October 2011


A business magazine, of all places, lays out in one place why people are upset.  See the article for the charts, but in a few words:

  1. Unemployment is at its highest rate since the Depression.
  2. Corporate profits are at an all-time high.
  3. Wages as a percentage of the economy are at a fifty-year low. 
  4. Income equality is at its highest since the 1920s.  CEO pay is up 300% since 1990; production workers’ pay is up 4% in that time; the minimum wage is down 9%.

This isn’t news; I talked about it on my Last Century page more than ten years ago.  But what’s new is getting people to look at it and getting people out in the streets to protest it.

The Republicans have a plan: give more to the rich!  Seriously, Herman Cain is now leading the polls with a plan for a huge new set of taxes for the poor, and lower taxes for the rich.  Because the biggest problem in GOP sees is the desperate plight of rich people.  They own the country now, any new productivity improvements profit only them, but they need even more coddling.  Next, I suppose, is the 4-4-4 plan: the top 4% get 4 poor people as slaves 4-ever.

The GOP is now so arrogant that they advertise their desires openly.  Cain isn’t hiding his contempt for the poor and his advocacy for the rich; he’s running on this platform.  But usually it’s a lot more coded.  We didn’t get where we are by direct advocacy of plutocracy.  We got here by thirty years of propaganda aiming at destroying liberalism.  The target was always government, or crime, or unions, or health insurance, or unemployment insurance, or gays, or immigrants, or Muslims, or public schools, or fiscal stimulus, or affirmative action, or Michael Moore.  They’ve got half the population convinced that anything that benefits the nation as a whole is wrong and must be stopped.

That’s the amazing bit, really: it’s no surprise if the top 10% vote for a party that enhances their interests (though the actual top 0.1% is actually much less reliably Republican; the really rich often develop a social conscience).  But there’s some huge fraction of the electorate that now reliably votes against their own interests.  They don’t advance under Republican rule any more than the rest of us do, but they identify more strongly with Wall Street than with their own declining jobs.

This isn’t news either; it’s partly the Southern strategy (rely on cultural affinity to divide off white men from people in a similar economic situation), partly fearmongering based on the endless 1969 in the conservative mind, partly libertarianism, an enormously successful diversion of otherwise smart people’s attention away from whatever the corporations are doing.  And partly it’s just a process that’s out of control: radicalism has no downside for these people.

But losing elections makes people listen.  Let’s give them something to think about– out of office.

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I’m about halfway through Tomb Raider: Underworld.  I’d never played a TR game before.  It’s a lot of fun so far, and quite pretty:

Lara pauses to enjoy the view

It owes a lot to Indiana Jones, but so far as I’m concerned it’s an improvement to replace Indiana with a hot British chick.  I’m finally glad I played Prince of Persia, because I immediately remembered how to climb bits of broken columns and leap from one to another.  Fortunately it’s not twitchy like POP; you can take your time with the puzzles, and often there are multiple solutions.  Lara is awfully athletic, and it’s fun moving her around these huge maps, kind of like Mirror’s Edge without the speed.

The title is perhaps unwittingly accurate: Lara certainly doesn’t act like an archeologist.  She breaks vases, grabs treasures without bothering to record location or any other information, and breaks at least one enormous statue or mechanism per ruins.  Of course these are all endless temples lost for centuries but requiring no clearing or digging, the ancient mechanisms all still working.  And the underlying story doesn’t bear much deep thought: Norse ruins off the coast of Thailand?  It doesn’t really matter; cheesiness doesn’t really hurt a game, since the important thing is the gameplay.  And in the first chapters at least, the game concentrates on what it does best: exploring beautiful temples, solving puzzles, and occasionally, for a break, shooting enemies.  (This part is so unserious that there’s no actual aiming: hitting the fire button automatically hits the nearest enemy.  Still, it allows you to do some new fun things like vaulting over enemies.)

As a character, Lara is a little too smug to entirely empathize with.  Her reaction when ambushed by mercs is to ask if she can bribe them.  And no real reason is given for why she’s pursuing this tomb raiding hobby, though perhaps that was covered in one of the many earlier games.  (So I guess it’s about as amoral as Borderlands, but doesn’t know it.)

If you’ve never played either but have heard about it, you may wonder if the game has any of that vaunted fanservice.

Yes. A bit.

