I decided it was time to read the Rig Veda, and now I have, sort of. I’ve read Wendy Doniger’s compilation of 108 hymns from the book– 1/10 of the total. If she had done the whole thing it would amount to over 3000 pages, so I’m not feeling too guilty.

 

indra

Indra, chief of the Vedic gods

 

You may well be saying, the Rig what? The Rig Veda is the oldest text of Hinduism– also perhaps the oldest text still in religious use.  It dates back 3500 to 4000 years ago.  (The Old Testament is mostly under 3000 years old.)  In form, it’s a set of over a thousand hymns, which were chanted or sung at animal sacrifices. (A rig is a hymn or poem. Veda is ‘knowledge’, cognate to English wit and Latin vedere ‘see’.)

Curiously, it’s not the oldest written text; it was transmitted orally, Brahmin to Brahmin, for most of those millennia. The transmission was highly accurate– the Rig Veda was remembered the same way from Kashmir to Kerala.

Whether it was understood is another question.  It’s written in an archaic Sanskrit that can be baffling even if you understand classical Sanskrit.  Plus it describes practices that are no longer practiced and gods that are no longer worshiped.  The chief Vedic god was Indra, followed closely by Agni (fire), the Maruts (storm gods), the Ashvins (a pair of horse gods), Yama (death), and Soma (a drug, more on that below).  Over the centuries worship switched to Vishnu and Shiva, each conceived by its worshipers as the supreme and only god (the others being forms they assume).  Vishnu does get a few Vedic hymns; Shiva does not, though he’s associated with Rudra, who does. Shiva very likely originates as a Dravidian god, later adopted by the Indic peoples.

Curiously, there is evidence that Indra and crew replaced an even earlier set of gods. One of the minor Vedic gods is the sky god Dyaus. This is cognate to Zeus and Jupiter (= Dyaus father), as well as the Germanic god Tiw, the god of Tuesday. In the Vedas Dyaus is usually paired with Prithvi ‘Earth’, often addressed with her in the dual as Dyavaprithvi. And he changes sex!  Sky-and-earth are usually addressed as females.

So, what are these poems like?  Many are straightforward praise and asking of benefits, such as this hymn to Agni (1.1, the very first hymn in the Rig Veda):

I pray to Agni, the household priest who is the god of the sacrifice, the one who chants and invokes and brings most treasure.

Agni earned the prayers of the ancient sages, and of those of the present, too; he will bring the gods here.

Through Agni one may win wealth, and growth from day to day, glorious and most abounding in heroic sons.

…To you, Agni, who shine upon darkness, we come day after day, bringing our thoughts and homage to you, the king over sacrifices, the shining guardian of Order, growing in your own house.

Agni is the fire god, and thus is the fire of the animal sacrifice, which brings the sacrifice to the gods and brings blessings back. You obviously want to be on good terms with the messenger if you want your message to get through.

(The hymns tend to exaggerate the power of the god they’re dedicated to. So certain events and powers may be attributed to different gods at different times. The way you talked to gods was undoubtedly influenced by the way you talked to kings; treating them as more powerful than they were was good tactics.)

Sometimes the prayers are strange, almost opaque in their extended metaphors, as in this hymn about the sacrifice itself (1.164):

This beloved gray priest has a middle brother who is hungry and a third brother with butter on his back. In him I saw the Lord of All Tribes with his seven sons.

Seven yoke the one-wheeled chariot drawn by one horse with seven names. All these creatures rest on the ageless and unstoppable wheel with three naves.

Seven horses draw the seven who ride on this seven-wheeled chariot. Seven sisters call out to the place where the seven names of the cows are hidden.

Who saw the newborn one, the one with bones who was brought forth by the boneless one? Where was the breath and blood and soul of the earth? 

(This actually reminds me a lot of Neil Gaiman, when he wants to represent spells and such. I suspect he’s done a lot of reading on folklore and borrowed the style.)

Now, a lot of this can be interpreted. E.g. Doniger tells us that the “priests” are the sacrificial fires. The middle brother is “hungry” because it’s the southern fire, seldom fed. The Lord of All Tribes is Agni; his sons are the priests.  As with any jargon, one suspects that making the material difficult was part of the point.

A hymn to creation (10.129) starts out with some confident cosmology, but ends up buried in accumulated questions and doubts.

There was neither non-existence then; there was neither the realm of space nor the sky which is beyond… There was neither death nor immortality then…

Darkness was hidden by darkness in the beginning; with no distinguishing sign, all this was water. The life force that was covered with emptiness, that one arose through the power of heat.

…Their cord was extended across. Was there below? Was there above? There were seed-placers; there were powers….

Who really knows? Who will here proclaim it? Whence was it produced?  Whence is this creation?  The gods came afterwards, with the creation of the universe. Who then knows whence it has arisen?

