Cyberpunk Edgerunners

It’s weird for me to watch and review a TV show that’s on now, but it’s on Netflix, so here we are.

I had pretty mixed feelings about the game Cyberpunk 2077; the anime by contrast is pretty good. In fact I feel like this would have been a much better direction for the game itself.

Lucy and David not being hyper-violent, for the moment

I’m not going to be entirely rapturous, but mostly because I’m not 17 anymore. If you are 17 and read my blog for some reason, no disrepect, this series was made for you and you may find it absolutely cool. It’s basically a heavy metal ballad: live fast, aim high, fuck the bastards and die in glory.

If you’ve been living in a cave or something, here’s the basics: the series is 10 episodes of half an hour each, focusing on David Martinez, a smart but poor boy living in Night City in 2076, studying to be a corpo. Ep 1 gives you a heady brew of cyberpunk: it starts with a braindance of a guy going cyberpsycho, killing a bunch of cops; we meet David’s hard-working mother, see David’s morose everyday life; he also knows a ripperdoc for some reason; the rich kids at school are bullying him; then life gets even worse. Everything costs money in Night City and when you have none, no one cares. You may play the game and want to live in Night City. Watching the anime, not so much. Kids, only you can prevent libertarianism.

Things pick up in Ep 2 when he meets Lucy, a girl way cooler than him who is nonetheless wasting time stealing chips from corpos on the el. David has recently acquired his first chrome, which allows him (among other things) to move superhumanly fast; it turns out he also has an unusual ability to integrate cyberware with his wetware (his big floppy meat brain). Lucy introduces him to a rising gang of mercs, who don’t like him much at first.

Now, C77 has a sequence of Movin’ Up with Jackie, where you rise from total noob to minor gangster in a five-minute montage. And that’s pretty much what eps 1 to 6 amount to…. and it just underlines the huge wasted opportunity in C77. The game doesn’t really get going until you’re already well established, with your own apartment. It skips what Edgerunners revels in: how easy is to fall out of the grid in Night City, the hopelessness of having nothing and no prospects, the slow climb up the crime ladder because that’s the only exit; slowly acquiring and getting to know your new crew, a la Saints Row.

In short, I would have watched twice as much David & Lucy on the rise (the interval between Eps 6 and 7, basically), and I would have played the hell out of that as a video game. Instead C77 gives you fucking Keanu.

At the same time, I’ve been watching Cowboy Bebop for the first time– both versions. They’re very similar: cyberpunk dystopia, lots of violence, heists gone bad, a simmering feud with a vicious enemy, a crew of loveable fuckups. More on this later, but a lot of the comparisons go Bebop‘s way. The characters in Bebop are more likeable, the stories and themes show far more range, and there’s a lot more actual sf going on. I understand that Edgerunners is just focused on doing one thing, and it does that pretty well. But Bebop is the more ambitious show, and it did all this 24 years ago.

The one thing Edgerunners has going for it is the animation. It’s not perfect– yeah, Studio Trigger, I can tell when you’re saving money– but it’s better, very stylish, and often innovative. (E.g. David’s superspeed is represented by multiple still images… that can’t be what it would actually look like, but it’s a perfect use of the medium.) So, Studio Trigger, please just re-animate Cowboy Bebop, leaving the soundtrack as is, mmkay?

Both game and anime are all about the ultraviolence. I’m guessing that that’s how the RPG plays too. It still disappoints me a bit because I want the cyber stuff: hacking, detecting, stealth, inscrutable graphics representing the inside of the Net. Otherwise it’s just a gang story where the guns are just, you know, surgically installed in your arm.

Now, while you’re watching, almost everything is cool and exciting– you can just let it all wash over you. But very little of it makes much sense on analysis. The TV Tropes name for this is fridge logic: stuff that you accept until half an hour later when you go to the fridge for snacks. The characters intelligence and skill level varies widely, according to plot needs. Enemy capabilities very even more widely: same. Character chooses to lie or clam up or reveal secrets: same. You can never tell who’s going to have a badass movement and who’s going to fuck up. (Bebop has this problem too.)

Now, some of this is probably intentional: it’s a tragedy, after all: people have to make mistakes and miscommunicate; they’re all damaged people; it’s a biz that encourages a certain reckless bravado. On the other hand, I think it kind of ruins the last two episodes, admittedly a point where they have to cram in a huge amount of plot. Specifically (mouse over to read):

Lucy is cool and calculating except when she needs to get captured. David’s new suit can blast through an entire military battalion, but he’s overcome by one guy in a mecha suit. Rebecca can blow up everything until she can’t. Kiwi does a heel turn, then a reverse heel turn, then gets played as a sucker. Arasaka has spent a fortune on this new cyberskeleton instead of just building more Adam Smashers. There is never a shortage of ammo and implants, but you can easily run out of immunosuppressants.

I’m going to show another scene which is a bit of a spoiler but reveals a lot about the show’s attitudes, positive and negative:

This is David in ep 7, a big gang leader now in several senses, though still pretty morose. Note the nice digs: he’s made it as far as a gangster can go. He’s also augmented himself into a metal monster.

David is obviously a male power fantasy here, to the point of absurdity. And that’s OK, that’s the story they wanted to tell, and it’s told with a certain self-criticism, or typical Slavic pessimism: this is not a path that leads to a long happy life. It’s lampshaded early on: cyberpunk is about how you die.

Lucy is also part of the male fantasy. She is and remains cooler than David– on the whole Edgerunners is pretty good about making its female characters badasses– but she falls for him anyway. Also for some reason female hackers get naked while hacking. And while hanging out at home, apparently. (David does too. Saves on laundry bills, I guess.)

Now, I’m not criticizing Lucy, or the romance– quite the opposite, it’s the one element of sweetness in the story, and a very welcome one. But I do want to ask: why didn’t the writers consider telling Lucy’s story instead? It’s arguably way more interesting. They tell some of it: she started out poor as well, and got trained and nearly killed by Arasaka. Yet she became a very successful hacker, chill and smart and kind and never subject to cyberpsychosis, and she never felt the need for David’s gorilla-grade bulk. It’s the Ginger Rogers thing: she did everything Fred Astaire did, only backwards and in high heels.

