Tuesday, January 26, 2021

The Butler Did It

 It's a tough year for dystopias! One topic I've toyed with in recent years is what kind of fiction speaks to us or feeds us in different environments. In particular, when the world seems very hard and sad and scary, do we want stories that allow us to explore and dig in to those feelings? Or do we crave escapism and move towards lighter, irreverent works?

I think I personally tend more towards the latter, more so as I get older. So I might not have picked up Parable of the Sower on my own, but I'm very glad that my sister gave me a copy over the holidays. The book ended up hitting uncomfortably close to home: my sister read it during the BLM protests last summer, while my reading overlapped the insurrection on the Capitol. It's tempting to say that Octavia Butler was prescient when she wrote this book nearly 30 years ago, but really she was probably just paying closer attention than the rest of us.


This novel is set in the far-off distant future of 2024. Octavia presents an America that is almost unrecognizable: global temperatures are gradually increasing, sea levels are starting to threaten coastal communities, water is growing increasingly scarce, rainfall in California is unreliable, the federal government fails to meet the needs of its citizens, the police are far more interested in themselves than the communities they ostensibly serve, a demagogue wins the presidency by promising harsh treatment for the undeserving, corporations pay their workers a pittance while denying employment protections.

Somewhat like The Plot Against America, the big-picture story is very compelling, but most of the narrative is hyper-local. For the first 2/3 or so of the book we're restricted to a single cul-de-sac on the outskirts of Los Angeles, where a multiracial group of neighbors have banded together for mutual cooperation and defense against the outside world. The story is told by the narrator Lauren Olamina through a series of journal entries, describing the events she sees in her home, her neighborhood, and the little she can see of the world outside. Along the way she also spins out her home-grown philosophy-slash-religion of "Earthseed", finding a focus and destination for the horrors she sees approaching.

There's a lot that I love about this book, but one of the biggest things may be its depiction of how the dystopia arrives. In a lot of sci-fi, it's the result of a single catastrophic event: a misfired nuke or rogue virus or ecological calamity. In cyberpunk it tends to get hand-waved as something that just happened. Parable of the Sower is, I think, the best representation, as a steady progression of tiny incremental cracks that go unaddressed for too long until it's too late to meaningfully address them. It isn't JUST the environment, or JUST the politics, or JUST the culture, or JUST the crime, or JUST the drugs; any one of those might be solvable if the rest were in good shape. But they all reinforce each others' degradation. Crime gets worse because people are more desperate because it doesn't rain any more; people don't trust the cops because the cops don't serve justice; the government isn't accountable to the people so it can't focus on solving the climate problems.

Lauren is unique within the book for being able to recognize that things are going to get worse, and prepare herself and others in her community to prepare for it. She has an interesting background, as the daughter of a Baptist preacher who is one of the main cornerstones of the cul-de-sac; she is also in a mixed family, with a Hispanic step-mother and several step-brothers. You can see how a childhood of study and sermons has primed her outlook and disposition towards the world.

One of the most science-fiction-y aspects of the story is the thing I kept forgetting. Lauren's birth mother was addicted to a drug called Paracetco, which seems to be an Ecstasy-type substance that allows the (ab)user to physically sense what another person feels. Lauren has inherited the effects of this drug, which live in her system all the time: when another person is beaten, she feels the blows; when she sees someone bleed, she can start to sympathetically bleed as well. She calls this "sharing", though we learn later that others call it "feeling".


The story kicks into very high gear on a chaotic night: after several earlier sallies against the neighborhood, they are abruptly overrun by a vicious gang that murders and abuses virtually everyone. Lauren escapes on her own; the next day she comes back to the ruins, carefully collects some emergency supplies that her family had hidden, and finds a couple of other survivors.

