June 2019


I’ve had the impression that Overwatch League is getting more and more dull, one-sided games, and I decided to see if it can be quantified. It can.

owl-blowouts

I went through the current three stages, adding up the number of games with each possible score. Here’s the raw numbers.

Stage 3-2 2-1 3-1 3-0 4-0
1 17 7 29 2 15
2 13 4 25 2 26
3 7 2 19 3 16

I define “interesting games” as the ones in blue. Sometimes a blowout can be a really good game… but really, watching a far superior team wreck a worse one is not fun. A close score indicates a better match.

Note the progression: interesting games were 34% of all games in stage 1, 24% in stage 2, and 19% in stage 3 so far.

4-0 blowouts were 21% of games in stage 1, 37% in stage 2, and 34% in stage 3. Pretty striking trends in both categories!

Now, this may not be surprising. There were a lot of new teams in stage 1; players were getting used to their teams and learning about the opposition. But it seems it could have gone either way. There’s intense reason for mid-tier games to figure out what the top tier is doing. (Admittedly, the low-tier teams have it rough psychologically– a losing streak is hard to break.)

I expect there’s no solution to this, by the way. Maybe it’ll be the same next year, maybe not… it might take a year for other coaches to figure out how to break the Titans.

The overall standings are also interesting, as there’s such a sharp break into tiers.  The Titans, Excelsior, and Shock all have map W-L differentials of at least +45; the next best is the Gladiators with +17. Two teams (Mayhem and Justice) are doing absolutely awful; two more are under 1/3 W-L ratio. That leaves 14 teams in the muddy middle.

Edit: After writing this, I see the Titans just lost their first game of the year– to the LA Valiant, who are in 17th place overall. Now that’s an upset!

This stage, the Dallas Fuel has completely fallen apart: 1 W 5 L.  I feel bad for Jayne, my favorite streamer/commentator, who’s one of their coaches. Still, they made the playoffs last stage and are still at .500 overall.

It’s nice to see the Shanghai Dragons in 6th place this stage, with a winning overall record (10-8), since they lost every game last year.  But I’m pissed that they never play Geguri any more. Jeez, coaches, at least put her in during one map a game.

 

I already reviewed Golden Age Wonder Woman, written by Charles Moulton and drawn by Harry G. Peter, but I just finished Volume 2 and I thought I’d go over some of the weirder panels in it. These are all from 1943— they wrote and drew over 400 pages that year.

ww-punish

Moulton’s fascination with bondage gets a little more overt. These girls are former slaves of Paula the Nazi, who has now reformed and become an avid Amazon. The girls are in Amazon prison, which they love.

ww-kanga

Comics love one-off, improbable solutions to problems, but Moulton sometimes leaps to complete absurdity. WW needs to get to Mars right away.  A spaceship won’t do; she needs an elephant-sized space-hopping kangaroo. Just like the ancient Greeks used to get to Mars.

ww-japanese

We were at war with Japan, so naturally the Japanese are ugly and nasty, but I just want to highlight the utterly atrocious attempt to represent Japanese writing. (Also, Chuck, Snidu is not a very good Japanese name.)

Oh, and WW understands them because one of her minor powers is knowing all languages.

ww-feet

Yep, WW spends the night with the goddess’s feet on her head. Moulton, I think your fetishes are showing again.

ww-cheetah

Introduction of the Cheetah, a longtime antagonist for WW. What’s notable here is Moulton’s blithe assurance that, you know, psychologists use mirrors like this all the time. It’s just standard practice to show you your inner costumed supervillain, who will then make you create a costume to look just like her.

ww-president

There’s a lot going on here. WW, in 1943, is looking at the future on a viewing machine her mother has. The country finally elects a female president— though, to keep anyone from scoffing, it’s 1000 years in the future. And it’s Wonder Woman, or rather her civilian identity— which she’s managed to keep secret for a thousand years. (To be fair, WW isn’t the first female president in this timeline.)

Dig the 30th century clothes, which run toward short dresses for women (long ones here for a presidential look), and shorts and muscle shirts for men. And 1940s hairstyles.

