July 2019


So, tonight I finally saw Black Panther, which you may have heard of. If you haven’t, I suggest you go see it; it’s pretty good. This is actually the first Marvel movie I’ve seen. I hear they have, what, half a dozen by now?

We’ll get to the actual people below, but they have to work hard not to be upstaged by the set and costume design, which are some of the best to be seen in any sf/fantasy film. E.g. the big reveal of Africa’s biggest city, Wakanda:

lagos

Whoops, that is Africa’s biggest city, but it’s the real city of  Lagos, Nigeria.  Here’s Wakanda:

wakanda

So, this is a really cool shot, and it kind of ruins one of my jokes, comparing Wakanda to Numbani from Overwatch. This is far better done, not least because it isn’t just futuristic slabs as in every other movie and video game; it has interesting textures and seems anchored to the natural world. The street scenes are great too– it looks like a lively city that definitely doesn’t look American.

Still, I included the picture of Lagos for a reason– as a reminder of how mind-bogglingly large it is (the metropolitan area houses 21 million people, a little more than New York), and that the continent isn’t the basket case some people depict it as. (Nigeria’s per capita income is about the same as India, which today we think of, or should, as a rising power.)

The movie itself has a lot to say about oppression and unfairly divided wealth, especially as it relates to Black people, but its view of Africa outside Wakanda is uniformly negative. It’s the “Third World” that Wakanda hides itself as; the only scene set in non-Wakandan Africa is a human-trafficking operation. Not every movie can be everything, but in this area the movie is maybe a little too American.

Now, superhero movies are kind of forced to have a stereotyped and somewhat dumb structure. First you have to show that the superhero is awesome: they go and beat up normal mooks in amazing ways. But since 90 minutes of beating up mooks would get old, you have to have a supervillain, and the hero has to be beaten, and it’s hard not to make them look incompetent. Finally they get to be awesome again and the villain is decisively overcome.

This was a major problem in The Dark Knight, and Black Panther can’t quite escape it. Chadwick Boseman gets his early awesome scenes, but he also spends a lot of the movie looking kind of lost.

There’s also a special problem with the Black Panther character, which– to be honest– was created by a couple of white guys with pretty retro ideas about Africa, full of rhinos and kings and acacia trees. That is, he’s a superhero but also a traditional king His country is supposed to be wealthy and technologically advanced, yet also an absolute monarchy. (The main driver of the movie’s plot is that the king is chosen via a fight to the death.) The political contradiction was faced in the comics by Ta-Nehisi Coates, but he and Boseman both have problems humanizing the king– both T’challas are regal and austere and a little humorless.  On the other hand, that does give him a real character arc, and by the end of the movie he does have something to smile about.

Fortunately for T’challa and the movie, he’s also surrounded by badass women who don’t have to go through that act-two round of doubt and defeat. The standouts here are his sister Shuri (Leticia Wright) and his main general Okoye (Danai Gurira). I would gladly watch a movie centering on either of them. Okoye is beautiful to watch, making the superheroics look effortless. Shuri has great fight scenes too, but she’s also Wakanda’s Q, its scientific heart, and there’s nothing like her smirky smile when she’s carelessly explaining some tech she knows her listeners won’t understand.

The main antagonist, Erik Killmonger, is unusually good for a supervillain, because Ryan Coogler (director and co-writer) gives him an intelligent ideology and plan. (And at least at first, he’s more likeable than T’challa.) He wants to fight back— he wants to use Wakandan technology to take over the world and “run it right.” When he get a chance to confront the Wakandans, he asks them what they were doing when Africa was being carved up and millions of its people enslaved. No one answers, because they have no answer. They were protecting their little turf and that’s it.

Now, the dude apparently wants to use terrorism to create this empire– his plan consists of shipping out weapons, which he’s hoping will be used to kill a lot of people. So, that’s pretty bad. But he’s useful as a critique of Wakandan complacency, and an object lesson in why alpha-male combat might not be the best political system. And again, all this is way more sophisticated than most superhero stories, which are mostly about supercriminals with no relation to actual crime, and near-supernatural threats with no relation to actual global threats.

A few minor cavils:

  • Bits of the plot were obviously storyboarded, but not thought out. E.g. the operation in Busan (hi D.Va!) made no sense at all: the artifact wasn’t recovered, not enough operatives were sent, and Klaue was not secured.
  • T’challa asks his frenemy M’baku to safeguard his mother while the capital is held by Killmonger. Then, to push an alliance, he says Killmonger will come after M’baku. These statements don’t seem compatible…
  • “Hanuman”?  Yikes.

