Reflections on The Road to Wigan Pier (Part 2)

In my last post, I talked about the first half of George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier (affiliate link), in which he describes the working conditions of 1930’s Britain with a particular eye to the conditions in coal mining towns like Wigan.

The second part of The Road to Wigan Pier is a compilation of Orwell’s thoughts on the situation, and an overview of socialist theory with Orwell’s own interpretations as to both why socialism was not prevalent and what would have to be done to make it prevalent.

It’s worth noting that my own perspectives differ significantly from Orwell’s, and there were very few points on which I agreed with him. This is both due to my own political beliefs deviating from his, but also probably in no small part due to the fact that several decades later many of Orwell’s predictions have become false.

Orwell’s Irony

One of the most ironic things about Orwell’s general presentation is that while he possesses the ability to be brutally honest about himself and with regards to his situation, he winds up falling into many of the traps that he sets for himself.

Take, for consideration, the fact that he describes many British socialists as “cranks” during his overview of why people are not attracted to socialism. Orwell proceeds to be quite bitter, and perhaps even more so than the people he criticizes.

While Orwell does call for a toning down of rhetoric and going from a concept of proletariat and bourgeoisie to a concept of robbed and robbers to appeal to a broader audience, he overlooks the fact that what he endorses is itself no more palatable to most than traditional socialism, bound up as it is in its negativity toward many of the conventions of standard life.

Orwell fails to really provide any example of the “oppressors” in his society; and while he argues that socialists should define themselves by a pursuit of “freedom and justice” in many cases throughout this section of the book, he fails to ever define freedom or justice, much less to give clear examples of why the socialist utopia (or, perhaps, since he is more cynical than to call it a utopia, a socialist world order) would actually be more free or more just than any other way of living.

It also is worth noting that Orwell’s anti-religious sentiment tends to bleed into his arguments; he often says that socialism will replace religion, but seems blind to his own implication that this would only work on the basis of indoctrination and supplanting the spiritual with the political (e.g. creating the sort of Soviet-style commissars that he derides in a couple places throughout the passages).

Likewise, he often actually derides people who are working for justice, like the feminists of the 1930s and charitable workers, as failing to drop everything and accomplish this socialist ideal.

A False Dichotomy

Orwell presents the future as a conflict between socialism and fascism, with no room for a middle ground. However likely that may have seemed from his perch in the early 20th century, the reality that we got is two-fold:

First, capitalism, far from being inevitably destroyed by other factors, has remained alive and well as a dominant economic force, and perhaps even has more principled idealistic adherents than it had prior to the 20th century due to the works of figures like Hayek and Rand.

Second, neither socialism nor fascism has risen to the point of world domination. While Orwell was an outspoken objector to Russian Communism (at one point calling its adherents members of the “cult of Russia”), he predicts that either we would be living in an uniformly fascist or socialist world.

Wrapping Up

The Road to Wigan Pier is an interesting book, and certainly a lighter read than Ordinary Men, the last book that I read, but its first part is certainly much more interesting than its second part.

While Orwell is a fantastic writer, I don’t believe that the same can be said for him as a political theorist. While he is sensible enough to deride trite and hollow arguments, he fails to advance anything of meaningful depth and coherence of his own behalf, at least according to my perceptions of his arguments.

Reflections on The Road to Wigan Pier (Part 1)

George Orwell was probably one of the most influential writers of the 20th century, and he had some great insights that make him an invaluable resource to the modern reader. However, despite the fame of his 1984, many people would be hard-pressed to mention anything else that he wrote, maybe discussing Burmese Days or some of his essays.

Outside of those works, however, The Road to Wigan Pier is one of his better known works, and probably his best known full-length nonfiction work. I’ve been listening to an audiobook (affiliate link) of it on my daily commute, though I’ve also read parts of it in digital format, and I’m about half-way through the book now.

Timelessness

I think that George Orwell’s prose has a particular timelessness to it, and not just because of the subject matter. He’s well known for his fiction writing because of the quality of his work, and there’s a certain tone to it that’s hard to emulate and easy to love.

The matter-of-factness of Orwell’s style could perhaps best be compared to other contemporaries; I think of Chesterton’s Heretics (affiliate link; free ebook), though I am sure that Orwell would be offended by the comparison. He combines stereotypically dry, but personal, British writing with lucid and detailed descriptions of the scenes that he found in English mining towns to great effect. The prose reads like a conversation with a distinguished professor who is also an expert lecturer: formal, but never boring.

