Brad @ Burning Man

Follow-up: The Secret World's weird and obscure substitute for character class

I figure this deserves its own post, if only because it's so complicated, and the previous one was getting so long. Like I said, the one thing that Funcom has been really determined to say in every interview is that The Secret World has no character levels and no character classes. So what does it have? Nigh-incomprehensible complexity. After playing with it for a weekend, and reading every guide that the people who've been playing it for a month have written, here's as simple as I can make it:

If you've played any role-playing computer game since Diablo II, you're probably familiar with the idea of "skill trees." In any other game, your character class has (depending on the game) a certain number of skills that you learn as you level up, replacing earlier skills with better ones or just adding to your powers. In general, you have to either pick them in order, or they unlock farther up the tree as you go up in level.

The Secret World has skill trees, too, although they use a weird UI to disguise this fact. 18 of them at first, each with 9 powers, but every time you fill out two related ones, it unlocks another six skill trees, each of which has another 9 powers. Oh, and there are 3 more completely unrelated "universal" skill trees, with another 9 powers each: a grand total of 525 powers that you have to unlock by spending "ability points" that you earn every so many thousand XP. You keep earning them; once you fill out your skill trees, you can start filling up other skill trees ... and you do want to, for a reason I'll get to in a minute.

Those initial 18 skill trees are tied to the 9 weapons of The Secret World, each of which has two trees; if you absolutely insist on thinking in terms of character classes, I won't stop you. Each of the weapons has a DPS tree. All 9 of them also have an "other" tree: hammer, blade, and chaos magic are your tanker weapons; claws, assault rifle, and blood magic are your healer weapons; and pistols, shotgun, and elemental magic are your crowd control, buff, and debuff weapons.

(There is no stealther weapon, no weapon that grants you stealth and assassination abilities. There also is no summoner-class weapon per se; shotgun, pistol, and elementalism eventually get turret-summoning or pet-summoning abilities, but very minor ones that aren't at all class-defining. Tank, heal, and buff/debuff are your only three non-DPS skill tree types. I'm slightly disappointed; I usually prefer playing the summoner or assassin classes. Maybe some day we can talk them into adding sniper rifle and summoner fetish weapons and weapon skill trees?)

From all of the click-power abilities from both of the basic trees for your two equipped weapons (and eventually from all 12 of their advanced trees), call it your choice of roughly 20 basic and 60 advanced click powers, you choose exactly 7 to be on your active toolbar at any time: any mix of DPS abilities, the secondary abilities for the one weapon, and the secondary abilities for the other weapon. So you can, if you want, build for pure tanking (say, just the secondary trees for any two of hammer, blade, or chaos), or pure healer/support (just the secondary trees for any two of the other six weapons), or pure DPS (just the primary trees for any two weapons). You absolutely can do that, and then play it more or less like any other MMO. But you don't have to. If you are ever going to play solo, you don't even want to; you will want a solo build of some mix of DPS and other, because a pure DPS build will get you killed by the first boss or the first zergling rush of minions.

Note, by the way, that you can level up all 525 powers, eventually, and store 5 or more "builds" of selected powers, weapons, and talismans (buff/armor items that don't show up on your character), and switch between stored builds in a couple of button-clicks any time you're out of combat. There is no reason you can't spec a tanker build, a support build, and a DPS build just by fully training up at most 4 of the 9 weapons. And because of the way the XP system works, once you fully train up 2 of the starter trees, training any more starter trees can be done practically overnight.

Now the super-complicated part, and the reason why you will eventually want to train all 525 powers:

I told you how to pick your 7 primary powers, your 7 active powers, your 7 click powers. Now the passives.

See, here's the first thing to understand about the advanced skill trees: for almost any weapon, you can eventually find an attack that is almost any possible combination of plain single target or single target channeled or rectangular AoE or circular AoE or cone AoE or ground-targeted AoE or infectious multi-target; plus charge-up builder or charge-up spender; plus aggravates or confuses or buffs or heals or debuffs or slows or immobilizes or knocks down or stuns or increases crit chance or armor piercing or applies DoT or just a couple of percent stronger. That's why there are so many active skills. The reason they can say that it's level-less, or mostly so, is that the more advanced skills don't do any more damage, they just offer a wider variety of combinations.

Scattered across all 75 skill trees are a total of roughly 300 passive skills. Almost all of them are agnostic of what weapons you actually have equipped; for nearly all passives, if you've trained it, you can use it with any combination of weapons. What most of those 300 available passives does is cause something to happen when some combination of attack type and special effect type happens. You can pick any 7 of those passives to be active at any given time, and save that with your builds, too.

So not only do you have nearly unlimited ability to multi-class or single-class to your heart's content, and not only can you level up alternate builds at an astronomical speed once you level up your first build, but you have this weird "deck builder" like system of picking 7 cards from a potentially huge deck to do things like "if the attack slows the target, apply a damage over time effect, and if the target has a damage over time effect, buff the player, and if the player gets buffed, spend all charge-ups to cause a small explosion around them that injures enemies when the buff wears off." That's the obscenely complicated and tricky part.



A note about character appearance: your two equipped weapons show up on your character at all times, and they get cooler looking as they get higher level and/or more rare. (Blood magic is a gigantic grimoire strapped to your back at all times, chaos magic is a fetish mask or small shield ditto, and elementalism is a small fetish hung from your belt; the others are, well, weapons worn where you'd expect them to be worn or in your hands.) You can only equip one tier 9 active ability and one tier 9 passive ability; several of them wrap your character in a visible aura. You get your buffs and armor stats from a collection of 9 invisible "talismans" carried in your pockets or otherwise not shown.

