West from Tokyo

This is trivial, but too long for a tweet. I was befuddled a bit by the headling on this PCGamer article:

After 30 years, Japanese tactics series Super Robot Wars is finally coming West

Isn’t it easier to go east to get here?

Tokyo east to San Francisco is 5000 miles. Tokyo west to New York is 9,400 miles.

It’s a nice demonstration that not only are we map-oriented, but our mental map is Europe-centered, like the one above. We could more accurately call the “Far East” the “Far West”.


One question I used to have was, when did modern comedy appear? Not comedy itself, but the absurdist, completely cynical type that dominates American and British humor? Bugs Bunny, the Marx Brothers, Monty Python, MAD Magazine, Sam & Max, the Hitchhiker’s Guide. There’s hints of this style in Mark Twain and Jerome K. Jerome, maybe a bit in Moliere, but how early does it go?

One answer is: back to Lucian of Samosata. Or Λουκιανος, to his mother. He was a Syrian (Samosata is on the Euphrates, in present-day Turkey) who wrote excellent Greek, and was one of the most popular writers of the 2nd century. More than 80 of his works survive, a very high number for an ancient author. I just read a good selection, Lionel Casson’s Selected Satires of Lucian (1962).

I first met him with his “Sale of the Philosophers”, where Lucian imagines Zeus and Hermes running a slave market, selling philosophers. His satire of the various schools is vicious and irreverent, and especially funny if (say) you’ve just finished a yearlong course in philosophy. His work must have been widely copied and criticized (or maybe he read the piece as a performance) because he found it necessary to write a sequel, “the Fishermen”, which carefully explains that he loves all the actual philosophers; he just hates their modern representatives, who happen to mostly be sophistical, greedy hypocrites.

Lucian is also cited in histories of science fiction, as his “True Story” is a novella of absurdist adventure, a parody of the Odyssey with a few jabs at credulous historians like Herodotus. After noting that the story is a pure lie, he describes taking a ship of adventurers past the Pillars of Hercules and into the Atlantic, where a storm blew them up to the Moon.

Whether it’s sf or not depends on how you split your hairs; it’s certainly an early form of fantasy (but so is Gilgamesh). Lucian’s method is to pile on absurdities:

Moonmen have artificial penises, generally of ivory but, in the case of the poor, of wood… They never die of old age but dissolve and turn into air, like smoke. The diet is the same for everyone: frog. … They don’t urinate or defecate. They have no anal orifice so, instead of the anus, boys offer for intercourse the hollow of the knee above the calf, since there’s an opening there.

This is probably the best story in the volume– always entertaining and inventive, if not very deep.

One of the more curious selections is the story of a man turned into a donkey by magic. (Pro tip: don’t ask a witch for a demonstration of her transformation magic.) The most notable bit is how much abuse the donkey is in for. It’s hard to say what Lucian intended here: to a modern, it reads like a condemnation of human cruelty to animals, but it’s possible Lucian thought it was comic, like Shakespeare’s Bottom given an ass’s head.

Lucian was known for comic dialogues– which etymologically is ‘conversation’, not limited to two people. (It’s δια ‘with’, not δί ‘two’.) The ones in this volume rely heavily on gods and mythological figures, though there’s also one featuring various literary courtesans.

His own beliefs come out most clearly in a dialog set in Hades, where the Cynic philosopher Menippus has a grand time mocking the other newly dead. This mostly amounts to making fun of dictators and rich men, who have lost all their power and gold– the afterlife is a democracy of misery. There a certain acerbic morality to this– a rebuke to greed and vanity and authority because they are all ultimately meaningless; it’s the same sort of wisdom as the medieval scholar who keeps a skull on his desk as a reminder that we all die. At the same time… well, it’s pretty nihilistic, isn’t it? “We’re all dead and equally miserable in Hades” is a great position for attacking pretension, but I kind of prefer an ideology that promotes actual benevolence.

