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.

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.

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.

Strongly Dislike the Police

Thanks to, you know, the thing, there have been a few ongoing discussions online and in other places about copaganda shows that invariably always show the police as heroes and minimize or erase real world issues of systemic racism, domestic abuse, etc among the police community.

The conversations reminded me of the show 19-2, which is set among the beat cops of a fictional Montreal police station. It does show moments of heroism – one of its best episodes is a harrowing depiction of cops responding to an active school shooting – along with regular work bullshit like the cops paying for a shoplifter’s frozen turkey because they didn’t want to deal with arrest paperwork. But it also shows cops being unequivocally shit.

The cops’ union rep, for example, is a wife beater. It’s not addressed in a single very special episode divorced from the larger story, either, but is an ongoing subplot over the series, and after an abusive incident so terrible that the violence can’t keep getting swept under the rug, the union negotiates a tearful public apology from the abuser to convince his wife to return to him, which is portrayed as exactly terrible an idea as you would think.

Another cop is an alcoholic and shows up to work drunk or hungover, directly endangering others, but when the protagonist brings it up with his partner, he’s told that reporting the problem is useless since the union knows how to address complaints which can make them seem without substance or taken out of proportion (of course implying that alcoholic cops are so widely found that there’s already a playbook for dealing with complaints about them). Yet another cop gets jumped by some youths and takes out her PTSD by being extra-violent to protesters later on while facing almost no consequences for it.

The biggest omission from the show, though, especially in light of the current protests, is its refusal to show police racism, at least in the episodes I’d seen. This reflects mainstream Canadian reluctance to discuss race beyond rah-rah self-praise for multiculturalism and the equally strong tendency to point to the US as being terrible and therefore that means things aren’t actually that bad (similar to the way white Europeans use the example of the US to avoid dealing with their own problems on racism).

Anyway, I had originally thought the show was just being anti-union, but in retrospect maybe it was being anti-cop union specifically. It’s rare enough to see the realistic bad stuff about police officers being shown in fiction that isolated examples stand out. It’s something to mull over regarding fictional depictions of the thin blue line separating us from the savage hordes of ourselves.

Starry night

Screenshot of Stars in Shadow showing options available to the player for planetary bombardment and invasion.

Feeling a bit rough today since I haven’t got enough sleep for the last few nights thanks to staying up too late playing Stars in Shadow. Folks, this is exactly the “Master of Orion 2 with nicer graphics and User Interface” that I wanted.

I’ve tried the Galactic Civilizations games (I think I played 2 and 3) and they were definitely decent turn-based strategy in space but they were a tad complicated. I mean, I spent hours just designing space ships (I made a Klingon bird of prey once). And most of the factions in Endless Space were different kinds of humans and robots so I kind of got bored with them.

But Stars in Shadow scratches my itch. It’s exactly as complicated as it needs to be for me to fire it up for a quick game on easy mode (quick being 10 hours straight on a Sunday, apparently) and I like the colourful cartoonishness of the art style.

Bottom line? It’s fun.

The Emotion Engine

So Tales From the Loop is actually good. It’s set in a small town where everything is centered around a mysterious research facility. The whole thing appears to take place in the 1970’s, except there are decaying robots in the woods and inexplicable sci-fi encounters are a part of life. I’ve only seen the first two episodes, but it looks like there’s a core cast of characters loosely intertwined in each other’s lives, but with the protagonists shifting in each installment.

Even if I hadn’t known already, I probably would have guessed that this was originally a Scandinavian property as its general tone is off-kilter and contemplative. I understand the concept books focused more on the kids, but the show probably didn’t want to come across as copying Stranger Things since they’re both science fiction period pieces.

However, it’s way different anyway, since Stranger Things is awash in nostalgia for a specific period’s consumerism and pop culture, whereas this show feels more like it takes place in a timeless 20th century of no particular decade.

Also, Stranger Things foregrounds its plot elements – stop the Demogorgon, the commies, the thingamabob – whereas this show is all about the emotional consequences of the sci-fi twists. There’s no technobabble solution for letting your best friend down or having your mother break your heart.

Anyway, this is a hearty recommendation from me.

To Sail Beyond the Sunset

I am a sucker for nostalgia, but I’m also a sucker for not working too hard to complete a game. As such, I’ve been playing adventures games lately and have come across two that I rather liked.

