The Desolation of Philosophy

Why yes, that title is a reference to Boethius' Consolations of Philosophy. This here's a Reality Check, with special emphasis on Philosophy Fail.
  • So this one blog called "Ayn Rand Contra Human Nature" is pretty good at pointing out flaws in her writing, but unfortunately, it usually does it from a Hume/Popper empiricist standpoint—which is sorta like refuting Louis Farrakhan by citing Mein Kampf.

    See, empiricism is actually worse than Objectivism. Objectivism, at least, is not self-refuting; Rand just makes the same error as Maimonides, and identifies Being with Formal Part ("Existence is Identity", in her formulation).

    Empiricism says truth can only be attained from science or math...which statement is not attainable from science or math. For example, Hume, in An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding:
    If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.
    Unfortunately, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding contains no abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number, nor experimental reasoning concerning fact and existence. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.
  • Huh, the part in that book, about the missing shade of blue, is a glimmer of intelligence—despite his best efforts to evade Aristotle ("school metaphysics"), Hume is forced to fall back upon abstraction. Only he doesn't know it, and doesn't realize he's just refuted himself.
  • Karl Popper, likewise, when he said all attempts to reason about ethics are really just rationalizing your preferences? Kinda looks silly when you realize that, apart from a few works on epistemology, every effing thing he ever wrote is about ethics, specifically social ethics.

    Hey Karl: an Open Society is just your preference; you—by your own admission—can offer me no rational basis that I, too, should prefer it.
  • Speaking of, you know how people claim you can't derive an "ought" from an "is"? Where the hell have they been? See, they're right that you can only derive from axioms, which must either be granted or self-evident. But Adler found a self-evident proposition that contains an "ought": "We ought to do that which is really good for us." That proposition is self-evident, since contradicting it is nonsense—neither "We ought not to do that which is really good for us" nor "We ought to do that which is really not good for us" is a tenable position. Anyone who thinks he's asserting either will be found, on examination, to actually be asserting something like "We ought to do something which appears bad for us, but is pleasurable...and therefore is really good for us", or "We ought not to do something good for us, because we don't deserve it...and therefore it is not really good for us."

    Pretty cool, huh?

    Now, of course, the question becomes "What is really good for us?", but that, if you're accustomed to the uncertainty inherent in thinking about virtually everything, is a much easier question to answer.
  • Apparently Ayn Rand thought that words without definitions aren't words, but animal noises. Which is funny, since "existence" is a word without a definition. No, seriously, there are a number of undefinable words in philosophy: "one", "existence", "not", "other"...basically all the really important words.

    But let's just remember that her degree was in Social Pedagogy. That is, the bastard child of education and social work.
  • Another of her silly little soundbites is, "To be is to be something." That's her identifying form with being. But there's another problem with it. Namely, that sounds pretty smart in English (which uses the same word for the copula as for the existential expletive), but it sorta breaks down in any language that doesn't. I mean, in German, that'd be "dasein ist zu etwas sein"; in French it'd be "y avoir est être quelque chose". Even better, in Korean, it'd be something like "ittdareul mu-eon-ga ida io" (we both know Ayn Rand would use haoche in Korean). Though one can construct a copula in Korean with "ittda", it's not the standard way of doing it—making it much more obvious she's trying to construct a metaphysical argument on the basis of wordplay.

    Nevertheless she's not entirely wrong. Formal part, after all, is any existent thing's connection to being (though, indeed, she has it backwards—a thing is only a thing at all because it exists). This is what Christians mean when they say one's soul belongs to God; it's also what Christians mean when they say God is the creator (since, as Existence itself, he's the cause of existence). Notice that I said God causes existence, not coming-into-being. That's a distinction a lot of people don't get, and the reason a lot of Westerners think they're being put on when Hindus say they believe their cyclical cosmos nevertheless is a creation by God.
  • So another thing she says is that civilization consists in the maximization of the individual. Now she was a raving, though probably unconscious, racist, so of course she meant Western civilization (thus leaving China and India out of the reckoning): but she's wrong. The Romans always beat the Germans because the Germans fought for individual glory rather than as a unit. Now, if for "civilization" you read "Christendom's contribution to civilization" and for "consists in" you read "includes, along with little things like inventing science", the statement is correct, but since she also hated Christians you can bet she wouldn't say that.

    She also said that the lives of savages are wholly dominated by the tribe. Now, to me, that's funny: because there is no word for tribe in any of the four Native American languages I'm acquainted with, and that's obviously the sort of people she had in mind. They've got clans, but that only determines things like inheritance, incest avoidance, and which prayers you do. Most Native American cultures (get this) aren't collectivist enough to have developed the concept of "tribe"—the closest they get is "people who talk the same language as us". Any of that group, though, who aren't your neighbors—any of them whose affairs are not directly concerned with yours, in other words—have no claims on you beyond non-hostility.

