Tuesday, October 20, 2020


When I find an author whose work I enjoy, I'm tempted to read as little of their work as I can, as slowly as I can, to drag out a supply of fresh good novels as long as possible. So it's a little unusual that I would so quickly return to Liu Cixin so quickly, but here I am, just a month after finishing The Three Body Problem and wrapping up the sequel, The Dark Forest. Part of that might be because of COVID focusing my attention, part might be the sci-fi kick I've been on lately, but I think the most compelling thing is just that 3BP was a damn fine book, and I wanted to read another one.

MINI SPOILERS for The Dark Forest, MEGA SPOILERS for The Three Body Problem

I put this book on hold at the library the moment I finished the first one, but I also was a little skeptical about just how Liu would manage to follow the first book. 3BP had so many wonderful tricks that seemed impossible to repeat. Even though it was nominally a science-fiction book, it opens during the Cultural Revolution and feels like a historical fiction novel for a long time, and then like a mystery novel for quite a while. It isn't until near the end of the book that we finally learn what the Three Body Problem is and who is behind the events of the story. But now that we do know, how can the mystery be maintained? I was curious if the series would transition into a more typical sci-fi novel with space battles, or if he would try to repeat the historical and mystery aspects again.

As it turns out, he does neither, and instead segues into still another genre. Most of this book feels like a political thriller, on a global scale grander than anything this side of seveneves. Earth is nominally united against the Trisolaran threat, but old divisions still exist, and we see the tacit struggles occurring between West and East, global North and global South, between established industries and nascent ones, between various ideologies. Political capital is gathered and exploited and expended and lost as various leaders and strategies rise and fall.

There is a pretty solid break from the previous book, both in the structure and tone, and also just in the characters. Most of the major people from 3BP are missing in TDF or just have brief cameos, with Shi Qiang the one major recurring character. But it also adds to the sense of scope and scale of the story: this is an enormous crisis gripping all of humanity for centuries, so of course different people will be involved at different times.

There is a nice mystery aspect that continues in this book, though. The mystery in 3BP mostly revolved around the titular game, what was killing the scientists, and how it related to the Red Coast Base; it's a mystery about an adversary. In TDF, the mystery is about the allies. The single most creative and exciting idea in this novel is the "Wallfacers", four men who have been selected to create and carry out secret plans to thwart the Trisolaran invaders.

Doing a bit of recap for my own benefit: At the end of 3BP, we learned that the Trisolaran fleet is en route to the Solar System, with the stated goal of destroying all of humanity and settling on Earth. Their technology is vastly superior to ours, but they are concerned about mankind's fast progress: The Trisolarans have been more advanced than us for hundreds of thousands of years, but in the last 200 years we have progressed more rapidly than they had in thousands of years, and if that trend continues then by the time they arrive (around 2400 AD) humanity will have become vastly more powerful than them and easily able to crush the invasion.

It will take centuries for the Trisolarans to arrive, but thanks to their mastery of subatomic physics, they are able to manipulate events on Earth at the microscopic level. (Think quantum entanglement.) That isn't enough to take macroscopic action like assassinating a head of state, but through their sophons they are able to spy on humanity, seeing and hearing everything that takes place; and they can interfere with subatomic experiments, thwarting the efforts of particle accelerators and colliders to plumb the mysteries of neutrinos and other fundamental elements of the universe. Thanks to this, they effectively place a lock on humanity's progress: we can continue developing the existing technology we have, but entire fields of study are closed off, including quantum research (and its computational advantages), strong nuclear forces, and so on.

But, there's one thing the Trisolarans can't do: they can't peer inside our minds. They can observe what a human says and what he does, but the "why" remains a mystery to them. So, the Wallfacers exploit this weakness. They carry out their plans in plain sight, but everyone, human and trisolaran alike, is aware that there are other angles and wrinkles to those plans, and are constantly kept guessing what their true aim is.

This all ends up being incredibly fun, with wheels within wheels, as we try to guess what the various Wallfacers are up to.