The event is shocking, but the response is not: for years Lauren has had a plan to move north, to Canada if possible, Washington State otherwise. While the world up there has problems as well, at least they still have reliable water sources. This stretch of the book was probably my favorite: it's intense and more dangerous than the earlier portion, but also feels liberating and uplifting. Lauren isn't living in the shadow any more and dreaming, she's out in the world making those dreams real. Honestly, this section felt a lot like a video game - I mean that as a compliment! Lauren collects her party, manages an inventory, defeats enemies, collects loot, buys better equipment, moves on to a new zone, fights tougher enemies, and so on. The game-designer part of my brain can't help thinking of how smoothly this would all translate to a fun game structure.

Unlike a lot of games, Lauren exclusively acts in self-defense; but it's a very wary and proactive self-defense. She shows off her pistol and rifle to scare off attackers before fights can begin, and once a fight does break out, she aims to kill her attackers as quickly and painlessly as possible. It's a tough but fully rational posture: with her condition, she's debilitated and unable to protect her people when someone is in pain, so she needs to do what she's going to do before then.

Lauren is profoundly driven throughout the whole book, primarily by her vision of Earthseed. Most of her journal entries open with verses from Earthseed; when she is still at home she quietly keeps her thoughts to herself, but once she is out on the road she begins quietly and calmly proselytizing her companions, and by the end she has formed a community around her. It's interesting to see the birth of a new faith depicted like this. Lauren seems to view Earthseed as a religion, and nearly every verse invokes God. To many of her followers, it's more of a philosophy. One person compares it to Eastern wisdom traditions. It seems both modern and universal: it is explicitly oriented towards space travel, seeing mankind's destiny among the stars, but is focused around the individual's capacity to change themselves and to change the world around them.

I have to admit that I don't totally get Earthseed, despite its prominent focus and repeated explanations. But that's cool! We see a variety of responses to Earthseed among Lauren's group, and I like to think that different readers will have their own responses as well.


As I mentioned above, this has been a hard year for reading dystopias, and there were some days when I could hardly bear to pick up Parable of the Sower. I'm really glad that I stuck with it, though. While the world it depicts is grim, it ultimately shows the best aspects of humanity: resilient, adaptable, brave, intelligent, resourceful. This is the first novel of Butler's that I've read; apparently there's at least one sequel to this book, which I'm very curious to check out. While we're far closer to the 2024 depicted in this book than one would like, we do still have time to change the course that we're on, and this book offers both motivation to make those changes and encouragement that, at least on an individual level, we're capable of doing so.

Wednesday, January 06, 2021

A Political Post

In 1932, the National Socialist party won a plurality of seats in the Reichstag. The other political parties in Germany refused to join in coalition with them, leaving a minority government in control through the end of the year.

That changed in 1933, when Franz von Papen, the head of the conservative Zentrum Party, agreed to join in coalition with the National Socialists, raising Adolf Hitler to the post of Chancellor. Papen believed that Hitler was a useful fool, a buffoon, who he could manipulate and use to secure his own political position. Hitler had other plans. After the Reichstag fire, Papen supported the Enabling Act, ending representative democracy in Germany. Papen was shoved aside, along with the rest of his party, once the Night of Long Knives had passed and the Nazification of Germany was complete. Democracy would not be restored until more than a decade later after tens of millions of people had been killed.

History does not repeat itself, and America is not on the same course as Germany in the 1930s. Our poor are less desperate, and we do not yet have ubiquitous paramilitary forces. But we would be foolish to ignore the lessons of history.

Fascists always start out as political minorities. As long as they are shut out of power, they will stay that way: the tools of the state are sufficient defense against a dangerous and violent internal force. But once they are let in to power, they will not retreat or surrender. Fascism ultimately believes that the people must be subordinate to their rulers, not the other way around, so votes are meaningless. Fascism thrives on conflict, seeking glory in conquering enemies. And there will always be enemies. Fascism is predicated on differentiating the pure from the "other", and has an existential need for someone to fight.

One advantage the United States has at the moment is a relatively unified left. By its nature, the left will never be as united as the right; but we are in a much better situation historically than Germany was. If the left parties in Germany had managed to work together, a great crisis might have been averted.

