Dec 26, 2016

The year that was 2016

In September, neo-Nazis killed a guy on the street, next to the railway station. His name was Jimi Karttunen. I walk by there every day when I go to university. There had been a neo-Nazi rally outside the station; members of the so-called Finnish resistance movement had paraded with their flags and challenged passersby. One of them talked back, and spat at the nazis' feet. They killed him. A nazi ran up and kicked him. He fell, injured himself badly, and later died. It's 2016, and nazis killed a man on the street in my hometown for disagreeing with them.



Everyone thought things like this didn't happen, couldn't happen, any more. People were genuinely shocked. A sea of candles and tributes grew around the lamp-post he fell next to. You couldn't pass the railway station without noticing them. I saw them every morning, and I couldn't not think that that could have been me. If a nazi had accosted me on the street, I'm pretty sure he wouldn't like what I think. Have we become a country where you have to ask yourself if my opinion is going to get me killed? Several people, at least, didn't want that. Over twenty thousand of us marched in Helsinki, with hundreds in other cities, demanding a stop to racism and violent neo-Nazism.



After this massive demonstration, the prime minister promised immediate action against neo-Nazi extremism. Committees were founded, reports were commissioned, statements were made. And nothing was done. Politicians wrung their hands and told us that this was all very terrible, but there wasn't really anything they could do. So they did nothing. Never mind that the so-called "resistance movement" already breaks several Finnish laws just by existing. Never mind that a far-right member of parliament proudly posed for photos with the murderer and his organization, and continues to participate in their activities. His party remains in cabinet. Politicians from every party happily sit on committees with him. On independence day, the Nazis marched through Helsinki under heavy police protection, trashed the Hietaniemi cemetery and defaced the peacekeepers' memorial.

Nobody in power gives a shit that an innocent man was murdered on the street and that the Nazis who did it hold triumphal marches in our capital. The rest of us are wondering who will be next.

**

As if this wasn't bad enough, midsummer also brought us Brexit. I have an unpleasantly vivid memory of the vote. Since it was midsummer, we were out in the country, being plagued by wasps. One of the fuckers stung me, having decided for reasons of its own to fly into my armpit. I remember checking Twitter before going to sleep on the night of the election, and seeing Nigel Farage concede. While I slept, as someone put it on Twitter later, Farage unconceded, reconceded and reunconceded. I remember waking up and making my way toward breakfast, wondering why on earth people on my Twitter feed were talking about Brexit as if it was happening. Eventually I figured out that it was because they'd voted Leave.

2016, however, wasn't done with us yet. Over a hideously drawn-out year that felt like a fucking decade, the American people, or at least a minority of them, saw fit to elevate Donald Trump from reality television clown to Republican presidential nominee and eventually, unthinkably, President.

A number of myths need to be dispensed with. Trump's supporters were not "working class". Like Brexit voters, they were not economically disadvantaged. Neither were they oppressed by political correctness or victimized by neoliberalism. They didn't even care about free trade. What they were for the most part was racist authoritarians. In other words, fascists. And they voted for a fascist.

During his primary and presidential campaigns, the nature of Trump's game became abundantly clear. Not content with the usual Republican dog-whistling, he consistently ran on a platform of racism and white supremacy. He boasted of sexually assaulting women. He showed no comprehension of any political issues whatsoever, but deployed lies, hate and demagoguery in spades. He is literally a Nazi rapist. All of this was enough to boost a Democrat candidate with a historically low favorable rating to one of the most popular presidential candidates in US history; despite both a massive FBI media blitz and a sustained Russian disinformation campaign against her, she won the popular vote by a considerable margin. The American people voted for Hillary Clinton to be their president. However, the electoral college, supposedly an institution designed to stop a demagogue from capturing the presidency, has now elevated the most buffoonish rabble-rouser to ever aspire to that office to it over the will of the people.

The United States of America are founded on violent white supremacy, an ideal that to this day is enforced by the police forces that so many white Americans seem to worship. Trump's fascist presidency, however, is something altogether different. As if his election wasn't shocking enough, it's also been amazing to watch the speed at which the entire American political right seems to be collapsing into full fascism. The Trump cabinet, so far, consists of generals and billionaire businessmen, resembling nothing so much as an eighties fever dream of a future corporate-fascist America brough to lurid reality television life. We may have thought cyberpunk was the future; it turns out JG Ballard was much more on the money.

Trump and Brexit have several things in common. Both the Leave camp in Britain and the Trump campaign compulsively told childishly stupid lies. They were openly contemptuous of fact-checking, indeed of journalism, and in both countries, the media accomodated them. In Trump's case it was abjectly terrifying that seemingly no matter what he said or did, the news cycle rolled on regardless, and within a week, all was forgotten. Both campaigns falsely represented themselves as the champions of the economic worries of "ordinary people", a strategy they share with our home-grown fascists. Both employed prominent racists and drew freely on racist iconography and tropes. Both were energized by the most obdurately illiterate conspiracist thinking, where people who read one "news item" of dubious providence are willing to defend it to their grave because it accords with their prejudices. It remains one of the bitterest ironies of our new facism that its proponents relentlessly preach a critical thinking that they are in fact completely incapable of. Any information that would challenge their deeply stupid convictions is simply dismissed outright as whatever the euphemism of the day happens to be for a Jewish plot. Both are strongly supported by Russian special services, who relish their chance at taking apart the Western coalition that defeated them in the Cold War.

These people cannot, in my experience, be persuaded or reasoned with. They're not interested in arguments or reason. On the contrary, they will in all seriousness present "arguments" that can be thoroughly debunked in unit minutes with a search engine. Doing this, however, will make no difference. The people who support fascism are animated by privilege and hatred, energized by their communities and empowered by the nods and winks of politicians and the spineless complacency of the media. They're directly supported by the secret police of both the United States and Russia. They will not just go away or give up. They need to be fought and defeated. They will certainly not scruple to do the same to everyone who disagrees with them. They've already started killing people.

**

I live in Finland. Why am I bothered if the Americans elect a fascist and Britain decides to leave the EU? Obviously both elections are going to have their impacts on the economy, for starters. The downturn or at least prolonged recession will almost certainly be real, and in the case of Trump, if he manages to pass anything even remotely like his lunatic tax plans, he's setting up the US for a huge bust in the future. None of this bodes well for the supply-side lunacy of our right wing, so it's very likely that the racist idiocy of both British and American voters will also have profound economic consequences for the rest of us.