If you want to see that idea taken through its paces– try Arcane, the animated show based very loosely on League of Legends. I’m not sure I’ll do a full review, but it also covers a lot of this ground, though with more a steampunk than a cyberpunk vibe. But it makes the smart decision to focus on the female badasses rather than the male wannabes they inexplicably fall in love with.


Ukraine update

Russia’s war on Ukraine is back on the front pages, due to some stunning Ukrainian advances.

I’ve been checking for news about every day, mostly Phillips O’Brien and the Institute for the Study of War, which updates its map daily. These maps from the latter site summarize the overall war:

At left you can see all the territory occupied by Russia in its initial attack. They attacked just about everywhere, which is a poor strategy even with a good army, and it turned out they didn’t have one. They were completely unable to take Kyiv, and finally decided to withdraw from the north (the blue areas) and concentrate on the east and south.

The middle map shows the progress the Russians made in five months. They did move forward, by means of massive artillery bombardments and getting over 50,000 of their own men killed– a brutal style of warfare that worked well, if slowly, against smaller opponents like Chechnya. Note that the Russians took only two new major cities, Severodonetsk and Mariupol (the latter was already surrounded).

For most of August, Ukraine used its newly acquired HIMARS artillery to attack ammo dumps, fuel depots, command centers, and other materiel far behind enemy lines. That is, their aim was to destroy Russian war capabilities rather than take back territory. One result was far less Russian bombing of Ukrainian territory (and troops).

Finally, at the beginning of this month the Ukrainians started a counter-attack. They made it very clear that they were aiming for Kherson, in the south– heavily bombing routes into the region to isolate the Russians and obstruct reinforcements. Then they attacked… in the north, near Kharkiv. The blue on the last map shows the territory gained– apparently at fairly low cost. Today they retook Izyum, in the middle of the blue area– only a few miles from the occupied Luhansk oblast.

How did the Ukrainians do it? This interview with a Ukrainian analyst is quite informative. As he notes, the Russians have a 1300-km front to defend with no more than 250,000 soldiers. Ukraine has up to a million soldiers, though of course only a fraction will be used in such an advance. Apparently this part of the front had only one tier of defense, which made it extremely dangerous when the Ukrainians broke through.

The Russians are far from being defeated– but they are not in good shape. In the next few days or weeks we’ll find out what line they can actually defend. It’s almost certainly not going to be a line Putin likes.

Edit: O’Brien’s pithy remark is on point: “So the overall strategy was brilliant. Make Russia put forces where Ukraine can more easily damage them, while thinning out Russian forces where the Ukrainians wanted to move forward. They played Putin like a violin.”

Also, things are still moving: the ISW’s map now shows all of Kharkiv oblast liberated— the little red areas north and south of Kharkiv in the rightmost map above. In 10 days Ukraine has recaptured more territory than Russia grabbed in all of April to August, and at far less cost to itself.

There’s an old saw that “amateurs talk strategy; professionals talk logistics.” And if you were, say, a conworlder who wants to run a war in your world, this war has been a graduate class in logistics. For instance, the Ukrainian advance first targeted not Izyum but Kupyansk. Why? Because Kupyansk is the major rail junction in the area; without it, Russia could not supply its troops in Izyum. And in the south, the Ukrainians have been systematically destroying the bridges that lead to Kherson, meaning that they’re using one of the oldest strategies in the world: pinning an enemy against an uncrossable river.

Parade o’ books

Any of these books deserves a full review, with neat facts plucked from the pages to entice you– but at this point, that would require a lot of re-reading. So a quick survey will have to do.

Emily Willingham, Phallacy: Life Lessons from the Animal Penis (2020). Yep, a book about the penis in all its forms in the animal kingdom. Willingham has a serious point here: researchers and outsiders often import archaic attitudes into biology, getting the penis wrong and forgetting the vagina. But it’s also both educational and entertaining to simply look at the weird stuff animals get up to. A good place to start is trying to figure out what is a penis and what isn’t… there are some wacky edge cases, such as at least one invertebrate which inserts its eggs into the male with a copulatory organ. Or there’s the spiders which lose their penises when they copulate. It’s not that bad: they have two.

This is one of a number of books by women that offer a lighthearted critique of misguided male scientists, who are often eager to push an idea of aggressive promiscuous males and picky, passive females. Oh, there is so much more variation than that. Others in this genre include Olivia Judson’s Dr. Tatiana’s Sex Advice to All Creation, Meredith Small’s What’s Love Got to Do with It?, and Natalie Angier’s Woman: An Intimate Geography. Nature is weird, and does not inherently support alt-right prejudices.

Benjamin Brose, Xuanzang: China’s Legendary Pilgrim and Translator (2021). If you read my China Construction Kit, you’ll remember Xuanzang, the Chinese Buddhist monk who took and arduous trip to India in the 600s to understand Buddhism better, coming back 16 years later with hundreds of precious manuscripts. This story is the key to the classic Chinese novel, Journey to the West. But the real story behind it is just as interesting, though perhaps it’s disappointing to learn that only the first couple weeks of the journey were perilous, as he set off alone. As soon as he reached the first stop, he met the local king, who received him graciously and sent him on to the next local ruler, and so on for years. Brose explains what Xuanzang wanted to know and how he affected Buddhism, and includes several narrative passages from the man himself.

Andrew Gordon, A Modern History of Japan from Tokugawa times to the present (2003). I read this because I thought I could borrow some modern Japanese history for Almea, and I did. The book covers nearly 500 years, which allows quite a lot of detail but not exactly depth– e.g. WWII is covered in just one chapter. The chapters on the Meiji period are the most interesting. I was most interested to understand how Japan could modernize when China didn’t (until Deng).

