Wednesday, October 12, 2022

The Nature of Middle-earth

One side effect of the Internet is the realization that you can't be the "most" of anything. Growing up I thought of myself as a huge Tolkien fan, devouring not only his popular books but also the posthumous Silmarillion and other unfinished tales and fragments. Then I got online, and found that there are many many people who know far more about the legendarium than I ever will. I've mostly been content with my love of Tolkien and haven't felt the need to prove my devotion by, say, buying ever volume in The History of Middle-earth or something. I revisit the main books every few years, and have enjoyed popping in recently with the novelistic updates of The Children of Hurin, The Fall of Gondolin and so on.

Recently, though I did decide to pick up one of the more fragmentary books, The Nature of Middle-earth. Nearly all of the posthumous Tolkien publications of the last fifty years has come from his son Christopher, who made it his life's work to sort through and bring sense to the vast body of work his dad left behind: some typescript manuscripts, but also lots of essays scribbled into the margins of exam papers, little tales written on the back of publication catalogs, mostly undated scraps that represented different ways of thinking at different decades of his life. Christopher himself passed not too long ago, and this is the first Tolkien book published since then. Carl Hostetter had worked with Christopher going back to the 90s, had previously published some primarily linguistic essays in Tolkien journals, and had received the green light for putting this particular publication together.


 

As he explains in the introduction, there is a fair amount of unpublished stuff from JRR that is interesting but that hasn't fit well into earlier books. He and Christopher agreed on the title of "Nature" for this entry, which kind of takes on two meanings in the two halves of this book. The first part is mostly about the lives of the Elves: how they are conceived, born, mature, age, and what exactly happens at the end of their lives. It delves further into the fëar and hröar (roughly "spirit" and "body") philosophy that's previously been explored in HoME. Like pretty much all Tolkien's writings, these are ideas that evolved over time, and we can see how Tolkien's conception of things changed. The second half of the book is more focused on the physical makeup of Middle-earth, most specifically on the island of Númenor. He describes the coasts, the hills, the indigenous and imported fauna and flora on the island.

It's surprising and very interesting to read Tolkien writing about the sex lives of elves. It isn't prurient, but also isn't strictly clinical. He writes about the joy of union, the different forms of love, the delight they find in one another. In some ways you can see Tolkien's Catholic orientation: romantic love, marriage, sex and child-bearing are all very closely tied together. But this account also differs from Tolkien's own experiences in notable ways; he writes emphatically about how elf women marry at a younger age than men, but Tolkien himself married an older woman.

The book mostly consists of documents Tolkien that wrote for himself: they're more advanced than notes, but not intended for publication. Reading these reminds me a lot of how, when I'm working on a creative project, I'll often make a new Google Doc and just write through some problem I'm considering; almost like talking to myself to try and understand the situation and come to a conclusion. The output ultimately informs the creative project while the document itself can be discarded. Or maybe it's a little like these blog posts, where again I'm just expressing some thoughts and kind of figuring stuff out as I write. Of course, Tolkien is a much better writer than me, and even when writing for himself there's a high degree of art to it.

I think of Tolkien as being all about language, and that's definitely his primary passion, but this book seems even more interested in math. He's in a situation where he had published Lord of the Rings, along with the appendices, laying out the timeline of Middle-earth. He also has large amounts of unpublished-but-intended-for-publication manuscripts that fill out more detail in the world, and he has become aware that the timelines don't line up. So he's trying to figure out how to reconcile things. It's a complex situation, because there are different scales of time described in the Silmarillion. The sun doesn't exist for a really long time, so there are different time scales before: years of the trees, years of the lamps, and so on. And elvish ages are different, so a year in Aman is much longer than a year in Middle-earth. Elves "age" more quickly in absolute time on Middle-earth. This all makes things hard to track, but also gives some flexibility: he can adjust the scales or adjust the dates to make things work. Here's a representative sample of his mathematical musings:

 A better solution is 3) The Rate of Growth of those born in Beleriand was 10 = 1. But of those born in Aman it was 50 = 1 in Beleriand. But it began to increase as soon as they left Valinor, say after the Doom of Mandos. The Valian Year spent reaching Beleriand via the ice aged all the Exiles about 2 years (it took 144 Sun-years) = 72 (but Fëanor reached Beleriand in one half the time = Bel. 50 and so only aged 1 year). As soon as they reached Beleriand the rate quickened to 50 = 1. Thus Finduilas, 12 in 1495, was 13 at 1496 and needed 7 years to become 20. This took her 7 x 50 = 350 years. She was therefore 20 in Bel. 350. In Bel. 472 she was however only 122 Sun-years older, only just over 21, and in 490 only 140 Sun-years older: nearly 21½. She was the youngest Exile.

There are also lots of tables, in some cases filling out details, in other cases running different scenarios to calculate the implications of certain decisions. One big case is determining how the Elvish population increased from the initial group of 144 to the tens of thousands that would be needed for the later events of the Silmarillion. He experiments with different family sizes, marriage rates, birth rates, and life spans to try and come up with a plausible and grounded anthropology for his story.

This level of detail reminds me of Tolkien's process of writing The Lord of the Rings. He finished the story, but publication was delayed for several months while he want back to review all of the dates in the books and make sure they made sense: he calculated the distance they traveled, the amount of time that would take on foot or horseback, whether people could actually be in the right place at the right time, that the weather was appropriate for the season, that the phases of the moon were consistent, and so on. All that work isn't immediately obvious in the final text: those months he spent checking and re-checking just resulted in a few dates and spans of time being updated. But, I think that this care and attention to detail is one of the things that makes Lord of the Rings so wonderful. You're seeing the tip of the iceberg, but below it is this vast body of work that underlies and supports it, and... there's a weight, a sense of reality, that it otherwise wouldn't have.