Other consequences may end up being more serious. To the extent that Trump had any discernible foreign policy views when campaigning, they were disastrously idiotic. Trump was openly supported by the Russian government's disinformation operations, most notably by Wikileaks, and he reciprocated that support with a warm bromantic adoration of Vladimir Putin. The main animating idea of the Trump campaign, racism, also informed his foreign policy anecdotes, from the puerile fantasy of the miraculous border wall and the xenophobic diatribes against Mwxican immigrants and refugees from the Middle East, to his childishly ignorant view of world trade as a zero-sum game and the denigration of America's allies as freeloaders profiting off US naïvete. In openly embracing dictators and mocking US alliances, Trump effectively campaigned on a full-scale assault on the structures of Western collective security.

One of the best things I've read on the twin disasters of 2016 was David Runciman's essay in the London Review of Books. I quote:

That is what the vote for Trump has in common with Brexit. By choosing to quit the European Union, the majority of British voters may have looked as if they were behaving with extraordinary recklessness. But in reality their behaviour too reflected their basic trust in the political system with which they were ostensibly so disgusted, because they believed that it was still capable of protecting them from the consequences of their choice. It is sometimes said that Trump appeals to his supporters because he represents the authoritarian father figure who they want to shield them from all the bad people out there making their lives hell. That can’t be right: Trump is a child, the most childish politician I have encountered in my lifetime. The parent in this relationship is the American state itself, which allows the voters to throw a tantrum and join forces with the worst behaved kid in the class, safe in the knowledge that the grown-ups will always be there to pick up the pieces.

Looking at the profound shock that the eminently predictable results of Brexit seem to be causing in the UK, and the shape that the Trump administration seems to be taking, this really does seem to be the case. Both countries are heading into economic disaster, and we're all going to suffer for it. Similarly, it seems inconceivable that anyone with even a nodding acquaintance with foreign and security policy could possibly believe that either Brexit or Trump could in any way lead to anything good. It seems eminently believable, though, that people simply didn't understand that they'd lead to anything really bad, either.

We may be witnessing the birth of the post-Cold War international order. History obviously didn't end with the Cold War, and if the rise of fascism in the west is a harbinger of things to come, then the years between the Berlin Wall and the Trump Wall may well turn out to have been a brief interregnum before the world splits along new ideological lines. If Trump really ushers in some kind of alliance with Putin, things don't look very good for those of us who are first in line to be dealt away at a new Yalta. Worse, he may inadvertently start a major war. Trump has already demonstrated his spectacular ineptitude in starting a pointless diplomatic spat with China. The idea of an idiot like Trump - a self-proclaimed "smart person" who believes he doesn't need intelligence briefings - being called upon to exercise command of the world's most powerful armed forces in a time of crisis is terrifying. Even without going that far, there's simply no way that either Trump or Brexit can possibly make the world a more peaceful, stable or predictable place.

**

Meanwhile, back on the ranch, the wrecking of the Finnish economy continues. Prime minister Sipilä eventually managed to wrangle the unions into a "competitiveness agreement", in which he traded away the threat of larger pay and benefit cuts for an agreement to make each working day six minutes longer. I am not joking. Health care reform remains a complete mess. The university cuts were, of course, carried out, and this past fall has been by far the most chaotic I've ever experienced at our university. To give you an idea of what it's like: our professors were polled by the professors' union. Of the professors at our university, half were not satisfied with their possibilities for research, and 70% didn't trust university administration. According to the government broadcaster, university professors basically agree that recent changes at our universities have been decisively for the worse. What's at stake here is certainly my professional future, but also the wider societal issue of human capital. We remain committed to competing through cheap labor, and the government is working on destroying our education system to achieve it.

A particularly ugly political phenomenon that's been raising its head here has been the cult of the entrepreneur as a "value producer". This hit an absurd high note in a television shouting match on job creation, when several rich white men tried to shout down a politician by demanding to know how many companies she had founded. A more popular manifestation of this is a recurring meme where people look at the amount of income tax paid by high earners, and use this to claim that the rich are actually paying for everything in society and everyone else is just living off their work. This line was enthusiastically echoed by a racist sports personality, who was fired for homophobic tweets and later found to have actually paid no taxes whatsoever himself. So as you can see, we have our own little Donald Trumps everywhere. The idea that we have some kind of Randian hero-entrepreneurs who conjure value out of thin air in splendid isolation but are unjustly forced to share it with the ungrateful howling mob is monstrously, ludicrously idiotic, but it works as a bizarre rhetorical device to allow the very people who complain the most about taxes to use the fact that they pay them as a tool to dehumanize the majority of the population. As a potentially terrifying sign of things to come, our politicians have elected a woman to head our social security apparatus who dreams of replacing it with forced labor.

I quit blogging about all this last year, because there didn't seem to be any point. Our major media continue to toe the government line. For example, our largest daily printed outrageous lies about the number of jobs available, in a transparent effort to support the government's view that unemployment is caused by laziness and entitlement, rather than by the fact that there aren't enough jobs to go around. We have two major yellow afternoon papers; one is run by a facist sympathizer, the other demanded our universities be turned into research and development faciliies for Finnish businesses. But lest someone be concerned by actual issues like the economy, our biggest daily's weekly supplement helpfully incited a ridiculous media conflagration by completely misrepresenting new teaching guidelines on gender. Oh, and do you think there was critical discussion about racism and neo-Nazism in the wake of the murder? Of course not. A few days later, we were right back to inventing wildly overblown headlines about crazy bureaucrats banning whatever. The few times someone tries their hand at investigative journalism not convenient to the government, they get harassed and driven out of their job; our glorious leader managed to get denounced by Reporters without Borders for suppressing media coverage of his financial ties to the disaster that is the Talvivaara mine. Those stupid foreigners just don't understand his masculine Christian leadership.

So in short, everything in Finland is like it was, but worse. The overwhelming weight of the media is behind our government's right-wing fantasies of oppressive bureaucracy and the shiftless hordes of the unemployed. Any and all discussion of actually existing racism in our society has been completely stifled. Whenever a right-wing populist blurts out something exceptionally hateful, there will be a momentary kerfuffle over it, but nothing ever happens. Our most overtly racist party seem to have destroyed about half of their support through complete idiocy, but the others are more than happy to carry on their policies without them, and there's nothing any of us can do about it. Murderous neo-Nazis march on our streets, protected by the police.