    The real story is, of course, that, except for Christendom, the more complex a society is, the closer it is to pure collectivism—the reason being that Nash Equilibrium thing I mentioned. Greeks and Romans were probably fairly hard socialist/light communist, except the Spartans, who made Stalin look like Barry Goldwater. The Chinese and Indians, on average throughout their histories, are about as collectivist as Mussolini or European socialism—less collectivist than the Greco-Romans, but that's because of the ameliorating influence of Buddhism. It gets fun in the Americas, since you can compare peoples in one region, like the Navajo to the Hopi (the former are far more individualistic than the latter...and had a much lower level of organization and technology at contact), and also within one language group (Comanche, Hopi, Aztec, in ascending order both of cultural development and collectivism).
  • Oh, hey, lots of people, not all of them Objectivists, define materialism as the denial of the reality of mind. Only, no, it's entirely possible for a materialist to believe there's such a thing as mind (though it would have to have strange quantum characteristics to resolve probability waveforms).

    A materialist is more properly defined as one who denies the reality of natures, or identities—in Aristotelian terms they deny formal and final causes, and restrict themselves to material and efficient causes. They also usually deny the reality of "wholes" (philosophical atomism)—or sometimes the reality of collectives (most simplistic individualism is a form of atomism). The smartest of them rapidly cease to be materialists, since that denial of wholes forces them into an infinite regress whose only escape is Buddhist non-duality.


Induction, Surprisingly Not Involving Tesla in Any Way

So apparently there's a split within orthodox Objectivism over the induction problem, the question of whether inductive reasoning (e.g. science) leads to true knowledge. Schadenfreud is all well and good, but it's actually sorta ironic. Why?

Well, because the answer to the question that Aristotle gave is one of his key disputes with Plato, and yet apparently none of the Objectivists have cited this. I don't know why I'm surprised—since they're not really Aristotelians—but I thought it would be fun to talk about.

See, the answer a true Aristotelian gives to the question, "Does inductive reasoning give true knowledge?" is, "Mostly." Unfortunately it's not an absolute that makes Calvin's Total Depravity look wishy-washy, so of course Randroids wouldn't like it, but let me elaborate.

Aristotle differed from Plato, and also from the quasi-Platonists of the "Englightenment", in asserting that ideas are not remembered (or innate), but abstracted. See, Plato's theory of knowledge held that repeated occurrences of, say, mathematical or physical phenomena, serve to remind the soul of its time, between transmigrations, in the Realm of Form, where all such ideas exist.

Aristotle's, on the other hand, held that all such principles are simply abstracted from occurrences; if 3 guys give me 5 coins each, every day, it won't take long before I notice that I get 15 coins each time, and thus abstract to one block on the times table (if I am then brought 3 coins each by 5 guys I can abstract to another principle, the commutative property). The principles are instantiated by the particular occurrences I abstract from—an important principle of epistemology, that you work from the specific to the general, not vice versa. So, of course, not real congenial to Ayn "Generalization Queen" Rand's followers.

In a way, the two theories of knowledge reflect their different metaphysics: Plato's remembered ideas are a part of his Hyperrealism and the eternal Realm of Form, while Aristotle's abstracted ideas are related to his ideas of potency and act, and mitigated realism. After all, none of the particular instances one abstracts a principle from will perfectly express that principle, unless the particulars are themselves abstract (e.g., the 15 coins in my example will vary slightly in physical properties, even though 5 and 3 are always 5 and 3).

Anyway, plainly, given that Aristotelianism considers all knowledge to come from abstractions from experience, its answer to the induction problem is, "If there are no errors in the observation, and the observation is really indicative." Or in other words, "Mostly."

PS.Speaking of Rand, she blithely ignored the fact that Atlas isn't holding up the sky out of altruism, but because Zeus will kill him if he doesn't, but nevertheless her choice of mythological parallel is appropriate. The Titans, after all, are cognate to the Asuras...whose traits, according to the Bhagavad Gita, include lust, pride, greed, and conceit. Lord Krshna doesn't actually say that an Asura would consider Beethoven "malevolent", but I think it's implied.



It's German for world-building. It's really more about cultural setting, but I dare you to slide a credit card between those two words. Also, the German word for "culture" makes me nervous; the Nazis adequately summed up a wise course for all Germany's neighbors when they said "Whenever I hear the word 'Kultur' I reach for my gun."
  • So my felinoids have 23 teeth, each double-pointed (I didn't mention how many they had, when last I mentioned this). They also have 18 digits, 5 fingers per hand and 4 toes per foot. They usually go barefoot; most of them use base-10, but two of their societies use base-18 numbers traditionally (they switched to using base-10 later on, since the decimal society created science, but there're probably remnants of the old system, just like there are lots of remnants of duodecimal numbers in several European languages).

    Their modern numeral system is currently acrophonic—it uses the first letter of each number's name in the decimal society's language—and a decimal, place-value notation, but they used to use something akin to the Greek numerals, with the first 9 letters being the numbers 1-9, the next 9 being 10-90 (by tens), and the next 9 being 100-900. I'm not sure about the four letters they'd have left over (they've got 31); they use 100, rather than 1000, as a super-base (as Indian languages tend to do), so maybe the leftovers were 10,000 ("myriad"), million, hundred million, and 10 billion. I'm guessing those work more like kanji numbers, so you'd write "5 (10 billion)" for 50 billion.

    The base-18 civilization used the first to seventeenth letters for, well, 1-17, and the eighteenth for 18 (which would be "10" in an octodecimal system, though they never combined place value with those numbers); the 19th is 324 (182), 20th is 5832 (183), and 21st is 104,976 (184); the last 10 letters are fractions. Yeah, the base-18 guys use the same alphabet, just like Phoenician, Greek, and Etruscan fundamentally use the same one (though this one has changed less).

