My vow to read more non-fiction from actual experts instead of popular science stuff came across the barrier of accessibility. For instance, I’ve always had a thing for Immanuel Wallerstein’s world-systems theory so I went to look for one of its foremost applications, Janet Abu-Lughod’s Before European Hegemony: The World System A.D. 1250-1350. The public library only has a copy in its reference section, so I can’t borrow it, and while a classic in intellectual history it’s not a popular book like Guns, Germs, and Steel so it’s kind of pricey. Plus I don’t even want a copy – I’m not a big book collector and I don’t even have copies of my favourite works of fiction, much less academic works. But such is the lot of certain classic works of non-fiction.
Still, I was already in the middle of reading A History of Southeast Asia: Critical Crossroads by Anthony Reid and this is definitely the stuff I was wanting. It synthesizes the current state of academic thinking about the region across multiple fields: history and archaeology primarily with a bit of linguistics and comparative theology, but it pulls together sources culled from like ten different languages so it’s a pretty impressive intellectual effort.
So far I’ve gotten through the prehistory of Southeast Asia, with the initial human settlement of the area (including arrival of other human species before Homo sapiens), the dispersal and probable driving out of Austronesians from southern China and Taiwan (which at the time was part of the mainland) into the most geographically-dispersed diaspora before modern times (from Madagascar to Easter Island), the simultaneous spread of speakers of the Tai language family (for example, Thai and Khmer) on the mainland, the early Buddhist polities (including the central role maritime Malay cities had in spreading Buddhism to China), the veneration of Shiva by early kings, the spread of Islam, and now I’ve reached the Ming dynasty expeditions of Zheng He and the modern colonial era.
Anyway, yeah, I’m enjoying this a lot more than a popular science book.
Sometime last year I read The Reality Bubble by Ziya Tong. It’s a somewhat interesting popular science book about the perceptual limitations of the modern worldview and its consequences on the world: for example, limitations imposed by the imposition of time measured by clocks, limitations on freedom by the constriction placed by property, and so on. It’s basically interesting tidbits and anecdotes connected together by various themes.
It’s pretty well-written but is basically just a vehicle for sharing those tidbits and anecdotes. My big frustration is when it goes into the issues of environmental devastation but only mentions capitalism kind of near the end of the book and then just stops there. So yeah, capitalism sucks, but what else should we be trying? Any ideas on that front? No? Okay then, guess we’re just screwed.
Honestly, I’m giving up on reading non-fiction recommendations from journalists and book reviewers, at least for books that cover technical subjects. I’m starting to think journalists are actually morons. “This book is incredible, this book blew my mind, I learned so much” etc. Then I pick it up and it turns out to be the kind of popular science book that’s decently written but intellectually light and covers too much of the writer’s personal experiences. Look, if I wanted personal crap in non-fiction I’d read a memoir, just give me the freaking science.
First it wasToo Dumb for Democracy, then it was The Reality Bubble. And now I’m three for three in disappointment for popular science books with Languages Are Good For Us by Sophie Hardach. It’s about, uh, it’s actually kind of hard to explain because it goes all over the place. I guess it’s an overview of how humans use language and writing, but not in any systematic sense. It basically covers interesting language stuff from the author’s research interests.
And don’t get me wrong, there actually is interesting stuff here that I didn’t know about before or never looked into too deeply. It covers the development and use of cuneiform writing as well as the story of its decipherment, it examines the story of Hernan Cortes’ translator Malinche and her role in the conquest of the Aztecs, it covers the creation of the secret language Unserdeutsch by children who spoke the Tok Pisin creole but were forced to speak only German at missionary boarding school, and maybe some other stuff I’m forgetting.
But there’s also stuff in there that I don’t really care about and I can’t even justify as forming necessary connective tissue in the book since the book doesn’t really have an intellectual framework. There’s a chapter about how the word “kamunun” in Akkadian over the millennia became “cumin” in English and the networks of trade by which the spice was spread around the world, there’s a part about how multilingual London’s children are which contains a lament from the German immigrant author about Brexit, there’s another chapter about the Eskimo-Aleut language family which mentions the author’s fears over COVID-19 and her wish that she could make a research trip to Canada instead of just reading about these languages, there’s a whole thing about Japanese sensitivity to the seasons and their relationship to seasonal foods which comes across to me as too Orientalist.
So if I take the stuff that I liked and balance it against stuff that I was lukewarm on then my final opinion on this book is that I wish I’d read something more technical about languages. Anyway, that’s it, no more popular science books for me.
The author of the linked article did in-depth interviews with five Taliban men in their 20s and 30s who essentially grew up in the movement, and basically they hate the stupid bureaucratic bullshit they’re swimming in now and long for the days of holy war.
