Although it’s been out for 10 years, Half-Life 2 has always been in the “pretty good graphics” bin in my memory. Till now. Jeannot van Berlo has re-created the train station in Unreal Engine.

Here’s the original…

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And here’s van Berlo’s version:

hl2-new-trains

Another shot from Valve:

2014-04-04_00004

And van Berlo:

hl2-new-side

I guess ten years has provided an advance or two.

I was just in the game to take the comparison screenshots, and I still think it’s fine, but the Unreal Engine version is certainly stunning.  More detailed, fancier lighting, and a grander scale.  From the screenshots, it looks a little busier– not quite as focused for the eyes– but it’s hard to tell what it’d be like in the game.

When I hear about libertarians who want to seastead, the jokes, like the sea-waters bursting a wall built by sub-minimum-wage contractors, just flow.  It’s impossible not to think about Rapture.

Leading the world in waterproof neon tubing

Leading the world in waterproof neon tubing

Nonetheless it’s interesting to read Charlie Loyd’s take on the idea. Loyd lived for years on a geographic anomaly– Waldron Island, in the Salish Sea between Washington State and Vancouver. The island has no stores, no public transport to the mainland, and about a hundred residents. So he groks the appeal of isolation (and islands).

At the same time, having actually done it, he’s aware, unlike the Randian isolationists, of just how much he depends on a vast interconnected human community. When you’re the last link in the supply chain– when you have to physically haul your water and groceries and gas out of the boat– you become more aware of what a complex monster it is. Randites don’t realize that they already live in Galt’s Gulch– that they live in a highly artificial island where the people who build and maintain it have been airbrushed out of the picture.  Moving to a physical island would actually decrease their isolation; they’d be confronted by their dependence on a billion other people.

He talks a fair bit about Silicon Valley dudebros, and it makes me wonder if anyone has attempted to correlate political views with code quality. Of course, you can despise people and write good code… indeed, development is an excellent field for people who hate people!  But can you despise community and write good code? I’d suspect that a Randite can only thrive as a lone hacker, or as undisputed tech god. It’s hard to see how a person who doesn’t respect the community can re-use code, or write good check-in comments (or comments designed to help other people at all), or worry about maintainability, or create a user-friendly UI, or write a really flexible API, or even fix bugs filed from outside Dev.  To do all those things well requires empathy– the ability to see things from another point of view, to value other people’s work and time, to realize that not all users of your product are fellow devs.

 

This post, though a bit breathless, is extremely interesting. It’s how an upcoming game, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, makes stunning game imagery… essentially by taking a shitload of hi-res photos, then using software to turn them near-automatically into a 3-d model.

Let me guess, we dig up all the graves for coins and rusty weapons?

Let me guess, we dig up all the graves for coins and rusty weapons?

It’s certainly not a time-saver– you have to take pictures very carefully on location, and the whole idea is that assets aren’t very re-usable… you’re modeling an entire church, say, and not just making a tileable brick wall. The nice thing is that the textures aren’t tiled– they have contextually meaningful dirt and shade and mold and whatever. Photorealistic textures still look wrong and artificial if they’re too even, too widely used, or have no apparent flaws.

A quick way to test video game textures is to look at the edges of things. Take this very good work from Arkham City:

Wouldn't you take your gloves off for this?

Wouldn’t you take your gloves off for this?

It’s all photorealistic, but look at the way the combination dial just floats in the middle of the safe. Real things have transitions from one surface to another. There should also be shadows (and maybe distortions in the fabric) under the edge of Catwoman’s glove, and under that weird metallic knob on her shoulder.

Now, in a game, you normally don’t focus on that stuff… really, we want to be fooled. Especially in the middle of action, you can get away with pretty simple models.

If you’re trying to make a game on your own, on the other hand, learning about someone else’s new, better methods can be depressing. It’s hard enough making tileable textures! And god, don’t get me started on foliage. There’s a reason so many games are set in dungeons, sci-fi futurescapes, deserts, and sewers. They’re geometric! It’s still really hard to do good vegetation.

I’ve read… let’s see.. precisely one half of John Crowley’s The Solitudes. And I think that’s it, because I just don’t get it.

