Saturday, May 25, 2024

Dawn

I feel like I've been flying through books lately! The latest to fall within my maw is The Bright Ages, a fresh look at the Middle Ages. This has been on my list for some time, and has coincidentally arrived soon after the early-medieval novel Menewood and the post-medieval video game Pentiment. The Bright Ages covers roughly the span between them.

 


The two authors are professors of history, but the book is definitely written for a popular audience: to some extent they're arguing against pre-existing notions of the medieval era, but for the most part those are widely known views, not obscure inter-academy debates. Their title gives away the thesis: our common perception of these years is as "The Dark Ages", when civilization collapsed after the fall of the Roman Empire, continental Europe slid into barbarism and lost a thousand years of development before recovering during the Renaissance. The authors combat this with what they call "The Bright Ages": an idea that the light of progress never went out, and that people during this period continually sought good things: often in religion, but also through classical philosophy, art, trade, and much more frequent contact with non-European peoples than we tend to imagine.

The overall thesis is truthful but also seems so broad that it's hard to get excited about: basically, "People were complex, a lot of different people were doing different things for different reasons at different times and places, and any attempt to summarize this reality will inevitably omit or misrepresent a lot that was going on." Which, okay, I buy that, but also it feels less satisfying than a straightforward "X caused Y" analysis. This is kind of how I feel about Capital & Ideology, too: brilliant book, and very effective at exposing incorrect ideas, but harder to wrap your head around and draw concrete lessons from.

Given that, the authors come up with a great structure to make this comprehensible and interesting. Each chapter progresses slightly forward in time and relocates to another location on the European continent. We're essentially going on a tour through time and space, witnessing what was happening at certain given moments. One thing I love about this is it doesn't pretend to be a comprehensive catalog of everything that happened during a thousand years: we've specifically just dropping in on particular moments. But we can see common themes between those moments, as well as critical variations, and so pull together a rough framework for understanding this era.

I won't recap everything in the book, but will comment on a few things that struck me. An early, provocative assertion is that Rome didn't fall. Not really. Yes, the city was conquered - multiple times! - but, it had been conquered multiple times in the past as well. Their conquerors often stayed, and remade themselves as Romans, and ruled and defended the city, including the Romans inside who had previously conquered it and made themselves Roman. And while the western Rome lost effective control of her empire, there was also an eastern Rome in Constantinople which continued to exert power and wealth through much of the Mediterranean for most of the Middle Ages - in that sense, Rome just moved.

The biggest player throughout the book is Christianity and the church. It is bookended with Christian art, first with a beautiful Byzantine-style chapel constructed in Ravenna, and ultimately with Dante writing the Divine Comedy. In between we see the evolving power of the church. Early on, the Bishop of Rome seems to be a small, fragile position; by the end, the Pope plays a dominant role across the continent and beyond. We see the development of monasteries (including a fun shout-out to Saint Hilda of Whitby!), the tug of war between center and periphery, monks and clergy, ecumenism and orthodoxy. The attitude of the (Catholic) Church shifts over generations, but overall, most of the major religious intolerance we tend to associate with the Middle Ages came late in the era. For the most part, the church saw themselves as supporters: supporters of stability, of security, of comfort and salvation. Religion was, and didn't merely represent, real power: having someone pray for you was seen as effective, not just upholding a tradition or expressing a hope.

A lot of religious and military activities were driven by apocalyptic mindsets. There was a dominant thinking (then as now!) that the world was heading towards the "end times", with very limited opportunity left for conversion before Christ returned to separate the wheat from the chaff. The authors note, though, that while we tend to think of the word "apocalypse" as meaning an ending, the word actually means a revelation, and can better be thought of as a transformation. Not so much the ending of one thing, more about evolving into the next thing. With this definition, "apocalypse" is actually a really great way to frame and consider The Bright Ages: as with all of history, it is eternally revealing and transforming itself into what will come next.

Later in the book, the authors mention that in many ways, the Middle Ages were one of the more egalitarian times in history. Yes, life sucked; but for the average person it didn't suck much more than in the classical period, and may have been better during this period than it would become in the Renaissance. Some periods like the 12th century have been described by historians as "mini-Renaissances" where the times improved; but the lives of women worsened during those periods. As always, it matters who tells the story.

Throughout the book, we see many examples of people from various faiths and racial backgrounds living in and traveling between European lands. Even in the far-away island of England, there have always been North Africans on the shore. (I was separately struck by this in a recent visit to an exhibit at the de Young Museum, which included some very striking Tudor court portraits of Islamic and African emissaries). A major motivation for writing this book seems to have been to directly challenge some of the mythologized ideas of a "pure" "western" "white" land, which is an animating drive behind a lot of white supremacists. This isn't just bad ideology, it's incorrect history. The authors directly address this, which I liked, even as it for better or worse makes the book feel less academic. In my opinion, everything is political, and everyone has their bias: choosing to support the status quo is itself a bias. It's good to know where people stand and that they care about their subject. (Of course, it helps that I agree with the authors' politics!)

A lot of these ideas and observations are familiar to me, most recently as a result of reading "A Splendid Exchange". In particular, Bernstein spent a lot of time pointing out how familiar Europeans were with the rest of the world: even after the fall of Rome, they knew that silk came from the east, and they frequently interacted with Arabs, Africans, Persians and others during all this time.

There's a really interesting theme at the end about the conflict between medieval perspectives and "humanist" perspectives. The very phrase "dark ages" and our understanding of it comes from Plutarch, an early Renaissance Italian, and it's helpful to think of the term "dark ages" as serving his agenda rather than an empirical truth. The Renaissance thinkers and artists were propping up their own project by denigrating what had come before, making their own contributions seem better by making past creations seem worse. (Of course, the Bright Ages' authors don't think that medieval history was "good" and Renaissance history "bad", but each had their own ups and downs, their own bright and dark moments.)