What I don’t like about Kabul is its ever-increasing traffic holdups. Last year, it was tolerable but in the last few months, it’s become more and more congested. People complain that the Taleban brought poverty, but, looking at this traffic and the large number of people in the bazaars and restaurants, I wonder where that poverty is.
Another thing I don’t like, not only about Kabul but broadly about life after the fatha, are the new restrictions. In the group, we had a great degree of freedom about where to go, where to stay, and whether to participate in the war.
However, these days, you have to go to the office before 8 AM and stay there till 4 PM. If you don’t go, you’re considered absent, and [the wage for] that day is cut from your salary. We’re now used to that, but it was especially difficult in the first two or three months.
The other problem in Kabul is that my comrades are now scattered throughout Afghanistan. Those in Kabul, like me, work from 8 AM to 4 PM. So, most of the week, we don’t get any time to meet each other. Only on Fridays, if I don’t go home, do we all go to Qargha, Paghman or Zazai Park. I really like Paghman and going there with friends makes me very happy. Such a place doesn’t exist in the entire province of Paktika.
I regret to inform you all that the trailer for Rebel Galaxy Outlaw is better than the game. As you can expect, the gameplay is basically Elite, with you flying a spaceship around catching criminals, robbing interstellar traders, and buying and selling cargo across the stars.
The neo-Western aesthetic is kind of neat in the trailer but it got kind of annoying in the game. Haha, this lizard alien talks like an American long-haul trucker. Oh neat, all the star systems are named after US states and the planets are named after podunk towns and cities in the American West. Haha haha.
And speaking of aesthetics, the game would have done better to stick to the cartoon stylings of the trailer instead of the computer graphics in the actual gameplay because at best those computer graphics are just serviceable.
The starship combat stuff didn’t really grab me, either. It was just kind of there. I suppose I could have given it a bit longer to see if it would click with me but the aesthetic wasn’t doing it for me so I just had to give up. Oh well.
Good god, but this game really brings to the fore the colonialist and imperialist roots of the standard Dungeons and Dragons setting. “Exterminate native peoples so we can seize their land and resources for ourselves” is the explicit goal of the game, after all. Much easier to ignore this subtext in a typical tabletop adventure campaign since most players are at the “exterminate” part of the equation and the colonizing thing is usually just implied in the background.
Anyway, the goddamn final dungeon in Kingmaker is bullshit. The thing about teleporting between different versions of the dungeon sounds neat but in practice is annoying. The fights are also hard but in a grindy way, not a fun way. And there’s another quest after this dungeon if you want to fight the real mastermind behind your troubles, but that bit is at least a little better. I may go back to see what happens if I max out upgrading everything in my kingdom and just use a cheat to go through the boss fights.
However, I don’t really replay this kind of RPG so this is pretty much it. My kingdom is ruled by a lesbian tiefling queen with her tiefling consort commanding an army full of mercenary wizards. I feel like the ending presentation could have used a little more flair, but I got a lot of game out of that $35 I spent so I’m satisfied.
I’ve bought the semi-sequel Wrath of the Righteous but I’m not about to immediately jump into it, especially since I hear there’s another set of DLC that’s coming soon. Hopefully Owlcat Games has improved the annoying stuff from the first game. Incidentally, isn’t the studio in Russia? I wonder how they get paid what with all the Ukraine war sanctions.
I watched Black Panther: Wakanda Forever and returned disappointed. I thought it was fine as a comic book romp but a much lesser movie than the original due entirely to not being as directly political. It has a vague something about resisting colonialism and imperialism, but it only gestures at the idea a bit and the actual central conflict is between one made-up country and another made-up country fighting over a made-up natural resource.
There’s a scene in the beginning of the movie where Wakandan soldiers fight French mercenaries trying to steal vibranium, then Wakanda captures these mercs and marches them to the UN to expose the hypocrisy of the UN Security Council classifying Wakandan hoarding of vibranium as a threat to world peace. That’s what the movie should have been about.
The conflict over vibranium was the natural consequence of what happened in the first movie and it would have been logical that it be the subject of the sequel, which is why it’s massively disappointing that it went where it did instead. We could have had metaphors about rejecting the Central African franc or throwing out Canadian mining companies but instead we got a movie about a flying Mexican guy fighting a superpowered black chick.
I didn’t hate the movie, I’m a dork for comic book shit and I actually did dig the whiz bang whale war shit, but we’ve got lots of comic book movies and zero blockbusters about pan-Africanism (besides the first Black Panther, of course). The first movie made me think, “Hey, Marvel finally learned how to overtly put politics into their movies” but its sequel makes me think, “Oh, it was just a one-off.”
I just finished reading Legion in Exile, book 2 of the Imperium of Terra series by Evan Currie.
