The Popularity-Conscious Nerds of All School Districts

So. High school. I must confess I was happier in high school than in college, and much more than in middle school. Everyone was just chill, in high school—and this is me, it's not like I was particularly mainstream. Middle school was more of the cliques and BS, but since a middle-school kid is not a human being, but a hideous pupa, we shall be charitable. College was a never-ending nightmare where the other students would shout you down if you challenged a sub-competent professor's BS. And there were all those Two Minutes' Hates...

Anyway, the experience I had in high school was drastically different from the one depicted in movies and TV. I'll go point by point.
  • Jocks/cheerleaders. So in media they're always cruel bullies, and the school administrators never nail them, because apparently being able to win football games trumps the laws against assault. In my school, the football players and cheerleaders were some of the nicest people you could meet.

  • "Popular" people. This whole concept: what the Samuel Langhorn Hell? What, do high school kids have access to Rasmussen polls, or some damn thing?

  • Goths/Punks. For some reason they, especially Goths, are always little vegan/peacenik Susie Soapboxes in fiction, when real Goths' politics are all over the damn map, and Punks are usually Libertarians bordering on Anarchists. May actually not have applied at my school, since nearly all of them were Native American (Navajos and Hopis, respectively). Nobody gave them any crap, either—though some of the Hopis were probably racial separatists (you ever hear native punk?).

  • Band nerds, general nerds, geeks. So they're some kind of oppressed underclass in shows, sometimes with literally reduced human rights. Never happened at my school. The only people who suffered in this stereotypical way—I was one of them for a while—were the asshats who intentionally tried to make reality fit the fictional model. That is, people who set out to make "jocks" and cheerleaders mistreat them, by being a-holes to them, in some twisted form of victim mentality. My sophomore year I realized that if you just shut up and be nice to people, they're nice to you—and the caste system is revealed as an illusion (seriously, it was like a little girl brought me a rice pudding under a mango tree).
There are two reasons for this portrayal. One is, the writers really were picked on in school—this seems to be the case for Butch Hartman and Joss Whedon. Only, as I said, you usually bring that crap on yourself; I know I did. Do you really think Joss Whedon—who apparently grew up in a real World According to Garp—didn't do anything to irritate his schoolmates? If his behavior, mannerisms, and beliefs were anything like they are now, his schoolmates should be sainted that he left their hands alive. And those of you whose experience of high school mirrors this nonsense: I'll bet your life it was mostly your fault, or else your school was "urine-soaked, med-diluting nursing home" level dysfunctional.

The other reason for this horse-hockey, which may seem far-fetched, is that the writers are doing this intentionally. Think carefully about the paradigm being presented in high-school movies: oppressed, inherently more-virtuous nerds, being victimized by evil heartless popular people. They invariably throw off the yoke of jock oppression; sometimes there's even systemic reforms of the school.

If that sounds familiar, it should. You probably thought you hated "teen movies" because they're shallow, vapid, and use one of about four plots with little variation (and that, largely limited to the presence or absence of a monster). You were probably right, but I hope that you also hated them, on some subconscious level, for being creeping incipient Marxism.

Note: What distinguishes an underdog story from this Marxist thing is that an underdog story is about reform of an abuse, the besting of one oppressor/oppressive group by one underdog/underdog group. When it's implied, or outright stated ("high school's like that" type-lines) that such oppression is systemic, that is, when it is presented as "jocks vs. nerds"—class against class—instead of "this jerk gets his comeuppance from his victims", you have created a class-war paradigm.


Potpourri (That's just stuff that falls outta trees!)

