December 2019


I’ve noticed that some video games create stories– not the developer’s stories but the player’s. PUBG was like that when it was new: players wanted to tell the stories of their intense escapes and successful firefights or, more likely, agonizing losses.

Skyblock is like that too. In general it has a compelling story of expansion from near-nothing. You start with this

sb orig

and end up with something like this:

sb vista

This is not the same Skyblock world I had before. I restarted with the same map Impulse and Skizzleman are using, largely because it contains a very useful change to vanilla Minecraft: zombies can drop gravel blocks. You can turn dirt + gravel into coarse dirt, which you can then hoe to form regular dirt. This makes dirt into a renewable resource, enabling the vista above, where I’ve built out the entire path from the starting island to one of the far ones in the distance.

The pool goes all the way there, so you can travel by boat. It’s lined almost entirely with bone blocks, obtained from skeletons.

The mushroom to the left is part of my village. How do you get a village when all you start with is tiny islands with one tree each? Oh my, that’s a tale.

  1. You’re given enough obsidian to get to the Nether. Build a portal.
  2. Find the tiny little Nether fortress. (I more or less found it at random: it was visible while I was building a path from the portal.)
  3. Blazes spawn at the fortress.  Good luck, you’ll need it. I ended up building a path protected with handrails (so I couldn’t be knocked off), trapdoors (so zombie pigmen wouldn’t rush me), and frequent cobble towers to hide behind. Even so it was a major struggle to kill a blaze and get close enough to grab the blaze rod.
  4. Use that to create an alchemy station.
  5. Now do it all again to get another blaze rod. Turns you you power the alchemy station with blaze powder, made from blaze rods.
  6. Craft a fermented spider eye from an unfermented spider eye, sugar, and brown mushroom. Use the alchemy stand to brew a Potion of Weakness from the fermented spider eye and a bottle of water.
  7. Add gunpowder (finally a use for this drop!) and brew a Splash Potion of Weakness.
  8. Go back to the Nether and farm gold by attacking the Zombie Pigmen. My trap doors and handrails helped a lot here; I also had a magic bow so each one only took 2-3 hits. This may take a bit as most pigmen drop only a gold nugget, and 9 are needed to make an ingot. You need 8 ingots.  Craft with an apple to make a Golden Apple. (An advantage of all this grinding: you get better with the bow, and the Blazes get less scary. I have a bunch of blaze rods now.)
  9. Keep going back to your mob farm till you get a zombie villager. Carefully kill the rest of the mobs to isolate him, and protect him with blocks. Light him up so no more mobs spawn by him.
  10. Throw the Splash Potion of Weakness at him.
  11. Give him (right-click) the Golden Apple. This produces the most satisfying sound effect in the game, a sort of crash of thunder. Red squiggles appear. He is now being cured.
  12. Wait.  He will still attack if he can get to you, so keep him secured until he’s cured.
  13. Bingo! He is now a regular villager. Use walls, or a boat, to lead him to a bed and workstation. You now have a village.

Here’s one my patients undergoing a cure. Isn’t he cute?

sb zombager

I didn’t even realize, playing vanilla Minecraft, that there’s a whole thing of villager management. I thought they only bought zombie flesh. Turns out only cleric villagers offer that trade. And they expand their trades as you keep trading with them– this is a godsend in Skyblock as they will produce many many things you can’t get without them. There are many kinds of villagers; you produce each one by creating a workstation for them.

You can breed villagers too, with stacks of carrots. But curing them from zombie villagers– zombagers?–  is best, because then they are grateful and give you a steep discount. In fact, you can purposely let a zombie kill one, then cure it, in order to get a discount.  This was a major comedy of errors when I tried it. Once I killed the zombager while trying to kill the zombie that bit him… once all the villagers got loose and then got attacked by zombies… once the damn zombager killed me.  I restored from a save until I got it right.

