Friday, September 09, 2022

Cuckoo Clock

One of several nice things about returning to my commuting lifestyle has been a notable increase in my reading. Of course I could have used the time I saved on commuting to work to read, but somehow I didn't. When I'm locked into public transit on a regular schedule, though, I can plow through books like nobody's business.

 


My latest conquest is Cloud Cuckoo Land, by Anthony Doerr. It's the first book of his I've read, and I didn't know what to expect, but I quite liked it. It has a really great moral centeredness, which I increasingly appreciate these days, and it does some good things with timelines and characters that are very satisfying; not exactly tricky, but using them in interesting ways.

MINI SPOILERS

The book moves between three or five timelines, depending on how you count them. They are interwoven throughout the novel, but in chronological order they look something like this.

It isn't in the novel, but the implicit start of all this happens in ancient Greece when Antonius Diogenes writes a story "Cloud Cuckoo Land". He apparently does this to comfort an ailing niece of his, and like much classic fiction, the author insists that it is an actual story he has discovered that depicts true events. Within the story, the protagonist goes to see the Aristophanes play "The Birds", and emerges convinced that the place depicted in the play, "Cloud Cuckoo Land", actually exists. He sets out to find it and undergoes a hapless series of adventures, being transformed into a donkey, then a fish, then a bird, and eventually finds that there actually is such a place.

This story, like most stories from antiquity, is mostly lost, due to the vagaries of time, political upheaval and fire and earthquake and rot. The story picks back up in the 1450s, where a girl named Anna living in Constantinople befriends an old tutor, learns how to read, and then discovers a copy of this book. In parallel, a boy named Omeir is born in Bulgaria with a cleft palette, grows up ostracized, and eventually is conscripted into the Sultan's army for the siege of Constantinople.

(And yes, once again it feels like my other interests are weirdly synchronizing with my current obsession with Europa Universalis IV. EU4 starts in 1444, and one of the first major events that will happen in most games without extraordinary player intervention is the Ottoman Empire conquering the Byzantine Empire. What Cloud Cuckoo Land makes even clearer than EU4 is just how important artillery was in ushering in a new age of warfare. During the medieval period, when attackers used catapults and trebuchets, strong walls like Constantinople's could stand strong; but the new era of gunpowder and cannonballs lead to huge upheaval and opportunities.)

The story picks back up again in a long stretch in Idaho from the 1930s through 2020. A Greek immigrant comes to America with his son Zeno, volunteers to join the military after Pearl Harbor, and dies in action. Zeno, a closeted gay man who never seems comfortable in his own skin, follows in his father's footsteps and joins the Korean War effort, where he is captured and placed in a POW camp. There he meets Rex Browning, a British teacher of classics. They bond over their shared and obscure knowledge of the Greek language. They are separated during the war, and reunite much later, and late in life Zeno takes up an interest in translations, encouraged by Rex. The long-lost copy of Cloud Cuckoo Land is rediscovered in the Vatican library and put online for everyone to read; it's been badly damaged and its sections are out of order, but Zeno takes on the challenge of crafting a readable translation from the surviving fragments. These translations are scattered throughout this novel, separating the sections.

Late in this timeline, we meet Seymour, a troubled young man who is far along on the autism spectrum. When we first see him, he seems like the most monstrous person imaginable, shooting a man in cold blood and preparing to detonate a bomb in a library where children are preparing to put on a play. As we rewind and retrace his steps, we see what led him to this point, primarily a deep and sincere love of nature, incredibly harsh experiences in human society, and the cynical manipulation of extremists.

Finally, there is the Argos in the future, a generation ship fleeing a depleted Earth to restart civilization on a far-away planet. Konstance is the protagonist here, and she's grown up hearing stories of Cloud Cuckoo Land told by her father. Eventually she starts doing some of her own research, discovering that there are other versions of the story.

There are a lot of themes in this book, which I'm having a hard time precisely articulating. One core idea might be how stories are both ephemeral and enduring. When we look at Cloud Cuckoo Land, we can feel sorrow for all that was lost, but we can also feel joy that the story continues to entertain people for nearly three thousand years. You can align that mixture of decay and tenacity to the trajectory of the human race itself: it is dying, killing itself through violence and destroying its home through environmental degradation, and  yet people continue to love and make art and grow.

