28 May 2011

Game of Thrones 1x01: Winter is Coming

If only they had that kind of budget for every episode.

So we get a a cold (HAR HAR) start with a trio of horsemen clad in furs and black cloaks exiting a tunnel. They are rangers, scouting north of the “wall”. In the ASOIAF series, there aren’t any necromancers or liches or zombies or monsters you see no end of in run-of-the-mill fantasy books, but there are numerous legends and stories about how they were terrifying mankind way back when. It’s nice how it’s so long ago, and there’s no real evidence of them, so it’s up to the characters to decide if they’ll believe the silly monster stories, the serious ones don’t; for all the fantasy aspect of it it’s still all remarkably similar to our world in this way. Anyway, supposedly all the monsties come down from the north when the multiannual winter (lol, silly climate science, keep out of my fantasy book!) arrives. I guess they melt otherwise or something. Maybe they just like playing snowballs.

Oh, the name for these monsties, collectively, is “Others”. “The Others take him!” is a popular curse.

The Wall, as you can see, is huge. The words “hundred” and “meters” should give you an idea- it’s far taller, thicker and longer than any real wall (maybe not longer than some though). It was built of stone thousands of years ago, it’s only covered in ice. How did they manage to do this feat of engineering? Some guy called “Bran the Builder” did it is the in-universe explanation. Maybe he was a wizard or something. Incidentally, the whole continent has a very medieval England-ish feel to it, and it's hard to look at the Wall and not be reminded of Hadrian's Wall.

The cocky boy with the “noble” (I’m on a roll with these puns today) features is Waymar Royce. He is cocky, because his dad is a lord with lots of land and power. Now, the Night’s Watch is a bunch of people who have dedicated their lives to manning the wall for when Others come down. They’re a bit of a laughing stock at this point, since no one’s seen an Other in ages, and the whole Night’s Watch thing is starting to sound like a silly religion. People don’t come here if they can help it.

Which leaves two kinds of people, pretty much. When a criminal is caught, they get a choice of “taking the black” - convert their death sentence to lifelong service in the watch. Hence, the majority of the Watch is scum – rapists, thieves, murderers, and the like. Authorities (the lords) love doing this because they get rid of petty criminals, and the Night’s Watch stops pestering them for help. (they’re a donation-funded non-profit, see)

Also, in Westeros when a Lord dies his oldest son takes his place. What about the other sons? In the real world, when things like this happened, the younger sons would always scheme and plot and try to get the older brother killed so they can inherit instead. But if they take the black, they’d have to forswear of all claim to their inheritance, so it’s a great way to prevent civil war. A bit mean, sending your kid to what amounts to a gulag, but hey. (Speaking of which, it's also interesting how the Night's Watch is this cold, desolate place in the North where life is miserable and hopeless, which is used as a penal facility for degenerate thugs and political enemies)

I also really like how well Rob Ostlere works in his role, this is almost exactly how I had imagined Royce looks. It's a shame he's only around for one episode. I really loved the beautiful snowy landscapes, too.
Guess the stories were true after all.

Surprise! They see a ghost! In the books, this was the first books prologue. They all have a prologue, and then the book jumps between the handful of that books “POV characters”. It’s a bit of a running gag, Martin always kills everyone in the prologues. By the way, the White Walker’s sword isn’t just a fancy icicle- it cleaves right through Royce’s expensive longsword. These guys mean business.

We see that the lowborn boy from the prologue in a grassy field- he has managed to sneak past the wall and run south into the lands controlled by Lord Stark. In Westeros, there are 7 big name houses – the continent is called the land of the Seven Kingdoms. They are the strongest lord in the area and answer only to the King. There’s lots of other small-time lords (they have armies and keeps and lands though, too!) but they all do what the ruling house says, they’re his “bannermen” because they fly both their own banner and that of the great house they serve. They only do this because they the ruling lord would kick their ass otherwise, but you can probably guess, if they get a nice opportunity to rebel they rarely think twice. House Stark is the great houses of the north, their lands are also the first thing after the wall, which is why they are traditionally the first defense against the Others, besides the Watch.

Once you join the watch, you don’t ever leave, so the boy technically deserted the Watch by running. That’s why Stark men catch and arrest him, and the penalty for deserting is death. It’s interesting how seriously Starks take this - on the one hand, who cares about their stupid cult all the way up in the middle of nowhere? But then again, if Watchmen just walked out and got away with it, can the nobility trust them to keep younger sons out of the way?

If by my sword or my...

The poor kid tries to tell his story, but Lord Stark isn’t that gullible. “I saw a ghost” doesn’t work too well. The huge sword is called Ice, it’s the Starks’ oversized ceremonial execution sword passed down from generations. 

"I wonder what that could possibly mean. HMMMMM."
Then there’s the direwolf. If you’ve read any fantasy at all you probably know what one is, but it’s this kind of superwolf that’s bigger and nastier than normal wolves. They’re like orcs or dwarves or something, every fantasy setting has dire animals.

In Westeros, all noble families have sigils, or signs, or coats of arms. It’s a kind of special symbol, usually the picture on the symbol has some historic meaning, especially for the houses that were founded recently. GRRM loves to go on about heraldry in the books, and there’s a LOT of sigils. Anyway, the 7 great houses all have just an animal, unlike the cool small houses. Starks have a direwolf. Baratheons (a house in the east, but the king is also a Baratheon so they’re like the top dog house that gets to boss everyone else around) have the stag. The Stag and the Direwolf have slain each other in battle, and only the pups remain, alone and helpless! DUN DUN DUN.

By the way, most noble houses have one city/castle where they hang out most of the time. The great houses for example, of course expect to be treated as honoured guests if they ever visit a bannerman’s keep. The Stark “capital” is Winterfell. The Baratheon capital is “King’s Landing”. It’s also a huge city which happens to be the capital of the Seven Kingdoms, since the king lives there and all. It’s a bit weird with Baratheons, though, since the king’s two brothers didn’t take the black – one hangs out at court at Landing, one has his own castle… Somewhere.

Guess he won't be running any more... arrynds.

That’s Jon Arryn. Arryn is another great house, they’re the guys with a white bird symbol. They hang north of King’s Landing, in this fertile hilly area called the Vale. I guess it’s cause birds like hills or something? I dunno. Wait till we see a small lord’s sigil- great houses are boring as hell.

Jon used to be the Hand of the King. That’s like the vice-king, except he does all the work.

In the Seven Kingdoms, there are two common religions. The one popular in lands besides the Starks’ is the Faith of the Seven. There’s seven gods, I think they’re meant to be aspects of one god. One is a mother, one is a son, and so on. There’s all sorts of dreary religious symbolism and what not. That’s who is conducting Jon’s ceremony.

"Morning wood, hubby?"
The second kind: In the North, mostly in Stark lands and among the crazy hobo people who actually live north of the wall, they worship the “Old Gods”. They have these weird trees (called weirwood! Hah!), that look like they have faces, so they plant a bunch of them in a circle and go sit there and pray to “the Old Gods”. Well, there’s only one in Ned’s “Godswood”, not sure what’s up with that, and the face is really lame too, so yeah. Supposedly the farther north you go, the cooler the weirwood faces start to look.

