So, that was a surprise.


My first question about the Trump victory was, what exactly happened electorally? If you look at the electoral maps in 2012/2016, they’re remarkably similar.As I write, a few states are still up in the air, but they don’t matter. But it all came down to three states that flipped from blue to red: Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Florida. That’s 67 electoral votes right there. Add them to Romney’s 206 electoral votes, and he wins.  (Note that only Ohio was a blowout; he won the other two by about 1%.)

Also noticeable: turnout is down. 127 million people voted last time; 120 million this time. Trump got less votes than Romney, though not by much. Clinton got way less votes than Obama– 60 million to 67 million. So, you know, that was a problem.

Edit: I got these figures from CNN, and it seems they’re out of date. Latest figures are that 131 million people voted.

It’s scant consolation for Clinton that she won the popular vote. That’s twice in the last five elections, but it doesn’t seem to bother people much.

The other question I had was, why did the polls get the wrong answer for the last six months? Probably it will take some time to answer that one, but I emphasize that Clinton was leading in the polls during that entire period. Nate Silver got some flak for being less bullish on Clinton, but he still estimated she had a 71% chance of winning. And he was spectactularly wrong about Pennsylvania and Florida. I don’t expect polls to be perfect, but something was systematically wrong here.

It’s worth browsing CNN’s exit polls. Trump won among men (53%), whites (58%), white evangelicals (81%), people with incomes over $50k (49%), people over 45 (53%).  He did terribly with nonwhites (21%) and LGBT folks (14%), badly with the college-educated (43%). For all you millennials saying it’s not your fault, note that he won among white men 18 to 29 years old.

Through the exit polls one senses a certain holding-their-nose vibe from Trump supporters. Among voters who were excited about their candidate, either one, he lost (42%). Trump votes correlate with ignoring the debates and with maintaining the conservative majority on the Supreme Court.

A very weird detail: 26% of respondents said they made up their mind in the last month– and that group broke for Trump (49-39).  How is that even possible? But then, this is one of those questions that respondents might suppose has a right answer– people may feel that you’re not supposed to admit you decided a year ago.

What does it all mean?  Honestly, not too much. Few people change their worldview because their party lost (or won).  If you think the election means that the US public has drastically changed in four years, I have to repeat: Trump’s victory was a 1% squeaker in two of the three key states, and the Trump vote is about the same size as the Romney vote. It’s a spectacular demonstration of how the electoral college can emphasize, or distort, small differences.

Also, I’d say that the result underlines what I was saying here: our political parties are devices for polarizing the electorate into opposed camps who will faithfully follow their leaders and hate the opponent. Republicans came in line behind their party’s candidate, not necessarily because they loved him, but because they hated the Democrats more. What’s surprising is how well the process worked despite the unprecedented incompetence of Trump’s campaign and his ongoing feuds with half the party.  (No, I don’t think he is some uncannily smooth manipulator who’s shown people a new way to win. He won despite his eccentricities, not because of them.)

What happens next?  Jeez, I don’t know.  It was never clear what Trump really believed in; now we’ll find out. An easy prediction, though: there will be a pretty long honeymoon with Paul Ryan and the rest of Congress.  They have lots of common ground, and motivation to show it, and so they’ll quickly do all the things that any Republican president would have done:  cut taxes for the rich, cut programs for the poor, throw away 20 million people’s health insurance, defund Planned Parenthood, pack the courts with conservatives.

Charlie Stross thinks that Trump is going to get a very rude awakening that the president is not a CEO who can do anything he wants. On some things, yes.  (“Give me the phone number for the Bureau for Building Walls!  There isn’t one?  You’re fired!”)  But again, there will be a long shopping list of things he and Paul Ryan can do together, so the natural course will be to concentrate on those things and downplay the rest. The one US institution that might push back on his nonsense is the army. There will probably be some awkward meetings. But it’s not like he has an actual strategy for ISIS that anyone can either implement or fight over.

(Wait, so does it matter or not that Trump is a fascist?  We don’t know yet. But ironically, perhaps, it may not matter, because the big orange Cheeto won, and took Congress with him. Republicans don’t have to destroy the game when they’ve just won it.)



I know, everybody’s sick of this election, but it’s not over yet.

Remember when Trump was supposed to do The Pivot, and being a canny politician, he’d smarm his way past us?  Instead he’s basically imploded, and as he’s going down he aims to take down as much of the country and democracy as he can.