One kind of irony in the novel is how the more fragmented and damaged the text becomes, the more invigorating and inspiring it is. For a long time Zeno feels immense frustration at his inadequacies as a translator (which of four possible words should he use to translate this ancient Greek term?) and the difficulty of the text (how can he translate an incomplete story?). But thanks to the insight of a child, he reconciles the dilemma and finds a liberating freedom in being able to invent the missing pieces. In this way he follows in the footsteps of Diogenes himself. At the beginning and the end of the story's lifespan, people made up things to please their audience. In the middle of the lifespan, people scrupulously guarded the literal words of the text. I imagine an omega shape, with the end curving back towards the beginning, in form if not in content.

I was pretty impressed by how Doerr managed Seymore's storyline. These days I tend to be unenthusiastic about redemption arcs, either painting villains sympathetically by showing righteous origins or focusing on how they convert to good. This book does both of those things, and somehow does so without triggering my standard distaste. You get a very visceral sense for what what Seymore's existence is like, from the physical torment he experiences through sounds and other sensations in the world to the social isolation he endures. Nearer the end, we see the hard work he does to try and atone for his mistakes: it isn't flippant, it centers the victims instead of the perpetrator, it recognizes the limitations of restitution and the power of forgiveness without putting the onus of forgiveness on the victims.

MEGA SPOILERS

I did really enjoy the twist with the Argos, which I didn't see coming. More broadly, I like how the book recognizes the immense threat of climate change; even if it isn't explicitly about the environment, I kind of feel like any book set in our future has to acknowledge the course we're currently on. I've noticed this as an emerging trend among my favorite authors, including David Mitchell, and hope it continues until and unless we can somehow correct our course.

END SPOILERS

In the afterword, the author describes this as a "book that is a love letter to books". I'd thought of it that way while reading it, as it's explicitly about the survival and evolution of a particular book over time. That said, writing a book about how good books are feels a bit like making a movie about how great movies are: you know your audience will already be on board for that message without much effort on your part. Which got me thinking, I would love to read a book that hates books: something with the message "books are dumb and pointless, only losers write books and even bigger losers read them, if you're reading this book then you're an idiot!" That idea really tickles me for some reason.

But back to Cloud Cuckoo Land: It's a thoughtful, engaging book, and a swift read despite its length. There's a lot to chew over inside it, but it's also a well-told and compelling story in its own right.

Wednesday, August 10, 2022

Hawking Equality

As I mentioned/threatened recently, there are two new-ish Thomas Piketty books out. A Brief History of Equality had more demand and I needed to wait a while to get my hands on it from the library, but it was worth the wait.

 

 

In his introduction, Piketty explicitly positions this book as a response to the widespread demand for shorter and more digestible versions of his massive tomes: there's a lot of interest in his analysis of wealth inequality, often from people without a ton of time to read. In my opinion, Capital in the Twenty-first Century and Capital & Ideology are extremely readable; but their mere sizes at over a thousands pages each are definitely daunting. Piketty wanted to give a bit of a primer to his work, covering not only those two but also his earlier "Top Incomes in France in the Twentieth Century", which I have not read.

Of course, this isn't just a heavily abridged reprint, but a new work that weaves in a lot of his arguments from elsewhere. As he notes, his own outlook on some topics has shifted over the last two decades, so he's taking this opportunity to make a more cohesive and up-to-date explanation of how he sees the state of the world.

Overall I enjoyed this book, but honestly it doesn't feel essential for people who have already read his other books. There were just a handful of things that really jumped out to me as new-ish ideas, such as a consideration (which he describes but does not necessarily advocate for) of replacing ownership with "universal wages". Very often he'll spend a few sentences or paragraphs on a topic he might have spent several pages or a chapter on in another book, such as Sweden's transition from a hyper-capitalist censitary suffrage system to an egalitarian social democracy, or how America's investment in education in the 19th century lead to our economic dominance in the 20th. I'm genuinely curious how these things would be received by someone who hasn't read his earlier books: hopefully they're still digestible and meaningful, even with less time spent on each topic.

It isn't exactly new, but I was really struck by Piketty's history-focused look at the rise of Western Capitalism and how Europe's interminable and expensive wars in the middle of the second millennium paved the way for their domination over the rest of the world in the nineteenth century. In addition to racism and exploitation, Piketty has a strong focus on colonialism, which I personally tend not to think about much but is probably particularly resonant for French people like Piketty, given the shameful history of Haiti and the recent conflicts in Algeria and Vietnam. Anyways, I think this jumped out at me because the time period Piketty focuses on is exactly the same as the time period of Europa Universalis IV, which has been my other major obsession of the past few months: starting with a fragmented, weak and warring Europe that stands in contrast to wealthy Ming and powerful Ottomans, and (most likely but depending on the player's actions) ending with empires centered in Europe spanning the globe.