Ned’s wife Catelyn is actually a Tully- they are a great house south of Starks and west of the Vale. They rule the “Riverlands” which is like a land with a lot of rivers, and their sigil is a fish, because you know, fish live in rivers and these guys are all about rivers. Anyway, the Tullys worship the Seven, not the Old Gods, so there’s this religion thing between them.

"King angry! King SMASH!"

King Angryface is actually Ned’s old friend from when before he was king. They haven’t seen each other in a while. In the books, Ned worries that becoming king made his old friend haughty, proud, lazy… And just the general disappointment at seeing him let himself go, so to speak.

"We are not amused."

Queen Angryface (oh good lord, even their children are angry!), well, they’re not on great terms with the hubby. He only married her because he couldn’t get the girl he wanted and she’s from House Lannister and it made political sense. The Queen is aware of this. House Lannister is west of Tullys, on the shore, their capital has gold mines and they’re filthy rich. They have a lion sigil. Also Lord Tywin Lannister (he doesn’t show on screen for a while) is one mean motherfucker.

"Get your mouth off my cock, woman! My facial tic's acting up again. MORE WINE!"

Peter Dinklage is incredible as the Imp. The only problem is that he is too handsome. The book Imp was always described as very ugly, although that may just be because of his height. Tyrion the Imp and Jaime are the two sons of Tywin Lannister. It’s weird for Lannisters - everyone hates the Imp, including his father. He’s actually a really smart guy, but eh. Except, that is, his brother Jaime. They get along pretty well. Jaime is in the Kingsguard, he’s like a bodyguard for the king. It’s like the Night’s Watch in that you don’t leave it, and can’t be heir to your dad’s lordship anymore. That leaves Tyrion as the only heir, but Tywin hates his guts so much. Lions.

Tyrion loves whores, by the way. You can see how he’d have trouble with being liked by people, what with the stigma of him being short and all, but whores don’t care so long as he has money.

"Dear diary. Today I decided that maybe I should go easy on the atropine after all."

Remember how I said King Angryface wasn’t always king? Actually, before there were Targaryens. They had a dragon sigil and liked to marry their sisters (no really). They were the Kings for a very long time, legends say they rode dragons to battle, but there’s no dragons anymore (OR ARE THERE!?!?). Thing is, the later Targaryen kings were kind of sort of dicks, I mean not that Angryface isn’t a bit of a dick himself, but the Targs were HUGE dicks, I mean, metaphorically, that is. So anyway, Robert figured he’d rebel, so he did, he got a bunch of noble houses into his scheme and dethroned the then King Targaryen. Dany and her brother Viserys are the two remaining members of the dynasty, they are on the run somewhere on another continent. Dany is supposed to be 13 or so, obviously the actress isn’t, you’ll see why later.

Watcher in the Night

Benjen Stark is Ned’s brother. Taken the Black! He’s actually one of those crazy people who think being in the Watch is still about sacrifice and selflessness. Jon Snow really admires him. Jon is Ned’s son, by the way, but not from Cat. He’s a bastard, literally. For some reason Ned keeps him around, but Cat hates his guts. He’s a bit like Tyrion, everyone always disses the poor guy. Anyway, his last name is Snow. In the seven kingdoms, each land has its own “default bastard surname”- in the Riverlands it’s Rivers, in the Vale it’s Stone, in the Baratheon lands (they have lots of stormy coasts) it’s Storm, in the Southmost desert-y area called Dorne (another house as well) it’s Sand.

"They don't call me the Kisslayer for nuthin', hun!"

Jaime Lannister may be nice to his brother, but he’s a bit of a douche. Thing is, he’s the best swordsman on the continent, supposedly, and he’s famous for it, so he doesn’t really have to care. He’s called the “Kingslayer” – he used to be the Targaryen king’s bodyguard too, but then he killed him, and people hate on him for that, like Ned does here.

Pearls before swine.

The Dothraki are a sort of nomadic horse people. Reading the books, I thought they were sort of kind of pseudo-Mongolians. Except these guys live in much warmer climates, and they look nothing like any middle-asian peoples, and honestly the language sounds really out of place. All the middle-asian horse nomads spoke Uralo-Altic languages. One of their features is that adding suffixes to a word doesn’t alter the word itself, unlike, say, Russian (замок -> замки with the o “disappearing” in the plural, for example). From what I’ve seen of Dothraki, the inflection is all over the place. Tradition and culture wise, they don’t really fit either- the Mongol, Hun and miscellaneous Turkic hordes were fairly conscientious about the treatment of women and unnecessary killings, unlike what we see in the series. The hair that would get in the way during fighting doesn’t fit, and they use melee weapons almost exclusively, while actual Asian horse-borne nomads relied a lot on mounted archers. If you think about it, they're really not all that Mongol or Asian at all, but it’s so strange how the moment you see them, you can’t help trying to interpret them as if they are.

This, together with how they’ve been portrayed as wild Barbarians, has caused a bit of a stir over how women are portrayed and how the show is racist and what not. If you ask me, I dunno. It’s fantasy and the Dothraki really aren't that distinct at all. I wouldn’t be as weirded out if GRRM didn’t give them such a strong Mongol-y feel without any actual Mongol-ness but then again, it’s interesting how he goads your stereotypes into making you uncomfortable without actually showing anything substantial.

We see Jorah Mormont here, he’s a knight from one of the noble houses normally loyal to the Starks, I think. They have an island or something. Their sigil is a BEAR. Among some TREES. Now how awesome and manly is that? This isn’t some lame fish and bird crap we’re doing here. Anyway, Jorah got deported from the kingdoms because of a crime, that’s what he’s doing all the way in Essos, the larger continent to the southwest of Westeros (the seven kingdoms). The Dothraki, the city of Pentos (where they are now) and all sorts of cool crazy stuff is in Essos.

Speaking of which, Viserys’s buddy with the loud red vest and the funny beard is Magister Illyrio. He is mayor of Pentos of sorts. Pentos is a city state, I think they elect their rulers, too.

Dany was sold to Drogo, the Dothraki khal, because Viserys wants to use his huge army to go back to Westeros and retake his throne. Dany doesn’t care, she’s terrified of the guy and their whole culture, and she only really just wants to go home. This is gets important later on.

Also, I just love how pitiful this girl can make herself look with them eyebrows. I mean, look!

"Can I keep this horsy daddy? PWEEEEEEEEEASE?"

Speaking of linguistics, Mormont’s line here is ridiculous (yeah I know we finished speaking of that way back when, but whatever. I’m a sucker for linguistics). I don’t recall if it was in the books. But in any case, the gravity of his tone aside, he’s espousing here something called the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. If you happen not to have heard of it, the core is the idea that if you don’t have a word for concept, your culture can’t understand that concept. It’s an old idea and the specific formulation depends on the person formulating it. Anyhoo, that’s not true. First off, primates without a language (though there’s experiments showing vocalizations used by one group of monkeys are meaningless to another, for example) as complex as what humans have can still understand quite a few concepts. So can children raised without exposure to language, although it’s understandably harder for them to do so.

Even more specifically, there was one case where they found a tribe whose language had words only for two colors, white and black. They only had two numbers, which I think mean something like “few” and “many”. According to SWH, these guys must SUCK at distinguishing colors, and counting. So the researchers made them do some counting problems, and to sort colored chips by color. Well, they didn’t suck at all. It’s one of the very strong counter-evidences against the SWH; I think the tribe is called Pirahã.

