2014/12/14

De Romanicorum Theoriarum VIII

Speculative fiction thoughts.
  • It occurs to me, there is one kind of spiritual insight you could get from space-travel. And it would let Hollywood make the "no don't go it's too dangerous don't look there are things man was not meant to know" kind of quasi-horror space-movies it's been making this last decade, e.g. Europa Report. Namely, Shugendo. Shugendo is a weird Buddhist sect in Japan that believes enlightenment can be achieved by exposure to physical hardship and emotional crises, especially near-death experiences. In being literally on the brink of death, they believe, one sees that death and life alike arise from Emptiness.

    Of course, not a lot of yamabushi buying movie-tickets—and the ones who do, you gotta factor in the money turning back into leaves later. Maybe can use Existentialism, though—Heidegger's, at least, was not unlike Shugendo (minus the Nazism, anyway). Which reminds me, of course, of Nietzsche, whose thought presaged much of Existentialism, especially Heidegger's, and whose "when you look long into the void, the void looks back into you" is something space-writers have gotten more work out of than its actual meaning really permits. They should really be facing a suit in labor-court for non-payment of overtime and asking work other than the contractually specified jobs.
  • That in turn reminds me of the Reavers, in Firefly, of whom it was said they "got out to the edge of the galaxy, to that place of nothin', and that's what they became". Which is Joss "Letztemenschlein" Whedon being very petulant about other people noticing the ethical implications of atheism (as is his get-Tinkerbell-to-come-back-to-life "not necessarily in God, but you have to believe in something" drivel). The moralizing tone of all of Whedon's works is just his "veritably awe-inspiring demonstrations" of his "moral fanaticism", come to think of it—"the penance they pay" among Anglos, for "every little liberation from theology".

    Also? However assiduously its vacant-eyed cultists may scrub all references to it from the article on TVTropes, that line proves that Whedon is the poster-boy for "SciFiWritersHaveNoSenseOfScale". Edge of the galaxy, Whedon? Really? Nobody in your setting can go there; how could they? Certainly not and get back in time to be Reavering in your main setting. Then again, despite the series' much ballyhooed lack of FTL, they still have FTL communications—conversations, at distances nobody pretends are even as close as the Moon is, that happen in real time; watch Serenity. They don't even happen in real-time on the Moon, there's 1.3 seconds of delay between calls (which, as anyone trying to Skype on iffy internet can tell you, is just long enough to be infuriating).
  • Decided to use elk, Large-sized, rather than Medium-sized deer, for my elves' mounts. Still use the war-beast template, for the bulls. Got their stats by taking the Huge-sized Dire Elk from Masters of the Wild (and Monster Manual II) and applying the Large-to-Huge monster advancement rules in reverse. Gave the non-dire version 3 hit dice, 4 if it's a war-beast; the Dire Elk had 12 and the dire versions (when markedly larger, unlike e.g. Dire Lions) often have 3 to 4 times the HD of the normal ones. It occurs to me that the Large-to-Huge advancement rules, applied in reverse, could also let you make a sheep much more simply—just apply the Medium-to-Large rules in reverse, to the "bison". (You could also apply them to the rhino-stats to make smaller rhinos, or tapirs.)

    Wasn't sure what I'd do for the hobgoblins. A Large-size worg has 7 hit dice, and a dire wolf has 6; that seemed like a lot of animal for a race that ordinarily has 1-3 hit dice (my campaign's "bugbears" are just the biggest and most dominant hobgoblin males, basically silverbacks). But then I thought, the typical human warrior with one d8 hit die and a 4-HD warhorse is in much the same boat—and regular goblins ride worgs with the same HD as horses, though being Magical Beast types they're d10s instead of the d8s Animal types use. (In my day, all monsters had d8 hit dice, and they were glad to have 'em.) Increasing the worg to 7 hit dice also only increases its CR by 1. So I think how it'll work is, the ordinary hobgoblins just don't ride at all. Maybe the ordinary hobgoblin is more likely to use chariots pulled by pairs of regular worgs, and either shoot from the back (two-man driver and archer teams), or else their warriors are dropped off to fight on foot, like the Celts (see below). (If dog-sleds are any indication, worgs can pull chariots for periods and over ranges that would flat-out kill horses.)

    The big hobgoblins (i.e. bugbears), then, are the only ones who ride (7HD) worgs, one at a time; presumably when a very powerful chief can get together a bunch of dominant hobgoblins at once, they act as heavy cavalry, but are light cavalry horse-archers the rest of the time.
  • I cannot be the only one who sees parallels between "dark fantasy" and Regietheater, can I?
  • Another reason Interstellar is silly: you don't have to schlepp multiple lightyears to let humanity flee your snowball's-chance-in-hell apocalypse scenario (and seriously, "plant-life dying off because of organisms that can metabolize nitrogen" is about one step removed from "the heart is made up of a single cell for all practical purposes"). O'Neill Cylinders at the Moon's Lagrange points. Or at least Stanford Toruses (the latter hold fewer people, but do have the advantage of better theme music).

    Traveling through wormholes to find new places to live, when we know that space-colonization is essentially possible using 1970s technology, is, to use a Japanese expression, "applying eyedrops from the second floor".

    Nope, sorry. You're gonna have to give us a better reason for interstellar travel being necessary. If you're not going to at least acknowledge that there's something to the idea of humanity simply spreading out to live in other places, as good in itself and worthwhile without Earth being unlivable for no good reason...then I hate to tell ya, you're gonna have to give us aliens, and not from another dimension. If schlepping to another star is necessary, then what's at that other star damn well better be important—and I mean in itself, not because of some mumbo jumbo that Zeon Zum Deikun would call far-fetched.
  • I think (you know of my obsession with fictional material culture, or "production design" as it's known in visual media) that my setting's equivalent of a USB plug gets around the "have to turn it over" inconvenience (you would not believe how many people seem to consider that a near-fatal flaw in the USB design) by being something like an audio jack. Just like how stereo jacks have more contacts than mono ones, I imagine a "bus" jack might have twenty contacts, like Thunderbolt connectors, or only eight, like Lightning.

    Or possibly like the original intent for Thunderbolt, it might combine fiber-optic data-transmission with (probably metal) electrical conduction so devices can be powered; then again it's the 24th century and people don't seem plug most things in to power them anymore, so it might be purely optical (and probably less fragile than our fiber-optics). Maybe it'll look something like TOSLINK connectors, which are mostly used for audio (specifically that clear one, because it's awesome-looking), and have no visible contacts.

    Not sure if zledo and khângây are also gonna go the optical-fiber route (the khângây might, since they prefer analog media and you can probably use optical fiber to transmit laser-scans of analog optical media with relatively little distortion). Whatever they use to transmit data, I think the zledo might favor some sort of short round plugs—like UHF connectors, in keeping with their stuff looking more primitive than it is—probably with something like a bayonet connector, since those are designed to keep things from coming loose when you don't want them to, and their society is much more military-minded (although it's also a concern just 'cause they're so big—in a society where the average woman weighs 97 kilos/214 pounds, and the average man is 50 kilos/110 pounds heavier, just tripping over a cable can easily yank almost any plug out, if it's not secured).
  • It turns out that Tolkien's use of elves to make political points, and indeed also the moronic SJW Post-colonial Studies narrative in Dragon Age, are part of a long tradition in Romantic fiction. Indeed, one that predates Romanticism, because the Faerie Queene predates Romanticism by 200 years. (Arguably also Jonathan Swift, predating Romanticism by about 80 years—what are Lilliputians and Brobdingnagians if not dwarfs and giants used to make satirical points?) Here I would also point you to the treatment of Tengu in Japanese literature, from the Konjaku Monogatari to the manga "Japan Tengu Party Illustrated".
  • Along with the ordinary hobgoblin-on-the-street (that would be a short installment of Watters World) using chariots pulled by (regular) worgs, I think my elves also use light mobile infantry on chariots pulled by (smaller than elk) deer. The Celts used chariots not only as a platform from which to attack, via bow or javelin, but also as a means of dropping off infantry. That actually seems to have been the main way the Gauls used it—it sounds stupid (mounted infantry is an often-disparaged concept, even though it makes up the vast majority of modern forces...or what did you think "mechanized" meant?), but that's because we tend to think of infantry as being able to run at the enemy.

    But it really can't. Those movies where guys run across fields, swords in hand? Brought to you by the people who gave you the handheld Gatling gun. In real life, infantry generally didn't move faster than a brisk walk (though the fact his marches were up-tempo compared to his opponents was a key to a couple of Napoleon's early successes). If your heavy infantry ran at the enemy lines, it would be too exhausted to swing its weapons by the time it got there.

    That was part of why cavalry remained important long after the development of pikes and guns—it could go places in a timely manner. Nobody ever took out artillery with infantry that didn't sneak up, only cavalry had any hope of getting close enough to do anything without being blasted to ribbons (it doesn't always work even for cavalry, although in cases like e.g. the Light Brigade the enemy had located their batteries so they could defend each other). And go look up how dependent every military in World War II, even the American one, was on horses (and mules, for which apparently our forces in Afghanistan were clamoring).

2014/11/19

Spot Check IV

Random thoughts/reality check. Almost more like "random reality checks".
  • A comment on a blog I was reading recently (I won't link it because I'm about to be quite harsh to the viewpoint expressed, and I'm talking about it here precisely because I don't want to be personally harsh to the person who made the comment), reminded me of something. Something I and many others have mentioned before and which please God we shall mention again, until people wise up and we stop having this subject to talk about.

    Namely, Trans-humanism is a form of Premillennial Dispensationalism. I say this because its proponents respond to future-speculation scenarios, fictional or non-fictional, with "Oh, but the Singularity will make all those projections moot." I'm trying real hard to figure out a way that that's different from "Oh, but the Rapture will happen first." And I'm coming up blank. Oh, except that the Rapture is an avowedly mystical belief in a miraculous occurrence, while the Singularity just involves ignoring everything we know about machine-logic, the mind, and even the brain.
  • Apparently Orson Scott Card has a book where, if the Spanish never show up to topple the "Aztecs" (i.e. the Tenochca Triple Alliance), the Tlaxcalteca eventually do it instead. Then they, get this, sail to Europe and conquer it, because, according to Card, Tlaxcala was even worse than Tenochtitlan.

