If you’ve been following this blog, you may be thinking that I haven’t read much about India lately. On the contrary! I’ve been reading plenty, but a lot of it is pretty dry.

The exception is Tales of the Ten Princes (Daśa Kumāra Carita), by Daṇḍin, which I just finished. Your first question will undoubtedly be, why isn’t it Daśa Kumārāḥ, in the plural? Or even Daśānām Kumārāṇām, in the plural genitive? I’m pretty sure it’s because the title is a compound, i.e. Daśakumāracarita (दशकुमारचरित), and only the last root in a compound is declined.

Daṇḍin lived in Kāñcī, in the Tamil region, sometime around 700.  He’s also known for a work on literary stylistics, Kāvyādarśa. In that work he describes two ways of writing Sanskrit, the simpler style of the south, and the ornate style of the east. Ten princes is written mostly in the simpler style; perhaps to show his mastery of the ornate style, Daṇḍin also wrote a work (unfortunately lost) which, making use of the amazing number of synonyms in classical Sanskrit, is a simultaneous recounting of both the Rāmāyaṇa and the Mahābhārata.

So, on to the Princes. It’s basically a set of short stories linked by a framing device. In the frame, the king Rājahaṃsa loses his kingdom and escapes to a forest. However, his wife is pregnant, and there is a prophecy that the child will restore the kingdom. The boy grows up to be Rājavāhana, hero of the story. He grows up in the forest, and in a quick sequence, is joined by nine companions— sons of ministers as well as kings’ sons conveniently mislaid in the forest.

They grow up into strapping young lads, and finally go out seeking conquests.  Almost immediately Rājavāhana is invited into a quest in the netherworld. His companions separate and wander all over India seeking him. In each of the stories a prince comes to a city, falls in love, and by various manners becomes a king. Finally they all find each other and each narrates his story.  Then, of course, Rājavāhana regains his kingdom with their help, in effect becoming emperor, with his friends as kings under him.

The stories are short, unlikely, and a lot of fun.  They’re picaresque— indeed, many are cheerfully amoral. Though Rājavāhana himself is heroic, not a few of the princes resort to fraud, murder, or theft. It’s a good corrective if, like me, you’ve been reading rather a lot about Indian religions. There’s a whole lot of kāma (love) and plenty of artha (ambition), only a minimum of dharma (righteousness).

For example, the predicament of the prince Mantragupta is that his beloved, the princess Kanakalekhā, has been taken in a raid by the king of a neighboring land, Jayasiṃha. The princess pretends to be possessed by a yakṣa (a type of demon), but this will only put off the king temporarily.

Mantragupta finds a way, however. He goes to the king’s city and pretends to be a powerful ascetic, one who knows all the Vedas, can cure all illnesses, and has supernatural powers. Jayasiṃha is taken in; he comes to see the sage and asks for help with the yakṣaridden maiden. Mantragupta agrees to help: the king must merely bathe in a certain pool, and he will be transformed into a body which the girl will find irresistible. He must have his army secure the pool first, of course. The king agrees.  (However unlikely the strategies proposed in this book, the other characters invariably go along.)

But Mantragupta has previously made a secret recess in the pool which has an underwater exit. When the king comes and waits in the water, Mantragupta comes out, strangles him, and hides the body in the recess. He comes out, pretending to be the king in his new body.  He rescues his princess and enjoys his new kingdom.

In another chapter, there’s an amusing passage where a king’s friend give him advice that is exactly contrary to Kauṭilya or Manu. E.g., one of the traditional sins of kings was gambling. The friend gives this advice:

Gambling too has merits. The renunciation of quantities of wealth, as if it is no more than straw, gives an incomparable liberality of the temperament. The uncertainty of gain or loss makes the heart impervious to joy or sorrow. The capacity increases for wrath, the prime fount of valor. The observation of exceedingly subtle legerdemain with dice and sleights of hand provides an infinite sharpness to the intellect. Concentration on one subject assures an exceptional single-mindedness.  Delight increases in daring, the companion of enterprise. Competition with the strong-minded makes for self-confidence, indomitability and magnanimity.