I get the impression that even the editor of this book was a bit bemused that Tolkien devoted so much time in his life wrestling with these details, and I doubt that many other authors would similarly spin their wheels over these sort of "technical" issues. After all, this is a fantasy world, and there are plenty of convenient hand-wave-y excuses easily available. Just say "Elves are immortal!" and readers will go along with whatever you say as long as the story is entertaining. But it's this wrestling with contradictions that, in my opinion, gives Tolkien's work so much depth and flavor. It reminds me of the difference between ancient religions and modern religions. Older religions have holy tests that were written by a variety of people over a long span of time, and so they have apparent contradictions. Those religions then spent considerable thought in attempting to resolve this contradictions, which in turn leads to rich theologies. In contrast, modern religions are usually created wholesale by a single leader, with a single text or no text at all. They're generally free of contradiction, which makes them a lot less interesting to explore and reason about.

Tolkien explicitly started this project to create a mythology for Britain, and while I imagine he felt great frustration at writing himself into corners, reconciling those corners lead to still more great inventions, adding more layers of meaning and delight to his myth. It ends up feeling kind of like the result of a millennia-long religious tradition, even though it all came from the pen of one single guy!

I've previously read about Tolkien grappling with the nature of evil, such as the problem of where Orcs come from: Can Melkor create new things? Can he corrupt Eru's creations? This book has some similar grappling with the nature of good: If Eru is all-powerful, why is there so much misery in Middle-earth? I don't think this is a definitive answer, but one idea that he considers looks like this: Eru has a plan for the world, but he gave free will to his creations, and when they choose to stray from his plan then evil occurs. This straying is often rooted in good desires! As one example, it wasn't Eru's plan that the Valar create Valinor and call the Elves to the west. The Valar were motivated by a desire to protect Eru's children, and to create a safe space where the children could thrive. But the Valar should have remained in Middle-earth, keeping up a constant fight against Melkor, and trusted in Eru that the elves would be taken care of. If the Valar had remained, then Melkor would not have had free reign to corrupt Men, and much later misery would have been avoided. I'm not an expert, but to me this feels like a very Catholic philosophy: God is all-powerful, but when something goes wrong, it's our fault and not His.

Speaking of Catholicism, there's some good discussion about religion in this book, including an appendix that glosses several concepts and phrases that may be unfamiliar to non-Catholic or non-Christian readers. Carl Hostetter particularly highlights one of Tolkien's letters that has perplexed many readers, in which he states that The Lord of the Rings is a "fundamentally religious and Catholic work". This is odd because there's no visible religion in his world: no priests, no temples, no scripture, no rituals. Perhaps the occasional call for intercession to a higher power, but that's about it. In Hostetter's reading, the key word in that sentence is "fundamentally"; in other words, the basic metaphysics underlying Middle-earth are the same fundamental principles as in Catholic thought. Thomas Aquinas and other Catholic theologians thought a great deal about the dualism of the body and the soul, rejecting both gnostic mysticism and hedonistic sensationalism. They view the person as the union of the flesh and the spirit, both sacred and an essential part of the whole human. The body isn't merely the vessel for the spirit. In the same way, Tolkien's characters are beings with a divine purpose, an eternal fëa that was made for and inseperable from one hröa.

Later in the book there's a lot of stuff on Númenor, including descriptions of native and imported fauna and flora. As usual, Tolkien is pretty precise, working out the exact size of the landmass, the initial population of Númenoreans, how they increased over time, by making rough calculations on birth rates and lifespans. This seems like it would be dry, but I devoured this section. It probably helps that it's tied in to discussions of the culture of Númenor: in discussing the shape of the coastline he segues into describing the evolution of their ship design, their love of seafaring, and (via footnotes) the way this troubled the love lives of marriageable Númenoreans. Similarly, discussion of horses leads to description of roads which leads to vivid imagery of the pleasure they took in getting around. It's a fully-realized vision that feels like a whole world.

Like I said before, this book shows off Tolkien's lesser-known math chops, and not his more famous linguistic skills. That said, he is still Tolkien, and particularly in the middle portion of the book there's a lot of linguistic stuff. One of the most striking things for me was this digression on the language of time perception, critiquing English and drawing a contrast between it and Elvish:

Our language is confused, using after or before both (in certain circumstances) of the future. We sometimes think and speak of the future as what lies before us, we look ahead, are pro-vident, forward-looking, yet our ancestors preceded us and are our fore-fathers; and any event in time is before the one that is later. We speak as if events and the succession of human lives were an endless column moving forward into the unknown, and those born later are behind us, will follow us; yet also as if though facing the future we were walking backwards or being driven backwards, and our children and heirs (posterity!) were ahead of us and will in each generation go further forwards into the future than we. A widow is a relict, one left behind, by a husband who goes on.

As in so many things, realizing the amount of thought and deliberation that went into using a single word is really impressive, and renews my lifelong admiration of Tolkien as a writer, artist and (sub-)creator.

Wednesday, October 05, 2022

EU IV part (4?)

My Portugal run in Europa Universalis IV has entered the 17th century, and I'm here to tell the tale!

