January 30, 2017
Posted by zompist under politics
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Well, it’s day 8, and we’re already in constitutional crisis. The Republicans are already trying to ban Muslim immigration, and deporting legal American residents from their home, which is illegal and unconstitutional. There are already reports that they are defying court orders.
But right now I’d like to talk about what model we use for confronting the GOP. Is it Hitler? Is it Nixon? Is it Thatcher? Is it Putin? Is it George W. Bush?
This question probably doesn’t affect what you do, which I hope is: resist. The heartening thing about the last month has been that the left has been putting aside its habitual post-election sulk to do things: call Congresscreatures, join organizations, march, donate to the ACLU, punch Nazis, start organizing for the next elections. And people are doing these things who ordinarily do almost nothing about politics. This hasn’t happened on this scale since the sixties, probably.
The model does affect what we expect to happen next, and how successful we can expect to be.
The Nazi model is compelling in many ways. The Republicans have the nihilism, the boiling rage, the contempt for democracy, the urge to stamp out dissent, the bigotry. Actual Nazis are thrilled to pieces, and a white supremacist is senior counselor to the president. And there is a chilling regalvanization of anti-Semitism.
One problem is… what stopped Hitler? Marches, elections, counter-revolution? Nothing domestic did; once he was in power, Germans had no power to stop him. He was only stopped by a world war led by foreign powers. If you really think that’s what’s going on, who’s your Roosevelt?
I get the impression that some people would kind of like a return to Thatcherite Britain. You had left and right skinheads fighting in the streets, which is fun for some; you had some really good music and comics. But what ended Thatcher? Rather disappointingly, it was being thrown out by her own party. Which maintained power for another 7 years.
Let’s look at it the other way. Take current Republican initiatives, and see what they look back to.
- Anti-refugee sentiment: as many have pointed out, this is like a country in the 1930s: the United States, which refused Jewish refugees and sent them back to Germany to be killed.
- Anti-Muslim sentiment: this has been stoked on the right since 9/11… that is, the administration of Dubya Bush. Remember Ann Coulter saying we should invade all the Arab countries, murder their leaders, and convert them to Jesus? Remember Huntington and his “clash of civilizations”? Opposition to mosques being built?
- Anti-immigration sentiment: country-based quotas are what we had in the US until 1965. Republicans have been anti-immigration since at least Reagan; Ted Cruz during the primaries criticized Trump for being too soft on immigration.
- White nationalists in power: you mean, like the entire US until the sixties? If you think this is new, or wasn’t a problem in 2016, you haven’t been paying attention.
- Really bad white nationalists supporting the GOP? Like, say, David Duke or Strom Thurmond or the militia movement in the 1990s?
- Removing millions of people’s health care? This issue concerns me personally and intensely, and yet what the GOP wants is a return to the status quo of… 2013.
- Lowering taxes for the rich? GOP policy under Reagan and Bush II.
- Reducing services for the poor? Also eternal GOP policy. And to be honest, Bill Clinton’s welfare reform in the 1990s.
- Possible war with Iraq? Torturing combatants? Filling up Guantanamo? A return to Dubya’s wars of the 2000s.
- Gag orders for scientists? The closest parallel is Canada in the 2010s.
- Demonization of the press? Also standard GOP procedure, and the stock in trade of Nixon and Agnew. Recall that Nixon was actually thrown out of office for crimes committed against journalists and the Democratic Party.
- Lessening freedoms for LGBTQ folks? I’m anticipating a bit here, because we don’t know what the GOP will actually do. Trump himself doesn’t seem to care. A fair guess is: remove protections added under Obama. That is, the aim is to go back to 2008. (And again, top Democrats waffled on this issue well past that date.) (Edit: it only took a day. Apparently a new executive order is being prepared to roll back LGBTQ rights. Nothing to stop gay marriage though.)
- No action on climate change? I’m not sure if the GOP can actually reverse the new practicality of renewable energy. Other than that, we already weren’t doing enough; so we merely continue on our merry way toward destroying the temperate zone.
