Aug 18, 2014

Let's Read Tolkien 7: Queer Lodgings

The next morning Bilbo woke up with the early sun in his eyes.

We rejoin Thorin and company in the eagles' eyries, from where they're airlifted to a great big rock in the middle of Anduin, the Great River of Wilderland. It's actually a bit odd how little attention flying gets in the story; we're rather matter-of-factly told that an eagle grabbed Bilbo and they flew off, and then later he rode an esgle in another direction. As bourgeois as Bilbo is, I still don't think he can possible ever have flown before, so you'd really think that it would be a bigger deal, but for some reason Tolkien doesn't seem to think so. "What is finer than flying?" asks the eagle, and it's tough to reply, because we have very little idea what flying is like. Hell, we don't even get a landscape description. I'm a bit disappointed.

But land on the Carrock they do. The classic problem of airborne operations is supply, and that's true here as well: the dwarves have no food and no transport. To arrange some, Gandalf proposes to introduce them to one of his colleague Radagast's friends, a crazed hippie berserker. This is all the more necessary because Gandalf is going to be leaving Thorin and company to attend to business elsewhere, which, given their track record so far, honestly seems like a terrible idea. One gets the impression that dwarven expeditions that set off without wizards aren't going to get much farther than the first troll, who will probably see them less as a glorious adventuring party and more like a convenient food delivery.

But Gandalf is still with Bilbo and the dwarves, and he concocts a plot to get around the werebear Beorn's irascibility: he'll go up to Beorn's place with Bilbo, start telling him the story of how they got there, and sort of gradually work up to revealing that they have a bunch of dwarves with them as well. This is done, with Gandalf making the occasional off-hand reference to his traveling companions, at which point a couple more dwarves show up, until Gandalf has effectivrly tricked Beorn into letting the whole bunch of them into his hall. It's a particularly well-written scene, and Beorn enjoys the story and maybe even the subterfuge enough to make the travelers his guests for the night.

Memorable dialogue from Beorn: "Troop of ponies? What were you - a traveling circus?" Honestly? Pretty much.

This chapter is our first glimpse of Tolkien the environmentalist: Beorn lives with a bunch of animals he talks with, keeps bee-pasture and apparently doesn't take at all kindly to people who kill animals. The food at his table is vegetarian. It's an unexpected combination with the fact that the one thing that made Beorn well-disposed to the dwarves more than anything else was that they'd murdered orcs. But like I said, hippie berserker. Bechdel test update: I don't even think any of Beorn's animals were female.

The traveling circus hangs out at Beorn's for another day, and having ascertained that they really did murder hella orcs Beorn gives them vegetarian provisions and lends them ponies to ride to Mirkwood. He strongly entreats them to both send the ponies back when they reach the woods, and under no conditions whatsoever leave the path once they get there. They ride up to the edge of the forest, send the ponies back and say goodbye to Gandalf, who tells them several times that they have to remember that once they get into the forest, they must on no account leave the path ever.

Next time: you had one job.

Aug 11, 2014

Operation Snowden

It's now been over a year since Edward Snowden went to Russia, and I figure it's high time I finally set something down on the whole Snowden-Manning-Assange brouhaha.

Because this is such a polarized subject, I've been a little reluctant to address it, even on a forum like this, i.e. a blog that no-one reads. One of the things that depresses me about the whole discourse is the way in which people and their opinions are simply dismissed out of hand because they don't fit someone's preconceptions. At least from my point of view, a lot of people on Team Snowden seem to treat anyone who doesn't buy their narrative as a bad guy who is therefore Fair Game. The problem is that no matter what certain people may want you to think, there is not a single accepted narrative of events here; there is no scientific consensus. This entire can of worms that is Wikileaks and everything related to it is open to various interpretations, and that's putting it mildly. If you genuinely believe that on a topic like this one self-evident truth exists, you are wrong. So much of what's happened is secret or otherwise out of the public eye that what anyone commenting on this is doing is an interpretation of very sketchy information, a puzzle missing most of its pieces. This is my hypothesis on how the pieces fit together.

**

For me personally, my final breaking point with the pirate/privacy/digital rights crowd was the way the majority of people there reacted to the rape charges against Julian Assange. I wrote a couple of things about them back then, but the tenor of the conversation was such that I just didn't want to get involved. Most people took it as granted that obviously the rape charges were made up, obviously those women were lying, obviously it was all a CIA plot. None of which makes any sense, all of which is deeply disturbing for a feminist. It got to the point where Assange's supporters were actively spreading the most ridiculous lies about Swedish law and their justice system; MRA-caliber nonsense about Sweden's "crazy feminist" justice system where not using a condom meant a woman could charge you with rape and all kinds of pure idiocy. If you made the mistake of, say, citing an actual law that relates to the case, you were a brainwashed CIA stooge.