Of course the king is being led to his doom, but the extended argument makes for a nice parody of moralistic authors.

Similarly playful: one chapter is told without any labial consonants, as the narrating prince has a sore lip, from too much lovemaking.  Take that, Georges Perec!  (The translator doesn’t even attempt this in English, though Wikipedia suggests that another recent translation does.)

Most of the princes fall in love at first sight with a woman, and this is always reciprocated. One, indeed, gets the woman to fall in love by sending her a portrait of himself. This gives Daṇḍin the chance to grow effusive over the women. As one prince says:

All the limbs of this maiden are pure in complexion and without any blemish. They are neither too gross nor too meagre, not too long or too short. The inner sides of her fingers are pink, and the palms of her hands bear many auspicious signs like the barley grain, the fish, the lotus, and the jar. Her ankles are even. Her feet are plump and unmarked by veins. Her well-rounded calves so merge into ample thighs that the knees are hardly noticeable. The bottom is smooth, perfectly divided, beautifully dimpled and round as a wheel. The navel is small, a little low and deep. A triple line adorns the abdomen. A large bosom with upturned nipples covers the breast. The shoulders slope smoothly into supple arms. The fingernails have the fine gloss of gems. The fingers are tapering, soft, and copper-hued. 

Her neck is slender and graceful like a conchshell. Her face is like a lotus flower, with lips red and rounded, nose like a flower bud, handsome chin and shapely temples. Her forehead shines like the crescent moon and her wavy hair like a line of sapphires. Her dark eyebrows are arched and well-separated, and her eye are bright and wide with a glance both merry and languorous. Her ears are ornamented only with loops of pale lotus sets. Her abundant hair is dark and fragrant and simply dressed.

It’s interesting to compare this description with temple statues, which depict the same kind of very curvy body.

One prince finds that his lover is already married, producing an ethical dilemma:

My purpose is almost accomplished, but sleeping with another’s wife will hurt dharma. However, the compilers of the scriptures permit this if both artha and kāma are attained at the same time. I am committing this transgression to free my parents from jail. That should neutralize any sin, and may also reward me with some fraction of dharma.

Fortunately for him, Ganeśa himself appears in a  dream and tells him to proceed.

About the only negative to these stories is that they’re almost weightless.  The characters are vivid and range from princes to ascetics to thieves to courtesans to Jain monks to Greek sailors to jungle warriors, the plots are amusing, but it’s hard to remember them an hour later.  And the cities, though they’re scattered all over India, the cities all melt together.  But these are tales built to entertain, and they still do, 1300 years later.

If you do pick this up, try to get the modern translation by Aditya N. D. Haksar.



Over at Mefi there was a discussion about an article that claims that J.R.R. Tolkien’s dwarves were really Jews. They were of but apart from society, you see, and really interested in gold, and longed for a homeland of their own (Moria, or the Lonely Mountain).


Now, the thing is, you can actually point to passages in Tolkien’s letters or interviews which support this identification. He even made Dwarvish a little like Hebrew.

Still, as a conworlder, the whole idea bugs me. The thing is, I’ve been asked about bits of Almea in these terms… are these people the Greeks, those the Romans, these the Bulgarians, those the Kazakhs, etc.?  It seems that many people think that to create a conworld, you take the real world and just rename all the people.  If you do more work it’s to carefully create a Latin-clone for the para-Romans, a Mandarin-clone for the para-Chinese, etc.

But good conworlding doesn’t work this way. You understand this with characters in novels, no? You don’t write a novel by placing Richard Nixon here, Amelia Newhart there, and your aunt Lucille over there.  You create characters that might have been real  but aren’t.  You draw from all over, and you make up things from your own brain, and even the tributes to your old pals are changed and disguised.

I can’t proof-text this from Tolkien, but I’m sure it’s true of him as well. He talked about subcreation, after all, not about subcopying, and he told us quite explicitly how annoyed he was by outright allegory. The Jews might have been an inspiration for the dwarves, but so were the dwarves of Germanic legend– the ones in the Hobbit even have names straight out of the Prose Edda. Plus dwarves are a longstanding part of the European fantasy tradition– they’re there in Malory, in William Morris, in Wagner. Plus, Jews are not particularly associated with mining, or bearded women, or beer, or fights with dragons.

