Wagahai Robo de Aru

I cannot believe that nobody has seen the obvious possibilities of a play on words between "I, Robot" and "Wagahai neko de aru". Well I was here first, let the record show.

Thoughts upon mechanical men. And women. Which are called gynoids. Which is a smutty, but really cool, book of pinup art by Sorayama Hajime.
  • I totally cheated in my first contact story, I'll readily admit. The humans' AI (which uses a software workaround to avoid Lucas-Penrose) is able to translate the aliens' language ridiculously quickly. See, the felinoids' navigation satellites have a natural-language interface option, for emergencies, and that's also one of the few radio-transmitters they have (it being a lot easier to jury-rig a radio than a device for sending waveform space-time distortions).

    The AI is able to do it by going all the way back to machine code, in the satellite's OS. Machine code is comparatively simple, and, well, the hardware necessary to run an AI is pretty impressive stuff, so learning an alien OS from the level of machine code is actually within its capabilities. But once it does that, it still has a relatively small vocabulary (a navsat's voice interface is largely restricted to navigational matters, after all). So, once contact is established, the felinoids send 'em a bigger vocab file.

    I don't know, is that cheap, or cool? Or is it a really cool way of being cheap? I kinda lean toward that last one.

  • Apparently the field of "safe human-robot interaction" refers to the human pain/injury threshold as "safety space" or "safeguarding space". I assume that terminology would be important if one were to program the Asimov Laws into a robot, e.g. "If command involves motion that would impinge on a human's safety space, do not execute."

    Remember, in my thing, the company that makes the AIs deprecates the Asimov Laws, and installing them voids the EULA. Incidentally, here's an article (sorry if PDFs annoy), called "Beyond Asimov: The Three Laws of Responsible Robotics" about an alternative set of laws that are a little more realistic and a little less Plot Magic.

  • Speaking of gynoids, didja know the first term for 'em was "robotess", used in RUR? Or actually "robotka", the play having been written in Czech (it literally means "drudgikins").

    I prefer, well, "female android", and screw etymological accuracy, but gynoid is nice too, and anyone who says "fembot" should have their tongue cut out. I'm not doctrinaire about that last one, though; I'd settle for having their mouths sewn shut.

    Also, RE: how "robotka" means "drudgikins", did you know "rur" is the Thai word for "belch"? Then again, "undergraduate research program" is basically the same thing in English.

  • I don't know if most societies in my book have a term for it, but the Japanese characters call people with a fetish for robots "garakon", or galacon, short for "Galatea complex". Galatea is the statue-girl Pygmalion loved, by the way—and if you doubt that Japanese people would use an obscure Greek myth reference, well, I'm curious to know if you can even find their country on a map.

    One does not doubt, not if one knows this species of ours at all, that there will be people with a fetish for the Uncanny Valley, as well as (relatively) more normal people who dig sex-bots as a substitute for humans. I'm sorry you had to think about that.

  • Though the fine folks at TVTropes are doing the Lord's work in referring to the Post-Humans' "Singularity" nonsense as the Techno-Rapture, they are technically inaccurate. No, the Omega Point/Kurzweil Singularity is just a variant of good ol' Gnosticism, though, actually, most Post-Humans would have to really strain themselves to work up to the intellectual level of the Nag Hammadi corpus, or even of Hermeticism; most of 'em are stuck down in the gutter with the rest of the Manicheans.

    Further example: many Post-Humans deny the validity of intellectual property, essentially asserting in one breath that one can only own material things or acts ("one's labor", they assert, is the reason you get paid for work) and that one ought not to bother about owning anything. Mere socialistic utopianism, you say? Nope. Know why it was considered worth going to war to put down the Cathars? They denied oaths, therefore all contracts and (by extension) all of society. Fundamentally, this is just a variant of the same thing.

  • Kokoro is not just another book by the guy who wrote Wagahai neko de aru; it's also a key concept in fictional robot dealie-ness. It's a major theme in Astro Boy, and it's also that one Vocaloid song where, if it don't bring a tear to your eye, it's because you have none, nor blood.

    It's that whole question about robot/AI personhood, and all that. One wonders, has anyone (certainly not Tezuka, who was an overrated hack) ever answered the question "can AIs be people"—that is, "have they the Buddha-nature, or not?"—with "mu"? I doubt that'd sell tickets, but it'd be a fun idea to explore.

