2011/10/29

On a Steel Horse

Because if you can't use Bon Jovi lyrics for a post title, there is no point to having a blog.

Third this morning! I was thinking, after my musings upon the Bauhaus typewriter and its usefulness in totalitarian futures—it is perhaps needless to say that's what the computers in my setting look like—about other properties/production design things in that sort of setting. And I also thought I'd show some more neat looking pictures.

Concept cars, and the like, are a never-ending boon to science fiction, mes enfants.

For example? Electric motorcycle, looks like a Harley. Actually, this one is a Harley. I give you the Harley-Davidson Trunk, designed by Nicolas Petit—a French guy who understands the appeal of American motorcycles better than many Americans.Unfortunately this is a concept vehicle that will probably never get picked up—Harleys="makes cool noise", and an electric makes none—but I trust you agree that it's what a future society's American cruiser bikes would look like.

On the "totalitarian squalor" front, this is a concept from a company that profited off slave labor and the Nazi war-effort. It's also a modernization of a design popular with hippies, so, strike two, really.If that seems like a harsh thing to say about Volkswagen, please consider that the actually accurate translation of their name is "race-car". And not race as in "competition of speed", either.

I find Renault has a look that is of value to SF, in its concept cars at least. For instance, here's a station wagon, the Altica.
Here's a sorta SUV-ish deal, the Egeus.
Okay, so finally, owing to my deep love of teh Haloz, a jeep. An actual one, the Jeep Renegade. Only, I think I'll have to have it called the Chrysler Vlakvark. Which is pronounced "Flakfark".No idea where the turret would go.

A Machine for Living in

The house is a machine for living in.—Le Corbusier, Vers une architecture
And that's all you need to know about the son-bitch, really.

Anyway, I was in a mood to put up a lot of photos again.

So the ane-ue had a post about Louis Sullivan, and modern architecture that doesn't suck. But, of course, when people think about modern architecture, that's not what they think of. Oh no, what they think of is the International Style, described by Wikipedia as characterized by "a radical simplification of form, a rejection of ornament, and adoption of glass, steel and concrete as preferred materials". You know, the big blocky buildings that look like microchips.

Let us all pause to reflect on the irony of naming a style that's fond of flat roofs and big picture windows "International", since the former are a nightmare in snowy places and the latter make keeping the joint cool a losing battle in sunny ones. Lucky for them the name actually means, either, "the style of the 1932 International Exhibition of Modern Architecture", or else "the style described in Internationale Architektur and/or Internationale neue Baukunst by Walter Gropius and Ludwig Hilberseimer, respectively".

Of course the style caught on most in various statist eras and regimes, though it was excoriated by both Hitler and Stalin (both of whom had ironically good judgment in aesthetics, possibly as the counter-balance to being, y' know, Hitler and Stalin). I always find it odd that science fiction likes to use Stalinesque monumental architecture as a shorthand for dystopia, when the International Style is far more soul-crushing. Hey, say what you will, but half the problem with Hitler and Stalin came from the fact they actually did know how to stir the human heart. And as history has shown, totalitarianism is more effective when it's quiet and mundane than bombastic and dictatorial.

Here, for example, is a typical product of the International Style, and appropriately, it is council housing—a housing project—in Airstrip One the UK.Admit it, if you lived there (the place is called, without a trace of sarcasm, Robin Hood Gardens), you'd go in for a bit of the ol' ultraviolence too.

Here's another view of it.Right horrorshow example of dystopian squalor, eh, droog?

Or hey, you want evil megacorp headquarters? Forget those ziggurats from Blade Runner, how about this?It's the IBM building in Chicago. If you can think of a philosophical difference between Big Blue and Big Red, I'd like to know what it is.

International architecture also makes government buildings look remarkably sinister, like this, the Gustavo Capanema building in Rio.Brings new meaning to "government drone", doesn't it?

The International School, perhaps admirably, did not exempt its own proponents from its effects. The famous Bauhaus building in Dessau Germany, for example:To a person with a proper appreciation of architectural aesthetics, the place is Barad-Dûr. Or maybe even Angband.

Here, similarly, is a Berlin tech school's dormitories:And no, I don't think it's East Berlin. But you wouldn't be surprised if it were, would you?

Now, actually, that school does provide a lot of interesting ideas for other things. For instance, production design, and props. Here's a typewriter in the Bauhaus style:Now obviously, unless your story were dabbling in dieselpunk anachronism, you wouldn't have a setting's computer interfaces actually look like this. But imagine those round typewriter keys as glowing circles on a tilted, translucent plate, their faces changeable depending on the character set being used; the typebars and the paper section replaced by a monitor that (because it's The Future) is essentially just a glass plate held up on a wire frame. Now that is plainly the interface device of any dystopian office drone. Unfortunately you can't really put him in a steel-tubing cantilever chair, nor make his desk out of steel tubing: those aspects of the International Style are (praise God) dated, because no longer in use.

The Scythe and the Sickle

...Death should be represented with a scythe and Time with a sickle; for Time can take only what is ripe, but Death comes always too soon.
—Hilaire Belloc, "The Mowing of a Field", Hills and the Sea
Boycott, O reader, the movie "In Time". Say impolite things about it whenever possible, and mock people who like the damn thing.

Why? Two reasons.

First is the clumsily handled class-war rhetoric, a blatant Marxist paradigm. It's bad enough when films even have the Marxist theme, but it's worse when they beat you over the head with it. And as if that weren't enough, the film actually makes the class allegory of The Time Machine look subtle, and in that, one of the classes eats the other one.

See, they use time as currency, and the rich are virtually immortal, while the poor literally live hand to mouth. Leaving to one side that, in America, you'd actually have the poor living centuries while the rich live millennia (apparently our poorest are still in the top 35% of global wealth), time is a great equalizer (twin paradoxes to one side). It gnaws equally upon king and thrall, there is no escape from its peculiarly-geometried clutches.

As if the heavy-handed metaphor weren't bad enough, the secondary bad effect of Marxist nonsense is also in play: blunting real, valid criticism of social inequality, by being an over-the-top strawman of its own position. The rich are not gods, they are not immortal, and the poor are not living that precariously even in countries vastly less wealthy than the US.

Of course, a realistic discussion of social inequality in the modern world would probably be preoccupied with the indignity of dependency upon the state dole, so, yeah, I don't know what I was thinking, expecting a Hollywood movie to talk about it.

The second reason to boycott it is, all bad "science fiction" movies that are actually bullshit fantasy movies should be boycotted. What, exactly, is the method by which life is extended in this manner? Is it some direct control of time? Is it some drug? Nanomachines? And how exactly is it that society is so little changed by the possibility of immortality? Every story about invisibility is actually about how people change when nobody's watching them, so why isn't this movie about how people change when death is not a certainty? It's unforgivable, to have a story with that kind of issue and restrict oneself to class warfare bromides.

2011/10/25

If You Have to Tell People...

Or why I hate "-punk" as a genre descriptor.

So I found this blog post—somehow one doubts by a historian—about "Why Steampunk Sucks".
To any prospering SteamPunk authors out there I would like to explain to you what “Punk” actually means in the cultural sense. Punk is at its core about rebellion, it is about youth rebelling against the oppressive moral values of the older generation, it is rebellion of the poor and disenfranchised against the wealthy elite of society. Punk stories should be about cynical protagonists fighting and carving out a better life for himself against a society that wants him to grow up, accept his place and go back to the ghetto. Punk is about being beaten down and pushed into the sewer, it is dirty, it is gritty, but it is also about getting back up, crawling out of the sewer, screaming “I am not going to take this any more !” and fighting back.
You know what's funny? That he thinks it is a point against steampunk that it's not really punk. While I have pointed out that no "cyberpunk" is actually punk—standard left-liberal narratives about corporations and the state are not punk—that is a point in its favor. Punk is stupid. Punk is, far and away, the most puerile, petulant, and tantrum-throwing of all the juvenile Marxism-influenced movements, and please recall that that list also includes both hippies and anarchists.

Indeed, to me, and to all thinking adults, the more attention steampunk pays to the second half of its name, the worse it is. 19th century class structures were largely oppressive—people actually decided to try Marxism, they were so bad—but they were also complex. If you have not made a detailed study both of sociology and economics generally, and of the period specifically, you are simply going to wind up with a series of middle-school civics slogans, and whatever plot you choose to string between them will suffer for it.

For example, you might know what a Tory is. You might know what "Radical" means. But unless you have actually read up on the period, would you know that a Tory Radical was very often an agrarian populist whose views of industrialists were routinely denounced by socialists as extreme? Or that they were, somewhat less often, also anti-Imperialist ("Little Englanders", they were called)?

Try working that—"King and Country" = populism, opposition to big business, and anti-Imperialism—into a "punk" narrative. Can't do it, it's a political "divide by 0" error. Punk is a purely post-WWII phenomenon, directly or indirectly influenced by Soviet propaganda, and can only view the world in a Cold War lens. It wasn't fashion that swept like a scythe through the subculture, in the '90s, it was perestroika.

You can't read that into the 19th century, the class structure was fundamentally different—industrial capitalism gave way to entrepreneurial by the post-war era, and that's the era punk comes from. Still less can you read punk into eras before that; nothing even comparable to capitalism existed prior to the Reformation, and without capitalism, what, exactly, is punk?

