Thursday, June 01, 2023

Source Code

Ever since reading Capital in the Twenty-First Century, I've been on an endless quest to Learn More about the topics it raised. This has led me down the path of more Piketty books, but as there are a finite number of these, I'm increasingly branching into Piketty-adjacent writing. The latest stop on my journey has been The Code of Capital, which examines the same fundamental questions of the nature and behavior of capital and wealth, but from the perspective of a lawyer rather than that of an economist or political scientist. This results in a fascinating and really compelling argument that supplements and explains the more purely economic and social aspects I've been focusing on.


It isn't too surprising that the author Katharina Pistor brings a new perspective to this. She's a law professor, and it's natural that she would think that the legal system is a crucial aspect of capitalism. While reading this book I mused about how a farmer or a miner would probably argue that natural resources are the only true form of capital, how an architect or building tradesman would argue that human improvements are the only true way to grow capital, or how a software developer like me might claim that ingenuity is the primary component of capital expansion.

Katharina Pistor seems equally inspired by two things: digging into the root causes of the 2008 financial crash, and digging into a phenomenon that Piketty raises in Cit21C. In his grand tour of the last 2000 years of wealth, and in particular the last 250 or so since the French Revolution, he examines the forms that wealth has taken over time. There has been a drastic shift during the last 100 years: prior to that, most wealth was held in the form of land, particularly rural farmland. Over time, there has been a strong increase in the total value of urban real estate. In modern times, though, the vast majority of our planet's total wealth (as valued by the market) is held in financial instruments, especially stocks and bonds.

What's remarkable to Piketty is how consistent wealth has been: whether you're valuing a patch of dirt that has existed for billions of years and will exist for billions more, or valuing a handful of bits in a computer register that we've agreed to pretend is worth something, the way that capital accrues wealth to its owner hasn't changed, nor the patterns in how it is accumulated and passed down to heirs.

Pistor, though, is curious about how those new forms of wealth were created: it seems like a really big deal! Her thesis is that only the law (that is, the civil legal system) can create new systems of capital. Lawyers function much like priests. They take an unadorned asset, like a loaf of bread; they endow it with legal encodings that are recognized by the state, much like a prayer; and the asset is then transformed into capital, like bread into the Host.

Pistor is writing to a general audience, and I really appreciated the time she spends going through fundamental questions. One that she spends time on is a question that I feel embarrassed to ask: what is capital? I needn't feel embarrassed, because it turns out that there's a great deal of debate on the topic, and she gives a good survey about how various factions would describe it. In her view, though, capital is simply an asset that provides guaranteed income for its owner. Examples could include a house that you rent out, or money in a bank savings account, or a patent that pays you royalties.

Not every thing that exists in the world can generate income, of course. People won't pay you for merely owning a musical instrument, or for inventing a new dance move, in the same way they would pay you for owning an acre of farmland or for inventing a gadget. Why do some things get the special status of capital?

In the author's explanation, capital doesn't depend on what kind of asset it is: traditionally only physical assets were considered capital, but today most capital value is intangible. Rather, an asset becomes capital once it is "coded" with certain properties. These include:

Priority. There needs to be a way to determine who has the rights to declare themselves owner of the asset. Something that is held in common, like fresh air or the historical record, can't be owned by any individual and is thus worthless as capital. If there are multiple claims to a specific asset, then there needs to be a way to determine whose claims are the strongest. If a landlord owns a house, and the bank has a mortgage over that house, and a tenant occupies the house, then whose interests will be protected?

Durability. The asset and its ownership needs to continue existence for a long time. Something that is only temporarily "owned" isn't capital, nor something that will rotate its ownership.

Universality. The owner's, er, ownership, needs to be recognized broadly. It isn't enough if you and I agree that our parody songs are worth billions: the whole country, and other countries, need to agree that parody songs are valuable and that we are the sole owners of them. 

Finally, Convertability. A capital asset needs to be able to be sold for something of actual value: in particular, government-backed currency.

So, how does new capital (in particular, new categories of capital) get created? By high-priced private lawyers. They use the legal code to designate assets with the above properties, using existing tools from areas such as contract law, property law, trust law and bankruptcy law. Two parties might enter into a contract with one another in which they agree to recognize certain claims and obligations, and code the asset in such a way that they can exchange it with others not party to the original contract. These contracts will likely invoke existing statutory law to protect and defend the new aspects of ownership, taking law that was originally created for one type of asset and claiming it applies to a new one.

Throughout the book, Pistor returns to a central irony of the creation of capital. Ultimately, capital completely depends on the coercive powers of the state. At the end of the day, only the state has the authority to arrest people or enforce massive fines, and only the state will defend certain rights against the interest of people abroad. And yet, the actual creation of capital takes place entirely in the private sphere, and seeks to avoid involvement with the state as much as possible. Particularly in common-law jurisdictions such as England and the State of New York, new law may be drawn up in private agreements, and never face the scrutiny of a court, at least not until some catastrophic event occurs. By that time, such law may have been de-facto followed for decades: it will likely be blessed by the courts, and if not, the "owners" will still have reaped decades of gains.

I think that Pistor and Piketty came to many of the same conclusions from their varying journeys, with Piketty's more recent thoughts in Capital & Ideology often lining up with the arguments in The Code of Capital. In particular, both of them emphasize that the state has enormous powers to regulate capital that are currently going entirely unused or actively abused. Piketty sees this through a democratic lens: we, the people, collectively get to decide what kind of a society we want to have, and that includes the role we want wealth to play in society. Pistor sees it at an even more fundamental level: regardless of whether we're in a democracy or not, at the end of the day the coded wealth of capital won't be worth anything unless the state's police force and courts are willing to defend that capital, and the state provides a stable currency that allows the capital to be converted and used: capital could not exist without the state. And yet, we've seen endlessly that the masters of capital want to enjoy the benefits of state protection while providing none of their gains, or as few as possible, to support the state. They'll use the apparatus of the state to invent new wealth, but also code it in such a way that it avoids taxation, such as placing it "overseas" (while enjoying the benefit at home), or deferring obligations indefinitely, or refusing to let transactions settle, or any other chicanery. Anyways, Piketty has an enduring fear that, if capitalism isn't reigned in and wealth continues to accumulate in fewer and fewer hands, the end state won't be an eternal oligarchy, but rather a violent revolution that destructively redistributes wealth from outside the system. Somewhat similarly, Pistor sees that brilliant legal minds are moving more and more wealth beyond the reach of the state; but if they succeed, the end result won't be unlimited capitalism, but rather the end of capitalism: the state will shrivel, and with it the underlying coercive power to enforce the legal code, and with that capitalism itself.

Both are also acutely aware of the ills of globalization and have provided a lot of detail on how the liberalization of capital flows have enabled a race to the bottom, as more and more money is supposedly placed in tax havens while actually being spent elsewhere. Piketty seems to focus more on the economic measurements and impacts of this trend, while Pistor focuses more on its mechanics: the combination of treaties and domestic laws and contractual arrangements that enabled the status quo, as well as how those changes were accomplished. She even attempts to answer why states would voluntarily cede their sovereignty in such a way. Like Piketty, the overall analysis feels very bleak, but she holds out hope for reform. Piketty's plan seems to be broadly populist; Pistor's is compatible with populism, but she also makes solid arguments for why this trend is so dangerous and why a country's political and even economic elite should work to gradually reverse it. Also like Piketty, she acknowledges that a broad multilateral approach would in the best case take a long time and in the worst case never complete, but that in the meantime there are very strong moves that nations can take on unilateral or bilateral bases, which could break the chain and restore guardrails to our entangled financial system.

The penultimate chapter covers the rise in crypto, and more specifically the "code as law" idea. She takes this very seriously, tracing the origin of the blockchain and how its promoters envision it working. Crypto offers a potential alternative to the legal system: rather than writing a contract in human language and relying on the courts to enforce it, you can write a contract in code and have it automatically executed: the contract IS the transaction. As she shows, though, this has only been demonstrated to work for instantaneous transactions, which are a tiny fraction of all contractual arrangements. And furthermore, the binary nature of code isn't a good match for the uncertainties of reality. Natural language can occasionally be vague and messy, but that is part of its power: when unexpected details develop, as they inevitably do, courts can interpret the intent of that language in coming to a decision. There's no such wriggle room in crypto, so transactions will either fail without termination, or they will need to be thrown to human mediation.

