The Baburnama

I just read the Baburnama, which is Babur’s autobiography.  No, not the elephant, you big wag, the Moghul emperor.

Babur (R) with his son Humayun

Doing the Mughals


A little refresher, for those who are shaky on their Mughals. This is the big late-medieval Indian empire; Babur founded it in 1526; his last descendant was knocked off the throne in 1858 by the British. The height of the empire was under the tolerant, inquisitive Akbar, Babur’s grandson, and it’s generally considered to have gone to hell under and after the unpleasant and zealous Aurangzeb. The Taj Mahal is the tomb of a Mughal empress (Mumtaz, wife of Akbar’s grandson Shah Jehan).

The Brits arrived when the empire was just a shell, the emperor in control of little more than Delhi. The East India Company used a strange little dodge to conquer India: it supported a claimant to the throne of Bengal, who granted it the government of the province in the name of the Mughal emperor.  It used the treasury and troops of Bengal to conquer the rest of India, under the legal fiction that it was operating under Mughal authority. I’m not sure if this really fooled anyone.

Oh, fun fact: Mughal is a form of Mongol, because of the Genghis connection. The Mughals didn’t actually call themselves that; they used Gurkani, after the title Gurkan ‘son-in-law’ Timur acquired by marrying into Genghis’s line.

Babur’s life

Babur was a descendant of Timur, known to the west as Tamerlane, a particularly brutal conqueror of Central Asia and Persia.  He lived in Chaghadai’s section of the Mongol Empire, which by his time spoke Turkish and accepted Islam.  He could not claim descent from Genghis Khan himself, but he married into the family, so his sons could.  He died in 1405 while planning the conquest of China.

During and after his reign the administrative and literary language of Central Asia was Persian. There was a rough division of nomadic Turks (the bulk of the army) and sedentary Persians (the administrators). Babur made the unusual choice of writing his autobiography in his native language, Chaghadai Turkish, though he was also fluent in Persian.  The Mughals in India continued to use Persian till the end, though they did forget Turkish.  (Fortunately, the Baburnama was translated into Persian for them.)

Babur was born in 1483, and Timur’s empire had collapsed into a scrim of usually warring emirates.  His father died when he was 10, and he was plunged immediately into a lifestyle of war and migration that would last till the end of his life.  His early conflicts were with the rising power of the Uzbeks, who were slowly taking out the remaining Timurids.

Babur’s early years remind me of the story of Liu Bei in Three Kingdoms. He has a way of getting a kingdom, making a move on another, and losing everything, but you just could not put that boy down; he counted his few remaining followers and was back on the board in a few months.  He gained and lost Samarkand (Timur’s capital) three times.

Finally he’s forced out of Central Asia entirely, but he regroups in Kabul.  He takes the city without a fight in 1504, and he’s a little vague on how this happened; Wikipedia fills in the key detail that he took over from a usurper who had displaced an infant ruler. He was still only 21.

He spends most of his life in Afghanistan, and it’s obviously his favorite place, the one he thinks of as his.  (He is buried there.)  For a time things looked up: he found new allies in another Turkish dynasty, the Safavids, who had just taken over Persia; they defeat the Uzbeks and he briefly holds Samarkand.  The Uzbeks then regroup the next year and decisively defeat both the Safavids and Babur.

With progress in that direction halted, Babur simply turned the other direction.  He had already raided Hindustan; now he turned to conquest.  He had an excuse at hand– Muslims had already conquered northern India a couple centuries before, and there were quarrels to take advantage of.  He defeated Ibrahim Lodi at Panipat in 1526 and took over in Delhi and Agra; the next year he defeated a Rajput (Hindu) army.

By his own account his army was no more than 12,000 or so, and Lodi’s was over 100,000. But in general Indian armies (no matter who was leading them) were never a good match for nomad-based armies from the northwest; by this time Babur was also skillfully using cannons and matchlocks.

He spent some time consolidating his conquest, and died in 1530.  He was succeeded by his son Humayun, who promptly lost everything.  But he got it back, with Safavid help, some years later.

The book

Should you run out and get it? Well, if you like history, sure. Not many emperors have written down what they thought they were doing. I’ll warn you, though: he tends to concentrate on what is least interesting to us: genealogies, long lists of who supported who, detailed accounts of long journeys, where the army camped each night, how they got across the rivers, when and where they stopped to drink or get stoned.  A lot of what we’d consider the good stuff is asides in the story he wants to tell.