Of course, it’s logical to expect that you tend to have a lot of words for something you busy yourself a lot with. The eskimos don’t have an absurd number of words for snow, as the urban legend goes, but they do have a big vocabulary dealing with igloo building. And language can be a very powerful aid in memorization and learning, hence obviously there is some link between culture, language and cognition, but the SWH in the strong form is just too hamfisted to do anyone any good.

What is it doing in my ASOIAF then? Search me.

Sorry this has been such a long post, but I guess there’s a lot of background they ended up invoking with the fast paced first episode. Hopefully I can keep the later ones short. I’ll wrap this up with one of the most important events in the series:

Yup, that's the queen you see fucking in a barn. Yup, that's not the king she's fucking. Yup, that guy is her brother. Welcome to A Song of Fire and Ice! Enjoy your stay.

What? No, of course you didn't just see Lena Headey's ass. That's a double, silly!

22 May 2011

A Song of Fire and Ice: Book and Series

To be sure, I’m late to the party. But if you’ve followed the blog this far... Well, we punctuality is not a primary concern for us here at Collected Nonsense, let’s just say. We exist outside of conventional time and space.

Quite a few years ago, George R. R. Martin started publishing the fantasy book series A Song of Ice and Fire (I only started reading them last summer). They’re good. They’re not great literature, perhaps, but they are very good, and fantasy literature that’s not trash is rare enough. This one’s also serious, on top of that.

You see, for whatever reason, most fantasy isn’t good. And on those rare instances that it is, it’s usually not serious.

ASOIAF is unique in this way: It is fairly well-written (by standards of mainstream literature, not just fantasy!) and the characters are very well developed, believable, and realistic. It is very similar to Tolkien’s work, I think, in its conception (though consequently, in quality, too) – Tolkien drew inspiration from Beowulf and early English and Scandinavian literary tradition, and constructed a body of myth which was not only very detailed, but also very coherent in how its elements fit in with each other. On top of that he added an epic story which truly felt like it belonged.

As far as I can gather, GRRM has something of an obsession with the history of medieval Europe, especially the Wars of the Roses. We don’t get huge, delicious appendices like in LotR explaining every aspect of the world’s history, but each faction and culture in the world of ASOIAF has a very rich body of tradition. It influences the way characters think, the way they speak, the way they act by a great deal, and together with the occasional bard’s song we learn a lot about the world anyway.

The thoroughness with which the world has been developed is on par with Tolkien’s work. The extent to which the events of the books are influenced by history, both short term (past 50 years or so) and long term (millennia) exceeds it. From the opening chapters of the first book, there is a sense of inevitability to the plot- everything happens for a reason: Everything is in some great or small way a consequence of something else. That’s not to say the characters are hopelessly devoid of initiative. To be sure, true ability to drive events isn’t a quality everybody has, but the story is not pointless in the sense that there is only one way things can go.

On the other hand, ASOIAF is very different from LotR in how the story is told. LotR is an epic, it’s the legend that will be sung generations after everyone’s forgotten what the fight was for. ASOIAF is the real deal. No effort is made to conceal how petty, spiteful, ignoble people are, and how ugly their actions become. It’s very base, brutal and unscrupulous. I’m not even sure I would call it truly realist, real people aren’t such awful jerks. But then again real people don’t exist in such awful circumstances, so who’s to say?

So in a nutshell, yeah, ASOIAF is like LotR, but gritty as hell. It’s good. Read it, they’re doorstoppers but they’re worth it. But that’s not why I said I’m late. There’s a TV series based on the books.

Yup, that's Boromir.

 A few hours after I post this, the sixth episode will be shown. Now, normally, I’d be saddened. TV adaptations suck. But GRRM is part of the creative process on this, the cast is picked well and they work perfectly, and the damn thing isn’t just good, it’s better than the books. As for what it’s actually like, if you liked, say, Rome this should be right up your alley.

So I decided, I’ll make an episode by episode analysis of it. There are lots of reasons why ASOIAF is great, and it sounds like a nice format to write about those in. Unfortunately, I can’t bother dancing around the plot, so expect spoilers all over the place for the episode the post is about. On the flipside, the people who have read the books and know everything that will happen still enjoy the hell out of it, and it’s not like spoiling one episode will make much difference in the long run.

16 May 2011

Germany's national character and unique traits in epic strategy

So I have been reading the article on Flash of Steel on Germany’s national character. I have to say it's a very interesting topic to look at and Troy Goodfellow does it plenty of justice.

I don't know what he is planning for it, but to me each of his posts just goes to show that the "national character" idea is thoroughly silly.

To be clear, I'll be speaking of computer strategy games such as Civilization which cover a long time period. How long? Age of Empires 3 is probably the shortest.

First off, the concept of a nation has changed a lot throughout history, and people did not always act as the nation-states we seem to be assuming they did. The Germany in World War 2 is obviously not just "Teutons with more tech". So when we have a "Germany" in games such as Civ, where this Germany remains Germany from the ancient eras into the future, we are already suggesting a very bizarre world which functions much more differently from ours. So there's already a problem with translating historical "Germany" which hasn't yet lasted 150 years (if what you mean by Germany is that state that Bismarck created which later went on to enter the two world wars). When you start writing up a "Germany" civ for your game, do you draw ideas from Nazi Germany? Western Germany? Today's Germany? Prussia? The Holy Roman Empire? The Teutonic tribes? As I said, they are not one and the same, and they don't share "traits". Or do you mash them all together into big ball of nonsense?

Second, there's the issue of traits themselves. In the last 50 or even 100 years, one thing Germany had a very well-known reputation for is excellence in engineering and manufacturing. Not really the ability to churn out a lot, but producing high-quality, reliable, well-designed machines. Think of the Mercedes-Benz automobiles, supposedly built like tanks. Somewhat relatedly, another thing people think of in regard to Germans of today is discipline. (To go off on a tangent, Germany has had a huge population of Turkish migrants since the 60s/70s which have not always been crazy about integrating, and I understand they have been a subject of much controversy there over the years, and still are. This has gone on for longer than WW2 and certainly is a huge contributor to what Germany is today, but you don't see that in any strategy games.)

Now I'm sure nobody has any funny ideas about how Germans have some genetic predisposition to being good at making reliable cars, or being disciplined. Again, it's not like the Teutons (or those before them) were much disciplined, and it's not like the Germans are really Teutons, and it's not like the Germans (of the last 150 years) have been around as a group for long enough to develop a meaningfully distinct gene pool. So it's a cultural thing.

But a culture of discipline, or technical excellence, or what have you does not just pop out of nowhere. It develops gradually over time, as a result of the environment in which a group of people exist, as well as other cultures they are in contact with, their history, and most likely also events of random chance. If the German people are disciplined today, it is because of their history.

But games like Civ are all about taking a blank slate and rewriting history. If you picked Germany, ended up alone on an island, focused only on culture, never entered a conflict let alone lose a world war and sign as overwhelming a treaty as the Versailles, why SHOULD your Germany have Panzers and disciplined troops? The circumstances which created those are simply not there! It should have crappy tanks, and crappy troops, because your people have never cared about war.