When we last left off, I was mulling whether to go to war with Ming, the Horn of Africa, or India. I eventually decided to lead with Ming. I was still absorbing some other conquered territory, so taking a breather on overextension and rebels was nice. Ming had passed their last Reform and was already up to nearly 50 Mandate, so this would be my last change to hit them before they got too strong again. I don't have immediate territorial designs on mainland China, but they are a Rival that I would like to weaken, and in the future if there is an opportunity to take the Canton region or Hangzhou or something, I could easily funnel those riches back to Lisboa.

Part of the reason Ming hates me so much is because I own Macau, even though they gave the province to me. I'd built a level 4 Fort there but left it unoccupied; Ming had something like 240k soldiers (though, oddly, 0 manpower reserves). I couldn't hope to defend that province, but I figured they would bleed out through attrition over the long time to siege it. In the meantime, I was very confident that my recently-upgraded navy would be able to dominate Ming's, which was similarly sized but far more backwards.

I brought all my ships from around the world over to Taiwan and Macau, repaired all the damage, appointed a slew of Admirals and spread them along the coast. Then I declared war, using the Trade Dispute casus belli due to Ming embargoing me. This CB forbids taking land, but I didn't want land anyways; and it has a major discount on economic concessions like War Reparations and ducats. My hope, based on some online advice, was to economically wreck Ming, hopefully pushing him into bankruptcy and triggering uprisings.

 


The war started pretty much as I expected. I was able to catch his ships in the coastal waters and beat them up. There was one major fleet based in Beijing and another big one by Zhanjiang. Oddly enough, they wouldn't engage at the same time: the fleet in Zhanjiang would emerge from port, we would battle for several weeks, and just as that battle was reaching a close the Beijing fleet would move out. This gave me enough time to get some healthy ships from the Zhanjiang fight over to the Beijing one before it was over and easily beat both.

As with lots of long naval fights, often times the end result would be overwhelming, with a major loss in morale and hull integrity for Ming but no loss of ships. After a few battles, though, he seemed to get the hint and stayed at port. I returned to my spread-out stance, creating the longest blockade line of my game to date. This helps a bit with war score, but my main goal was to cause Devastation; against Ming, this has the double effect of lowering Mandate directly, as well as canceling Prosperity and further decreasing it. This did prove to be a slow process, though. Like most other nations in the game, Ming had gone on a Fort-building spree, with nearly every province within a Fort's zone-of-control. This doesn't directly limit the increase of Devastation, but it does mean that even a few months' respite from blockading can quickly reverse the damage. On the bright side, though, my vassals and colonial subjects eventually brought their ships over and helped me keep the blockade up even during our periodic naval skirmishes.

Like I'd expected, the land conflict wasn't as much in my favor. Ming quickly sieged Macau, then milled around for a while and disappeared. I was flabbergasted when, more than a year into the war, the troops popped up again in Siberia, conquering my nascent colonies there! I probably shouldn't have been surprised: they're on the same landmass after all, far more reachable than any of my overseas holdings, and with just a single regiment and Conquistador hanging around. I was worried that Ming would use the "Seize Colony" action, which lets an army directly take control of a Colony for a few points of Military Power, but fortunately they didn't, and were content to just conquer my current and growing colonies.

 


The Macau siege was taking years to progress; I had an advantage thanks to the high Fort level and an un-blockaded coast, but Ming had a good Siege general and a lot of Artillery and so was slowly making progress. With 200,000 troops stumbling around the frozen wasteland of Siberia, though, a thought occurred to me: maybe I could beat Ming on land!

I had a good-sized army just hanging out on Sumatra, so I ferried them over to Taiwan, had them rest up for a bit, appointed a good General and then inserted them into Macau. Since I already owned the territory, I didn't get any penalties for naval landing. Ming's army outnumbered mine, but we had good tech and were highly Drilled, so we defeated them. Hooray! From here I spread out and started sieging Canton and other provinces nearby.

I was quickly reminded of a major factor in EU4 war: Land battles matter 10000 times more than naval battles, at least as far as War Score is concerned. You can wipe out a nation's entire fleet of 30 ships in a single battle and get 0.2 war score from it; or you can defeat a fraction of their infantry and get 6.5 war score. It's ridiculous. This was a Trade Dispute so the War Goal was to get 10 War Score from battles; I had fought dozens of naval battles over years and racked up a total score of maybe 2; and then, just two land battles in a couple of months gave me an additional 15 or so score. It's so silly.

With the help of an Age Ability and Flagship that gave me +2 to sieging coastal provinces, I took Canton and soon had a nice bite out of south China. The frozen northern armies finally turned around to head home. I knew I couldn't face them, but I also had a lot of time before they would arrive, so my goal was simply to pile up as much War Score as possible and then peace out at the last possible moment. 

 


When it came time to negotiate peace, though, it turned out more complicated. I think I had something like 43 War Score; maxing out the ducats would pay me something like 5k (!!), at just maybe 17 or so War Score. Adding War Reparations was another easy choice, but after that I wouldn't be able to demand any other concessions, leaving a lot on the table. I did have enough War Score to demand Transfer Trade Power, but doing that would leave me with just 800 ducats or so. Since my main goal was to drive Ming into bankruptcy, I wasn't sure if I was better off maximizing my War Score demands or the raw money.

I eventually dug into the Ledger, where I found that Ming's income was something like 60% from taxation, and only about 5% from Trade. That settled it for me: demanding Trade Power might be more beneficial for me personally, but it wouldn't hurt Ming nearly as much. So, I just took that money and peaced out, one day before a battle that would have wiped out my entire Asian army.