The first part of the book details almost exclusively the conditions in the mining towns (and, occasionally, other industrial and lower-class areas) in Britain. While it makes little effort to cater to a non-British audience (it was written for Britons by a Briton, and if you don’t have some passing familiarity of where things fall in England you’ll miss some minor elements), it’s still very understandable and clear.

One exception to this is found in the intolerable pre-decimal English currency, but from what I’ve heard about it having an explanation will not make the shilling and the tuppence comprehensible to anyone who hasn’t lived through them.

One place where the timelessness of Orwell’s study can be seen comes in the notions that Orwell has about the lifestyle of the impoverished. He decries the cheap–barely nutritious–processed food, the cheap luxuries, and the intolerable rents that his subjects face, and the daily wage work that they do with little recourse for injury or protection against job loss.

Orwell’s musings echo to this day in the statements that we often hear about our own society. I don’t agree with Orwell’s politics on all counts, but I have to say that I appreciate his honesty and the earnest presentation of his beliefs, and the rationale he gives for them.

In this sense, Orwell’s work is timeless.

Tremendous Detail

Another place where Orwell’s writing shines is in the tremendous detail of the scenes and personages he portrays.

If you ever needed proof that Orwell is a masterful writer, the first full chapter of The Road to Wigan Pier–in which he describes the various inhabitants of a house that he rented a room in and the house itself–is a perfect example of how to give enough detail to create a near-perfect mental image: I suffer from partial aphantasia and even I’m able to get some picture of what Orwell describes.

It’s also clear that Orwell has a genuine interest in his subjects. He describes people in a way that personalizes them, scenes in a way that project both details and emotion, and events in a way that provides nuanced context.

I’d compare it to John Hersey’s Hiroshima (affiliate link),

Critiques

There are places that Orwell’s writing doesn’t hold up so well. He is, by his own admission, judgmental, and honestly Orwell can be a bit of a jerk. Unfortunately, he wavers between being sardonic enough to make this humorous, and just plain rude. His attacks first against effeminate poets (it’s not entirely clear whether he detests the literary elite or homosexuals, or perhaps some conflation of the two) and later against temperate religious devotees, cement the notion that one feels he would be attacked by both sides if he were to make the same comments in the current day.

In addition, Orwell enjoys over-explaining to the reader. While his prose is good enough that it carries well, he has a tendency to give five or six times as many examples as would be required, then go into further detail, as if he expects his every statement to be scrutinized.

Of course, this could be a consequence of the fact that his work would be scrutinized, but in a day and age where Orwell’s work is sacrosanct, he does not need to build up his work to survive cross-examination. Sometimes the examples are good and varied, in other places they are tedious.

Closing Thoughts

I’m looking forward to finishing The Road to Wigan Pier because it’s quite good. It’s a compelling listen or read, whichever format I’m going through it in, though it can be fairly heavy.

The first part of the book is primarily journalistic in nature (or, now, historical), but apparently Orwell makes some political and philosophical arguments near the end

I strongly recommend it.

Reflection on Ordinary Men: Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland

I have a tendency to read books which make me deeply uncomfortable with the world. I’m not sure what impulse drives me to this, but Ordinary Men (affiliate link) is one of these books.

It would be both fair and unfair to call my thoughts on this book a review. I am not qualified to critique the historical methods, factual accuracy, or mass appeal of such a book, but I can say that it is a compelling, necessary read, in the vein of Solzhenitsyn’s work.

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Spire: My Game of the Year

Normally I don’t like talking about a game of the year because it’s hard to choose one, but this year is going to be different.

This year, I discovered Rowan, Rook & Decard’s Spire (affiliate link) on Kickstarter. I decided, mostly on a lark because I liked the art-style, to back it.

I played a lot of games that I liked this year, and since I consider games for my Game of the Year based on when I play them, not their release date, Spire had to compete with a lot of different games. It beat them all to such a degree that I didn’t have to question my choices.

However, my review of Spire is already out there, so I’ll recap what I like about it and be brief. This commentary applies to all the supplementary content that’s been released after the core rulebook as well, as it’s all been of really good quality and I’ve been enjoying it.

Spire combines humor (dark and zany, sometimes combined and sometimes independent of each other) with one of the most compelling core conflicts I’ve seen in a roleplaying game.

