Parade o’ books

Any of these books deserves a full review, with neat facts plucked from the pages to entice you– but at this point, that would require a lot of re-reading. So a quick survey will have to do.

Emily Willingham, Phallacy: Life Lessons from the Animal Penis (2020). Yep, a book about the penis in all its forms in the animal kingdom. Willingham has a serious point here: researchers and outsiders often import archaic attitudes into biology, getting the penis wrong and forgetting the vagina. But it’s also both educational and entertaining to simply look at the weird stuff animals get up to. A good place to start is trying to figure out what is a penis and what isn’t… there are some wacky edge cases, such as at least one invertebrate which inserts its eggs into the male with a copulatory organ. Or there’s the spiders which lose their penises when they copulate. It’s not that bad: they have two.

This is one of a number of books by women that offer a lighthearted critique of misguided male scientists, who are often eager to push an idea of aggressive promiscuous males and picky, passive females. Oh, there is so much more variation than that. Others in this genre include Olivia Judson’s Dr. Tatiana’s Sex Advice to All Creation, Meredith Small’s What’s Love Got to Do with It?, and Natalie Angier’s Woman: An Intimate Geography. Nature is weird, and does not inherently support alt-right prejudices.

Benjamin Brose, Xuanzang: China’s Legendary Pilgrim and Translator (2021). If you read my China Construction Kit, you’ll remember Xuanzang, the Chinese Buddhist monk who took and arduous trip to India in the 600s to understand Buddhism better, coming back 16 years later with hundreds of precious manuscripts. This story is the key to the classic Chinese novel, Journey to the West. But the real story behind it is just as interesting, though perhaps it’s disappointing to learn that only the first couple weeks of the journey were perilous, as he set off alone. As soon as he reached the first stop, he met the local king, who received him graciously and sent him on to the next local ruler, and so on for years. Brose explains what Xuanzang wanted to know and how he affected Buddhism, and includes several narrative passages from the man himself.

Andrew Gordon, A Modern History of Japan from Tokugawa times to the present (2003). I read this because I thought I could borrow some modern Japanese history for Almea, and I did. The book covers nearly 500 years, which allows quite a lot of detail but not exactly depth– e.g. WWII is covered in just one chapter. The chapters on the Meiji period are the most interesting. I was most interested to understand how Japan could modernize when China didn’t (until Deng).

The Meiji ‘restoration’ was more or less a top-down revolution: two of the most advanced daimyo (nobles) took over militarily. Or more broadly, the revolution empowered two classes that were near but, crucially, not at the top: the samurai, and the nouveau-riche rural elite, who had worked their way up from peasants to craftsmen to notables in the last century or so. (A peculiarity of Japan was that the prosperous bourgeois class in the 1800s was not in the big cities but in small rural towns.) And in Japan, that was enough to get things going; whereas in China merely getting rid of the Manchu did not give power to any more modern or modernizing class.

Another fascinating tidbit: Japan’s 1889 constitution, which lasted till the end of WWII, produced a lot more democracy than its writers expected or wanted. The winners of the revolution really only wanted to stay on as the new rulers. They made sure that the new Diet did not control the army, or even really the ministries. They also limited suffrage, in hopes that the members would be well-off and conservative. They only allowed the Diet at all because people were already writing constitutions and hoping for democracy, and they thought they’d better get their own version out fast. But the very existence of the Diet, and national propaganda for building the nation, encouraged national debate, expectations that the Diet would matter, and expectations that the Japanese people should all benefit from modernization. The constitution allowed the elite to govern without the Diet, but in practice (and until the 1930s) power was essentially shared between the army, the bureaucrats, and the parties.

Paul Lockhart, Firepower: How weapons shaped warfare (2021). If your conworld gets at all beyond the medieval period, you should read this or something like it. It’s about guns, including their big brothers artillery and cannons. I’m still in the middle of it, but one of the main takeaways is that like most technology, it’s a matter of small but constant improvements– and ongoing challenges. E.g. I knew that rifling was important: if you cut a spiral groove in the barrel of a gun and make bullets engage it, they get a spin that makes them far more accurate and deadly. This was known from the 15th century, so why didn’t it take over till the 1800s? Well, because firing a gun (especially with black powder) produces residues that clog the interior. You can’t fire too many shots before the balls don’t fit– unlike a musket which has more leeway. Good rifles had to wait till the ball was replaced with the bullet, and rifles had mechanisms to deform the bullet to force it into the rifling. Another example: breech loading is far more efficient than ramming shot in through the barrel. This too was known early on, but didn’t entirely take over till the late 1800s. Here too there were just many little technical problems to overcome: early breech loaders had a tendency to blow up, or leak hot gases.

Another takeaway: any old empire could afford muskets and cannons. But as the technology developed, only great powers could afford the newest guns– and they had to acquire them (and in enormous quantities) at any cost, because falling behind in the arms race was devastating. When explosive shells were developed that set wooden ships on fire– well, everyone had to shift to ironclads if they could. It’s no coincidence that nearly-free nobles were subjugated to kings, and smaller states became the prey of great powers. Even in the 1800s, the hot new tech might only last for a couple of decades.

Voyages dans l’ailleurs

I often review books I don’t expect other people to read, but this one might take the cake: an anthology of French science fiction, dated 1971. The editor is Alain Dorémieux. I need to read more French, and it looked good at the library.

First, you might ask, what is ailleurs? Has anyone ever seen or held an ailleur? Is there a female form, the ailleuse? It can be translated “elsewhere”, and Larousse tells us that it comes from *alior, comparative of alius ‘other’. The –s was thrown on by analogy with other adverbs.

One book is hardly enough to judge all of French science fiction by; but fortunately I’ve read three. My general impression is that the idea, the sf germ that motivates the story, is often weak, but the storytelling and the writing are very good. In classic American sf– this is probably John Campbell’s fault– the Idea was everything, and the writing was workmanlike, the characters barely above the stereotype level. Of course, a few writers, like Alfred Bester and R.A. Lafferty, stood out for their writing style; and in the ’60s the dominance of the Idea waned. Many of the stories here (not all) excel in vividness and actually have characters.

There’s also maybe a certain proneness to structural or narrative problems– many of the authors seem like they’re feeling out how to tell the story, and have an absolute horror of rewriting. Curiously this was a problem also in one of the French sf novels I’ve read, Le Naguen. If you’re curious, the other one was La planète des singes (The Planet of the Apes).

(I’ve read quite a bit more of French sf comics, which are a different beast altogether, and generally are very well done.)

And now– why not?– a mini-review of each story.

Voyages dans l’ailleurs

Yves Dermèze, “Demain, les chats”

An alien invasion where humans are treated exactly as humans treat pets. A simple horror idea but well imagined.

Nathalie Henneberg, “Le Retour des dieux”

It turns out the Sumerian gods are actually from Arcturus. Pretty well done, but too many errors about Babylonia for me, and this sort of sf/myth mashup gets on my nerves.

Jean-Pierre Andrevon, “Un petit saut dans le passé”

A man is the subject of a time travel experiment, and creates his first time paradox. It’s getting to be a pattern by now: the idea is not deep or new, but it’s very well written and told.

Claude F. Cheinisse, “Conflit de lois”

A direct tribute to Asimov: a robot is placed in a situation where it must permit harm to a human in order to save a life. Well executed, but kind of an idiot plot: even if you accept Asimov’s laws, this particular situation should have been anticipated.