The book focuses on a particular debate held in Spain over the relationship the European world should have with the New World. Interestingly, the "humanist" side of nascent Renaissance thinkers tended to favor imperialism, domination and chattel slavery, while the "medieval" side of traditional Catholic monks favored equality, humility, tolerance and integration. (Not to say that that attitude was always the case - this book also highlights plenty of times where medieval people favored the idea of conquering and ruling foreigners.)

I've been meaning for ages to write a blog post about this topic, and maybe one day I will, but I'm increasingly struck by how often (at least in my personal experience), people with genuine religious belief tend to practice humanist ideals like compassion and egalitarianism, while non-religious people are more likely to express openly misogynistic, transphobic, or racist views. This seems like the opposite of what you would expect (and what's commonly portrayed in media), with "narrow-minded" religion versus "open-minded" secularism. I'm still trying to work through my thoughts, but I think that this chapter in The Bright Ages is getting at one part of it: a certain type of genuine religious belief imbues all of humanity with value and sees each individual as equally important. That isn't to say that morality requires religion - of course it doesn't! - nor that religion inevitably produces morality - obviously it doesn't! But supposed rationalists can easily self-rationalize how they're superior to others, which leads the way to all sort of terrible events in the modern era.

As I mentioned before, it's hard to draw a simple, clear lesson or theme from the book. The authors are trying to express the complexity, multiplicity and contradictions of the medieval era, refusing to fit it into a box or try to invent a new box to contain it. I think that is helpful: because it is more true, because it de-mythologizes some of the historical fantasies that still drive reactionary politics, because it opens up curiosity for learning more rather than drawing a cloak over it. It also is a fresh reminder to me personally that, while I tend to think of certain historical periods as being "exciting" and other ones as "boring", it's all part of one big story, and the closer you examine any given time the more intriguing things you'll discover.

Sunday, May 19, 2024

Looney Orgcharts

Well! It's been a long time coming, but I've finally finished reading "Loonshots" by Safi Bahcall. My youngest brother recommended this book to me years ago after encountering it in a class. It gradually worked its way through my "to read" list, and I actually picked it up last year, but Life Stuff intervened and I had to return it to the library before finishing. I picked it back up again, refreshed some earlier chapters and rounded it off.

 


This is a pretty business-y book, which touches on a lot of different areas (history, military, politics, etc.) but primarily with an eye to succeeding in a business context. It reminds me a little of something like "Made to Stick": an interesting book that looks at history but with a primary focus on practical application. Sometimes these books feel like they're bending evidence to fit their theory, but they're pretty compelling in the arguments they make.

The "Loonshot" of the title refers to a left-field idea that is widely dismissed but that ultimately leads to transformational change. You can think of ideas like germ theory, airplanes, and the Internet: they were roundly mocked when first introduced, but ended up taking over the world. In the context of business, loonshots can open up lucrative new markets or cause revolutionary changes in existing markets. You can ride a loonshot into a new business, and if you have an existing successful business, you want to get the next loonshot before a competitor crushes you with it. But existing power structures will be very resistant to new ideas: they challenge existing business and seem to contradict the wisdom that has led to success in the past. The overall goal of this book is showing how to nurture loonshots in your business (or industry, government, or other group) to survive the changing of epochs, adapting and thriving over multiple generations of change.

Opposing Loonshots are "Franchises", established product lines that drive the day-to-day profitability of a business, the victories of a military branch, and so on. Franchises have been proven by their past successes and are easy to quantify, verify and support. Your business today depends on the efficient running of franchises, but that franchise could become obsolete from an upcoming loonshot. The loonshot of today becomes the franchise of tomorrow.

This book is filled with examples. Bahcall is most impressed with Vannvar Bush's Office of Scientific Research and Development, the transformational WW2-era program that shook the US military out of its stagnant complacency and enabled it to meet and eventually surpass Germany's military/industrial/scientific base. He also admires Theodore Vail's Bell Labs, which had a remarkable decades-long run of successful innovations that translated into business success. Bahcall has a background in biomedical research, and draws a lot of examples from innovative drugs and therapies as well.

Even more than these successes, the book shows numerous cautionary tales. Pan Am is a particularly striking one: they were a market-leading innovator for decades before getting crushed. Kodak is another interesting example; Kodak was eventually outdone by digital photography, even though digital photography was first invented at Kodak. And Steve Jobs makes multiple appearances, across both his tenures at Apple and his leadership at Pixar, and you can see how his past experiences caused him to change and become more successful over time.

Fortunately, this book isn't just a parade of anecdotes, and Bahcall presents some concrete models for success. He sees two important factors. First, you need to foster innovation, encouraging and rewarding out-of-the-box thinking. Without this commitment to research and experimentation your business will become stagnant. However, just pushing for innovation doesn't necessarily lead to success: it can produce chaos, as franchises are under-invested in, or turf battles break out between loonshots and franchises.

The second critical component is "phase separation": you want distinct groups, each with their own separate managers and incentives. "Soldiers" support franchises, while "Artists" support loonshots. Each role should be valued and respected, as soldiers allow you to survive in the present and artists allow you to survive in the future. Eventually, a successful loonshot (and not all loonshots are successful! most fail!) will need to become a franchise. This requires a "phase transfer", which is tricky to pull off: soldiers instinctively resist changes. So it's important that soldiers have buy-in and ownership of the new innovation, rather than giving them the power to kill it or forcing it down their throats. Bahcall recommends appointing project champions, who focus on the process of the transfer rather than the transfer itself, to increase the odds of successfully implementing the new idea.

A counter-example here is Xerox PARC, which came up with a ton of hugely innovative ideas, but never capitalized on any of them. Why? The old-school business units in Texas and the owners in New York thought those new ideas threatened their old business: if your bonus depends on selling a certain number of copiers, you won't want to build machines that make copiers obsolete. In the short term, killing the PARC ideas was perfectly logical. Over the long term, though, those cuts to copier sales would have happened anyways, and the bigger question should have been whether those dollars would move to other new divisions in Xerox or to their competitors. So in this case, Xerox came up with a great process for producing loonshots (fostering innovation and ensuring phase separation by setting up a separate high-quality R&D department), but still failed to reap the benefits due to their inability to ingest the new ideas.