In terms of writing craft it’s fairly average, but it does scratch my space opera military sci-fi itch. The setting is somewhat unusual for the genre since it’s very much into about the world after an environmental collapse, whereas English-language military sci-fi writers tend toward various flavours of right wing (from liberal centre-right to full nutjob) and would be hostile against anything that smacks of environmentalism.
But you see, centuries ago various groups of tech libertarians looted Earth and escaped to the stars, leaving the poors to choke to death on a polluted planet. A strongman seized power from the collapsing governments of Earth, enthroned himself as Emperor of Terra, and brutally placed the planet on a crash course to repair the environment. In the present day of the series, Earth is an absolute monarchy ruled by an Empress with a global aristocracy under her governing the masses. The environment is on the mend but is still nowhere near what it was before things went to hell, and the descendants of the space colonists laugh at Earth for being backward yokels. However, most of Earth’s citizens have been nursing a centuries-long grudge against the space diaspora and are itching for revenge.
So book 1 starts and it turns out the Empress wants to resurrect democracy and give commoners a voice in government again. However, the nobles and the military object to this idea and enact a coup d’etat, killing the Empress and massacring her most loyal troops. The protagonist is a rookie in the Empress’ legion assigned to protect her heir, so he fights his way off Earth with the princess in tow and they escape to look for support among the space diaspora.
The plot itself is pretty standard space opera – political intrigue, aristocrats in space, battleships blowing up, etc. It’s kind of weird that an absolute monarch should try to just plop democracy back after like 400 years of their family being in charge, but the books absolutely claim that the royal family’s founder actually meant it when he said he was only abrogating democracy “for the duration of the emergency” and that somehow his descendants also kept this commitment to a defunct political ideology over the generations.
Anyway, the environmental collapse thing was the main thing this series has that made it stand out for me. The rest of it is the kind of quality that you can expect from a military sci-fi space opera self-published on Amazon. It’s okay if you’re into that kind of thing.
I am currently playing 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim and you know what? It’s so goddamn fun.
The thing that most impresses me about the game is that it does so much with so little. Your dumb AAA game will use a jillion teraflops to simulate the hairs on an NPC’s ass and put in so much work on stuff that doesn’t really add to the gameplay experience. But this game has the opposite philosophy: it pares down everything to the bare bones, which means at the mechanical level it’s actually a very simple game. However, it uses its very spare depiction of its world to make it feel like we’re playing in a much larger universe.
The game is about a group of high school kids who fight an invasion of kaiju by piloting massive human-shaped robots. You play the game in two different modes that you can switch between: a battle mode and a story mode.
The battle mode is set during the climactic showdown between the kaiju and the robots. You pick six pilots and slowly fight through each phase of the invasion on a real-time strategy map. You can also switch your team’s lineup, upgrade weapons, pick abilities to use, and do general RPG stuff.
This part of the game is decent enough. There are little animations that play when you try to decide what weapons or abilities to use, but as you can see from the image above, the map itself is very simplified. I don’t hate the existing battle mode that we got, and even enjoy the fights, but with the addition of a little more flash, the play experience could have been upgraded for me from “fun” to “ecstatic.”
I want to see mechs wrestling monsters while around them a city gets blasted to smithereens. I want to see my giant robot get knocked through a building and then take cover in a crater formed by a missile bombardment. I want to feel like I’m in a giant robot anime, by damn!
But the story mode delivers – oh, how it delivers. It’s what you should be playing the game for. The story mode is essentially a really simplified adventure game. You play through the recent past of each of the characters and discover the twists that their lives took which led to them piloting a giant robot on the day of reckoning.
The actual game thing that you do is essentially just pressing X. Your character is at a certain location and there are one or two people you can talk to and one or two objects that you can interact with. You progress through the dialogue and try out each conversation topic. Then you move on to the next location and keep doing that until you reach the end of the section you’re playing and decide if you want to continue with your current character or try someone else for a while (or maybe jump back into battle mode).
That’s how the story mode works, but that’s not how it feels. It evokes so much for so little. For me, it’s basically the world’s best anime protagonist simulator. I’m not a connoisseur of visual novels or dating simulators, but I’ve played a few, and in none of them did I feel like I was actually a student in a bustling Japanese high school like this game did. You walk down a hallway at school and there are other students passing you by, and in the background some of your classmates are chatting about the TV show they watched last night. You go with your friends for some ice cream after class and cars whiz by as you wait at the bus stop. Some jerks from the next school over try to start some shit and your friend steps in to back you up.
I call the story mode an anime protagonist simulator because it skips the boring parts of high school and just has the interesting bits in there. And what are those interesting bits? They’re mostly stories copied directly from science fiction movies and TV shows.