 


As it turned out, the war was more or less for naught. I was able to drive their Mandate down to the 30s, inflict devastation, and take a lot of money. I had hoped that all of this would lead to an uprising from their tributaries, the emergence of the Qing and Wue and Yu and other breakaway states, and the dissolving of Ming as a dominant entity. Instead, they've gradually recovered from there, and are back up to 90-ish Mandate without any long-term problems. I think the main issue here was probably the Forts; since Ming built them everywhere, they were able to quickly undo almost all of the Devastation and restore Prosperity. Ming had also probably suffered through the "Crisis of the Ming Dynasty" disaster earlier while I hadn't been paying attention, and so was past the point of easy toppling. But, whatever. I didn't lose anything significant, got some good experience (both real-world and in-game), and at least made a profit on the whole venture.

Oh, but one interesting side-effect of this was that, shortly after I declared on Ming, a big Coalition formed against me. This is a mechanic in EU4 that limits aggressive expansion: if you continue to declare was a lot and take a lot of people's land, eventually other nations will band together in an agreement to stop you. This models historical events like Europe uniting to push back the Ottoman Turks from Austria, or the monarchies uniting to stop Napoleon's conquest, even when the members of those coalitions would ordinarily never cooperate. Anyways, I'd been on a big conquering spree in the East Indies and a small conquering spree in India and Africa. Most of these wars were against Sunni Muslim nations, and as a result, I had a whole bunch of nations that were scared of and furious at me. (Fortunately, the Ottomans didn't seem to care all that much, as they are considered "European" and my expansion was far from their borders.) At the end of each war I'd see a tooltip about how a coalition might form against me, which gradually grew to like 40 or so nations. But it never actually did, partly because I was the Greatest Power in the world and partly because I was allied to Spain (#2 great power) and Britain (#6 or so great power).

But, once I was engaged in a war with Ming (#3 great power), the calculus shifted, and everyone was ready to hop on the coalition against me. They never actually declared, though. It was interesting to see the coalition shift over time as the Ming war progressed. After I took Canton and made progress on land the coalition began dissolving; then a few months later it grew again, before finally collapsing a month or so after Ming made peace. Lesson learned: Coalitions become much more bold when they see you're occupied with fighting another great power.

Once the Ming war was over, I returned to more directly profitable wars: conquering East Africa and southern India. Southern India was a priority since Portugal has missions based on taking these provinces, which in turn will give permanent claims over Ceylon and the northwestern coast of India. Both India and east Africa are especially important in fully reaping (or exploiting) the wealth of the East Indies. By this point I had pretty strong trade power in Malacca and the Moluccas, and was able to send much of the trade directly to the Cape of Good Hope. However, India has a lot of trade power as well and can draw a good chunk of trade to Coromandel, and from there to a much longer route to Europe: Coromandel to Gujarat to the Gulf of Aden to Zanzibar to the Cape. Most of those have shortcuts (e.g. Coromandel to the Gulf or Gujarat to Zanzibar), but in general, the issue is that a chunk of trade was passing through others' hands and leading to their profit instead of mine. By dominating these nodes, I could push more value along more profitable routes, starving potential rivals of income and further enriching the coffers of Lisboa.

By this point in the game I had permanent standing armies stationed throughout the globe: a small honor guard in Morocco; an army in the Americas to defend my colonial nations against native coalitions and to conquer Mexican gold; an African army; and an Asian army. The Asian army had previously been stationed in India before fighting China; once it was done with Ming, it hung out in Macau for a bit before eventually returning to Indonesia. I decided to raise a completely fresh army in India. I had plenty of force limit for this, the new army would be raised quicker than I could shuttle the old army from China, doing this would significantly reduce attrition on the voyage, and long-term I wanted permanent armies in both India and Indonesia.

I felt pretty confident in fighting on land in both areas, less confident in fighting on sea. In contrast to my regional armies, my navy is more global: I have a couple of heavy ships locked down fighting pirates, but for the most part I'll sail my entire fleet to a hot spot in the world, repair them for a month or two up to 100%, then absolutely dominate the enemy. This tends to be trickiest in the East Indies, which are full of island nations that have big navies. Elsewhere, I can trivially knock out their navies and get a major blockade up from the first month. I probably could split my navy between India and Africa, but that would produce more casualties and take longer to reach domination.

I eventually decided to launch my war in India. A previous conflict had captured almost all of the provinces I needed, except for the one-province minor of Calicut. I've learned the hard way that such provinces are extremely difficult to conquer: A nation will have something like a -30 modifier in accepting a peace deal that would result in its complete annexation, so as long as it has some allies around who are still willing to fight, they will never give up. You're far better off declaring on an ally of theirs, and then including that OPM as a co-belligerant. The bigger ally will be far more willing to part with this one province as the war leader, so it's sufficient to merely beat your enemy rather than annihilate him.

In my case, I declared on Kotte, and brought in Bahmanis, Calicut and Tanjore as co-belligerants. Bengal was also technically a participant but didn't venture into the theater. In retrospect I wish I had declared on Bahmanis or Tanjore. Kotte was also small and weak, so I completely wiped them out relatively early on; but because they were technically the war leader, I couldn't make a separate peace with them without ending the entire war. Fortunately, Bahmanis was a big pushover: they had a ton of land and a huge army, but were at Military 12 while I was at Military 16, so I could rout them even while massively outnumbered. Bahmanis also controls a lot of major Centers of Trade in the Deccan node, so I prioritized conquering snaking routes that reached out to those nodes.