Another partial failure is what Bahcall dubs the "Moses Trap." Many successful new companies became successful thanks to the brilliant ideas of their founders. A string of successes convince the founder, the employees and investors that they have a magic touch. But nobody has a perfect track record, and eventually that founder will bet the company on a dumb idea (or an idea that's before its time or otherwise not ready for success), or will fail to see the significance of a new innovation. In these cases, the soldiers will get their marching orders to go all-in on the new loonshot, and will follow their leader off a cliff. The early Steve Jobs is a great example here, as is Pan Am (pushing for bigger planes than the market wanted), Kodak (pushing for expensive single-use home film recorders), and many tech startups.

Bahcall also looks at two different types of Loonshots, which he confusingly calls "P type" and "S type". "P type" are product innovations, which are what we tend to think of when we imagine disruptive changes: the steam engine, the jumbo jet, or the World Wide Web. "S type" are what he calls "system innovations", but I'd call them "process innovations": more efficient or clever ways of doing existing things. These have more to do with organization, management and workflows than scientific or technological breakthroughs. System innovations include things like kaizen manufacturing, just-in-time supply chains, multi-line discounts, and pre-flight checklists.

System innovations are less exciting and less talked-about, but they tend to win out over product innovations. Pan Am was great at P-type innovations, but American Airlines crushed them with S-type innovations. This kind of makes sense; once you see a new product, and it's out of patent, you can just start making that product; but people may not notice when a new process is being adopted somewhere else, and it can be a lot harder to retrain an existing workforce to do things in a new way than it is to start making a new type of widget.

A couple of the examples he gives kind of rubbed me the wrong way. I first started reading this book around the same time as The House of Morgan, and noted the very different treatments they give of Charles Lindbergh. Bahcall tends to be very black-or-white in his writing, with people either heroic innovators or doomed losers (with only a handful of exceptions like Steve Jobs with both positive and negative traits highlighted). He wants Lindbergh to be a Good Innovator, and implies that he was unfairly smeared as a Nazi sympathizer when, uh, there are very good reasons he had that reputation! I was also a bit put out by the medical examples, which Bahcall seems to value in terms of the amount of sales produced rather than the harm reduced. Very expensive drugs are the problem, not the solution.

For the most part, though, his anecdotes ring true and are good, memorable, entertaining illustrations of the points he's making. I think that's just how this genre tends to work, with pithy examples lending legitimacy to ideas and not getting lost in the weeds of messy, actual reality.

All in all, this was a really good book that gives a very useful framework for thinking about structure and organization. Unlike most books I read, there's a good chance I'll be able to put some of these ideas to work in my own life, which is pretty cool. And it gives a useful lens for analyzing events in other industries - for example, I can't help but think of the Moses Trap now when I see Elon Musk's increasingly unhinged and desperate antics, or witness Google as a place where the ad-selling franchise has murdered the once world-leading loonshot factory for search; it's even interesting to think of, say, The Squad as a phase-separated loonshot factory, and the Democratic Party as a broader organization trying to evolve and compete. These tools are useful, but they're also kind of fun to play around with and use to make sense of the world.

Saturday, May 18, 2024

A Little Book

Looking through my post history, it was way back on January 1st 2013 that I wrote that a particular finance book ("A Random Walk Down Wall Street") might be the last financial book I ever read. Why? Because it reinforced the ideas I'd already been following in my personal investing life for the previous decade without adding anything substantially new. By this point I felt confident that I knew everything I needed to know.

Obviously, though, that wasn't the last finance book I read! It's been an interesting topic for me and something I continue to dip into. Some of it has to do with the political, social, legal or broader economic ramifications of finance; but I also sometimes pick up a pure personal finance book, with absolutely zero expectation it will change, let alone improve, my finances.

So why do I keep reading them? I've been mulling it over, and the best analogy I have is that of a religious practice. An observant religious person will regularly attend church or temple services. Why do they do this? Not to be convinced of the rightness of their faith. After a few years, it won't even be to learn more about the faith: sure, there may be some points of theology to discuss, but they've already embraced the core message of their religion. So why do it? Well, for many other reasons, including being part of a faith community, reinforcing their beliefs, coming to deeper and stronger understandings of tenets that they may feel unsure about, being prompted to think about how to apply their specific day-to-day situation to their timeless religious belief.

I don't want to say that personal finance is a religion - it benefits from observable quantifiable data and trends in a way that faith by definition cannot - but adhering to a certain financial practice does involve following a big-picture philosophy as well as applying that philosophy to daily decisions in a way that feels somewhat familiar. Do you follow the Boglehead practice or the Wall Street Bets heresy? Do you adhere to the Total Return creed or are you a Dividend Gang apostate? Has Cryptocurrency entered your pantheon of Acceptable Investment Vehicles? Most importantly of all, when the market inevitably tanks, will your faith be strong enough to stay the course during the storm, or will you flee and be lost?

That's a VERY long intro to say that I recently start, read, and finished "The Little Book of Common Sense Investing" by the late, great John Bogle. I've read multiple books of Bogle's, listened to speeches and interviews from him, and much of my personal finance reading comes from what could be considered the Extended Bogle Universe. I can't say that there's anything "new" in this book, in the sense of additional information or instruction that will cause me to change my behavior. But it was still a really enjoyable read, reinforcing the path I've happily been following, giving encouragement to continue the journey and providing some additional depth and color to familiar topics.

 


This book repeats a lot of little sayings and aphorisms from Bogle. One early one that I really like goes something like "Successful investing is simple, but it isn't easy." He makes a great analogy to dieting. Everyone knows the "secret" to losing weight: eat less and exercise more. If knowing was all that it took, everyone would be at their ideal weight. Knowing what to do is simple, actually following through with it and staying the course is incredibly challenging. So it is too with investing. The basics are very straightforward: live below your means, invest in low-cost equity funds for a very long time, and don't touch your investments until you retire. Actually following that path is a lot harder: it takes discipline, faith, and focus.