Earlier Moulton says that women make better rulers because women are “more ready to serve others unselfishly.” Here, though, he can’t help declaring that “all men are much happier” when dominated by women.

I’ve finally read Gilgamesh.  Three times.

hamurabi

This is not Gilgamesh but Ashurbanipal, but that’s fine: the best copies of the epic are from his library. Really!

News to me department: apparently you say gil-GA-mesh.

First, who was Gilgamesh? Well, he’s listed on the Sumerian King List as one of the kings of Uruk. The King List says that he ruled for 126 years, while his grandfather Lugalbanda ruled for 1200 years and his son Ur-Nungal for 30 years. Scholars tend to believe that these numbers are a bit exaggerated. He probably ruled sometime between 2800 and 2500 BCE.

And that’s about it for history. Oh, and his real name was Bilgames. More on that later.

The Epic of Gilgamesh is not Sumerian, but Akkadian. Akkadian was the Semitic language that took over from Sumerian by 2000 or so, and was spoken by both the Assyrians and Babylonians. It was spoken and written for 2000 years, though in the last centuries of that period the spoken language gave way to Aramaic. The epic was also translated into Hittite and Hurrian. There are two major Akkadian versions, the “Old Babylonian” version from around 1800 BCE, and a longer “standard version” from about 1000 BCE, the one in Ashurbanipal’s library. We even have the name of the compiler, Sîn-lēqi-unninni.

Here’s the basic story:

Gilgamesh is the mighty king of Uruk, whose massive brick walls (which the king had built) the reader is invited to examine. He is, strangely, “two thirds divine and one third human”. This is because his mother is the goddess Ninsun. In the epic Lugalbanda is his father rather than his grandfather.

However, he has a deplorable habit of bothering the young men and women of the town. They complain to the gods, who decide that he needs a companion.

They create Enkidu, a shaggy-haired wild man who lives with the beasts outside the civilized world. A hunter complains that he is undoing his traps, preventing him from getting food. His father sends him to Gilgamesh with a plan: send a temple prostitute, Shamhat, out to civilize the wild man with sex.

This works.  After making love for a week, Enkidu is no longer attuned to the natural world (the beasts flee from him), but more reasonable. He talks with Shamhat, who convinces him to come to Uruk. There’s an amusing moment when she gives him bread and beer to eat, and he doesn’t know what they are.  

After a quick fight, Enkidu and Gilgamesh become fast friends. Ninsun adopts him as a brother to Gilgamesh. 

They decide to find and kill Humbaba, a monster who guards a forest in Lebanon. Before doing so, they ask for the counsel and blessings of the elders of Uruk, the young men of Uruk, and Ninsun. The elders at first counsel against the attempt, but relent; Ninsun also wonders why her son has such a “restless spirit.”

They travel to Lebanon and fight Humbaba, who is defended by multiple auras; but the sun god Shamash comes to their aid, sending the winds to strip off the monster’s auras, allowing the heroes to kill him.

Now Ishtar, the goddess of love and war, asks Gilgamesh to be her consort. He refuses contemptuously, pointing out that most of her previous consorts have ended up dead or miserable. Angrily, she asks her father Anu to send the Bull of Heaven against Uruk. It kills several hundred of Uruk’s warriors, but the two heroes manage to kill it.

This, however, is too much for the gods. They decree that Enkidu should die, and they send him a sickness that kills him. Gilgamesh mourns him, refuses to bury him “until a worm dropped out of his nose”, and decides that he must defeat death itself.

He leaves Uruk, letting his hair grow and wearing hides, and wanders in search of Uta-napishti, who survived the Flood and became immortal. A theme of this section of the epic is self-sabotage. He keeps coming close to the secret of immortality, and messing up. E.g. Uta-napishti asks him to stay awake for a week, and he falls asleep immediately. He is shown where a plant grows that regains one’s youth and grabs it– but loses it to a snake. (On the plus side: now we know why snakes can shed their skin, rejuvenating themselves.)