But ultimately, it's the right in America that will have the more important job over the next decade. Will they give in to temptation like Franz von Papen, welcoming the energy and support of ultra-right nationalists? Or will they remain true to their stated principles, following the tradition of the post-WW2 GOP, and denounce the antidemocratic pull?

So far, the signs are very discouraging. It feels like a dike is bursting. The most powerful and influential leaders in the Republican Party are not using their power to defend representative democracy: they are pouring gasoline on the fire, parroting false grievances, systematically eroding faith in the democratic process itself.

I'm not one to impugn motives; I can't see into anyone's soul. They may think that desperate dictatorial measures are necessary because they fear what their foes may do in power. They may truly disdain democracy and think it unnecessary. Some might even have become unmoored from reality, believing the ludicrous conspiracy theories spun from the darkest corners from the Internet.

While I don't judge motives, I do judge actions, and far too many politicians have taken a dangerous plunge on the road from democracy to fascism, of overturning the voters' will and imposing their own. My goal over the next 2-6 years will be to get as many of these people out of office as possible. In some cases that might mean holding my nose and supporting a primary challenger. More often it will mean supporting their opponent in a general election.

While many are guilty, the senators who falsely claimed electoral fraud and opposed the peaceful transfer of power have the greatest responsibility for our decline. They are:

Marsha Blackburn
Mike Braun
Ted Cruz
Steve Daines
Bill Hagerty
Josh Hawley
Cindy Hyde-Smith
Ron Johnson
John Neely Kennedy
James Lankford
Kelly Loeffler
Cynthia Lummis
Roger Marshall
Rick Scott
Tommy Tuberville

Of all of these, Josh Hawley is probably the one that concerns me the most. He is the vanguard of a social-nativist movement, akin to the National Front in France, the AfD in Germany, or the PiS in Poland. While a big responsibility of the right will be to expel fascists and reaffirm faith in democracy, a big responsibility of the left will be ensuring people like Hawley cannot outflank on economic issues and create an enduring nationalist bloc. In my view, one of the biggest bullets we dodged during the Trump administration was Steve Bannon's failure to realign the Republican Party along economically populist lines. Folks like Hawley are picking up that cause, and it may be one of the biggest risks of our era.

We have a lot of work ahead of us, but it's incredibly important work. I hope you will help if you can.

Sunday, January 03, 2021

I Capture the Castle

This will probably be my last Minecraft post for a while. Here, as promised/threatened, is the base I've been building. I think the exterior is probably about 90% done, the interior maybe 50% or so, and I'm not sure how much more I'll want to do with the grounds.

Before getting into that, here's my current loadout.

I've been rocking diamond gear for a while. I really lucked out on this helmet with a crazy good enchantment roll. I kind of want to hunt down the Monument on my Ocean Explorer map while I still have this Respiration.

My first Chestplate was just a Protection III, but I stepped it up a notch with this one.

I think I Anvil'd two Boots together to get this. Depth Strider doesn't sound all that useful, but it's been kind of game-changing in practice.

I believe this was another anvilled piece, from a villager selling words with Sweeping Edge II and Knockback I.

This pickaxe has been insane. I tunneled out an entire railroad in what felt like five minutes, just gently tapping each block as I plowed my way through. Using Silk Touch on that would have felt silly, but by now I have three Silk Touch Diamond Pickaxes, so why not? As a bonus, it saves me a step on smelting Cobblestone back into Stone.

My castle, approaching from the village to the northeast.

The grounds out in front, currently just consisting of two rambling pastures, one for horses and one for llamas.

The main gate, with the portcullis open. The overall footprint of the castle is about 29x30 on the ground, with the highest towers rising about 30 more. Laying down the outline was pretty quick, but building up the whole thing took a while!

View from the south. The castle was very heavily based on a tutorial from Grian. I've seen a few of his videos and am really impressed, he has a great eye for aesthetics in this game. I made a few alterations to what's shown in the video. These changes were primarily motivated by me playing in Survival mode rather than Creative, and secondarily by me wanting to make a functional base to live in.