And furthermore, even if we did perfect a computer-based system for contracts and mediation, there's still the fundamental problem of how we determine who owns what in the first place. Our current system is labyrinthine; for example, there's no central registry of who owns every parcel of land, but rather, each locality maintains its own roster of ownership. And these claims can face dispute: does a parcel of land belong to the indigenous tribes who occupied it for centuries, or the settlers who took it from them? The crypto system can't judge the rightful ownership of the assets it oversees, only trace the movement of those assets since they were entered into the system.

Prior to reading this chapter, I was thinking about crypto a lot while reading this book, but not so much about the cryptocurrency stuff Pistor addresses: rather about the NFT movement. This book was published in 2019, shortly before the NFT craze really took off, so it isn't addressed much here, but I think it's extremely applicable to Pistor's main thesis and NFTs make a phenomenal case study. We were all, in real time, witnessing the attempt of the creation of a new category of capital asset. The underlying asset is famously just a kilobyte or so of code, basically a signed URL, arguably "worth" an infinitesimal fraction of a penny. And yet, thanks to a big marketing push and the endorsement of celebrities, the founders hoped to establish that these assets were investments, worth thousands or millions of state-backed currency.

So, let's take a look at how the code of capital was applied to these assets!

Priority is arguably the main selling point. One of the virtues of the blockchain is that at any moment in time, anyone can verify the ownership of an asset through the public registry. In the case of NFTs, this is an incredibly strong and unbreakable priority system, even in the presence of fraud or theft. "All my apes, gone!" As endless internet commentators have noted, the law-less quality of NFTs means that there's no legal appeal to the state to reverse a movement of assets, which is arguably terrible, but does reinforce the stability of the Priority system for an NFT.

Durability. On the one hand, NFTs are infinitely durable: they only exist in the digital space and will never decay. And the blockchain registry will also endure, so ownership of the asset is permanent until transferred.

Universality. This seems to be the category where NFTs fail as capital assets. Within the NFT community, members can agree to treat one another's claims with respect; outside of that community, though, there is no recognition that the claim means anything. We've all laughed at people online who say that only the "owner" of an NFT has the "right" to display their ugly monkey image: it's a JPEG, and anyone can right-click and save the image. When someone's "property" is "misused", there is no recourse or enforcement available. They can't sue someone in the courts to make them stop using "their" image, or send a sheriff to reclaim "their" property. 

Finally, Convertibility. There is a fairly robust system in place to exchange state-backed currency for NFTs and vice versa, so on the one hand, they are highly convertible. But they run into the same issue as crypto, in that the market is extremely volatile and a terrible store of value. As the market has crashed, they are less and less desirable assets.

So, overall, it seems to me like NFTs failed to be successful capital assets precisely because of what they were advertised as: assets that relied on computer code (blockchain) rather than on the legal code (copyright) for their value. You can see what an incredible amount of influence it takes to truly mint a new form of capital, and in particular, how to ensure that the state will use its courts and police to enforce the private interests of the holders of capital. Just take a moment and imagine what that world would have looked like: if your apes were stolen, the thief would be thrown in prison; if someone used a hexagon image as their Twitter profile pic, they would be forced to pay millions in damages. Well, that's the world we live in when it comes to derivative securities, or Mickey Mouse, or Scrabble. A century or two ago, those examples would have seemed as ludicrously unworthy of state protection as a Bored Ape does today.

But, who knows? One possible, if unlikely, future might exist where those "rights" do become embedded in law; the depressing surge in Crypto-friendly members of Congress may be a harbinger. That would follow the path Pistor predicts at the end of her chapter on Crypto, suggesting that in the end law will win out over code and crypto assets will be enveloped and absorbed by the current masters of capital. The alternative might involve NFTs or their descendants becoming entangled in other, protected assets, such that harm to them causes harm to others. That could result in them belatedly being coded with universality, even in the absence of statutory law, as existing holders of capital would feel compelled to recognize and uphold them. Either move would probably move NFTs firmly into the realm of a true capital asset.

So, yeah! This was a really wonderful, fascinating book, with a whole lot to chew on, including quite a few topics I didn't get into here. I really appreciated Pistor's approach through the book; as a total novice in legal matters, I was able to follow what she was talking about, and follow into what becomes some relatively complex structures. That complexity isn't an accident; one of her observations is that much of what high-priced lawyers do is deliberately obscure, hiding important information behind impenetrable jargon, more or less explicitly to remove these actions from the public democratic sphere and make them exclusively available to the wealthy elite. So it's really important to know exactly what is happening and why. Globalization wasn't just some sickness that struck the world overnight and we all have to live with now. It was the result of a series of calculated legal maneuvers in order to achieve a particular outcome. And we don't need to live with it now that we've seen its catastrophic consequences. Those same tools of law can undo it. That won't happen naturally, or easily: greed is an incredibly powerful motivator, and such actions would be fiercely opposed. But it's an important job to do, and one I hope I see completed in my lifetime.

Thursday, May 04, 2023


I just finished reading Susanna Clarke's latest novel, Piranesi. I adored her earlier "Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell" and "Ladies of Grace Adieu". She popped up in a recent missive from Failbetter Games, noting that the staff there had enjoyed reading this book. In an odd bit of synchronicity, Pirenesi is also the name of one of the ports in Failbetter Games' most recent game Sunless Skies. The two Piranesis don't seem to have influenced one another at all, but both of them draw on an older inspiration from large, mysterious, labyrinthine structures.



Piranesi has basically nothing to do with Clarke's earlier work. I suppose it's possible that it's set in the same alternate reality, but there aren't (to my recollection) any references shared between them. The voice is also completely different. JS&MR had a wonderful Austen-esque impersonal narrator, while Piranesi's first-person narrator has a very specific Voice and a unique Way of Speaking that communicates his particular Character and Way of Thinking.

Piranesi is written as a series of journal entries, and through them we come to learn about the titular character and the world he inhabits: deeply strange to us, deeply comforting and meaningful to him. They are the Halls: a vast, perhaps endless, but varied and distinct series of rooms, connected by doorways and stairways. The Lower Halls are usually submerged, depending on the level of the tides: they bring in fish and seaweed that provide food. The Upper Halls feature windows that open to the sky; when it rains, fresh water pours in. The Middle Halls lie between the two and are the most temperate and livable area, filled with birds and other living things. All of the halls are filled with statues: enormous, towering things, depicting people and animals in a variety of poses and scenes. Piranesi feels a sense of mythical significance towards these, but they're also friendly and familiar connections.


The book unfolds pretty delightfully, and we follow along as Piranesi's worldview is challenged and we learn together about what's really going on: who he is, why he's here, what it all means. The novel starts off very sparse and intimate, with only Piranesi and The Other, but by the end we've gotten to know a dozen or so characters; almost none of them ever actually appear, but we learn about them and their forgotten impact on Piranesi's life.

To recap my own understanding of the situation:

Long ago, there was magic on Earth. There is no magic today; so where did it go? It seeped away into something else. It went somewhere; then it moved on from there. But it left traces of where it had been. An analogy: when it rains, water collects on the surface of the earth, then seeps below the earth, then flows down or out. Over thousands of years, this seepage can create immense caves. When you visit the cave, you won't see any water in there: but everything that you see was created by the now-absent water. Likewise, there isn't any magic in the Halls, but the Halls were created by the magic seeping out of the Earth.

Laurence Arne-Syles, a controversial British professor, theorizes about these spaces and is eventually able to physically visit them. He collects a circle of devoted admirers who share his interest in the occult and mystical. Laurence is deeply unpleasant: intentionally transgressive and perverse, he'll do anything to annoy or hurt others for the fun of it. Along the way he murders and imprisons some who come into his orbit, eventually going to prison for his crimes. (The reality of his accomplishment isn't ever understood or accepted by society as a whole, but they can see the evidence of his victims.)

Laurence moves on to other interests, but one of his erstwhile disciples, Ketterly, wishes to continue. Ketterly captures a doctoral student, Matthew Rose Sorenson, and imprisons him inside the Halls. (As I'm writing this, I realize that the Laurence->Ketterly transition is much like the Earth->Halls or the Magic->Mundane transition. Laurence is no longer present or active in Ketterly's actions, but Ketterly was shaped by Laurence, much like the Halls were shaped by departing magic.) Besides being strange and awe-inspiring, the Halls are also dangerous because, if you spend too much time in them, you'll forget about the world outside. This happens to Matthew, who loses track of his former life, and becomes Piranesi.