One could say, "But it's boring if Civ had only one civilization". And that's true. But once you notice the problems I've talked about, it just gets more confusing the more you think. So why not have the game model socio-cultural evolution? Why not start everyone without unique traits, using the civ only to select your city names (you gotta have SOME character, right?), and then grant unique traits to players over time based on how they have played?

Suppose you fought a big war (the game could look at how many resources’ worth of units were killed on both sides to tell a world war from a regional skirmish, for example, or the length of the conflict, or if the top 5 players are involved in it) and surrendered, having to give the victor a great deal of free stuff to convince them. Perhaps the game would look at whether you gave up any cities, whether the gold you must pay per turn is above a number or above a percentage of your GDP. If you pass the check for getting your ass kicked hard enough, you get a pop up: “National Socialist Revolution: Your armies are now more powerful, you get a bonus to production, and you can produce the following unique unit, which is a stronger version of the unit whose prerequisite tech you have most recently discovered.” Perhaps there would be drawbacks too. Perhaps suffering a big defeat again could lead to a “Leader deposed” message which revokes your traits. Perhaps when a trait is revoked, you get another trait which pushes you in the opposite direction. (to reflect the fact that Germany essentially lost two world wars, yet reacted very differently to the two, and to give the player some extra agency, the dialog could let you choose whether you accept the trait)

Some traits could only be attainable in certain eras. Some traits could be negated by a tech- even if discovered by other players. “The discovery of TECH by PLAYERCOUNTRY has spread to and disillusioned your people and you no longer receive the bonus from TRAIT.” Or perhaps so long as you refuse to trade or research the technology, your people remain sufficiently oblivious to keep giving you the bonus. Perhaps they don’t like you using this strategy, or perhaps if your empire has a history of being on the bleeding edge of science, putting off a certain tech makes them very unhappy, and if you have always lagged behind your people won’t care about the crazy customs of the foreigners.

You could have traits that work like skills in Morrowind-style RPGs: with every wonder you build you get a bonus to building wonders. Once you don’t build any for a while, the bonus decays as the culture of erecting monuments becomes a thing of the past for your people. Perhaps certain drastic events, such as large wars, significant defeats or victories, global climate events (with non-static traits suddenly it makes a lot of sense to have random global events), plagues, political/social/artistic movements (triggered by research?)…

Perhaps the game noticed that you haven’t been acquiring new cities for centuries, but recently discovered a new continent and have rapidly expanded there. It doesn’t need to know about “discovery of new land”, just looking for a spike in your cities found over time graph is enough. In that case you get a prompt, sacrifice a lot of economic gain from the new cities (penalty to gold production?) or risk revolt. If you do risk revolt, you better have the military strength to control the new lands on call, or you might end up with an American revolution like Britain once did.

And on that note, why is it that Civ-like games start with a number of “nations”, and at most the number decreases as time goes on? You could say that two thousand years ago, Europe “started” with one nation, Rome. And today, we have… Certainly not less. Why not occasionally throw up a message, “The cities of X, Y and Z are dissatisfied with your rules and are seceding. They call themselves PLAYER!”. Suddenly, the named cities change to a new color, and henceforth are controlled by a new AI player. Much like Civ5’s city states, you could make such rebel players not compete for global victory to make things even more interesting. The very act of fighting a civil war could also serve as a base or trigger for yet more traits. What’s nice is that Civ games, and many others , have long had happiness penalties associated with empire size, and the revolt very nicely builds on top of that. Now you can actually piss off your populace to such a degree as to spawn a new enemy, and not just refuse building tanks for a few turns.

Something like these “traits” already exists in Civ games: Great persons. It’s more complicated on the whole but for Civ5 generals at least, every time you kill a unit you get a chance to receive a great general. (The name is randomly selected but if you are German, it should be a great German general, or perhaps even a great German general from the era you are currently in, or fictional for cases like Aztecs in 1937) So in the end, if you go to war a lot, you get great generals. Perfect!

Why not extend this? Every time you move a unit into a forest tile, there could be a 0.1% chance of receiving a trait that negates movement penalty for forests and gives a small combat bonus. (To make it less dependent on chance, you could say that every time you move into a forest, there’s 10% chance for the game engine to secretly assign a “forest point” to you, which of course decay with time, and once you get 100 points you get the trait.) Suddenly, players who have spawned near lots of hills get bonuses and perhaps unique units specializing in, hills! (just like the Inca in Civ5).

Since Civ AIs already act as if there is such a trait system in place (e.g. Montezuma always wants to fight as much as possible, as if to get war-related traits) you will have AI Aztecs really acting like Aztecs, and really having the historically appropriate traits. Whereas the player will be able to make use of his slightly exaggerated agency to take Mongolia, and built it into a scientific and economic forerunner of the modern world- change history in a meaningful way, according to his wishes, and force his own empire, with its own character- a premise that could be realized far better than any game has been able to do so far, I think.

The traits themselves could even be generated semi-randomly like loot in RPGs such as Torchlight, along with “unique” traits corresponding to important real-world events. The same goes for unique units.

03 May 2011

Review: Mothers, monsters, whores by Laura Sjoberg and Caron E. Gentry

Well, the cover is ok... But it only goes downhill from here.

(Disclaimer: I am not a social scientist and have only a casual interest in select social science topics; feminism or women's studies are certainly not among those topics, neither is much of current global politics)

I admit feminism has never been a favorite subjects of mine, and this book did little to change that. The authors have clearly devoted a significant amount of time to gathering data, which I'm sure is of great interest to other sociologists looking for sources to cite. For me, the text connecting that data immediately entered a bitter conflict with my attention, and my attention promptly surrendered, routed, and unethically run down and speared in the back by heavy cavalry, massacred to the last man, child, and yes, woman.

The high point was the attempt at illustrating stereotypes of violent women (and I actually felt like the book was finally delivering on the title's promise), which I found interesting, however the claims lacked confidence and brevity and I soon found myself getting tangled up in the morass disorganized arguments.

I disliked how the book appeared to be mainly concerned with finely dissecting the Abu Gharib scandal and the Chechen and Middle Eastern suicide bombers. It felt like it was trying to frame "women" as some new thing invented some fifty years ago which people only now are beginning to seriously examine. Only passing examination of historical prevalence of important sociopolitical events and trends (the book talks about no trends) where women were involved was made, and I could not derive any sane, useful, meaningful "general" (if only in the sense of "applies to something besides the authors' strange take on a single isolated incident") conclusion- either such things were deemed unnecessary, or were buried far too deep beneath the convoluted language for me to find.

Throughout, I could not help feeling being mistaken for a well-informed academic in the authors' particular field of study- so many "why should I care? Why is this important?" questions I inevitably found myself asking were nonchalantly ignored. Perhaps if I was a well informed expert, I would have enjoyed this book more, but as it is... Umm. Yes. I would say it is almost a waste of time unless you are a raging feminist or bored sociologist.

Score: 1/5

Review: Writing for Social Scientists by Howard Saul Becker and Pamela Richards

I am not normally interested in social sciences as a whole, and when I first saw the book I anticipated it would not interest me very much. To challenge this notion of mine, I decided to pick it up and see. Besides, I do have to write quite a bit in the natural sciences, and having encountered difficulties of my own there I was hoping some of what Mr. Becker and Mrs. Richards advised could be applied for my own ends. Lastly, being the curious fellow I am I was looking forward to comparing the challenges of writing for our respective disciplines.