(I should also warn you that he piles on the names. Honestly I skimmed over most of them.)

For instance, he makes side comments about mistakes he made, errors in strategy, who was a good or poor warrior.  Not surprisingly, he values loyal and brave supporters, but by his own account it was awfully difficult for a beg (lord) to resist the temptation to go off on their own, or to support a rival.  In these circumstances, the only sure way to keep your forces loyal and happy was to keep them with you, and to keep coming up with loot. (The first time he conquered Samarkand, the city was so impoverished that he couldn’t reward his allies: big mistake.)

From digressions and side comments, we also learn what he was interested in besides war. He’s very fond of poetry; when he gives a portrait of someone, he sometimes rather charmingly quotes a line of their poetry. He tells you where the best fruit and wine comes from all over Central Asia.  He really likes gardens, and he’s always constructing or reconstructing one, or introducing the custom of building them into India.  (The Persians always loved a walled garden– in fact, pairidaēza  ‘enclosed park’ in Avestan is where we got the word ‘paradise’.)  In the Afghan years he is constantly having drinking parties, or for a change he and his pals eat ma’jun, a mild chewable narcotic.  (Later on he abstains from alcohol… but sees no need to give up ma’jun.)

There’s not much about sex, though the most intimate detail is rather surprising: as a young man, he had a deep crush on a younger boy. He describes himself as so shy that he didn’t really do anything about it, but it’s interesting that he has no compunctions about putting this in the royal memoirs.  (Which doesn’t prevent him from condemning “pederasty” in others. Still, I gather that it’s like drinking: he only really disapproves of it when it goes beyond some ill-defined level from excusability into excess.)  He does enter into a love match with one of his wives, but he never says much about this.

He loves Kabul, but he has a poor opinion of India:

Hindustan is a place of little charm. There is no beauty in its people, no graceful social intercourse, no poetic talent or understanding, no etiquette, nobility, or manliness. The arts and crafts have no harmony or symmetry.  There are no good horses, meat, grapes, melons, or other fruit. There is no ice, cold water, good food or bread in the markets. There are no baths and no madrasas. There are no candles, torches, or candlesticks.

What he does like about India is pretty simple and direct: it’s fabulously rich.

He mentions the language barrier, but doesn’t seem to realize how deeply it affects his judgments.  He has a long section in praise of the cultural splendor of Herat (in Afghanistan), showing that he has a great appreciation for poetry, the Persian epics, calligraphy, painting, Sufiism, and Islamic law. His description of India talks only about the physical aspects of the place– especially its plants and animals. He doesn’t mention a thing about Indian literature, culture, or religion.

Babur is a pious Muslim– he always approves of someone saying their daily prayers, he gives alms, he undertakes fasts (sometimes while he was still drinking)– but doesn’t seem zealous, until he fights with the Rajputs.  Then he is suddenly conscious of fighting the Infidels.  As he’s spent his entire life fighting other Muslims, it is hard to take this temporary zeal very seriously.  He does destroy the idols in a particular location, but mostly because he wanted to make it into a garden.

His memoirs are often described as frank or honest; of course we don’t really know if they are or not.  I understand that other sources, such as they are, don’t contradict him. But I don’t think his self-presentation is entirely artless.  E.g., he describes taking action even when he’s ten or twelve, and even when he refers to his elders taking him in hand (e.g. to protect him from his rivals). His image of himself is always of a generous and loyal king, though occasionally mistaken or unlucky in strategy. And probably he was, most of the time. He has a detailed description of a campaign in India, where he is constantly reassigning fiefs, sending letters back to Kabul, playing a game of negotiation-or-war with the frenemy of the moment, the Bengalis.  By this time, in his forties, he had evident skill not only in war, but in the all-important people skills of keeping begs happy and rivals intimidated. His one great mistake was to die too early, leaving Humayun in charge at too early an age.

I should add, there’s a famous story about his death, which for obvious reasons isn’t in the autobiography: His son Humayun was sick, and the doctors despaired for his life. Babur prayed that the illness would take him instead. And indeed, his son recovered and Babur died.

If you do read it, I recommend Wheeler Thackston’s translation, which is not only lively and readable, but complemented by helpful maps and genealogical tables.


Nombres españoles

My wife has just returned from Peru, and brought back a list of Peruvian names from the newspapers. Odd spellings for foreign names are muy de onda (very hip).






Airon (Aaron?)