The book ends with a lovely, thoughtful epilogue: Matthew is back in the world, still remembering the Halls, and bringing that knowledge with him as he goes about life on Earth. There are some touching moments in the final pages where he sees a person and connects them with a particular Statue in the Halls. The significance of this is unclear: are the Halls reflecting lives on Earth? Predicting it? Is there some higher cosmic truth that is being expressed in different ways on Earth and in the Halls? Piranesi angrily rejects the idea from Raphael that the Statues are "merely" depictions of the "reality" on Earth; from his perspective, the statues are closer to a Platonic ideal, and what we see on Earth is merely an imperfect recreation of the pure expression of the Halls.


Piranesi didn't feel as ambitious as JS&MR, but it's a great book: still dealing with the mixture of the magical and the mundane, this time on a more personal level. It has a wonderful voice and clever (but not cute) structure that guides you on the journey and causes delight as it unfolds a mystery.

Wednesday, May 03, 2023

Older Ring

PHEW. Now that I've finally set EU IV aside, I can get back to playing other video games. The first big one I'm picking up is Elden Ring. I've been hearing about the Dark Souls games for years, and have been a little intrigued by them, but also put off by their reputation for brutal difficulty and action-heavy gameplay. I've heard universal praise for Elden Ring, though, and many suggestions that it's a relatively entry point to the series. I'm maybe 15 hours or so into the game and really enjoying it so far.


I'm avoiding any walkthroughs or spoilers of the game, but I am permitting myself to look up a few specific things. Some of these are mechanics that aren't really explained within the game; I also looked up the location of a better Staff for my Sorcerer to wield.


These days I'm pretty ambivalent about open world games, especially open world RPGs, but Elden Ring has been my favorite for a while. It hits the sweet spot of being both vast and dense: there are visually interesting things to stumble across, and you never go very long before stumbling over something intriguing and worth exploring.


Exploration in particular is a strong suit of the game, though I could also see it being overwhelming. I think this game has less direction than any game I've played since Baldur's Gate I: from the start you can go pretty much anywhere and do pretty much anything. There are some descriptions of past events and the world, but not much in the way of plot or goals delivered to you. There's no quest journal, no quest markers (except icons you can manually add to your map), very minimal dialogue and waypointing. There totally are quests, but they're stripped from the UI we've been accustomed to seeing for the last four decades of RPGs.


I'm way too early to have any opinions of the story or worldbuilding, but it's firmly in the dark-fantasy vein. Everything is decaying and falling apart; great battles were fought in the past, and you see the ruins all around you. There are a few spots of light and grace along the way, but they're definitely in the minority. It isn't exactly grimdark; so far there's nothing like the Baron's storyline in The Witcher 3, for example; if anything it kind of reminds me of Tolkien, with a strong sense of decline from a grander time in the past.


Like I said above, I'm playing as a Sorcerer, which is a ranged character. It's been relatively easy so far: I can attack enemies from a fairly safe distance, and usually evade by rolling out of the way. I know that classic Souls play tends to focus more on blocking, parrying and counters, but I'm glad that I can mostly ignore those for this initial playthrough.

 As in many modern RPGs, there are a variety of tools you can have to overcome challenges in the game. The most Souls-ish technique is to "git gud": no matter what your stats are or those of your foe, everyone has their own moveset and strengths and weaknesses, and if you practice enough and study your opponent's behavior, you can beat them. It's hard, though! Another approach is to level up. Keep playing the game, fighting smaller enemies or bigger ones, and you can increase your stats to take more hits and deal more damage, and a harder fight will become easier. A third option is to get better gear. I'll write more about this below, but finding new gear, swapping out pieces or adding upgrades can make a difference. Fourthly, you can craft consumables that will give you a potent short-term boost, long enough to fight a difficult boss. Finally but most importantly, you can just skip it! This is truly an open-world game, with almost no critical challenges: in almost every case you can just go somewhere else and ignore a fight that's too annoying or difficult.


I have a well-documented antipathy towards the economic systems of RPGs, which are especially terrible in open world RPGs with respawning enemies; I griped at length about Mass Effect Andromeda, which had a whole bunch of overlapping currencies and resources and nothing worthwhile to spend them on. Elden Ring goes in the exact opposite direction, taking the bold step of essentially combining XP and GP. You only have a single resource "Souls", that you get from beating enemies, and you spend on leveling your character or on buying equipment. It seems crazy to cross those streams of money and experience, going against everything Gary Gygax taught us. After adjusting to the shock, though, I really love how it works in practice. Instead of forcing certain activities to achieve certain outcomes, you can do anything that's enjoyable to you and reward yourself as you see fit. And really, at the end of the day anything you spend Souls on has the same effect of improving your character. If you spend Souls on increasing your Vigor, you'll get more hit points and become more survivable in combat; if you spend Souls on a defensive piece of equipment, you'll increase your defense and become more survivable in combat.


Along the same lines, equipment in Elden Ring is very different than I'm used to. Most RPGs follow a steadily increasing path: as you get later in the game, enemies drop more powerful equipment, and/or you have enough money to buy more expensive equipment. As I've noted in the past, though, this can lead to player paralysis: you don't want to spend a little bit of money on a mediocre weapon when you know you'll get better weapons for free in a few hours. In Elden Ring, though, the equipment you get at the start of the game can last you through pretty much the whole game. Everything is basically equivalent in absolute terms, and just trading off various pros and cons: you might find a helmet that offers more resistance to piercing damage, but is more vulnerable to bludgeoning; or a heavy metal cuirass that has higher physical defense stats, but weighs more and will prevent you from effectively dodging during combat. Weapons may have a special ability, but any given weapon can only have a single ability. So really, as you play the game and acquire more gear, you aren't replacing old bad gear with new good gear: instead you're just acquiring a broader arsenal of available gear. For a min-maxing player, this may mean swapping out your loadout before a challenging encounter: heavy poison defenses if you're facing a poisonous boss, or switching to lighter armor if you need to be more mobile. For most players including me, you'll occasionally replace a piece in your loadout with something that better matches your preferred playstyle, but overall not sweat it much.

You can also upgrade your equipment in the game, mostly by spending Smithing Stones to increase their level. Again, this is a way to keep equipment pretty equivalent. I'm currently wielding a Meteorite Staff, which is noticeably more powerful than my starter Astrologer's Staff. But the Meteorite Staff can't take any upgrades. From my understanding, by the end of the game a fuller upgraded starter Astrologer's Staff with an appropriate Ash of War applied could be at least as powerful as the Meteorite Staff.

I spent a little time online trying to find the best armor for a Sorcerer, only to learn that it doesn't really matter. Unlike most RPGs, armor isn't all that important in Elden Ring: there's a difference between having a light encumbrance and a heavy one, but armor doesn't carry enchantments or give stat boosts, so Talismans and Weapons (including Shields) are a lot more important. Which, again, I think is great. Another common annoyance I have in modern RPGs is sorting through an inventory, checking the stats and abilities on every piece of armor I've looted, and deciding what to wear, what to keep and what to sell. I pretty much never do this in Elden Ring.



Let's see, I think that's all I wanted to write about in this first post! It's a beautiful game, often oddly relaxing to play at times, wandering through the world and seeing the sights, interspersed with challenging boss fights that, at their best, feel more like puzzles to solve than quick-button-mashing fests. I know it's a big game and I'm not sure if I'll maintain this enthusiasm through the whole journey, but at least so far it's been very compelling.

Sunday, April 30, 2023

Perhaps Absolutely

I'd enjoyed reading Roadside Picnic and was looking for more work from the Strugatsky Brothers. The next book I picked up was "Definitely Maybe." Slightly more slender at around 150 pages, this work is less obviously science fiction, but does ultimately inhabit that space.




The book focuses on a scientist named Malyanov, working at home alone on a research project. As the story continues more and more interruptions come into his life: incessant phone calls, mysterious deliveries, his wife's old friend. He gets increasingly agitated at the situation, eventually drawing into his orbit a cluster of other scientist friends who it turns out are going through their own, not necessarily similar, struggles.

There's a pretty delicious feeling of unease and uncertainty that seeps into the book as it continues. It felt a bit familiar and I've been trying to think of what it reminds me of: maybe the paranoia of Robert Anton Wilson's Illuminatus Trilogy or Thomas Pynchon's Crying of Lot 49. In these works, there's a lot of compelling circumstantial evidence that piles up, and the protagonists are struggling to try and understand how to make sense of it all. These could all just be coincidences, but the odds of it happening strain credulity. Perhaps there is a sinister conspiracy operating behind the curtain, orchestrating these events for some nefarious purpose. Or it could all be a put-on, someone playing a practical joke to make the victims believe in a conspiracy. Or maybe there's some metaphysical dimension to these events that transcend our limited comprehension. The characters variously consider these theories, unable to definitively prove just what the reality is, and the books themselves let the ambiguity extend through to the end.


