Romeo Papa Golf, Revisited

So I was looking around for things to fine-tune my D&D game, and as a result I have more thoughts (of doubtful utility, I concede) on RPGs. Why am I so fond of the NATO alphabet, anyway? I mean, sure, Halo, but I'd actually already had the idea of having the colonials in my SF story use those letters instead of the normal ones (either because they assimilated a lot of crew terminology, the way French and Spanish use a lot of late-Roman military slang as standard vocabulary, or just from the practical need to be clear over radio).

  • The more I read about D&D 4E the less I like it. Apparently they felt free to just start over from scratch in much of the system, and screw the 35 years (!) they've spent building brand loyalty. Why? To get the MMORPG crowd. As one commenter said, Lord knows becoming a bad imitation of your competitor is always a winning strategy, right? It doesn't feel like the game I bought at Waldenbooks in the spring of my thirteenth year, not anymore. Anathema sit.

  • Now admittedly I initially said the same thing about 3rd Edition, which is probably my favorite one—but it's different. Part of what I didn't like about 3e at first was that it was, in many ways, a throwback to 1st Edition—monks, barbarians, half-orcs, Greyhawk as default, assassins in a core rulebook (albeit only as a prestige class this time around...but am I the only one who remembers paladins in Original Dungeons & Dragons being a class fighters could switch to at 9th level?). But though it brought back things I wasn't crazy about (even Gygax agrees the monks were a mistake), it was at least in continuity. It's like the Eastern Orthodox: I got more than my share of gripes with 'em, but the fact is they retain apostolic succession.

    4th Edition, on the other hand, is rank heresy, apostasy from the faith delivered to the saints. If I can belabor a metaphor. The trouble really started with 3.5 Edition, introducing all those "Mass (Whatever)" versions of spells, and adding in spells like Owl's Wisdom, to buff any particular stat that needed buffing. That kind of thing is fine for a video game but it takes a lot of the flavor out of the pen-and-paper kind. Next they'll be changing spellcasters from divine (druid, cleric) and arcane (sorcerer, wizard) to red, white, blue, and black mages.

  • On the other hand, I kinda like d20 Modern/Future. I don't think it'll ever replace Alternity in my heart (though I like the statistical distribution more, with the d20 dice mechanic), but it seems fairly solid. Future, anyway; Modern frankly seems like an attempt to hijack White Wolf and Call of Cthulhu's successes, since several of the settings for them are horror or dark/urban fantasy. Future, though, has mecha rules, which I'd always thought were lacking from Alternity—though they're probably a knockoff of MechWarrior somewhere along the way. The mecha-themed setting, to judge by how it's described in the reviews, is Gundam. But then, of course it is.

  • Still, though, and I can't say this enough, 4th edition is a war-crime. Between how everyone involved in 3rd Edition appears to have been hounded out of the company by the time 3.5 came around, and the way they've been running roughshod over their inherited TSR properties, I think I need to name a rapacious, exploitative merchant race in something "Littoromagi".

    It was bought by Hasbro, though, and, well, let's just say Hasbro's first outlet store was in the Plaza of Dark Delights. You know, in Lankhmar.

  • The OGL sorta seems like more trouble than it's worth, at least with how Wizards interprets it—the phrase "Byzantine complexity" can be used, and understand when I say that, I've actually tried to work out the order of precedence in the titles of New Rome's Court.

    Still, a lot of people are just leery of rights-licensing, and run screaming from the specter of lawyers being unleashed upon their houses.

  • Ahright, enough bitching about WOTC. A guy had an interesting point, about how 2nd and 3.5 Edition were slightly ill-thought-out—1st and 3rd were very extensively play-tested, while 2nd was a bit slapdash and 3.5...yeah, it sucks in a number of ways.

    On the other hand I do like it giving rangers more powers than just extra favored enemies.