Even more than the set design, the costume design is consistently great. Okoye and the rest of the all-female royal bodyguard are especially striking in their red armor. The designer went to the trouble of creating designs for each of Wakanda’s five tribes… most viewers won’t notice, but there’s a reason (e.g.) Lupita Nyong’o always wears green. This is great worldbuilding: it adds depth without getting in the way, and it rewards deeper viewing and re-viewing.

Edit: Gaze, if you dare, on Tom & Lorenzo’s overview of the costumes of Okoye, Nakia, and Shuri in particular. Ruth Carter deservedly got an Oscar for this.

Finally, a word on diversity, which is that it’s awesome. If you’re a Hollywood exec, rather than rebooting Batman for the 119th time, let some people tell stories that weren’t often given that chance before. The novelty and passion will make a better film. Also, trust me, give Shuri her own movie.

 

 

 

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I finished King’s Bounty: The Dark Side. I already reviewed it, and pretty much everything I said then still applies, but I thought I’d record that I finally finished it, four years later.

One cute thing about the game is its occasional light jabs at other fantasy properties, e.g. this bit from an elven poetry contest:

kbds-dialog

Overall thoughts: if you’ve never played these, go play Armored Princess. But if you have, this one is just different enough to enjoy. I just replayed both. Which makes it sound trivial, but it’s not– they are sprawling games; DS alone takes about 60 hours.

Somewhat to my surprise, I found AP quite difficult this time– I could win the battles but kept running out of money to buy units. Fortunately, I learned that there are console commands! Hit shift-tilde; the key one is rage which refills your rage meter. You can type money n to get n gold pieces, and doublearmy n to double the units in slot n of your army. You don’t need these, but especially in DS, to keep refilling units means constantly teleporting around, and it gets tedious.

The heart of the game is its little battles… it’s hard not to talk about them without diminutives, because they’re cute and look like something in a board game. They are almost always winnable (unless you’ve chosen to fight enemies marked “deadly”), but the goal is really to lose as few of your own units as possible. This is harder in DS, since the units that can resurrect themselves and/or others are much rarer. But it’s fun to use lots of ranged units and high-damage tanks to decimate the enemy before they can even move.

The one thing I don’t like about the game (and the reason I’m not going to start another playthrough, at least for another few years) is the back-and-forth quests. These dudes always want something from another island, and not infrequently you have to interrogate everyone on that island to get it… or everyone in the game, unless you Google the quest.

The game also has some weird attitudes about women. (Note, it’s made by Russians, so they probably haven’t been challenged on this stuff so much.) On the one hand, its female units are badasses. The hardest fight in the game is against a few thousand Dryads– they can put your low-level characters to sleep, and they keep summoning new allies. One of the islands is Amazonia, which is suffering a rebellion of men, which you helpfully put down.  On the other hand, my character, the demoness, dresses like a dominatrix and gets a bevy of corrupted prisoners to wait on her. (But, well, your character is so small on the screen that you can almost always ignore this.)

 

Have you seen the new Twitter design yet?  If so, God help you.  Rarely does a site make itself completely unusable like this.

Here’s what the site looks like for me now:

twit1

Note, this is a 1920×1080 screen, and I can see two tweets. You can change the font size, but it barely helps. Why does over half the screen width have to be given over to blank space, their stupid menu, and their stupid trends?

The real killer, though, is that they’ve removed the option to list tweets in order received. You can click the little stars to the right of “Home” to get an option to display them that way… only it will reset it every time you visit.  Twitter, why is this so hard to understand?  I want to see all the tweets since I was last on. That’s it, that’s what I look at Twitter for.  When you show them to me out of order, then I can’t do this.  I get to a tweet I’ve read and it’s anyone’s guess if I’ve got to the old tweets or not.

And then, on the Mac version, there’s some bug where it’s extremely slow to type a tweet.  Again, jeez, the whole point of Twitter is writing tweets; how did they manage to make that harder?

I’d honestly give up on it, but an alert reader pointed me to tweetdeck.twitter.com, which provides an alternative and more workable view.

twit2

Now they’re only using 1/4 of the screen.  But oh golly, at least I can see four tweets.  There’s no way to make the columns wider, but it’s– barely– usable.  And it doesn’t rearrange the timeline.

(But good lord is it ugly.  And it still requires excessive scrolling.)