Everything started out fine. There was quite a bit less mind-boggling, flabbergasting, paradigm-shifting amazing revelation than I'd have liked, but it would not be fair to blame the authors for the way things are. It's not their fault if there isn't any fascinating key insight to the matter, after all. Nevertheless, the discussion of defensive language much enjoyed by social scientists, and the function of language as intellectual credentials was interesting because it related to some of my own observations about scientific writers in general, as well as some of my own experiences.

Regarding clarity, the advice was sound, useful, interesting, and a little enlightening. I only wish the examples were more extensive (an understandable shortcoming, as Becker couldn't use his students' and colleague's work as samples without consent, as he explains) and the scope of the examination was wider.

I'm sure Becker would also have found a similar study of biomedical writing very interesting.

On the other hand, the premise of language as indicator and conferrer of intellectual status was not followed by a clear argument regarding its consequences nor ways to counteract it (I'm not even going to ask for reasons to counteract it).

Also, halfway through the book the author began the -for me all too tedious- chant of "there's more than one right way to do things! everything's just a-okay!". I lost interest at that point, I'm sure this idea is popular in the social sciences and all, but I don't buy it, I don't feel I have a reason to buy it, and Howie hasn't really convinced me to buy it. I understand that his aim was to undermine the idea that this right way is to write in a convoluted, defensive, artificially sesquipedalian manner but I don't think that is not the right way to write because there is no right way. I think that is not the right way to write simply because that is the wrong way, and the right way is something else. If Howie's so eager to promote diversity, I'm absolutely fine with multiple non-perfect approximations to the "right way", which can be as different as they want for all I care. However, to say that there is no right way is to say that there may exist styles A, B, C such that A is better than B, and B is better than C, and C is better than A, which I frankly find absolutely illogical.

If you're a student or academic with a paper or thesis to write, but find yourself too bored to get anywhere near it, this book will probably give you a few ideas on how to drag yourself back to work. If nothing else, it's at least a diversion. It doesn't, however, offer so much in terms of groundbreaking originality, if you're looking for that sort of thing.

Score: 2/5

Review: A Wild Sheep Chase by Haruki Murakami

Don't expect many sheep, or chases.
I picked up this book after an acquaintance mentioned I should read it, given the themes of alienation explored. It proclaimed to have crazy people, aphrodisiac ears, professors and genetically engineered sheep, and detectives. I shrugged and figured I'd give it a try.

It turned out that the book was about cigarettes. There's a lot of cigarettes, and a lot of people smoking cigarettes. There are people arguing about and wondering whether it's legal and/or polite to smoke cigarettes in different settings. There are discarded cigarette butts inspected to track people. There is discussion of alcohol that goes best with cigarettes, like beer and whiskey and gin. There is a lot of discussion of smoking cigarettes in the morning, to wake up, and in the evening to calm down, and in all sorts of settings. There is ceremonial exchange of cigarettes and solemn contemplation of cigarette-box designs. I mean, really, there's a lot about cigarettes. Or rather, about cigarette smoking: We don't hear much about the tobacco industry itself per se, to be sure.

I dunno, maybe it's weird for me because I don't smoke. But it felt like reading avant-garde pornography sometimes, only with cigarettes instead of sex. Other things are only given attention in so far as to their relation to cigarettes and the ritual of cigarette smoking.

Oddly, there is no mention of cigars.

The ears mentioned belong to a girlfriend our protagonist and narrator meets. They are pretty. Sex with her feels much better than it would have if she did not have them (or had less pretty ears). We are told nothing else. The sheep... Well, at least we get some resolution regarding it, it's not some heinous "And of the sheep? Nobody knows!" ending we're given. The "detective" business... Some guy wants the protagonist to find a sheep. He decides to find it. He has some degree of success finding it, and smokes cigarettes. It's not really a terribly exciting affair at surface level.

Once you get past that, however, and get used to the nicotine fetish, it's quite entertaining a story. We get to follow a very urban and mundane adventure, which is nevertheless an adventure. We get to encounter a lot of weird occurrences, which are mind-numbingly mundane by fiction standards, but are actually quite interesting in a real-life context. For example, if a novel had the heroine win a lottery ticket but subsequently lose it to a pickpocket, but eventually track him down because the bag he stole had her cell phone in it we would not be very impressed. But if that were to happen to us, or a friend of ours, it would involve quite a bit of agitation. What Murakami managed to do quite well is to invoke that feeling of immersion, so that what is boring fiction becomes fascinating reality. Which is one reason to read the book.

The other is the protagonist. He is the only character the narrative cares about- neither his wife, his new girlfriend, his long lost friends, his colleagues, his employers or his customers are given much attention except where they influence his private goal. But soon enough, we start to care about the narrator as well. And there's reason enough, he is a believable, interesting, sometimes surprising character. You begin to wonder if not what he will do, or what will happen to him (Hint: Nothing much) but what he will experience and what he will think. And that much is fairly unique to Murakami's "A Wild Sheep Chase".

Score: 5/5

Bias: I was on the fence between 4 and 5, but went with 5, because the book just appealed to me on a personal level.

Review: A Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge

Despite being the self-ascribed science fiction enthusiast that I am, I often find a difficult-to-place lack in what science fiction I come across. It's not a technical deficiency, not that the author is incompetent in some way. It's more a matter of depth beyond reasonable capacity of a human being: After all, how can we expect accurate estimates of things dozens of centuries and millions of lightyears away from a single person? Surely, all of our "science fiction" is a mass of wild guesswork and vague prophecy.

And yet such ludicrous constructions, I think, can be very entertaining, and very rewarding to examine, perhaps somewhat like a magic trick is. Often I find that the more deeply hidden the assumptions and handwaves, the more thrilling the puzzle. The more convoluted and difficult to disbelieve a tale gets, the more persistent its haunting charm: And the taller the tale, the greater the charm. And, contrasting with A Fire Upon the Deep, this tantalizing intricacy of speculation is what I fail to find in a good quantity of science fiction.

The brainstorm that is Vinge's work is hardly anything that even the most arrogant, self-important know-it-all of readers can easily put down with short remarks of incredulity (and that's from experience!). New ideas evoked by the narrative dare you to think on them, to really think on them and how they fit together with everything else. The author is not secretive and mysterious about what originality he introduces, nor does he numb you with unending narcissistic retelling of every boring detail and piece of trivia. More importantly, soon after you humor the author's fancy and consider the implications and underlying principles of what is mentioned, you make the pleasant discovery that he has also thought his story out quite thoroughly.

The particulars of the genre aside, I found the politics and webs of intrigue to be wonderfully satisfying. The characters were believable (though not very deeply explored at the psychological and philosophical level) and the motivations made a lot of sense. The pacing was almost too good- costing me more than one night's sleep. My one piece of critique would be the Usenet-esque text messages which appear to be the core of what serves as a galaxy-wide internet in the book. Vernor Vinge has been amusingly conservative here: Countless species all across the galaxy have been happily wasting their cripplingly narrow bandwidth on flames, navel-gazing and complaints about cripplingly narrow bandwidth for god knows how long, just like some enormous early-90s newsgroup cloud. They even use Courier New font! The anachronism is almost comical. Fortunately, it does not influence the credibility of the rest of the setting, and the messages provide a nice break from the serious plot with a little playful jabbing at forum posters in general.

