Robert Graves Is A Liar

Robert Graves wrote a collection of Greek myths. It is one of the most thorough and complete collections there is, very well sourced, and contains a commentary on the historical origins of the myths. Neat, right? But as you may have surmised from the title, Robert Graves’ interpretations are not super accurate. Note that we’re talking about myths, not history, so this is not simply a matter of more discoveries having been made since the 50s when Graves was writing. It is a matter of Graves flat-out lying about the contents of his sources. And all of those lies seem to be told in service to what I assume is a fetishistic desire to live in a particularly brutal matriarchy.

Here’s a sample quote from the myth of how Athena and Poseidon quarreled over who would be patron of Athens:

Greatly vexed, Poseidon sent huge waves to flood the Thriasian Plain, where Athene’s city of Athenae stood, whereupon she took up her abode in Athens instead, and called that too after herself. However, to appease Poseidon’s wrath, the women of Athens were deprived of their vote, andt he men forbidden to ebar their mothers’ names as hitherto.

This, according to Graves, was part of a transition away from a matriarchal society where fatherhood was not recognized and consort-kings to tribal matriarchs were ritually sacrificed on an annual basis. On first principles, the idea that a society would kill its most high status men is barely within the bounds of credulity. It’s the kind of maximum status gap that exists mainly in the realm of fetishism. Fictional snuff images and stories are a rare kink, but you can find porn for that. People actually killing their partners is considerably more rare (excluding killings committed in retaliation for adultery, which are relatively common in lawless regions the world over and throughout history – but that’s a very different story than ritually sacrificing your husband on an annual basis not just as the personal tradition of a specific psychopathic ruler, but as a society-wide religious practice).

On top of that, it’s difficult to imagine how any human society as late in the game as pre-historic Greece – well over a hundred thousand years after modern humans with our modern human intelligence evolved – could still be in the dark as to how pregnancy works. Sure, the connection between sex and pregnancy is not immediately obvious, but cavemen weren’t stupid, they just had a sparse population that made communication of ideas slow. Technology was badly inhibited by the lack of roads, horseback messengers, and internets connecting innovators together, but basic reasoning was unaffected. Given a hundred thousand years to figure it out, it’s difficult to see how any culture could’ve failed to do so (certainly most primitive cultures still extant today know what causes childbirth).

So Graves’ claim that Greece used to be a brutal matriarchy which then transitioned to a patriarchal society, with the transition reflected in myths of male figures triumphing in various ways over female ones, is already straining credibility on two counts. Neither ritual sacrifice of high status members of a society nor a culture not knowing about the connection between sex and childbirth is completely impossible, but they’re both very unlikely.

Of course, Robert Graves has a little footnote on that paragraph, leading to his sources, and given that it is possible, we shouldn’t be too surprised to learn that amongst his five sources, at least one will report that the women of Athens were indeed deprived of the vote and forced to adopt patriarchal lineage (i.e. the mother is considered to have joined the father’s family, not the other way around) as a result of an attempt to appease Poseidon.

But while you, gentle reader, can probably appreciate how you would expect that to be the case upon seeing that he’s got five listed sources without my commentary, you can probably also guess that I wouldn’t have phrased the setup that way if it were actually true. And as it happens, no, three of Graves’ five sources just refers to the story of Poseidon and Athena giving the city of Athens different gifts and subsequently quarreling over whose gift was better and therefore who deserved the city, and the fourth and fifth I couldn’t find but was from a Roman and medieval scholar (respectively) who A) probably aren’t adding any gender politics to the story and B) were  not even remotely contemporaneous to the alleged changeover from matriarchy to patriarchy that Graves is claiming had to be mythically explained by this story. Sources disagree as to who exactly settled the dispute in favor of Athena (though Poseidon is never judged the winner), but Graves’ claim that the male gods all voted one way and the female goddesses voted the other, with only Zeus abstaining, leaving the goddesses ahead by one vote, that is also totally absent in all of Graves’ alleged sources I could verify (and no such gender war angle is mentioned in secondary discussions of the other two that I found while looking for a translation, when you’d think such a controversial retelling would draw attention).