Jeylo (J. Lo)

Jhunior Brayan


Itan (Ethan?)

Johan Jonathán











So your theater group or class needs a play to put on. What should it be: Cats, Hamilton, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Uncle Vanya?  Well, how about Kālidāsa‘s  The Recognition of Śakuntalā? Or अभिज्ञानशकुन्तलम्, if you’re more familiar with that name.


Kālidāsa is considered the greatest of the Sanskrit playwrights; he lived around 400, perhaps under the Guptas (the greatest of the medieval empires). He’s often compared to Shakespeare, but a better comparison, based on style and theme, would be to Molière.

The story

King Duṣyanta, back in epic times, goes hunting. He and his charioteer chase a deer into the hermitage of the sage Kaṇva; the ascetics ask him not to kill the deer in the sacred grounds. He agrees and enters the hermitage. Kaṇva is not there, but his foster-daughter Śakuntalā greets him instead. The two are immediately smitten with each other.

He leaves to go back to his camp, but can’t stop thinking of her. Fortunately, he gets the opportunity to go back: with the sage absent, demons are bothering the ascetics, and they ask the king to chase them off. He does, and spends some time with Śakuntalā. He convinces her to marry him.  (A love match was acceptable for kṣatriyas, less so for brahmins. Fortunately for the king, Śakuntalā’s father, though a sage, was also a kṣatriya. That’s a story in itself, told in the Rāmāyaṇa.)

Duṣyanta gives Śakuntalā his ring and returns to his capital with a promise to send an army to fetch her. But while he is away, another sage, Durvāsas, comes to the hermitage but is ignored by the lovesick Śakuntalā. He immediately curses her to be forgotten by the king. The only mitigation is that he will remember her again if he sees the ring.

(In the script this scene is quite abrupt— Durvāsas barely gives anyone time to react. I’m guessing the ignoring was communicated through staging.  Also of note: Hindu myth and legend is full of these very specific and powerful curses. One reason never to piss off a brahmin.)

Kaṇva is happy to marry his already pregnant ward to the king; he sends her to the capital with a small entourage. But the king doesn’t recognize her, and indeed berates her as a liar and a wanton. She searches for her ring— but it’s fallen off, back when she was bathing in the river. The king won’t take her, and the ascetics won’t bring her back to Kaṇva. All she can do is appeal to her nymph mother Menakā, who whisks her off to heaven.

The ring is found in the mouth of a fish, and the king recovers his memory— and his shame. He lounges sadly around the palace, painting a picture of her.  Before he can do anything more, however, Indra appears and asks him to help fight demons. When he’s finally done with this (apparently it takes a few years), he stops by a celestial hermitage and finds a strapping young boy who reminds him of himself. It turns out this is his son Bharata. He soon finds Śakuntalā, all is forgiven (the curse is explained by the gods) and all ends well.

The son, by the way, is the ancestor of both sides in the Mahābhārata and is the source of the Hindī name for India, Bhārat.

The Sanskrit theater

Sanskrit plays were explicitly designed to evoke emotion (rasa); the recognized types were love, laughter, sorrow, energy, anger, fear, disgust, and amazement. Śakuntalā falls into the erotic category, evoking love.

A curiosity about the Sanskrit plays is that only male, upper-class characters actually speak Sanskrit. Women and low-class men speak one of the Prākrits— later vernacular forms of the language. There was also a convention to have a buffoon, always a brahmin but also speaking Prākrit. In Śakuntalā it’s the king’s friend, a fat and cowardly figure. (The Prākrits developed into the modern Indic languages, though only a thousand years later.)

The plays were performed on a bare stage, and props (such as the king’s chariot) and changes of location were mimed. However, costumes were elaborate.

The text, by the way, describes Śakuntalā as wearing a dress made of bark (valkala).In the epics, this is described as the characteristic attire of ascetics, but the play describes the garment as flexible (indeed, it makes a point of saying that her breasts push it out) and tied by a knot, which rule out anything like, say, chunks of oak bark. An online article suggests that valkala means bast fiber— that is, a rough fabric made from plant stems, like hemp. (Paintings invariably depict her in something silky, but they also derive from at least a thousand years after the play.)

So how is it?

The plot and situations are engaging enough.  The dramatic high point is Duṣyanta’s cruel rejection of Śakuntalā at the palace.  Śakuntalā is justifiably angry:

Yes, I deserve it— I deserve to be called a self-willed wanton, since I put my trust in the Puru dynasty, and gave myself to a man with honey in his mouth but poison in his heart!