The Meiji ‘restoration’ was more or less a top-down revolution: two of the most advanced daimyo (nobles) took over militarily. Or more broadly, the revolution empowered two classes that were near but, crucially, not at the top: the samurai, and the nouveau-riche rural elite, who had worked their way up from peasants to craftsmen to notables in the last century or so. (A peculiarity of Japan was that the prosperous bourgeois class in the 1800s was not in the big cities but in small rural towns.) And in Japan, that was enough to get things going; whereas in China merely getting rid of the Manchu did not give power to any more modern or modernizing class.

Another fascinating tidbit: Japan’s 1889 constitution, which lasted till the end of WWII, produced a lot more democracy than its writers expected or wanted. The winners of the revolution really only wanted to stay on as the new rulers. They made sure that the new Diet did not control the army, or even really the ministries. They also limited suffrage, in hopes that the members would be well-off and conservative. They only allowed the Diet at all because people were already writing constitutions and hoping for democracy, and they thought they’d better get their own version out fast. But the very existence of the Diet, and national propaganda for building the nation, encouraged national debate, expectations that the Diet would matter, and expectations that the Japanese people should all benefit from modernization. The constitution allowed the elite to govern without the Diet, but in practice (and until the 1930s) power was essentially shared between the army, the bureaucrats, and the parties.

Paul Lockhart, Firepower: How weapons shaped warfare (2021). If your conworld gets at all beyond the medieval period, you should read this or something like it. It’s about guns, including their big brothers artillery and cannons. I’m still in the middle of it, but one of the main takeaways is that like most technology, it’s a matter of small but constant improvements– and ongoing challenges. E.g. I knew that rifling was important: if you cut a spiral groove in the barrel of a gun and make bullets engage it, they get a spin that makes them far more accurate and deadly. This was known from the 15th century, so why didn’t it take over till the 1800s? Well, because firing a gun (especially with black powder) produces residues that clog the interior. You can’t fire too many shots before the balls don’t fit– unlike a musket which has more leeway. Good rifles had to wait till the ball was replaced with the bullet, and rifles had mechanisms to deform the bullet to force it into the rifling. Another example: breech loading is far more efficient than ramming shot in through the barrel. This too was known early on, but didn’t entirely take over till the late 1800s. Here too there were just many little technical problems to overcome: early breech loaders had a tendency to blow up, or leak hot gases.

Another takeaway: any old empire could afford muskets and cannons. But as the technology developed, only great powers could afford the newest guns– and they had to acquire them (and in enormous quantities) at any cost, because falling behind in the arms race was devastating. When explosive shells were developed that set wooden ships on fire– well, everyone had to shift to ironclads if they could. It’s no coincidence that nearly-free nobles were subjugated to kings, and smaller states became the prey of great powers. Even in the 1800s, the hot new tech might only last for a couple of decades.

Putin’s Ukraine problem

So, Ukraine. Kind of a big deal, huh?

I have no special expertise here, so I’m heavily relying on those who do:

Destroyed Russian tanks in Ukraine. (Reuters)

Another caution: the fog of war is heavy. We know the basics, but we don’t have solid numbers and precise maps. Putin of course does not want honest reporting, and in the kind of war Ukraine is fighting, it’s hardly going to say exactly where its forces are. All those omnisicient military retellings (“General Daring had two options available…”) will be written far in the future.

What did Putin want?

It seems pretty clear that Putin expected a walkover. He thought the Ukrainians would be overwhelmed or wouldn’t fight; he sent in riot police to secure Kyiv; three squads were sent to murder Zelenskyy. The model was probably the 2014 invasion of Crimea. It would be so fast that, confronted with a fait accompli and a quickly installed puppet regime, the West wouldn’t bother to apply major sanctions. All this failed.

There was a good deal of Russian bullshit in the air in February. Tucker Carlson is the most famous Putin apologist, but many others gravely opined that NATO expansion had somehow been too much for Putin. Sadly, the DSA has also decided to repeat this fascist excuse and blame the war on US “imperialism”.

This is easy enough to refute. You don’t mount a 200,000-man invasion in order to keep the status quo happening. Ukraine was not and is not a member of NATO. It’s been talked about as far back as 2008, and nothing has happened. If that was what Putin wanted, he’d have got it by simply doing nothing. The invasion was not precipitated by any Ukrainian or Western moves. The NATO stuff was a smokescreen, dropped to confuse some useful idiots.

In November of last year NATO commander Jens Stoltenberg was quite clear about why Ukraine wasn’t accepted: “30 allies have to agree, and we don’t have consensus agreement in NATO now on inviting Ukraine into becoming a full member.” That means someone is vetoing the idea for some reason. So membership isn’t just slowed down, it’s halted. Putin’s supposed fear was not about anything real.

You also don’t demonstrate that there’s nothing to fear from Russia by invading your neighbor, sending murder squads after its president, and levelling its cities. That in fact demonstrates that Russia is a very real threat and small countries are very vulnerable. Thanks to Putin, countries like Sweden and Finland, which sat out the entire Cold War, are considering joining NATO. Putin accomplished in one week what US presidents for the last 20 years were unable to do: get Germany to spend more than 2% of its GNP on defense, and export weapons.

Why did Putin want Ukraine? He thought it was low-lying fruit, and he’d be a hero in Russia for reversing a little bit of the Soviet collapse. And he’d already got away with slicing off Crimea, with minimal blowback. In two decades he’s issued a long string of provocations which were never successfully resisted; he thought he could pull off one more. A war is also his go-to move when he’s losing popularity.

A few pundits have mentioned that since Putin closed down Russian access to Twitter, trolls in their mentions have plummeted. This is just one bit of a culture war Putin has been waging for a decade: support extremists and sow confusion in the West, at little cost to himself. Russian money has been deeply involved in Tory Britain, and of course Russian TV openly gloated in 2017 that Trump was theirs. Trump didn’t care about Russia invading and stealing Crimea, and actually held up military aid to Zelenskyy in hopes of getting some dirt on Hunter Biden.