The central conceit of steampunk, and its children, doesn't actually incorporate punk anyway. "Information revolution comes earlier, make advanced gadgets with 19th (or whatever) century materials and techniques" has nothing to do with punk. Kaja and Phil Foglio describe their Girl Genius series as "Gaslamp Fantasy", probably because large portions of it are, well, fantasy (see also: Shadowrun). And most "steampunk" stories are actually, as I pointed out to my sister at the beginning of last year, "steampulp", or, if that be thought too limiting (and "pulp" has managed to retain its pejorative connotations, somehow), "airship opera". Think about it.

As a side benefit, well, google steampunk and you're mostly going to get ads for clothes. Not that that's a problem in itself, but if we start calling the genre "airship opera" we can eliminate a number of unwanted results at a blow. Until the bastards start tagging their clothes-sites "airship opera", anyway.

2011/10/21

Yes, These Are Conifers

So I thought I'd demonstrate how counterintuitive a taxonomy can be, just on Earth, by showing some weird plants, things I'd come across while researching how to do my aliens' plants. All of these are conifers, most of them in the Podocarpaceae family, which is mostly found in New Zealand and Australia. Apparently the conifers from Gondwana are crazy, and think it's okay to look like angiosperms. Then again yews aren't from there.

For instance, here's a yew cone:That is a cone. Not a berry. Freaky, huh?

Did you know these, too, are cones?Yeah, that's juniper. The pointy rather than scaly needles are apparently immature.

Here's a conifer's impression of an olive tree:That's a podocarp.

This one is a shade of green we don't associate with conifers:Doesn't that shade say "deciduous tree"? Freaky, huh?

How about this? I know, just looks like a juniper. But why's it red?This is Parasitaxus, the only parasitic conifer. Conifer mistletoe!

Here's another wrong-shade-of-green one, that also has soft, rounded needles. I dub it "Safety Pine"!Its name is Prumnopitys ladei.

This one, Saxogothea conspicua, isn't just weird for a conifer.

And finally, here's three that are freaky. Kinda looks like a deciduous shrub, right?

This one thinks it's an ivy.Maybe a columbine, actually.

And finally, this is a conifer with delusions of oak-ness.Isn't it awesome? This is basically what the (non-agave-esque) trees on the felinoids' homeworld look like, except theirs are red or orange and have an iridescent cuticle, like certain seaweeds.

Like this one.
It's Fauchea laciniata.

Perhaps I'll do one about animals, the many and strange things I have found out simply from researching my books. I doubt that one would have near as many pictures, though, bird airsacs or the fact they don't think with their frontal lobe are a lot harder to illustrate.

Ceci n'est pas un jeu vidéo

Because it is about one ("jeu vidéo" means 'video game', it seems obvious to me but I speak two Romance languages and dabble in three others, so plainly my conception of "obvious" is not that of a normal decent person with a life).

Also, this: best t-shirt ever. Oh God, the geekiness.What is fascinating is, the original, which was apparently supposed to be so deep, immediately had me say "Right, because it's an image of one." I mean the first time I saw it, at the age of 19. And I had not yet cast aside my humanity and become an oni for the sake of philosophy; I was just acquainted with the concepts "sign" and "referrent" and the distinction between them.

Anyway, I was blue-skying about what I'd do if my as-yet-unpublished SF book were made into a videogame (which is putting the cart before the domestication of horses or invention of the wheel). And I had some neat thoughts, things one might do in any video-game. I won't ask for a royalty if someone reads this and uses one of these ideas, all I ask is that they agree to work themselves to death (if necessary) to make my game, when the time comes. OK actually these ideas are just cool, use 'em if you want. Credit'd be cool, though, as would making yourself my game-making thrall. I promise I'll let you wear a one-size-large brass collar.
  • The fact one needs a tutorial at the beginning of a game is often rather lame, have you noticed? I mean, you're generally some grizzled space-marine or legendary mercenary (do I mean Solid Snake or Samus Aran?); the only hero I can think of who justifies his learning curve is Link, because he always starts out a normal boy.

    But that's the thing. Since Link's learning curve is justified by his youth, why not double up your tutorial with a prologue of the character's early days, and give us some backstory exposition while you're about it? I'm sure someone has done that before, but it seems like such an elegant solution I'm surprised it isn't overused.

  • Has anyone ever combined an RTS with a karma system? I was thinking if I was gonna make one for my SF book, set during the war, it'd actually use a two axis karma system: morale and honor. Too many RTSes use a mechanistic "models on a map" theory of warfare; what if you have to think of the guys as actually living people? Let their morale get too low, by throwing them away or bungling too many actions, and your men's combat effectiveness drops—and if you order them to do things they consider repugnant, they might mutiny.

    In my SF setting, the two axes would work differently for humans than for the felinoids; giving the humans orders that lower your honor-karma would just drive their morale down faster than anything else, even complete and utter clusterf...lunks, while lowering your honor too much with the felinoids would result in a loss condition. Namely, you get fragged by your own disgusted men.

  • Has anyone ever tried to combine FPS with 3D brawler? I had a thought that one could definitely pull it off, though it might be a bit wonky in practice.

    Basically, using the trigger/shoulder buttons puts it in FPS mode, where the bottom shoulder button, or trigger, fires a weapon or grenade, while the top reloads or jumps. The D-pad, in that mode, is used to switch between weapons. Touching the four buttons (ABXY on the XBox, O on the Preste) switches it to 3rd-person fighting game mode, where the D-pad and four buttons work basically like Tekken (e.g., the four buttons are mapped to the four limbs, and can be combined for special moves). I think the shoulder button that doesn't reload still jumps (the other one switches to FPS mode—you'd probably be able to disable some of 'em, since switching things merely by clenching is a common trouble in video games).

    In my setting, the characters would have a set loadout of weapons, rather than battlefield pickups, a bit more like Team Fortress than Halo. But maybe one could ask allies to share ammo (and AI characters always have infinite ammo, we're not monsters). It'd probably work a bit like asking a bot-medic for a heal, in TF2.

  • I'm sorta intrigued by an idea of giving each segment of a story a unique POV character, and letting each of them explain their world as they see it. In my setting, for instance, some human characters I thought of were a US Marine, whose POV would include reflections on America's changed status in the 24th century, as well as a much more skeptical attitude toward the UN; a guy from some other English-speaking country's "national cadre" within the Peacekeepers (I thought maybe a black South African with an Afrikaner accent, since that happens to be my favorite non-American accent in English), who gives a less critical view of the UN but also gives a more ordinary "poor bastard in the trenches" viewpoint (Marines are not normal soldiers, call one a soldier to his face if you doubt me); and someone from somewhere else, perhaps with his dialogue in some other Earth language, with subtitles, who's an elite powered-armor trooper (possibly female?), who'd give the perspective of a "super-soldier".

    The felinoids whose POVs I'd thought up include a rank-and-file trooper, or possibly even one of their activated reserves, who gives the "keeping the Vikings from burning our fields" perspective; an ordinary "sergeant" type who's trying to keep his unit alive while carrying out his missions, who gives the career-but-not-elite soldier perspective; and a pilot of one of their "starfighters", who gives the "super-soldier" and elite perspectives—but not, really, the hotshot-pilot one, 'cause their pilots are knights. I think maybe the female POV character on the felinoid side will be a medic (though "battlefield ambulance" is uncomfortably similar to "escort mission"), to give the noncombatants' view of what being attacked by barbarians is like. I had considered an electronic-warfare tech, but I'm not sure if there's a way to make hacking and cryptography fun, in a video game, without throwing realism out the window.

    One thing I thought would be amusing would be for the humans' campaign to go first, and for each of the POV characters to realize, to a greater or lesser extent, that most of the things the UN was saying about the war were bogus, and that not only are the Peacekeepers committing the atrocities, it's because of pacifism that they do it. And then to show that nevertheless, fighting the war is not necessarily wrong—it'd take deft handling, but for all their preening nobody really does deal with the moral ambiguity of war. Just because your side is in the wrong, doesn't mean it's wrong for you to fight for it, anymore than defending a culpable party from a lawsuit is immoral for an attorney.

  • A thing I was watching had a guy wondering why Arabs are the default enemies in so many FPSes, and uh, maybe for the same reason you usually fight Germans and the Japanese in World War II games? Well, Arabs and Persians, really, but the point is there is nothing more contemptibly PC than the Western Terrorists trope, and consider how contemptible PC often is.

    But it occurred to me, the way you avoid having that dehumanize that ethno-religious group is, you have a realistic portrayal of the difficulty involved, that civilians are often caught in the crossfire—and maybe you have to subdue them nonlethally. (In a game, that's awesome. In real life, if you are a soldier and someone attacks you, you do whatever you have to do to make them stop. It's not pretty but it is how you stay alive to do your job. You do still sometimes have to move civilians who don't want to be moved, though.) But I could definitely see incorporating that into the felinoids' campaign of my never-gonna-exist game, because they do have rules about not killing civilians (also their armor can shrug off someone throwing rocks like they were spitballs), and having to subdue enemies nonlethally can be interesting.

2011/10/20

Fixated on the Local Flavor

So some dude over on Creative Minority Report posted something about "Did Jesus die for Klingons too?" Now that is a question that is of interest to any theologically alert science fiction writer, but it requires a bit of backtracking.