(OK, one plus side: I just realized I could create a list and display it in another column. Though that’s redundant with the first column, it makes it more likely that I’ll see the people in that list.)

I know people always hate redesigns, but I don’t that’s what’s going on.  I can’t imagine a world where, in two months, I’m happy with being able to see less, type with more difficulty, and not be able to see the latest tweets.  They’re game-killers.  At least there’s the slightly less stupid Tweetdeck for now.

 

This got a little too long for the blog, so it’s on my main page: a review of Tim Powers, one of my favorite sf writers.

I just finished this; it’s by Clive Ponting, and it was published in 2007. Immediate reaction: Human beings suck. I really wish there was a better species to belong to.

ponting

You may get an idea of its depressiveness from the fact that just one chapter is devoted to global warming. Yeah, that might destroy our civilization, but we were already headed that way. Also, if you think the culprit is manufacturing, or oil, or capitalism, think again. The problem goes way back, at least to the beginnings of agriculture.

And that may be letting the hunter-gatherers off the hook too easily. Humans are not only frighteningly efficient hunters, they’re death for other large animals. When humans reached the Americas, they quickly eliminated 75% of all large animal species.

As for agriculture, the main problems are these:

  • Soil erosion. Exposing the soil means that much of it is blown or washed away. This in turn silts up the rivers and causes flooding. The process is particularly deadly in the tropics, because rain forests have very poor soil— after a few crops are grown the land turned into baked clay, good for almost nothing.
  • Salinization. Irrigation in poor soils creates waterlogging and brings up salt, which impedes crops. Sumerian culture basically destroyed itself this way: by 1700 BCE crop yields were 1/3 of what they were when civilization began. (Sumer itself never fully recovered— political power moved north to Babylonia.)
  • The extension of agriculture to more and more marginal terrain.
  • Deforestation. Forests are cut down for building and for fuel. Over six thousand years, almost all of China and all of northern India have been converted into cropland. The current appearance of Mediterranean countries— semi-desert with occasional stands of olive trees— is man-made; forests once covered most of the land.
  • Poor diet. Most peasants survive almost entirely on grain and beans. Hunter-gatherers are far healthier. Plus, living with animals we get all their diseases.
  • These days, the unsustainable and polluting high usage of fertilizers and antibiotics.

Basically, Malthus was right: any increase in productivity is soon eaten up (literally) by increased population. 90% of human beings lived in starvation-level misery well into the 1800s. And that’s before you consider epidemics, war, or slavery.

There’s just one civilization that had a sustainable model, due to its geography: Egypt. The flood of the Nile brought a new coating of soil every year, so salinization wasn’t a problem. The valley is surrounded by desert, so there was no forest to cut down and no temptation to use marginal land. Egypt basically farmed the same way from 4000 BCE till the 19th century. It’s in trouble today, largely because of the Aswan Dam. The dam stops the silting process, so the Nile delta is shrinking, salinization is now a problem, and soil fertility must be supplemented by chemicals. Irrigation has spread schistosomiasis and fresh water is scarce.

Then there’s overhunting and overfishing. The chapter on fishing is particularly depressing. Humans just cannot seem to figure out that fish stocks are finite, even as they exhaust one after another. The fishing industry naturally resists any form of regulation, but again: we don’t just use fish species, we use them up. Once the fish are gone, you don’t have a fishing industry any more.

If you have an early-industrial conworld (as I do), some observations from Bernardino Ramazzini, an Italian doctor. He noted a number of industry-specific diseases in 1700:

  • potters got trembling and paralysis from lead poisoning
  • glass-makers got ulcerated lungs from antimony and borax
  • gilders and hatters got mercury poisoning (thus the Mad Hatter)
  • coal miners got lung diseases
  • cotton mills also produced lung problems, due to lint in the air; people who worked with wood had similar problems due to wood dust
  • coal and oil products caused cancer

Next— colonialism. Here at last the Europeans get to be the clear villains. I’ll just tell one story, which was new to me. In Kenya, whites stole all the good land. But they needed cheap labor for their plantations, so they couldn’t just let the natives continue to use traditional methods on what land remained to them. They instituted a poll tax and a hut tax, paid in cash, to force the Africans to work for them. When this didn’t produce enough labor, they raised the taxes, appropriated more land, and put import duties to raise the cost of living. This “worked” in the sense that the plantations got their labor. It also killed off nearly half the population.