 
You can choose Lara’s outfit at the beginning of each level.  Except for the first, where she explores (and jumps all over) a stone temple barefoot, which sounds ouchy.
 
More later, once I’m further in.  (Just for fun I watched Yahtzee’s reviews of this and Crysis, and his opinions were precisely opposite mine, mostly because I’ve never played another TR game and so didn’t care about repetitiveness, and because I had played Far Cry 2.  Also, the bastard doesn’t say how he got past that one point with a metric shitton of North Koreans.)

I created a page on the nearest stars, so you can create your own Federation.

Lo, I have descended the seven hundred steps to the Gate of Deeper Slumber, and hunted for unknown Kadath of which rumor tells nothing good, against the will of the Elder Gods whose messenger is Nyarlathotep, the crawling chaos.  Which is to say, pursuing the spoor of old fantasy, I’ve finally tried a book by H.P. Lovecraft– The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath.

It wasn’t what I expected.  I’d gathered that he was an enormously suggestive writer but a bad one, and overfond of unusual words.  That would be much more true of E.R. Eddison.  In fact he’s fairly straightforward, though he is always violating Rule One your creative writing teacher told you: don’t tell us how to react.  He likes to write stuff like this:

Past all these gorgeous lands the malodorous ship flew unwholesomely, urged by the abnormal strokes of those unseen rowers below.  And before the day was done Carter saw that the steersman could have no other goal than the Basalt Pillars of the West, beyond which simple folk say splendid Cathuria lies, but which wise dreamers well know are the gates of a monstrous cataract wherein the oceans of Earth’s dreamland drop wholly to abysmal nothingness and shoot through the empty spaces toward other worlds and other stars and the awful voids outside the ordered universe where the demon-sultan Azathoth gnaws hungrily in chaos amid pounding and piping and the hellish dancing of the Other Gods, blind, voiceless, tenebrous, and mindless, with their soul and messenger Nyalathotep.

There’s a reason for the rule, and Lovecraft loses in vividness (as opposed to Eddison who lovingly describes everything).  But there’s a certain rhythm to his repetitions, and this style ultimately gives life to his particular vision.  At least in these stories (mostly dealing with Randolph Carter and his excursions into dreamland), it’s not the gibbering tentacled horror that I expected.  It’s a quest through gorgeous landscapes with alien companions and the hint of a history than spans more than human time and human space.  It’s also very explicitly connected to, of all things, the landscapes of the characters’ childhoods, such as Carter’s in Massachusetts. 

Oddly, it’s a recognizable and very particular subcreation, very much of its time.  Lovecraft loves to craft splendid cities made of rich substances and inhabited by odd people with strange names and ancient histories.  It’s a vision of Europe’s discovery of the wider world as it looked in the 19th century, a time when indeed one could sail into great cities of strange-hued people, find temples teaching troubling ancient notions, stumble upon suggestive ruins and runes, perhaps even reign as king over these weird lands.  It’s informed by some exciting new things (the decipherment of ancient texts giving glimpses of lost civilizations; a modern view of the cosmos as composed of uncounted worlds and modes of being), but Lovecraft obviously prefers his vision purged of the signs of modernity– gunpowder, railroads, steamships.  He’d be repulsed by the thought of Ooth-Nargai or Dylath-Leen or hideous Leng hosting American warships or converting to Christianity or setting up an exhibit at the Columbian Exposition.  He wouldn’t be a reader of the Planet Construction Kit.  His world isn’t very dreamlike; it’s more orientalist, with a heavy dose of the imagination of a ten-year-old boy exploring alone in the woods.

In “The Silver Key” Lovecraft complains openly of the prosification of the world; he really wants to remain in dreamland, enjoying the beauty or (as a stirring change) engaging in minor wars with cats and ghouls as allies.  Where Eddison’s characters are heroic overachievers even on Earth, Lovecraft’s are failures in this world.  At the same time, at least in this book, it’s hinted that though an ordinary prosaic man would be destroyed by the real nature of the universe– such as the festering horrors that live in outer space, or the dreams of the Elder Gods it is best not to delve into– a dreamer such as Carter or Lovecraft himself could take it in stride. 

The cover of the book promises “bone-chilling horror”, a promise not really delivered.  The type of horror here is mainly unusual anatomy, plus the thought that man is only a small part of the cosmos, an idea about as old as the Neolithic.  (It’s pretty spectacularly incompatible with Christianity… though things might have been different if HP had been raised Catholic rather than Congregationalist.)

