May 2020


I like Minecraft, and I kind of like Torchlight, and it got good reviews, so I thought this would be great.  And it would be, except it has a third parent, which is Dark Souls.

mc dungeons

The idea is charming, and it looks beautiful. What it’s taken from Minecraft is the blocky look and the monsters– there’s absolutely no mining or building. But that’s fine; it’s pretty fun to kill hundreds of mobs, and knowing Minecraft you come in already knowing how most mobs behave.

The problem is– and this is really surprising for a game supposedly aimed at kids– it’s extremely unforgiving. You get 3 respawns, then you fail the entire mission. Which means you have to replay the whole thing, and the later missions are 20 or 30 minutes long.

The game is also extremely stingy with arrows, which are the best option against quite a few mobs, as well as some of the heavy mobs that will quickly overwhelm you.  You get a replenishing health potion, and can get a totem that also regenerates health, but when there’s a dozen bruisers or a boss bearing down on you, that’s not enough.

Now, I kinda get it. There are only 10 missions total, and the idea is that you keep replaying them, getting better gear as you go.  So in theory, if you can’t get through a mission (and I fail at what I think is the end of #9), you replay earlier missions again and again until you’ve leveled up.

Only, well, I’ve reached the “why bother?” stage. The gameplay is basically “click enemies till they die”– the only strategy seems to be knowing when to back off and heal. Even Torchlight felt like it had more options and alternatives, and it got tedious too. So replaying a level over and over is just not fun.

(Gearing up is important too, and it may well be that I’m using the “wrong gear”. But I’m at the mercy of the random number generator. To go on a mission at all, you have to have gear of a certain level, and you may not have found your favorite item at a high enough level yet.)

It’s a pity, because the game is very pretty, and the first levels are a lot of fun. But the design decision to limit respawns ruins it for me.  I don’t understand it… what would be so bad about respawning infinitely, as in nearly every other frigging video game?  If you really want a penalty, reduce the score or take away some emeralds or restart at an earlier checkpoint or something. Or, you know, don’t think you have to punish the player for playing your game.

You might have better luck, or a greater tolerance for grind.

I made a few changes to the Sound Change Applier.

First, files should be supported. That is, you can now download your work to a file, and upload it back into SCA².  You can include the input lexicon or not.

(I use the download attribute on browsers that support it, and another method for Explorer and Edge.  Hopefully it’ll work on your browser.)

Second, you can now have intermediate results. E.g. you could generate Old Ibero-Romance and then Portuguese with the same sound changes.  (Basically: add the special rule -* at the appropriate place in your sound changes. You can add a descriptive name after it.)

See the help file for details on both changes.

Youtube has for some reason decided to show me clips of the new Harley Quinn animated series.  And they’re great! Actually watching the show costs money, so I haven’t seen a full episode.

This is the first clip I saw, and one of the best:

(I notice that my borders make the viewer too small, so feel free to follow the links to watch on Youtube instead.)

I love this version of Catwoman, and the interaction with Ivy is brilliant: she goes in an instant from bad-mouthing her to Harley, to sucking up in person– a very human reaction that tells us a lot about both characters.  Ivy normally plays slightly-wiser older sister to Harley, so the turnaround is even funnier. In my favorite Catwoman interpretations she’s a bit nicer, but failing that I love seeing her super-competent at what she does, as here. And all three characters avoid the oversexualization that surfaced in the Arkham games.

Follow-up to that scene, where Catwoman shows off more of what she does, and Ivy has a cringey boyfriend with the poorest of timing:

jwz’s review is right on:

This is the greatest DC cartoon series ever made. It had not occurred to me that what was missing from these stories was lots and lots of swearing. But it is. It really, really is.

Elsewhere, the story can get pretty dark, which I’m not too fond of. (Take that as a warning if you don’t like cartoon gore.) But it’s not grimdark, it’s comic darkness, and that makes a huge difference. A lot of the humor is aimed at the grimdarkness or at least the over-seriousness of regular Batman, anyway.

Plus, focusing on the second tier of supervillains turns out to be the key move for comedy. Comic heroes are hard to do; though it can be done (cf. The Tick), it tends to leach the drama out. And making the top psychopaths (Joker, the Penguin) funny weakens them. But Ivy, Harley, Clayface, King Shark are just the right level: they can be made fairly human and fairly dysfunctional as needed, and they’re in just the right place to make fun of both the top tier villains and the heroes.

(To be clear, Mark Hamill’s Joker works, in Arkham City. But he’s a clowning psychopath, not a comic villain. He’s not usually funny, though he does have some good lines. Joker’s jollity isn’t meant to amuse onlookers, including us; it’s a marker of the way he really enjoys being a psychopath.)

The Covid-19 case count in the US has reached 1.4 million. Hey, remember those long-ago days when it was under 1000?