Fox is still showcasing the pro-Putin Carlson, but it looks like Putin has lost a lot of his right-wing support. In a Pew poll, 85% of Americans favor maintaining strong sanctions against Russia; 74% think the US is providing enough or not enough aid to Ukraine, as opposed to just 7% who think it’s too much.

A bit more on the Democratic Socialists, because they disappointed me so much. They’ve fallen into one of the oldest traps, the one most ideologues and conspiracy theorists fall into: the single-villain ideology. For them the only agent in the world is the US government; everything it does is bad, and no one else has any moral agency at all. Confronted with a murderous despot actively trying to reinstate the Russian empire, their brains just cannot compute. “Imperialism… that… isn’t… American? Inconceivable!” Instead they actually take the position that a defensive alliance against fascist Russia is bad, and that Ukrainian resistance should not be encouraged (i.e. by giving them arms so the Russian conquest fails). It’s not surprising at this point that fascist elements in the GOP support Putin, but it’s absolutely vile when so-called leftists are parroting fascist talking points.

Why did it go wrong?

  • Military failures, as described in the links above. Almost unbelievable logistic incompetence, leading to thousands of Russian troops dead. In three weeks Russia suffered 1/3 or 1/2 of the combat deaths it suffered in ten years in Afghanistan.
  • It turned out Ukraine doesn’t consider itself Russian and is willing to fight to prove it. In addition to uniting Europe against Russian aggression, Putin managed to de-Russify eastern Ukraine. Handing over the separatist bits of Donbass to criminal gangs, and bombing the rest to rubble, turns out not to make people want to join Russia.
  • It turned out Zelenskyy is brave as fuck and is a master of inspiring Ukrainians and the world.
  • Ukraine won the info war. Maybe easy to do when you just have to underline that a fascist dictator is invading you for no reason, but once the invasion started no one outside the horseshoe far right and far left believed in Putin’s pre-war bullshit. Ukraine has been exposing Russian criminality and showcasing Ukrainian resilience, while Putin has basically given up on making any case for himself to the outside world.
  • The West was unified, and applied devastating sanctions immediately.

All of this is important, but perhaps the biggest factor: Putin was living in a dream world. Comparisons with The Death of Stalin are in order… Putin has a created a massive machine for enriching himself and ruling Russia, but to do it he’s surrounded himself with terrified yes-men. So when he decided that Ukraine loved him as much as Russians have to pretend they love him, no one could tell him he was wrong, no one could tell him the army wasn’t up to it, no one could tell him he was going to tank the economy, no one could tell him that he’ll be lucky to last out the year.

Recent pictures of him are almost comic: why is no one allowed to be within 20 feet of him? What sort of fear does he have of these people, the very ones he handpicked to work for him?

As the military guys point out, occupying a country is hard work, destructive not only to the invaded but to the invaders. And to prepare his troops to do this, Putin… lied to them. They were told they were just on a training mission. Apparently Russian military structure is intensely top-down: lower-level units have no autonomy, which is part of why the invasion has stalled. Low-level troops are stuck, out of gas, eating expired food or raiding grocery stores, attacked by the locals they were told would welcome them. How the fuck does Putin think treating his own army that way will work out for him?

Why we’re not fighting Russia

To a lot of people– including Zelenskyy– the next step seems obvious: get involved directly. But Biden refuses to send US troops; according to Pew, 62% of Americans agree with him.

And they’re right. If it was a matter of conventional weapons– yeah, if Russia is having trouble with Ukraine they’d sure as hell have trouble with NATO. But Russia has nuclear weapons, and having Russians and Americans directly fighting would greatly increase the chance of nuclear war. And let’s not get stupid: we all lose a nuclear war.

For 40 years, the Cold War ran on the somewhat cynical principle that direct conflict was out, but indirect was OK. The Russians helped the Vietnamese; we helped the Afghans. Both sides let themselves get embroiled in things they should have stayed out of– but they also avoided direct conflicts that could easily have escalated.

Perhaps it’s not obvious: a no-fly zone is sending US (or NATO) troops to Ukraine, albeit sending them in planes. A no-fly zone means shooting down enemy planes, and facing enemy attempts to shoot back. We are not at war with Russia, but if we tried that we soon would be. Besides, Russia’s bombs are not mainly from planes, but from missiles fired from Russia.

What happens next?

Who knows, except that it’ll be enormous suffering for the Ukrainians. In frustration, the Russians are using the same tactic they used in Chechnya and Syria: attack civilians with indiscriminate bombing. Any pretense of “these people are really Russians” has been abandoned; they’re just destroying as much as they can.

At the same time, the West is sending more anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons. I’m not a military dude, so I don’t know if that will work or not. At least it should devastate those Russian convoys, and hopefully shoot down more and more planes and missiles.

There’s been some talk of Russia’s “peace” conditions. One of them is handing over the Donbass; this is probably a non-starter. For one thing, to Westerners it probably implies recognizing the little slivers of rebel territory; to Putin it almost certainly means the entire Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts, 8% of Ukraine’s territory. Only 1/3 of this territory is held by the rebels now, and Kamil Galeev does a great job here explaining how Putin destroyed the economy of the very area he occupied and handed it over to gangsters, and how this so disgusted the rest of Donbass, as well as all of Russophone Ukraine, that they want nothing to do with him.

Ukraine faces some tricky decisions here. It’s easy for outsiders to say it should keep resisting, and to point out that Putin has zero credibility in anything he proposes or agrees to. On the other hand, it’s questionable whether Russia can keep up the fight. It’s very possible that a very large fraction of that 190,000-man army will be cut to pieces, and it’s not like Putin saved his best troops for later.

At this point it’s hard to think of an exit Putin can take. He could just admit it didn’t work and back out, but dictators don’t think that way, even when their life is on the line. Saddam Hussein simply could not admit that he had no nukes– even though continuing that particular Big Lie ended up with him surrendering in a ditch. Besides, there is just no button labeled “Go back to December 2021.” Europe and Ukraine now know, and will take into account, that Putin is an invasion-happy fascist.