  • The evangelical-Heideggerians use base-12, since they've got six fingers per hand; I have a scene where one of them is talking to two of the felinoids (in English, since they don't speak each other's language), and he says, at one point, "Six gross, eleven dozen, four years". Your species calls it a millennium (1000 in duodecimal is 6b412). Remember how the bad guys are the Phoenix Society? Yeah, he's explaining what a phoenix is.

    The gift-culture fuzzy Dromaeosaurs use base-8, having 4 fingers per hand, and, unfortunately, there are no convenient words for octal numbers in English. But one of the felinoids (a computer technician, and I'm not entirely sure their computers don't use octal instead of hex), does the conversions in his head, like "eight squared, 4 eights, 4" (a hundred, in base-8 1448).

  • I like fictional calendars, I really do. I once made a spreadsheet—in AppleWorks, this should tell you how long ago—to convert Athas' 375 day calendar and Faerûn's 365 day one. Yeah.

    Anyway, in my SF book, the UN simply gives the years as 4-digit numbers, then months as 2-digit, then day as 2-digit, i.e. 2342-10-17 is the day when some of the characters space-fold into the Solar System. That, of course, is ISO 8601, the standard for date formats. What's interesting is BC dates are given as -(# BC -1), e.g. Julius Caesar was assassinated in -0043.

    That, naturally, is how things work on earth. In the colonies, all the official dates are in Julian Days (corrected for relativity, of course, if a clock had to be moved between planets); of course, so as not to have to put things like "2576746.5" all over (that's the above date), they use good ol' Modified Julian Days, which makes that date "176746". Naturally, most colonials use the ISO 8601 dates in conversation.

    The UN, in keeping with ISO 8601, also uses Universal Time, at least on Earth and space-stations. Planetary colonies combine a local calendar and clock with Zulu Time, as one would be likely to do on a Martian colony. What's fun is I have them just calling 8:00 "eight", etc., like we do with normal time, but the pm numbers are "thirteen", etc.

    The felinoids have similar systems, of course, but adjusted for their own planet's year and day, and their clock's units.

  • I am of two minds on the question of liturgical calendars in space colonies. On the one hand, the liturgical seasons being tied to the real changes in the natural world helps to tie one's religion to one's daily life, but on the other hand, the fact they're called "seasons" doesn't seem to have effected church life in Brazil or Rwanda any (they're on the equator, see, they have no seasons).

    Maybe offworld churches do something a bit like some aspects of the Jewish diaspora's observance. Did you know, for instance, that most dreydls are marked with the Hebrew for "NGHŠ", for "a great miracle happened there", but in Israel, they replace the "Š" with a "P", for "a great miracle happened here"?

  • So it's peculiar how much cultures can differ on what is "food" and what is "a pet", and it's also peculiar how seldom SF writers have noticed the difference. Oh, except to either normalize cannibalism (because it's just a quaint local taboo), or else to try and equate eating non-sapients with cannibalism (because of course, the first thing a Kzin would notice about you is your flat molars, and not the fact you can talk).

    But seriously, much of Asia and Africa and many Native Americans think of dogs as food, or did till recently (till Westernization in East Asia and the Americas, and Islam in Africa and other parts of Asia), and apparently Masai people find eating fish disturbing—though it seems to be because to them, fish are creepy-crawlies, another category that's highly variable. Navajos, many Latin Americans, and Mizrahi Jews consider grasshoppers food, and there are actually places in South America, supposedly, that serve fried grasshoppers in movie theaters. Mexicans also used to eat dogs (chihuahuas aren't a pet, folks), and not as a part of the Aztecs' deliberate terror-campaign (which is what their cannibalism was, it's actually strongly tabooed by all the Uto-Aztecans).

    My felinoids have a taboo on domesticating herbivores (they went right from hunters to farmers, and never were herders), but also on eating carnivores other than invertebrates and sea-creatures—and use "eater of people" as a severe swear word. They domesticate several other carnivores (a thing like a horse-sized dog and another like an elephant-sized bear, as well as a cat-monkey they're somewhat related to).

    Incidentally, their agriculture, despite lacking herds, was responsible for their rise of civilization—yet their diet is still over 70% meat (hypercarnivorous). See, storing agricultural products attracted creatures analogous to rats and crows...which they eat.

  • Speaking of my guys using "man-eater" as a cussword, why are people so inept at coming up with alien cussing? Is it just how few of them know how to cuss in non-Indo-European languages?

    My felinoids use mention, and accusations, of taboo-breaking, for cussing. That is, they'll say, e.g., "You eat children" for "Screw you." They also like to stack them, as in, "go scavenge at the graves of the kin you poisoned"—scavenging, desecrating graves, cannibalism, kin-slaying, and poisoning all being taboos. It's so much more artistic than a mere cluster F-bomb.

    The other way they swear, is by saying "damn", only they say "drown (whatever) in hell" (they don't use "damned" as an adjective much, though). See, their artistic depiction of hell (not their doctrine, just like the fire and brimstone aren't literal) is an infinite, flooded abyss that you sink in, forever, drowning but unable to die. Aside from being a fairly decent expression of the state of perdition (if I do say so myself, though it's not like it isn't just thawed Dante), it also incorporates their old religion's horror of drowning.

