Russian spies also suck

The news lately has been about the terrifying power of Russian intelligence agencies, who are accused of things such as destroying American democracy and assassinating dissidents in the heart of British power, so here is a reminder that Russian spies are just like Western spies, which is to say that they’re also stupid fucks:

Basically journalists were looking for info on a couple of Russian spies identified by the Dutch. Seeing as Russia is corrupt as shit, the traffic police’s car registration database had been sold on the black market years previously. The journos found the people in the database and saw that the address registered was for the GRU’s cyber warfare branch (the GRU is the Russian agency responsible for military intelligence). The spies registered because GRU officers are exempt from drunk driving charges, traffic stops, etc.  So the journos looked in the database for other people registered under the same address as the GRU building. The end result was that they found the names, dates of birth, cellphone numbers, government ID numbers, and whatnot for 305 Russian spies. And all because the spies wanted to avoid traffic tickets.

Monsters and mazes and dungeons and dragons

Two kids’ cartoons I’ve seen and recommend on Netflix: The Dragon Prince and The Hollow:

The first feels very Avatar: The Last Airbender because it was created by two veterans of that show (writers or producers or some shit, I don’t really care about behind the scenes stuff for animated shows). The relationships between the three protagonists, the way the characters talk, and how they relate to their circumstances is just like Avatar – i.e., the characters banter zippily in teen American slang in counterpoint to the seriousness of their quest and in contravention of the accepted cod medieval language of fantasy epics.

Unlike Avatar, the story takes place in a more traditional Western fantasy setting of elves and knights and dragons. Humans and elves are at war, three kids go on a journey to bring peace, they overcome various dangers in each episode, there are exciting an action scenes, etc.

I found it a rather pleasant show to binge, especially since each episode is less than half an hour.

The Hollow is also structured around a journey, but “Lost for kids” would be the better reference point. Three teenagers with amnesia wake up imprisoned in an underground bunker, they make their way through a strange land of monsters and mysteries, weird shit flies at the viewer so fast you forget that a lot of it doesn’t make sense, and there’s a plot twist in the end that may or may not land well for you. There are bunches of jokes but most of them are dumb so I think this is being aimed at a younger audience than the first show.

For some reason it’s made to look like it was made in Flash, but the action scenes are too complex for Flash so I guess the creators just like that style. Maybe they were working within certain budget limits, or maybe they think modern kids have been trained to expect simplistic animation. The episodes are also less than half an hour so I got through the whole thing fast.

The second season for The Dragon Prince has just been announced, but hopefully there will hopefully there will also be one for The Hollow since I could do with more uncomplicated series with short episodes to binge on.

Anyway, this has been a review of Netflix kids’ cartoons shows as evaluated by a thirtysomething Canadian man.

What the hell is a xenonaut?

Damn Xenonauts. I was going to spend the weekend playing Skyrim but ended up playing this game instead. It’s just as compulsively addictive as the original X-COM from the 90’s, except with a little bit nicer graphics. According to the manual, the biggest difference I can see is that your soldiers will not get psychic powers. I wish they’d played up the Cold War 70’s aesthetic more, since it’s kind of neat that your alien-fighting organization is a joint Soviet/NATO operation.

Just like with X-COM, I’m mentally revising the dollar figures to add three extra zeroes at the end. A budget of $1.5 million makes no sense for running military bases on 3 different continents with fighter jets and helicopters and dozens of soldiers and scientists and engineers, but $1.5 billion is real money. Body armour at $28,000 apiece is peanuts to a bloated military budget, but $28 million per soldier for armour that can stand up to plasma rifles sounds plausible.

One criticism I have is for something that also happened to me with the original X-COM – occasionally there’s some weird glitch that lets enemies shoot through walls. It only happened the one time, and normally I just play on with troop losses since I like the feel of a desperate fight against an alien invasion, but that was just unfair so I reloaded the autosave.

I was originally going to recommend this game, but I’ve now reached the grindy part of Xenonauts where I’m scrambling jets and troopers every couple of days to repel alien incursions. All the missions are starting to look alike and I can’t tell if the latest city being terrorized by aliens is one I’ve been to before. Was 90s X-COM this grindy? My budget is perched on a razor’s edge and one KIA will put me in a downward spiral of fiscal and planetary doom. These spreadsheets will be my death.

Facebook surveillance PS (Post-Snowden)

Anyone ever downloaded their Facebook data? I did that a couple of days ago and the zip file was around 100 Megabytes.