The translation I read, by W.J. Johnson, also gives the original story of Śakuntalā from the Mahābhārata. Curiously, Śakuntalā there is given a lot more to say, and far more biting.

The play is mostly prose, but with frequent short bursts of poetry. I am not a great judge of poetry, but I have to say Johnson’s versions don’t do much for me. E.g., the king’s description of Śakuntalā tired from carrying a watering pot:

From heaving up the pot, her palms are raw,
Her shoulders stoop,
Her breath is labored and her bosom shakes,
All sifted strength.
On filmy sweat the mimosa’s bloom
Slides from ear to cheek,
And as her hairband slips, those cobalt locks
Flow round her submerged hand
Like water round a rock.

Here he addresses the fateful ring:

Ring, if your reward
is anything to go by
Your good deeds
are as evanescent as mine,
For though you earned a place
on her matchless, translucent fingers,
You lacked the merit to stick there
and you fell.

Still, it’s interesting stuff, and the great advantage of reading plays to get into Indian literature is that they’re short.  (The Mahābhārata, by contrast, is about ten fat books long.)


Why you need my book: Saris

Here’s a good example of why the world needs my (upcoming) India Construction Kit. At left is a picture from a new expansion for The Sims 4.


What the fuck is that girl wearing?

It looks like it’s supposed to be a sari, but it looks crazy. Compare to the actual sari to the right.

  • You don’t tie a sari with a big bow. In fact the cloth is about a yard wide; there’s no part of it that could be made into such a thin bow.
  • The part of the sari that comes down over the chest doesn’t go into a knot; it’s draped gracefully around the body.
  • The part that goes over the shoulder (the pallu) hangs down behind the back— you should be able to see it behind her.
  • It looks like the girl is wearing a (one-sleeved??) qipao. You wear a sari over a bodice and pettiskirt. It doesn’t have to be as revealing as the woman at right, but you’re supposed to see some midriff.
  • You can certainly have a monochrome sari, but patterns are much more popular. It’s a weird choice to have a pattern only on the undergarment.
  • The most common style is to wrap the sari over the left shoulder.

It’s so bad that one may wonder if it’s supposed to be something else, like a dupatta (scarf) and skirt.  A shalwar kameez can look like the yellow dress and you can wear a dupatta over it, but…

  • It’s not normally that tight.
  • You don’t wear a skirt over it, you wear trousers under it. (Technically, as part of it: that’s the shalwar.)
  • That knot and bow: No.
  • Anyway, the dupatta would normally be draped over both shoulders.

(If you’re wondering by now if the dress is even supposed to be Indian, note that she’s got a bindi.)

It’s possible that the outfit is imitating something I don’t know about. But it seems more likely that somebody attempted a sari without really knowing how one works. Admittedly, it’s hard to figure out even from pictures, which is why I provide diagrams in the book.


The Force is woke

As you may know, they made another Star Wars movie.  It’s called The Force Awakens.


(Helpful links to my rewatch of the original trilogy: one, two, three.)

Like pretty much everyone else, my reaction is “Whew, they made a good Star Wars movie.” SW is supposed to be heroic, spectacular, and just a bit cheesy, and that’s just what they achieved.

I’ve seen a lot of people saying that it’s kind of a remake of the first film. I’d say that’s true of the last half of the film— the whole Starkiller thing. The first half, with the introduction of Finn and Rey, feels more original. And even if it is a reboot, it’s a very sure-footed one. The acting, the fighting, and the spectacle are really better than the original.

I think Harrison Ford really sells the movie. There’s an art to delivering prime movie cheese. If you don’t accept it, it turns into camp, and if you’re too earnest, it seems laughable in a different way. Ford gets the balance exactly right. He makes his age work for the movie: he’s a tired, tough old rogue, and yet he never upstages the newcomers, but gently welcomes them into the series.

(It’s a narrative danger for a movie or book series or comic to fall in love with itself. You  assume that the audience adores your characters, and you start to treat them portentously, have secondary characters do everything for them, and you forget to actually make them still likable. Danger averted here: Han earns his hero status all over again for this movie.)

The weakest part of the movie is also the riskiest move: Kylo Ren, the emergent emo Sith Lord. I like that he isn’t Darth Vader; he’s young and a little naive, and makes mistakes. That’s a far more interesting Dark Lord to work with. He does better than (shudder) Hayden Christopher, and yet it’s a little hard to take him seriously when he takes off his helmet. He doesn’t do much to show why the Dark Side attracts him, or maybe the script just doesn’t let him do so.

