A Second Set of Very Short Reviews With No Particular Purpose

Too Like the Lightning
It’s the philosophical parts of Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri, but as a book! Awesome! But it’s presented in the most insufferable writing style: needless archaicism. And its philosophy-behind-the-philosophy agrees with my mother, which doesn’t win it any favors.

Ergo Proxy
It’s also kind of like SMAC, but with masses of eye-shadow. If you can disregard the unlikable cast and cliché aesthetics, it actually has some fairly interesting things to say about creating sentient servants. But it kind of mumbles them under its breath with frequent non-sequiturs. Overall, overrated.

Factorio
Good fun in the vein of SpaceChem etc. Difficulty curve is a bit patchy to nonexistent at times. Looks kind of ugly but not in an offensive way. If you like build-a-machine games, this is one of the greats.

Making Money
I’m honestly not sure about this one. Nowhere near the greatness of Reaper Man, Hogfather, Night Watch, Small Gods etc, but still one of the better ones? Yeah, that’ll do. Kind of bothers me how all of Moist’s opposition just self-destructs without any real sense of him having to fight for it. Maybe that’s just his style.

DotA 7.00
Nah.

The Slow Regard of Silent Things
Someone told Rothfuss they liked his, shall we say, open-minded attitude towards the categorization of words into nouns, adjectives etc, and he got a bit carried away with the heady feeling of praise. And a thesaurus. Also reduced Auri from a perfectly good side-character to “the yandere harem girl.” Still a pretty good read.

Flip Flappers
You deserve to watch this.

Path of Exile: Atlas of Worlds
Fantastic expansion. Can anyone stop this game from getting better before it’s too late? Find out in Act V, coming some time eventually.

Black Mirror S3
Not as ludicrously good as the first or second season, but still very good for TV. People are right to hype San Junipero. Pretty much every episode had enjoyable parts and made me think about something even if not always what I think I was supposed to be thinking about.

Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky
“Charming” is the word that springs immediately to mind. You can do a lot with characters that you introduce as flat archetypes and build on a little more with each scene they’re in, and the setting is well-realised enough. I lack the tactical-RPG experience against which to compare it, but the gameplay is usually pretty engaging, so can’t be that bad.

Hello Internet Podcast
Oh, okay, turns out CGPGrey is only a nice voice and somehow manages to have Wrong Opinions on every single other aspect of existence. Impressive, really, as it implies that there’s a Right Opinion Generator which he’s inexplicably inverting the outputs of. Would be much less terrible if Brady, who has quite a broad spectrum of partial knowledge, weren’t played as the Dumb Guy of the two. In essence, I don’t like thing.

Rick & Morty S1
Wow that got unfunny quickly. Brilliant ideas, but firmly lashed to the anchor of “status-quo-preserving sitcom.”

Perdido Street Station
Reminds me strongly of an acquaintance at university whose drawings of unsettling creatures would consistently feature leaking, oozing, etc. Imaginative, but deeply unpleasant to look at for too long. When most people want to say summer days are long, they don’t use implements of torture in their simile. On the whole: a great book.

A Second Set of Very Short Reviews With No Particular Purpose

Degeneracy Pressure

A while ago, the heretical false caliph wrote about The Constant Decline of Civilization.

Now, I don’t think it can be argued that any of Scott’s points are exactly wrong. But that said, I don’t think they’re strikingly right, either.

Foremost: I don’t think the “litany of historical complaints about degeneracy” are meant to be that kind of argument – that is, “everyone in history thought X, therefore not-X.” I think the intended message is largely “oh, and where is your plan to reverse it all going to stop at?” A mixture of asking how we can know that the complainer’s preferred historical era is the right one when the people in that era complained as well, with a suggestion that the complainer would never have been happy no matter when they’d been around.

Very few such complainers want to go all the way back to before history. Some do, but not many.

But okay, let’s take it head-on. Some things have been getting worse forever.