Ukraine itself is suggesting “neutrality” in an interesting new sense: no NATO membership, but “in case of war signatories provide weapons and air defense immediately without bureaucratic procedures or conditions”. That’s an almost cheeky way of saying “We’ll do this all again if we have to.” But Putin could play it up as “no NATO membership” I guess? He’d be wise to take the deal; too bad he’s not wise.

Arthashastra: Statecraft

Time for our last traipse through the Arthaśāstrawhich started here and continued here.


Congratulations, you’ve become king of a small ancient Indian state. Your first question: how to choose ministers? This is an important enough question that Kauṭilya does a literature review: he summarizes the opinion of various authorities before giving his own. You should not pick your classmates or family retainers (they won’t respect you as a king), nor sycophants (they are devoted by not intelligent), nor “new persons” (who are inexperienced). You should choose men of “high family and possessed of wisdom… ministerial appointments shall purely depend on qualifications.” This sounds hard to disagree with, but it’s worth pointing out that most premodern states were aristocratic and not meritocratic. (And this was long before China’s examination system developed.)

Early governments are often pictured with a small staff. E.g. I was just reading in Mary Beard that Pliny the Younger was appointed governor of a fairly large province and had precisely two  officeholders beneath him. Beyond that, he had to use his own servants, co-opt native (non-Roman) authorities, or use the legions. Chinese magistrates might govern a million citizens with no staff paid by the central government. But the Arthaśāstra describes what sounds like a pretty large and thorough bureaucracy.  Here’s the main offices described:

  • Chamberlain (responsible for treasury and storehouses)
  • Collector general (of taxes)
  • Superintendent of accounts
  • … of the treasury
  • … of (manufacturing) metals
  • … of the mint
  • … of gold
  • … of the storehouse
  • … of commerce
  • … of forest produce
  • … of the armoury
  • … of weights and measures
  • … of tolls
  • … of weaving
  • … of agriculture
  • … of liquor
  • … of the slaughterhouse
  • … of prostitutes
  • … of cows
  • … of horses
  • … of elephants
  • … of chariots
  • … of passports

He also mentions the chief priest, the officer in charge of the harem, the magistrate, the king’s council, and governors of cities, forts, boundaries, and villages.

Kauṭilya writes as if the king could regulate and manage everything. There’s no bright line between public and private. It’s clear there was private activity, but the state also carried on a lot of economic activity on its own. The king also wanted his tax share of everything. There is even a rule that the state should supply dice to gamblers.

A warning on secrecy: counsels have been divulged by parrots, mynah birds, and dogs. (Was this warning literal? But then we say “The walls have ears.”)

The vices of a king are hunting, gambling, women, and drinking. Of these, Kauṭilya concludes that drinking and gambling are the worst. Drinking causes loss of money, corpselike appearance, loss of the Vedas, pain, loss of friends, and addiction to music. For Kauṭilya that’s pretty harsh.

Using confederates, princes should be terrified into avoiding all four. This can be done by drugging his liquor, defrauding him at gambling, accosting his hunting party in the guise of bandits, and showing him “impure women”.

A forest for the king may be set up with wild animals whose claws and teeth have been removed. (This is presumably for relaxation; other forests could be set up for hunting.)

Although there is much advice about how to serve the king, the life of a courtier is described as “living in fire.”

Kings should follow their subjects in dress, customs, language, and religion. (Again, Kauṭilya wrote in a period when kings were often foreign and/or non-Hindu, so this may be a complaint against the times.)

There are suggestions on how a minister can seize power. However, Kauṭilya advises against this; rather, a young prince should be set up as a puppet.


If Kauṭilya has one word for the king, that word is spies. Spies should check on government officials, attempt to corrupt them (so you learn which are corruptible), listen for dissidents, eliminate the seditious. They spread out into neighboring countries to bring information and sow division. Good covers for spies include religious disciple, ascetic, householder, merchant, prostitute, and mendicant woman. Poisoners and assassins are also needed.

If three different spies produce the same story, it can be believed.  If they frequently differ, they are probably making things up and should be dismissed.

Suspicious places to check on: vintners; sellers of cooked rice and meat; gambling houses; houses of heretics. Merchants and physicians are expected to report suspicious clients.

Entrapment is recommended. One neat idea: pretend to have supernatural powers, such as great speed, invisibility, causing sleep, opening locked doors.  See who signs up for lessons. (You can use confederates to pretend to sleep in order to demonstrate your powers.)  Arrest those who then attempt to commit crimes.

A spy can incite the brother of a seditious person to kill him. Then you kill the brother for fratricide.

You can set up traps in a temple, e.g. a wall that falls on your enemy as he enters.

A spy can pretend to be a long-lived ascetic and make friends with an enemy king. The spy claims that he takes a new body every hundred years, and invites the enemy to see the rite. If he shows up, he can be killed.

Spies can pretend to be gods and converse with the king, so the people think the king regularly has divine visitors.


Though kings were expected to rule with wisdom, they were also expected to conquer. “Whoever is superior in power shall wage war.”

It’s presumed that all the king’s neighbors are enemies. But by the same token, the king in back of your enemy might be your friend. The rules for dealing with enemies, friends, and neutrals are pretty complex, and frequently cynical. (If you need to double-cross your enemy, he tells you how to do it.)

Fighting to the end is not wise; better to surrender. Typically a surrendered king was allowed to administer his own territory.

If you have to give children as hostages, it’s best to give princesses, because they “cause troubles” for the court that receives them. Unfortunately he doesn’t explain what troubles!

Is it better to attack a strong but wicked king, or a weak but righteous one?  The wicked king, because his own subjects will refuse to support him.

Is it better to have a small army of bold men, or a large army of effete men?  The latter: there is always work for the weaklings, and numbers terrify the enemy. Besides, you can train the effete men to be more spirited.

You could use an “army of traitors” to look weak and invite attack.

A look-alike for the king should supervise the arrangement of troops.

An untrained army can march one yojana a day (5.5 miles)— the best armies could do twice that. (Other sources on ancient warfare suggests 20 miles a day… but at this period north India still had lots of forest, so Kauṭilya probably knows what he’s talking about.)

