Binding is 10 years old. Aside from the parts that are 45 years old. And also aside from you, the player (I don’t know how old you are).

It’s a slick modern update of the top-down dungeon crawlers people played on mainframes and PLATO systems in the 70s. The classic “roguelike” (as such games were called) consists of an ASCII text world (with your character generally represented by an @), in which you explore dungeons, buy spells, and whack kobolds. They’re one of the oldest game genres and remain influential today – games as varied as Legend of Zelda and Ultima and Diablo could be considered postmodern roguelikes.

The genre’s appeal? Randomness. Early computers had limited data storage and it was actually easier to generate random worlds on the fly using BSP trees than it was to store level data. This also made the games heavily replayable – no two runs of Dungeon or Hack would ever play out the same way – and as Skinner’s 1950s work on operant conditioning demonstrates, randomness itself is addictive. What loot will the next monster spawn? Kill it and find out. Every single fight becomes like Christmas.

Binding is an ugly, degenerate roguelike at heart. You control Isaac, your mother has been commanded by God to sacrifice you, and so you hide from her in the basements beneath your house, which are full of monsters, weapons, health, and other items. If you play well, you gain power, uncover secrets, and perhaps turn the tables on your mom. If you play badly, your cat inherits your loot.

The game is both shallow and deep. While the gameplay loop is simple enough to describe in a sentence – keys open doors, bombs blow up obstacles, killing a boss lets you descend to the next level of the dungeon – the game has hundreds of different items, and it takes a while to learn what they all do. I recommend playing Binding with the Wiki open in another window so you can easily reference the thing you’re about to pick up. It’s often not the case that a pickup will be an unalloyed good – a lot of them have stings in the tail, such increasing your damage while reducing your bullet speed, or giving you extra firepower in exchange for one of your hearts. The game’s loot is also complex in how it interacts with itself. For example, the Cricket’s Body increases your weapon’s rate-of-fire, but this becomes useless if you also have Brimstone equipped, which replaces your weapon with a charge-up beam. A lot of stuff in Binding is situationally good, helping you in only one kind of fight.

Binding is unforgiving. A single wrong choice (such as wasting your last key on the wrong door) can cripple your run. Want to save? You can’t. Want to back out of a losing boss fight? You can’t. You generally don’t know what’s behind the next door – it could be six coins and a heart, or a mini-boss that will stomp your duodenum into the afterlife. This is a 2010 game designed with a 1980 mindset: the player must be abused so that he’ll become a man.

The game’s randomness can make it frustrating as well as interesting. It’s easy to get “RNG screwed” – if you only get useless and unhelpful items from the first couple of floors, soon you’ll be fighting high-level bosses using your starting weapon, which isn’t fun. And certain items seem pretty overpowered. The Unicorn’s Horn can be abused to insta-win every boss fight in the early game, except for Gurdy and Mom. But that’s also part of the appeal, in a weird way. No matter how dire things look, at any moment you might get a god-tier loot drop.

The art style is cute and gross – very “kawaii-gore”. The sound effects are downright disgusting. I don’t know how long the developer spent recording the gurgles and splutters of dying bronchitis patients but hopefully he wiped down the microphone afterwards. The monsters are revolting slimeballs that look like the internal organs evolution mercifully doesn’t allow us to see. Binding has a mid-2000s flash quality (I was overwhelmed by nostalgia by the sight of the Newgrounds logo), and the art assets were clearly designed with an eye towards modding, allowing users to extend the game with their own monsters and items. This is another strength of the roguelikes, which were so basic and minimalistic that it was very easy to spin off a fork of one and turn it into whatever you wanted.

The game draws inspiration from the Biblical tale of Abraham’s “akedah” (or binding) of his son for sacrifice. It seems to be the answer to the question “what did Isaac think of this? And suppose he resisted – what would have happened?” Although religious issues inform the game’s content somewhat, Binding mostly uses Judeo-Christian imagery the same way Hideoki Anno’s Neon Genesis Evangelion does – as a repository of cool and interesting stuff.