Part of it is genre confusion. It was recommended as fantasy, but after over 200 pages there isn’t a hint of it.  What it is, mostly, is the story of the mid-life crisis of a mid-list historian, Pierce Moffett. It’s a vivid book, eloquently written, with a tendency to hopscotch all over time, but this part is like an extended artsy slice-o-life story from the New Yorker. It’d be easier to take if Moffett weren’t such a lump. As Crowley presents him, he doesn’t have much drive as a teacher or a writer, and he’s a little too fond of cocaine. Then there’s the scene where he meets a woman at a party, gets her off alone, gives her booze, and kisses her… it doesn’t go beyond that, but it’s uncomfortable in a way I suspect the author didn’t think about back in 1987.

All this makes it hard to accept the chapter I just read, where Moffett breathlessly explains a book he wants to write about “Ægypt”, and his agent/ex-girlfriend is entirely and groundlessly enthralled. Crowley himself is obviously excited about the subject matter, but he hasn’t conveyed why Moffett would be capable of plunging into historical waters no one else had, nor what might really be lurking in those waters.

Scattered through the narrative are fragments from an earlier story featuring the Elizabethan astrologer John Dee (but it’s explained that it is a story; it’s fragments from a novel some of the present-day characters read).

The tagline of the book is “Is there more than one history of the world?”  Moffett has the notion that there was an Ægypt that isn’t the same as Egypt… basically a Renaissance reimagining of Egypt as a land of magic and esoteric wisdom, based on a misinterpretation of Hermes Trismegistus as being an ancient Egyptian sage rather than a 2nd century Platonist. (The mis- is important because there are echoes of Plato and the Christian Trinity in Hermes… completely unsurprising given when he actually wrote, but eerie and prophetic if you think they came from two thousand years earlier.)

I think what turns me off is that Crowley seems to want to take this Renaissance stir of ideas seriously, only he doesn’t.  There’s an old trope in fantasy that Hermes, Paracelsus, Dee, Bruno, et al., were really onto something.  OK then!  Embrace it, make it real, show us what that world would look like.  So far as I can see, Mary Gentle was working with the same material in Rats and Gargoyles, but she made it into an actual fantasy world. Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore have done similar things. Crowley takes two hundred pages to work up to the point where he might have John Dee talk with an angel… and even there it’s presented as something within a historical fantasy, and it isn’t even Dee but his half-idiot assistant. It’s like the author is terrified that readers won’t accept fantasy.  Author, readers love fantasy. You can even ladle it into high-lit books– look at Borges or García Márquez.

A lot of people really like these books (there are three more), so I am undoubtedly missing something.

I’ve been replaying Saints Row 3, this time on Hardcore. This involved dying a lot, but it’s still easier than SR2 was on Normal. Except for, of all things, the carjackings. Even the earliest jackings throw three stars of notoriety at you; at early levels that’s too much heat for the player, and I died; and at high levels it’s too much heat for the car, which explodes. I finished all the missions, but I may leave a bunch of cars unstolen.

SR2, SR3, SR4.  The blue hair is a constant.

SR2, SR3, SR4. The blue hair is a constant.

SR2 has its avid fans, and I certainly appreciated the bigger and more varied city. But SR3 is definitely more fun. Plus, I think they went in the right direction, from showing off badassery to developing character.  In SR2 the emphasis was on showing how tough everyone is, with the implication that you the player are tougher, since you beat them all up.  But, eh, badassses are ultimately kind of boring. The writer just thinks of mean things for them to do, and then maybe to humanize them a little bit, gives them a weird hobby.

In SR3, the emphasis is on making the characters colorful. No one in SR2 is as weird as Kinzie and Zimos. Pierce gets a personality.  The villains are more over the top.  By SR4 we can look at the Saints crew with genuine affection, something it’s hard to do with (say) the cast of Skyrim or Fallout New Vegas.

Here’s an interesting look behind the scenes of a somewhat failed AAA game, Singularity.

Mutated plants are never a good sign

Mutated plants are never a good sign

In what will be a total shock to anyone who’s developed a major software project… it was late, in terrible shape, and nearly canceled.  Then they threw something together in ten months of crunch time. It’s a wonder it’s as good as it is.

I actually liked the game a lot.  It’s very pretty, it has a lot of fun toys, the story is intriguing, and it’s bold enough to end with a major mind-fuck. The behind-the-scenes article explains why, nonetheless, it felt like it didn’t quite reach its potential. They just didn’t have time to explore the ideas further.