The kicker: this happened, not in the 1720s, but in the 1920s. This is part of why stupid articles about how the American revolution preserved slavery drive me up the wall. The British were evil to the people they ruled… and not much better to their own descendants. (Not to get into too much of a digression: the British were able to outlaw slavery in their own colonies only because they’d lost the biggest slave-owning population, in British North America. And they supported the Confederacy in our civil war. They sold warships and blockade-running ships to the CSA— for which they had to pay the US reparations afterwards. No, they weren’t more benign than any other unelected overlords. And no, monarchy is not cuddly.)

The USSR did its fair share of devastation. They purposely drained the Aral Sea, which was supposed to provide good cropland but instead created a salty desert. Attempts to use Kazakh steppe as cropland was a disaster, resulting in losing 50% of the cropland in Kazakhstan. Collectivization killed millions of peasants and reduced food consumption even in the cities. Most industrial sludge was dumped untreated into rivers… several times rivers caught on fire. A nuclear accident in  Siberia released radiation equivalent to 3000 Hiroshima-sized bombs, and made Lake Karachai the most radioactive place on earth: you’ll get a lethal dose if you just stand on the shore for 30 minutes.

Another big mistake? Cars. Cars use 20% of world steel production, 35% of zinc, 50% of lead, 60% of rubber, 1/3 of oil. Car accidents kill a million people a year worldwide. In car-based Los Angeles, 2/3 of the center city is devoted to roads, garages, freeways, and parking areas. Yet street traffic is actually slower in modern cities than it was in 1900.

As for global warming… not much of this is news by now, but prospects are bad. Temperatures are up 0.85° C on average, and rising 0.2° C per decade. But it’s not uniform: the change in temperate areas is about 150% of that, and even higher at the poles. The goal of limiting warming to 2° C is optimistic. Worrying signs:

  • Polar ice is already starting to melt. That could raise the sea level significantly and, by removing all that reflective white ice, accelerate warming.
  • As the tundra melts, huge amounts of methane are released. And methane is a far more powerful warming agent than carbon dioxide.
  • Ironically, reducing industrial pollution could accelerate warming, by removing dust from the air.
  • The oceans absorb CO2… but there’s a strong possibility (based on examining climate change from millions of years ago) that this doesn’t continue indefinitely.

Predictions are tricky, but if these processes take off, warming by 2100 may be more in the range of 10° C. (That’s 18° F in case you’re rusty on Celsius. And recall, it’s higher in temperate latitudes. So Chicago’s average summer day of 85° F might be 112° instead.) And note, if we haven’t done anything, temperatures continue rising.

I’m naturally an optimist, but it’s hard to maintain that reading this book. At least let me emphasize that all this is a crisis of humanity’s own making. If we keep going as we’re going— well, we get ecological collapse with massive population die-off. But like Scrooge’s ghosts, the message is that we could pick another path. But it will require a hell of a lot of painful change, rethinking our civilization from the ground up. And at precisely the moment we need to make changes, we’re ruled by reactionaries who want to accelerate the collapse.

So, any other species need recruits? Gnolls? Half-orcs maybe?

 

 

 

 

In the course of expanding the Almeopedia article on the Esčambra and writing a new one on the Mažtan-Kal, I decided that the portrait of Abend needed redoing. Here’s a comparison.

Abend-compare

The old pic dates back at least to 2006, and I’ve never been completely happy with it, for a few reasons.

  • I didn’t know how to draw hair. I still don’t, really, but I’ve watched a few videos and learned that hair (long hair, especially) can be divided into curls which each have their own shading.
  • I used to rely on an animator’s trick, using colored outlines; but here at least it looks too washed-out.
  • The eyes are pretty bad.  And the line of his chin goes seriously awry… it looks like his jaw gets confused with a bit of shading.

I redrew it yesterday, in the same pose, but I wasn’t satisfied— he looked way too young, like a member of a boy band. So I redid it today, and I’m reasonably happy with it. (Yes, he looks more melancholy.  He has a lot to think about.  More on that later.)

I might as well admit that Abend’s face is based on a French actor, Dominique Paturel. That’s mostly because he once played Figaro, who influenced Abend’s character, but it’s also appropriate that he’s played D’Artagnan and Baron Münchhausen, and been the voice actor for Leslie Nielsen. (He’s also the regular French voice actor for Michael Caine.)

He would be the perfect choice to play Abend, but only if we could get him from the ’60s or ’70s. It’s a little weird to see pictures of him as an older actor— I’m not sure I’d cast him as Abend today.