Tanjore was a bit more of a challenge: they were closer in tech to me, and had a more compact area to defend. Since my troops were freshly raised, I hadn't had much time to Drill them yet, and felt less confident in taking on numerically superior Tanjore armies. Tanjore also had a lot of strategically-placed Forts that blocked my movements. I eventually beat their armies in central India, then was able to start sieging down their forts while they recovered, eventually squeezing them to the southern tip. Along the way I was able to force out their remaining ships from port, destroying their naval capacity and incurring monetary and power costs for the future.

It soon became yet another race against time, as Kotte had had enough and unconditionally surrendered. This started a timer where I needed to end the war or face massive escalating War Exhaustion. I hurried to take the last major provinces I wanted from Bahmanis and Tanjore and smack their armies around a bit more to drive up my War Score, before sending three peace offers in rapid succession. I ended up with the final Calicut province I needed to complete my Mission, and also a now-dominant position in the Coromandel node and a strong new entry into Deccan.

As before, I took the Center of Trade provinces for myself, along with provinces to make territorial "bridges" to them, and gave everything else to my vassal Kothamud (sp?).  This has created a big, messy patchwork of borders, and makes it tricky to manage states, but it does save a lot of Governing Capacity from me. Long-term I plan to integrate my current set of vassals, and in the meantime it lets me reap most of the benefit from my war while still extracting maximal concessions from my foes.

By a couple of months into the India war, I had destroyed the bulk of their ships, so I felt comfortable sailing most of my navy west to Africa and leaving a smaller force behind to keep up my blockades. I kind of wanted to run both wars in parallel, mostly to shorten the amount of time I was accruing War Exhaustion and maximizing time when it could tick down.

I had a less-well-defined goal for Africa. The biggest target was Yemen, which had a few major provinces that gave big trade power in the Gulf of Aden. The Gulf is important because it's one of the major entries into the Mediterranean trade network; if I could lock this down, I could starve most of my continental rivals of the riches from the Far East. Yemen was part of a big network of allies, though; most of them didn't hold much trade power, but they were potential territorial threads. This included the scattered remnants of Aljuraan, who I had previously conquered and released Ogaadeen from; Adal, who I had similarly snatched some Centers of Trade from; Haasaa, who had another CoT next to Yemen; and Warsangali, who were just minding their own business but who also control most of the world's supply of Incense. I co-belligeranted all of these; other participants included Medina, who were far from the action and not very involved, and the Mamluks. The Mamluks had fallen pretty far by this point: earlier in the game they were major rivals of the Ottomans, but by now their empire had splintered across the Red Sea and they could barely field a few thousand soldiers. Still, their legacy remained somewhat intact in the form of a large number of alliances. I didn't want their land, since that would bring me closer to the Ottomans' borders, so I avoided making them belligerants.

This war ended up being a bit more challenging than I had expected. On paper I vastly outnumbered the combined forces of the enemy; but in practice I just had my one 25-30k army in Africa, not my vast collection of vassals and colonial nations from around the globe. The enemy did a good job at combining their forces and making strong strikes at my weak spots, particularly Ogaadeen's capital with a Level 1 Fort. I ended up splitting my own forces and capturing minor enemy provinces, forcing them to break up and call of sieges. Eventually I was able to capture the Straits, which was a huge help. With my navy now firmly in place, I could control movement between Africa and Arabia.

This led to yet another race: Ogaadeen and I were in the north, trying to siege down Yemen and Haasaa, while everyone else (except Medina) were in the south, sieging down Ogaadeen's provinces and my CoTs. Fortunately, I had the Age Ability to give +1 to blockaged Sieges, as well as a Flagship with another +1, so I had a pretty good advantage with the coastal forts. Yemen had the biggest military, so once I had occupied most of their land and was able to force them out of the war, the calculus swung decisively in my direction. I marched back through the strait, liberated the provinces, and set about chasing down the remaining armies from Aljuraan, Mamluk, Warsangali, and Adal.

The ending of the Indian and African wars aligned in a somewhat stressful fashion. I got the Call for Peace in India after I had gained a decisive advantage in Africa but well before I had actually seized control of the provinces I wanted. I ate a month or two of heightened War Exhaustion from the Call for Peace as I peaced out individual Indian nations and waited for my diplomats to slowly return to Europe. I felt nervous that my citizens would realize that we were still at war after signing our armistice with Mysore, which would force me to wrap up the Horn of Africa engagement prematurely. Fortunately, at the next month after our peace the Call for Peace disappeared and I just had the standard dribble of attrition to manage, so it looks like Calls for Peace are conflict-specific.

That said, I did run into another unexpected problem from my simultaneous conflicts: Overextension. I had directly taken several big (20-30+ dev) provinces in India to expand my Trade power, which pushed me up to about 86% Overextension. This causes a lot of problems. Some are manageable, like a decrease in Trade Power that hurts income a bit. A bigger concern was a steep rise in National Unrest, which eventually caused even some normally-stable areas to come under risk. From wiki-trawling, I knew that I absolutely did not want to go over 100%, which leads to a drastic increase in Bad Things happening.

 


So, even once I did have all the provinces I wanted from the Horn, I delayed in sending peace agreements: not because I was trying to extract more value, but because I needed to wait for my recent Indian conquests to finish coring. But of course, once I had defeated and occupied my foes in Africa, they were primed to unconditionally surrender at any moment. Once again I wished that I had thought more carefully about what nation to pick as my primary target. By choosing a weaker foe, I was able to get a ticking war score early; but all of the war score you get from battles and your war goal only apply to the primary opponent, not to any separate peaces, and destroying the primary target might mean a premature cessation to hostilities against other co-belligerants. It all worked out in the end, but I could have gotten more if I'd chosen a bigger and stronger foe as my main African target.