Some of the people spreading this idiocy were fanatics, pure and simple. They hate America and capitalism and what have you, and saw everything in those black-and-white terms. But several others were entirely sensible people who for reasons I couldn't understand just chose to believe the pro-Assange nonsense 100%. In some cases I was personally shocked that people I had thought were competent critical thinkers had suddenly abandoned all criticism and judgement. Were they really that naive? In retrospect, yes. They were.

There's a funny inversion of critical thought that happens with people when they start veering into tin foil hat territory. Many of them start out from very sound notions of critical thinking, which leads them to question the established narratives on how the world works. This is an incredibly good thing and we need more of it. But for some reason I haven't been able to understand it often comes with a problem. You become very critical of the established ways of thinking, but for some reason, as you become aware of the varioud alternative epistemologies that are out there, your critical thinking doesn't extend to them. Instead, once you find an "alternative" worldview you like, it's placed above and outside all criticism. This is how we get the astounding spectacle of Ancient Aliens idiots screaming at their audience to think critically, while seemingly completely unable to do so themselves. In these cases, what starts out as critical thinking athropies into a mindless faith that "the man" is wrong about everything, and anyone who disagrees with "the man" must therefore be right.

This is what you see all the time with the Wikileaks fans and the whole Team Snowden crowd, and it's exasperating. America is bad; Assange is against America: therefore Assange is good and must be innocent. It's just mindless partisanship, and when you have that, confirmation bias will always let you find some way to justify your beliefs. I don't buy this equation where the world divides easily into the terrible bad guys and the heroes fighting against them. As far as Assange is concerned, we don't know if he's guilty or not. All I can say is that out of all the justice systems of the world, if I had to be tried in one, any of the Nordic countries would be my first choice. That Assange refuses to do this, and that his fans circulate a ridiculously implausible list of made-up reasons why he shouldn't, very strongly suggests to me that he's guilty and he knows it. The point-blank refusal of his fans to even entertain this possibility speaks volumes to their capability for any actual critical thought whatsoever.

**

The story doesn't end with Assange, of course. First there's Chelsea Manning, who according to the Wikileaks crowd is a heroic whistleblower. Another way of looking at what Manning did is that she leaked tons of classified material to anonymous people she met online. How did she supposedly know who these Wikileaks people were, who they work for and where the material is going? The answer is that she didn't, and in fact, we still don't. I'm baffled by the way in which people simply accept that Wikileaks is a benevolent organization.

I'd accept that Manning was a courageous whistleblower if she'd taken the videos and documents on human rights violations in Iraq and Afghanistan and delivered them to a reputable media outlet. Instead, she took that stuff and a huge pile of other classified material, most of it in no way related to any kind of human rights violations, and dumped it indiscriminately on some people she'd met online. That's not only incredibly irresponsible, but a crime. And for good reason, too. So yes, the way Manning was treated before her trial was shameful and amounts to torture, and some of the information she leaked was vital to proving serious human rights violations by the US. But she also behaved in a completely reckless manner and deserves some consequences for it.

**

So who are these Wikileaks people Manning dumped all this classified material on? That's an interesting question, because they have some fascinating connections. Back in 2012, Julian Assange hosted a show for the Kremlin's occasionally entertaining propaganda channel. Clearly our champion of human rights, privacy and free speech has no problem co-operating with a government whose record on all those things is nightmarish. His Wikileaks party is even more interesting: in the Australian parliamentary elections they contested, the self-described libertarian party supported local fascists, and later sent a delegation to Assad's Syria to show solidarity and support for his regime - a key Russian ally.

It's interesting that if you look at the list of information published by Wikileaks, it's mostly US material, with some stuff on some other countries thrown in. It includes things like the unredacted Afghan war documents, from Manning, which recklessly released the names of hundreds of Afghans who had co-operated with US forces there. There's also the State Department cables, also from Manning, which have little or nothing to do with human rights or privacy, but do seem to be calculated to maximally embarass the US government. So, any guesses as to which major power has been completely unaffected by the Wikileaks revelations, because they've published pretty much nothing at all that might make them look even slightly bad? It's Russia.