Something kind of shocking happens about halfway through the novella, not with the book's plot but with its structure: it abruptly shifts from third person into first person. Malyanov had just been the most prominent character, but then he suddenly becomes the narrator, continuing the story as if nothing had changed. Everything else stays the same, including the chapter and section intros. I'm honestly not sure what to make of this, but it's an arresting change.

Near the end of the book, it seems like the hypotheses narrow down to two main possibilities. One kind of reminds me of the Dark Forest hypothesis from Three Body Problem: some intelligent civilization is out there in the universe, and sees humanity as a threat, so it uses its advanced capabilities to block us from crossing the threshold to become a supercivilization. The other is the "homeostatic universe" hypothesis: this is a bit harder to follow, and Malyanov himself admits not completely understanding it, but the idea seems to be that the natural laws of the universe seek to maintain an equilibrium between the forces of entropy (another great Pynchon analogue!) and the forces of creativity, so when something moves too far in one direction, it inevitably returns to the other: not through any guiding intelligence, but because of the universe's fundamental laws.

The edition I read included two afterwords, one from an author and the other from the translator, giving some context to the book's creation. The Strugatsky Brothers wrote in the Soviet Union and always had to deal with censors and government interference in their book; the translator notes that their work was intensely political, but they had to smuggle in their political messages to be able to publish their work while staying out of jail. In a separate afterword, an author notes that the censors' biggest objection was to the concept of the "homeostatic universe", which I found really interesting. I wonder if it's a coded reference to the rigidity of the Soviet Union as a whole: anything that got too far out of line would need to be hammered back into place in order to maintain social order.


This was a much faster and easier read than I was expecting, and I liked it a lot. I do think that the original title of the book, "One Billion Years Before The End Of The World" is more compelling, but on closer reflection, "Definitely Maybe" probably gets more at the feel of the book: uncertain and uneasy, balanced between possibilities and unable to commit to a single view of the world.

Monday, April 17, 2023

And I Told You

It's felt nice to build up more of a reading habit again. For a while I was spending most of my commuting time playing crossword puzzles and word games on my phone, which is nice and all (especially when I only have a couple of minutes to kill between transfers), but I realized felt a lot less satisfying than getting through a book.

I recently picked up "Let Me Tell You," a collection of writing from Shirley Jackson. I mostly know her through her fairly Gothic chilling stories like The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived In The Castle: novels set in modern times that are invaded by more magical, unsettling forces. Jackson was a very versatile writer, though, and this collection was a great chance to get acquainted with other tones of her voice. There are a handful of similarly unsettling stories, but also a nice collection of her very early writing from the 1940s, revolving around the experience of young men going overseas and then returning home to anxious young wives.


It's probably the nonfiction that I responded to the most, though. Jackson was the mother of four children, and wrote a lot of really funny articles about her experience overseeing a very bustling household. In her own writing she comes off as somewhat frazzled, doing her best to maintain some level of order while being badly outnumbered.

The book ends with some thoughtful essays and lectures on the craft of writing. In one essay she seems to be arguing against the sparse voice of Hemingway-inspired writers, and makes an argument for the (limited and intentional) use of embellishment and symbols in a short story. She has a funny perspective of seeing the author and the reader as mortal enemies, with authors needing to take advantage of any dirty trick they can find to seize the reader's attention away from the television set and the dozens of other books at their fingertips. Other essays provide really intriguing glimpses into her in-progress work on her famous novels, and how she and readers interacted with one another.

Let Me Tell You wasn't exactly what I was expecting, but I'm glad that it is what it is. I liked seeing more of her range, enough so that I'm tempted to check out 

Sunday, April 09, 2023

Age of Absolutism?! More Like Age of Revolution!!

My run of EU4 has ended much like my run of EU3: With me astonished at just how long it took. It's been a lot of fun! Way too much has happened for me to properly recap events, systems or my opinions of things, but I'd like to have some closure at least on this blog.

The balance of powers on the world stage were very dynamic throughout the game. For the early years I maintained a strong alliance with Spain and England/Britain, and built Power Projection through a meaningless rivalry with France. After the shattering of World War 0, I kept hostile relations with Spain for the rest of the game, and entered close partnership with France, which made England mad at me. I also flipped the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth from a rivalry to an alliance; for whatever reason a lot of nations rivaled the PLC, but they were very geopolitically useful to me, blocking extension from Russia and the Ottomans into Europe.

I fought a series of successful wars against Spain. Early on I focused on taking provinces like Granada, Seville and Madrid to get advantage of powerful Monuments and trade nodes. France helped in this war, keeping Spain's huge Italian-based army busy while I cleaned up the peninsula. Subsequent wars were conducted solo to avoid French claims on Iberian provinces. By the end of the game Spain had a major New World presence: a giant Florida owned most of eastern North America, while the Spanish Indies controlled several Caribbean islands and a chunk of the South American coast; but Spain's continental holdings consisted just of southern Italy and Sicily. Oh, and they had permanent rebels in enclaves surrounded by me, which was pretty fun.

Africa was initially just a skipping stone on the way to Asia, but after I won the race to control the Spice Islands, I doubled back to strengthening my position there. My primary goal was to control the flow of trade through the Ivory Coast: I had already blocked out other European powers, but the African nations were locally skimming a small portion of the huge wealth flowing through. The big powers I faced were Kongo and Mali, along with some smaller satellite states. When the dust had settled, I had created a land bridge extending from Lisboa through Morocco, down through West Africa and through the Kongo interior into Somalia. From here, I launched another war against Hormuz to expand that land bridge through the Arabian peninsula to join up with my existing foothold on the island of Ormuz, gaining a new beachhead into Asia Minor. Future wars would eventually allow me to connect up with my subcontinental holdings in India. It's a long walk from India back to Portugal, but one I can do without needing any military access!

My economy and force limit has expanded to the level where there's no real limit on the armies I can field. As I headed into the second half of the game, I came to understand why many veteran players prefer to quit around 1650 or so. In early wars, you probably have a single stack of forces that you're strategically moving to attack and block. Later in the game, though, you'll have many larger stacks operating across a wide area. For optimal play, you also need to pay attention to the Supply Limit in their theaters, splitting armies to safely cross a desert and then re-combining on the other side, for example. Forts become increasingly annoying to crack. On the plus side, though, you can afford to constantly drill all of your armies in peacetime, which makes the wars faster and easier. I didn't really drill anyone until about 1600 and now wish that I had done so from the start: the Professionalism gain is based on the fraction of your army that is drilling, so even a couple of regiments could push your Professionalism high when done early.

In the second half of the game, the New World has been a lot quieter. Whenever I went to war with Spain it would drag in their colonies, and often Newfoundland as well; but by this point my own colonies were powerful enough that they could fight in this hemisphere on their own without a lot of support from me. Native tribes mostly stopped declaring on my colonies, but I did get a couple of attempts late in the game, which were always really fun: as soon as I try to Enforce Peace on the conflict, not only I will enter the war, but so will all of my subjects as well. Just imagine being a little 1-province North American tribe trying to take on Cascadia, and then suddenly facing the combined might of Portugal, California, Louisiana, Mexico, Cuba, Columbia, Brazil, Peru, and Rio del Prata. If the war goes on for long enough, even Australia will sail over and get in on the action!

As I continued to expand in the Old World, I continued my general strategy of personally claiming the most crucial provinces (those with monuments, centers of trade or estuaries). Other provinces would be given to vassals, who would take care of coring and converting the new territory. Once the vassal got up to around 300 dev or so I would annex them. I started annexing Demak and Ogadeen this way, trying to time it so they would finish around the same time and I could minimize the reputational penalty for annexation. It's really hard to time right because discounts (like a Cortes resolution and the Papal Legate curia power) will affect the cost of diplomatic power spent, but for long annexations you might need to start more than 10 years out, before you can get the Cortes issue. When I was ready for the Cortes proposal, it never appeared, even after waiting for a year, until I finally released a fourth vassal. Also, it turns out that if you're the Papal Controller then you can't take the Papal Legate ability, so I frustratingly had to wait for my pope to die before I could take it. It all worked out in terms of the cost of annexation, but the timeline was rougher than I'd hoped.