Right. Random posts.
  • Infinitives can be split in English (maybe). But the canard is that "presciptivist grammarians tried to make English work like a Romance language", and that's why they thought they can't be. Only, there is no such thing as a split infinitive in a Romance language—literally, the concept doesn't exist. Any preposition in an infinitive is added to the stem, forming a composite stem—convenir out of con and venir; one says rapidamente convenir. But...split infinitives are possible, but forbidden, in German—it's schnell mitzukommen not zu schnell kommen mit. One wonders—did Old English share this trait with German, but then lose it under French influence after the Conquest? It would make sense—the grammars the court of Henry V used when they decided to switch to English, would probably be based on a written form, with many archaic rules, rather than their contemporary vernacular. Acknowledging that, though—that it was the work of native sources, not some evil foreign sympathizers—might disrupt the xenophobic, specifically anti-Romance, narrative the English have peddled since the Hundred Years War.

  • So I'm writing a fantasy story—and yes, it's got elves, trolls, and that sort of thing; I happen to like them. Anyway, for my Elvish language, I decided that the usual method—copying Tolkien by using Welsh phonemes and Finnish word-formation and grammar—just wouldn't do. Instead, I used a modified Muskogean sound-pallet, the word-formation and verb modals from Lakota, and a clause-structure from...one of those Native language groups, I forget which (either Muskogean again, or Algonquian). And as I was trying to write names and sentences in it, and realizing how the verbs worked related to their subjects (the names involve verbs because the adjectives are actually stative verbs), I realized: I'd been doing ergative grammar, and it wasn't really all that hard. Apparently some things really are a lot less confusing in practice than in theory.

  • So my 12-year-old brother and I have been playing with Nerf guns (yes, guns, "blaster" is a spineless euphemism), and I noticed, the things are designed by gun nuts. The rifle (I don't know its name, the modular one), has:
    • detachable barrel
    • detachable stock
    • multiple Picatinny rails for sights and lights
    • 6-7 shot detachable box magazine
    • an emergency ejector gate(!)
    Yes, that's right, if a Nerf dart gets jammed inside the gun, you can actually pull open a little door and clear it manually like a misfired 5.56 NATO round in a fricking M16. I approve, gentlemen, from the bottom of my black heart.

  • So, seriously, what's with the need people feel to badmouth monarchy? Whenever the concept of a king comes up, some little apple-polisher, fresh from getting extra credit in civics class, will pipe up with a catechism-recitation of how much better a government based on merit is. Maybe; there's two objections to the statement, one more fundamental and one less.

    The less fundamental is that a government based on merit will always function as an aristocracy (indeed, it's the literal translation of aristocracy). Aristocracy is actually the most corruptible system because of its tendency to be dominated by a clique, becoming an oligarchy—it's harder for a monarchy to become a tyranny because there's a lack of peer pressure. There's also the issue that position being based on "merit" is not conducive to humility in a governing class, which reinforces that tendency to become a clique.

    The more fundamental issue is, this world contains no such thing as a government based on merit, unless "ability to buy better ads in an election year" and "ability to play the corrupt system for political advancement" are considered merits. Because, however, the theory is that the government is based on merit, the ruling class get the same lack of humility, but without the actual merit that might have partly mitigated it. That is, we've got oligarchies, without them ever having been aristocracies.

    Before you shoot your mouth off about other systems, look at your own—and then only criticize the true totalitarians, who've managed the Herculean achievement of being worse than you.


On the Hardness of SF, pt. II

For pt. I, concerning aliens, FTL, artificial gravity, and reactionless drives.

Anyway, to continue—hardness is not about what you do or don't have in an SF story, my grandchildren, it's about how well you can justify it.

  • Stealth in space. Okay, yeah, actually, this is complete nonsense, an overused, unquestioned idea that's totally outlived its usefulness. Unless, that is, you're using the reactionless drives described at the end of the last post, the one derived from Alcubierre's warp (but without the FTL), and the other using the patching together of stress-energy tensor metrics on opposite sides of a spherical shell made of exotic matter. See, use either of those, and apparently the ship will be encased in an event horizon, with no light escaping. It does give you stealth in space...though, in a world where most ships use warp-drives, the question becomes, "Why aren't all the ships invisible?" That, and any civilization with either kind of reactionless drive would probably be able to detect the distortions they create (as every spacer's dear old grandmother probably used to say, "Don't create any effect you can't detect.") That'd kinda limit its usefulness as a stealth system, unless you've got a civilization with reactionless drives fighting one without them (I do, in my books—and the humans, lacking the drives, still manage to a degree, by developing software that spots the gaps the alien ships make).