Have they? Well, I’m not really sure. Scott compares an office worker to a frontiersman to a crusader to a Spartan. Is that really fair? Why not a computer-based office worker to a paper-based office worker to a clerk to a scribe? Why not a fighter pilot to a cavalryman to a crusader to a Spartan? Well, because those would be harder to judge, wouldn’t they? It’s not really obvious that a fighter pilot is less of a Cool Warrior Archetype: sure he’s raining down metallic judgment from on high rather than getting up-close-and-personal, but his training is more extensive, his conditions more extreme. What Spartan warrior ever fought at 8G?

And if we do want the former aspect and the former aspect only, why is the crusader lacking it? Are we falling for the old “well our stories of Spartans have them as super-noble oiled near-naked men of pure courage, and our stories of crusaders have them as fully-armored rape-and-pillage God-botherers, so obviously Spartans are better” lark? Those are just stories. Perhaps based on facts at first, but given that time twists all such retellings more and more as they go on, aren’t they a terrible basis for comparison?

I can kind of see the point being outlined, though: as time has gone on, technology has replaced humans in many roles (doctors’ diagnoses vs machines, hand-to-hand combat vs drones, etc). The result of this is a constant loss of the requirement of being amazing at those roles. So people today are “worse people” because they can’t do what the people of old could, because the people of old had to.

But wait! This was supposed to be about virtue! Since when is it virtuous to be able to diagnose a disease by sight/smell/pure force of doctorliness alone, when that’s the only option you have? Virtue, if it means anything, means choosing a harder path out of personal commitment to being the best possible person. Having no better options does not make you more virtuous: it makes you unfortunate! It’s not like people have lost the capacity to be able to be superb diagnosticians or warriors or mnemnists, and if a day should come when such skills are required, then they will be restored. The fact that such days have been receding ever further into the past is a huge success.

And on the point of modern art… This argument annoys me! Firstly, great art of any type you care to name is still being produced, often in greater quantity, to a greater degree of skill, whatever metric you like. Secondly, it’s a pure example of “stop liking things I don’t like” – even if art you like weren’t being produced any more, art is made to satisfy more urges than merely yours. You cannot escape this by calling certain preferences wrong (e.g. “modern art is just edginess-signalling”): doing so is just asserting that your preferences are objectively correct, which is laughable. And lastly, modern art works as art. I’ve had countless conversations about modern art, usually starting with someone saying “urgh it’s not art,” and cannot remember even one conversation in my life about Renaissance art, probably because the latter is pretty boring to anyone who’s not part of the fanclub.

So no, take your Argmentum ad Entartetekunst and hang it on the wall in a modern art display. It’ll be appreciated there.

Degeneracy Pressure

2016 Review

How much ink has been spilled to complain that 2016 has been a terrible year?2016was
Yeah, quite a lot.

This is the part where I say something like “But! My powers of contrarianism let me see the truth hidden from the vision of mere normies!” But the truth is, I’m just not feeling it. The consensus is allowed to be right, and on this occasion, I agree. 2016 was a disaster. This was the year of Meme Magic, where it finally became clear that we’re just playthings of vast impersonal forces that inexplicably decide what will happen in our lives. For those who haven’t already gone completely insane – apparently a minority – this is a bad thing. Really bad. The worst thing that has ever happened? Perhaps not that far,  but we shall see. But if you think rule-by-egregore will stop at the return of ethnonationalism and the death of journalism, keep thinking. And maybe one day you’ll look back as the metaphorical equivalent of black writhing tentacles rise from the metaphorical sea, and realize that joining the metaphorical XD Kool Kek Kult XD might not have been the brightest metaphorical idea. Just because no one worshipper can be pinned as the one tipping point that paves the way for the rule of the Old Ones, doesn’t mean no one is responsible. And no one really gets to be eaten first. That was always just a… a silly idea that people repeat because it’s funny.

Nonetheless, let’s move on to my summary. 2016 was super boring in my own life! Nothing accomplished, nothing lost. But I consistently felt like I was having a pretty good time, so I’m not complaining.

Well that was brief! Let’s get on with the forecast. Next year? Next year will be beyond imagining.