And then Edward Snowden comes along. Snowden, the NSA contractor who flees to China for asylum. Because, you know, if what you believe in is transparency in government, privacy for citizens and human rights all around, obviously you go to China. The Chinese government blocks a US request for extradition, and Wikileaks advises Snowden to flee to Russia, apparently paying for his flight there.

Jeffrey Lewis has a good writeup on why the Team Snowden version of events is incredibly hard to believe. I also recommend John Schindler's writings on the topic. But to make a long story short, if Snowden is what he says he is - a whistleblower concerned with human rights and privacy - his actions are inexplicable. He decides to flee the United States to avoid prosecution, and goes to China. The Chinese decline to extradite him. Why? They must have gotten something in return. One of the things they certainly got was that Snowden revealed many details of NSA operations against China. Why did he do that? That's the NSA doing its legally mandated job. There is no way in which the Americans spying on China violates the constitutional rights of Americans. China itself mounts a massive espionage effort against the US, but apparently that's just fine to Team Snowden. A cynic would say that Snowden bought himself passage through China, with those revelations and probably something more. By going to China he placed himself entirely in the power of the Chinese government and their security services, who would be very, very interested in a renegade NSA employee. They could easily have picked him up when he arrived in China and done what they liked with him. Ed could be in a Chinese prison camp right now and few people would ever have been any wiser. Going to China on the run from the US authorities, as a person of extremely high interest to Chinese intelligence, is utter madness. Unless there was an arrangement in place. And there almost certainly was.

Then he goes to Russia. If an employee of the Russian secret services developed a sudden interest in human rights and tried to leak material on their operations, he would be extremely lucky to only end up in a prison camp in Siberia. The Russian government murders its dissidents. But for some reason Wikileaks felt that the smartest place for Snowden to go was Russia, where he could subject himself to the attentions of the various successors of the KGB. And Russia is where he is today. Again, it is difficult to believe that the Russians are giving him asylum out of the goodness of their hearts, or from a sudden passionate commitment to human rights and privacy. Claims by various Swowden supporters that Russian intelligence doesn't have full access to Snowden's materials and hasn't thoroughly debriefed him are too naive to believe. Russia is where he's staying, at least for as long as he continues to be useful to Russian intelligence.

Back in the 20th century, we had a word for what Snowden did. It was defection. I agree with Lewis that the most credible reconstruction of what happened to Snowden is that he was recruited by Russian intelligence as a spy, and defected to Russia as part of a major operation to discredit the United States and alienate them from their allies. They've done it before, after all, and it's difficult to imagine any other motivation for Snowden to disclose completely legal and, in the current international system, essentially legitimate intelligence operations.

So on the whole, it's difficult to disagree with John Schindler: Snowden is a lot of things. Yes, to some extent he's a whistleblower who released documents pertaining to surveillance on Americans and others that was at best of questionable legality. He then defected to Russia, and has also released material on US intelligence-gathering that has nothing whatsoever to do with any civil rights violations. And he was almost certainly a Russian spy. And Wikileaks may have facilitated that whistleblowing, but is also - at the very least - an organization with definite sympathies for Russia, a somewhat problematic notion for a supposed champion of human rights. Overall, this just isn't the kind of situation that lends itself very well to simple notions of good guys and bad guys.

**

One important context in which to see Operation Snowden is as a part of Russia's ongoing information warfare against the West. It doesn't take a genius to see how portraying the US as a horrible dystopian threat to civil liberties everywhere, while simultaneously ignoring far more serious abuses by governments like Russia and China, is to their advantage. And when you can pull people deeper into tin foil hat territory, suddenly they start thinking that while the Western media always lies, a government propaganda network like RT is somehow a reliable source of information. I don't think it's a coincidence that I'm aware of several people who emblazon their online presence with catchphrases like "Free Manning" and are also busy raging against the "fascist junta" in Kiev and tweeting links to utterly surreal websites that "prove" how the US and their Nazi Zionist allies shot down a passenger plane in East Ukraine. They've certainly picked their side in all this.

What worries me more is that entirely reasonable people, or at least people who used to be entirely reasonable, are getting swept up in the good-against-evil mentality. It obliterates nuances, details and, taken far enough, facts. It's nothing short of irresponsible to imagine that this whole Wikileaks-Manning-Snowden saga is a story of courageous citizens fighting against evil governments. To imagine the whole thing was manufactured by Russian intelligence or something like that would be just as stupid; if I ever see anyone make that argument, I'll let them know. The previous fallacy I see on a regular basis. It ends up in a place where people claim to support human rights, and parrot the propaganda of a brutal authoritarian dictatorship. The word Orwellian gets thrown around far too much these days, but if ever it was justified...