When Graves claims that the myth of Athena and Poseidon’s gifts to Athens explains the transition from matriarchy to patriarchy, he’s not just giving a sketchy interpretation, he’s flat out lying about the contents of the myth.

Petals and Thorns Illustrations

Those of you who keep track of my posting schedule will notice that this is looks suspiciously like a Tuesday/Friday article, and those of you who keep track of the day of the week will notice that it is Thursday. I’ve had a really terrible routine for the better part of the past week where I write up a blog post first because that’s most urgent, then prep for one of my D&D games because, being scheduled just a few hours after my blog posts go live, that’s second most urgent, and while in theory that should leave me about 1-2 hours to work on Petals and Thorns II before I have to run the game, in practice it always ends up being more like twenty minutes. That’s not enough time for me to get into flow, and after the game is over I’m usually too tired to do good work. Petals and Thorns II is therefore behind schedule for having a deliverable (though very hard to parse – I don’t have the commercial license for the maps yet, so you’d just have to follow instructions in the room descriptions like it’s a text adventure) draft for its March 1st Kickstarter.

Thursday is the only day when I don’t have to prep anything, so I’m dedicating today completely to getting Petals and Thorns caught up, which means I’m having a Friday article on Thursday, which is actually just “hey, look at these illustrations I commissioned for the Petals and Thorns II Kickstarter,” and tomorrow we’ll be back to Final Fantasy and Philosophy.

Hey, look at these illustrations I commissioned for the Petals and Thorns II Kickstarter.

Having Service Groups In Corporatist Paranoia After All

Back in the Corporatist Paranoia article, I talked about how to take the basic ideas of Paranoia XP’s shift of the game from a communist dystopia to a corporatist one and really make them work. One of the unfortunate necessities of that premise is that service groups must be done away with. The neo-feudal structure of the corporatist dystopia demands that, much like the Computer itself, service groups must be sliced up so that each ULTRAVIOLET has their own functioning copy of each, capable of acting independently from all the others. Corporatism is capitalism gone horribly wrong, and capitalism is about wanting stuff badly enough to do things you otherwise wouldn’t in exchange, and that means that ULTRAVIOLETs don’t have to wrangle for influence over a single government-run PLC, they can buy their own distribution network, and most of them do. That isn’t just in-theme, it’s the defining difference between communist and corporatist dystopias.

But service groups are fun, and there is a way to salvage at least a good chunk of them. Rather than specific organizations, service groups are a set of aptitudes that Friend Computer evaluates for on the tests used for the competent half of the “loyal and competent” security clearance evaluation. The Algorithm thinks that Housing Preservation and Development is fundamentally linked to Mind Control, such that someone with aptitude in one is highly likely to have aptitude in another, and no one understands enough of the code to figure out if this is a bizarre bug or if millions of simulations a second have allowed the Algorithm to cleave reality at its joints and discover surprising truths about the hidden connections between building apartment blocks and filming TV shows.

And since the Algorithm thinks these are closely related, HPD&MC departments at your sector university will give you a rigorous education in both – for an outrageous fee that will leave you in debt for the rest of your six lives – that will fast track you to GREEN or BLUE levels of competency. Like websites cracking SEO in an arms race with the Google algorithm, educational institutions are in an arms race with the Algorithm’s evaluation of these eight areas of competency. R&D is not an organization, but a loose academic grouping, like “life science” and “philosophy.” And yet, the guys from the Humanities departments at ABC University have more in common with the Humanities guys over at XYZ University than they do with ABC University’s own STEM departments. The rivalry between chemistry and physics not only lives alongside, but actually overshadows the rivalry between Harvard and Yale or whatever.

A ZAP sector graduate with training in Power Services isn’t getting anything so prestigious as a university degree, but they’re still inheriting a tradition and a culture that’s shared across almost all Power Services graduates, no matter what university they went to, and since the Algorithm has decided that Power Services and Technical Services are different things with different scores even though they’re both involved directly in maintaining the power grid, the two departments both exist separately from one another and have the same physics vs. chemistry sort of rivalry that crops up between two very slightly distinct sub-cultures.