Hines is probably the most interesting Wallfacer to me. When reading the detail about how Keiko's eyes flashed open as soon as she was going to sleep, I guessed that she was his Wallbreaker, though I still wasn't sure what the implications of that were. One random idea I had was that, since Luo Ji was chosen because Trisolaris was scared of him, Hines might have been chosen if the PDC know that Keiko was a member of the ETO. In this scenario, part of Hines' deception could have been feeding misinformation through Keiko back to Trisolaris. Or, another thought was that maybe Hines was the Wallbreaker all along and Keiko was secretly the Wallfacer. Of course, neither of those scenarios is true, but it was fun to think about! So many of the plot twists in this story were wild, so it felt like no possibility was out of bounds.

Even at the end of the novel, I'm still not totally clear on exactly what Hines' plan was and what its status is. Where are the sleeper agents? At first I thought that they had fully permeated society and implanted the mental seal on everyone, but that doesn't seem to be the case, given how virulently everyone reacts against Escapism near the end. And I don't think it had a major impact on the actions of the ships escaping the teardrop assault, as the main actors there were all hibernators who had gone to sleep prior to the seal's invention. It feels like this might be something coming back in the third book.

Of course, Liu ends up being the most successful Wallfacer of the four. His "spell" seemed simultaneously obvious and opaque. I was certain that some greater power would respond to his message by wiping out the planet he indicated, and that is in fact what happened. But I wasn't expecting the cosmic sociological theory behind it, which turned out to be shocking and fascinating. I'd thought that it would be some sort of higher-dimensional entity, somewhat like when the Trisolarans summon the sophons in the previous book, or if, like, a colony of ants were to form an arrow pointing at a thing they didn't like, and some giant human then casually destroyed that thing. But it turns out to be a matter of numbers rather than a matter of scale, which is really interesting to think about. After reading Liu's afterword to 3BP, I thought he was probably too pessimistic about encountering alien life, but the explanation in this book is definitely sobering, and makes one reconsider the wisdom of our constant broadcasting.

This is, of course, the Dark Forest of the title. I spent most of the book wondering what that referred to. Late in the novel, after Liu reawakens in the future, we learn about the tree structure of the underground city, so for a while I thought the "Forest" referred to the city, and mused that "Dark" could refer to it being underground, or engaged in sinister activity, or some future event that would cut out the limitless power from the city and plunge it into eternal gloom. But, yeah, the title ends up referring to the entire universe, so that's pretty cool. It's another thing that reminded me of 3BP in how late we learn about something huge that causes us to rethink the entire galaxy.

Besides the epic distance and physical scale of the book, the span of time is also really epic and intriguing. I almost immediately thought of A Canticle for Leibowitz, which also had multiple-century jumps through time and radical changes in the social and technological order. TDF has a lot more interweaving between the eras, though, thanks to hybernation technology. Though, now that I think of it, the Lazarus/Benjamin character in ACfL could perhaps be playing a similar role, but without offering a point-of-view perspective. And the hybernation of humans could have some parallels with the Trisolaran cycle of dehydration and rehydration.


Liu kept the magic going for the second book, which is really impressive, given how moved I was by the first one. I'm really curious where they'll go from here in the third book! It would be a fairly satisfying ending on its own, with a vision for the future sketched out, some cool callbacks to the previous book and the major characters being in appropriate places. But there are definitely some loose threads out there (Garden of Eden, anyone?), as well as the bigger implications of sociology, so I can see the potential for the stakes to, incredibly, get even higher. I've already put the third book on hold and am very eager to find where it goes!

Thursday, October 08, 2020

Toupée's Door

I haven't done one of these in a while, but this is just a quick note that I'm in the Early Access of Baldur's Gate 3! I'm pretty impressed by the little I've seen so far.

As a general policy, I almost always eschew Early Access for games. I think the last EA I played was Sunless Sea six years ago. My usual philosophy is that I only get one chance to play a game for the first time, and I'd like that first time to be as smooth and polished and bug-free as possible.

So why am I in EA for this? Well, BG2 is possibly my favorite game of all time (with the possible exception of Fall from Heaven 2). BG3 isn't made by BioWare; but the old late-90s BioWare doesn't exist anymore anyways. Instead, it's made by Larian Studios, who have made some of my favorite recent RPGs, including the absolutely fantastic Divinity Original Sin 2. Those two factors give me a lot more confidence than a lot of EA games do. The final deciding factor for me was that playing early would hopefully help me avoid any potential story spoilers floating around the Internet and experience it first-hand myself.