**

We live in an information society. We have the knowledge and the tools to resist simplistic good-versus-evil scenarios, and we must use them. To identify either side - any side - in this whole Wikileaks mess as intrinsicslly good represents a complete abandonment of critical thinking. The most fundamental lie of all propaganda and all conspiracy theories is that things are simple. When it comes to intelligence and international relations, they very rarely are. This is especially the case when there are so many things we just don't know. Was Snowden a Russian spy? What's the relationship, if any, between Wikileaks and Russia? Is Assange actually a rapist? I don't know when we'll ever have answers to these questions, but they're of essential importance to any kind of judgement on Snowden, Manning or Assange. Until we have those answers, all we have is questions. To pretend we have answers to them, or to maintain that they shouldn't be asked at all, is just plain wrong.

Aug 4, 2014

RIP Jim Thompson (1964-2014)

So yesterday evening Helsingin Sanomat told me that Jim Thompson passed away. Me, my significant other and Jim were first-years together at the University of Helsinki English department back when such a thing still existed. Unlike me, he graduated and went on to be a succesful author. We didn't really keep in touch; we exchanged some tweets a couple of times but that was it, and now I'm beating myself up a bit that I didn't get back in contact with him properly when I got over the worst of my problems.

My enduring memory of Jim is a Contemporary American Short Story class we took together. The course material was a short story anthology I've still got somewhere, and we would all read a story at home and show up in class to discuss it. The teacher would sort of shepherd the class toward the canonically accepted interpretation of the novel, which I totally understand, but it started getting a bit exasperating for me and Jim, and at some point we had kind of both decided to put up a fight. The occasion - if I recall correctly - was a story by Amy Tan, where the canonical interpretation was that the protagonist was struggling with their Chinese-American identity and needed to embrace her roots. We both felt that it was equally possible to read the story in the opposite way, that the obsession with "roots" was in fact what was causing the protagonist's problems. Purely on the principle that literature can and must be interpreted in different ways, and there isn't one "correct" interpretation of any damn text, we got into a debate with the entire rest of the class and the teacher. Next week, we did the same with a Paul Bowles story, and actually had fellow students complaining to us after class about why we were being so difficult and couldn't we just accept what the teacher said. I recall answering no, we couldn't. The teacher obviously understood what we were doing, and overall I thought we had some good debates.

That's one of my best memories of my short time majoring in English, and a dear memory of Jim. Rest in peace, friend. We'll miss you.

Jul 7, 2014

Let's Read Tolkien 6: Out of the Frying-Pan Into the Fire

Bilbo had escaped the goblins, but he did not know where he was.

We find Bilbo alone in the wilderness, having escaped the goblin dungeons but lost his fellow travelers. Like the previous one, this is a considerably longer chapter than usual so far, and quite a bit happens in it. As the sun sets, Bilbo realizes it's setting behind the mountains, meaning he's accidentally made it across the whole of the Misty Mountains. Soon he finds the dwarves, and still having his invisibility ring on, decides to sneak up on them. They're currently in a debate with Gandalf over whether or not to go back and look for Bilbo, who they assume is still lost in the goblin caves. Some of the dwarves are questioning why they brought Bilbo along in the first place, as he seems to them to be a completely useless burglar. Bilbo startles them by removing his ring and stepping into their midst quite literally out of nowhere, and the dwarves' opinion of his burglarizing abilities is considerably improved.

Having found each other again, Thorin and company exchange stories and move on; their baggage and ponies were lost to the goblins, so they have no supplies, and they anticipate that the goblins will send someone after them for having killed the Great Goblin and generally made an impact on the local goblin community, so to speak. So down they go into the foothills of the mountains, until sudenly they hear wolves. This prompts the company to quickly climb some trees for safety, and they find themselves surrounded by a pack of Wargs: evil, talking wolves that hang out with the goblins. It's mentioned that occasionally goblins will even ride wolves, which is probably the genesis of the finest light cavalry in 4th-to-6th-edition Warhammer Fantasy, the Goblin Wolf Riders. Remember, the short bows do nothing.