Mutatis mutandis, I believe what David Runciman wrote about Trump applies completely to Finland as well. If there's one characteristic of Finnish culture that I think is ingrained and widespread enough to qualify as "national", it's an almost childlike belief in the state. Outside progressive leftist Twitter and the vanishingly minute number of liberals, notions like a critique of police violence are completely unfathomable. The police cannot be wrong. They are the nice men who protect us. The blind faith of Finns in the state lets them mount their childish tantrums against "bureauslavia", "the immigration business", "multiculturalism", "the bloated public sector" or whatever the righteous fury buzzword of the day is, sanguine in the belief that no matter how hard they try to undermine and straight up burn down the structures of the welfare state, somehow it will still be there to look after them in the end. We don't seem to understand that the institutions and well-being we take for granted were built by people, and they can be broken by people. If our current policies of privileged resentment and deliberate wrecking go on, they will be.

No wonder, then, that educated people are fleeing the country. Personally, I'd be more than happy to join them. The level of public hostility to science and education in Finland is at an amazing high, and because of the massive cuts, the situation at our universities is becoming intolerable. I find it very difficult to see any kind of academic career happening for myself here, or much of any other kind of career either. There's also next to no chance of a change, so what the future has in store is almost certainly more cuts, public mockery and outright hatred. The question isn't why we're leaving; the question is why any of us would stay.

**

I don't know if this is true or not, but I've come to at least entertain the hypothesis that over the quarter-century since the end of the Cold War, we've become so secure in our well-being that far too many of us have genuinely forgotten what the point of politics is. It's been allowed to devolve into a completely irrational symbolic game, a culture war where people are positively encouraged to be as irrational and emotional as they possibly can, and care for nothing except their own particular shade of righteous resentment. Millions of Americans will vote for a Nazi rapist to spite whoever on earth they imagine they're spiting, completely unmindful of the fact that everything he has promised he'll do will make the lives of the people he purports to represent so much worse. Finnish right-wingers incessantly bleat about how we need to reform the corrupt and bloated state, and cheerfully support an utterly incompetent Finnish Trump who enriches his own family through corruption while entrenching the worst aspects of the agrarian-corporatist state and wrecking everything he ideologically despises. Or, worse, they vote for completely empty-headed demagogues with no discernible policies except racism. The British people have voted to destroy their economy in order to poke the elites in the eye - as if it were those elite who will suffer from, say, wrecking the NHS. Meanwhile, far too many of our purported intelligentsia disdain such ideas as actually engaging in some way with the rise of fascism and the destruction of the welfare state, but rather fulminate on how politics is all a game and surely nothing bad can possibly happen to anyone because it's all just talk.

We've forgotten that politics isn't just talk and symbols. That it isn't simply a public arena where the best performance wins, but also where decisions that genuinely affect our lives are made. Because we think it's a game and we refuse to take it seriously, actual fascism is back, and it's deliberately targeting the very institutions that have given so many of us the basic well-being that's brought us up to think that politics don't matter. The destruction that fascism and the cynical profiteers riding its coat-tails wreaks will, obviously, be blamed on the existential enemies the fascists claim to oppose. Your healthcare is being wrecked by shameless right-wing profiteering, but here are the Daily Mail and Ilta-Sanomat to tell you that it's the immigrants' fault somehow. We're making gigantic cuts to education while pouring hundreds of millions into "infrastructure projects" that are a bewildering combination of utter ineptitude and naked graft, but the reason the school system is collapsing is obviously multiculturalism and political correctness. And so on. Meanwhile, the major media outlets have either become so entranced by their own Olympian "objectivity" that they've completely lost touch with any discernible reality, or have openly sided with the fascists.

It's one of the brutal ironies of patriarchy and white supremacy that in the wake of both Brexit and Trump, major newspapers castigated "identity politics", but obviously not the childish racist resentments of the privileged, which is what got us into this whole mess in the first place.

We're going to look back on the brief interregnum following the Cold War and wonder how on earth we fucked this up so badly. It barely took us twenty years to go from the "end of history" - the final victory of liberal democracy - to the rise of 21st century fascism, complete with actual Nazis in the White House. I think we've forgotten that politics is about real things. I'm afraid we're going to be painfully reminded.

**

To sum up, then, 2016 was a uniquely horrible year in my lifetime. Fascism is with us again. No longer just a specter haunting Europe, it has become horrifying flesh among us. In Britain, fascism marches in the hate crimes and petty bigotry of Brexit, and the terrifying rehabilitation of Enoch Powell. In Finland, it leers in our brutally inhuman immigration policies, dreams forced labor fot the "unfit" and spills blood on our streets. A fascist dictator directs the Russian military in its slaughter of innocents in both the Ukraine and Syria. His ideological comrade is taking up residence in the White House.

The lights are going out all over the world. In the heady days around the turn of the millenium, even if we didn't believe that it was the end of history, so many of us thought that the lights of human rights, tolerance and reason would burn brightly in our lifetimes. Now they're going out; not blotted out by any external threat, but deliberately switched off by one country after another falling prey to their darkest impulses. Fifteen years ago, it would have seemed unthinkable that the US and far too many European countries would rush headlong to embrace fascism. But here we are.

What are you going to do about it?

Dec 19, 2016

LotR LCG: Further hobbit adventures

I've been on a bit of a deck-building spree lately, and now it's time to revisit my hobbit deck. Since I originally created it for other people to play, I never really got to take a proper go at it myself. I now intend to fix this.


John Howe: Beorn (1979). I can't stop thinking of this as a New Yorker cartoon.

**

After the debut of the hobbit deck, I made a couple of changes to it: I stole the three Unseen Strikes for the Rohan deck. In exchange, I added in our three Wardens of Healing; the hobbits with their low hit points had been more than a little vulnerable to direct damage in our multiplayer games!

In the meanwhile, we picked up the Land of Shadow saga expansion, which came with a whole pile of cards that looked damn handy for a hobbit deck. For starters, I swapped out the Song of Wisdom and both Burning Brands for three copies of Staff of Lebethron; theoretically that makes the hobbits more vulnerable to the Dol Guldur Beastmasters of the world, but it feels like a better thematic fit, and goes right on Sam without messing about with songs.