    Only...snerk. No, not even a little bit. Point one, Tlaxcala was nowhere near as bad as Tenochtitlan; they had much less human sacrifice and still maintained the taboo on cannibalism. They also weren't crazy imperialists. Point two, exactly how many thousands of years later would this conquest of Europe take place? I ask because the Tlaxcalteca, like the Tenochca, had very limited, mostly decorative, usage of copper—most of their weapons and tools were still flint and obsidian, their armor quilted fabric—and they not only had essentially no large-scale ocean travel (so no way to transport an invasion-force), they also had no horses. How is a Neolithic infantry force with no gunpowder supposed to pose a threat to the powers of continental Europe, when the second-stringers of Europe marched roughshod over that civilization like a Martian invasion? (Spain and England went and kicked non-Europeans around because France and Germany wouldn't let them play with Europe's big kids; they were not "great powers" until the profits from their colonial enterprises gave them a leg up.) None of which even addresses the little matter of disease, of course.

    That's roughly as stupid as writing an alternate history where, because Stalin didn't use Nazism as an excuse to enslave half of Europe, France eventually topples the Reich. And then it sends teleporting death-squads all around the world to murder all of the Jews, because French nationalists are blithely stated to be more anti-Semitic than Nazis. Also France has teleportation technology in this alt-hist, without a lick of explanation.
  • I find it interesting that people bitch at the mere presence of elves or dwarves in a work of fantasy, but not at all the telepathic dragons bonded for life to particular riders. Elves and dwarves in legends are at least a little like how Tolkien portrayed them, even if his interpretations color everyone else's treatment of them. But those telepathic dragons bonded to their riders? Those are purely McCaffrey—it's like if, rather than just having dwarves and elves, your dwarves were all made by a craftsman angel who was impatient for the awakening of The One's Firstborn and your elves divide based on whether they followed a hunting angel to a Country of the Blessed or not.

    It's gotten to the point where if your work contains a dragon-rider, I regard it as a very big mark against you automatically. Even freaking Dragonlance is more original than that, since it's at least a tie-in and Gygax didn't rip off McCaffrey for the D&D dragons. (Come to think of it, why are all dragons, even McCaffrey's, color-coded? I get that her different colors are castes in the dragons' hives—which is its own kind of stupid—but why are different castes different colors? Reproductive alate termites are brown, and all the others are white with brown faces. The castes of termite are differentiated by their anatomy; give some of your dragon-castes specialized horns or jaw-shapes to reflect a different role. Of course, the browns, greens, and blues don't actually have differentiated roles.)

    Then again, I'm probably asking too much. Even making allowances for "it was hard to do research before the Internet", McCaffrey flunks biology so many times in the course of the Pern books that it's less "flunking" and more "escorted off-campus by the police while your academic transcripts are ceremonially burned".
  • It's always fascinating to me how many people who write bad fantasy have no idea how the world in prior eras worked. In Goodkind, houses in Richard's town (remember, there's no magic where he lives) have lawns. Eragon's family can't afford meat but he and his cousin each have their own room, and they get an allowance. The whole society is always just like ours, except when it being different is a plot-point.

    Or there's the "everything prior to the 19th century was the late-18th century Ancien Regime, back into antiquity" thing. Like Ken Follett—admittedly bad historical fiction rather than bad fantasy—with his serfs who pay their rents individually, which is the post-Reformation landlord system, not manorialism (which is called that because the whole manor was one economic unit). Or really anyone who thinks their illiterate caricature of absolute monarchy is remotely compatible with their illiterate caricature of feudalism.
  • I have a self-correction to make. Having only read Sherlock Holmes in childhood, and not all of them even then, I assumed that the pop-cultural "genius psychopath" thing was accurate. My younger sister has, in the last few years, become an obsessive fan of the books, and she informs me that Holmes is actually very kind and sympathetic, and mostly just has ADHD; his social impairments aren't even Autism Spectrum let alone psychopathy (and you "Sherlock" fans can shove your "high-functioning sociopath" meme...which isn't even accurate to your watered-down source).

    It's just that modern audiences are not equipped to understand the 19th-century English middle-class gentleman, so they take his oddness and denials of various social niceties at face-value. Holmes is really about as much a psychopath as Hilaire Belloc, who had much the same formal prose style (though he didn't talk that way in person), and who was similarly slovenly when he didn't have reason not to be. All the things Holmes says about not understanding women, and all the things Watson says about Holmes never expressing his feelings, are actually their precious "unreliable narrators"—also a stereotypical 19th-century English middle-class thing, not knowing one's own virtues. You did realize it's a meta-narrative joke, right?
  • I can't be alone in finding things like Scrapped Princess somewhat ironic, not to say an example of chutzpah. I mean, that series is about a religion like medieval Catholicism being used to retard technological development—and it was made in a country that found out the Earth is round when a Jesuit told them. I realize that it's not their fault, it's because they listened to English speakers about history (never a good idea—might as well trust Soviet history), but it's still pretty damned stupid.
  • I probably won't see Interstellar; the premise is stupid (we do actually know what nitrogen-metabolizing organisms are like, and they ultimately mean both more plant-life and more oxygen—which any elementary-school kid who did a report on George Washington Carver for Black History Month could tell you). It also involves woo-woo mystagoguery about space-travel leading to some kind of "cosmic truth", which is frankly like trying to find out how your parents met by asking Maasai tribesmen (if your parents met over here, I mean; substitute somewhere else—Berwyn, Illinois?—if they actually did meet in northern Tanzania).

    Someone should probably explain to all these halfwitted Tsiolkovsky-plagiarizers that space...is just a distant, weird part of "the world". It's not a place to find any spiritual realities you can't find at home. Just the opposite. You're too busy not dying in space, for being there to reveal any "ultimate truths"; there may be no atheists in foxholes but Pascal's Wager isn't terribly insightful theology. I delight in turning Yuri Gagarin's agitprop line against people who think they can find some form of transcendence in space: there is no God out there. Not one you can't find much more conveniently at home, anyway.

    Anyone who thinks we're going to find out some fundamental truth about ourselves by looking in space is going to be disappointed, and cripple the actually legitimate, not-insane purposes which space-exploration can serve. (They're also a weird throwback to Peripatetic cosmology, with its changeless perfect celestial bodies and whatnot.)
  • I think I might have mentioned it, but certainly not enough: I'd been laboring under a misapprehension, one that actually led to me getting the correct results. Namely, I had been thinking I was fudging by having my spaceships accelerate at the same rate no matter what the mass in their propellant tanks was. But no, it just means I was going with constant acceleration trajectories, which do, in fact, decrease the thrust the engine outputs as the total mass of the ship decreases.

    It's a strategy that tends to go with big honkin' "like you mean it" engines; our current piddly little chemical rockets, for instance, go with "constant thrust trajectories", instead. A constant acceleration trajectory has other advantages for the science-fiction writer, aside from being associated with the kinds of rockets that move things along at a plot-friendly clip. One of them is that, as the Wikipedia article on constant acceleration puts it, "where the vehicle acceleration is high compared to the local gravitational acceleration, the orbit approaches a straight line". Straight lines are convenient to write around.

2014/10/28

Baibun no Jinsei 2

Writing thoughts.
  • I hate portmanteau words. I'll grandfather in an exception for the ones Lewis Carroll actually made up, but otherwise—aside from how they sound like, again, a third-string Japanese comedian's C-game, is the fact that English does not form compounds that way. No language does, really, since half the time the part of the second word that's used is a meaningless inflectional affix. Now, Carroll never claimed to be a linguist and he was kidding anyway, but others, especially recently—I've mentioned the portmanteau fetish among Transhumanists—mistook the joke for a serious word-formational principle. As in so many things, the trouble comes from Carroll having written in English—a language whose speakers shortened "omnibus" to "bus", which makes precisely as much sense as shortening "arboretum" to "tum".

    There actually are rules for how you form compounds in English; they were described by the grammarians of Vedic Sanskrit, probably around the time they first wrote it, if not earlier, because they're the rules that govern all Indo-European compounds, and quite possibly those of every language. The three big ones are dvandva ("father-son"; in English we only do them as adjectives), bahuvrihi ("redhead"), and tatpurusa ("god-given", "battlefield", "woman-hating", "pit-spawned", "doghouse"—there's one for each of the Indo-European cases except maybe nominative; the first half of each of those compounds functions as instrumental, genitive, accusative, locative, and dative, respectively).

    The quintessential example of portmanteaux being abominations, is the British journalese neologism "nomophobia", which is the fear of being without ('no') one's mobile devices ('mo'—despite nobody calling mobile devices that). Only...we name phobias in Greek. "Nomophobia" would mean "fear of rules, laws, or customs". "Fear of being without a mobile device" would be "akinitophobia", given the Greek for "cell(-phone)" is κινητό (τηλέφωνο), pronounced "kinito (tilefono)" in Modern Greek—yeap, they literally just say "moving phone". (Phobia names, by the bye, are accusative tatpurusa compounds, but if you refer to someone as e.g. "a herpetophobe"—a person afraid of snakes—it's probably a bahuvrihi.)
  • If you do not happen to have your main character deeply changed by his experiences in your story, you will probably feel—because of the relentless thrust of practically every work about writing currently available—that it's a failure as a writer. But it isn't. It's just that everyone thinks that's the only way to write a story, and as a website I found points out, it's partly Joseph Campbell's fault.

    In reality, not every main character does have to change. And—brilliant piece of insight, wish I'd written it—a hero who doesn't change still grows, it's just by standing their ground in the face of escalating challenges. That, I think, is probably why the so-called "static" hero is more common in action stories—"escalating challenges" is kinda the definition of action stories.
  • You know a trope I hate? The "this person is good at chess, they can do the same thing in the real world" thing. The only possible proper way to portray a character like that is, when they say something in real life (as a character did in something I was reading just now) like "I'll beat you in four moves", the other person has to take out a gun and shoot them right in the face. "Throwing the board on the floor" is arbitrarily excluded from the list of possible moves in chess; it is very much not excluded from the possible moves in real life.

    Did you ever wonder why the world's militaries don't kidnap chess grandmasters to force them to plan military strategies? It's because your enemy in a war has more than sixteen pieces, and they can move to more than sixty-four places in more than eleven ways (six types of piece, and kings and rooks have one special way to move, while pawns have three). Also you don't see your enemy's pieces at the beginning of a war, and they aren't always arranged the same way every time.
  • The reason "its" gets confused with "it's" is because "its" is the only instance of that that English will let you spell properly. You did know English was still inflected for case, right? It has two. One is nominative, accusative, and oblique compressed into a common case; the other is the genitive. No, there is no such thing as a possessive. Given that, like many languages, English's genitive ends in "-s", it is a misspelling to put in the apostrophe ("-'s" ought to be an assimilated "is", and nothing else).