At a first approximation, to create a conculture, you take aspects from multiple Earth culture– or literary models. And you try to make them cohere with their environment, with their neighbors, with the major events of their history.  Sometimes the real-world borrowings I’m happiest about are the obscurest, the things that no one would notice but an expert.

At the same time, some of the clear borrowings may be left in for narrative convenience. Not everything should be a medieval European kingdom, but sometimes a medieval European kingdom is OK, because readers (or viewers or players) understand what is possible in that environment, how it works and looks.

An example, with good and bad elements, is C.S. Lewis’s Calormen. A reader quickly recognizes it as a Middle Eastern culture, and isn’t surprised to meet the floridly speaking para-sultan, the cringing vizier, the fast horses and crowded cities.  It’s so recognizable that many readers assume that it’s more specific than it really is, thinking that it’s a reference (or an insult) to, say, Islam.  But it’s as much Indian as Islamic, especially with its horrific god Tash; I could print out for you a British guy’s description of a temple of Durga that conveys the same lurid tone– this is what some variants of Hinduism looked like to 19th century Englishman, who conveyed it to impressionable youngsters like Lewis.

(As a boy C.S. created a Narnia-like land called Animal-Land, while his brother created a version of India; they ended up putting them in a separate world, India being an island, connected to Animal-Land by steamship routes.)

Plus, Lewis was so steeped in the classics that there’s always an element of Greek in his work, as in names like Aravis, or the Grecoform adjective Calormene. Browsing his autobiography to confirm some details, I also note his delight in Matthew Arnold’s Sohrab and Rustum, which retells part of the Persian epic, the Shahnameh.

The point is, Calormen isn’t simply Arabia or Persia or India or Babylonia; it’s a mixup of all of them, and in some ways it’s a more successful creation than, say, Archenland in the same book. Lewis’s modern British children are fun, but when he attempts to depict Narnian or Archenlander adults he falls into a pastiche of Malory that, fatally, lacks any spirit of inquiry.  The wise old king of Archenland will never lead you to question monarchy or the structure of medieval society, as any page of medieval history will.  There are no real restraints on Calormen, so it can be simply rousing adventure mixed with light satire.  It’s not under any requirement to be perfect and likeable, as Archenland is, and so it seems far more real.

In 2016 some of these borrowings may be considered problematic… but I’m not sure that people are at all consistent or even coherent about this. Is it a bad thing to know something of the Shahnameh, or to use non-Western models instead of endlessly re-creating medieval France? Plus the same people who are very worried about Calormen often swallow George Martin’s Dothraki and Slave Bay, which I’d say are not only more Orientalist, but more questionable because they seem to be meant to be taken far more seriously as a portrait of the medieval world.






This has probably been done before, but here’s a consolidated map of Gotham City as depicted in the Arkham series.


(WordPress used to automatically make a link to a bigger version, but now it doesn’t, so click that link to get there.)

Weirdly, Arkham Knight (which we have to assume is Rocksteady’s last word on the subject) tilts the Arkham City portion of the map by 45°. If you don’t believe me, check the in-game map! You can identify the courthouse, the Peabody Institute, Wonder Tower, and the steel mill, and clearly see that the street grid is tilted relative to Miagani Island.

Arkham Origins gives the location of Wayne Manor and Blackgate.  The Origins portion of the map may be oversized here.

Seagate is from the Matter of Family DLC for Knight; its location relative to the city is not given.

The inset (bottom left) gives the Arkham City map; it has a little peninsula that doesn’t appear in Origins, and also makes downtown Gotham much closer than in Knight.

As a bonus, here’s a comparison of the same view in Arkham City and Arkham Origins.


Not everything matches up, but a lot does. What you chiefly notice, I think, is that even with the snow effects, City was much clearer. Origins has way too much fog.

The people in charge of the Angoulême comics festival were recently completely unable to think of any female cartoonists, so I thought I’d help by contributing a list of more than 200.