The main focus of this book is the advantage of passive index investing over actively managed investments. That's very old news to me at this point, but Bogle gives a detailed and thorough walkthrough of the reasons why indexing has an advantage and just how significant that advantage is. Compounding costs are just as important as compounding returns, and spending an extra 1% or so on expense ratios can have a huge impact on cumulative earnings over long periods of time; in some realistic scenarios over two or three decades, an index fund may realistically end with twice the value as an active fund.

There is some new stuff in this book, one of the most interesting a detailed look at all of the specific actively managed funds over a two-decade period. Many of them didn't even survive the period, shut down and folded into other funds. Bogle finds that, of the 300 that did survive, only 3 had greater returns than the S&P 500 index fund. And of those, two funds' returns were mostly due to extraordinary performance in their first years: most of the money flowed in after those stellar years, and the subsequent performance lagged the S&P 500. So a mere 1 in 300 funds actually managed to beat the index - astonishingly poor odds! Why take that risk?

The end of the book covers some retirement topics, which has been on my mind recently, particularly with reading How To Make Your Money Last. This book is less thorough than that one, but hits some good notes in its briefer duration. There's a particular focus on the utility of Social Security. Bogle has an interesting suggestion of treating social security like a bond: it's a low-risk and low-volatility source of regular income. So, assuming you receive Social Security, you may want to tilt more towards equities than bonds to hit a desired allocation; if you want to be 50/50 equities/bonds, your investment portfolio could be more like 60/40. Bogle gives some math for calculating this, coming up with a capitalized value for the stream of income generated by Social Security; this process has some arbitrary choices but seems well thought-through.

This really is a little book, with small pages and not many pages. The chapters are short and pithy. There's a great focus on memorable quotes, with Warren Buffer prominently featured along with various economists, finance experts, and business leaders.

One thing that was kind of unclear to me early in my investing career was just why I should be investing in stocks: I understand the concept of bonds, getting interest in exchange for loaning money, but just owning a share in stock seems kind of meaningless since no money flows to the company as a result of the security purchase, so why does it increase in value more than a bond? Bogle gives a brief but really excellent explanation of value, dividing it into business fundamentals versus market opinions. This follows the same analysis as A Random Walk Down Wall Street, and I was happy to see Bogle quoting Malkiel. Over the long run, you're an owner of businesses that make money, so you expect to share in their profits. That's the real fundamental return, which will be realized through dividends or reinvestment (and reinvestment resulting in a wealthier company and thus higher share prices). But in the short term the value assigned to those profits may vary widely. The most important thing for you to do as an investor is to tune out the noise. Don't try to predict market swings, which are irrational and emotional, and just stay invested for the long haul. Sooner or later prices will return to reflecting the fundamental value.

For fundamentals, Bogle long posited a simple formula: take the current dividend yield of a stock, and add its projected growth. The sum of these is its future earnings. When you buy a stock, you're essentially buying forward earnings: the profit it will return in the future. You can thus calculate price/earning ratios and determine whether individual stocks and the market as a whole are cheaper than the historical norm, more expensive, or around the same range.

The US stock market's P/E ratio has been really high for quite a while now. Bogle and his successors at Vanguard have always predicted a return to the mean, which is a gentle way of saying either a large and sudden decline in stock prices or a long stagnant period while the economy catches up to the inflated valuation. That hasn't happened yet, even in the seven years since this edition was published. I tend to think that we're overdue for a correction, and I'm instinctively skeptical of any arguments that "the rules have changed"; but over the last years I have started wondering whether external factors like longer life expectancies increase the actual utility of those forward earnings, in such a way that a higher P/E ratio is sustainably justified? And the George W. Bush tax cuts (which I HATE) slashed the long-term capital gains tax, which makes each dollar in profit work more post-tax, so that may also increase the actual value of a nominal profit. Even if the above suppositions are correct, that doesn't mean that P/E will increase indefinitely, but it's possible (only possible! not probable!) that there's a stable, long-term equilibrium (mean) at a higher level in the 21st century than there was in the mid-20th century.

My fear, though, is that the higher P/E ratio is more a matter of competition and scarcity, a purely demand-driven inflation rather than a supply-driven increase in utility. This could be the case as a result of more direct market participation, particularly as a result of the shift from pensions into 401(k) plans and automatic investing. That feels much less sustainable to me and would point more towards a strong correction.

One benefit of Bogleheading is that all the above doesn't matter - you just want to own the market and get your fair share of whatever it returns. It may be less or more than the historical average, but over the long run (of multiple decades) you'll always be better participating in the market than sitting it out. There have been numerous times in the past when I was confident that a correction was imminent, most recently in 2016 after the Presidential election, and felt tempted to pull all my money out; I'm glad that I opted for laziness, which gave me a much better result! Another Bogle aphorism that I love is "Don't do something, just stand there!"

I really like Bogle's voice, in this book and all of his writing and speaking. He's opinionated and frank with just enough humility. He's been proven right over and over again throughout his career, which understandably lends some confidence to his pronouncements, even if those pronouncements kind of boil down to "We're all just dummies, myself included." I was particularly interested in his discussion of the role of international equities in a portfolio. As he points out, literally everyone other than him (including everyone else at Vanguard) recommends including international exposure, while he's always favored a US-only portfolio. To his credit, in the time since his book was published, you'd still have been better off investing US-only. I feel like that has to change sometime, but again, I've been wrong before!

Reading this book now has felt rather timely, due to some major changes at Vanguard over the last month. They're making a big overhaul to their fee structure, adding new charges for accounts with less than $5 million (!!!) in assets. As a company that has always been defined by rock-bottom expenses, that feels like a huge shift. And just a few days ago, they announced that they're hiring a new CEO, Salim Ramji. Salim was previously at Blackrock, but prior to that he was a consultant at McKinsey, which is very worriesome to me. Salim will be the first Vanguard CEO to not have worked under Bogle, and the first to come from outside the company.

