For the two TF2 fans who haven’t already seen this:


Quite lovely character animation for machinima.  You gotta feel for that demoman.

Also the opportunity to learn two useful French terms: bêtisier “gag reel”, and gogol “tard”.


Defeat the Pyro

Desperate for one more hour of TF2, I tried a new server last night– all Badwater all the time.  The quality of play was markedly lower than on MeFi… I was amazed to run up to the building in the middle that normally sports a horrible sentry nest and find nothing.

I was also treated to a long rant about pyros from some guy.  He hates them, they’re too powerful, they’re a newbie class, there’s no counter to them, blah blah. 

Now it’s true that a good pyro can be very scary.  I’m a middling pyro, so I can cause moderate devastation, especially to spies, scouts, and medics, and those foolish enough to be ahead of me.  But there are definite counters to pyros.  An incomplete list:

  • The muscle classes.  It’s not a great idea to dash right toward heavy, soldier, or demoman.
  • Distance.  The pyro’s built-in limitation is the short range of his flamethrower.  I rarely start out next to you; why’d you let me get close enough to burn you?
  • Demomen in general.  Heavies are at least less numerous, and easier to avoid.
  • Chan. 
  • Sentry guns.  Good excuse to switch to Soldier.
  • Maps which encourage knotting up the team, like certain payload maps.  Pyros are at their best a little separated from the team: either behind it, clearing out spies and scouts, or ahead of it, ambushing the enemy from behind.  On most payload maps I end up playing medic or soldier instead.
  • Maps with a lot of open space.  (Contrariwise, pyro heaven is a map with lots of narrow passages and alternate routes.)

I don’t think any class is particularly under- or overpowered, as shown by the fact that on a good server you’ll see a mix of everything.  I’ve tried them all, but I am no damn good at sniper or demoman, and extremely no damn good at spy. 

Sometimes, especially on a small team, there are curious lacks… often, no one’s playing Heavy.  I dunno, maybe experienced players disdain the big clumsy Russky.  But a teamful of engies and spies aren’t gonna move little cart.


So, McCain “suspends his campaign” (whatever that means– is he temporarily not the candidate?) and rushes back to D.C. to help out.  Well, I guess it’s nice he remembered he’s a Senator– he hasn’t voted in the Senate for five months. 

He may not quite remember what committees he’s on… in particular, he’s not on the Banking committee that’s considering the bailout plan.

I’m seeing a number of pundits who think it’s a bald-facedly cynical political move.  I’m willing to believe McCain thinks it’s the right thing to do– he thinks he’s committing an act of leadership.  It’s not political maneuvering– it’s just dumb, the same sort of badly thought out recklessness that gave him a running mate who’s not allowed to talk.  Is this the guy we want to be handling economic failures, hurricanes, and rogue states?


This has been an amazing few weeks. 

  • Sep. 7: Fannie Mac and Freddie Mac nationalized.
  • Sep. 14: Merill Lynch, hemmorhaging money, is bought by Bank of America.
  • Sep. 15: Treasury Secretary Paulson declares: no more federal bailouts.
  • Sep. 15: Lehman Brothers declarees bankruptcy– largest in US history.
  • Sep. 16: Government buys out AIG for $85 billion.
  • Last week: the money dried up.  Business– not the financial sector, everything– couldn’t get short-term credit.  Businesses breathe money– and they need to pay you and me– so this put the whole economy at risk.
  • Sep. 20: Paulson demands $700 billion to spend any way he likes.
  • Sep. 21: the last two major US investment banks, Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs, are changed to bank holding companies (allowing them to take deposits, which are a good cushion for bad times, but also accepting the more stringent regulation of banks).

I’m no economist; I’ve relied a lot on Paul Krugman to see what’s going on.  Here’s his overall summary, for instance.  Bottom line: the housing bubble burst; that left all sorts of firms dangerously in debt.  Feverishly unloading assets, they’re driving the prices even further down. 

And underlying the bubble and the subprime crisis was, quite simply, deregulation.  The strictures of traditional banks were loosened because the market could do no wrong.  (As recently as 2005, a bipartisan effort to regulate the GSEs was simply shut down by Bush.)

Despite its incompetence, the Bush administration has, as always, attempted to grab extra power without oversight or responsibility.  Paulson’s bill proposes:

Decisions by the Secretary pursuant to the authority of this Act are non-reviewable and committed to agency discretion, and may not be reviewed by any court of law or any administrative agency.

In other words, he can take $700 billion from the taxpayers, spend it as he likes, and no one can ever review or challenge him.  (If his judgment is that godlike, why was he declaring that there would be no more bailouts a week before?)  Sen. Dodd has a counter-propsal which establishes an oversight board and requires that the government receive equity in return for bailout money; that should be the minimum before handing the Bush administration another blank check. 

