2015/03/25

De romanicorum theoriarum X

Spec fic thoughts.
  • I know I have mentioned that transhumanism shares an origin with Russian Cosmism. Apparently that's actually fairly widely acknowledged; both are quasi-millenarian eschatologies attached to the then-current "hot" technology. But apparently its links to space-weirdness are much more immediate than that. A comment, on an article about how "mind uploading" is the desire to have your Pre-Tribulation Rapture and eat it too, was about how a lot of the early transhumanism conjecture was originally think-tank speculations about space colonization. Mostly from the L5 Society, a space-colonization advocacy group closely associated with the ideas of Gerard K. O'Neill (it's since, according to Wikipedia, merged with the National Space Institute).

    For example, the original form of the "abolish involuntary death" thing? Suspended animation for interstellar missions. The original purpose of a lot of their AI speculation was for making long-range unmanned missions able to cope with the unexpected. Apparently Drexler, of "coined the term 'gray goo'" fame, originally began speculating about nano-tech in the context of, e.g., nano-engineered materials for solar sails. His original idea was bionic, the tech modeled on organic, living structures and their operations (that's what "bionic" means, you know—it's a synonym of "biomimetic", although that term is more specific—remember, contrary to what the Devil's Catechisms called thesauruses teach, synonyms are seldom wholly coterminous).

    And honestly, considering their origins, I'm kinda glad they morphed into transhumanism. Bad video games and funding research into the intrinsically impossible are a long sight easier to take than a Colony Drop. (And maybe it's a good thing we're nowhere near having colonies yet: crash the ISS into the planet at the speed of a typical asteroid impact, and it only hits with 14.5 kilotons of force. That's about 2/3 as big as the Little Boy, admittedly, but not an extinction-level event. Crash an Island Three into the planet at that speed—assuming its mass varies from that of an Island One, 95.5 teragrams, as much as its volume does, 22,869 times—and it hits with 75.4 teratons of force, almost exactly 3/4 the force of the Chicxulub impact.)
  • I don't have anywhere in my books to put something of the sort, but apparently there's a bird (that might also be a dromaeosaur) called Microraptor. Apparently it was very common in China in the Early Cretaceous—being the size of a pigeon or small crow, and probably living like a pigeon (it probably wasn't smart enough to live like a crow). They think they mostly glided but also, occasionally, flew. The reason they think Microraptor mostly glided (also the reason I bring it up)? Well...it had four wings. We've got the preserved impressions of the flight feathers on its hindlegs.

    In other "weird dinosaur anatomy" news, though not that extreme, did you know parrots have a hinge on their upper jaw? It's called the craniofacial hinge; I think it changes the leverage for cracking nuts. And then there's the fact ostriches are not the only birds with claws in their wings ("ostriches have claws in their wings", just to get us all on the same page). Owls, chickens, and waterfowl often do too. As in normally, not like those occasional humans born with tails. It's not just hoatzins (which have claws as adults, they're just only particularly useful when they're chicks).
  • Was thinking about Talos, and Sigmar, and the Emperor of Man—so about Sigmar, basically. The people who wrote Warhammer Fantasy Battle, and those who copied them (some of them were probably copying themselves), were obviously trying, by their divinized emperor, to make a low-calorie substitute for Christianity, for their fantasy setting. Leaving to one side the fact many if not most historic "Emperors" were divinized, without creating something much like Christianity...Christianity is actually the exact opposite. Christ is not divinized man, man exalting himself; he is humanized God, God abasing himself.

    Interestingly, I think, the rather vague concept of "the Light", in Warcraft, achieves a much closer result—since The Light is at least an overarching cosmic reality one might describe as "the form of the Good". Talos is just Lorkhan, Sigmar is just ancestor-worship, and the Corpse on the Golden Throne is just the Collective Unconscious given human shape—none of which is remotely comparable to what "God" means, in the "Judaeo-Christian" context. One gets the impression that the writers of Warhammer, and their imitators, think that God is a god. And he really, really isn't. He's not even a being; he's Being.

    (One is reminded of those atheists, often to be found in the comboxes of Christian websites, who think that disbelief in the Christian God is a thing like disbelief in Odin. This casts their oft-repeated catchphrases about "Bronze Age myth" into sharp relief—because the idea that God was "a particular god", the only one they were allowed to worship, was actually the position of the Jews in the earliest days of their religion...which is the terminal phase of the Bronze Age. By the time we get to the First (Solomon's) Temple, we're already well into the Iron Age. Identification of Ha-Shem with Ultimate Reality—understanding of the true significance of his Name, and abandonment of "henotheism" for monotheism—can only be definitively placed to the Second Temple period, either due to contact with Persian thought, or even because of contact with Platonism in the Hellenistic era.)
  • Not directly speculative-fiction, but certainly relevant to more than a little of it, is the interesting fact that not one of the "big three" New World civilizations is referred to by the right name. "Maya", for example, is a term used only by the Yucatec and Itza' ("Yucatec", incidentally, is not their name, being Nahuatl—"Maya" is). From what I can tell, and as I believe I've mentioned before, the only collective term for "Mayan"-speaking cultures is something along the lines of "Yoko T'an", which probably means "clear talkers", i.e. "not babbling barbarians".

    "Clear speech" is also what "Nahuatl" means, as distinct from "nonoalcah" (s. "noalcatl"), the babbling-barbarian "deaf-mutes". And while we're at it, nobody was ever called "Aztecs"; the term, again, is forbidden, since Aztlan is the Place of Emergence and that's always esoteric. The people we usually think of by that term actually called themselves Mexica (whence "Mexico") or Tenochca (after their center, Tenochtitlan...which would become Mexico City); their chief rivals were the Tlaxcaltecah of the Tlaxcala Alliance. If there is a collective term for Nahuatl-speaking peoples, other than something deriving from "Nahuatl", I think it's "Colhua", which means something like "people with ancestors", i.e. "civilized"; their specifically city-dwelling "civilized" portion (which was never all Nahuatl-speakers) might have been called Toltecah, which means literally "reed people" but idiomatically "artisans", and is always contrasted with Chichimecah "savages".

    Finally, the Inca: "inka" is just their word for "aristocrat". Calling the whole society that is like calling the Hohenzollern state "the Junker Empire". The "Inca Empire" was actually known as "Tawantinsuyu", which means "(State of) the Four Directions". The people themselves seem to have been called simply "Runa" or "Nuna", which (per usual) means "people", although the Spanish called their language(s) "quechua", from something like "ketsua", which seems to mean the temperate altitudes in the Andes that are suitable for growing corn (so, metonymically, something like "corn-growers", if it were a demonym).
  • Tried to get into "Dantalion no Shoka". Nothing doing. See, the guy's a British aristocrat. Worse, his uncle seems to have been killed (I seem to recall there's actually more to it than that) by a rival book-collector.

    If the phrase "rival collector" made the words "18th century cow-creamer" spring unbidden to your lips, you have the same problem I do. Namely, P. G. Wodehouse has utterly demolished any mystique the British aristocracy could possibly have. You might as well try to pass off Martha's Vineyard as Innsmouth.

    This is also a major problem, for me, with Black Butler—although that series' soul-blighting badness, in every possible regard (well, I guess its art looks okay), is of course a bigger factor.
  • I keep criticizing the the unexamined assumption of a lot of science-fiction writers, that wars between species would be genocidal. Part of the problem, I think, is an assumption—accurately associated with the Nazis, who actually acted on it, but actually common to almost all of "late modernity"—that conflict between human groups is characterized by genocide. But...it never was. Like, ever. Aside from the fact that, as I've said, Genghis Khan or Attila the Hun would find the idea blasphemously bloodthirsty, there's another issue: the vast majority of human cultures have not been "civilized". And hunter-gatherers and pastoralists don't have the concept of genocide, because they are (again contrary to the mythic chanting of our Lysenkoists) not collectivist enough.

    It's true. Pace hopped-up chorus girl with a social-work degree noted anthropologist Ayn Rand, collectivism is civilization, except where that civilization is leavened with elements of (the shocking blasphemy makes David Brin rend his garments and cry aloud on Azathoth the Blind Idiot God) "feudalism". Both Upper Paleolithic societies like those of the Australian Aborigines, and Neolithic cultures that don't live in cities, like most Native Americans, simply don't think of people as "members of a particular category" the way Greeks or Romans (or "Enlightenment" Europeans) do. Neither do Iron Age non-"civilized" societies, like the Norse or Zulus. Most of them, instead, only think of two categories. See, the reason so many ethnonyms mean "friendlies" (lakȟóta) or "our own people" (svíar) is because "people who speak my language—and therefore aren't appropriate targets for raiding" is one of two dichotomous categories...and all the rest of humanity is lumped together in the other, "foreign devils who could stand to be relieved of their property". (Pace Rand again, "not raiding them" is generally one's sole responsibility to non-kin "fellow tribesmen", in such societies—there's a reason "civic duty" has the word for "city" in it.)