  • I am perhaps unique in not having much reverence for Gary Gygax. The man liked Conan and The Hobbit more than LotR; in a rational state that'd be grounds to lose suffrage. 1st Edition is really just pedantic, and, though the core version was play-tested and established as serviceable, it's really, really complicated.

  • Speaking of, in Oriental Adventures (and all subsequent editions thereof), what's with "Wu Jen"? Why not "onmyôji"? For that matter "bushi" and "samurai" are the same thing, not two different classes.

    I seem to recall the yakuza aren't quite right, and personally I would've kept sohei, gotten rid of shugenja and monks so-called, and swapped in two priest classes, one Buddhist and the other Shinto (or one of the other traditional religions). Taoist priests would be covered under onmyôji.

    'Course, you probably want to give them English names, so's not to have Chinese class-names in the Japan-analogue, or vice-versa; if I had to write a class-based Asian fantasy, the classes would be fighter (weapons or martial arts), knight (youxia/hwarang/samurai), thief, gangster (yakuza/triad, the Korean equivalent of which only dates to World War II), spy (ninja/brocade guard/amhaeng-eosa), exorcist (the mage-thingy), monk (the Buddhist type priest, not the monk-class as we know it), shaman (the kannushi/manshin type priest), and maybe fanatic (the current "sohei", a religious militiaman; China's equivalent would be the Yellow Turban Society and similar movements).

  • Finally, I'm in favor of disallowing certain things. My current campaign's not set in a standard D&D world, but when I do use one, there are no barbarians (they're over-powered and the assumptions that inform the class are racist at best), no monks (they're pointless and based on some weird Fox Zen thing) and no half-orcs, because let's face it, there's no way that's not just yucky. I generally prefer to eliminate orcs, since they're largely redundant with hobgoblins and less cool.

    Also, there really need to be more elf paladins.


I Used to Play Xaositects

Random thoughts. No scramblespeak, though, be at ease.
  • So I was noticing how historical fiction, or works set in the off-brand equivalent of a historical era, like "medieval" fantasy, are always out of date. We've done a lot of reevaluating of historiography in the last twenty or thirty years; not only the medieval stuff I've mentioned, but also, for instance, we now know everyone Joe McCarthy accused was, in fact, a stinking Stalinist spy, and that all those atrocities the allies accused the Germans of in World War I weren't just propaganda, they really happened. And yet, in historical fiction, not only did the Dark Ages not end till the Renaissance (when they actually resumed), but McCarthy was a paranoid schizophrenic and Germans were holy, blameless creatures, goaded into a war by mean ol' France. Plus, you know, Belgium was asking to be raped, dressing like that in that neighborhood.

    Maybe our historical fiction should take account of books written after 1956? Just saying.

  • On that note, you know how there's this perennial suspicion that fantasy (and science fiction) races are allegories of specific real-world ethnic groups? TVTropes calls it SpaceJews. Yeah, well, the assumptions about medieval society that go into a lot of fantasy, especially "edgy" fantasy like Dragon Age and George R. R. Martin, are like if every one of those SpaceJews subsisted on the blood of human (i.e. Christian) children.

    See, one of the main impetuses behind keeping the canards about the Middle Ages alive, in the face of all the research debunking them, is that much of modern society, especially in the Anglosphere, is rabidly anti-Catholic. And so it serves their purposes to paint the era dominated by the Catholic Church as a Dark Age, rather than as the age of absolutely unprecedented progress and enlightenment it objectively was. It's important to pretend Catholicism was responsible for an era of darkness and misery, to justify one's own penchant to steal Catholics' land, mass-murder them, and rape their women, all of which was official English policy until Ireland got its independence. As in, in the 1920s. America's not much better; anti-clerical governments in Mexico did much the same thing, largely with the help of US funding, again, through the 20s.

    Just for the record, Catholics suffered 5 Holocausts in the 20th Century alone—no literally, 30 million Catholics were murdered in that century, purely for their religion. And yet a casual bigotry that dwarfs Weimar Germany's off-hand anti-Semitism is still perfectly socially accepted in many quarters.