If your favorites aren’t there… tell me!  Especially if they’re non-English.  I’m especially weak on manga.

As it happened, I was already reading Deborah Elizabeth Whaley’s Black Women in Sequence, which is about black female cartoonists.  It has a whole chapter about Catwoman, so I had to read it.  (Catwoman has been played on the screen by black actresses twice, going back to 1967, so it’s not surprising she has a special meaning for black comics fans.)

The most interesting chapter is on Jackie Ormes, who had several syndicated strips in black newspapers from the late ’30s till the ’50s.  I would love to see more of her work; it’d be a fascinating glimpse into those times.  What’s striking about her elegant, smart characters is simply that they look human, and sexy, at a time when white cartoonists were producing abominations like the Spirit’s Ebony.

Anyway, Whaley’s theorycrafting doesn’t turn me on much, but the introduction to a bunch of artists is worthwhile.  (I kept wanting to ask what she thought of Jaime Hernandez, or what she might think of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s new Black Panther…)



This week I cobbled together an impressive argument, to myself, which succeeded in convincing me that I needed an iPad Air. So now I have this little portable slab of computation sitting on my desk. The main expected use is as a camera. Here’s an example, otherwise known as “what every new iPad user discovers within the first hour”:


I hear there’s an app that will distort your face, too

Something else I needed, which you can see above: computer glasses. I’m near-sighted, which is supposed to mean I can see near things, but in the last few years my near vision got fuzzy with my glasses on. I learned to take them off, but the in-focus zone is now about 8 inches from the book or monitor. So now I have computer glasses, so I can sit at a comfortable (and probably healthier) distance from the screen.

I haven’t had a lot of chances to play with the gestural interface before, but I have to say: I love it. The basic gestures are intuitive, and manipulating the screen directly is a huge conceptual improvement over doing it remotely with the mouse. It’s not as great for detailed manipulation— but I learned how to make a stylus with a wet Q-tip wrapped in aluminum foil.  (Yes, that is a thing. The iPad screen works with your body’s static electricity, which is why most other objects don’t work as styluses.)

I’ve seen Apple Maps before, but their 3-D representation of major cities is pretty damn awesome.


Can you fuse the images? (I can’t.)

It’s neat that Apple has spent some ungodly number of man-hours creating 3-D models of all these buildings, including their setbacks and roof units. They could have wimped out with the Aqua Tower, above, but no, the undulations on the sides are 3-D modeled.

Sadly, they haven’t done the 3-D modeling out this far from the city.  They’ve done Evanston, though, where I went to college.

Another neat thing: it has a charger, but instead of using that, you can just hook it up to the Mac. Hey, it saves an electric outlet.

One reason I got the iPad instead of a Surface is because it talks nicely to my Mac. It can use the local WiFi, or the cable— I was able to grab the pictures easily enough, and to copy some PDFs to the iPad for reading.

Another projected use is research. I wish I’d had it back when I was researching numbers— scrawling numbers down in the library was always a hassle, to say nothing of the surprisingly tedious process of identifying what language a book represents (it’s often different from the name in Ruhlen or the Ethnologue) and whether I had its numbers already.

(The one thing I won’t use it for is phone calls, as I didn’t pick up a phone plan with it.)

For those who were concerned, we are back at home.  We spent seven weeks at our lovely and patient friends’ house.

Here’s a view of the courtyard of the building next door, from shortly after the fire:


The whole 22-unit building next door was demolished rather quickly. It took up a surprisingly small swath of land, which is empty for now. It used to dwarf our 2-story building, but now ours looks normal-sized.

There were several hiccups along the way. They replaced the roof; but after removing the old roof the roofers didn’t put out enough tarps, and it rained, causing water damage to our unit. They repaired this, but that caused more delay and a spray of dust that covered everything.

Just before we were going to move in, the unit below us had plumbing trouble: their sink was overflowing when either they or we used the water.  This was fixed (by rodding out the line), but from that time on we had no hot water in our kitchen.

The plumbers came by, saw that the report was correct, and started taking pipes apart.  They were clogged with rust.  But they got to where the water comes out of the wall without getting any water flow.  Apparently the riser that comes from below was blocked too.  They talked alarmingly about taking out the countertop and the sink to get at the riser, which would have been a huge mess.