One of the more interesting pieces is a biographical sketch of a prophet and oracle, Alexander of Abonoteichos. Lucian is not a fan, to put it mildly. By his account, the prophet is a scammer, whose shtick is to interpret the words of a new god, Glycon, who consists of a tame snake plus a hand puppet. (If you want to scam your own flock, make sure you do this in a dark room, and speak in an eldritch voice when you pass on the words of Glycon.) His method is to read and respond to sealed scrolls. This is done only after an interval– which gives Alexander time to use various methods to unseal the scrolls, read the question, and create an appropriate response. One trick was to slice through the wax, and later reheat and reseal it. Another was to make an impression of the seal in clay; the seal could then be broken, and resealed using the clay model. If the scroll was too hard to unseal, Alexander would simply give an outlandishly obscure prophecy– he would even allow associates to interpret the obscurities for an additional fee.

We don’t have Alexander’s side of the story, but we know he was real– coins were struck with the image of Glycon. Whether Lucian was an accurate reporter can be doubted (e.g. he inserts his own confrontation with the prophet– he bites his hand– which is hard to credit.) Still, it’s a convincing portrait of a charlatan, and suggests the sorts of methods that such people have always used.

Would you like Lucian? Well, you may or may not find the laughs. I don’t respond to absurdist humor quite as much as I used to; your mileage may vary. I found it most interesting as anthropology– a reminder that not everyone in the past was serious and reverent. The echoes to modern humorists may be misleading: as I noted above, his appreciation for Cynicism is precisely the sort of rebuke to the material world that philosophers valued in almost every era. I also suspect that his style of satire is not as populist as it sometimes sounds: Lucian is too well educated to be a real voice of the masses. A pose of disaffected virtue has long been popular with the more literate strata of the elite.)

On the other hand, it may be relevant that he lived in perhaps the most peaceful and best-governed century of the Roman Empire. It’s not that, as he himself might have believed, his targets were particularly decadent– that the Golden Age had passed. It’s that a culture may need a certain maturity to laugh at itself. And maybe a certain spiritual tiredness: he can treat Zeus and the gods with levity precisely because the elite no longer really believed in them (but still knew all the stories).

I like Casson’s translation on the whole– it’s lively and colloquial. Two cavils, though. One, I really wish he wouldn’t give money references in “dollars”. I understand that it’s shorthand, but I’d rather know what Lucian actually wrote– and not have to worry about what a dollar was worth 59 years ago. Second, it bugs me when he translates the wordplay and doesn’t give the original, even in a footnote. E.g. the “True Story” refers to the Saladbirds, the Fastcentaurs, and Waterburg. I’d like to at least know the Greek terms, especially since Casson leaves in most of the names of gods and historical figures, however obscure.

(Oh, another word on the original question. Lucian certainly didn’t invent the humorous dialog; the Egyptians had the “Dialog of a Man and his Soul”; the Akkadians wrote debates between inanimate objects. It’s not quite the same, but it also probably indicates that there was more of the same that’s been lost. In premodern times literature was preserved when people copied it, and probably a lot of comedy was lost because the targets were no longer understood.)

A People’s History of Science

I just read this book, by Clifford D. Conner. Er, is it clear that the title of the book is the title of the post? If not, it’s called A People’s History of Science. Glad we could clear that up.

Anyway, the thesis of the book is that science, both theoretical and practical, though it owes much to the various geniuses everyone emphasizes, also owes much to a usually unknown army of craftsmen, assistants, and ordinary people.

I have mixed feelings about the book. Not because he doesn’t prove his thesis– he does, and there’s a lot to learn here whether you’re interested in the history of science/technology, or in conworlding. But he can’t resist polemic, and those parts are tedious.

So, when he sticks to his subject, it’s a great book. He has fascinating sections on the Polynesian navigators, on knowledge of plants from around the world, on the practical knowledge of miners, instrument makers, craftsmen, and midwives. It’s full of things I didn’t know, such as:

