Read any good books lately?

So, herewith is a recap of my summer (and now fall) reading history.

The first book I’m discussing is Too Dumb for Democracy? Why We Make Bad Political Decisions and How We Can Make Better Ones by David Moscrop, a Canadian former political scientist and current op-ed columnist. It’s about the psychological short hand that people in Western democracies use to vote and the tricks that political parties and governments use to try to guide those same voters to preferred outcomes. The book is actually quite easy to read and replete with personal anecdotes and examples from psychological studies to demonstrate the principles being talked about, as well real world examples drawn from US, British, and Canadian politics. However, I can tell that I actually know more than the author about the psychological side of things (or he’s content to keep things at an introductory level for his audience), whereas I’m also something of a news junkie and a poli sci nerd and so am already familiar with what he’s talking about on that end. So the book is a good introduction on these topics but not really something I personally found educational.

The second book is one I really enjoyed reading, which is Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States by James C. Scott. Scott is also a political scientist, but in addition he trained in anthropology and specializes in comparative politics, especially with regard to peasants and agriculture. The book itself is about the historical transition from hunting and gathering to state societies, as well as the people who refused to join the state (a.k.a. the barbarians). The whole thing is completely my jam. Scott is an anarchist, so he’s of course got a low opinion of the state, but his description of how human misery increased once people took up agriculture is old news among anthropology circles (and probably familiar to anyone who read Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel).

However, Scott goes quite a lot into the comparative details and argues that the state is inherently an unstable formation that requires incredible amounts of resources to keep going, but which is also doomed to fail thanks to the unsustainable demands it makes on the environment, the punishing taxes and labour it demands of its people (usually to fund wars to capture more territory where workers live which in turn demands more wars to capture even more workers in an endless race) which drive the citizens to escape into the hinterlands or revolt, and the regular return of lethal epidemics that are cooked up thanks to all the animals that agriculturalists live with and the cities and trade networks of a complex state society that concentrate and spread pathogens. Scott even argues that the collapse of a civilization might be better termed a reconfiguring, since it’s basically the people of a territory reorganizing themselves into a less precarious status quo.

Of course, preying on the states are the infamous barbarians, which Scott points out weren’t necessarily just alien societies robbing from the civilized. In fact, when the workers of historical states – the peasants, serfs, slaves, and everyone else who’s not an elite at the top of the social pyramid – get fed up with forever being drafted into wars and literally breaking their backs working the fields, they always had the option of joining the barbarians. Why bust your ass when you can have someone else do it and then take their stuff? In turn, a state had the option of repelling the barbarians or paying them off, but either way, it was another state expense. So a state inevitably had its barbarian “dark twin” (more than one sometimes) which grew when the state flourished and disappeared when the state did.

But alas for the barbarians, technological progress ended their viability, since you can’t exactly build Maxim guns out on the great plains, otherwise the Navajo might have forced the early US to cough up protection money like for example how the Uyghurs did to the Chinese or the Celts did to the Romans (though the Chinese usually called this tribute “gifts” and pretended that it was all from the emperor’s munificence).

Anyway, my one criticism of this book is that it just abruptly ends. It goes into the barbarian thing and then that’s it, no closing chapter, no summary, no discussion of the argument that was presented. But otherwise I’d say this is my favourite book of 2021.

Finally, the last book I’m covering is actually the first three books of the Giants series by James P. Hogan: Inherit the Stars, The Gentle Giants of Ganymede, and Giants’ Star. I actually read the manga adaptation first and wanted to know how the original compared. Well, you can tell that these books were written in the 1970s because of the incredible amount of sexual harassment in them. I’ve read lots of Asimov and Heinlein and others of that generation – who all came before Hogan – and I don’t remember these other authors having this much sexual harassment in their works. I wasn’t tracking it, but I think every female character in the story is sexually harassed at least once, whether it’s the gals in the stenography pool being seduced by the married physicist, or the telephone operator being pestered for a date, or the secretary whose incredible ass the protagonist admires as she bends forward to look at a computer monitor.

There’s also a lot of smoking and drinking, which especially stood out in the scene where the protagonists are smoking some after-dinner cigars on a spaceship with presumably limited supplies of oxygen (and this is set in the near-future, not some Star Trek utopia with limitless energy and whatnot). So yeah, it feels very Mad Men. But whatever, I remember when smoking indoors was a thing, I can get past that. It really is the sexual harassment that’s the most notable thing about this series to me.

The story itself is about a mummified astronaut being discovered on the moon, the scientists investigating this mystery, and the interplanetary journey to find the truth behind all of the secrets hidden in the past. Anyway, the books are clearly from a certain old school style of science fiction writing because the characters have barely any personality and mostly just jabber about science at each other. Which is mainly why I kept reading, because sometimes I just want to read about nerds arguing over theories of human evolution.