Based on the introduction, I was vaguely expecting the book to be roughly 1/3 "TIiF", 1/3 "Cit21C", and 1/3 "C&I". Instead, I think it's maybe 90% C&I, 7% Cit21C and 3% TIiF. Which isn't necessarily a problem; C&I is his most recent work, most expansive and ambitious, with the broadest application and seems most exciting to him personally, so it makes sense that's where his focus would be. I was mildly disappointed that he spent so little time connecting Cit21C with C&I. When reading the latter work, I was struck by how his newly optimistic outlook completely ignored what seem to me to be the grim fundamental observation of the earlier book: r > g. I was hoping that this book would reconcile those, but it continues to ignore it, making the simpler argument that returning to mid-20th-century tax policies will result in mid-20th-century results in wealth and income equality.

That said, I do really dig Piketty's enthusiastic embrace of intersectionality. He doesn't point to social and climate justice as a reason to reform our economic system: he loudly points out that we're destroying our planet and destroying ourselves with racism, sexism and greed, and offers some tools that he thinks could help us build a more just, fair and sustainable world.

This book was translated by Steven Rendall, not Arthur Goldhammer like Piketty's doorstop books have been, and I'm mildly curious about how the translations may have differed. I absolutely loved the earlier repetition of "I will return to this point" as a sort of comforting signpost while Piketty led the way through an argument. Here those words don't appear, but we do see phrases like "We will return at length", and I'm left wondering whether it's another translation of the same phrase or some new idiom Piketty used in the original French.

Overall Piketty's voice sounds the same: clear, thoughtful, informed. There isn't a whole lot of humor in here, but occasionally something fun slips into a footnote. One unusual hint of snark comes late in the book, when he says something along the lines of "Billionaires love to spend enormous amounts of money on far-fetched schemes involving space travel or geo-engineering rather than the more mundane solutions of paying taxes and living modestly."

The question in the back of my mind while reading this book was, "Would I recommend this to someone else for their first Piketty?". My final answer is a solid "Probably". It's definitely less daunting than his much longer books, and it covers the most interesting and exciting aspects of his scholarship. There isn't a whole lot here for people who've already read his other books, and if someone is already deeply invested in economics or social class then they'd probably do better heading straight to "the big books"; but for the majority of people who don't want to carry thousands of pages with them on public transit or an airplane, this is a really good introduction to what Piketty has to offer.

Thursday, July 21, 2022

ANTSAT

This is a short post promoting a short but great game. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Shredder's Revenge is a blast, perfectly evoking the classic beat-em-up games from the 90s. It lovingly rips off the feel and setting of those entries, particularly Turtles In Time, which was my favorite arcade game as a youth.

 

The core of the game consists of playing through levels, knocking out enemies and fighting a boss at the end. There are some minor new bells and whistles though, like an overworld map for moving between stages, hidden collectibles and characters, and challenges and achievements. A more significant update is character progression: you gain XP as you defeat enemies and complete bonuses, which increases your level. Each level gives some persistent upgrade to your character: maybe an extra health bar or a new dive attack or an additional use of your super attack. Those levels persist across game runs, but are unique per character, so you might want to stick with one to use their extra power, or switch to another to level them up as well.

 


The classic TMNT games offered the four turtles as playable, while this entry allows up to six people to play at the same time, with April and Splinter joining in the fun. I played the first few stages solo as Leonardo, then had some incredibly fun online co-op sessions with my brother where I played as Donatello. The co-op is a blast all around. It feels incredibly fast and responsive, not at all laggy even when playing far apart. The game design really rewards having multiple players: there are some challenges, like enemies carrying shields, that are extremely hard for a single player to pass but that are a breeze with a well-coordinated team.

 


We used Discord for voice chat, which worked great. I don't do much co-op play, so my only recent experience has been some casual group play in Minecraft, and my last experience before that was probably Mass Effect 3 multiplayer a decade ago. Anyways, we were both pleasantly surprised by how good the voice chat was. I had forgotten that I had previously configured my setup to be push-to-talk, but after disabling that, the output worked well, and we could hear each other great. This was good for casual chats, and also for coordinating action within the game. ("Let's beat up the pig first." "I'll take the right, you take the left.")

 


As others have reported, the game is short, but personally I view that as a feature and not a bug: I love being able to finish a thing and still live my life (and/or play other games!). We played for a couple of hours across two weekends to get from the very start to the very end. Since then we've replayed a couple of matches with Splinter and Michelangelo to level them up some and pick up some missing collectibles and challenges. It seems that only the host gets credit for completing a challenge during a given stage.