After Demak and Ogadeen were integrated, I created a new African vassal Dagbon and a new Indonesian vassal Aceh. I didn't let those grow quite as big before integrating them, since my previous vassals were starting to flirt with 50% Liberty Desire while being integrated.

Once I started having a dominant position in the game, one of my priorities was trying to spawn all of the remaining Institutions. I had pretty high hopes for starting Manufactories: it requires high dev on a province with an industrial Manufactory, but most of my actual Portuguese land was agricultural, so for nearly 100 years I had been developing the Maghreb. Most of northern Africa is hilly or mountainous or desert, so it was extra expensive to dev. I had high hopes for spawning the institution, and was frustrated to see that I didn't get it. I read more closely online about the requirements, and saw that each province has only a 10% chance of spawning, so there's a chance that my provinces weren't even considered as candidates. Also, one of the requirements is that the province is "connected to the capital". I'd fought wars against Spain specifically to a crossing between Gibraltar and Ceuta, linking my homeland to Africa. After investigating some Reddit threads, though, it sounds like "connected to the capital" also requires them being on the same continent. Boo!! So, most likely none of those Maghreb provinces were even eligible. I really wish I'd used all those monarch points somewhere else!

Late in the game, coalitions finally started to become a real problem. For most of the game it didn't matter at all: by the time I'd racked up enough Aggressive Expansion for it to be a possibility, I was also so strong that nobody dared join one. Then, when I would go to war against huge powers like Ming or Spain they would be brave and form up; and as soon as I signed a peace treaty they would dismantle. Eventually, though, I got enough people mad enough at me that the coalitions would stick around even when I wasn't at war and had no overextension. I had to tread carefully with Spain for a while: since they are a global power, my wars everywhere in the world tend to trigger their AE even if I'm, say, taking provinces in Indonesia. I had to be more cautious during this phase, but never really stopped expanding: I'd find a group that I hadn't picked on much yet, like Totemists in Africa or Shintos in Japan, and go to war with them; occasionally this would pull in a coalition member as a non-co-belligerant, which would remove them from the actual coalition. At some point I got strong enough to declare myself a Military Hegemon, and after that I went back to nobody daring to join a coalition against me regardless of how much AE I'd racked up.

Let's see, what else interesting happened...

One general game design observation I want to make is that, while it's true that micromanagement (in my wide game) became more annoying later on, I am pretty impressed by how the game changes to keep some tension and engagement in the later sections. The Revolution mechanic in particular was really effective. I chose to stay a Monarchy, so I was pretty invested in trying to curb revolutionary fervor. Spain eventually became the Revolutionary Target, which caused some massive unrest penalties in my provinces (coupled with ones where the Revolution was present). Dealing with rebellions is a pain, and you're incentivized to take action to prevent them. Going to war against the Revolutionary Target switches those penalties to bonuses, improving social cohesion. I think I fought this war with France and the PLC as my allies, Spain was allied with Britain, we wiped the floor with them and I took a juicy bite out of Italy while curbing the revolutionary threat.

There was a decade or so of peace, and then: France became revolutionary! Once again the world order went through upheaval. France's revolutionary fervor burned bright and they rapidly expanded eastward, often issuing calls to arms to me. I was typically a passive participant in these battles: on paper I massively ballooned the belligerant side, which led to favorable war calculations, but I rarely committed armies to the struggle, at most blockading some ports. This continued for some time until France declared on the Papal States. Nope. The one constant throughout my whole game has been remaining resolutely Catholic, and that was one straw too many. I rejected the Call and ended our alliance, setting up a tense standoff with my rival-turned-ally-turned-rival-again.

I was planning to play all the way through to the end of the game in 1821, but decided to finish early when I reached an unexpected milestone: being crowned the Holy Roman Emperor. This is very funny! I'm waaaay on the far end of Europe and don't have any HRE provinces. I have a stupid amount of Diplomats and had been idly improving relations with the Electors, not really expecting to be elected. I guess it does make sense: at the end of World War Zero I'd enforced Catholicism as the official faith of the HRE, but most of the Empire was still Protestant or Reformed. The only somewhat-powerful Catholic entity left had been Brandenburg, but they were swallowed up by the PLC a decade or so earlier, so all that was left inside the Empire were some one-or-two-province minors.


I started to read up on what I should do as the Emperor, dreaming of improbably restoring its greatness (declare religious wars to convert the heretic princes back to Catholicism! Go to war against France to return the unlawful territory)!, all of which sounds fun, but honestly way too much for the far end of the game.

On the one hand, I'm filled with good feelings for this game, impressed at the incredible depth of simulation and the intricate interconnection of its various systems. On the other hand, I feel very done with it and ready to move on to something else. It says something that I now think of Stellaris as being a simple, streamlined game! BUT I can't help thinking of all the other things I'd like to try in EU4, like properly playing in the HRE, or trying to survive as Byzantium, or unifying Japan, or restoring Ruthenia.

Some final stats:


Friday, April 07, 2023

Vasco da Gama on Mars

(This has been sitting in my drafts since October 2022. Time to publish it and move on!)

As usual, my playing of Europa Universalis has outstripped my blogging and I should just accept it. Here we go:

World War Zero was probably the most fun, intense part of the game so far: a hugely complex war across several major theaters spread across the globe and fought by dozens of belligerent nations. Each participant has a +50 bonus to War Enthusiasm, so in practice nations won't accept peace offers until they are 100% occupied. Fortunately, many of the combatants are tiny one-province minors in Germany, so after a few years of successful campaigning the Emperor began knocking out opponents.

In the first year or so of the war I played very micro-manage-y, pausing every couple of days and checking in on each individual army and fleet of mine. Many of these were little 2k stacks of infantry, but doing important work like invading Spanish islands in the Pacific to cut down on their naval range. I was also carefully playing hide-and-seek with the Ottomans around the Arabian Peninsula, and more forcefully (but still slowly) occupying the Iberian Peninsula. I was able to drive the Spanish armies out of here, but they remained very powerful in Italy, which is mostly owned by Spain.

One exception is the Papal States, which hold the center of Italy. They were doing poorly for a while, fully occupied except for Rome proper, which was under siege. This led to one of the more exciting campaigns of the war: I drove the Spanish fleet back into their North African ports, then had galleons stand guard against Turkish galleys while I inserted infantry into Rome. We broke the siege, then managed to escape back to our transports just before the huge 60k Spanish stack made its way back down. This kept the Papal States and their sizable army in the war for several more years, and incidentally gave me some very valuable reputation with the Papal States to further boost my papal influence.

After most of the OPMs were knocked out, we moved on to mid-sized kingdoms and duchies like the Three Leagues and Munich, while trying to protect allies like Genoa from being fully occupied. I noticed that Bohemia was granting territory to war allies from defeated opponents. Which was a little funny, since those allies tended to be Protestant or Reformed, but whatever. This did give me some hope that I'd be able to get actual territory from Spain out of the war, but I also knew there was no way we'd be able to 100% occupy Spain. By this point in the war, though, I had fully occupied and destroyed the armies of Spanish Louisiana, Spanish Caribbean, Spanish Florida and British Newfoundland, as well as occupied the Iberian homeland, Spanish South Africa and all of their Pacific holdings, leaving them with very valuable Italian land and islands in the Atlantic.

As the war progressed, it began to seem feasible that we could 100% occupy Austria, the war leader: all of its smaller allies had surrendered, and France, Holland, the Commonwealth and myself were successfully holding the larger armies of Britain, Sweden, Hungary and the Ottomans out of central Europe. This phase took a lot of careful maneuvering, as Austria had a lot of Level 4 Mountain Forts, and both they and Spain had huge armies that could crush our sieging forces. That said, those huge armies had been pummeled by attrition for years and years, and around this point the manpower reserves had dropped to 0 and they were running on fumes.

From some light online Googling, I had learned that a war leader will unconditionally surrender if all of the following criteria are true:

  1. At least 5 years have passed since the start of the war.
  2. All of the war leader's provinces are occupied. (Which can include occupation from a separate war or by rebels.)
  3. The war leader does not control any provinces. (Which includes provinces that allies captured and then transferred control of.)

I focused my armies on retaking a couple of Venetian provinces that had been conquered by Albania and given to Austria before Albania surrendered. Around this time the Papal States finally gave in, which was slightly disappointing, but meant that we didn't need to recapture those provinces too.