A villager has a random selection of trades, and sometimes it’s advisable to destroy and redeploy their workstation till they give you something you need. This is particularly useful with Librarians: you’d really really like to have them sell you Silk Touch.

From Skyblock I learned about applying spells to weapons, and combining enchanted weapons, with anvils. To do this you need shitloads of iron. But you can’t mine! Zombies occasionally drop iron, but even with a mob farm you’ll be lucky to have six ingots on hand. But villages, after a point, create iron golems!  You can murder them to get iron. (I was really nervous the first time I did this, but you just have to stay out of their reach. It doesn’t anger the villagers, nor other golems.)

Eventually I had so much iron that, just for sheer extravagance, I built a railway to another island. You can see it here, approaching my main base:

sb rails

You can see one of my mob farms to the left, and in the distance below right, another mob farm at a lower level. Both use water to push mobs to a drop. The first one just weakens them, so I have to periodically go kill them, but that’s good as it gives XP (which you need to use the anvil).  The second is tall enough to kill most mobs; it has chests to capture their loot.

There are so many little tricks to learn… many I picked up from Impulse. E.g. the mob farm let out kid zombies, which were annoying, till I learned to block them with a stone wall. Though this leaves a gap to kill them, the game considers it 1.5 blocks tall, so it blocks the kids.

I also carefully followed Impulse’s recipe to make a bubble elevator. More Nether trips, as you need soul sand.

I’ve been to the End, but immediately die there, even on Peaceful mode. Apparently you need to be well stocked with regeneration potions. I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to do it in solo mode.

Anyway, I got a little tired of grinding, so I started a vanilla world. This was originally a disaster. I discovered two villages, and managed to kill off all the villagers. Not directly: it turns out that the player is a mob magnet, and the mobs will kill villagers as they go after you.  Plus I triggered a raid, and that was absurdly hard. I restarted the world and tried again, this time making it a priority to protect the village.  A fence will do!

mc new town

After Skyblock, it’s kind of a luxury to see all that sand.

Naturally I’ve been cultivating villager trades here too. I actually have too many villagers, because they’re confused by my bed. They can’t reach it (they’re too stupid to climb the ladder), but because there’s an extra bed in the village they keep breeding more. I feel sorry for the one who can’t find a bed, so I build him one.

I mislearned something from Skyblock. Animal mobs regenerate regularly there, and I thought they would in vanilla Minecraft too.  Turns out, no.  (They respawn but VERY slowly.) So I killed off most of the local wildlife. I did manage to get sheep and cows, but no pigs. Finally I found pigs at a long distance, penned them up, and figured out how to bring them home: boats. Most mobs, including animals, will get into a boat and stay there. And you can pilot a boat on land, though only downward. But that got me and my passenger pig to within walking distance of the village.

Finally I got chickens: one came by randomly, and one came from an egg. Yet another fun fact: if you throw eggs, some of them hatch into chickens. I’m still short on leather, which is a pity because I like to make maps of the world…

 

Now I can say I’ve read the Book of the Dead— the real one, not a crankish “symbolic translation“. This one translates the Papyrus of Sobekmose, and the translator is Paul O’Rourke. I don’t feel like uploading a new picture, though.

hunefer

Sobekmose lived sometime in the New Kingdom (about 1550-1050). He is identified in the text as “Goldworker of Amun”, presumably some sort of jeweler. He got the slightly less expensive version of the Book without so many pretty pictures… but a lot more text. It contains about 75 chapters instead of 3.  (The total from all versions of the Book of the Dead amount to over 200 chapters.) Curiously, the scroll was written in cursive hieroglyphics on the recto, and in hieratic characters on the verso. (Hieratic is basically a faster, simplified form of hieroglyphics.)

So, I’ve read it, but I don’t understand it.  That’s fine, and it’s what I expected. Here, you can see what I mean: here’s a random chapter.