Georges Gheorghiu, “Au fil d’Ariane”

Really a Borgesian fable, a reworking of the myth of Theseus with minimal sf trappings (a few references to computers). This sort of thing depends on the payoff at the end; I understand the twist ending but the final plot mechanics eluded me.

Philippe Curval, “L’Oeuf ovipare”

A bizarre little fable about an egg which cracks, revealing another egg– only, each time, the surroundings (including the narrator) get smaller. Entertainingly told (the bit where the now small narrator can’t get a store to accept his money is pretty funny), but I don’t think the author knew how to end it.

Christine Renard, “Transistoires”

In a world with access to parallel timelines, a woman buys a trip to see a more successful self. One of the best stories, not least because it uses the idea as an excuse to explore questions of ambition, regret, and free will.

Francis Bessière, “La Barbe du ministre”

Another time travel story. It has some interesting ideas about how, in effect, the timeline could protect itself against ‘too much’ modification. I think the author wasn’t sure how to tell the story: too many tonal shifts, no real characters.

Daniel Walther, “Assassinat de l’oiseau bleu”

A soldier, sole survivor of a massacre, is forced to relive the catastrophe until his superiors can see what happened. This one reminded me strongly of Alfred Bester, from the hallucinatory prose to the tragic ending to the anti-authoritarian sentiment.

Yves Olivier-Martin, “La Tourelle de Ngôl”

A space opera in 30 pages, featuring an eternal conflict between Arcturus and Ngôl, told in hallucinatory prose. Here (as in “la Barbe du ministre”) I think the author saw several ways to tell the story, and tried to used them all. At first it’s a quiet story about the discovery of interstellar agents in Paris; like Lovecraft, it takes forever to slowly reveal what we’ve already guessed the story is about. Briefly the narrator seems to take sides, find a love interest, get captured. Then the story leaps 3000 years ahead, narrating a strange voyage to Ngôl. Unfortunately none of this really works: the author just piles on strangeness without pursuing any plot threads, or making us care about either side.

Guy Scovel, “La Forêt de Perdagne”

This is mostly swords-n-sorcery, with an sf denouement. The main idea (a portal between worlds) seems too promising to waste on just one story, and indeed Scovel seems to have written several novels based on it.

Interesting linguistic bit: the main character is a noble, and when he comes to some two-horse town he uses tu for the locals, who use vous for him. He’s also pretty arrogant, but it’s a real weaponization of the T/V phenomenon.

Pierre Versins, “L’Homme”

A little fable which, contrary to the first story in the volume, pictures Humans as near gods, told in the form of an encounter between a people created by Humans, and another which believes that it created Humans. Maybe not so compelling in an epoch where Humans seem intent on being monumentally stupid.

Francis Carsac, “Dans les montagnes du Destin”

The longest story in the book, and one of the better ones. It’s essentially a space Western: lone superhero adventurer, mining town, corrupt director, local bully, downtrodden natives. It takes its time, with plenty of character interaction and intrigue before the final sf mystery is explored. For once the payoff is real, and actually explains everything that’s gone on. It also has a book-length sequel.

Castle

I haven’t done a Minecraft report in awhile. I’m still playing in this world, though I’m eagerly awaiting 1.19. I’m pretty happy with this castle:

You may notice some blocks that look like lodestones, on the facade of the castle. They’re not lodestones; they’re map art. That’s great for posters and such, but it’s also very nice for decorative blocks. I tried the same idea before, but this came out much better.

The castle on the right isn’t entirely original– it’s inspired by the astonishing BDoubleO. The palace on the left is my design, based on a Renaissance palazzo. I’m not that happy with it, but I do like the contrast. In between the two buildings is a drop into an enormous cave. Here’s another view:

I mostly made this in creative mode. It’s nothing that couldn’t be done in survival, but it’s not like I have any Minecraft friends to impress, and it’s far easier to build very large structures in creative. Not only do you avoid the grind, but you can redo things. E.g. I built the palazzo in sandstone and granite, and decided that it looked terrible. It still takes plenty of time to make something nice… e.g. the map art alone took about three evenings.

A Desolation Called Peace

So, Arkady Martine wrote a sequel to A Memory Called Empire. Might as well use the same graphic, though. I won’t avoid spoilers here for the first book, so go read it first.

We’re back in Teixcalaan, which is addressing the alien threat that arrived in the first book, just a few months later. The war is not going well: the aliens are hard to find, and have a way of showing up out of nowhere and causing destruction. A yaotlek or admiral, Nine Hibiscus, sends for someone in the Information Ministry to see if it’s possible to talk to the aliens. The message reaches Three Seagrass, who pounces on the idea and swoops by Lsel Station to pick up Mahit Dzmare. If you like the first book, it will be comfortable and fun to get back into this world and see how everyone is doing. 

Though it’s about first contact, it’s mostly a novel of intrigue. The plot takes place in several venues– Lsel Station; Nine Hibiscus’s flagship; a desert planet recently attacked by the aliens; the imperial capital– and each of them is provided with multiple actors who hate each other’s guts. And I have to admire how good Martine is at intrigue. It’s all too easy, in political stories, to make the antagonists idiots, or to make them just act out of pure malice. (Think about Darth Vader, who’s wicked stylish, but has absolutely no believable motivation.) That’s averted here: each character, for good or ill, has reasons for what they do and who they despise.

Amid all the drama, Mahit and Three Seagrass take up their romance, though only after having a huge fight. 

I liked the book, but not quite as much as the first one. That may just be author fatigue– it might have been better to wait a year or two. What I think doesn’t work quite as well:

  • Mahit, though smart and competent in the first contact situation, and enjoyable as a romance partner, seems to be a complete idiot this time in the intrigue department– including in her own home station. It wasn’t very clear why she came home after Book One, and all she does when she gets there is get into more trouble. For unknown reasons she never bothers to debrief her own government.
  • The intrigue is maybe too neatly plotted? One of the pleasures of Memory was its unpredictability– we were discovering this huge weird empire, we are as confused as Mahit, and whenever things threaten to become too stable the author throws in some violence. The alien situation should provide opportunities for similar surprises, but it never really does.
  • (To avoid spoilers, I’ve put these in white text.) The nature of the aliens is not at all mind-boggling– it has its own TV Tropes page, dammit.
  • The ending: again, Mahit, alone of all the characters, just doesn’t seem to make sense. I know she’s had a hard time, but it doesn’t seem fair to Three Seagrass, now does it?

But again, it’s fun to be in this universe again, and it does do what a sequel should do: present a new kind of problem rather than rehashing the last one.

The Dawn of Everything

I just finished The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity, by David Graeber and David Wengrow. Sadly this was Graeber’s last book. There is a lot to this book, I wish I’d read it before finishing the MECK, and anyone interesting in history or conworlding should run out and get it. But there are caveats, oh yes. They can be too breezy, they don’t always prove their points, and sometimes prove the wrong points.

What says “hierarchy” more than the temple of a divinized king? (Šu-Sin, of Sumer, circa 2000 BCE.)

I liked Debt: The First 5000 Years when it stuck to Graeber’s specialty, anthropology: his account of modern times was, as the kids say, cringe. This book barely discusses anything past 1800, which is a huge improvement. His co-author is an archeologist, and this helps too.