    Anyway, though, Wikipedia's got pages on cussing in Chinese and several other languages, and you can probably find pages on how to cuss in any language with more than a million speakers, somewhere on the web. Why not use the Internet's filthy-sewerness constructively, to get ideas for writing?


On the Passing Scene VIII

I'm in a cranky mood, but then, I am the world's youngest curmudgeon.
  • I compared Rand on philosophy to Marx on economics, but actually, she's more like L. Ron Hubbard on science. So they can keep calling themselves "Objectivists"; to me, though, they'll always be Philosophiologists.

  • Does it strike anyone else as funny when leftists talk about mega-corporations? I mean, sure, gargantuan monopolistic companies with undue political influence are bad, no rational person is concerned to deny that, but it's not something the right has to apologize for.

    Oh, but, then again, I really doubt most leftists have even heard of Izhmash or Norinco. Indeed, one suspects they're not even acquainted with the phrase "design bureau".

  • Relatedly, some idiot was saying public broadcast news is less biased than other sources because, get this, "Other news has corporate sponsors." It's funny to me because a lot of NPR and PBS sponsorship comes from fairly ideological nonprofits.

    See, a moment's thought would've revealed that a corporation is inherently less inclined to skew news than a nonprofit would be. I mean, you know what Wal-Mart wants you to do? They want you to shop at Wal-Mart. What does the average nonprofit want you to do? At the very least, they want you to vote differently; frequently to live every aspect of your life differently. Which is more likely to be involved in a given news report: Wal-Mart's sales, or something a nonprofit wants to change your opinion on?

    Quick, which is more likely to influence coverage?

  • So you periodically get these wackjob conspiracy-theorists who say that jet vapor-trails contain poisons designed to make people sterile. Apparently because there's some secretive cadre that believes the earth is overpopulated?

    It's funny because actually, the not-secretive-at-all cadre that believes the earth is overpopulated just gives billions of dollars to population control measures (of varying degrees of jackbootedness), principally in third world countries. It's ironic that the tinfoil-hat crowd are worrying about conspirators drugging vapor trails, when the actual methods are much more mundane, and, if anything, even more sinister.

  • Just recently I've seen a bunch of idiots saying that Japan doesn't need any relief aid, because, apparently, they're a rich country. The big problem there is, of course, that, no, Japan just has a high average income. Many of its people are still poor, of course—America's average income is higher still, does that mean New Orleans didn't need any aid after Katrina? Jackasses.

    Less severe but far more annoying is an undercurrent you find whenever a certain kind of person discusses Japan, that almost seems to resent them for having a high standard of living. How dare non-white people not live in mud huts, I guess.

  • Relatedly, I've heard grown men claim Japan is completely Westernized...because they wear blue jeans. Because of course there is no way to retain any aspect of your traditional worldview and culture unless you wear a picturesque robe. And go around barefoot, we don't want you messing up your mud hut's dirt floor by wearing shoes.

  • I would not ordinarily comment on Charlie Sheen's train-wreck of a life, except to point out how many libertarians are praising him (he is living their ideals, after all), but I thought I'd make one remark. Namely, Carlos, if you really had tiger blood you'd be dead already; the whole Felidae is notoriously weak to toxins.

    Also, you were in The Arrival. That makes your uncle's being in The Soultaker look respectable.


Sur La Politique

Thoughts on politics. Also religion and economics.
  • I had an epiphany, in the shower, the location of so many of my epiphanies. I realized that secular individualism leads, like one gear turning another, to collectivism.

    I shall explain. The simplest form of individualism is that of someone like Ayn Rand (or any other sociopath ignoramus, really): pure self-interest. You can find her puzzlewit personality cult saying, for instance, that an industrialist has the right to clear-cut a forest, regardless of any negative effects this will have.

    Of course, try this, and you'll quickly realize the flaw. Namely, if you pursue your own good completely without reference to the goods of others, as for instance gathering natural resources without reference to whether others also have need of them, nobody can buy from you. It's the same reason as why there's no predator so efficient as to wipe out all its prey populations: such a species would go extinct. After a while you replace Rand's simpleminded individualism with the intelligent kind, the "enlightened self-interest" of Adam Smith.

    Even that, however, isn't much of an improvement. Rational analysis of one's own self-interest, since one is a part of an intricate web of relationships, will quickly lead to selecting, as the only safe method, each individual coordinating his needs with those of his neighbors. This will allow each one to maximize his own gains while minimizing the losses to his fellows, and therefore maximizing his gains from them. It will probably be through custom rather than positive law, but it will have the effect of erecting a shame/honor society, in which all relations may be thought of as a Nash equilibrium.

    If you disagree, kindly offer an alternate explanation for this facet of Navajo, Hopi, Chinese, Korean, Sub-Saharan African, and Hindu life. Those first four explicitly say this is how their customs developed as they have.

  • Of course, it is possible to have "enlightened self-interest" without turning into a shame/honor society. Unfortunately, you need what Rand would call a "mystical" theory to do it with. The only societies, after all, which managed to avoid basing all of law on shame and honor, and all human relations on Nash equilibria, are those which base a large portion of their customs and laws on Christianity or Buddhism.