- Consorting with Russia? The particular dictator is new, of course. But Republicans were courting “authoritarians” well into the 1980s, and before that they were installing them, using them to fight proxy wars, and teaching them torture techniques.
- An evil new Supreme Court justice? Really, it’ll be tough to find someone worse than Scalia. So, back to 2015.
- Leaving the TPP: It was dead already.
- Possible voter suppression schemes: Already GOP practice. Elections are run locally, anyway; the likely effect is to make red states more red.
- Voucher shenanigans at Education: again, this is just perpetual GOP policy.
- Hating on NAFTA: if they simply get rid of it, we’re back to 1993.
- Total support for Israel: pretty much Dubya’s policy.
- Worries about nuclear war? Dude, welcome to life since 1945. Believe me, this isn’t the first period when the prospect was terrifying.
- Building a wall: We are now in the comedy portion of this post. There is already a partial wall, of course. This amounts to throwing money at contractors and pissing off a bunch of people whose land will be appropriated.
I’m sure I’ve missed something, and if it’s your favorite issue, I’m sorry. But there’s a pretty clear pattern here: the GOP platform, including its nastiest bits, is most like earlier policies of… the United States.
This is not to say that any of this is OK! It really is bad, it will do real damage to people. People will die because of the Republican Party: people losing health insurance, minorities attacked by hate-mongers, refugees trying to flee terrorism, Iraqis who collaborated with the US, anyone unlucky enough to face the GOP’s next war. Keep fighting!
But the fact that the bad things the GOP wants are things from our own past is, paradoxically, good news. It means we’ve been there, and we can use and improve on the things that defeated those evils the first time.
Things were much worse in almost every way in Nixon’s time. Everybody remembers the protests and the hippies and the civil rights movement, but forgets that most people disapproved of them. Nixon was able to win in a landslide (61%!) by opposing the whole youth movement. The Republicans lost the popular vote this time.
The best model, I still think, is George W. Bush. 2002 was a very depressing time to be a liberal. The GOP controlled all three branches of government, and at the time it seemed like they might keep winning indefinitely. They were intent on increasing inequality, starting wars, increasing surveillance, oppressing gays, deregulating banks, and dismantling Social Security. And you know what happened? They governed so badly, so catastrophically, that they lost the midterms in 2006 and everything else in 2008. Bush presided over two recessions, destroyed two major US industries, trashed our reputation abroad, completely bungled those two wars, and is one of the only presidents who left office with a net job loss record.
Now, it’s not heartening that it took six years. But Dubya started with far more approval: 57% in January 2001, compared with 45% today for Trump. And Dubya, bad as he was, governed with far more tact and respect for norms. He also didn’t subscribe to the current Republican nonsense about austerity: he inherited a budget surplus, and by God he spent it until it was a hole in the ground. If only Paul Ryan could pivot like that.
This isn’t to say that there aren’t things that are unprecedented. Here’s three.
- Trump’s unbelievable corruption. We don’t even know the half of it, but it’s already clear that he will run the Presidency for personal gain, and compromise US security based on his business operations.
- Trump’s open, amazing hostility to NATO. If Putin chose, this could easily be the first huge global crisis: Putin takes the Baltics and Trump does nothing.
- Trump’s astonishing ignorance. There are partial precedents– Reagan was no genius, Dubya too. But those two at least hired competent people.
Again, these will lead to bad things… but they are also likely to lead to a failed presidency. The GOP is in a state of bliss right now because they get to do all the things they’ve wanted to do for eight years. Their base will be thrilled. The voters… not so much. Because what the GOP wants to do is highly unpopular. People don’t want shitty healthcare; they don’t want richer plutocrats; they don’t want to go back to the ’50s on race; they don’t want more wars. If the GOP causes a recession, as is likely, they won’t like that. The lesson of Dubya is that incompetence is not rewarded, though it may take years to play out.
The Nazi model is motivating, but it’s also an invitation to give up the fight before we start. We still have a whole Party in Congress, we still have courts, we still have newspapers and universities and activist organizations, we still have the blue states, and we still have the majority of voters who rejected the GOP. It’s going to take energy and time and money, but we can win this fight.