  • Portugal’s Prince Henry is famous for encouraging navigation; what’s less known is that his captains would kidnap Africans and learn the local sea routes and trade opportunities from them.
  • Similarly, when American colonists wanted to grow rice, which requires deep knowledge of wet-field cultivation, they stole the expertise, by buying African slaves who knew how to do it. Conner find newspaper ads from the 1700s which touted the availability of slaves who had “knowledge of rice culture.”
  • The famous Dutch microscopist van Leeuwenhoek was not a professional scientist but a draper. He was originally interested in lensmaking in order to get a close-up view of his fabrics.
  • The man who won the British contest for a way to accurately determine longitude was John Harrison, a carpenter who had taught himself watchmaking.
  • The invention of printing was followed by an explosion of practical manuals, written by and for craftsmen. Smart savants read these books, or talked to craftsmen.
  • We tend to think of painters and architects as an elevated class– Artists– but traditionally they were considered barely-respectable craftsmen. Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci, Brunelleschi were all apprenticed to goldsmiths, and Vasari called Michelangelo as “the wisest of all the craftsmen.”
  • Benjamin Franklin published the first chart of the Gulf Stream, which could shave two weeks off the trip across the Atlantic; he himself acknowledges that its was dictated to him by a whaleboat captain, who was his cousin.
  • One 19C account of the steam engine comments, “There is no machine or mechanism in which the little the theorists have done is more useless. It arose, was improved and perfected by working mechanics– and by them only.”

Conner quotes plenty of old-fashioned histories which exalt solitary thinkers and theorists, from Aristotle to Aquinas to Newton to Einstein, trumpet the ancient Greeks as if they invented inquiry and theory, and explicitly downplay craftsmen and practical workers. These ideas are easily demolished by quoting the very Greeks and Renaissance savants they extol, who praise (though they don’t often name) the practical workers their work depended on. The Greeks themselves tell us that they got much of their knowledge from Egypt and Mesopotamia.

The polemic sections, as I said, get tedious. The last few chapters in particular are a slog, as Conner mostly forgets his subject and indulges in a slapdash tour of modern capitalism and its disasters (though for balance he also condemns Stalin). A typical bit is the invocation of the Bhopal gas leak; his one-paragraph discussion has nothing to do with his main thesis and tells us nothing new.

A minor but annoying cavil: being anti-establishment in so many ways sometimes leads Conner into a defense of quack ideas. E.g. there’s a sympathetic discussion of Mesmer’s “animal magnetism.” He approvingly quotes a contemporary who accepted that Mesmer could cure “blindness, deafness, wounds, or local paralysis”, and Conner suggests that the dismissal of Mesmer by the savants was a “monumental missed opportunity for the… advancement of science.” Now, the history of science is largely the history of wrong ideas, and wrong theories are a necessary step toward better theories; but just because “the authorities” condemn a particular set of ideas doesn’t mean that those ideas need rehabilitation. Conner seems to like Mesmer because he railed against the Academy, but describing Mesmerism as “people’s science” is a stretch– as Conner himself notes, Mesmer was supported by a rich banker, and did his best to appeal to high society.

Finally, though there is some recognition of Polynesians, Chinese, and Babylonians here, the book as a whole is extremely Western-oriented. As a nonfiction writer myself, I very much understand the problem of research load. But though he insists on the debt the Greeks owed to Babylonia and invokes Joseph Needham, the Babylonians don’t rate a chapter, nor do the Chinese or Arabs.


This pretty much made my day:

You can see a better view of the picture here.

What is all this? Well, Hermitcraft is a shared Minecraft server whose members all post videos and/or stream on Twitch. They do amazing builds, but they also make games together and interact with the instincts of natural comedians. As the kids say, it’s incredibly wholesome.

When each Hermitcraft season ends, you can download the world map, which I did yesterday. It’s fun to fly around and see things in detail. And of course you can do whatever you want with the map, including adding items. So the joke here is that I added a tiny, ugly shack to Keralis’s beautiful city. And the meta-joke is that it’s not a noob shack made of dirt blocks; I took some time with it to make it really ramshackle. Making your builds far more detailed and interesting than they need to be is something I learned from the Hermitcrafters.

Ask Zompist: Second thoughts on religion

One of the first pages I read after I had discovered zompist.com , back in 2000, was the introductory page on Almean belief systems. And it made an enormous impression on me back then. I know that it is technically about your conworld, but IMO almost all of it works very well as an essay on belief systems on Earth, too. Back then, that essay changed the way I look at things. For instance, ever since, even when I share some of the beliefs in a belief system, a part of me still prefers to look at the belief system from the outside rather than the inside.

But all of this makes me wonder how more than 20 years of additional learning and experiences have shaped your own views of the topics that essay deals with. Any thoughts?


I would add more today, but not really change what I wrote there.