    Basically, having a principle of transcendental benevolence—that one must do good for others even if it does not advance one's own interests—frees each individual to pursue his own interests. Essentially, both those systems, having the mystical doctrines of caritas or karuna, free their adherents from guarding against others' incursions on their interests—and yet allow them far more leeway to pursue their interests.

    Or in other words, seek ye first the kingdom and all these things shall be added unto you; neither held by anything, nor bound, all there is is the living of your own life.

  • Mention of the Buddha-killing teaching of Rinzai Zen (that's what the second half of that last line is, the first half is Matthew 6:33) reminds me, did you know there's actually some Transhuman religious outreach groups? One of them involves the phrase "Cyborg Buddha".

    Yeah, I'm pretty sure I know Zen's take on their little movement:
    Those who have attained the HPLD are no better than hired field hands; those who have outlived the break-even point are prisoners shackled and bound; artilects and jupiter-brains are so much filth in the latrine; the Kurzweil Singularity and the Omega Point are hitching posts for donkeys.
    If there's a more quotable Zen thinker than Rinzai Gigen, I'd love to know who it is.

  • I mentioned it before, but I've also always liked the Navajo take on why immortality is simply not desirable. The thin blue creature, Old Man Death, when confronted by the Hero Twins (who'd already wiped out the Hostile Gods, and were considering wiping out the other ills that plagued the people), said this:
    Kill me if you must, my grandchildren, I'm certain that you know best. But know that if you do, then people will no longer stop moving and return after four days to the previous world, and there will be no reason to birth children, and nothing but worthless old men and useless old women getting older and older forever and ever.
    Posthumanism bił doo yá'át'éeh da, I guess.

    For those playing along at home the others of the Four Last Ills, at least in the version I learned, were the Lice People, Old Lady Chills, and the Obsolescence People.

  • I'm reminded, speaking of Native American politics, of the controversy over snowmaking on the San Francisco Peaks. The explanation offered by the Hopi (whose pantheon dwells there), for their opposition, was that the snowmaking used reclaimed water and therefore was a defilement. Unfortunately, that was not the real reason, or at least not the chief one. But the Hopi, for some reason (possibly because their religion is extremely esoteric) didn't mention their real, or at least main, objection.

    See, the Kachinas are primarily weather-gods; when the Snake Clan does the Rain Dances they send the rain—or not, if it's not fitting. Something people don't seem to get is that a rain-dance isn't magic, the gods don't just hop to when you do the dance right. It's a prayer, and the gods will send the rain if it's appropriate/fitting/harmonious/rightly-ordered—the literal translations of the word "Hopi"—to do so.

    Now, the Hopi have a strong objection to anything outside of its proper season or place; it's called "kahopi", not fitting. Artificially creating snow would be one of those kahopi contrivances. And to then heap that disharmonious, unfitting snow on the very abode of the gods, well... How do you think a Haredi rabbinical group would feel if you asked them to host a combination Mein Kampf reading/Missouri barbecue cookoff in a synagogue? Only the Peaks are more like the very Temple Mount, quite literally, not merely a synagogue.

    I can't help but think that if the Hopi had emphasized that—"If it's all the same to you, can we not offer a personal insult to our gods?"—the snowmaking would never have been okayed.


On the Passing Scene VII

  • So I'm getting into GURPS—which, turns out, does have rules for bullets overpenetrating—but I'm all like, "Dude, d6s? What is this, Risk? RPGs need weird dice, how do we set ourselves apart from the mundanes otherwise?!" I seriously considered multiplying all scores by 2 and using d12s. Yes I'm a nerd.

    Maybe multiply it all by 5, and use d30s? They're Catalan solids, specifically rhombic triacontrahedrons. Speaking of, using Catalan solids also gives you a second type of d12 (the rhombic dodecahedron), two different d24s, and fully three different d60s.

    Anyway, it's all good; I came to my senses and ordered some barrel dice (sold as Crystal Dice), d6s, in bright transparent orange. They're basically elongated triangular antiprisms with tetrahedrons attached to each base. Yes, there are words for that shape.

  • I actually watched Sky Captain (and the World of Tomorrow), and, frankly, that film could've been better. Aside from nothing coming of a shrunken elephant shown in one scene (which breaks all kinds of rules...of writing, I mean, not science), who the hell has airborne aircraft carriers held aloft only by propellers? The Iron Vulture and the airship of Robur the Conqueror are there to be ripped off, there's no excuse for this. And how the hell is an airplane that can be used as a submersible light enough to fly? I'll let that raygun slide, but what about Totenkopf's rocket? I mean, the most powerful rocket I can think of, let alone the most powerful these writers can think of, couldn't possibly incinerate the earth. Slag an area the size of Texas and irradiate half a hemisphere, maybe, but not the whole earth.

    Speaking of Totenkopf, why did not one person say "Death's Head. Symbol of the SS and also of Frederick the Great's elite hussars." when Polly was asking around about him? And is it the 30s, or the 40s? Because absolutely everything they have is very c. 1937—it certainly doesn't feel post A-bomb—and yet they keep referring to the Great War as the First World War.