It also has a world that’s compellingly deep without requiring you to commit to any one interpretation of the setting. The sheer poignancy and inflection of culture found in Spire’s world allows for a setting that provides endless possibility, and honestly stands up well in comparison to any other game universe I can think of. I can compare it to the deep worlds of Shadowrun, Battletech, Avernum, Eclipse Phase, Faerun, Sryth, and Eberron that consumed the imagination of my youth, and I have no doubt that it will be a fond staple of my imagination for years to come.

Spire’s mechanics are so good that I’ve used them in my own games; Waystation Deimos is the only one that’s out now and uses a modified version of the system (which is itself borrowed from another developer), but there’s an elegant simplicity to them that allows them to blend narrative and mechanics without sacrificing anything to either.

The art is what first drew me into the world of Spire, and Adrian Stone has done a tremendous job at illustrating it in a way that reminds me of Failbetter Games’ style, but with its own twists. It’s evocative, dark, and colorful simultaneously, and unfortunately I’m not enough of an art critic to find the words to do it justice.

I cannot speak too highly of Spire. It’s a game that has earned its place among the greats.

Review of Educated: A Memoir

I have a bad habit of accidentally purchasing things for Kindle, a side-effect of having the one-click purchase set up and too many tabs open at any given time.

The reason this is important is because I accidentally purchased Educated: A Memoir (affiliate link), as well as about a half-dozen other Kindle books over the course of the years.

Educated: A Memoir cover courtesy of Amazon.

I have no regrets.

Tara Westover tells her story in a deep, personal, no-holds-barred fashion, and that in and of itself would be enough to make it compelling if it didn’t also deal with a dysfunctional family dynamic that puts King Lear to shame (or, rather, would make him look well-adjusted).

It is impossible to truly describe what Westover manages to convey without taking so many words that it would be unconscionable to suggest reading the description rather than the source it mirrors, so I’ll have to fall back to a more basic description of my response.

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Finally Reviewing the Samsung HMD Odyssey

Samsung HMD promotional image courtesy of Amazon (affiliate link).

Alright, I’ve been using my VR headset for months now, so it’s time to review the Samsung HMD Odyssey.

This is something that was an incredibly expensive “impulse” purchase for me, in the sense that I was planning to eventually get a VR headset, and I’d been saving up money for one, but I basically tried it out in the store and then knew I had to have it.

First things first, you need to understand where Windows Mixed Reality stands on the VR Headset market.

What is Windows Mixed Reality?

Windows Mixed Reality is basically what you would call a VR headset.

The Mixed Reality term is something of a misnomer; the system doesn’t support any AR or MR features, like interacting simultaneously with physical and digital objects. The outward cameras are apparently IR-only, though I haven’t heard much about this or checked it out myself, so don’t expect further support in a software update.

The Windows Mixed Reality platform works well on Windows, obviously. There are some third-party open source systems that claim to have some support for them, but the only experience I have is with OpenVR, which only works with WMR on Windows through the Mixed Reality Portal, which is a native Windows application.

However, once you have a WMR headset, you will find that 90% of the VR software out there is compatible with it. I haven’t had any issues with abject incompatibility, and while many experiences are designed with the outside-in tracking rather than the inside-out tracking of WMR that won’t be too much of an issue.

Inside-Out Tracking

The selling feature of WMR for me is that it has inside-out tracking. This can create a handful of issues (for instance, I find it hard to get height scaling correct at times), but it also means a vastly reduced setup and the ability to play in any environment.

I literally just push my chair back from my desk when I’m ready to use the headset, and then back up to it so that I have a frame of reference so I don’t start punching furniture.

This means that there aren’t any cables or battery-powered equipment required other than the headset and motion controllers. Low setup, low maintenance, and low clutter are the selling points of the WMR setup.

I have occasionally experienced some minor hiccups with tracking, but it’s not usually significant. The tracking FOV is pretty good, and you usually can figure out what went wrong and fix how you’re holding the controllers once you’ve spent as much time in VR as I have, which is not an astronomical amount of time.

An important note here is that not every VR device has the same controller, but the WMR controllers are pretty robust, with trackpads (that have touch sensitivity and d-pad style pressing functionality), thumbsticks (that click in), menu and grip buttons, triggers, and a Windows button, they really are as functional as a gamepad with the extra feature of motion tracking to add icing to the cake.

Why Samsung?

Well, I’m a little brand loyal to Samsung. I can’t really afford many Samsung products, or at least not cutting-edge ones, but I’ve always had good experiences with them.

However, the real selling point on the Samsung HMD Odyssey is that it’s got a little bit more cutting-edge technology in it than some of its competitors. This is marked by a higher price-tag, but it is made up for in a couple ways.