Ways to cross a river: a line of elephants; planks spread over pillars; bridges and boats; masses of bamboo; baskets covered with skins.

You shouldn’t harass a defeat army, because it will become reckless and dangerous.

Elephants can be used not only to charge the enemy, but to break into forts, to clear the path, to protect your flank, to ford streams, to quench fires, to carry the treasury.  However, elephants are only good when there’s plenty of water: in dry hot country they become obstinate, or catch leprosy.

The four branches of the army are infantry, elephants, horses, and chariots.  However, it’s clear that the number of chariots is small: a few dozen make up the chariot arm.

Three men can oppose a horse; fifteen are needed to oppose a chariot or an elephant.







All about swords

It’s about time to add one more post to the Weaponry category, for a total of two.

There’s a great series of videos on swords, axes, and other premodern weapons by one Skallagrim. This is just one of them, on why the elaborate swords beloved of video game designers are nonsense.

There’s lots more– reviews of particular swords, tests of swords from various cultures, why lightsabers could be extremely dangerous to the wielder, and perhaps most interesting, advice on swordfighting. Did you know it’s a perfectly valid technique to grasp your own sword by the blade and use it backwards, hitting someone with the pommel?  Did you know you can’t unsheathe a sword or katana sticking up from your shoulder in one swift move, like they do in movies and video games?  (To be precise, you can if it’s a very short sword. If it’s longer than your arm, it won’t clear the scabbard.)

All this is fun to learn about in general, but a particularly valuable resource for fantasy writers and conworlders. It could keep you from writing or drawing something really embarrassing.


Ballad of Mùlán

The original story of 木兰 Mùlán (‘Magnolia’) comes from an 11C anthology— The Ballad of Mùlán (Mùlán cí)— though the actual source is probably centuries earlier.  I had the whole thing in my book but decided that the full Chinese translation was overkill there, so it’s going here instead.


The illustration is of 侯梦瑶 Hóu Mèngyáo in a Chinese production, The Legend of Huā Mùlán— she acquired a surname in a Míng play. Mùlán doesn’t belong to Disney!


Jījī fù jījī, Mùlán dāng hù zhī.

(onomatopoeia) again (onomatopoeia) / Mùlán at door weave

Spin spin, again spin spin, Mùlán, facing the door, weaves.


Bù wén jīzhù shēng, wéi wén nǚ tànxī.

not hear machine-shuttle noise/ only hear girl sigh

The loom’s sound is not heard, only the girl’s sighs.


Wèn nǚ hé suǒ sī? Wèn nǚ hé suǒ yì?

ask girl what SUB think / ask girl what SUB remember

Ask her, what are you thinking, what do you recall?


Nǚ yì wú suǒ sī, nǚ yì wú suǒ yì.

girl also not.have SUB think / girl also not.have SUB remember

She does not think, does not recall anything.


Zuóyè jiàn jūn tiě, Kèhán dà diǎn bīng,

yesterday-night see army notice / Khan big point troops

Last night she saw the army notices:

the Khan is mustering a great army—


Jūn shū shí’èr juàn, juànjuàn yǒu yé míng.

army book 10 2 scroll / scroll scroll exist father name

The muster fills twelve scrolls, Father’s name is in each one.


Āyé wú dà ér, Mùlán wú zhǎng xiōng,

honorific-father not.have big son / Mùlán not.have extended

Father has no grown son, Mùlán has no elder brother.


Yuàn wéi shì ān mǎ, cóngcǐ tì yé zhēng.

will serve city saddle horse / from this replace father levy

I will buy saddle and horse in the market, and take his place.


Dōng shì mǎi jùn mǎ, xī shì mǎi ānjiān,

east market buy spirited horse / west market buy saddle

In the east market she buys a fine horse, in the west a saddle;


Nán shì mǎi pèitóu, běi shì mǎi chángbiān.

south market buy bridle / north market buy whip

In the south market a bridle, in the north a whip.


Dàn cí yéniáng qù, mù sù Huánghé-biān.

dawn from father-mother go / dusk lodge Yellow-River-side

At dawn she leaves her parents,

at dusk she camps at the side of the Yellow River.


Bù wén yéniáng huàn nǚ shēng, dàn wén Huánghé liúshuǐ míng jiānjiān.

not hear father-mother call girl sound / but hear Yellow-River flowing-water sound (onomatopoeia)

She doesn’t hear her parents calling to her,

only the splashing of the Yellow River’s water.


Dàn cí Huánghé qù, mù zhì Hēishān-tóu.

dawn from Yellow-River go / dusk arrive Black-mountain-head

At dawn she leaves the river, reaches the Black Hills at dusk.


Bù wén yéniáng huàn nǚ shēng, dàn wén Yān-shān hú qí shēng jiūjiū.

not hear father-mother call girl sound / but hear Swallow-mountain barbarian-rider sound (onomatopoeia)

She doesn’t hear her parents calling to her,

only the sound of the nomads riding on Mt. Yān.


Wànlǐ fù róng jī, guān shāndù ruò fēi.

10,000-mile go military moment / cut mountain-pass like flying

10,000 miles of riding to battle,

dashing across mountains and passes as if in flight.


Shuò qì chuán jīn tuò, hán guāng zhào tiě yī.

new.moon energy transmit metal watchman.rattle / cold light shine iron armor

The watchman’s clapper rings in the icy wind,

a cold light shines on iron armor.


Jiāngjūn bǎi zhàn sǐ, zhuàngshì shí nián guī.

general hundred battle die / warrior ten year return

Generals fight to the death in a hundred battles;

warriors return after ten years.


Guīlái jiàn tiānzǐ, tiānzǐ zuò míngtáng.

return-come see heaven-son / heaven-son sit bright-hall

She returns to see the Emperor, seated in his bright hall.


Cè xūn shí’èr zhuǎn, shǎngcì bǎi qiān qiáng.

plant merit twelve turn / reward hundred thousand power

He bestows the highest honors on her, and countless sums.