Everything else is up to you; ordinary clothes are relatively inexpensive, with the shops in the publicly-accessible part of London having the best selection. As you level up, you also unlock a series of faction-specific uniform pieces that are entirely optional; some whole-character uniforms, some mix-and-match pieces. So other than your two weapons, and maybe some aura around you, you can dress however you like most of the time.

(PvP is the one exception; when you queue for a PvP zone, it makes you pick from one of your faction's three PvP uniforms, each of which gives either a tanking or DPS or healing buff to you. It makes it easy to see at a glance who's on which side, which matters in big fights.)
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Forbidden Lore

Against my inclination, I'm oddly attracted to Funcom's "The Secret World"

A couple of years' back, Norwegian online-game developer Funcom announced that they were making a conspiracy-theory themed modern horror MMO called "The Secret World." As someone who plays almost every non-generic-fantasy themed MMO that comes along, I was aware of it almost immediately. At the time, I could have given you a list of reasons as long as my arm why I wasn't interested, and at the very top of the list was, "I'd be a lot more interested if it weren't by Funcom." As someone who used to play Anarchy Online before they utterly wrecked the storyline in it, and as someone who had horrific experiences with Funcom's inaptly named "customer service" department back then, and as someone who has watched the ongoing debacle with Age of Conan, I start out with no confidence in them at all. None.

And as the game has gotten closer and closer to next month's rollout, the list of reasons not to play it just kept getting longer. The hardware requirements are outrageous, to the point where my couple-year-old Alienware doesn't technically qualify. It's a subscription MMO in 2012, for crying out loud. The user interface that I was seeing in screenshots and in videos is baroque, opaque, and almost completely undocumented. The quest structure I was seeing is antique; lots of "click on a contact, walk half a mile, kill ten rats, find next contact, repeat ad infinitum." The penalty for failing is a corpse run, for crying out loud. There is no team-finder or team-recruiting UI. There is no sidekicking UI to let you play alongside any of your friends who out-leveled you or who haven't kept up. By any sane measure, to have something this obsolete and hardware intensive, written to satisfy only a tiny niche audience, is a recipe for a trainwreck that I could see coming from miles away.

Last week, Funcom sent me a couple of invites to play the last beta-test weekend for free, presumably because I'm a former Anarchy Online customer. They caught me at a good time, really bored with and disappointed with where the City of Heroes storyline has gone and where it's going; I figured I'd spare them some hours just to see the trainwreck and to cleanse the palate, to make me enjoy City of Heroes even more.

I pre-ordered.

Wow, I really didn't see that coming.

Three things really ended up working for me, so much so that after this weekend, I'm jonesing for it to come back online, even though there were a couple of really annoying bugs.

Better Character Leveling than I Expected

Funcom has long hyped the fact that it's a level-less, class-less character system, but defining a system in terms of what it isn't wasn't all that useful to me. Nearly non-existent documentation didn't help. But after spending 20 or 30 hours at it, I get it now, and it's fascinating. And I cannot explain briefly how it works; if you care, I may write a lengthy reply to this journal entry to stick it into. But the net effect is that every half an hour or so of play (and they say that this accelerates, not decelerates like most MMOs, the more you play) you get another Ability Point with which to advance any of the game's 18 basic and 54 advanced skill trees; every couple of points lets you unlock the next "card" in the deck. You deal out for yourself at any given time 14 "cards," 7 clickable powers that define your attacks or support powers, and 7 passives that modify how those powers work, so that with the right combination of cards you can take any build and make it a tanker, support character, healer, pure DPS, or some combination of the above. Any time you're out of combat, you can switch to another build.

Want a different build? Because you have higher level abilities in your first build that you can use to earn XP, you can level up an alternate build three or four or six times faster than if you rerolled, which makes this the first effective cure for my alt-itis. I will, in fact, probably spec a pure-tanking built sword-and-chaos-magic first, then level up a shotgun-and-blood-magic healer for my next build, probably with a blood-and-chaos-magic third build, using powers earned from those builds, if I want to make a pure ranged DPS hand to play. No more "I'm bored with this combat role, I should roll another character" ever. In The Secret World, the only two reasons to ever have more than one character are to experience all three factions or to change your character's name and gender.

The Factions are Better Than I Expected

When I first read the description of the three player-character factions, I said, "I don't like any of these people." But it turns out that because the lead writer was trying to hard to be mysterious, they ended up doing a crappy job of explaining the three sides, which ended up being quite simple:

Lawful Good: The Templars. As one of the contacts explains to you early on, "not the Knights Templar, this isn't some bloody Dan Brown novel." The Templars' faith isn't in Christianity or monotheism, but in humanity and in the idea of virtuous authority. They operate almost-openly, lots of people are vaguely aware that there's a pan-European non-profit private security force called The Templar, who have fans and supporters in every government in Europe and much of the former European colonies. Their leadership are almost chokingly British.

Lawful Evil: The Illuminati. The only break-away faction in the history of the Templars to survive defecting; their ancestors were rogue Templars who figured out that evil keeps winning, that being good just doesn't work, that the only question was as to which evil bastards were going to rule the world, human evil bastards or non-human evil bastards? These days they're headquartered in New York, because the real power is in media, finance, and corrupt diplomacy, and corporate high-tech evil in general. The NPCs are cartoonishly evil corporate management types, and the other two factions only tolerate them because at least they are opposed to evil alien monster demonic forces, and figure to deal with them later.