Very purposely, I’ve talked almost entirely in this post about the Republican Party, not Trump. It’s fine to attack Trump personally, but people shouldn’t be misled that he is the problem, or that getting rid of him solves anything. The Republican Party voted for him, knowing exactly what he’d said and what kind of a person he was. Some of it expressed reservations in 2016; this turned out to mean nothing on election day, and less than nothing today. The Republican Party supports him in Congress and most statehouses, and soon Republicans will support him in the Supreme Court. Trump is not even the worst of 2016’s primary candidates: we would be facing almost the same problems, and probably some new ones, with a President Cruz. The GOP owns Trump and all his sins now. And I still haven’t heard a good story on anything that Trump is likely to do that will make the GOP actually act against him.
January 23, 2017
Posted by zompist under books
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I decided it was time to read the Rig Veda, and now I have, sort of. I’ve read Wendy Doniger’s compilation of 108 hymns from the book– 1/10 of the total. If she had done the whole thing it would amount to over 3000 pages, so I’m not feeling too guilty.
Indra, chief of the Vedic gods
You may well be saying, the Rig what? The Rig Veda is the oldest text of Hinduism– also perhaps the oldest text still in religious use. It dates back 3500 to 4000 years ago. (The Old Testament is mostly under 3000 years old.) In form, it’s a set of over a thousand hymns, which were chanted or sung at animal sacrifices. (A rig is a hymn or poem. Veda is ‘knowledge’, cognate to English wit and Latin vedere ‘see’.)
Curiously, it’s not the oldest written text; it was transmitted orally, Brahmin to Brahmin, for most of those millennia. The transmission was highly accurate– the Rig Veda was remembered the same way from Kashmir to Kerala.
Whether it was understood is another question. It’s written in an archaic Sanskrit that can be baffling even if you understand classical Sanskrit. Plus it describes practices that are no longer practiced and gods that are no longer worshiped. The chief Vedic god was Indra, followed closely by Agni (fire), the Maruts (storm gods), the Ashvins (a pair of horse gods), Yama (death), and Soma (a drug, more on that below). Over the centuries worship switched to Vishnu and Shiva, each conceived by its worshipers as the supreme and only god (the others being forms they assume). Vishnu does get a few Vedic hymns; Shiva does not, though he’s associated with Rudra, who does. Shiva very likely originates as a Dravidian god, later adopted by the Indic peoples.
Curiously, there is evidence that Indra and crew replaced an even earlier set of gods. One of the minor Vedic gods is the sky god Dyaus. This is cognate to Zeus and Jupiter (= Dyaus father), as well as the Germanic god Tiw, the god of Tuesday. In the Vedas Dyaus is usually paired with Prithvi ‘Earth’, often addressed with her in the dual as Dyavaprithvi. And he changes sex! Sky-and-earth are usually addressed as females.
So, what are these poems like? Many are straightforward praise and asking of benefits, such as this hymn to Agni (1.1, the very first hymn in the Rig Veda):
I pray to Agni, the household priest who is the god of the sacrifice, the one who chants and invokes and brings most treasure.
Agni earned the prayers of the ancient sages, and of those of the present, too; he will bring the gods here.
Through Agni one may win wealth, and growth from day to day, glorious and most abounding in heroic sons.
…To you, Agni, who shine upon darkness, we come day after day, bringing our thoughts and homage to you, the king over sacrifices, the shining guardian of Order, growing in your own house.
Agni is the fire god, and thus is the fire of the animal sacrifice, which brings the sacrifice to the gods and brings blessings back. You obviously want to be on good terms with the messenger if you want your message to get through.
(The hymns tend to exaggerate the power of the god they’re dedicated to. So certain events and powers may be attributed to different gods at different times. The way you talked to gods was undoubtedly influenced by the way you talked to kings; treating them as more powerful than they were was good tactics.)
Sometimes the prayers are strange, almost opaque in their extended metaphors, as in this hymn about the sacrifice itself (1.164):
This beloved gray priest has a middle brother who is hungry and a third brother with butter on his back. In him I saw the Lord of All Tribes with his seven sons.