2016 Review

Adblock Can (Not) Save Us

It is now generally agreed that “clickbait culture” is destroying any hope of productive discourse that does not immediately disintegrate into bickering, flame-wars and grandstanding. However, the incentive structure as it stands simply does not allow anyone to stop doing it: the first media outlet to take a stand for calmness and sanity will be the first to bleed to death from lacking advertising revenue as its viewers click more provocative lines in their feeds. Despite cautions regarding structures that enable vertical transit, everything just keeps tumbling down. It doesn’t stop from keep happening.

But what if we could stop letting that happen? Adblockers, which modify a browser to not display advertisements from websites the user visits but does not explicitly whitelist, could decouple “maximizing viewership” from “maximizing revenue,” and whatever digital economy follows might require producers to create content of genuinely high value.

I don’t think it will work out so pleasantly. Here are my reasons, laid out as straightforwardly as possible:

  • Adblockers are permeable: most adblockers serve the purpose of blocking obnoxious ads, not preventing civilizational collapse. They often have provisions to allow non-intrusive ads, and unethical adblockers effectively operate as a protection racket, accepting payment from advertisement agencies to not include their material in the default blacklists. Adblockers that are not complete do not remove the incentive to produce clickbait.
  • Adblockers are detectable: in order to save bandwidth, most adblockers work by modifying requests to the web server so that returned pages do not include known advertisement content. Increasing numbers of websites detect this happening and lock content unless the user whitelists their site. While it’s possible to instead download the ads and not display them, this uses significant bandwidth – and more importantly, if adblock-users are indistinguishable from non-users, there’s no loss of incentive to be clickbaity from a viewer changing category.
  • Anti-adblockism is already a thing: a lot of content creators are not happy with their ability to earn a living being destroyed in the hopes that something better will emerge from the rubble, and argue that using adblockers is morally wrong. A lot of people agree with them, and would be especially unhappy with the kind of adblockers that would be required to repair online discourse (see above).
  • Content creators doubling down: to keep revenue up as numbers of “paying” viewers falls, even more outrageous clickbait will have to be used. This may sound impossible, but I’m quite sure it’s not. “Things can’t possibly get worse” has never been correct, and arguably the rise of adblockers is what precipitated this race-to-the-bottom to begin with.
  • The replacement digital economy will also be awful: it doesn’t seem especially likely that non-ad-based revenue streams will necessarily protect against clickbait. Remember that the Daily Mail existed long before the modern internet did. If people are more willing to click on bait-links, they’ll probably be more willing to fork over a seamless microtransaction to see them; or to subscribe to their service; or whatever payment model is hoped will take the place of ads. Short of a centralized body funding content-creation on merit rather than populism, the incentive to acquire more viewers at the cost of calmness and sanity will always be there, and you can bet the libertarian brigade would be up in arms if we tried to nationalize the media – somewhat rightly so, I imagine, since it introduces different perverse incentives.
  • The replacement digital economy will be less equitable: yes, clickbait is destroying the world, but it’s fair – anyone can write what they want and get paid exactly what they deserve (i.e. proportionally to viewership).

Some of these issues can be circumvented, others mitigated. And on the whole, I’m hopeful that adblocking can at least slow the decline – after all, back when all media was pay-per-view, high quality content was mostly the norm.

Oh, and everyone needs to stop using Twitter immediately – that stuff is memetic poison and “but muh coordination problem” or “but muh best social media platform” is not a good enough reason to put it anywhere close to your mind. Do not drink the radioactive acid.

Adblock Can (Not) Save Us

Deliberately Doing Thing Is Still Doing Thing

Plucked from the slatestarcodex subreddit:

Don’t ask why the author told you something or had a character do something; ask why a character told you something or what the character’s motivations actually were rather than what they were intended to be or, worse (and barf), symbolize.

Suppose I write a book in which a character spends page after page talking about whaling, or their pet political philosophy, or the history of plumbing. There are several ways I can defend having done this from the charge that no one is interested in hearing about that:

  1. Denial – arguing that actually my particular audience is interested. Most effective for political rants. A perfectly reasonable defense, but leaves readers not in that audience unsatisfied.
  2. Explanation – giving my own reasons for having done this. Like, I really need the reader to understand the minutiae of plumbing in order for later parts of the story to make sense. Maybe it’s not a good enough reason, but hey, at least I had one.
  3. Cheating – “But it’s what the character would do! It’s deliberate!