Chaotic Neutral: The Dragon. A gang of Asian-headquartered cyber-anarchists, who noticed centuries ago the problem with the other two. Well, the other problem. On top of their mutual obsession with ruling the world from the top down, which is an inherently bad idea, the Dragon's head mystic (a supposedly super-intelligent, super-spiritual toddler too holy to communicate with the world except through telepathic communication with his adult handlers) has also noticed that the other two factions are too busy trying to fight evil to actually study it, and too busy weaponizing magic to try to understand it, either. So the Dragons spend a lot of time foiling everybody's plots in tiny little ways and mathematically modeling the ripple effects.

I expected to hate the Templars for being religious bigots, only to have that rug pulled out from under me; having played through their tutorial and opening quests, I find them unpleasantly bellicose and military, but not as awful as I expected. I expected to hate the Illuminati for off-line reasons but to find their breed of evil entertaining; I failed to anticipate how low down in the corporate hierarchy you start, and how much crap from evil middle management rolls downhill onto you. (Shame, they have the most stylish uniforms.) Because some of the game's early press release called the Dragon terrorists, I expected to hate them, but it's a weird kind of Taoist "do without doing" terrorism, one aimed not at civilians but at gently confusing their coalition partners against evil in order to tease out their secrets and to prevent either of them from conquering the world once the current crisis is over. I ended up really, really, really enjoying the Dragon storyline, and I did not see that one coming. Speaking of which ...

The Storyline ROCKS

Ragnar Tornquist, the lead writer on this, has said that he has wanted to write this MMO his whole life, that it incorporates every obsession he ever had ... and I am freaked out by how many obsessions he and I have in common. Much of the gameplay involves figuring out riddles and puzzles (do not play this game if you hate reading, listening to NPCs talk, and taking notes!), and he said in advance that while the game comes with in-game access to Google and Wikipedia, the more you know about science fiction, horror fiction, world history, economics, conspiracy theory, psychedelic drugs, organized crime, mythology, religious history, art history, hacker politics, and terrorist theory, history, and tactics, the more of the puzzles and riddles you'll "get" without having to resort to Google or to spoiler sites. You may have already noticed, from that list, an uncomfortably precise overlap with my own interests? I wasn't expecting him to handle those subjects as well as he did, but the embedded throw-away references keep poking me in all the best places. I could regale you with examples, but this is already going too long.

The other part of the storyline that I had very little hope for has turned out to be nothing less than amazing. When you first walk up to a quest-giving NPC, there's an animated cut-scene; each mission starts with its own animated cut-scene; each NPC also has 1 to 7 optional recorded audio bits that tell you more about the character, the area, and what they know of what's going on. I haven't seen in-game animation this good, or voice acting this good, or characterizations this fun and funny, since Brütal Legend! (And I asked people who were much higher level than me; unlike Age of Conan, they really did continue this past the starting area. Supposedly, anyway.)

So I find myself really jonesing to meet all the people and find out what's going on in the places like the small town in Maine where the ancient Mayan 2012 prophesy is about to come true, to the excitement of a few and the annoyance of the many who are dealing with Lovecraftian horror and a Sam Raimy-style zombie invasion at the same time while lamenting the extent to which the Obama administration's unexpected overconfidence in corporate solutions is complicating the response, then going on to see how the rise of fascism in the former Warsaw Pact is complicating vampire/werewolf politics in Romania, then going on to see how the rise of Islamist politics and the Arab democracy movement are complicating the lives of the occultists trying to keep ancient pre-Pharaonic horrors locked up under the Valley of the Kings, if only because the people I meet when doing so, so far, have been surprisingly entertaining.

Will Funcom support it? I doubt it. Will they deliver new content in a timely fashion, or will we be stuck running through the storyline over and over again to unlock the rest of our skill trees? My guess is the former. When things go wrong, will Funcom's customer service be friendly and helpful or the surly "if we wanted you to have it, we would have already given it to you" jerks I remember? Again, my guess is the latter. But my guess is that I can get $50 worth of entertainment out of this before then. And it's arriving at a good time, for me. So I pre-ordered, despite all my inclinations to the contrary. I totally did not see that coming.
Brad @ Burning Man

The Greek Elections Changed ... Nothing

The Greek elections this year have been my favorite news story, as most of you know. Back on May 6th, Greeks went to the polls and elected nobody; the votes were split in such a way that nobody could get enough parliamentary votes to become Prime Minister. So they had to hold a new election. Which, as I'm reading the numbers, split the votes once again in such a way as to guarantee that they can't elect a government. Here are the numbers I've been waiting for all weekend, thank you Wikipedia:

PartySeatsPolitics (US Equivalent)Austerity?
New Democracy129Right (Tea Party)Yes
Syriza71Far-Left (Socialists & Greens)No
Pasok33Center-Left (Democrats)Yes
Independent20Center-Right (Republicans)No
Golden Dawn18Far-Right (Neo-Nazis)No
Democratic Left17Liberal (Progressives)No
Communist12CommunistNo

Looks simple, right? If you treat the election the way that the rest of the euro zone wants to treat it, the way most of the press wants to treat it, namely as a referendum on whether or not Greece will live up to the austerity terms imposed on them by Deutsche Bank et al, then it's simple. New Democracy + Pasok, the two traditional kleptocratic ruling parties, have 162 seats between them, more than the 151 needed. They form a national unity coalition with a mandate to implement austerity, Antonis Samaras becomes the prime minister, and banksters all over the world breathe a sigh of relief that they won't take any more losses (right away) on their Greek sovereign debt, Eurozone finance ministers stop panicking about the breakup of the euro, the world escapes a huge worsening of the Second Great Depression, President Obama gets re-elected, and Greece turns permanently into the Haiti of Europe.