But this paper-thin characterization explains the sexual harassment, which quite frankly feels jarring when it’s inserted into the story, because it’s a clumsy attempt to humanize the male characters. Yes, this was how Hogan thought he could bring his characters to life: by giving his readers something they could relate to. Obviously, he took it for granted that his readers were all men.

I did appreciate how much better the 2011 Yukinobu Hoshino manga adaptation was, not least for removing the sexual harassment, but also adding the worthwhile female and non-white characters into the story that a white British engineer from the 70s would never have done. It even fixed up some of the science stuff that the original books messed up and moved stuff around so the plot was more engaging.

So yeah, the Giants series. That was a thing.

Anime and the Future of the NEET

Reposting from elsewhere:

Cover of the Welcome to the N.H.K. novel showing Misaki sitting outdoors, a tree in the background and a blue sky above, smiling at the camera
I actually bought this novel the second I saw it in the book store. I think it was $14.

I remember asking during PodCastle in the Sky‘s One Punch Man episode what the future of the NEETs in anime would be. You see, NEET is a British term referring to those unemployed youth who are Not in Education, Employment, or Training, and in the podcast I asked whether anime in the future would be about grown up NEET protagonists worrying over not having a pension. Art must cater to its audience, and if there are so many Japanese people stuck in a pit of economic despair, won’t they want their lives reflected in the stories they consume?

It’s a few years later and I think I’d like to expand the question to include those who are horrifically underemployed in Japan. As the title of a Bloomberg article from 2020 reveals, Japan’s Lost Generation Is Still Jobless and Living With Their Parents. The article’s description of the Japanese job market is painful in its inequity.

The doors open only once. That’s how people often describe Japan’s hidebound hiring system, in which college students have their best shot at landing a coveted salaried position in the year approaching graduation. Those who successfully navigate the arduous corporate recruiting process will be rewarded with a secure place on the corporate ladder, along with regular raises and promotions. The rest are largely condemned to flit from one low-paying job to the next, with little avenue for advancement and zero job security . . . Japan’s 2015 census revealed there were 3.4 million people in their 40s and 50s who had not married and lived with their parents.

So here is Japan, here are its young people, and here is the miserable life of bare survival that they suffer through. What can anime say to this audience? How can it be relevant, especially when the makers of anime are also living through the same misery? (And when I say misery I mean misery: in 2019 it was possible for a new animator to make an annual income of 668,000 yen, which is around $6600 USD. Yes, there is no missing zero in that figure. There’s a crowdfunding project just to subsidize housing costs for the ones who make the anime we consume.)

I would say there are two ways for anime to deal with life in late-stage capitalism. The first is to acknowledge its barbarity. However, the logic of modern life is so crushing and inhumane that to depict it realistically is too much to bear for the artists and for the audience. The solution is to turn to comedy to soften the blow.

If we were to name the works of anime capitalist realism that are most well-known, we would not do worse than listing the classic series Welcome to the NHK!, which is about the people unable to compete in the marketplace of labour, or Aggretsuko, which is about the ones who did enter the ranks of the wage slave but who found no better life anyway, or Recovery of an MMO Junkie, which is about abandoning the existential despair of being alienated from your labour. For the present season of anime, we could point to Uramichi Oniisan, except it’s not very good and in fact rather painfully blah.

The second way for anime to grapple with the weight of modernity is more reactionary. Instead of meeting the real, the anime takes the opposite trajectory of escape. The escape might be through returning to a better time – see all the series where the protagonist wakes up as their younger self like Remake Our Life! or gets de-aged like ReLIFE – or it might be a literal escape to a better world. Yes, I’m talking about all the isekai shit that comes out every season, some of which are embarrassingly frank about being nothing but vehicles for wish fulfillment.

Those wishes being fulfilled might be as innocuous as being able to sleep in and work whenever you want and at whatever you want for as much or as little as you want, like in all those isekai series about farming in a fantasy town or whatever (see Restaurant To Another World for an example involving opening a small business in a fantasy land with absolutely no problems whatsoever). Or those wishes could be darker and more disgusting, such as indulging a sexual slavery fetish like in How Not to Summon a Demon Lord or Death March to the Parallel World Rhapsody (and yes, the protagonist is invariably a man enslaving women).

It may sound like I think anime about the real world’s unhappiness are better for facing up to the truth, but in reality I think both the path of acknowledgement and the path of escape can lead equally to nowhere. Obviously hiding from society’s problems make one less likely to help in fixing them, but merely knowing things suck doesn’t do anything either. Without a call to action, outrage leads only to frustration and then to resignation and apathy.