Unfortunately, our definitions in biology, despite their detail and subtlety, desert us near-completely when we begin to speculate about alien life. Animals, for instance, are defined by modern biology as "eukaryotic organisms whose development entails a fixed body-plan, although they may undergo metamorphosis, all of which must consume other organisms to survive". Plants are variously defined, but tend to be "a group of organisms that possess chlorophyll a and b, have plastids that are bound by only two membranes, are capable of storing starch, and have cellulose in their cell walls"; frequently the definition is expanded to also include those plants that use engulfed cyanobacteria for photosynthesis—although, like mistletoe, there are plants that can't photosynthesize.

But what about on alien worlds? Aliens, I regret to inform writers, are simply not going to be 100% identical with terrestrial life. We have to fall back on a much more basic distinction, something like "flora and fauna". Flora are the non self-mobile life that produces food from energy, i.e. by photosynthesis (or absorbing the heat of underwater lava rifts). Fauna are the self-mobile life that gets energy by eating other organisms, either flora or other fauna.

The reason we need to use that distinction is, SF (and non-artistic exobiological speculations) ought to avoid unnecessary assumptions. Assumptions involved in the word animal, for instance, include "has DNA" and "is eukaryotic". But it's possible, if not indeed probable, for other planets' biospheres to use some other complex molecule for genetic encoding. And, while complex alien life is likely to have cells with organelles, especially nuclei, it is unlikely in the extreme that they will all map one-to-one to terrestrial ones. Mitochondria, for instance, are members of another kingdom absorbed by the first animals' cells. It is entirely possible that an aliens' cells might have a cisgenic1 organelle that performs the same function.

Plants, similarly, might use any color of pigment, bonded to any particular type of cells, for their photosynthesis. While something analogous to cellulose is highly likely, because photosynthesis requires fairly immobile structures that can sit in the sun for long periods, and sugars are probably how any organic life-form would store the product of photosynthesis, it's not impossible that a plant might make its cell walls from protein or even a hardened lipid (cell membranes are made of lipids, after all). Hell, it's not inconceivable for a plant to take a sponge-like approach, and make its rigid structures out of silica—which would create some scary herbivores.

For the other couple kingdoms, bacteria, protists, fungi, and "freaky things that only exist to irritate scientists", all bets are still more off. A world could have multiple "flora" classes with photosynthetic properties—actually, Earth does, algae isn't a plant—or multiple "fauna" ones that don't. A world's "mushrooms", for instance, might actually be "sponges", members of the fauna kingdom that have evolved to a sedentary-scavenger condition. There are likely to be "virus" analogs everywhere, but they might be more traditionally "alive" than our viruses (something like a parasitoid bacteria that uses the host cell's nucleus like a microscopic tarantula hawk, for instance), or they might be genetic-drift inducing toxins, even less alive than viruses are.

I'm not sure how an SF writer should refer to such things. "Plant" and "Animal" are fine, I use them myself; and my felinoids call an invertebrate with a segmented exoskeleton "a bug", even though theirs have 8 legs and usually only 2 wings, if any. You could also go with "autotroph" or "heterotroph", or as above, "flora" and "fauna". But remember not to assume. My felinoids' trees, for instance, come in two types: something like yews or other conifers with leaves, but they flower and their seeds are inside fruit rather than cones (and yes, I did consider using arils as their equivalent of fruit); and something like a cross between seaweed and an agave, whose branches, rather than leaves, are their photosynthetic part (like earthly plants that use that strategy, they have spines to ward off herbivores, the reason being that leaves are much more expendable than "a limb"...which come to think of it is probably why desert plants that have leaves are also more likely to have spines, their leaves are much less expendable). Their ground-cover isn't grass, but something that looks a bit like clover (related to the former type of tree). Their grain-like plants have some things more in common with legumes, like the seeds being in pods. And none of their vegetation is green, but brownish-purple or various shades of red or orange.

It is something of a challenge to keep from writing "fish" instead of "aquatic animal" or "bird" instead of "flier", but I enjoy trying to scrub as much terrestrial content while still remaining comprehensible (that second thing is why I still say "animal" and "plant" and "bug" and "tree").

PS. So what about the issue that started all this, whether Christ came for Klingons? Well, metaphysically, all sapient animals are "man", so what saves "man" saves all men, no matter where they're from. The same principle also, incidentally, answers the question of whether aliens have "human rights"—since rights are metaphysical, and they are not metaphysically different from any other "man", they have the same rights.

2011/10/19

The Pow of Languages

'Nother post title evocative of the Languages of Pao, this time about languages and SF, especially sf languages.

But first, mini-rant: why don't old people on the internet understand the rules? The two rudest, most netiquette-disregarding people I've ever encountered on the webs were in their forties and fifties—and apparently rules like "don't mock others' handles" or "don't post anonymously" had never penetrated the calcified edifice of their senility. Also, they love throwing around words like "troll" and "cyberbully" in blatantly incorrect ways.

I occasionally treat people condescendingly on teh interwebs, but only if they say things that reveal them to be slackjawed halfwits. That's not trolling or cyberbullying. But ironically, a major sign someone is a troll is that they post anonymously.

Anyhoo.
  • Why is there a universal trend with certain diphthongs getting distorted a certain way? For instance, in Sanskrit and Hindi, "a+u" is pronounced "o" rather than "au", and "a+i" is "e" rather than "ai". That should sound familiar, because that's the diphthongs in French (the ai->e also happened in Vulgate Latin, and ae also began to be pronounced like e).

    What's really weird is that the ai->e trend happens in Japanese and Korean, too. The stereotypical coarse accent in Japanese does it, and the vowel in Korean currently Romanized as "ae" began as a diphthong of a+i.

    Is it maybe just a convenience thing? E is between a and i, and o between a and u, so maybe people just say "Switching from one to the other is hard, I'll just say the thing in the middle." And diphthongs are hard, try saying any diphthong your language hasn't got (like öü, for instance).

  • Trigun, I realize, is the only not-shit post-scarcity SF. The Plants, after all, are the means their civilization uses to become that way (the reason they're such a limited resource is that their ships crashed)—and, as might've been expected, they're powered by a forsaken child. One of whom wants to get even.

    And, because Nightow may have the expectations of an eight-year-old but he's not a moron, even Plants wear out.

  • Why do SF novels try to reinvent the wheel? If the setting is far, far in the future, I can see having a conlang, or having humans dominated by a markedly different language (what if 32nd century Earth uses Bengali the way it now uses English?), but not if it's only 500 or so years in the future.

    In my books, the aliens who wish to communicate with humans learn English, French, Spanish, Russian, Mandarin, and/or Arabic. Those, after all, are the official languages of the UN, which, remember, is much more of a world-state than it is now (though still a confederation). They, with the possible addition of Hindi (which might, depending on the future political situation, be substituted for Russian) would also likely be the official languages of a conceivable world-state for the remotely tenable future. Or, well, Hindustani, which (lots of idiots' protestations to the contrary) is the term for the "neutralized" version of Hindi-Urdu that Indian films are often made in.

  • You know how the Brutes call you "bastard" in Halo 3, as in "There's the bastard, kill him!"? Well, I wonder, does "bastard" mean "illegitimate" in their language? The Covenant being eugenicist, I wonder if the word being rendered "bastard" actually means "eugenically counterindicated"?

    I can't get behind that one "Tales from the Mos Eisley Cantina" story about the Devaronian dude, and how they use "cold food" as profanity. But I can easily conceive of a predatory species that uses "carrion" the way we use "crap". Similarly, since my felinoids are incapable of tasting sweet, their equivalent of "saccharine" or "cloying" is "liver-meat". They also use "tender" where we use "sweet", I think I mentioned before. (They, by the way, do not use carrion that way, although "scavenger" is a cussword, since scavenging is one of their taboos.)

  • Did you know China has a version of shiritori (take the end, the Japanese word-game)? Yeah, I heard about it from someone (Taiwanese?) on a Korean-language forum I used to go to that no longer exists. Apparently it uses the hanzi, rather than kana. I imagine its only lose-condition is not being able to come up with a word.

    I seem to recall Korean had one, too, but I don't remember how it worked. I think "if a word ends with 'ng' the next word has to start with a vowel, and the loser is the first to use a word that ends with a vowel" would make sense, but that might not be workable.

  • I decided recently that my felinoids' craft sodalities ("guilds") would have symbols. I know the Signalers' Sodality, who make the computer networks, use a heliograph and two crossed torches, the former for heliograph signaling, the latter for lighting beacons.

    I wonder, how do you symbolize medicine, weapon-making, or architecture? Doctors wear orange (I had had them wear fuchsia, the color of their blood, but that's what the soldiers wear; now they wear orange, the color of bone), but I'm not sure what to have as their symbol. I think most of their "guilds" use the craft's tools or products as a symbol, but which medical tools? I think maybe scalpels (which may not have quite the same design as ours), and maybe bowls? They don't drink out of cups, and their medics were also apothecaries (I think I mentioned before, their "guild" system is a lumper, while ours was a splitter).

  • I know I harp endlessly on this, but is it really possible that nobody explained to Joss that Chinese profanity is mainly concerned with death and the naughty bits, not God or any other religious appurtenances? Cantonese (whose profanity I know better than Mandarin) has an F-word (diú), but other than that, the four other "words you can't say on TV" mean the genitals (gàu, lán, and chaht mean the male one, hài means the female).