    Apparently we put in the apostrophe because moronic 16th and 17th century grammarians (there were another kind?) thought the genitive was a contracted "his", because I guess someone told them English doesn't have cases, or something. Then in 1762 an Anglican vicar of subnormal intelligence named Robert Lowth, who was also the origin of not ending sentences on prepositions, felt himself free to rename the case from "genitive" to "possessive". This, of course, led to the halfwitted sub-literate non-rule that you can't apply that ending to inanimate objects, since they cannot "possess"—you have to say "the leg of the chair" rather than "the chair's leg". (If we'd just acknowledged that we were inflecting for the genitive case, that unintelligence would've been avoided—since even a Grammar Nazi knows "of" is the genitive.)

    Wait (you doubtless say), doesn't the "possessive" being the genitive mean that English inflects for two cases? Whereas all the Romance languages only inflect for one (not counting Romanian, which has three). Uh-huh. English isn't much more deflected than most Romance languages, it just deflected differently, more in the verbs but less in the nouns. (It also has a subjunctive, by the way, although only in the copula and it looks like the plural past indicative—that's why you say "if I were you" instead of "if I was you".)
  • I understand, of course, why people think you should write and read about unlikable protagonists—they consider wanting a likable protagonist to be childish, and like all children they are absolutely terrified of that. But what I don't understand is why anyone falls for it, if they are not themselves children wanting desperately to sit at the big kids' table.

    I can't conceive of reading books about things you can actually do in real life, except purely for information (to help you do the thing yourself, or understand how you do it, better). And, not to put too fine a point on it, but everybody's real life already gives them lots of practice at sympathizing with a protagonist who's often pretty unlikable.

    So why does anyone want to read about that? Fiction is play; it is a break from the business of real life. Asking that all protagonists be as crummy and annoying as real people are is like asking that authors meticulously describe every time a character poops: you're not mature if you want that, you're mentally ill.
  • Make sure, when you use a piece of jargon or slang, that you know how it's used. This thought is occasioned by a Superman comic I was reading (written by J. Michael Straczynski, who ought to know better). A fighter-pilot says, as he fires a second missile at the Parasite (who's flying over Metropolis after a few sips of Kryptonian), "BOHICA, baby." This is spelled out in a footnote—"Bend over, here it comes again"—and identified as slang, which it is.

    But...BOHICA is never said to an enemy. Like, ever. Well, very rarely. Because BOHICA is a term of commiseration or complaint, a synonym for "same shit, different day", and means, "oh lovely, we're getting screwed again"—pretty much verbatim. It often has an implication of being screwed over by your own bureaucracy (see also the Marine expression "Big Green Weenie" and its synonyms in other branches, most of which are less polite, which phenomenon I suspect is unique in USMC history).
  • I was thinking, maybe the reason writing in "genre" fiction (which is kind of like saying "ethnic" people) is better, generally, than the empurpled gobbledygook of "literary" fiction, is that literary's readers have incentives other than enjoyment to read it. And also, relatedly, that genre, to be commercially successful, probably has to worry about actually pleasing the customers, because they're all competing for a slice of a relatively small pie.

    It's an example both of how markets actually do ensure quality, and yet also of how the "rational actor" doesn't actually exist. The idea that a rational economic agent, actuated solely by the quality of the goods, would actually buy something by Updike or Franzen or, God help us, Guterson, is laughable. "Literary" fiction survives solely based on snobbishness and ghettoization. The situation could've been constructed as a hypothetical reductio ad absurdum—Socrates couldn't have picked out the irony any better—of all extravagant claims made for the "invisible hand".
  • And seriously, Guterson needs to be punished. The ironic-punishment imp that lives in my soul says he should have Edward Said's Orientalism—unabridged—tattooed onto his entire body. I mean, every once in a while, you come across some piece of communication that makes you scoff just a little less at PC talk about "othering" and the rest of it, and Snow Falling on Cedars is one of those pieces.

    The quintessential example is that sex-scene, the one Myers quotes in the original "Reader's Manifesto" article? The one that ends with the guy saying "Tadaima aware ga wakatta", which is supposed to mean "I understand just now the deepest beauty"? Yeah, well, it doesn't mean that (it means "just now, pathos has understood"—the ga makes aware, which means "pathos" not "beauty", the subject of the sentence; it'd be something like "utsukushisa wo wakatta"). And more importantly...nande ya nen?! What kind of poseur douchebag says something like that right after having sex, even if it did mean what he thought?

    The answer is, well, there was an Asian person involved, so of course Guterson felt he had to go for something faux spiritual (see also the Buddhist temples inside brothels, in Firefly). You know what would actually be really culturally appropriate to say then? "Daisuki da yo." Know what it means? "I love you." You know, just like anyone else would say, in that situation. You wouldn't say "I understand beauty", anyway, even if that was the idea you wanted to express; cultures that never had Descartes or Kant are less locked up inside their own heads, so in Japanese you'd most likely just say "utsukushii", which means—because Japanese adjectives are actually "stative verbs"—"(it's/you're/we're/etc.) beautiful". That, you might realistically say in that situation.

2014/09/23

De Romanicorum Physicalium 9

SF thoughts.
  • It occurs to me that, if zledo have reflexes on par with a cat—which seems to be three times faster than a human (no word on if their visual cortices are red)—part of what it would mean is that prestidigitation is something quite different for them. Sleight of hand, for them, would never have been a matter of "magic"; they can see the motions involved. Which is not to say they would not find such quick, dexterous work impressive. But they'd probably just consider it a subset of gymnastics.

    Another thing it means is that, while Bill Jordan (fastest draw in the West, or anywhere else, without a custom rig) could see a signal, draw a gun, and hit the target in .27 seconds, a zled can apparently do it in .09 seconds. At least if their hands are as fast as their eyes (the figure above is for "latency" of eye-tracking, which is a different thing from actually moving the hands); saying that they're actually twice as fast as humans, and thus can speed-draw and fire in .135 seconds after seeing the signal, is probably a safer bet.
  • We've apparently already solved the Organ-bank Problem. How? 3D printing. Now, sure, we're not actually at the point of substituting 3D-printed organs for donor-organs, and we probably won't be for decades—but then, neither are we at the point of drastically extending the human life-span with donor organs, and voting death-by-organ-harvest as the penalty for jaywalking, either. So we're actually solving the organ-bank problem before it exists.

    Of course, the trouble here is, like with many of the brilliant advances in real-world technology (*cough*cell phones*cough*), these same things that make life easier remove quite a lot of the opportunity for drama. Of course they do; "drama" is functionally equivalent to "bad things happening to made-up people", and tech that keeps bad things from happening to real people works for the made-up kind too. I now have to rewrite one scene and one line of dialogue, thanks to the fact that, more than likely, there will be no organleggers in the 24th century.

    Perhaps I can make it work with ovaries, though? Black-market ovaries would probably still be worth money, after all (making your own ova, without the organ designed for it, still looks pretty iffy), and any opportunity to treat the surrogacy industry as the human-trafficking follicle-stripping nightmare factory that it is, is all to the good.
  • Another advantage of fueling mecha with methanol, that I didn't get to, is that it doesn't explode (which is helpful, in a military fuel), and also does not produce smoke (which is helpful to firefighting crews—who, remember, can put a methanol fire out with water).

    They probably won't use methanol for robot mules, instead going with the same kind of lithium-air battery as the smaller robots (which means their robot mules breathe!). Methanol is too inefficient for applications smaller than a car. Don't know what their robot mule would look like, either; ours is a prototype, after all.
  • Was thinking about the "binary gender" kerfuffle in SF-fandom, and from there about xenobiology. "Intersex" (I hate that name: "both" isn't the same as "between", and we also happen to have the perfectly good words "androgyne" and "freemartin" for people with such a condition) is very rare. Bizarrely enough one of the major forms, Klinefelter syndrome (XXY-ness), sometimes shows no symptoms—not even sterility, people have fathered or borne children while having XXY chromosomes (which I think clinches what sex they "really" were). The sterile "intersex", as seen in "freemartin" livestock, is apparently the result of chimerism.

    Interestingly, no equivalent of Klinefelter syndrome exists in birds. Or none's been observed, anyway. We think a ZZW embryo (birds, remember) miscarries, which in birds' case presumably means the egg never hatches. It occurs to me that using an X0 or Z0 chromosomal system means you never get a Klinefelter-type situation, either, since two Xs is female and two Zs is male, and completely missing the sex-chromosome is a different thing entirely (not sure what, if anything, that looks like, in mammals). There's also presumably no Klinefelter equivalent for crocodiles, since they have no sex chromosomes, and sex based on the temperature of their nests. How about monotremes? They have ten sex-chromosomes, wonder what happens when one duplicates.
  • Technically sci-fi related 'cause of the social sciences, and worldbuilding: a whole lot of things are, to use an unfortunate phrasing, "culturally relative". What I mean is, for example, Toyotomi Hideyoshi did, indeed, abolish slavery (apart from convict-labor), well before anyone in the West did (the second time—the West had resurrected slavery in the 1400s after abolishing it in the 700s).

    But, though Hideyoshi could claim Japan was not a slave-state, while Spain and especially its colonies were...the fact remains that farmers in Japan, though ostensibly free, didn't have rights that slaves in Spanish colonies did. It wasn't legal for anyone to just up and kill a Spanish-colonial slave (though it was relatively easy to cover up, on a big estate with little direct oversight); the entire military class of Japan was allowed to murder farmers on very little pretext, no coverup required.
  • In one way, Karakuri Odette is the most realistic depiction of robots ever. Why? Because she's constantly running out of battery. It gets worse when she's stressed, which makes perfect sense, since uncertainty would increase the load on her system. Just like how cellphones drain faster when they have to hunt around for a signal, robots could easily drain faster when their situational-analysis and reaction programs—which is what "emotions" are—are unable to judge clearly. For a robot (and arguably for us too), "anxiety" can be thought of as the situational-analysis program hunting for solutions that may not exist, like a cellphone searching for signal till it goes dead.

    However, all the scenes with her ugly backpack battery are silly—plainly, you just disguise the spare battery as an oxygen tank. Give her an output plug inside her nose, and let her wear a breathing tube over her nose, then the obvious cover-story is that she's got a respiratory ailment, and has to go get supplemental oxygen once in a while. I don't know if anyone does actually get supplemental oxygen on an intermittent basis, but it's certainly a better cover-story than "this is a weird metal backpack". (Also? Put wheels on the damn thing and let her roll it around, rather than draining extra power by carrying it!)