  • I have what is perhaps a nod in that direction in one of my stories, where an AI points out that your feelings, which people make out to be so damned important to their humanity, are programming just like he has. The actually relevant issues, though he doesn't exactly say as much, are self-awareness and free will. Fun times, by the way, one cannot actually know that anyone other than oneself has either of those things. See also "philosophical zombies". It is, however, much easier to tell (with a margin of error) whether something is, or at least seems, self-aware/rational, than whether its choices are free; that's why everyone but Rousseau makes that the determinant of personhood.

    It is an interesting question, by the way, whether a person who has not read "The Difference of Man and the Difference It Makes" by Mortimer J. Adler, is really qualified to discuss robot personhood. Admittedly he makes one mistake—an AI program, were it possible, would not arise from purely material origins, since data is not material. Nevertheless, that book is pretty much the definitive discussion of personhood as a philosophical concept.

  • I was wondering, is it colossally nerdy that I intend to have a reference, in my book, to the Serial Experiments Lain line that is the only Proust reference in an animated TV show?

  • Is it just me, or is it weird that both Creative Minority Report and Sci Fi Catholic have mentioned robots in the last few days? CRM mentioned this Harvard thing what's making flexy inchy-squinchy robots, to get into hard-to-reach places, and Deej was talking about the folks as are making cyborg June bugs. Which would be the coolest-ever UAVs, by the bye, though probably only useful for recon. Though I suppose one might have them devour the target, but that'd be hard to pull off right, ethical considerations to one side.

    Speaking of UAVs, but otherwise rather off-topic, I wish people would quit pretending Al-Awlaki "had a right to a trial". Terrorism is not a crime, it is an act of war, generally conducted by forces both foreign to the areas they fight in, and not in any recognized uniform. Guess what, those guys? Yeah, they count as spies under international law, and a spy's civil rights consist of "get a decent burial after their summary execution, which must be as humane as feasible". All a terrorist's American citizenship means is you also get to punish treason, as well as eliminating a terrorist SOB.


De Magicks

What? No, that title's not a My Little Pony reference.

Thought I'd talk 'bout magic an' fantasy an' whatnot. Now (cue Europe-y techno music) ve go!

OK so I lied.
  • Speaking of MLP:FIM, the dragons puzzled me in that. They eat gems, but they plainly have the adaptations of predators: claws, predatory therapod teeth, spines, etc. But, no, actually, I think it makes sense. Basically their "predatory" adaptations are either for digging for gems, or for frightening other dragons away from their territory. The phrase "claim-jumping" indicates, I think, the territoriality that minerals can inspire.

    Also, D&D dragons often subsist on gems.

  • I don't know if I've mentioned it, but some time I'm gonna do a fantasy setting that, rather than being based on Europe, is based on a combination of "equivalent" European and Asian nations. E.g. England=Japan, Korea=France—I know I've mentioned the similarities (Hideyoshi's Korean campaign is like the Hundred Years' War, for instance), but it wasn't in the context of fantasy.

    But one thing I thought would be cool is that the warrior aristocracy of that island nation could be replaced with a mage aristocracy (I like those). And they wear two wands, one longer than the other, through their belts. And I guess the ladies of that class wear one really short wand, and carry a staff, like how samurai women wore daggers and wielded naginata.

  • In the fantasy story I'm actually doing, the only magical beasties I've had have been elves, trolls, dwarves, goblins, dragons, and unicorns, albeit in a highly unusual form (they used to be the gods of the humans' religion). I've had others, such as a minotaur, but those were all fundamentally human in origin, the products of deranged magical experiments (the civilization that formed around the fairy-worshiping religion pretty much let you do whatever you liked to slaves, much like the Classical pagan civilization).

    For the next book I've thought of a couple others. More interesting experiments—mainly weapon-people, sorta like in Soul Eater—and also, another type of fairy. All mine before have been elementalists, but what about fairies who use animals for their power? Basically, barghests (which are were-dog goblins, as I trust you knew).

  • Not actually fantasy but it involves cavalry and ancient epic so I'll allow it, I realized, I don't need my felinoids' raiding to be into others' hunting territory (rather than for cattle like the raids that are so important in Indo-European cultures). I can just have them raiding for steeds—they ride these big Cape Hunting Dog type critters, and horse-thieving would play a similar role to cattle-raids.