    Most importantly, I know debris falling on the fleeing townsfolk is cool and all, but who walks their giant robot army down a street two abreast? Limiting one's mobility like that has undone lots of armies that couldn't be undone by Ewok tactics like tripping them. Aside from the fact a mecha shouldn't be walking on good terrain (has nobody seen Gundam? they roll, on the treads in their feet), one can basically be thought of as a light tank. All armor needs infantry support.

  • So I'm playing Metroid Prime 3 on my brother's Wii, and the planet Bryyo has convinced me that parabolic arches can look very nice... if they're tall enough. They look god-awful if they're too low.

    Stupid Gaudi, calls flying buttresses "architectural crutches" and then he goes and makes those club foot arches in the Casa Mila.

  • I bring up those parabolic arches 'cause I thought I'd have my felinoids use 'em in their temples. I have a scene where the cop-protagonist notices that this corrupt noble's palace (in the sense of seat of government) is built with temple-style arches, rather than secular architecture, and it creeps him out.

    Why no, that's not a reference to the Reformation, with its loot of the monasteries and its "cuius regio eius religio", putting worldly power in the position of the divine. Really. Promise.

    Okay yes, yes it is.

  • So I found Vandread, all of it, used, over the weekend. It's got a very creepy Crying Game plot twist I shan't divulge, but there's just something about this show, man. Seriously, it may just be a quick make-a-yen hot-girls/cool-mecha show, but damned if the sumbitch doesn't have more real SF chops than anything Joss Whedon has even heard of.

  • I think I read something backwards, earlier, when I said the IMF special drawing right would have to have an inflation rate of .91% to have the value I gave it in my setting. Turns out, no, it would have to have one of 1.71. The average of the last century was, again, 3%; 1.71% is certainly closer to that than .91% is.

  • Finally, I leave you with this guy, a Ukrainian musician playing the bandura in traditional Kossack garb. If this is not the single coolest person you ever saw, who the hell else have you seen?!


My Ignominious Profession

Okay so it doesn't make any money (yet), but SF writing is still what I do. Anyway, thoughts.
  • So apparently Alfonso X of Spain invented the tabletop war-game, and he even divided the sides elementally, like Magic: The Gathering. From Wikipedia:
    Among its more notable entries is a depiction of what Alfonso calls the ajedrex de los quatro tiempos ("chess of the four seasons"). This game is a chess variant for four players, described as representing a conflict between the four elements and the four humors. The chessmen are marked correspondingly in green, red, black, and white, and pieces are moved according to the roll of dice.
    Sport of kings, bitches.

    Anyway, I decided my felinoid aliens have a chess game that settles capture attempts with dice (a bit like Risk?), and can have as many as 6 sides, with possibly some different moves per side. So, yeah, their chess is like a very simple Warhammer.

  • Why six sides? Because that's how many elements their pre-scientific thought had: earth, air, fire, water, wood, and bone, which last are "plant life" and "animal life", 'spectively. Everyone's vitalist before science, since life is funky, and also the most salient thing people notice (which is more interesting, rocks, or things—that might be food—that grow on them, or other things—for which you might be food—that hide behind them?). The exception, which may be more common, is people like Aristotle and arguably Chinese philosophers, who are hylozoist: they believe everything is alive, often having an "organism" model of the cosmos.

    So why six? Because that's how many planets in their system are visible with the naked eye. That, after all, is why we have five elements (well, Manicheans had ten, but theirs were in dualistic pairings)...and yes, Aristotle had five, not four, his fifth is aether. Add in the sun and moon and that's not only why we've got seven days, but why 7 is a significant number everywhere. The aliens' homeworld has two moons, and plus their sun they have nine days in a week.

  • In keeping with their religion being slightly less conservative than Christianity, for instance their idioms no longer reference their purity-code concepts of luck and obligation, the names of their days and months (they've got ten, based on one of the moons' periods) are derived from concepts within their religion. It's a sort of weird combination of Francis of Assisi's Canticle of Creation with the French Revolutionary Calendar (on which today is the 10th day of the 2nd decade of Ventôse, the year 219 of Liberty), but then, they're sort of a cross between High Medieval and Republican France, so that's actually appropriate.

    They have leap years every seven years, except when the year is divisible by 61 (don't quote me on that, I'm going from memory, my notes are on another computer). Also, one of their minority religions schedules its sacrifices using both moons' periods, a bit like Meso-American calendars having two interlocking cycles (though a lot shorter).

  • So I decided that the conversion rate between the felinoids' currency and IMF Special Drawing Rights would be based on the conversion rate between Soviet Rubles and US Dollars in 1984, since the economics are roughly comparable—actually both are better, since the 24th Century UN is just quasi-Corporativist, not Communist, and the aliens are entrepreneurial distributists rather than capitalists. Remember, I define capitalism technically, as the economic system characterized by employment—people who are their own masters (and that is not what you are when you're an employee) are ridiculously productive.

    Anyway. The USSR set the value of the ruble in 1961 as equal to 0.987412g gold, but the actual exchange rate (at least for people other than diplomats, not that many of them were allowed to trade in foreign currencies) was, in 1984, about 6 rubles 29 kopeks to the dollar. So I set the conversion (remember, 24th century Drawing Rights are denominated to avoid fractional sums) as 629₨ per alien currency unit (yeah, their money has sub-denominations...though it's in 1/144, not 1/100).