So even in our fantasies we can’t escape the inequity of our world. The rank unfairness of existence circumscribes the stories we tell and haunts the dreams that we create.

However, we should not slip into nihilism. I will remind you all that better conditions existed not very far back in time and can do so again, and perhaps be better, for even those older times had their own miseries. Our dreams can point us to another path so long as we remember that dreaming is not an end in itself.

So let us struggle for a better world: what do we have to lose?

The Future of Capitalism

Well, I’ve finally been out of graduate school long enough that I can read stuff related to my former scholarly interests again.

The first book I’m covering is Branko Milanovic’s Capitalism, Alone: The Future of the System That Rules the World. Milanovic is a Serbian-American economist who kind of deals with similar global income inequality stuff as Thomas Piketty. I don’t know enough about him to definitely say what his politics are except that from this book I feel he’s a “reform capitalism with redistribution” type.

Anyway, the book is mostly about present-day capitalism, but it necessarily covers two older kinds first in its survey: the classic robber baron kind of 19th century capitalism and the post-war kind where the bosses and the unions made a pact to play nice for a bit. Of course, he then covers the breakdown of that unwritten agreement with the rise of massive inequality and the hollowing out of the state, which he calls liberal capitalism, though which many others simply call neoliberalism. This is of course the mode of Western capitalism today, but he contrasts that with what he calls state capitalism, which is of the type exemplified by China, where captains of industry are given some leeway so long as they never challenge the primacy of the state.

Anyway, I live in Canada and am already familiar with how our kind of capitalism is fucking everyone over, so I didn’t find anything revelatory in the discussion of the Western economic system. I suppose it’s somewhat novel that Milanovic discovered the term “assortative mating” from biology – it refers to a type of mating pattern where individuals tend to mate and reproduce with those who are similar to them more than otherwise. He brings this up to contrast the old capitalisms with the present kind. Specifically, he provides charts and stats showing that assortative mating was more common among high-income individuals in the past than now (he doesn’t mention what this actually looked like but I assume it’s bosses marrying their secretaries and such). This compares to today, where the university-educated tend to marry each other and where lawyers marry CEOs. Milanovic also brings up that while wealthy individuals in the past were mostly people who didn’t work (i.e., the owners of capital), today many of who we would point to as wealthy might only make money through work (see certain software engineers, management consultants, etc).

But what of state capitalism as developed by and exemplified in China? This part is what I found the most interesting since I never knew much beyond the broad strokes of how exactly the Deng Xiaoping reforms turned the China of the Cultural Revolution into the China of Alibaba and Tencent. The main thing is that economic growth became the guiding principle of the state. Local Communist party groups (and by that I mean extremely local) were allowed to implement practically any policy they wanted, and so long as it succeeded in driving growth then it was given the green light for other regions (and if it failed then the sponsors would be sacked). In theory the sponsors would need to make a case for the policy changes not conflicting with socialist ideology, but in practice the sponsors could just make up some bullshit and it would be accepted so long as it sounded vaguely like socialism, so long as it actually got results. Milanovic points out that China after market reforms somewhat resembles China before the Communist Party, with the very large exception that landlords have been greatly curtailed in the countryside.

Now, Milanovic makes clear that the capitalism of China is similar to ours in that there’s also shocking inequality. There are billionaires and there are oppressed workers, same as here. In fact, the National People’s Congress is the richest parliament in the world, with a combined net worth of $700 billion from all members in 2018. The main difference between their capitalism and ours is that theirs is more nationalist. The wealthy elites are not automatically hostile to the government and do not think of themselves as being separate – in fact, they consider themselves as being participants in the project of China (which may sound a tad megalomaniacal but vaguely resembles France in the 70s). The state is supreme and corporations and capitalists are allowed some leeway so long as they never forget that fact. Of course, when so much money is involved and when the regulators collude so closely with the regulated, corruption and abuse of workers naturally springs up. This is why the Chinese government regularly and publicly punishes various officials for corruption. It’s not a show, exactly, as real punishments are doled out (up to even executions), but one big reason for the punishment is showing the masses that the top 1% are keeping in check the 2-5%. Since the government is institutionally incapable of systematically preventing this kind of thing from cropping up, then it must make regular public demonstrations instead.