In all, this was a wonderful science fiction book, the sudden realization of my own imagination's glaring blindspots was excitingly reminiscent of my first forays into the genre. For those not new to science fiction, A Fire Upon the Deep will doubtless be a great read. I'm confident that it would not be less interesting to novices, either, however.

Score: 5/5

Review: Watership Down by Richard Adams

Not even my copy was this ragged, and it had been in the library for decades!

Take Tolkien. Chop down extraneous text to distill what's great about the writing into a condensed mass. Add drama by increasing number and power of antagonistic agents (and make them inevitable). Replace all main characters with bunnies.

Fluffy, cute, hoppity lil' bunnies.

I was led to believe that Watership Down was a good book. So, I was already opening the cover with a high bar set. Even so, it blew me away. This is a book about rabbits and their lapine adventures. The author has done his research and with obvious exceptions (talking bunnies) and a few very minor inaccuracies, it is very realistic biologically. He has also put in a lot of effort into the actual story: In some five hundred pages we get rabbits, politics of rabbit societies, rabbit wars and rabbit diplomacy, rabbit exodus, rabbit language (And if you pay attention you can translate something near the end for a very cool bonus! Beat that, Ron.), rabbit psychology, rabbit religion, rabbit mathematics, rabbit logic, rabbit technology, rabbit myth, rabbit poetry, rabbit painting, rabbit literature... Rabbit art even has its own distinct movements, which can come into conflict and actually influence politics in a sense reminiscent of our real-world, human history. The story proceeds under the assumption of all these elements being present, in their own form, for other animals as well. We do not of course learn much of, say, fox poetry- fox-rabbit interaction is predictably lean on cultural exchange.

The themes dealt with are very thoughtfully explored, and well presented. Sometimes we find rabbits in struggles identical to our own, and sometimes their concerns are hopelessly alien and incomprehensible to us. In either case, the narrative is a goldmine of wonderful insights.

The plot makes sense, and takes great pains to make sense. The characters are pretty well developed, especially when they are involved in the plot. Really, my only complaint is that there isn't more of it: I wouldn't mind a hundred page or so appendix detailing all the trivial details of Adams's rabbits and their ways, and even better, the other animals too.

Score: 5/5

Inception: Dream logic

The dream logic just doesn’t work. So you are on a balcony, sleeping and dreaming that you are in a hotel. Someone throws you over, your sleeping body is in free fall, accordingly the dream also loses gravity. It’s an old, clichéd idea, and untrue. I for one have had plenty of dreams interrupted, but not once has outside stuff managed to sneak in. But fine, the movie frankly comes out and says, look, this is how my internal logic works, ok? Sure, movie. I'm not the kind of guy who complains about warp-drives in Star Trek.

But suppose in that balcony dream, you have a dream within a dream, you dream you are on a beach. You get tossed, your real body experiences 0 g. This is transmitted to your top dream, and the hotel loses gravity. Now your sleeping dream body in the hotel also doesn’t experience gravity. This gets transmitted to the beach- But in Inception it doesn’t. Why? “Uh, let me get back to you on that later.”

Then, apparently they have control over dreams. One person builds them, one person populates them, and the others get to do minor things (conjure up pistols, change their appearance). Why not build cooperatively? Enemies chasing you, just conjure up rocks above them, or a great pit below them, done. Maybe the machine is designed somehow to prevent this, or more than one person mucking about confuses things. I dunno.

Also, in one scene, a character is shooting enemies with a rifle. Aemes comes over, exclaims that “you need to dream bigger!” and raises a grenade launcher. Wait, they can do that? Why not just dream up RPGs? Tanks? Helicopters? Lightsabers? Crazy futuristic space alien weapons?

Ok, so lightsabers would obviously tick the victim off. But so what? They can capture and torture him indefinitely. You could dream up some crazy torture equipment, I bet. Then there’s tanks. It should be trivial to dream up an invasion or military compound or something. They even do it! But curiously they won’t dream up tanks for themselves. I guess maybe it attracts the projections, but when you have an AC-130, who cares if their little snow-Humvee is attracted to you, honestly? Just gun them all down.

Then the machine. It looks like all it does is take venous blood, give it a little detour through the plastic hose where chemicals can be injected, and send it back in. The only connection is through the wrist. How does information get shared? What links the brains? Magic? To their credit, at least they didn’t actually go and make up some shared consciousness silliness. Oh well.

And the whole waking up business is fishy, anyway. Sleep, while somewhat mysterious, is very well known to be closely linked with firing of certain neurons and certain neurotransmitters. There’s no such thing as someone being in a sleep so deep they can’t wake up, you can always wake them up by injecting the right chemical. There’s comas and the like, of course, but a coma isn’t just a deep sleep. That’s stupid. In fact, given that what we see in the movie requires sedatives anyway, just cut the sedative. Soon the effect would wear off and the dream would destabilize anyway.

Inception: King of fools

So what’s with all the idiot characters thinking they are geniuses? First we have Saito, with his best smug grin, exclaim “Ah, dream within a dream!” Oh wow, what an incredible idea! What if people were in a dream, and they dreamt that they fell asleep and were dreaming in the dream? Woah, man. Maybe it would seem incredible if I was high, I guess. And very stupid. But Saito seems very proud of his insight.

Then there is the exchange, “you want to do two layers?” “Three.” during which I honestly burst out laughing. “This one goes to ELEVEN.” Reminds me of those jokes about multi-blade razors. “Fuck it, we’re going 13 levels!”

The realization should be immediately apparent to anyone who thinks about this concept, that a dream within a dream is theoretically possible, and that what we call real life might as well be a dream and we’d never know, and the dreams could be nested ad infinitum. Yes, each layer adds to the instability, but so what? How do you know that you haven’t been subjected to an advanced sedative without your knowledge? But nobody even mentions any of this. They are all awed at the idea of a dream within a dream like it’s some incredible insight.

Inception: Paging Ellen

Is Ellen Page supposed to be an annoying, stupid undergrad that nobody likes but they keep her around because they need her for now? If so, give the woman an Oscar. So her teacher sets her up for a job. The man is weird, suspicious and doesn’t give her any details. He doesn’t even tell her anything about it. “First I need to know you can do it, before I say what it is.” She just smiles and nods! First rule of job interviews: If the boss is crazy, DON’T TAKE THE JOB. I guess ignorance of this could be excused in this case, after all she is in an undergrad. Maybe she thinks Leo is hot and just wants to get in his pants, I dunno. Anyway, it gets worse.

She is told the job is illegal, in no uncertain terms. She doesn’t even flinch! What the hell, some stranger asks her to commit a crime and she just… Accepts? Wow. Maybe the pay is gre- But they don’t even discuss the pay! Sure, unpaid internships are a common way to build up portfolios, but there isn’t a portfolio here, and I doubt she’s expecting to land a nice job working with a sleazebag thief.