Whence this creation has arisen– perhaps it formed itself, or perhaps it did not– the one who looks down on it, in the highest heaven, only he knows– or perhaps he does not know.

Some of the most accessible material is not hymns to deities at all. There are conversations about sex between gods; a lament by a gambler whose life have been ruined by the dice; a benediction on arms and armor; a poem that is simultaneously about frogs and Brahmins.

Also intriguing is the nature of soma– from the text, a drink pressed from plants grown in the mountains. The effects seem to be exhilarating and hallucinatory (8.48):

I have tasted the sweet drink of life, knowing that it inspires good thoughts and joyous expansiveness to the extreme, that all the gods and mortals seek it together, calling it honey.

When you penetrate inside, you will know no limits, and you will avert the wrath of the gods. Enjoying Indra’s friendship, O drop of Soma, bring riches as a docile cow brings the yoke.

We have drunk the Soma; we have become immortal; we have gone to the light; we have found the gods. What can hatred and the malice of a mortal do to us now, O immortal one?

Soma is itself addressed as a god; indeed, by bulk, he gets more hymns than anyone but Indra and Agni.

The descriptions and the effects don’t really correspond to any known plant. Soma went out of use, perhaps because it was hard to get in northern India– this rules out marijuana, which has long been known.  The Persians used a planet called haoma, a cognate, but its effects are mild. It can’t be wine or any fermented drink, because it was pressed and drunk immediately.  An attractive hypothesis is that it’s Amanita muscaria, the mushroom used by Siberian shamans, and which happens to grow all across Eurasia but not in India.

Should you run out and read it?  Well, not as your first venture into India, or Hinduism.  I would still recommend the Ramayana for that.  For ancient religious thought that’s still relevant today, try the Bhagavad-Gita. But if you’re interested in what people were doing and how they worshiped four thousand years ago, go for it.

(Doniger’s translation provides plenty of help on the obscure bits, which are many. Her book The Hindus: An alternative history would be a good book to read first.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

I was looking at the Hitopadeśa for the Sanskrit (see here and here), but now I’ve read it, in G.L. Chadiramani’s translation. The book is medieval (it’s impossible to date exactly) and it turns out to recycle a lot of material from the earlier Pañcatantra. Both works used to be very familiar to Western audiences; versions were known in Europe as early as 1252 (via Arabic), and La Fontaine borrowed some of the stories.  The Indian originals were discovered in the 1700s, and for decades the Hitopadeśa was one of the first books you learned as a Sanskritist.

The framing device is simple. A king has a problem: his sons are, in a word, nityamunmārgagāmināmanadhigataśāstrāṇām. That is, they are constantly going astray and never read books. A sage offers to take them in hand, and his infallible method is to tell them animal fables.

Sadly, this framework is never really expanded upon. We never see the sons straying or even talking back to the old sage; we don’t even learn their names. They’re trotted out at the beginning of each chapter, apparently rapt at his stories. Well, they didn’t have video games back then.

There are four chapters: acquiring friends; separating friends; war; peace. Each has its own framing story, which is far more interesting. Plus the author frequently springboards off into other stories, and everyone is constantly reciting long sets of moralistic verses.

I’ll illustrate by retelling one of the stories.

The prince Tungabala was appointed governor of a city named Virapura. He fell in love with Lavanyavati, the wife of a merchant’s son. As is explained by a verse:

Arrows in the form of glances,
By beautiful ladies having black eyelashes,
Shot after being drawn
From the bow of their eyebrows,
Extending to the region of the ears,
Pierce through the guts of a man and reach his heart.

Which is to say, she had fabulous eyebrows. Fortunately for Tungabala, she was smitten by him as well. But she was unwilling to cheat on her husband. 

Tungabala had sent a female messenger to negotiate with her.  (He probably read the Kāmasūtra, which advises just this method.) The messenger came up with a plan for him. He appointed the woman’s husband Carudatta to high office and made him his confidant.

Then he bathed, anointed himself with sandalwood perfume, and announced that he was making a special vow. He told Carudatta to bring him a different woman every night. Each night, he greeted the woman, worshipped her without touching her, and sent her away loaded with rich presents.

Carudatta became greedy, thinking that he could easily acquire these presents by bringing his own wife.  Of course his wife obeyed his request.  The moment the prince saw her, he embraced her and they made love all night.  Carudatta was extremely depressed.

This story is actually told as a teaching tale, told by a mouse to his friends in the first chapter. The connection to their predicament is quite loose: the mouse is basically saying “If you persist in your plans, you will end up sad, like the merchant’s son in this story.”

 

Now, I’ve just told the bare story, but this is not enough for the author. First, everything is sprinkled with illustrative verse proverbs, and not just one but several. By bulk, the book is mostly these verses. Presumably the sage’s trick is really to impart all these moralistic verses, the stories only being used to motivate the princes’ curiosity.