In very short, my position is that if my story is being told by a character who would spend multiple pages describing plumbing, then I have chosen a boring character who should not be telling a story. Or, if I’m convinced that my character is interesting, maybe I shouldn’t put a bunch of boring words in their mouth, since probably an interesting character would be saying or doing interesting things instead.

To put it another way, saying “it’s what the character would do” is a general excuse that can justify anything. The reason it provides no actual justification is simple: yes, the space of possible characters contains the character as written, but it also contains a version of the character who wouldn’t say something so boring/pointless/verbiose/etc. I have to justify why I plucked the former out of character-space and not the latter.

Perhaps the character that rambles on is a more parsimonious character, e.g. if they’re often inclined to long plumbing discussions, maybe dropping this particular plumbing discussion would be out-of-character. In that case the question becomes “Why does my work need this character? And why has it failed to convince the audience that it does?”


Aside: what’s wrong with characters’ actions symbolizing things, anyway? I’m pretty sure that’s like Literary Fiction Traits Top Five: characters doing things because it’s symbolic of something. Their “internal motivation” is back-written to fit, if it really fits at all. The standard of literary fiction is how far backward an author is willing to underbuild, no matter how empty-feeling and disconnected it becomes. But that’s a different rant.


This habit of saying “but I’m deliberately choosing to do this” extends throughout all of fiction. Maybe you deliberately don’t answer questions. Maybe you make characters deliberately obnoxious; not merely evil, or even unlikable, but deeply unpleasant to experience. Maybe you deliberately use clichés; maybe you deliberately avoid clichés. Maybe your ending is deliberately unsatisfying or deliberately deus-ex-machina. There are limitless possibilities.

But on the whole, being deliberate isn’t sufficient in my mind. I don’t think I’ve ever changed my mind about liking anything on the basis that it was deliberately chosen to be exactly the thing I disliked. What am I even supposed to say to the claim that it was so? “Good job making me not like it”?

Deliberately Doing Thing Is Still Doing Thing

Culture War Glossary

Balance:
Describes a state of affairs in which you are winning. See also Fairness.

China:
Somewhere very far away.

Compromise:
An idiotic manoeuvre where you concede some of what the Ingroup wants, which is sacred and precious beyond measure, and grant some of what the Outgroup wants, which is twisted and vile beyond belief. It is unclear why anyone ever attempted to do this.

Culture:
The exact nature of Culture is unclear, but it is inferred from the statements of Culture Warriors to be an opaque, coloured, volatile, immiscible, flammable and strongly-odorous liquid with powerful psychoactive effects.

Culture War:
The current state of affairs regarding Culture. Believed to have been started in early 2002 by the Bush administration as part of a general policy of starting unwinnable abstract conflicts.

Culture Warrior:
An active participant in the Culture War.

Degeneracy:
People liking things that you don’t like.

Democracy:
A means of governance that functions well so long as it has Fairness and Balance but sometimes allows Degeneracy.

Echo Chamber:
Dwelling-place of the Outgroup and center of their crazed religion.

Elite:
An educated member of the Outgroup.

Expert:
An educated member of the Ingroup.

Fairness:
Describes a state of affairs in which your enemies are losing, and more importantly, suffering. See also Balance.

Immigration:
A powerful kind of magic with contradictory capabilities. A great cause of conflict in the Culture War.

Ingroup:
A diverse coalition of free-thinkers like you, doing their best to save the world from the Outgroup.

Islam:
Primary cause of conflating high odds of X given Y, with high odds of Y given X.

Liberalism:
A philosophy that espouses individual freedom; formerly quite popular in The West.

Magnanimous:
Describes a winner from the Ingroup.

Media:
Believed to be a mind-control device of some kind, controlled by the Outgroup.