Actually the one big surprise in the article was the reference to multiplayer, because: there was multiplayer??  Apparently AAA games feel that they must have a multiplayer option now, which is madness.  Gaming is so fragmented these days that I can rarely play anything with my friends… our old TF2 crowd still gets together for a few hours once a week, but it used to be daily.  They’re all off playing different things.  There will be a flurry of interest in a new game’s multiplayer for maybe a few days; if you pick up the game later in a Steam sale or something, there’s no one around to play it with.  They could have dropped the multiplayer entirely and had more resources for deepening the single-player game.

This book, by David Graeber, is great.  Provocative, brilliant; also crankish and infuriating.

barter

Graeber is an anthropologist, and the best parts of the book are where he does anthropology. He’s devastating on what he calls the “myth of barter”. Economists love to talk about the invention of money as freeing us from the situation where Fred has arrowheads and Madge has pots, and Fred needs a pot, but they can’t trade because Madge doesn’t need arrowheads right now.

This doesn’t happen.  There was never a “barter stage”; no societies suffer from this hangup.  There’s a number of possibilities, but the basic pre-money mechanism is that Fred goes to Madge and says “That’s a handsome pot.”  Madge gives it to him.  At some later time, if she needs arrowheads, she goes and asks for some.  These may be considered tiny little debts, or they may just be considered the way social life works: people help each other out.

Once money exists, debts tend to be enumerated in units of account– but these are rarely transferred physically, and in fact the system long predates coins and even writing.  For 2500 years, Middle Eastern civilizations had markets, checks, traders, inns, interest, and debt without coinage.  Everything was done on credit.

Coins, according to Graeber, come in with large empires.  This developed out of the existing tradition that strangers are outside the credit economy.  Once you have a large standing army, you need to pay the soldiers, and they need to buy beer and horses and prostitutes.  As they’re rarely natives of the area they’re stationed in, it’s enormously useful to provide small portable bits of currency. It’s only in the last couple hundred years that this marginal coinage-based system took over the whole economy.

And then there’s debt.  As promised, Graeber gives a history of debt from ancient times, and in his telling it’s up to no good.  Debt always gets out of hand.  Ancient societies were plagued by a cycle of debt peonage: peasants would get loans; they were unable to pay the interest; they then sold off implements and furniture, then their fields, then their wives and children, and finally themselves.  Periodically, in the Middle East, kings would decree a vast cancellation of debts– all the records would be destroyed and the debt slaves would return to their restored homes.

In his telling, this process was linked to other bad things– such as slavery and misogyny.  Slavery was once limited largely to war captives, which were a limited resource; debt created a vast and increasing population who were effectively slaves.  Women in early Sumerian society were surprisingly visible and influential, and temple sex was a respected profession; the selling of wives and daughters to repay debts, and the subsequent sexual service, degraded the position of women.  And the fear of such selling-off led to the Middle Eastern focus on honor… meaning a man’s ability to protect his womenfolk, keeping them out of his creditor’s hands– and under his control.

And then there’s the moral effects.  Debt becomes a metaphor for the relationship of children to parents, or humans to gods.  We’re told to pay our debts, and yet most human cultures have despised usurers, and the first act of any peasant rebellion was to destroy the debt records.  Not infrequently kings or religious authorities took the part of the poor against their creditors, going so far as to ban interest or slavery… though these measures didn’t often last.

In the end, Graber suggests, debt– and economic theorists– blind us to how human societies really operate.  There are at least three types of human economy, which he calls communism, exchange, and hierarchy.  ‘Communism’ is the helpful, altruistic systems that underlie all human society– it’s how families work, and entire villages in many cultures, and even how corporations work internally.  Hierarchical exchanges are largely exactions by the rich and powerful, and their salient feature is precedent: a particular tax or tribute, once levied, becomes customary, which is one reason you should be wary of offering a gift to the king.  (On the other hand, it’s rare that an elite simply does nothing but take; usually it needs to attract supporters by giving things away.)

To Graeber, economists go terribly wrong in ignoring or underestimating the non-exchange portions of the world.  The whole attitude of looking at the world in terms of rational, egoistic calculation is a vast misapplication of what was originally a very narrow part of the economy– associated with debt, war, and slavery.

All of this is fascinating and eye-opening, and can be used to deepen (and darken) your view of history, or your conworld.