I like the character of  Finn.  Was this someone’s elevator pitch? “Let’s see a Stormtrooper start to question his role.” Not a bad idea at all. I almost wish the elevator guy had convinced Abrams to make that the whole movie, because learning how the Stormtroopers operate and what the human beings inside the plastic suits are like would have been interesting. (They can’t all be motivated by fear, can they?  What do they do off duty? Are there a bunch of gung-ho Trumpists who just love Stormtrooping? Is Finn the only one with doubts?)

Rey is great, and I think she fits in with my contention that women make better video game protagonists. We feel what we see, so a stoic space marine lessens what we feel— if he doesn’t seem to care about what’s happening, why should we? Rey reacts viscerally to everything she goes through.

Her character arc is small here: basically from “wants to go home” to “wants to help out”. She doesn’t have to learn to be a hero; she’s heroic throughout. That’s a major difference from A New Hope, in fact, though in part it’s just that Finn gets the role of “guy out of his depth who has to step up”.  In a sense the usual transformation is applied to the audience instead: we expect an untrained nobody, we suspect Finn is going to be the New Luke, and we keep getting shown that Rey is the more competent one.

It’s tempting to say that a character needs more flaws and setbacks, but that isn’t always the case. Plenty of popular characters are pretty much always heroic. Besides, they’ll probably throw a lot of bad shit at her in Episode 8.

When I think about the story it feels a little contrived, or to put it another way, it’s a little too convenient that people always end up just where they need to be for the next bit of plot. But I didn’t really care about that while watching, and it probably wouldn’t have added much to paper over the contrivances— it’d just lengthen the movie for no great narrative gain. (Example: the raid on Maz Kanata’s planet, which conveniently takes place just after the plot points have been covered. It wouldn’t have been hard to, say, make it a week later. But it works emotionally to have everything happen almost in real time.)

(A bigger hole, I think: they destroyed the capital of the New  Republic, right? Everyone is awfully blasé about that; they react much more to the death of one guy, albeit an important one. The one thing the movie doesn’t sell is the size of the galaxy. Compare the war in Consider Phlebas, which destroyed 90 million ships, 14,000 orbitals, and 53 planets. In many ways Star Wars feels like it has about a hundred planets total.)

OK, onto the traditional notes I took while watching…

  • The opening crawl is less amazeballs in 2015.
  • I’ve never quite got why everyone understands Droid but the audience.
  • That huge ship would make a great video game level. But really, all she could find in it to salvage is a double handful of parts?
  • Is it a good idea to steal that droid from the guy who’s stealing it?
  • Finn sometimes overplays the nebbishness.
  • I’ve played so many Bethesda games that I would’ve kept the armor to sell it.
  • Darth wouldn’t’ve trashed his own terminal, he’d’ve trashed the underling.
  • This whole section of the film doesn’t feel  like A New Hope at all.
  • “We shall see”— you may be Sith, Lord Snopes, but you could be a little more supportive.
  • OK, that’s a cantina scene.
  • No, Rey, never go down into a dungeon alone!
  • It’s taking these dudes a long time to commit to the cause. C’mon, folks, we know you got nothing to go back to.
  • Why is this big galactic laser beam visible from entirely different star systems? The galaxy never really feels like it’s the size of a galaxy.
  • Does anyone in-universe ever wonder why random people have a different accent?
  • Leia’s first appearance gives off a strong Hillary vibe.
  • My sufferance for C3PO hasn’t improved.
  • Hard not to look at Kylo Ren and think of Reaper.
  • Outsmarted, Kylo!  Try not to destroy your terminal again.
  • OK, Bigger Death Star, this is looking like a reboot.
  • The Falcon does pretty well with all this knocking into the scenery.
  • Everything is always so overbuilt in this universe. Wouldn’t plain drywall have been cheaper?
  • Here’s how well I’d expect a soldier trained with a laser rifle to do with a lightsabre: poorly. So from that point of view Finn is doing well.
  • “How fast is the weapon charging?” “At the speed of plot, sir.”
  • How does a planet collapse?  Was it full of air bladders?
  • The Starkiller episode kind of violates Mamet’s tenet of plot. Rather than repeatedly trying something and failing, the Rebels— sorry, the Resistance— come up with a plan and it works as planned on the first try.
  • BB8 didn’t get to go along on the final quest?
  • Pretty long denouement for an action movie.
  • How was that map made?  Did many Gungans die for it?  Also, why did no one not recognize a huge frigging section of the Galaxy?  People live in the Galaxy, they will know its shape.  It’s like getting a map of Europe and saying “I have no idea how this fits on the globe!”