Trump has always been ridiculous, but sometimes we can forget that ridiculous people can also be deeply frightening. Fascism was ridiculous too, and created dictatorships that led to world war and genocide. Watching Trump, you can perceive the close relationship between narcissism (or prolonged toddlerhood) and authoritarianism. He doesn’t seem particularly ideological, but he cannot bear disagreement. By his nature he doesn’t just want power, he wants absolute power.

  • He’s presently attempting to destroy the norms of elections in a democracy, claiming that any result except his election is “rigged”. When dictatorships fall and there are elections, the key point is the transitions of power: you don’t have a democracy if people do not accept that they can lose elections. With our 200 years of experience we tend to look down on the noobs— only now we have a major party nominee declaring that he won’t accept the election results even before they happen.
  • Along with this he has been encouraging his supporters to intimidate minority voters (which, needless to say, is illegal).
  • The key phrase of the GOP political convention and Trump’s rallies is “Lock her up.” That is, when he’s not suggesting that gun nuts assassinate Hillary, he’s suggesting that the political opposition simply be made illegal.
  • He’s promised to use the power of the presidency to shut down news organizations he doesn’t like. Or entertainment programs that dare to criticize him.
  • He openly admires Vladimir Putin, asked Putin to conduct cyberterrorism against his opposition, and hopes to meet him before his inauguration. One of his campaign managers, Paul Manafort, worked for Putin’s stooge in Ukraine and actually inserted language in the GOP platform to lessen support for a free Ukraine.
  • All along he has encouraged violence toward reporters and opponents at his rallies.
  • His whole rise to fame is of course tied to demonizing ethnic minorities— Hispanics, blacks, and above all Muslims.
  • He has the enthusiastic support of overt white supremacists.

I should add: if Trump loses, his calls for a coup will probably be ignored. (He called for one last time the GOP lost, too.) He doesn’t have the energy or skill to seize power by force— he can’t even run a political campaign. But if he wins, he doesn’t have to be personally competent to enact a fascist agenda. Hitler wasn’t particularly competent either. When you’re leader, people will enact your agenda for you. Hand the reins of power to this man, and bad things will happen.

And those are only the reasons he’s a fascist; there are other equally compelling reasons why he should be entirely disqualified to be president:

  •  He boasts of being a sexual predator. His own words are that he can “do anything”, including direct sexual assault, because he’s a “star”. And of course there is now a list of women coming forward to say that he behaves just as he said he does.
  • His means of engaging with any opponent is toddler-level mockery and brazen lies. Someone so easy to rile up is also someone easy to manipulate. (Consider that his approach to Ted Cruz, a popular figure on his own side, was to insult his wife and to bizarrely insinuate that his father was involved with JFK’s assassination.
  • As the only interaction he can handle is fawning servility, he cannot be told bad news, and he can barely maintain allies. He’s spent a good fraction of his candidacy feuding with his own party and media.
  • He’s spectacularly uninformed about policy in any area (even areas he should know about as a businessman, like taxes).
  • He’s just as spectacularly lazy— he barely prepared for the debates, he doesn’t bother to run an effective campaign, his proposals are never detailed, he doesn’t attempt to educate himself on any of the issues he would be facing as president.
  • He has abandoned support for the US’s bedrock foreign policy achievement— NATO and our alliances with Japan and Korea.
  • As a businessman, he relies on corrupt practices like simply not paying contractors, or shenanigans with a fake charity. He had to be sued to force him to rent to black customers.
  • Trump’s rise to political prominence was due to his racist embrace of birtherism— which even he has now admitted is a lie.

Now, he’s gone so far that an unprecedented number of Republicans have repudiated him, from George Bush to Mitt Romney to Robert Gates to George Will to Glenn Beck. The conventional wisdom would be that you shouldn’t alienate your own party, and, well, the conventional wisdom is not wrong about this; by all accounts Trump is losing.

But the vast majority of Republicans still support Trump.  Paul Ryan, Mitch McDonnell, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, Rick Perry, Mike Huckabee, Chris Christie, Rudolph Giuliani, Bob Dole, Newt Gingrich, Scott Walker, Sarah Palin, Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh, Mark Levin, Ralph Reed, James Dobson, Eric Cantor, Bobby Jindal, Rick Santorum, Orrin Hatch— they’re all on the Trump train. The fascist comments, the sexual predation, the lies and insults, the war on Muslims, the isolationism, it’s all perfectly fine with them. After all Trump has promised to address the most important problem they see in the world, which is that rich people don’t have enough money. He’ll shower them with it.