    And other than that, Cantonese swearing involves death: séi means death or die (roughly the equivalent of "damn", e.g. séigwáilóu "damn whitey"), pùkgàai means "drop dead in the street", and hahmgàacháan means "death of a whole family".

    Again, there's something fundamentally arrogant about not bothering to look up how you actually swear in a language, just because you're so impressed with your own "wit". Especially when you also don't have any of that language's speakers in your cast (apparently Joss claims none of the Asians who auditioned were cute enough—which is probably perjury, East Asia has been aggressively selecting for "cuteness" in women for, oh, 500 years at least).

  • I wouldn't go so far as to call myself a brony, but I am very impressed with "My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic". I mention it here because the characters, being quadrupeds, usually "clap" by stomping. Which is a nice cultural-setting detail.

    The fact it and Adventure Time, two well-done fantasy shows, are on at the same time is probably a sign of the end-times.

2011/10/17

Rule of Three

And...another random thoughts. I'm sorry!
  • Tycho has an interesting discussion in today's Penny Arcade newspost, about Dr. Who. He says there's parts of liking it that he doesn't get, because:
    Even as an enthusiast, I don’t know that I entirely understand the appeal of Doctor Who. I have always suspected that I missing some vital continuum of data on account of my yanketude. There are episodes of the show which are objectively bad by any system of measurement. They sometimes (often!) change the LEAD ACTOR and all their friends so that you must to learn to like the show all over again.

    For every inexplicable time pretzel or hmm-hummer it presents, though, it’s one of the most distinct shows I watch: it’s mercurial protagonist, who can flip between Implacable Intimidator and Goofy Ultrapacifist in a harrowing instant is one of the more intriguing things about it. It’s a romp, for lack of a better term. It’s a joke that you’re in on, and if you don’t watch it enough to pass through the membrane and get to that inside portion, you’ll probably feel like the show is teasing you most of the time. You’ll see those “special effects” and probably be insulted by them, when for the regular audience they are, in their amalgamation, a kind of “wink.”
    And by George Joan, he made me realize what it is I don't like about the show.

    It's camp. Camp may be defined, in this context anyway, as "doing a bad job deliberately, because you think it's funny". Camp rubs certain people the wrong way, and I am one of those people. I think Gabe is too (hey, Krahulik is a Slovak name, and my grandmother was born in Prague—a big part of it is cultural). Tycho also says that Dr. Who is "a show you must meet half-way", and some of us consider it impolite, when offering a product, to make the client do half the work himself.

  • Why don't people understand what an ad hominem actually is? Merely insulting a person is not ad hominem. If I say "That's affirming the consequent, you idiot," I have not made an ad hominem error, I have identified a fallacy—and offered an appraisal of your meager cognitive powers. An ad hominem is to assert that because of some characteristic of the arguer, generally a flaw, their argument is not valid.

    Incidentally, the entire Marxist/Post-Modern/hermeneutics-of-suspicion paradigm is invalidated, by this fact. "Your objections arise from class-interest" means "you say that because you are a capitalist, or in their pay"—and that's the ad hominem fallacy. If you make that argument, you lose. So don't make it.

    Can you tell I've been arguing with people on the internet?

  • I don't know if I've mentioned it, but the ad hominem does have one place: as the counter to the ab auctoritate. However, it can only be used as a challenge to improper invocations of authority—if people, say, quote Stephen Hawking about politics or religion, the fact he left his wife for a younger woman is an entirely valid counterpoint, since it undercuts the moral authority he's being ascribed. It is most certainly not a valid counter to his physics theories.

    Similarly, asserting that someone is an activist in a field is no challenge to the facts they present. Sorry, but you have to refute facts with facts, vague assertions that "those people" are suspect is not an argument for anything but shooting you in your stupid face. Ironically, it's also how Nazis argued (relativity being "Jewish physics", for example), but if someone calls you apes on that, you scream about Godwin's Law.

    Speaking of, it's not Godwin's Law to bring up Nazism if the topic is war or genocide. I know, n00b, you heard that the cool kids on the internet don't like Nazism being mentioned, but it's actually a bit subtler than that, learn to breathe through your nose and think about it for a moment.

  • You know when people—generally halfwit Jingo Anglo cheerleaders—say English has a huge vocabulary? Uh, no, no it doesn't. Actually the words in English that are really English are comparatively few; I'm not certain but I doubt "remokon" and "keiki" count toward Japanese's word-count.

    Besides which, English doesn't have a special word for big toes, twelfths, or "son of a maternal uncle". Latin does (seriously, its kinship terms are a personal project of Satan). Behold true terror!Why, incidentally, is that system called Sudanese? And why's modern European kinship called Eskimo? It's weird, is what it is. One suspects unconscious racism on the part of anthropologists, that they don't seem to have considered "civilized" peoples a fit subject for their study.

  • I wonder, should I have my felinoids' kinship maybe incorporate relative age? I maybe can, I've got some pairs that had been male/female, but now that their kinship doesn't mark sex I might swap those around for older-younger.

    Or maybe just old/young as a common suffix, the way male/female is? I like that; languages with lots of optional features intrigue.

    Also, I'm wondering what I should do for grandparents. Irish uses "old" as the prefix, most of the Romance and Germanic languages use "big", and elsewhere, actually, using single words, like Latin does, seems to be the norm (but hey, Latin, why not distinguish maternal and paternal grandparents?).

    Maybe something like "away" or "far" + parent/child terms. And add "# steps" for degrees of "great"—rather than having to say "great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather" (Hungarian just says "boldognagyapa"), they just say "twelve-steps-away father" (no, wait, thirteen, there's also the "grand").

  • I was thinking, my felinoids' cars unfortunately don't have much legroom. Nor do their other seats—because they generally sit on the floor, hunkered. Their society cordons off thoroughfares, in places like airports, because they don't have obvious seats for people who are waiting, and folks'd get stepped on.

    Their desks and counters and tables, and such, are lower than in the West, more like traditional Japanese furniture. The exception is when they work with humans; they have waist-height desks, and sit on special chairs (still hunkered). Occasionally, when they ride in human cars or sit on humans' furniture, they have to remind themselves not to dig their claws in (I would imagine that clawing others' upholstery is universally considered impolite).

  • Just explained to my 14-year-old brother about the Illuminati—specifically, that the actual group was just a type of Freemasonry and all the conspiracy theories are nonsense.

    But it occurred to me, Freemasonry, Kabbalah, Rosicrucianism, Alchemy, Jungian psychology: they're all Hermeticism. There is nothing new under the sun, your esotericism is still the same thing it was in the 2nd century AD. Heck, Mormonism, Scientology, and Christian Science all also have elements of that type of Gnosticism. Come up with another idea already, human race.

  • So that idea that pasta comes from China. Uh, wha? Okay so spaghetti does, maybe couple other types of macaroni, but lasagna is European, it dates to at least the 10th century (only they used to serve it wrapped around a stick), and ravioli was probably Roman.

    I wonder, was all pasta Alfredo-ish before Europeans went to the New World? What would be the damn point? Then again green enchiladas usually have a sour cream sauce, not unlike a tomato-less lasagna (enchiladas are so totally Mexican lasagna), so maybe it'd be okay. Another example of how pre-Columbian Europe was a nightmare world would be their only beans were lima and fava. Can you imagine life without pinto beans? I don't want to.

2011/10/15

Yet More Random Stuff

I...uh...had more random thoughts.
  • I was thinking that my felinoids having 5 major languages for their whole species was unrealistic, but I do have one of the minority languages show up in my third (in-the-works) book.

    Also, though, English, Spanish, either Russian or Hindi, Chinese, and Arabic account for fully a third of all native speakers on Earth—and it's probably damn near impossible to go somewhere where someone doesn't speak one of them. Toss in French and you're in even better shape.
  • One of my shoutouts that doesn't involve AI, though I haven't actually got around to writing it, is that one of the characters owns a vehicle souped up with top-notch parts from around the world. Among those parts are a Zek Adamah engine from Israel (I trust you know that means "Red Zach" in Hebrew?), and a Aznavuryan friction-reducing coating from Armenia.

    Is it perhaps needless to say that its top speed is triple the factory specs?
  • Before I had the thought, above, about the Earth's common languages, I'd already decided that three of the felinoids' languages are in the same language group. Basically they're French, Italian, and Greek—one is the form of a classical language that developed in one of its former colonies, another is the form that developed in its original location, and the third is the modern form that developed from another classical language. The second one ("Italian") is the one the felinoids' "Empire" speaks (their equivalent of the Holy Roman Empire was Italian rather than German, mutatis mutandem), but the form that's actually used for official purposes is in many ways close to the late, vernacular form of the classical language. There was often a very thin line between Medieval Italian and the less scholarly forms of Medieval Latin.