    Back to fantasy, I have a D&D setting where the elves ride dire wolves, the dwarves ride mountain sheep, and the goblinoids ride boars. That last, of course, is inspired by Twilight Princess (still my favorite Zelda). Actually I think the first one is sorta TwiPri-y, too, though Midna ain't an elf. Not till the end, anyway.

  • Was I the only one who thought the wolf-riders in Warcraft: Orcs and Humans were way cooler than the stupid ogres in Warcraft II? I'm glad they brought 'em back for III.

    Also, before anyone asks: no, there's no relation between my wolf-riding elves and ElfQuest. How shall I prove it? How about, "ElfQuest invalidates the First Amendment and makes a damn good case for censorship, book-burning, and probably eugenics"?

    Is that still too subtle? I really don't like that series, is what I'm getting at.

  • Speaking of Warcraft III, I think a big portion of how I envisioned my fantasy story's elves was influenced by the Night Elves, who are frankly one of the coolest takes on elves I ever saw—basically wild elves crossed with drow, only huge.

    But I need to re-do my elves' color scheme, since I created them when their blood was still red. Now their blood is yellow, or rather gold-colored—it's ichor, as I have mentioned. In the real sense of the word, not "ill-considered synonym for blood", and LeGuin can shove her "infallible touchstone" up her wizened ass.

    I guess one of my two elf-races is gonna be green now. Back when they still had red blood they were purple, like night elves (blue pigment + red blood=purple skin, just like you learned from finger-painting).

  • Not-fantasy I allow through on a technicality, again, my felinoids' steeds, being pack hunters rather than grazers, are a bit slower to establish territories, so horse-nomadism doesn't work. Considering what horse-nomads tend to be like, that's a fortunate thing for their history.

    Tolkiens' Wargs are actually werewolves, so it makes sense they work with Orcs (who are in many ways based on some of the nastier horse-nomads, like Turks and Mongols). But other people's orc wolf-steeds are usually just (big) wolves, and so it makes no sense for their orcs to be able to do nomadism. Then again, they're only ripping off that version of orcs from Tolkien, since everywhere else they're just a type of ogre (didja know "huerco" is some Spanish dialects' equivalent of "ogrillo"?).

  • It occurs to me there is a way to have half-orcs that isn't yucky, and it's actually the one with the oldest pedigree. You get your half-orcs the same way Saruman did: magical experiments. "Some mage was meddling in the gods' domain" is the standard D&D answer for wackiness like owlbears, why not this hybrid, too? Evil wizards get up to a lot of mischief in most settings, and they're among the few people who have a use for orcs.

    'Course, again, orcs actually are to ogres what goblins are to hobgoblins, and the stats of the "half-orc" can also go for a hobgoblin-human hybrid. This solution—AWizardDidIt, actually justified—also lets you have half-ogres and similar ill-advised, if not outright anatomically impossible, crossbreeds.

  • It suddenly occurs to me that my fairies' basing their factions on their differing interpretations of Existence, is quite appropriate. Why? Well, the collective Old Norse term for elves, dwarves, trolls, etc., was vaettir, or "beings"—cognate with "wight". It shares roots with "was" and "were", and, I do believe, with "be".


What He'd Want Us to Do

I have been reading a number of Catholic blogs on issues like Ayn Rand and euthanasia. And I've been thinking about Halo: Combat Evolved.

I'm going somewhere with this, hang on.

My two thoughts were, first, that it's (almost) too bad the Flood's not real, and that Rand would've been dead for 570 years when we contacted it, because nothing would've been more appropriate for her than to be infected by the most perfect collectivism ever.

Oh well; virtually doubtless, she is enjoying the perfect selfishness of Screwtape's Father Below as we speak.

And the second was, opponents and proponents of euthanasia talk past each other. The issue is not whether death is preferable to indignity; a moment's reflection would reveal that of course it is. Why else are "death before dishonor" and "better to die on your feet than live on your knees" considered valid remarks, rather than lunacy?

No, the error is that proponents of euthanasia hold that suffering is undignified. And this, of course, is not the case. It can be, of course, but one can always bear pain in a dignified manner. Indeed Isaac Jogues converted a great many Iroquois by the manner in which he endured their tortures, and the same is true of missionaries the world over; and let us not forget Gaius Mucius, who gained the cognomen Scaevola ("Lefty") when he burned off his right hand merely to prove a point to the Etruscans ("This," he said, "is so you will know how negligible is the flesh to one who has great glory in view.")