Narrative:
A method of belief formation in which you start with what you want to conclude, and work backwards from there to fill in facts, statistics etc.

Neoliberalism:
Liberalism, but bad (e.g. when it’s being advocated for by the Outgroup).

Nuclear War:
Definitely impossible according to all sides of the Culture War. No precautions are required to prevent this, because it can’t happen.

Outgroup:
A tribe of Them, dominated by groupthink, who hate everything good (such as the Ingroup) and are deliberately trying to destroy it.

Racism:
A special kind of evil of which only the Outgroup are capable.

Russia:
Harmless.
Mostly harmless.

Science:
One of The West‘s bad habits, which it is doing its best to break.

Smug:
Describes a winner from the Outgroup.

Truth:
See Narrative.

Virtue Signalling:
Someone from the Outgroup saying something nice. Obviously they can’t possibly have meant it, so it was clearly a ploy to try to seem good.

The West:
Countries associated with the Culture associated with white people.

Culture War Glossary

Impassive Voice

From a previous post:

I’m not a fan of the Bechdel test, so here’s my test: could you randomize the genders of the cast without losing any important story aspects? If so, why didn’t you?

A friend commented on this, saying surely “if the gender of the cast doesn’t matter, why bother doing that?” Taken at face value, the question of “why” versus “why not” yields a simple impasse. This is my attempt at unraveling that question.

A brief elaboration on my test. I’m not saying most works of fiction should use randomly-gendered casts. That wouldn’t work, for the most part. Instead it’s intended to make you think about which characters need to be the gender they’re written as, and which ones have just been thoughtlessly taken as a given, like those riddles about surgeons and patients.

So it’s not really a question of bothering to randomize the cast, because that’s not the aim. It’s about getting people to articulate why their work of fiction is the way it is, rather than one of the vast array of other ways it could be. The actual complaint that begins the conversation is essentially “I would have liked to have seen more X in Y.” I mean, the following is obvious:

Equitus: I didn’t like how there weren’t any Aggies in that show.
Frierik: Does it matter whether someone’s Aggish or Bikkin?
Equitus: Yes, but I agree that it shouldn’t.
Frierik: Then why change the show?
Equitus: Because I’d like it more? I mean, I literally just said that.

At this point it may be tempting for Frierik to take the line:

Frierik: Why should they care what you like? It’s their show.

This would be foolish. It’s part of the conceit of our hypothetical that randomizing the AB-orientation of the cast doesn’t affect the show in any serious way. Therefore Equitus can have a preference for an evenly-split cast and that’s fine. If the producers want to have Equitus like their show, they should indeed randomly or otherwise non-lazily choose which characters are Aggish vs Bikkin. Therefore my recommended line for Frierik is actually something like this, bizarre as it may initially seem:

Frierik: But I prefer shows with a mostly-Bikkip or mostly-Aggish cast. Having both makes me consider additional AxB dynamics that complicate things unnecessarily for me.
Equitus: That’s understandable. We’ll just have to put up with a certain amount of automatic dislike for each others’ preferred content.
Frierik: That doesn’t sound too awful.

In short, my test is designed to identify the special case where a work genunely has no reason to have a cast of the genders that it has. Either a work has a reason, or it has none. It it has none, then there actually is no reason not to randomize the cast’s genders, and there may or may not be good reasons to do so. In the absence of any resistance from reasons not to, even the slight force of “I want it to” is enough to make a criticism out of it.

But on the other hand, if it has a reason, then it’s a somewhat more interesting matter. The question becomes considerably more complicated in more realistic circumstances where changing characters’ arbitrary characteristics would actually change the work in a significant fashion, and this is the reigning paradigm; i.e. all interesting cases are ones where the answers to the test are “not really” and “because…”.

Interesting cases should generally be taken on their own merits as circumstances demand. I don’t think anyone has to defend their preferences; people like what people like. There’s not actually any such thing as Liking Things Wrong. So even if there’s a really good reason for having a certain cast structure, you’re still welcome to dislike it. And even if there’s no good reason, you’re still welcome to like it. Liking things is good.

Impassive Voice