Just a few days after Austria was fully occupied, Bohemia accepted the call for peace. I was delighted to see that I did receive some provinces in the deal (and rightfully so, as I had put up something like 45% of the War Contribution, while my vassals and colonies provided another 15% or so). The gains weren't huge; I got three provinces northeast of Portugal proper, and five South African provinces. But I wasn't really expecting anything at all, so I was pleased. There was a fair amount of other realignment as well, with France expanding east, the Commonwealth taking some of Hungary and so on. All this was the cherry on the top; my main goal had been to get the Age Objective and the Catholic buff, both of which were satisfied.

And, I had severely weakened Spain, eating up all of their Manpower, sinking 3/4 of their ships and probably driving them into debt. While I'd been happily allied with them so far, I was now starting to view them as an expansion target. If I could take Sevilla and a few other provinces, I could fully own the vast trade income flowing in from the Americas, Africa, India and Oceania. Spain also has several Great Projects with awesome benefits, including Admin Efficiency and lowering Liberty Desire. Finally, if I could own a "land bridge" to Gibraltar, all of my North African provinces would be considered connected to my capital, which in turn would put me in a good position for spawning the Manufactories Institution. I already had Global Trade in Beja, but the Portuguese home provinces are very agriculture-oriented and so not eligible to spawn Manufactories. But my African provinces had a lot of different types of Manufactories, and I'd been devving them with surplus monarch power for several decades, putting them in a good position for spawning if they could satisfy the connected requirement.

My immediate goal, though, was to focus on Absolutism. The timing of the League War had messed with my initial plans, as you can't lower autonomy or take many other actions while at war. I'd watched several videos and read guides about Absolutism; there are some well-documented strategies like allowing Particularists to enforce their demands, but more recent patches have decreased the effectiveness of this approach. A more recent guide suggested a semi-exploit-y strategy where you take a territory, raise the autonomy, turn it into a state and then back into a territory, and then lower the autonomy again, which bypasses the typical cooldown period for adjusting autonomy. You gain 1 point of Absolutism for every 20 dev you lower autonomy on.

I tried this out and, honestly, it was pretty underwhelming. Even though I had a huge empire with a ton of territories, I think I only got like maybe 10 or so points of absolutism. It might have been more effective if I'd been able to do it at the very start of the age, but because I had been accruing some ticking yearly Absolutism during the League War, I lost all of those points when raising Autonomy, then get a few more back when lowering it again, but still not a ton.

But, there is the "benefit" of increasing unrest when you lower Autonomy. I took the Splendor ability for half-price Harsh Treatment, which let me crush rebellions for as little as 20 Military Power. This proved a more reliable way to boost Absolutism.

(Why Absolutism? Based on what I've read, the main benefit is increasing your Administrative Efficiency, which in turn lets you take provinces for less War Score cost or more provinces for the same War Score, as well as lowering the impact of Overextension and Aggressive Expansion. Overall, it lets you grow more for any given war.)

I'd been planning to hold off on any wars until after finishing the "Court & Country" disaster and boosting my Absolutism, mostly so I could keep crownland high. However, my two remaining estates' Influence was really low by this point (just over 10% for Clergy and around 30% for the Burghers), and my Crownland was over 95% thanks to all the devving I was doing in North Africa, so I had some to play around with.

The Ottomans had been expanding into Arabia, and I was a bit concerned that they would cut off my African holdings from Asia, so I launched a war against Hormuz to link up the Horn of Africa with Ormuz. This was an easier war than my earlier conflict with Yemen and its allies. I destroyed the Hormuz navy and worked with my Oghadeen vassal to siege down Hormuz territory; their own vassals didn't contribute much to the war. I wasn't able to fully annex Hormuz, and in the end I opted to take western land to block Ottoman expansion instead of eastern land that would connect my holdings. That would ordinarily be risky, but since nobody else borders Hormuz now I don't need to worry about anyone "stealing" those provinces from me.

A much bigger conflict loomed in India. For nearly a century I'd had some available Missions around owning Ceylon and some provinces on the east coast of India. I'd been hesitant to launch this war, since Gujarat and Kotte were allied, Gujarat owned the subcontinental provinces and was allied with Bengal, a massive military force and recent Great Power. Unlike Bahmanis, these nations were doing a good job at keeping up-to-date in military and other tech. Still, I was pretty confident that I could at least take those provinces I needed for the mission.

By now I've gotten much better at selecting a primary target for a war. When dealing with an alliance network where you want to take provinces from multiple foes, I think you're usually better off declaring war on the biggest opponent. First of all, you're less likely to fully occupy them, so you're less likely to get unwanted Calls For Peace and/or unconditional surrender. Secondly, any War Score you get from battles, blockades, etc. only apply to the war leader and not to co-belligerants. If you can fully occupy a smaller nation, you'll automatically get 99-100% war score, so those extra values are wasted. For the bigger nation, you can use them to squeeze out a few more concessions.

My vassal Kothamud was actually doing pretty well by now and could hold its own in the war. I was surprised and happy to see Demak show up as well with a nice-sized stack that played aggressively in attacking armies and sieging provinces.

These regional wars are pretty interesting to play as. On paper, I vastly outnumber my opponents; but that includes allied armies that are hanging out in the Americas and home armies in Europe and elsewhere. So in practice we tend to be pretty evenly matched, at least when it comes to land forces (I always easily dominate the seas). I'll usually have a big stack of artillery with a high-siege General focusing on taking forts, while a stack of infantry and cavalry with high-shock-and-or-fire General lurks nearby to protect them and engage any enemy forces. The AI tends to be very cautious and spends a lot of time running away, occasionally looping back if it can get to a small stack or some undefended troops. The best opportunity, which rarely comes up, is to wait for an enemy to siege one of your forts; they're usually reluctant to abandon an in-progress siege, and you can easily beat them with an equally-sized army, especially if the fort is on favorable terrain.

My goals for the war kept expanding as it progressed. Kotte fell surprisingly easily, and I was able to move those troops back to the mainland before Bengal fully engaged. By this time Demak and Kotalund were active, giving us a slight numerical advantage. That said, we were squeezed between two large foes, and had a lot of territory to defend and long snaking routes connecting them.

For my War Goal I'd selected one of the provinces I needed for the mission, and I started getting ticking score relatively early. I soon reached the point where Gujarat would surrender those provinces to me, but by now we had that advantage and I decided to keep pressing, following my standard strategy of prioritizing the enemy capital and Centers Of Trade. I discovered that Gujarat also owned a Gold Province, and added that to my shopping list.

I hadn't co-belligerant-ed Bengal, since they were a much stronger force and would have brought in many more allies of their own. By the end I started to wish that I had, though: I had exceeded my expectations and was on track to 100% occupy Gujarat. (In a small, funny note: Gujarat was allied with the dessicated remnants of the once-grand Timurid Empire, which by now owned a since province and a whopping 1 infantry regiment. While I was fighting mighty battles against Bengal and Gujarat to the east, Timur waltzed across the border and recaptured several occupied Gujarat provinces, requiring me to send a whopping 2 regiments back to chase them away and reclaim them.) I hadn't planned on Bengal taking any part in the peace deal, but now I wanted to see what I could squeeze out of them.

You can take provinces from a non-co-belligerant, it's just very expensive. After taking nearly all of the Indian Ocean coast and getting up to something like 40% individual warscore against Bengal, I ended up settling for three non-contiguous provinces; but those three provinces were all high-trade-power CoTs in the Bengal node, which made them incredibly valuable to me. After that I settled up with Gujarat; having fully occupied them, it turns out I didn't really need warscore from battles or the war goal after all, and might have been better off to have declared on Bengal in the first place. Oh, well. I was able to pillage the capital and get a little more dev in Lisboa, take the provinces for my mission, take the Centers of Trade and the gold provinces, and then grab a few more minor provinces for myself and Kolamud to make our territory contiguous or (more amusingly) split Gujarat into non-contiguous chunks.

Oh! I forgot to mention revanchism. While World War Zero was a fun and successful conflict, one thing that surprised me was that all of the remaining Protestant League members got a large amount of Revanchism at the end of the war. The idea behind Revanchism is that if a nation loses provinces, they get 10 years of bonuses, including a significant boost to Manpower generation, lowered Unrest, and higher Tax revenues; the intent is to make them less of an easy target to "kick them while they're down". But it looks like, due to a bug or unusual design, all members will get revanchism, even if they personally didn't lose any provinces. So in this case, the Ottoman Empire ended up with a lot of Revanchism, despite not losing any significant territory.