  • On a lighter note, I was writing a battle scene in my fantasy book (which does take into account the new research on the Middle Ages), and the guy fends off a dragon's tail by slashing at it as it tries to wrap around him. And as I'm writing it, I realize: it's like a grapple attempt provoking an attack of opportunity! I really like 3rd Edition's combat rules.

  • You might think, as I once thought, that there are some things you can't make a moe character out of. But that was before I found this manga called "Plana-chan". Plana, you see, is a planarian-human hybrid: she's a flatworm. And she's adorable, with giant starry eyes and planarian-shaped hair, and skinny little stick-limbs.

    There's gotta be something in the water in Japan.

  • Speaking of moe, is Azumanga Daioh moe in genre, or does it just generate it as a side-effect? 'Cause it certainly doesn't feel like it was setting out for moe, it just sorta happened.

    Similarly, does Yotsuba&! count as moe? Or is it just "my black heart is momentarily thawed by this cute little girl who acts more like a real child than any other kid in fiction"?

  • Am I alone in having a love-hate relationship with harem series? I like them for the romantic-comedy aspect and the zany shenanigans (gah, "zany" is almost as ass-lancing a word as "wacky"), and I like it how each of the girls gets fleshed out, but am I alone in wishing the guy would eventually pick one? I realize you don't want to disappoint the fans who were rooting for someone else, and there's that whole wish-fulfillment/never-have-to-grow-up thing about them, but come on, guys, you're Japanese. Put some wabi-zabi into it and embrace the impermanence; nothing lasts forever, especially not an unstable condition like that (which is a part of onmyôdô, also Japanese).

    Also, I'm sorry, but the primary girl in harem series is almost never as good as the secondary. Aeka in the Tenchi Muyo OAV is a lot less compelling than Ryoko (that's why the TV version seems to come down in Ryoko's favor instead, I think), and Ayame is a lot better for Yoichi than her sister is.

  • That JTHM reference I just dropped reminds me, who read that comic and said, "We gotta get this guy to make a show on Nickelodeon!"? I'm frankly baffled as to how that could ever happen.

  • So you know how people say there shouldn't be any limits on sex or violence in media, because "people are mature enough to know reality from fantasy"? Sure they are. So then why are we constantly having to explain that guns, medicine, forensic science, and space travel don't work anything like in the movies? Are people magically incapable of telling that from reality, but somehow they just intuit the inaccuracies in media portrayals of sexuality and violence?

    Also let's completely ignore all the research that proves people are vastly easy to influence by the media. Nope, nope, just because the dogs salivate every time I ring the bell doesn't prove a damn thing.

  • Finally, am I the only one who thinks the Needler, in Halo, should be nicknamed the High-Impact Bedazzler?

    So resolved.

  • Late addendum: So remember how I said how come paladins in D&D-fiction always actually behave chaotic evil? Yeah, it also occurs to me, elves also always behave lawful neutral, at best, frequently true neutral with evil tendencies (my people prefer to denote that as AL: N(e)). I can think of exactly one elf who actually behaves chaotic good, and her name's Deedlit, so no (direct) credit to D&D for that.

    Alignment isn't what the character calls itself, idiots, it's how it actually acts.


Every Little Thing She Does

...Which is not just a Sting song, it's also the cheat to get all the magic upgrades at once in Warcraft II. I know, it's weird that I remember that. Anyway, I was thinking about magic in fantasy stories, and how pretty much everyone always tries to reinvent the wheel, yet without, it often seems, ever considering what we want wheels for.

There are three questions you have to ask yourself when you're writing a fantasy story. One is, "How does the magic work and where does it get its power?" Another is, "What're its effects on the society?" And the third, the one that will largely determine those first two, is "How do I have it not wreck my story, and not have becoming a mage be synonymous with getting your certification in Deus Ex Machina production?"