They started out to write a history of inequality, and (spoiler alert) found out that there could be no such thing. Too many assumptions, you see. The whole idea depends on what “inequality” is, and there is no real definition; and neither anthropology nor archeology unearths a period when there was equality and then a sudden, inexorable eruption of inequality after it.

Rousseau vs Hobbes

They trace our received notions back to two opposing theorists, Rousseau and Hobbes. Jean-Jacques Rousseau didn’t really talk about the “noble savage”, but that’s a fair summary of his ideas. His 1754 Discourse on the Origins and the Foundations of Inequality Among Mankind supposed that prehistoric humans lived in idyllic conditions, which were egalitarian but only because there was no way not to be. Then agriculture and the state came in, and everything went to hell: we got not only inequality, but patriarchy, war, debt, property, and slavery.

In the other corner, we have Thomas Hobbes, whose 1651 Leviathan famously asserted that prehistoric life was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” A state of continual war and poverty, in other words, only ended when people started living in cities (civitas > civilization; polis > politics and politeness).

The first thing to notice is that political theorists have barged in and chosen sides. Conservatives tend to like Hobbes: they like the past, but not the far far past… they tend to be happiest with the 19th century UK or USA, and think that Western civilization was a matter of progress and prosperity, until the hippies appeared. Plus, you know, they like inequality, so they blame Rousseau for even questioning the idea, and probably causing the American and French revolutions.

Now, if you keep up with these topics at all– or if you’ve simply read my books– you know that Hobbes was simply wrong. Anthropologists have found that hunter-gatherers are pretty happy in general: they are usually egalitarian, they work only about 10 hours a week, they have an impressive command of their local environment. And archeology confirms that when people take up agriculture, they live shorter lives, are unhealthier, pick up diseases and parasites, and of course suffer from patriarchy and all those other ills. When comparing time periods, people often bring up modern medicine; but modern medicine got going surprisingly late: well into the 20th century. Any time prior to 1900, you were better off as a hunter-gatherer than as a peasant.

This is so well established that the Davids don’t spend much time on Hobbes. (They don’t engage with conservatism at all, really.) Rousseau is another matter.

We can now get to the thesis of the book:

  • Things were way more complicated– and more interesting– than Rousseau thought. (To be fair, Rousseau was consciously idealizing.)
  • Historical utopianism is just as alienating and dismissive as dystopianism. If hunter-gatherers were happy because of their lifestyle, they have nothing to teach us, because we sure as hell aren’t going to adopt it.
  • Viewing prehistory as an idyll also means that nothing really happened in it. It’s like the doctrine of the Fall: it’s an explanatory myth, but also a distancing one: as we can’t recapture paradise, we can dismiss it.

Do they make a case for this? Well, they do later. First they focus on something rather more interesting.

The indigenous critique

Their Chapter 2 is the most brilliant part of the book. It addresses what they call the indigenous critique of European culture. This means, what native Americans thought of European settlers in the 1600s and 1700s, of how they lived and related to each other, and (once they visited) of how they lived in Europe. They weren’t impressed.

Here’s a French report from 1611, about the Mikmaq: “They consider themselves better than the French: “For [they say] you are always fighting and quarreling among yourselves; we live peaceably. You are envious and are all the time slandering each other; you are thieves and deceivers; you are covetous, and are neither generous nor kind; as for us, if we have a morsel of bread we share it with our neighbor.”

Another friar, from 1632, about the Wendat (Hurons): “For our excessive and insatiable greed in acquiring the goods of this life, we are justly and with reason reproved by their quiet life and tranquil disposition. …They reciprocate hospitality and give such assistance to one another that the necessities of all are provided for without there being an indigent beggar in all their towns and villages.”

The indigenous critique focused on several elements:

  • The greed and combattiveness of the settlers.
  • The fact that they did not take care of each other.
  • The fact that they constantly gave orders and expected them to be followed.
  • (Once they could see Europe for themselves:) The way they let kings lord it over them.

In the native societies of eastern North America, there were chiefs, but no one had to obey them. No one could force a native to do what they didn’t want to do. There was not even punishment of crimes. (Payments could be required, but there was no way to force even that.) If someone really didn’t like their situation, they could simply leave– and they could find a place even hundreds of miles away, across tribal and language barriers. This was in part due to the clan system, which extended almost all the way across the continent: you could find someone of your clan far away, and they would take you in.

Under such conditions no one could be a tyrant. But a good chief was a persuasive one, and both men and women were good talkers.

Also of note: it was extremely hard to assimilate natives to European norms, but quite a few Europeans went to live with the natives.

(If your recollection of Native North American history is rusty, by the way, we’re not talking about hunter-gatherers, though both activities were common and important. They grew a wide range of crops, and their towns could be large. Their political groupings could be respectably large: e.g. the Iroquois Confederacy included most of New York State, an area about the size of Ireland.)

Rousseau’s book was an entry in a contest sponored by a French academy, to answer the question “What is the origin of inequality among men, and is it authorized by natural law?” The Davids point out what an odd question this was to ask in 1754. Every country in Europe was steeped in hierarchy, and most people and philosophers took this as the natural condition of mankind, established by God. This was before the revolutions; it was not a commonplace then, as it would be today, that society ought to aim at liberté, égalité, fraternité. Why did an institution in the middle of Catholic France under Louis XV (le Bien-Aimé) ask such a question?

In part, we learn, because Europeans were fascinated by the indigenous critique. Reports by the early friars were eagerly read, and the Baron de Lahontan achieved great success with his Dialogues with a Savage (1703), which consisted of dialogs between himself and a Wendat chief, Kondiaronk. Soon all the scholars were inventing foreigners to teach Europeans to criticize their own societies. The academy in Dijon was if anything late to the party. Two decades later and the French were ready to throw out their king– agreeing with Kondiaronk who alleged that kingship turned the French into slaves.

It’s become common to acknowledge that the US Founders were well aware of the Iroquois Confederacy and imitated some of its features; but the indigenous critique and its reception in Europe were new to me.

How do we know that the Europeans were impressed with the natives? Well, because they said so in contemporary books. History tends to ignore the natives’ role, however, presenting the modern ideas of liberty and equality as a pure European invention. It turns out to be a lot more like modern art, which owes an immense debt to African and Japanese art.

Another data point: around 1700, Leibniz admired and advocated the Chinese system of government. Within a couple of centuries, European countries were governed by people given a liberal education concentrating on ancient classics, gated by competitive entrance exams… that is, roughly like the Chinese system. The Davids don’t claim that this was direct causation, but they point out that it doesn’t seem like complete coincidence either. This system was entirely unlike any previous European system of governance, and ideas obviously bounce around the punditosphere long before they’re adopted. And a lot of the ideas that transformed Europe came from the cultures that it encountered as it expanded.

(One cavil– there will be many more later: the Chinese system turned out not to be helpful with, well, running China after 1905. Tech schools were much more important for a developing nation. They were in the West too.)

What and when is equality?

Now so far, their actual discussion is fairly Rousseauvian. They mention that early European descriptions of Native Americans were nuanced, but their own is not: they hold up Wendat and Iroquois society as an ideal, and use it to define the three basic freedoms of pre-state societies:

  • everyone’s freedom from coercion
  • everyone’s freedom to move
  • communities’ freedom to think about and choose their own structures

Somehow, they say, we’ve lost especially that last one– we’ve “got stuck” in hierarchy.