Now, in some ways this is just what a first-past-the-post election system does. It divides and polarizes the electorate into teams that will support The Candidate no matter what they do. (Is it better when a party questions and hobbles its own leader every chance they get?  Ask John Boehner and Paul Ryan.) It’s very very hard for people in such a system to admit that their own party has produced a monster. A columnist like George Will can tear up his party membership card; an elected official rarely does so: they’ll lose their own supporters and the other side won’t trust them anyway.

Still, democracy is endangered when people no longer want it. Though this is a lesson taught by many an emerging country, it’s most familiar from Weimar Germany. It was relatively easy to abandon democracy, because only a minority actually supported it. The fascists and communists openly rejected it. The conservatives and socialists distrusted it and didn’t bother to support it. That left only a small minority of centrist politicians, trying to run a system that a majority of the population didn’t actually like. And of course whatever they did, or whatever happened to the country— reparations, the Depression— only delegitimized them, and democracy, even further.

So, even if Trump loses, it’s not encouraging that 40% of the population was willing to go along with a fascist and vote for him. Republicans evidently don’t value democracy very highly. Even someone like John McCain, who opposes Trump, made news this week by saying that the Senate should not accept any Supreme Court nominee from Hillary Clinton. And McCain is supposed to be a “moderate”. To simply not allow the government to work is now mainstream Republican doctrine.

Trump raises an interesting question— was he the worst of the candidates? Is he some kind of inexplicable disaster that’s befallen the Republican Party? I’ve said all along that he isn’t, and I’ll hold to that. As I noted in the spring, the typical attack on Trump from his rivals was from the right— that he wasn’t conservative enough, not tough enough on immigrants or the poor, a secret supporter of abortion and gun control and Obamacare. The real firebrands in the GOP preferred Ted Cruz, who is only better than Trump in the hair department.

Pretty much every objectionable trait of Donald Trump is something the Republican Party has encouraged for twenty years or more.

  • The business of “rigging the election” is part of a long attempt to rewrite laws to disenfranchise the poor and minorities, based on a nonexistent threat of “voter fraud”. The previous manifestation of this campaign was slander about ACORN.
  • Complaints about the “mainstream media” have been a staple of conservative outrage since the 1980s. What’s a wonder is that they still bother with it even though they now have their own powerful media.
  • Hostility to women and feminism is as old as the anti-ERA movement, the nomination of Clarence Thomas, the Tea Party candidates who told us that rape never results in pregnancy, and attempts to defund Planned Parenthood.
  • Trump hardly invented birtherism; for years GOP politicians refused to shut down the crazies on the issue. What’s new about Trump isn’t the racism; it’s the overtness of it. You were supposed to piously support diversity speaking to the New York Times, while dog-whistling to the base that you were against it.
  • Hostility to immigration isn’t new either; the last attempt at immigration reform was shut down by the wingnuts with no help from Trump.
  • The whole apparatus of functioning American democracy— horse-trading on the budget, court confirmations, restricted filibustering, bipartisan legislation— has been systematically dismantled by the GOP starting with Newt Gingrich. Rather than try to make government work, the goal has been to make democracy impossible.
  • Dark mutterings about coups and rebellions are also not new; we have had armed militias, people taking federal land by force, domestic right-wing terrorism, elected GOP officials musing about the armed forces taking power.
  • Even Trump’s ignorance and lies are simply the standard from talk radio and Sarah Palin.

The party establishment, such as it is, has been perfectly happy to keep the base riled up with hatred and a disdain for compromise: it delivered votes and the majority of state governments. Mitt Romney made a big deal of opposing Trump this year, but happily accepted his endorsement in 2012, and ran a campaign just as hostile to minorities and women. It’s hard not to feel a pang of sympathy for Paul Ryan, whose distaste for Trump is obvious— but it’s also obvious that Ryan’s disdain is mostly over Trump’s vulgarity. You’re not supposed to be blatant in your hatred of the majority of the population.