I've been a happy Vanguard customer for (I think) 20 years, but I am keeping an eye on things and seriously considering relocating. These days, most people in my online communities prefer Fidelity, which charges even lower fees, has better customer service and a better app and website. I've been sticking with Vanguard in large part because of their mutual structure: like a mutual insurance company, it's owned by the customers, which aligns the incentives for low costs; but the actual benefits of Fidelity may outweigh the theoretical advantages of Vanguard, and at some point my unhappiness may overcome my inertia and make me switch over.

Anyways! I've enjoyed all of Bogle's books I've read so far. I think "Enough." is still my favorite, as it ventures furthest afield from the technical aspects of investing to share some great life wisdom. I think that by now anyone who's genuinely interested in investing has a solid understanding of index investing, so this book is probably less impactful now than when it first came out, but it could be a helpful resource to people in the earlier stages of their investing journey. For the rest of us, it's like a good Sunday service, refreshing our convictions and keeping us on a good path.

Thursday, May 16, 2024

Pentiment

In an odd bit of synchronicity, my reading of Menewood, set during the dawn of the Middle Ages, coincided with my playthrough of Pentiment, set during the dusk of the Middle Ages. Both are set in a world of towns and monasteries, show worlds where religious practice infuses every aspect of life, and where secular and sacred authorities exist in an occasionally uneasy symbiosis.

 


Pentiment is a very unusual game. It was created by Obsidian, the studio behind some of the best RPGs ever (KOTOR 2, NWN 2, Fallout: New Vegas, South Park: The Stick of Truth, and Pillars of Eternity). It plays much more like an adventure game than an RPG, although there are some vaguely RPG-ish elements. The most striking aspect of Pentiment is its visual presentation, which perfectly aligns the setting, story, theme and gameplay. The main character, Andreas Maler, illuminates manuscripts. The art style looks very flat, as in a medieval painting, before the Renaissance reintroduced perspective.

 


At any point during the game/story, you can pause and zoom out from the action, at which point you see the current scene as a panel in the book telling your story. This is supported by marginalia: unfamiliar terms may be defined, but more often there's some fanciful illustrations of imaginary beasts, like something out of the Voynich Manuscript.

 


My favorite aspect is probably the dialogue. There's no voice acting here, all the text appears on-screen in speech bubbles. Each character "speaks" with their own distinct hand. Peasants have relatively rough scripts, while townspeople have more refined cursive. The monks have particularly ornate and beautiful flowing calligraphy, and University-educated men likewise "speak" in strong, detailed lettering. A particularly nice, subtle touch is that the font color grows gradually lighter, until the speaker refills their "ink" and after a brief pause resumes "speaking" with strong black lines again. A major exception is the printer in the town, who "speaks" by laying down lead-set block type and then "printing" it.

 


Pentiment is the shortest Obsidian game I've played, but it's longer than I thought it would be, with a story that grows and takes some fun turns along the way.

 


 

MINI SPOILERS

Your player character, Andreas Maler, is a bit of an outsider who straddles different worlds. At the start of the game he's employed by Kiersau Abbey, but is not himself a monk: he's a journeyman artisan helping brothers in the Scriptorium with illuminating custom manuscripts. He rents a room from a peasant family, is friends with the villagers and a peer with the monks, traveling between those worlds. Born in Nuremberg, he doesn't have family connections in the Bavarian Alps; this outsider status gives lots of opportunities to ask questions.

 


I mentioned before that there are some light RPG-ish elements to the gameplay. During dialogue, you get a few chances to decide on the background and abilities of your Andreas. Your options include things like knowledge of nature, with medicine, with classical history, with theology, and so on. You could also decide whether your apprenticeship took place in Venice, Genoa, Milan or some other city. In all cases, picking a particular background or skill will unlock unique dialogue options.

 


There are also a handful of persuasion checks in the game, where you try to convince someone to do something. The outcome is usually based on previous things you have told them, but sometimes it can be influenced by your actions or skills. I'm honestly still not sure exactly how the mechanics of this work, but it seems like each check needs a certain number of "positive" points in order to pass (as opposed to a die roll or something).

 


Most of the gameplay consists of walking around and talking to people. There are a few puzzles to solve and a few fun minigames (none of which are repeated). It definitely seems like some things are missable, so you're well served by walking off the beaten path and talking to everyone, even if it doesn't show up as an objective. (On the other hand, this is all ultimately just a story, so missing something doesn't mean you'll "lose" the game, just that future events may play out differently.)

 


The core plot of the game revolves around a murder mystery. A prominent man is murdered and a monk who you know to be innocent is accused of the crime. As an outsider, you are trusted to conduct your own investigation. This primarily involves questioning potential suspects, but also searching for clues and looking for other evidence.

 


The overall setting and murder-mystery angle made me think of The Name of the Rose, the excellent novel from Umberto Eco. Like that novel, this game is driven by the murder, but the murder itself is also deeply connected with theological matters.

MEGA SPOILERS

There is very limited time in the game to do your investigations and make an accusation. I was mostly focused on the weird stuff in the monastery, particularly the occult objects, and didn't spend much time at all with the villager suspects; I don't think I ever even spoke with Lucky and didn't follow up on anything with Martin. During the trial I accused Ferenc. I had the most evidence to implicate him, and he'd been "difficult and evasive" during questioning. The other plausible character to accuse was Sister Matilda; I felt very bad for what had happened to her, though, and listened to the pleas of others to keep her name from the investigation. (I couldn't really picture her murdering the Baron, although I did toy with the idea that one of the other sisters might have done it on her behalf.)


During the trial I ultimately just shared the information on Ferenc and didn't even mention any of the other suspects, nor the notes I had found. My motivation was to avoid dragging any innocent people into the system. During the execution, I had very strong doubts about my choice!! It's an absolutely brutal, gut-wrenching scene, with Ferenc screaming and crying while surrounded by variously jeering and horrified onlookers. I felt filled with regret.