I also don't remember seeing a single succesful use of Hobbit-sense in our games, which may well be an artifact of multiplayer. Still, though, I'm dropping it, because how am I supposed to play a hobbit deck with Sam and not include the wonderfully thematic Taste it Again!? A final card from Land of Shadow to make the cut is Anborn, whose ability fits perfectly into a hobbit deck. To make space, I'm leaving out the attractive but sadly unthematic Naith Guide. Keen-eyed Took will also make way for Gimli. Finally, since I intend to try this deck solo, I'm including ally Boromir; for multiplayer games, we can swap him out for the spectacularly succesful Dúnedain Cache.


So this is what we end up with:

50 cards; 15 Leadership, 17 Lore, 12 Tactics, 4 Neutral; 23 allies, 16 attachments, 11 events; starting threat 20.

Sam Gamgee (TBR)
Pippin (TBR)
Merry (TBR)

Allies: 23 (6/8/6/3)
Gimli (TToS) x2
Anborn (TLoS) x2
Bill the Pony (TBR) x2
Gildor Inglorion (THoEM) x2
Barliman Butterbur (TBR) x3
Warden of Healing (TLD) x3
Beorn x2
Boromir (TRD) x2
Farmer Maggot (TBR) x2
Gandalf (Core) x2
Gandalf (OHaUH)

Attachments: 16 (6/6/3/1)
Hobbit Cloak (TBR) x3
Staff of Lebethron (TLoS) x3
Elf-stone (TBR) x3
Fast Hitch (TDM) x3
Dagger of Westernesse (TBR) x3
Song of Kings (THfG)

Events: 11 (5/3/3)
Taste it Again! (TLoS) x3
Sneak Attack x2
Take No Notice (TBR) x3
Halfling Determination (TBR) x3

Multiplayer sideboard:
swap Boromir (TRD) for Dúnedain Cache (TDM) x2

**

Our first stop was, predictably, Passage through Mirkwood. On my first attempt, literally everyone died. A King Spider showed up, exhausting the only character I had who could have defended it, and its shadow card was Hummerhorns, which killed everyone. That spider is just plain nasty.


On my second attempt, the going was tough to begin with: early staging gave us a Dol Guldur Beastmaster and Ungoliant's Spawn, which we were in no position to tackle, soon joined by some threateningly hovering Hummerhorns. We cleared a couple of locations and fought off some Dol Guldur Orcs in the process. Those two points of damage to a questing character made me deeply grateful that I'd included those Wardens of Healing! Maybe they're not a perfect fit thematically, but hobbits are so vulnerable to direct damage that I'm fully willing to argue that Merry's time at the Houses of Healing in Minas Tirith more than justifies including them.

We were barely making any progress questing, but I did manage to get some allies into play, including Anborn. With Elf-stone nowhere to be seen, I paid full price for Gildor, but he was worth every resource. Gildor's three willpower turned our questing around, and I began to contemplate a plan to engage Ungoliant's Spawn. My first attempt featured Gandalf, but I was foiled when East Bight Patrol turned up in staging. These super-low engagement threshold cards are potentially murderous for hobbits! Cool art, though.


I did engage the Beastmaster, though, since we had enough attackers to destroy him after taking care of the East Bight Patrol. Next turn, we went after Ungoliant's Spawn. Finally outfitted with a Hobbit Cloak and a Staff of Lebethorn, Sam defended the Spawn and discarded its shadow card. Merry led the attack with his Dagger of Westernesse, the final and decisive point of damage being contributed by Bill the Pony.

Once we hit the second quest stage, A Fork in the Road, I had to be careful in case I ended up having to tackle Ungoliant's Spawn again. I spent most of my Tactics resources on getting Boromir in play, and - finally! - played an Elf-stone on my active location. It had taken us long enough to get here, but now, if my sums were right, I was going to win this in one turn.

Sure enough, I passed the second quest stage and drew Don't Leave the Path, bringing Ungoliant's Spawn right back out of the discard pile. First, I used Anborn to deal it one damage and raise its engagement threshold by 5. That meant that when I voluntarily engaged it in the combat phase, Sam readied and got his bonuses. Once again, the Spawn was defended, and finished off by Merry, Boromir and the recently-elf-stoned-in Beorn. That's right: you bring a spider, I bring a bear.


Even though we got off to a rocky start, I was able to bring in a big enough bunch of allies that I managed a hefty chunk of questing and enough attack to knock out Ungoliant's Spawn in the same turn, so I'm very pleased by how this turned out! Playing this deck is just a lot of fun.

**

The next test for any deck is A Journey down the Anduin. As a warmup, I took it on with Team Boromir, and we were succesful. The two decks actually have some decent synergy: while I didn't get to play a Staff of Lebethron on Boromir, Merry did get a very handy Rohan Warhorse, which in conjunction with Fast Hitch enabled Merry to both quest and help Legolas clear all four remaining enemies out of the game on the last turn.

My first solo attempt ended mercifully quickly: Sam had to take two damage when Dol Guldur Orcs showed up, and next turn, The Necromancer's Reach killed him and Merry. Like I said, direct damage... It's almost enough to make me buy a second copy of The Wastes of Eriador so I could get the hobbits their own Honour Guard.


On my second attempt, we got off to a pretty nice start. I was able to Elf-stone in Beorn and Anborn, and we quested through the first stage with no real trouble, sending Chieftain Ufthak into the victory display. When I was eventually ready to engage the Hill Troll, the encounter card I revealed in staging was the other Hill Troll. That put a bit of a wrinkle in my plans, but we managed: Beorn defended the first Hill Troll and the combined attack of Sam, Merry, Anborn and Farmer Maggot finished him off. For the second troll, I had to Sneak Attack in Gildor to take the attack, and then he joined his buddy in the victory display.

After the troll twins, the second quest stage was almost anticlimactic, and we quested through in just a couple of turns. For the final battle, we faced Wargs and Misty Mountain Goblins; the latter were no problem, but obviously the former went right back into the staging area. The next turn, I elected to defend them with Sam, which meant taking two damage, but he could use the Staff of Lebethron to make sure the Wargs stayed put long enough to be killed. So on the whole, a resounding success! In fact, despite both trolls showing up in the first stage, I don't think I've ever got through Anduin this easily.