    That second one, "French", coexists with an unrelated language that many of the populace still use, something like Basque (actually more like if half the French spoke Gaulish at home, except Gaulish is in the same language group as Latin and theirs isn't). The speakers of "French" call it "Old Gaulish" (or, y' know, the equivalent), while its speakers call it "Forest Words", in contrast with "City Words". That—I'm sure you picked up on, O discerning reader—is in parallel with the "countryside" and "town" distinction that explains half the developments in the former Roman Empire. Except the "town" people's leaders weren't German auxiliaries, they were military officers of the same nationality as those who became their subjects, and assumed control of the palaces when the Empire disintegrated. Then again, as Belloc perhaps too strongly insisted, half the "German" auxiliaries were so in name only, and were, for most practical considerations, about as German as the Palatine Hill.
  • The other languages are, more or less, "Scandinavian languages" (basically what you might call "Modern Norse") and "the Semitic language group". In many ways my felinoids' languages are more typical of Native American ones—the former has ergative grammar and tone, like Navajo, while the latter makes plurals by initial phonetic reduplication, like most Uto-Aztecan languages. The "Indo-European" ones have post-positions and make their agentive by terpsimbrotos ("he runs", used as a noun, rather than "runner"), like a great number of Native American languages, but actually both are common just in general.

    And yeah, I mean "the Semitic language group". The big one, of course, is "Arabic", except it's actually "New Phoenician" or "Modern Aramaic"—the felinoids didn't exactly have anything quite comparable to Islam, at least in its social effect, so rather than the speech of the nomadic "Semites" becoming the norm, that of the settled, urban ones remained dominant. They also have an equivalent to Arabic, and a "Hebrew". The "Aramaic" language also has a classical form, used for religious purposes (and, as with the other languages, the official form of the modern language is very similar to that classical form).
  • Obviously, of course, there are more differences than similarities between their history and ours; their equivalent of the Germanic tribes (the "Scandinavian" speakers, above) were of relatively minor importance, whereas ours were of major, though often overstated, significance. They did have a desert-nomad, evangelistic, lean-and-mean monotheistic religion, in some ways like Islam, but it wasn't nearly as successful (most of its adherents, for instance, are still "Arabs", while most Muslims are in South and Southeast Asia and they have a major presence in Africa, as well as Arabia). Its theology is similar to some of the Near Eastern monotheistic sects going around in the later part of the early Byzantine period, of which Islam is the major survivor on Earth, but it's less like Islam proper than it is like, oh, the Druzes or the various quasi-Zoroastrian groups in Iraq (the Yezidis, etc.).
  • So those big, elaborate hoods from the Middle Ages, especially notable in the later (shitty) part, are called chaperons. Apparently it began to be fashionable, around 1300, to stick your head in the face-hole and wear it as a hat alone, rather than as a cape-and-hood. Am I the only one reminded of the inside-out clothes in the second Back to the Future?

    Apparently "chaperone" comes from, either, the fact the Order of the Garter used to wear them (they were court attendants, hence attendants in general), or else the little hood you put over a falcon's eyes to calm it down. I lean to the latter, myself.
  • I don't recall if I mentioned this, but you know how, given that a spaceship doesn't really need to keep facing the direction it travels, the ships in Star Wars would actually easily be able to flip around and shoot TIE fighters coming up behind them?

    What they shoulda done, sez I, is mention something about how the Death Star's defense systems will get a lock on you, if you move at a constant velocity, so you have to accelerate the entire time (hey, given their engines were burning the whole time, they ought to have been accelerating anyway). If you're accelerating the whole time, turning around could make you slam into a wall or shoot off to God-knows-where—and if the defense system can't get a lock, it's that much more reasonable for TIE fighters to have to take a hand personally.
  • You know how movement in space is actually just either orbiting, or changing orbits, around some body (usually either a planet or a star)?

    Well, orbiting, is falling. So most space travel is not flying.

    It's falling. With style.
  • Which, huh, you know when people in various things say "I'll set your X (where X is all too often 'planet') spiraling into the sun?" Yeah, well, it already is, thanks for playing, that's what an orbit is. Earth is falling into the Sun, just with sufficient tangential velocity that its path is a very, very tightly wound spiral that makes billions of revolutions.

    And that brings up an interesting point. Many, many SF stories have beings or civilizations with godlike abilities. Why? So many hard SF fans think it's because they can't handle a world without the supernatural, but I think it's the reverse. I think that's their pathetic attempt to do it, humanistic triumphal posturing. Very few people can really cope with an atheistic cosmos; too many, if not virtually all, try to set up some other god in its place. As the greatest of all atheists put it:
    How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?
    But most of our modern atheists are what he would call English flatheads—and not coincidentally, their most prominent spokesmen are all from places that put the Queen on the money.
  • Ah, Fred, if only you knew, we killed him 18 and a half centuries before you were born. It didn't take. No existent thing, not even the ones that can be aware they exist, can do anything to Existence; as well ask a fire to abolish heat.

    Has anyone even heard of "Actus Subsistens Essendi"? It would appear not.
  • On another note (imagine my voice cracking as I shift about two octaves), apparently some NASA employee (not actually NASA) said global warming might make aliens do a preemptive strike, against a species "growing out of control".

    Please, think for a second. Unless the aliens are paranoid-ass lunatics, they almost certainly wouldn't be paying enough attention to Earth to know about global warming, if it's real, or what's causing it, if it's us. And they very possibly wouldn't care: I figure your planet's climate is your species' business. Do you call the cops just 'cause your neighbor's keeping weird hours? I sure's hell hope not.
  • Apparently Caspar Weinberger was responsible for the current sad plight of space travel. And by sad plight, I mean our insistence on fiddling with little pissant chemical rockets—it's an indignity I think most people aren't aware of. Just like how hunter-gatherer tribesmen don't mind not having indoor plumbing.

    See, Weinberger, back in the 70s, cut the funding for NERVA research. Twice. The first time he said the cut would make the research more manageable (which, uh, I'm pretty sure "reduced resources" seldom does, certainly never directly). The second time—when the program was cut all the rest of the way, i.e. effectively canceled—some congressman had the good sense to mock him about it: "Will this make it even more manageable?" Preach it, brother.

    We'd probably already have footprints on Mars, if not for that.

2011/10/14

Random Thoughts Y2011M10D14

ExactlyWhatItSaysOnTheTin.
  • Google "margaret atwood moon landing" (without the quotes) and you'll find references to an interview she did where she regurgitated many of the moon-landing skeptic (moron's) talking-points. I don't know if she does, necessarily, actually doubt it, but the fact she thinks those nitwits should have their nonsense quoted says a lot.

    But then again, she's not exactly interested in intellectual rigor, or she'd have bothered to read up on Evangelical Christianity before writing Handmaid's Tale. I mean shit, I bet the guys who wrote Elders of Zion at least owned Hebrew dictionaries and bothered to crack the Talmud. Is there any evidence Atwood knows even that much about Evangelicals?

  • I think the "dropships/shuttles/starfighters=attack chopper/plane" thing is due to Star Wars, and probably the Expanded Universe. I mean, Empire and Jedi both have two actual aircraft, the snowspeeders and the bikes on Endor('s moon, yeah, yeah). X-Wings et al are only every used as landers.

    But the EU has YT-1400s and X-Wings and Headhunters and probably Star Destroyers being used for, I don't actually think I'm exaggerating, crop-dusting; there are, I seem to recall, whole books where the damned things never leave an atmosphere. Leaving to one side that they wouldn't be able to do SSTO, not with their (lack of) fuel tanks (or with ion engines), you'd still be using planes for most of those things, spaceships are for space. As the name implies.

  • Been reading a bit on the debate about "literary" fiction vs. genre fiction, and science fiction, and all the jackasses who don't understand that SF is romance, not novels, therefore the literary standards are different, and if you don't like it, you can go write a kabuki according to the standards of an American soap-opera.

    But even so, there is a word to be said in favor of merely-entertaining fiction; see Chesterton's "In Defense of Penny Dreadfuls". Also, his Ballade of a Book-Reviewer:
    I have not read a rotten page
    Of "Sex-Hate" or "The Social Test,"
    And here comes "Husks" and "Heritage"....
    O Moses, give us all a rest!
    "Ethics of Empire"!... I protest
    I will not even cut the strings,
    I'll read "Jack Redskin on the Quest"
    And feed my brain with better things.

    Somebody wants a Wiser Age
    (He also wants me to invest);
    Somebody likes the Finnish Stage
    Because the Jesters do not jest;
    And grey with dust is Dante's crest,
    The bell of Rabelais soundless swings;
    And the winds come out of the west
    And feed my brain with better things.

    Lord of our laughter and our rage.
    Look on us with our sins oppressed!
    I, too, have trodden mine heritage,
    Wickedly wearying of the best.
    Burn from my brain and from my breast
    Sloth, and the cowardice that clings,
    And stiffness and the soul's arrest:
    And feed my brain with better things.

    ENVOI

    Prince, you are host and I am guest,
    Therefore I shrink from cavillings....
    But I should have that fizz suppressed
    And feed my brain with better things.
  • Again, SF is romances, not novels—it were as true to say that it is vernacular literature, not classical. Understand, "romance" comes from "romanicia", which was the term for what had been Vulgate Latin (the Romance languages, hence the name). The popular literature was, of course, in the vernacular; only scholarly writing was in Latin (the exception was the liturgy: it was written in Vulgate Latin when, and because, that was the vernacular language, but, being written down, it didn't change the way the spoken language did).