Corporatist Paranoia

One of my professionally GM’d games recently ended, which means I’m firing up the ads for a bunch of different systems, which means I’m looking at Paranoia again. Paranoia XP and the closely related Paranoia 25th Anniversary had a thing where the Computer was switching to a more capitalist economy, in an effort to better parody the rise of corporatist dystopia ongoing in America and Britain even back in 2004. Unfortunately, it was all a bit short-sighted. It is very obvious here in 2019 that a corporatist dystopia can get much, much worse than the US and UK were at in 2004, but Paranoia XP was glued pretty tight to the trends that were already happening, just replacing “you get fired” with “you get fired upon.” “Service firms” sold goods and services semi-independently but were wholly subject to the demands of government bureaucracy, the internet was rife with scammers, and they didn’t even have the guts to replace “communists” with “terrorists” for the 2004 release when that actually would’ve been relevant and interesting.

Side note: RED-Clearance edition gave itself a big ol’ pat on the back for switching from “communists” to “terrorists” in 2016, at which point they may as well have not bothered because the moment had already passed by, like, a decade, and in any case RED-Clearance backed away from all the capitalist trappings of XP and 25th Anniversary, which makes direct comparisons to America more toothless and would have made the double think of a de facto communist dystopia using de jure Communism as their ultimate bogeyman more entertaining.

Anyway, reading back over all of this I began thinking: What would an actual corporatist Alpha Complex look like?

Its Holiness, Computerus III, Your Best Friend

Your friend the Computer is more-or-less a fiction used to keep the IR proles in line. Alpha Complex is still a smart society in the “smart house” sense where every door, vending machine, and CCTV camera is part of a vast network, but that network is maintained by a corporate conglomerate, not all of Alpha Complex. Friendly conglomerates have limited data sharing between their compnodes to allow the Computer to keep track of who’s a terrorist and which clones have what clearance when they move between different sectors, and this makes it appear as though it’s only one big Computer. The truth comes out when conglomerates become unfriendly with each other. They cut their compnodes off from one another to prevent hacking or other sabotage, and suddenly what one compnode sees, the other does not know.

Sometimes the vital information about terrorists and security clearances and so forth will go through a trusted third party conglomerate and the Computer in FUN sector will know about the crimes you committed in NUF sector. If there is no such trusted third party, though (and this is Paranoia, so trust is not exactly common)? Once the conglomerate owning FUN gets into a row with the conglomerate owning NUF, “the” Computer is bisected, with the compnode in FUN totally unaware of anything learned by the one in NUF. If you bomb an IntSec precinct while shouting “workers unite! Praise Lenin!” in FUN sector and flee to NUF, you don’t need to change your identity. The Computer has no idea what you’ve done. At least until NUF sector wins the war, takes over FUN sector, and adds the FUN compnode into their network under their conglomerate’s control (or vice-versa).

The problem is, while the war between different conglomerates is pretty easy to keep track of, on account of all the tanks and bombings, generally speaking no one below BLUE clearance has the slightest idea whether or not things like criminal databases are still being shared through third parties. If you commit your bombing for the glory of Communism and flee to NUF, you may find that actually NUF has been getting updates on such acts of terrorism from the neutral UNF sector and you’re arrested the moment you triumphantly stride into the atrium of a NUF sector hab-block, having thought you’d just escaped to safety.

The Computer can also be thought of as The Algorithm, which should fill a clone with the same sense of superstitious fear that is currently rife amongst YouTubers. The Computer is used to perform background checks and administer ability tests that, together, provide security clearances, which determine both that you are loyal and trustworthy and also that you have a skill valuable to your superiors. In corporatist Alpha Complex, nobody cares how trustworthy an INFRARED is unless they also have skills that necessitate giving them power.

As such, low-ranking (principally YELLOW and lower) citizens desperately want to convince Friend Computer that they are both loyal and competent, and because the Computer is always watching, these low-ranking citizens feel the need to put on an act of both devoted righteousness and total capability at all times. When either facade slips, it is important to immediately push blame to someone else.

Continue reading “Corporatist Paranoia”

Why Does Paizo Spend So Much Time On Backstory That Is Never Expressed?

Knowing a character’s backstory can be relevant to how they’re played. The backstory on the major faction NPCs in Petals and Thorns was given alongside their identity and motivation because that backstory played an important role in shaping their motivation and identity. Part of the reason the Lunatic Court ran on so long is because I was never quite satisfied with the chain of cause and effect that resulted in a Harlequin who is driven by equal parts fear and mistrust of others on the one hand and a general compassion for other people on the other. Things always seemed to be loaded too far one way or the another.

