October 2010

Over at The New Republic, William Galston has a good article on why Boehner’s life will be hell if the Republicans retake the House.

In a few words: pride goeth before a fall.   The public is not asking for a do-nothing Congress… and Boehner and others think they’re being elected to resist everything Obama wants to do. 

And that’s before getting to the problem of budget cuts.  Thing is, Americans only want small government in the abstract; when it comes down to specifics they want big government.  A majority of Republicans object to big cuts in Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and defense… and that’s the bulk of federal spending.  When it comes down to the rest– the fabled “discretionary spending’–  well, people want most of that too.

Then there’s the little problem that the Republicans have promised to fight to add to the deficit by making Bush’s tax cuts permanent. 

So, they’re gonna have a great November 2010.  And I suspect a very painful November 2012.

Here’s couple of interesting rants from good writers– one from Charlie Stross attacking steampunk and one from China Mieville dissing Tolkien— with a common theme: there’s something a little dubious about fiction that glorifies the past.  The past sucked.

Stross’s is more get-off-my-lawn; he admits that he mostly thinks steampunk is overdone.  (This after I just opined, in print, that it wasn’t yet.  Uh oh.)  But his main point is the horribleness of the 19C.  He’s perfectly right (there’s a reason we talk of Dickensian horrors), but also strangely off base.  The 19C was after all a dress rehearsal for the 20C; it’s where the productivity curve starting moving way ahead of population, the popular press appeared, colonial empires started unraveling, the aristocrats started losing power, science and technology bloomed, and religion began losing its stranglehold on culture.  If the past is a foreign country, the 19C is Canada.  (Unless you’re Canadian.)

And those Dickensian horrors look almost quaint in the light of the 20C, when professional horrormeisters took over.  From the end of Napoleon to 1914, it was basically a century of peace, with a striking lack of psychopaths in power.

As for Miéville, I can’t really quibble with anything he says about Tolkien, though it verges at times on the mean-spirited: “Troubled by the world? Close your eyes and think of Middle Earth.”  I dunno, China, I read The Scar and I’m not sure it exactly advanced the cause of socialism.*  I’d also point out that morality isn’t absolute in Tolkien: the good is always tinged with grey, and it’s clear that, for Tolkien, saving the world meant destroying it.  If Sauron represents industrialization (a bit of a stretch but I know what he meant and I’ve pointed it out myself), what does it mean that when he’s defeated, the sources of beauty in the world all get on ships and leave?  Whatever Tolkien is on about, it’s not just exaltation of the status quo.

But where I really have to quibble is his dismissal of C.S. Lewis as “rugger-playing”.  What?  Lewis can fairly be accused of donnishness, being a don, but about the one thing he was never interested in was sports.  He had a miserable school experience and was obviously what we’d call a nerd.  He was conservative, yes, but also little interested in politics, and he made an effort in his apologetics to downplay differences from the Left. 

Miéville is British, and I suspect a bit of old British class warfare… Lewis must be what we’d call a gladhanding fratboy because he’s a Conservative and they all are, aren’t they?  There’s also, I think, the unpleasantness of finding sometone with the wrong politics who happens to be charming, erudite, and blisteringly intelligent.  You hate to admit that the Wrong Side can be charming, so it must be false charm.

* To be fair, Miéville doesn’t think it did either.  He writes fantasy because he likes the genre.  But he’s criticizing Tolkien’s defense of fantasy as “consolation”, and I think he misses the atmosphere of Tolkien’s times– a sense of unease and destruction which did not simply have Reaction as the villains and Progress as the good guys.  The totalitarians claimed to stand for Progress (and industrialization), after all, and Progress was pushing horrors like Freudian psychology or faceless Bauhaus rectangles.  Even Orwell was convinced that things like nice restaurants simply couldn’t exist in a socialist utopia.   It wasn’t hard to feel that powerful forces were poised to extinguish all beauty, and there were no unmixed good guys in sight.  A little redemptiveness in your fiction doesn’t seem like much of an evil under the circumstances.

Edit: Here’s a much, much worse article from Michael Moorcock on fantasy.  What’s annoying about it is that it’s clear that the writers he attacks annoy him politically, yet he chooses to go after them for their writing style.  It’s dishonest and really rather silly… poor style is nothing to get steamed up over.  He also completely fails to make any correction for the writers’ times, and he actually ends up with a complaint about our “intellectual decline and our free-falling academic standards” which, amazingly, is precisely the same cheap ranting against modernism that he’s spent five pages railing against. 

(And Moorcock’s own fantasy is not only laughably pretentious, but far more blatant in its ideology-peddling than Lewis.)

A new page giving the biography of a typical Demoshi peasant of about 1400 Z.E.

I’ve been working out Munkhâshi and its modern descendant Dhekhnami.  It’s well past time, since they’re the major antagonists in Ereláe; the occasion is a revamp of the Historical Atlas and realizing that I was tired of not knowing what any of the geographical names meant.