    And yes, novels are classical. Though the novel occasionally incorporates an element from Romanticism, fundamentally it's the same set of ideas—realism, harmony, and so on—that informs every other field of 18th and 19th Century classicism. To scoff at genre literature is simply to announce that you prefer the canons of the Academy. Only your Academy couldn't produce a David or an Ingres if its life depended on it.

  • Turns out "otaku" is the military-Japanese 2nd-person-pronoun. (I knew it was a pronoun, but not its context.) They're called that because that's the pronoun they use.

    And why, you ask, do anime nerds use a military pronoun? What, seriously? Gundam, dear boy. Yamato. Ghost in the Shell. I could go on, really. Pretty much till real recently, the stuff with the real otaku followings (that weren't magical girl) were science fiction shows about soldiers, cops, or spaceship crews.

  • I would just like to say that I totally called it: "bought the farm", referring to a crash, probably does come from insurance payments. See, e.g., here.

    Maybe it's just that I come from the same state as the most psycho-ass daredevil aviator of all time, Frank Luke.

  • This quote, from a review of Dollhouse, made me happy:
    Whedon calls himself a feminist, but he’s really more a fetishist, with his particular thing being strong-but-vulnerable babes.
    Yeah, I'm gonna have to take it one further, and actually say Whedon is a full-blown closet S.

  • Also, let us all agree that it is entirely appropriate that Disney owns Marvel, and Warner owns DC. Mickey Mouse and the X-Men, Bugs Bunny and the Justice League: perfect matches.

    More to the point, excessively condescending children's fare that ends up turning into smut: Ultimate Marvel, meet Miley Cyrus. Perfect matches.

  • I wonder, if you made a scifi show with a realistic ship—I'll allow artificial gravity, but with a tower floorplan and unable to land—would it freak people out? Apparently the viewing public is so benightedly ignorant that a ship that can do both SSTO and orbit-to-orbit can be described as a clunker or a piece of junk, and nobody bats an eye. Again, it's doubtful any ship will be able to do both, ever—unless we come up with a reactionless drive—and it is absolutely a certainty that such capability would be very rare (again, apart from reactionless drives).

    Hell, what if you actually designed your ships with fuel tanks? Probably blow the little nitwits' minds. I mean, look how they vote, and the fact any of them buy Transhumanist SF (in either the "purchase" or "set store by" senses of the word "buy"). The fact ships need propellant (which is not, necessarily, identical with their fuel) is probably a hurtful idea to the creatures, given the things they believe about economics.

2011/10/12

That's Gonna Leave a Mark

Or, well, not.

I was thinking. The scene in Serenity when Whedon acts like an emotionally abusive yandere, by killing the second of the two beloved characters he kills in that picture, is silly. I said it before, it should've destroyed both ships, and also, why do they have a window?

But I decided to prove it. So I have done the math.
  1. Any object moving at 3000 m/s will impact with the force of its own weight in TNT. Reentry velocity is Mach 25, or 8705.25 m/s.

    8705.25/3000=2.83575

  2. Kinetic energy varies with the square of the velocity.

    2.835752=8.04148

  3. I don't know what the Serenity and the Reaver ship's masses are, but it's quite likely they're ludicrously high, just like Star Wars ships' masses. 8 times those ludicrous masses is probably well into the kiloton range.

    If that wasn't clear, I'll break it down. Hitting another ship at re-entry velocities is likely to have the same effect as a direct hit from a medium-yield nuclear bomb.
But tell us again how realistic it is, just because the ships don't make noise.

Late addendum: After a perusal of the Firefly wiki, it turns out the Firefly-class is only 158.76 Mg empty weight, which is quite reasonable for a spaceship. However, 8 times that is still 1270 Mg, so it is a low yield nuke (1.27 kT). And besides, we don't know how massive the (much bigger) Reaver ship is.

Also, kudos to whoever noticed spaceships are supposed to be light—the Firefly-class's dimensions are about what you'd expect for an aircraft of its mass, if not even lighter (26th-century materials?). Well done, gentlemen. Now if only the writers weren't hell-bent on wasting your hard work.

2011/10/06

Or I Shall Turn On You

(The title is just a pun on the etymology of "advertise".)

Occupy Wall Street has been a boon to me, as a major element in my third SF book is a group of activists who oppose the UN opening relations with the dromaeosauroids. Now, they mainly do it 'cause the dromaeosaurs have a social order that's technically plutocratic (though not in the abusive sense we use the term, any more than ancient India being ruled by the warrior caste was the same as a military junta). And the activists are rebels against 24th century Earth's economic system, the mutant bastard offspring of capitalism and socialism: permanent employment. See Hilaire Belloc, The Servile State.

Anyway, the Occupy Wall Street dudes are helpful, in giving me soundbites for those activists to spout. But seriously, what soundbites!

See, Occupy Wall Street is largely run by the Canadian group Adbusters. And Adbusters may be the stupidest advocacy group ever created, even in the Anglophone Left: and consider that that includes Code Pink and the New Black Panthers.

For instance, the group was founded over two lackwit longhairs' disgust at an ad by some logging companies that claimed the logging industry protects the forests. Children, remember those huge fires here in Arizona over the last few years? Although Greenshirts like yourselves bear some blame, in preventing us from fixing the problem, conditions in this state originally got to such an unsafe condition because the logging companies were protecting the forest. Specifically, overprotecting it. Adbusters' counter-ad, in which an old-growth tree tells a sapling that a tree farm is not a forest, is similarly contemptible—because for most ecological purposes yes it is dumbass...and much less ecologically harmful than the mess loggers and Greens between them made of Arizona's forests, by the way.

Or take the Adbusters shoes "made by fair trade shops in Portugal and Pakistan". Leaving to one side that the original "Blackspot" shoe is just a Chinese-style knockoff of a Converse high-top, the shoes cost $75.00, ten bucks more than many Converse ordered directly from Converse itself. Oh, except Converse's US shipping is $5, compared to $13 for Blackspots. And Converse has free shipping for orders over $75, which is where Blackpots—again, $13 shipping—start. They are relying on your rich white yuppie guilt to subsidize their enterprise, and then they crow that they are successfully competing with a big corporation. Their other shoe, the "Unswoosher", aside from being hideous, is a sort of Hot Topic Grunge-lite boot—it therefore deliberately avoids direct competition with Nike, despite the name, in Nike's key product lines, namely athletic shoes. That's sorta like beating a heavyweight boxer in a World of Warcraft PVP, and then going around telling people you beat him...taking full advantage of the fact that "in the ring" is usually going to be assumed.

I suppose that last point is moot, though, since shitty Adbusters ankle boots don't come anywhere near beating Nike's sales anyway. I imagine it has to do with the "poor fit" between them and Hot Topic, which as I said would be the best demo for their product.

Let us pause also to consider the staggering hypocrisy of claiming to be critical of the sort of advertising that asks people to define their identities through brand association...and then marketing a shoe based entirely on people defining their identity through brand association.

Finally, corporate personhood comes under attack all the time from Adbusters, but I always want to ask, "How does your criticism of corporate personhood (as exercised by businesses) not also cut across corporate personhood as exercised by trade unions, ethnic groups, nonprofits, professional associations, or class-action legal plaintiffs against businesses?" Sorry kids, but you can't argue atomized individualism for collectivist ends. Then again I know that "corporate" as a legal term means something different from "having to do with a corporation".

2011/10/05

Keeping Up With the Kardashevs

I...I think this may be my favorite post title ever.

That discussion in the last post, about the energy-usage of the civilizations of Star Wars and Star Trek, got me to thinking. Now, plainly, the Empire is approximately a Type I civilization. No, I know, the Death Star's main superlaser outputs in the million yottawatt range, but...modern humanity can produce lasers in the couple-dozen petawatt range, that doesn't affect our status as a Kardashev .72 civilization, because it's only a slight increase in our total energy capacity.

It was, I admit, unfair of me to bring up the real projected energy costs of warp drive, to demonstrate that Star Trek is, in fact, a much higher-energy civilization. No SF FTL is directly based on Alcubierre warp, the thing is almost certainly not workable without a near-total overhaul. But nevertheless nobody, but nobody, screws with anybody who has routine teleportation.

Of course, the fact is, Star Wars is more realistic (except for fighter craft with ion engines, at which I just can't stop laughing). Star Trek's writers had no conception of the economic and technological implications of routine teleportation, nor of what commonplace realtime FTL would entail. They're even worse than Whedon not knowing that a civilization that could terraform on the Alliance's scale A) wouldn't have to terraform, certainly not any other planets, and B) would never even have to fight a war. Star Trek's Federation is, quite probably, capable of moving stars. And not on an ad hoc, throw-everything-into-it basis, like the Death Star or the UNSC blowing up one star, I mean routinely. These guys are basically Pierson's Puppeteers, there's no reason (other than that the writers are stupid) that they don't just turn homeworlds into spaceships. Anyone who doesn't think the Kzinti would eat the Empire from Star Wars has never read any Niven—the Jotoki were approximately the equal of the Old Republic/Empire, and they made the mistake of hiring Kzin auxiliaries. But the Puppeteers are so much more powerful than Kzinti that Speaker-to-Animals decides to keep the Puppeteers' screwing with Kzin evolution a secret.