Then we get to the dreams. The first thing she does with her power? Act like a toddler at the playground. She folds the street in two and makes two opposing mirrors. Oh wow. When I joked about this sort of stuff in middle school, my friends called me childish.

Speaking of which, I don’t get the bit about Arthur kissing her. If there was some awkward attraction, possibly one sided, from Arthur towards Ariadne, it would be sort of interesting. I could see him having less than gentlemanly intentions with his “try”. But it’s played off as some half-hearted idea that Arthur got, tried, and failed. Oh well. It doesn’t help that this is maybe Arthur’s only idea in the whole film (ok, I guess there’s the elevator). It’s just a pointless scene, the kiss is awful, it doesn’t develop either character, it doesn’t add to the desperation of their situation (they don’t seem to care about the projections much before or after, nor is Arthur at all upset or disappointed when his desperate attempt fails).

Inception: Crimes of idiocy

So let me get this straight about the ending: Mal came to the hotel room, made a mess, toppled the furniture, then leapt across the space to the opposite window… Wait, what? I guess she could have made a mess and then snuck to the building across to startle Cobb, but why make a mess? Just leave the window open. Not like he’ll ignore an open window.

And anyway, what’s with her “trap”? It doesn’t make sense. All Cobb needs to do is wave and yell the moment she hits the ground. Somebody sees him at the window, instant bulletproof alibi! The street below them has 4 or 6 lanes at least. How’d he push her out of a building that far? Why is there no sign of struggle? Any competent lawyer will get Cobb off the hook in a flash. And surely it would look fishy when a psychiatrist examines the children and they don’t seem abused or in danger from Cobb?

Now, I’ve never heard of such a thing as being “declared sane”. Sure, there’s documents you get for driving licenses or diving cards and what not, and they include mental health. But all that means is the doc checks if you ever got sent to the funhouse, and your behavior with him obviously shows you are not completely batshit. So they sign you off. That’s it. Maybe you lied, maybe they didn’t ask the right questions, maybe you are actually a psychopath inside, obsessed with acting out Carmageddon in real life. He wouldn’t know! These things are a 5 minute visit to the doctor, and all they show is whether you have overt, very obvious issues. The legal system is probably aware of this, so saying “hey, she was sane enough to drive!” is a bullshit defense.

As for a more thorough examination, you simply can’t take someone and say they are “completely sane”. Just checking for one disease takes many sessions over weeks, and the DSM has hundreds. The psychiatrist’s job is hard enough with willing clients who try to helpfully describe their issues, it would be trivial for a crazy person to fake sanity (Obviously, there are extreme cases. If a guy walks in wearing a tinfoil hat and starts checking the room for bugs, yes he is obviously out there. But just because he doesn’t, can you say beyond reasonable doubt that he isn’t paranoid?). This is like TSA asking travellers if they are a terrorist. I mean… Geez.

So how Mal obtained such documents, such that they are hard proof of her sanity, is beyond me. But that’s not the only problem. See, even in a fantasy universe where this is possible, wouldn’t someone obtaining unusual documents proving their sanity, just before committing a rather insane act, look a wee bit suspicious?

In all honesty, Cobb should’ve just gone to court. Doubtless his occupation could pay for a decent lawyer, I’d be surprised if he didn’t have a team of them already.

And finally, why bother with Saito just to see his kids? So he can’t enter the US. Well, move to Switzerland and take the kids there! Genius idea, I know. Is it the grandmother? Get one of his teammate to kidnap them. They know the reason is solid, and even if not they are all immoral knaves anyhow. The most the relatives can do is probably file a missing person report. Cobb is a man adept at disappearing from powerful multi-national corps. Sure, he botches this in the movie, but I can’t imagine him surviving in his job without being good at it, and he implies he is.

Inception: And his tiresome wife

Cobb's wife. She could be a great femme fatale nemesis, but instead, we get a passive aggressive memory who keeps making a nuisance of herself. She doesn’t do anything, she’s not interesting, she adds nothing. She could have been part of the team at the beginning of the movie, that would allow me to actually care about her being dead.

The current Mal could still be effective, if she was haunting Cobb. Two things ruin this, however. First, she does more harm to Cobb’s friends- she shoots Arthur in the leg and insults his taste in expressionist art (that bitch!), she lunges at Ariadne, she shoots Fischer. She barely harms Cobb at all. Now, if whenever Cobb was isolated in the dreams, she appeared and relentlessly closed in on him with ruin in her wake like some pyramid head without the pyramid, it would be a whole different story. Second, Mal is awfully needy. Every time she shows up, she does nothing but yell “me me me why is this dream not ALL ABOUT ME!” It’s obscene and irritating. So many times I wished Cobb would glare at her and yell “Mal, can’t you see I’m busy here? Just bugger off now will you, I don’t have time for your bullshit right now!” Whenever she shows up, Cobb almost instinctively begins to defend against her- he doesn’t seem particularly entranced by memories of his love either. It’s not that he wants her in his mind but knows surrendering to that memory will destroy him. He doesn’t want her there at all, and she is too obnoxious to leave.

Inception: That damnable Di Caprio

Cobb as Leonardo Di Caprio is an absolute sleaze bag. He is written as a sleazebag, and Leo acts like one. When the legality of his work comes up, he smugly dismisses it. He sets up rules for his teammates, but doesn’t follow them. He arrogantly scoffs when they bring up the fact. He blames his failings on others. He destroys a young man’s psyche without a moment’s hesitation. The man’s a crook and a total jerk.

Now, I don’t mind this kind of character. I usually love them. Sometimes I may even feel sympathy towards them. But I expect a fitting motivation. Maybe lust for power, or money. Maybe simple megalomania. Cobb? He just wants to see his kids again. Ain’t that sweet! He’s a proper crook with a heart of gold, our Cobb.

Man, I don’t care. He’s an asshole. He won’t see his kids? Great! Serves him right. Kinda sucks for the kids, I guess, but then again I don’t care about the kids either- I never see them do anything but play in the sand for a moment, and that they are used as symbols of impending doom doesn’t help.

I am just irritated by the lead character for some reason. Ariadne, on the other hand, would have made a great protagonist. We’d follow her as she suddenly discovers the world of extraction through her teacher, as her relationship with Cobb evolves from professional cooperation to disgust at his lack of scruples to sympathy for his grief. It might even convince me to care about Cobb. It would do away with the confusing preludes. It would allow Cobb’s plan to rescue Saito to be an epic revelation, to which Ariadne and the audience can react with enthusiasm and excitement, as they should: It’s the climax of the story!

Instead we get to watch a petty scumbag thief be mean and inconsiderate to his friends, shirk responsibility, pity himself and then have the gall to pretend he has noble goals of reuniting with his children.

Inception: Introduction

So, this is about Inception, which I watched recently. Mostly, it’s some rough plot analysis and whining about things I didn’t like, with a few things I liked. So expect spoilers, boredom and frustration.

The film was released quite a few months before I watched it, so you can see how I’m a tad late to the party. Naturally, I heard it being talked about, a LOT. I knew it was about dreams, and that it would end with “They are actually also living in a dream!” from the start. It turned out that last bit wasn’t exactly true.

One other thing was the minor fad of “the movie stupid people watch to feel intelligent”. So I expected pretentious sleight of hand to disguise a complicated plot that doesn’t make sense, and resolved to pay extra attention to spot as many holes as I could.

