I’ve been playing Fallout 4, and I thought I’d write about it when I’m still all confused but also happy, because the first twenty levels tend to be the sweet spot in Bethesda games.


Entering a Vault. What could go wrong?

We are staying with friends, and I was amazed when the entire game downloaded in about an hour. Gonna have to look at why our Internet connection is so much worse.

People seem to have mixed reactions to the introduction, but I thought it was great. For the first time (Tranquility Lane doesn’t quite count) we get to see and walk around the bright paternalistic prewar world of 2077, which is fun. (I’m not sure why there is so little apparent social and aesthetic change in the 120 years since the 1950s. On the other hand, maybe there’s more than it looks like. E.g., from the postwar world, it doesn’t seem like 2077 was much riven by racism or sexism.)

I have to say that I couldn’t figure out the new facial creation system. It feels like a step backwards: instead of a dozen sliders for the nose, say, you basically get two or three. So I couldn’t get the face I wanted.

Fallout 3 looked great, back in 2008, but F4 looks amazing. Look at the Vault above… all of that inscrutable machinery… it’s like stepping into a Jack Kirby drawing.  Plus it’s a welcome relief to have, like, all the colors. The greenish tint of F3 was effective in conveying a mood, but it really doesn’t show off a world to put a filter over it.

The actual gameplay is familiar yet streamlined.  I was immediately rifling through containers, crouch-walking through ruins sniping at raiders, and picking up quests from interesting people. I felt that Fallout New Vegas was too railroaded, so I like the fact that you can just wander again, losing yourself in the game and not worrying too much about where you are supposed to go next.

So a F3/FNV player will immediately know what they’re doing; and you’ll also appreciate lots of minor improvements: one-click container looting; time slowed but not stopped in VATS; integrated skills/perks; two levels of clothing; no need for repairs.  Plus all the enemies above the radroach feel like they’ve leveled up: even a mole rat attack feels frantic.

I like the voice-acted main character.  I’d prefer three voice options, as in Saints Row, but we can’t have everything. You no longer get a frozen world while you talk to someone; but the participants don’t look at each other, so it’s still a Strange Bethesda Encounter.

A sequel ought to add something new and engaging, and in F4 there are two big novelties:

  • The power armor. You get this very quickly, and to underline how badass it is, they throw a Deathclaw at you.  It has insane damage resistance, so it kind of feels like cheating. But hey, sometimes you just feel like walloping enemies, or just not dying so much.
  • Creating settlements. This is awesome fun– moving things around, scrapping items, and building up the place to attract settlers.  And I know I’ve only scratched the surface: I’ve seen screenshots of people making virtual castles, and working signboards… I can see this being a huge time sink. Plus you now have an excuse to loot pretty much everything; it’s far more satisfying than simply building weird weapons as in F3.

This is where Arkham Knight fell down, I think: the Batmobile was supposed to be way awesome, but it isn’t that fun and doesn’t fit thematically with the rest of the game.

You can modify weapons and armor, and this feels like the only big negative for me. Most of the options are locked… I’m 25 hours in and about all I can do is look at mods I may someday be able to use. You do get diverse weapons from enemies, but it’s not always clear what’s better. I’m still not clear on what piped weapons are…

The game occasionally slows down for me, though on the whole it plays nicely on Ultra.  It does crash unexpectedly at times, though I remember this being far worse on F3.


At least the Apocalypse killed all the Boston drivers

I already regret only being able to take one companion along at a time.  I like Dogmeat, Piper, and Nick. The interactions are fun, and in combat they have a useful ability to draw enemies’ attention so they’re not shooting at me so much.

I lived in Quincy for a few years, so I’m tickled that this area made it into the game, though I haven’t been down that way yet.  Since I know the area more, it does seem awfully compressed… you can walk between areas in about the same time it would take to drive in real life.  It does feel vaguely off that the Commonwealth is more into the Red Sox than the Patriots.  When the GECK comes out I really want to mod in my old house…

In case you missed it, a couple of changes on zompist.com:


I’v e been proofing China Construction Kit, plus incorporating reviewers’ suggestions.  It’s about time to print another proof; I think I’m still on target for a release at the end of the month.