But I think the biggest thing Milanovic says, and the most controversial, is his argument that the biggest contribution that communism has provided to the world is providing the development to former colonies that their colonizers were unable to do, allowing the Third World communist countries to build themselves up so that they could effectively join the capitalist system as China and Vietnam have done. In effect, he argues that communism is a transition state to capitalism. It’s an interesting thought, though I would argue that colonizers weren’t incapable of developing their colonies but were uninterested in doing so, as the whole point of them was to transfer the resources of the colonial periphery to the metropole. Postcolonial states didn’t necessarily need to be communist to develop, they just needed to break out of sending their resources elsewhere and instead invest them at home, but seeing as how the leaders of non-communist postcolonial states tended to have strong ties to their imperial masters then we can say that it was probably better to go communist than not if you were in the Third World. And Milanovic points out that, Cold War 2.0 rhetoric aside, it’s a good thing that China is loaning development funds to African countries even if there are strings attached, since it’s not like anyone else is offering them any funds.

I do have to say that there are a bunch of things Milanovic wasn’t good on, especially when he tried his hand at sociology or literary theory. One thing that stood out for me was that he took it for granted that the populations of Western countries would inevitably be hostile to too much immigration, which despite being economically and demographically necessary is too much for domestic populations to accept culturally. The solution he proposes is to create tiers of citizenship, which sounds to me like existing systems of guest workers and temporary residents but perhaps he envisions more levels of participation and obligation.

The biggest thing that I disagree with Milanovic on is something that he implies by never mentioning it: he accepts that there is no alternative and that capitalism is our only option. I increasingly feel that anyone today who writes of capitalist development as an unqualified good without mentioning the hard limits our environment imposes on us – the negative externalities, in the language of economics – is doing us all a disservice. But perhaps that is a story for another day. As it stands, I feel Capitalism Alone was kind of an okay book to get back to reading stuff with lots of academic verbiage and statistics and shit, but I don’t think it was a banger. 7 out of 10, if I were to give it a rating.

A Life in Books

A certain website asks How Many Books Will You Read Before You Die? It estimates your lifetime total by using a life expectancy calculator and 3 different levels of reading consumption: 12 books per year for average readers, 50 for the voracious, and 80 for the super-readers. The website says I have something like slightly over a 1000 books left in me.

This exercise made me realize I haven’t been reading much lately in 2021. After counting up the physical and electronic books I’ve borrowed from my library and the webnovels I’ve read so far (I’ve bought zero books), I think I’m only at like 9 or 10 books this year. I’m not counting all the manga issues I’ve read because that would easily push my total into the hundreds.

Anyway, I’m really surprised at my 2021 total since like 10 years ago I specifically counted how much media I consumed annually and it came to something like 80 books for that year (after checking it was actually 83). I think it’s because back in the old days I would read during my subway commute and in the lounge during lunch, whereas now that I’m at home I’d probably be washing dishes or something. I suppose I should really pick up my pace if I want to race against the grim reaper and finish more of the books in my various to-read lists.

Turn of the century

I don’t know why but I’m watching Martian Successor Nadesico and Outlaw Star. I guess maybe it’s because both series came out back when you could have more than 13 episodes in a season and could actually spend time with the characters, but not like in the 80s when you’d have 300 episodes where nothing at all happened in each one. I like Outlaw Star more because it’s better at the cliffhanger ending which makes me want to keep watching, but both series are pleasantly unchallenging to watch.

Visible Cities

City Guesser is a pretty fun website, it gives you a walking around video of a random city and you have to guess where it is. It’s superior to Google Street View for exploring someplace because you can hear the crazy homeless people shouting in a back alley you pass by, so it’s almost like you’re really there. I recommend putting headphones on for full immersion.

It’s got trophies and multiplayer mode and stuff but I’m honestly just using it to remember what it was like to walk on a crowded street so I don’t care about the points or whatever it is.

Radio Free Bird

Screenshot from Radio Garden showing the southern tip of South America and a circle around the eastern half of the Falkland Islands and a caption indicating the radio station selected as BFBS Falkland Islands

This Radio Garden thing is kind of neat, it’s like Google Maps except specifically for radio stations. Spin the globe and see what they’re listening to in Cambodia!

Although I think the radio ads are automatically streamed according to your location, otherwise it’s weird that a Canadian online casino is being advertised on Cambodian radio. And yes, I was looking for Vietnamese radio stations so I could make a Good Morning, Vietnam joke but I guess none are streaming online.

Mighty Joe Steel

https://youtu.be/F3fsqXx8CoM?t=14

As a young time traveler, you receive the opportunity to meet the greatest dictator of all time — Stalin. And then what? Everything’s up to you! Speak with Joseph, reveal his most hidden secrets, give him advice, and help the vozhd come to world domination! Or… show him what true love is!

. . . Huh.

Wait, what do the reviews say?