    Now, having 1 human currency=1/629 of an alien currency, certainly looks like what TVTropes calls "RidiculousFutureInflation", but actually, I did the math. Given the Special Drawing Right's current value of US$1.57, for it to have a value of 6.29 Rights in the mid-24th century (again, ignoring the anti-fractional redenomination), would require an average inflation rate of .91%. Consider that 3% inflation has probably been about typical for recent history: I'm actually being crazy generous with the global economy.

  • So remember how I said my felinoids' guns resemble Winchester/Henry rifles? I slightly changed my mind: they resemble Marlin rifles, which, admittedly, are basically slightly sexier Henry-type lever-actions. 'Course, my version can be used in full auto; the 'lever' is actually a charging handle, to chamber the first round (it also works like the spur-guards on cavalry guns, letting you keep your finger near the trigger without the risk of accidental discharge).

    I'm still torn as to what their handgun should look like; I'm actually coming down to some version of the Webley. Yes it was made by the English, but (not counting the Boer War) after their worst period. Besides, looks are all I'm copying, and as Belloc's comrades in the French artillery said, the English have pretty guns. Not good guns, not guns that are often fired for the sake of justice, indeed not guns whose use is often distinguishable from armed robbery, but pretty ones. Hell, French guns are frankly plug-ugly; do a Google Image search for a Perrin or Javelle revolver. The little Belle Époque/William Morris floral shape of the trigger guards just highlights how dog-vomit the rest of it is.

  • Those guns' ammo, remember, are spheres (it's required by their launch mechanism), dimpled for lift, like golf balls. I figure it oughtta perform about as good as a rifled shotgun slug. Which, apparently, means that (at a muzzle velocity of c. 410 m/s), it ought to have a range of over 100 m. I know, I was surprised too, but apparently, shotgun slugs actually have an effective range of c.125 yds, if ("and only if", he felt obligated to specify), the gun has good sights. After that, of course, the range drops off fast.

    Even more promising, the rounds the felinoids fire are, each of them, slightly larger than 28 gauge, or much smaller than the 10, 12, and 16-gauge balls used in American shotguns. But, since they've got crazy materials-tech, each ball is about the same weight as a much larger ball (I think they're about as dense as iridium, the 2nd densest element). Maybe they are iridium, spacefaring civilizations can get the stuff cheap, from asteroid-mining.

    Also the long guns—which aren't rifles, since their barrels aren't rifled—have twice the muzzle velocity, for 4 times the muzzle energy. If one of these guys shoots you, you know about it. Well, for the couple seconds it takes your brain to die.

  • I think any gun that's laid out like a rifle, but isn't rifled (and doesn't fire shot), should be called a long gun. Or a long "whatever the weapon is", i.e. "long laser", etc.

    I can see why a longer weapon might be necessary, especially for particle beams—as with bullets, the shot has more room to build up energy—but if you can build up to decent range/power output in a pistol-sized weapon, there'd be no reason to develop a rifle-sized version. In other words, I doubt there would be any such thing as a laser "rifle" if there's also a "pistol".

    Interestingly, I can think of a reason to have an energy weapon a)only fire bullet-like shots, rather than hosing the beam around, and b) need magazines. Namely, each magazine contains a number of pre-prepped/charged/whatever focusing chambers, or whatever, which are burned out with each shot, and then ejected, while another is loaded. This allows the weapon to fire at gun-type speeds, rather than having to build up between shots like a Spartan laser.

    Ah, crap, I might have to completely re-do how my aliens' weapons work.

    Late Addendum: On the basis of the discussion here, I'm still not sure about whether I'm gonna switch my aliens to laser weapons, but one thing I noticed is, if you just interpret the Covenant's "plasma" weapons to refer to the use of plasma acceleration to produce charged electron beams, or else to produce a laser—they seem to behave most like the "blaster"/pulsed laser discussed there. Awesome sauce. It even looks a little like some of the illustrations shown, taking Elite anatomy into account.

    Later Addendum: Yeah, I'm just gonna assume the method my felinoids use for accelerating their bullets uses as much energy as a laser would...and doesn't have to screw around with optical effects. Particle beams are worse—they are the problem silly people worry about depleted uranium penetrators causing.


Just Stop Being Wrong All the Time

Reality Check.
  • So apparently in "The Sentinel" there's something about a Secret Service agent "deactivating the safety with one smooth motion". But I'm pretty sure by 2006 they'd already adopted the SIG P229 as their sidearm...and it, like the Glock, has no manual safety.

    Oh, and then there's how some idiot on TVTropes said it's illegal to open carry in most US states, but concealed carry is legal. Uh, no, Eurotrash, actually, open carry is legal in many areas, but concealed carry usually isn't without a license. Like it says on our money, "In God we trust, everyone else keep your hands where I can see 'em." Admittedly that second part's implied.

  • So in my perennial search for people denouncing the non-science fiction-ness of Firefly, I ran across a bunch of people who seemed to think the only reason you couldn't like the show is that you don't like science fiction.

    Oh, dear child, not at all. What I don't like about the show is its poor cultural setting, lousy world-building, and cliche plots. Also, the dialogue is too snarky. I actually just don't like snark, it's cultural, but let me demonstrate my SF bona fides for a sec. Snark is humor, and humor is associated with an interrupted defense mechanism. No sapient species interrupts its defense mechanisms.