I'm just a couple of hours of playtime into it so far, so this definitely isn't a review, but some initial first impressions:

It is definitely taxing my system. I last upgraded my PC for Dragon Age 3, which coincidentally was also about 6 years ago. The GTX 970 I got then has served me very well for years, smoothly running The Witcher 3 and other higher-end games, but it's chugging for this one. I may manually adjust my settings down to try and get a smoother experience here. But I've been thinking for a while that I'll probably need an upgrade for Cyberpunk 2077 anyways, so I might start researching a new build sooner rather than later.

The impression I've gotten so far from the few previews I've seen is that this game looks like Dragon Age: Origins, and that's been borne out so far. Particularly the conversations and cinematics fit that mold: your protagonist is voiceless in dialogue (but has reactions outside it), and there's a nice level of zoomed-in detail that I associate with that game. Actual gameplay feels a lot like the DOS games, particularly movement, item interaction and looting. It's missing telekinesis, which I think helps this game feel much more grounded than the DOS games. And it still has the environmental effects as DOS, but at least so far they're less of a focus. On the other hand, it doesn't really remind me much of BG1/BG2, at least so far. Which is honestly OK. It would probably be worse for someone trying and failing to replicate it than to focus on making their own new thing good.

Character creation is awesome. One sign of a good RPG is that I burn most of my first night just on making my character. It's funny to me that I can make a better Qunari in BG3 than I could in DA3. Chargen uses slots instead of sliders, which I personally find a lot nicer and easier to use: you don't, like, adjust your brow width, you just pick what kind of head you want.

One of my perennial hobbyhorses is the presentation of gender in RPGs. RPGs are in a kind of awkward state now where you're forced to make a binary gender choice at the start of the game and play a cisgendered PC, but modern RPG worlds are increasingly filled with transgendered, nonbinary, or otherwise queer characters that your PC can meet and gawk at. The only studio that really does something cool with player gender is Failbetter Games, and they don't need to worry about 3D models or animation. At first blush, the BG3 creator is like all the others, starting with the fateful Venus-or-Mars toggle. But it's cool to see that this choice doesn't lock you out of anything! You can create a biological female with a masculine voice and a big bushy beard, or a hulking brute with lovely eyeshadow and long flowing hair.

Oh, and that hair! I would have murdered a room full of people to have this many long-hair options in DA3.

Anyways, I'm rolling with a normal (for me) cis character, but it's really cool to see this space opening up and developers allowing players a wider canvas to choose from in crafting their characters.

They are still in progress on adding classes. I think I want to play a Bard for my first full playthrough, but so far in EA I'm playing a Rogue and having a blast. I really love how many sub-classes and sub-races there are.

And... that will do it for now! I'll be very mindful of spoilers going forward, just wanted to share that I'm checking it out and having fun so far.

Monday, October 05, 2020

How To Vote

California obviously has a lot of challenges right now, but I still love this state and am glad and proud to be a Californian. One of the many virtues of this state is its robust vote-by-mail system. Like many states west of the Rocky Mountains, VBM is normalized and heavily practiced here, which is always good for democracy in general (higher participation, easier access to information) and is particularly good in a pandemic year.

This is "the big election", the Presidential year when turnout numbers will be highest and interest the strongest; but this ballot is actually quite a bit shorter than in previous years. Statewide California offices are filled in midterm elections, and while we do have a lot of propositions there aren't as many as from other years. Still, there's a lot of important stuff in there. And, without further ado, here is how I will vote!


Joseph R. Biden and Kamala D. Harris. Biden was not my first choice in the primary, but the choice here is really clear. A man with clear empathy and compassion in the office will be a balm after the last four years. I've been a decades-long admirer of Harris, and it's been great seeing her grow in stature on the national stage. I think she'll be up for the job she has to do.


Jackie Speier


Josh Becker


Kevin Mullen


Rod Hsiao


Maurice Goodman. It's a shame that Goodman and Mandelkern were forced into the same district, I would have happily supported either, but Goodman gets my nod.