 


This has been a fantastic experience, and while I'm satisfied by the game, I'm definitely hungry for more! I could easily see some DLC being welcome, adding some more stages to this game and perhaps raising the level cap; the overworld design already lends itself well to this kind of extensibility. I'd also enjoy seeing a similarly loving treatment of the classic X-Men brawler, which was my other favorite arcade game of that era. And heck, maybe one of these days I'll finally get around to playing Scott Pilgrim vs. The World!

Tuesday, July 19, 2022

Never Gonna Give You Up

I wasn't sure what to expect from Kazuo Ishiguro's "Never Let Me Go". It was a gift from my brother, and I haven't read anything from the author before. It turned out to be a really lovely book: intriguingly written, with a very natural style, a slow burn of discovery and revelation, and a heavy blanket of melancholy feelings resting over the whole thing.

 


The narration is probably my favorite aspect of the novel. It's told in the first person as a sort of ambling reminiscence. It feels a lot like how real conversations go: the narrator will start telling a story, then explain why that story is important, then go back to describe something that happened earlier and how that led to the current story, then mention how all of this contributed to some later event. It sounds messy, but it's easy to follow, and I never found myself lost. The description mostly progresses chronologically forward in time, but with a lot of whorls and eddies along the way, and as the narration draws closer to the presence, reminiscing itself becomes important to the story: how two people bond by recounting a shared experience from their childhood, or how irritation will flare when one person claims not to remember doing something before.

MEGA SPOILERS

The heart of the novel is the relationship between Kath, Ruth and Tommy. Kath and Ruth in particular feel especially real and relatable: they have a very intense friendship and rivalry full of bitter, hurt feelings and pride, interspersed with genuine affection. Ruth definitely comes off poorly as a whole: she gains and betrays confidences, can be very deceitful while carefully avoiding outright lies, and is powerfully controlled by jealousy. Kath in contrast seems perhaps overly naive and sometimes hold grudges, but overall is far more likeable. (That said, I do wonder what this story would look like told from Ruth's perspective.)

As a reader, it's pretty obvious from early on how Kath and Tommy feel about each other, but it goes unsaid for almost the entire length of the novel. That seems to reflect their own experiences as well, with Kath in particular maybe being afraid to even admit to herself how she felt.

It takes a very long time to learn exactly what the situation is with the students at Hailsham; while the tone of the book is very literary and slice-of-life, it is ultimately kind of a science-fiction book, with the exact nature of the sci-fi unclear for a long while. Part of this slow burn is the classic spec fic trick of everyone in the world taking something for granted so they never explicitly describe it, and we as readers only gradually infer it through the context. But the dawning revelation also matches the students' experience, where they only gradually and belatedly realize how the world works and what their role in it is.

The book as a whole is very odd to place in time. There are clones in this world, which is definitely futuristic; but the world also uses phonographs and cassette tapes, which are not. The novel was published in 2005, so CDs were already dominant by then and digital music was starting, neither of which were ever mentioned in the book. There are some references to decades, like a photo from "the 50s" and research done in "the 70s", and near the end there's talk about how things changed after "the war". The main thing I'm wondering is whether those references are to, say, the 1950s or the 2050s? If the former, then we're probably in an alternate timeline; I imagine this being something like HBO's Watchmen series, imagining what the world would look like in the presence if research in the past had focused on biological rather than digital topics, resulting in some areas being more advanced and other areas less so. If the latter, then this might be a byproduct of the system around Donors and Carers: deliberately keeping them away from connections to the modern world, and instead creating a kind of Potemkin country for them to experience growing up in.

END SPOILERS

This was a good read: poignant, thoughtful, affecting. While technically sci-fi it doesn't really feel like a sci-fi novel at all, just using it as a simple and devastating background that heightens the experiences of these young, hopeful children as they grow up in a challenging world.

Tuesday, July 12, 2022

Time For Socialism

Yep, I'm continuing to devour any and all of Thomas Piketty's books. I recently put two of his new ones on hold at the library; I need to wait a while longer for A Brief History of Inequality, but I almost immediately received Time For Socialism.

 


Unlike his other books that I've read, which I'd describe as tomes written from an academic background but oriented towards the general public, TFS is a compilation of monthly columns that Piketty wrote for Le Monde during the eventful years of 2016-2021. The book is subtitled "Dispatches from a World on Fire", which I'd say is a fairly accurate description of a period starting with Brexit and Trump and ending with COVID-19 and Black Lives Matter, all set against the ongoing explosion of economic inequality and rising ethno-nationalism that Piketty has worked against for decades.