With the wolves intending to besiege the dwarves in their trees until the goblins turn up, Gandalf tries a bit of fire magic and sets a whole bunch of them on fire. Unfortunately, the goblins arrive and turn the fire against Thorin & co., threatening to burn them alive with the trees. At the last moment before Gandalf launches a suicidal attack on the goblins, the eagles arrive and whisk everyone off to safety, where Bilbo is momentarily worried they'll be eaten, but everything turns out all right, they have dinner and hitch a lift from the eagles to their next destination.

**

It took me ages to get this written up, partly because of annoyances such as starting a Rogue Trader role-playing campaign, moving and finally graduating college, but more because I just wasn't that thrilled with this chapter. It's all a bit meh for me; yay across the mountains! Oh no, wolves! Yay fire! Oh no, goblins! Yay eagles! Oh no, eating! Yay eating! Thus conclude the adventures of the Misty Mountains. I already pointed out before that the deus ex machina is the weakest point of fairytales for the adult reader, and the eagles play that role here. Beyond that, I thought the chapter wasn't particularly well paced, and the episode with the eagles somehow comes off as a bit awkward.

To stick with some of our themes, the eagles also buck the supposedly straightforward division of Tolkien's world into good and evil. They become involved in the story because they consider the goblins their enemies and because Gandalf had at one time helped their leader, but they won't give Thorin & Co. a lift all the way to where the woodmen live, as they would - at other times quite rightly - think that the eagles were there to prey on their livestock; the same thing that the wolves did. So from the woodmen's perspective, I'm not at all sure that the eagles and wolves appear as particularly different in terms of ethics. The Lord of the Eagles, by the way, is also known as the Great Eagle, who I'm sure must be a colleague of the Head Beagle.

The conversation the dwarves have with Gandalf over Bilbo is interesting because as near as the reader can tell, the dwarves are right: Bilbo really has been pretty much completely useless, and it isn't at all clear why Gandalf recruited him for the job at all. It just seems strange that Gandalf is so insistent on him coming along. I don't know if we're intended to think that Bilbo is really a Proper British Gentleman®, who might not get off to the best start but can be trusted to Muddle Through™ and keep his Chin Up, Old Boy™ because he's a Dashed Good Egg Really™ or something, or if it's just that he's the protagonist and that's it. Certainly the profession of burglar doesn't sit very well at all with the solidly civilized, middle-class Mr. Baggins, whose class credentials are enhanced in this chapter when we learn that he isn't even of any use in preparing food since he's used to having his meat delivered to him by a butcher, not having to butcher the animals he eats himself.

But the story moves on: the nickel-and-dime dragon-hunting operation stumbles from one random encounter to another. Next time, a rural interlude.

Feb 3, 2014

Let's Read Tolkien 5: Riddles in the Dark

When Bilbo opened his eyes, he wondered if he had; for it was just as dark with them shut.

We left Bilbo lying out cold on the floor of one of the goblins' tunnels. It has to be said that one possible reason for the complete lack of female characters in the story is that in traditional patriarchal and heterosexist terms, Bilbo has been playing the female lead: so far, his accomplishments are pretty much limited to screaming, fainting and being carried around. When he wakes up alone in a dark underground tunnel, however, Tolkien reminds us that this isn't quite as terrifying a situation for Bilbo as it might be for us. After all, hobbits live in tunnels, and eventually, cheered up a bit by the thought of having a blade from fabled Gondolin with him, Bilbo gathers his wits and gets moving. Oh, and incidentally, happens to accidentally come across the One Ring to Rule Them All. You know, ash nazg durbatulûk, ash nazg gimbatul, ash nazg thrakatulûk agh burzum-ishi krimpatul and so on.

Of course, at this point we have no idea that that's what Bilbo just found lying around on the floor of the tunnel. As far as I know, neither did Tolkien. Later, in the Lord of the Rings, Tolkien develops a sort of theology of the finding of the Ring, which I'll go into when I get to it. it involves questions of what, exactly, luck and things that happen "by accident" are. But it's interesting to consider whether any notion of these things can be found in the Hobbit, especially in this chapter. I do use the word "theology" quite deliberately, as it bears reminding that Tolkien was a devout Catholic and expressed his faith in his writing. Ultimately the questions of luck and accident that Tolkien comes to deal with in this context later are so fundamental to faith that I don't think it's unreasonable to look for some unformed notions of his later ideas, as it were, here.