    Another aspect of realism is the Professor's delay in waterproofing her, and the length of time it takes him to manage it. Realistically, waterproofing many electronics (especially computers) could involve problems with cooling, since a fully sealed device can't be air-cooled. It never does say that that's why Odette's waterproofing takes so long, but it would realistically be a factor.
  • Been re-reading Fahrenheit 451; it's kinda a slog with Bradbury's pyrotechnic prose, but what do you want from a quasi-Beatnik? The thing I realized most of all was, "Equilibrium is plainly the knockoff produced by people who couldn't get the rights to make a movie of this." Think about it—the "Grammaton Clerics" are off-brand Firemen, through and through; the girl he meets on that one job is his Clarice.

    The difference, of course, is that Fahrenheit 451 is a thoughtful piece of soft SF, whereas the screenplay for Equilibrium was demonstrably produced by literally shoving the hands inside of country hams and pounding on a keyboard. (Not a movie you would describe as "subtle", is what I'm getting at.) I think the ham-pounding technique was also used on the writers' heads on occasion—or you come up with an explanation for "Gun Kata"!
  • I think, given the 40-58 kilogram (if not even higher) loads per soldier that we're seeing in Iraq and Afghanistan, that my Peacekeepers wear Soft Exosuits to help with the forces necessary. They'd probably go on over the regular pants, so..."exo-suit chaps"? "Exo-chaps"? "Soft lifting-exoskeleton chaps"? I kinda like that last one. That, of course, is the regular Peacekeepers; the VAJRA troopers (like in those short-stories on my DeviantArt) use something much more extensive, in hard suits. They can move almost as fast as normal while wearing many kilos of armor and carrying heavy weapons. If you noticed, they have coil-Vulcans as their squad automatics, meaning they not only can carry around that gun, and its ammo and power-supply, but can stand up to its recoil.

    Not sure if the typical zled soldier will have anything to help him carry his gear (in full armor, of course, the suit makes it so he might as well be naked and empty-handed for all the load he feels). Zledo often carry less; among many other things, their tech is more miniaturizable. Also their biology means they need less water, relative to their mass, than humans. (Cats, for example, are much better at managing their moisture than humans. And zledo have skins more like those of birds or lizards, which hold moisture in much better than mammal skin.) Also, a major thing in our militaries carrying so much stuff is taking "better to have it and not need it than need it and not have it" to an extreme, which people without our liability-culture and belief that everything can be made "safe" probably wouldn't be quite so interested in.

2014/09/01

Playing With Fantasy I

Fantasy thoughts (the first one titled this was almost a random-thoughts post, though not quite). Most of them are about RPG-fantasy. Numbered the title "I" because this is the first fantasy-thoughts one of this name, but probably won't be the only one.
  • It is quite a slog to find things in fantasy that aren't knockoffs/"uncredited homages" (to coin a euphemism). Obviously the whole of fantasy games, for example, is a series of footnotes to Tolkien, Leiber, Howard, and Moorcock. But there's also more recent "borrowings". Like, you know how elven equipment in the Elder Scrolls games has a bird-motif going on? Yeah, well, probably makes more sense when you know that the elves in Warhammer Fantasy worship a phoenix-god. Not a dragon, like the elves in Elder Scrolls. Likewise Talos is Sigmar, full-stop—except Sigmar's a boss and Tiber Septim was an a-hole.

    Frostmourne in Warcraft is probably Widowmaker, the sword of Khaela Mensha Khaine the Bloody-Handed God, in Warhammer; it whispers its temptations to all the descendents of Aenarion the same way Frostmourne whispers its to prospective hosts for the Lich-King, in both cases trying to corrupt their impulse to protect their people. Of course, Khaine is, in fact, the god of war, with dual aspects as protector and destroyer—the high elves worship him just like the dark elves do, but only before battle (his worship is illegal in peacetime)—so that makes a lot more sense.

    Or the Dwemer? Yeah, they're the dwarves from RuneQuest, the Mostali, except the Dwemer aren't cannibals and the Mostali aren't atheists (and never tried to make their own god). And the Bosmer, I'm convinced, are Dark Sun halflings; look at them in Oblivion and tell me they're not halflings. Cannibal, jungle-dwelling halflings.
  • In my own D&D setting, I realized, an easy way to set stuff apart from "cliche" (or more accurately, to spruce up formula and make it fresh and interesting again), is to ignore two big stereotypes. One, my dwarves don't use axes. Nope, hammers and picks. And two, my elves are not primarily archers, only using bows as much as humans do. Along with spears (which I recommend for druids, since it's got the highest damage-rating of any weapon they're allowed), their main weapons are battle-axes, hand-axes, throwing axes, and halberds.

    Elvish light cavalry (which rides deer) is basically jinetes with throwing-axes instead of javelins, like mounted Franks. I have a sourcebook with stats for reindeer, and the "warbeast" template from Monster Manual II; this, with a few modifications, gives you a good deer for the elves to ride (my elves normally don't get above 133 pounds, while a medium load for a quadruped with Strength 16 is 230). The dwarves, meanwhile, ride rams, for which I use a slight modification of boar stats (no Ferocity, slower speed, but move at the same slow rate no matter how much they carry—same as dwarves themselves).

    I also have both goblins and hobgoblins riding worgs (which probably looks ridiculous in the latter case, but a Medium quadruped with Strength 17 is only carrying a Medium load up through 260 pounds!). Meanwhile, the orcs (who are giants now, not humanoids, despite being Medium-sized—they're a branch of ogres, remember) are riding "warbeast" boars; their ogre cousins ride "bison", which are called buffalo in the places where they're actually found. I readily admit that the idea of orcs on big boars is partly inspired by the Moblins in Twilight Princess; rob from the rich, I always say.
  • Another idea, which is also used by Warcraft, is my dwarves use guns (which are martial weapons for them, not exotic). I don't find mention of them in the SRD, but it's not like WotC can copyright flintlocks. The range-increments listed for them in the DMG are way too long; they give a maximum effective range for muskets of 1500 feet (given ten range-increments for projectile weapons), and for pistols, of 500 feet. Try, respectively, 300 feet (range increment 30 feet—no better than a javelin) and 150 feet (15 foot increment)—muzzle-loaders are crap. Except they do at least as much damage as heavy crossbows and only take a standard action to reload, instead of a full-round one.

    Meanwhile, there's no range-increment listed for the hand-axe, which would come as a surprise to every bored woodsman in history—most of whom probably didn't have the requisite attack bonuses to overcome the penalty for throwing a weapon that hasn't got a listed range-increment. It should have a 10-foot increment, like throwing an ordinary spear. Also, the throwing-axe's increment is too short; the longest ever tomahawk throw (at least as recorded by the International Knife-throwers' Hall of Fame), which we can treat as maximum range, was 137 feet. Rounding that to the nearest 5-foot "square", then dividing by five (because you get five range-increments with thrown weapons), gives a range-increment of 27 feet, which we'll round to 25. That's comparable to the javelins ordinary jinetes would be throwing.
  • The problem, I think, with assuming that fantasy has to be about lamenting what's been lost by modern progress, and acknowledging the good in the Ancien Regime, is that actually, nothing that's remotely preferable about "modern progress" isn't medieval—including the very phrase "modern progress", something of a buzzword among the people who built Chartres cathedral, apparently.

    While Tolkien himself is exempt from the charge, the fact is that most of the Romantics, who originated that understanding, were themselves Liberals; they applied Noble Savage stereotypes to past eras much as their contemporaries applied them to Indians. But it mostly made them feel better about themselves while guillotining aristos and mass-relocating Indians, rather than actually curtailing the guillotining and mass-relocating. Besides, again, "noble savage" is a characterization that absolutely does not apply to the Middle Ages, which, again, had every good thing about modernity except some tech (all of which was made possible by disregarding Renaissance fetishisms in the sciences).

    There is no actual rule that says fantasy has to be in the tradition of Romanticism, or at least not orthodox Romanticism. There is much to be said for the Chesterton school, where the person most concerned with progress discovers he's "much the most medieval person present". There's also much to be said for the Pernoud view that everything bad about either modernity or the Ancien Regime is directly traceable to Classicism, which was, after all, fetishizing the views and habits of a bunch of misogynist bulimic slave-owning pederasts in togas and sandals.
  • I had said that "Talos" was an a-hole, but really, no, only Tiber Septim was. Talos is not Tiber Septim—he's Tiber Septim, Ysmir Wulfharth the Ash-King, and Zurin Arctus, Tiber Septim's battle-mage. The three of them together are an "enantiomorph", which I think is meant to mean "mirror form", because each is a Shezarrine—an avatar of Lorkhan the Doom-drum. Together, the three of them combined to return Lorkhan to the Aedra. "Talos" does not exist. He's just Lorkhan. I had suspected as much, but it's nice to get canonical confirmation. (Also, it's interesting to me that Shor welcomes Dragonborn, who are ordinarily not Shezarrines, when they're not Tiber Septim or Wulfharth—they're avatars of Akatosh/Auri-El, Shor's mortal enemy. Unless, of course, you subscribe to the theory that, just as Akatosh/Auri-El is an emanation from Anu, Lorkhan/Shor/Shezarr is an emanation from Akatosh/Auri-El, and their "enmity" is really some ritual reality rather than a relationship mortals would understand.)

    Oh, and the Thalmor excluding Talos from the pantheon? Yeah, they're not doing it because they're racists. They're doing it because men are Lorkhanic beings, and removing Talos again will remove Lorkhan's influence from Mundus. That, in turn, will supposedly allow the Thalmor to follow Auri-El into Aetherius (to the stars/spirit-world, which are the same thing in the Elder Scroll setting), undoing the Convention trapping the Ehlnofey in Mundus. Provided, of course, that they destroy all the Towers or deactivate their foundation-stones—and the Amulet of Kings and Heart of Lorkhan are gone, as was the foundation of Crystal-Like Law when the Daedra destroyed it. Falinesti was probably deactivated when its trees stopped walking. The only ones left are the Throat of the World and the Adamantine Tower, and the latter is really close to Thalmor-occupied territory.
  • There's a scene in one of the Dragon Age games where a character gets mad at the player for asking what other races are like, because they're made up of individuals and can't be generalized about. In, again, a Dragon Age game—AKA "post-colonial oppression-narrative identity politics, the RPG", by and for Social Justice Warriors who do nothing but generalize about "People of Color" (because all people with brown skin have identical experiences and interests). Ritualistic obeisance in the direction of individualism doesn't change the fact the entire rest of the enterprise is collectivist race-Marxism.