If they’d stopped there, this would still be a provocative and fascinating study; but they are emphatic about not stopping there; they want to criticize pure Rousseauvianism. This takes them most of the book, and gets far more speculative, and isn’t always convincing.

Frankly, their major point is related to modern politics without addressing it directly: they want to make room for their basic freedoms in dense, advanced societies. Rousseau leaves them cold because he places paradise solely and ineluctably in the past: the freedom of primitive humanity cannot be recovered today. They would, it’s pretty obvious, like a modern but anarchist society, so they reject Rousseau’s closed door.

Now, this point might be better addressed directly: if you think a modern anarchist society is possible, describe how it works and/or how we’d get there; cover all the obvious objections; think about what mores and values would prevent a relapse. (They’re actually quite conscious about how good systems can go bad, so this is not a big ask.) Well, suffice it to say that this program would be an entirely different book, and way out of their fields. It’s why the second half of Debt is nowhere near as good as the first half.

What can they do remaining in the far past, and in their own fields? Mostly, point to examples where the traditional view doesn’t quite work. Thus, they emphasize:

  • Forager societies can be quite complex, and undertake megaprojects. The picture of foragers living in bands of 10 to 25 people, forced by circumstances to be egalitarian, is misleading at best, quite wrong at worst.
  • Forager societies can be dense, creating state-level entities, can accumulate wealth, can be despotic, can even include wars and slavery. (Examples of the latter include the NW Pacific Coast and Florida.)
  • Agricultural societies can function for millennia without any detectable hierarchy.
  • Cities can function for centuries without any detectable hierarchy.
  • Fairly advanced societies can throw out overlords and purposely establish an egalitarian settlement of thousands of people.
  • Kings are not inevitable; alongside kings and empires you can have republics. An unexpected one is Tlaxcala, in the time of the Aztecs.
  • A system where land reverts to the community when the owner dies is not uncommon. Nor do you have to go anywhere exotic to find them: there are examples in medieval England, Germany, and Russia.
  • “Egalitarian” societies may have systems of temporary despotism: seasons or situations where someone can tell you what to do.
  • Literal patriarchy– the despotic rule by men– is not inevitable either. Though there was no “matriarchal period”, there are cultures where women held substantial power, and at least one case (Minoan Crete) which arguably really was a matriarchy.

Again, if they’d stopped there they’d have a lot to say to historians, anthropologists and archeologists, and conworlders. Theories of a uniform progression– or regression– from bands to tribes to chiefdoms to kingdoms, theories that agriculture or cities per se ruin everything, theories that state formation is irreversible, are all dubious.

The main takeaway here is that the range of options is far greater than we might have imagined. If you know about the Kalahari Bushmen or the Yanomamo or the Pirahã, great– but they are not the only models of premodern people. If you’re a conworlder thinking about how agriculture or the state developed– slow down, there are multiple stages involved in each, and you needn’t be in a hurry to throw in power-mad pharaohs and emperors.

Some but not all of this you may have absorbed from James Scott, either directly or from my discussion of him.

The Davids don’t seem to have read Marvin Harris (he’s not in their bibliography), but they are out of sympathy with cultural materialism, because they don’t like the idea that material conditions determine the forms of human society. They think that people in all periods are perfectly capable of sitting down and debating how society should work, and that people who reject hierarchy and the state know exactly what they’re doing.

A lot of this is backed up mostly by their discussion of the Wendat and Iroquois. That’s great as far as it goes, but by their own account, these people were dealing with massive historical changes: not only the European settlers, but a rather coercive (proto-?)state based in Cahokia that had collapsed just a few centuries before. Their prickly individualism, and their interest in rich debate, may be reactions to a particular historical situation.

I’ll have a list of cavils later, but the lessons above are pretty solid, I think.

The villainous state

As the Davids recognize, the problem in all this for their political project is that despite all these nuances, the State seems to have won almost everywhere: not only in Europe but in India, China, Arabia, Africa, Central America, and the Andes.

(Scott’s nuance, which the Davids accept, is that a pretty wide range of people was an exception up till at least 1800: the nomads, some large populations of foragers or horticulturalists, and some resilient populations of state-avoidant people, e.g. in SE Asia. For most of history they could resist states, and the nomads could even conquer states. But this escape route is now closed.)

Rather than a simple takeover by despotism, they divide the state into three types of coercion:

  • sovereignty: a despot’s ability to use violence to enforce his will
  • administration: the ability to govern a large territory with rules
  • personal charisma: the ability to sway or rule people by force of personality and heroic deeds, often in competition with others; in later versions, politics

This is not uninteresting, as examples exist where only one or two of these strands is present. E.g. there are cultures where a chief can do as he likes, but only in his own village: that’s sovereignty alone. Administration alone exists in cultures where megaprojects are created without apparent coercion. Ancient Egypt can be described as sovereignty plus administration. But eventually all three threads engage and, as the Davids say, we’re stuck.

Of course, they would like to believe that we don’t have to be, even in a technological society. We’re just not used to thinking we have alternatives, and we’ll do better when we open Rousseau’s closed door. This is a hopeful but speculative point, and all I’ll say now is that given threats like climate change and oil depletion, to say nothing of fascist resurgence, we’re either going to solve these problems or have them solved for us by civilizational collapse.

Cavils and comments

This section will be quite miscellaneous; it’s drawn from the notes I took from reading– some positive, some negative. Page numbers refer to the hardcover edition.

Paradoxically, they’ve shown that modern ideas of freedom and equality owe much to indigenous peoples; yet when they look at modern society as a whole it’s horrible. Do they really disapprove that much of (say) Denmark or the Netherlands? Maybe so, but it’s worth pointing out that they’re willing to give a huge benefit of the doubt to particular past societies, from the ‘Ubaid to Tlaxcala to the Wendat: their whole point is that partial freedom is not a nightmare. But when they look at modern times, it’s just a constellation of horrors.

(155) The coastal settlement of the Americas is now accepted. People used to insist that the interior could only be reached by a narrow inland corridor… this is extremely strange as walking or boating along the coast is a no-brainer.

(158) The first idea of property may have been tied to the sacred: secret knowledge, particular patterns or objects with ritual meaning, hidden from others. This could occur even when everyday life was quite egalitarian.

(167) A very cursory treatment of language change and language families which could have been cribbed from a pop sci article. It even invokes William Jones, who was emphatically not the first person to recognize a language family.

The Davids’ disdain for other scholars– even as they rifle the journals for supporting data– gets tedious. One of their favorite words is “silly”.

(220) They use art to argue that Çatalhöyük may have been “matriarchal”. As they admit, there’s no evidence from skeletons of differential treatment; but there are female figurines that seem to depict aged females, and none of aged men. On the other hand, wall decorations feature depictions of all-male hunters.

They use this sort of argument in several places, without ever making an argument why art tells us anything about power relationships. If you look at 19th century European art, you would surely conclude that Europeans were fascinated by women, and that European women spent half their time nude. I’d also point out that depictions of older women are not uncommon.

It’s not that we can’t tell anything from art. It may well be significant that ancient Egyptian art, but not Mesopotamian art, emphasizes elite women. A king seemed to require a queen by his side. (The female king Hatshepsut had to depict her daughter next to her.) What exactly this tells us is less clear, and has to be carefully hedged: I do suspect it tells us something about royal ideology, but also that it tells us precisely zilch about peasant women.