So Bilbo decides, quite reasonably, that the only way out is forward and sets off. And onward and downward along the tunnel he goes, past a plethora of side passages until he walks right into an underground lake. I love the way Tolkien sets the scene here as Bilbo makes his way further down, into the mountain. All the stuff about the "original owners" of the caves the goblins inhabit and the things "that have sneaked in from outside to lie up in the dark" is as good as anything by Lovecraft. Especially when one of those things comes paddling across the underground lake, its eyes glowing like witchfires in the dark: Gollum.

In terms of the larger story, especially the Lord of the Rings, this is a pretty heavy chapter: Bilbo gets his hands on the One Ring and meets Gollum. This basically sets the scene for everything that happens in the Lord of the Rings, so much so that in the context of the later work, everything else up to and including Smaug himself is a footnote. The Hobbit really suffers from this kind of hindsight, and for that reason I'll leave any discussion of Gollum or the Ring beyond what happens in this chapter for later, barring a few notes.

For now, here's who we meet:

Deep down here by the dark water lived old Gollum, a small slimy creature. I don't know where he came from, nor who or what he was. He was Gollum - as dark as darkness, except for two big round pale eyes in his thin face. He had a little boat, and he rowed about quite quietly on the lake; for lake it was, wide and deep and deadly cold. He paddled it with large feet dangling over the side, but never a ripple did he make. Not he. He was looking out of his pale lamp-like eyes for blind fish, which he grabbed with his long fingers as quick as thinking. He liked meat too. Goblin he thought good, when he could get it; but he took care they never found him out. He just throttled them from behind, if they ever came down alone anywhere near the edge of the water, while he was prowling about. They very seldom did, for they had a feeling that something unpleasant was lurking down there, down at the very roots of the mountain. They had come on the lake, when they were tunneling down long ago, and they found they could go no further; so there their road ended in that direction, and there was no reason to go that way - unless the Great Goblin sent them. Sometimes he took a fancy for fish from the lake, and sometimes neither goblin nor fish came back.

If I said in the previous chapter that the goblins are hardly introduced to us as pure videogame villains, here that notion is completely subverted: how can you not feel a little bad for the goblin sent to fish in Gollum's cold lake at his master's whim? Here's something the previous chapter's villains are scared of.

The description of Gollum is just excellent. Really, there's almost a horror aspect to this, especially as Gollum spots Bilbo and glides out from his island on a little boat, in complete silence, curious as to who Bilbo is and anticipating that he'll make a very tasty meal. Having said this, though, when Bilbo finally spots Gollum, what breaks out is a conversation. It's interesting that as dangerous as we've seen the world Bilbo travels through is, it's remarkably civilized in that so far, everyone but the storm giants has at least had the courtesy of talking to people they meet, no matter what their ultimate intentions may have been. The giants, we can imagine, just didn't notice the poor shivering dwarves. So it isn't really surprising at all that Gollum and Bilbo should have a reasonably civil conversation; unless, that is, one has subscribed to the vulgar interpretation of Tolkien's stories as morally unambiguous orc-murdering epics. I realize I keep going on about that, but frankly, it's always annoyed me.

A startled Bilbo quite politely introduces himself to Gollum, blade prudently in hand, and a combination of curiosity and unease with the elven dagger makes Gollum positively convivial. He suggests a game of riddles:

Riddles were all he could think of. Asking them, and sometimes guessing them, had been the only game he had ever played with other funny creatures sitting in their holes in the long, long ago, before he lost all his friends and was driven away, alone, and crept down, down, into the dark under the mountains.

There's characterization in a sentence for you.

The two of them riddle away, with high stakes: if Bilbo wins, Gollum will show him the way out, but if Bilbo loses, Gollum eats him. They both exchange fairly similar riddles, with Gollum's usually having rather darker themes than Bilbo's. A few times Bilbo is saved by what seems to be pure luck: when he can't guess that the answer is fish, one jumps out of the lake at him, and when he tries to beg for more time he inadvertently gives the correct answer. Lastly Bilbo wins the entire contest by muttering "What have I got in my pockets" out loud, which Gollum can't guess. Defeated, he agrees to show Bilbo the way out, only he just has to pop back to his little island for a bit.

Of course, Gollum's plan is to fetch his magical invisibility ring, murder Bilbo and eat him. He doesn't find "his precious", though, and has a bit of a fit over it. Bilbo hears Gollum screaming about what it has in its pocketses and decides to slip the ring onto his finger. He's rather surprised when Gollum charges right past him, and realizes the ring he picked up earlier is indeed Gollum's magical ring of invisibility. He then follows the enraged Gollum to the exit of the cave, and after a tight squeeze makes it out into the sunlight. So in the end, Gollum did do what he promised!