I should also say something about the faux-profound concern of some pundits that Trump happened because of economic anxiety. Ha, no, economic anxiety is not what makes people call Obama a foreigner, rough up journalists, attack Mexican judges, grope women, and admire Putin. Trump’s supporters are better off than the national average, and better off than the average for Democrats.

The “economic anxiety” story has to confront the fact that Trump does very badly among precisely the people who have most reason to be anxious: minorities, young people, and women. The best the pundits can do is talk about the anxiety of “white men” and glide over the facts that a) Trump’s white men are not actually badly off, and b) white men are a minority of the working class. The only age group that supports Trump is those 65 and over— that is, those who aren’t even part of the work force.

There’s a basic fact about American politics that you always have to keep in mind: the Republican Party is the Money Party. It’s been that way since the Civil War and it’s not changing soon.  Its bedrock policies are the policies rich people like: low taxes, a weak safety net, few regulations, a strong foreign policy. Trump, Ryan, and the rest of them are absolutely agreed on these things.

The thing is, openly advocating for Money doesn’t go over well with the electorate— even in such a pro-capitalist country as the US. The Republicans thus have to either distract the voters, or lie to them. The usual distraction is cultural: harness the energy of Christian conservatives, or racists, to get out the vote. Then when you get power, you don’t actually do what they want.

Or you just lie; you tell the voters that government is bad and they don’t really need health insurance, Social Security, unemployment compensation, unions, food regulations, etc.

In 1980, the Republicans won the game: they were able to start dismantling liberalism, tearing apart the New Deal, destroying unions, sending the good jobs overseas, and sending all the economic gains to the rich rather than to the whole population. So it’s a bit provoking when conservative pundits offer this story that the Democrats abandoned the working class.

It’s true that Trump has appealed to economic anxiety— among other things. But his very framing of the issue shows that he doesn’t understand the issues or have any notion on how to solve them. He talks as if the problem is foreigners— either Mexicans coming to this country to steal jobs, or Chinese somehow taking advantage of us by selling us cheap things. He isn’t running for President of Mexico or China, so he can’t actually do anything about either problem, nor would building walls (whether made of bricks or tariffs) actually re-create manufacturing jobs.


The good factory jobs left because American manufacturers wanted them to.  Union workers were expensive; Chinese ones were not.  (Mexicans are not an issue— if anything it’s the other way around; cheap US imports have made it hard for the Mexican economy to improve.)   You, the consumer, abetted the process with your tendency to prefer affordable cars, TV sets, and other goodies. (Also, US manufacturing never disappeared; it’s actually larger than ever. But automation means it employs far fewer workers.)

Could or should all this have been handled differently?  Probably; but impeding productivity is rarely the best economic policy. Should we have prohibited industrial robots, or be content to pay more for everything?  That’s just paying the price in another way. In any case, repudiating trade agreements now will not solve the problem. A better solution would be more liberalism: better wages to share the gains of productivity; education and generous unemployment benefits (or a universal basic income, if you like that) to move displaced workers into better jobs; unions to keep employers from exploiting distressed people.

When we last left Empyrion, I was about to go into spaaaaace.   Well, I’ve gone into spaaaace. I am all over space.  Here, look:


The big rocky thing is the planet where I crash-landed, Akua.  The gray thing ahead that looks like an office park is my CV (Capital Vessel).  CVs can have a warp drive (it’s the ring on the left) which lets them travel to other planets.  Other than that they act as bases in spaaaace.

There are about half a dozen worlds to explore in this system (and by final release they hope to have additional systems), but it turns out I spend most of my time creating bases. Right now I have three on Akua, one on the moon, and one on Omicron, plus the CV.  After the above screenshot was taken, I learned that there were many more options for base building: variant block shapes, colors, texturing, decorative items like consoles.  So each base is better than the one before.  One nice thing about the game is that it’s quite generous about mining and food-making: a little will last you quite a while.  Backpacks have 40 slots, which is a good number: it makes you think about what you’re carrying without really impeding you.  (And when you work on a mine, you’re only using one slot.)

There are also NPC enemies, with bases of their own, and till recently they were kicking my ass whenever I went near. A friend gave me some key advice: sniper rifles.  I went to the two planets where the really good ores live, so I could make the high-level sniper rifle.  (These are like the boss planets, but they were easier than the NPC bases.)  I crafted a hundred bullets or so, plus rockets for my rocket launcher.