Allowing the Goldworker of Amun Sobekmose, justified, to go forth amongst his enemies. I have hacked up the sky. I have ripened the horizons. I have traveled through the earth (to) its edges. I have put the akhs (and) the great ones in an uproar because I am one who is equipped with his millions, namely with my magic. I eat with my mouth. I defecate with my anus because I am, indeed, a god, lord of the Duat. I was given these things fixed that make the Goldworker of Amun Sobekmose, justified, prosper.

You might hope that it sometimes becomes clear, like some poems in the Rigveda; but not really– it’s all like that.

An akh is a transfigured soul, with superpowers. It’s the desired end state of the whole process of mummification, judgment, and going through the many ordeals of the afterlife. The Duat is the netherworld, both the place where the dead live and the place where the Sun (Re) travels after it dies in the west and is reborn in the east.

The overall purpose of the book is clear, too. It’s a collection of spells and instructions for the deceased to get the best possible afterlife. The Duat turns out to be full of perils. There is the judgment of Anubis and that of the 42 gods to go through, of course. But there are also monsters who want to destroy you.  There’s a ferryman who will take you where you need to go only if you can correctly name all the parts of his ship (and this means the poetic/metaphorical names, not the technical terms):

Tell me my name, says the mooring post. Lady of the Two Lands in the Shrines is your name. Tell me my name, says the mallet. Leg of Apis is your name. Tell me my name, says the prow-rope. Braid of the Mooring-Post of Anubis in the Work of Embalming is your name. Tell me my name, says the steering-post. Columns of the Path of the Necropolis is your name….

Plus, it seems to be a struggle merely to get your body together and working. There are spells to “open the mouth”– you need to speak in order to say the spells. There are spells to keep your organs working, to allow you to move around, to eat proper food. There are spells to turn into an animal temporarily (mostly birds) to avoid dangers or get around better.

Many of the chapters involve a claim to divinity. Sobekmose is supposed to not just invoke Osiris but become Osiris– or other gods– in some way. I suspect this is tied to the origins of the Book of the Dead as Pyramid Texts– spells written on the wall of the king’s tomb. The king was a god, the son of Horus, so of course he would assert his divinity in the Duat. Apparently this was taken as the birthright– excuse me, the deathright– of any Egyptian who could afford mummification.

Here, by the way, is the translation of the same text from my other post:

I am purified on the day that I am born. I am cleansed in the two very great swamp waters which are in Herakleopolis (on) the day of the food offerings of the common people, (for) this great god who is in it.

Nothing resembling the  “dazzling illusion of life”!

When you do come before the 42 gods, you must declare your innocence, but also your knowledge of their names. E.g.:

O bone-breakers who came forth from Herakleopolis, I have not spoken falsehoods.

O lord of truth who came forth from the Two Truths, I have no stolen offering portions.

O traveler who came forth from Bubastis, I have not eavesdropped.

O pale one who came forth from Heliopolis, I have not run at the mouth.

O wammty-snake who came forth from the place of execution, I hav enot commited adultery.

O reciter of words who came forth from Weryt, I have not been hot-tempered.

And so on. Curiously, there’s not much instruction on what to do if you have sinned. Presumably you brazen it out. There are other spells which sound like the gods will purify you if you approach them correctly.

Now, a lot of the obscurity was probably not present for the original writers. It’s easy to imagine a similar text, full of metaphors and allusions, which would only be intelligible to Christians:

Bring me to the promised land, O Word of God. I have been washed in the Jordan. I have been cleansed by the Lamb. I have been through the valley of the shadow of death; I have seen the single set of footprints on the sand. I trust the Shepherd who was born of a virgin, the Carpenter who came riding on a donkey.

It’s also likely, of course, that the original writers were purposefully obscure. If Sobekmose is paying for a book of powerful spells, he might well be disappointed if he could actually understand it. Magic seems more convincing when it’s difficult and suggestive, when it seems to mean something but refuses to explain itself.