 


I was under the impression that Pentiment was a very short game, so I was kind of expecting it to end after the execution, perhaps to encourage a replay and learn more about the mystery. Instead, there's a seven-year time-skip. Andreas is now a master artisan who has returned to Nuremberg, gotten married, and become a respected and successful person. He has returned to Kiersau to pay his respects to Brother Piero, the monk was was falsely accused of the Baron's murder. In the intervening time Andreas has traveled and expanded his skills, so you essentially "level up" by selecting some new background options.

 


Before long, another murder occurs, this time of a local agitator. In the intervening years, Martin Luther's reform movement has turned into a schism, and there's great fear about cracks within the Catholic church. Father Gernot's previously harsh taxes have turned draconian, causing widespread misery among the townsfolk. As before, there are plenty of likely suspects who may have wanted to commit the murder. And there is even less time than before to investigate: instead of a few days, you have a single day to identify the murderer before the mob of furious peasants lynch the abbot.

 


There's even less convincing evidence this time around. In my game I focused on Brother Guy. You find damning proof that he has been embezzling money from the abbey. In my mind, this made him singularly responsible for the misery infecting Tassing: Gernot has been under the impression that Kiersau's finances are dire, which motivates him to impose his brutal taxes; if it wasn't for Guy's theft, perhaps the village and country wouldn't suffer so much. That said, I was even less sure about Guy than I was about Ferenc. While the motivation is clear, I never found any evidence placing him at the scene of the crime.

 


Things feel much further out of control in the second act than the first. The peasants are at the end of their rope, with a few voices pleading restraint but many more ready for drastic action. A few villagers hold especially important positions. The miller is by far the wealthiest member of the town and for decades has exploited his monopoly to impoverish the farmers. In contrast, the baker is a kindly Christian man who provides bread to those in need at a fair price. The baker is widely respected and, while supporting Tassing's grievances, consistently pleads for non-violence. During a tense confrontation, the miller accidentally shoots and kills the baker; this elevates the violence even more, spiraling into the burning of the miller and, eventually, the monastery itself. Andreas perishes in the flames while trying to save books from the scriptorium.

 


Now comes another time-jump, this time of 20 years, and this time a character jump as well: you now play as Magdalene Druckeryn, the printer's daughter, who was just a baby in the previous section and now is a young woman. Somewhat like Andreas you can select your skills and background; in my game she was persuasive and had a great head for finance and figures. One especially cool thing is that she gets a skill based on a previous decision made: what book Andreas bought her as a gift during the previous act. In my game, he got her a novel of chivalrous romance, and as a result she unlocked dialogue choices relating to tales of nobility.

 


The mechanics of gameplay with Magdalene are the same as with Andreas, but everything about this last act of the game feels very different from the first two. While you can choose between different dialogue responses, Magdalene tends to be funnier than Andreas, with a sharp, dry wit and more options for non-verbal responses. While time felt extremely compressed in the first and (especially) second acts, it's positively langrous in the third, with days, weeks or even months passing between scenes, unlike earlier where every hour meant the difference between life and death. And this time around you aren't trying to solve a murder. There's still Weird Things happening, and the backdrop of the previous murders loom over the town, but much less of a frantic race to pin a suspect.

 


Over the course of the first two acts, you gradually come to realize that, while some individual technically committed the murder, they were coaxed into doing so by some mysterious entity, whom Andreas dubs "The Thread-Puller". The Thread-Puller previously wrote notes in purple ink with a very ornate hand, secretly delivering them to people with a motive to kill the victim and providing details on when and where they'll have the opportunity to do so. Now, in the third act, the same types of notes start to appear again. Magdalene's father Claus is assaulted, surviving but badly injured, and Magdalene herself eventually receives notes as well.

 


The game ends with a bunch of surprising but well-earned revelations. (I know we're in Mega Spoilers here, but still, if you think you'll ever play this game you should skip ahead!). First is the discovery that Andreas Maler is still alive: he lost consciousness during the fire but did not die, and has been living a marginal existence on the outskirts of town for the last two decades as he deals with the grief of the death of his apprentice. Magdalene thinks that Andreas has been stalking and threatening her, but he's actually been watching over her and Claus, protecting them from harm.

 


While researching the history of Tassing for a mural she's drawing, Magdalene learns that Tassing was built over older Roman ruins. In particular, there used to be a temple to Mithras known as the Mithraeum which was apparently lost or destroyed in a floor. Andreas and Magdalene decide to go looking for it, as this seems to be where the Thread Puller moves between locations and retreats when threatened. Andreas has some kind of hallucination here, processing all his thoughts about his abandoned wife, dead son and dead apprentice. Andreas and Magdalene find the Mithraeum, and inside it Sister Amelie, the anchoress. She's been a presence throughout the game, seemingly walled up inside of the church, suffering from hallucinations/revelations that have occurred shortly before each death. As she "speaks", we realize that she has the extremely elegant hand that wrote the Thread Puller's notes.

 


But much like the murderers themselves, Amelie herself isn't really responsible: her hand wrote the notes and delivered them, but she didn't come up with the words or have any intention to cause harm. The thread puller behind the thread puller is none other than Father Thomas, the eminently likeable and mild-mannered local priest. Amusingly, I'd just been thinking about how much I liked Thomas: he's definitely orthodox in his religious beliefs, as one would expect, but always came across as kindly, thoughtful and compassionate. I think this is reinforced through his art style and presentation: he's almost always smiling, is slightly pudgy, and walks with an adorable rocking motion, all of which subtly signifies him as harmless.

 


Thomas lays out the reason behind the murders, which Andreas and Magdalene have partly put together. The village of Tassing is literally built on a lie. The original Roman settlement was abandoned, leaving behind statues, buildings and other artifacts. Later, when Christian refugees found and re-settled it, they identified those artifacts as being of Christian origin: statues of saints, a labyrinth of Mary. This drives Tassing's identity, Kiersau's mission, and even the local economy, as pilgrims journey to see those holy relics. But they aren't holy relics of the Church, they're actually pagan symbols of Rome.