Greg Land and Ligia Andrade Zuniga


Ann Schneider, Anders Fung, You You Xue


No. One of my general rules of thumb is to vote "Yes" on taxes and "No" on bonds. Taxes take money from everyone, often particularly the wealthy, to fund services for everyone. Bonds use the tax code to transfer money from the working class to the investing class. If this research is truly a priority for the state, we should budget it through the General Fund.




Yes. I would honestly prefer a clean repeal of Prop 13, and worry a little that this measure will make future reforms to the property tax harder. Still, it's a massive improvement on the status quo, and I'd rather succeed in passing Prop 15 than fail in repealing Prop 13. 


Yes. My other general rule of thumb on ballot initiatives is, when in doubt, I tend to vote in favor of initiatives that were placed on the ballot by the legislature, and against initiatives that were placed by voter signatures. One thing that I really like about this year's official voter information guide is that it also lists how many people voted "Aye" and "Nay" in the Assembly and Senate; when there's an overwhelming majority in favor of something, it increases my confidence that it's a good idea. (Because of our reckless over-use of constitutional amendments in the past, tons of basic things can't be done by the legislature, so they often need to kick things back to the voters to approve.) Anyways: This proposition makes sense, will align the public sector more with how the private sector has been working, and should help make things better!






Yes. This seems to be two mostly unrelated changes smooshed together into one measure. Letting seniors move to another house and keep their old property tax bill should be a good change all around: it lets seniors afford to make sensible changes like downsizing, should create some more liquidity in the infamously sluggish California real estate market, and generally promote the kind of turnover we see in the rest of the country. (But again: Just repeal Prop 13!) The more important thing is the back half, though, which closes a gross loophole that lets the wealthy pass massive assets along tax-free for all future generations. Particularly after reading Piketty, I'm all on board for breaking up permanent wealth.




Yes. See my vote for Prop 10 two years ago. I'm more unambiguously in favor now, partly because it seems likely we will see more natural decreases in rent prices in CA over the coming years (due to environmental and other factors), and also because I'm more radicalized now on the social utility of limiting profits.


Strong no. Crap like this has made me start to think that, when private companies pay hundreds of millions of dollars to pass constitutional amendments to benefit their bottom line (see also: every insurance-related initiative you've ever voted on), they should have to match that amount dollar-for-dollar into funding our schools or another worthy endeavors. Let's make that an initiative! Uber and all of its ilk who built their entire business models on evading taxation should get bent.


Yes. Though, to be fair, this is kind of like Prop 22 but funded by unions instead of private companies. Still, it's for a better cause.






Yes. I have a bad feeling about this one, though. It's been in the works for a while, and the timing turned out terrible, asking voters to approve it when transit ridership is at a (pandemic-induced) decades-long low. But I've been pleasantly surprised in the past at locals stepping up to support public transit, and hope to be surprised again!


Oh, and I almost forget: Let's grade my performance from the primary!

Honestly, not much there to react to. I still think Warren would be a better nominee and President, but I also am getting increasingly excited by the prospect of her writing legislation in a trifecta federal government. Imagining her as the chairwoman of the Senate Banking Committee, crafting bank regulations, makes me giddy. She'd also be a fantastic Attorney General to revive the agency's moribund antitrust enforcement wing.

I don't pay as much attention as I should to my state representatives, but it was really cool to see that Kevin Mullen is responsible for two propositions on the ballot: 19, which should restore more sanity to our housing tax system, and 18, which extends the franchise to younger voters.

That's it for this election! I am so exhausted by politics of the last four years. A big part of me is looking forward to, hopefully, things being calmer going forward. But, of course, that isn't how politics works. We'll still need to deal with the root causes of all the problems we're facing. The endless fires are a result of global climate change. Massive inequalities are a result of our unfair tax system. The pandemic is definitely not helped by our terrible private health care system. The ongoing and consequence-free state murder of black citizens is a result of institutionalized racism. All these, and many more, problems will require big, ambitious, hard changes with lots of money and influence supporting the status quo. No matter who or what wins at every level, we'll need to keep on pressure and keep pushing to ensure that necessary changes happen. The good news is, the new crop of people should be vastly more receptive to such pressure than the previous set.