A dark figure in a hooded robe faces a set of giant stone hands rising out of the rocky ground, fingers steepled together. The tips of the fingers are also hands and some clasp together while others reach to the overcast and cloudy sky. The hands shelter in their centre a hooded statue, its face hidden in darkness and its body pierced by multiple swords. In the ground in front of the giant hands are more swords planted into the earth. in the background, rocky spires stab into the sky.

The first is Tormentum: Dark Sorrow, a dark gothic tale set in a bizarre fantasy world. It’s rather steampunk Gormenghast in aesthetics. It’s a classic point and click adventure, but it’s barely a game and the puzzles are really quite easy to solve. However, I didn’t really care because I dug the weird-ass shit I kept coming across. It’s just so dark and baroque. Most people on the ball will have long guessed the twist before the ending, but it really doesn’t matter. I completed this game before the present state of exception, but I think it should provide decent entertainment in this time that demands distraction.

Around a room are arrayed strange gadgets - a hulking and aggressive military robot, a green hovercraft, a futuristic jet engine, and various other objects. In the corner stands a woman in a black leather jacket looking at a globe. At the top of the screen is the woman's portrait, which shows she is blond and sporting an undercut, with the left side of her head cut short to a buzz while the hair on top is combed over to flop over on her right side, reaching down to her eyes. At the bottom of the screen are various icons showing the items in the character's inventory as well as icons related to unidentified game options.

The second point and click adventure game is one I’m currently playing through. It’s called Whispers of a Machine and it’s a cyberpunk story set in Norway decades – perhaps centuries – after the golden technofuture of our dreams crashed to earth in some kind of catastrophic global backlash against AI. The world is much smaller, globalization is dead, and a train journey to a small town in the middle of nowhere is a big deal.

The protagonist is a cop from the big city sent to the sticks to investigate a murder and who uncovers a conspiracy that could shake the foundations of society. Along the way she meets several colourful characters that help her in her quest for the truth.

Yeah, this is basically the plot of like 70 percent of all police dramas. Like I said, I’m not looking to think too hard, so this story is just pleasantly formulaic. The cyberpunk thing gives it a fresh coat of paint so that it feels more novel than it would be if it was just another Scandinavian noir.

The somewhat novel thing about this game as a game is its mild inclusion of RPG elements. You can choose to be empathetic, aggressive, or analytical, and each path opens up new choices and new abilities which structure the way you solve puzzles in the game.

But the game itself doesn’t stray too far from the way point and click adventure games worked in their 90s heyday. The graphics are a bit nicer, but not as nice as Tormentum, and definitely not as nice as my gold standard for graphics in 21st century adventure games – Memoria, that rich and lush visual feast.

As I’ve mentioned before, there’s no specific technical limitation that demands adventure games remain pixelated as hell like they were back in the Sierra On-Line days. I understand that many developers use the program Adventure Game Studios, which in its base configuration can’t output images in very high resolution, but surely there are workarounds for this issue.

The graphics aren’t a deal-breaker, though. I find playing this game rather fun and will continue to the end. I recommend it for everyone who wants a quick and easy adventure game to get through.

The Anointed One

I watched all of Messiah on Netflix, and man, I really liked it.

As you might gather from the trailer, the show is premised on the question, “What if the messiah returned today?” However, the trailer makes it seem like the character depicted is definitely Jesus Christ returned, whereas the show plays coy on whether its central figure is actually divine or whether he’s just a brilliant and charismatic leader using religious fervour and magic tricks to push a revolutionary agenda. As one of the characters on the show even points out, this same question of saviour or con artist would have been applied to the historical Jesus (if he existed) by his contemporaries as well – the character herself comes down on the side of Jesus being “a populist politician with an axe to grind against the Roman empire”.

Messiah begins as follows: as the Islamic State lays siege to Damascus (which is in rebellion to Bashar al-Assad), a street preacher appears claiming that despite all evidence, Daesh shall soon be destroyed. Immediately afterward, a great sandstorm covers the city for an entire month, breaking the siege and demolishing ISIL’s supply lines. Throughout the storm, the street preacher continues to proclaim the supremacy of God’s will, gaining himself followers, and after the storm clears he leads 2,000 people into the desert (and, it’s implied, away from the Syrian government’s retaliation). The people are all Syrian Palestinians and the nameless preacher, now called “al-Masih” (messiah), has led his starving and unarmed followers to the Israeli border to claim the right of return for Palestinians ejected from their homeland.

And this is all in the first episode. The show quickly gets very global in its setting and shows the tentacles of empire, moving between the centre and the periphery, from the site of imperial actions in the Middle East to the source of those actions in the US.

