Tradition

I’ve just finished reading Miss Peregrine’s School for Peculiar Children. It’s a strangely wonderful book but perhaps a little scary for children. It’s one of those books where “young adult” means “only if you’ve sat your GCSEs and not before” as some of the episodes are (a) quite scary and (b) a bit on the gruesome side. Definitely not something to read over breakfast. And yet I was struck by both the similarities and differences to other books of that ilk.

For example, Harry Potter features a young man who has no idea of his special powers and finds himself in a school with other young people – most of whom are fully aware of their background and capabilities – in which he has to survive. It’s just that Jacob Portman is not a wizard and his peculiarity (as it is termed) is rather specific, unlike Emma, who can produce and control fire, or Millard, who is invisible. The fact that Miss Peregrine can turn into a falcon is only eclipsed by Professor McGonagall turning into a cat on a regular basis.

In that respect, it reminds me a little more of Professor Xavier’s School for the Gifted, as the institute where the X-Men are based is known. There, peculiar children who are often in fear of their lives are given a sanctuary where they are fed, housed and protected, much like Miss Peregrine does in the book. And she can control time, as can Professor X (up to a point) and read minds.

And yet, the film that I found myself thinking of most often as I was reading was Paranorman. Jacob, like his grandfather before him, can see hollowgasts, who feed on peculiars, which suggests that they are predominantly invisible to the majority of peculiars. It’s a bit like Norman’s ability to see ghosts – and his calling to protect the community from the vengeful spirits in particular.

It’s not a bad book but I wasn’t especially left wanting more and the jury’s out on whether I’ll read the sequel.

An Interesting Use for Old Photos

One thing I absolutely love about Miss Peregrine’s School for Peculiar Children is how the author, Ransom Riggs, has managed to weave some weird and quite wonderful vintage photographs into his story in a way that makes it feel entirely natural – as if the photos were taken to illustrate the book, rather than the book being written to do something with the photos. It does make me wonder what people “back in the day” were thinking when they took photos of the back of someone’s head, or a mocked-up strong man. And as for some of those Christmas Grotto photographs, no wonder the Offspring refused to go in!

I can’t help but think that the late Victorians and early Edwardians were really captivated by what photography could offer and played with a variety of effects, including double exposure and something like an early form of Photoshop. This trend continued as technology improved and colour photography started to gain in popularity. Of course, the modern trend for digital photography does, in a sense, take all the fun out of it – I used to love receiving envelopes from places like Prontaprint and trying to remember what was going on when I took that particular photograph – or even when an envelope came back with someone else’s snaps!

It was worse when the Prontaprint envelopes didn’t come back at all, though. God only knows who’s got the photos from my trip to Malta back in the Nineties.

Yet it never once occurred to me to try and put together a sequence of some of these photographs and try to form a story around them. I might try that one day, when I have time, photographs and half an idea in my head. Riggs has demonstrated that not only is it possible, but you can also create something incredibly creepy indeed.