Seven yoke the one-wheeled chariot drawn by one horse with seven names. All these creatures rest on the ageless and unstoppable wheel with three naves.
Seven horses draw the seven who ride on this seven-wheeled chariot. Seven sisters call out to the place where the seven names of the cows are hidden.
Who saw the newborn one, the one with bones who was brought forth by the boneless one? Where was the breath and blood and soul of the earth?
(This actually reminds me a lot of Neil Gaiman, when he wants to represent spells and such. I suspect he’s done a lot of reading on folklore and borrowed the style.)
Now, a lot of this can be interpreted. E.g. Doniger tells us that the “priests” are the sacrificial fires. The middle brother is “hungry” because it’s the southern fire, seldom fed. The Lord of All Tribes is Agni; his sons are the priests. As with any jargon, one suspects that making the material difficult was part of the point.
A hymn to creation (10.129) starts out with some confident cosmology, but ends up buried in accumulated questions and doubts.
There was neither non-existence then; there was neither the realm of space nor the sky which is beyond… There was neither death nor immortality then…
Darkness was hidden by darkness in the beginning; with no distinguishing sign, all this was water. The life force that was covered with emptiness, that one arose through the power of heat.
…Their cord was extended across. Was there below? Was there above? There were seed-placers; there were powers….
Who really knows? Who will here proclaim it? Whence was it produced? Whence is this creation? The gods came afterwards, with the creation of the universe. Who then knows whence it has arisen?
Whence this creation has arisen– perhaps it formed itself, or perhaps it did not– the one who looks down on it, in the highest heaven, only he knows– or perhaps he does not know.
Some of the most accessible material is not hymns to deities at all. There are conversations about sex between gods; a lament by a gambler whose life have been ruined by the dice; a benediction on arms and armor; a poem that is simultaneously about frogs and Brahmins.
Also intriguing is the nature of soma– from the text, a drink pressed from plants grown in the mountains. The effects seem to be exhilarating and hallucinatory (8.48):
I have tasted the sweet drink of life, knowing that it inspires good thoughts and joyous expansiveness to the extreme, that all the gods and mortals seek it together, calling it honey.
When you penetrate inside, you will know no limits, and you will avert the wrath of the gods. Enjoying Indra’s friendship, O drop of Soma, bring riches as a docile cow brings the yoke.
We have drunk the Soma; we have become immortal; we have gone to the light; we have found the gods. What can hatred and the malice of a mortal do to us now, O immortal one?
Soma is itself addressed as a god; indeed, by bulk, he gets more hymns than anyone but Indra and Agni.
The descriptions and the effects don’t really correspond to any known plant. Soma went out of use, perhaps because it was hard to get in northern India– this rules out marijuana, which has long been known. The Persians used a planet called haoma, a cognate, but its effects are mild. It can’t be wine or any fermented drink, because it was pressed and drunk immediately. An attractive hypothesis is that it’s Amanita muscaria, the mushroom used by Siberian shamans, and which happens to grow all across Eurasia but not in India.
Should you run out and read it? Well, not as your first venture into India, or Hinduism. I would still recommend the Ramayana for that. For ancient religious thought that’s still relevant today, try the Bhagavad-Gita. But if you’re interested in what people were doing and how they worshiped four thousand years ago, go for it.
(Doniger’s translation provides plenty of help on the obscure bits, which are many. Her book The Hindus: An alternative history would be a good book to read first.)
January 21, 2017
Posted by zompist under books
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I was looking at the Hitopadeśa for the Sanskrit (see here and here), but now I’ve read it, in G.L. Chadiramani’s translation. The book is medieval (it’s impossible to date exactly) and it turns out to recycle a lot of material from the earlier Pañcatantra. Both works used to be very familiar to Western audiences; versions were known in Europe as early as 1252 (via Arabic), and La Fontaine borrowed some of the stories. The Indian originals were discovered in the 1700s, and for decades the Hitopadeśa was one of the first books you learned as a Sanskritist.