‘Sex With Stalin’ Is Surprisingly Dull

Sex With Stalin, a newly released game by the independent Russian developer Georgiy Kukhtenkov, is incredibly boring. That’s too bad, because traveling back in time to seduce Joseph Stalin is a truly depraved idea. It promises subversive heterodoxy and cutting satire. Even just taking him for a spin through rooms that are most remarkable for their leather accessories promised at least some sort of excitement. But, though the game holds itself out as a transgressive thrill, what you get instead is a PowerPoint presentation inviting you to invest in the game creator’s incoherent ideological timeshare.

Well, I think we can all trust Foreign Policy magazine’s opinion on video games.

Anyway, if I was a time traveller who wanted to have sex with Stalin, I’d obviously go for the younger and hotter version.

Stalin: handsome as a devil at 23 years old with tousled hair and short beard

Let’s cyber

Cyberpunk 2077 just came out and I’m not playing it. After reading about its iffy politics and the awful working conditions of the people who made the game, I may never end up playing it.

That’s fine. There are other games. But I’ve also never been fully comfortable with cyberpunk as a genre. Besides the orientalism and the generalized ham-handed handling of race, there’s just something about cyberpunk that never fully clicked with me.

After reading this article, though, I think I’m getting a better handle on my discomfort. I’m not into cyberpunk because it’s basically just the politics of the 1980s rehashed over and over. It’s a paleofuture: a vision of what is to come that has already been superseded by what has already come. It’s the past’s fantasy of the future and it’s as dissociated from our real lives as Buck Rogers serials with ray guns and rocket ships.

Anyway, that’s how I’m feeling this December 2020.

King of the Hill

So Pathfinder: Kingmaker is actually pretty fun. I know that there were a bunch of bugs when it launched, but it’s been two years since then and I haven’t really noticed any so far. I think I may actually like computer role-playing game more than the classic Baldur’s Gate series (minus #3, which if I ever do get, will be years down the line).

The first reason I prefer this game to both Baldur’s Gate games is that I don’t need to install mods just to get it to look decent on current generation computers. I can read the text, I can zoom all the way in and see my characters clearly. I can actually see what they’re wearing instead of kind of squinting, and I can see the difference in clothes instead of the armour just looking like a slightly different shade. This is important to me since I like playing dress-up on these kind of games.

Second is that I understand the rules right off the bat. I’ve never played the 2nd edition of Dungeons & Dragons, which is what Baldur’s Gate is based on, so I had to do a bunch of research to find out what stuff like To Hit Armor Class 0 was, and even when I did find out it was usually needlessly arcane and over-complicated. But the Pathfinder roleplaying ruleset is basically D&D 3.75 edition, so a bunch of stuff has been improved in the intervening 20-something years.

I’ve played a bunch of tabletop Pathfinder games, which also helps, but the game itself simplified the rules even more. It doesn’t have a million different types of Knowledge skills, all physical skills such as acrobatics and swimming have been subsumed under Athletics, and so on. I think all the options available can still be a tad overwhelming to a rank newbie but that’s more on the Pathfinder system itself needing, in my opinion, a really drastic streamlining and reconfiguration  (note that there’s a 2nd edition of the Pathfinder system which may have done this already but I haven’t tried it out yet).

Third is the turn-based combat. I initially stuck to real-time battles because that was how it was in Baldur’s Gate, but after trying out the turn-based fighting I’m not going back. Pathfinder in real life is obviously turn-based – six people rolling dice at the same time would get chaotic – and the CRPG just works a lot better when you follow this format as well.

Fourth is that I get to try out a campaign that I’ve been interested in for a while. Kingmaker is an adventure path in the tabletop RPG that I’ve wanted to play but haven’t found a group to do it with. This way I get to actually experience it for myself. Plus Wrath of the Righteous is already being worked on and that’s another campaign that I’d also like to try out.

I’d like to note that in Kingmaker you actually build a kingdom – you get advisors, build infrastructure like windmills and watchtowers, slay monsters threatening your land, and so on. However, I’ve yet to reach that part in the game and am just directing a party of adventurers as we explore the countryside. So I can’t comment on the kingdom-building mechanics yet, but the classic RPG party thing is already pretty good.

Anyway, I’ve got a Chaotic Neutral tiefling Inquisitor of Calistria leading a party consisting of an undead elf Inquisitor of Urgathoa, a halfling bard, a barbarian from the Realm of the Mammoth Lords, a half-elf Wizard Rogue, and a half-orc Magus. There are a bunch more party members I benched pending their full recovery from being brought back from the dead or just plain because I don’t like them, but I think I like having a party where almost everyone is a magician of some kind. This is a pretty fun party to play and I like what I’ve seen of this game so far.