First, there’s a higher FOV and vertical resolution, which pays off. The 110 degree FOV is nice, though I don’t have experience with other headsets for a comparison. You’ve got about 160 more pixels of vertical resolution (1440×1600 panels), with AMOLED rather than LCD displays.

Let me just say this: looking through the lenses, the only obvious difference between reality and VR comes from how stuff is rendered and the occasional grid effect, which only happens when you’re really focused on certain things (I find it to matter only in rare cases where I’m closely examining distant objects).

Another feature is the integrated headphones and microphone. These weren’t necessarily deal-breakers, but certainly set Samsung apart from the other WMR headsets.

It’s worth noting that the headset is a little heavy. If you strap it down right, a lot of the weight balances well, but wearing it too loose will cause issues, something that I often encountered during play sessions when it was pushing 85 degrees in the room.

My Experiences

One of the things that I noticed about myself when I play in VR versus outside VR is that the experiences are a lot more personal. One of my favorite VR experiences is Skyrim VR, and it definitely feels more frenetic and emotionally charged than standard play (and I’ve got over 400 hours to compare to). Archery and gun-play cannot be approximated by traditional control schemes, but are really fun with motion controllers.

I haven’t really tried any of the VR setups that are intended for mouse and keyboard or gamepad play. I’m strictly using motion controller-based titles.

The motion controllers are pretty nice; I have some issues with the battery hatch coming loose on the right controller from time-to-time, but I also have large hands and tend to mash my grip down really hard, which means that I’m essentially pushing on them in exactly the way you’d want to open them. It’s not a huge issue, and being conscious of my posture when I hold the controllers mitigates this. Every game has a slightly different control scheme, which is a pain, but not insurmountable.

I’ve generally found that many of the “issues” with VR can be overcome if you’re willing to invest a little time in it.

Motion sickness, for instance, was an early issue. After a few hours, however, I found that it went away in 90% of cases. I also keep a physical frame of reference (the seat of my chair) and a fan blowing toward me, which helps as well. I’ve found that with this setup I don’t even need comfort settings in many games.

I did have an issue where one of the lenses of my display cut out while I was playing. Samsung was pretty easy to deal with and I was able to send it off for service and have it back in about a week (service was covered under warranty).

Wrapping Up

In general, do I recommend a VR headset?

Definitely. Maybe not yet; $500 is a little steep, but if you want a much more immersive experience and you’re going to use the headset a lot, then I think it could be a good investment.

The Samsung Odyssey has been treating me really well. Barring that one incident I described above, it’s functioned flawlessly. I use rechargeable batteries in the motion controllers (affiliate link), which reduces the cost of operating the system a little over the long run. Each charge lasts for about a week or two of fairly “heavy” use for me, or a month or so if I’m using the headset very intermittently (like, say, during July when it was too hot to wear the headset).

As far as the different options go, I wholeheartedly recommend the Samsung offering, which is available at Amazon (affiliate link). When I got mine, I got it from a Microsoft store physical location and got a 10% educator discount, but if you’re not getting it in person I would strongly suggest Amazon; I haven’t had a bad experience with the Microsoft store online, but I don’t trust their shipping quite as much as I trust Amazon’s.

Star Wars: The Roleplaying Game 30th Anniversary Edition Review

Alright, I couldn’t help myself and I stopped by my FLGS. While there, I found a nice surprise on one of the shelves: the Star Wars WEG 30th Anniversary Edition.

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Audioshield and VR Design Experiences

I got Audioshield on sale, and I was pleasantly surprised by how different it was from the other VR experiences I’ve tried. I’m generally quite pleased with VR in general, but I noticed a few things that really stood out about how Audioshield was using its design in a much more efficient and smooth method than other games.

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Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life Review

I took about a month to finish Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos (Amazon Affiliate link), in part because I wanted to slow down and try some of the advice in my life.

12 Rules for Life is an interesting book. Equal parts philosophy, psychology, and self-help book, it covers a broad range of topics, with Peterson drawing from life experiences, religion, and history to build a strong case for his points and provide what seems on its surface to be very good advice for people.

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Spire Review

Disclaimer: I backed Spire’s Kickstarter campaign.

Spire (DriveThruRPG affiliate link) is a fantasy-punk (for lack of a better genre) roleplaying game designed by Grant Howitt and Christopher Taylor. The game is beautifully dark, focusing on cadres of drow forming resistance cells against high elf (aelfir) authoritarians ruling the titular Spire.

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