But also, each set of verses tends to end with an allusion to another story, and of course whoever’s listening immediately has to hear it. In the case of the above story, the female messenger, proving that Tungabala needs a trick to get what he wants, tells the story of a jackal who brings down an elephant by a trick.

(Oh, you want to hear that story, do you?  You little scamps, all right. An elephant comes into a region inhabited by jackals, and one of them realizes that he would feed them for months. But of course he is too strong to attack directly. So he goes to the elephant and offers him the kingship of the forest, based on his obvious majesty. He throws in a set of verses on the necessity of kingship. The elephant, greedy for the kingdom, follows him into deep mud, where he gets stuck.  So the jackals eat him.)

The recursion  goes pretty deep… it wouldn’t be unusual for the book if the jackal made his point by telling yet another story.

Curiously, in the war and peace sections, the author seems to have gotten more interested in the framing story— the tale of a war between the sea birds (whose king is a swan) and the land birds (whose king is a peacock). It covers both chapters and is far more involved. You get to know the chief ministers of both kings, their spies, and the ruses they use in war.

Would you enjoy the book? I think the fables themselves are great fun, not only good stories in their own right, but a window onto premodern Indian attitudes and values. Where the verses are moralistic, the stories are often earthy— as in the above example, which doesn’t really bother to condemn the prince’s adultery, but laughs at the greedy merchant’s son.

The verses are a harder sell. There are an awful lot of them, and most are not to modern tastes.

A wicked wife, a deceitful friend,
An impertinent servant,
And staying in a house infested with serpents;
Will without doubt lead to death.

Unless you have Samuel Jackson on board, at least.

Anyway, you could skip all the verses, though that would hardly be reading the Hitopadeśa. If nothing else, they tell us something about the society. Like our own proverbs, they are often contradictory— e.g. there are verses about the treachery of strangers, and verses about the sacredness of hospitality; kings are advised to be kind, and also advised to be harsh.  But the verses in the war and peace section give a glimpse into Indian statecraft (e.g. advising against hasty moves to war, and warning about various kinds of poor advisors), and there are other interesting bits— e.g. the verses really hate misers: they praise giving away money the highest, but find enjoying it also praiseworthy.

Another advantage of the book: it doesn’t require any great knowledge of Indian history or culture, though there are allusions here and there for those who do know it. And it’s pretty short, so it’s not a major time investment, like the Mahābhārata .

For some reason my post on suffering got an unusual amount of attention and possibly some new readers.  Now I’ll send them all away again by talking about video games.

I’m in the middle of Dishonored 2. Alert readers may recall that I wasn’t sure I liked Dishonored at first, but the DLC won me over. Spoiler: the new game is great. It’s much like Mass Effect 2: adding to what works, quietly removing what doesn’t.

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Basic gameplay: Can you arrange bodies more artfully than the developers?

You play as either Corvo Attano (as in the first game), or as Empress Emily.  I’m playing as Emily, of course, because Corvo? You’re fired. You had one job, Corvo– you are Royal Protector to the Empress– and you’ve fucked it up twice. In the first few minutes of the game, Corvo completely fails to notice an empire-wide conspiracy, sees his charge captured, and gets turned to stone. I expect I’ll rescue him eventually, but really, thanks Dad.

The gameplay is basically that of the first game: you get a target and a small but richly detailed mini-world to find them in. You carefully sneak around, inching forward or teleporting to useful perches, and then curse and reload because one of the frigging guards saw you.

You can fight everyone if you want, which will give you a High Chaos walkthrough– which in turn makes the game world a little nastier. You’ll get more bloodfly infestations, and in general people are more murderous.  E.g. there’s a scene where an officer talks to a woman who’s been stealing for her; in low chaos they are lovers, and in high chaos the officer pushes her off a building. How exactly this is caused by Emily choosing to choke rather than kill guards in another district isn’t quite explained, but it does appeal to our moral intuitions. (It’s very Confucian: the morality of the ruler wafts out to become that of the populace.) However, here and in Deus Ex, I’ve had a lot more fun sneaking and finding all the lore and runes than in combat, so for me it’s Low Chaos all the way.

You get special powers from the Outsider. Intriguingly, you can reject them. Kudos to anyone who can play the game without the teleport; I don’t think I could. The first mission, before you get your powers, can be quite frustrating.

Now, I think the Arkham games are the perfect stealth games, and that’s largely because Batman has so many options. And if you get into a bad situation, you don’t reach for the reload button, you reach for a gargoyle.  Dishonored 2 doesn’t give you the same range of options, though it does move in that direction. E.g. if discovered, Emily can leave a magic clone behind and escape in shadow form. (However, this takes a lot of mana, and mana potions are kind of rare, so I just hit reload.)