Most works' magic involves, well, verbal, somatic, and material components (yeah, speaking of not reinventing the wheel, D&D has some very useful terminology here). Of course this is partly because real-world magical traditions involve speech, gestures, and special substances. Many traditions have taboos on talking about dangerous things, and some idea that names have power, though the idea of having a secret True Name™ is mostly a convention of our fantasy (though most premodern Japanese women did use pseudonyms to avoid the power of names; many modern Navajos of both sexes still do). And there's about three concepts relating to magic substances—sacrifices, where power is purchased by giving things up; something I'd probably have to call "alchemical correspondence", where substances have powers other than their brute physical properties (iron goes with fire, for instance, in alchemy); and sympathetic magic, where you get power over a person through his possessions. Gestures are basically just the sign-language equivalent of speech (making a mudra is identical with saying the corresponding mantra, in Esoteric Buddhism), though I can think of one work where the elemental magic is accessed through non-symbolic gestures. Yes, I mean Avatar (as in Aang, not shaved blue plus-size Ewoks).

Now, you can go with only one of those; word-magic is especially popular, possibly because it's the kind Tolkien used (being a philologist), when he invented about 3/5 of modern fantasy's conventions (the rest of it was invented by Howard and Leiber between them). Word-magic's what LeGuin uses, with the language of dragons; Paolini does the exact same thing—by an astounding coincidence, doubtless—except with the language of elves. Dragonlance is more original about it—spellcasting is in the language of the Irda, who are basically super-elves who are the ancestors of ogres—but the principle is the same, except combined with the Vancian magic it inherits by being a D&D setting. Using a magical race's language is odd, to me, but where I live the spirits are noted for being incapable of speech—the Navajo for "gods" actually means "Speechless Ones" (though they communicate just fine, their words have no power). God forbid we just have the human language be capable of shaping reality, like Hebrew, Sanskrit, and Japanese are thought to do, in the real world. But having all the spells be in it's-not-really-elvish-at-all-I-swear is just one of the things writers are unthinkingly copying from Tolkien.

My own story uses a mix of words and substances—spells are in a dead human language, mostly in the subjunctive (as they were in Latin), but to cast them you've got to pour libations, toss away money or other valuables, or cut yourself or someone else (that last being bad-guy magic, of course). There are gestures, but only waving wands, staffs, and hands to give a rhetorical flourish to the spells.

As to where magic comes from, there's basically two versions. One is the one Leiber and most Japanese fantasy uses, that the magic comes from various spirits, anything from ghosts and sprites to the gods and demons themselves. The other is more common in the West, probably to avoid the Pat Pulling type of Satanism scare (if you don't know who she is, you're lucky), and because pantheism has been the de facto official religion of the Anglosphere at least since Shelley—magic is either purely from a person's will, or uses some energy inherent in the cosmos or life or some such. Greenwood calls it the Weave; people who don't think "skyclad" is a word call it the Force. Whenever someone uses that second option I like to say, in my best disgusted Jerry Seinfeld voice, "Hello, Numen"—"numen" being what the Romans called it. Its name in Hawaiian, of all sources, is probably the most common one in a lot of fantasy: mana. No, I don't get it either, why Hawaiian?

Most people mix and match, actually—some of the magic in Slayers, for instance, like Zelgadiss's shamanic magic, uses that natural energy instead of demon- or god-power. In my book the humans' magic uses the power of spirits, both fairies and ghosts, while spirits themselves have elemental powers. It kind of irks me, though, how LeGuin postures as being a Taoist when her magic's all numen-based; all the really big stuff in Taoist magic involves invoking spirits, up to the ultimate technique, the "Invocation of the Lord of Mt. Tai". Of course she also thinks Taoism disapproves of seeking immortality, so, um, yeah.