 


This all started several years before the game when Kiersau's previous abbot found a book, Historia Tassia, that laid out the history. Thomas poisoned the abbot, making it seem like he died of natural causes. At the start of the game, the Baron brings another copy of the same book, and Thomas arranges for the Baron's murder to keep the book from view. (This doesn't go as planned, as Martin stole the book anyways; but the book remains hidden for many years without re-entering circulation.) Finally, Otto discovers the missing head of "Saint Moritz"; what the illiterate Otto doesn't realize (but Thomas does) is that the head is emblazoned with the words "MARS PATER", proving that the statue is actually of the Roman god. Finally, Claus and Magdalene's investigations into the town's history for the mural threaten another avenue of exposure; Thomas never makes an actual attempt on their lives, but tries to scare them off.

 


Everything gets wrapped up somewhat satisfyingly. Thomas brings down the ceiling of the submerged Mithraeum, but Andreas and Magdalene manage to rescue Amelie and escape. You can choose whether to share the truth with all the hurt it may cause or keep it concealed. The game ends with Magdalene leaving Tassing to start a new phase of her life in Prague, while Andreas reenters society as a welcome member of the Tassing community, in touch with his art once again.

 


Once everything clicks together at the end, I felt almost overwhelmed by just how perfect the story of Pentiment is. There are like four or five different layers of meaning that all resonate with and reinforce one another; they're all present throughout the whole game, but (at least for me) don't really come into focus until the conclusion. Going back to the title, "Pentiment" is the re-emergence of an element of a painting that was painted over by an artist; either age or abrasion can remove the newer image and reveal what was underneath it the whole time.

 


That's definitely what has happened in Tassing, where multiple civilizations have succeeded one another, each literally building on top of the previous one. Pre-Roman pagan culture was succeeded by Roman culture, then the early Christian refugees from Switzerland, who were gradually assimilated by nearby Bavarians. Farmers in the fields find bits and pieces of ancient Roman pottery and tools, long buried and gradually brought up to the surface again.

 


As with the physical objects, so with the legends and culture. From the first act of the game you've noted the strong parallels between the stories of Saint Moritz and Saint Satia, and older pagan stories that are still remembered in the town. It's now clear that those old stories had some names changed and some details updated, dressed up in Christian clothing but still the same. (Which was extra-cool for me to see, since that's basically what Hild is doing at the end of Menewood, so I was kind of witnessing both the start of that syncretic practice and its denouement a thousand years later.)

 


That same pattern of re-emergence repeatedly echoes on an individual, personal level as well. The evidence of the crimes are hidden, but come back again. People experience traumas in their childhood, suppress it for years, then see it erupt in adulthood. Actions you took in the early stages of the game are re-presented at the end: "choice and consequences", but with an incredibly strong tie-in to the game's overall theme.

 


Finally, I was really struck by all of the family trees shown at the very end of the game. In my playthrough, I was rather annoyed by Otz, so I didn't have Magdalene pursue any relationship with him. She remains independent at the end, which is kind of cool; but also comes to seem rather lonely as you see the flowering of other families. There's a strong sense of connection, growth, history, and support through familial ties. Also some sad things to see as well: it looks like the Roma and Artemis are burned at the stake, presumably for heresy, which may have been at least partly due to my encouragement of their unorthodox beliefs.

 


A few final random thoughts: overall I actually really enjoyed how religious faith was presented in this game. As seems appropriate for the setting and the era, religious references fill peoples' speech, with giving thanks to God, offering prayers, seeking and sharing encouragement and comfort. It isn't a separate activity or belief but something deeply ingrained in every aspect of life. It's portrayed with a good deal of variety and nuance as well, with cerebral debates at Kiersau Abbey alongside simple and homely religious practice in Tassing. I really enjoyed the presence of an Ethiopian Copt, which was accompanied by some fantastic (and, I believe, accurate) art. While Thomas is ultimately shown to be bad, I still really enjoyed seeing his scenes of confession; this put me in mind of Catholic novels I've read, like Willa Cather or Walter Miller, which respectfully portray the positive aspects of this practice: surrendering individual suffering before a greater power, accepting grace and the serenity that can come with absolution.

 

One very cool aspect of the long timespan of this game is getting to see the long-term growth of characters. One that particularly struck me was Martin. In the first act, I was strongly tempted to accuse him of the murder, mostly just because he's such an unpleasant and irresponsible person. The only reason I didn't was because I didn't have nearly as much evidence on him as I did for Ferenc. Then, in Act 2, you see how he's grown into such a supportive and helpful person, which made me very glad that I didn't murderize him! (Of course, this is complicated by the fact that Martin isn't actually Martin. I'm not sure if I'll replay this game, but if I do, I'll be very curious to see how that particular story changes.)

My favorite evolution is probably the Doctor. In the first act he is such an unlikeable, arrogant, condescending jerk, who clearly hates being in Tassing and hates everyone there. By the end of the game, you can still see traces of his pride and vanity, but he's also made it clear through his deeds that, under his attitude, he's come to deeply love this village and everyone in it, and feels good about devoting his life to their health.

And, visually, it's just fun to see little kids grow up into adults, and see the adults get a little grayer and a little pudgier. I can relate!

END SPOILERS

Pentiment has been one of the most interesting and enjoyable games I've played this year. It's great to see Obsidian stretching their creative muscles and doing something different; I'd love to see, say, BioWare doing a similar spin on their moribund Dragon Age franchise. The gameplay was pretty simple but very effective, and the story and setting tickled all sorts of interests for me: history, religion, art, politics, guilt, atonement, community, justice, economics, power, love, family. This felt like reading a book, in the best sense of that phrase, and I think it will linger with me in the same way a finely plotted and layered novel will for a long time to come.