Yes, you’ll find that one character is living through the plot of E.T. the Extraterrestrial, while another is living through Terminator 2: Judgment Day, and yet another is experiencing the story of Total Recall. It’s not a simple one-to-one copy, though, and the stories make sense even if you don’t know what they’re referencing, but it’s fun to pick out what the original works were. And the characters’ lives are intertwined, so they get involved in each others’ stories, and a couple of times you even experience the same conversation again but this time you’re controlling the other person.
This game will not click for everyone, but it certainly did for me. Like I mentioned, it’s just so goddamn fun. I enjoy identifying the Robot Jox design elements and figuring out how the characters’ lives intersect with each other. I like feeling like I’m a kid in a Japanese high school anime and I’ve got an alien I need to hide from the Men in Black and also I have to stop the invasion from The War of the Worlds.
A couple of warnings, though. First, just like with many other adventure games, I got stuck a couple of times when I couldn’t figure out how to progress past a certain point. I say you shouldn’t feel guilty about just googling that shit. Keep that advice in mind if you play.
Second, and somewhat more egregiously, time travel is a very important part of the story, and since this is a Japanese story about using military weapons to fight off an invasion, there inevitably shows up two characters from Japan’s most infamous period of militarization. I guess the one guy is okay, he clearly doesn’t care about ideology and is just trying to get by, but the other guy is a true-blue patriot and he keeps shouting about defending the motherland and whatnot. Which would be okay if it was about almost any other country, but not when it’s Imperial Japan. The game isn’t a cryptofascist Trojan horse for Japanese imperialism, but this part definitely left a sour taste in my mind.
Anyway, keeping these things in mind, I would still heartily recommend this game. Like I said in the beginning, it’s great fun and I’m enjoying almost everything about it.
Goodbye, Eri is a one-shot manga about a high school boy who is obsessed with making movies. The first film he makes is a predictably tearjerky documentary about his terminally ill mother. However, at the end he’s unable to join his mother for her final moments and instead runs away, but in his film he adds a special effect to make it look like the hospital is exploding as he flees.
The story begins as he shows his creation at the school festival, where it sinks like a lead balloon. Almost everyone in the school thinks the ending of his film is stupid except for one girl who insists that there was the germ of an interesting idea in there and he just needs to watch more movies to learn what works. Of course, he will be watching the movies with her, since she needs to make sure that his cinematic education proceeds appropriately.
The girl is not manic, but she definitely looks pixie-like and is certainly the kind of film buff a movie nerd would wish for (i.e., almost a full MPDG).
The boy eventually comes up with an idea for his next movie, which will be about a boy who showed a movie about his terminally ill mother which was received poorly by his fellow students, but who then met a girl who constantly watched movies with him and taught him about making a good film. Also the girl is a vampire who’s terminally ill.
Written out like that, the movie sounds earnestly dumb, but it comes across as rather sweet from the perspective that we see, which is entirely from the point of view of the mock documentary that the boy is shooting.
As you can guess, the story plays with ideas of the fourth wall, with unreliable narrators, with constructed images and artifice, and even with death and how the people we’ve lost are still alive and with us anyway. I don’t really want to spoil too much of the story, as it’s best enjoyed without too much foreknowledge, but I do recommend it as being a surprisingly deep exploration of a lot of emotional territory from the guy who wrote a manga about a teenage boy who transforms into a demon made out of chainsaws who uses his powers to hunt other demons (Chainsaw Man, though that manga was also a lot deeper than the bare description would make you think).
I saw Morbius. It’s actually not as bad as people say. I think the main issue is that audiences are approaching it as a superhero movie when it’s actually horror. I mean, a scientist accidentally invents vampires after trying to cure his rare blood disease, that’s a solid horror setup. And the parts where the protagonist goes nuts with his vampire powers are greatly entertaining, just tearing throats open and grabbing people from above and whatnot.
But I don’t blame people who expect a superhero movie because the movie itself mixes superhero stuff in, to its weakness. Yeah, okay, the protagonist is horrified by his monstrous transformation and tortured by the guilt of the lives he’s taken, that’s perfectly fine horror movie stuff. But why is he fighting a random counterfeiting ring he stumbled across? The movie is only 1 hour and 44 minutes long but there were scenes that still didn’t need to be there. I really wish the movie just unabashedly went full horror and gave up any superhero trappings. For example it had several Dracula references, but instead of only being cute little Easter eggs, I would have preferred that it really cranked up the parallels to the classic vampire story. Or just make it about a dumb smart guy who inadvertently unleashed vampires on the world. Mad scientist + vampires, what’s to hate?
Anyway, it was an okay movie, but I can see a much better movie hiding in there, and I wish they’d made that one instead.