Looking over it, I can see a few writers who influenced me greatly: Marvin Harris, G.K. Chesterton, Eric Hoffer. And C.S. Lewis, though he’s not mentioned there. I’ve read quite a lot since, but ironically the first thing I’d add is more Harris— the etic/emic discussion discussed here, which relates to what you say about looking at belief systems from the outside. Many aspects of belief systems simply make no sense on their own terms (emically), and have to be looked at etically. On the other hand, I’d caution against trying to use etic analysis as a weapon. It irritates the people involved, and you really have to make sure you get your facts right. (A heuristic: if the analysis makes the people look stupid, it’s probably more partisan than scientific.)

I purposely talked about “belief systems” under the belief that religions and political ideologies are aspects of the same phenomenon. (There’s a lot of Hoffer in that.) That’s one thing I’d maybe modify today. Now, on one level it’s true— see the previous blog entry, on Orwell’s observations of ideologues. I do think we can best understand the wars of religion in the 1600s, and the wars of ideologies in the 1900s, with the observation that people used to understand their national and political fights in terms of religion, and now understand them in terms of ideologies. The mental habits of the religious and the political partisan are nearly identical.

On the other hand, the functional yield of this grouping, so to speak, seems to be low. Religion encompasses quite a few features— theology, ritual, personal spiritualism, recourse to supernatural aids— that are largely lacking in politics. Political ideologies, meanwhile, tend toward authoritarianism in a way that doesn’t shed much light on religion. (Religious authorities can be oppressive, oh yes. But I object strongly to viewing any religion as “nothing but oppression.”)

There’s also the present-day relationship between religion and politics, which is complicated. Very old-style religions can be political— cf. political Islam, or the disgusting Evangelical love for Trump, or the nationalism of Modi in India. If anything, the expectation that politics has replaced religion now seems overblown. We still have fascists and communists, but to get tens of millions of people excited, the smart money is now back on religion.

As I said, I’ve read a lot more about religion in the last two decades, mostly while researching my books. So I could talk quite a bit more about Dàoism, Confucianism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, and Middle Eastern polytheism. But a lot of that wouldn’t come up in an overview of belief systems. Though an alert reader on Twitter had a great idea— a Religion Construction Kit— so you may see a long-form treatment of the subject in a few years. (My current book, on the ancient Middle East, will have quite a lot to say about the origins of monotheism and state polytheism.)

One more thing I might emphasize more now is the buffet nature of religion. Not all religions have all the elements I described. And even when they do, individuals may take what they like and ignore the rest. Outsiders can concentrate too much on what the priests do, or what the scriptures say. I’ve always wanted to know what the ordinary believer does, and what the range of possible behaviors is.

On a personal level, I’ve moved over the last 35 years from being an energetic Evangelical, to being a Christian very disappointed in the church and the Church, to being an agnostic. All this without developing the disdain and hatred for religion (especially Christianity) that some people indulge. I’m still fascinated by religion— or parts of it, and by the character of God. And I’m irked by conworlds which take the easy trope of making religion All Oppressive All the Time.

Polarization, 1945

I spent a few hours tonight reading or re-reading George Orwell’s essays, and this one on “nationalism” struck me as relevant today, largely because quite a few pundits seem to believe that political polarization, echo chambers, and outright lies are unprecedented novelties.

(Note, the essay talks about “nationalism” and “nationalists” only for lack of a better term, but he makes it clear that he’s also talking about religious or political zealotry. Today we’d probably say “ideologies” and “ideologues”.)

On echo chambers:

The nationalist not only does not disapprove of atrocities committed by his own side, but he has a remarkable capacity for not even hearing about them. For quite six years the English admirers of Hitler contrived not to learn of the existence of Dachau and Buchenwald. And those who are loudest in denouncing the German concentration camps are often quite unaware, or only very dimly aware, that there are also concentration camps in Russia. Huge events like the Ukraine famine of 1933, involving the deaths of millions of people, have actually escaped the attention of the majority of English russophiles. Many English people have heard almost nothing about the extermination of German and Polish Jews during the present war.

On lying:

Much of the propagandist writing of our time amounts to plain forgery. Material facts are suppressed, dates altered, quotations removed from their context and doctored so as to change their meaning. Events which, it is felt, ought not to have happened are left unmentioned and ultimately denied.