The problem is, on foot the bases’ turrets get me in a few shots– and they can shoot up the terrain.  Plus respawning is bad when you are attacking a base: you respawn near your body, which has a backpack with all your gear in it, but it may be in the turrets’ line of sight.  So I died a few times just trying to get near.

Finally I got the right method: move up to the crest of the hill, where it still provides cover.  Peek over and shoot down the drones; do this till they stop coming.  Then peek over again and shoot at the turrets.  You have time to get 3-5 shots in before the turrets fire at you.  It took me a bit, but finally the turrets were gone.

I flew my ship over and awkwardly docked it over what looked like a courtyard in the base.  Oops, the base was also swarming with alien soldiers.  I used the ship’s weapons to thin them out, then got out and tried to fire down into the courtyard at them.  Fortunately they were not very good at pathfinding– they tended to stay where they were until I turned a corner, and I could waste them with my pistol.

Only they also had huge bat-like animals with them, and one rushed me, bit me, and gave me a poisoned wound.  Oops.  It seemed like a good idea to extricate myself, go back to the ship, and find something that heals poison.

Now I could go back and clear out the base.  I had limited ammo, but the aliens (what were the chances?) used the same ammunition types I did.  Also the same medpacks and canned vegetables.

The base itself weakens when you shoot things, and I fell into a hole I’d made.  Oops… I can’t quite jump as high as a block, so it looked like I was trapped.  You can’t use the base-building tools on a base you don’t control.  But you can still shoot it up!  So I destroyed one cube after another, making my way to an elevator.  But I couldn’t jump up into the elevator.  So I shot my way horizontally out of the base till I hit dirt, then used the drill to escape.

I hadn’t cleared out the base yet, so I went back in and did that, clearing out aliens, bat-monsters, and turrets, and helping myself to their loot.  They also have teleport portals which you have to destroy so they stop respawning.

I could still hear alien roars, but didn’t see anyone, so I worked on taking over the base.  You have to find and destroy the “core” (a special cube), then replace it with one of your own.  It wasn’t obvious where the core was, but I finally realized they’d used an old level designer’s trick: put it right by the most valuable loot box.  Which you have to destroy (after looting it) to find the core behind it.  (Hidden as a spoiler; mouse over to read.)

I thought I needed a Base Starter, but no, I needed a core.  So that meant one more trip to my other base.  But once I installed the core, the base was mine.  Time to redecorate!


Yeah, I paint everything pink in video games.

This is my biggest base yet… the aliens really overbuild.  I rebuilt the side towers, added the sightseeing deck on top, and made a nice big landing pad for my ship.

Oh, and that alien bellowing?  One single alien had fallen into a pit just as I had.  It apparently didn’t occur to him to tunnel his way out.

So, in brief: there always seems to be one more thing to try.  I spent tonight sprucing up the captured base, and preparing to capture a similar base on Omicron.  A Mefi friend created a sweet spaceship in the shape of a Batwing, and talked about making a Batcave, so I’m tempted to do some larger-scale, more creative building.  And there’s multiplayer to check out.

The other planets have different animals and plants, plus various types of aliens; still, you can see what resources they have and I’m not sure they’re different enough.  It would be nice if there was more on the other planets to use than just the two fancy ore types.  But I’m not really worried about this; the game has been well worth it so far and I’m not done yet.


For anyone who thinks to check here… yes, the ZBB is having problems, I know, and I’ve submitted a ticket with Dreamhost.

(Basically you can look at most threads, but not all, and you can’t post at all.  I can’t log in as admin so I can’t even put an alert over there.)

More bulletins when I know more (also on Twitter).

Edit: Looks like it’s fixed.  Dreamhost, with moderate usefulness, told me I should optimize the database and maybe repair tables.  They suggested phpMyAdmin, which didn’t work. But their page also suggested using SSH, and that worked.

The problem may have been intermittent, I can’t tell, but I can say that I couldn’t post yesterday and now I can. So in good IT tradition I’m going to close this up as resolved.

Everything I’ve read about No Man’s Sky makes me think it’s not a $60 game, so I haven’t picked it up. I tried Elite: Dangerous, but less than an hour of flailing around convinced me that a flight simulator in spaaaace wasn’t for me. Then PC Gamer had a rave review of Empyrion: Galactic Survival, which sounded just right at $20.