I’ve skimmed through the data dump and there’s nothing surprising in my posts and whatnot. When I signed up for Facebook I was a grad student researching online communities so I was always reading about how Internet messages can come back to bite their users in the ass. One must always be careful what one puts out there for public consumption. There are entire folders in my data download that are empty thanks to me having gone data paranoid a full decade before most people did. I think I set Facebook to maximum privacy settings in 2007 and have kept it there ever since, plus I use ad blockers like crazy.

I was, however, reminded that Facebook was a lot bitchier about hiding messages and that there were a few from people that I didn’t see until years later (mostly people I met overseas while backpacking so I guess they thought I was being the bitchy one and ignoring them).

The part that had the most surprises was the section outlining which advertisers know about me (around 50 groups). Some of them I can figure out – the California Republican Party, for example, probably got my email from my conservative relatives in the US – but there are others that are just mysterious.

Why, for example, are there like 10 different Turkish musicians that have my info? It’s possible they learned about me through Spotify, but I don’t think I’ve ever listened to Turkish music on there, or ever. I guess I could email those people but I’m almost positive the individual musicians themselves don’t know what’s going on and it’s their marketing company that’s responsible. Plus I don’t really want to read machine translated PR speak. Anyway they’re wasting their time since my ad blocker means I get zero ads online.

I also requested a download of all my Google data, which comes to 9 Gigabytes. This is unsurprising considering how tightly I’m enmeshes in the Google data ecosystem. I think skimming through this will be a project of several evenings and weekends.

A fantasy anime that doesn’t suck

Coronation of the emperor in Record of Grancrest War, which clearly takes after Jacques-Louis David's The Coronation of Napoleon
Yes, they styled this scene after David’s Coronation of Napoleon

Say, Record of Grancrest War is actually a pretty solid fantasy show. The promotional material made it look like yet another crappy harem show where the main character shits himself every time an under-aged girl tries to give him a handjob but it’s not that at all. I can’t remember the last time an anime had two people who liked each other get together without any idiotic drama.

My biggest criticism is that it moves through the material a bit too quickly. Okay, there’s a world at war, aristocrats who drain magical powers from the rivals they defeat, vampires and werewolves and plucky allies and exotic locations and massive battles where actual characters die. Can we maybe have some time to dwell on each thing before we move on?

I assume this is because the anime is based on a light novel series. The studio probably was trying to squeeze as much as possible in.

But the animation is nice, the main characters are interesting, and it moves along decently. It’s a competently entertaining anime and it just recently ended so you get a complete story with no cliffhangers whose endings depend on the studio securing funding for a second season. I recommend it for your fantasy action fix.

Why is a raven like a writing desk?

Sheesh, when it’s laid out like this then the parallels are just ridiculous:

– living five adults to a two room apartment

– being told you are constructing utopia while the system crumbles around you

– ‘totally not illegal taxi’ taxis by private citizens moonlighting to make ends meet

– everything slaved to the needs of the military-industrial complex

– mandatory workplace political education

– productivity largely falsified to satisfy appearance of sponsoring elites

– deviation from mainstream narrative carries heavy social and political consequences

– networked computers exist but they’re really bad

– Henry Kissinger visits sometimes for some reason

– elite power struggles result in massive collateral damage, sometimes purges

– failures are bizarrely upheld as triumphs

– otherwise extremely intelligent people just turning the crank because it’s the only way to get ahead

– the plight of the working class is discussed mainly by people who do no work

– the United States as a whole is depicted as evil by default

– the currency most people are talking about is fake and worthless

– the economy is centrally planned, using opaque algorithms not fully understood by their users

Age of Wonders

Screenshot from Age of Wonders: Shadow Magic showing the game options available for a player controlling an elven army attacking undead foes

Remember when computer games had crappy voice actors? I do, because I’ve been playing Age of Wonders: Shadow Magic. I got it for like $2 on GOG a while ago and it really does deserve to be listed there, as it actually is a good old game.

The whole thing is kind of like Civilization in a fantasy setting, or maybe a turn-based version of Warcraft. Like Civilization you pick a certain people to play as, you go out into the world, build outposts and cities, gain allies and make enemies, conquer villages, and massacre entire races.

Unlike Civilization, heroes play a big part in the game thanks to its fantasy roots (specifically Dungeons and Dragons with the serial numbers filed off). The player is not some disembodied will directing the manifest destiny of a nation, but instead you are a mighty wizard leading your chosen race to victory over the untermenschen of the world.