Not so fast. Pasok's Evangelos Venizelos knows damned well that if he accepts that offer, he takes very nearly all of the blame for everything that happens to Greece afterwards. The only way he can accept that offer and not have his political party completely disintegrate in a couple of years (tops) is if he can stand up in the next election and say that "nobody would have done anything different" and "everybody knew that what we were doing was right." To get that cover, he needs the main left-wing anti-austerity party to flip, he needs Syriza to accept the austerity terms and join the national unity government. Which they've said that they can't do. And that's not going to happen. It's not a terribly well-kept secret that Alexis Tsipras' whole plan for how to bring the socialists to power in Greece is to ride to Greece's rescue after the pro-austerity parties wreck it.

Could New Democracy form a right-wing coalition? New Democracy + Independents + Golden Dawn = 161 seats. But they would need not just one, but both of the right-wing anti-austerity parties to flip on the austerity issue, or they'd have to renounce austerity themselves. Highly unlikely, to say the least. Also, they'd have to get over their (entirely justified) revulsion towards making any concessions at all to Greece's neo-Nazi party, because just New Democracy + Independents comes to only 149 seats, two short. (Now you know why New Democracy wasn't willing to flatly rule out including the Nazis in their coalition.) The odds of either New Democracy renouncing austerity, or the other two right-wing parties accepting it, are basically zero. So no matter how you slice it, New Democracy can't form a government.

So then it's Syriza's turn, as second in line, to form a government. But they can't even get all of the anti-austerity parties to join them; they wouldn't even accept the Nazis as coalition partners, and they're not going to offer. Even if all of the anti-austerity parties agreed to join Syriza in coaliton, that's only 138 seats, 13 short of what they need. So they can't form a government unless Pasok flips and renounces austerity. Which they say they can't do. Stalemate. Unless either Syriza or Pasok blinks, we're right back where we were a month and a half ago.

So, what happens next? I'm not a Greek constitutional scholar, but a casual reading suggests to me that they could call more elections and hope that Pasok loses even more seats to either ND or Syriza. But there's no reason to think that that would work, and the Greek economy is already rapidly circling the drain; absence of an elected government is turning into austerity by default -- by default in the sense of "without choice" and by default in the sense of "by the Greek government utterly failing to pay its bills," without the beneficial side effect of by default in the sense of "out from under Deutsche Bank's thumb."

At least some experts are predicting that what happens instead is that the Greek President appoints an unelected caretaker government, but postpones new elections for months or longer. Given that the pro-austerity parties won a majority of the seats, that probably ends up exactly where Italy is now: an unelected government that perceives itself to have a mandate to impose austerity, to shut down all health care to anybody but the wealthy and all schools except for the wealthy and all road repair except in wealthy neighborhoods and so forth and so on, basically everything but services to the rich and salaries to the military, with every other dollar of revenue raised going to Deutsche Bank.

Greece isn't Italy. If that happens, I expect riots. Big ones. Maybe even full-fledged civil war. If you take away the 50 seats that New Democracy got for being first past the post, if you just look at the popular vote, anti-austerity parties took 52.2% to the traditional kleptocratic ruling parties' 47.8%. The Greek people have proven once before that they will not allow a minority government with military backing to hold them down indefinitely. And this time the generals and the technocrats may not even be able to count on US help. And what having a member of NATO and the European Union going up in flames will do to the global economy may end up making the banksters wish that they'd spread less fear before this last weekend's elections.
Brad @ Burning Man

This is a Bad Idea. This is a Bad Idea. This is a Bad Idea.

I just spent some time on Zillow.com, browsing for-sale listings in the neighborhood I want to move to. Wasn't finding much, so I broadened my search terms. This may have been a mistake. Because now I'm in the grip of a no-good, horrible, stupid, foolishly bad idea. And when I say "in the grip of" I mean it; I cannot let go of this bad idea.

According to city records, 3401 Winnebago Street in St. Louis looks to have been family-owned meat market, then a neighborhood convenience store, with a two-bedroom owners' apartment above it. The total square footage is huge, over 5500 square feet. It's been listed for almost three months, with an asking price of under $40k. The Google Maps photos are about a year old, and show no problems with the exterior other than a couple of windows that want to be replaced.

Here's my problem. Part of me has long wanted to own a building like this, convert the downstairs into a great room designed as a combination living room, library, and office, and hang up a shingle that says (or, in this neighborhood, more likely paint the door and windows to say) "Hicks & Associates. Secret History & Forbidden Lore. Hours by Appointment Only." Not to do any actual business out of, unless you count writing that book on secret history and forbidden lore that I've been trying to write for a decade now. Just to live in, and to look like a weird, vaguely scary sounding esoteric business, just to make St. Louis a little weirder. And if I did? Who knows? Maybe some day somebody who really needed an expert on secret history and forbidden lore might come to the door ...

$30 or $35k plus whatever it would cost to make it habitable is more than I wanted to spend, if maybe not more than I could afford. Utilities on 5.5k sq ft of space wouldn't be cheap. Those giant glass windows are vandal bait. This is a really, really, really bad idea. But it's a bad idea that will not let me go. I wonder what the inside looks like?
Brad @ Burning Man

Burn Notice: Too Much Back Story?

In about an hour, the premier of season 6 of the only show I'm watching on TV right now starts: Burn Notice, starring Jeffrey Donovan, Bruce Campbell, and Gabrielle Anwar. High on the list of reasons I worry about the show, though, is that it's approaching the point where (arguably) Stargate and Eureka ran into trouble attracting new viewers: too much back story to catch up on. If you haven't religiously watched the first five seasons of Burn Notice, almost nothing in tonight's episode is going to make sense to you.

So here's the tightest synopsis that I can come up with that will make sense.