  • AI. Amusingly, purely mechanical AIs, that is, computer programs that can near-perfectly simulate a person, get a pass by people who turn up their noses at artificial gravity. This despite the fact they're a hell of a lot less likely, but to understand that, you'd have to understand philosophy, and scientists...are usually the opposite of philosophers, if the fact they mistook Karl Popper for one is any indication.

    See, AI is impossible because of the Lucas-Penrose argument—that even if one could create a machine that could perform all the operations of a human mind, humans could still construct a Gödel proposition for that machine, and there is no logical way any machine can know a Gödel proposition, therefore such a machine would not be able to do all the operations of a human mind. The usual counter-argument is that Gödel propositions only apply to consistent algorithms, and humans are themselves not consistent—but unfortunately, humans are consistent, just glitchy, which is why we can tell when we commit inconsistencies. Truly inconsistent algorithms can prove anything (famously, "Bertrand Russell is the Pope" can be derived from "1=0"); there are in fact things we can't make logic do, and we know it.

  • Mind-uploading. This might be ruled out by Lucas-Penrose, though the mind in question would still be human rather than a machine—if it's not ruled out, using "copied" human minds could give a way around Lucas-Penrose (Red Vs. Blue Reconstruction used this idea). The real objection here is that it tends to imply body-self dualism, and that's just bad metaphysics.

  • Transporters and replicators. So apparently, in Star Trek's future, after they learn the Second Law of Thermodynamics, they add, "In those days, we really thought that was the world's one and only truth." Seriously—would you be surprised if replicators were powered by a number of red stones? These are patently impossible—the energy requirement for the amount they use the transporters and replicators could never be produced by the generators they use. Conceivably you could use a sort of space-warp, basically a booth-initiated spacefold drive, but going through space would probably kill you, the energy would probably be comparable to using a rocket, and that kind of space-time distortion could have terrible interactions with a planet's gravity-well.

  • Force-fields. Plasma windows, various kinds. *Ding* Next please. Okay, I will just say that the more a writer goes and finds out about plasma physics, the better.

  • Psionics, ghosts, religious/mystical trappings of various kinds. Completely neutral, since 9/10 of the objection to these elements is "Science says they're impossible" when it says nothing of the kind and, in fact, can say nothing of the kind. And there's more evidence for ghosts, and such, than there is for huge swaths of "history" (one recalls a Chesterton story where it's pointed out that people will believe any nonsense, as long as it's mundane nonsense). But, see, with that in mind, keep your psionics mental. They should behave like psychological events, not physical abilities—the primary drainage of using them should be emotional, not physical (though there is that whole psychosomatic union thing, pace Plato).

On the Hardness of SF

Those who expect my 42nd post to include a Hitchhiker's Guide reference will be sadly disappointed.
...Wait, dammit, that is one!

Ahem. So. People seem to have this "hierarchy" of SF hardness (the Mohs Scale, a certain wiki calls it), where the mere presence or absence of particular elements determine a series' hardness.

Fetid dingo's kidneys (dammit, that's another one). What determines hardness is not the mere presence or absence of a given element, but how well it's handled. What defines hard SF is that one justify one's creativities with the laws of physics. Merely being more daring in speculation does not render a series soft; ignoring the possibility of speculation is what makes a series soft. A series can have aliens, FTL, and artificial gravity, and be as hard as Lord Indra's vajra; or a series can have none of those things, have the action all take place in one star system, and yet be softer than gentle, retarded candies described in Cajun (LSU has a Cajun French dictionary online, if that confused you).
  • Aliens. The mere presence of aliens doesn't affect the hardness or softness of a series one way or another; how they're presented does. A harder series will have its aliens thought out, with distinctive culture and ecosystem. Example: Larry Niven's Kzinti (aliens) vs the Reavers in Firefly (not aliens, but sort of a plain-label generic equivalent). Niven actually paused to say, "Wait, how would Kzin society function?" Yes, his answer was an illiterate caricature of feudalism, based on very bad anthropology, but the Reavers are rabid people who can somehow cooperate enough to crew spaceships, so I think he wins.