Some fun facts about death tolls, for some very queasy values of “fun”:

  • Covid-19 deaths in the US as of today: 83,700
  • US deaths in Vietnam War: 58,220
  • All US gun deaths in 2018, including suicides: 39,221
  • Automobile deaths last year: 38,800
  • Flu deaths 2018-19 season: 34,200
  • US deaths due to terrorism since 1995: 3,658

The coronavirus toll is likely significantly higher than the above figures. E.g. a recent survey of New York City alone found 24,200 excess deaths (those above the normal amount, 7900, from previous years). 5300 of those were not officially linked to Covid-19. There’s no other particular reason for that many deaths, so they are probably untested cases, or emergencies that turned into deaths due to hospitals being overstressed by the virus.

I took worldometer’s by-state figures and found the number of deaths in states won by Trump and by Clinton in 2016:

  • Blue states: 58,600
  • Red states: 22,600

Now, 62% of the blue state total is New York + New Jersey. Still, these figures alone are obviously part, though just part, of why the GOP doesn’t take the virus seriously.

22,600 deaths is still a lot. If the red states were a separate country, they’d still be #6 in the world for total deaths, just behind France. But only three red states (MI LA PA) have more than 2000 deaths.

The GOP logic is “The parachute has slowed our fall so far, so that proves we don’t need it.” So it’s pressing to “re-open the economy”. It’s not hard to predict what’s going to happen: a disaster.  Maybe if it hits some red states hard, it’ll finally knock some sense into them.

Once again, it’s a false choice, indefinite lockdown vs. killing millions.  Other countries are actually mastering the virus. Perennial comparison: in all of April, the US had 62,000 Covid-19 deaths. South Korea had 85.

Grimly amusing: Trump has everyone near him tested constantly. But he doesn’t see the need for testing the rest of the country, because he doesn’t fucking care.

The sad thing is that it’s hard to see things improving before the end of the year.  That could be a lot of deaths, and a Depression’s worth of financial destruction. All because Donald J. Trump doesn’t have a fuck of a clue, and the GOP is terrified of standing up to him.

 

Here’s a great set of articles, by Bret Devereaux, on what he calls the Fremen Mirage, or what might be called the Myth of the Warrior Race. There’s also a great sub-series on Sparta, one of the most pernicious of these myths. All this should be of great interest to conworlders, as well as people interested in the history of our planet.

A warning, though: there’s a lot to read. I spend most of Friday on these.

dunefight

Pedantic note: Devereaux likes the miniseries, but this is from the Lynch film, which is the only one I saw, and whose costume design rocks.

The basic elements of the myth are:

  • Empires are started by virile, manly men full of manliness.
  • They get weak because of luxuries, corruption, and sex.  They may actually lisp.
  • They are then taken over by virile manly men from warrior cultures.

Dune happens to be a shining exemplar of this; in the Sparta series he invokes 300. His use of the name invites digressions on the book, and he provides one, but it’s probably better than limiting the idea to one real-world exemplar, or using squishy words like “barbarian”. I’ll just use “barbarian”, but do imagine scare quotes used throughout.

To summarize the rebuttal:

  • States have little to fear from barbarian bands, which they normally beat or co-opt. Their major preoccupation is advanced states similar to their own: either neighbors or opposing factions in a civil war.
  • Agricultural states have no problem creating a professional army which, pound for pound, can beat barbarian bands.
  • On an individual basis, your basic state soldier was probably more fearsome than the barbarian, not less.
  • Corruption and sex have nothing to do with the decline of states.
  • Sparta was a pretty horrible place and its elite cruelty destroyed its own power in not much more than a century.
  • The myth generally has no interest in the accurate description of barbarians; it’s always a self-criticism from within the advanced states. To be more precise, it’s the whining of certain elites within those states, used against other parts of the elite.

The obvious counter-rebuttals, and the counters to those:

  • But the fall of Rome. Yes, all empires have to fall sooner or later. But people get inordinately interested in the 400s alone. Devereaux goes over Roman history from one sack of Rome to another– 390 BCE to 410 CE.  Think about that: that’s 800 years of solid power.  And in the East, another 1100 years. Barbarians win sometimes, but the state is forever.
  • But the Mongols.  The steppeland of Eurasia has a long and important history, and was a major threat to multiple civilizations. Nomad power is real. But the Mongols were just the high-water mark of a tide that, in the larger view, was controllable. China was almost always ruled by Han Chinese, and anyway was very good at assimilating conquerors.

Kind of amusingly, the Warrior Race trope is often used for and against the same people. E.g. the Greeks were manly warriors when fighting Persia, corrupt softees when fighting Rome. The Romans were manly outsiders when they took over Greece, softees when fighting Germans. The Arabs were virile outsiders during the Caliphate, and unutterably corrupt for the 19C Europeans.

But again, it’s never really about the barbarians. The myth was elaborated, though undoubtedly not originated, by Roman writers around 100 BCE to 100 AD… that is, the height of Roman power, when Rome was still expanding and the Germans were nothing to worry about. It was basically the complaint of one bunch of rich Romans against another. None of those making the complaint gave up their wealth and went to live in military camps in order to build up their manliness. Few of them actually visited any of the barbarians they praised. (Caesar did, but he was fighting them; he wasn’t engaged in conservative whining so much as flattering his own enemies in order to puff up his victories over them.)