    It's like Calvinists talking about the mercy of God, when the whole rest of their theology makes God a monster who damns people at random for no reason—they still have to pretend he's merciful, because they're a heresy of Christianity, and Christianity is all about the mercy of God (never mind that that "mercy", to actually be a thing, sorta requires a very different theology, soteriology, and moral anthropology from that in Calvinism). In the same way, the post-colonial race-Marxists at BioWare are adherents of a heresy from within Liberalism, so they have to kowtow in the direction of the little fetishes of Liberalism even though the whole rest of their worldview is as illiberal as any despotism you care to name.
  • One setting detail I'm using in my campaign is that, instead of coins, the people use trade-beads. Humans use leaded glass beads and cranberry-glass, AKA ruby glass, which correspond in value to copper and silver pieces, respectively. Strings of beads weigh less, though (the numbers say over 620 to the pound; I round it off to 600/lb, which is 1/12 the weight of coins). Dwarves make beads from the same volcanic glass they make all their equipment out of, and their beads are worth as much as platinum pieces.

    Elf beads, worth as much as gold, are made from what looks like white leaded glass (I imagine a careless merchant might mistake it for the copper-piece equivalent—which, it occurs to me, would probably happen to platinum coins in a standard setting, being mistaken for silver). But the elf-beads glow faintly greenish in sunlight. It's called "vaseline glass", on Earth, because a long time ago Vaseline was green; we also call it "uranium glass", since that's what's in it. If people in my campaign world had blacklights they'd be able to make the elf beads glow. (No, it's not radioactive. The only risk with uranium glass—as also with uranium-glazed Fiestaware—is heavy-metal poisoning if it leaches into a beverage stored in a vessel made from it. It's only about as dangerous as leaded glass.)

    The reason I assign the basic leaded-glass trade-bead the value of copper is that wampum was roughly comparable to Dutch copper coins; one white bead was worth a duit (pronounced "dute"). My calculations make my beads significantly heavier than wampum, though (heavy-metal colloid glass is a lot denser than shell). The cranberry-glass beads, meanwhile, are the equivalent of silver, and the medium normal people do business in, because I dislike D&D thinking (as the SRD apparently does) that "the most common coin is the gold piece". In much of medieval Europe, the only coins were silver pennies and some copper subdivisions like farthings (1/4 penny), with everything bigger than the penny being a "unit of account" that didn't really exist.
  • I would dearly love to write Cosmic Horror fantasy in the Lovecraft Circle vein, but the trouble is, I don't believe in it. From the nihilist cosmology down to the merest details, I simply can't make myself feel it, so I can't write it. Fundamentally Lovecraft's hangups about tentacles and fungus are as silly and provincial, his own private neuroses, as his hangups about interracial dating. I just can't feel it; to me, a snake is about as hideous (Howard's favorite adjective for them) as a pigeon—which is just the other branch of the diapsids from snakes, the same one as crocodiles. Ironically, I think a part of it is that a great deal is known in science that either wasn't known in Lovecraft's day or that Lovecraft didn't bother to learn. E.g., relativity—from which Lovecraft tried to derive all manner of horrors—actually says that the cosmos is "isometric", which basically means it looks the same in every direction. That's kinda the opposite of what Lovecraft tries to get from it.

    Fundamentally, that the world is not expressly designed just to cater to my needs and desires seems, to me, no more equivalent to its being a horrendous monstrosity birthed by a malevolent blind idiot, than the fact other people do not exist just to validate and applaud me means they are bigots who hate me. The former seems little different from the latter, and both are at best adolescent posturing, if not full-blown psychotic paranoia. (Also narcissistic; I have said before that Lovecraft actually caters to the anthropocentric prejudices of his audience.) I do have creepy stuff in my fantasy, but it's the creepiness of "Fuan no Tane" or, really, any Native American mythology you care to become acquainted with (why is Death "a thin bluish creature" in Navajo myth?); it's not nihilism that originates the fear, but the creepiness of having walked by an open window on a dark night, and not daring to look out. I don't need to believe any Nietzschean-Dionysian nihilist cosmology to be discomfited by people looking in my window at night.

    This, it occurs to me, is the opposite of the Lovecraft method, and is the Chesterton method, as described in Heretics. "For a man walking down a lane at night can see the conspicuous fact that as long as nature keeps to her own course, she has no power with us at all. As long as a tree is a tree, it is a top-heavy monster with a hundred arms, a thousand tongues, and only one leg. But so long as a tree is a tree, it does not frighten us at all. It begins to be something alien, to be something strange, only when it looks like ourselves. When a tree really looks like a man our knees knock under us."
  • I also had some trouble getting that elvish script I came up with into font form. So, since I'm trying to not modify D&D except when I have to, in my campaign setting, my elves use the 3rd Edition version of Espruar, my dwarves use the 4th Edition dwarf writing, my gnomes use the Twilight Princess version of Hylian. No, they don't actually give their letters the same values as in English; X is used for "lh" in Elvish and "sh" in Dwarfish, for example.

    For human writing, I at first considered using the thing they use for Common in Eberron, but, like everything else in Eberron, it's ugly and not at all jibing with anything like my humans, let alone theirs. I kept trying to find something that looked like "normal human writing", from the point of view of someone who reads a Sinaitic-derived alphabet. I found one—ironically made by people for whom it probably gives an "exotic", "fantasy" feeling, because it's from a Final Fantasy game.

    Give me two cases that aren't just resizings, of course, and I'm going to declare the uppercase one to be the older, monumental one and the lowercase to be the younger cursive one.

2014/08/16

Tenuous Stuff from Which the World Was Made II

Worldbuilding thoughts, more or less. Thoughts about stuff directly or indirectly related to worldbuilding, certainly.
  • Back in February of this year, we actually passed the "break-even" point in fusion. Admittedly, only by 1%. Still: this is very important. From "how to pass that point at all" to "how to get far enough past that point to actually be useful" is a much smaller step than the one between "not past the break-even point" and "actually past it". Of course, everyone who wants fusion-power ought to be asked "How about just thorium-fueled fission power, for now?". And everyone who points out "fusion has been twenty years away for sixty years"—same question. If you think (possibly correctly) that fusion is unrealistic for the near future, why don't you advocate something useful? (Answer: because raining on others' parade is more ego-gratifying than being constructive.)

    Even uranium fission is a better solution than sitting around whining about the lack of fusion power—and much better, even in terms of radiation, than continuing to use coal-power, which is the main thing our societies actually use when they aren't using fission. But greens and their opponents are united in their lack of concern for how people actually live—mostly because they are also, almost to a man, united in being (upper-)middle-class Westerners who can take "we will have relatively cheap electricity" for granted. How to get electrical power, and the amenities it provides (which include sanitation and medical care along with luxuries) is not immediately their problem, so they feel free to yammer endlessly about the theory of it, without actually bothering about the practical aspects.
  • I was thinking, there is a period in Korean history called the "North and South Kingdoms Era", or Nambukgukshidae (the hanja are 南北國時代); it's from 698 AD to 926 AD. It's bracketed on either side by Three Kingdoms Eras, the later of which is called the Later Three Kingdoms (don't worry, in Korean "Later Three Kingdoms" is distinguished from "later Three Kingdoms", as in the late part of the era just called "Three Kingdoms", by more than just a capital L).

    That fact leads me to suspect that future historians, assuming that Korea does not stay divided forever (and I wouldn't put money on the North getting one more Dear Leader into office), will probably consider the current era of Korean history to be a Later North and South Kingdoms Era. Don't worry about the "kingdom" part; the hanzi "guo", 國, which is simplified to 国 in Japan, is also used in the names of republics; its basic meaning is "state" or "domain", without specifying how they're governed.

    The hanja for "Later North and South Kingdoms Era" would be 後南北國時代; it's pronounced Hunambukgukshidae.
  • In making zled laterality (handedness) "task dependent", where they use one hand to write and a different one to eat, apparently I've, quite by accident, put their laterality on the same basis as that of dogs (and perhaps cats and bears). You may have heard that male dogs are left-pawed and females right-pawed, and that cats are either right-pawed or have the same division as dogs, but there's apparently only two research papers that found laterality in dogs to be sex-linked, and one of them primarily found it when performing the "shake hands" trick, less when removing something stuck to the snout or an object over a piece of food. And I've been finding several other studies that not only challenge the "sex-linked laterality" hypothesis, but that show some evidence dogs show "handedness" mostly with new tasks, becoming ambidextrous as the task becomes more familiar (not sure how that handedness breaks down, though presumably not by sex, since the papers describing it also challenge the idea of sex-based handedness in dogs). There's also a paper I found that suggests lateralization in dogs is linked to immune function, with left-handed dogs having more lymphocytes and fewer granulocytes than right-handed ones (not sure whose immune system that means is better). Also? Apparently ambidextrous dogs are more likely to be afraid of loud noises.
  • Beans and corn, of course, are the staple crops of the New World, the ones that made all but one of the hemisphere's civilizations possible (some of the Mound Builders were agriculturists but hadn't domesticated corn—they grew squash instead). That's a pattern you get worldwide: grains and legumes, in combination, are the Agricultural Revolution, because the two in combination are complete protein. (For humans—try to keep dogs on that diet and I hope they use you as a protein supplement.)

    In Rome it was lentils and wheat; in medieval Europe it was peas and wheat. In Southeast Asia, Japan, Korea, and southern China, it's rice and soybeans—but in northern China, it's actually wheat and millet, and soybeans. (Actually in Japan and I do believe Korea millet was grown along with rice, since the farmers were not allowed to keep much of their rice, and lived on millet instead.)

    I'm not sure what the African legume was, other than peanuts; their big grains seem to be wheat and rice. In the Near East the legume seems to be chickpeas (maybe those are big in Africa too—other than North Africa, I mean?) and lentils, and they eat wheat and rice. In India the legumes are good ol' peas and lentils, plus mung beans and kin, and the grains are wheat and rice. Barley, come to think of it, probably shows up in India and everywhere west of it; I'm not sure about in Africa, though.
  • Getting rid of zledo having bayonets on their lasers, since they also use swords, and they can buttstroke just fine (and by "just fine" I mean "to a pulp"—imagine being pistol-whipped by a jaguar). I think they might also use the lasers to parry with when swordfighting, much like using a belaying pin in one hand and a cutlass in the other; while their weirdly designed sword-blades can probably actually cut the lasers if they hit just right (they aren't using metal anymore), it would have to hit just right. You parry with a (metal) sword, and if the other guy hits that just right he can snap your blade.