Scaring the natives with my motorbike


I’m about nine hours in, and it took about seven of that to get to the point of having a spaceship. Which is fine, because there’s a fairly substantial crafting/survival basis to the game, and it takes awhile to learn all that.

You start by crash-landing on a planet, only you start out with quite a load of stuff… apparently people from your civilization crash-land on alien planets all the time, so you’re prepared. You build a constructor which can make stuff from simple ingredients, and then you’re off gathering ingredients, mining, destroying the local flora and fauna, and building a base. You have to stay fed, but this is not particularly hard… well, at least not on easy mode.

You can walk around, or you can build and ride a motorbike, because of course you have a motorbike. (Fortunately it fits in your Bag of Holding when you’re not riding it.) You’re on a small planet– I don’t know the exact size to compare with other open-world games, but let’s say “comfortably large”. It’s big enough that you wouldn’t want to walk the whole way around.

To mine, you use a big drill and make a big stonking hole: the whole world turns out to be editable. (You also have a terrain shaping tool for minor adjustments.) With some effort, you can even trap yourself in your mine.  (Your drill runs on biofuel, and you can run out. You can make more if you happen to have a constructor and a bunch of seaweed with you.)

My base consists of a bunch of big steel cubes with various devices piled on top (constructor, ammo box, turret, food processor, generator, etc.).  I thought it looked pretty good until I checked out the Steam Workshop; people are designing insane bases.  You can also, of course, make bases in spaaaaace.

So anyway, it’s a space game too, so eventually I got around to making a spaceship. My design, again, was “just enough steel blocks to stack all the spaceship things on.”  Amazingly, it flew.  (The only controls you need to fly are WASD plus Q/E to roll.)  I flew about a third of the way around the planet and did some silicon mining.

Then, on the way back, I got attacked by drones.  You see, drones attack you sometimes. I was not prepared for this and died.  You respawn near your ship (or near your base if you prefer); I was still under attack, but managed to down the drone this time.  My ship was on its side, but I could still get in and fly it, only something was wrong.  No Q/E controls.  I flew toward my base like this:


Hint: sky should ideally be above you


If you look closely at the data in the lower right, you’ll notice that I also had only 2.2 minutes of power left.  That was… not enough.  I managed to land without crashing, and got out to see what was wrong.

What was wrong was that the drone had shot away half of the spaceship.  Most of my steel superstructure was gone, also the fuel tanks and RCS, which is the thing that lets you steer in any direction.

But I’d managed to get reasonably close to my base, so I pulled out my motorbike, rode it home, constructed the components I needed, and rode back to the ship.  I fixed it, it flew just fine and I landed it nicely right next to the base.

And that’s when I realized: this is actually a pretty fun game.  Being able to flit around an open world with no problems is barely a game.  I was inordinately proud of myself for not only building this unholy contraption and flying it, but rebuilding it and getting it home safely after it got shot up.

Next task: get the thing into spaaaace.  There are apparently hostile aliens out there, so I’ll have to learn how to fire the guns, too.  Building a base in spaaaace sounds like fun, and then there are moons and other planets to check out.

My friend Stav described No Man’s Sky as a trillion miles wide, but a millimeter deep, and Elite:Dangerous as a million miles wide, but a meter deep.  In that spirit, I’d say Empyrion is a thousand miles wide, but about ten meters deep. At least, if you measure depth by how much you can do in one location.  You can go crazy building nice bases and ships (including capital ships where you can land smaller ships); you can go hunting or mining; you can pester the aliens and take over their bases; you can explore the ten or so planets that are currently available.  There’s also multiplayer, so you can do all this with your pals.

The game has been in Early Access for over a year, though it’s certainly playable now. It doesn’t have any story, really, unless it comes in when you meet the aliens.  But it seems pretty clear that it’s a game for messing around with planets; I don’t know that it needs a story.

If you try it, I suggest going through the tutorial, which will introduce you to all the elements you need– though not always in the best order.  I got messed up, or thought I did, when drones destroyed the core of my base.  I started over, but later I learned that I should probably have created a multitool, so I could get all the components back from my destroyed base.  But I was content to just redo things better the second time.

I’ll report back later once I get into space…

Edit: And here is Part Two.

I just read the Baburnama, which is Babur’s autobiography.  No, not the elephant, you big wag, the Moghul emperor.