**

Let's sum up. First Bilbo falls down and knocks his head, both basically by chance; they were being pursued but no-one was making an effort to knock him out. He's then left behind in the fighting and missed by the goblins, purely by luck as he's unconscious at the time. As he's recovering his wits, he tries to light his pipe, which the narrator points out really doesn't seem like a good idea, but luckily he's lost his matches. He then sets off further into the caves, and luckily doesn't get eaten by anything until he runs into Gollum. He gets lucky three times with the riddles, and the ring he lucked into finding saves him from Gollum and eventually gets him out of the caves altogether.

In the context of the story, this string of lucky coincidences is believable and makes an amount of sense, even. Tolkien will return to this theme of luck in the Lord of the Rings, so I'm leaving this summary here for later reference. But to answer my question: is there some notion present here that maybe this sequence of events is more than a fairy-story telling of a hero's customary luck? I have to say no. I didn't really see any signs of Tolkien's later "theology of luck" here.

In more general terms this underground escapade is the first time we see Bilbo venturing out on his own for a longer stint as something other than baggage for the dwarves, and through luck he in fact does quite well. I'm sure psychoanalytical types would make much of this journey deep underground and all it signifies, but I'd really rather not. Certainly it marks an important step in Bilbo's personal story. And at this point that's really all it is. On re-reading this chapter, there's very little to hint at any of this being any more than an interlude in Bilbo's story: he's met adversity, prevailed and been rewarded with a magic item; an item whose origins are a mystery, and the history of its previous owner even more so. Said previous owner is also left screaming Bilbo's last name in a vengeful rage, so there's something there to hang a sequel on. Having said that, though, this is definitely a part of the Hobbit that's very much worth reading on its own merits, not just as a "prequel" to later events.

Jan 20, 2014

XCOM: Hidden Potential and Not Created Equally

We got ourselves XCOM: Enemy Within, and we've been enjoying it. I really like the new options for "modifying" your soldiers, and the Exalt missions are an interesting change of pace; what I'm disappointed in is that the main story still centers on the hugely boring alien base and the frankly appallingly tedious final mission. Would it really have been too much to ask for those to be improved? Preferably improved a lot?

I do also have to mention one particular gripe: the random soldier specializations. I'm currently playing a game where I have two heavies, one support and ten snipers. Ten. It's fucking ridiculous, and makes the game much more difficult than it should be. XCOM snipers are exactly like wizards in most tabletop RPGs: they're useless and vulnerable at low levels, but once you get them going they're incredibly powerful. Only how do you fight with a squad that consists entirely of low-level snipers and rookies? It's not impossible, but it is frustrating, especially when the rookies level up...into snipers. Which, by the way, makes it really hard to get your hands on enough Meld to turn them into mechs, too.

Surely it wouldn't be impossible to weigh the odds of a given class being rolled up based on your existing roster. It would stop complete stupidity like my current lineup from happening.

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One of the things we really liked in the new Enemy Unknown were the Second Wave options. I never got around to really giving Not Created Equally and Hidden Potential a proper shot, but now that I'm playing Enemy Within, I was considering whether they're worth it or not. I have to admit that Not Created Equally scared me, because the average XCOM rookie is so completely useless as it is, and I had visions of getting soldiers with even worse stats. So I did a little math, and because I couldn't find these numbers with a quick Google search, I thought I'd share.

Not Created Equally

The basic rookie has an Aim of 65 and a Will of 40. With Not Created Equally, these values are rolled randomly, with Aim being somewhere between 50 and 80, in five-point increments, and Will between 25 and 59. So basically your average Not Created Equally rookie will have an Aim of 65 and a Will of 42, meaning they're ever so slightly better than the cookie cutter guys. There's also a 1/3 chance they'll have slightly lower movement, and a 1/6 chance it'll be one point higher and another 1/6 for two more points, so that also averages out better than normal.

So based on that, Not Created Equally is theoretically worth taking, if only for the slightly higher Will and Movement. The real benefit, obviously, is the chance of getting rookies with a significantly higher Aim than normal, which is really the only way you're ever going to get a heavy who can hit anything smaller than a building. So I guess I'll have to start picking this option.