Flush with success, I decided that clearly hobbits are natural troll-slayers and took a shot at We Must Away, Ere Break of Day. To make a short story shorter, the shot in question was delivered by Merry, dual-wielding his Daggers of Westernesse. We killed two trolls, got our hands on the Troll Key and soon enough, Troll Cave was looted and poor old William was turned to stone.

**

So on the whole, this has been a brilliantly succesful deck. I'm going to keep on testing it; I think continuing the Hobbit quests sounds like fun, and maybe I should also see how the hobbits deal with Moria. So far, I've made very few changes to the deck. Flight of the Stormcaller did bring us Glorfindel, who'd be an awfully tempting and thematically perfect character to Elf-stone in. More card draw would be good as well, but the deck is working so well I don't really want to mess around with it. I'm also thinking that not only would Keen as Lances be great here for our multiplayer games, but the low costs of the hobbit-related cards have occasionally meant that I've found myself sitting on enough resources to almost use it on my own.

I'm horribly tempted to include ally Bilbo and Sword-thain, but that would just be silly. Right? A far more reasonable candidate for Sword-thain is Robin Smallburrow, who's a perfect fit here anyway. One swap I'm definitely making involves Halfling Determination: potentially a great card, but one I don't really find myself using. I want to try Ring Mail, as I think it'd be brilliant on Sam and might even let Merry defend the odd low-power attack.


Finally, with the arrival of the Sands of Harad, The Storm Comes is pretty much a must-have for a deck with allies from all four spheres, and we'll see if we couldn't make some use of Halfling Bounder as well.

The moral of the story? Make a hobbit deck. You'll enjoy it. This one's also been a big hit with people new to the game.

**

53 cards; 15 Leadership, 20 Lore, 10 Tactics, 2 Spirit, 5 Neutral; 25 allies, 19 attachments, 8 events, 1 side quest; starting threat 20.

Sam Gamgee (TBR)
Pippin (TBR)
Merry (TBR)

Allies: 25 (4/12/5/2/3)
Gimli (TToS)
Anborn (TLoS)
Bill the Pony (TBR) x2
Gildor Inglorion (THoEM)
Barliman Butterbur (TBR) x2
Halfling Bounder (TSoH) x3
Robin Smallburrow (TDRu) x2
Warden of Healing (TLD) x3
Beorn x2
Boromir (TRD) x2
Déorwine (TotD)
Glorfindel (FotS)
Bilbo Baggins (TRD)
Gandalf (Core) x2
Gandalf (OHaUH)

Attachments: 19 (6/6/5/2)
Hobbit Cloak (TBR) x3
Staff of Lebethron (TLoS) x3
Elf-stone (TBR) x3
Fast Hitch (TDM) x3
Ring Mail (TLD) x2
Dagger of Westernesse (TBR) x3
Sword-thain (TDR) x2

Events: 8 (5/3)
Taste it Again! (TLoS) x3
Sneak Attack x2
Take No Notice (TBR) x3

Side quests: 1
The Storm Comes (TSoH)

Multiplayer sideboard:
add Dúnedain Cache (TDM) x2

**

As part of my deck-building spree, I was going through the rest of our cards, and it occurred to me that there is, in fact, a thematically delightful and tactically excellent hero to build a deck around specifically to combine with this hobbit deck: Beorn.


My thinking is that with his inexhaustible sentinel defence, Beorn could get the hobbit deck out of quite a few defensive wrinkles, at least until Sam gets kitted out, and even then he could be invaluable against annoyingly low-threshold enemies like Dol Guldur Orcs and so on. Since this deck is specifically meant to work together with another deck, a hero with a ranged attack would be supremely useful, meaning I've finally found somewhere to use Bard the Bowman. That's basically our defender and attacker right there, so we still need a quester. Did someone mention ranged attack and Dale?


With her readying ability, Lanwyn can provide questing and also chip in on the attack. Since the theme of this deck is pretty clearly the War of the Ring North nation and ranged attack, I pretty much went through the rest of our Spirit and Tactics cards and grabbed everything that suited that theme. This is what I ended up with:

50 cards; 17 Spirit, 32 Tactics, 1 neutral; 16 allies, 10 attachments, 23 events, 1 side quest

Lanwyn (TTitD)
Bard the Bowman (OtD)
Beorn (OHaUH)

Allies: 16 (2/14)
Northern Tracker x2
Landroval (AJtR) x2
Descendant of Thorondor (THoEM) x3
Eagles of the Misty Mountains (RtM)
Rúmil (TTT) x2
Fornost Bowman (TDR) x3
Galadhon Archer (TNiE) x3

Attachments: 10 (4/5/1)
Thror's Key (OtD) x2
Warden of Arnor (TTT) x2
Support of the Eagles (RtM)
Great Yew Bow (OtD)
Blade of Gondolin x2
Mighty Prowess (TDF)
Song of Travel (THoEM)

Events: 23 (10/10)
Fortune or Fate x2
The Galadhrim's Greeting x2
A Test of Will
Hasty Stroke x2
Tides of Fate (FotS) x3
Swift Strike x2
Feint
Hands Upon the Bow (SaF) x3
Quick Strike
Close Call (TDT) x3
Straight Shot (OtD) x3

Side quests: 1
Double Back (EfMG)

**

Since this deck was literally created by grabbing everything that looked interesting, I really had no idea what would happen when I played it. Therefore the safe thing to do was to shunt it off to an unsuspecting victim while I played the Hobbit deck. We passed the first test by beating Passage through Mirkwood fairly effortlessly. I next got my partner to put aside Team Boromir for once in favor of the hobbits, and tried Beorn and pals myself. We made several attempts on A Journey down the Anduin, which turned out to be an educational experience. I'd wondered if Northern Tracker could possibly be worth including in a deck with only one Spirit hero, but he saved us from near-terminal location lock. Sadly, that wasn't enough, as we drew two Necromancer's Reaches in the same staging, which killed Lanwyn and wiped out the hobbits. Next time around, we were making great progress on the second stage, until we drew Necromancer's Reach, Evil Storm and another Necromancer's Reach in one turn. At that point we decided to try something different.