Babur (R) with his son Humayun

Doing the Mughals


A little refresher, for those who are shaky on their Mughals. This is the big late-medieval Indian empire; Babur founded it in 1526; his last descendant was knocked off the throne in 1858 by the British. The height of the empire was under the tolerant, inquisitive Akbar, Babur’s grandson, and it’s generally considered to have gone to hell under and after the unpleasant and zealous Aurangzeb. The Taj Mahal is the tomb of a Mughal empress (Mumtaz, wife of Akbar’s grandson Shah Jehan).

The Brits arrived when the empire was just a shell, the emperor in control of little more than Delhi. The East India Company used a strange little dodge to conquer India: it supported a claimant to the throne of Bengal, who granted it the government of the province in the name of the Mughal emperor.  It used the treasury and troops of Bengal to conquer the rest of India, under the legal fiction that it was operating under Mughal authority. I’m not sure if this really fooled anyone.

Oh, fun fact: Mughal is a form of Mongol, because of the Genghis connection. The Mughals didn’t actually call themselves that; they used Gurkani, after the title Gurkan ‘son-in-law’ Timur acquired by marrying into Genghis’s line.

Babur’s life

Babur was a descendant of Timur, known to the west as Tamerlane, a particularly brutal conqueror of Central Asia and Persia.  He lived in Chaghadai’s section of the Mongol Empire, which by his time spoke Turkish and accepted Islam.  He could not claim descent from Genghis Khan himself, but he married into the family, so his sons could.  He died in 1405 while planning the conquest of China.

During and after his reign the administrative and literary language of Central Asia was Persian. There was a rough division of nomadic Turks (the bulk of the army) and sedentary Persians (the administrators). Babur made the unusual choice of writing his autobiography in his native language, Chaghadai Turkish, though he was also fluent in Persian.  The Mughals in India continued to use Persian till the end, though they did forget Turkish.  (Fortunately, the Baburnama was translated into Persian for them.)

Babur was born in 1483, and Timur’s empire had collapsed into a scrim of usually warring emirates.  His father died when he was 10, and he was plunged immediately into a lifestyle of war and migration that would last till the end of his life.  His early conflicts were with the rising power of the Uzbeks, who were slowly taking out the remaining Timurids.

Babur’s early years remind me of the story of Liu Bei in Three Kingdoms. He has a way of getting a kingdom, making a move on another, and losing everything, but you just could not put that boy down; he counted his few remaining followers and was back on the board in a few months.  He gained and lost Samarkand (Timur’s capital) three times.

Finally he’s forced out of Central Asia entirely, but he regroups in Kabul.  He takes the city without a fight in 1504, and he’s a little vague on how this happened; Wikipedia fills in the key detail that he took over from a usurper who had displaced an infant ruler. He was still only 21.

He spends most of his life in Afghanistan, and it’s obviously his favorite place, the one he thinks of as his.  (He is buried there.)  For a time things looked up: he found new allies in another Turkish dynasty, the Safavids, who had just taken over Persia; they defeat the Uzbeks and he briefly holds Samarkand.  The Uzbeks then regroup the next year and decisively defeat both the Safavids and Babur.

With progress in that direction halted, Babur simply turned the other direction.  He had already raided Hindustan; now he turned to conquest.  He had an excuse at hand– Muslims had already conquered northern India a couple centuries before, and there were quarrels to take advantage of.  He defeated Ibrahim Lodi at Panipat in 1526 and took over in Delhi and Agra; the next year he defeated a Rajput (Hindu) army.

By his own account his army was no more than 12,000 or so, and Lodi’s was over 100,000. But in general Indian armies (no matter who was leading them) were never a good match for nomad-based armies from the northwest; by this time Babur was also skillfully using cannons and matchlocks.

He spent some time consolidating his conquest, and died in 1530.  He was succeeded by his son Humayun, who promptly lost everything.  But he got it back, with Safavid help, some years later.

The book

Should you run out and get it? Well, if you like history, sure. Not many emperors have written down what they thought they were doing. I’ll warn you, though: he tends to concentrate on what is least interesting to us: genealogies, long lists of who supported who, detailed accounts of long journeys, where the army camped each night, how they got across the rivers, when and where they stopped to drink or get stoned.  A lot of what we’d consider the good stuff is asides in the story he wants to tell.

(I should also warn you that he piles on the names. Honestly I skimmed over most of them.)

