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The Good Place S1&2

Yesterday I forked my sleep schedule by bingeing all of The Good Place. It's a really enjoyable show; more so if you haven't been spoiled, but even then the humor shines. It's immensely funny, but less a comedy than a locked-room mechanism epic, one that eschews metaphorical allegory and goes for surprisingly enjoyable hyper-explicitness. Recommended.

Just saw Black Panther

I think the word I'm looking for is unapologetic. Deservedly, beautifully, straightforwardly, why should it be otherwise? so. And indeed no reason at all.

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The Black Monday Murders #8

Just when you think it can still delight you but won't surprise you... Dammit. I have suspicions under my suspicions, but in either case... well played.

And what the hell are Netflix and HBO doing that they haven't bought Hickman's tales already? The zeitgeist is just right for a The Black Monday Murders series, a Pax Romana mini, and, of course, East of West, the socio-ethnically diverse, worldbuilding-ly creative, visually stunning post-Game of Thrones epic.

In the current state of the States, can you imagine a more immediately resonant Rorschach of a story?
Steam Power and Sea Power: Coal, the Royal Navy, and the British Empire, c. 1870-1914 (Steven Gray, 2018/#7): The thing about steam power for warships is that it's much better than sail, but it requires a hell of a logistics infrastructure to keep your ships coaled. Specially if you, like the Royal Navy, insist on using insofar as possible only the best coal. Luckily for the Royal Navy, that turned out to be Welsh coal (with some New Zealand coal a close second) — it burns hotter, handles better, generates less soot and a cleaner, less revealing smoke — something they discovered through a continuous very deliberate set of experiments with every type of coal in the world they could try (I'm reminded of the biological crossover experiments attempted in the Imperial Botanical Gardens, particularly their very serious research program regarding tea and India). That was a stroke of geological/geopolitical luck, but it did mean setting up and defending (the urgency of which didn't really occur to them institutionally until the 1880s or so) a literally global network of coaling stations. Unlike every other fleet, they had then independent, reliable access to coal that couldn't easily be denied by enemies (the American Great White Fleet suffered quite the embarrassments during their world tour — great technology, but poor global logistics — and the Russian fleet during their war with Japan was heavily harassed and slowed down by the British' hampering of access to their coal resources), which proved helpful up to and during the First World War (that said, during war the technology moved towards oil, which is even more convenient but has a different geopolitical footprint, which left the British wrong-footed compared to the American, and led to, e.g., the Anglo-Persian Oil Company and derived... happenings). Besides an interesting and at times detailed look at the logistics and geopolitics of the infrastructure underlying coal (as the saying goes, amateurs study tactics, professionals study logistics (but if they ignore sociology then they end up in unwinnable quagmires... but that's a different issue)), as well as the coaling stations as "places of Empire" where sailors would interact with their peers (hierarchies of rank and race: as important to the British as you'd imagine), places, cultures, etc. Quite interesting.

Teutonic Knights (William Urban, 2018/#8): The author is something of an apologetic, and has a somewhat conservative approach to both society and historiography, but the topic is interesting enough. It's fascinating how the Order shifted from the Holy Land to Prussia almost by a series of accidents, and the lights its successes and failures shine on the rest of the Middle Ages; it was never a major player, but it could be a revealing one.

Secretaries and Statecraft in the Early Modern World (Ed. Paul M. Dover, 2018/#9): A collection of articles on informal proto-Prime Ministers, chancellors, highly-placed scribes, etc., from the Mughal court to the Spanish one. Less a survey than a sampling, and with a strong emphasis on the mechanics of paperwork and information flow (specially in terms of what we call foreign relationships). Recommended (and, to my more-ignorant-than-usual eyes, revealing about the Persianate cultural ecumene, to mix cultural reference frameworks). Quoth that Games of Thrones scene, *power* is power, but even under Early Modern frameworks of political legitimacy, the increasing complexity of economies and armies made more sophisticated systems of information management useful to the sovereign, and that of course could be turned into some degree of conditional personal power (a procedural version of the familiar model of the bourgeois-monarchical alliance). The contemporary political and even psychological analogies are obvious, if not necessarily linear.

The House on the Borderland (William Hope Hodgson, 2018/#10): An earlier, slightly less unhinged, more Stapledon-ish, and more English Lovecraft. This tale is told a bit more cleverly than it looks at first, and it's perhaps significantly more ambitious in weirdly throwaway ways — plenty of weird things happen during its short span, each enough to build a story on, none of them really fully explored. Not an astoundingly good book, but an interesting one.