More interesting is Domino, which lets you magically link 2 (and later 3 or 4) victims. What happens to one will happen to the others. Most prosaically, you can choke or sleep-dart one, taking them all out. In High Chaos you have more entertaining options– e.g. link that officer to the civilian she is pushing off a building, and she’ll die too.

(Emily’s teleport is technically different from Corvo’s, but you use it exactly the same way.)

The Empire is a pretty fucked-up place. You have the frequent assassinations and coups, the sadistic whale-draining, the rat plague, the trigger-happy guards, the lethal checkpoints,  the witches, and now you have enormous flies that make the rats look cute, a tyrannical duke, clockwork killing machines, and exploitation of the workers. And you’re playing the person who is supposedly in charge of all this. The game occasionally confronts the paradox– e.g. Emily comments to someone that while the workers suffer, the Duke is eating from fine silver, and she’s reminded that she ate from fine silver in Dunwall Tower too. And there’s a story that tells us that Emily’s mother wasn’t exactly a saint.

Maybe this is addressed later, but it does still seem that Emily gets off too easy. She’s 25, which is young, but monarchy is a rough game– if you don’t know what’s going on in your empire by that age, and aren’t pulling the strings, it’s you that’s the puppet.

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The game’s biggest showcase is surely the Clockwork Mansion, created by mad scientist Jindosh Kirin. It can be reconfigured, you see: clockwork turns your bathroom into a study, or your music room into an electric death room. It puts the punk into steampunk.  (Though the Empire is permeated by magic, Jindosh seems to be a tech only guy. His transitions have a pleasing mechanical slowness, as if they were controlled by a punch card somewhere.)

This is absolutely cool, and yet doesn’t quite succeed as level design, because it confuses the player. It’s not at all clear how you are supposed to attack this thing. I had to consult a walkthrough, which mentions among other things that any given room only has two configurations. You also have to defeat a clockwork soldier, and these have been designed so you can’t really defeat them with stealth, which is a little annoying. On the other hand they don’t count as kills, so the most effective way to deal with them is to blow off their heads.

I departed from the walkthrough, simply in that I wandered into a part of the mansion and there he was.  I immediately sleep-darted him.  That left two clockwork soldiers to deal with. I think I blew up the head of one, which made him kill the other.  I’m not sure, it was kind of chaotic. (If you’ve played that level, you’ll love this video on 80 ways to kill Jindosh.)

The next level offers you an interesting choice. To get into the next culprit’s mansion, you need to solve a hard riddle. The district is divided between Overseers (zealous anti-Outsider clerics) and a street gang, and each will help you if you deliver to them the body of the enemy’s leader. Or you can skip all that by solving the riddle! Which is what I did. It’s not that hard, though it probably helps to think like a programmer. Anyway, I could have gone right on to the mansion if I liked, but I scoured the district anyway, so I could get the runes and bonecharms.

I wonder if the studio brought in Anita Sarkeesian for a talk or something, because they’ve reduced the already low levels of sexualization. Emily is a very stylish assassin but not particularly sexy:

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Nice eyes,though

Plus there are no brothel levels, and the gangs and guards now include women.

I like the fact that the protagonists are voiced. The old Valve idea was that we can identify more with a silent protagonist (plus, it was cheaper), but I think that’s wrong: a silent character seems dissociated. If they have no reaction to what’s going on, why should we?

I said the sequel was better, but it’s mostly a bunch of smallish things:

  • The choice of protagonists, and giving them a voice.
  • Emily’s new powers.
  • There are more powers available for stealth. (In the first game it felt like most of them were intended for combat.)
  • The levels are not much larger, but they feel packed with things to find and people to choke.
  • Neat ideas like the Clockwork Mansion; apparently there’s some time travel stuff coming up.
  • Marketplaces in each level, so you are not restricted to five sleep darts per map.
  • They evidently had more money for voice acting… the guards are a lot less repetitive.
  • More civilians around– Dunwall felt dead, Karnaca feels much more alive.
  • Minor, but a satisfying change: Corvo in the first game is just told what to do. Emily (like Daud in the DLC) gets clues but seems to make her own decisions.

It plays well on my PC, but it better– I bought the damn thing a month ago just to be ready for Dishonored 2, which simply laughed at the specs of my old machine.

One thing they didn’t change, and this is just fine: it’s still very linear. “Open world” is a big thing these days, but it’s really hard to do well. The Saints Row and Bethesda games are the models, I think. Mirror’s Edge Catalyst moved to an open world design, and I think it’s too overwhelming. Dishonored 2 takes a different approach: you may only be exploring a few blocks at a time, but they are exquisitely arranged and detailed.

(My only plea for Dishonored 3: please, do not start with Corvo failing to do his job again. The title is a brand by now; you don’t have to make it describe the plot.)