Uta-napishti narrates the story of the Flood. Another myth makes the Akkadian notion of the Flood clearer: the gods sent the Flood not because of human sin, but because humans, being immortal, were too numerous. After the Flood they revoked the gift of immortality, except for Uta-napishti and his wife, and also made sure to keep human numbers in check with wild animals, plagues, and famine. 

There’s not much epilogue: Gilgamesh returns home, and shows Uta-napishti’s boatman the walls of Uruk, echoing the beginning of the epic. The idea seems to be that he has given up on deification, and will be satisfied with lasting renown as a great king.

So, how is it and should you read it?

If you like fantasy, mythology, or epic, I think you’ll find it interesting. It’s not as polished as the Iliad or the Ramayana… but you’d be kind of surprised and disappointed if it were, wouldn’t you? This is early stuff, from a culture we don’t entirely understand.

The text makes a lot of choices we wouldn’t. E.g., it relies heavily on repetition: on the way to Humbaba’s forest, Gilgamesh has ominous dreams– five of them. The language is highly repetitive and yet breezy; a modern writer would surely be content with one dream, more vividly realized. There are a lot of details about Gilgamesh’s consultations with the assemblies, Ninsun’s prayer before the heroes’ trip, Enkidu’s funeral, that take a surprising amount of the text. On the other hand, the actual fights are not described in much detail, and the ending is very abrupt.

What easily sticks in memory is the friendship of the two heroes, and Gilgamesh’s bitter grief over his loss. He doesn’t seem to recognize that taking on divine monsters was a bad idea… but arguably the text does. Gilgamesh is a big unthinking bruiser, exploiting his people until Enkidu comes along, then ignoring the duties of kingship to undertake various unnecessary quests. Pretty much everyone who talks to him explains with more or less politeness that he should be doing something else instead.

It’s striking that, after all, Gilgamesh fails in his quest for immortality.  At the same time, the original audience presumably knew that Gilgamesh did end up with a semidivine role: he was a judge of the dead in the Underworld.

Western readers may be surprised to see, in polytheistic form, a version of the Genesis Flood story. Some literalist Christians might get a little excited about this: ooh, confirmation that the Flood happened!  Others might be disturbed, because the story starts to seem less like divine inspiration than a borrowing from a common stock of Semitic folklore.

Which version should you read? I started with a “rendering” by David Ferry, from 1992. Ferry knows no Akkadian; he’s a poet, working from scholarly translations. His aim was to create a poetic version that would be readable and coherent in English. In this he succeeded; I don’t think you’ll go wrong reading it. I should note that it’s barely a hundred pages– Sîn-lēqi-unninni was no George R.R. Martin. But it may leave you wondering if you’ve read the original epic, or a retelling.

I wanted to know what those scholarly translations were like, and I read two: The Epic of Gilgamesh, translated by Andrew George, from 1999; and Myths from Mesopotamia, translated by Stephanie Dalley, from 2000. Both are very good and I can’t recommend one over the other. Both come with plentiful explanations, and include the earlier Old Babylonian version of the epic. George also includes five Sumerian myths about Bilgames. These did not form a connected narrative for the Sumerians, but they were obviously a source for the Akkadian epic, and they have some interesting variations. E.g., in the Sumerian myth, Bilgames defeats Humbaba by trickery: he persuades him to give up his protective auras by offering him a succession of gifts.

(If you’re deciding between the two, I should note that, as the title indicates, Dalley includes a few other myths too, including a separate, longer version of the Flood story.)

The major difference between Ferry and the scholarly translations is that the latter respect the fragmentary nature of our text. There are a lot of gaps, from single words to entire columns… we have perhaps only 80% of the original text. There are also uncertain translations, or words we don’t quite understand.

(Avoid translations earlier than these: we’re always learning more about Akkadian, and getting better and more complete texts, so earlier translations will not be as complete or as reliable.)