In Dante's Wake: Reading from Medieval to Modern in the Augustinian Tradition (John Freccero, 2018/#11): A collection of essays; some of them are directly about Dante, but the common thread is rather the concept of literary interiority — the autobiography/confession/etc. as less reflection than construction of a self, and the ways this is and isn't possible (in a Christian framework) in the absence of Divine grace. I enjoyed the most the bits about Dante; the description of the fundamental difference between Dante-the-pilgrim and Dante-the-author — how the former can even sympathize with people in Hell even as it was the latter who *put* them there, the somewhat non-obvious for a secular reader like myself fact that, regardless of how they are described and what they say, the fact that they are in Hell undermines terminally any possible self- or other-justification — seems quite on point.

The Lone Wolf (Louis Joseph Vance, 2018/#12): A by-the-numbers, age-bound, but nonetheless at times entertaining tale about a Master Thief, but one that skips over most of his career. It's both very Pulp and rather sentimental — the skills of a (demi-)Lupin with the emotional makeup of a romantic novel protagonist. The mixture is rather weird, but the tale wasn't unenjoyable.

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*handwaves in everlasting frustration*

The interesting bit for me about the mini-arc that ended on Batman #40 was never whether Bruce and Diana would sleep together, but rather those nice four decades of melee weapons combat practice Bruce got (and Diana, although she already has decades of experience, so the relative impact is less).

Everlasting Horde Dimension is, between the time speed differential and the fact that humans don't age there, one hell of a resource. Yes, you have to continuously fight an (everlasting, yes) horde of demons, but there are periods of downtime and rest. So, in theory, whenever Batman needs a couple of decades to learn a new skill (and it took him less than that to become the first iteration of Batman from scratch) or think about a problem, he just needs to pop there and work on it in-between fighting monsters (aka physical conditioning).

And that's just cognitive time. If you can find technology that will work there, set up a small base and rotating shifts, fighters protecting a group of logistic support specialists or even researchers, a damn outpost instead of just a person or two... That'd give Batman a terrifying logistical advantage, with computers orders of magnitude faster than anything else, apparently instantaneous technological advances, decades of knowledge and practice every other week.

Bruce has put himself through worse for less of an edge. He'd totally do it. (Granted, Tom King wrote Bruce acknowledging that he could fly, he just doesn't need to, which I'm sure is something he somewhat regrets saying every time somebody cuts his grappling line. In line with Bruce's very precise if awfully impractical line about what technologies he will and will not use — a Bruce that hasn't biotech'd the hell out of himself is, well, he's *canonical*, and maybe even psychologically true, but strategic nonsense — but still, well, impractical.)(As I keep going back to: ultimately, Batman is a drag on Bruce's potential.)

(See also: Ultimate!Reed's Dome, what he did with one, and what couldn't be done with those.)

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Star Trek: Discovery S1E14

There are moments (references, of course, but also plot beats and plot beats below the plot beats, like a ghostly second heart beating inside your chest with an insidiously off-sync malignancy) that fill me with longing for the show Fuller was planning to make, one where, most likely, the Federation beats would've rang crisper, but where, most certainly, there would've been horror. What can the man behind Hannibal do with a canon that includes a mirrorverse?

Once or twice, each episode, we get an echo of that identity horror, of the way we're poisoned by words we don't say and stained by the things we do, unfocused and filtered through many a layer of CBS, obviously, but clear enough.

Perhaps it's for the best; if somebody did to Star Trek what Hannibal did to the books — and the polite thing to say is that they are different beasts, etc., but I'll briefly put on my Harold Bloom-with-lots-of-caveats-and-without-the-reactionary-crap literature-is-agon modified t-shirt and say that to in my necessarily in this case not humble opinion it's so much better at every level that it is, indeed, violently so — the backlash would've killed it after half of the first season. For all I know, it did kill it before the first episode, and we're watching the mangled half-corpse of that show, terrifying precisely whenever and because it's not.