For instance, he makes side comments about mistakes he made, errors in strategy, who was a good or poor warrior.  Not surprisingly, he values loyal and brave supporters, but by his own account it was awfully difficult for a beg (lord) to resist the temptation to go off on their own, or to support a rival.  In these circumstances, the only sure way to keep your forces loyal and happy was to keep them with you, and to keep coming up with loot. (The first time he conquered Samarkand, the city was so impoverished that he couldn’t reward his allies: big mistake.)

From digressions and side comments, we also learn what he was interested in besides war. He’s very fond of poetry; when he gives a portrait of someone, he sometimes rather charmingly quotes a line of their poetry. He tells you where the best fruit and wine comes from all over Central Asia.  He really likes gardens, and he’s always constructing or reconstructing one, or introducing the custom of building them into India.  (The Persians always loved a walled garden– in fact, pairidaēza  ‘enclosed park’ in Avestan is where we got the word ‘paradise’.)  In the Afghan years he is constantly having drinking parties, or for a change he and his pals eat ma’jun, a mild chewable narcotic.  (Later on he abstains from alcohol… but sees no need to give up ma’jun.)

There’s not much about sex, though the most intimate detail is rather surprising: as a young man, he had a deep crush on a younger boy. He describes himself as so shy that he didn’t really do anything about it, but it’s interesting that he has no compunctions about putting this in the royal memoirs.  (Which doesn’t prevent him from condemning “pederasty” in others. Still, I gather that it’s like drinking: he only really disapproves of it when it goes beyond some ill-defined level from excusability into excess.)  He does enter into a love match with one of his wives, but he never says much about this.

He loves Kabul, but he has a poor opinion of India:

Hindustan is a place of little charm. There is no beauty in its people, no graceful social intercourse, no poetic talent or understanding, no etiquette, nobility, or manliness. The arts and crafts have no harmony or symmetry.  There are no good horses, meat, grapes, melons, or other fruit. There is no ice, cold water, good food or bread in the markets. There are no baths and no madrasas. There are no candles, torches, or candlesticks.

What he does like about India is pretty simple and direct: it’s fabulously rich.

He mentions the language barrier, but doesn’t seem to realize how deeply it affects his judgments.  He has a long section in praise of the cultural splendor of Herat (in Afghanistan), showing that he has a great appreciation for poetry, the Persian epics, calligraphy, painting, Sufiism, and Islamic law. His description of India talks only about the physical aspects of the place– especially its plants and animals. He doesn’t mention a thing about Indian literature, culture, or religion.

Babur is a pious Muslim– he always approves of someone saying their daily prayers, he gives alms, he undertakes fasts (sometimes while he was still drinking)– but doesn’t seem zealous, until he fights with the Rajputs.  Then he is suddenly conscious of fighting the Infidels.  As he’s spent his entire life fighting other Muslims, it is hard to take this temporary zeal very seriously.  He does destroy the idols in a particular location, but mostly because he wanted to make it into a garden.

His memoirs are often described as frank or honest; of course we don’t really know if they are or not.  I understand that other sources, such as they are, don’t contradict him. But I don’t think his self-presentation is entirely artless.  E.g., he describes taking action even when he’s ten or twelve, and even when he refers to his elders taking him in hand (e.g. to protect him from his rivals). His image of himself is always of a generous and loyal king, though occasionally mistaken or unlucky in strategy. And probably he was, most of the time. He has a detailed description of a campaign in India, where he is constantly reassigning fiefs, sending letters back to Kabul, playing a game of negotiation-or-war with the frenemy of the moment, the Bengalis.  By this time, in his forties, he had evident skill not only in war, but in the all-important people skills of keeping begs happy and rivals intimidated. His one great mistake was to die too early, leaving Humayun in charge at too early an age.

I should add, there’s a famous story about his death, which for obvious reasons isn’t in the autobiography: His son Humayun was sick, and the doctors despaired for his life. Babur prayed that the illness would take him instead. And indeed, his son recovered and Babur died.

If you do read it, I recommend Wheeler Thackston’s translation, which is not only lively and readable, but complemented by helpful maps and genealogical tables.

My wife has just returned from Peru, and brought back a list of Peruvian names from the newspapers. Odd spellings for foreign names are muy de onda (very hip).






Airon (Aaron?)





Jeylo (J. Lo)

Jhunior Brayan


Itan (Ethan?)

Johan Jonathán