At the same time… well, for Graeber history is full of villains, and he’s often so busy flinging mud at them that he loses track of who’s worse and who we should be rooting for.  E.g. he talks about the rise of coinage as something of a disaster, destroying the credit economy and ultimately turning the Roman citizens into slaves.  Yet he’s already shown that debt slavery functioned with its full horribleness in pre-coinage societies, and turned the Mesopotamians into slaves.  Later he provocatively suggest that the Dark Ages weren’t so dark, as the Europeans ended slavery, resisted usury, and ended the militarism of the Roman Empire.  But the Middle Ages, as he well knows, replaced slavery with serfdom, and threw out the political and technological advances of the ancients.

The last half of the book is a breezy retelling of history which grows increasingly polemical and tedious.  A particular low point is where he talks about the Iberian traders engaging in the arms trade, the slave trade, and drug trade, and a moment later explains that the “drugs” meant coffee, tea, sugar, and tobacco.  He’s often a bracing cynic and amusing contrarian, but this is just propaganda.

The last chapter, on the world since 1971, is a weird political diatribe of the Everything Is Horrible school.  He’s mostly mad at the US, and throws everything he can at it, no matter how contradictory: the US military is overwhelming, yet is easily resisted; the national debt can’t be eliminated, except it totally could if we didn’t spend so much on the military; the US oppresses everyone economically, but it was forced to grant favorable trading terms to Europe; buying US treasury bonds is a sign of empire, except when the Chinese do it.  Or there’s a bit where the US creates “a vast apparatus of armies, prison, police” to create an atmosphere of fear and jingoistic conformity… er, sorry, Dave, but those two things are pretty much opposites; people celebrating American power are not also afraid of it.  He even inserts charts to show how things are out of control!! with the propagandist’s tool of not correcting for inflation.  Plus his frequent references to “wage slavery” only cheapen his earlier discussion of real slavery.

As an anthropologist, he’s very good at criticizing the fantasy history that economists create; it doesn’t make him an expert on economics.

He’s also an anarchist activist, and was involved with anti-globalization protests, but he’s missed the biggest story of the new century: the fact that the Third World has become far, far better off.  He keeps asserting that capitalism can’t include everyone… and yet it seems to be doing just that.

The problem with a worldview where everything is horrible is that there’s no room for progress at all, including in the future.  A contrarian can point out truthfully enough that living standards stayed the same for most people– that is, on the edge of starvation– until about 1800. But even in that period there were advances, such as the abandonment of absolute monarchy, the rise of science, and the development of a vast array of progressive philosophies.  (The thing about idealisms is that somebody eventually will take them seriously… e.g., you pass a Bill of Rights and then, a couple centuries later, courts start to make it real.)  Plus, even in Graeber’s own telling, not infrequently the authorities found it useful to cancel debts, repress usurers, or free serfs.

And after 1800, it’s hard to deny (though Graeber does his best) that the average American is better off than the average Babylonian.  Knowing more about the world helps; tamping down the claims of kings and priests is valuable; rural villages don’t seem like such paradises to the people who live in them.

Graeber likes to detail how many of our institutions arose in war, debt, and slavery.  And they did!  However, things don’t remain forever tainted because of their bad origins.  He’s fond of pointing out that governments went into debt and issued coins and taxed people largely to finance wars, and that a huge portion of US spending is still military.  But it’s now far from the majority of spending– most government spending is education, roads, social security, health insurance. and so forth.

(The problem with criticizing an Everything Is Horrible person is that some people will get the impression that I’m instead saying that Everything Is Great. It’s not, of course. I understand the impulse to think that the whole system is rotten and has to be thrown out. But sometimes our impulses aren’t so smart. Throwing the whole system out rarely goes well.)

After all that, I should emphasize that I don’t disagree with all of his cynical remarks.  He’s pretty acute, for instance, about the disaster of neoliberalism… the insistence that with every crisis, Third World governments implement “reforms” that favored First World creditors and clawed back social progress for the poor.

He doesn’t say much about what he’d like to do instead; but in his concluding section he does make a practical suggestion: cancel debts!  And he has a point.  High-debt systems generally lead to reforms that do just that; the irony is that under the current plutocratic system, rich debtors get government relief and poor debtors are screwed.  As he points out, we’re trained to say “People should pay their debts!”, and never to ask why people get so far in debt and whether we really want that to be the system we live under.

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