Join me in about two years for Episode 8!


Don’t rename the Romans

Over at Mefi there was a discussion about an article that claims that J.R.R. Tolkien’s dwarves were really Jews. They were of but apart from society, you see, and really interested in gold, and longed for a homeland of their own (Moria, or the Lonely Mountain).


Now, the thing is, you can actually point to passages in Tolkien’s letters or interviews which support this identification. He even made Dwarvish a little like Hebrew.

Still, as a conworlder, the whole idea bugs me. The thing is, I’ve been asked about bits of Almea in these terms… are these people the Greeks, those the Romans, these the Bulgarians, those the Kazakhs, etc.?  It seems that many people think that to create a conworld, you take the real world and just rename all the people.  If you do more work it’s to carefully create a Latin-clone for the para-Romans, a Mandarin-clone for the para-Chinese, etc.

But good conworlding doesn’t work this way. You understand this with characters in novels, no? You don’t write a novel by placing Richard Nixon here, Amelia Newhart there, and your aunt Lucille over there.  You create characters that might have been real  but aren’t.  You draw from all over, and you make up things from your own brain, and even the tributes to your old pals are changed and disguised.

I can’t proof-text this from Tolkien, but I’m sure it’s true of him as well. He talked about subcreation, after all, not about subcopying, and he told us quite explicitly how annoyed he was by outright allegory. The Jews might have been an inspiration for the dwarves, but so were the dwarves of Germanic legend– the ones in the Hobbit even have names straight out of the Prose Edda. Plus dwarves are a longstanding part of the European fantasy tradition– they’re there in Malory, in William Morris, in Wagner. Plus, Jews are not particularly associated with mining, or bearded women, or beer, or fights with dragons.

At a first approximation, to create a conculture, you take aspects from multiple Earth culture– or literary models. And you try to make them cohere with their environment, with their neighbors, with the major events of their history.  Sometimes the real-world borrowings I’m happiest about are the obscurest, the things that no one would notice but an expert.

At the same time, some of the clear borrowings may be left in for narrative convenience. Not everything should be a medieval European kingdom, but sometimes a medieval European kingdom is OK, because readers (or viewers or players) understand what is possible in that environment, how it works and looks.

An example, with good and bad elements, is C.S. Lewis’s Calormen. A reader quickly recognizes it as a Middle Eastern culture, and isn’t surprised to meet the floridly speaking para-sultan, the cringing vizier, the fast horses and crowded cities.  It’s so recognizable that many readers assume that it’s more specific than it really is, thinking that it’s a reference (or an insult) to, say, Islam.  But it’s as much Indian as Islamic, especially with its horrific god Tash; I could print out for you a British guy’s description of a temple of Durga that conveys the same lurid tone– this is what some variants of Hinduism looked like to 19th century Englishman, who conveyed it to impressionable youngsters like Lewis.

(As a boy C.S. created a Narnia-like land called Animal-Land, while his brother created a version of India; they ended up putting them in a separate world, India being an island, connected to Animal-Land by steamship routes.)

Plus, Lewis was so steeped in the classics that there’s always an element of Greek in his work, as in names like Aravis, or the Grecoform adjective Calormene. Browsing his autobiography to confirm some details, I also note his delight in Matthew Arnold’s Sohrab and Rustum, which retells part of the Persian epic, the Shahnameh.

The point is, Calormen isn’t simply Arabia or Persia or India or Babylonia; it’s a mixup of all of them, and in some ways it’s a more successful creation than, say, Archenland in the same book. Lewis’s modern British children are fun, but when he attempts to depict Narnian or Archenlander adults he falls into a pastiche of Malory that, fatally, lacks any spirit of inquiry.  The wise old king of Archenland will never lead you to question monarchy or the structure of medieval society, as any page of medieval history will.  There are no real restraints on Calormen, so it can be simply rousing adventure mixed with light satire.  It’s not under any requirement to be perfect and likeable, as Archenland is, and so it seems far more real.