It's laughable on the face of it, anyway, to pretend you can really measure Star Wars or Star Trek energy levels, or compare either to the real world; might as well ask what aerodynamic qualities of the Kusanagi no Tsurugi allow it to flatten grass. Those are fairy-tales, albeit ones that misappropriate the trappings of science. Absolutely nobody involved in either even paused to ask the question "Wait, what else must be true of their civilization, if it can do these things?"

That is a question very largely left to real science fiction, which means written—although Halo comes close. It is just barely conceivable that something we would recognize as "civilization" (rather than "gods" or even "impersonal natural forces") could induce one star to go nova, convert their home system into a fleet, or build a Ringworld (Halo gets props from me for its Ringworlds being so small). It is not conceivable that any such civilization would be 23rd- or 24th-century humanity. While Star Wars' civilization has probably had enough time to justify the Death Star, it's a moot point—because Star Wars, again, isn't science fiction, it's sword-and-sorcery that happens to be set in a bad facsimile of space. Asking if those people could beat the Federation is like asking "Who would win, Conan the Barbarian or Juan Rico?" Except Starship Troopers is halfway decent science fiction, and Star Trek is bad science fiction.

Personally, I say megastructures are out of bounds; you won't find any of them in my books. Sorry, but people who built the actual world they're standing on are a matter for myths, not romances, and they may always be—come back in about 6000 years and we'll see if that's not still the case. I don't know about you, but I don't give a crap what happens to the people in post-/trans-human SF. I generally despise class-warfare BS, but there's being born with a silver spoon, and then there's being born with an immortal body made of silver. Whatever his egalitarian posturings, the only effect of Iain M. Banks' "Culture" stories, on me, is to make me hear the tumbrils of Germinal and yearn to water the furrows with their impure blood.

Aside from the fact it's difficult to create conflict for people like that—remember how I asked why the Alliance in Firefly even bothers to fight the Independents?—I'm not certain megastructures are even possible. Seriously, think of any space-structure much larger than an orbit elevator or O'Neill Island colony. Now tell me, what's it made out of?

Yeah, I don't know either. (You get half-credit if you said "skrith".) While I posit all kinds of freaky materials tech in my books, all of it well beyond our current capabilities, I'm still pretty sure there's quite a gap from "reinforces the sword-blade's structure with an electric charge" to "can withstand the stresses of being a ring 2 AU in diameter". If they can make megastructures, they can probably use the same material in armor, and, well, there goes interesting fight scenes.

I have a practical reason aside from the difficulty of writing conflict for people like that, and the fact megastructures are either impossible, or render danger impossible. Namely, the fact a story like that often lacks an interesting human element. The first Ringworld managed all right, the second kept it up for the most part, but after that, uh, no. Stories of exploration are hard enough to make interesting—they're one of the worst offenders in the annals of "cardboard SF characters"—without the thing being explored being 940 million km in circumference.

2011/10/04

Swords and Plowshares II

SF military stuff and just gear in general. Unfortunately heavy on reality check because you people are stupid.
  • Read a guy, talking about a bunch of things we're actually doing that are like sci-fi and comics, who said in 30 years there probably won't be any manned combat aircraft, it'll all be UAVs. Sigh. Stop predicting the death of air forces, you chimps, it's never gonna happen. We're always going to have to have manned combat vehicles, and also actual boots-on-ground military personnel. Why?

    Jamming, my pets. EMPs. And oh yeah, hacking. Now sure, a whole bunch of tasks can be automated, but you are still going to need to put command functions inside the craft itself in some applications, and AI cannot take over every function of human personnel.

    Seriously, Hideo Kojima knows that. Are you actually less aware of military realities then him? If so, you probably need to kill yourself.

    Then again Kojima probably only knows that because it's a major theme in Gundam (especially Wing, consider the mobile dolls). Kill 'Em All Tomino may, in many ways, be an idiot, but not in every way. He's definitely right on this one.
  • Or how about people who think the fact the soldiers in Avatar use helicopters, when they can do interstellar travel, is a flaw? I'm sorry, I must have missed how we stopped using cars when airplanes were invented, and then replaced the airplanes with space shuttles. Machines optimized for one environment are not optimized for another. Not only do you have to use different craft for orbit-to-surface/surface-to-orbit and orbit-to-orbit flight, but you can't combine an airplane with a tank or submarine, either. Airplanes can become "flying boats", because a boat only has to have buoyancy, but nothing that can withstand submarine pressures is gonna be light enough to fly. You can combine car and aircraft or tank and submarine, but neither tanks nor submarines will ever fly—the best you'd be able to do is a boat that can also become a car or helicopter.

    Now, admittedly, it's entirely possible to use a VTOL SSTO craft as a ground-support aircraft, à la the Pelicans in Halo, but there's no requirement to do so. And the company in Avatar is plainly not military, whatever Cameron's quaint conceits on the matter. I wouldn't be surprised if those helicopters they use are just 22nd century versions of the UH-1C, an improvised "gunship" variant of a utility aircraft; it might look scary but it's a lot wider than a dedicated attack craft. Attack craft, both airplane and helicopter, tend to prefer a one-in-front-of-the-other layout in their cockpit seating, while the seats in Avatar's aircraft are side-by-side, like a utility aircraft. Probably they're meant to be reminiscent of the Osprey, but no, Cameron totally doesn't hate Marines.
  • And yeah, spaceplanes like the shuttle are sub-optimal for atmospheric flight, because, again, they're optimized for space. While they do speeds most planes only dream about, that's mostly because they're braking from orbit (the orbiter's velocity when it hits appreciable air density, at 122,000 m, is still Mach 25). And its cargo capacity is only 25 megagrams, the same as a Shaanxi Y9 transport plane...which has an empty weight of 39 Mg, compared to the shuttle's 68.6 Mg. Because a Shaanxi Y9 is not also carrying a big honkin' SSME and its propellant.

    God forbid I should stop anyone from criticizing Avatar in any way they can, but I don't think this is a way they can. We're never going to phase out ordinary aircraft, if for no other reason than that there are more fuel-efficient options than rockets for atmospheric flight. E.g., induction-motor turbines.
  • I realized, since my felinoids can already throw a car (a 24th-century sedan weighs less than a megagram, to save battery life, and the felinoids are as strong as jaguars), they have little incentive to use powered armor to boost their strength. Our powered armor is a long way from letting its wearer throw a car (it generally can't lift more than 90 kg, and that without the "snap" necessary to throw things); I figure by the 2340s the tech will be there, and my Peacekeepers field a few elite units outfitted with powered armor who can stand toe to toe with the felinoids in terms of strength.

    Unfortunately for the Peacekeepers, though, the felinoids' armor is powered. It has power-lifting systems that counteract the armor's own weight, letting the wearer move as quickly as normal, while wearing a good 20 kg of high-tech armor. And remember, they can run as fast as a human on a bicycle; the Peacekeepers' powered armor can let them move at a fast walk, maximum, and weighs about as much as its wearer (which means a PK powered-armor trooper weighs as much as his felinoid counterpart, basically, just that his armor makes up a much bigger part of the total).
  • Going along with those technological developments, both sides make much more extensive use of explosive rounds (the St. Petersburg Declaration ban on explosives under 400 g having become obsolete, but the expense of the explosive ones ensuring they're mainly restricted to use against armored opponents). Not only are under-barrel or dedicated grenade launchers much more common—I think both humans and felinoids use a grenade launcher with its ammo in a tube magazine, like a shotgun—but they actually make grenade rounds in small-arms calibers.

    Also unfortunately for the Peacekeepers, the felinoids are about 300 years ahead of humans—the two were about synched up at one point, but the felinoids never had nearly three centuries of intellectual stagnation and pointless, fetishistic antiquarianism the Renaissance. One effect of that technological superiority is, while small-arms explosive rounds can penetrate Peacekeeper powered armor, taking out the felinoids' armor requires the use of anti-tank rounds, generally of actual grenade caliber.
  • I think the standard magazines in the Peacekeeper guns are gonna be 50- or 60-round "casket" magazines, and they'll still carry six spares like our soldiers do (only ours are only 30-round box), for a total of 350-420 rounds. The weight's the same, though, because caseless ammo is about half as heavy. Cool, huh?

    The felinoids' detachable tube-mags hold 50 rounds, and, because they're copper-tungsten alloy, they weigh a lot, about a kilogram per mag, or twice what a 30-round STANAG mag weighs fully-loaded, and I don't mean caseless. However, their whole military wears powered armor, and it cancels out the weight; besides, even though they have reduced stamina relative to humans, when you're a 194 cm bipedal jaguar and weigh 117 kg, a mere 7 kg (six spare mags, just like the humans) isn't that much.
  • So this one dude has a whole website devoted to how the Empire from Star Wars could defeat the Federation from Star Trek. That's contemptible on a number of levels, since not only is that a rather puerile, pathetic-nerd thing to make a website about but those are neither of them real science fiction.