This, I was reminded of by Halo, as well. The Chief doesn't kill Keyes to end his suffering; he kills him to spare him the indignity of being the means by which the Flood, and the Gravemind it was forming within him, found Earth. Death before dishonor. Similarly, if Halsey had any historical sense at all, she'd put a monument on Reach reading "O stranger passing by, go and tell the Spartans, that here, obedient to their laws, we lie." But the sacrifice of Noble Team and the other Spartans makes Reach, to an Objectivist, at least as immoral a game as the worst GTA has to offer.

PS. I realize that what I most hate about Objectivists and similar is their ungenerosity. For 6000 years, among our people, a great man showed his greatness in his largess (the words even mean the same thing); "ring-giver" was an epithet of kings. John Galt would scrimp and pinch every penny, and give rings to no man. Stingy weakling, born to be a thrall.

Further Adventures

Random thoughts. Mostly—have we met?—SF-related.
  • The otôto-ue and I have been playing through Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary, and, fun though it is, the whole thing becomes quite depressing when you consider that all those dudes you rescue in the early missions are just going to get infected by the Flood, or die when you blow the ring, later on.

    Also, though Cortana is quite wrong when she says you're making the Autumn's reactor go critical—the nice thing about fusion is it can't go critical—if you notice, what she actually has you do is something different. Namely, you break the magnetic containment, and then fire up the reactor and/or rockets. Which, considering it seems to be something on the order of H->He fusion (the proton chain, in other words), would indeed be very, very bad. Actually, "snap the ring and send one section of it crashing into another" level bad.

  • T' other game what's come out is Skyward Sword, and, dude, read Fi's dialogue in a 343 Guilty Spark voice. It's nice to know Link's sword has an AI uploaded to it.

    On the other hand, though, a servitor of a deity—what some of us might term "a proxy of a power"—might have a very odd mindset that would strike us as not unlike a machine.

    But seriously, a 5% chance that Machi the Kikwi is Zelda? Better odds than I would've expected, lightbulb.

  • It's official, speaking of CE Anniversary, that ODST and Reach are my favorite Halo games. Why? No Flood. Don't get me wrong, I'm quite fond of CE (at least in updated form), and 2 and 3, especially the latter, but the parts of those that I prefer to play don't have the undead bastards in them.

    I think a part of it is that, once the Flood show up, Halo goes from a first-rate shooter to a third-rate survival horror game. Think about it, the only strategy where the Flood are concerned is logistics, they aren't really tacticians ("wave attack" doesn't constitute a brilliant tactic, it just happens to work pretty well).

  • Apparently (video-game themed, so far), Mark Hamill is stepping down as the Joker after Arkham City.

    He shall be missed. Nobody (with the only partial exception of Kevin Michael Richardson, whose Joker is a variant of Hamill's) can do the Joker half that well.

  • Apparently there's some kind of concerted effort to spam Bill O'Reilly's book about Lincoln with (unwarrantedly) negative reviews. Know who's running it? Ron Paul supporters. This, understandably, confused my mother; I had to point out that Paulbots, along with most of the other less-bright Libertarians, are rabid anti-federalists. Lincoln, and the Civil War in toto, stood for federalism—it was not by chance that the CSA chose its name.

    Speaking of Paul, how come elfin little delusional libertarians always have the initials RP? Paul and Ross Perot should get together sometime. Ideally to reenact the ending of Thelma and Louise.

  • It's very funny how often "the Uncanny Valley" is blamed for the failure of movies like Polar Express and Final Fantasy: the Spirits Within. I suppose it's much more congenial a concept than the real reason, namely that those films sucked.

    Polar Express can give Santa Claus (as in, the one with Pitch) and Santa Claus Conquers the Martians a run for their money in the "shitty Christmas movie" department, and therefore needs no more mention from us. But Spirits Within...man, what a train-wreck. Did anyone else notice it's basically FF7, only without all the things people like about FF7? I admit I'm a stickler but if a work has "Final Fantasy" slapped on its cover I expect pretty people with giant swords and improbable, many-zippered outfits; I expect moogles, chocobos, and someone summoning Bahamut. I don't expect to see a reject from a CGI porn site lucubrating about the Gaia hypothesis to Keith David.

    I mean, hell, it's actually worse than Final Fantasy Unlimited.

  • Has anyone considered that Fukuyama Jun's character in Code GEASS ought, perhaps, to have his name Romanized as "Larouche"? Which, think about it, casts a great deal of his behavior into sharp relief.