There’s also evidence that the texts were difficult even for the scribes copying them, and they made errors as a result. E.g., the list of ferry parts gives the same name for the ferry and the ferryman (“the one who finds faces, who uplifts faces”). O’Rourke suggests that this is a copyist’s error.  Another example: the 42 gods are said to “swallow from their excesses”, which makes no sense. Other versions of the book have “who swallow truth”.

 

I just read Lady Murasaki’s diary, a procedure that fortunately did not require breaking into the Tsuchimikado Palace and burglarizing her room, which would have greatly put her out, but reading Richard Bowring’s Penguin Classics version.

Murasaki_Shikibu_by_Hiroshige

Picture of Murasaki by Hiroshige, 1880

Murasaki Shikibu 紫式部 is an icon of Japanese literature, and indeed world literature, as she’s the author of the world’s first novel, 源氏物語 (Genji Monogatari / The Tale of Genji). Now you know who to blame for all those annoying Genjis in Overwatch. Her novel was recognized as a classic within a century and has remained popular ever since, and naturally it’s been turned into illustrated scrolls, manga, anime, and live-action films.

For all this fame, it’s surprising that we don’t even know her real name. Partly this is due to Heian court etiquette, in which names were avoided as much as possible. Shikibu refers to the Ministry of Ceremonial, which her father briefly ran. Murasaki means ‘purple’ and is a nickname, borrowed from one of the women in her own novel. It’s a native Japanese word, borrowing the kanji from ‘purple’. Shikibu is however a direct borrowing of *shiəkbhǒ ‘style-section’, pronounced shìbù in modern Mandarin.

She was a member of the Fujiwara clan which dominated the capital, Heian 平安 (the earlier name for Kyōto). Its leader, Michinaga no Fujiwara, had arranged for his daughter Shōshi to marry the Emperor, and he appointed Murasaki as a lady-in-waiting to her.  When the diary opens, in 1008, Shōshi was 21 and Murasaki around 34. She was already known for her ongoing writing of Genji, and for knowing Chinese, very unusual for a woman of the time; Michinaga’s choice was undoubtedly made to help build a salon for his daughter. (Murasaki was married but her husband died young. She had a daughter, who isn’t mentioned in the diary, though she must have been about 9— it’s not clear where she was living.)

The diary is short— the introduction is almost as long— and mostly concerned with the events surrounding the birth of Shōshi’s first son. There are long descriptions of the many court ceremonials, with careful attention paid to the subtle signals of Heian court life: where people were seated, what clothes they wore, how close they came to the ideal of being lively without being rowdy or boring. (Don’t picture the kimono with wide obi of our times; rather, women wore multiple kimono tied with a cord.)

There’s a constant theme of melancholy:

But then for some strange reason— if only my appetites were more mundane, I might find more joy in life, regain a little youth, and face it all with equanimity— seeing and hearing these marvelous, auspicious events only served to strengthen my yearnings. I felt downcast, vexed that nothing was turning out as I had hoped and that my misery simply seemed to increase.

Toward the end she offers some portraits of the women she know. Most are carefully positive, but one stands out for its negativity:

Sei Shōnagon, for instance, was dreadfully conceited. She thought herself so clever and littered her writings with Chinese characters, but if you examined them carefully, they left a great deal to be desired. Those who think of themselves as being superior to everyone else in this way will inevitably suffer and come to a bad end, and people who have become so precious that they go out of their way to try and be sensitive in the most unpromising situations, trying to capture every moment of interest, however slight, are bound to look ridiculous and superficial.

This passage is of particular interest because Sei Shōnagon is another prominent Heian female writer, author of the Pillow Book (枕草子 Makura no Sōshi, not a novel but more a book of anecdotes, poems, and essays). Murasaki herself mentions learning Chinese faster and better than her brother, but she mostly hides her learning— though she casually mentions things like a minister in a ceremonial reciting the beginning lines of Sīmǎ Qián’s Records. (Which itself is a telling detail: the ceremonial in question is the baby prince’s first bathing: nothing to do with Chinese history. It’s like reading from Herodotus, in Greek, at a christening.)