The most obvious difference is that I used stone bricks instead of gray concrete as my main building block. The thought of gathering and casting that much concrete powder in Survival makes my head hurt; but I generated a ton of cobblestone during my mining, and it was kind of fun to go digging for ores, end up with some extra stacks of cobblestone, smelt them into stone, cut the stone into bricks, add another story or two to my tower, then go back digging for more ores.

In the back of the castle, to the west, are my animal enclosures. I don't think I've done anything with the pigs since putting them in here. For a lot of these pens, I took advantage of natural hill rises, so in a lot of places like this, I ended up with a 2-tall dirt wall on a few sides, and a wooden fence on the others. This makes it a lot easier to lead new animals into the pen without letting others escape, and also lets me get in and out without using the gate. (I typically put one section of ladder on the topmost dirt block, so I can jump and get out while the livestock remains below.)

Here are my chickens. I was so mad when I woke up one day and discovered that a fox had gotten into the henhouse and murdered all my chickens! That is the downside to my dirt-barrier design; other animals can just as easily get in, which usually isn't a problem, but can cause issues with wolves or foxes. (Fortunately, monsters don't seem to care.) Like the pigs, I mostly ended up ignoring the chickens; I was planning to use their feathers to craft arrows, but I've enchanted a couple of Infinity Bows so that's become far less of a priority.

In the rear and slightly to the right you can kind of make out the sheep pen. I don't need a ton of wool, but it's super-handy to have them close by for that.

In my first post I'd mentioned the huge farm by "the office" that Charles built. It's an awesome farm, but it also has all of the livestock mixed in together. My pens in total are a lot smaller, but it's been nice to have each dedicated to its own animals, which makes it a lot easier to collect what I need, and also keep a closer eye on the population levels to discern whether I need to breed more of a certain animal or not.

My sugarcane farm is on the right. Harvesting sugarcane is one of the most satisfying parts of the game. Harvesting crops in general is super-satisfying. On the left and slightly further back is my cactus farm. I'm far from the desert, but was able to buy a single cactus block from a wandering trader and have built up a nice little patch. I mostly use the cacti to make green dye, which I use to dye green carpets that blend in with the grass when I need to cover something unsightly.

Here are my cows, which is the livestock I use most often: Leather is super-important for books and other stuff. A good amount of my wheat production goes toward feeding cows. A little tip: a Looting sword will make cows drop more leather.

Food-wise, my serious phase of the game started with me mostly eating bread. After setting up these farms, I switched over to baked potatoes. Now I'm mostly eating cooked steak. I wasn't specifically looking for steak, but I get so much of it while collecting leather that I decided to just eat it, and it is significantly more filling than the starchy foods I was eating before.

A side entrance into the castle. The structure is big enough that it was kind of time consuming to exit from the inner bailey to the outer bailey and run around to the back of the castle, so I dug a couple of access tunnels for multiple exits. We'll get a closer look later.

Welcome to Gourd Central. These are probably my main cash crops. I just recently enchanted a diamond axe with Silk Touch, which has significantly increased the profitability of my melons. I'm using the center strip for half of my honey operation. Bees are awesome: they pollinate crops as they fly (after gathering nectar from flowers), which speeds up the maturation of plants.

The northern face of the castle. On the left are my newest fields; at first I planted crops in rows for faster maturation, but now I'm taking a more monocultural approach and solidly planting fields so I can just collect a specific crop when I need it. In this case it's potatoes in the foreground, wheat in the background.

This is where that tunnel we saw before comes out. After coming out in the morning, I can hop up the ladder to reach my crops, or go through the tunnel to reach the livestock. There's a double iron door to safeguard against intruders (and accommodate human visitors with uncouth manners). The door uses pressure plates on the inside and a stone button on the outside. I'm thinking of swapping in a wood button for the stone. On the server, lag can sometimes make it hard to get through the door in the short time it's open. Apparently wood buttons can remain depressed for many minutes if shot with a skeleton arrow, which ordinarily would be a concern, but this particular button is tucked underground so I feel like it would be much less of a risk.