As a comparison, here’s a part of the first tablet, first in Dalley’s version:

Look for the copper tablet-box,
Undo its bronze lock.
Open the door to its secret,
Lift out the lapis lazuli tablet and read it.
The story of that man, Gilgamesh, who went through all kinds of sufferings.
He was superior to other kings, a warrior lord of great stature,
A hero born of Uruk, a goring wild bull.
He marches at the front as leader,
He goes behind, the support of his brothers.
Son of Lugalbanda, Gilgamesh, perfect in strength,
Son of the lofty cow, the wild cow Ninsun.

George:

[See] the tablet-box of cedar,
[release] its clasp of bronze!
[Lift] the lid of its secret,
[pick] up the tablet of lapis lazuli and read out
the travails of Gilgamesh, all that he went through.

Surpassing all other kings, heroic in stature,
brave scion of Uruk, wild bull on the rampage!
Going at the fore he was the vanguard,
going at the rear, one his comrades could trust!

Wild bull of Lugalbanda, Gilgamesh, the perfect in strength,
suckling of the august Wild Cow, the goddess Ninsun!

Ferry:

This is Uruk, the city of Gilgamesh
the Wild Ox, son of Lugalbanda, son

of the Lady Wildcow Ninsun. Gilgamesh
the vanguard and the rear guard of the army. 

Open the copper chest with the iron locks:
the tablet of lapis lazuli tells the story.

You could write an epic, at least as long as that of Gilgamesh, about how we came to have the epic of Gilgamesh. The first tablets were dug up in 1853, at a time when Akkadian couldn’t even be read.

The key to reading it was the trilingual inscriptions at Persepolis, from the period of the Persian Empire, written in Old Persian, Elamite, and Akkadian. They were known to Europeans from the 1500s. All are cuneiform, but it was noticed in the late 1700s that there were three languages, and the first (using only a couple dozen symbols) was alphabetic. By the end of the century the Avesta was studied, giving scholars an understanding of Old Persian. By 1850 the Old Persian could be read.

The next step was to understand the Akkadian. Progress was made rapidly during the 1850s, and received a big credibility boost when a new text was discovered and sent to four different scholars; their translations were close enough that it seemed like the project was on firm ground.

Sumerian, by the way, was discovered at the same time. Many tablets were obviously themselves bilingual: Sumerian-Akkadian vocabulary lists and interlinear translations. Later, it was recognized that some tablets, the oldest ones, were in Sumerian only.

George gives an example of the enormous difficulty of getting Akkadian texts. One particular tablet is broken in three pieces. They were discovered separately: one piece in 1850, one in 1874, one in 1878. It was not until the 1920s that someone realized that two of the pieces fit together, and the third wasn’t fitted to them until the 1980s.

And that’s just one tablet! He shows a photograph of it– it’s still a mess, with a huge chunk missing. Only the left part of the column of text is readable. Fortunately there are other tablets that include the same text… one includes just the right-hand portion; another shows about 3/4 of the column, missing just the right-hand side. The texts have to be painstakingly collated, glyph by glyph, before you can even read the text.

By now we have over 80 versions of the epic. That still isn’t enough to restore the whole text; nor do they all belong to the standard version, that of Sîn-lēqi-unninni. Not infrequently, to get a coherent story we have to consult the Old Babylonian version, or even the Hittite translation.

 

 

 

You may be wondering, or if not you should: what’s my next book?

It’s books. But the next one should be my Quechua reference grammar.

cusco-market

Based on some quick quizzes on Twitter and the ZBB, it seemed that people are more interested in a reference grammar than a textbook. Which is good, because I more or less have one! I wrote the grammar (and a dictionary) for my own use when I was studying Quechua in the 1990s.

It needs quite a bit of work yet, partly to make the text as good as possible, and partly because I need to go over some of the source materials in much more detail. But, that work is underway now.

If you’ve been following the blog, you’ve probably seen that I’m also doing research on the Middle East. Now, in theory this should be no harder than distilling all of India or China into a book. But, well, it isn’t. China is largely the story of one people and language. India is much more miscellaneous, but it’s mostly one civilization, whatever exactly that means. I could cover everything from Sumer to Khomeini in one volume, but it would mean compressing each bit into near unrecognizability.