(250) Here are the examples of co-operative land management in Europe and elsewhere. These are interesting examples of non-inheritance, but their examples all seem to be of practices beneath the notice of the elite, or in accordance with their overall lordship. I don’t think the Davids mean to say that medieval Europe was a hotbed of communism, free of violent greedy elites. Rather, an oppressive system can make use of cooperative or communal subsystems. There are advantages, after all, if the peasants run their own affairs and don’t have to be micromanaged.

(280) Foragers often travel in family groups… except when they don’t. It’s not uncommon for bands to include members who are only related in the sense that they belong to the overall ethnic group. For that matter it’s quite possible to join a band hundreds of miles away from your family of origin.

(289) The first cities were in… Ukraine? Talianki, Maidanetske, Nebelivka, dating to 3500 or earlier. (I’ve updated the Davids’ spelling.) They say that these “existed even before the earliest known cities in Mesopotamia”, but here they are misinformed: Uruk was settled by 5000, though its more imposing structures weren’t built till 3400 or so. But Talianki is pretty impressive: 335 hectares (Uruk was 450 ha), possibly with 15,000 residents. The sites show no evidence of social stratification (i.e. the villainous State). The Ukrainians grew crops, kept cattle, supplemented their diet with hunting.

(300) I’m not buying this rehabilitation of corvée labor— here, in Sumer. Curiously, in Debt Graeber described the miseries of Mesopotamians; here, for his purposes, urban work was done in a “festive spirit.” He cites an Akkadian myth where the minor gods did forced labor, while seemingly forgetting the part where the minor gods went on strike, whereupon the major gods created humanity to do menial labor instead. In the MECK I quoted multiple ancient sources which acknowledged the brutality of labor, the oppression of kings, and the none-too-happy position of people at the bottom of the social ladder. But for their overall purposes they want to delay the entry of the villain, so they paint the Mesopotamians as far happier than probably were.

A bit later on they describe the temples of Sumer, which managed enormous areas of land, included workshops, and could employ over a thousand people. This is supposed to indicate that all this organization didn’t require the state or kings. But it only requires a small reorientation of perspective to view these institutions as totalitarian. (Do they think getting out of temple work was easier than changing jobs in the modern US?) The temples were economic enterprises rather than “churches”, yes. The same can be said of medieval European monasteries. But they’re not anarchist communes either, and if they weren’t “the state” they were precursors to it.

(Why do temples have workshops at all? Probably for the same reason that the first Middle Eastern kings had workshops: because they had to create what they wanted. Markets came later; when they did, gods and kings could just go shopping.)

They also make much of the Sumerian and Akkadian assemblies. Now, it is good to bear these in mind, and not portray the Mesopotamian kings as unfettered absolute monarchs. But we also don’t know too much about how they operated, and we do know that they did not prevent wars, slavery, or the fall of families into crippling debt that Graeber eloquently deplored in Debt. In short they were not like Iroquois councils, where everyone debated and no one gave real orders.

(317) They discuss the Hindu varnas in the context of Harappan civilization. Now this is more than a stretch; it’s one or two thousand years too soon. Their description of “wealth, power or prosperity [being] of lesser value… than the purity of the priestly class” is a mindless repetition of brahmin propaganda (as in Manu). Manu and other writers– 2000 years after Harappa– wrote about the superiority of brahmins because they were ruled by non-brahmins and didn’t like it. And really, anyone who thinks that the exaltation of brahmins was a reflection of “spirituality” or something knows nothing about Indian history.

(324) They talk about cities on China— the Longshan culture, dated 3000 to 1900 BCE– before the first historically certain dynasty, the Shang, from -1600. By the Davids’ own account, there was plenty of evidence for social stratification and warfare. I didn’t talk about these cultures much in my China book, and now I wish I had. The problem is that there isn’t much that can be said. We often start with the literate cultures not because the previous ones are uninteresting, but because we can know and learn so much more from people who can talk to us. E.g. the Davids mention Shimao, from -2000, which at 400 ha was also comparable to Uruk, and possibly practiced human sacrifice. But… they devote a paragraph to it, and the Wikipedia article isn’t much longer. About all we learn from the site is that there’s a tranche of Chinese prehistory that was probably pretty lively, but which we just don’t know about in detail.

(342) Teotihuacan, which flourished from about 50 to 550, is notable because it may preserve signs of an egalitarian revolution. There is evidence for stratification until about 300, when a major temple was desecrated, and after that the city was filled with hundreds of comfortable stone dwellings of about the same size. It’s hard not to see this as a quite purposive egalitarianism. The overall population might have been 100,000.

Reading this section, I wondered what archeologists would make of Nālandā if they had no literary evidence. It was a Buddhist monastery in northern India, which housed between 3000 and 10,000 monks at its height in the first millennium. It was the major destination for the Chinese pilgrim Xuanzang, who reported (and archeology confirms) that it consisted of multiple large buildings with small individual monks’ cubicles opening into a central courtyard.

If you just look at the physical remains, life at Nālandā was thoroughly egalitarian, especially compared to other settlements in India. But Xuanzang reports that it was extraordinarily hierarchical: not only were the monks strictly ranked, but the more accomplished ones had servants. Moreover, the entire establishment was supported by royal grants– that is, it was fed by taxing the local peasants. Nor was Indian society of the time in any way egalitarian.

My point is not to dismiss the Davids’ speculations about egalitarianism based on equal-sized living quarters, but to recall that other interpretations are possible, and may be lost to time.

(346) Next they discuss Tlaxcala, which was a republic in Aztec times. Spanish sources compare it to Genoa and Venice, and recount the lively debates in its council on whether they should ally with the Spanish against the Aztecs. (Spoiler alert: they did, and helped the Spanish conquer Tenochtitlan.)

This is cool to know, and it’s good to recall that the historical landscape is not just kingdoms. But what the Davids don’t discuss, because it doesn’t fit into their agenda of chiding scholars, is that republics are pretty common… and can be very far from being democratic. Besides Athens, there’s Novgorod, the medieval Italian city-states, the Swiss, some ancient Indian ones, and the Iroquois. Oh, and several hundred modern states.

Now a republic has one big moral advantage over a kingdom: it has no king. But it may not be much better: it may be a republic because it’s an oligarchy, and no one notable has enough power to dominate the city. The fact that the Spanish chronicles compare Tlaxcala to Genoa and Venice may not prove what the Davids want it to prove: these were notorious oligarchies.

(392) As an example of sovereignty without the other aspects of the state, they discuss the Natchez, who had an absolute monarch residing in what was called the Great Village. He had the power of life and death and was known for killing his people… but only within his village. He could give orders to neighboring villages, but they would often be ignored.

They suggest that the Great Village was fully populated only part of the year– which probably meant that it was some sort of ritual center. Anthropologists are probably too free with the words “ritual” and “religion”, but it is true that some very unusual behaviors can occur when some things or people become sacred. In this context (the origin of hierarchy) the important point is that one of those unusual behaviors may be hierarchical authority itself. In the book the Davids describe a society where there are sacred enforcers who have power for only three months out of the year. This turns out to be not uncommon, and suggests a progression: an “egalitarian” people might agree to give absolute power to someone temporarily for “ritual” reasons (that is, for reasons we don’t really understand, but which are probably very compelling to them). That isn’t kingship… but it may create the idea for it, to be revived and generalized under other conditions.

