Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Crusader kings 2

I love Crusader Kings 2. Its a game that manages to capture my imagination and intention like few others. Set in the Medieval era, just in time for 1066, you can take control of any christian baron, duke, king or emperor you choose and follow their fates for the next 400 years. The trick being that instead of controlling territory, you are in charge of a family line. When the character you control dies, you take control of their heir, provided that said heir is of your bloodline. If you happen to get all your blood line disinherited of your current holdings, then its game over.

Making your blood line even more important, how well your kingdom will do depends on how competent your ruler is, which will depend on a combination of their genetics and their upbringing. A just midas touched Baron will do lot better than a drunken homosexual dwarf. I have, in the past, deliberately murdered one child because he was too deeply incompetent to rule. On other occasions I have desperately wished for my character's death as their kindgom falls apart before them.

Crusader kings 2 plays out over a map of Europe, and while it does technically play in real time, you can issue as many orders as you like with the game paused, and control the speed at which the game goes. During quiet times you'll have it on full speed, and years will zip by, as you make marriage arrangements and choose who should be educating your child. Other times you'll slow the game right down as you fight in a mighty conflict with the holy roman empire (pro tip: try to avoid doing this). War is another of the games wrangles. You can't just declare war on who you'd like. You have to meet certain conditions, and even then if you cannot summon a reason to invade another region (usually you having a claim on that land) you won't be able to. For instance, if you are a duke who wishes to extend the land you possess, but the king has managed to get up your nation's crown authority to high crown authority. Well that forbids you from attacking anyone from the same realm, so tough luck, unless you want to war with neighbouring regions. Of course, you can always try and declare independence from your monarch...

The final major innovation CK2 brings is that you simply cannot control everything. No matter how competent your ruler, you can have at most around 10 counties under your direct control before you start getting severe penalties. In addition, one of the easiest ways to get land under your influence is to grant some land to someone of a lower rank, then pursue their claim on a different place: such ways allow you to absorb counties if a duke, or duchies if a king (or kingdoms if an emperor, but this is rarer). What you'll end up with is a core of counties you directly control, and provide you money, and many more counties that grant you no tax, but are under your rule, and will raise forces if you demand it. However, each of these vassals have to be kept happy, and all of them will want to expand their own domain. Make some bad choices, or simply have your ruler die and be replaced by someone no-one likes, and suddenly your domain will be racked by revolts, which you may not be able to win.

Crusader Kings 2 is a cruel and unyielding game, that never gets easy. If you choose to be a tiny baron you can be bullied by anyone, and will be always poor, but if you choose to be a mighty emperor you will have to meet the demands of hundreds of vassal or face utter collapse within minutes. This demanding nature makes it utterly compelling, and wonderfully fun. So far I've taken a Scottish Duke to ruling the United Kingdom (and, briefly, Norway), and a French idiot count to becoming Emperor of Francia, encompassing France, Spain, Norway and the United Kingdom... well until a couple of bad decisions meant I lost France and Spain, leaving the Emperor of Francia inexplicably being England, Scotland and Norway.

Its remarkably fun, and if you enjoy strategy games, I strongly recommend it.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Some thoughts on Assange, justice and the left

It's hard to judge a political faction you are not a member of. Both the left and the right wing in this country are big, floating entities that to assign them a personality is probably a fools errand: see the squabbles between Nadine Dorries and Lousie Mensch, both tory MPs who I disagree with, but also who disagree with each other.

So when I start to criticise an amorphous group of people, take it with a pinch of salt. That all said, I have begun to get infuriated with certain elements of the left. One key insight that those on the left have or have been made aware of, is that the notion of any country as the "good guy" is needlessly simplistic and plain wrong. In particular, thinking of Britain and the US as champions of democracy across the world is to ignore history, even of the last few decades. Both the US and the UK have taken part in actions which have deliberately destabilised or destroyed democratic regimes across the world, because said regimes do not agree with "our" interests. The US, for instance, armed and trained the Taliban in Afghanistan, and even, it has been argued, recreated the idea of jihad in the islamic world. Britain was involved in removing the previous democratic rule in Iran, leading to the religious fundamentalism terrorising the nation today.

A lot of famous intellectuals on the left, such as Chomsky and Pilger have spent a fair amount of time uncovering this sort of hypocrisy, and this is valuable work. After all, we cannot hope to live in a fair and equal world if our own nations are not fair and equal themselves. The problem comes from the moral relativism which springs up from this.

Simon Jenkins, in a recent comment is free article, pointed out that criticising Russia for imprisoning Pussy Riot (who should probably get a little kudos for getting that name mentioned in every media outlet across the world..) was a bit rich coming from the UK, which has committed multiple legal wrongs recently. This is no doubt true: there are problems we need to be dealing with here. But this doesn't make Russia right! Similarly, just because Britain has some dark actions in its past, it doesn't make tin pot dictators in South America and the middle east paragons of virtue. There are reasons not to militarily intervene in a particular situation, but its not as easy as saying, as some on the left do, that "we're just as bad". We categorically are not! Maybe the UK isn't the good guy, but it certainly isn't the bad guy either.

