March 2008


Given the debased standards of the last 16 years or so, the surprising thing about this election season has been its gentility.  The top candidates in both parties have been pretty careful about taking the high road.  That’s a sign that the electorate as a whole is tired of partisan nastiness.  

On the other hand, people have been taking offense as if Karl Rove was still in control.  Some advisor will say something impolitic, there’s a furor, and they’ll get canned by the candidate (who gets to show that they’re above the fray).  Timothy Noah has a good article in Slate on Obama’s very smart response to the latest incident. 

 This reminds me of the rather artificial righteousness that’s often on display after a forum goes through a split or a nasty flamewar.  Everyone’s on their best behavior– but it’s not a level of behavior that can be sustained, and really, getting offended can be just as aggressive and disruptive as trolling or flaming. 

Sometimes we need polite fictions.  Other times, they’re BS.  The brouhaha over Geraldine Ferraro or Jeremiah Wright strikes me as mostly BS.  Racism and sexism still exist, sometimes in pretty virulent form.  Obama is quite right to underline that things have improved and can continue to do so.  But pundits aren’t doing anyone any good when they take offense at some people’s continuing anger or bitterness over these issues. 

 Often a person’s views are not right or wrong, good or bad, but just part of their personal context.  As the first major-party female VP candidate, Ferraro very naturally sees things in terms of gender.  As a black pastor, Wright will see things in terms of race.  To the next generation, maybe these preoccupations look outdated… in fact, let’s hope they are.  But there’s still something to what they’re saying, even if their rhetoric is overdone.  Racism and sexism aren’t removed by punishing any rhetorical discussion of the topic; that just drives the anger underground and paves over politics with a layer of polite BS.

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Another crib from jwz, I’m afraid.  But this (from Chris Sims) is made out of win.

Original Jarvis Cocker video here: http://youtube.com/watch?v=F39RS3I0D0Y

 Surprisingly good William Shatner / Joe Jackson cover here.

I have to agree with Jeffrey, this is the best Gygax webcomics tribute I’ve seen, from XKCD:

XKCD

One Paul Ford listened to 763 songs appearing at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, and wrote six-word reviews of each.

http://www.themorningnews.org/archives/reviews/sixword_reviews_of_763_sxsw_mp3s.php

No idea if he’s a good reviewer, but he’s an amusing one.  Some favorites:

  • Not bad from 2:28 to 3:16
  • Corn syrup and carbonated goat jism.
  • (on song 9999 (Ways to Hate Us)) – I just found one more way.
  • All of Britain issues synthesizers, apparently.
  • They took on songwriting… and lost.
  • Treacle.  I want to stab dolphins.
  • 30 seconds of limp, torpid moaning.
  • Finally, a definitive robot pony song.
  • Wants to be weird; just quirky.
  • You can have too much cowbell.

Mostly laid up with the flu today.  But I thought I’d report on our D&D campaign.

Lore, the Dapper Swede, was eager to try out what’s known of the 4.0 rules, so he ran a simple campaign with, apparently, some of the few monsters whose stats are fully cooked: kobolds and hobgoblins. 

 It was a blast, though like any campaign this depends on the people more than the rules, and this is a good crowd.  I think we all liked the new rules.  They’re a bit simpler, and they make first-level characters way more attractive.  Spellcasters should really like them, since they can regenerate their magic between encounters.  I really liked Hunter’s Quarry, a class feature which basically adds 1d8 of damage so long as you target the nearest enemy.

 The tempo of D&D is rather endearingly slower than video games.  I’m playing a MMORPG that thinks nothing of assigning a quest like “get 200 Ghost Bug eggs”.  In several hours we got through half a dozen kobolds and four hobgoblins.  (And they got through four of us…. though fortunately you can now heal an unconscious character on the spot.)