Probably the truth is discoverable, but the facts will be so dishonestly set forth in almost any newspaper that the ordinary reader can be forgiven either for swallowing lies or failing to form an opinion. The general uncertainty as to what is really happening makes it easier to cling to lunatic beliefs. Since nothing is ever quite proved or disproved, the most unmistakable fact can be impudently denied. Moreover, although endlessly brooding on power, victory, defeat, revenge, the nationalist is often somewhat uninterested in what happens in the real world. What he wants is to feel that his own unit is getting the better of some other unit, and he can more easily do this by scoring off an adversary than by examining the facts to see whether they support him.

Orwell was writing in May 1945, just after WWII ended in Europe. And he was writing from England, not the US. Nonetheless, the essay is a good reminder that political polarization and siloing are not new, nor creations of the Internet; there was no golden age where political parties frolicked together like Elves and Men and read each other’s media.

Now, for Boomers of my age there was a time when politics seemed calm, bipartisanship was possible, and extremists seemed to be on their way out. We call it “1976.” But this was not some normal and enduring state even of American politics; it was a short interlude after the contentious ’60s and before the plutocratic revolution of the ’80s.

This is admittedly cold comfort, when conservatives seem more insane and dangerous than ever. At the same time, reading Orwell is a reminder that things are always pretty dire, a hope for a less dire world is always possible, and the evil people of the day are also liable to make the stupidest mistakes.

My Minecraft library

My book news is that I’ve been working on the index, and an alert reader’s long list of typos. Then I have to clean up the Sumerian grammar. So naturally I’ve been relaxing with Minecraft.

I feel like I’m getting to be a good builder. Here’s my latest building:

I’m really happy with the detailing. I’ve learned a lot from (though I’m miles short of) Keralis and Bdubs from the Hermitcraft server.

Here’s the inside:

Really nice Minecraft building is a matter of adding completely unnecessary details. Dig the bookcases and the lamps and village bell hung from chains. (It’s also a matter of using blocks for their looks rather than what they’re supposed to be. E.g. that white balcony up above is made of snow.)

I’m trying to make my huge builds actually useful, and this is a trading hall for my Librarians. You can see a couple of them moved in, and now I actually have about eight of them. The pros often lock their villagers into a tiny space, but mine have the run of their magnificent building.

Getting them here was a chore. When I’d moved #2, he got lost. I looked all around and under the building, wondering if he’d been killed by a monster. Finally I found him: he’d gone up my ladder to the roof, where he just stood around humming, unable to find his way back. I rescued him with a boat.

If perchance you want to do this sort of thing, my other bit of advice is to try out builds in Creative. It’s a lot easier to work out block choices and architectural details there, rather than trying to decide in Survival, where changing your mind (e.g. using orange rather than brown terracotta) means wasting resources.

Cyberpunk rebuttal!

My friend Niteowl, who I still think of as a frightening TF2 Spy, has written a response to my Cyberpunk 2077 review.

I wanted to highlight one of his points:

When we are taking open world sandbox games […] I play for the action and small stories. The side missions, the little nuances that attempt to paint a world by inference. And there are so many here. Mostly about the horror of combining the worst of capitalism and technology together. 

There is a story about a lovely dad and son side business, or would be, if they had been selling pretty much anything else. Or a various side missions about migrants, invariably gone horribly wrong. Or a side mission involving scuba gear which is the most affecting bit of gameplay I’ve ever played.

What are the results if greed and technology continue unfettered? What are the unintended consequences? What are the mortifying, obvious consequences? As a Canadian it’s like America Taken To 11. For profit health care is monstrous. For profit security/health care when your body parts can be harvested? Unspeakable.

Now, I took all this differently in my post on C77’s worldbuilding. I think this point of view (cyberpunk = laissez-mourir capitalism + high tech) comes with the territory, and CDPR gets it from William Gibson and Mike Pondsmith (creator of the Cyberpunk TTRPG). I wished they’d taken it farther (in terms of weird abilities and situations) or looked at it critically (by at least referring to non-cyberpunk parts of the world). I’d also note that this is sort of the default mode of sf and sf/horror video games– cf. The Outer Worlds Mirror’s Edge, Bioshock, or even Viscera Cleanup Detail. We expect that an evil corp is going to drill for oil in Hell, or unleash a mutant plague, or institute debt slavery in the stars, or whatever. (Heck, even Half-Life and Portal fit into this pattern.)