    Because un-"civilized" people lump all mankind together into "strangers", the idea of eliminating all the "strangers" is automatically ridiculous—because no such culture is stupid enough to like its chances, trying to murder all the rest of mankind. That kind of ambition requires a much more "global" reach than any "uncivilized" culture even pretends to be capable of. And even most ancient civilizations, whatever their conquering ways, would regard eliminating the people of a subjugated tribe as insanely cruel and evil; they were content to impose their laws and culture, generally not all that deeply in the latter case (the Gauls, Britons, or Egyptians were none of them very Romanized, and there's a reason Cantonese people are a very different culture from northern China). Even enslavement, although predicated (in both the civilized and the not) on "I have spared your life, now you're mine", was not conceptualized as "I spared you from the annihilation that is the due of the outsider", but merely "I have chosen not to kill you, as I totally get to, during wars or raiding against whatever 'strangers' happen to be handy". No; genocide is an idea unique to the "Enlightenment"—just like how even the Sun King would've regarded it as gross overreach to try to annihilate the Basque language.
  • I should hope that you know "evolving into pure energy" is ridiculous. But do you know how ridiculous? Well. I crunched the numbers, I was bored.

    Every organism—essentially every conceivable organism, since it's very difficult to predicate "life" of a fusion-plasma—only actually uses one kind of energy, chemical, the energy binding electrons to protons. An average of 3.2 million times more energetic than chemical energy, is fission, which involves the energy binding protons and neutrons together in the nucleus. And then, about an order of magnitude more energetic than fission, is fusion, which is the energy required to crush atomic nuclei into entirely new atoms. Finally, one hundred times as energetic as fusion, is the conversion of matter to energy. That is to say, "becoming energy" is one thousand times as energetic as fission, and 3.2 billion times as energetic as metabolism.

    And you think someday your guts will "evolve" to the point of being able to accomplish this? That, after all, is where energy comes from, for the kinds of things whose evolution we're talking about: shoving dead things into orifices, and rotting them in specialized composting-organs. Please, demonstrate the tendency to develop so much as a fission process, in metabolism, before you wax sanguine about the prospect of matter-energy conversion! Kindly explain the process by which an organism will acquire its "Mr. Fusion" organ—since that presumably must exist in some intermediate stage between life "as we know it" and this mass-to-energy apotheosis.

2015/02/28

Rannm Thawts Five

Random, as I said, thoughts. 536 is 23 × 67
  • Turns out, I may have been wrong—it might be possible to ferment mushrooms into alcohol, without creating methanol. You just have to break the chitin down into fructose first, for which, apparently, you use bacteria cultures—specifically of the Vibrio genus, which are the agent responsible for seafood-associated gastroenteritis, and also are the thing that breaks down all the chitin the world's aquatic arthropods shed. Maybe in a fantasy setting you store your mushrooms in jars with raw oysters?

    The Vibrio bacteria break the chitin down into sugar; you have to use raw mushrooms, since a cooked mushroom's chitin content drops from 8% to 2.7%. Then you boil the resulting sugar, perhaps with the remains of the mushrooms, which kills the bacteria. Then you add your yeast and ferment as normal. I would think the non-chitinous parts of the mushroom lend a flavor to the resulting brew, too.

    Of course, the genus Vibrio is best known for a little fellow called Vibrio cholerae—and notice what the specific name is. Compared to cholera, even methanol from moonshine is nothing to worry about. Though, you'd probably use V. parahaemolyticus, which usually causes much milder, food-poisoning kind of symptoms, and is found in freshwater snails. (And, again, boiling solves the problem, and it's a part of all brewing.)
  • I don't know if you recall, but I had expressed a wish for a JRPG that didn't feature some eighth-grader's attempt at deconstruction. You know, where every character, group, and institution didn't have a bunch of dark secrets and hidden agendas.

    It's called Fire Emblem, and it also features an actually half-decent romance mechanic and, in the latest one, Awakening, time-travel that isn't crap. I don't play turn-based JRPGs for "challenge", so I play it on "normal" difficulty and "casual" mode—especially that second one, because without it, people can get killed in your fights, and that's no fun. (Although I still don't know how the alternative works, because whenever I lose a character, I reset, exactly as I would without the casual-mode on.)

    A tip: play it in Japanese. Aside from Awakening having Ono Daisuke, Kana Asumi, Sawashiro Miyuki (!!), and Koyasu Takehito, is the fact they haven't done a good job dubbing a game into English since Infinite Undiscovery in 2008. Be warned, though, the "subtitles" are actually the close-captioning of the English (I think—confirming the suspicion would require playing it with English voices, and that ain't happening), and often aren't actually what the Japanese says—to the point of "Kega de wa arimasen ka?" being translated "Hang on tight!" (it means "Are you unhurt?").
  • Searching the blog suggests I haven't mentioned it before, but if I have, excuse the repetition: zled milk is solid at room temperature, rendered liquid by their body temperature. How? Zledo, like ostriches (which have the same mass) have a body temperature of 313 Kelvin (40° Celsius, 104° Fahrenheit). Cheeses begin to melt long before that point, and not having been cultured, it doesn't have the kind of protein-matrix that holds cheese together up to c. 322 K (49° Celsius/120° Fahrenheit) or even higher.

    Now, it doesn't exactly turn into "cheese", per se, when it cools—more a nutritious wax (although arguably that's what cheese is), something like lanolin, which has a melting point of 311 K/38° Celsius/100° Fahrenheit. (The Lhãsai mammary is a sebaceous gland, while the Earth one is probably a sweat gland.) The milk of zledo is still consumed in liquid form (because they nurse), but when they consume the milk of domestic animals (mostly zdhyedhõ'o, the dog-horse things), they don't drink it, they eat it. (Its texture when cold is more like soft cheese—brie, say, or camembert—or even like butter, than it is like lanolin, though; they slice it.)
  • This won the 2013 Best Short Story Nebula, and was nominated for the 2014 Hugo in the same category. And truly, the writer displays an ability to touch the emotions reminiscent of...Edward D. Wood, Jr.

    Because seriously, this is a level of risible bathos on par with Bride of the Monster. Maybe, just maybe, this...textual output...can work its way up to the artistic level of a Roger Corman flick—something like, say, It Conquered the World. But I wouldn't get my hopes up. (Maybe get Beverly Garland to give it a whirl—though it might be beyond even her talents, in a way that even "act like this is a threat" wasn't.)

    Is it impolite to point out it's "T. rex", not "T-Rex"? Or that they didn't have any voices at all, "rough, vibrating" or otherwise? They also, if they had any lips at all (see previous post—dinosaurs probably didn't have much in the way of lips, along with their lack of real cheeks), certainly didn't have the kind that can be curled back to bare "fangs".

    Ed Wood III here, in her author-profile, says her husband is a "dinosaur fanatic". It's funny to me because this is obviously some weirdass "hurt-comfort" fantasy of theirs where he also gets to be a paleontologist (never mind the kind of physique, mien, and bearing that generally go with field-work like that). It's also heavy-laden with ideologized adolescent persecution-complex. And this not only got published in an actual magazine—an alleged SF magazine, no less—it also got the Nebula, and could've got the Hugo! (This is starting to look less like work of the Ed Wood/Roger Corman kind and more like work of the Legato Bluesummers/Sephiroth variety.)
  • Scorpion may be the world's single worst show. Like, ever. Its basic conceit is "stupid person's idea of smart people"; and it's risibly implausible from its smallest details to its overaching plot-structure. It is, in other words, an infinite fractal of jaw-dropping incompetence, every aspect of its creative enterprise being one-dimensional yet having mathematical properties that let it resemble a surface.

    This show is so bad, my father—who sat through the reboot of Battlestar Galactica until the very end, when the whole rest of our family had bugged out in the second season (he had no illusions about its quality, he just has a very high threshold of pain)—was either the first or the second to decide, after only the first episode, that it was not worth watching.

    Plus, seriously, writing the title the official way—"</Scorpion>"—is moronic. It's annoying to write in an HTML editor (because it gets interpreted as code, and thus vanishes, if you don't write it with "character entities"), which completely neuters the point of having it, in this day and age. Why did they do that—did they realize they were going to get mocked for thinking "nothing says hip and edgy like closing your nonsensical XML tags"? What does the "scorpion" tag indicate, anyway—and who would need it? (Mortal Kombat's code probably doesn't include a lot of XML.) At least the forward slash in Face/Off won't make it instantly vanish if you write it that way, outside of the file-system of a PC.
  • Did some research. There's a guy in my third book who has electric-eel type electrocytes replacing some of the muscle-tissue of his forearms—letting him deliver shocks with his hands. (He's a transgenic assassin with the genes of electric eels spliced into his DNA. His partner is a girl with the genes of poison-dart frogs, who can kill anyone whose mucous membranes touch hers—except for him, because he's also got genes from the fire-bellied snake, Liophis epinephelus, the only known predator of dart-frogs, in his saliva glands and mucous membranes.)

    What I was researching was whether his powers also work on zledo. A lethal current for a human is, apparently (sources vary, but I'm going off what the electric eel article on Wikipedia says is the minimum to cause heart fibrillation), 700 milliamperes for longer than 30 milliseconds—an electric eel applies 1000 milliamperes over 2 milliseconds, which is why they seldom kill humans unless they stun them and cause drowning. Our assassin friend can flex his electrocyte-muscles longer than an eel can, though (I guess 21 milliseconds is necessary, at one whole amp?); he's a human being with willpower and spec-ops training. Also, eels don't know, and aren't anatomically set up, to grab both of their enemy's biceps at the same time, to be sure current goes through his heart (although they do coil around the chests of animals, which isn't creepy at all).