The Binding of Isaac is probably one of those games you either play for five minutes or five years, with little middle ground. It’s definitely challenging and “deep”. There’s no shortage of stuff to do, or ways to do it. It’s an overall nice throwback to classic gaming, and Kryptonite for people who save-scum through every game.

No Comments »

Le Camp des Saints is a 1970s anti-immigration novel that remains fresh and relevant largely thanks to the efforts of proimmigration activists. Every few months a new op-ed appears somewhere, reminding us that this book exists and is racist. Like Solanas’s SCUM Manifesto, it’s hard to defend, easy to mock, a useful thing to associate with the opposition. Voltaire said “oh Lord, make my enemies ridiculous.” Saints achieves this so effectively that it will never go out of print.

It depicts a dystopia. Overpopulation has turned the Third World into a simmering Malebolge of starvation and poverty. A sea of refugees threaten to overwhelm the West, while deluded liberal politicians tunnel holes in the walls. The crisis reaches a head when a large number of Indians (enabled by a weak, dissimulating “atheist philosopher” called Ballan) hijack a fleet and sail for France. As the armada approaches, the government faces a choice: should the refugees be allowed in? The fleet packed enough food only for a one-way trip. They’ll die if turned away.

To state the obvious, the book is indeed bigoted. Raspail does not like foreigners. They’re described as “a mass of human flesh”, “a million flailing savages”, “a river of sperm”, “unbridled, menacing hordes”, “cholera-ridden and leprous wretches”, “columns of ants on the march”, a “numberless, miserable mass”, “a welter of dung and debauch”, and more. Tolkien didn’t write about orcs with such vituperation.

Saints might be the most splenetic book to achieve mainstream success in a hundred years.  It’s written in squalling, thundering prose that seems shouted at the reader through a bullhorn. Characters are painted with one broad stroke, and usually never a second one. In the first pages we meet our first straw-man of the pro-immigration left – a white college kid who has embraced Islam and atheism simultaneously (?), is helping the refugees make landfall so they can destroy French culture (?!) and who wants to rape his sister (?!?!). But first he’s going to smoke pot and shoot dope on the beach. This character astonished me: he was like a caricature from a Jack Chick scare tract.

Saints is a queasy and miserable nightmare. I doubt many finished it, and the ones who did probably didn’t immediately plan their next re-read. But it has an intensity to it, and once you adjust to the content, it’s strangely readable. Raspail has a “Nouveau French” prose style that’s equal parts classicist and camp (“there was no lack of clever folk, willing, from the start, to spread endless layers of verbal cream, spurting thick and unctuous from the udders of their minds”) and quite amusing. It’s a book written out of passion, not cynicism, and it doesn’t make apologies for itself.

And the moral issues Saints raises are interesting and important, however much you disagree with the book’s handling of them.

Race is a stalking horse for Raspail’s true issue: overpopulation. The Indians aren’t bad because they’re Indians, they’re bad because there are too many of them. They reproduced to excess, used up all their country’s resources, and now want to take other countries down with them. This might seem a distinction without a difference, but it creates a covalence with many thinkers and intellectuals from the period, not all of whom were on the far right.

Overpopulation was much on the public mind in the 70s (and 80s, and 90s). The ghost of Thomas Malthus[1](For the record, Malthus was an original and clever thinker, but he made mistakes. His argument was that human population must increase exponentially – two people, four people, eight people … Continue reading) began stirring and rattling chains. “The population is doubling every forty years! How will we feed, clothe and house them all? What happens to the environment? We’re going to be back in the bad old days: wars, famines, plagues, deforestation. Wouldn’t it be kinder for everyone if we could…*cough*…control the population somehow?”

This is why your Infowars-obsessed dad keeps finding quotes by “elites” such as Ted Turner about reducing the population. It’s also the reason The Camp of the Saints was published by a mainstream press and read by academics, instead of “published” by a neo-Nazi farmstead with a hand-cranked printing press and “read” by the prosecution at the author’s hate speech trial. “There’s too many people, and lots of them will have to die,” absolutely wasn’t a fringe viewpoint fifty years ago, and Raspail’s hymn had many voices in the choir, although most hid their views in liberal language.