    Incidentally, I'm still torn whether zled swords should just be made of ultra-weird nano-engineered material, or actually have a small power-supply artificially strengthening their molecular bonds, like a sword made of General Products hull. On the one hand, you could probably get really funky properties from a substance whose every grain you brush into place with nano-bots; on the other, General Products hull sword! Actually it occurs to me I've hinted at something that kinda splits the difference—as I have it now it seems their swords aren't ordinarily powered, but instead of grinding or honing them to sharpen them, they do it electronically, re-aligning the structure of the blade and cutting edge to its optimal configuration.
  • Apparently Whorf, as in "Sapir-", came up with his theory based on Hopi lacking grammatical tense—that they have "no words, grammatical forms, construction or expressions that refer directly to what we call 'time.'"—which, he said, meant the Hopi have a "timeless" existence, whereas Westerners are obsessed with times and dates and slaves to the clock. There are two issues with that. The first, and probably more important, is that Hopi does have grammatical tense. The second, and perhaps illustrative of how linguists are not anthropologists, is, the Hopi lifestyle is absolutely rigidly determined by time, with days and seasons (maybe months, too) extraordinarily important in every aspect of how they conduct their affairs.

    Right, Professor Whorf, a people who have an annual rain dance at the same time every year—plainly, they have no way of referring directly to "time". A subsistence-agriculturist society is blissfully unconcerned with things like "seasons". A people almost all of whose ritual life takes place at certain prescribed times of day, nope, they plainly get by without having words for "time". I mean, they're not allowed to talk about their creation-story except in winter (a taboo they imparted to the Navajo, along with large portions of the mythology in question), but no, the season of the year has nothing to do with "what we call 'time.'". Nothing whatsoever, not a single, solitary thing!
  • I made an interesting discovery while researching how a species with a tapetum lucidum does the close-in tasks we associate with "intelligence". Tapeta lucida, after all, cause scattering of light, which blurs images—it's a bit like having cataracts. I had had zledo go with the method used by some crepuscular birds (I want to say nightjars?), of only having tapetum lucidum in half the eye—but in reverse, since zledo would have to see what's in their hands, under their eyes, in detail, while crepuscular birds have to deal with well-lit sky and poorly lit ground (think sunset, the earth is black while the sky is still light).

    But that's a weird thing to evolve (it seems like they might as well just not have a tapetum lucidum at all), but then I found out, sharks have a tapetum lucidum that is "occlusible", which is usually used to refer to the teeth fitting together in the mouth but here means "can be hidden" (it apparently means "closing", of eyes, as well). See, interspersed with the shiny crystals that make up their tapetum lucidum, a shark has melanocytes—pigmented cells. When the light is good, the melanocytes expand, blocking the tapetum lucidum and giving the shark good detail vision (your guess is as good as mine why they have it, since their way of investigating the world is "put everything in your mouth", not "look at it very carefully"). I think it's a bit like the various chromatophores in chameleon skin, but a lot simpler.

    I imagine that occluding the tapetum requires a certain amount of time in good light, so zledo wouldn't be blinded by bright flashes. On the other hand, going indoors after being outside in the dark might make their vision crummy for a few seconds (chameleons take about 30 seconds to change—octopuses, on the other hand, seem to only take 2-10 seconds), in terms of fine detail. (Also, the pigment they use for it isn't melanin, but anthocyanidin—the chromatophores in question presumably being "anthocyanidocytes".)
  • Incidentally, it's not true that chameleons don't use their color-change for camouflage. While, indeed, most chameleons do actually use the ability for social signaling—"living mood-rings" is the phrase that's bandied about—at least one kind of dwarf chameleon, "Smith's", does.
  • Zled markings, being made of anthocyanidin (the base color of their fur is structural; the only pigment present in their manes, though, is also anthocyanidin, while the manes ordinarily don't have structural coloring), are sometimes blue and sometimes red. It's differentiated by the pH of the anthocyanidocytes in the follicle, blue if the pH is 7 to 8 and red if it's 3 or less (and purple if it's 6-7, and blue-green if it's 8 to 10). Different ethnicities ordinarily have either red or blue anthocyanidocytes and thus markings—something like the "oily" or "crumbly" earwax genes present in human ethnicities. I think the genes aren't co-dominant, so a given individual would get one or the other; purple and blue-green markings, thus, would probably only be due to mutations or pathological conditions.

    Fur color, meanwhile, which is structural (like the blueness of jays), I think is co-dominant, so you might get pale-green children resulting from green and yellow parents (or vice-versa), or yellow children from green and orange parents. I think instead of purple children from blue and orange parents, you'd get green (since it's not a matter of mixing pigments, but of the structures in their hairs being midway in size between the two wavelengths). You'd also probably get the children of intermarriages sometimes having the "wrong" color, e.g. the blue and green people usually have blue markings, while the orange and yellow people usually have red, but they might get markings that don't match their fur-color. (The yellow-orange people don't have markings, except on ear- and tail-tips—which are blue—so I think their intermarriages sometimes result in children with faded markings, that might be the "wrong" color.)

2014/07/18

Blood and Treasure II

Although the first one with this title was slightly different, it really is the best name for a mixed xenobiology/speculative material culture post.
  • With regard to "laterality", I already made zled writing go left-to-right (yes, I have their alphabet worked out), so the majority of them write right-handed (lefties have to hold their hands funny to avoid smudging their ink, when they write left-to-right; that righties have to do that going right-to-left is why the Greeks switched the direction Phoenician was written when they adopted it for their language).

    I think zledo have opposite lateralization from humans, though, so either they regard writing as a novel/emergency activity (maybe because it's communication—social interactions are right-brained in Earth vertebrates), or else they do like cockatiels apparently do, and work on it with the opposite side from the one they'd look at it with (cockatiels usually manipulate food with the left foot, despite feeding being governed by the left side of the brain, which controls the right foot). Probably the first one, 'cause I don't think science has a handle on why cockatiels do that yet.

    I think they use the left hand (routine or familiar things, opposite of Earth) to eat (try holding a fork in your off-hand if you think there's no handedness in eating) and maybe when working on things that require no writing, since toolmaking arguably isn't a "novel"/"emergency" situation (even if the tool is novel its creation is usually roughly as routine as most feeding behavior).
  • A search of Le Blogue suggests I haven't mentioned it before, but did you know apiculture (beekeeping) is actually really unusual? In most cultures honey is a luxury, because you have to hunt down a wild honey tree and knock it down to get the stuff. Beekeeping is only known from China, the Maya, and Egypt—that last probably where the Jews and Greeks learned it (apparently the Babylonians tried to adopt it, but couldn't pull it off). African bees (a subspecies of European bee, hence why the two can breed) are so nasty because there is no apiculture in Sub-Saharan Africa; because the only way to get honey was to hunt it wild (destroying hives and killing lots of bees in the process), the people there basically, by accident, selectively bred their bees for aggression. A hive that's too dangerous to approach can't be hunted, after all.

    Mayan honeybees, meanwhile, are stingless. Maya apiculture was so important to some of them, especially the Chajoma (a branch of the Kaqchikel), that mead, along with pulque and corn beer, is one of the indigenous liquors of the New World; the Chajoma are actually called "beehive people" in the Popul Vuh. Personally I feel that we should study the causes of Colony-Collapse Disorder—then induce it in all European/African honeybee colonies in the New World. Replace the monstrous disgusting vermin with Mayan honeybees, which can't kill anyone. We'd probably have to breed them for a while to get their honey-production on par with the European ones, but anything is better than killer bees. Bringing in the Asian giant hornet would be better! (Those things hunt bees, and Euro-African bees don't have adaptations for defense against them.)
  • Speaking of mead, objectively, there are only eight kinds of fermented alcoholic beverage in the world. The two biggies, accounting for the vast majority of beverages, are ale made from grain, which includes sake and beer and the stuff made from millet and (American) corn; and cider made from fruit, which includes not only cider, pear-cider, and wine, but also things made from various melons and squashes (and even banana beer). Then you get mead from honey, blaand from whey, kumis from non-separated milk (usually of a horse), ibwatu/munkoyo made from sugary roots (which probably also includes the fermented-potato stuff that vodka is distilled from), neera and similar things made from sugary nectars, and pulque fermented from various sugary saps (which includes "palm wine").

    That last one arguably also includes things like boj and basi (the things we distill to get rum) that are fermented from sugarcane, since the juice we get cane sugar from is mostly sap. If you choose to count those separately, there are nine kinds of fermented liquor in the world. I came up with another one in my books: zledo have a drink made from fermented bug-shells, which have their chitin-analogue broken down into its component sugars, and then fermented into alcohol, by the gut-flora of a ruminant-analogue. (They have a legume-analogue they ferment by the same process, although that's arguably not that different from "ale", above, since none of their seeds correspond one-to-one with grain or legumes; indeed, they use the word for that stuff not only for our beer, but for our wine, since "fermented seeds" and "fermented fruit" look very similar to them.)

    It occurs to me that the mushroom-derived liquor consumed in Quarmall (in Nehwon) and by the drow in D&D, probably has to use something like the method zledo use with the bug-shells. Fungi, after all, have most of their carbohydrates locked up in chitin (rather than in cellulose like plants). I wonder if that makes Quarmallites go blind? Fermenting more complex carbohydrates tends to result in methanol, a problem seen sometimes in moonshine, when its makers use corncobs as well as the corn itself in their liquor.
  • The other day, I mentioned that "tortilla" means "little cake" ("torta" being "cake" like "strawberry tort"), and my dad asked why flat things are called cakes. I said that the original form of "cake" is what's encountered in "hotcake" or "pancake". The reason many medieval texts refer to, e.g., "cakes and ale", is because bread is actually a luxury item that requires centralized infrastructure. Originally only castles, and later major urban bakeries, could produce it, because only they had big ovens to bake it (or meat) in; ordinary people made their cooked flour-dishes by cooking on griddles and hearth stones. (Part of what this means is that piki-bread, of which you probably never heard, is misnamed—it's actually piki-cakes.)
  • So, apparently, you're going to eat a lot of sour, soy-sauce flavored, and spicy things on spaceships, and drink...tomato juice, apparently. Why? Airline food. I imagine most spaceships would probably have similar conditions inside to those on an airliner, i.e. relatively low pressure (airliners have the same internal pressure as is experienced at 2438 meters) and low humidity (c. 12%). That's why airline food tastes bad, taste-buds are used to having a certain amount of air and moisture to work with. The hardest hit are sweet and either salty or sour, so spaceships, like airlines, would lean heavily on things the passengers can still taste, like bitterness and savory (which I will call "umami" when someone explains why saying "savory" in Japanese makes more sense). Maybe that's why dry champagne is stereotypical of first-class? Astronauts eat hot sauce the way inmates smoke, although if they're not in free-fall you wouldn't have that trouble.