So, my current idea is two books. One will cover the Ancient Middle East— concentrating on Mesopotamia, the Levant, and Persia, more or less up to Alexander. (That is, I don’t expect to cover Egypt or Anatolia in detail.) That’s certainly doable. After all, histories of Mesopotamia alone have to cover a lot of this material, because its empires were all over the Levant, and were eventually conquered by Persia. And most of the area was occupied by Semitic speakers, and shared a good deal of culture and cosmology. The obvious languages to cover would be Sumerian, Akkadian, and Hebrew.

There are a couple of really interesting puzzles to cover:

  • How did agriculture get started, and more importantly, why? People seemed happier without it.
  • How did one unimportant subgroup of Semites, of the same language and culture as the entire Levant, come up with a fervent monotheism?

Naturally, the latter question could take over the whole book, but I don’t intend to let it. I just read a history of ancient Israel, and though it’s interesting, what I crave is precisely the larger context. The Bible, and thus most historians, present Israel as somehow totally distinct from their neighbors. But they weren’t, at all; they basically spoke the same language, and indeed if you read a little closer they actually had enormous trouble keeping separate from those neighbors. And then there’s the tantalizing Persian connection— they interacted closely with the other monotheistic religion in the area. More on that later.

Book Two would cover the same area from about 600 to the present. That’s mostly the Islamic era, but also includes the very interesting 600s, when the age-old war between the Byzantines and Persians heated up, well, more than it ever had. The languages covered would be Persian and probably Arabic.

Clever people may note that there’s a gap of nearly a millennium in between. That’s intentional. I expect to cover the Persian part of the story, but what’s missing is the Greeks and Romans, and early Christianity. That’s nowhere near as new to most of my readers, I think; and covering them would require a different base area anyway.

Now, that’s plenty to do, but one day recently I woke up with my head full of Xurno. That is, I was thinking about the plot for Diary of the Prose Wars, my unfinished Almean novel. I read over the material I had. I think it’s in worse shape than I remembered, but that’s fine. The real problem was the plot, and I worked on that a bit. (For what it’s worth, it does focus the mind a bit when one’s own country is going to pot. “Oh, that’s how awful authoritarian regimes are formed.”) This won’t be a high priority, but apparently my subconscious was working on it, and I look forward to seeing it do some more.

 

This has turned out to be my favorite so far in the new Workshop-created modes.

ow infection

The idea is simple: it’s deathmatch, but whenever you kill someone they switch to your character. And you can’t damage that character, so you make them your ally (you infect them). The round ends when everyone is one character.

It’s really fun, not least because it’s fast and often hilarious. Unlike regular deathmatch, there’s a team aspect, since each character forms a faction and can work together. But your team allegiance can switch instantly if you’re killed. Not infrequently, there’s a matchup that results in quick mass switches. E.g. Junkrat can get multiple kills at once; so can Moira.  Sometimes there’s a sudden unexpected winner.

The original workshop mode was broken, score-wise: you gained points for kills, lost them for being killed. That meant, in effect, that only the last round or two counted. So as my first Workshop change, I fixed this by eliminating the death penalty. I also increased the time when enemies are revealed (since people love to troll by hiding), and restored Ashe’s ult (come on, people, Bob is hilarious). So if you want to get in on the fun, create a game with code 8H7NT.

(If you’ve never done this: Create a custom game. There’s an icon under Settings that lets you import a code.  Type or paste that code.  Set your game to everyone, if you want  randos to join, otherwise friends-only. Start the game. That’s it!  Sometimes I’ve had to wait for a bit for people to join, but not too long.  You can also find another Infection variant, but try to spread my score fix!)

As each hero wins, they’re removed from the available choices, and the game ends when all the characters are done.  It’s interesting how people choose characters: the DPS heroes generally go first, then the tanks, finally the supports. So one advantage is that you get practice on more heroes, without the annoyingly awful comps of Mystery Heroes.

A disadvantage is that if you allow anyone to join, some people will inevitably troll the rest by hiding at the end, as Sombra, Lucio, or Wrecking Ball.  If absolutely necessary you can kick them. But the best way to avoid this is to let one of these heroes win, so they’re removed from the game.