 


Monday, May 13, 2024

Womenwood

I really adored Hild, a historical fiction book from Nicola Grifith that often felt like fantasy but was very rooted in early English history. She was very clear that a sequel was coming, but the wait had been long enough that I had stopped tracking the book. The follow-up, Menewood, was recently published and is a terrific read, continuing Hild's extraordinary story as she enters young adulthood.

 


MINI SPOILERS

"Hild" put me in mind of books like Merlin, with a wise seer who offers counsel to a powerful king. "Menewood" felt a bit more like "The Outlaws of Sherwood", with a focus on building a community: not just one remarkable person, but a whole collection of people from various backgrounds (ethnic, linguistic,  religious, professional, etc.) joining together, learning to work together and accomplishing great things under the thoughtful guidance of a leader.

(Apologies in advance for how much of this post will be comparing Hild to Menewood, that's just how my brain is working right now!)

There's less explicit discussion of religion in the new book. By this time the supremacy of Christianity is mostly taken for granted and the old Woden worship is seen as a last gasp. But as Christianity becomes dominant, we start to see internal politics at play, with British priests and Irish monks alongside the Roman priests from the previous book. There isn't exactly friction between them, but what feels like some considerable side-eye. Hild herself seems to preach a syncretic faith, declaring that there is a single God but that God can manifest in various forms, including Woden. Based on other readings, I think that's a very common tendency during conversions, where indigenous beliefs will get wrapped into the new faith.

There's also less "seer" business here, and Hild herself explicitly notes that change and the reason for it near the end of this book. When she was a powerless girl in a hostile court, she needed to lean in on mystical trappings for her own survival, convincing the king that she had powers which made her more valuable alive than dead. Now, she is a leader in her own right, with sworn men who will follow her. She still uses the skills she had as a "seer", but now she's more clearly explaining her source of information and her reasoning to the people around her, and not just to use the readers.

MEGA SPOILERS

For most of Hild I was riveted by her love life, particularly the heartbreaking connection with Gwladus. I was really bummed when she got with Cian in the first novel, which ended the book on a sour note for me. Seeing them in Menewood, though, they do seem to have a strong relationship and make each other happy. The fact that Cian dies takes the sting out of the union. Hild returns to loving women, including a brief (and surprisingly narratively elided) fling with the wife of a chieftain, but she mostly plays "bed games" with Brona, a real salt-of-the-earth butcher from York. As she continues to mature, Hild seems like a recognizable type of bisexual, generally preferring a certain gender but having a strong attraction to a specific individual of another gender.

I'd forgotten the "bed games" nomenclature from the first novel; I think it was Hild's mother Breguswith who first introduces the term. In this era and culture, marriage is supremely significant and far too important for any individual to decide on their own: marriages are frequently arranged to cement a peace between warring neighbors, or to strengthen an alliance, or dispose of a potential rival. But while marriage and producing an heir are public matters, love and sex are private matters. "Bed games" are introduced as a way to fulfill passions, let off steam, satisfy physical and emotional needs, and are seen as a way to support, rather than undermine, an arranged marriage.

I haven't written much about the plot... it's good, but also somewhat unusually paced. There's a lot of "worldbuilding" early on as Hild takes on her leadership role and plans to build up Elmet, including the refuge of Menewood. The big development of the first part of the novel is King Edwin's disastrous war against Cadwallon and Penda. Hild knows that it's going to go poorly, which is a big part of why she works so hard to prepare Elmet, but she's still powerless to stop this catastrophe. (And just when you think things couldn't get sadder or more tragic, there's probably the single saddest passage I've read in the last decade, when Hild realizes the fate of her child.)

There is a long stretch after the death of Edwin and Cian where Hild is grief-stricken, practically mute. This section felt very much like Act 2 in a traditional Hollywood movie, "long dark night of the soul" style. But I did enjoy this part: it feels very important to honor Hild's trauma. She works through things, but she'll never be free of the intense grief that she's suffered.

The second half of the book is mostly about Hild trying to make things good again. In a traditional story this would be a revenge plot; she definitely does feel anger towards Cadwallon and his supporters for the violence they have inflicted, but Hild, ever far-sighted, is thinking about what comes next. How can she help build an enduring peace that will enable her and her fellow survivors to thrive? (Interestingly, she does swear revenge against Cadwallon, but on behalf of her allies, not on her own behalf.)

There's another long stretch of planning and preparing, after Hild returns to Menewood, takes stock of the situation and writes letter after letter to potential allies. For a while I was wondering if the actual confrontation with Cadwallon would wait until the third book. But the campaign starts very late in the novel and does come to a satisfying conclusion by the end. This is my favorite part of the book: it's exciting and dramatic, with Hild's long-planned schemes coming to fruition but also needing to improvise and quickly take advantage of surprising developments. Eventually all of the many forces she has lined up come together and defeat his army, with Hild herself getting to strike the killing blow. I think this sequence is perfect for the story being told. Yes, Hild is strong and brave (and tall!), but her superpower is her mind, her ability to notice things that others don't, to think of things that others won't, and to thoroughly plan.

END SPOILERS

Menewood wraps up more neatly than Hild, with the major conflicts resolved and most people receiving an appropriate reward or punishment, but there are still some tantalizing plot threads left open. These particularly involve relations with other parts of (what we now call) England, and if and how Hild would be involved in those relations. I'm sure we'll be getting at least a third book, although I am curious what time it would cover. The first book covered about 15 years of her life while this one spans less than 2 years (albeit historically eventful years!). It would be interesting to have another book that covers the time until when Hild re-enters the historical record as the abbess of Whitby, but that would follow a much longer time.

I don't know exactly what Nicola's plans are - she had originally intended to write a trilogy. These books do feel fantasy-ish, and fantasy series are infamous for growing longer than originally planned, so we may have even more to look forward to. But at the same time, this is based on a historical person, so there are limits to where the story can go. Regardless, I'm looking forward to reading whatever comes next!