Hidden Potential

This one I'm a lot less sold on, to be honest. Hidden Potential replaces the normal stat progression with a random increase per level, so I calculated the average increases for Aim and Health per class and level in the defsult system and Hidden Potential. Will increases are unaffected.

For the assault class, their average Aim and Health increase per level are normally 3.4 and 0.6 points, respectively. With Hidden Potential these change to +3 and +0.5, so the assault class guys get screwed.

Heavies have a dismal average Aim increase of +1.4 per level, which drops to an average of +1 with Hidden Potential, while health progression is unchanged. So heavies get screwed too.

Snipers benefit slightly, replacing an average Aim increase of +5.7 with +6 and bringing their health progression in line with the non-heavy classes at +0.5 rather than the default +0.4.

Support soldiers get better Aim (+4 vs +3.6) at the expense of lower health (+0.5 vs +0.6). MEC troopers clearly benefit, getting +3 Aim per level rather than the old +1.4, but their health progression has dropped as well.

What makes this slightly more complicated is that Hidden Potential also gives each soldier a 20% chance of increasing their Movement stat by 1 per level (10% for heavies). So the average soldier will have gotten an additional point of movement by the time they make Captain. Without Hidden Potential, movement never increases.

So to sum up, Hidden Potential gives you faster troops and better snipers, at the expense of your heavies and assault guys. In my opinion, this comes down to playing style and the vagaries of class generation. Personally, I don't like it. Although my current game would be better off for it!

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One area where I think XCOM could do with some more depth is injuries. Right now, being wounded just takes your soldiers off missions for a while, unless it's a critical wound, in which case they lose Will permanently. I'd prefer a more nuanced injury system, where badly hurt or critically wounded soldiers would get a randomly assigned injury rather than the automatic Will penalty. Arm injuries could affect Aim, leg injuries Movement, head injuries Will and torso injuries Health, for instance. This would tie in excellently with MEC troopers, as augmenting a soldier would obviously remove any limb injuries, and in my opinion could remove most other injuries as well. The idea of MEC suits as a badly injured veteran's way of getting back into combat would make them much more interesting.

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As I was writing this, I kept on at my campaign, and now have two heavies and a support soldier, and will get a cybernetics lab next month, so maybe some MEC troopers are on the cards. When trying to play with a lopsided roster like mine, two particular problems stand out. First of all, recovering any Meld at all starts to get unreasonably tricky as the game goes on. One is simply not inclined to dash off into the scenery to find the Meld containers, what with Mutons and Cyberdiscs lurking around.

Also, some of the maps are still just inhuman, especially when trying to get your rookies some experience. I took three of them along to raid a landed small scout, and we ended up on the river valley map, smack in the middle of a river with no high cover anywhere. As we were deploying on the first turn, we spot a Mechtoid. Thanks to a timely Disabling shot, we didn't lose anyone there, but we were barely done with the Mechtoid when along come three Mutons and a Cyberdisc. With all three rookies dead and my best sniper badly injured, we had to get the fuck out of there. Maybe if everyone had dashed into the trees on the left on the very first turn, we could have dealt with the situation. Or maybe we would have run smack into the Cyberdisc. Note that the reason I had three rookies was that I desperately needed other classes than snipers. No way am I assaulting the alien base without a medic. But with only low cover available, we just got slaughtered.

In the situation I find myself in, with the RNG constantly sticking me with snipers (I lost a bunch, only to get new ones instead of classes I'd actually need) and little or no Meld to go around, even without excessive gene modding, it's incredibly difficult to level up rookies. Thank Yog-Sothoth for EXALT. I'm in no hurry to raid their base.

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Anyway, there's a bunch of random XCOM thoughts for you. Remember: pick Not Created Equally but give Hidden Potential a miss, and give your covert operative Mimetic Skin. If not for how incredibly boring both the alien base and especially the final mission are, this would be an incredibly good game. At least they've got things to fix for the sequel.

Dec 16, 2013

The 2013 Brooks Orpik Hypocrisy Award

Well this one is easy. Just click here.

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The Brooks Orpik Hypocrisy Award is given by the writers of this blog to the sportsperson responsible for the most preposterously hypocritical comment or action of the year. Previous winners:

2012 - Brendan Shanahan, Department of Player Safety, NHL
2011 - Mario Lemieux, Pittsburgh Penguins, NHL
2010 - Lewis Hamilton, Vodafone McLaren Mercedes, F1
2009 - Brooks Orpik, Pittsburgh Penguins, NHL