  • So apparently it's theorized that a part of River's ridiculous LevelInBadass—which is actually just Joss setting aside some unassigned Advantage points for her, à la GURPS—is her using her Rain Man math skills to calculate physics and aiming and such.

    Now, see, I get why this is. It's because, to a little drama pixie like Whedon, math looks like magic. So, of course, he thinks (if that's the word), I'll explain this nonsense magical power I give River by reference to this other magical power. I mean, after all, those men in the blue shirts salute and sweep runways, and the spirits send them cargo; plainly if I do those things I'll get cargo too. This is a pet peeve of mine. Other than the conservation of angular momentum, and that only in theory, none of this stuff is directly applicable. Nobody, other than actual artillery gunners, is doing the math for this; you eyeball it. I don't care how fast you can do math, adding extra steps in an actual combat situation will get you killed dead. And that's the worst kind of killed.

  • So one of those atheist idiots who thinks religion is the most violent force in the world (though the top three murderous regimes of all time are all atheist, as are some of the runners up) also said, get this, that "human rights" is an idea that's only 60 years old.

    Huh. You better tell Bartolomeo de las Casas, and all those other Spaniards who passed the world's first secular human rights legislation, since they sure seem to think they lived more than 60 years ago. And then there's Bernard of Clairvaux and all those others who did it on the religious side, formulating a consistent war-ethic during the Crusades. I'm pretty sure the Crusades were more than 60 years ago, right? No, I guess not. Wait, when was Buddha? Was he really only 60 years ago? Damn, India sure has packed a lot of living into such a short time, I guess.

  • I found a flaw in GURPS! I know, the fact I get to use the exclamation point is really proof of their concept, but come on. Once again I return to my Mac analogy (except for GURPS being universal, you know)—I also hunt definite superiorities of the PC. One is, it's a lot easier to type in various other languages on the PC.

    Anyway, the flaw in GURPS is, the expectation of the mass for the spaceships is ridiculous. The length figures it gives are about a third what they could be; one suspects they're not using figures derived from aerospace materials.

    That and SF games just need to use the metric system, I'm sorry, physics is just easier like that. God knows I'm the sort of person who prefers to buy sake by the shô and longships by the foð, but the SI units are made to order for science.

    Also, Le Petit Caporale instituted metric, that's gotta count for something.


Sur la Scène Passant II

You know what that title means (I mean, I assume you do; it's just French, not Hungarian or something).
  • So remember how I said I have some secret evil projects, possibly reminiscent of the one River was in, in my book? Yeah, well, recently, I decided to give one of them a name: the Janissary Project. It involves kidnapping psionicists and conditioning them, through monstrous means, to be as strong as the aliens' psionic school. It's funded by a billionaire "philanthropist" whose "charities" are actually pretty evil, à la the Ford or Rockefeller Foundations.

    In my third book, I'm pretty sure some of the ex-members are going to kill him; I'm trying to figure out how to work in the phrase "tribute in blood must be refunded in blood".

  • Incidentally I initially wanted to call it the Agoge Project, but I didn't want people to think it was a TakeThat at Halo. Halsey being a war-criminal is pretty much recognized by most people in the setting (the AIs suspect she's an undiagnosed schizophrenic), but her evil project does save mankind. 'Sides, Carter gives her an epic burn, at the end of the ONI Sword Base level ("No, ma'am, just offering some reading suggestions").

    I also liked how he basically implies Jun is supposed to kill her rather than let the Covenant capture her. You wanted super soldiers, lady, you got 'em, only the IIIs don't worship you.

  • It occurs to me, you know what proves individualism is erroneous? Spartacus. Specifically, the fact that he was eventually defeated because his Germans broke ranks, and tried to fight one-on-one, for individual glory. And were summarily cut down by legionaries, whose glory, remember, was attached to their legion, not to their name.

    And then Ayn Rand goes and says civilization consists in maximizing individualism. As they say in French, hein! Because French has an onomatopoeia for a derisive laugh.

  • The only case for individualism I've ever seen that wasn't simply Pollyanna dogmatizing was, actually, that individualism is better precisely because it's less efficient. That is, while a communitarian or collectivist society might kill millions if something goes wrong, an individualist one only allows its members' fail to affect them and their immediate associates.

    That is, the only real case for individualism is that man is a diseased creature and must be quarantined, a half-witted slave who must be hobbled. Stirring, isn't it?

  • Is it just me, or is it nuts that the Automag in Halo uses rimmed bullets, at least if the silhouettes of the rounds are to be believed? There are automatic versions of magnum rounds, .357 SIG or .45 Winchester Magnum for instance, but they're rimless; rimmed casings are a problem in an autoloader. Also, casings, period, in the 26th century, but that's a different discussion.

    On a related topic, what's with the GURPS handbooks giving 9mm rounds almost the same damage as .45 ACP (with, I believe, slightly smaller wounds)?

  • Which reminds me, how come RPGs don't usually have rules for over-penetrating? Just the other day I accidentally shot my brother in Reach co-op, because the sniper rifle's rounds go through targets; why don't the combat rules of tabletop games reflect that?