    It was hard to research this: if we're supposed to be able to find "anything" on this wonderful Internet thing, can you tell me how strong a current has to be to induce electronarcosis in an ostrich? I found out how strong to do it to a calf, though (a calf at typical slaughter-weight is the same size, c. 100 kg, as a female zled), and it's 1250 milliamps. (It doesn't say for how long, probably a couple dozen milliseconds like a human.) I think I can conclude—since he hasn't got the amperage to stun or kill a female zled, let alone a male one—that no, his powers do not work on adult zledo, even without the fact their military uniforms have an energy-dissipating lining. He'd probably go after the exposed head, going for electronarcosis instead of cardiac arrest, anyway, if the zled was not his target.
  • So...I had to describe part of an adolescent character's school-day, on a planet with a different day-length from Earth. I'm not complaining; it's cool to describe daily life under circumstances other than ours. I consider that the sine qua non of science fiction. But it forced me to come up with a way to do timekeeping on that kind of planet. And, as always, when there's already a real solution to the issue, I use the real solution.

    When NASA sends a probe to Mars, its timekeeping consists of dividing Mars' day (24 hours 37 minutes 22 seconds) into 24 hours of 60 minutes of 60 seconds. Those seconds, though, are 2.7% longer. So I did the same thing. One thing that's interesting is, if humans and aliens both do this, the difference of their units becomes, on every planet, the same as the number of units they divide the day into.

    What I mean is, zledo divide their day into 12 zbeihõlto of 120 aecho of 120 dothã'o; in terms of their equivalent of "Julian" time, their time-units are not evenly divisible by ours (because their day is not the same length ours is). But on a colony world, where they and we redefine the base unit (second and dothã) according to the stellar day's length, theirs is simply twice what ours is—because they divide a day into exactly twice as many dothã'o as we do into seconds.
  • It is occasionally said, and truly—therefore not often enough—that writers' workshops have ruined more than one good writer. The essential problem is that a lot of people, for one reason or another, turn off their brains when asked to evaluate a narrative work. I don't know if they're trying to be helpful, and assume that the audience is entirely composed of oblivious thickheaded children, or what, but they certainly act as if that's what's going on.

    For instance, a student film by the ane-ue, this one, with the ghost train. Did you notice the wanted poster of No-Name, there right at the beginning? Yes, well, when ane-ue was getting feedback on her storyboards from her class, somebody asked, and I quote, "What does she have that the bounty hunters want?" You know. The woman on the wanted poster. What does she have, that the bounty hunters want? Gee, Davy, do you think it might be a bounty on her head?!

2015/02/18

De romanicorum theoriarum IX

Speculative fiction thoughts.
  • Has anyone ever considered that maybe what they like about the laughable drivel that passes for worldbuilding in Firefly is that there's nothing there? And thus they can project their own personal prejudices into it? Or you explain how so many right-wingers managed to think a Joss Whedon work was not a very long-winded personal attack on them, specifically.

    Or put another way, Firefly's setting is the worldbuilding equivalent of Bella Swann. Its "flaws", after all, are about as realistic as her alleged clumsiness and unpopularity—in this otherwise fascistically exploitative setting, we have a form of squeaky-clean sanitized prostitution that never has nor ever could exist (let alone in a totalitarian society), because Whedon wants to fantasize about dignified "spiritual" whores. Just like how Bella is supposed to be so clumsy and dorky and gawky, and yet four guys practically ask her out in the first chapter, because Meyer's audience wants to fantasize about turning down lots of suitors before they get Mr. Right.

    But at least Twilight is a bleached-britches bodice-ripper where all the bodices are ripped offstage; nobody expects coherence. What's Whedon's excuse for whitewashing prostitution, the most efficient means of producing misery the human race has ever invented? A less charitable person might suggest a common origin between Firefly's paeans to the beauty of the sex-trade and the fact its good guys are the Space Confederacy. (The charitable explanation—that the Browncoats lack the moral ambiguity of the Graycoats merely because Whedon and Minear are too unintelligent and immature to grapple with the moral complexities of the Civil War—is also the one that fits the facts, namely that Whedon and Minear are a pair of rock-stupid adolescents.)
  • There are exactly two types of birds with cheeks, I discover. Parrots (most noticeable on the largely bare-cheeked macaws), and the california condor. And there are no muscles in the condor's cheeks, they're just an extension of its dewlap. Aside from the interest of this to paleo-artists (because exactly two extant dinosaurs have cheeks, and they almost certainly developed them quite late), is its interest to science fiction writers. Do your aliens have cheeks? Now would be a pretty good time to consider it.

    Zledo have cheeks, and indeed lips much like mammals (though more like a cat's than a human's, hence why they can't say "F"), but the flesh, its keratins being in β-sheets, probably looks a bit more like that of macaws (except a different color, and at no point giving way to beak). Khângây don't have cheeks, they have only as much "lip" as lizards, and produce sounds that other species perceive as "labial" with their extremely complex vocal apparatus, the same way birds do. (They also don't have teeth, they have cutting-surfaces like armored-jawed fish.)

    ...I just decided right now that thoikh don't have cheeks or lips, meaning when they talk it looks unsettlingly like their face splits in half...and their teeth, which are onyx-colored, fold backward when their mouths close, like a snake's (although they look more like a crocodile's). They also, I think, have a second row of teeth in the roof of their mouth, again like a snake. (I imagine that they pronounce "labial" sounds through clenched teeth, instead—presumably you can still get some air through when your teeth fold against each other—which sounds a bit like a V. That might be what khângây languages do, actually, although their vocal apparatus also lets them mimic the sounds people with lips make.)
  • Hey, here's a wild idea: stop teaching the same stuff in English class that was taught 100 years ago. No, this isn't a "dead white men" argument; it's a "let's teach a new set of dead white men" argument. A hundred years ago we were already teaching, or at least encouraging students to read, Dickens, in schools. But Dickens? Pot-boiling pulp magazine writer.

    Do you know who we should be reading in school now, or at least encouraging students to read? Burroughs (Edgar Rice, not William S.); Howard (Robert E.); Lovecraft; Smith (Clark Ashton). The whole Campbell SF stable, too. For literary quality, although not vastness of scope, I'll put any of those dudes (maybe not Lovecraft or the Campbell guys) up against Dickens any day of the week. And hey, you want kids to learn about existentialism in literature? Well cupcake, where you think they'd rather learn it from, Waiting for the Frigging Play to End Already Godot by Samuel "Black Lotus" Beckett...or Conan the Cimmerian?
  • You may or may not recall that in 1st and 2nd Edition D&D, elves had level-limits. (They also "do not die" at their final age-category, but departed via not-the-Grey-Havens-at-all, which tended not to make much sense in most campaign-settings.) And then there's the stick-in-the-mud ultraconservative portrayal, mostly a caricature by stupid people who don't know the difference between "chaotic good" and "lawful neutral". But it occurred to me, there's another way to model elves. Ravens are only playful and curious for the first three years of their lives. After that, around the time they usually mate (they are physically mature at a year old but don't usually mate till three), they become strongly neophobic, hating new things and having a lot of trouble adapting to new locations or conditions. What if your elves were the same way, only desiring new experiences until they hit their middle-age category, and then becoming strongly averse to anything different from what they're accustomed to?

    It's not exactly how I'm doing it in my campaign, although I think elements of it will be, but it is an interesting idea. It's also a lot less stupid than "people who live a long time must be really boring", never mind that "boredom" is only a part of your emotional repertoire because your life is so short (and thus you can't afford to waste much of it). Elves, having so much more time to kill, are probably endlessly fascinated by things you barely even notice (hey, why'd you think they have a bonus to Spot checks?), and continue to find joy in their pleasures long after humans would become jaded and sated. (That part, that they don't get bored as easily as humans, is definitely something I think my elves do; I might have humans shocked by how much they enjoy things that humans usually outgrow. "Ancient yet seemingly childlike" is often an aspect of the portrayal of elves, after all, and Chesterton actually points out the connection between that and the fact boredom is due to human weakness, I think it's in Orthodoxy.)
  • Zledo, at this point, are only "felinoid" very broadly speaking. You could also call them "long-armed tyrannosaur-apes", and they've got frog-feet and shark-pupils in bird-eyes, and a dental arrangement not found on Earth, and their "fur" is equally well-described as "really simple feathers" (and some of what their fliers got, you can cross out those first two words).

    And I decided quite some time ago actually, their jaw anatomy, at the back of the jaw, isn't like humans, cats, or tyrannosaurs—it's like pygmy hippos. Go look up their skulls: on the back of a hippo's jaw is a deep rounded "bowl", for holding giant muscles. I think zledo have this (which gives them a rather heavy, tyrannosaur like jaw, although their big eye-sockets and braincase make it less noticeable) because I don't think I can swing a sagittal crest anymore, not considering they have a brain volume like a slightly scaled-up Neanderthal.
  • In my D&D world—where, recall, elves mostly use axes and dwarves seldom do—I decided, the gnomes' weapons are martial versions of the sickles they use to harvest mushrooms (which are the basis of their material culture; fungi are made of chitin, not cellulose, so they can breed mineralized forms to approximate metals, like the hard parts of bugs). I use the stats for (Small-creature versions of) the khopesh and its relatives (like the sapara and kukri), although a real khopesh's cutting-edge is on the outside, because they actually derive from axes, not sickles. (Gygax was probably misled by the kopis, the Greek sword-sized kukri.)