At least ten years ago, a psych profiler for the NSA named Anson Fullerton got pissed off that there were threats to the world, and to the US, that the president wasn't taking seriously, and that none of the Three Letter Agencies would tackle without authorization. So he set out to use his NSA access to recruit his own private covert ops agency, and he did it in the most evil way possible: by framing America's best spies for horrific crimes and then blackmailing them into working for him. Five years ago, Michael Westen became one of his victims.

Over the course of the first three seasons, Michael pretended to be playing along in order to infiltrate the organization and take it down from within. He found out he was intended to be part of the support team for a sniper that Anson intended to use to bring a corrupt defense contractor to justice, one that was supporting terrorists to gin up business. At the last minute, Michael and another operative took down the CEO and his company legally instead of by killing him. After that, it took him about a year to steal and decrypt a list of every single operative in Anson's organization, and between seasons 4 and 5, with CIA help, Michael took down every single one of them.

Last season, Michael belatedly and too late realized that the head of the organization wasn't on his own employee list. Anson showed up, tricked Michael's girlfriend into thinking she'd blown up the British consulate in Miami killing everybody inside, recorded her confession, and used it to blackmail Michel into helping him rebuild the organization. After one season of this, the things that Michael was going along with sickened even her ... and she's a retired IRA terrorist, bank-robber, and gun-runner. So she cut the Gordian knot by turning herself in to the FBI for the embassy bombing. Even though she now knows that she's innocent, turning herself in was the only way to free Michael from Anson, or so she thinks. So that's where season 6 begins: Anson no longer has leverage over Michael, but Michael has nothing he can use as proof against Anson, either, and Fiona is in jail.

I honestly have no idea if it's going to be any good or not.
Brad @ Burning Man

"Lots of foreign investors, but mostly Deutsche Bank"

There's a phrase I've heard in so many news stories lately that I'm starting to twitch, pre-emptively, whenever I hear it now. Some bubble was about to burst, or some corrupt government was running out of borrowing authority, or someone was trying to finance some scam, or money needed to be laundered for some pyramid scheme. The question gets asked, "Where did the money come from?" The answer keeps being, "lots of foreign investors, but mostly Deutsche Bank."

*twitch*

There's an early scene in Casablanca where Humphrey Bogart, as Rick Blane, refuses a high ranking official in Deutsche Bank entry to his casino, saying, "Your cash is good at the bar." The outraged banker puffs himself up angrily and says, "Do you know who I am?" Rick replies, "I do, and you're lucky your cash is welcome at the bar."

This was not meant to be a welcome historical precedent. Dare I even ask how much corrupt sovereign debt Deutsche Bank owns that I don't even know about, how many criminal enterprises it finances that we don't know about yet?
Brad @ Burning Man

Anti-Gun Idiots are Going to Cost Us Everything

Last night was book-club night for me, but my hosts and I watched the early results from Wisconsin's recall efforts before we got started. Very early results: huge turnout, which usually favors Democrats, and early exit poll results showing that it was a very Democratic crowd that was showing up the polls, with a 51 to 44 (I think? I may be off by one or two) presidential preference for Obama over Romney. Almost immediately thereafter by: networks call the race for Scott Walker.

About an hour in, the network I was calling said that while urban and suburban turnout were high, what drove the astronomical turnout percentage was that rural Wisconsin voters turned out to vote in all-time record numbers. And that instantly reminded me of something, so I asked, "Hey, wait, that sounds like a gun control vote. What's Tom Barrett's record on gun control?" Quick Google search on my phone confirms what few of the national media had pointed out: voted for the assault weapon ban, founding member of Mayors Against Illegal Guns.

Fuck. You think maybe Wisconsin Democratic voters should have paid some attention to how that was going to poll, outstate, when they were picking their candidate? Because I sure do.

When we think about the stolen 2000 election, most of us concentrate on illegal voter caging in Florida, the Bourgeois Riot in Florida's Dade County where paid Republican congressional staffers used threats of violence to intimidate election judges, and the nakedly partisan Supreme Court decision that stopped the state-wide recount that Florida law required. Not me. When I think about the stolen 2000 election, the first thing that I think of is that none of that would have mattered, none of that would have been sufficient, the Republicans could have even more cleverly and covertly stolen Florida outright and it wouldn't have put Bush the Younger over the top ... if it weren't for Handgun Control, Incorporated. You see, scant weeks before the election, HCI made a huge outside ad buy, buying radio ads in almost every radio market in America including rural areas encouraging people to vote for Al Gore because, unlike George Bush who was pro-NRA, Al Gore would do something about guns.

One, that was BS; there was no perceptible air gap between George Bush and Al Gore on gun policy. But more importantly, number two, what in the heck were they thinking?

Did they not look at those ad markets' demographics before they bought those ads? Because even HCI wasn't so insular, so caught up in their own closed-off reality bubble, that they didn't know that gun control polls terribly in rural areas. I haven't looked at the county-by-county numbers in other states closely enough, but I know my own state well enough to know for a fact that if that lying ad from our own side hadn't played in heavy rotation on downstate Springfield, Missouri radio, Al Gore would have carried Missouri, and that right there would have been enough to put him over the top even if the Republicans stole Florida, and the Iraq War and the Bush tax cuts would never have happened. Thanks, Handgun Control! No wonder you had to change your name. Idiots.

And there is no excuse, in 2012, for a Democratic politician or voter in Wisconsin not to know that the only, only, only reliable way to get about 10%, maybe 20% of rural registered voters to bother to vote is to threaten to take away their guns.

Look.