Dowager Empress Cíxǐ, the de facto and disappointing late-19C ruler

But I find myself with a few opinions that didn’t get into the book. A few opinions made it in, but opinions take up a lot of room, you know, so I’ll put them here instead.

The biggest point is in reaction to William Rowe’s China’s Last Empire: The Great Qing.  He notes that scholarly tradition, in East and West, has been to divide the Qīng (Manchu) dynasty in 1842, with the first Opium War.  The preceding period goes with the rest of imperial China; the later period is part of modern history.  He describes his book as “revisionist”, incorporating a new overall picture of the Qīng, in which the Opium War is only one incident, and the Qīng were stronger and better than they looked.

He then spends the rest of the book basically showing, despite himself, that the traditional view is more or less correct.

Now, it’s not that he’s wrong, exactly. Early European visitors tended to be impressed with China, until the 19C when they suddenly saw it as backwards yet arrogant (and, more to the point, ready for plucking).  It’s hard sometimes not to just exclaim that 19C Westerners just sucked.  At the same time they were roughing up China, they treated Chinese immigrants, well, about like the West is dealing with Syrian refugees today– that is, with a maximum of ignorant fear and horror.  And when the West got around to the scholarly study of modern China, they were way too interested in the history of Westerners in China.

From a Chinese point of view, an answer to the burning question of why China was slow to modernize was: it came down to really bad luck.  A pattern going back two thousand years is that Chinese dynasties move from active and prosperous, to divided and chaotic. When a dynasty is started, a lot can get done: distribute land, expand the borders, establish internal peace, promote scholarship.  The dynamic period rarely lasts more than 150 years.  Large landowners start to take most of the land, which reduces the tax rolls, which leads to tax increases on the poor, which eventually leads to starvation and revolts.  Often later monarchs are dominated by the eunuchs (or in the Manchu era, their families).  The scholar-officials get bogged down in acrimonious debates, which bring down any serious reform movements. Finally everything falls apart.

The Manchus produced some especially fine early rulers, who lasted till about 1800… which means, the Westerners became powerful just at the worst possible time, after the 150-year mark when the dynasty started to decline fast.  From a purely internal point of view, there was more destruction caused by the White Lotus Rebellion and the Taiping Rebellion than by the wars with the West.

At the same time… well, the Manchu response to the West was pitifully inadequate.  But then, the same can be said of almost every other non-Western nation– it’s not a particular shame for the Chinese.  The Japanese ability to adapt Western ways with great speed is the real outlier.

Development is a tricky problem, and I’d venture to say that almost all the Western advice that China received, for a century, was useless. Not only did 19C Westerners not know how to develop a country, they didn’t even want to.  They wanted to trade, do missionary work, and if possible take over. If they couldn’t take over, they wanted local leaders who would guarantee stability and safeguard Western interests.  To the extent that the West had some good ideas about democracy, free speech, science, civil law, and free enterprise, they did their best to keep it to themselves.

Anyway, see the book for the actual course of events. I do try not to over-emphasize the West, though of course it has to be discussed in the modern period. So I’ve left out (say) what the British ambassador thought of China in 1793, something that tends to fascinate British authors.

And while I’m offering opinions, here’s another one: the Empire was better governed than perhaps any Western monarchy; but monarchy still sucks. This was realized, of course, in both East and West. The Western path was to limit the absolute power of the monarch– basically, in favor of the other power bases of Western society: the nobility, the church, and the towns. The Chinese way was to inculcate in both monarchs and officials an ideology of public-spirited rule.  Mark Elvin quotes some remarkable letters from Manchu monarchs expressing personal shame over reports of droughts and other poor weather. The teaching was that Heaven might show its displeasure with a ruler by bringing such catastrophes; one may wonder if the emperor 100% believed in what he was saying, but he obviously thought it worth saying, and it’s hard to imagine George III or Napoleon or Frederick the Great ever saying it. When the emperor was scrupulous, hardworking, and respectful of his officials, government was more effective than Westerners managed until very late in history.

But of course emperors could also be lazy or incompetent, or paranoid and vicious, or dominated by the court. And in between dynasties, you generally had warlords of varying ferocity. And worldwide, no one ever really achieved a better record with monarchy; see here for more.