Most recent books: Bernard Lewis’s From Babel to Dragomans: Interpreting the Middle East and Diablo Cody’s Candy Girl: A Year in the Life of an Unlikely Stripper.  Both are reports from unfamiliar cultures; in that regard Diablo is fresher.

The Lewis book is a collection of essays, thus inherently uneven and a bit repetitive.   He’s at his best when talking about Ottoman Turkey, a state he seems to really admire.  It was a major military power as late as 1683 (when it besieged Vienna); Elizabethan travelers generally found it well ordered and prosperous, and till relatively late, it had no trouble winning the loyalty of its Arab and even Christian inhabitants. 

Lewis has expended a lot of ink explaining how Muslim civilization went from being the planet’s most advanced and prosperous culture to being a backwater, which is not only important in understanding the frustration of modern Muslims, but offers a warning to any culture– say, our own– which thinks that its supremacy will be eternal.  In a few words, Islam felt that it had learned everything worth knowing about the rest of the world (and that didn’t amount to much), and just didn’t notice when the situation had changed, till too late.  A 17C Ottoman account of Christianity, for instance, depends on medieval Arab sources and covers the Roman church councils, but doesn’t have a word to say about Protestantism. 

On contemporary affairs Lewis is just a pundit, and can get things spectacularly wrong– e.g. he expected that the overthrow of Saddam would result in “rejoicing” and the establishment of a government that would “seek to resolve, not provoke conflicts” (p. 380).  On the other hand, he can delve deeper than the journalists, simply because he knows Arabic, Farsi, and Turkish, something that ought to be basic in reporting on the Middle East.

An interesting oddity: diplomacy between Turkey and the West in the early centuries was generally conducted in Italian, the only language likely to be shared by both sides.  (For centuries certain Greeks would send their children to be educated in Italy to provide a source of translators.)

 As for Diablo Cody, she’s a lot of fun; her stripping memoir is full of the same energy and wit as Juno.  And refreshingly, she feels no need at all to offer regrets or moral redemption.  (It’s an old literary tradition, dating back at least to Augustine’s Confessions, that you can vicariously enjoy someone’s depravity so long as they repent by the last chapter.)

 Still, I wish someone would offer a book deal to Ali Davis for her True Porn Clerk Stories, which is as funny and a good deal more insightful than Candy Girl.

To start with, doesn’t Gygax sound like a monster or wizard in a Gygax-style world? 

 Besides one campaign with Lore, the only D&D I’ve played is Gygax’s last version– 1st edition AD&D, the quintessential pre-corporate RPG, complete with mostly lousy black & white art, Gygax’s oddly pedantic prose (“The locale in which the non-player character henchman is being sought, the racial distribution in that locale, the race of the prospective liege, and the manner of seeking henchmen, will all bear upon the race of any possible henchmen”), and tables, tables, tables… everything from NPC dress sense (roll 8 for “foppish”), to the cost of holy water vials, to the type of harlot you might encounter (look it up, DM Guide p. 192).

As a game, it’s outrageously complex and arbitrary… the three basic books total almost 500 closely-printed pages.  If you’re used to video games based on D&D, whether directly (e.g. Neverwinter Nights) or indirectly (e.g. Oblivion), D&D offers slow combat, excruciatingly slow levelling-up, a dizzyingly complex and incoherent magic system, and the constant possibility of debilitation by dice roll.  (The rules are packed with nasty things DMs can do to players, many of which will simply kill or incapacitate you, leaving you to sit there watching the rest of the party have fun.)  In some ways D&D is the Esperanto of games: just good enough to get people fired up, just bad enough to spark endless attempts to do better.

 But it’s fun, and surprisingly social for a geek activity.  I spent most of college in one long D&D campaign (hi Chris), and I’ll hear no gibes about meeting girls instead: half the group was female, including my girlfriend. 

That campaign also inspired Verduria, and of course Verdurian and other Almean languages, which led to the LCK, which led to the ZBB, so you can blame Gygax for all that too.

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