Feeling a little bruised by the non-stop treacheries, we dug out Hunt for Gollum and gave it a shot. It's not a particularly tough quest, but it can take a while, so you do get some feel for how the deck works. We took ages, managing to draw every single copy of Signs of Gollum as a shadow card. Lanwyn's readying/willpower-boosting ability came in handy quite a few times, and an unexpected bonus was how useful Thror's Key was. I included it because it caught my eye and has at least a dubious thematic connection to the deck, but when The Old Ford came along, I was very happy to have it! I also got to try the then-almost brand new Tides of Fate when I used Bard to defend an attack; my interpretation is that it wouldn't work on Beorn. It's not quite Hasty Stroke, but the +3 defense is usually enough to handle an attack-boosting shadow, and it's free. Finally, we got some Signs and set up our last questing push. This was very damn nearly derailed by Goblintown Scavengers and some very unlucky discards, but luckily I had a Galadhon Archer standing by, and Hands Upon the Bow saw to the goblins.

After that game, I had a sudden, bizarre revelation. Instead of Bard, should I actually use Brand, son of Bain? His ability could potentially create a massively stupid combo with Merry where they ready each other. Also a little less threat!


Switching from Bard to Brand, it turns out, was a great idea. He works ridiculously well with Merry; when we tried Temple of the Deceived, they fairly wiped the board clean of enemies every time. I even got to use Fortune or Fate to bring Beorn back after he defended a bunch too many attacks.

This could obviously be a much better deck if so many of the good Spirit and Tactics cards weren't in use elsewhere. One addition I did make, because it felt perfect: Ally Imrahil from Flame of the West. Should Beorn leave play, he can step in to help generate Spirit resources for Fortune or Fate. Also, now that Tactics Éowyn showed up, my partner gave up Bofur, who also fits in here quite nicely. So this is what we end up with:

53 cards; 17 Spirit, 30 Tactics, 2 neutral; 23 allies, 8 attachments, 20 events, 2 side quests

Lanwyn (TTitD)
Brand son of Bain (THoEM)
Beorn (OHaUH)

Allies: 23 (4/19)
Northern Tracker x2
Prince Imrahil (TFotW) x2
Landroval (AJtR) x2
Descendant of Thorondor (THoEM) x3
Eagles of the Misty Mountains (RtM)
Bofur (OHaUH) x2
Rúmil (TTT) x2
Fornost Bowman (TDR) x3
Galadhon Archer (TNiE) x3
Marksman of Lórien (TDRu) x3

Attachments: 8 (2/5/1)
Thror's Key (OtD) x2
Support of the Eagles (RtM)
Great Yew Bow (OtD)
Blade of Gondolin x2
Mighty Prowess (TDF)
Song of Travel (THoEM)

Events: 20 (10/10)
Fortune or Fate x2
The Galadhrim's Greeting x2
A Test of Will
Hasty Stroke x2
Tides of Fate (FotS) x3
Swift Strike x2
Feint
Hands Upon the Bow (SaF) x3
Quick Strike
Close Call (TDT) x3

Side quests: 1
Double Back (EfMG)
The Storm Comes (TSoH)

**

For now, teaming a bear up with the hobbits is working very well, and the hobbit deck remains my favorite solo deck of them all. Again, I highly recommend trying one; all you need to get going is the Black Riders box. I've managed to infect my enthusiasm for Beorn decks onto another poor soul, so hopefully I'll be able to bring you some updates on how building a Beorn deck from the core set on goes. Next time, though, it's time to tackle another deluxe expansion!

Dec 12, 2016

Let's Read Tolkien 27: Fog on the Barrow-downs

That night they heard no noises.

Oh goddammit, more fog. You'd think this was Morrowind. Despite the title, though, the first scene of the chapter is Frodo's second dream in the house of Tom Bombadil: a curtain of rain parting to reveal a rising sun and a green land. He wakes, and with surprisingly little ceremony, the hobbits breakfast and are sent off by Tom Bombadil.

As the hobbits are leading their ponies up the hill away from Tom's house, Frodo suddenly realizes they've forgotten about Goldberry. Given that she's basically only appeared as a receptionist and waitress at the Bombadil Hotel, this is unfortunately not very surprising. However, she turns out to be waiting for them as a kind of apparition on a hill. She has them look around at the scenery: the Forest to the west and north of them, the grim Barrow-downs to the east and far beyond them, a hint of mountains in the distance. That done, she gives the hobbits her blessing and sends them on their way.

I talked at length about Tom in the previous instalment of this series, not least because there just wasn't that much to say about Goldberry. As the daughter of the river showing the geography of the land to the travellers, she's woman-as-nature made flesh, and is actually our first encounter with Tolkien's most prominent female archetype, the Ethereal Muse. Goldberry inspires Frodo to poetry, serves food and washes clothes, and is generally there to be inspiring and beautiful and handy around the house for the men around her. As they leave, she also gets to be the first Lady on a Hill in the story, watching the protagonists recede into the distance. She's not in any way an unsympathetic character, but like all embodiments of the Ethereal Feminine in prose written by white men, she's unfortunately not very interesting, either. Thank heavens for Lobelia Sackville-Baggins.

Goldberry reminds the hobbits to keep left and avoid the Barrow-downs. If you've read the Hobbit, you'll probably have a pretty good idea of how well this is going to turn out. Frodo and company set off north, and as they travel along the day gets warmer. From a hilltop, they think they can see a line of trees that marks the Road that they're aiming for. Cheered, they descend into an adjacent hollow, where they pause for lunch, leaning against a lone standing stone. I don't know how this could possibly have seemed like a good idea to them, but there you are.

With their backs to the totally-not-at-all-sinister standing stone in the middle of the haunted Barrow-downs, the hobbits fall asleep. When they wake up, everything around them is covered by a thick fog and the sun is setting. They quickly saddle their ponies and try to make their way toward what they think is north, but the freezing fog envelops them and they get separated. Frodo's pony runs off, and he repeats his Old Forest survival trick of running in a random direction in a panic. This time, it ends in him being captured by a Barrow-wight.

Frodo finds himself lying on a bier inside the barrow, apparently bewitched by the Barrow-wight. Sam, Pippin and Merry are lying next to him, decked out in gold jewelry and apparently unconscious, a sword laid across their necks. Weapons, shields and treasure surround them. The Barrow-wight chants a spell which momentarily freezes Frodo, but like Bilbo in the dragon's tunnel, he has an attack of hobbit courage and steels himself to face the Barrow-wight. As its arm creeps toward Sam, Frodo chops at it with a sword, which shatters. Finally, he remembers the emergency rhyme Tom Bombadil taught them and sings it.