    I also give the gnomes the sling as their main missile weapon, which is implied by the Arms and Equipment Guide (which I just got), since gnomes are alchemists (although that book also seems to think gnomes are tech-guys, and they aren't, except on Krynn and in space). Likewise, I gave my halflings (a subrace of humans in this setting) blowguns instead of slings and rocks, and gave them a partial protection from poisoning themselves when using poison darts; they don't regard the use of dart-poison as evil, although they do regard using poison in food as not only evil but as flat-out diabolism. Nomads regard hospitality as sacred, after all.

    Incidentally, you may be aware that the only reason D&D druids use scimitars is that Gygax didn't want to bother coming up with stats for sickles (never mind a sickle is for all intents and purposes somewhere between a knife and a hand-axe). But really, it makes perfect sense for D&D druids to use scimitars, because, um..."machete". Kinda a natural fit for people who spend a lot of time in dense plant-life, you know?
  • Researching the previous post, I came across quite a bit of information on bats and birds that didn't make it in. Bats, basically, are the helicopters to birds' jets. They have superior maneuverability in certain regards, like being able to hover, but they're much slower, can't go nearly as far, and have a hard ceiling on how high they can fly (although unlike helicopters, it's less a matter of physics than of anatomy—mammal lungs are simply inferior).

    Another interesting point is, because of how bats' wings are set up, they function in many ways more simply than bird wings. See, a bat's wing is all connected, so (like helicopters) they can't change the shape of their flight surfaces (and can't glide), and have to do all their maneuvering by how they beat the air. A bird's wing, on the other hand, because it's not a continuous tissue but many independently articulated feathers, can be controlled like the elevators, ailerons, and so on of an airplane.

    Had a thought, in studying that: what if a species evolved flat, flipper-like arm-wings, that didn't fuse their fingers, but instead turned each finger into an independent flight-control surface? I think that's what the main fliers of the khângây homeworld will do.

2015/02/13

Blood and Bones and Feathers II

Xenobiology thoughts.
  • Did you know that manatees don't have eyelids? Nope. Their eyeball sits in a sphincter, and they push it out (to open the eye) or in (to close it) by the same mechanism that lets you swallow and vomit (to use the least disgusting example I could think of). Not saying your aliens have to do something that weird—I mean, sharks have eyelids like ours—but just...don't take "eyelids" for granted. (Interestingly, I think octopuses do something similar to what manatees do, sticking their eyes out or drawing them back in to protect them.)

    Also, manatees should be called "sea elephants", not "sea cows". They are Afrotheria, related to elephants and hyraxes but not to any of the other clades of plant-eating mammals (such as the Ungulates or rabbits) or aquatic mammals (such as the Pinnipeds or Cetaceans)—all of those three (yes, three, Cetaceans are Ungulates, Pinnipeds are Carnivora, rabbits are rabbits) are Laurasian.
  • That fact, incidentally, that Afrotheria are a whole different lineage from Laurasian animals, is fascinating. Actually apparently there are three, aside from Afrotheria—Euarchontoglires or Supraprimates, which as the second name suggests includes primates, but is also rodents, lagomorphs, tree-shrews, and colugos; Xenarthra ("weird joints") which is only the tree-sloths, armadillos, and anteaters; and the Laurasiatheria, which is shrews, hedgehogs, bats, ungulates, and carnivorans (and pangolins, which are not related to Afrotherian aardvarks or Xenarthran anteaters). It's interesting to me in part because we might be looking at a division in the mammals that's as fundamental as the Saurischia-Ornithschia split in the dinosaurs—assuming that that split is fundamental. (Given that "Ornithschia" means "bird-hipped", and yet birds are Saurischian, "lizard-hipped", dinosaurs, "ornithschia" and "saurischia" might well be polyphyletic groupings. And since we mostly only work these things out with DNA testing, we'll never know now.)

    It's also interesting just in general, that, for instance, elephants are so weird partly because our last common ancestor with them was some time in the Cretaceous—because Africa was an island, like modern Australia, from the breakup of (West) Gondwanaland until the Neogene, i.e. from 110 million years ago to about 23 million. Every hoofed mammal in Africa—which includes not only antelopes, giraffes, wild asses, zebras, and camels, but also hippos and rhinos—only dates to the Neogene. Same, I think, for the African carnivorans and primates—Africa before the Neogene had elephants (albeit the first ones were the size of large housecats), but no antelope, lions (and the felidae somewhat predate the Neogene), or monkeys. On the flipside, the rest of the world didn't have mammoths or mastodons until the Neogene, either—specifically the late Miocene or early Pliocene, probably a bit after 6 million years ago. I bring this up here because it's cool, but also because you should probably block out the cladistics of your aliens and their ecosystem.
  • All those "six sexed species" science fiction stories fall afoul of another principle, besides the "how does that work for every other species in their biosphere?" and "wouldn't that be more efficiently handled by something like a termite-colony's caste system?" ones that I raised.

    Do you remember Kes in Star Trek: Voyager? And how her species gives birth only once in their lives...to one offspring? Which means (your novella's handwave isn't canon, Trekkies) that every generation of her species is half the size of the one before it. A six-sexed species fails basic math just as hard. There is a reason that a "replacement" birthrate, for humans, under optimal conditions, is "slightly over two children per reproductive unit". On average, you're gonna get roughly half male and half female; the "slightly over" is wiggle-room for accidents. So having one kid of each sex, with the occasional extras-per-litter, get to reproductive age, means you have enough breeding pairs to keep the numbers up.

    If your breeding-system requires six individuals, then you require six children per reproductive unit. Every family has to have six children survive to breeding age, plus a bit of change to account for unforeseen deaths, just to keep the numbers steady. That means that, right out of the gate, as an intrinsic part of reproduction as such, every single species on your planet finds surviving, as a species, three times as hard as life on Earth.
  • I've recently inclined to the position (I haven't mentioned them much in the books, and never in any detail) that the non-"mammal" fliers on the zled homeworld (Lhãsai) are something like Sharovipteryx, except able to flap their hindleg-wings. Maybe the wing-membranes are more like bat-wings, with membrane stretched between fingers? Or toes, rather. And they could knuckle-walk on their hindlegs when not flying—which can give you some speed, watch the dragons in Skyrim do it sometime. Only one genus on Earth ever went with Sharovipteryx's strategy, but that means it can be done. (That's also one more genus—which is to say an infinity—more than ever had a six-sex reproductive system.)
  • In Korea, they put a type of hagfish (it's like a lamprey) into a bucket, and then tap the bucket with a stick, agitating the fish. Hagfish secrete mucous slime when they're frightened, I'm not sure if it makes them harder to find or slipperier or what. Well, the Koreans agitate the hagfish until it's filled the whole bucket it's in with slime...then they fish the slime out and cook it like egg-white. Mm-boy.

    While no earthly consideration could persuade me to try any dish containing hagfish slime, it is an example of the unsuspected possibilities in an ecosystem. And "what your aliens eat" is an important world-building concern.

    Here's a less disgusting example. Have you ever actually seen an agave? Or more to the point, touched one? The term "agave nectar" probably makes you think of something like an aloe (apparently some crazy people use "American aloe" to refer to the centuryplant, a type of agave they don't make pulque from), but no, agaves are tough, woody plants, probably less "succulent" than prickly-pear or even saguaro; the edges of each leaf are hard and shriveled and stringy, since the edges form the spikes. It's the core of the plant, once the leaves are chopped off, that you get the "nectar" (really sap) from. If someone pointed to an agave just growing there, and told you that you could make liquor from it, you'd think he was nuts.
  • You know Protista, the taxonomic kingdom? Well, no, you don't, because apparently, that kingdom doesn't exist. Apparently now the term means "a polyphyletic catch-all term for any eukaryote that's not a plant, animal, or fungus". It's considered doubtful whether the, what, three? kinds of algae, are all the same thing, let alone whether any algae are the same as dinoflagellates, euglenoids, amoebae, apicomplexa, or trypanosomatids (that last one causes African sleeping-sickness, which is in the top ten most horrifying diseases on that continent—and consider some of its competition).

    And then, a whole bunch of what we thought were bacteria are actually "Archaea", which are the weirdest little suckers you will ever see. Not only do they do things like live in volcanic vents (and your belly-button), but they have weird cell-membranes and some of them "eat" not only things like sugars but also things as bizarre as ammonia, metal ions, and gaseous hydrogen. Some of them photosynthesize, some of them fix hydrogen; apparently none do both (which is one of their differences from bacteria, cyanobacteria being one of the main nitrogen-fixers and taking their name from their blue-green chlorophyll).