Some of my original row-planted crops; here it's beetroot and wheat. Each field is a 9x9 plot, surrounded with fencing or natural barriers, with a single block of water in the center. It's a lot different and more efficient than my original wheat farm!

Looking at the portcullis from the outer bailey. This was another variation from Grian's castle design, which featured a fixed door: pretty, but not practical for Survival. I saw a lot of designs for portcullises that looked cool, but most of them were way too tall for my build. I ended up finding one from an Indonesian YouTuber that I really liked, which was simpler and more compact than most other designs: It doesn't have any slime blocks or complex circuitry, just one set of sticky pistons on the bottom to push it up and another set of sticky pistons on the top to push it down. I ended up having to raise my front wall by a single block, not too bad at all.

I covered up most of the redstone, but if you climb the access ladder you can see part of it from the side. This is the only redstone thing I've made so far, and it was really fun to do. From what I understand, redstone is incredibly versatile and powerful in Minecraft: You can even make logic circuits like NAND gates and people have built Turing-complete computers inside the game, which is pretty insane. I haven't messed around with it much yet, but it could be fun to explore it more deeply in the future and try to design my own stuff.

This is part of the 10% that isn't complete yet. I'm on top of the outer bailey here, just below the top of the front towers, and I don't know what I want to do with this big wall. Grian put another door here, which might be cool, but if so I'll want to build up the inside a bit more so it actually connects to something. I could maybe do something with banners, or just more detail work.

Looking east from one of the towers. Another difference is that Grian used cobblestone walls as "windows", which confused me a lot at first. I think it was so they register as windows without actually letting you see inside, which would maybe look a little weird since it's gray concrete everywhere. In my case, I really wanted to look outside, so I put in more transparent windows. At lower elevations I generally used iron bars for a more defensive appearance, and higher up I used wooden fences for a more friendly look.

One of my map rooms. This is a start at a 1:8 map. Still a ways to go!

Another map room on ground level. On the left is a 1:1 map with a fairly detailed look at the castle grounds; you can even make out the animal pens and crop fields there. On the right is a 1:4 map that I'm still working on.

And, to the right here is the 1:2 map, which shows the nearby village and the western part of the main office development area.

Here's the main courtyard, where I spend most of my working time at the base. I have a layer of "scaffolding" up at the battlements level which I initially built to make it easier to move around between towers; it's less necessary now so I may take it out at some point. Grian's castle is solid blocks on top, but I thought that would be too depressing, so I added some glass blocks so I can see the sky. I ended up using diorite to separate the panes; I usually hate how diorite looks, but it's a much lighter-colored rock, and I liked having the ceiling be a lighter color.

So, yeah... lots going on in here. Storage chests, a guest bed in the foreground, my personal bed in the background. At some point I'd like to move these into the towers, but for now it's really convenient all just being in the open. My work station is against the far wall, including the crafting table, a blast furnace, regular furnace, stonecutter, smoker, and lots more chests.

Oh, and lots of cats! Like many things in this game, getting my first cats was hard, but now I can breed more whenever I want. I've read that Creepers are scared of cats, which would be awesome, since the biggest annoyance at this stage of the game is a Creeper blowing up and wrecking a thing that I'm building. I'm vaguely thinking of distributing cats around construction zones to form an anti-Creeper defense force. I need to clear this plan with PETA first, though.

I really have no idea what I'm going to do with this space. If I put all the work stuff into towers, I might make this a more natural courtyard, with paths and plants and things. I might add another ceiling at the level where I currently have the scaffolding and divide this space into multiple rooms. I really don't know. 

While the courtyard is where I spend most of my time at base, most of the space is in the towers. Each tower has seven stories, plus the open top, which adds up to a lot of room for activities. I'm only using a fraction of it now. The most interesting is probably the middle of my northwest tower, which is my enchanting area. On the fourth story, I keep a grindstone, an anvil, and a chest with previously-enchanted items that I may want to combine in the future.