After a moment's stunned silence, Tom shows up and banishes the Barrow-wight. He wakes the hobbits, finds their ponies again, and exorcises the Barrow-wight for good by hauling out all the treasure in the barrow and spreading it out on the hillside for anyone to take. There's an unexpectedly touching moment when Tom finds a brooch among the treasures and seems to remember who wore it. He gives the hobbits knives from the loot, very reasonably pointing out that since they keep getting themselves into trouble, maybe they should consider being armed. This is a new idea to Frodo and company, which does make one wonder how they'd figured this would all work out, but also serves as a reminder of the decisively unmilitary character of hobbits. Tom tells them the knives were forged by the men of Westernesse, who were enemies of the king of Angmar, and engages in a bit of foreshadowing about sons of forgotten kings. He also very sensibly offers to escort the hobbits to the road.

So in the end, Frodo and company finally make it out of the Old Forest and back onto the Road. They wonder whether they've evaded the Black Riders, and pause at the thought that they're now about to cross over into lands they barely know anything about any more. As a final favor, Tom recommends that when they continue along the road and arrive at Bree, they stay at the Prancing Pony inn. With that, Tom is gone, and Frodo and company set off down the road. As they ride, they speculate on what they'll find at Bree, and Frodo, to his infinite credit, tells his young friends to not use the name Baggins, but to rather call him Mr. Underhill. Soon enough, Bree-hill appears in the distance, and the chapter ends.

**

This chapter marks our first proper encounter with one of the most important concepts in the Lord of the Rings: the wraith. Admittedly, everyone who's familiar with the story know that we've met wraiths before, but they haven't actually been introduced as such yet. There's some excellent stuff in Shippey's Author of the Century on the philology of the word wraith, but I'm more interested in the theology of wraiths. In my first post on the Lord of the Rings, I quoted Tolkien's summary of what his magnum opus is all about: the Fall, Mortality and the Machine. They all meet in the figure of the wraith.

The Fall, you'll recall, is when a lady supposedly ate some fruit once. I don't know how many people remember why that was such a big deal in the Bible, though, but it's actually made pretty clear that God needed to stop people from becoming immortal:

And the Lord God said, Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil: and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever:
- Genesis 3:22

God, in other words, thought that this fruit-eating might lead to him getting some competition, so he banished humans from Paradise and doomed us all to die. If you think that sounds silly, it's because it is. Apparently what happened was that when the Hebrews were in exile, they figured that their religion needs a tree-of-eternal-life myth, so they plagiarized one off their shall we say hosts. Tolkien, bless his heart, took this silly story very seriously indeed, and wrote it into his mythology as the Doom of Men: Eru (God) has decreed that all men must die and pass beyond the circles of the world to an unknown fate. So from the Fall, Mortality.

What does this have to do with Barrow-wights? A barrow is a grave-mound, and barrow-wight literally means "grave-thing" or "grave-person" (Old English wiht). Now, we're not told what, exactly, a Barrow-wight is. This is the background we got on them and the Downs in the previous chapter:

They heard of the Great Barrows, and the green mounds, and the stone-rings upon the hills and in the hollows among the hills. Sheep were bleating in flocks. Green walls amd white walls rose. There were fortresses on the heights. Kings of little kingdoms fought together, and the young Sun shone like fire on the red metal of their new and greedy swords. There was victory and defeat; and towers fell, fortresses were burned, and flames went up into the sky. Gold was piled on the biers of dead kings and queens; and mounds covered them, and the stone doors were shut; and the grass grew over all. Sheep walked for a while biting the grass, but soon the hills were empty again. A shadow came out of dark places far away, and the bones were stirred in the mounds. Barrow-wights walked in the hollow places with a clink of rings on cold fingers, and gold chains in the wind. Stone rings grinned out of the ground like broken teeth in the moonlight.

I make no apologies for the length of the quote, because this is one of my favorite pieces of exposition in the whole book, wih the young sun on the red metal and everything. For Tolkien, the key to his stories and their success was the languages he'd created; the names and languages came first, and everything else flowed from them. I have no reason to doubt his account of his own creative process, and certainly language is part of the charm of the stories. For me, though, what sets Tolkien apart from so many other fantasy authors isn't so much language but history, and here it is in spades, both in the exposition and then in the story itself. The Barrow-wight may be an evil spirit "out of dark places far away" (Angmar and Rhudaur, as Appendix A specifies), but it's also almost literally history come to life, or at least unlife: waking from his trance, Merry imagines himself to have been killed in a long-forgotten war against the Witch-king of Angmar.

In Scandinavian sagas like the memorable Hervararkviða, the draugr are the unquiet dead, haunting their own barrows. Here, though, the Barrow-wight is a spirit sent to haunt the barrow, that's somehow appropriated not only the body but apparently somehow the memories of the dead buried there, or at least it somehow passes them on to Merry. It's never explained what, exactly, these spirits are, but there's a poignant bit of description in the wight's spell: "The night was railing against the morning of which it was bereaved, and the cold was cursing the warmth for which it hungered." Maybe it's just me, but I've always thought of the Barrow-wights as wraiths of a kind: undead who've somehow used magic (the Machine!) to escape death, at the cost of their humanity, which they now yearn to recover but can't. We'll be returning to this theme later.

To me, the exorcism Tom carries out to banish the wight also ties them to the idea of cheating death. There's an interesting passage in one of Tolkien's letters on Gondor, which I don't actually think we've even heard of by this point, and elves. Remember that to break the spell on the mound, Tom disperses the treasure in the barrow out in the open, where anyone can take it.

In their way the Men of Gondor were similar [to the elves]: a withering people whose only "hallows" were their tombs.
- Letters, 154

In letter 211, he also directly compares Gondor to Egypt, remarking again on the obsession of the Gondorians with tombs. This, combined with Tom's exorcism, makes me think that even if the spirits came from elsewhere, the reason they were able to haunt the tombs and possess their inhabitants was the gold and treasure, "cold and unlovely", in the tombs. We don't hear of wights haunting other burial places; did the burial practices of the ancient northern kingdom that once stood on the Downs constitute a kind of sin against mortality, an attempt to take treasure beyond the circles of the world or just "tomb-worship", that made them suspectible to the wights? I don't know, but it's a thought I've had before that I only now managed to put into writing.