    Much as I call Lhãsai's small, be-exoskeletoned creepy-crawlies "bugs", I imagine that the term for their microscopic life would be "germs" (maybe "microbes"). They probably have multiple kinds (probably an organelle/organelle-less division, like what separates eukaryotes from prokaryotes), but since the last common ancestor of their life with ours was the gas the Milky Way formed from, none of our technical terms are appropriate. And no, Cargo Cultists, "bug" isn't a technical term.
  • It occurs to me, I need to add an explanation to something. I've mentioned that zledo taboo scavenging, and thus "scaveng·er/ing" is a cussword in their language (although, arguably, "scavenging at graves" is actually just the cannibalism taboo, not a double—you'll see why in a second). The thing I need to clarify—justifying this point's inclusion here—is, "What's scavenging?", for a species where most members don't kill their own food, but buy food killed by others? Its base meaning is "eating meat you find", of course, but it's obviously not scavenging if you "find" it in your fridge, purchased from a hunter.

    The answer is, "scavenging (as a taboo) is eating something killed by an animal other than man". Or otherwise eating meat you find lying around—they could probably eat an animal they road-killed, but not roadkill scraped off the road. It's somewhat similar to the Jewish concept of "treif" (literally "ripped", as by wild animals—like the Mothers of Invention album), although they apply that word to all non-kosher food (which may or may not imply that people who eat it are animals; it's probably just a convenient shorthand whose potentially impolite implications were not noticed). Navajos and most other Native Americans actually have the same taboo, probably because you can catch some fascinating diseases eating things coyotes have been chawing on.

    Thus, "scavenging at graves" is a zled cussword that's only concerned with the cannibalism taboo, since the issue is eating people, not how you got the opportunity to eat them. They still call it "scavenging", though, because its base meaning ("eating found meat") would usually apply, and it also has a dysphemistic sound. ("Scavenge at the graves of the people you murdered just so you could commit necrophilia", a zled "cluster F-bomb" a character employed in a scene I wrote recently, just works better than "eat the corpses of the people etc.")
  • Sauropods had really weird forefeet. They weren't that much like elephants' hands; for one thing, they don't appear to have had a pad like an elephant. There wouldn't be room. The metacarpals were bundled together into a more-or-less circular column (sauropods had horseshoe-shaped footprints), and generally, the only digit you could actually see (and the only one with a nail) would be the thumb—and that was only visible by its nail. The Titanosaurs didn't even have that—nor any phalanges, as far as we can tell they walked directly on their metacarpals (it's not that weird, chimps and gorillas walk on their metacarpals, albeit by folding their phalanges out of the way).

    The sauropod hindfoot seems to have been more normal, although, despite seemingly having five digits, they only seem to have had three nails, which might mean two of them weren't visible outside the flesh. Also? They walked plantigrade in back, like bears, rather than semi-digitigrade like elephants. That's apparently a fairly new idea, the plantigrade part, but apparently it makes the angles of their necks and tails much more natural (and the new angles, apparently, showed them to have massive neck-muscles). Another thing we're recently discovering about sauropods is they had spikes, some of them long and scary, on their backs and necks (and on the whips of diplodocid tails); rather than being all smooth like in Land Before Time they're actually more like iguanas.
  • It occurs to me that, the Lhãsai flier that's in their "reptile" class, might have α-helix keratins instead of β-sheet ones, i.e. switch the "mammal" and "reptile" associations for their biosphere. That would mean they probably have a skin more like a dolphin or pig than a lizard. I'm also thinking maybe they wouldn't be hairless? Maybe their covering will actually be chitinous chaetae—I know, that tends to imply an invertebrate on earth, but one, lots of fish apparently have chitin, and two, aliens.

    I think I've mentioned that the Lhãsai fliers that are in the same class as zledo have heads like sea-lions? Or maybe like otters or beavers—they're aerodynamic, and those are streamlined for water. I think I'll have them be polyphyletic instead of having a common ancestor, as beavers and otters' last common ancestor is the Boreoeutheria. Not sure how the transition from aerodynamic fur, stuck together like waterproofed fur, to full-on flight-quills occurs; probably it doesn't look quite like the transition from contour to flight feathers, but is definitely similar.

2015/02/07

All I Survey III

Thoughts.
  • It's almost shocking how naïve many science fiction theorizers are. For instance, people often wax lyrical about the advantages of sci-fi "stunners"—how if something goes wrong, you just stun people; if there's a riot, the cops just stun everyone; if the cops abuse their power, everyone else just stuns 'em. I suppose that kind of vie-en-rose optimism was permissible in the 1970s, since everyone else was also doing it. Now, though? "Oh, great idea, a long-range date-rape drug that doesn't show up in toxicology." Fortunately, a convenient, "point and click" stun-gun, that doesn't stand a good chance of killing the target, is probably impossible. The only thing I could think of that seemed realistic, for my setting (it's an action story, people being unconscious without dying is a necessary plot-device), was medical-nanobot darts. Those show up in a screening—indeed, they would probably log who used them.

    Everything else I considered was unlikely to produce convenient unconsciousness, without a significant chance of killing or permanently incapacitating the person they're used on. Plus, I mean, something that'll reliably incapacitate humans would probably just annoy zledo—which "less lethal" weapon designed for use on humans would you like to take with you, to deal with a jaguar?—while things that would reliably incapacitate zledo would be likely to kill humans. Medical nanobots, though they're probably not quite as tidy as I have them, are at least a lot more precise than any of the alternative methods. (It's kinda funny, to me, by the way, that "less lethal" tech is all, pretty much, some variation on the blackjack or the cattle-prod—think about what rubber bullets and "active denial systems" actually are. Hell, even the nanobots are pretty much just a high-tech Mickey Finn.)
  • The discussion of those who wish to introduce shari'a law into the governance even of some portion of some Western community, is usually not accurate. The trouble is not "states within the state"; that is the same as "Common Law" (you might've noticed "states within the state" is a phrase originating from the Huguenot controversies, i.e. not in a Common Law jurisdiction). Did you know that Navajo religious law is recognized in the United States? Yeah, because Common Law asks "what is your custom?", and when you decide inheritance disputes for the Navajo, the custom bears the name of the goddess Changing Woman.

    But Changing Woman's Law is recognized by the Navajo as pertaining only to them, and not to those who did not receive that law (from Talking God, not Changing Woman, despite the name). Hence why its other name is "Our Grandmother's Law", the "we" being the Navajo. Shari'a, on the other hand, is very different from any other law-code recognized in the Common Law, because shari'a acknowledges no other law, and claims authority over all—Muslim, 'Ahl al-Kitab, and mushrikûn/kaffir—alike. (Shari'a doesn't actually even acknowledge a distinction between civil and criminal law, although they're hardly alone in that.) That would be the problem of allowing the incorporation of shari'a into the law of some community, if there is one—Islam can be considered to deny the authority of non-Muslims to adjudicate even in terms of shari'a. No rational state deliberately delegitimizes itself.

    Of course, in Common Law, there is precedent for it—Spain and the Crusader Kingdoms adjudicated for Muslim subjects with no problems. So...it may not actually be a problem. Rather (given what circumstances generally motivate the suggestion of incorporating shari'a), it's probably, under current conditions, a symptom of a problem.
  • Tom Simon, the Superversive, at one point denies the existence of "pro-drop" languages, based on the fact that Spanish verbs actually include their subject "argument" in their inflections. Well and good, but you've really only demonstrated Spanish isn't one. Japanese and Korean? They are. They are languages that can omit the subjects of their verbs, when it's (ostensibly) clear from context, and yet in which the only thing any subject can inflect a verb for is register—and that, only in relatively few contexts (the humble/honorific dichotomy, as a component of business/service speech).

    Until you have seen a speech obviously (from context) about the person doing the speaking, i.e. first-person, translated as in the third person and about a member of the opposite sex—as I saw in a fan-sub just a few months ago—you may not appreciate just how explicit Indo-European languages are, in terms of little things like "who is the subject of this sentence?". (On the other hand, until you have seen a character convey that they were born as the daughter of a samurai house, and regard human beings as individual servings of food—an example I made up just now, I dunno, she's a vampire or something—simply by their choice of first-person pronoun and how they inflect numbers, you may not appreciate that there are, in fact, things that even the most highly-inflected Indo-European languages actually leave to "context".)
  • More and more I am convinced that there are only two things that would really spur large-scale interstellar colonization, since the "Earth is used up" thing would really only spur space-habitat colonization (aside from requiring ever more far-fetched handwaving to justify). No, the only things that can really motivate humans to leave this star, are ambition and fear—either "because it's there", and humanity, as such, is a thing with the right to spread to every corner of the universe (at least that someone else isn't already at first); or "because they're there", and "they" are at least a potential threat, so we need to expand beyond our one star-system.

    That second one requires that the "they" be themselves interstellar—and intelligent. All unintelligent risks are either predictable and manageable in the long term (yes, even stars going nova...which we won't have to worry about for the time-frame it is not a joke to plan for, anyway), or just motivate, again, moving to space-habitats (asteroid impacts being the obvious example—leaving to one side that with a few rockets and the world's nuclear stockpiles, we can move asteroids that are on collision courses with Earth).