As to magic's effect on society, a lot of people seem to think it would be akin to various kinds of technology; they seem to think, for instance, that introducing the ability to do large-scale manufacturing to a feudal society would be bad. They think this because they don't know that feudal society had large-scale manufacturing—water wheels, kids, water wheels. The so-called industrial revolution only had the deleterious effects it had because of the social and economic changes brought about by the Renaissance, the Reformation, and, more to the point, the loot of the monasteries (concentrating the wealth of the newly-Protestant countries almost as much as in Roman times, and far more than in the Middle Ages, long before industrialization). In actual fact, mages would be like any other power-factor in society; in my setting they're all nobles, their magic replacing cavalry warfare as their power-base. There's also normal nobles, of course, and the main effect of the presence of mages is retardation in the development of siege-engines—who'd bother with catapults and battering rams when you can fireball the doors? I'm not the only one that did it that way; Zero no Tsukaima did it too (weird, huh?), though there, the mages are basically the only nobles.

How magic works is pretty easy, and its social effects follow naturally, if one can merely clear one's mind of mythology and read some real history. The question is, though, how do you keep it from breaking things? Magic can be damn near a panacea, at least for material ills; how do you keep any kind of drama or conflict in a world like that? A lot of people fall back on "oh, well the characters and their relationship are the real drama", but frankly, though characters are important, if you're only going to have that be the story, why bother with fantasy at all?

There's basically two ways to do it. One is to have the magic be weak, and the other is to have it be hard—or expensive. Some people do both, especially in "low" settings like Leiber and Howard. There are basically no human mages in those stories whose spells exceed D&D's 4th or 5th level, and most of them are more like 2nd—maybe shocking grasp or invisibility but nothing approaching fireball or lightning bolt, let alone meteor swarm, AKA the Dragon Slave. And in exchange for this cheapjack hedge wizardry, creatures who probably sip darjeeling with Cthulhu know where you live—it's important to remember Leiber and Howard were in the Lovecraft Circle.

On the other hand you have magic that's not weak, but only has limited uses, for various reasons. One of the best known is Vancian magic, named for Jack Vance's Dying Earth novels. I've never read them, so I can't comment on the idea when it's at home, but you and I both know it better from its new address: Dungeons & Dragons. The way mages forget their spells once they cast 'em? Yeah. It feels a little forced to me, actually, a rather arbitrary limit to place, but the idea is sound—make sure wizards can't just sling spells all day. It's probably more popular to have the wizard get tired out when he uses magic; that's basically how mana systems (or MP) work—a more believable way of limiting the mage's power. The other thing from D&D is related, restricting mages' armor and weapons. It makes no sense (unless you're gonna rule that iron armor, or something, interferes with magic); people do extremely intricate, concentration-intensive things in outfits a lot more restrictive than competently made armor.

One that I'd like to see, but seldom get to, is the real-world restriction: purity codes. Yes, it's the one I use in my book. Basically how it works is, the spirits that power magic won't even talk to a mage unless he's in a condition of ritual purity. Which isn't the same thing as "following his alignment", as D&D puts it, though it's related; purity codes involve pollutions from good things as well as bad. Pick up some competent anthropological studies of things like Shinto and Korean shamanism—I recommend Shamans, Housewives, and Other Restless Spirits: Women in Korean Ritual Life by Laurel Kendall. It's not as feminist as the title sounds, except in the sane sense of the word, and it's incredibly useful in showing how people who own televisions and cars interact with spirits they didn't just make up to feel "spiritual".

I'd also recommend finding an old copy of Clyde Kluckhohn's Navaho Witchcraftthis is how black magic works, kiddies, accept no substitutes.


Cloudy and Clear

Which are the two ways the Yellow River can run, of course—and when it runs as one when it should be the other, it's an omen that the Mandate of Heaven has been lost.