The framing device is simple. A king has a problem: his sons are, in a word, nityamunmārgagāmināmanadhigataśāstrāṇām. That is, they are constantly going astray and never read books. A sage offers to take them in hand, and his infallible method is to tell them animal fables.
Sadly, this framework is never really expanded upon. We never see the sons straying or even talking back to the old sage; we don’t even learn their names. They’re trotted out at the beginning of each chapter, apparently rapt at his stories. Well, they didn’t have video games back then.
There are four chapters: acquiring friends; separating friends; war; peace. Each has its own framing story, which is far more interesting. Plus the author frequently springboards off into other stories, and everyone is constantly reciting long sets of moralistic verses.
I’ll illustrate by retelling one of the stories.
The prince Tungabala was appointed governor of a city named Virapura. He fell in love with Lavanyavati, the wife of a merchant’s son. As is explained by a verse:
Arrows in the form of glances,
By beautiful ladies having black eyelashes,
Shot after being drawn
From the bow of their eyebrows,
Extending to the region of the ears,
Pierce through the guts of a man and reach his heart.
Which is to say, she had fabulous eyebrows. Fortunately for Tungabala, she was smitten by him as well. But she was unwilling to cheat on her husband.
Tungabala had sent a female messenger to negotiate with her. (He probably read the Kāmasūtra, which advises just this method.) The messenger came up with a plan for him. He appointed the woman’s husband Carudatta to high office and made him his confidant.
Then he bathed, anointed himself with sandalwood perfume, and announced that he was making a special vow. He told Carudatta to bring him a different woman every night. Each night, he greeted the woman, worshipped her without touching her, and sent her away loaded with rich presents.
Carudatta became greedy, thinking that he could easily acquire these presents by bringing his own wife. Of course his wife obeyed his request. The moment the prince saw her, he embraced her and they made love all night. Carudatta was extremely depressed.
This story is actually told as a teaching tale, told by a mouse to his friends in the first chapter. The connection to their predicament is quite loose: the mouse is basically saying “If you persist in your plans, you will end up sad, like the merchant’s son in this story.”
Now, I’ve just told the bare story, but this is not enough for the author. First, everything is sprinkled with illustrative verse proverbs, and not just one but several. By bulk, the book is mostly these verses. Presumably the sage’s trick is really to impart all these moralistic verses, the stories only being used to motivate the princes’ curiosity.
But also, each set of verses tends to end with an allusion to another story, and of course whoever’s listening immediately has to hear it. In the case of the above story, the female messenger, proving that Tungabala needs a trick to get what he wants, tells the story of a jackal who brings down an elephant by a trick.
(Oh, you want to hear that story, do you? You little scamps, all right. An elephant comes into a region inhabited by jackals, and one of them realizes that he would feed them for months. But of course he is too strong to attack directly. So he goes to the elephant and offers him the kingship of the forest, based on his obvious majesty. He throws in a set of verses on the necessity of kingship. The elephant, greedy for the kingdom, follows him into deep mud, where he gets stuck. So the jackals eat him.)
The recursion goes pretty deep… it wouldn’t be unusual for the book if the jackal made his point by telling yet another story.
Curiously, in the war and peace sections, the author seems to have gotten more interested in the framing story— the tale of a war between the sea birds (whose king is a swan) and the land birds (whose king is a peacock). It covers both chapters and is far more involved. You get to know the chief ministers of both kings, their spies, and the ruses they use in war.
Would you enjoy the book? I think the fables themselves are great fun, not only good stories in their own right, but a window onto premodern Indian attitudes and values. Where the verses are moralistic, the stories are often earthy— as in the above example, which doesn’t really bother to condemn the prince’s adultery, but laughs at the greedy merchant’s son.
The verses are a harder sell. There are an awful lot of them, and most are not to modern tastes.
A wicked wife, a deceitful friend,
An impertinent servant,
And staying in a house infested with serpents;
Will without doubt lead to death.
Unless you have Samuel Jackson on board, at least.
