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Crusader Kings II - The Norse pt.1 [Nov. 9th, 2013|10:42 pm]
I'm going to talk a bit about the gaming project that I have been spending waaaaayyyyy too much time on recently. I can't promise it will be interesting, but I can promise that a lot of what Im going to be talking about it is speculation based on ideas the game has raised, rather than dry mechanics or play details. You'll also note that this is part one: there is no way that writing this thing is going to keep my attention long enough for me to get all of my ideas out of the way.

So, basic game details. This is Crusader Kings II, available on Steam. I have most of the DLC, with the notable exception of Sunset Invasion, which I just find too ridiculous. I started the game as a Norse ruler that I created with the Ruler Designer, because I like to play the game on what is effectively easy mode. I also started as the ruler of the petty kingdom of Svithjod (The original name has a thorn instead of the th, but I'm not going to bother looking up if or how to enter a thorn into text). This is a really powerful petty kingdom by Norse standards, and basically surrounded by weaker neighbors. The game scenario I started with started in 867, at which point the pagan tribes are not in immanent danger of being crushed by Christians, and they can still do effective raids against less defended holdings. My goal was to build a giant viking empire, and I've basically done that. Here are some of the details and thoughts of what happened along the way.

Some notes about religion in the game, for those unfamiliar. Religions by default fall into two categories: Organized and Unorganized. For almost all intents and purposes, organized religions are better than unorganized ones. It is basically impossible for a follower of an unorganized religion to build a large kingdom and hold it together, and they are at risk of their subjects converting to whichever of the organized religions are nearby. Predictably, the various branches of the big abrahamic religions, Christianity and Islam, all started organized, while all of the varieties of pagans start unorganized.

However! One of the things that pagan faiths can do is reform: this is a tough thing to do in game, as it requires one ruler to control three of their faith's five holy sites, which are scattered across the map and they might reasonably be able to conquer. For example, one of the holy sites for the Norse religion is in northern Germany, inside a kingdom ruled by a successor of Charlemagne, and that kingdom is much, much stronger than any of the Norse rulers.

The reform idea is interesting: the game says that whichever ruler successfully holds the holy sites (there is an additional requirement, but it's really technical and I didn't have a problem meeting it when I had to go through the process) basically calls a convocation of the greatest leaders of the faith, who then develop a holy text and a church hierarchy. In the case of the Norse, the holy book is written in runes, and apparently has chapters on the gods, the creation, Ragnarok,and probably one or two things I'm forgetting. Basically, any reforming pagans copy the religious technologies of the abrahamic religions just enough that they can match up to them theologically.

Reforming the Norse faith was my first major objective towards building a big Viking empire, and though it too some cheating (read: quitting and reloading an earlier save when things didn't go well), I managed to do just that. It helps that because of my position I started with one of the holy sites: I only needed to conquer a couple more to get what I needed.

And I wasn't even the first pagans to reform! In my game, the Tengri religion, native to the great Eurasian plains, actually were the first pagan faith to reform themselves. They managed to do this because of politics: I'm not sure exactly how, but the Hungarians managed to absorb the kingdom of Cumania, given them territory from modern Hungary all the way to the eastern edge of the map, which is just on the eastern side of the Aral sea.

One thing to note is that even after reforming, the faiths have minor differences and quirks. One of the (very useful) quirks for the Norse reformed faith is that the leader of the faith, the Fylkir, is considered a terrestrial ruler as well as a spiritual one, on the model of an Islamic caliph. Practically, this means that if you're the one that reforms the Norse faith, you get to be Fylkir, and your heir will inherit that title along with all of the land they get. Not all of the pagan faiths apparently get this, which is unfortunate for them. The advantage of being the head of the religion is that all of your religious vassals, which for the Norse are Godis and Seeresses, like you more. In addition, some of your starts affect how well the religion is doing over all. Lastly, being the head of the religion lets you (eventually) call Great Holy Wars, which are the equivalents to Crusades. While they haven't been all that practical in my game, it was definitely fun to call one, especially since I did it right after the leader of the Tengri faith called one on me.

One of the basic questions that I keep coming back to with this game is, would the world be better this way? As interesting as the idea of a "reformed" pagan faith is, would it actually be better about addressing the spiritual needs of everyday people than the monotheistic religions? I'm not sure the answer is yes. Nothing in the game text tells me that my Norse believe in charity, compassion, humility, or the universal dignity of human life. Or if they do, its entirely possible that it is in a much more limited way than the teachings of the prophets.