If you're that anti-gun, if you're so anti-gun (and know so little about guns, or about what the law actually said) that you think that the assault weapons ban was a smart piece of legislation, that is absolutely your right. And it is absolutely your right to vote for candidates who agree with you. But if you do, and if you win? You just plain need to accept the fact that for statewide office in almost every state, and for national office, you just handed the election to the other party.

I went into last night howling for Democratic Party chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz's head on a platter for writing off the Wisconsin recall election, for refusing to put any national Democratic money into the race. Now, I don't blame her. No amount of money could have elected an anti-gun candidate as governor of Wisconsin. And the Wisconsin Democratic Party should have known that. And because they didn't, Scott Walker is going to get away with claiming that the race was actually about his economic policies, he's going to trumpet a statewide and, dare I say it, national mandate for less pensions, lower wages, no contract negotiating rights, fewer teachers, less independence for the teachers that remain, and more, more, always more tax breaks and cash handouts for the wealthy.

So, congratulations Wisconsin Democrats. Your idiotic decision to put an anti-gun candidate at the top of your statewide ticket may well have just cost us the entire US economy. I hope you're proud of yourselves.
Brad @ Burning Man

Gov't SHOULD Manage Its Finances Like a Family

In the whole argument about austerity versus stimulus, fear of unemployment versus fear of national debt, fear of printing money and inflation versus fear of stagnation and deflation, even the best professional economists are having a hard time explaining what's wrong with the right-wing talking point, "Government should manage their finances like a family! When times are tight, you tighten your belt!"

I've thought about this for a long time, and I think I can explain it a little better, because the analogy actually does work ... for certain kinds of families. Specifically, it works for families that may not be like yours. You do know that not everybody is salaried, right? There are even families that don't work for hourly wages, per se. There are families that have cyclical income. Whether you're rich or poor, you probably actually know at least one family like this. High end realtors earn little or nothing between big sales. Authors make little or nothing between widely-scattered book advances. Contractors only get paid when they land a contract. Farmers only get paid at harvest times, and the less diversified the farm, the longer they go between (hopefully large) paydays, and itinerant farm labor also only get paid their much lower salaries at the same harvest times. Seasonal retail workers make next to nothing between big holiday sales periods, whether they own the retail shop or just work in one, and for that matter, most family-owned businesses will tell you that income varies widely from month to month.

Whether those families are rich or they're poor or they're in between, what they all have in common is income that is hard to predict. It's cyclical: whether it's regular, or irregular (predictable or unpredictable), it follows a pattern of good months followed by bad months followed, somewhat predictably, by more good months (and after that, just as predictably, more bad months, ad infinitum). And so they have to plan, and spend, accordingly.

Because of something called the business cycle, the boom and bust pattern that no government or economy has ever completely eradicated, government tax collections follow the same pattern as those families. And if I can get you to think about a government budget the way a family with cyclical income has to think about their budget issues, then you'll be that much closer to understanding the argument between "freshwater" (Republican and right-wing Democrat) pro-cyclical and "saltwater" (liberal) counter-cyclical economics.

Pro-Cyclical Family Budgeting

Imagine you're a farmer or a writer or a contractor or a realtor and you just got a big payday, way bigger than last month. Now that your income has risen to that level, you can predict with confidence (as long as you ignore any pesky complaints from people who insist that there are things called "fundamentals") that this reflects a change in your basic situation. Obviously you have become much smarter, you are managing much more intelligently, you have become much more productive than in those months that didn't have a harvest or a contract.

Therefore you can do two very important things. First of all, you quit any other jobs that you're working. If your spouse has a job, they should quit it. It's inefficient. It's wasteful. Secondly, now that you have this new permanent higher income, you should adjust your spending accordingly. This is a good time to go out and invest in expensive hobbies that you've never been able to afford before. In particular, now that you're going to be earning this much money every month from now on, you need to move to a well-guarded gated community, one that hires lots of guards. Buy a lot more guns, too.

Oh, wait, that was a one-time windfall, and it will be some unpredictable number of months before you get another one? Well, the most important thing is not to give up your space in that huge house in that well-guarded gated community, or to give up your guns, because you'll need them some day. The most important thing to do is to cut spending. And since you're not working right now, that means sell your tools. You don't need to drive to work right now, so sell the car. You don't need your work clothes, either. Liquidate everything. And don't take any additional professional development classes, because you can't afford that. Times are tight; you need to adjust spending accordingly. If anybody peskily asks you how you're going to get more income without your tractor or your seed corn or your tools or your typewriter or your car or your business clothes or up-to-date professional qualifications, well, comfort yourself that you still live in a gated community and still own lots of guns; you can make them go away. And what do they know? After all, sooner or later someone will notice how thrifty and smart you are for having liquidated all of your working tools, and will invest in you.

Counter-Cyclical Family Budgeting

Now, instead, imagine that you're a farmer or a writer or a contractor and you just got a big payday, way bigger than last month. You know that after this month, or at most after a couple of months, the income is going to go back down, so the most important thing you can do is to watch your spending like a hawk. Don't use that as an excuse to cut other side-income, don't use that as an excuse to invest in luxuries. If you can put that money somewhere where you know for a fact that it'll increase your productive income later, ideally in some way that won't increase your spending during the lean months, like investing in additional training or education or in durable goods, this is really the time to do it. It's probably not a bad idea to be charitable to people less well off, too, so that people will think well of you when your income is down, but don't go overboard. Most importantly, set as much of that money aside for the lean months as you can. If you're getting an exceptionally large income and you're not setting money aside, you know that you're doing something wrong!