[really depressing follow-up removed]

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The Ottoman Empire and Early Modern Europe (Daniel Goffman, 2018/#1): Focuses on similitudes and relationships as much as in differences and distance; after all, the Ottomans weren't just Islamic (rather heterodox ones at the beginning, although this changed after they took over the Sunni sacred sites) and Turkish, but they also took from the Byzantine empire not just Constantinople, but also peoples, government structures, and so on, and even, in a way, their role as heirs of the Roman empire and as the hub of the Eastern Mediterranean. The author emphasizes the adaptability of the Ottomans, a necessary trait given that at one point most of the people they ruled were Christian. They were helped in this by Islam's approach to non-Muslims in their territories, which under the more flexible readings of its tenets can be allowed to exist lightly taxed (compared to some of the Christian states they took over, specially when Orthodox ruled Latin or vice versa; the Ottomans conquered so much so quickly in part because and most often where they were fighting societies where rulers badly abused the ruled, even by the standards of the age) and in some minor but significant ways self-governed, although of course not equal to Muslims. Not tolerance in the modern sense, by any degree, but still better than what most Christian societies offered at the time. The author makes the interesting point that this sort of formal allowances given by the Ottomans to traders from Europe might have inspired some of Venice's seminal developments in diplomatic practice. Paraphrasing, ultimately the Ottoman Empire didn't collapse as much as failed to keep up with Northwest Europe, hardly an indicator of inherent civilizational inferiority when you consider that pretty much nobody in the Eastern Mediterranean did, Italian city-states included.

The Troubled Empire: China in the Yuan and Ming Dynasties (Timothy Brook, 2018/#2): A look at China during the Yuan and Ming dynasties. It's a very good book; it mixes (without overdetermining developments) ecological changes, cultural changes, economics, and long-distance interactions in interesting ways. In many senses, what we (i.e., me, a not very informed layperson) think of as classic China is really a reflection of/construct of the late Ming, so seeing how they came to be, and in response to what, is illuminating. Besides, the book begins with dragon sightings, and what more can anybody ask for?

Mediterranean Identities in the Premodern Era: Entrepôts, Islands, Empires (Ed. John Watins and Kathryn L. Reyerson, 2018/#3): Some of the essays are interesting: a look at the multiple material translatios Venetians used to define their identity, the fascinating issues of janissary identity, the pragmatics of polyglot rulership, even, to a degree, the strange "gineteadas aren't Moorish, they are *Trojan*, read the Aeneid" thing of post-Reconquista Spain, or the a posteriori troublesome in their historical echoes biological metaphors of Inca Garcilaso de la Vega); other were, I'm afraid, quite bad. But the good ones justify picking up the book.

The Chinese State in Ming Society (Timothy Brook, 2018/#4): What it says in the can. The Ming state was both absurdly intrusive (for Medieval/Early Modern standards) and quite weak. The dynastic founder's initial reorganization of spatial arrangements is fascinating as an attempt (as is his pivot from pro-Buddhism (as an orphan he lived in a monastery) to awfully suspicious of unregistered, vagrant monks), but more successful than latter attempts to keep up to date registers of who lived where, or, as tax bases changed, what was raised where and who owned what. Given the size of the Empire and the sparseness of bureaucracy — the central government's lowest functionary wasn't somebody you'd necessarily ever see unless you were part of the local gentry — mapping taxable resources was both critical and impossible; all things said, I don't think they did a bad job. Ditto when it comes to rice polders and larger common infrastructure; getting local gentry to paid for them, specially as social arrangements shifted and things became more mercantile and wealth-driven by the late Ming, was a headache. Even censorship was, practically speaking, outside the power of the late Ming, given the fascinatingly huge and pervasive commercial book sector (the size and number of private libraries, and the sheer social spread of reading as a pleasure activity in late Ming China, makes the West at the time look positively ridiculous; I knew there had been a catch-up process, but I hadn't internalized how large it had to be. The fact that schools had to first build libraries because, as gifts from the Emperor, the official books coming from the court (the Four Treasures) had to be appropriately housed is kind of funny. Another tidbit that struck me: the way some Emperors sold what were basically "monk certificates" as a way to raise extra revenue — because monks didn't pay taxes, everybody understood that this was a way to pay, as it were, all your taxes in advance, forever, so nobody took those certificates into account when estimating the monk population (as moving, non-tax-paying/corvee-able? people, monks were rather suspect). Very highly recommended.