Once all that was done, I shifted into a maintenance and consolidation mode. I was coming up on the Age of Absolutism, and wanted to be prepared to handle those events. I kept my armies busy putting down revolts in my newly conquered provinces, as well as those of my vassals, while the East Indies, North Africa and North American armies chilled and drilled. I'm sure that there are multiple strategies for handling unrest, but personally I've been using religion as the opiate of the masses. I've stacked many Tolerance Of The True Faith modifiers, so once a province has been converted to Catholicism it tends to be pretty immune to uprisings, even with high separatism or national unrest. There's a bit of a scramble to get it converted, though: you need to wait to core it first, during which time unrest will tick up, and then send your missionary, which will really annoy them. By this stage in the game, though, I also have nice and high Missionary Strength, so I almost always get to 100% converted before reaching 100% revolt risk.

Since I joined the counter-reformation and finished my Religious Ideas, I am absolutely swimming in Missionaries. It wasn't immediately obvious to me, but you can use them to convert the provinces of your vassals as well as of your own. Usually I prefer to let my vassals do it, but in the Age of Reformation you can get extra Prestige for converting; also, sometimes vassals won't convert (possibly due to being very low on funds or having insufficient Missionary Strength); and last but not least, you get a nice amount of Papal Influence by doing this. I started to view the conversions as basically a way for me to convert ducats into papal influence, which seems worthwhile and cheaper than buying indulgences; also, I'm definitely planning to integrate those vassals in the not-too-distant future, so I'm saving myself some future work.

Previously I'd focused my Papal Influence on some targeted Curia powers, especially inflation reduction and occasionally the tax / building boost, diplomatic annexation acceleration, legitimacy boost or manpower boost depending on my needs. Since I kept bumping up against the 200 cap, though, I ended up having all of the time-duration ones active at the same time, and invested the overage into influencing Curia selection. That all paid off when I became the Pope! Well, sort of. I became pope right around 1600, near the sunsetting of the era of the Holy See's greatest influence.  I was hoping to squeeze in a quick Excommunication of my Christian frenemies, but my hopes were dashed by the realization that you can't communicate someone who the Papal States approve of. Given enough time I could probably have sabotaged that approval, but that time did not remain.

 


As the Papal Controller you can issue a Golden Bull, which gives a passive buff to all Catholic nations. You can strategically choose between a Bull that accelerates Institution spread, or one that reduces construction cost, or one that increases tolerance of heathens, and so on. I went without any Bull for a while. I knew the Age of Reformation was coming to an end, and I wanted to use "Illius Qui Se Pro Divini" to keep old-school papal actions available. I was hoping that you could use it to excommunicate even after reaching the Age of Absolutism, but it turns out you can't. You can, though, call Crusades with it, which seemed more useful than the other options.

As a monarchy, my ruler is very important. It's the single biggest determinant of how many Monarch Points you generate, which in turn directly impacts your technology level, ability to annex and integrate provinces, hire generals and admirals, develop your provinces, and otherwise win the game. As a result, I've become somewhat ruthless when it comes to the line of succession. If I get a good Heir, I'll try to get him on the throne ASAP and keep him there as long as possible; if I get a bad one, I'll pray he's killed off while young, or disinherit him, or push hard to get a new heir as soon as possible.

 


I previously wrote about my fraught but ultimately successful push to keep a female Consort Regent in power as long as possible. Once she finally stepped aside, her fine-but-not-amazing son took the throne. He soon married a princess from England who had better stats than him. Hm, interesting. They soon had a son who had fantastic stats: I think a 6/5/3 or similar. Whelp, just like that, good old Dad is looking a lot less well!

By now my preferred approach is clear: appoint the king to become a General, even if there isn't a war on. Doing this will automatically shorten his expected lifespan, because the chances of a General dying and a Ruler dying are calculated separately. Ordinarily I would have waited until my heir was close to coming of age, but since my Consort was already a step up from my Monarch, I saw no reason to wait, and sent my King off to train his troops before his son was a year old.

This King lasted a lot longer than my previous general-King. He finally died during the Indian War, while leading a siege. The one downside to this strategy is that you get a hefty -2 Stability hit when a ruler dies in battle or during a siege (but not while training or idling). Still, with the Age of Absolutism coming up and Court & Country looming, going down to 1 Stability wasn't the worst thing. The Queen took up her duties and started generating better Monarch Points immediately, while her even more talented son waited patiently in the wings.

I was planning to start pushing for Court and Country as soon as the Age of Absolutism hit, but in a stroke of, um, unique luck, the League War broke out immediately before the Age started. My strategy for boosting Absolutism was based on lowering Autonomy, which you can't do in wartime, so that whole section has been pushed back significantly.

What is the League War? I've been referring to it in my head as "World War Zero". (And typing that out now reminds me that there's no Roman Numeral for 0, interesting.) This is one of the more elaborate setpieces in EU4, somewhat analogous to the L-Cluster or the War in Heaven in Stellaris. The League War is based on the Thirty Years War in European history, a massive conflict between Protestant and Catholic states within the Holy Roman Empire that eventually spilled out to involve most nations in Europe, and ended with the famous Peace of Westphalia that realigned borders and is often credited with establishing the modern notion of national sovereignty.