    Of course, some people would have less trouble with it that others; the few times I've been on airlines, and the one time I was on one that had a meal rather than just a snack, I didn't notice any problem with the food other than it being mass-produced school-lunch type fare. Why? I live at 2130 meters, and while my town's humidity is usually in the 40-50% range, I regularly go to Tucson, where the humidity is often 20% or lower (and they're still at 728 meters, which isn't comparable to the Colorado Plateau but it ain't the Eastern Seaboard, neither). My taste-buds are used to a much harder life than the average person's.

    In my setting, "modern" (c.2340s) spaceships have good enough climate control, vis-à-vis things like humidity, to have a stock of food that doesn't have to be over-seasoned or designed to work with the few taste-buds that still work correctly, because now they all do.
  • Was looking into capsaicin, for purposes of xenobiology. Decided zled physiology is much less calcium-heavy, since their bones are made of silica, so they use more sodium-gated nerve receptors, including in their TRP-channel analogues. What that means, among other things, is that while they have a chemical like capsaicin that activates their heat-receptors, just like we do, it doesn't work that way for humans...who experience it more like eating jellyfish venom. (Among the many hellish things in jellyfish venom—and seriously, what sea-god did we all anger?—is a sodium nerve-channel modulator, which is the main origin of the painful "being sliced with electrified red-hot razors" sensation from jellyfish stings.)

    Just one of many reasons not to eat alien food: aside from there being a very good chance you're allergic to their proteins (inasmuch as "allergic" means "the immune system mistakes it for a pathogen", and immune systems tend to err on the side of caution, for a reason), something they use to add a bit of "punch" might affect you as an agony-inducing neurotoxin. (It occurs to me that zledo might find poison-dart frogs spicy but otherwise harmless—assuming they take their antihistamines for the Earth proteins—since batrachotoxin, like jellyfish venom, also increases sodium influx in those ion-channels. Also, zled pepper-spray, which they presumably use mostly as a bouncer's weapon since they see no problem in carrying lethal weapons for self-defense, is probably lethally toxic to humans.)
  • With regard to the "split your skull by slapping it" thing, it apparently takes 2300 Newtons to crush a human skull. Given a jaguar-sized zled, it doesn't seem unreasonable to think they can do that, given that a tigress was measured inflicting 6200 Newtons while swatting around a ball (and no, tigers do not hit full-powered when playing). A heavyweight boxer named Frank Bruno apparently struck with 4100 Newtons. So why don't heavyweights split each other's heads?

    The deciding factor, probably more relevant than sheer brute force, is technique—two people can hit with the exact same force and get entirely different results, depending on things like "snap" versus follow-through, and the precise nature of the blow (e.g., a capoeirista can hit you just as hard with a bem são as with a martelo de bico, but the results are nothing like each other). Boxers are not trying to split each other's skulls, for multiple reasons—apart from the obvious ones (it's not actually a fight), is the fact that sending the opponent to the mat is enough to start the count in and of itself.

    Presumably it is more difficult for an untrained zled to get all the force of his blow into an opponent's head, rather than much of it just sending the opponent flying—though their entire adult male population has the equivalent of boot-camp and reservist training. It actually comes up that a zled who hits a helmeted human has a much better chance of breaking his neck than of smashing his skull (rapid head- and neck-movement—like that caused by a force that might, conceivably, split the skull if it hit differently—is theorized to be the source of most of boxing's one-hit KOs, by the bye).
  • Wasn't satisfied with the battery-powered mecha, so decided to do some searching around. Maybe methanol? Might use methanol for fuel-storage on spaceships, actually; they just split the methanol to get the hydrogen out (in a ruthenium-catalyzed process), without worrying about all the hydrogen that escapes simply through the gaps between atoms. Maybe use it in hydrogen fuel-cells, too. True, using methane as your storage-medium doesn't do a thing to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, but since we can use copper-oxide nanorods coated in cuprous oxide to synthesize methanol from carbon dioxide, that's probably a non-issue. (Late Addendum: Using methanol to store spaceship-propellant hydrogen adds too much weight, since methanol is only 12.6% hydrogen. It's still promising for every other purpose, though.)

    Methanol as a fuel isn't markedly different from gasoline—it's much less mass-efficient (5,472 and 2/9 watt-hours/kilogram versus gasoline's 11,777 and 7/9), but, one, that still means it only takes 3.25 kilograms/4.1 liters to power a 10-meter mecha (1,686 kilowatts) for one hour, and two, it's much less polluting and volatile than gasoline. Plus, methanol is easy to make, while gasoline has to be, pretty much, mined, and that only from places that have hosted life for millions of years. I figure 39 kilos/49.2 liters (which is 49,200 cubic centimeters—remember, SI units) is sufficient size for the fuel-tank...since it gives a full day of power. (Late Addendum 2: There's also the advantage that methanol is harder to ignite than gasoline, burns at a much lower temperature, and can be put out with water—all advantages for a military fuel.)

    Ruthenium, you might think (read the comments on that article I linked), is "one of the most expensive and rarest elements on the world", as that commenter put it. Here is where the mad scientist makes remarks about your lack of vision...because asteroid mining is an abundant source of ruthenium (indeed, all ruthenium mined on Earth was once on asteroids, since all the ruthenium actually incorporated into the Earth in its formation is currently deep inside it).

2014/06/24

Confirmanda de Veritate II

Reality checks. Several of 'em are for myself.
  • Did you know that the Hopi and certain other Pueblo peoples think they defeated the Spanish, in their respective uprisings (one of which is called "the Pueblo Uprising", although it wasn't the only one)? That is to say, a few groups of just-barely Neolithic subsistence farmers believe that they defeated the people who lived through 700 years of a gritty reboot of Red Dawn, and who were such pros at fighting in mountains and deserts that they handed Napoleon one of his few real, entirely human-caused defeats (Russia, of course, was a laurel for the brow of those two military geniuses, General January and General February). What actually happened in the Pueblos was, the Spanish essentially decided whatever they could get there wasn't worth the trouble of breaking them—and since both had made it clear they didn't want missionaries, that consideration was no longer a factor, either. The ease with which they could've wiped the rebellious settlements off the map is adequately expressed by the fact that their punitive expedition was able to systematically maim many leading members of the Revolt—not something that can be done by a force that isn't in near-complete control of the situation. But the Spanish had instituted a policy of appeasement with regard to hostile Indians (one that Mexico would largely continue, to their discredit when it came to the Comanche), so they left their retaliation at that.

    Why would the Spanish—who are one-half the reason the word "hot-blooded" is often followed by "Latin", in English—adopt a policy of appeasement? Well, because they more-or-less accidentally annihilated a couple of entire tribes in northern Mexico; they simply weren't used to fighting people whose entire adult male population could be killed in an afternoon. And remember, the Hopi now have three or four times their population in the era of their conflict with the Spanish...and it's still only 6,000-odd people. Hopi casualty numbers on par with those of Leonidas' personal guard at Thermopylae—not a conflict where guns, cannons, or cavalry played major roles, nor where one of the sides was armed with stone arrowheads against steel plate armor—could've been enough to completely wipe out Hopi culture, forever. (300 men would have been something like 60% of the entire adult male Hopi population. That is a demographic calamity a community may never recover from; the Hopi women and children would've been forced to disperse to neighboring communities, where they might well face enslavement in return for shelter.) The Spanish mercifully forbore to inflict such a fate over a handful of massacred colonists, and simply left.

    Then the Hopi shouted after them, "Yeah, you better run!"
  • Apparently I was wrong: the medievals, following Ptolemy, didn't think the universe was infinite, and they did think it was fairly small—73 million miles to the shell separating Earth, the moon, the sun, and the planets from the "fixed stars" (which were, I believe, conceptualized as windows into the Empyrean).

    73 million was still so much bigger than their (fairly accurate) estimate of the size of the Earth, courtesy of Eratosthenes, that for practical purposes two points on opposite sides of the Earth were on top of each other, relative to the scale of the heavens. It's the same as how, when dealing in kilometers, you generally ignore meters—at that scale, one side of, say, a house, is the same as the other side.

    They thought, by the way, that the stars were so close, because of a magnification of the "disc" of each star by the air—a phenomenon that wasn't discovered until 1828 (they knew that stars' sizes were distorted near the horizon, but didn't realize that it also happened even when the stars were directly overhead).
  • It also turns out, way back here, I was wrong about Puppeteers having parasitoid young making no sense, when they're herbivores. The majority of wasps that do that are actually herbivorous in adulthood.

    It still makes no sense for an intelligent species, though, because "intelligent" and "social" are essentially indistinguishable (there's no need to develop language if there's nobody to talk to, and without language intelligence is limited to the personal capabilities of individuals), and gregarious animals tend to be heavily K-selected (few offspring, reared carefully).

    K-selection generally doesn't go with the kind of "fire and forget" strategy that parasitoidism represents. Parasitoidism doesn't seem to go with any form of parental care; none of the eusocial wasps that I know of are parasitic, for instance.
  • When I said torture got much worse in the Middle Ages after the reintroduction of Roman Law, it seems I was understating the case. Apparently all torture in medieval society can be traced to Roman Law (which trickled back in, pretty much from the death of Charlemagne on).

    It had fallen out of use in the Common Law by the time of Charlemagne (whose laws were largely "Frankish", by which is usually meant "Gaulish"—other than inheritance-customs and fealty oaths, the Franks used the customs of their subjects, who were almost all Celts, and only semi-Romanized in the rural regions).