I realize that it’s possible to imagine a horrifically tone deaf Law & Order-style ripped from the headlines hour of TV from the description I’ve given, especially considering that the show’s producers are Mark Burnett of the Survivor reality series and Roma Downey, the lead actor of Touched by an Angel, and considering that this producer couple have apparently made mawkish and pandering Christian-focused sentimental shows.

With that in mind, it’s surprising that the show is actually politically engaging. I mean, just to run through a few plot points – Jesus Christ (potentially) returns to earth and gets interrogated by Shin Bet. The CIA sends out its agents to dig up anything to discredit the messiah. Upon meeting the president of the US, our Lord and Saviour tells him that the path to world peace means withdrawing US troops from all overseas deployments.

The interesting thing is that the question of al-Masih’s divinity is actually immaterial to much of what he says and does. Is he a Russian asset sent to destabilize America? Maybe just some radical with an axe to grind against the American empire? It doesn’t matter, because empires are immoral and you don’t need possess divine wisdom to see this. 

I realize, though, that I may be projecting more of own politics onto the show than what it wants to say by itself. For one thing, the show is mostly told through the point of view of a CIA agent, and she is basically what the CIA sees itself as: a passionate defender willing to make the hard choices in defense of the ideals of the Republic. Instead of, you know, Keystone Kops bunglers using unsurpassed money and brutality to enforce hegemony.

Thinking on this further, the show expresses discontent with America but is unable to fully grasp or articulate the causes of America’s sickness. It steps in that direction by using the language of millenarian religion but is unable to move further beyond individual moral failing to larger structural causes. However, it’s possible that the show will go further with that thread in a potential second season.

I admit that a large part of my enjoyment stems from having studied a bit of Biblical theology once upon a time. My religious studies class and I would discuss what it would have meant for a Palestinian Jew to be decrying Roman occupation and criticizing collaborationist elites, while keeping in mind that the Romans wouldn’t have given much of a crap about factional distinctions and probably thought Jesus was just one of countless desert nutjobs who needed killing for the Pax Romana. The show basically took those discussions and set my class’s imaginings in the 21st century. And of course the other part of the show I like is the whole poli sci/international relations nerd crap.

Bottom line? If there’s a second season, I’m definitely watching.

Seeing like a State

Somewhat surprised that one of the themes of Terminator: Dark Fate is that all cops are bastards, but here we are. There are absolutely no good police in the movie’s world – at best they’re just violent thugs, and at worst they’re being used by a murderous inhuman intelligence. Speaking of which, the movie implies that we are already ruled by a murderous inhuman intelligence, we just call it the state. Surveillance everywhere, violent agents enforcing brutal rule, machines of spying and death flying through the skies watching and killing with impunity.

The movie actually had something to say, which is one of the reasons it’s way better than the last couple of Terminator movies. I think it’s not as good as the first and second movies in the franchise, but it’s head and shoulders above the movies between T2 and this one. By the way, it just ignores everything that happened in those in-between movies, but since the central premise of the franchise revolves around time travel I think we can forgive this arrant retconning.

I felt the movie started to drag once the action climax kicked off. It reminds me of most Marvel superhero movies – the part where stuff blows up at the end is there because it’s supposed to be there. I didn’t expect the movie to end in an emotional argument full of psychological drama between all parties but I did want to care whether the protagonists would get their way.

But I keep watching Marvel movies anyway since I’m a sucker for dork shit. It’s the same for this movie. I think overall it’s entertaining and a decent time at the cinema.

AZN represent

Always Be My Maybe stars Ali Wong as a celebrity chef who goes back to San Francisco to open a restaurant and hooks up with her asshole ex/childhood friend Randall Park.

Movies starring stand-up comedians can be completely terrible – what do they know about acting or writing a narrative? – but Ali Wong used to write for Fresh Off the Boat so she knows something about funny stories. Wikipedia indicates she majored in Asian American Studies, which also explains why her observations on race can be rather incisive. The movie was also directed by Nahnatchka Khan, who I will always and forever associate with Don’t Trust the B—- in Apartment 23 (this is a good thing by the way).

Anyway, I actually did laugh several times while watching this movie. In a more formulaic romcom, the story would be about one or both childhood friends being with partners unsuitable for them and the climax would be them finally admitting their feelings for each other, but this one explains why the original breakup when they were younger might have actually been better for our female protagonist until the male partner could get over his shit. Also there was an unexpected celebrity cameo that I’m totally on board for.

So, bottom line: I liked this movie.