So what I’m saying here is that when I say that Paizo has a weird habit of drowning us in totally irrelevant backstory, it’s not because backstory is somehow inherently irrelevant. NPCs whose decision-making is important to the story and who interact with the PCs need to have a solid backstory informing their current motivations and why they do the things they do. The problem is that Paizo loves to load its villains up with a whole lot of backstory and then have them appear exclusively for boss fights. If the only purpose of a villain is to provide a climactic encounter at the end, then the only thing that matters is their current scheme. “Nualia is an aasimar corrupted by the Runelords’ power who seeks to use that power to destroy the town of Sandpoint.” Bam, done. If we’re never going to have a conversation with her, we don’t need to care why she hates Sandpoint. Her ultimate goal is to raze it and that’s all that matters.

It all feels very cargo cult-y, like, roleplay-driven games have villains with long backstories, so we’ll set aside a page or two for the backstory of each module’s villain and that’ll make it more roleplay-ish! But, no. Roleplay-driven games include backstories because they’re structured such that the backstories are relevant. You actually need to know what the NPC’s motivations are because the PCs can actually influence their decision-making or at least get to talk to them long enough for the NPC to explain their point of view. Without that, background is just an outline of a short story that will never be written and that only the GM will even know about.

Imbolc 2019

Imbolc was actually a couple of days ago, but today is the day when I’m looking at what I accomplished not only since Yule, but since Imbolc clear back in 2018. Back then I was wrapping up the Year of Endless, the first year of this blog in which I committed to post an article a day, every day, no matter what. Having not stumbled across the chapter-by-chapter book review format, this was way harder.

Early on in the year I was heavily focused on writing and completing outstanding projects. I began pushing my professional GMing service in an attempt to provide a creative fund for things like book covers and editing, and then that wound up surprisingly successful and taking up a huge portion of my free time. I never did make it to a million words because it was easier to take the games I prepped for my professional GMing and clean them up for commercial release than to write novels entirely from scratch. I was even able to release a professional quality adventure.

All of this has kept me very busy while still leaving me in a constant state of anxiety as to whether or not this is going anywhere. My professional GMing has built up a respectable income, but that income gets eaten almost as soon as it comes in fueling the illustrations for these adventures that may or may not ever turn a profit. People liked the idea of Petals and Thorns and backed it in the first Kickstarter, but I won’t know until the next Kickstarter if they like Petals and Thorns itself. How many of the people who bought the original will turn up for the sequel?

This particularly makes me nervous because of how totally everything else has been put on hold to make this happen. It’s not just that I tried something and it might not work, it’s that I haven’t been able to put any significant effort into improving my video editing, or into trying to break into writing professionally, or into finishing up my remaining outstanding projects. Most of 2018 was dedicated to tabletop RPGs, and I won’t know until my Kickstarter concludes sometime in late March or early April if that was a good idea.

Last year’s theme was the Year of Burning, the idea initially being that I was going to invest a lot of effort into making my writing profitable, which then abruptly pivoted to making tabletop RPGs profitable when that started taking off. I haven’t settled on what to call it, but 2019 is going to be either the year when this succeeds or else the year when it crashes.

Can We Please Move Cyberpunk Past The 80s

I accidentally posted my Saturday review post on Friday, so you’re getting the Friday article on Saturday instead.

Cyberpunk was invented in the 80s, and it remains horribly mired in that time period. At the time of writing, cyberpunk as a genre explored a plausible near-future, one which has in many ways come true. Although the cybernetic augments never really came to pass, cyberspace mostly did, as did the megacorporations and the cyberpunks who oppose them. The cyberpunks turned out significantly more amoral than a lot of cyberpunk stories wanted, but a lot of the best ones had their cyberpunk protagonist as exceptional amongst their peers for not being an amoral criminal, and in any case the cyberpunks do exist. We’ve reached the stage where the megacorps are winning serious victories against them and it looks like the cyberpunks are probably going to lose, but they’re real. Military drones, not to mention Amazon delivery drones, put us in clear view of a cyberpunk vision of robotics. It’s basically just the cyborg augments that haven’t happened, and even then we have some promising prototypes.