    We also have letters, dating from a bit after Charlemagne's death, from Pope St. Nicholas I to Boris I of Bulgaria, probably the first Christian prince of the Bulgars, about not using torture. Torture was of course a part of the customs of the pagan Bulgars, which surprises nobody with so much as a bookish ninth-grader's knowledge of anthropology.
  • Back here, where I said that aliens, portrayed as "a eugenicist military dictatorship, effete artisans of Byzantine complexity, an all-encompassing bureacracy, a rapacious merchant culture, a Proud Warrior Race", are "space-versions of Nazis, Communists, or various caricatures of the Japanese"? Well, it occurred to me, actually they're pretty much all actually some aspect, or stereotype of some aspect, of the Japanese. "Eugenicist military dictatorship" is Imperial Japan; "effete artisans of Byzantine complexity" is tea-ceremony Japan; "all-encompassing bureacracy" is Confucian Japan; "rapacious merchant culture" is 1980s industrial powerhouse Japan; and "Proud Warrior Race" is the samurai.

    Sure, all aliens in Japanese stuff that aren't kaiju or shrine-maiden princesses are basically Westerners (actually sometimes even the Godzilla-type are), but they do have the excuse of us having been an epoch-defining encounter for them. What's our excuse? (Well, we also do Television Indian-Noble Savage aliens, but go read the typical white hippie's conception of Shinto if you think that's not something we could be saying about the Japanese.) Actually, it occurs to me, we do have part of an excuse: when people call Japan "nation of contrasts", they may be being unoriginal but they're talking about a real thing (true statements often lack novelty, just one of many reasons novelty is no substitute for rational judgment). Japan's just got so much going on in its culture and history that virtually anything you can do in fiction will have a parallel there.
  • I find it amusing that people are still peddling the "Hollywood actresses are anorexic" folklore. Name one who is anorexic on-screen, since about the late 1990s. You can't. Know why? Boobs. After about 1996 or so, Hollywood started wanting actresses who were slender, but had generous busts (whereas actresses in the late '80s and early '90s were, indeed, very skinny, including being flat-chested). You simply don't get a big chest (or several other female features generally considered attractive) with eating-disorder levels of thinness.

    Which is not to say there is no anorexia in Hollywood, but it's not the actresses suffering from it. Nope. It's the men. Read that article. During the scenes where actors have their shirts off, they're literally anorexic—their trainers plan their diets so they're at minimal body-fat percentages (4-6% is considered the physiological minimum for the male body) during those shooting-days. And then there's the part about the guy who told his trainer he had so little trouble slimming down because he was on coke at the time. The trainer's response? "You should have told me, because I might have killed you. But I'd much rather have you doing a lot of blow than smoking a bunch of dope."

    Remember that next time you see a movie out of Hollywood about some other industry abusing its employees. Or about the treatment of greyhounds and race-horses, for that matter.

2014/06/04

Comentario 5

Random thoughts.
  • Even though "wheeled and tracked vehicles cannot travel on 40% of terrain" could justify walking artillery (assuming sufficient tech to make them work), it might still be asked why one doesn't just use aircraft for artillery platforms. But the answer, I think, is that aircraft are exposed; especially with the kind of technology that makes walking mecha feasible, anti-air fire is often too much of an obstacle, while walking mecha would be quite capable of taking cover. "Terrain" is essentially the same thing as having many tons of armor, for free, if you use it smart and don't let yourself be flanked.

    A large proportion of our assumptions about the future of mechanized warfare come from current conditions—where the "first string" technologically-advanced militaries never fight each other, they only fight insurgencies and third-string rogue states. That's not a condition anyone should count on being permanent. When the time comes that two high-tech militaries engage each other (it doesn't have to be in an "existential" war, the US and Russia or China might just be chasing each other's troops out of someplace like Iraq or Ukraine), we'll see what the real "future" war would look like.
  • I imagine that a mentally alert person who has somehow managed to still think religion and superstition are related (except for being negatively correlated), would probably get a headache upon prolonged exposure to the culture of Japan. It's a very secular country, where most people only attend shrines for New Year and births, and temples for funerals—but it's also a place where superstition runs rampant. I mean, you ever notice in anime how the girl who wants to get a bigger chest is always drinking milk? Well, why do you think that is?

    The answer is "if you eat your enemy's brain you gain his cleverness". Well, not quite, but it is based on a folklore principle that you eat liver to cure liver-trouble. A girl who wants to grow her chest drinks milk because milk comes from that part of the body (well, actually, its equivalent on a cow, but same difference). Admittedly, if it's whole milk, it might actually help (half-and-half would be better, and cream would be better than that), but so would eating lots of bacon.
  • I discover that mechanical counter-pressure space-suits have to be custom-made for their individual wearer. Now, admittedly, that's a lot easier with 3D printers, but it'd still realistically run into money (apparently it's also a pain in the ass to make gloves for 'em, although with future technology it might be more feasible to map the "lines of non-extension" even for a hand). But what do you do if you're a passenger on a ship, someone who does not ordinarily travel in space, and the habitat loses pressure? Simple, you zip yourself into a big inflated ball (presumably made of radiation-insulating materials).

    I wonder if zledo would actually have quite as much need for pressurized suits as we do? See, your skin actually maintains pressure pretty nicely, although it swells up (presumably quite uncomfortably) in a vacuum—you still have to protect your exposed soft tissue, of course. You also have to stuff your armpits and various cleavages even in a mechanical-counterpressure suit (maybe inflated underwear is a solution?). But zledo are built for flexibility on par with a cat, and, have you ever seen a hairless cat? They're covered in accordion baffles, because their skin is so loose. So a zled might be able to get by much more comfortably with a spacesuit that's much less careful about pressure, because his skin can expand much more before he starts to hurt.
  • Another thought about spacesuits is, while the "heraldry as personal identification" idea is fine (albeit why not just put an IFF transponder in the suit?), most people's conception of it ignores the actual nature of heraldry. Heraldry is not a vehicle for personal expression. It is a highly conventional, stylized system of communication, registered with a central body. If someone needs a degree in modern art to identify your escutcheon (Mr. Niven!), then it really isn't very useful as heraldry. This is also why nations founded after the invention of photography still use highly stylized emblems, rather than photographs, on their flags, and why commercial products have logos, rather than just photographs of the products in question.

    Now, it's entirely believable to say people paint all kinds of stuff on their suits for personal expression—but if they do, then for purposes of identification, they're probably going to just go with my IFF transponder idea. Especially if they're as individualistic as Belters (individualistic enough, that is, to be incapable of surviving in space longer than three generations), who presumably wouldn't want to have to deal with a centralized heraldry college. (Besides, we all know that what Belters would really paint on their suits would be wizards, dragons, and unicorns. But even mural vans still have license plates, proving my point.)
  • Pace glorified editorialist and hack dramatist noted historian Voltaire, the Holy Roman Empire had its ruler crowned, and blessed, by the Pope (rather than having him place his crown on his own head like the Byzantine αὐτοκρατής); used Roman law instead of Common Law, which was used in France until sometime after the scandal of the daughters-in-law of Philip the Fair; and was a confederation of aristocratic states with a unitary executive, and even pursued expansion by conquest.

    It was arguably as much of an Empire as Byzantium, or for that matter Tsarist Russia, Napoleonic France, Victorian England, or Hohenzollern Prussia; and certainly more of one than China, the Mughals, or the Ottomans. It was significantly more Roman than Byzantium, and its laws (though not its common language), for most of its 1005 years, were much more Roman than those of France. The only adjective that can actually be doubted is "Holy"...but Voltaire wouldn't know holiness if it jumped up and punched him in the mouth (it is not open to doubt that holiness would punch Voltaire in the mouth).
  • Was thinking. Thoughts were, one, that "Fifty Shades of Grey" is apparently a third of all the shades of gray your eye can distinguish, and two, that if the khângây were to write it, they would call it "Five Hundred Shades of Gray" (actually they'd call it "Seven Eights-squared, Six Eights, Four, Shades of Grey"—they have four fingers per hand).

    Except that they wouldn't, because (apart from their artisan-dominated culture encouraging a thing called taste), their potlatch-like culture disapproves of fan-fic, and that story began as Twilight fan-fic (it actually manages to make Twilight canon look healthy—and your civilization made it a best-seller, in the best argument yet for the Colony Drop). While the finished product sufficiently disguised its origins that even they couldn't complain, in a society with potlatch attitudes, E. L. James never would've started.

    Say what you will about intellectual property, making much of the concept would've prevented Fifty Shades of Grey.
  • If you wanted an example of how illiterate people are nowadays, you couldn't look much further than the very concept of the "linguistic turn" in modern thought. See, all philosophy before Descartes and Kant was linguistic; all the Hindu philosophers were grammarians (except a few who were mathematicians), while Aristotle's entire metaphysics was framed in terms of "we say X when Y"—it is as much functional grammar as it is epistemology. Augustine's "On Christian Doctrine" has been called, not without justification, "the pioneering work on semiotics".

    But, of course, unlike those most associated with the "linguistic turn", those ancient people didn't primarily devote themselves to constructing elaborate taboo-avoidance language—even though the Hindu ones believed that the grammar of Sanskrit was the foundational structure of the cosmos. You'd be hard-pressed to find anyone acquainted with the smelting of iron who thinks the primary purpose of linguistic speculation is finding ways to avoid inauspicious words; that's a behavior more associated with people who call all metals "flint". Outside of academia, anyway.
  • Well, I was trying to figure out how to get my head around how the zledo handle their lasers—a 60 mm (well, actually, 64.35 mm, because they aren't going to use round numbers of our units) lens is a bigger diameter than any current weapons except mortars and RPGs. Then I realized, though, that giving it an equilateral triangular casing is interesting, from a design standpoint; it has to be pretty wide, but it occurred to me you can stick things in the corners.

    So I decided the point under the lens (the triangle is flat side up—it's still worn at the waist rather than over the shoulder, with the flat against the hip and the grip designed for a cross-body draw) is where you can attach your bayonet or flashlight or, if you're using a very high-precision laser, a bipod. The other two points, I decided, are where they insert the heat-sinks, which I think vent along the bottom edge of those corners. Zledo, having fur and much tougher skin than humans, don't have to be very careful with their heat-sinks (remember how cats' fur actually starts to burn before they find a heater uncomfortable?), but humans using zled weapons have to watch out.

    I also decided to ditch the vaguely stone-looking material for the casings. Now the police sidearms ("hand lasers") are matte black (because their uniforms are black), while the military weapon ("long lasers") are the same fuchsia as their uniforms. Zled heavy weapons, which includes a c. 30 kJ anti-materiel laser, as well as grenade-launchers and RPGs, are orange (the stuff that still has to act as a pressure vessel, like the grenade-launchers, has a hexagonal casing).