Governing in griefer mode

A number of video games have a morality system which encourages you to play the game twice, the first time as a Good Person who responds to the apocalyptic threats like a normal person, the second time as an Evil Person, messing with the game for lulz, because after all, they’re all just pixels.  It’s evident that the House GOP is attempting to govern in this way.

I’m not going to give a play by play, both because the political blogs do that better and because positions change with such kaleidoscopic speed and illogic that no one really knows where we’ll end up, except that it’ll be bad.  Now hopefully Obama won’t give away the whole store, but assuming a deal is made at all, it’ll function as an austerity program, a fucked-up version of what is already being tried– and is failing– in Britain.  In other words, what we’re seeing is the crew of the Titanic debating on how fast they can run into another iceberg.

The mechanisms used to get there are perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the whole horrible drama.  The spectacle of Boehner desperately bargaining with his own caucus to pass his own bill is almost comic, highlighting the strange tightrope that he has chosen to walk: he knows perfectly well that there’s no use passing a bill that can’t pass the Senate and Obama’s desk, but he may lose his job if he doesn’t do just that.  The fact that he had to keep delaying a vote and throwing in sweeteners doesn’t suggest that the episode has strengthened him.

The whole debt ceiling stuff is ridiculous as well: Congress has already passed a budget that mandates certain spending levels; if it refuses to authorize the borrowing to get the money, it’s simply contradicted itself.  There’s a perfectly good legal argument that Obama should simply gravely shrug and ask the Supreme Court which set of laws to follow.  (One of the more amusing proposals is that he should use his law-given authority to mint a couple $1 trillion platinum coins.  Strange but legal, and better than a default.) 

None of this has a thing to do with the deficit, something the Tea Party doesn’t give a single tea leaf for.  They didn’t support Clinton when he balanced the budget; they didn’t oppose Reagan and Bush when they ballooned the deficit; they resolutely oppose any increase in revenues to undo Bush’s disasters.  They only really care about one thing– keeping taxes low– though they are happy to attempt to destroy all social spending and most other government functions in order to do it.  

And if they’d won the Senate and the Presidency they could certainly go and do it.  They’re essentially gambling that they can force a crisis to get their way on everything.  I don’t think Obama’s quite so dumb as to let them do it; I’m fairly confident Harry Reid isn’t.  So what’s their Plan B?  The usual recourse after asking for the stars is to settle for the moon.  But they’ve got themselves so fired up that even a compromise that moves the country far in their intended direction (that is, smaller government and a new Great Depression)– i.e. all of the plans already on the table– are unacceptable to their base. 

Also keep in mind that for all the talk of Grand Bargains, nothing that’s decided this year (if anything is) will last past 2012.  None of the parties involved can force anything on future Congresses, even their own future selves.  (I don’t for a minute believe that if the Republicans won big in 2012, they’d implement Ryanism or Randism.  They’d cut taxes and run up the deficit again; it’s what they do.  They’re only against gummint spending now because they’re not in charge of it.)


Does conworlding help storytelling?

I’ve wondered about this, as I think conworlding can become an end in itself, even if it was begun in order to provide background for stories.

Well, I’m writing a novel set in  Xurno, and I can report that yes, all that conworlding helped a lot.  I have a country with a few thousand years of history, a unique form of government, and a well developed religion, to say nothing of ancient and modern languages.  It makes for a vivid world with the sort of depth of allusion I’ve always valued in stories.

Some caveats, though. 

  • It doesn’t directly help with plot, though a complicated enough history suggests overall stories.  E.g. this book deals with the Prose Wars, a period of ideological and governmental turmoil which some very specific issues– i.e. a generic civil war wouldn’t help much with character or plot choices.
  • The more generic your choices, the less help the conworlding will be.  Xurno is one of the stranger cultures on Almea, which makes it fun to explore and write about.  A Generic Fantasy Kingdom doesn’t provide that kind of motivation. 
  • I maintain that conworlding shouldn’t overwhelm the reader.  Readers start to squirm and complain if the exposition is too heavy or if they’re snowed under by unusual terms and names.  (The trick with exposition, I think, is to make sure the reader is already interested in the characters and their predicaments.)

Whether it actually works as a story I can’t say yet, but I’m not even worried about that yet. 

I started this book years ago and put it aside when I ran out of plot.  I had a set of characters but didn’t know what they would do after page 50.  What helped most with that was thinking about terrible things to do to them, and about how each of them needed to change.  For instance, a key figure is a would-be scholar named Enirc; he’s a main driver of the plot largely because he’s so needy and nerdy.  His low social skills alienate one character but draw another one in (helping him, she becomes a major proponent of the new Salon of Prose). 

What kind of conworlding info has been the most useful?  The cultural and religious stuff, mostly.  Some general history– e.g. an actual war in the timeframe of the novel turned out to be useful, so of course it was good that my history said who the opponent would be.  (Cuoli, as it happens.)  Anything visual is great– e.g. my page on the clothing styles of Xurno.  Things like the technology timeline are useful for knowing what the world is going to look like (e.g. do they have printing yet?  spectacles?  cannons?).

Solveable problems: Poverty

An article in Foreign Affairs suggests that the cost of ending ‘absolute poverty’– defined as an income of less than $1.25 a day– is dropping, and it’s a bargain.  Six years ago it would have cost about $96 billion; today it’d be just $40 billion.  That’s the amount Paul Ryan shaves off millionaires’ taxes before breakfast.

There are a few caveats, such as the hassle of actually identifying the abysmally poor, but it’s doable.  Double the price if you like, it’s still a bargain.