In 1968, Paul Erlich wrote The Population Bomb, full of cheery asides like “the battle to feed all of humanity is over”, and “hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death.” The book sold hundreds of thousands of copies and got its author on NBC’s “Tonight Show” and Johnny Carson. In 1995 Lester R. Brown wrote a book called Who Will Feed China? (making China sound like the monster in Little Shop of Horrors, mindlessly and ravenously eating), complete with a photo of sad-looking Chinese kids on the cover. Radical leftist Pentti Linkola spent decades recommending drastic population reductions by coercive means, as seen in his famous “lifeboat ethics” metaphor.

“What to do, when a ship carrying a hundred passengers suddenly capsizes and there is only one lifeboat? When the lifeboat is full, those who hate life will try to load it with more people and sink the lot. Those who love and respect life will take the ship’s axe and sever the extra hands that cling to the sides.”

Note that these brutal “sever the extra hands” solutions were always directed at brown people. White people used far more than their share of the planet’s resources, but somehow it was always the mother in Senegal with seven children dooming the world. It’s an uncomfortable legacy that the left has spent a lot of time grappling with since (Google “eco-fascism” for more), and if you want to throw tomatoes at Raspail, save a few ripe ones for the 70s environmentalist movement, too.

But how the years condemn. Here’s Raspail’s introduction.

I HAD WANTED TO WRITE a lengthy preface to explain my position and show that this is no wild-eyed dream; that even if the specific action, symbolic as it is, may seem farfetched, the fact remains that we are inevitably heading for something of the sort. We need only glance at the awesome population figures predicted for the year 2000, i.e., twenty-eight years from now: seven billion people, only nine hundred million of whom will be white.

We arrived at this world twenty years ago. We never arrived at all. Raspail’s vision of the future didn’t come to pass, because something happened that he didn’t expect: the Third World began rising out of poverty. The choice between saving the poor and saving ourselves never occurred: we can do both. The game is survival is not always zero-sum.

But I’m interested in the moral quandary Raspail poses. First, let’s grant his scenario. A million Indians are waiting to enter France. If they, they’ll destroy Western civilization (in the same sense that Spanish invasion of the new world “destroyed” the Meso-American civilizations). Don’t ask questions. This is the choice. What’s the correct thing to do?

I think the refugees should still be allowed in.

First, we have to be pragmatic. If Western civilization can be overwhelmed by a million people on ramshackle boats, then it was weak and wouldn’t have lasted long anyway. It might as well help some people before it dies.

Second, killing a million people is bad. And although the death of Western civilization might be worse, you’re weighing a certain bad at probability 1 (a million people will definitely die if we sink the ships), vs a maybe-bad at probability <1. How sure are we that Western civilization will be destroyed? We might have misunderstood the situation. It might be that Western civilization passes without mass suffering. The two evils aren’t equivalent. Throwing a brick blindly into a crowded shopping mall isn’t the same as throwing it in a remote wilderness, just because you might hit people in both cases.

Comparisons between Third World immigrants and Spanish conquistadors can only take us so far. Spain didn’t wipe out the Meso-American empires by flooding them with sheer numbers of Spaniards. They wiped them out with a superior technology base (steel, firearms, horses), as well as germs that the natives had no resistance to. This isn’t the case with refugees. They’re limited in their ability to cause harm. This isn’t to say there aren’t issues associated with immigration, but it’s not the same set of issues raised by an invading army or a superplague.

References

References
1 (For the record, Malthus was an original and clever thinker, but he made mistakes. His argument was that human population must increase exponentially – two people, four people, eight people – while food supply can only increase linearly as land is cleared and developed – one farm, two farms, three farms – creating a “Malthusian trap” where the population is constantly bumping against the limit imposed by the land’s carrying capacity, causing strife as people fight for resources. But technology can increase the productivity of land: each hectare of land in Britain produces eight times as much wheat as it did in the Middle Ages. Malthus assumed “two people with plows, four people with plows, eight people with plows”. In reality it’s “two people with plows, four people with combine harvesters, eight people with GMO wheat.” Furthermore, population growth is affected by factors other than available food. Countries such as Canada and United States have plentiful food and space yet a sub-replacement fertility rate. Malthus was a “hypothesize a spherical cow…” economist: making accurate predictions for a world that isn’t ours.
No Comments »

One of aviation’s great unsolved mysteries is the disappearance of BSAA Flight CS-59.