The details of court life differ, but the basic humanity comes through. Well, of course, you think— how hard is it to write about small human interactions and one’s own feelings? But we’re used to a thousand year of novels, personal essays, and journalism. A lot of early literature is epics, chronicles, manuals, poetry, or religious stuff, genres where people are normally very serious and aloof. One can only wish that we had anything as quotidian and candid as the diary from, say, Babylonia.

What was Heian court life like? From Murasaki’s account, very crowded. She describes a number of ceremonies that were jam-packed with dozens of nobles. In daily life, she was almost constantly surrounded by other court women and servants. She could retire to her room, but it was small, walls didn’t go up to the ceiling, and people would be bustling about at all hours.

A point of pride for both men and women was being able to quickly improvise verse. She mentions one event where, bored, she was leaving with another woman, when Michinaga himself caught them. He demanded a poem for the new prince, and she answered,

How on this fiftieth day can we possibly count
The countless years of our prince’s reign!

“Oh! Splendid!” he said, reciting it twice to himself; then he gave a very quick reply:

Had I as many years as the crane, then might I count
How many thousand years his eternal reign would be.

Elsewhere she admits that she sometimes (though not on this occasion) prepared poems in advance in case she was asked to improvise one.

Another time, Murasaki is away from court and misses her friend Lady Dainagon. She sends her a poem by letter, and receives back:

Awakening to find no friend to brush away the frost
The mandarin duck longs for her mate at night.

The translator explains that mandarin ducks were believed to make inseparable pair-bonds and were a metaphor for lovers— but then goes on to insist that the poem should be taken as “a conventional exchange between close friends— nothing more.” This is an odd comment!  It’s presumably offered so that we won’t suspect a lesbian affair. But how can a British professor a thousand years later, however learned, know all about the sexuality of Heian courtiers?

Elsewhere Murasaki mentions that she and another lady-in-waiting used to remove the panel between their rooms, making a larger room. Michinaga notices and makes a “tasteless remark” that it would be awkward if one of them had a lover the other didn’t know. But she answers it anyway, in her diary: there would be no problem, because they were “very close.”

From her own account, Murasaki is very attentive to female beauty— though you could say it was part of her job. Then there’s this incident:

I looked in at Lady Saishō’s door, only to find her asleep. She lay with her head pillowed on a writing box, her face all but hidden by a series of robes— dark red lined with green, purple lined with dark red…. The shape of her forehead was enchanting and so delicate. She looked just like one of those princesses you find depicted in illustrations. I pulled back the sleeves that covered her face.

“You remind me of a fairy-tale princess!” I said.

She looked up with a start. “You are dreadful!” she said, propping herself up. “Waking people up like that without a thought!”

That’s a degree of closeness one can describe as pretty darn close. And if it did get closer than friendship, what record would one expect to find after all these years?

The female perspective here reminds me of the Míng novel Golden Lotus. That was an elite but not royal family, and Chinese, and written a few centuries later, but the cultural milieu and the concentration on minor events of daily life are similar. I’m also reminded of the French elite of the 17th century, a time when you might not be expected to improvise a poem on the spot, but where the rich and the erudite mingled and shared their values.

I haven’t read The Tale of Genji itself, though it’s on my list. From reviews, it seems to be extremely lusty— it’s almost entirely devoted to Genji’s many loves. This contrasts with the retiring persona Murasaki presents in her diary— there is not a single hint of any amorous intrigue on her part. The nature of the novel at least explains a passage in the diary, when Michinaga gives her this poem:

She is known for her tartness
So I am sure that no one seeing her
Could pass without a taste.

The continuation— it’s unclear if it’s his or Murasaki’s:

She is a fruit that no one has yet tasted—
Who then can smack his lips and talk of tartness?

From the diary, this is a rather rude imposition. But then, the reserved persona of the diary might have been a conscious presentation, a necessary counterbalance to a rather racy novel.