 

In EU4, this process starts with the formation of the Religious Leagues. At the start of the game, only Catholic nations can be elected Emperor of the HRE. After the Reformation starts and some of the members start converting to Protestantism, they can form the Protestant League, while the Holy Roman Emperor will be the head of the Catholic League. There are some interesting wrinkles: any European nation can join a League, whether they are in the HRE or not; and a nation can join either League, regardless of their religion. This reflects the real-world leagues, where, for example, Catholic France supported the Protestant League in order to thwart the power of their rivals the Habsburgs of Austria and Spain.

In my game, things were weird. Austria had been the Emperor for over a century, but then converted to Protestantism and as a result lost the crown. Brandenburg took over, then somehow had a Coalition called against them, were absolutely stomped, and then Bohemia became Emperor. Most of the HRE members were Protestant or Reformed, which tanked the Imperial Authority; meanwhile, almost every major nation outside the HRE remained Catholic. The Catholic Commonwealth and France supported the Catholic league, but Great Britain, the Ottoman Empire (!!) and Spain (!!!!!!) all joined the Protestant League.

I was a bit flummoxed. I'd been planning to join the Catholic League: you get a nice discount on military tech cost and a boost to tradition by participating in a League War; winning the League War is an Age Objective in the Age of Absolutism; and having your religion win the War (whether you participate or not) gives another nice assortment of passive bonuses, including Tolerance of the True Faith, Legitimacy and Missionary Strength.

But, my personal alliances up to this point had been pretty much opposite to how things were breaking down: I've been allied with England and Castile since Day 1, and had maintained a (meaningless) rivalry with the Commonwealth for nearly a century. Still, I decided to take the plunge and swear for the Catholic League.

This caused all sorts of interesting repercussions! I was expecting Spain to be upset, but thought I would just get, like, a flat or decaying -50 opinion modifier or something. Instead, their Attitude immediately shifted to Hostile, and I started receiving a warning that they were about to break our alliance. I thought long and hard about whether to press forward or to save-scum back to safety. My Spain alliance has been a huge help in my game, as they've effectively shielded me from the entire rest of Europe, freeing me to focus on exploiting the rest of the world. But, I had recently begun thinking about breaking from them to push further ahead, as I'm the #1 Great Power and they're the #2. Taking Sevilla and other provinces in that trade node would let me collect 100% of the trade value from my empire, instead of the mere 85-90% I collect today. Building a land bridge through Granada and Gibraltar to Algeria would make that whole region considered "connected to the capital", which would put me in a much stronger position for spawning Manufactories. And I could finally do something about that annoying Spanish Caribbean nation that ate up a lot of valuable real estate on Hispaniola and was blocking Columbia from Brazil.

So I pressed forward (and started building up my army more). Before Spain officially severed our alliance, I used some of my 90+ stored Favours to force them to break their alliance with the Ottomans (the #3 Great Power). I made England adopt my lineage as an Heir to their throne before that alliance untangled. France was delighted to form a new alliance with me, and I'm already looking forward to teaming up with them in the future to carve up Iberia (France can take Barcelona, I don't care). I'm now thinking of allying with the Commonwealth since they're big rivals to the Ottomans and Russia, who threaten me in the Middle East and Siberia respectively; understandably, the Commonwealth doesn't trust me after us being rivals for so long, but I'm working hard to accrue Favors and hope to change that before too long.

The Leagues continued to grow a bit, but after more than a decade the war still hadn't started. Only the Protestant League can declare war, not the other way around, and they'll only declare if they are fairly confident in winning. The decisive moment seemed to come when Austria finally joined the Protestant League: they instantly became the Leader and declared war. This felt very epic and evocative, as the old Emperors coming back to reclaim their old empire for their new faith.

 


I'm now deep in the thick of the League War. It is very complicated, very slow, and very fun. I call it "World War Zero" because it truly is a globe-spanning conflict, mostly thanks to Spain and I. We've been fighting huge battles through the wilderness of North America, doing naval invasions of the Lesser Antilles, battling off the cost of Australia, and so on. I've been doing some WW2-style island hopping in the Pacific, choking off Spain's fleet range.

Personally, I see my main role in this war as being to keep Spain and the Ottomans occupied elsewhere so they can't bring their huge armies to bear in Europe. This frees up France to focus on England so Holland can focus on Europe; and frees up the Commonwealth to focus on Hungary so Venice can focus on Austria, and so on.

 


I've been pretty successful so far. We fought a bunch of big Battles early that got us ticking warscore. Since then I've been more focused on inflicting Attrition than winning straight-up battles. I control the major straits around the Arabian Peninsula, so I've been able to force the Ottomans to go on long, punishing and pointless marches through the desert to reclaim minor provinces. Spain has been more challenging, but they have grown far less powerful. I've crushed much of their navy, and after a long and careful campaign, I've (temporarily) expelled them from Iberia. Both nations remain very powerful, with Spain having a crazy number of Forts in Italy and the Ottomans controlling a huge landmass, but both of them have nearly exhausted their Manpower reserves, while I'm sitting at around 160k and France has around 280k.

 


This is getting long, so some quick notes before wrapping up:

My income is coming from two main sources, Trade and Treasure Fleets. Trade gives a lot of month-to-month income, as I steer trade from around the world into Sevilla and take it. Treasure is much more bursty. Now that I have a half-dozen or so colonial nations with gold provinces, each of them sending a fleet my way every 1-3 years, I will get a treasure shipment a few times a year, each one giving from 120-360 ducats. This has been a good prompt to go on a shopping spree, as the windfall can go into a trade company's Marketplace or Center Of Trade upgrade, and further increase future trade income.