(409) I’m pleased that they believe, as I do, that Memphis was a ceremonial center rather than a “real city”.

(412) The Shang reliance on oracles stands in “striking contrast” to the other societies discussed? Um, hello, what about the hundreds of Akkadian omen texts? What about the oracles that dotted Greece and Anatolia, constantly consulted by the kings?

(413) “Mesopotamia, where regional hegemony rarely lasted for longer than a generation or two”. This is supposed to be a contrast with Egypt, where kingdoms could last centuries. But, there’s the Kassites who ruled for nearly 500 years, and Assyria, which dominated the region for a millennium.

(416) They give Egypt as an example of a state or proto-state which had mastered sovereignty and administration, but not politics– the competition for power based on personal charisma. Well, technically they’re just talking the Old Kingdom. But what we know of the Middle Kingdom looks like it has plenty of politics: powerful factions among royal women; Hatshepsut’s unusual reign, Akhenaten’s revolution; multiple coups after Tutankhamen. Was the Old Kingdom really different, or is it just that we have better records of the Middle Kingdom?

(434) Here’s the description of matriarchal Crete. The evidence is mostly from art, and I complained about that above. But they make rather a better case here. The authority figures in pictures are female. They’re depicted as larger than men, and men are shown bringing them tribute or bowing down. They’re shown conducting rituals or sitting on thrones or meeting together. There are depictions of men, too, often graceful naked athletes. It’s like a parodic inversion of every other Middle Eastern society.

None of this is a proof, but in this case the Davids’ point is good: if there is little evidence of other matriarchies, there is also little evidence of any male-run state whose art depicted only females as rulers and males only as subservient.

(499) They make a snarky comment that the inventor of bread would probably not be called “white” today. This is pretty silly. Bread seems to go back to ancient Canaan, and outside racist circles, Middle Easterners are generally considered white. (E.g. that’s what the US Census Bureau thinks. Maybe this was Wengrow’s contribution: the UK census seems to disagree. But the point is: who the fuck cares? No one who reads this book is likely to be a white supremacist.)

(506) “Even in Homeric-style warfare”, war was a matter of a few heroic champions grappling in front of a crowd, with only a handful of deaths. Um, dudes. Troy was destroyed. If you read Romance of the Three Kingdoms, you’d think 3C Chinese warfare was a matter of heroic grappling too. It wasn’t; it was like any state warfare, a matter of tens or hundreds of thousands of troops. Epics talk about heroes grappling because it’s great narrative.

And if they’re thinking of horticulturalist warfare– well, they should look up the Maring, discussed in detail by Harris. Yeah, in general casualties were low. But a war could easily turn into a rout with a much higher casualty rate.

tl;dr

If you’ve read this far, you’re ready to take on the Davids– their book is 526 pages of text, plus nearly a hundred pages of notes.

If this is your sort of thing, you’ll probably get a lot out of it– and disagree with a lot of it, not necessarily the parts I disagreed with.

Anthropology is perhaps the most fun part of the social sciences. It not only tells interesting stories, it tells what (to most of us) are new kinds of stories. Actual human history and ethnography is far weirder than you might imagine from school textbooks and fantasy novels. And putting just some of that weirdness into your own works will deepen them considerably.

Putin’s Ukraine problem

So, Ukraine. Kind of a big deal, huh?

I have no special expertise here, so I’m heavily relying on those who do:

Destroyed Russian tanks in Ukraine. (Reuters)

Another caution: the fog of war is heavy. We know the basics, but we don’t have solid numbers and precise maps. Putin of course does not want honest reporting, and in the kind of war Ukraine is fighting, it’s hardly going to say exactly where its forces are. All those omnisicient military retellings (“General Daring had two options available…”) will be written far in the future.

What did Putin want?

It seems pretty clear that Putin expected a walkover. He thought the Ukrainians would be overwhelmed or wouldn’t fight; he sent in riot police to secure Kyiv; three squads were sent to murder Zelenskyy. The model was probably the 2014 invasion of Crimea. It would be so fast that, confronted with a fait accompli and a quickly installed puppet regime, the West wouldn’t bother to apply major sanctions. All this failed.

There was a good deal of Russian bullshit in the air in February. Tucker Carlson is the most famous Putin apologist, but many others gravely opined that NATO expansion had somehow been too much for Putin. Sadly, the DSA has also decided to repeat this fascist excuse and blame the war on US “imperialism”.

This is easy enough to refute. You don’t mount a 200,000-man invasion in order to keep the status quo happening. Ukraine was not and is not a member of NATO. It’s been talked about as far back as 2008, and nothing has happened. If that was what Putin wanted, he’d have got it by simply doing nothing. The invasion was not precipitated by any Ukrainian or Western moves. The NATO stuff was a smokescreen, dropped to confuse some useful idiots.

In November of last year NATO commander Jens Stoltenberg was quite clear about why Ukraine wasn’t accepted: “30 allies have to agree, and we don’t have consensus agreement in NATO now on inviting Ukraine into becoming a full member.” That means someone is vetoing the idea for some reason. So membership isn’t just slowed down, it’s halted. Putin’s supposed fear was not about anything real.

You also don’t demonstrate that there’s nothing to fear from Russia by invading your neighbor, sending murder squads after its president, and levelling its cities. That in fact demonstrates that Russia is a very real threat and small countries are very vulnerable. Thanks to Putin, countries like Sweden and Finland, which sat out the entire Cold War, are considering joining NATO. Putin accomplished in one week what US presidents for the last 20 years were unable to do: get Germany to spend more than 2% of its GNP on defense, and export weapons.

Why did Putin want Ukraine? He thought it was low-lying fruit, and he’d be a hero in Russia for reversing a little bit of the Soviet collapse. And he’d already got away with slicing off Crimea, with minimal blowback. In two decades he’s issued a long string of provocations which were never successfully resisted; he thought he could pull off one more. A war is also his go-to move when he’s losing popularity.

A few pundits have mentioned that since Putin closed down Russian access to Twitter, trolls in their mentions have plummeted. This is just one bit of a culture war Putin has been waging for a decade: support extremists and sow confusion in the West, at little cost to himself. Russian money has been deeply involved in Tory Britain, and of course Russian TV openly gloated in 2017 that Trump was theirs. Trump didn’t care about Russia invading and stealing Crimea, and actually held up military aid to Zelenskyy in hopes of getting some dirt on Hunter Biden.

Fox is still showcasing the pro-Putin Carlson, but it looks like Putin has lost a lot of his right-wing support. In a Pew poll, 85% of Americans favor maintaining strong sanctions against Russia; 74% think the US is providing enough or not enough aid to Ukraine, as opposed to just 7% who think it’s too much.

A bit more on the Democratic Socialists, because they disappointed me so much. They’ve fallen into one of the oldest traps, the one most ideologues and conspiracy theorists fall into: the single-villain ideology. For them the only agent in the world is the US government; everything it does is bad, and no one else has any moral agency at all. Confronted with a murderous despot actively trying to reinstate the Russian empire, their brains just cannot compute. “Imperialism… that… isn’t… American? Inconceivable!” Instead they actually take the position that a defensive alliance against fascist Russia is bad, and that Ukrainian resistance should not be encouraged (i.e. by giving them arms so the Russian conquest fails). It’s not surprising at this point that fascist elements in the GOP support Putin, but it’s absolutely vile when so-called leftists are parroting fascist talking points.