The plane – which had the call sign Star Dust – left Morón Airport at Buenos Aires, Argentina on Aug 2nd 1947, bound for Los Cerrillos Airport in Santiago, Chile. Aboard was a cast worthy of an Agatha Christie novel: two businessmen; a Palestinian man rumored to have a diamond stitched into his jacket; a South American sales agent with connections to the Romanian throne; a seventy year old German émigré; and a British civil servant carrying a “diplomatic bag” bound for the UK embassy.[1]“The Star Dust Mystery.” Damn Interesting, 2 Aug. 2015, www.damninteresting.com/the-star-dust-mystery. The plane itself was a sturdy Avro 691 Lancastrian MkIII, capable of 310mph airspeeds and 20,000ft altitudes, piloted by decorated RAF veteran Reginald Cook.

The Star Dust encroached upon Chilean airspace in the late afternoon, with radio operator Dennis Harmer maintaining contact with Los Cerrillos. Nothing unusual was reported. Then, at 5:41 p.m, Harmer transmitted the message “ETA SANTIAGO 17.45 HRS STENDEC”.

The Chilean air traffic controller didn’t understand the last word, which was neither ATC terminology nor a word in any language she recognized. She asked for clarification. Harmer tapped out “STENDEC” twice more. This was the last transmission ever received from the Star Dust. It did not arrive at Los Cerrillos, and a five-day search uncovered no trace of the missing plane.

The Star Dust remained a plane-shaped hole in history for fifty years. Theories included aliens, a trans-dimensional rift, aliens, foreign hijacking, and aliens. It became part of “vanished plane” lore along with the Bermuda Triangle – a triangle that seemingly has sixteen points and extends across 80% of the Atlantic Ocean – and (much later) Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.

In 1998 mountaineers found a Rolls Royce engine jutting from the ice 15,000ft above sea level at Mount Tupungato. It seemed the Star Dust had never properly come down to Earth after all. Subsequent expeditions by the Chilean army and air force uncovered more of the wrecked plane.

The wreckage was strewn across a narrow area, ruling out a mid-air explosion. The Star Dust’s propeller was twisted and bent back, suggesting it had been running at the moment of impact. A fully inflated tire indicated that the plane hadn’t deployed its landing gear.

We have good guesses as to how (and why) the plane crashed: it was caught inside the jet stream (a meteorological phenomenon poorly understood in 1947) which exerted backward drag on the plane, meaning it was moving slower than expected (relative to the ground) and would need to fly for longer to reach Santiago. This is similar to how a man needs to run for longer to reach his destination if he’s running on a treadmill. Which isn’t a problem…but only if you know it’s happening.

In the Star Dust’s cockpit – surrounded by shrieking snow and wind and guided by primitive WWII-era navigational instruments – the pilot vastly overestimated how far the plane had traveled. He evidently believed they were directly over Santiago, when they were at least fifty miles east. He also evidently believed they had safely crossed the Andes range, when they were plunging into its face.

The technical term for the crash is “controlled descent into terrain”[2]Pilot, By Plane And, et al. “A Pilot’s Last Words: ‘STENDEC.’” Plane & Pilot Magazine, 12 Dec. 2019, www.planeandpilotmag.com/article/a-pilots-last-words-stendec. – a fancy way of saying Cook flew the plane into the mountain. The impact buried the Star Dust in ice, but recent melt-off at Tupungato exposed the engine. There are fascinating rumors that local arrieros (high-altitude mule-handlers, the Andean equivalent of the sherpas) knew of the Star Dust crash long before 2000. [3]Maynard, Matt. “Searching for Star Dust: The Hunt to Uncover an Andean Mystery – Geographical Magazine.” Geographical, 2019, … Continue reading