Scariest thing of all: there’s no guarantee it’ll work.

Last-minute power grab

Bush is history, right?  He’s a lame duck, so despised that even his own party barely mentions him.  He can hardly get into more trouble.  Right?

Wrong.  He’s trying to expand the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force, the fig-leaf to congressional power passed after 9/11, at the time considered simply as approval for invading Afghanistan.


The AUMF is short but grants almost unlimited power to the President: “all necessary and appropriate force” is granted to fight terrorism, without a time limit, without congressional oversight.  Bush has used the AUMF, even more than the Patriot Act, to justify his expansion of presidential power and defiance of the rule of law.

And he wants to expand it further.  The legislation he’s pushing

  • explicitly authorizes the president to “detain enemy combatants”, so no more challenges to Gitmo
  • allows detention “regardless of the place of capture”– i.e. on American soil; farewell to the Bill of Rights
  • allows detention is “until the termination of hostilities”, and of course these never end
  • expands the targeted groups– “and associated forces”, which could be almost anyone

Congress has tended to lie down like a shaved sheep whenever the words “national security” come up.  That’s got to stop.  The AUMF is too broad anyway; it should be restricted, not enlarged.  We don’t live in a superhero comic or a thriller where one man is all that stands between us and utter destruction.  Nothing has happened that requires us to throw out the separation of powers.  On the contrary: the Bush administration’s conduct of the war would have been vastly improved without its bunker mentality.

And if you’re thinking that McCain would be not quite so bad, why did he pick a vice president who derides the rule of law as “reading people their rights”?

When hoplites were hoppenin’

Speaking of Thermopylae, I just finished Tom Holland’s Persian Fire, a history of the Persian war… the war that invented history.  One Herodotus was moved soon after the war to make some enquiries– ἱστορίαι– which became our word ‘history’ (and ‘story’). 

Holland tries a little too hard to reach for contemporary significance, positing the war as the first conflict between European freedom and Oriental despotism.  There’s no need for that; it’s a fascinating story all on its own: two Greek city-states (by today’s standard town-states) of colossally different temperaments, Athens and Sparta, stand up to the superpower of the day and win.

I’d never really grasped the history of Athens, so the book was worth it for that alone.  Athens was a revolutionary state; its newfangled ‘democracy’ was created around 510, just 30 years before the main war.   And before the war it was a decidely minor power.  Oversimplifying, Athens was plagued by feuding aristocrats with an inclination toward tyranny; one of them, Cleisthenes, reorganized the state and gave ultimate power to the assembly.  Curiously, Sparta had undergone its own revolution about a century before, one which also devolved power from aristocracy to a larger citizen class. 

The great Greek vice was factionalism, both between and within cities.  Not even Sparta was unified– the king Demaratus squabbled with his co-king Cleomenes and was forced out… and went over to the Persians, where he advised Xerxes.  The Greek systems scaled badly; the individual cities could create alliances, but not a nation.

The Athenian leader Themistocles emerges as remarkably prescient.  I’d thought somehow that Athens was always a sea power, but it wasn’t; like any Greek state it trusted in land armies, which had won the battle of Marathon.  It was Themistocles who convinced Athens to switch to naval power, building 200 ships in a matter of years– a cheeky move when Xerxes had the squadrons of Tyre and Sidon, the premier shipbuilders of the day– and not only that, but to evacuate Athens and trust entirely in the fleet.  And yet, after the war, we find Themistocles too switching to the Persian side.

Holland also answers the main question I had after seeing 300: why didn’t Xerxes pursue his advantage– what did he do with his army after Thermopylae?  The answer is, the resisting Greeks barricaded themselves in the Peloponnese, behind a five-mile-wide wall near  Corinth.  Xerxes counted on the fleet to get past it, and that was defeated at Salamis.  It was also late in the year– too late for a major operation.  He went back home in disgust, leaving a general to take care of the problem the next year.

You are all bleeders!

It’s best to be modest when talking about one’s gaming prowess, and I have much to be modest about.  But sometimes it just all comes together.  Last night we were defending on the third stage of Dustbowl.  Blue has a narrow bottleneck to come out of, shown at left; they have an alternate door, which you can see here, but it doesn’t get them much farther.

The capture point is around that building to the left; below is Red’s point of view, showing the point, looking back at the same alternate door.  This was about where I was stationed, as a Soldier.