(I know, we look at Donald Trump and things don’t seem much better.  But Trump is– thankfully, so far– an opposition candidate, and nothing about democracy guarantees that the opposition is any good.  When you really have a stinker of a president, you can get rid of him in 4 years; a bad monarch can afflict you for decades, and act much more opposite the interest of the masses.)





After what seemed like forever, the Amazon page for Against Peace and Freedom is up.  So the print version is available!  Neurimplant version will be available soon though only on the Vee. 

Oops, got to run to the car repair place.  Buy the book so I can afford it!

A great article by Yegor Gaidar, once acting prime minister of Russia, on why the Soviet Union fell apart:


Gaidar is writing largely to combat popular folklore in Russia right now, that reformers somehow sabotaged a system that was working fine.  But it’s equally a rebuke to the folklore in America that Ronald Reagan somehow did it.  The collapse had nothing to do with the reformers or Reagan.

Very briefly, the Soviet system was doomed with the collectivization of agriculture back in the 1930s, at Stalin’s insistence.  Collectivization greatly reduced grain production and destroyed any capacity for increased productivity.  Yet the cities kept growing, increasing the need for grain.  In the ’50s a program of utilizing marginal land was begun, but this only solved the problem temporarily. 

In the ’70s the system got another reprieve, via the discovery of oil.  But the price of a resource-based economy is instability and backwardness.  When oil prices collapsed in the mid -1980s, the USSR suddenly faced a $20 billion per year shortfall in revenues.  Several difficult solutions were available, but the leadership decided instead to just borrow the money from foreign banks. 

And this in turn tied the Soviets’ hands when the satellites and the Baltics started rebelling.  In 1991 the Soviets were negotiating a desperatedly needed $100 billion loan; it was understood that the money would not be available if (say) the USSR repressed the Baltics by force.

The coup in August 1991 failed largely because it was soon realized that the plotters, though able to push Gorbachev out, had no plan of their own.  They could not produce grain for the cities, or reestablish military control over the satellites, or secure that loan.  Stalinism couldn’t be reimposed by a wish.

On August 22, 1991, the story of the Soviet Union came to an end. A state that does not control its borders or military forces and has no revenue simply cannot exist. The document which effectively concluded the history of the Soviet Union was a letter from the Vneshekonombank in November 1991 to the Soviet leadership, informing them that the Soviet state had not a cent in its coffers.

Oil prices are up again, which is providing a boost for the Medvedev/Putin regime, which is smart enough to save some of the revenues… but only enough to provide a few years’ buffer in case of emergency.

Perhaps the greatest irony here is that the greatest avowedly Marxist state was undone by pure economics– as Gaidar points out, by the same factors that ground down Spain from the most powerful country in Europe to one of the weakest.

Wow, I got about ten offers to go over the PCK in 24 hours.  Thank you!  I’ll get back to people individually.  I have to go over the text myself once before it goes out.  That should be enough people though.  (Well, unless you have a particular expertise in climatology or military history.)

Still addictive enough that the awesome TF2 Halloween update takes second place.  As the screenshot shows, I learned a) how to make screenshots, and b) how to play in third person mode.

borderlands scooter

Scooter, one of the few characters you don't kill.

Playing a mixture of single-player and co-op games is weird… you end up playing the same area several times, the first time in a fog of confusion as you help someone else with quests you haven’t got yet.  You can have a fair mixture of levels, but once it gets too wide it’s less fun– I was in a game with someone 10 levels higher and it wasn’t that fun– he just swept up all the enemies.  I created a second character when a friend was just starting out.

There’s an appealing punk feel to the game… no appeals to your better nature, no saving the galaxy– it’s a rough and ugly planet and you’re in it for the money.  And if you have several players and are fighting a horde of enemies, it can be really intense, chaotic fun. 

The loot system is compelling, as it was designed to be, but I’m not sure it marries well to co-op.  I don’t know why you’re limited so much in inventory (you start with just 12 slots)– it forces you to make decisions constantlyon what weapons to keep, and in co-op you don’t want to hold everybody up while you ponder.  Doubling the slots or more would only improve the game.  You want to try out all these weapons, or be able to save one or two for a friend.  It’s annoying to pass over drops because you have no slots or can’t easily evaluate if they’re better than what you have.

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