In 2016 some of these borrowings may be considered problematic… but I’m not sure that people are at all consistent or even coherent about this. Is it a bad thing to know something of the Shahnameh, or to use non-Western models instead of endlessly re-creating medieval France? Plus the same people who are very worried about Calormen often swallow George Martin’s Dothraki and Slave Bay, which I’d say are not only more Orientalist, but more questionable because they seem to be meant to be taken far more seriously as a portrait of the medieval world.






On losing

As an amuse-bouche, here’s a fun article about a guy who set out to be the worst player in Overwatch– “I Hanjo”.

Nice legs, Jim


Now, playing to lose is pretty much a dick move. But the fascinating thing is the sociology he unearths along the way. Players in the 40s– just south of average– are on the whole good players, know the game, they just happen to lose more than they win. People in the 30s are “the angriest people in the world”. They think they should be doing much better, and they’re eager to blame their teammates, the game, anything but themselves.

In the 20s, he’d run into people who just couldn’t play– Pharahs who couldn’t fly, Junkrats who blew themselves up– but they were all incredibly serious. This was competitive mode, after all.  It was full Dunning-Kruger: these were people who had little skill, but thought they were pretty good.  And even in the single-digits, among the world’s worst players, the game was full of people incredibly mad at him for not playing well.

This all reminds me of my friend Ash’s comment about League of Legends– that a lot of people don’t adjust well to the game, because they don’t like losing. They expect to win more than 50% of their games, and that rarely happens.  (If you’re good at a competitive game, the game will raise your rank and send you harder opponents.)

In single-player games, you never really lose.  You can die, but that just means cursing a little and then respawning.  You always win the game, unless you get bored or it gets too hard (which most of us will rationalize as it being “unfair”).

Also worth reading: this post on MMR (matchmaking rating) in Overwatch by an informed player, followed by Jeff Kaplan, actual development head of the game, adding more information. At one point Kaplan divides matches into four types:

  1. My team won. We beat the other team by a long shot.
  2. My team barely won.
  3. My team barely lost.
  4. My team lost. We lost by a long shot. It wasn’t even close

He comments that most players, if asked, will say they prefer 2 and 3– close matches that could have gone either way. But most players act as if their real preference was 1 or 2– i.e., only winning.  A series of losses is psychologically difficult, even if they’re close.

I’d add that rolls (case 1) almost never feel like rolls to the winning team.  They still feel close. You just feel like you’re playing really well, that your teammates are doing the right thing, that you’re just staying ahead of the enemy.  If you talk to your opponents later (e.g. because they’re your friends), you may be surprised to hear that it was a frustrating match where they felt like they couldn’t get anything done.

(A complete walkover, where you win without expending much effort, is rare and not satisfying. Last week in one of my placement matches for competitive, half the enemy team quit. We had to play out the game to get credit for it, but we felt bad about it.)

You can’t play a lot of PvP games without realizing that a lot of gamers are, well, insecure and nasty.  It would be interesting to get real research on this, but my experience is that the Dunning-Kruger effect applies in spades to the saltiest people.  That is, whenever someone goes off in chat, berating their teammates or complaining about the game, they’re likely to be the least skilled.  Really good players don’t waste their time on verbal attacks; they do their best, and even if the team loses they’ll bring devastation upon the enemy.

Now, you can’t make a PvP game where everyone wins, but Overwatch has a lot of clever little design bits to emphasize the team nature of the game, and to reduce the psychological toll of not doing well:

  • The game doesn’t distinguish kills and assists: everyone who helped kill an opponent share the “elimination”.  (It does display your share percentage, but only momentarily.)
  • You can’t see your teammates’ stats for the match, eliminating a lot of intra-team rivalry.  (You do see if you’re leading in a statistic, but not who’s losing.)
  • Nor do you see stats after the match, except for highlights. The emphasis is on who did well; who did poorly is glossed over.
  • Losing treats you to a killcam movie of your death– which sounds like it could be humiliating, but a) it keeps you entertained during the respawn time, and b) it often teaches you how to do better.  E.g. you can see when you were extremely exposed when you thought you weren’t.
  • In the new season of competitive, you never lose a tier once you’ve achieved it, even if your skill rating goes down. Plus, the game makes a big deal of the skill rating increasing, and not of it decreasing.
  • The game keeps a little showreel of your best moments in that play session.  Again, losses are quietly ignored.
  • If you lose to the same team too many times, the game will find a new set of enemies for you.
  • This one might take it too far: if you look at your Statistics for Quickplay, you can’t even see how many games you’ve lost.