It occurs to me that the way to look at these stories might be as outsider art… an unsophisticated vision from someone who didn’t fit the modern world very well, but which is compelling precisely for its singularity and sense of alienation.

Get off my lawn!  There, needed to get that joke out right away.

Playing catch-up after many years, I signed up on Facebook and Twitter.  And I just don’t get Facebook.  It seems to be Twitter plus the ugliness of the 1995 personal web page and an absolutely baffling UI.  It’s too much information and nothing permanent.  Plus, you know, it has all those world domination plans.

So I’m some sort of social networking retard, except I get Twitter.  I think its brilliance is precisely in its 140 character limitation.  I don’t feel overwhelmed by people’s tweets, and if something goes a little long it’s kind of fun to cut it down to size; if it can’t be done that’s a sign it wants to be a blog entry.

I caught up with Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, the sequel to Batman Begins.  I can’t say I found it satisfying.  Though Nolan is my favorite Batman director, this only barely felt like Batman.

There’s only so far you can bend the superhero genre back toward reality.  The movie feels to me both too fantastical and too mundane.  It posits problems that are purely otherworldly: if we had a superhero, wouldn’t that start to attract supervillains?  Perhaps it would, but the answer is hardly something that has any direct relevance to our lives.  But then why bother to be edgily realistic in your psychology?  Batman spends an awful lot of time brooding about his life choices, and that kind of breaks the Batman contract.  There’s times when Batman, in his mask, is interrogating Joker and hears something that evidently makes him feel like he’s just learned that Santa doesn’t exist.

The best thing in the movie is Heath Ledger’s Joker.  He’s usually played as someone who’s having a blast being insane.  Ledger found a new way to play him as a sort of criminel savant, someone who’s found a way to cannily use his own amorality and irrationality.  He’s quite perceptive, zeroing in on his enemies’ weaknesses and their inability to adapt to a new situation, and he can actually make a persuasive argument.  It’ll be evil, of course, but it’s a self-aware, smart evil.  He doesn’t quite solve the problem of “why would anyone work for this guy”, but he does make a good case that “your ordinary methods don’t work against Batman; mine do”.

As such he pretty much runs rings round everyone else.  I think the disturbing thing here is that Batman can’t think of an answer.  He has no argument for what he’s doing, nor for his strange scruple against direct killing.  (Seriously, just as in Batman: Arkham Asylum, the creators make an excellent case for just offing the bastardNot killing Joker just means he kills more people.  Given the leakiness of Arkham Asylum, there’s no real moral case for keeping him alive.)  The only way Batman defeats Joker here is via technology.  Only Alfred has any actual philosophy to offer.

Joker keeps working the same angle here: force people to make a choice between two horrible things.  Well, yes, that’s a good trick; in chess we call it a combination.  And again, no one ever seems to figure this out, or anticipate the next deadlock, or find a way to force a combination on him.  No one but Joker comes off as very smart here.

The Harvey Dent subplot struck me as a little too obvious; Dent is so obviously being set up for a fall that it’s hard to take him seriously.  And I think Gordon got sent through the same stupidifier as Batman; he always seems about a step behind events, his weak chin wavering in befuddlement.

On the plus side, Chicago is even more recognizable this time playing Gotham City.  That double-decker street is real; that’s Wacker Drive, the savvy Chicago driver’s alternative to going through the Loop.  The guy playing the mayor even reminded me of Rahm Emanuel.

 

 

 

 

 

It occured to me today that Eddison’s worldview is essentially a perpetual male adolescence.  It’s all about being, not achieving.  Like Buckaroo Banzai, his heroes are just naturally omnicompetent— he has zero interest in how Lessingham solves a diplomatic crisis, or the steps by which he works his way up to being a warrior.  The fascination with aristocracy falls into place, as this is a profession you are born into and indeed which looks down on those who are raised to it by hard work.

Even his metaphysics works this way.  Beauty, after all, is a passive state, not a skill or an activity.  I like the fact that he’s not misogynistic, quite the reverse.  And his women are anything but girlish.  But they’re seen from outside; only a very conventional and rather shallow girl could aspire to be simply an object of worship.

The irony is that actual teenagers would, I think, find his books nearly impenetrable.

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