    In my book, I use both—initially humans expand to other stars for ambition, but then the thoikh kill 2% of the human species in practically no time at all, with the explicitly stated goal of annihilating all of them (depending on the result of a test humans don't know they're taking). Humanity responds (after the thoikh stop their attack, the test having been—barely—passed) by a new wave of colonization, motivated by the desire to spread out their population base, making it harder for a single attack to wipe out the whole species. Between the zledo being a lot stronger than the UN—and thus people the expanded population-base can hide behind—and piggybacking on zled infrastructure saving money (losing 2% of the species causes a recession), the places they choose to colonize are all worlds already inhabited by zledo. This, of course, leads to the friction that causes the UN-Imperial War.
  • If you—perhaps doing the Lord's work in pointing out that Firefly ain't all it's cracked up to be—say that Cowboy Bebop was a space-western, well, congratulations, people like you are the reason they put mining in the film of Enemy Mine. Were you really confused about how there are no dogs in Straw Dogs?

    Cowboy Bebop is, full-stop, in terms of its actual plot (which takes up about six episodes), a space yakuza movie, or at least a space HK-style Triad film. Please, what element, other than television Indians and the mere word "cowboy", does it actually have in common with westerns? Other than the things Westerns have in common with basically the entire "gun action" branch of fiction, I mean.

    If Bebop is a Western, please, what Blaxploitation movie isn't a "modern-day Western"? (Shaft in Africa? No, Quigley Down Under was still a Western, and it was in Australia.) Because Bebop has a lot more in common with Blaxploitation than it ever did with Westerns.
  • I don't think mankind would use much beef in space-colonies (pace Firefly and their "space cattle-drives"). Now, it might be different if your colonial effort comes after having to abandon the Earth—you'd be bringing all the animals, and cattle only exist because we eat them, wild cattle are extinct. But colonizing because you have to abandon the Earth is, as I said, a stupid premise; so you can pick and choose, and what you're gonna pick is less resource-intensive than cattle. In my books, people raise ostriches in the colonies. If you don't like your steak well-done (and if you do, "I'm sorry, but please leave"), it's not much different from beef, and it's much more efficient. Ostriches produce half again as many young as cattle (it takes them one-fifth the time to get them: 42 days incubation vs. 200 days gestation means 30 chicks a year vs. 20 calves), take 63% as long to get to slaughtering weight (407 days vs. 645), and use, from what I can tell, 1/6 of an acre per head compared to the 2 acres per head that seems to be a typical minimum for cattle.

    I assume that people prefer the texture and structure of "real" meat, that actually comes from an animal; currently, in-vitro meat makes "pink slime" look like filet mignon. The "ethical" considerations of vegetarianism are, frankly, BS unless you're a Buddhist (and thus don't kill plants for your food, either). But it is possible, I suppose, that a society that can 3D-print organs for medicine, can also 3D-print in-vitro meat to give it a texture and structure like real meat—although it would be pointlessly expensive and complicated. Moral grandstanding is the main motive of Western vegetarianism; while "have your supposed moral superiority while indulging all your appetites" is certainly an impulse, and one that people will pay extra in order to indulge, vegetarianism specifically has just spent the last 200-odd years attacking the eating of meat, as such, along with the slaughter of animals for the purpose. So I figure it's slightly more reasonable to suppose that people will continue to either eat meat or be moral-posturing vegetarians, than to posture morally about slaughtering animals, while 3D-printing their meat.
  • It occurs to me that a lot of what's called "Freudian" analysis (though to be fair, Freud himself wasn't quite that stupid) is a "correlation/causation" error. E.g., the old leftist-peacenik bromide about weapons being phallic—when it's actually that the shapes of both guns and penises share a common origin. Namely? They're both designed to shoot stuff. Bullets into animals to end life, sperm into ova to begin it—point is, they look the same because they do the same thing. Likewise, the "phallic" shape of missiles? Aerodynamics. Not to get graphic but both missiles and penises are designed for smooth forward motion. I hate to break it to you, but that principle predates sexual reproduction itself; there are unicellular organisms that reproduce by fission, and are streamlined and thus "phallic". (That's also why swords are "phallic", come to think of it.)

    When tall buildings are supposed to be phallic, on the other hand, you just have raw, undiluted idiocy. Right, the only reason to build defensive watch-towers or high-rise apartments in crowded cities in a tall, thin shape, is a sublimated obsession with the penis—there certainly can't be any other reason. (Interestingly, it occurs to me, the watch-tower and the high-rise have their shapes for opposite reasons. You make a watch-tower thin so it can be tall and still minimize the amount of material you have to move and manipulate to build it, whereas you make a high-rise tall so it can be thin and still fit all the population you need to house. The watch-tower one is also the reason most realistic rocket-ship designs are long and thin, even if they don't have to be aerodynamic, since you usually want your habitat and electronics a good space from the rocket nozzle, and yet need to minimize the mass.)
  • Watched some of Tokyo Ghoul with my brother; apparently the second season not only goes off the rails, but completely departs from the manga, too. Personally, though, even before the derailment the whole thing strikes a discordant note, for me—because there is absolutely no justification for ghouls, which live on human flesh and can breed (albeit usually unsuccessfully) with humans, to have the physical capabilities they're depicted as having. I mean, it hunts humans, and go look up what kind of large predator does that—it's not exactly even the junior varsity squad.

    Plus, if it's made from the same kind of tissue as other terrestrial life (and it has to be, to eat our flesh or breed with us), then it ought to be as easy to kill as terrestrial life is. Admittedly, that can easily mean much tougher than a human, but this "you can only take them down with weapons made from them" is bullshit. I would forgive all of this if they were actually supernatural—this series was pretty much a by-the-book Vampire: The Masquerade campaign anyway—but if you're going to give me science-y technobabble, then unfortunately, you're required to run things by those rules.

2015/01/27

War Never Changes II

Military science fiction thoughts.
  • A mil-SF writer—I won't say who—was discussing Israel's problems, suggested that things might eventually reach the point where the Jews will "overcome their aversion" to gas-chambers. But the idea is evidence of a very naive attitude, one that's quite typical of the "Realpolitik" aficionado (half of whose positions boil down to "ethical philosophy quitter-talk"). See...gas-chamber genocide is a funny thing. Because of the nature of the undertaking, it's basically only possible when it isn't justified—you can only do it to populations over which you already have control. If the Jews had not meekly submitted to being loaded onto boxcars, demonstrating that they were, if anything, excessively "good Germans", then the Holocaust would never have been possible.

    Now, some measures that can be characterized, albeit broadly, as "genocide", could be justifiable—I have previously mentioned, I think, that the 19th-century US could've executed every adult male Comanche as a war-criminal, something their culture would not have survived (not that the loss of that culture would be a bad thing...but the "women and children facing enslavement by their neighbors in return for shelter" issue would be). And you might kill so many of the able-bodied men of a small community that the community ceases to be, as I mentioned RE: the Hopi in their fights with the Spanish. And you might have some ethically-justifiable bombing campaign whose collateral damage renders a particular population (presumably one that wasn't that big to begin with) unsustainable, depending on the particulars.

    But notice that, though those justified acts could result in the destruction of an entire people or culture, that isn't the purpose of any of them. You simply can't deliberately, systematically eliminate a people, unless you already control them so completely that you have no need, and therefore no right, to do anything like that to them. Even executing all the Comanche men was only feasible after the smallpox epidemic rendered them vulnerable to being forced onto a reservation—and thus we were content to have them subdued and pacified, without pushing (wholly justified!) vendettas, not least because doing so might've made them a whole lot less pacified.
  • That's actually kinda interesting, the idea that you may not be able to "press" the issue of war-crimes, if you want to have peace. I mean, consider the fact we let the Russians sit in on the human-rights courts after World War II, when they were worse offenders than the Japanese and Germans combined. If Germany had not reacted violently against nationalism after the war, their nationalists could've made quite a bit of rhetorical hay out of that bit of monstrous hypocrisy—probably enough to gin up another World War. Japanese nationalists certainly did and do make quite a bit out of it (also, unfortunately, out of laughable "America was just as bad" claims, which requires ignoring mountains of stats). The only reason there hasn't been another Pacific War is that, while the Japanese kept every inch of their nationalism, they reacted, almost as violently as German anti-nationalism, against militarism.

    In some other war, there might not be a convenient anti-militarist/anti-nationalist reaction, and so having war-crimes tribunals might just make another war all the more likely. That's the simplistic narrative of what happened after World War I, after all, and like most lies, it involves the distortion of a truth. The French shouldn't have insisted on doing to Germany what Germany did to them after the war of 1870; it was petty and shortsighted. Of course, the "German Empire" should also have been broken back up into its, what, over a hundred? component principalities—if they'd just done that, then if anyone was going to get scapegoated by populist rabble-rousers for the hardships Germans experienced after World War I, it would've been Prussia, which at least happened to be the people responsible. Unfortunately World War I ended during the last flourishing of the blood-and-soil nation-state, and nobody could understand why Germans should not all be one state (they also couldn't understand why Dalmatian Slavs shouldn't, with results I'm sure you know about).
  • I realize that existentialism is a post-war literary phenomenon, and all (well, except for Kierkegaard—and Heidegger was post-First World War), but what's with the "soldiers not knowing what to do with themselves after the war's over" thing, that Japan's obsessed with, in its fiction? I'm pretty sure most soldiers do, actually, know what to do with themselves, once wars are over: they cause Baby Booms and economic growth so big it gets itself called miraculous.