I just finished The Chaos of Empire, by Jon Wilson, which is all about the British Raj. Spoiler: he’s not in favor. In fact, his thesis is that the British never really knew what they were doing; they were constantly and pointlessly nervous and paranoid about their presence there, and alternated between unnecessary violence and out-of-touch bureaucracy.

In the early days, in the 1600s, the English simply didn’t understand how business or government was done in India– which was by face-to-face negotiation.  Whether kings and lords, or nobles and peasants, or authorities and merchants, arrangements were worked out by talk. (A show of force was not incorrect– but the Mughal way was to defeat an enemy, then make accommodations to make the defeated into an ally.) The English basically made outrageous demands (e.g. they wanted to trade tax-free and wanted the EIC to have a monopoly even over other English traders) and hated to negotiate.  They were constantly worried that they would be disrespected, harassed, or overwhelmed by the Indians, and the only way they could ever think of to get their way was by force.

Their first attempt, in the late 1600s, led to a righteous drubbing by the still-powerful Mughals. They did not learn anything from this.

(Now, Wilson may overstate the harmony of Mughal society. The Mughal founder, Babur, certainly found India as alien and unpleasant as any Englishman. But of course they put down roots and adapted, and the English didn’t bother to learn South Asian protocols.)

How did the British take over?  It’s not entirely technology, since the Indians were able to buy Western arms and even Western advisors; for that matter, the French at least were keen to oppose the British takeover. As with China, we can attribute much of the problem to poor luck. When the Mughals were strong, they could hold off Europeans, but the empire crumbled after the Afghan invasion of 1739. And the French never really committed to wars in India– probably because they sensed, correctly, that it wasn’t a profitable proposition. The EIC didn’t really want to take over Bengal, and British home opinion was not really in favor of empire; Plassey was more or less Robert Clive’s mad improvised scheme to replace the hated prospect of negotiation with the more appealing direct intervention to install a supposedly friendlier ruler.

In economics there’s the concept of a Winner’s Curse: in a competition to buy something, the winner is likely to be the one who overestimates the item’s value. The Indian empire was something of a winner’s curse. Bengal provided enormous revenues, enough for the armies that slowly conquered the rest of India… but also enormous expenditures, chiefly the army needed to hold all that territory. The company constantly had to be bailed out by London, and all through the 19th century the EIC and then imperial government was most often in the red. But of course it was unthinkable to simply give up and go home.

Ironically, the one time India was valuable was during the World Wars. It provided huge armies and great masses of war materiel, and this very fact made it completely impossible to maintain as an imperial colony without native involvement. To keep the troops and goods coming, Britain had to promise representative government (in WWI) and eventual independence (in WWII).

The British had no notion of developing education, civil society, industry, or self-government.  They did not seem to realize that Indians expected their rulers to respond to complaints and abuses and to provide relief in bad years.  Their idea of government was not much more than maintaining the army, a cumbersome bureaucracy, and a nice lifestyle for an upper crust of expats. Wilson shows that to the extent that civil society did develop, it was purposely done by Indians themselves away from British eyes.

At this point British readers are likely to be saying, “But we built railways, didn’t we?” But the railways were largely built to ferry troops around. They were too expensive for everyday commerce, they ran at a loss, and they did not develop Indian industry since the locomotives and rails were imported. Britain did not allow Indians to make their own steel until 1899.

As for “We taught them democracy, didn’t we?”– I’m sorry, Brits, but you get no prizes for ruling the country as an absolute monarchy for more than a century. The first elections were held in 1920; only 1/10 of the male population could vote, and for only limited domestic powers. This was three centuries after the first legislature in a British colony (Virginia, 1619).

I could go on and on, but then you could also just read the book. Although he is specifically countering old notions of Britain’s imperial glory or at least competence, it’s also a good overall look at Indian history from the mid-1600s till 1950, giving both the British and Indian sides of the story.

A sometimes endearing, sometime exasperating tendency of the British is their tolerance for constitutional muddle. The deal that gave them the administration of Bengal made them theoretical agents of the Mughal crown, and they maintained this fiction until 1857. And rather than conquering everybody, they left 500 “princely states” with various degrees of self-government. When the India-Pakistan border was drawn, hundreds of enclaves were created with tens of thousands of residents– supposedly a relic of ancient Mughal treaties.  All these eccentricities had a price in inefficiency and incompetence. In this light, Nehru’s insistence on central planning and central control start to make a lot more sense.

(This is of course research for my own book, the India Construction Kit. I’m a little over half done with it, I think.  More on that later…)

First of all, I recognize completely how ironic it is that I ask you this a few months after I asked you about the risk that the world might be destroyed. That said…

There seems to be an idea among right-wingers that usually doesn’t get stated directly, probably because it is so unattractive, but that seems to play an important role in the attitudes of many of them. It’s the idea that life needs to suck, at least to some extent, in order to motivate people to achieve things. 