But yeah, taking a step back, Cyberpunk 2077 provides a concentrated blast of this acerbic worldview, and it’s all the better done because you’re in it. You see the dysfunctional city and its discontents. And at its best C77 conveys things going wrong by focusing on individuals like Judy. (There’s also Keanu to lay it all out for you… mmm, let’s not focus on that.)

So, although it’s not a new insight that we’re living in a cyberpunk dystopia, they did a really good job of showing what one is like. (Personally, I’d have liked a reminder that things don’t have to be this way. We could go for Star Trek space communism instead! But it’s not CDPR’s job to figure a way out.)

While I’m here, I’ll also comment on PCGamer’s terrible advice to CDPR, to fix C77 and then abandon it. The writer opines that “I don’t think there’s much room for CP2077 to grow—at least not without a complete and fundamental rewire.” Which makes no sense at all. First, a disappointing first game doesn’t mean much, or else we’d never have had Witcher 3 at all. Mass Effect is another game with kinda terrible gameplay, and they fixed that in Mass Effect 2. Second, the writer’s preference for Witcher 4 is the worst sort of fanboy stick-in-the-muddism. It’s OK to want something almost exactly like what you got before; it’s not OK to demand it of the creator.

My dumb outsider advice to CDPR would be:

  • Stick to what you’re good at: complex, depressive, even overwrought stories. Don’t waste your time creating more automobiles to collect, or random thugs to beat down.
  • Better stealth please. It still bugs me that the best way to get through fights is with a knife.
  • Probably a new main character. Nothing against V, but this is a case where Nick Hornby’s rule applies: tell us about the worst thing that ever happened to your character. V’s experience here qualifies. I don’t want a sequel where, I dunno, V’s head gets invaded again, this time by Awkwafina.
  • Maybe pick up a book on project management? Less overpromising, less crunch mode.

Minecraft megaprojects

So, I made a nice picture to hang in my office.

Ah, you think, you found a way to upload an image in Minecraft. No, no; if there’s a way to do that I don’t know it. I built that image. I took a single map area– 256×256 blocks, or 65,536 total– and laid it out. Then I just made a map of it. Here’s what the land looks like:

Some of you may recognize the picture of Ažirei from here. This picture in particular was appealing because I wasn’t sure how to get a good human skin color. Making pictures this way is tricky, because every block gets reduced to a pixel, and the color differences often disappear. E.g. to get some waves in her hair, I had to add those concrete powder blocks above the rest of the picture. Flush with the blue concrete, the color difference was lost.

Is this kind of insane? Yes, of course. I got the idea from Hermitcraft, specifically VintageBeef, who makes album covers this way. Once I realized how he did it, I had to try it.

I’ve been doing other megaprojects, some of which you can see below.

Left to right you can see what now seems like a very small ziggurat; my new modern (blue and white) villager house; my first (red and white) house; a skyscraper that holds my giant map; two nice buildings containing automated farms; and Tintin’s rocket. The red building jutting out of the hill is my current house (with the office).

I was inspired to do these mostly by watching Keralis, another Hermitcrafter, along with Bdubs. They make absolutely amazing, huge buildings, and even add furnishings inside. (Also, Keralis has the most beautiful accent, some sort of combo of Swedish and Polish.) My current takeaway: the Minecraft noob is satisfied with a boxy house; the advanced player builds things with two layers (e.g columns or overhangs); the real pro uses three. You can see this comparing my old house (two layers) with the buildings at right (three).

MECK readers needed

It’s (finally) that time again: I need readers for the first draft of the Middle East Construction Kit.

The book is similar to my China and India books. It covers the history, culture, religion, and literature of ancient Mesopotamia, Canaan, and Egypt, up till the Macedonian conquest, and includes meaty grammatical sketches of Sumerian, Akkadian, and Hebrew.

If you’re interested and have time, send me e-mail. If you’ve done this before, welcome back! If not, tell me if you have any special expertise. This is not required, as I need general readers too. If I get a load of replies I may save some of you for the second draft.

If you’re curious, that’s king Horemheb above, circa 1300 BCE, greeting Hathor in the afterlife, and hoping no one notices he has two right hands.