I assume you can play as evil races like trolls and stuff but I’ve only done one of the starter campaigns and the story was entirely told from the perspective of the do-gooder elves and halflings. Anyway, your wizard is a unit on the map that you move around, they cast epic spells that can change the face of the world, and they can get their asses killed if you screw up in battle. The best thing to do is probably to stick your wizard in a tower and have them cast their spells from afar.

The race you pick also determines your technology and units, but again with a fantasy spin. The technology tree also deals entirely with getting magic spells that are unique to each race. Elves can get spells to summon unicorns and fairies, for example. Elves also have archers and their higher units are nymphs and druids, while humans have crossbowmen and knights.

The fantasy RPG setting also puts a pretty fun spin on maps because you can send your armies into the tunnels of the Underdark to assault your enemy from the rear, or travel into the Shadow Plane and flank their armies that way. It’s also fun to find random fantasy stuff on a map, like a hidden elf city in a forest you thought you’d already explored or a dungeon you can clear out or an inn where you can recruit a hero or a city that will switch to your side if you rescue them from the demons that besiege them.

Voice acting aside, the game is actually a lot less clunky than you would expect for something from the 90’s. I don’t really notice the interface most of the time, which is pretty much how it’s supposed to work. It’s easy to get sucked in while you’re playing – for instance, I almost missed a social engagement over the weekend because I told myself I’d just finish a map before getting ready to leave. The game is just fun to play and being like 20 years old it’ll run on anything. I say check it out if you like this sort of thing.

An Introduction to Manga

Front cover of Manga! Manga!: The World of Japanese Comics showing a collage of various manga covers

Thanks to the Japan Foundation, I’m reading Manga! Manga!: The World of Japanese Comics by Frederik Schodt (and if you want to know what the Japan Foundation was like I tweeted about it here). It was published in 1986, well before the manga boom of the mid-90s. Or was it the late 90s? I can barely remember a time when manga wasn’t the default comic book format for the majority of readers, at least in terms of sales.

So the book was written in a time when only specialists in Japan and the most dedicated of comic book hipsters knew anything about Japanese comics. It therefore explains manga from the ground up, going through its history and providing examples of manga of each era and type (mangas from the 50s, boys’ manga, girls’ manga, etc). It does the same thing that many comic book histories do in locating the origin of this mass market disposable entertainment in antecedent forms with greater cultural cachet but weak connections to the medium (i.e., I’ve seen people arguing that the Bayeux tapestry is also comics in that it combines pictures and words to tell a story). I understand why the comics historians do it, they’re trying to impart greater respectability to their medium by connecting it to older and more respected media, but I dunno, I think it’s more productive to define the medium by its relations of production and it stops you from going down ridiculous formalist arguments about whether magazine cigarette ads count as comics.

Moving on, I hadn’t realized I knew so much about manga as I’d already heard of quite a lot of apparently obscure works, or at least they were obscure back in the 80s. Time marches on and Rose of Versailles, for example, has an anime that I watched on streaming a few months ago. And of course there’s the scanlation community, which has probably done as much to spread knowledge of manga as any official initiatives from various industry groups.

The last chapter deals with manga’s future and in hindsight it completely failed to anticipate the explosion of overseas interest in the medium just ten short years later. In fact, it basically says that manga will probably remain a mostly Japanese thing, instead of something French schoolkids save their allowances for and whatnot.

Anyway, it’s an interesting snapshot of a specific moment in time in manga’s history.

How not to write fantasy

Still from the opening of Record of Lodoss War where the party of balanced RPG cliches are surrounded by several dragons looming overhead

I’ve been watching Record of Lodoss War today and am halfway through. It’s obviously based on a tabletop RPG campaign since the main characters, despite having differing agendas, keep sticking together for no damned reason. I mean, why did the elf even join them in the first place? The protagonists also keep getting into dangerous situations at convenient intervals and their antagonist seemingly does nothing else besides obsess over the heroes and send low level minions to attack them, despite obviously having the power to crush them in one blow.

I guess it’s neat to see all the fantasy stuff that you have to imagine when you’re playing Dungeons & Dragons, but this show kind of just goes from encounter to encounter without a main plot that holds it together well enough. It’s okay if you’re doing afternoon drinking on a long weekend (Happy Victoria Day!) but it’s not really something to watch for a compelling story or anything serious at all.