Knowing this, I was extra-incentivized to make a separate peace with Bengal before wrapping up the main Gujarat part of the war: since I was going to be taking up to 100 War Score of provinces, I wanted to make sure Bengal didn't get the Revanchism. And in fact, I don't think they got any at all; I believe (but am not completely sure) that Revanchism isn't granted in separate peaces, only from the primary treaty.

I used this war to help trigger "Court And Country", a disaster that can be used to boost your maximum Absolutism. I don't think I really needed it in my campaign; due to a variety of bonuses I had (including Empire status, Great Power status, high Religious Unity, Legitimacy and Crown Land), my maximum was already around 100, even with two Estate Privileges granted for more Monarch Power. There isn't much benefit to raising Absolutism over 100; but doing so would increase my Crown Land Equilibrium, which would help me maintain high crownland while continuing military expansion; and going over 100 would also insulate me from temporary drops in Legitimacy or other modifiers I depended on.

Court & Country proved to be really hard to trigger. It starts when you have high National Unrest, non-maximum Stability, high Absolutism and are at war. My Unrest was high thanks to my long wars and nearly-crippling Overextension, but keeping it high proved difficult, and ironically I needed to save-scum after getting some beneficial events and ruler traits that lowered it. (Having an Unrest lower than 1 gives you -1 progress per month, which I thought I could overcome with the +2 progress from high Absolutism, but it turns out that having low Unrest for more than 1 month entirely cancels the disaster instead of just progressing more slowly.)

The disaster eventually fired. It proved to be pretty bursty: I had no events at all for the first year or so, then several months of back-to-back revolts from particularists, separatists and nobles. I'd planned to strategically give in to some of the demands, but ended up challenging all of them, mostly because of the higher Local Autonomy most of them give.

Beyond the event-based uprisings, I also had my hands full with regular old uprisings, due to my previous shenanigans with lowering autonomy: I think I had over a dozen revolts in the years leading up to and early in Court And Country. Fortunately my armies were well-positioned to respond, and I had Forts extending zones of control into most of my provinces, neutralizing the worst effects of rebels seizing provinces. By this point I was getting nervous about my near-zero Military Power, and started fighting rebels instead of using Harsh Treatment so I could get it high enough to take the next technology.

While it might be a bad idea, I also decided to start integrating my vassals. I'd lead them for over a century, and they had grown huge; Liberty Desire was still manageable, but I could see it getting out of hand if I continued feeding them. I'd initially planned to do it after finishing Court & Country, but since my Absolutism was already getting up near 80 or so this seemed to be as good a time as any. I intentionally lost a papal election so I could take the Papal Legate decision for cheaper annexation, and plan to start a Cortes debate for further reduction. I'm integrating Demak and Oghadeen at the same time, which costs a whopping 20 Diplomatic Power per month. I built my stockpile up to nearly 1000 before triggering the annexation; thanks to my advisors and all my other sources of mana, I'm only running a deficit of 4 per month, so I should be able to complete the annexation before running out. Kothamud is a bit smaller than Demak and Oghadeen, so my tentative plan is to keep them around for a bit longer, maybe using them to expand into Sindh and/or connect my Bengal holdings before annexation. I'll likely pick up another vassal in central or western Africa and probably another in Asia, either an Indonesian one to take Ternate's colonial empire or in Thailand or Vietnam to take more of the mainland.

Diplomatically, I replaced my old Spanish alliance with a French one, and my British alliance with the Commonwealth. It took a lot of trust-building to get the Commonwealth on board, but they're really good allies now, and I think I'm very well-positioned if Russia or the Ottomans ever try to start something. (I don't have much desire to expand into those lands, but if they're feeling bold they could try to go after mine.) Those allies are each weaker than the old one (Spain is #2, France #5, Britain #9 and the Commonwealth is no longer ranked), but more useful: Britain never wanted to join my wars, and I didn't usually want to involve Spain in my overseas adventures.

I am generating a ridiculous amount of Papal Influence. I have 4 missionaries, thanks to my Religious Idea and activities in the Counter-Reformation. For a while I was converting my vassals' lands, reasoning that doing so now would save me the hassle of converting after annexation; but Demak and Kothamud then granted Dhimi Autonomy, rendering provinces non-convertible. But I then realized that many New World colonial provinces were still heathen, including some very high-dev ones, so that's where I've been keeping busy. As a result I've been the Pope for a while, I keep the Papal abilities up, and have lately started dumping the surplus into Mercantilism.

More to come in the next post!

(Probably no images, though. I've lately been doing most of my EU4 play on a MacBook, and the screenshot key is just awkward enough there that I haven't been taking many shots at all. Not that the text is very readable on the web anyways!)

Sunday, April 02, 2023

Send Luxemburg On Over

I don't remember now where I first heard of Rosa Luxemburg. It might have been from one of China Mieville's lists, or a reference from Jeremy Brecher or one of my other readings on labor movements. The specific book I've been trying to track down is "The Mass Strike, the Political Party and Trade Unions", but I haven't had luck securing a copy yet. I did, however, find a cool graphic novel biography appropriately titled Red Rosa. Since I don't know much about her life, I thought it would be worth picking up.


The book reminds me a lot of "Eugene V. Debs". Both are graphic novel biographies of prominent leftist figures who were active from the late 19th to the early 20th centuries. They both give pretty comprehensive overviews of their subjects' entire lives, include significant excerpts from their writings and speeches, and give brief introductions to the many other figures in their orbits. There are some strong parallels between their lives, despite living in separate hemispheres and having pretty different backgrounds. Both were active in starting socialist parties, both were deeply committed to grass-roots democracy, both were passionate pacifists who were imprisoned during World War I for speaking out against the senseless conflict. And both had nice moments of grace, like Debs' love of flowers and Luxemburg's rapturous appreciation of birdsong.


Rosa lives a pretty remarkable life. Born into a Polish Jewish family, she has early experiences with ostracism; while her family isn't severely poor (and does well enough to keep a servant), she sees and experiences a lot of suffering in her early years. This sparks an early passion for economic justice, which leads her to discovering the writings of Karl Marx and a local community of socialists. 

One little thing I appreciated was how the artist showed Rosa's relative comfort. She's fiery and eloquent about the damage done by inequality; but she holds forth while being waited on by a maid, who you occasionally see rolling her eyes. The artist doesn't dwell on the contradiction, but I appreciated that she doesn't cover it up either. We see Rosa teaching the people around her, using examples and metaphors and logic, describing the difference between the use-value and the monetary-value, how economic relationships supplant human relationships, and the systemic effects of the accumulation of capital.

Rosa's strongest qualities may be her ambition and her fearlessness. She's determined to go to Switzerland to study, at the only university that admits women. While there she has the first of what will be several passionate love affairs. Rosa doesn't seem to have a particular "type", and her lovers are very different from one another. Each one seems deeply meaningful to her, but she also fiercely remains her own woman, not letting herself be defined by her relationships.

She eventually gets married, but not to someone she loves: it's a friendly understanding with a German comrade, using the marriage to secure German citizenship. Most of Rosa's life takes place in Germany. Building on earlier research she did on the economic and historical development of Poland, she shifts towards building and expanding the German Socialist Party. Under the Kaiser there aren't any meaningful powers given to the assembly, and in any case the structure of the Bundesrat significantly curtails the representation of smaller parties. But Rosa firmly believes that change is only possible at the individual, ground level, and the work done reaching and teaching small groups of laborers, soldiers and commoners is more important than any political maneuverings.

Besides teaching and inspiring the masses, Rosa also continues her research and theoretical work, eventually developing a thesis that critiques and corrects one specific aspect of Marx: the problem of surplus value. Marx describes a cycle where the small group of capitalists extracts more and more labor for less and less pay from the working class. The question is, who buys all the stuff that they make? The poor can't afford to buy it all, and there aren't enough rich to consume it all. Rosa's thesis is that capitalist economies can only continue to function by offloading their externalities onto non-capitalist countries, taking raw materials from them and forcing goods onto their markets. This ends up elegantly tying together critiques of capitalism with critiques of imperialism, seeing these as two intrinsically related phenomena. It's a critique that rings true, particularly in a setting that includes the Opium Wars of China, the U.S.'s various "gunboat diplomacy" incidents in the Americas and the Pacific, and really all sorts of colonial initiatives and foreign wars.