Tupungato’s southwest face is deadly even when you’re not crashing into it at 310mph. Making the ascent requires skill and daring: only four independent mountaineers have reached the crash site, two of whom died in the process.[4]Ibid. In recent years Argentinian policy has forbidden mountaineers from even trying to reach the crash site. The Star Dust’s recovery was a red-letter day for Argentina – finally, some Anglo-Argentinian history not involving bombed islands or offside football goals – and they probably don’t want the crashed plane to claim any more lives.  Nonetheless, search teams have located many fragments of the Star Dust (including a severed hand from the stewardess, fingernails still painted, [5]Maynard, Matt. “Searching for Star Dust: An Epic Quest to Find a near-Mythical Plane Wreck.” Red Bull, 19 Nov. 2019, www.redbull.com/au-en/star-dust-mystery-1947-plane-wreck-quest.), and will surely find more.

But the meaning of Dennis Harmer’s final “STENDEC” transmission (if it has one) has never been conclusively explained. Contenders are legion, but none fully match the facts.

1. “STENDEC” is an anagram for “DESCENT”. If Harmer had meant to write “DESCENT”, he would have done so; RAF radio operators are trained to signal clearly, not in word games and riddles.

2. Harmer was suffering from altitude sickness or hypoxia, and mixed up his message. While this might seem plausible, it’s not easy to accidentally switch letters in Morse the way it is on a keyboard (signaling C alone requires four distinct pulses.) In any case, Harmer repeated the word multiple times; clearly he meant to write what he wrote.

3. “STENDEC” shares many letters with “Stardust”. But planes in the air are identified by registration number (G-AGWH in the Star Dust’s case), not the fanciful names assigned by airlines. Why would an operator sign off by telling Chilean air traffic control the name of his plane (which they already knew)?

4. “STENDEC” is obscure RAF shorthand for “Severe Turbulence Encountered, Now Descending, Emergency Crash-landing”[6]“NOVA Online | Vanished! | Theories (Feb. 8, 2001).” PBS, 2001, www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/vanished/sten_010208.html.. But this doesn’t match the first half of the message. The Star Dust had said moments earlier that it expected to arrive in Santiago.

5. “STENDEC” is spy code of some sort. What sort of spy code? What was a random Chilean air traffic controller supposed to do with it? How did Harmer (or whoever wrote the code) plan on it reaching its intended set of ears?

5a “STENDEC” stands for “Saturday, 10th of December”. Sounds good, except that December 10th that was a Wednesday that year.

6. It’s possible (but again, uncertain) that the word was mistakenly deciphered by radio control, due to limitations of the Morse code cipher.

Translation is easiest when two languages share all the same features, and harder when Language 1 possesses some property that isn’t present in Language 2, or vice versa. Early Biblical manuscripts were written in scriptio continua, in an unbroken flow of unmarked text.

This creates textual ambiguity, with sentences that change meaning depending on where a translator or copyist chooses to insert spaces and punctuation. For example, the Greek Septuagint of  Romans 16:7 runs A S P A S A S T H E A N D R O N I K O N K A I I O U N I A N T O U S S U G G E N E I S M O U K A I S U N A I K H M A L O T O U S M O U O I T I N E S E I S I N E P I S E M O I E N T O I S A P O S T O L O I S O I K A I P R O E M O U G E G O N A S I N E N K H R I S T O, which the King James Version translates as “Salute Andronicus and Junia, my kinsmen, and my fellow prisoners, who are of note among the apostles, who also were in Christ before me.” The problem is that the accusative noun IOUNIAN can have one of two accent marks (IOUNÍAN/IOUNIÂN), which would make it either a man’s name or a woman’s. We still don’t know the gender of this “Junia”.[7]Omanson, Roger L. 1946-. “Punctuation in the New Testament. If Only Paul Had Used the Chicago Manual of Style.” Bible Review , vol. 14.6, 1998, pp. 40-43.