Why did it go wrong?

  • Military failures, as described in the links above. Almost unbelievable logistic incompetence, leading to thousands of Russian troops dead. In three weeks Russia suffered 1/3 or 1/2 of the combat deaths it suffered in ten years in Afghanistan.
  • It turned out Ukraine doesn’t consider itself Russian and is willing to fight to prove it. In addition to uniting Europe against Russian aggression, Putin managed to de-Russify eastern Ukraine. Handing over the separatist bits of Donbass to criminal gangs, and bombing the rest to rubble, turns out not to make people want to join Russia.
  • It turned out Zelenskyy is brave as fuck and is a master of inspiring Ukrainians and the world.
  • Ukraine won the info war. Maybe easy to do when you just have to underline that a fascist dictator is invading you for no reason, but once the invasion started no one outside the horseshoe far right and far left believed in Putin’s pre-war bullshit. Ukraine has been exposing Russian criminality and showcasing Ukrainian resilience, while Putin has basically given up on making any case for himself to the outside world.
  • The West was unified, and applied devastating sanctions immediately.

All of this is important, but perhaps the biggest factor: Putin was living in a dream world. Comparisons with The Death of Stalin are in order… Putin has a created a massive machine for enriching himself and ruling Russia, but to do it he’s surrounded himself with terrified yes-men. So when he decided that Ukraine loved him as much as Russians have to pretend they love him, no one could tell him he was wrong, no one could tell him the army wasn’t up to it, no one could tell him he was going to tank the economy, no one could tell him that he’ll be lucky to last out the year.

Recent pictures of him are almost comic: why is no one allowed to be within 20 feet of him? What sort of fear does he have of these people, the very ones he handpicked to work for him?

As the military guys point out, occupying a country is hard work, destructive not only to the invaded but to the invaders. And to prepare his troops to do this, Putin… lied to them. They were told they were just on a training mission. Apparently Russian military structure is intensely top-down: lower-level units have no autonomy, which is part of why the invasion has stalled. Low-level troops are stuck, out of gas, eating expired food or raiding grocery stores, attacked by the locals they were told would welcome them. How the fuck does Putin think treating his own army that way will work out for him?

Why we’re not fighting Russia

To a lot of people– including Zelenskyy– the next step seems obvious: get involved directly. But Biden refuses to send US troops; according to Pew, 62% of Americans agree with him.

And they’re right. If it was a matter of conventional weapons– yeah, if Russia is having trouble with Ukraine they’d sure as hell have trouble with NATO. But Russia has nuclear weapons, and having Russians and Americans directly fighting would greatly increase the chance of nuclear war. And let’s not get stupid: we all lose a nuclear war.

For 40 years, the Cold War ran on the somewhat cynical principle that direct conflict was out, but indirect was OK. The Russians helped the Vietnamese; we helped the Afghans. Both sides let themselves get embroiled in things they should have stayed out of– but they also avoided direct conflicts that could easily have escalated.

Perhaps it’s not obvious: a no-fly zone is sending US (or NATO) troops to Ukraine, albeit sending them in planes. A no-fly zone means shooting down enemy planes, and facing enemy attempts to shoot back. We are not at war with Russia, but if we tried that we soon would be. Besides, Russia’s bombs are not mainly from planes, but from missiles fired from Russia.

What happens next?

Who knows, except that it’ll be enormous suffering for the Ukrainians. In frustration, the Russians are using the same tactic they used in Chechnya and Syria: attack civilians with indiscriminate bombing. Any pretense of “these people are really Russians” has been abandoned; they’re just destroying as much as they can.

At the same time, the West is sending more anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons. I’m not a military dude, so I don’t know if that will work or not. At least it should devastate those Russian convoys, and hopefully shoot down more and more planes and missiles.

There’s been some talk of Russia’s “peace” conditions. One of them is handing over the Donbass; this is probably a non-starter. For one thing, to Westerners it probably implies recognizing the little slivers of rebel territory; to Putin it almost certainly means the entire Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts, 8% of Ukraine’s territory. Only 1/3 of this territory is held by the rebels now, and Kamil Galeev does a great job here explaining how Putin destroyed the economy of the very area he occupied and handed it over to gangsters, and how this so disgusted the rest of Donbass, as well as all of Russophone Ukraine, that they want nothing to do with him.

Ukraine faces some tricky decisions here. It’s easy for outsiders to say it should keep resisting, and to point out that Putin has zero credibility in anything he proposes or agrees to. On the other hand, it’s questionable whether Russia can keep up the fight. It’s very possible that a very large fraction of that 190,000-man army will be cut to pieces, and it’s not like Putin saved his best troops for later.

At this point it’s hard to think of an exit Putin can take. He could just admit it didn’t work and back out, but dictators don’t think that way, even when their life is on the line. Saddam Hussein simply could not admit that he had no nukes– even though continuing that particular Big Lie ended up with him surrendering in a ditch. Besides, there is just no button labeled “Go back to December 2021.” Europe and Ukraine now know, and will take into account, that Putin is an invasion-happy fascist.

Ukraine itself is suggesting “neutrality” in an interesting new sense: no NATO membership, but “in case of war signatories provide weapons and air defense immediately without bureaucratic procedures or conditions”. That’s an almost cheeky way of saying “We’ll do this all again if we have to.” But Putin could play it up as “no NATO membership” I guess? He’d be wise to take the deal; too bad he’s not wise.

Re-ranked

I’ve now rated 500 movies on Flickchart, so I figured I’d post my updated top 20. New ones are bolded.

  • Casablanca
  • Kill Bill Vol. 1
  • Young Frankenstein
  • The Fifth Element
  • 2001: A Space Odyssey
  • Memento
  • WALL-E
  • Rear Window
  • The Princess Bride
  • I Love You to Death
  • Princess Mononoke
  • Raiders of the Lost Ark
  • Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
  • Tampopo
  • Return of the Jedi
  • Fantasia
  • A Clockwork Orange
  • The Matrix
  • Mulan

Not that exciting, but at least the embarrassments are off the first page. I spent a fair amount of time trying to think of movies the algorithm wasn’t showing me. That works fine, but it removes the “I hadn’t thought of that in years” effect of the random matchups.

I think I’m about done, because I’m running out of movies I’ve seen. I’m sure I’m missing a couple hundred, but I’m having to click the “Haven’t seen that” buttons more and more.

Naturally this is all for fun… especially since I’m relying in many cases on memories of when I saw a film up to 40 years ago. I mean, I haven’t actually seen A Clockwork Orange since college; maybe it’s not as much of a mindfuck as it seemed then. I suspect that TRON is way less cool than it seemed in 1982. I also wonder if my memory that Roger Moore Bond films were cheesily entertaining would hold up. I mean, he’s no Sean Connery, but it would be a good night at the movies.

Ranking movies

At Mefi there was a posting on FlickChart, a site where you can rate movies. It’s simple: you are presented with two movies and choose which one you like better. (If it gives you a movie you haven’t seen, you just ask for another.) Then you do more and more, till you wonder where your time went. It’s very addictive. (Fair warning: it serves up ads with each choice.)

So, you’re very soon presented with some very weird choices:

  • Mad Max vs. Animal House
  • Memento vs. Rocky Horror Picture Show
  • Best in Show vs. Mulan
  • Bound vs. This is Spinal Tap
  • Psycho vs. What About Bob?