More recently, I've had to face the prospect of rising piracy in Mexico. For most of the game piracy has been a non-issue. I have some galleons "hunting pirates" in my main nodes, but that's to prevent coastal raids, not to stop actual pirates. I was expecting the Caribbean to become pirate-infested at some point, but even after New Providence was formed, it's been pretty tame. That said, it looks like some of the colonial nations that can't collect downstream of Mexico have started pirating that node, so occasionally I'll get a big bite taken out of a treasure shipment. Which I can fix by sending more galleons there, but since the Mexico port is on the Pacific side of the isthmus, those heavy ships won't be useful for anything else any time soon.

More broadly, I've been looking at ways to keep all revenues flowing smoothly towards Sevilla. Early on I wanted to get enough presence in the nodes to get some value back home; now that I'm more dominant, and pushing a lot of value through, I'm mindful of how nations collecting along my path are being enriched as well, which could make them bigger threats in the future. It's a lower priority for now, but eventually I'll want to take over places like Madagascar so I can keep more profits for myself.

 

 

To maximize my income, I've been focusing on strategic uses of Trading Companies and merchants. I think I mentioned this in an earlier post, but my overall approach to newly-conquered provinces looks like the following:

  1. If any province in an area has a Gold mine, I'll turn that area into a state, fully-core the Gold province, and half-core the others.
  2. Otherwise, if any province in an area has a Center of Trade, I'll turn that province into a Trade Company (only after converting their religion!) and keep non-center-of-trade provinces as territories. If I and my allies own all or most of the provinces in an area, I'll build most TC investments, otherwise I'll just take the Trade Power one to avoid enriching potential foes.
  3. If there's no gold or Center of Trade (which is rare), I'll leave them all as territories. When possible, I'll try to give these provinces directly to a vassal in a war and let them pay the cost of coring and maintaining the province.

For merchants, my top priority has been deploying merchants to contested nodes upstream of Sevilla. For example, Ivory Coast can send trade to many places, like Sevilla or the English Channel or the Caribbean. So it's a high priority for me to steer trade from there. On the other hand, the Cape of Good Hope only sends trade to the Ivory Coast, so there's not much value to sending a merchant there. Somewhat similarly, Malacca can send to either Bengal or the Cape of Good Hope. Trade from Bengal can eventually reach Sevilla, but most of the value will be taken along the way (at least for now), so I'm better off bypassing India and East Africa and instead steering directly towards the Cape.

Thanks to my strong Trade Companies, I now have nearly twenty merchants, and am present in all the high-priority nodes for me. I'm now sending some to more obscure nodes, like Lahore, that I don't have a strong presence in, but that I can potentially shift a few ducats my way. And since everyone is transferring trade, I have enormous power in Sevilla, making sure I capture almost all of the trade and Spain very little. (During this war, they're actually collecting 0% since I'm occupying their territories, but even before that they were only taking maybe 15-20% of the trade, despite having more raw Provincial Trade Power).

Oh, one other neat little trick: there are a couple of Portuguese Missions that require you to have a significant Trade Power in an east-Asian Trade Node. Ordinarily this would require conquering a province (ideally with a CoT) to get some Trade Power, then sending some Light Ships to further boost your influence. However, sending a Merchant here automatically gives 2 trade power, which isn't enough but lets you skip right to the ships. These missions end by granting you a province, at which point it's much easier to maintain and grow your trade presence.

Trade infrastructure is my highest priority, but now that that's mostly built out, I'm running even bigger surpluses. I've mostly been pouring those into Manufactories. These are fairly expensive buildings, at 500 apiece, but much more valuable than they seem at first. They boost your Goods Produced value, which in turn drives not only your Production Income but also your Trade Value. The boost from a manufactory is equivalent to increasing your Production Development five times, which in turn would cost at least 250 Diplomatic Power per province.

Other than that, I'll also pay to upgrade Great Projects, build Marketplaces in TC provinces, and so on. I've also lately been building to improve my Governing Capacity. I'm well below the cap, but at some point I'll need to integrate my vassals before they turn disloyal, and I need to be ready for that. I've prioritized building Courthouses in my highest-Dev provinces, and State Houses in almost every Area; I'll build them on a Gems province if I can, otherwise on a low-trade-value good (typically Grain or something) to avoid losing a valuable Manufactory slot.

Overall, it's been really fun getting rich! Early in the game I was managing expenses very closely: turning down Army Maintenance between wars, being cautious with my reserves so I wouldn't get hit with any loans, and so on. Now I just smile while I watch the Ducats number tick up, and freely spend when I feel like it. These days I try to keep a minimum of 5,000 ducats in the bank at all time, so I can handle any Events that pop up with associated expenses. Once it goes over 10,000 ducats I'll usually pause and spend back down to about 5,000 (as noted above, generally prioritizing Trade Companies and then Manufactories and then anything else).

For the most part, the Ducat Economy is separate from the Monarch Power Economy, which I think is a good design decision that keeps each resource valuable. That said, the benefit of being super-rich is that you can afford to train up your advisors to Level 5, getting the benefit of extra Monarch Power points. I periodically get good events that give me a half-price advisor. Ideally they're of an accepted culture, and they seem to always be 30 years old, so they're a great investment. I'll typically hire them right away, immediately train up to Level 5, then keep them until they perish (or get to retirement age and I get another half-price event).

Annnnnnyways, as is usual another 50 years or so have passed in the game since I started writing this post so all of this is already ancient news. (Edit: And another 50 years after that passed until I got around to adding screenshots and actually hitting "Publish.") I'll cut off this post for now and fill y'all in on the exciting conclusion of World War Zero when I return!

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!