Opium Regimes: China, Britain, and Japan, 1839-1952 (Ed. Timothy Brook and Bob Tadashi Wakabayashi, 2018/#5): Short version: the British were pretty much indefensible on this, but then, so was almost everybody else. I hadn't realized the structural importance of opium not just at the level of international trade, but also for colony- and state-building in South and East Asia. In many places it was the first mass consumption "recreational" commodity, as well as a necessary ergogenic for early forms of exploitative export-driven enterprises — more significantly, addicting (already indebted) workers in mines and plantations to opium meant that essentially work was free; this made viable previously unprofitable projects. It was so profitably taxable, in fact, that pretty much every colonial, occupation, or native regime found difficult to reject the revenues, and most did a back and forth between different forms of opium farming and government monopolies (with justifications varying between "control it because we need the money" and "control is so we can eventually shut it down"), and, generally speaking, only did away with opium for good when popular opinion shifted drastically against it. A very special mention goes to Du Yuesheng, the most powerful boss of the Green Gang in Shanghai during the 1920s and 30s, incredibly well-connected politically, and all around an slippery son of a bitch. One of the articles refers to him as "the Chinese Al Capone," but that'd only be true if Al Capone had had or controlled banks, newspapers, logistics companies, and a huge cetera.

Revolution: The History of England from the Battle of the Boyne to the Battle of Waterloo (Peter Ackroyd, 2018/#6): Another volume of his history of England; as readable and interesting as the previous ones.

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Star Trek: Discovery S1E13

A thematically and morally straightforward episode, which is something of a subversion for the series. Not better plotted that it needed to be — my quadrant for a realistic mirrorverse political system, and the science bits were "science" for Star Trek values of "science" — but everything got where it was going. More or less.

By the way, I've been thinking about Mirrorverse politics and the fact that promotion by assassination is actually what almost every political system is built to avoid most of the time. Frequent coups at the top is one thing — in hierarchical societies, death is ultima ratio — but if I were Emperor, I'd take it personally for a Commander to kill a Captain — I was still using that one!

One way to frame it is a curiously bottom-up, almost democratic one: You don't get a promotion by killing a superior. Killing a superior is basically how you postulate yourself for the job — if your former peers and eventually your new superior don't kill you, then it means (does it?) that they think you're better than the previous one. But that only works if who gets to kill whom with a chance of getting away with it is highly regulated: you can kill the person above you in the hierarchy, and that's it. Well, of course you can also kill people below you, that's what below you means, but people who do that too often (and specially who aren't good at managing potential replacements) don't get too far. It certainly selects for leaders both wary and capable of inspiring personal loyalty even in that kind of culture (not necessarily an impossibility; if somebody convinces you that they are (a) hella capable, and (b) disinclined to kill underlings w/o due motive, then it's in your best interest to see that they go far — and let's not forget that, whatever culture they have, it still seems to be an overlay on the old human/humanoid socialization complex, which means personal links matter, at least for some and some of the time).

There must also be many (old? cultural default?) rules about when (not during a battle, say) and how (not damaging equipment or generating collateral casualties); you're asserting that you're good for the ship/the Empire, and, at least in theory, killing and replacing your superior was essentially a duty.

Note that this does encourage competence, in the sense that if you're a legendary Captain, then any of your officers will have to accumulate a lot of reputation before they can consider the possibility that killing you won't be followed by a very public and painful execution for depriving the Empire of an asset. This is still probably less efficient than a collaborative situation where everybody tries their best because excellence is a hell of an status good in a post-scarcity economy — Picard can have Riker be his best in a very public manner without worrying about him gaining enough reputation that he'd risk a coup &madsh; and also terribly stressful, but not a continuous bloodbath.

(The above isn't necessarily based on the episode or the rest of the canon; Star Trek, as always, has its own patterns.)

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Batman: Gotham by Gaslight

It's not uninteresting, but the thing to keep in mind before watching it — and what tripped me at the beginning — is that, tonally although not in terms of screen time, this is a Jack the Ripper movie, not a Batman one. The violent misogyny (with a side dish of classist crap) ranges from quite nastily explicit verbal aggression to, well, Jack the Ripper, right from the beginning, and it never really slows down. And there's of course classist crap and general squalor as its own thing.

Within that context, there is a practically sane and well-rounded Bruce Wayne, a quite fantastic Selina Kyle, Sister Leslie is aces, and, well, other Dickensian stuff. And you never get the impression that the movie (or our main characters) agree with the crap.

In short: up to you.

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