That was a very bad idea! Inception is a run-of-the-mill mindfuck with a “gotcha” plot. It throws piles of obfuscated nonsense at you, only to disarm you and deliver its final “Haha, thought I was gonna do that one huh? Gotcha!” It’s like that riddle where a bus visits various stops, and so and so people get on and off each time, while you haplessly try to keep up with the arithmetic, and turns out the question is how many stops it visited.

The whole plot is an irrelevant red herring. All you get for seriously thinking about it is a nasty headache and a lingering feeling of “man, what.” So, what happened? Cobb and his buddies enter dreams and steal secrets. But Cobb is kinda hung up about his dead wife, so she keeps messing up their dream antics and being a nuisance. They try to steal from Saito, a businessman, but mess up (because of the wife. Women, right?) Saito then hires them to put a bad idea in a competitor’s mind, so his business fails and Saito benefits. They come up with a crazy dream-within-a-dream scheme to do it, encounters certain problems, overcome them, and Cobb goes back to his kids, in the real world… Or does he? Maybe he’s still dreaming! Guess we’ll never know, because it faded to black before we could see! Oh man, so exciting!

Civilization V: Diplomacy

No, no, it's not quite like that.
So now we are getting to the part where I skip the token positive remark and straight up bitch about how this sucks and that sucks and it all sucks.

Well, the diplomacy in CivV sucks. The recent patches make things better. The diplomacy still sucks, but at least it's bearable now.

There's very few choices. You have on the diplomacy screen.

First there's the declare war. The AI loves this. For the AI, declaring war is a friendly gesture, like shaking your hand or waving and saying sup.

Then there's pact of secrecy. This is like declare war for AIs who were unfortunately born without a spine, or the ability to build military units. It happens, folks.

Nobody knows what the PoS (har har funny backronym) does. Everyone does it anyway, all the time. Except you, your PoS offers never get accepted by AIs, whether large or small, friendly or pissed. When the AI asks you for a PoS against another player, and you accept, they say, "excellent! We now have a pact of secrecy!". I think a few turns later, they say it has run its course and end it. At no point do they say "since we have a PoS, let's do..." They don't care if you trade with the target civ. They don't care if you are allied. They won't be any more likely to declare war on the target. If you refuse, they don't care. It's just utterly pointless. They all do it anyway, and you can't stop them.

There's the opposite, pact of cooperation. Occasionally friendly Civs offer it. They might as well offer me a backrub, since the PoC does nothing. It won't make trade easy, they don't care if I get attacked, they won't lend me money if they didn't before.

The patch added a denounce function. It's basically like shouting, "hey everybody, you know what, France is a big jerkhead and his feet smell!". Never had it do anything.

The trade screen, well at least it works. You get all the basics, trading gold, trading gold per turn, trading resources and cities, declaring mutual war. The problem is, the AI is loco. Let's say you want to sell a tech. You ask for some techs which have about 95% of research point cost put together. Surprise, they refuse. You ask them what they'd like, they say "never in a million years lol". Then you remove a tech to slant the deal in their favor so much it's not even funny, and they greedily accept.

You might say it's because they think their techs are strategically valuable. Bullshit. I'm giving the stone age fuckers renaissance tech in exchange for archery and its ilk. Yeah, getting those archers 1 turn early sure will lead me right to success. Newsflash, stone age fuckers: My score is 4 times what yours is, I've already won.

You decide to sell a resource. Selling resources is the only thing the diplomacy screen is good for in CivV. You ask them to offer a price, they give retarded shit like open borders for 30 turns and want to pay some gold up front and some per turn. What the hell do I care about your borders, AI? I already explored everything you see, and this game encourages sparse cities anyway so your territory is swiss cheese if I ever need to reexplore it for some reason. Why can't I just fill in 1 gold coin for them, then have them modify that as they will?

Anyway, suppose you are very lucky and the AI decides to grace you with a rational answer. (what the hell, AI? Why do you have to be so uncooperative? This is for your own damn good, it's not like I can't find any use for that extra luxury) They name a price. It's actually half the price they are willing to pay. Derp.

Maybe this sounds fine to you. Bargaining, right? Thing is, you can start at some number you know they won't pay, like 10k for a luxury, and then decrement by 1 until they accept. There is no drawback to this, except having your soul crushed by the tedium. They won't get mad at you for insulting their intelligence. In fact, this is the best way to settle deals, and your only alternative is to memorize and guess what the AI pays for resources, which is vastly less efficient and arguably more work.

Oh, you could just trust the AI and have it rip you off half the time, and flat out refuse trade the other half.

Goddammit! Either make the AI suggest fair deals, or introduce a penalty for offering unfair ones! This just forces you to do a very tedious task every time if you want to trade in this game at all (and trust me, you do).

I wish they added trading communications with other civs or map trades, but whatever. It's not a big deal. Though then again, neither is adding it, so why do didn't they? Maybe it would make a mess of their AI code or something.

You can ask people to not settle near you. Nothing ever comes of it, either they refuse or they say ok and do it anyway. Unlike the AI you can't say "wtf we had a deal bro" and have the entire world hate him for not keeping his word.

The AI sometimes bitches about you massing troops near its borders too, and your options come down to "dismiss dialogue with no effect" versus "dismiss dialogue and make the civ a bit angrier". They don't ever seem to declare war over it in either case. You can't complain at the AI at all, of course.

Anyway, those are your choices, pretty much. Oh you can also have one sided deals in the form of demands or gifts. You can give, say, all of your gold to an AI. When you ask him for something afterwards, he'll be like, "gold? What gold? Anyway sorry but your offer is no good, it just rips you off too little". Then sometimes, AIs you don't give a fuck about, and who have no hope against you, demand stuff. You can refuse and they get mad. You can accept and they get slightly happy, but not that it matters- alliances in this game are impossible to form, and even if you do manage to con one of the assholes into it, they are probably too weak to be any good.

Oh, by the way, the AI never accepts your demands. You can have 19 cities to his 2, be an era ahead, have a much bigger army, surround him completely, and he will still act like he's hot shit and refuse to just hand over your 29 fucking gold coins. It's 29 coins, you fucking prick. Is it worth getting wiped out in 5 turns over? Really? They'll accept if they are friendly, maybe, but then their status drops back to where it was before you gave them 5-10 times as much stuff as what you're asking.

Sometimes the AI insists that you declare war with them on someone else. You can just ask for 10 turns to prepare, then be like "lol whatever bro" and they don't care. If you do declare war, even though your ally forced you into it, the world will assume and act as if the conflict is your fault.

Did I mention? In this game, everyone gets mad at you for declaring war. They never get mad at other AIs for declaring war whenever they damn well please. There is no effective strategy to goad AIs into declaring war on you. You basically fight them all or not at all, and if you choose the latter the AI will declare war anyway.

Strong economy? Weak economy? More troops? Less troops? The AI doesn't care. It thinks war is like a game of chance- you throw the dice and if you win, you win. In fact, that's how it wages the war: Just throw random units, much as one would throw dice, in your general direction. Why won't these goddamn small AIs just give up and hand their cities over to me? Why can't they form an alliance against you, the superpower? This really isn't difficult.