**

I said before that I really like the Old Forest chapters, and I also like this one with its ruins and wraiths and whatnot. It's tremendously atmospheric. Having said that, though, the hobbits' adventure on the Barrow-downs is dismayingly identical in form to their adventure in the Old Forest. The hobbits enter an area with a dangerous reputation, fall asleep, get ensnared by a malign intelligence, and while several of them are incapacitated, the others first fight back ineffectively and then manage, in the nick of time, to summon Tom Bombadil to rescue them. It really is exactly the same. It's easier to make the case for the Barrow-downs' significance for the plot, at least in material terms, because the hobbits pick up these nifty daggers. In my opinion, both adventures make a strong contribution to Tolkien's world-building and I like both of them; I just wish they weren't so very similar.

Next time, a pub, a vagrant and an ill-considered song.

Dec 5, 2016

PhD blog 12/16: What is academic writing?

In my previous PhD blog post, I talked about research methods, and I mentioned a characteristic of bad academic writing I've seen, which is that it tries to look sciencey without seeming to understand what science really is. This time, I want to talk about writing the analysis section of a qualitative research thesis. If I sound overly didactic, I apologize, but in my defense, I'm also getting my teaching qualifications! Also, this post is very directly motivated by an absolutely terrible graduate thesis I recently read. It got a better grade than I thought it deserved, but, well, it still wasn't a very good grade. So I want to make sure that doesn't happen to anyone else if I can help it.

**

I strongly believe that an academic, certainly anyone getting a postgraduate degree, should never be following instructions because they exist, but rather needs to ask why they do what they do. So sure, there's all kinds of guidelines for academic writing, but why do we do it?

In qualitative research, the point of academic writing is to make our analysis transparent. A historian doesn't heroically vanish into the archives of doom and reappear later with a thesis and a bag full of gold; we write the thesis so that others can see what we did, where and why. (I need to talk more about academic authority later, but I need to wrangle my copy of Carol Steadman's Dust back from a certain somebody I lent it to first.) Also, there's really no gold. Like, at all. But this is the point: a thesis is a research report, and it needs to convey not only your methods, material and conclusions, but how the first two met to form the third.

In other words, good academic writing walks you through the research it's describing. It'll tell you who's doing what and why, and what conclusions they arrived at and how they did it.

Let's unpack this. First of all, it matters who's doing the research. I know this is still an unpopular idea with some people, who perhaps still feel that we should pretend we're impartial outside observers. I firmly believe that they're wrong. Who you are, where you're coming from and what your relationship to your material and your research question is matters. Good academic writing must convey this information.

What you're doing is your methods and methodologies, which I talked about last time. In brief, clarity and conciseness are values here as well. I've read theses that trip over themselves in trying to be too clever, and also ones where barely any coherent method is presented. The why is your research question. Your methods need to make sense in terms of your research question and material. This is the stuff usually covered in an introduction, which by the way is what I'm writing now myself!

At the end of the day, your research report has to answer your research question. Here, clarity and integrity are key. As I've said, I absolutely disagree with the idea that research reports need to be written after the fact to sound like you knew exactly where everything would end up all along. Leave room for uncertainties, even shortcomings. In my mind at least, it's far better to admit that you can't answer everything, rather than to blithely insist that everything worked out brilliantly when any intelligent reader can see that it didn't. In other words, be honest with your conclusions.

Finally, there's what I consider the keystone of academic writing: the analysis. How you went from your research question to your conclusions. This is where the walkthrough really happens, if you like. A good analysis will give your reader a feel for the material, and at least a notion of the whole of it. It'll let them understand how you've applied your methods to the material, and what happened when you did.

Another way of thinking about the analysis section is that this is where replicability happens. If your analysis section is badly written, it'll appear as a collection of anecdotes about your material. If it's put together properly, anyone reading it should be able to see exactly what you did and why, and retrace your steps. If they disagree with you, they should be able to tell why and where.

In this sense, the key value that needs to guide good academic writing is integrity.

**

Since I'm currently also enrolled in teacher training, I do want to look at this from that angle as well. I mentioned the terrible thesis I read, which motivated me to write this post. There was a lot wrong with it, but the worst part was the analysis. It was just a mess from beginning to end: the analysis sections formed no coherent whole, nor did they give the reader any real notion of the material. Rather, one was presented with a series of claims that seemed to be backed up by random anecdotes about the data. The end result was confusion.

Having read the thesis, one question was uppermost on my mind: where was the supervisor? Admittedly, sometimes there are students who refuse to be supervised, and there's not a whole lot anyone can do about that. Sometimes for various administrative reasons or some other acts of chaos, students end up effectively not having any supervision, and are left to muddle things out on their own. I'm sure there are also a whole bunch of other possible reasons. But still, when you read a thesis where all of the component parts are deeply flawed and none of them hang together, it's really hard not to wonder what on earth happened. So although I mostly concentrate on what students should and shouldn't do, we need to remember that academic writing for the most part happens in an institutional context. Bad graduate theses reflect on their supervisors and the organizations that produce them.

**

A summary of sorts, then. I've read good theses that got bad grades. Sometimes things happen; I know of a department where there are such deep differences of opinion between professors that they'll basically give each other's students bad grades. If something like this happens, there's unfortunately not a whole lot you can do, other than maybe keep an eye out for this sort of thing if you're thinking about postgraduate studies. At times, I'm sure I've just been wrong, and much the same applies in the contrary cases.

On the whole, though, if I think about the theses I've read that I thought weren't very good amd that also got bad grades, they have two things in common. By and large, they have either gravely deficient method sections, ones that are divorced from the rest of the work, or in the worst case, both. More crucially for the subject of this post, they usually fail to form a coherent whole, and for that or some other reason, they leave the reader somewhat confused as to what was being done and why.

The physicist Ernest Rutherford reputedly said that what you're doing isn't science if you can't explain it to a barmaid. I know some damn smart people in the hospitality industry, so I'm not sure I approve of his phrasing, but I'd say that if you can't explain what you're doing in simple terms to someone without a degree in your field, there's a fairly high probability that you don't actually know what you're doing. Bad academic writing is sometimes used in an attempt to conceal this. A competent examiner will spot it. However, more often bad academic writing is just a failure to express yourself clearly.

I don't believe there are any tricks or short cuts to good academic writing. It's a skill, and like any other skill, you learn it by doing it. The key, to me, is to make sure you have something to communicate, and then do your best to express it clearly and concisely. That's all there really is to it. The values of academic writing are the values of science: honesty, integrity and communication.