Now, what if that idea is true? It won’t help much to point out that those on the Right who hold that idea are often hypocrites who don’t want their own lives to suck – after all, the statement “murder is bad” is true even if it is said by a murderer.

It does seem to be true, after all, that in wealthy countries with halfway functioning social safety nets, the really unpleasant jobs are usually done by recent migrants from poorer countries without functioning social safety nets. You yourself have pointed out that historically many sons of kings were pretty worthless. And on a personal note, I was raised in the late 20th century in one of the world’s wealthier countries, and I could never imagine myself doing the regular work of, for instance, an average present day Chinese factory worker. 

Saying that similar complaints were heard in earlier times won’t help much, either – as the above examples show, arguably those “warnings” have “come true”. So, what would happen if all countries in the world ended up relatively wealthy? Where would the migrants to do the really unpleasant jobs come from, then?

—Raphael

First, you’re not the only one to have believed that conservatives want the world to suck. George Lakoff covers this in depth in Moral Politics. Describing the conservative worldview: “The world is a dangerous place. Survival is a major concern and there are dangers and evils lurking everywhere, especially in the human soul.” Strict moral discipline (he continues) is required to survive, and harsh punishment is valuable. Without struggle, “there is no source of reward for self-discipline, no motivation to become the right kind of person.” (His book was from 1996; here’s his more up-to-date thoughts on the election.)

Now, this is essentially a millennia-old response to the problem of evil. I discussed it in the context of the Incatena here, stating it as a problem for the social planner and for God. To put it as convincingly as possible: people who get all what they want and more get spoiled. They may be vaguely benevolent, but have little empathy and no idea of sacrifice or heroism. Those who have overcome suffering are not only stronger but have a better moral character. We might well worry if everyone could live like the children of the super-rich, they would be either weak nothings (Wells’s Eloi) or hedonistic simpletons (Huxley’s Brave New World).

There is, by the way, a left-wing version of this view. The communists, especially the ones who actually organized factory labor or peasants, liked to paint the socialists and democrats as soft and weak, and turned “bourgeois” into  slur. This was taken to an extreme by Maoism, which was forged in the ordeal of the Long March, and cheerfully sent millions of students to labor in the fields. (There’s also a much weaker, but much more widespread,  view that people should live in rural communes or something.)

You’re right that it’s not a complete answer to say that those who advocate this worldview don’t want it for themselves or their children. But it is a partial answer. This worldview is congenial to the powerful— it justifies permanent injustice and absolves them of any need to ameliorate it. That’s a strong reason to distrust it.

Not coincidentally, the suffering-is-good view primarily targets the poor, women, and religious or sexual minorities.  If suffering is good, shouldn’t its advocates want it to be equally distributed? And if suffering produces good moral character, isn’t it curious that the advocates believe that they, the non-suffering, are the moral ones? Shouldn’t those who suffer the most be the most moral?

But we can also attack the claim directly. Suffering doesn’t build character.  Suffering just makes people miserable. When we don’t have an ideology that makes us sympathize with the oppressors, we see this clearly: Mao, for instance, twice destroyed the prosperity of his own revolution, killed millions of people, and wasted the lives of an entire generation.

Plus, though it’s an old moral lesson that hedonism is bad for you, it’s an even older and more basic moral lesson that participating in injustice is wrong. Even if it’s morally uplifting to get robbed, that hardly means that a moral person should be a robber. The world is a dangerous place, but a policy of adding to its dangers doesn’t make someone a moral paragon, but a sociopath.

It’s hard to deny that life for most people, not just in the global North, is better than it was a thousand years ago. Premodern agricultural kingdoms really did suck for 90% of the population. Even the strictest conservative doesn’t exactly want to bring back slavery, trial by ordeal, the Black Plague, nomad invasions, foot-binding, and the constant warfare and cruelty favored by kings. (If you’re dealing with a Christian conservative, ask them if they think Jesus should have left the world in paganism.)

But if you’ve conceded that some suffering should be eliminated, you can hardly object to removing more suffering, except by offering a further and better argument. If ending slavery was good, why not eliminate racism too? In practical terms the argument is really not “all suffering is good”, but “the suffering that generally existed in my childhood is the right amount of suffering”.  That could be the case, but such amazing temporal coincidences are not very convincing.

Also, whether or not suffering has good moral effects, we’re not really not on the verge of a great suffering shortage. There’s still plenty to go around. The 21st century is going to be challenging, not least because there is, oh, the prospect of total ecological collapse. So there is really no need to increase local suffering by, say, removing everyone’s health insurance.