There were about half a dozen of us, and we had about 13 minutes… an eternity to hold this position, but we got into a great flow.  I’d fire my four rockets and back off– the Soldier reloads very slowly– occasionally jumping up into the building to get more ammo.  My friend Stavros had a good sentry post off to the left; there was another Soldier, a Pyro, and a Medic, and we got into a nice flow– if anyone got through, they were quickly eliminated.  Soldier is very powerful if you have some distance, and I racked up 4286 damage and 10 kills, which is incredible for me.

We failed, in the end– I think they ubered or double-ubered through, and then got very quickly to the last point.  So it was kind of our Thermopylae, a glorious battle though regrettably lost.

Ultimately, of course, I blame Red management for always building its bases a hundred yards away from Blue’s.  You’d think they’d learn.

Zot back on Earth

Over ten years ago I reviewed Zot!, Scott McCloud’s superhero comic, which was then being reprinted.  Frustratingly, Volume 4 never appeared.  Finally it has, in a transmuted form: all the black & white issues have been reprinted in one volume by Harper. 

Zot and Terry
Hope vs depair: Zot and Terry

Those missing stories, “the Earth stories”, are amazing.  McCloud simply isn’t a good superhero writer; he obviously loves the genre, but he can’t take it seriously à la Kirby or transcend it à la Moore. 

In the Earth stories he takes a sharp turn right out of the genre: Zot and his friends are trapped on Earth, away from Zot’s colorful homeworld and its supervillains, and the comic settles down into suburbia and ruminates on the horrors of high school… which turn out to be more involving than any of the superhero stories. 

Each issue concentrates on one person, and the theme in every case is isolation and despair searching for community and a reason to continue.  Even Zot– conceived as an avatar of optimism– has a hard time, finding out that his idea of superherodom doesn’t solve many problems on Earth. 

I think what I like most about these issues is their quiet, honest moodiness.  They deal with the problems of a teenager and they don’t really offer any solutions.  If they did, they’d be a cheat: a teenager can’t stop cliquishness, bullying, homophobia, or parents divorcing.  They offer mitigations instead: love, friendship, dreams, personal integrity.  There’s no promise that these things will make you happy; only that they’ll make the journey easier.

Anyone who was unpopular in high school will probably relate to these stories.  Which makes me wonder, what did the popular kids feel?  What’s their comic?  Maybe University2?

Woody in Barcelona

Woody Allen is still making movies, did you know?  Last night we saw Vicky Cristina Barcelona, which sounds like a working title that never got replaced.  It’s not bad, essentially a sex comedy (with nothing but kissing) charged up by good actors and hot Mediterranean colors.

No matter where Woody goes, he never seems to leave 1955.  His main characters are naive, rich Americans seduced by European hedonism… at least here they don’t talk about the death of God.  Everyone lives Woody’s version of the good life, which essentially consists of reverently viewing art (nothing past 1960 please), then going out to eat.  We get to see some art made here, at least– quick knockoffs of 1950s action painting.  Everyone has money, but disdain is tossed at the work (especially the boring networking) necessary to make it.

Strangely, Woody seems not quite to have realized that Catalan and Spanish are two different things.  The Americans talk about learning or fail to learn Spanish; the natives speak Spanish; the soundtrack features a bouncy song about Barcelona sung in Spanish.  One of the girls is doing a thesis on “Catalan identity”, which seems to mean nothing but Gaudí (d. 1926); she also adores “Spanish guitar”.  The painter they meet is referred to as Catalan but comes from Oviedo.  I guess they don’t have Wikipedia in 1955.

Culture wars over: traditionalists lose

Interesting article by Hannah Rosin: http://www.slate.com/id/2199255/

She starts by explaining why the religious right likes Palin– didn’t another cute-pit-bull candidate, Dan Quayle, actually castigate single mothers just 16 years ago?  But it turns out that evangelicals have simply adopted ’60s morality:

The rest of the 30 percent of Americans who call themselves evangelical have started to slip in their morals and now actually poll worse than the rest of America on traditional measures of upstanding behavior—they are just as likely to live together and have kids out of wedlock, and their teenage daughters lose their virginities at an earlier age than the girls of most Americans.

…The most remarkable differences between the large mass of evangelicals and the rest of Americans are in divorce statistics. Since the ’70s, evangelicals and the coastal elites have effectively switched places. Evangelicals are now far more likely to get divorced, whereas couples with four years of college education have cut their divorce rates in half.

Narrowly, it’s a lesson for lefties: don’t assume based on the public issues of the ’80s that you know how evangelicals think and behave in the ’00s.  More broadly, it’s a reminder that as a religious revival broadens, it also weakens.  Only a small minority of human beings can actually follow strict religious rules.  If they manage to take power, the rules will be broken, though perhaps only in private.