Here's my current stock. Man, I remember what a big effort it was to finally mine and craft my first set of diamond gear. Now, it's a lot more accessible. I've trained up Master Weaponsmiths, Master Toolsmiths, and a Master Armorer in my village, all of whom will sell me enchanted Diamond gear for Emeralds. Most of the enchantments are bad, but that's OK, I just grind them off and then apply my own. 

Up on the fifth story is my actual enchanting room. I had to be very precise in where I placed everything to fit it all in here while keeping maximum enchanting power, and am happy with how it looks. I typically run back here soon after I reach Level 30 and capture that XP in a thing.

For convenience, I keep a chest here with unenchanted gear and Lapis Lazuli so I can easily grab it all and flip through available enchantments. My current MO is to pick whatever seems to be the best and/or rarest enchantment on any of my equipment, instead of, like, picking the best enchantment for a specific item.

Standing on top of the castle at night. I lit most of it as I was building, but had a few dark spots, and had a few nights when I had to kill zombies or skeletons that spawned in my area. I think it's all secure now, though.

Looking down at my crops. One of the most recent changes I've made is to the center of each plot: I used to put a lily pad on top of the water, which looked nice and kept me from falling in (realism!!), but I think the center of the plots weren't getting enough light to continue growing at night, so now I'm putting scarecrows in with jack-o-lantern heads. (Plant growth in Minecraft is based on light level, and not necessarily sunlight, so hydroponic farming is totally viable given enough light sources.)

Looking to the west. As you can see, I have not really lit up my grounds at all, so I'm careful not to go out there at night. I should probably do that sooner rather than later. There are some monsters visible here to the right of the sheep; fortunately, monsters don't attack animals.

Looking south. I'm not sure what that light on the horizon is!

And now I'm looking east. You can see the bridge over the river near the center. Another item on my agenda is upgrading it; currently it's a simple cobblestone path that crosses a deep river, I'd like to make something prettier.

Whoa, a full moon! I should have gone slime-hunting tonight.

This is the highest point in the castle.

From here, the draw distance is far enough that the llamas aren't rendering.

Walking along the lower battlements. One negative side-effect of my materials switch from gray concrete to stone bricks is that the polished andesite doesn't pop as much as it did in Grian's original video: it still looks nice, but is far less of a contrast. I kept the polished andesite for the crenelations and battlements, but tried to find other materials for other places. One thing I liked was using spruce logs as reinforcing pillars, which does have a much stronger contrast with the brick. 

Looking back up at the battlements. I've had a couple of fun encounters sniping pillagers from up there.

So, the stairway to the left leads down to... lots of stuff. I have a semi-finished basement below the castle, and an Elevation 12 mineshaft a lot further down, and in between it hooks up with a rambling natural cave system. To the left of the archery target is a ladder leading down... somewhere that you'll see soon. And the right is my side exit leading to the crops.

Here's my "basement". I dug this out pretty early on, but haven't done much with it yet. I mostly wanted to make sure that there weren't monsters spawning in areas that would mess with my sleep.

More recently, though, I needed a safe place to put something secure, so I added an iron door and dug out a new room.

Inside that room: a Nether Portal! The door on the right has a ladder behind with direct access to the courtyard. This whole room is fireproof and secure against extradimensional invaders.

The Nether seems... challenging. I was happy to see that my new portal does not link up with the one by the office, despite being closer than 1024 blocks distant. The bad news is it still opens into a Basalt Delta biome, and after quite a lot of time exploring I haven't found any piglins or nether wart or blazes or fortresses or bastions. But I guess it wouldn't be exploring if you could easily find everything!

Anyways, that's my current home in Minecraft! It was really fun to build, and has been a comfortable space to live in and operate from. I feel like my most pressing needs are now taken care of. Of course, there's lots more that I still want to do, but I'm pleased with where I'm at for now.