Anyway, you could skip all the verses, though that would hardly be reading the Hitopadeśa. If nothing else, they tell us something about the society. Like our own proverbs, they are often contradictory— e.g. there are verses about the treachery of strangers, and verses about the sacredness of hospitality; kings are advised to be kind, and also advised to be harsh. But the verses in the war and peace section give a glimpse into Indian statecraft (e.g. advising against hasty moves to war, and warning about various kinds of poor advisors), and there are other interesting bits— e.g. the verses really hate misers: they praise giving away money the highest, but find enjoying it also praiseworthy.
Another advantage of the book: it doesn’t require any great knowledge of Indian history or culture, though there are allusions here and there for those who do know it. And it’s pretty short, so it’s not a major time investment, like the Mahābhārata .
January 7, 2017
Posted by zompist under games
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For some reason my post on suffering got an unusual amount of attention and possibly some new readers. Now I’ll send them all away again by talking about video games.
I’m in the middle of Dishonored 2. Alert readers may recall that I wasn’t sure I liked Dishonored at first, but the DLC won me over. Spoiler: the new game is great. It’s much like Mass Effect 2: adding to what works, quietly removing what doesn’t.
Basic gameplay: Can you arrange bodies more artfully than the developers?
You play as either Corvo Attano (as in the first game), or as Empress Emily. I’m playing as Emily, of course, because Corvo? You’re fired. You had one job, Corvo– you are Royal Protector to the Empress– and you’ve fucked it up twice. In the first few minutes of the game, Corvo completely fails to notice an empire-wide conspiracy, sees his charge captured, and gets turned to stone. I expect I’ll rescue him eventually, but really, thanks Dad.
The gameplay is basically that of the first game: you get a target and a small but richly detailed mini-world to find them in. You carefully sneak around, inching forward or teleporting to useful perches, and then curse and reload because one of the frigging guards saw you.
You can fight everyone if you want, which will give you a High Chaos walkthrough– which in turn makes the game world a little nastier. You’ll get more bloodfly infestations, and in general people are more murderous. E.g. there’s a scene where an officer talks to a woman who’s been stealing for her; in low chaos they are lovers, and in high chaos the officer pushes her off a building. How exactly this is caused by Emily choosing to choke rather than kill guards in another district isn’t quite explained, but it does appeal to our moral intuitions. (It’s very Confucian: the morality of the ruler wafts out to become that of the populace.) However, here and in Deus Ex, I’ve had a lot more fun sneaking and finding all the lore and runes than in combat, so for me it’s Low Chaos all the way.
You get special powers from the Outsider. Intriguingly, you can reject them. Kudos to anyone who can play the game without the teleport; I don’t think I could. The first mission, before you get your powers, can be quite frustrating.
Now, I think the Arkham games are the perfect stealth games, and that’s largely because Batman has so many options. And if you get into a bad situation, you don’t reach for the reload button, you reach for a gargoyle. Dishonored 2 doesn’t give you the same range of options, though it does move in that direction. E.g. if discovered, Emily can leave a magic clone behind and escape in shadow form. (However, this takes a lot of mana, and mana potions are kind of rare, so I just hit reload.)
More interesting is Domino, which lets you magically link 2 (and later 3 or 4) victims. What happens to one will happen to the others. Most prosaically, you can choke or sleep-dart one, taking them all out. In High Chaos you have more entertaining options– e.g. link that officer to the civilian she is pushing off a building, and she’ll die too.
(Emily’s teleport is technically different from Corvo’s, but you use it exactly the same way.)
The Empire is a pretty fucked-up place. You have the frequent assassinations and coups, the sadistic whale-draining, the rat plague, the trigger-happy guards, the lethal checkpoints, the witches, and now you have enormous flies that make the rats look cute, a tyrannical duke, clockwork killing machines, and exploitation of the workers. And you’re playing the person who is supposedly in charge of all this. The game occasionally confronts the paradox– e.g. Emily comments to someone that while the workers suffer, the Duke is eating from fine silver, and she’s reminded that she ate from fine silver in Dunwall Tower too. And there’s a story that tells us that Emily’s mother wasn’t exactly a saint.
Maybe this is addressed later, but it does still seem that Emily gets off too easy. She’s 25, which is young, but monarchy is a rough game– if you don’t know what’s going on in your empire by that age, and aren’t pulling the strings, it’s you that’s the puppet.