The next month, or after a couple of months, it's not harvest time or you haven't had a contract lately and income is down. But the good news is that you didn't spend the previous months borrowing madly. And because you didn't give up your other sources of income, you still have some money coming in. You should even have some savings. But even if the lean months last longer than the savings does, you also have productive equipment to borrow against, judiciously, and because you didn't go overboard during the good months, you have excellent credit. You'd still rather not borrow money, but you can rest assured that if you do so while your credit is good and your interest rate is low, and if you kept yourself employable during the good months and you don't sell off your tools now, you can pay it down during the good months.

Governments SHOULD Manage Their Finances Like a Smart Family: Counter-Cyclically

I don't know how many of you remember the 1995 US government shut-down? In the 1994 midterm elections of Bill Clinton's first term, the Republican Party was swept into Congress in huge numbers, and pro-cyclical economic genius Newt Gingrich became Speaker of the House, the leader of the side of Congress where all budget bills have to originate. At the time, the business cycle was roaring, in the early (and least fraudulent) stages of what came to be known as the Dot-Com Bubble. The Congressional Budget Office had predicted deficits as far as the eye could see, but actual government income rose precipitously. Analysis at the time showed that expenses were exactly as had been predicted, and income was exactly as had been predicted, except for one category. Because there was so much churn in Internet stocks, the government was taking in a huge amount of money in short-term capital gains, way more than was predicted. And so Newt Gingrich marshaled the Republicans to refuse to pass any budget unless it sharply slashed taxes. President Clinton, who was, on every other economic issue except pro-cyclical versus counter-cyclical economics, a moderate Republican, insisted instead on modest cuts to government spending, and on using the money from those cuts and the short-term capital gains tax windfall to pay down the national debt.

Clinton won, and the US made the first (and last) national debt principal payments since the Vietnam War. Republicans predicted that government would explode, that liberty would erode, that investors would stop investing because they were over-taxed; none of these things happened. At least, not until it turned out that most of the actual revenue in the Dot-Com bubble was from spending to fix the Y2K bug, spending collapsed early in the Bush the Younger administration, and capital gains tax revenues went back to what the CBO had originally predicted them to be. In other words, contrary to Gingrich's prediction (and Wired magazine's, and all of the Dot-Com fraudsters'), the "Long Boom" was, in fact, an ordinary (if large) business cycle bubble, and thank all holy gods we didn't slash taxes at the time or we'd have been even more screwed when we went back to normal levels of revenue or worse.

Because worse came. The American people elected a President who agreed with the Republican party (and with right-wing Democrats) that we needed pro-cyclical economic policies. Government revenue was down, so Bush threw away much of the income the government was still drawing by passing huge tax cuts. He also chose that time to bulk up our gun collection (huge private security contracts) and to invest in expensive luxuries we couldn't afford, like the Iraq War, while slashing investment in education and slashing the budget for repairs to the things that make us productive, from roads to ports. Unsurprisingly, as our tools and our skills got farther and farther out of date, nobody hired us.

Look. You want what the Internet calls the tl;dr ("Too Long, Didn't Read") version of this? Government should manage its finances like a farm family. And there's a farmers' saying that describes austerity politics, an old saying, one that probably goes back at least as far as the bronze age: "eating your seed corn." When the business cycle is roaring, government should be slashing spending and paying down debt and raising taxes, just like during rich months and rich years farmers know to cut their spending, pay down debt, set aside money for later, and keep looking for more income opportunities. When the business cycle contracts, governments should be borrowing all that cheap money that's out there to upgrade our tools and our skills, so that we can be competitive when the economy recovers, just like a smart farmer who kept his credit rating intact during the good months specifically so he could borrow rather than eat his seed corn.

Republican and right-wing Democrat "freshwater economics" austerians want the government to manage its finances like a family, all right. Like an exceptionally stupid family.
Brad @ Burning Man

It's like a cyberpunk "Bordertown" anthology! Scalzi et al, Metatropolis

I recently finished Jay Lake, Tobias Buckell, Elizabeth Bear, John Scalzi, and Karl Schroeder's shared-world anthology Metatropolis (Tor, 2010, John Scalzi ed), and I have only one major complaint about it: there isn't enough of it. It arguably needed at least one, maybe two more stories in the anthology to fill in some missing plot threads. What I really want is what we eventually got out of Terry Windling, et al's Borderland, et seq. Metatropolis wants to be the first of an entire series of shared-world novels and anthologies using this setting.

I'd like to think that it could happen, because in a weird sort of a way, perhaps unconscious on the part of the authors, it has a lot in common with the Bordertown series. In a very real way, the "Metatropolis" of this book is to 3rd-wave cyberpunk what Bordertown was to 2nd-wave urban fantasy. Both are collections of very relatable characters dropped into what are, or ought by all rights to be, horrible dystopias. Both assume a collapsed, closed off economy, and neither one glosses over the suffering and hard work that goes into living in a post-economic society, into rebooting an economy almost from scratch. But in both series, because each and every one of the main characters has refused to give up, and because the people who came before them refused to give up, and because people the rest of us abandoned are open to improvisation and clinging to the hope for joy, a better world is emerging, a world that even the rich who escaped the catastrophe, whether the high elves on Dragon's Tooth Hill or the corporate barons of the free-city enclaves, are starting to envy as much as they fear it.