But there is a conworlding exercise here, and I’ll take the bait and consider it. If we could solve our ecological problems and the right wing totally imploded, we could create a world that is both prosperous and egalitarian. Should we worry about people becoming spoiled?

As Lakoff would say, this is in part a framing problem. If we’re creating an ideal society, of course we don’t want “spoiled” people. As progressives, we want people to be nurturing and empathetic instead. If they’re not, we didn’t design very well. But it begs the question to suggest that the design solution is “more suffering”. Suffering isn’t the best way of producing empathy anyway; better to model it and teach it directly.

A deeper answer: as people move up Maslow’s hierarchy of need, they develop new and different concerns and disputes. Are Germans of 2016 “more spoiled” than those of 1016? They’re far richer, but surely we couldn’t say that they’re all spoiled like rich children. If anything, a certain level of material ease facilitates spirituality: you can read, meditate, study, give to the poor. In most religious traditions, a simple lifestyle is a virtue— but being born to it is generally not enough. Being a wandering monk is a choice and meritorious; being a wandering beggar is generally neither.

We can call the average German of 2016 “rich” compared to the one from 1016, but that hardly means that she thinks or acts like a rich man of 1016. If our civilization survives until 3016 and attains a general prosperity, the people of 3016 will be “rich” by our standards, but not by their own, and there’s no particular reason to assume that they will act like today’s rich people (or their spoiled children).

As for unpleasant jobs, I don’t see that as an unsolvable problem. In general, tedious jobs are also the ripest for automation. In advanced countries 99% of people don’t work in the fields. But those who really like that kind of lifestyle can take it.

I guess the game is officially called SUPERHOT. We’ll get back to that.

You may have heard about this one: time is way slowed down, and only speeds up when you move. You use the slow-mo time to carefully plan a killing spree: throw a telephone at a featureless red guy, catch the gun that he drops, shoot him, and face the next red guy. A single shot or melee hit will kill you; if you die you start the level over. Once you’ve finished you see a real-time edit of your run, looking like the expert maneuvers of a master spy.

 

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Is it Saturday? No, it’s SHATTERDAY. Get it? Never mind, BOOM

 

The look of the game makes Mirror’s Edge look like Normal Rockwell: everything is white except for weapons you can use (black) and enemies (red). The red dudes shatter when you hit them like they’re made of glass.

If this sounds like a neat mechanic, well, it is.  It’s simple but satisfying. The game description says that “time only moves when you do”, but that’s not right.  Things keep moving– especially bullets– so you really can’t stand there forever thinking about your next move. I think this actually works better than a complete time-stop, because it forces you to try something. You don’t have to be perfect, but you do have to look around and make sure you’ve got everyone. You generally have multiple options. If you die and replay a level, enemies come from the same places but may be armed differently.

There are bullet-time sequences in other games (e.g. Max Payne and Singularity), but it’s almost the whole game here. Near the end you get another mechanic, which makes the action sequences even more insane.

I got through it in five hours, which is comparable to Portal. And that’s probably about right for the concept. I’m not sure twenty more levels would have added much.  When you’re done you get challenge modes (e.g. I did some where you can only use a katana), so you could certainly get more hours out of it.

The designers evidently couldn’t come up with a story, so they threw a sort of cyberpunk atmosphere around it. Outside the action sequences, the game is all 1980s style ASCII graphics, including folders full of pixel art. One section is a pretty hilarious simulation of a chatroom focused on Superhot, complete with spammers, noobs, and ban-happy mods.

The cyberpunk stuff stops short of being a story, though at least it never becomes annoying. The game is maybe a little too infatuated with itself– e.g. when you finish a level, the replay is overlaid with a flashing SUPERHOT logo and someone intoning SUPERHOT. Thankfully you can turn this off with F5.

Basically, it’s a trifle, but a very enjoyable one that’s done before it wears out its welcome.

 

Everyone’s fixating on Donald Trump. As is to be expected! But the fixation can be misleading and counterproductive if people think that he is some aberration that’s taken over the Republican Party, or that Republicans will somehow restrain his worst excesses.

Nope. The problem isn’t Trump, it’s the Republican Party. They won’t save us from Trump; they are Trump now.

But first, some reminders about US party politics.

elections-us

What’s that? It’s the winners of presidential elections from 1860 on, when our current party system emerged. I’ve purposely kept it small and unlabeled so you can see the overall picture, which is: the parties alternate in power. If you look at just the last hundred years (1916-2016), it’s quite even: 13 wins each. (If you look at the whole chart, it’s skewed Republican 24-16; the Gilded Age was the golden age for the GOP.)

The bottom half of the chart shows popular vote wins. There are four mismatches, in all of which the Democrats won the popular vote and the Republicans the electoral vote.  Corollary: Republicans will never touch the electoral college.