The game’s biggest showcase is surely the Clockwork Mansion, created by mad scientist Jindosh Kirin. It can be reconfigured, you see: clockwork turns your bathroom into a study, or your music room into an electric death room. It puts the punk into steampunk. (Though the Empire is permeated by magic, Jindosh seems to be a tech only guy. His transitions have a pleasing mechanical slowness, as if they were controlled by a punch card somewhere.)
This is absolutely cool, and yet doesn’t quite succeed as level design, because it confuses the player. It’s not at all clear how you are supposed to attack this thing. I had to consult a walkthrough, which mentions among other things that any given room only has two configurations. You also have to defeat a clockwork soldier, and these have been designed so you can’t really defeat them with stealth, which is a little annoying. On the other hand they don’t count as kills, so the most effective way to deal with them is to blow off their heads.
I departed from the walkthrough, simply in that I wandered into a part of the mansion and there he was. I immediately sleep-darted him. That left two clockwork soldiers to deal with. I think I blew up the head of one, which made him kill the other. I’m not sure, it was kind of chaotic. (If you’ve played that level, you’ll love this video on 80 ways to kill Jindosh.)
The next level offers you an interesting choice. To get into the next culprit’s mansion, you need to solve a hard riddle. The district is divided between Overseers (zealous anti-Outsider clerics) and a street gang, and each will help you if you deliver to them the body of the enemy’s leader. Or you can skip all that by solving the riddle! Which is what I did. It’s not that hard, though it probably helps to think like a programmer. Anyway, I could have gone right on to the mansion if I liked, but I scoured the district anyway, so I could get the runes and bonecharms.
I wonder if the studio brought in Anita Sarkeesian for a talk or something, because they’ve reduced the already low levels of sexualization. Emily is a very stylish assassin but not particularly sexy:
Plus there are no brothel levels, and the gangs and guards now include women.
I like the fact that the protagonists are voiced. The old Valve idea was that we can identify more with a silent protagonist (plus, it was cheaper), but I think that’s wrong: a silent character seems dissociated. If they have no reaction to what’s going on, why should we?
I said the sequel was better, but it’s mostly a bunch of smallish things:
- The choice of protagonists, and giving them a voice.
- Emily’s new powers.
- There are more powers available for stealth. (In the first game it felt like most of them were intended for combat.)
- The levels are not much larger, but they feel packed with things to find and people to choke.
- Neat ideas like the Clockwork Mansion; apparently there’s some time travel stuff coming up.
- Marketplaces in each level, so you are not restricted to five sleep darts per map.
- They evidently had more money for voice acting… the guards are a lot less repetitive.
- More civilians around– Dunwall felt dead, Karnaca feels much more alive.
- Minor, but a satisfying change: Corvo in the first game is just told what to do. Emily (like Daud in the DLC) gets clues but seems to make her own decisions.
It plays well on my PC, but it better– I bought the damn thing a month ago just to be ready for Dishonored 2, which simply laughed at the specs of my old machine.
One thing they didn’t change, and this is just fine: it’s still very linear. “Open world” is a big thing these days, but it’s really hard to do well. The Saints Row and Bethesda games are the models, I think. Mirror’s Edge Catalyst moved to an open world design, and I think it’s too overwhelming. Dishonored 2 takes a different approach: you may only be exploring a few blocks at a time, but they are exquisitely arranged and detailed.
(My only plea for Dishonored 3: please, do not start with Corvo failing to do his job again. The title is a brand by now; you don’t have to make it describe the plot.)
January 4, 2017
Posted by zompist under history
Comments Off on The Raj dodge
I just finished The Chaos of Empire, by Jon Wilson, which is all about the British Raj. Spoiler: he’s not in favor. In fact, his thesis is that the British never really knew what they were doing; they were constantly and pointlessly nervous and paranoid about their presence there, and alternated between unnecessary violence and out-of-touch bureaucracy.