Anyway, I read Dr. Thursday's thing about right and left, over on the Chesterton Society blog(g), and there's a quote from The Man Who Was Thursday, where the anarchist guy says they've abolished right and wrong, and Syme says he wishes they'd abolish left and right, since he has a lot more trouble with that. But it got me thinking about the two kinds of duality. Strap in, kids, I'm gonna be playing around with Buddhism and Taoism in Thomistic terms.

The first, the kind that Buddhism denies, is duality of negation—A and not-A. Now, they're not really opposite, inasmuch as not-A is the same thing as "all the rest of the universe, except A", whereas A is A (even Ayn Rand knows that, that's how basic it is). Buddhism denies it because, of course, "not-A" as such has no existence, it's just a privation; we merely hypostasize it for the sake of thought. And, of course, to a Buddhist, thought is just a delusion, since there's no "you" to do the thinking. Non-duality follows from the teaching of the non-soul. Which is why it's always funny to me when people say Buddhism's spiritual (it denies spirits), or that they worship themselves (they don't believe they've got selves).

The other kind of duality is the kind Taoism is based on, that of polarity. It includes the sexes and the directions, along with electric charges and a whole passle of other pairings. It's not a privation; north is not the lack of southerliness and female is not the lack of masculinity (sex differentiation may involve a lack—the male lacks part of one chromosome, in mammals, while the female lacks part in birds—but the sexes themselves are complementary...which is essentially what Aquinas was saying in Summa Theologica, Part 1, Q. 92, Reply Objection 1, except going from Aristotle's science which thought the female arose from a lack, not the male).

Now, oddly enough, a lot of people—including the Taoists—identify "good and bad" as a yin-yang pair, which is where that whole "balance of good and evil" nonsense comes from, à la Dragonlance. Actually, though, if you really examine Taoism, you'll notice that, to them, "good" means balance, and "evil" means imbalance—because evil is privation of a good. The "balance of good and evil" is the error the Manicheans made, and though the Chinese philosophers might've occasionally said the same thing (possibly in desperation for more yin-yang pairs), they never actually mistook the concept like that.

That second duality is very important in many of the world's philosophies; it's a cornerstone of Egyptian, Aztec, and Navajo thought, along with Chinese. Yes, that's right, Navajo thought—they're basically Taoists (their traditional homeland is protected by a barrier anchored on the four directions by guardian gods, just like Kyoto is). Everything in Navajo thought, from weather to colors to people, is divided into yin and yang, simply called "male" and "female". That's what it means when, in reference to the Hero Twins, it's said that Born for Water is the female twin and Monster Slayer is the male (they're actually both boys)—as the younger brother, Born for Water is, of course, yin to his elder brother.

The Sioux, incidentally, are Platonic hyper-realists; weird, huh?

Being and non-being—A and not-A—are more important to Western and Indian thought (though then again Indian thought's a lot more like Greco-Roman thought than most people realize—the fact Indian men's traditional garment is a toga should've been a clue there, really). Aristotle, of course, but also Plato and the Hindus, and of course the Buddhists, who, however, deduce odd things from their denial of formal parts (that's what the non-soul really means). Specifically, see, Buddhists believe that, since not-A, non-being, is just something like a convention, necessary for the mind of an illusory observer, the only reality is "A", the Dharmakaya—identical to Plato's Monad and, to Thomists, ha-Shem, ha-Kadosh Yisrael. You know how people say Buddhism's atheist? Yeah, not in Western terms; they're actually a-everything-other-than-God (as Western religion means the term)-ists. What, you didn't think ha-Shem was a deva, did you?

PS. You wanna know something fun? I can express most of science in Taoist terms—supersymmetry, electric charge, the flavors of quark, etc. For example, the electric light. Very simply, you cause a qi imbalance in something made of the element metal; as the yin qi moves through something made either of wood (cotton filament) or metal (halogen or mercury), it, too, is imbalanced. And so, to restore its balance, it exerts a yang force—by lighting up.


