March 2008


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.

Here’s a neat toy from Slate that allows you to predict the results in the remaining primaries and see if Hillary or Obama wins.  You can be sure that a bunch of folks in each campaign are obsessively running similar tools with WoW-like intensity.

http://www.slate.com/features/delegatecounter/

Despite this week’s bad news for Obama, Hillary in bad shape, mostly due to the fact that the Democrats apportion delegates proportionately– so e.g. Obama’s 44% loss in Ohio still got him 59 new delegates.  I tried guessing the upcoming results based on those of neighboring states, and Obama ends up ahead 1677 to 1532 pledged delegates; the tool helpfully notes that he’d need 348 superdelegates to win. 

Hillary could win every remaining state in a 61% landslide and still lose the nomination.

 If you want to make your own predictions, this results page from CNN will help: http://www.cnn.com/ELECTION/2008/primaries/results/scorecard/#D

Amusing article in Slate, by Jeff Greenfield, arguing that whenever presidential candidates resemble Bugs Bunny and DaffyDuck, the Bugs-like candidate wins:

http://www.slate.com/id/2185720/

It’s probably not going to make it into poli sci courses any time soon.  But I think it’s true that voters prefer cool and optimistic candidates to frenetic and pessimistic ones, and don’t mind a little slyness.  On the other hand, they also tend to prefer the candidate who projects genial warmth over one that seems smart: cf. Eisenhower vs. Stevenson, JFK vs. Nixon, or any Republican since then vs. any Democrat except Bill Clinton.

More importantly, Greenfield annoyingly credits Chuck Jones with Bugs’s look and personality.  This is a base calumny.  Bugs’s look is due to Robert McKimson, and indeed, Jones’s own drawings (especially in the post-Warners period) make him look freakishly pudgy and feminized.  And the personality was a group effort, but the essentials were put in place by Tex Avery.  (Though it’s true that the ironic suavity that Greenfield wants to apply to politics was largely due to Jones; other directors made him more of a screwball wise guy.)

A report from Slate‘s William Saletan: being spanked or hit as a child correlates with mascochistic sex, sex without a condom, and sex with multiple partners.

http://www.slate.com/id/2185599/

 This could tell us some very interesting things about the “family values” people…

This is about the most annoying piece I’ve read lately: 

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/02/29/AR2008022902786.html

In brief, Shoen, the author of a book about “the end of the two-party system”, considers with glee the prospect of independent candidacies from Ralph Nader and Ron Paul.  He complains that some pundits have dismissed Nader’s chances with scorn.  But no!  He can act as a spoiler,  just as in 2000!

 Shoen points to a poll taken six months ago that suggested that Nader could get 4% of the vote.  Why would this be a good thing?  He even concedes that Nader won Bush the presidency– an enormous setback to Nader’s own causes. 

Unless our election process is changed (and good luck with that), the only thing a third-party candidacy is good for is publicity; and really, why not just write a book or get on Oprah?  The human reaction of party leaders to a flanking movement among the extremists is not, I would say, to embrace their position.  It’s annoyance.  Nader’s last four presidential runs have not m0ved the Democrats closer to his positions.; if they’ve had any effect at all, it’s to accelerate their move rightward. 

Someone’s put it much less nicely here: http://www.suspect-device.com/blog/?p=2014

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