Boehner’s comeuppance

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.


The stinking past

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 Munkhâshi life

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.

New Vegas: Fun Zone

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.

Best weapon evar

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.)

We’re in New Vegas, baby!

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.


So a bunch of Germans have created a huge mod for Oblivion, called Nehrim.  I’ve been playing it and having a good time.  Unfortunately I can’t get screenshots to work, so here’s a stock shot from their site.


 It’s not an addition to Oblivion, it’s an entirely new continent, character, and set of quests, plus an interface upgrade.  Overall, it’s just close enough to the original that you can pick it up easily (the keys and the basic mechanics are the same); about all the changes I’ve noticed are improvements:

  • Much easier inventory screen (a grid with mouseovers)
  • Smaller, more easily readable font
  • Full-screen maps… especially appreciated in the local view
  • The world doesn’t level with you; instead areas are segregated by level
  • You advance by earning experience points, most easily acquired by killing enemies
  • You start out higher in alchemy, so you are not grinding through vats of Restore Endurance
  • There are mini-enchanted items, like herbs that increase what you can carry by 1 point, or a gem that I used to enchant my pickaxe to do 3 points of fire damage
  • You get skill points which you can put into new abilities, such as mining or cooking… I haven’t really been able to do this yet, but it sounds intriguing

In general, magic, archery, and blocking are said to be greatly strengthened.  You start out with only a healing spell though, and though you find scrolls, you don’t get much magic at first– though the main quest promises plenty of it.

On the whole it seems to be made by people who thought Oblivion was a little too Unserious.  Not that there is no humor; one of the first quests is to help a guy who’s got his head stuck in a helmet.  But  you can’t join five guilds and advance in them all, there are mentions of a big war going on, no one talks about mud crabs, you can’t be a Khajiit or Orc, the giant rats are only cat-sized, and in general the game doesn’t hold your hand as much.  (E.g. you don’t always get a convenient quest marker, so you may have to wander around more.)

There’s full voice acting with 50 voice actors… though it’s all in German.  This is kind of neat, actually… after all it solves the old fantasy problem of everyone speaking English instead. 

The initial cave takes almost two hours to get through, and can be challenging… especially after your torch gives out.  It’s better than Oblivion’s, and that wasn’t bad at all.  In general that’s the feeling of the game so far… they’ve learned from Oblivion and done everything with a lot of care.  Their site claims that it’s all handmade, no robo-generated dungeons.  Out in the wild they seem to prefer mini-dungeons to sprawling ruins, which is probably better.

My one complaint so far is that some solutions to quests are a little too quirky.  E.g. you’re sent to fetch supports for the main gate; the dungeon you’re sent to is small but nothing seems to quality.  Turns out to be a couple of shovels.  Huh? 

It’s a little slower to get going, if that bothers you.  With Oblivion you get the basic politics in the tutorial dungeon and if you follow the main quest you’re soon fighting demons.  With Nehrim there are hints about the overall situation, but after six hours or so I have no idea what the overall plot is.  I don’t see this as a bad thing; I don’t mind building up a character.

Also, did I mention it’s free?  (You have to own Oblivion though.  However, that’s just $20 on Steam, which is well worth it.)

The PCK is out!

I wasn’t expecting this for another few days, but the Planet Construction Kit is up at Amazon!

Go buy it!

Be the first!  …Er, well, you can’t because three copies are already sold, but you can be the fourth!

Here’s a description of the book.  I’m also going to add an on-line chapter, but I have to, um, write it first.

What’s next in the Construction Kit Empire?  Well, I think that was it, actually; this book covers everything but language.  But I have some novels to put out there…

Alllmoooost theeere

I got the second proof of the Planet Construction Kit today.  I’ve been handling it gingerly, afraid that it will explode into typos in my hand.

The most important thing to check was the pictures, and fortunately my tricks worked– I either enlarged them, recropped them, or dialed up the contrast. 

I’ll look at it a bit more and see if there’s anything that prevents publication.

Edit:  I read a couple chapters and didn’t find anything wrong, so I pushed the button.  It can take “up to 15 business days” to get the Amazon page up, but last time it just took a week.  Foreign Amazons take longer, however.