    But also, dude, transporters. I don't care how many hojillion watts a Star Destroyer's lasers can output (much good might it do them against Federation ships that can do real-time FTL, not hyper-jumps), the Enterprise D has 20 transporter bays, each with six pads. Even assuming each only has the energy output necessary to transport 100 kg, that is still—since it is energy-matter conversion—1.0788×1021 Joules. The Death Star's main weapon, it's true, outputs 2.2×1032 Joules, but I've only taken the energy of the 20 transporters' 6 pads; this says nothing about the cargo transporters in the at-least-2 cargo bays, the transporters on the God-knows-how-many-shuttlecraft of the 3 shuttle bays, or the energy responsible for the aforementioned real-time-FTL. Which, remember, is at least the equivalent of .068 solar masses...or 1.78803908×1047 Joules. I.e., the engines of each (warp-capable) shuttlecraft in the Federation must output 812,745,036,000,000 times as much energy as the Death Star's main weapon. Just hook up the shuttlecraft power systems to the phaser arrays and every Federation starship is like 813 trillion Death Stars, except (since the mothership still has its own warp drive) capable of realtime FTL, which renders every laser in the Empire completely worthless.

    And that is why we don't bother the grownups, brat, they wreck your little dreams.
  • That .068 solar masses number comes from a paper by David Waite et al. that I read on Los Alamos' archive site. Its title? "Reduced Total Energy Requirements for a Modified Alcubierre Warp Drive Spacetime" (emphasis mine). Because the original Alcubierre warp equations called for more energy than exists in the universe.

    In my own books I assume that the Alcubierre metric is a good starting point, but they've found a way to do it with much lower energy requirement (on the order of high-level fusion), and rather than doing a real-time FTL distortion their system is a short-lived, much longer-range one. That is, a space-fold. FTL comms also use the space-fold, either sending a radio wave inside a small space-fold metric, or else sending tiny space-fold metrics as a wave-form (the human and felinoid/dromaeosauroid methods, respectively).

    Then again—because I'm a real science fiction writer, rather than sword-and-sorcery or action/soap opera set in a poor facsimile of space—my setting uses dedicated re-entry capsules or space-planes, nobody uses ion engines in atmosphere (because they don't work, did you know?), and they don't have "Twin Ion Engine" be a major type of craft designed for maneuverability (ion engines give shit acceleration, and that's what maneuverability is). My ships have tower floor-plans rather than naval ship, and nobody's stupid enough to put giant picture windows on them.
  • On a cheerier note...well, on a less contentious note, apparently the higher the yield on a nuke, the cleaner it is, in terms of radiation. I wonder, however, if that's not "relative to their energy output", since every fusion bomb uses a fission bomb as a "pilot light". The other explanation I can think of is that the stronger the bomb, the more of the reaction's dangerous byproducts either get burned away, or react further into an inert form.

    Apparently, however, even low-yield nukes are, as explained here, inappropriate for actual use, even as bunker-penetrators. Apparently, in fact, using a nuke as a penetrator makes more fallout. Basically, until we get to space (where nukes are a lot less scary), there's no use for them except as a deterrent. Of course the fact is that nuclear retaliation is itself contrary to the principles involved in the law of war, but there is the interesting question of how one enforces laws of any kind against the sort of entity that would make a nuclear strike in the first place.
  • Apparently nuclear and biological are considered a different class of WMD from chemical and radiological. I guess it makes sense—the former are capable of apocalyptic effects, wiping out whole civilizations, while the latter are just really, really nasty. Poisoning wells is bad, spreading plagues is worse.

    I was thinking, would a venomous species feel that way about chemical weapons? Leaving to one side that a venomous species is unlikely to develop sapience (evolution tends to be minimalist), I don't think it'd make a difference. Man is the builder of fire, that doesn't change the fact firebombing is rarely if ever permitted (though obviously capable of misuse, most of our incendiaries are primarily used as defoliants).

2011/10/01

Books. Covers. Judging.

About writing in general, but I'm a explain the title first. You may have come across the pointless, unreasoning taboo "don't use a made-up word in the title". Uh-huh. But, uh, we're writing science fiction. Screw you.

World of Ptavvs and Languages of Pao might want a word. But the undisputed world-champion of flipping off that rule is C. J. Cherryh, whose output, other than the "Foreigner" books and Exile's Gate, is almost entirely composed of stories with weird words in the titles. "Chanur" in three, "kif", "Kutath", "Shon'jir", "Kesrith", "Shiuan", "Ivrel", "Azeroth"—and Shon'jir has a superfluous Esperanto apostrophe (madam, really!). Even the might-be-expected-to-have-normal-English-titles Rapprochement/Merchanter stories have it; "Downbelow" isn't a word, and neither are "Cyteen" or "Merchanter". Then again there is 40,000 in Gehenna, and Gehenna's at least in the dictionary (but why would anyone give a colony that ill-omened name?).

Also, Silmarillion. Which is, in fact, just a description of the book's subject. But, uh, in Elvish. Because that was how Tolkien rolled, bitches.
  • I was thinking, if you were to give the Silmarillion a Japanese subtitle, would it be Seimeisekki, specifically 晴明石記, "Account of the Pure Light Stones"? It's the literal translation of "Silmarillion" (actually the "ki" part is "Quenta", but...).

    And hey, why does Elvish use the same word as Spanish for "account"?

  • I think it's funny, a bunch of people, talking about writing female characters and "The Chick" archetype, have said "woman isn't a job." Yes it is, and one that makes whatever pays the bills into a sidelight. Thing is, "man" is too, it's just not a job your civilization recognizes.

    Go read some yankee manga—Beelzebub is a tolerably good one—and you'll discover what I mean. "Man" is a job that's two-thirds National Guard, one-third contract attorney, and occasionally dabbles in furniture-moving and grief counseling.

  • The idea of "voice" in fiction is interesting. I think I do a pretty good job of expressing my aliens in the "voice" of the sections where they're the POV characters (I use limited third, because I write in modern English). One thing nobody ever mentions is to use shortcuts, like the fact my felinoids refer to the pelage on your head as "mane", and don't have any idioms for "sweet" (they say "tender" instead).

    Personally another shortcut I use is the aliens use their own units for times, distances/lengths, and weights. Because I hate to break it to you, but other than the Planck units, which are imprecise at best, all units are arbitrary, and there is no rational reason for aliens to use SI or customary units from earth.

    Also, samurai dramas give units in ri and shaku, despite Japan being as metricized as any European country. And their audience copes like grownups.

  • Another thing I've noticed is, all my characters, with a very few exceptions, are me. "The part of me that hates being jerked around", or "the part of me that wishes it could solve all problems by killing", etc., but they're all me. It's not a problem if an author uses self-inserts—because that's the same as characterization, the only mind an author knows anything about is his own. It's a problem when the author only uses his idealized self-insert, and doesn't know there are other ideals others might prefer—and has that idealized self-insert winning over straw opponents.

    Incidentally, I noticed both my SF story's female POV characters are kinda basket cases. But then again, it does take place after a war, and wars are harder on women even when they aren't directly threatened by the fighting—because most soldiers are men, if nothing else, therefore "the people left behind" is a naturally sex-skewed category.

  • Interesting idea over on Superhero Nation about how superpowers might affect one's worldview (anyone else reminded of Niven's thing about how Clark Kent was probably near kindergarten before he understood objects have surfaces?). But I'm not sure I'd agree about telepaths being cynical, although I wholeheartedly endorse telepaths occasionally mentioning others' thoughts as if they'd been spoken aloud. And not just because I have a felinoid telepath occasionally do that when he's overworked (which is real bad, in his order's code—"can press charges" bad).

    But I don't think a telepath would necessarily be cynical, and not just because "he might read nice people's minds". Everyone has impulses (rightly or wrongly) they'd prefer (also rightly or wrongly) others not see. The only people whose minds wouldn't reveal a treasure trove of unkindness are people with mental illnesses like Williams Syndrome that make them congenital ultra-ingenues.

    No, the reason telepathy won't result in cynicism is telepaths, just to get a moment's peace by shutting off their power, would probably be very aware of their minds and thoughts. So they would know that every ugliness they see in others' minds is present in their own. Of course there's still self-delusion and hypocrisy, but telepaths probably wouldn't be any more cynical than any other man of the world. Or at least they'd include themselves in their misanthropy.

  • Apparently people don't like writing in weird accents? I, myself, only don't like it done badly, but then again I am a dialect fetishist. I have dialogue in Cajun English, Cajun French, Mexican Spanish, Brazilian Portuguese (actually almost all the Romance languages in my SF book are the New World dialects), Osaka Japanese, Busan Korean, Austrian German, Canadian English, British English (Cockney, Estuary, and RP), Afrikaner English, Jamaican English, and Jamaican Creole. That last one is going to get me hate mail, because Jamaican Creole looks an awful lot like stereotypical "African broken English", but, uh, yeah, most stereotypes are an idiot's version of a real thing.

    And you can use accents for characterization. My werewolf main, for instance, was born in the Czech Republic but raised here, but he speaks Czech at home; he has a very slight accent and sometimes drops articles, then catches himself and says them again. The priest makes fun of him for it, because he spoke Polish at home but learned not to drop articles ("I had the same issue but I got over it" is one of the few times you're allowed to make fun of someone, sez I). Another werewolf has a thicker Czech accent, where he basically dispenses with articles altogether, and makes past participles with "to be" rather than "to have" (because that's what Czech does)—"I am caught him" instead of "I have caught him", etc.

  • RE: Voice again, I have a villain (who starts becoming progressively more anti-villain while remaining a prick) whose dialogue I'm proud of. He's very much not a nice guy, but he fires off lines like "Passion 'droids, schoolgirl outfits. The less said about this, the better."

    I don't know, "not uninterested in society at large" is a type of villain I hadn't seen before.