  • Artificial gravity. Again, this doesn't directly affect hardness—the gracefulness of handwaving does (and neglecting to handwave means you've chosen to answer "Pass" to the question, and receive no points). Granting for the moment that exotic matter exists (or can be made, possibly using the Casimir effect), it should be possible to use its weird property (negative mass) to create warps in spacetime. It might be possible, as theorized by Alcubierre and many after him, to use one of these warps to achieve FTL. But that's controversial (see below). What isn't controversial is that you could use one of those warps to induce an actual gravity field. One thing it won't do, though, is negate rest mass—it might be usable as an inertia damper, redirecting the forces of acceleration away from ship and crew and into the surrounding space-time geometry, in a sort of Einsteinian judo, but it won't negate the need for motive force, and certainly (we're looking at you again, Firefly) won't make a reaction engine any more efficient.

  • FTL. In 1994, Miguel Alcubierre had the first idea for FTL that doesn't throw out General Relativity...and there are about 87 variants of it out there. It's a warp-drive, or a very localized space-fold drive, compressing space around a ship for motive force. The main challenge, by Krasnikov (who reduced the requirements of negative energy, which I would've considered the biggest difficulty, to the equivalent of a few milligrams) and Coule, who also picked holes in Krasnikov's proposed solution, is that the exotic matter for the warp would have to already be going at FTL speeds to go at FTL speeds. It might not even matter, if, rather than moving the exotic matter itself, one could use the exotic matter to make a warp, then move the warp itself (the fabric of space-time can move FTL with no trouble, that's how the Big Rip would happen, if it were gonna). Notice how hypothetical all this is, since we have no knowledge of exotic matter, let alone its properties, nor how such a space-time phenomenon would behave—is it useful itself as a means of propulsion, for instance, or can you use it to compress space and then move through it by conventional means? The latter would handily remove the need for the exotic matter to also be tachyons, since the motive force would come from something else, and the warp would just affect the distance moved through (theoretically, at one extreme, making it possible to use a shaken Coke bottle as an FTL thruster). There is ample room to wave your hands in, in other words, and no reason to be satisfied with nonexistent FTL, other than it being a better artistic choice. There's never any reason to be satisfied by vague FTL (BSG, I see you back there, stop trying to hide).

  • Reactionless drives. These are becoming something of a dirty word in SF, because they haven't always been handled very well (see, e.g., Campbell and the thing-that-spins-on-a-scale antigravity-device hoax). Only there might be a couple ways to do it—one's a much more modest, indeed entirely uncontroversial (if you can get the exotic matter), application of an Alcubierre warp. Another is a thing I saw described in a paper by one David Waite, called inertia control by stress-energy tensor metric patching. I don't entirely understand it (I never took high school calculus, never mind the kind that involves Lorentzian manifolds), but it seems, in layman's terms, you can sort of roll an object up in spacetime itself by patching together the space on opposite sides of a spherical shell made of, again, exotic matter. Rolling it up like this apparently allows control of the inertia inside; I'm not clear if it renders what's inside the shell weightless, or if one could create another space-time distortion inside it to have gravity, but a (probably inaccurate, sue me) version of it is the engine the aliens use in my books. It has the added trait (shared with Dr. (?) Waite's version of the Alcubierre warp), of creating an event horizon, in the strict sense that whatever's inside the distortion becomes invisible, the shell becoming a black gap in the starfield behind it (it wouldn't have any other traits of a black hole, though, except that the distortion it makes might cause small amounts of Hawking radiation as it forces virtual particles actual). Much narrative richness to be had, eh?

Land o' Goshen, this is getting long. To be continued!!