  • RE: the Uncanny Valley, didja know the reason the things in the valley are creepy is, probably, that they trip the "that guy's got the brain-worms" instinct? What I mean is, if something's too humanlike, but not enough, it affects our emotions like a messed-up human. For most of our evolutionary history, avoiding people with major diseases or genetic disorders was a key survival characteristic.

    The Uncanny Valley, like a great many of the other oddities of human psychology, is a false positive created by a circumstance our brains didn't evolve to cope with. Zinjanthropus, after all, never attempted to render near-photorealistic CGI simulacra of his conspecifics.


Adventures in My Mind

Darksome concept, that. Random thoughts!
  • Apparently in the first Halo, the assault rifle held 60 rounds per magazine. They reduced it later to 32, probably because people said "How, exactly, do they all fit?"

    Only, casket magazines. Casket magazines, also known as quad-column, pack four rows of cartridges side-by-side, rather than the two of typical "double column" magazines. The four columns narrow to two partway down, so the casket still fits into normal-sized magazine wells.
  • Also, the Halo battle rifle's round, 9.5×40 mm, is compared, at the Halo wiki, to the Russian 9×39 mm, but those were subsonic, designed to be fired from a dedicated suppressed rifle (the Soviets were big on those).

    But I think the battle rifle's performance is probably more similar to a Spitzer version of the .375 Winchester big-game round, which is 9.5×51 mm. Presumably 26th century propellants are up to the task of getting the same ballistic performance from an 11-mm shorter case.
  • Remember when I said base-20 numerical systems are mostly associated with people who don't wear shoes? I think I have to amend that, because the Celtic languages were base-20 (that's why French does the diabolical things it does with numbers over 60, they're the most Celtic Romance language). Basque, too, is vigesimal, and some linguists theorize that's where it comes from in Indo-European.

    Apparently some of the Scandinavian languages also use vigesimal, namely Danish, but in general, Germanic languages are decimal. It is, however, either from Germanic or from Roman culture that we get the duodecimal elements in European numbers, like dozens, grosses, and, in Germany, masses (123, i.e. 1728). Duodecimal numbers are, incidentally, apparently useful when counting one-handed: you count off the knuckles of your fingers, using your thumb.
  • Speaking of numerical bases, have you seen this joke?
    Why do mathematicians get Halloween and Christmas mixed up?

    Because 31 Oct=25 Dec!
    Ah, nerd humor.
  • I think I'm going to have to add some form of cooling system to my humans' guns, since caseless rounds involve a lot of heat difficulties, even if, like the HK G11, they have a higher ignition temperature than conventional propellants (the G11 still uses percussion firing, while future caseless designs are likely to use electronic).

    I had toyed with water- and air-cooling, perhaps with the gun opening up like the Covenant guns in Halo when they overheat, but I think I'm going to go with each magazine having a coolant reservoir in its lining—caseless rounds, remember, being shorter than their cased counterparts. And the 24th-century equivalent of SAAMI/CIP/NATO EPVAT standards specifies that a magazine has to contain sufficient coolant in its reservoir to balance the waste heat of emptying the thing all at once, at its maximum pressure (that is, it has to be sufficient cooling to prevent a round from cooking off, even if the magazine is emptied out as fast and hot as theoretically possible).

    Huh. I'm guessing you'd still want interchangeable barrels on machineguns, though.
  • Also, I don't know if I mentioned it, but despite being caseless, the humans' guns still have what seems to be an ejector gate, but only for clearing dud rounds (which, of course, still happen). The slide, too, still exists, but its only function is as a charging handle, for chambering the first round.

    Revolvers (in this setting restricted to use by some police, mainly detectives and as a backup weapon) are tricky for caseless, but not impossible. Basically you have to use moon-clips.
  • Cartoon Network's new animated Green Lantern show is pretty good. It's really shaping up to seem like Marvel makes better movies and DC makes better shows, although the Green Lantern movie wasn't bad at all. Maybe it's just that DC's settings are so much more complex.

    Also, people who complained about the CGI in the movie: guess what, shitheads, the Corps is 99.888...%—3596/3600, or 899/900—non-human. And sorry, but guys in suits won't cut it.
  • Remember when I said Mass Effect should've called the eponymous phenomenon "Casimir-induced exotic matter"? Yeah. Well, apparently they get the effect, and their psionic "biotic" powers, from, get this, "Element Zero". Which, uh, you guys do know that an element's atomic number is determined by the number of protons in its nucleus, right? So "Element Zero" sounds cool, but it makes no sense. A nucleus with 0 protons is, well, either a neutron...or "nothing". It's not an element because it has no atoms, and therefore cannot have an atomic number. It would essentially not interact with electric fields.