Fortunately they thought about this, and came back on Monday to get at the wall from the other side— which is the building’s front hall.  This was no small task, because our walls are plaster, which is like rock.  Plus there were concrete bricks in the middle.  But with the right (very noisy) tools you can do anything, and they made nice big holes in the wall to get at the risers.

Now they discovered that there was a shutoff valve in the bottom unit… it wasn’t the rust that was preventing water from coming up, it was that the plumbers fixing the overflowing sink had turned off the valve.  I’d suggested as much, but of course the customer is never viewed as a reliable source of information.

Since they’d already gone into the wall, though, they replaced both hot and cold risers.  It took another day to redo the plumbing, hooking up the sink, dishwasher, and refrigerator. With a working dishwasher, it finally felt like we were at home and could relax.

They’re still working on the building— the units on the west side, facing the fire, need much more restoration, and then they have to repair the basement, which had 3 feet of water.  We lost a bunch of things we kept in the basement, including the original map of Verduria City.  (Fortunately I’d redone it in Illustrator.)

There’s no answer, by the way, on what caused the fire. The fire department said that any evidence was itself destroyed.

Curious fact: the bricks from the destroyed building were carefully piled up and carted away.  Old Chicago bricks are valuable.


On a brighter note, looking at sales, I found that five copies of Against Peace and Freedom were sold in December. That’s just enough to make the 200 sales for which I said I’d make an Incatena conlang.  It only took four years.  So, Hanying it is!  (Not immediately, but it’s on the to-do list.)


The China book has sold over 50 copies in the same month.  The Market continues intoning that it wants me to write nonfiction.

I think I may be done with League of Legends.  I haven’t picked it up in a couple of months. Part of this is that Arkham Knight and Fallout 4 have louder voices. Part of it is that, due to schedule changes, my friend Ash is no longer available for late-night games.

But the biggest reason is just that I’m not very good at it. I’ve put more than a year into it, I know the basics, I’ve played a ton of ARAM so I’ve played most of the champions.  I do well sometimes, and a few times I do really well. But I still have trouble staying alive, I lose more games than I win, and the learning curve seems as steep as ever.  I never even got into Ranked; the one game I played with friends was a disaster.

Millions of people love League, so I can’t really criticize it, but I think it has a few design problems.

  • You’ll enjoy it best if you play with friends, preferably over voice chat. But if you’re low level, you basically can’t play with high-level friends. They may mentor you a bit, but the game is too different at different levels. If you play with them, you’ll get a higher class of opponents and it’ll be worse for you, not better.

    (This is mitigated in ARAM, which is why I could play with Ash at all.)

  • The game could use a fourth level of tutorial bots.  It’s still too much of a leap to go from the bots to humans.
  • The game avoids voice chat for good reasons… jerks can be bad enough in text. But it means that mentoring usually doesn’t happen. (I appreciate it when it does occur, but it’s easiest to do in voice chat.)
  • The games are long. A bad TF2 round ends in five minutes, and then you can start over.  A bad SR match can take 45 minutes (even if your team surrenders, it’s 20).  If the problem was a bad team comp, a player who messes up, or a bad laning phase, that’s a long punishment for a short mistake.
  •  All the items and champs and strategies that make it a great e-sport make it, well, a grind to learn, except for you teenage and college whippersnappers. And it just keeps getting worse as they add more champs and items.

I think I could maybe go for a League Lite.  Something more complicated than TF2, but far less than pro LOL.  Maybe something with 30 champs instead of 128, no items, and start each game at level 3.  Maybe even an option to switch out champs.

(ARAM is almost a League Lite, but the problem I have with it is that it doesn’t prepare you for SR.  You do learn the champions, but they play differently in SR, and ARAM doesn’t teach you the teamwork, the laning, or the overall strategy.)

If you’re considering League, I don’t mean to put you off.  I’m not sorry I tried it, and you might do better at it than I did.  I might even go back for ARAM once I’ve put down the Institute. Though I hear the new Tomb Raider game is next month…

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