Such either or thinking can creep into many debates. The most obvious recent example is Julian Assange. He was responsible for wikileaks, which most people (on the left at least) think is a force for good, exposing secrets where they should not be. The response of the US to this has not been great, in particular treating Bradley Manning, who was responsible for much of the data leaked in a reprehensible manner. Manning was kept in cruel conditions without charge for excessive periods of time. How this is a fair or proportionate punishment is not clear, and it is a huge blemish on Obama's presidency (most of the blemishes, to my mind, are the failures to curb the US's international behaviour, making Obama's peace prize look even more nutty than it was when he was first given it).

If Assange were to go to America, it is possible that he'd get treated in a similar manner. Of course, there are some who argue he would not, as he is not a member of the US military, and that his behaviour amounts to free speech, something the New York Times also exercised. There are no doubt those in the US who would like him to have the treatment of Manning, certainly. Of course, he would need to be in America for any of this to matter.

Now we come to the events of the last few years. I will recount the facts as I know them, from some reading of various online sources, both pro and anti Assange. There may be some slight mistakes on specifics below, and I apologise for that: I am not aiming for an exact account of events, and I encourage anyone wanting to do so to look into such matters themselves. On my facebook wall I've posted a link to some useful articles, I might try and gather them together at some point in the future.

So, Assange was in Sweden for a while, and, while there, had sexual relations with two women. Said women alleged, a little after the fact, that he had sexually assaulted them. Specifically, that he had had sex with one while she was asleep, that he had sex with both without a condom. In particular, this is an allegation made by one of the women:

“Mr Assange wanted to insert his penis into her vagina, but she did not want him to do that as he was not using a condom. She therefore squeezed her legs together in order to avoid him penetrating her. She tried to reach several times for a condom which Mr Assange had stopped her from doing by holding her arms and bending her legs open and trying to penetrate her with his penis without a condom”.

[there are additional documents which apparently go on to say that after a while Assange did put the condom on and she agreed to sexual intercourse ]

So yes. The investigation continued, although at a somewhat slow rate. At one point Assange chose to leave the country, sought permission, and left. Some time after being in the UK, Sweden requested that Assange return to be charged. Note that Assange has yet to be charged with anything. However, as he needs to be arrested in Sweden before he can be charged with anything this is not terribly surprising.

Assange does not wish to be tried in Sweden. He claims this is because if he were to go to Sweden he would face extradition to the United States. He fought against being extradited Sweden all the way to the high court in the UK. When this failed, he sought aslyum with Ecuador. Anyone in fear of persecution can submit to asylum, it is then up to the host country to determine whether they will grant asylum. As I understand the UN laws as such, they have an obligation to grant asylum if said individual is truly in danger of unfair persecution. Of course, Ecuador isn't exactly known for its upholding of human rights. Ecuador has now decided to grant said asylum, after the UK made a silly threat (and it does read as a threat, as far as I see).

As far as I can tell, it is harder to extradite someone from Sweden to the US, because permission must be sought from Sweden and the UK. Neither will grant this when the death penalty is being sought, although of course the US could make a guarantee to that effect and then imprison Assange for the rest of his life, which I imagine he wouldn't be happy with.

One might wonder why the US hasn't just made an extradition request while Assange was in the UK, to which there isn't really an answer as I understand it.

This is all a bit of a mess, and it really doesn't help it when people draw a big line and claim that it is all about wikileaks. Well, no, Assange has been accused of sexual assault, and we should treat that seriously. Its really not for us to determine his guilt, that will be for Sweden's justice system. Its possible for someone to be the founder of wikileaks and a sexual offender. After all, sexual offences happen with a disturbing frequency in modern society, to the point where it is reasonably probable that we all know people who have been assaulted, and people who have done the assaulting.

Its hard not to lose respect for people who defend Assange with their blinkers on. When you are on the same side as George Galloway perhaps its time to get a little worried.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Closing vs Opening

So I put a number of rather snarky comments about the closing ceremony, and some rather postive ones about the opening ceremony. What was the difference? Superficially, they involved dancing, spectacle, celebrating aspects of British culture and music.

Well the opening ceremony had a fairly clear theme and story to it. At each point in the show you could see what it was getting at, and what it was getting at was a message that doesn't get told much: Britain is pretty great actually. It told, through short and long vigenettes several great chapters of our history, and managed to celebrate literature, the NHS, in a clear, well told manner. It had a pretty great selection of musical choices, and was, rather importantly, about everyone. Yes there were some big names (and Paul bloody McCartney at the end), but they were actually part of the crowd of people.

The closing ceremony? Well it was chaotic. Deliberately so, but it made it messy. Batman and robin as an only fools and horses reference. A giant octopus surrounding fat boy slim. Russell Brand singing the song from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory? A bloke on a tightrope walk shook the hand of a puppet that caught on fire. Wha? It was baffling, and messy, and at some points poorly organised. The musical choices were odd, and the repeat of 5 songs while the athletes came out was just inexcusable really: it felt cheap.

And of course it was a celebration of celebrity culture. Each act took their turn to come on, do their thing (two songs), and then the show would sloppily transition to the next act. Who follows always look on the bright side of life with Muse? A musical montage of David Bowie to celebrate British fashion? It felt like someone had a dartboard covered in ideas about Britain and determined the line up that way.

oh well. The opening ceremony surprised me by being brilliant, and the olympics, despite the many problems in their organisation and culture, turned out to be pretty good fun. A shame the closing ceremony ended everything with a whimper.

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