I think that's enough for now. I'll write more later, getting more details and working later into the story. Hopefully this has been enjoyable reading, and let me know if you have any questions.
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e-sports [Nov. 9th, 2013|08:24 am]
So, I watch a lot of "e-sports" now. Specifically I watch League of Legends (which I also play), but also Starcraft II, and sometimes whatever else happens to be on the major channels. I did do it a bit last year, but I really started doing it during the LoL LCS during the spring and summer of this year.

I think there are a number of reasons that this happened.

One, LoL does a very thorough job of promoting its pro game. The game's UI let you know when a company event is upcoming. It was easy for a curious player, like me, to get hooked.

Second, playing during the spring and summer are times that are normally sports-dead for me. I don't consistently follow hockey, and I don't care about basketball or baseball.

Most e-sports games are available for free on the internet. Sure there are a few commercials, but nothing like those on TV. Also, I haven't really been living in places that had a TV or had one hooked up for watching television.

But the big one for me, especially vis-a-vis football, is that watching e-sports doesn't trigger guilt in the same way. While I can't say for certain that e-sports athletes aren't financially exploited - I have no idea how much they're actually paid versus how much revenue they generate - I do know that they aren't at risk of concussions, ACL tears, or other major injuries that can not only shorten their careers but also have major health complications later in life. As much as I enjoy following football, I have to acknowledge that it's a blood sport, and nothing we try to do will change that. With e-sports, not having to put that asterisk on my enjoyment apparently really matters to me.
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Notes on a tiny dragon [Nov. 5th, 2013|02:32 pm]
So, right now I am getting to play one of my favorite characters ever in a Pathfinder game. For whatever reason, Nicolai allowed me to play a wyrmling (ie newly hatched) Black Dragon once the party reached an appropriate level, and he has been adventuring with the group ever since. The dragon has named himself Brine.

Brine is my favorite character for a number of reasons.

And let me tell you why...Collapse )

...I've run out of steam for writing, so I think that I'll leave things incomplete. Brine is like that, too: a project I'm frequently turning over in my head and trying to improve.
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Empire of the Summer Moon [Jul. 18th, 2013|08:19 pm]
This is a tough one. The author is writing non-fiction, to be sure, but his purpose is to tell a story. That frequently means emphasis on salient personalities, and the constant refrain of describing the dry landscape of the southern great plains. I can certainly say that I learned a lot, as I was mostly ignorant of the details of settlement in Texas during the 19th century. I freely admit that I had no idea that native raids were as bad as described in the book, and he cites enough primary sources for his descriptions to be credible.

But the story drags on. The descriptions are repeated a lot, presumably to reinforce other aspects of the story, but it makes reading the book for any length of time tedious. Certainly best consumed in small chunks.

In addition, the story's lead doesn't really fit the role. The ostensible main character is Quanah Parker, the son of a Comanche chief and a white woman who had been kidnapped and raised by the Comanche tribe from the age of nine. Quanah eventually does rise to some command within the tribe, but after the point where the tribe's fate is sealed. He ends up playing a much larger part in the reservation life of the tribe, but is not the focus of the story (it's the last tenth of the book).

There is also a certain sense in which the story is being woven out of small bits, which it tries to gloss over but not always successfully. This is especially true with Quanah's life before the reservation: he (very wisely) did not discuss his specific movements during this time later in his life, nor did other Comanches that might have been with him. The author ends up having to do a lot of guesswork about the events that occurred during this time, and in some cases glosses over what should be the main part of the story.

But all of those are fairly minor problems. The big one is the racism, which just feels bizarrely out of place whenever it comes up. The author specifically calls the Comanches "savages" and describes their technology as being "like from the stone age". While it is true that Comanche warriors did acted savagely while raiding, that does not make that an accurate description of the culture as a whole (he makes the point that other native tribes were more "advanced" that the Comanches, which is better than nothing but still doesn't address the main point). The Comanches were what they needed to be, well adapted to living where and how they did. And they did make adaptations, by trading for things they could not produce and some of their own innovations, such as stuffing shields full of paper for extra protection. But the author doesn't seem to understand those things, even though he mentions them. My theory is that the continued reference to the supposedly simple culture of the Comanches is supposed to reinforce the story, to serve as a backdrop for their successes (ie in spite of their cultural limitations) and their violence (because of it). If that's true, it's unnecessary, and it has the effect of otherizing them in a book that is otherwise mostly about them.