Even the character design fits the overall goal: though there are a lot of characters, each one has a limited skillset. Mastering Soldier in TF2 requires, now, knowing a bunch of weapons; Pharah has just one.

Also, so far as I can see, it’s quite possible to play and have a good time with friends who are higher in level than you. In League, it’s almost impossible, because they’ll drag in opponents you can’t handle and it’ll be a pretty miserable experience.

Anyway, Blizzard hasn’t made losing painless, but they’ve done a lot to make the game fun as a whole whether you win or lose.

Curiously, I had a pretty bad experience with Competitive last season, and have had a pretty good one this season.  I feel like I play better, of course, but in both cases the game should have been matching me with people of the same level.  (And my initial skill rating was about the same.)  Maybe it just has more data on me, I don’t know.

Numbers revamp!

I’ve updated the Numbers from 1 to 10 page!  For the first time in, well, many years.

Note: if you don’t see the new page, because the old page is cached, you may have to hit shift-refresh.

The major features:

  • It now makes extensive use of Unicode to finally present the numbers as they were intended to be seen. (If you can’t see all the characters it’s dredged up, check the notes page for how to download comprehensive Unicode fonts.)
  • As a corollary, I’ve started to include the native writing system for key languages.
  • The families are color-coded to help you navigate.
  • The page uses Javascript to allow you to customize the results.

Now the story behind the update. The original source file was an enormous Mac Word 5.1 file. To generate the html files, I would output the source file into RTF (which is how you were supposed to access .doc files). Then I ran a custom C program that converted the RTF into html.

So far so good, only my old PowerPC died a few years back, which meant I could no longer run Mac Word 5.1, which meant I couldn’t generate the RTF or the html files, which meant no updates period.

Sigh, Mac Word 5.1, released in 1991, was a thing of beauty. It had little of the cruft of later versions of Word, I had all the commands in muscle memory, and on the PowerPC it was damn fast. Plus it never crashed. I had to switch to Word 2008 when I needed Unicode, but I kept using 5.1 until I couldn’t. I’ve gotten used to Word 2008, but it is just not the reliable workhorse that 5.1 was. It crashes unpredictably with certain large files, especially if they have a lot of formatting— as many of my books do.

Word 5.1 had a neat feature that I used extensively for the numbers list: you could overtype characters. This was necessary to represent the many many arcane and wacky characters that linguists have used over the last couple centuries to write their grammars and wordlists. Word 2008 can read these, but apparently can’t create them.

I had long envisioned a database or a text document that could hold the numbers, letting the web page itself be very simple. I was a bit worried that the database would be huge and slow, but then I remembered that most web pages these days pull down megabytes of cruft.

So, the source file is now plaintext.  I still use Word to create it, because it looks better there and I can use bolding to help me navigate, but all I do to make the plaintext file is copy and paste into TextEdit. It turns out that the whole file is only 400K, far smaller than the 1.4M html file that was the old mondo partly-Unicoded version. The text file is human-readable, but some pretty simple Javascript reads and prettifies it for the actual web page.

There are probably some typos in the file, due to quirks in the old process which I may have missed or messed up during the conversion process.  On the other hand, there were a lot of kludges in the old html version; the new version is much closer to the original sources.

I haven’t dealt with the sources page yet. (The problems are similar; it will be a another fairly tedious project to update the document and access page.)

Edit: The sources page is done now too! As with the numbers page, you can zero in on specific regions.

If you happen to be a linguist or for some other reason study the less-spoken languages, I’m always open to additions and corrections, and finally I can make them again.


All about swords

It’s about time to add one more post to the Weaponry category, for a total of two.

There’s a great series of videos on swords, axes, and other premodern weapons by one Skallagrim. This is just one of them, on why the elaborate swords beloved of video game designers are nonsense.

There’s lots more– reviews of particular swords, tests of swords from various cultures, why lightsabers could be extremely dangerous to the wielder, and perhaps most interesting, advice on swordfighting. Did you know it’s a perfectly valid technique to grasp your own sword by the blade and use it backwards, hitting someone with the pommel?  Did you know you can’t unsheathe a sword or katana sticking up from your shoulder in one swift move, like they do in movies and video games?  (To be precise, you can if it’s a very short sword. If it’s longer than your arm, it won’t clear the scabbard.)

All this is fun to learn about in general, but a particularly valuable resource for fantasy writers and conworlders. It could keep you from writing or drawing something really embarrassing.