Being newspaper columns, these pieces are shorter, though interestingly of rather variable length. Piketty is generally responding to major events of the last week or two, but contextualizing them in terms of broader trends, most notably the disaffection of poorer people with globalization. Like his major works, though, he makes excellent use of charts and graphs, plotting out how schisms have evolved over time or who benefits from certain policies. A lot of this is rather familiar, especially for those who have read Capital & Ideology, and some ideas are repeated across multiple columns, but it is helpful to have another set of concrete examples to refer to.

One cool thing about these columns is that they were written explicitly for French people living in France, unlike his books that are aimed at a broader audience. As a result, he spends a decent amount of time getting into the micro of France's particular issues. One example is the reform of their pension system; apparently, for decades it's been a very balkanized system, with different schemes based on whether someone worked in the public sector or the private sector or a non-profit or as a homemaker, etc. Of course, today most people will hold many jobs throughout their life, possibly across multiple sectors, and as a result nobody really understands what to expect from their retirement: the system as a whole is well-funded, but completely opaque. Piketty critique's Macron's vague proposal for modernization, and also makes a forceful push towards greater equity: both by requiring higher-income people to fund the system (as in the US, French people don't need to pay in anything after exceeding a certain annual income), and also by considering life expectancies and social class (poorer people tend to have shorter lives, so they spend fewer years in retirement, so even if they received the same monthly payments as wealthy people, their total payments over their life will be a transfer to the state, while a long-living wealthy manager will receive more than he paid in). Anyways, that's one of those hyper-local things that is unique to France, but also a nice concrete example that can be inspiring for finding similar inequities in our own systems.

As with "Capital & Ideology", Piketty's big fear is the political-economic realignment underway, with far-right parties courting lower classes with a mix of ethno-nationalism and promises of financial support, while left-wing parties are increasingly associated with the cultural and economic elites. You can tell that he has a healthy amount of disdain for Macron, who has exacerbated the dynamics by giving a massive tax cut to the wealthiest French citizens while proclaiming the virtues of globalism. Still, Piketty is always solution-oriented, and many of his columns contain concrete proposals for policy actions that could increase equality and lower the risk of reactionary revolt.

Along with France's interior concerns, Piketty also pays a lot of attention to Europe. He sees the formation and evolution of the European Union and its market as kind of the original sin that led us to the predicament we're in now: back in the 80s, international treaties liberalized the flow of money and people across borders, but did not set in place any kind of overarching budgets or accountability. This led to what he variously calls "fiscal dumping" or a "race to the bottom": since a billionaire can transfer his assets to any country with the click of a button, nations are heavily incentivized to slash rates as low as possible to persuade the wealthy to keep their wealth inside their borders.

That isn't at all to say that Piketty wants to abolish the EU; rather the opposite, he sees transnational cooperation as being essential to ensure equity and to tackle existential crises like climate change. But he believes that we badly need accountability along with freedom, with visibility into the flows of wealth and enforcement to pursue bad actors.

To that end, he champions several concrete proposals to reform the EU. One big item he frequently mentions is the Manifesto for the Democratization of Europe. This envisions a shift somewhat like the United States' shift from the Articles of Confederation to the Constitution. In the current status quo, a tiny nation like Luxembourg can singlehandedly veto any reform supported by 99.9% of Europe's population. Piketty dreams of a new Europe with a representative assembly that is accountable to its constituents and empowered to create meaningful change, a powerful antidote from today's status quo where "Europe" makes decisions behind closed doors by unelected bureaucrats and national politicians can deflect any blame onto Brussels.

And, while Piketty is primarily focused on the eastern side of the Atlantic, he also behaves as an America-whisperer at times, seeking to explain our chaotic movements of the last six years in terms of long-term trends in the Western world, particularly where we are following in the movement of the  Belle Époque or where our history of racial conflict presages the rising racism in France. He recounts across several columns the seemingly bizarre reversal of the Republican and Democratic parties from the Civil War to the 1960s, explaining the incremental steps taken along the way and how they reflected the evolving cleavages in the electorate. He points excitedly to America's extremely high marginal tax rate in the middle of the 20th century and how it coincided with our greatest period of economic growth, giving the lie to the idea that lower taxes unleash growth. He makes a very persuasive argument that America's world-leading investment in education starting in the 1800s led the way for our dominant economic position in the 1900s. Anyways, it's interesting to see ourselves used as an example for other countries, much like it's interesting to see France used as an example for us.

All in all, another great little book from the author of great big books!