I'd say the first chapter or two was worth the read. The rest of it, not so much.
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Dr. Tatiana's Sex Advice for All Creation [Jun. 2nd, 2013|10:11 pm]

I got this book because the author had had a column on evolution and biology in the New York Times for several years, which I greatly enjoyed. I didn't expect to much from this, besides lots of information that I could turn into awkward social anecdotes (penis jousting, for example). And that's what I got. There's a lot of material, lots of examples of some of the crazy strategies that various organisms have evolved into, but it didn't feel very deep. The author tries to fake being tongue-in-cheek with her language (hence the title) but doesn't sell it all the way: most of the language is not nearly as ridiculous as the title might suggest. Part of the problem seems to have been that the book seems to have been cobbled together out of shorter pieces that the author had written. While that made for nice discrete sections, I think it also prevented the author from building a more risque narrative. It's also possible that the idea just doesn't work conceptually: the last chapter is written as a description of events from a fictional afternoon tabloid, with an asexual organism verbally defending itself against a crowd devoted to more typical sexual reproduction. And it's frankly the worst chapter of the book.

That said, the book was a quick read, so far as I know the science is fundamentally sound (albeit as of 10 years ago), and so I can't say it was a bad book. It was certainly what I needed after failing to finish The Proud Tower
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Bioshock Infinite [Mar. 29th, 2013|08:23 pm]

I'm writing this is the immediate aftermath of finishing the game. A lot of the emotions I had at the end, mostly anger, are going to dominate the tone of this review. I shouldn't be doing this, as I have work to do, but I know that this is going to distract me until I finish. So here it is.

Spoilers, and lots of them.Collapse )

As much as I enjoyed playing through most of the game, and for all of the good moments it has, I can't recommend the game. It makes too many critical missteps on too many important issues to be praiseworthy.
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Benedict's announcement [Feb. 11th, 2013|08:41 pm]

The big news today, as everybody know by now, is that Pope Benedict XVI has decided to step down from his office, as he no longer believes that he is capable of fulfilling the functions of the office. I think it's a good call on his part...and has some interesting implications. 

First, I really like the nod to practicality. The Pope needs to maintain a schedule that would be demanding for even a younger man (I'm thinking about how quickly US Presidents seem to age while in office), and Benedict is 85. He will decline if he remains in office, and I think he is correct in thinking that the church does not benefit much having a slowly dying man at the helm. But think about where that thinking goes: the most important thing about the position of Pope is that of a leader, who can and should step down when he can no longer lead. He is, in other words, bound by the same considerations that effect other leaders. That Benedict, a strict doctrinaire by reputation, seems to believe that is a pleasant surprise. I'm actually hopeful that, if this process goes somewhat smoothly, it will create future expectations within the leadership of the church that popes will retire when they become incapable of performing the functions of the office. It might also encourage the college of Cardinals to consider more unusual candidates. I can understand not wanting to consider someone you don't completely trust if you expect them to remain in power for decades, but if the option to retire, or even force retirement, is available that might make the electors more willing to consider an unorthodox candidate. 

Hmm, class is ending, so I guess I'd better wrap this up. A couple of newsmen have some interesting perspectives on this, and my opinion is certainly informed by their today. 
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Weighing in on the NFL controversy [Sep. 25th, 2012|01:01 pm]
Well, last night it finally happened, after several near misses: a bad call by the replacement officials changed the outcome of a game.  The result is that no one is happy, everyone is upset, and the league is now under increasing pressure to reinstate the union officials as quickly as they possibly can. I can't say that I have anything really remarkable to add to the discussion, but I'd like to note a few observations anyway. 

First of all, from the league's perspective the timing of the event couldn't be much worse: it happened during a nationally televised Monday night game, after a weekend where there were already several nearly inexcusable gaffs. Second of all, the refs really couldn't have picked a worse team to shit on: the Packers are one of the most popular teams in the league, and were early playoff favorites. That's going to mean much more lost revenue than if it had happened in, say, a Seahawks-Rams game. Even if the NFL itself doesn't take an immediate revenue hit, the teams will: fewer people will buy game tickets, and less merchandise. Other subsidiary industries will too: Vegas lost a bundle on the outcome, for example. 

On the other hand, the league probably feels like it can't given concessions in negotiation: as Peter King has explained, the NFL is asking to reduce pension contributions for the refs, contributions that they have already reduced for their full-time employees. League officials probably feel that there will be blowback around the office if the refs successfully negotiate to preserve their pension benefits (I might point out that cutting benefits for anyone working in a business as ridiculously profitable as the NFL seems awfully damn cruel, but that's just me). Especially given that the league already has something of a tendency to keep going in the face of public criticism, I think they might decide to turtle in the face of public criticism and try to wait it out. 