I originally wrote it as a culture test, and decided it could be better done this way.  The one thing you miss is the quick tour of all the neighbors.  (Hint: the Munkhâshi disdain them all.)

Munkhâshi originally (i.e. in 1978) looked like your typical post-Tolkien Bad People Language; on the other hand, I’ve explored difficult phonologies in Barakhinei and Elkarîl.  There are some hairy consonant clusters, but I’ve done worse.  Dhekhnami is more fun; most of the difficult sounds have been softened, and I don’t think it sounds like a Bad People Language any more.

I’m probably going to come up with complaints later.  But I’d like to note that right now I’m probably in the Maximum Fun Zone for Fallout New Vegas.

I mean, there are frustrations because of my low level: I hate running into locks or computers I can’t open yet; I was frustrated to run into a mess of insects called Cazadores and just die every time I confronted them.  But I know from Fallout 3 that the first ten or so levels are the best.

I love open ended games, and this is the period when it’s most open.  For instance, I was wandering around and saw this from afar:

What the hell is that?  I went to check, and it’s an enormous sheet-metal statue, and in the vicinity I picked up three new quests.

The same night, for the first time I was able to create my own ammo.  Three whole .357 bullets; that was all I could make from my inventory.  It’s frustrating that I couldn’t make more, or much of anything else yet… but that frustration is the itch that drives an RPG.  You keep getting new abilities.

Once you’re at level 20, by contrast, you can do almost anything but there’s little left to do even in one of these enormous games.  (I don’t know this about FNV yet, but I’m guessing.)  There can be new DLC that makes it come alive again, of course, but it’s not an easy problem in game design to make that work.  Fallout 3 achieved it with Point Lookout but not Broken Steel; Borderlands did it with Knoxx but not Claptrap Revolution.

The statues, by the way, are relevant to another ongoing argument.  I think karma systems are pretty dumb, and I think it’s kind of silly when games keep telling you what a fabulous hero you are.  (Again Borderlands got this precisely right: you’re no hero, you’re a treasure hunter and you only help out these fine folks for the loot.)  Point Lookout required you to choose between two almost equally unattractive antagonists.  FNV is leading up to a choice too, but I’m not sure yet how stark a choice it is.  One side looks “good”, but those statues point to a certain grandiosity, and the local towns are not exactly eager to join their side.

Say what you will about the latest TF2 update, and many have, but it contains the most fun weapon yet– the Holy Mackerel.

A fish. For you.

It’s just pure fun.  It’s animated really well, for one thing; it flops around in a goofy way, and glistens like a wet dead fish.  Every time you hit someone with it there’s a notice in the upper right, and if you kill someone it says FISH KILL! 

I’m a lousy scout, but it’s a blast to run around on Blu with the fish, and I’ve actually done pretty well in some rounds, a combination of captures and FISH KILLs.  I learned fairly quickly that if you’re some distance away you’d better use, you know, a gun; also that the fish, awesome as it is, does not do well against fire or miniguns.  But it doesn’t matter, because, come on, FISH KILL.

It doesn’t seem as useful on Red, so I usually go back to Soldier.  (With a fairly dull loadout, including the original rocket launcher.  I used to use the Pickaxe– it was fun to do more damage and go fasterat close to zero health– but the Pain Train feels more helpful as capturing points is good.)

I love Fallout 3, so I’ve been eagerly awaiting Fallout: New Vegas.  (I’ll wait for Civ V till it’s on sale.)  I picked it up last night and spent a few hours in the Mojave, curiously spared nuclear if not social devastation.

Her name is Candy. You wanna make somethin' of it?

There’s a cute Western flavor to the game… when picking SPECIAL attributes, for instance, the description for Agilility reads: “When a fella’s in a gunfight and shoots the other guy six times before they can get off a shot, it’s cause that fella is agile.” 

The tutorial sequence doesn’t have the drama of Fallout 3; on the other hand it’s kind of nice not to be a vault dweller.  You are given a vault jumpsuit, but if you preordered the game (as I did by about six hours) you get some leather armor instead.

I never played the first Fallout games and probably never will; I’m a graphics snob and I like rich, immersive, high-polygon environments.  But I like the changes Obsidian has introduced so far, such as perks that are mixed pluses and minuses, a much more elaborate construction system, and special ammo types.  Oh, and you can decrease your initial SPECIAL stats in order to increase others.

I had trouble shooting things… my accuracy is not that great, but it’s not that bad, either, so I’m guessing it’s one of them Obsidian changes, especially as it improved if I used the sights and crouched.  I’m not too fond of game-induced accuracy problems; I have trouble enough hitting things.  But there’s always VATS.

More later.  I’ve got a minor battle to organize, and I think I need to level up first, so I have to find some geckos or something to tenderize.

Need a job as a technical writer or programmer.  Mail to markrose at zompist.com.

ZBB is back up here.

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