Rosa seems to be very extroverted and social, making a lot of friends in Germany and abroad, mostly people at various points on the leftist spectrum. She also bumps up against quite a few people who are unhappy with her: some of this is driven by misogyny or xenophobia, and some from ideological disagreements: a few people are aghast that she would dare to question Marx.

Thanks in part to Rosa's tireless advocacy, the ranks of socialists swell, and they are increasingly influential in the German government. Rosa remains ambivalent about this, unsure whether it's valuable for socialists to participate in what she sees as a corrupt system. This comes to a painful head when World War I breaks out, and the socialist deputies unanimously vote to support the war, their patriotism overcoming any connection to the international solidarity socialist movement. She feels personally betrayed by this turn of events and eloquently speaks out against the war.

She's thrown into prison for her "sedition". Her friends try to get her out, but she sees this as an opportunity: since she's charged with a crime, she can defend herself in a court of law, and her bright young lawyer (and most recent lover) will be able to call evidence and put on a show for the public, highlighting the cruelty in the ranks and the horrific cost of war. She is eventually released from prison, and rather than lying low she immediately resumes her work.

After the war ends, the Socialist party comes to power, but once again Rosa feels betrayed: the new head of government, a former pupil of hers, won't undertake any revolutionary actions, and instead perpetuates the status quo. Rosa and a core of committed leftists start the "Spartacus League", a forerunner to the German Communist Party, advocating for more revolutionary action. This leads to a heartbreaking sequence of events that ends with with Rosa being assassinated by the Freikorps, paramilitaries acting with the tacit support of her own former party.

Throughout the book, we can see the heartache Luxemburg endures, from the horror of war to despair at the actions of her former comrades. But we also see her love of beauty, her connection to nature, her deep affection for the men in her life. Even when things seem really bleak and she's isolated in a prison, she feels connected to the world around her. After the comic ends, a nice afterword describes her legacy: how Lenin and Trotsky saw her and the various places she's held in the esteem of leftist groups around the world.

This was a cool book, and on the whole I think I like it a bit more than the Debs book, partly because of a stronger focus on the main character. I learned a lot, not just about Rosa's life but about that whole period of time in that part of the world; this felt like a nice counterpart to October, a broader and more distant perspective on that era, the left struggles and the process of revolution. More specifically, after reading this book I have a much better understanding of why the Socialist and Communist parties of Germany failed to join in coalition after the 1932 elections: if one party assassinated another party's leadership, you could hardly blame them for holding a grudge!


Rosa lived a remarkable life, and both reacting to and participating in many of the momentous changes during this time. I still want to track down one of her actual publications; there are a lot of excerpts from her work in here, and she has a really strong, clear voice, both direct and thoughtful. The world has evolved in many ways since her life and some of her concerns may seem less relevant today, but the big picture is still very much with us, especially in this era of drastically rising inequality and nationalism. There's an evergreen debate about top-down leadership versus bottom-up organizing, and a lot of Rosa's writings on the topic really resonate with me.

Sunday, March 26, 2023

If on a winter's night a traveler

Apologies for the long silence on the blogging front! Some Life Stuff has been happening, and I'm also still deep into my loooong Portugal game of EU4. Pretty much all of my limited leisure time has gone into playing that campaign, leaving me with no time to write about that game or do much else. But I'm finally making an effort to return to reading, and am kicking it off with a good one: "If On A Winter's Night A Traveler" by Italo Calvino. Appropriately enough, this is a book about reading!


My edition came with an introduction. I'm always on the fence about whether to read those or not; invariably they describe some amount of what happens in the book, and I often want to go in cold and be fully surprised. But sometimes they do give extra insight or highlight things that I might otherwise miss. The best approach would probably be to circle back and read the introduction after finishing the text, but I never do that. Anyways, this particular intro was pretty engaging and worth reading, and while it took away from some of the novelty it didn't ruin any surprises or anything.


One thing the introduction mentioned that I totally agree with is how fun this book is. Meta books can sometimes seem too clever, abstract or self-absorbed. IOAWNAT is clever, but focused on the joys of reading, and makes this book a joy to read. It kicks off with an amazing opening paragraph, probably in my top 5 openings of any novel:

You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino's new novel, If on a winter's night a traveler. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade. Best to close the door; the TV is always on in the next room. Tell the others right away, "No, I don't want to watch TV!" Raise your voice--they won't hear you otherwise--"I'm reading! I don't want to be disturbed!" Maybe they haven't heard you, with all that racket; speak louder, yell: "I'm beginning to read Italo Calvino's new novel!" Or if you prefer, don't say anything; just hope they'll leave you alone.

That's a fantastic opening, and as we learn, this book is entirely about fantastic openings. The conceit of the book is that you are reading a book, but find that it cuts off after the opening chapter. You find another copy, and find that it's an entirely different book, which also cuts off after a few pages. You then try to find a complete copy of that second book, and find yourself reading a third novel, and so on.

The structure of IOAWNAT consists of alternating chapters: numbered chapters, told in the second person, about your search for the book(s), and named chapters, each in a distinct style, as opening chapters of different novels. The second-person storyline is pretty engaging: Calvino admits not knowing much about you in particular, offering some conjectural thoughts about your background and how you might be feeling. As the novel continues, the "you" gets more firmed up: "you" have a specific reaction to these interrupted novels and feel a certain way about pursuing them. There's also a romance: Ludmilla, another reader who is on a kind of parallel quest to you. You hope that you will bond over your shared love of reading, and of these books in particular, and find that she approaches novels in a different way, one you can never quite pin down.


This reaches a climax with a pretty amazing lovemaking scene, in which Calvio uses the analogy of reading to describe two people discovering one another in bed. The descriptions are all specifically literary, but with very direct 1-to-1 correlations to physical activity. The language here is really amazing; as with the other numbered chapters, this is told in the second-person "you", but as the scene progresses it shifts between the masculine "you" and the feminine "you" before eventually inhabiting the plural "you". I kind of wish I could read the original Italian, which probably worked directly with gendered and plural pronouns, though the translation here is smooth and fun.

As the novel continues past this point, the division between numbered and named chapters begins to break down, and stories start to invade the numbered chapters. Some consist entirely of journal or diary entries, told in a first-person "I" voice; I think that in this situation, though, "you" are the one reading those journals. And there are entire new stories contained within here, mini self-contained cycles that in the past would have inhabited their own chapters. We cross over from reading to writing to publishing and back again, tagging along with the prolific author Silas Flannery as he spins out scenarios for new stories, and step outside the story to see him meeting "you" but from his perspective instead of yours. There starts to be some understanding of what exactly is going on: this eternally frustrated search for endings isn't caused by a streak of bad luck, but has been specifically engineered by a former lover of Ludmilla, seeking to sow chaos and entropy throughout the world of fiction. This feeds into a nicely conspiratorial tone, resonating between the stories and the narrative: "you" know that there is an active hand in these matters, but it's still almost impossible to trace specific acts back to that hand.

This book is unique, but also shares a similar psychic space with some other novels I've really loved. I found myself thinking of "V" by Pynchon, "S" by J J Abrams and Doug Dorst, Breakfast of Champions by Vonnegut, and many of the works of Borges. I wouldn't call IOAWNAT a book of magical realism, and have been describing it as "surrealist" in conversation, but that might be more because of cultural associations I have with both words than anything else. They all exist in a kind of playful, meta space that explicitly comment on the text being written.

One subplot that seems especially resonant now has to do with computers writing novels, specifically in the style of particular authors: either being fed the opening of a book and writing its conclusion, or creating an entire new novel from scratch that sounds like an existing author's work. In 1979 when this book was published, that must have seemed like science fiction, but it's one of the main ways people have been using ChatGPT in the last few months, and it's really cool to see Calvino anticipating this development over 40 years ago and questioning what it means.


As I wrapped up this book, I found myself mulling over the difference between the opening pages of a novel (what Calvino calls the incipit) and a short story. George Saunders kind of wrote about this in A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: the novel and the short story are fundamentally different art forms. The short story must be economical, focusing on achieving a particular outcome and cutting away extraneous detail. The novel can be broader, supporting both a plot and evoking a range of emotions and exploring interests of the author and the reader. But the opening of a novel does need to serve a specific purpose: it has a few pages in which to engage the reader and convince them to continue reading through the whole volume.

Could you see "If On A Winter's Night A Traveler" as a collection of short stories set in a framing device? What exactly is the difference between an interrupted first chapter and an abbreviated short story? I think they're distinct things, but it's interesting to tease out why, and it's something I never would have thought about if it wasn't for this book.