    Warfare is an attempt to acquire a different set of peacetime conditions, and once those peacetime conditions are achieved, they become a new purpose, to replace the war itself. Nobody, not ever, really fought just for the sake of fighting. Even though Oda Nobunaga explicitly said he wanted to conquer the world (his actual motto, "Tenka Fubu", literally means "all under Heaven, by force of arms"), he wanted to conquer it, not just start wars everywhere. When Uesugi Kenshin died, Nobunaga said "Now the land is mine," not "Now I can finally start that war".

    What there is, admittedly, as part of the known "coping" difficulties after returning from war, is that soldiers know what they're supposed to do and when to do it; that doesn't exist in civilian life. But that's more similar to parolees' difficulties with free life's lack of regimentation (also a difficulty returning soldiers experience) than it is to any true "existential" issues.
  • Incidentally, you know an idea you're simply not allowed to use? People starting wars to sell weapons. This brings up Japan again: they're the fourth to sixth best-funded, best-equipped military on the planet, and they're constitutionally forbidden from going to war. Military contracts are plenty lucrative when you're selling to a peacetime military, without all the hassle and economic uncertainty of wartime conditions. Anyone who says otherwise is a paranoid psychotic. Also someone who needs to find a grownup to read and explain Bastiat's "Candle-makers' Petition" to them.

    It's simply a fact that the whole "profiteering" theory of the "military-industrial complex" is, provably, Communist propaganda. Please, what profit did we make off Vietnam? Or any war since? The last profiteering conflict in US history was the 1954 Guatemalan coup, and that was a colonial-mercantilist enterprise demonstrably fomented at the behest of United Fruit, not any armament firm. Weapons manufacturers are like insurance salesmen: they profit whether you use their product or not. And making war just to sell weapons is like breaking windows just to sell glass—we fomented the coup because we wanted (as I said) different peacetime conditions, namely ones that were more favorable to the fruit industry.

    (I really do need to write a scene where the gunrunner in my books points out that a weapons-dealer is not a "merchant of death", any more than a lawyer is a "merchant of bankruptcy". Just as you hire a lawyer to keep other people from bankrupting you, you buy weapons to keep other people from killing you. Sometimes the other party has to get killed or bankrupted in the process—that doesn't mean you're obligated to prefer it happen to you, though, does it?)
  • I think I've mentioned that the thing that actually will kill dogfighting, is drones, since they can take accelerations far beyond what pilots can. But that doesn't mean we won't have any manned aviation—you'd still probably have close-air support manned, for instance. CAS is the role where jamming would be much more likely (if you're fighting enemies with a tech-base)—not even calling in air-strikes requires consistent communications the way drone-control does.

    The Air Force hates its CAS role, or at least its brass does. And there really is no reason not to give CAS roles to the aviation of the Marines or Army, who both clamored to be given the A-10 after the Air Force decided to drop it. So what we might see is a future where there are no independent air forces, with the support roles being given to ground-based branches' aviation, and the fighter and bomber roles being handled by drones.

    I'm trying really hard to be saddened by that, but after the way the USAF brass treated the A-10, I'm kinda outta give-a-damn. Maybe you guys can get jobs explaining what you saw in the F-35—"See the people who don't know the significance of thrust-to-weight ratios for fighter-jets! Wonder at their deliberate obliviousness to everything learned in fighter design since the 1970s! Recoil in horror at their incomprehension of why 1,174 rounds of 30 mm is preferable to 180 rounds of 25 mm!" (Unfortunately, the heyday of the traveling freak-show is even deader than that of the fighter-jock, so that's actually another kind of change that's going to screw you guys. I'd commiserate, but, again, "outta give-a-damn".)
  • I'm really almost tempted to put mules in my SF setting, since that would be the most efficient way to deal with increasing loads. Then again, the mindset behind the "give the soldiers prohibitively large amounts of equipment" trend is also a mindset that insists that military animals are as obsolete as carrier-pigeons (although you can't jam carrier pigeons). So I guess the "soft-lifting exoskeleton chaps" are still what I'm going with.

    Zledo might use mules, though, or rather the animal something like a dog that they rode (or one of its relatives). The "horse" ones kinda look like Cape hunting dogs, only the non-white patches are orange structural coloring and blue pigment; they're the size of horses, with a modification of the Lhãsai tetrapod form (an extra knuckle relative to Earth tetrapods, and making the last part of the hind leg out of elongated ankle-bones instead of the metatarsals) that allows them to have the same gait as horses, despite having clawed, multi-toed feet. Don't know what markings the "donkey/mule" ones would have; maybe like a blue (structural) maned wolf with a dark-blue pigment mane.
  • It occurs to me that zledo might have bred the camouflaging into their "horses" (which are called zdhyedhõ'o, singular zdhyedhõ). Very likely, the ancestral stock of the species didn't have much in the way of disruptive coloring—wolves (or dholes, who are a slightly closer behavioral parallel) don't, they have a very slight degree of disruptive coloration—but zledo are ambush predators. Most jackals are much more strongly colored than wolves, that's why we name them things like "side-striped" or "black-backed"—they hunt much more by stealth, and thus have more need of disruptive coloration (not sure why Cape hunting dogs have it). Zled warfare, also, involves much more stealth than ours ever did (before they invented color-change fabric, all their military garb was reversible, with the other side being camouflaged), so their war-animals would need stealth.

    A zdyedhõ, although a member of the same taxonomic class as zledo, and having the same basic anatomy, is not in the same order; basically, instead of there being one major order of carnivores, like on Earth (we call them, well, "Carnivora"), Lhãsai has two, the one zledo are in and the one zdhyedhõ'o are in. Basically it's like if some of the major mammal carnivores nowadays were Creodonts instead of Carnivorans. The order zledo are in is characterized by hypercarnivory and obligate carnivory (zledo are both), while the one zdhyedhõ'o are in is characterized by hypercarnivory to mesocarnivory, with few obligate carnivores and even some omnivores. (I.e., the zledo's order is like the feliform sub-order of the Carnivora, while the zdhyedhõ'o's one is like the caniform one—which includes bears. Not sure if there's something like a panda in either order—the feliform equivalent being, probably, the aardwolf, although even that still has to subsist on animal protein.)
  • The kerfuffle over American Sniper raises an interesting question: would the people accusing snipers of being treacherous consider feinting, in hand-to-hand, to be treacherous? Of course, that begs the question of whether Michael Moore or Seth Rogen even know what feinting is—or treachery, for that matter.

    There is nothing treacherous about stealth or surprise. Treachery is wrong because it involves betrayal of trust; but what trust is betrayed, in sniping? An enemy in legitimate conflict has absolutely no right to expect that you not kill his combatants in times and circumstances of your choosing, rather than his. (And, also, as in one of the movie's surprisingly uncontroversial scenes: when an enemy makes his women and children fight for him, the guilt for their deaths does not go to the soldiers who killed them while fending off their attacks, but to the people who made them fight.)

    War is very far from being hell ("war is hell" is all too often an excuse for diabolical wartime actions), but it isn't nice, either. Certain basic decencies are not suspended, whatever certain cowardly schools of "thought" may say, but at the end of the day, war is where we kill and hurt our fellow Images of God.

2015/01/04

All that Glitters...

Examination of the chemical abundances in the solar system leads me to suspect that, no, future people will still use gold much the way we do now.

And I've been thinking about how you'd launder whatever precious metal you were using as a de-facto commodity money—you're using it to avoid the paper-trail (which I guess a paperless setting calls an audit trail?) inherent to purely electronic currency, so you need a way to turn it into money you can use. (In a society like that, insisting on doing business in gold means you're shady, automatically.)

One thing I thought of would be, asteroid miners. Space-travel is relatively cheap in my setting—for non-fragile payloads that don't need life-support and can survive the 30 g-force acceleration of something like a Generation 1 StarTram mag-lev space launch, it's $43 a kilogram, which is comparable to shipping a package by mail. You ship it to a confederate, perhaps first re-combining the gold with other minerals (so it looks like ore), and then he takes it to some ore-processor, and you get money back. The only trouble there is there's at least two middlemen, the confederate and the ore-processor.

Ah, got it. Modified version. You sell the gold, as-is, and semi-above the table, to someone at your local COPUOS office. Presumably you have a shell-corporation/cover-identity as a mineral speculator, i.e. a person who buys and processes the produce of asteroid miners.

(An "asteroid miner" in my setting, come to think of it, is not really a person who ever sets foot anywhere near an asteroid—they're a person who owns and remotely operates asteroid-mining robots. So maybe your cover is just "asteroid miner", rather than the middleman. "He's registered as an asteroid miner but never actually leaves the planet" isn't a problem, although "no craft registered to his name has logged any deposits down whatever chute gets the minerals planetside from space" might still be. And yes, you put your mining-produce down a chute, you don't want to just drop it on the planet, first because safety and second because "claim-jumping". Maybe a criminal money launderer just owns some asteroid drones that periodically shove whatever dirt they collect down the chute, so as to keep up appearances.)

2015/01/03

Rannm Thawts Four

Title says it all, really.
  • Apparently a bunch of people, notably Christopher Hitchens, have written that characterizing North Korea as Confucian (it's certainly not orthodox Marxism) is erroneous...and they then go on to say "It's basically a Korean version of Japanese Imperial ideology." But...I thought you said it wasn't Confucian. "Confucianism" as an explicit political idea is really Neo-Confucian, and Imperial Japan was the most powerful and second longest-enduring totalitarian regime based on those principles. The second most powerful and longest enduring? The Korean kingdom whose name North Korea still bears, in Korean. "Joseon."