Drown in the Gutter, Reincarnate, and Try Again

Yeah it's a Sket Dance quote, what of it? And it's a Reality Check. Just because of what I've been reading lately it's mostly political.
  • So Americans are convinced that "rugged individualism" is a part of what makes their country great. It's funny to me because rugged individualism is actually much more typical of French culture than American. See, in America, community spirit, i.e. "We don't allow that kinda thing in these parts", exists everywhere, town or country; in France it only ever took hold in the cities, at least after the Middle Ages. Why do you think they call it "bourgeois respectability"?

    What's real funny is, "rugged individualism" is especially associated with the pioneers and westward expansion. You know, the same people who'd jail you for spitting on the sidewalk.

    Now don't misunderstand; I like America, and the pioneering spirit. But "rugged individualism" is a thing for backwoods hermits and self-indulgent aristocrats, neither of which is in any way typical of America's national character.

  • It's fascinating to me how many Libertarians—who roll on the floor in ecstasies of fetishistic worship the second you utter the word "Constitution"—don't understand that giving such a thing the absolute authority they do, fundamentally makes the state into a god. If you say that, because of a piece of paper authored by a random assortment of wooden-toothed slave-owning Freemasons, a community can't ban or at least restrict pornography or videos of animal torture, it's only a matter of time before the state founded on that piece of paper is allowed to kill and exile absolutely by fiat.

    And the little lambs seem to think it's some kind of counterargument to say that the state has promised it won't do that.

  • More generally, Libertarians' knee-jerk individualism, and their habit of trying to undermine all extra-governmental attempts to establish a common morality beyond "different strokes for different folks", has exactly the opposite of its desired effect. See, their "individualism" doesn't actually serve to weaken the state. It only serves to remove every power from the equation except the radically atomized individual and the state—and the individual doesn't have an army.

    Oh well, at least they'll be among the first sent to the death camps when they get their wish.

  • One last point against the halfwits: Libertarian ethics essentially boils down to, "I don't want anyone to tell me what to do," and "You should only interfere if someone will die." What's funny is, if you showed that to any premodern civilization, they'd ask why our country has a political party made up entirely of slaves.

  • So a frequent canard of gun-control advocates is, "An assailant is more likely to wrestle your gun away from you and use it on you than you are to shoot him." John Lott adequately conveyed the flaw in such statistics in general—that they don't count all the times a gun is merely brandished successfully, but only count shootings—but another issue is, those statistics only counted cops. And cops have to get up close to their opponents, in order to capture them. That is not generally the case for the "armed citizen".

    Let's not even get into the fear-mongering tactics gun-control advocates use on women, a frequent target of that particular argument—because apparently women are not capable of standing up to men. Delightful, huh? Never mind that giving women guns makes them a hell of a lot more capable of standing up to men.

  • So I've said it before and I'll say it again: thesauruses are Devil's Catechisms. They teach people to think of synonyms as entirely interchangeable, rather than merely similar. This was brought to my attention recently by the whole idea that Earth is "insignificant" compared to the scale of the cosmos. I was debating it with an idiot on this one website, and the idiot refused to grasp the concept: "insignificant" is not the same thing as "infinitesimal".

    See, as a matter of fact, the cosmos is a hell of a lot more insignificant than the Earth. Why? It doesn't affect us as much, and there's no such thing as "meaning" unless a person is involved.

    The idiot in question also refused to see the danger involved in the assumption—that meaningfulness, value, is a function of size. And the only possible major premise that yields the conclusion "earth is insignificant compared to the cosmos" from the minor premises "earth is tiny" and "the cosmos is vast" is, "significance is solely and exclusively a function of size". I pointed out that that would mean that men are more significant than women—and, also, that Germans are more significant than Jews, simply on the basis of average size. And the idiot gives me sophistry about the relative scale involved!

    Sorry, jackass, but, though a penny is infinitesimal compared to the National Debt, two pennies is still twice as much—even though it's almost exactly as infinitesimal. And they, all three of them, are values in the same terms, namely "monetary worth".