Kèhán wèn suǒ yù.“Mùlán bù yòng shàngshū-láng,

khan ask SUB desire / Mùlán not need honor-book-scholar

The khan asked what she wanted. “Mùlán does not need an appointment to office.


Yuàn jiè míng tuó qiānlǐ zú, sòng ér huán gùxiāng.”

will borrow bright camel thousand-mile sufficient / send child return home

I want only a camel capable of a long journey,

to carry me back to my home town.”


Yéniáng wén nǚ lái, chū guō xiāng fújiāng.

father-mother hear girl come / go.out city.wall mutual support

The parents hear that their daughter is coming;

they wait at the city wall, holding each other up.


Āzǐ wén mèi lái, dāng hù lǐ hóngzhuāng.

honorific-older.sister hear younger.sister come / at door arrange red-adornment

The older sister hears that her younger sister is coming,

she waits at the door, applying red makeup.


Xiǎodì wén zǐ lái, mó dāo huòhuò xiàng zhū yáng. hear older.sister come / grind knife (onomatopoeia) to pig sheep

The younger brother hears that his older sister is coming,

he quickly sharpens the knife for the pig and sheep.


Kāi wǒ dōng gé mén, zuò wǒ xī gé chuáng.

open I east chamber gate / sit I west chamber bed

“I open the door on the east side of the room,

sit on the bed on the west side.


Tuō wǒ zhànshí páo, zhuó wǒ jiùshí cháng.

remove I battle-time robe / dress I former-time skirt

I take off my wartime gear, put on my old clothes.”


Dāng chuāng lǐ yúnbìn, duì jìng tiē huā huáng.

at window arrange cloud-hair / facing mirror stick flower-yellow

At the window she arranges her flowing hair;

before a mirror she applies a flower decoration.


Chū mén kàn huǒbàn, huǒbàn jiē jīnghuáng.

go.out gate see fire-mate / fire-mate all shock-fear

She comes to the gate to meet her fellow soldiers,

who are all utterly shocked:


Tóng xíng shí’èr nián, bù zhī Mùlán shì nǚláng.

with go twelve year / not know Mùlán be girl-youth

Her companions for twelve years didn’t know she was a woman.


“Xióng tù jiǎo pū shuò, cí tù yǎn mílí;

male hare foot push north / female hare eye blurred

“[Held up,] the male rabbit’s foot kicks quickly;

the female rabbit’s eye is nearly closed.


liǎng tù bàng dì zǒu, ān néng biàn wǒ shì xióng cí!”

both rabbit close earth go.along / how can distinguish I be male female

But if both are running on the ground,

how can I tell which is which?”

How the North Won

I just finished How the North Won, by Archer Jones and Herman Hattaway, an extremely thorough military history of the Civil War.  If you are a little hazy on the difference between strategy and tactics, this book will cure that.

And you’ll learn about logistics.  So much logistics.  One of the major figures of the book is a gentleman I’d never heard of– Henry Halleck, who functioned as the northern chief of staff and, in Jones and Hattaway’s telling, something of the architect of the overall Northern strategy.

Henry Halleck

Mid-19th century warfare (i.e. post-Napoleon, pre-WWI) was transformed by two things: the rifle and the railroad, both of which made an infantry army almost impregnable to a frontal assault. 

The rifle made cavalry virtually obsolete on the battlefield: it was fast and accurate enough that it could decimate an oncoming cavalry charge.  And that in turn meant that soldiers didn’t have to stand to resist the charge with bayonets, but could lay down, or better yet take cover behind improvised earthworks, which protected them from artillery fire, the bane of Napoleonic warfare.

A frontal assault was almost always suicide– e.g. the famous charge by Pickett at Gettysburg, one of Robert E. Lee’s few mistakes.  Commanders had better luck with turning movements– i.e. attempts to go right or left round the enemy’s flank, with hopes of moving against his weaker rear.  But even this often failed; even fairly raw troops could be fairly easily turned around to face the threat.  There were very few routs in the Civil War; if you did manage to turn the enemy, he almost always successfully retreated.  (That might be enough to take a major objective; but the typical progress of a Civil War campaign was a series of battles a dozen miles apart, as the defending army fell back to a new defensive position.)

The fastest and cheapest transport and supply lines were still by sea; but the railroad was almost as good, allowing enormous armies to be moved at unprecedented speeds.  Wagon trains, though they had to be resorted to, were a distant third.  William Sherman once estimated that his advance to Atlanta would have required 36,000 wagons and 220,000 mules without the railroad, a simple impossibility.

The North had a bigger army and a huge edge in industrial production, but it faced a huge predicament: a large enemy army was almost impossible to dislodge.  In particular, as one general after another discovered, taking Richmond– a tempting hundred miles from Washington DC– was almost impossible.  Lee’s army was too strong, the city was too well connected by rail and canal to its supply regions, and Lee made no blunders that created openings.  (The North tended to blame its succession of generals– McClellan, Pope, Burnside, Hooker, Meade, Grant– but it was an inherently difficult problem.)

Things were easier in the West, where initially the North had the great advantage of water transport along the great rivers as well as the Gulf of Mexico.  This allowed the conquest of western Tennessee, New Orleans, and ultimately Vicksburg (July 1863).  And that in turn suggested the better strategy: keep Lee busy in Virginia, but slowly conquer the West.  By careful and strong provisioning the North managed to drive through eastern Tennesee to Chattanooga (Sep. 1863).  The Navy was of course blockading the coast; the overall idea was to strangle the South and roll it up from the West– the “anaconda strategy“.

But further progress stalled.  Conquests had to be protected, and the increasingly long supply routes protected; relatively tiny Confederate raiding forces tied up tens of thousands of Union troops.  (This was the one remaining, and still very effective, use of cavalry.)  And the interior railroad lines of the remaining Confederacy allowed armies to be quickly concentrated to resist any large-scale intrusion.