Morse isn’t a foreign language: it’s a cipher for English. However, it’s scriptio continua, with all the challenges this presents. Its dots and dashes represent 26 letters and 10 numbers, but there’s no special character for a space. Operator convention[8]“Morse Code & Abbreviations.” Portland State University, 2021, web.cecs.pdx.edu/%7Ecaleb/aa7ou/ham_pages/morse_abb.html. is that spaces between letters are signaled by a pause equal to three dots, while spaces between words are signaled by a pause equal to seven dots. But if the signaler is in a hurry (or panicking), the pauses might get shortened, creating an ambiguous message that could be deciphered multiple ways.

The exact transmission was.

… – . -. -.. . -.-.

The Chilean air traffic controller spaced it like this: STENDEC.

… / – / . / -. / -.. / . / -.-.

But it could also  be spaced like this: STAREAR

… / – / .– / .–. / . / .–.–.

A typical “end of message” signoff was “AR” (with no spaces.)[9]“An Explanation of STENDEC …..” Fly with the Stars, 2021, www.flywiththestars.co.uk/Documents/STENDEC.htm., and it’s altogether possible that the sequence could have meant “STandard ARrival from East + signoff.”

This (along with other ways of re-ordering the message) raises as many questions as it answers. How did the Chilean air traffic controller misread this commonplace message so thoroughly? And how did she commit the same mistake three separate times? And why didn’t Harmer clarify the message?

In short, all explanations suffer from one of three basic weaknesses:

1) Harmer signalled “STENDEC” multiple times. This completely rules out a mistake, and makes it far less likely that the Chilean air traffic controller misunderstood the spaces. (“Tell ’em three times” is a simple but reliable error-correcting trick in communications theory).

2) Harmer had no reason to write in code. If the Star Dust had been about to crash, he would have said so. If its navigational instruments had failed, he would have said so. Explanations that rely on “deciphering” Harmer’s final transmission like a puzzle make one wonder why this is even necessary.

3) There’s no hint that anything was amiss. The retracted landing gear, the running propeller, the casual tone of the message…there’s literally zero sign that anyone aboard the Star Dust knew they were in trouble until they slammed into the side of Mount Tupungato.

The Andean glaciers are still melting. It’s possible we’ll recover more wreckage from the Star Dust, but I don’t think we’ll ever know what STENDEC means.

[Update] The mystery is solved. “STENDEC” stands for “Stop Trying to ENcode and DEcode this Conundrum.” Glad we could put that one to bed.

References

References
1 “The Star Dust Mystery.” Damn Interesting, 2 Aug. 2015, www.damninteresting.com/the-star-dust-mystery.
2 Pilot, By Plane And, et al. “A Pilot’s Last Words: ‘STENDEC.’” Plane & Pilot Magazine, 12 Dec. 2019, www.planeandpilotmag.com/article/a-pilots-last-words-stendec.
3 Maynard, Matt. “Searching for Star Dust: The Hunt to Uncover an Andean Mystery – Geographical Magazine.” Geographical, 2019, geographical.co.uk/people/explorers/item/3213-searching-for-stardust.
4 Ibid.
5 Maynard, Matt. “Searching for Star Dust: An Epic Quest to Find a near-Mythical Plane Wreck.” Red Bull, 19 Nov. 2019, www.redbull.com/au-en/star-dust-mystery-1947-plane-wreck-quest.
6 “NOVA Online | Vanished! | Theories (Feb. 8, 2001).” PBS, 2001, www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/vanished/sten_010208.html.
7 Omanson, Roger L. 1946-. “Punctuation in the New Testament. If Only Paul Had Used the Chicago Manual of Style.” Bible Review , vol. 14.6, 1998, pp. 40-43.
8 “Morse Code & Abbreviations.” Portland State University, 2021, web.cecs.pdx.edu/%7Ecaleb/aa7ou/ham_pages/morse_abb.html.
9 “An Explanation of STENDEC …..” Fly with the Stars, 2021, www.flywiththestars.co.uk/Documents/STENDEC.htm.
No Comments »