In the early days, in the 1600s, the English simply didn’t understand how business or government was done in India– which was by face-to-face negotiation. Whether kings and lords, or nobles and peasants, or authorities and merchants, arrangements were worked out by talk. (A show of force was not incorrect– but the Mughal way was to defeat an enemy, then make accommodations to make the defeated into an ally.) The English basically made outrageous demands (e.g. they wanted to trade tax-free and wanted the EIC to have a monopoly even over other English traders) and hated to negotiate. They were constantly worried that they would be disrespected, harassed, or overwhelmed by the Indians, and the only way they could ever think of to get their way was by force.
Their first attempt, in the late 1600s, led to a righteous drubbing by the still-powerful Mughals. They did not learn anything from this.
(Now, Wilson may overstate the harmony of Mughal society. The Mughal founder, Babur, certainly found India as alien and unpleasant as any Englishman. But of course they put down roots and adapted, and the English didn’t bother to learn South Asian protocols.)
How did the British take over? It’s not entirely technology, since the Indians were able to buy Western arms and even Western advisors; for that matter, the French at least were keen to oppose the British takeover. As with China, we can attribute much of the problem to poor luck. When the Mughals were strong, they could hold off Europeans, but the empire crumbled after the Afghan invasion of 1739. And the French never really committed to wars in India– probably because they sensed, correctly, that it wasn’t a profitable proposition. The EIC didn’t really want to take over Bengal, and British home opinion was not really in favor of empire; Plassey was more or less Robert Clive’s mad improvised scheme to replace the hated prospect of negotiation with the more appealing direct intervention to install a supposedly friendlier ruler.
In economics there’s the concept of a Winner’s Curse: in a competition to buy something, the winner is likely to be the one who overestimates the item’s value. The Indian empire was something of a winner’s curse. Bengal provided enormous revenues, enough for the armies that slowly conquered the rest of India… but also enormous expenditures, chiefly the army needed to hold all that territory. The company constantly had to be bailed out by London, and all through the 19th century the EIC and then imperial government was most often in the red. But of course it was unthinkable to simply give up and go home.
Ironically, the one time India was valuable was during the World Wars. It provided huge armies and great masses of war materiel, and this very fact made it completely impossible to maintain as an imperial colony without native involvement. To keep the troops and goods coming, Britain had to promise representative government (in WWI) and eventual independence (in WWII).
The British had no notion of developing education, civil society, industry, or self-government. They did not seem to realize that Indians expected their rulers to respond to complaints and abuses and to provide relief in bad years. Their idea of government was not much more than maintaining the army, a cumbersome bureaucracy, and a nice lifestyle for an upper crust of expats. Wilson shows that to the extent that civil society did develop, it was purposely done by Indians themselves away from British eyes.
At this point British readers are likely to be saying, “But we built railways, didn’t we?” But the railways were largely built to ferry troops around. They were too expensive for everyday commerce, they ran at a loss, and they did not develop Indian industry since the locomotives and rails were imported. Britain did not allow Indians to make their own steel until 1899.
As for “We taught them democracy, didn’t we?”– I’m sorry, Brits, but you get no prizes for ruling the country as an absolute monarchy for more than a century. The first elections were held in 1920; only 1/10 of the male population could vote, and for only limited domestic powers. This was three centuries after the first legislature in a British colony (Virginia, 1619).
I could go on and on, but then you could also just read the book. Although he is specifically countering old notions of Britain’s imperial glory or at least competence, it’s also a good overall look at Indian history from the mid-1600s till 1950, giving both the British and Indian sides of the story.
A sometimes endearing, sometime exasperating tendency of the British is their tolerance for constitutional muddle. The deal that gave them the administration of Bengal made them theoretical agents of the Mughal crown, and they maintained this fiction until 1857. And rather than conquering everybody, they left 500 “princely states” with various degrees of self-government. When the India-Pakistan border was drawn, hundreds of enclaves were created with tens of thousands of residents– supposedly a relic of ancient Mughal treaties. All these eccentricities had a price in inefficiency and incompetence. In this light, Nehru’s insistence on central planning and central control start to make a lot more sense.
(This is of course research for my own book, the India Construction Kit. I’m a little over half done with it, I think. More on that later…)