Ulysses Grant

Grant‘s genius was to turn the Confederate raiding strategy against the South.  Instead of small cavalry forces, he’d send a huge infantry force, which would have the usual protection from direct assault.  It could cause immense destruction– tear up railroads, destroy factories, turn slaves producing for the South into soldiers fighting for the North– and best of all, it didn’t need a supply line to protect.  By moving into new territories it would live off the land, and it could simply fight its way into a place where it could be reprovisioned.

Sherman tested out the idea with a raid from Vicksburg to Meridian, and it worked like a charm.  He then fought his way conventionally from Chattanooga to Atlanta (Sep. 1864, just in time to pave the way to Lincoln’s re-election).  He didn’t bother to occupy Atlanta, but just burned it.  Then he cut his way in a wide swath to Savannah.

Grant tried to use the raiding strategy elsewhere, though he was dogged by a few incompetent generals.  But finally some of them got it, notably Sheridan in northern Virginia.  (A subtheme of the book is that both armies functioned as brutal meritocracies.  By 1864 or so the incompetent generals had almost entirely been eliminated)

Grant meanwhile bludgeoned his way to Petersburg, just south of Richmond.  This part of the campaign didn’t look any better than the earlier generals, but at least his attacks kept Lee’s huge army busy.  (One enormous missed opportunity: a clever mining operation blasted a huge hole in the Confederate lines at Petersburg, in July 1864.  At the last minute a well-trained unit of black soldiers was replaced by some less-ready white troops, who didn’t occupy the breach quickly enough.)

Sherman turned north, marching through the Carolinas and reaching Fayetteville in March 1865.  This completed his work of devastation; the remaining railroad links to Richmond were cut.  An ill-advised attempt by Hood to retake Nashville had devastated the Confederates’ last remaining large army besides Lee’s; nothing would prevent Sherman moving north to join Grant.

The end was anticlimactic; Sheridan joined Grant and turned Lee’s army to its right, forcing Lee to abandon Petersburg and Richmond and retreat westward.  Grant followed and Sheridan moved on ahead, trapping Lee’s army.

Sherman’s March to the Sea was brutal, but Archer and Hattaway show that it was a brilliant and necessary military strategy.  Defeating Lee by assault was impossible, and the slower conquest strategy in the west would have taken many more years.  The only way to counter the advantages of the defense in 19C warfare was to destroy the enemy’s means of production.

The book glances only lightly at the political and social situation, besides mentioning Lincoln‘s basic difficulty: the public, the politicians, and the newspapers did not understand the anaconda strategy, but wanted battles won by direct assault… a type of campaign that just was not going to happen.  Lincoln educated himself on military matters, however, and very effectively mediated between the civil and military points of view. 

The story is slow-going at times, but that’s part of the point: warfare at this time was achingly slow.  Some generals exacerbated this– Lincoln described several of them, especially McClellan, as having a case of “the slows”– but even the best generals took months to prepare any movement, and with good reason: maintaining a hundred thousand soldiers was an enormous logistical problem.

A particularly neat feature is the extensive maps– large-scale diagrams explaining the river and railroad network and overall strategy, as well as tactical maps, often several per battle.  The authors also extensively quote diaries and letters of the generals, giving a fascinating glimpse into their mindset, as well as into the strange nature of a civil war– the generals usually knew each other and had often studied under the same professors at West Point.

There’s also any number of interesting facts… e.g., did you know the last Monitor class ironclad was retired only in 1937?

Redoing the military

Pundits are worrying about smaller government, and those with actual brains realize that any actual reduction means a smaller Defense Dept.  Matt Yglesias asks what this might mean, and comes up with “gendarmes”… basically a national police force which can be used in “high-crime jurisdictions” as well as for occupations after an enemy was defeated.

His commenters basically ream him a new one.  1) A national police force wouldn’t fly.  2) Different skill sets.  3) Posse comitatus.  4) That’s the National Guard, dummy.  5) Do you want COIN-trained military assigned to the drug war?

All good points, but I think what Yglesias is really trying to say is twofold: first, the military is almost entirely oriented toward war; we’d be using our tax dollars a hell of a lot more efficiently if some large fraction of what we spend on it was useful domestically too.  Second, we’re not really in a world where we’re about to refight WWII, so we need to radically rethink what kind of forces we need.

Generally, militaries are concerned to fight the last war.  To be really cynical, the problem is that the last wars were mostly insurgencies, and we really don’t know how to win one of those.  Nor does anyone else.  (To be more precise, it’s like good schools: we “know” how to do it in that we can point to a few local success stories.  We don’t know how to scale it up and generalize it so that it works at the national level.)

It’s fair to say that we could use a “nation-building corps”.  The example Yglesias gives is if North Korea is defeated; someone need to rush in from Day One and organize a state so it doesn’t fall into chaos or warlordism.  But it’s also clear that this isn’t something resembling a national police force.

A better sampling of Yglesias is here, where he points out the ending filibusters would be better not only now when Republicans are obstructing Democrats, but later when Democrats would be obstructing Republicans.  Majority rule is a good thing, and filibusters in general have been retrogressive and more annoying than actually protective of anything.  They didn’t prevent either the excesses of the Bush administration, or the substantial accomplishments of Obama.

This horrifying five-foot weapon…

Lethal... or goofy?
Lethal... or goofy?

jwz found an old article featuring British coppers puzzling over a Klingon betleH:

Now, My B.S. detectors go off whenever I see fantasy illustrations of oversized swords with claws and sharpened outgrowths.  I figure that the last 3000 years of combat have refined what makes a good edged weapon, and there’s a reason real weapons don’t look like what art directors come up with.  Though anything with a sharp edge can be dangerous, and I imagine the betleH could parry all right, it looks like it’d be lousy for thrusting.  I’d think a good swordsman would either chop at your legs, or knock it, twisting it into a position more dangerous to the wielder than to the opponent.

IIRC European swords actually got thinner over time– the rapier outperformed the longsword.

But, I’m just speculating.  Surely some of my readers are martial arts geeks and can offer a more informed opinion.