Sparta is a fascinating story, and when you really look at it, it proves just about the opposite of what its fans think. Consider this: there were just 8000 full Spartiates– males with full citizenship– in 480. It was the largest state in Greece, and it was able to send just 5000 hoplites to Plataea. Athens sent 9000. Aristotle notes that if worked like other Greek states, Sparta could have supplied 30,000 hoplites. So its 85%-slave social system made it underperform in number of troops, a key metric for military success.

Nor were they that much better than other Greek troops. They shared the same equipment and tactics of all Greek states, and phalanx warfare was a matter of group action, not individual prowess. The Spartans may have had no profession but war, but they didn’t bother to train much.  Sparta did defeat Athens in 404– with the help of Persian funds. When it attempted to defy Persia, Persia simply switched its subsidies to Athens, and Sparta’s response was to appease the Persians by giving them the Ionian cities. Very manly!

And that was Sparta’s height. By 418, Spartiate strength was down to 3500.  By 371, it was 1500. Not coincidentally, Thebes was then able to shatter Sparta’s power and free Messenia, the territory that supplied most of its slaves. Devereaux goes into the reasons why, but in short: the Spartan elite was self-inoculated against all change. Their system was based on exclusion: excluding the helots, excluding elite members who couldn’t pass the agoge training system or maintain the common mess, excluding impoverished Spartiates. They had no way of maintaining their numbers without changing at least some of their ideology.

The myth was revived in the 19th century, added to the malodorous stew of European racism. Tacitus’ praise of the Germans (who he had never met) were intended to shore up Roman manliness, but they found a new audience in Germany, which liked to see itself as a scrappy and manly warrior race. France found its warrior race in ses ancêtres les Gaulois, while the Brits chose the Celts. (Not that this made the English particularly appreciate their sister nations.) The British in particular loved to divide their own subject people into warrior and non-warrior races… not the least reason they lastingly screwed up Indian politics.

One thing Devereaux doesn’t quite go into is the importance of the Fremen Mirage to modern conservatism. A lot of conservative ideas make no sense unless you interpret them in its light. Adapting the adage that American vote as if they were temporarily distressed millionaires, we may say that conservatives see themselves as temporarily comfortable Spartans. Yes, they live in nice suburban houses and have nice office jobs, but in their minds they’re living in a mess hall with other manly men, ready to lay waste to the softies. Spartan attitudes about the 85% of slaves below them in the hierarchy are relevant as well. Conservatives are fond of hazing rituals, even for themselves; but they also approve of pure misery for the lowest swaths of society (i.e., everybody but themselves).

What can you do with all this in your conworld?

One, throw out your Warrior Race– your Klingons, your Dothraki, your Cimmerians, your orcs. These are all fantasies made by civilized people who are tired of civilization but don’t want to leave it.

This doesn’t, of course, mean that you can’t have warriors, or war. War is hell, but storytellers can hardly do without it. But get rid of the notion that civilized states are bad at it, or that barbarians are particularly cruel. Agriculturalist empires are very good at cruelty in war.

The main threat to your civilized states will be other civilized states, or themselves.

At the same time, you should balance Devereaux with Scott.  (Not that they conflict, but they have different emphases.) The state has been near-unstoppable for the 5000 years since its invention. But until recently, it had real trouble extending its power over the people who lived in non-grain areas (marshes, mountains, jungle), and over nomads. The first group may be sizeable, but is not usually a threat to states; the second is.

But your nomads should be based on real nomads, not on the mythical Warrior Race. Some generalizations about real nomads:

  • They’re trained on horse-riding and archery, which makes them a great natural cavalry. Occasionally this can be parlayed into the conquest of an agricultural state… but that’s a) a rare reward, and b) a poisoned one. Nomads are rarely good or lasting rulers. (Mongol rule lasted less than 75 years after Khubilai Khan. The Qing held on much longer, but they weren’t really nomads.)
  • The first resort of states is to co-opt nomads. And that works pretty well!
  • Nomads don’t disdain city luxuries; in fact they’re quite fond of them. Historically they have a great interest in civilized religions, and nomad elites are good at joining agricultural elites.
  • Nomad societies are not extraordinarily macho; in fact their women are often far freer than in agricultural states.

Due to geography, Europe, India, and China were never going to be overwhelmed forever by nomads anyway. They just have too many people. Arguably Mesopotamia did not have this advantage, and that’s why it was not a major power after 500 BCE. More on that in my upcoming book…

States do decline, but it’s not due to luxury and corruption. More often, it’s due to the concentration of wealth, or ecological factors, or the elite losing interest in supporting the central power.

Finally: unlike individual humans, an aged state can rejuvenate itself. This may be as simple as a vigorous new dynasty taking over. Both Rome and China had some dramatic periods of instability or civil war, and yet kept picking themselves up for centuries.