I really want to give you as little description of the world of Metatropolis as I can, because the setting really is the main character here, and the slow reveal of how the world works and why it works that way is one of the main joys of reading it. But just to whet your whistle: it's been about 15 years since the US government, choked of all meaningful revenue, has given up on solving problems and repairing infrastructure and enforcing the law; as long as they don't bring down the wrath of the ultra-tech US military, corporations can get away with anything in their own cities. Not entirely coincidentally, it's also been about a decade since all meaningful supplies of oil have run out and the big industrial nations, like the US and China, have switched everything over to coal-fired electricity, leading to runaway global climate disaster. Miami and Manhattan no longer exist, and presumably neither do similarly low-lying cities around the world; other coastal cities have moved inland, to the extent they could. Switching from gasoline to electricity has required jobs to concentrate back into city cores, which are entirely run by the local employers. The biggest employers are big agribusiness, who use their genetic engineering patents to control high-density skyscraper urban farms that provide most of the food and much of the raw materials for what industry remains. If you aren't wanted, you're exiled permanently into The Wilds, into rural, exurban, and outer-ring suburban America where there is no food, no electricity, no nothing ...

Except that that's not true. Because for at least a decade now, various ideologically competing gangs of cyberpunks, gene-hackers, mad scientists, and homebrew engineers have been bicycling from town to town, campsite to campsite, suburb to suburb, teaching groups of survivors to convert the abandoned buildings of the suburbs into their own zero-footprint sustainable indoor grow-farms, releasing their inventions into the Creative Commons so that anybody with a home-brew RepRap can adapt them to local conditions. Co-ops, some of them merely practical, some of them overtly political, are springing up faster than the world's largest private-security corporation can squash them. And it's dawning on more and more of the people inside the cities that the people the corporations left behind are now, increasingly, living better lives than they do. Corporations and their security contractors are cracking down harder and harder for fear that this Creative Commons attack on intellectual property values will catch on, and Big Coal is leaving the US more and more economically and diplomatically isolated; their world is collapsing just as the new technologies in the abandoned exurbs are starting to make life actually pleasant.

This really succeeded where Jetse de Vries only partially succeeded with his Shine anthology. Both books try to maintain optimism that we will solve our problems, that (as the Occupiers are chanting now), "We are unstoppable! Another world is possible!", without hand-waving away the crisis that we're in right now. But the team world-building in Scalzi, et al's Metatropolis far outstrips the individual efforts in Shine, and the characters really bring it to life in ways that most of the stories in Shine didn't quite. I want more, please!
Brad @ Burning Man

Pillory Me, Too: I Don't Think Chris Hayes Went Far Enough

Those lucky few of you who care neither about the political blogosphere nor about cable TV news analysis probably don't know that Chris Hayes is getting pilloried, and may even lose his job, for stumbling over the same tripwire that cost Bill Maher his original TV show, "Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher." Over the weekend, in a panel discussion on the subject of Memorial Day, Hayes implied that not all American soldiers are heroes.

For this, he obviously must die. If you think so? Come and get me, then, too, or maybe even before you get around to him. He's a more visible target but I'll go farther than the did. I think that every American who volunteers, and then fights to protect their country, is a hero. But with a handful of possible exceptions, like the first wave of troops into Afghanistan at the end of 2001, I don't think that applies to any American since 1945.

I think those who served in peacetime aren't heroes. I think they're ordinary people who signed up for the only jobs program that Republicans and right-wing Democrats will let us have. (Look up "military Keyensianism.") That's nothing to be ashamed of; my own grandfather was, as I've famously said, a WPA alumnus. But at least the WPA built things that we can use; all our peacetime soldiers have done was stay alive at taxpayer expense. That's better than not doing so, but nothing to be especially proud of.

And those that served in Korea, preventing the Korean people from voting for the government they wanted to elect? Those who served in Vietnam, doing the same thing? Those who served up and down Latin America, defending a tiny rich white minority in those countries and their right to own the rest of the country as slaves? Those who went to the Balkans to put Islamists in power in Kosovo and neo-Nazis in power in Croatia? Those who screwed up the mission in Somalia, thus teaching bin Laden that Americans were pushovers? Those who went into Iraq to install what was supposed to be a pro-American regime, and ended up handing that country to Hezbollah? And all of that at the cost of hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of civilian lives in those countries over the last sixty years? I don't think that makes them heroes. I think it makes them dupes at best, and willing accomplices to war crimes at worst. No, I'm not even vaguely proud of your service. No, I'm not even vaguely grateful for it. I am, depending on which atrocity you served in, to varying degrees ashamed of your service. I'm just generally too polite to say so to your face.

Come and get me.

Look, that wasn't even the point that Chris Hayes was making, and if you read or listen to the whole piece, it's not hard to tell that. Chris Hayes is making the entirely valid point that, frankly, the people who most aggressively police the boundaries of "heroism," the ones who most loudly bully the rest of us into calling all soldiers heroes, are, not coincidentally, usually, outright militarists. Frequently, they're worse than that, they're some kind of nativist white supremacist; a large, visible minority of militarists think that what makes you a hero when you sign up for American military service is precisely that you're keeping all those brown people under the white guy's thumb where they belong. Not a few of them wander right up to the border of fascism. And the chest-thumpers and the flag-wavers that come out every Memorial Day to bully the rest of us into cheering all troops think that those of us who oppose imperialism, who oppose militarization, are the problem, not the white supremacists and neo-Nazis in their own midst.

And, ashamed as he is to say it, even though he's a borderline militarist himself, Hayes is as uncomfortable with the imperialists and the white supremacists who are constantly cheerleading for more US wars so we can make more heroes by conquering more and more brown people and making them do what we want, as he is with people like me.

And if the right wing gets their way, expressing that discomfort in public is going to cost him his career. Because that's the kind of country we are, now: expressing discomfort with anything that you think looks like it might be a slide towards fascist militarism is just plain unacceptable for a public figure. We are still fighting the Spanish Civil War, here in America, and right now, here in America, Generalissimo Franco (and his backers) are winning.