  • The other problem with that "insignificant earth" idea is, it's often said in SF, by aliens...who think c. 10 m/s^2 is a reasonable gravity, 20° C is a decent room temperature and O2 is a civilized respiratory gas. That is, species who evolved on planets like ours—so they should think of Earth a lot more respectfully.


Assorted Things of Interest

Boy it's hard to come up with new titles for every random thoughts post.
  • So I realized there is one Western work about robots in society that I like: Automata, by Gabe and Tycho. It kinda pisses me off, though, because I sorta prefer it to their usual strip. Which is saying something—Penny Arcade is about the only day-in, day-out joy I have. I just prefer serious stories to comedy.

  • Tycho, incidentally, is probably the best English prose stylist currently alive. I flatter myself I can come up with better stories than him (though I should probably be glad he doesn't do serious stories that often), but he's got me beat by four lengths in the matter of style. The man just makes words and sentences do these tricks, like a flea circus—like his own analogy of what Zerglings do in the hands of an expert Starcraft player. And he does it literally every other day; there's basically no newspost in which he doesn't deliver at least one sparkling gem.

  • Bakuman—not to be confused with Bakugan—is an awesome little manga, though it's probably a little "inside baseball" for most people. It's slightly perilous, though; now that I know the thought process that goes into producing shonen manga it's a little hard to watch or read things like Black Cat. The tip-top samples of the form, like Naruto, can mostly get away with it, though. Apparently shonen manga, like laws, are like sausages—if you like them, you should never watch them being made.

    And Bismarck would know about the aspects of the legislative process you don't want to see.

  • So I'm probably the only person who gets annoyed when patriotic Americans say America's the greatest country that has ever been—or at least the only one who gets annoyed for the reason I do. See, I don't actually think they're wrong, or far wrong (I'd give France under the Direct Capetians a slightly higher score, but only slightly, and #2 ain't bad). I just don't think most Americans have a right to say it, because Americans are incredibly ignorant of their own history, let alone other countries'—therefore they're not qualified to judge.

  • Why does France under the Direct Capetians get a higher score? Never had slavery, women could always vote (yes, I'm not exaggerating), and economics was organized on the guild model—private property without grotesque inequality. There were also huge leaps in manufacturing, architecture, science, and philosophy.

  • More generally, reading Jaki and several other books reveals that, in fact, the West had already surpassed both Byzantium and the Islamic world, in every field except astronomy and medicine, by the 11th century. The Byzantines were sending engineers to Italy for training in the early 12th century—because the Byzantines didn't have the mechanical saw or the fullering machine (in case you wondered, they were powered by water wheels). The west actually surpassed the East in astronomy by the 13th century, and in medicine by the end of the 14th.

    Also, though they weren't any better than Islamic or Byzantine physicians, 11th-13th century Western physicians were, in many ways, better than 19th century ones. Their surgeons routinely got "union by first intention" (no scarring), understood the rudiments of sanitation, and even made occasional use of opium as an anesthetic. Why did medicine fall so far by the 18th and 19th century?

    Let's just say ancient Rome and Greece didn't much use anesthesia, and let you figure it out.

  • How weird is it that, apart from Psych and Burn Notice, the only live-action shows I can stand to watch are iCarly and Wizards of Waverly Place? Remember how I said kids get everything? Yeah, that apparently includes shows with decent writing. And timing. Comedic timing is the make-or-break of a sitcom, and those shows have it down. It even excuses their occasionally-slightly-clumsy acting.

  • So it's difficult to see how most modern states don't count as oligarchies—that is, rule by a minority for its own benefit. A lot of people don't realize it, because most of them seem to think "oligarchy" means "plutocracy". That's a common type, but a technocracy is just as corruptible, if not more so—since there's much less element of chance in expertise than in wealth, there's more pride involved in technocracy than in plutocracy.