Also see the amazing chart here.  In the last few years, thanks to the increasing prosperity of India and China, as well as successful anti-poverty programs in Brazil, global poverty is now mainly concentrated in Africa.

Now we’re talking here about poverty by global standards, not by US standards.  Still, it’s a remarkable thing, and we should go for it.


Another title I picked up during the Steam Sale: Singularity.  It’s really good, one of the most satisfying of the survival horror games I seem to be into lately. 

Eto krasnaya igra.
A satellite has disappeared near Kamchatka due to some sort of energy surge, and you’re an American agent sent to investigate.  Right near the source, there’s some sort of energy surge– who could have seen that coming?– and your helicopter goes down.  You come to and start to investigate the strange goings-on at Katorga-12.
The game trods on one of my pet peeves… thinking that и is a kind of N and я
is a kind of R.  Vot gluposty!  People, this doesn’t make your text look Russian, it makes it look ignorant.  Pls fix kthxbye.
Beyond that, though, the game is gorgeous and highly atmospheric, as you make your way through a Soviet research lab, which gives you not only the standard apocalyptic ruins but gives an excuse to revisit Soviet monumental art and propaganda as well as enormous inscrutable mechanical things that could have come out of steampunk. 
You soon learn that the Soviets have been messing with “Element 99”, which occurs on Katorga-12 and has remarkable properties entirely unrelated to those of the unstable radioactive element einsteinium.  These powers have a common theme: they mess somehow with time.  One of the first toys you’ll get, for instance, is a sniper rifle which lets you slow down time for a second or so, a great aid to those of us without high twitch skills.
Naturally, something went wrong; everyone is dead.  Only there are some time warps where you can go back to 1955 when the island was occupied.  You do so early on and, oops, make a bit of a mistake.  I won’t spoil it, but undoing it is the major engine of the plot.
Another motivation: working with the hot chick
You want an action game to ramp up, and Singularity delivers: it gets progressively weirder as you go.  There’s neat time powers, weird puzzles to use them on, mutated horrors, time travel paradoxes, really big mutated horrors, and an increasing paranoia about whether you’re doing the right thing.
At the end you get one of four possible endings, none of which completely clean things up.  This might be to set up a sequel, or it might be just to fuck with your head as the best time travel stories do. 
Though the general gameplay is familiar from a number of games (“go on a bunch of errands for people who keep talking in your ear and never help out much”), it’s very well done.  I was very rarely confused about where to go or what to do, the world can be interacted with at just the right level, and there’s just about the right level of danger. 
The only level I didn’t like was one where you’re using oxygen tanks that run out fairly quickly.  That sort of thing works when your objective is basically “go fast from point A to point B”; it’s just annoying when you have to solve a few puzzles along the way. 
You can upgrade your weapons with upgrade kits, and yourself with E99 devices.  I don’t know that any of the upgrades are really essential, but I’ll pass on my friend Aaron’s advice to not waste any upgrades on the cheap little revolver.
Never trust the beautiful mutated plants grown by your McGuffium
My favorite of the toys you get to play with is the Seeker rifle, which allows you to direct the bullet as it travels.  This is not only fun, it’s useful, as you can steer the bullet around obstacles.
I know this is kind of heretical, but I think Singularity is a much more satisfying game than Bioshock.  Bioshock has better main villains, but it feels too long, the Splicers never really feel like people, and the special powers are too grudgingly doled out.  If you give us a toy, let us use the damn thing… does Gordon Freeman have to mope around looking for Gravity Batteries to power up his gravity gun?
I don’t think I have any serious complaints, but some might find that the game is too linear; there are rarely multiple ways to solve a problem.  But there’s enough variation that I never felt like it was getting monotonous.

Playing with apocalypse

Here’s a very good, very stark article on Slate on what happens if the debt ceiling isn’t raised.

I wrote a whole article on the catastrophes that the Tea Party is wishing on the country, but I can’t put it any better than this: 20% unemployment and a collapse of the private sector.

Some Tea Partiers seem to think that a collapse would be fine because it would bust the Big Bad Government.  They don’t realize that 1) busting the government will also bust business, which depends on low-risk Treasury bonds as the fallback safe investment; and 2) engineering Great Depression II would likely end up where Great Depression I did— i.e. a half-century of liberalism.

The next couple week are going to be morbidly interesting.  I wonder if McDonnell’s plan is going to suddenly get traction; what’s interesting about it is that it’s a total GOP capitulation: Congress gets out of the debt ceiling business for a couple years, but reserves the right to tut-tut.

Another project: Print historical atlas

It took forever to paint that orange as Almea

Today’s mail brought a proof copy the Historical Atlas of Almea.  It’s quite pretty.

It includes both Ereláe and Arcél, and maps and information about other areas as well, and the maps are big, about 5.5″ by 7.5″, and in full color.

I was worried that the color maps would be grainily halftoned, like the photos in the PCK, but no, they’re quite nice, and all the text is sharp… really, it makes the on-line version look fuzzy and difficult.

Which is good, because the color printing makes it much more expensive.  More on that later.

When can you get your hands on it?  Well, I’m proofing it now, and then I’ll need to order another proof.  I think it needs a map of Neinuoi, too.  I really want this to be the most gorgeous and accurate reference possible.  So, probably a few weeks.

How to increase GDP

Via Yglesias— a nice demonstration that correlation is not causation. A Finnish researcher has found that there is a small but robust inverse correlation between GDP and average penis size.  Policymakers take note:

The GDP maximizing size is around 13.5 centimetres, and a collapse in economic development is identified as the size of male organ exceeds 16 centimetres.

Note that the correlation is inverse, so the worst thing to do in a recession is answer penis enlargement e-mails.