I emphasize the basics here because I’ve seen too many reactions that seemed to expect that the GOP would never win again. Democrats have the demographic advantage, the better candidates, the moral high ground, and surely no one would go back to the party of Bush. Nope. The other party always wins eventually, and if it wasn’t Trump it would be someone else.

Does this mean you shouldn’t freak out, or that things will be fine?  Of course not; freak out all you want. But I think a lot of people on the left have just assumed that the right doesn’t really matter; the real struggle was against moderate liberals. Uh, nope.  Despite all those demographics, the Republicans are very, very powerful.  More people vote for Democrats than Republicans for the House, but their grip on the House is secure, and they control the vast majority of state governments. And your problem in the next four years isn’t going to be moderate liberals; it’s going to be Republicans all down the line.

I’d also suggest that Democrats shouldn’t over-do the soul-searching.  The overall picture of US politics is that the parties alternate in power; also that they stay close to appealing to 50% of the electorate each. It’s not an accident; it’s how winner-take-all election systems work. There are occasional long runs (the Gilded Age GOP; the New Deal Democrats), but in general, if a party keeps losing elections, it adapts its policies and candidates till it reaches 50% again. If anything, voters’ patience is wearing thinner all the time: they’ve only granted a third term to a party once since 1952.

There’s no huge lesson in why Trump won.  He squeaked out a win in two key states, Pennsylvania and Florida, and blew out Ohio, and that was enough to win the electoral college. Hillary was not unpopular; she won the popular vote by more than 2 million votes.

The surprise was that all the infighting in the GOP this year turned out not to matter. It solidified behind Trump.  And that’s why I say that Trumpism is the GOP. The anti-Trump movement disappeared without a trace on November 8.

If you think Trump is still somehow opposed by Republicans, consider:

  • The Never Trump movement and the high-profile defections had no effect. The cold feet of rivals, the worries that Trump was not conservative enough, the preference of Evangelicals for a candidate more like Cruz— no effect. None of that had any impact where it matters, in votes.
  • Republican voters went for Trump. Maybe they didn’t love him, but they preferred him to Clinton. All of his obvious lies and flaws and outrages did not matter, and there is no reason to hope that they will suddenly start to matter.
  • Paul Ryan is eager to work with Trump— and no wonder!  It’s like Christmas for him.  He’s going to get to do what he’s alway wanted to do: give the rich more money, take programs away from the poor, shred 20 million people’s insurance coverage, deregulate the banks, and maybe even destroy Medicare. All things that would have been  done, mind you, if Romney had been elected in 2012.
  • Have you seen the outrage from Republicans as Trump appoints white nationalists to his inner circle, uses the presidency to advance his business interests, or makes grandiose lies about “illegal voting”?  No, neither have I.
  • Is there any more pathetic sight in 2016 than Mitt Romney meeting with Trump, hat in hand, to be considered for a cabinet post?
  • If you have trouble understanding how Republicans can stomach Trump… consider most Democrats’ reactions to 20 years of GOP excoriation of Hillary Clinton. From our point of view, it’s a nothingburger; it’s just noise and absurdity. Dialing up the outrage will not make Republican voters rethink their acceptance of Trump.

About the only positive to set against all this is that the Republican Senate seems like it won’t eliminate the filibuster. That won’t matter for a lot of Paul Ryan’s program— he will be happy to gut Obamacare with a reconciliation bill; he doesn’t actually intend to pass a replacement bill.  But it might mean that (say) Medicare privatization won’t pass.  Unless McConnell changes his mind next session.

There are undoubtedly ways in which a Trump presidency will be worse than (say) a Cruz presidency. (Name three!)  But basically anything that Trump does, that is what Republicans knowingly voted for, and will eagerly help him do.  And honestly, is Trump’s outrageousness really worse than Rush Limbaugh, the id of the Republican Party for the last few decades?

When people worry about “normalizing” the idea of President Trump— folks, that ship has sailed.  I’ll grant you that people probably wouldn’t be freaking out quite so much over a President Jeb! Bush… but, folks, here’s the number of states Jeb! won in the primaries: zero. Here’s the number of delegates he won: four. Republicans were hellbent on electing either a monster or an idiot this year.  And they’ll keep doing it until they start losing elections.

All this isn’t to say that Trump couldn’t get into huge trouble later with Republicans. Nixon managed it, after all, though it took 6 years. But this is the thing with authoritarians: they have enormous tolerance for whatever their leader does. 90% of what he does will be things they either happily support now, or can be talked into. (Repudiating trade deals, for instance. Free trade is generally orthogonal to ordinary party politics in the US anyway.)  I haven’t heard a good story yet on what things Trump is likely to do which Paul Ryan or other Republicans will resolutely oppose. It’s easier, in fact, to imagine things on Ryan’s wish list which Trump will nix– and even that will probably go fine so long as Ryan gets his huge tax cut.