But a lot of details were got wrong, and some of the predictions never came to pass. The Soviet Union surprised everyone by dissolving way ahead of schedule, and Japan surprised everyone by failing to take over the world. Cyberspace went wireless long before we invented even the faintest prototype of a technology that might one day develop into a neural interface, meaning that the future of neuro-cyber interfaces is more likely to be a USB stick you plug into the port in the back of your neck, rather than a heavy duty cable hooked up to a room-filling supercomputer. Flying cars never became a thing, but the cyberpunk stories that posited them had dropped the ball even on 80s tech. Helicopters already existed and weren’t remotely fuel efficient for personal use by the middle class, and the only thing that would change that is a sudden abundance of fuel, something which no cyberpunk author ever predicted (indeed, many predicted a fuel crunch would get worse than the crisis in the 70s, but it never did).

Cyberpunk as a genre seems constantly rooted in being the future of the past, the predictions of what today would be like according to 30 years ago (2019 is a pretty cyberpunk year, although any year in the 21st century was within the cyberpunk-y range). Cyberpunk stories too often remain glued to the predictions that failed. Japan still looms large over the world, wireless mysteriously dies off somewhere between 2020 and 2070, and flying traffic fills the cityscape like it was Coruscant.

And if that’s what cyberpunk is, then sure, whatever, Fallout does the same thing but for the 1950s and it works fine. No one seems to be making the kind of one or two generations hence fiction that cyberpunk originally was, though, even though it seems like the year 2040-2050. Military drones having taken over more combat roles from flesh and blood soldiers, replacing not just planes but tanks, ships, even infantry, corporate dystopia firmly entrenched, and the world full of last generation’s cyberpunks. Hackers and data thieves aren’t a radical new thing, but a dying breed, lamenting the loss of their digital frontier to expanding corporate power. Are these stories happening and I just don’t hear about them? And if not, why not?

Final Fantasy and Philosophy: Judging the Art of Video Games

Alex Nuttall delivers this judgement mid-way through his essay:

Interesting characters, plots, and art design are found throughout the Final Fantasy series.

In his defense, he had no way of knowing at the time how Final Fantasy XIII would turn out.

This essay is an examination of Hume’s belief in an objective method of measuring the quality of art through the lens of the three status effects traditionally inflicted by the malboro monster in the Final Fantasy series: Sleep, Confusion, and Charm. The concept of an objective measure of art likely sounds immediately stupid, and it is. Hume was foolish to take his views to the extreme that he did. But that doesn’t mean he’s entirely wrong. Consider the fact that it is obviously true that some pieces of art are more popular than others, and also that it is much harder to make a work of art one way than another. In other words, that an objective level of technical proficiency can be demonstrated by an art piece even if technical proficiency isn’t the final say on the subjective quality of that art piece. And the popularity of an art piece is correlated fairly strongly to its technical proficiency. Sure, the most technically proficient art pieces are rarely very popular, and it’s often true that the most popular movie/game/whatever on the market right now doesn’t have much technical proficiency, but pay attention to the general trend instead of the extremes and the overall pattern is that higher amounts of technical proficiency do correlate to more popular art. People seem to enjoy an impressive performance.

And consider also how near-universal the opinion, even if subjective, that someone who’s seen a larger amount of art in a certain medium or genre is better qualified to judge the quality of that art as compared to someone who hasn’t seen much at all. Everyone agrees that art is subjective and it’s impossible to measure whether one work is better than another, and yet everyone also agrees that a judgement of a work’s quality will be more accurate when coming from someone who’s seen more than just one or two other works in the same medium. Sure, people deride critics for being out of touch, but they also deride people who gush about the quality of the one book they’ve read or the one horror movie they’ve seen. People who read lots of books or who watch lots of horror movies are held to be a better judge of a book or horror movie’s quality than people who’ve only read or seen one, and that statement is only ever controversial when paired with the mutually exclusive statement that art is subjective and can’t be “more accurately” judged at all.

Continue reading “Final Fantasy and Philosophy: Judging the Art of Video Games”