    Of course, some of the worst things about North Korea are still Marxism, not Neo-Confucianism. The Joseon Kingdom may have maintained a network of state-owned brothels staffed by slaves, for its troops (i.e. it made its own people into "comfort women", something no other East Asian regime ever did, in 2500 years of history), but it had normal agricultural methods and dealt with famines like sane people do. (It was in things like "Toyotomi Hideyoshi is at the gates, and we need the provincial governor's permission to fight" that Joseon's Neo-Confucian insanity manifested itself, and bad military policy simply doesn't come up as often as the vagaries of agriculture.) North Korea, on the other hand, has the policies that made the Great Chinese Famine the biggest single famine, by death-toll, in human history—and Red China had systematically eliminated its (Neo-) Confucian scholars.

    Imperial Japan had to be actively subjected to systematic carpet-bombing before the "military takes priority" thing resulted in actual hardship (rather than mere inconvenience) for its own people; pray, who's bombing North Korea?
  • Looking into "bayonet connectors" and "fiber optics cables" led me to conclude zled cables probably have heads something like this. Never mind zled tech being deceptively primitive, I doubt most people looking at that who didn't see it labeled as a fiber-optic connector would know it was used for anything particularly advanced. (Apparently the "straight-tip/bayonet" connector is a fairly old way of doing it, admittedly.)
  • The GOP understandably makes much of the Democrats having been the party of slavery and Jim Crow. Interestingly, though, Democrats never utter a word about Republicans having been the party of eugenics. Seriously, all the early 20th-century Eugenics Boards and legislation? Republicans. Every major American eugenics theorist? Republican. (Lots of Democrats—Wilson, FDR—had eugenic ideas, but that's not what they were known for.) Vast portions of the early eugenics movement was funded by the "charitable" foundations of robber-barons like John D. Rockefeller; the Rockefeller Foundation actually founded the "psychiatric genetics" institution in Germany that one Josef Mengele got his start at.

    The reason Democrats don't say a word about any of this is that those were progressive Republicans, and many of them remained darlings of the "progressive movement" after it came to be the project of only one party. One of them was Margaret Sanger, for example—if the Democrats want to get the Republicans on guilt-by-association with her, they would first have to quit their own association with her, and the organization she founded. The foundations that once funded eugenics research are now basically fundraising arms of the Democratic Party; the last prominently Republican Rockefeller (who was a Kissingerian Realpolitik junkie, big on Third World population control) died in 1979.
  • Zledo, I realized, probably wouldn't use many knives in the kitchen—since they've got a "bird's beak" paring knife on the end of each finger. They just scrub their claws really well before cutting up all but the heaviest foodstuffs. (I'd been thinking for years that zled claws are less curved than felid ones, only about as much as, again, a bird's beak knife.)

    Similarly, I would imagine that they never invented the potato peeler, since their hands come with one built in. And, it occurs to me literally as I write this, when bored, they might well whittle with their claws. Half the world is Play-Doh if your fingers end in blades.
  • Average height in the Middle Ages, in Europe, was 5'8". It started to decline sometime in the 1200s, and by 1600 was 5'5". Most European peoples are (depending which numbers you trust) only 5'9" now, give or take a half-inch or two. Now, height is partly a factor of genetics (the pygmies of Africa got that way because their neighbors took their tallest women—though being hunter-gatherers probably doesn't help), but a much bigger factor is food. A well-fed person will be markedly taller than his malnourished identical twin.

    The Americans who seemed like giants to the European soldiers in World War I were not genetically much different from most of the Europeans, they just had really good agriculture. The medieval Europeans were not genetically much different from the "Enlightenment" Europeans. So nutrition in most of Europe was better in the 1100s than it was in the 1800s, generally looked back on as a time of great prosperity for most of the continent (although that is through the lens of the Depression and World Wars).
  • Amusing fact: I was looking up the usage of the French phrase "langage écorché" (bad language—"langage" is an old-fashioned word, something like "watch your phraseology" in The Music Man). And something like two thirds of the Google results were French analyses of the works of Rabelais. Because while Shakespeare couched his dirty jokes in double-entendre (which I always want to pronounce, in English, as "double-intender"), a couple generations earlier Rabelais was just cheerfully working blue.
  • I mentioned that a USB-type cable, that supplies power as well as data-link, probably wouldn't be necessary for my setting. But, of course, that might raise the question "Why use cables for the data, then?" The answer, of course, is security. I imagine most consumer electronics are okay with wireless linkage, but with military hardware you want to hardline it. (Wireless peripherals also increase the EM "footprint" of one's forces, making them more detectable. If I'm interpreting the listed "decibel-milliwatt" strengths of various kinds of wireless signals correctly, every two to five wireless keyboards is like making a call from a cellphone. Do you know how easy cellphones are to detect?)

    In my setting, wireless is so ubiquitous that hardlining to most devices, in and of itself, bypasses most of their security—because it's pretty much only technicians who ever access hardware that way, and they're assumed to have authorizations (plus, I mean, "physically plug something in" is, always has been and always will be, much easier to prevent than "send a radio signal"). At least among humans; zledo are military-minded and their IT "guild" also places a premium on confidentiality. They can break your security if they have to (presumably mostly as part of a police investigation), but otherwise, they will only have the access you give them. (They design computers to have layers of security.) I have a worldbuilding reason for the humans' tech having that weakness—but it also makes the job of one of my characters, an infiltration android, much easier.
  • Huh, just had a thought. Does wireless power equate to loss of privacy? I mean, when everything you carry is powered by wireless power-transmission, it wouldn't make sense to charge other people for your use of the power in their establishments. I suppose a lot of cafes and such do let people charge their stuff while they're using the free Wi-Fi, but A) ever wonder why your coffee is so expensive? and B) do you want your power-bill to spike because a bunch of people take up jogging through your neighborhood?

    The solution, it seems to me, is for the power-system to log what devices access it, and charge the accounts linked to those devices. And thus, the power-bills can be used to track people's location, because the grid has to know where it's being accessed the most as it allocates resources, and it has to know who's doing the accessing so it knows who to charge. Presumably criminals would use dummy accounts so they can't be tracked, unless they want to go to jail for utility theft à la Al Capone's taxes, but you can still track them the moment you have their dummy-accounts (like if you arrest their clients). It probably wouldn't be that big a deal; the government practically knows where you are all the time now anyway, and we trust them with our Social Security Numbers like it's no big deal.
  • Come to think of it, "banking" as a "manage the money you merely have" enterprise will probably cease to exist—an all-digital "account" might well be with the treasury of your community—and people will only work with "banks" for things like loans and the kinds of "savings account" that involves investments. ...Damn it. Now I think I need to rewrite some scenes. It's become apparent that smart criminals would probably do business in precious metals, rather than fooling around with currency, given that non-physical currency is exactly the same thing as making a call from a cellphone (and indeed, fund-transfers probably involve accessing the exact same network that making calls does).

    What metal to use? I mean, stuff like gold and platinum are probably pretty common to a spacefaring civilization, given they can mine them from asteroids; taking payment in those would be like taking payment in copper nowadays, and that's only about $3 per pound. Maybe room-temperature superconductors, some of which, apparently, might actually be organic polymers, according to a theory mentioned in the Wikipedia article on "room-temperature" (really "above 0°C") superconductors. Or at least a "high-temperature" ("can be reached with liquid nitrogen instead of liquid helium") superconductor. One component of a lot of those, barium, apparently goes for $550 a kilogram now; though asteroid-mining will probably increase supply, fusion power and rocketry might increase demand concomitantly, if not more so. Presumably, as a medium of exchange, we're talking pure barium, probably sealed in jars of mineral oil; its most common ore, barite (BaSO4), apparently only goes for $0.15 a kilogram.
  • Couple interesting ideas as I'm hammering the kinks out of my D&D setting. E.g., the dwarves don't have arcane magic, they have psionics...but they consider their psions to be mages—"power stones" are their runestones, their psionic tattoos are runic, etc. Kobolds and troglodytes are two branches of one race, the way goblins and hobgoblins are (go look up what a kobold is in folklore if you want to see why). Because I'm going back to elk for the elves' mounts, decided to make the elves the "bigger than humans" kind instead of the "smaller than humans" kind (which are the D&D canon type, outside Faerûn).

    Finally, I discovered that the "Iokharic" script (Draconic) from 4th Edition is very similar to the 3rd Edition version of Espruar, which you'll recall I'm using (as a basis) for my campaign's Elvish script. And the 4th Edition "Barazhad" (Abyssal)—the name of which seems to be Breton for "churning butter"—looks an awful lot like the 4th Edition Dwarfish script, Davek. Remember, my ogres (including orcs) and goblins (including hobgoblins and bugbears) are mutant dwarves and elves, respectively. So I'm gonna use Barazhad for Ogre and Iokharic for Goblin. (Incidentally, since I'm using Eorzean for my human languages, and it's basically Roman, I've got a boatload of other fictional scripts to pick from in creating relatives for it, since everything from Daedric to Spiran is also based on Roman.)

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 likely to 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).