One thing that I think is interesting about the conversation is that in order to denigrate the scab refs, we basically have to exalt the union refs. We have to assume that things will be immediately better if they are reinstated, and that there will not be blown calls again. Even though the union refs themselves have previously decided the fate of NFL games for the wrong team, through either one or a series of calls. This isn't meant to say that the union refs aren't better than the scabs: the evidence so far is that they very clearly are. 

In fact, this is a really interesting thing to be happening on the political stage during an election year, and I wonder if it will have an effect on any of the election races (though it will certainly be difficult to measure). The contrast between the scabs and union refs is a very public example of the potential difference in product quality between the union and non-union labor. While certainly not the referees intent, people understanding that contrast might give them a greater appreciation for unions, generally. This might be a good time for those unions to get their message out, as they might find a more receptive public now. 

Also, the sports media have been leery of the replacements from the beginning (with good reason), and are not going to get quieter in their calls for the reinstatement of the union refs as the season goes along. What will change, sooner or later, is when players and coaches get more and more involved, and social and traditional media gives them a signal boost. Already, some players are willing to risk the fine from the NFL offices for speaking out against the refs (I've seen TJ Lang tweeting his rage, and there are probably others). How soon until it's an entire unit? A head coach? An owner? We could get to the point where the NFL loses any semblance of control of the situation, because either they can't fine everyone who is pointing out the obvious, or the fines stop being a meaningful deterrent to those that are going to speak their mind. 

All in all, as much as the NFL might wish it were so, the controversy isn't going to go away, and the longer it goes on the more likely they are to suffer a significant drop in revenue for this and future seasons, possibly far eclipsing the ~3 million/year in pension benefits they are trying to avoid paying. Even though it may gall them, they have to understand that they've probably lost, and make amends while they can. 
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The RNC, so far [Aug. 29th, 2012|01:48 pm]

I have to admit, during the last week I was gleefully enjoying the possibility that the Republican convention would be disrupted by Hurricane Isaac. Today, I think there are a fair few Republican delegates that might agree with me. What I'm talking about is the changes to the rules that were pushed through by the convention leadership. Details and protest. On the one hand, I can see the incentive for wanting to penalize bound delegates that effectively lie their way onto the floor to vote for a different candidate.  

But on the other hand, there are a lot of problems here. For starters, this policy change basically says that in the future the campaign gets to pick their own delegates from each state...how? Will they have any idea who they should pick? Especially in uncompetitive states where the campaign doesn't spend a lot of time and resources, it seems like they'll essentially be picking blind, or relying on the state party to make the choice, possibly party leaders that can then play favorites behind closed doors.

Second, is this really a threat? Not only the rules change, but the subsequent marginalization of Ron Paul's supporters because they might try to, heavens forbid, actually try to nominate their candidate? Even taking the most optimistic projection from a Paul campaign staffer in one of the articles above, Paul has 320 out of 2,286 delegates. 14% of the total. Far more than he won in the primaries, admittedly, but still a number that is not even close to actually challenging Mitt Romney's nomination. 

Third, it should really go without saying that ill-treatment of members of your own party is a terrible idea. Not paying any attention to the actual results of a viva voce, but instead just going ahead with the rules change despite protests? Refusing to seat part of the Maine delegation, causing them to walk out? Refusing to recognize delegates for anyone but Romney, or let another candidate onto the ballot? That mistreatment won't be forgotten during the general election. And to stop what? A token, symbolic effort to nominate Paul or some other minor candidate. A successful convention is about bringing the party together under the big tent, more unified than it was, in order to have a successful election season. The Republicans certainly appear to be trying to look unified, but they're doing it by snubbing the minorities in their own party, and enforcing a pre-determined outcome.

I don't think this ends well for them. How many snubs will it take before Paul's supporters decide that the GOP frankly doesn't want them around? Maybe it will be long enough that they'll have forgotten the first, or maybe they'll decide that they don't really have another option. But if not, I can easily see them walking off to a third party. They've certainly been given enough incentive in Tampa to do just that. 
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Term's end [Aug. 23rd, 2012|07:38 pm]
Got my final grades for the term. They were pretty good. Its still weird being at a school that doesn't have as stringent grading as Beloit. Here I am certainly a much more harsh critic of myself than my professors were, and there were plenty of cases where I could see ways to make the classes much less forgiving. But...for what it's worth, I am learning a lot. I already think I remember enough from tax to help my brother next year when he asks. So that's certainly something.
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