You’ll have to develop your own policy on genre comparisons. Is an Important Movie always better than a really well done comedy? Is an eye-candy sf spectacular better than a cleverly written plot?

Some things that I’ve discovered in my own rankings:

  • The question that helps me the most is “Which would I see again first?”
  • Real posers are rare– I can almost always decide immediately.
  • Even if I liked a trilogy or series, I rank the sequels way down.
  • I’m definitely a creature of my times. If it was big in the 70s/80s/90s, I probably saw it and think fondly of it.
  • Though a few of the hits of that time feel hollow in retrospect. Close Encounters, ugh. I can’t imagine watching E.T. again.
  • Disney movies are my trash bin. That was kind of a surprise, because I’d have felt very differently when I was 10, or 20. But I have little desire to see Pinocchio or Sleeping Beauty again. Pixar holds up better.

You’re a bit at the mercy of their database, which is skimpy on foreign and obscure films. I’ve now rated 300 films, and my top 20 are:

  • Kill Bill Vol. 1
  • Young Frankenstein
  • The Fifth Element
  • 2001: A Space Odyssey
  • Memento
  • WALL-E
  • Rear Window
  • The Princess Bride
  • Princess Mononoke
  • Raiders of the Lost Ark
  • Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
  • Return of the Jedi
  • Fantasia
  • The Matrix
  • Mulan
  • A Clockwork Orange
  • Kill Bill Vol. 2
  • Home Alone
  • Back to the Future
  • A Fish Called Wanda

A lot of the list actually seems wrong to me. A lot depends on what actual choices you were presented, and I’m sure I haven’t yet chosen between #20, A Fish Called Wanda and #21, To Kill a Mockingbird, or #22, Black Panther. I don’t know what Home Alone is doing there, either. I’m not sure why Airplane! and Casablanca and The Sting and The Godfather and Galaxy Quest aren’t there, since I feel like I’ve rated them pretty highly. Do The Right Thing only just appeared in the choices, so it hasn’t had a chance to move up. And movies like Tampopo, The Triplets of Belleville, La Gloire de mon père, Blow-up, Allegro Non Troppo haven’t appeared at all. I’ll probably keep playing with the list, and it’ll look very different soon.

(Also, for some reason Youtube has been offering me clips of Kill Bill recently, and I find them pretty cool. I wouldn’t have called it #1 though.)

There’s a dearth of Important Movies currently, probably because of the pandemic, to say nothing of Trumpism. When my twitter feed is full of catastrophes, I don’t really crave enlightenment and/or education from the movies. I mean, Gandhi really is a deeper, more affecting movie than WALL-E, but if they were both on, I’m afraid I’d switch to the cartoon.

Still, there’s just enough truth in the list to point out two types of movies I really really like. One, visual spectacles, especially ones I’d never seen or imagined before seeing the movie; if they’re spectacular enough they can be forgiven some incoherence. Two, cleverly written movies: mind-blowers like Memento and Rear Window; near-perfect comedies like Young Frankenstein and Princess Bride.

Anyway, if that inspires you to rate your own list, have fun!

Minecraft 1.18

I’ve been playing the 1.18 release for the last few weeks. If you haven’t played Minecraft for years, it’s worth checking out, because it completely revamps terrain generation. First, everything is a lot more vertical:

The world used to generate from level 0 to 256, with sea level at 62. Now it generates from -64 to 320. Mountains (and player builds) can go far higher, and of course caves go far deeper.

More spectacularly, caves are now far bigger. Also more varied, with dripstone caves, lush caves, etc. Just look at these things!

You can wander around in them for hours, and probably will, to gawk and to mine. A helpful hint: use Night Vision potions. The effect is shown above: without them, the caves are dark and scary. (Night Vision is brewed with water bottle + nether wart, then a golden carrot, then redstone dust. The latter increases the duration from 3 to 8 minutes. I take 9 potions on an expedition, which is more than an hour of caving. Bring shulker boxes, or if you haven’t defeated the dragon yet, an ender chest.)

You can still do branch mining– diamonds are now concentrated at level -59. But why bother? Mining efficiency depends largely on how much surface area is exposed at once, and simply walking through a cave will expose far more blocks than you can with mining.

One drawback to the new world generation, perhaps, is that biomes are now so large that it takes a lot of exploring to find some of the rare ones. One trick: find your world seed (type /seed in console) and make a new Creative world with it. In Creative, you can use /locatebiome to find a biome you need. I looked for a mesa biome for instance, for the cheap terracotta, and it was over 2000 blocks away from home.

You also have to watch where you walk a little more. A hole might drop you an immense distance now.

A Minecraft post wouldn’t be complete without sharing a pic of my base. Here it is so far:

This was the first picturesque mountain I found in the first hour or so. The chaotic contraption at left is a mob farm. I first tried a traditional mob farm (four arms with a water feed and a central drop), and it produced nothing. I’m not sure why, but probably there are so many mob spawn locations nearby that it was just bypassed. (My base is atop some of those huge caves.) This one has 10 floors, with an AFK spot far above, and it works pretty well.

One thing missing here: a village. I noticed that about 75% of the time in my last game, I would just stay in my village, grinding resources and trading, and I wanted to get out of that loop. It’d be nice to eschew villagers entirely, but I use them anyway to get spell books– as I need specific ones and in quantity, enchanting books is too slow.

Changing up your playstyle is nice– now I’m motivated to actually use the diamonds I mine, and you can get some pretty good gear even with 10-15 levels. I may have to figure out how to do an XP grinder though…. I’m spending a lot of time getting to level 30 so I can enchant something, and it’s kind of frustrating.

I still keep discovering things about the game. Quite by accident– I was decorating an alchemy building and thought a redstone torch next to a dragon head would be atmospheric– I found that when you power a dragon head, it animates, opening and closing its mouth. Neat!

Interimland

I have a huge Minecraft world I’ve been working on for over a year… but I got kind of bored with it. I played Skyblock again, and then decided to start yet another world. Since the idea was to occupy the gap before version 1.18, I called it Interimland.

Bases are hard to show off in still pics, so I decided to make a video about it:

Oops– I just noticed it’s only 360px, though I recorded it in 1920×1080. Probably I rendered it wrong, though since it took an hour to upload, I’m not going to correct it. (Edit: it’s fine.) Also, I really don’t like hearing my own voice, but I can’t really change that, so you’re stuck with it.

The most interesting bit, perhaps, is the ravine build I start out with. I turned it into the kind of cité-puits that Moebius used to love drawing. Or the beginnings of one; it could use multiple levels.

I find that I’ve been doing more and more automation. My base currently includes these things:

  • AFK mob farm
  • regular old mob farm
  • XP blaster
  • cow & pig farm
  • wheat/carrot/potato farm
  • chicken farm
  • kelp farm
  • sugar cane farm
  • cactus farm
  • dripstone lava farm
  • concrete maker
  • apiary

All this produces so many emeralds I don’t know what to do with them all. I used to buy glass and arrows, but the mob farm produces too many arrows and excavating desert for the ravine city gave me an excess of sand (for glass). So I mostly buy XP bottles for the XP blaster.

Really, at this point villages kind of make Minecraft too easy. There is always something to do, but you can get just about everything there (diamond gear, colored terracotta, arrows, glass, quartz, spell books, blank maps). When 1.18 comes out in a few days, I may try avoiding villages, at least for awhile.