    You Fail Science Fiction Writing Forever. Also your interspecies romances and knocking off the plots of Battlestar Galactica and (and not just because BSG was originally a Mormonized version of it) Fred Saberhagen's Berserker stories.
  • Am I the only one who thinks that people who pronounce "Nyan", as in the Pop Tart cat, to rhyme with Ryan, should be shot?

    It's the Japanese word for "meow", you chuckleheads, it's a Vocaloid song. Yes, the fact it's Hatsune Miku singing it makes it a lot less irritating, don't you agree?


Once More, Sierra Foxtrot

Thoughts on SF.
  • Apparently the eugenicist, tyrannical snobbery element in Transhumanism is no accident. A lady here talks about how the word was coined by Julian Huxley, in a 1957 essay, "Transhumanism". And Huxley—who apparently never read his brother's book—was so into eugenics, he was head of the British Eugenics Society between 1959 and 1962. That is, he was one of the few eugenicists who didn't change his tune after people found out about the Holocaust.

    Read any of the modern ones, and you get the exact same note of contempt for the human body, and the belief that people are to be despised for their frailty. Transhumanism is just an unusually vile form of Gnosticism, and also unusually stupid. Virtually every Transhumanist I've ever read is fairly far left, and yet they can't even see the contradiction between their movement and their avowed egalitarianism. Here's a hint, geniuses: Transhumanism will simply make class disparities worse. Then again, I wouldn't be surprised if the movement consisted almost entirely of people who have never even met a poor person. They honestly may not actually understand that not everyone would be able to afford cybernetic and biotech enhancements.

  • On the other hand, what's with people's strange idea that therapeutic gene modification is ethical unless it changes the germ line? Why not change the germ line? Again, therapeutic gene modification, not enhancement. Why not solve the problem once and for all? I mean, unless you can explain why we have a moral obligation to come back for the gene therapy generation after generation.

    The one argument people make is that you don't know if those genes have some other function, so bad things could happen if you get rid of them. Many point out that sickle-cell anemia increases one's resistance to malaria. Only, we've got quinine now, among other things, it's not a choice between "die of malaria before reproducing" or "die of sickle-cell anemia after reproducing". And many of the other conditions such therapy would target are much worse than that, so nuke 'em. Genes are not Pokémon, we're not trying to catch them all.

  • On a cheerier note, John C. Wright had an interesting point, on the "It's the 21st century, where's all the cool tech?" front. Namely, flying cars: lots of people have them. Well, flying limos, anyway.

    We just don't call them that, we call them "private helicopters". It was silly to expect that every single person would have a flying car; aside from how much more complex, therefore expensive, aircraft are, the only reason air travel is so safe is because of air-traffic controllers. Do you wanna have to check in with a control tower in order to leave your driveway? Yeah, thought not.

  • Another fun thing to point out, when people complain about "oh we've barely progressed at all compared to science fiction", is that we also aren't living in post-apocalyptic squalor or a dystopian police state. Not all science fiction is optimistic, we missed a lot of nightmare-worlds along with some dreams.

    Relatedly, though, those people who say "we're not going to have any science fiction anymore, our tech is reaching that level already", pffft. Aside from how AI is impossible, most people, when you say "science fiction", think "space travel". And when, precisely, are we establishing colonies in the Asteroid Belt, let alone orbiting other stars? Yeah, that's right. Come back when you have fusion torches, cupcake.

  • A lot of people talk as if the alternative to the nuclear family is a free-lovin' hippie commune. Only, again, there's precious little evidence that humans have any behaviors in common with bonobos, and they're the only great apes that live that way. No, our evolutionary history almost certainly follows the chimp/gorilla/orang model; abolish the nuclear family and you just get dominant males and their harems.

    But it's even worse than that. Often, coexisting with the silverback/harem/defending-a-territory thing, great ape males also pursue a strategy called "roam and rape". Young males that can't establish harems wander around, and, whenever they encounter an undefended female, force a mating. Family breakdown is strongly correlated with rising rape rates; one wonders if, on some level, certain social policies have not incentivized the adoption of a different reproductive strategy.

    I bring it up here because "how our evolution has affected our behavior" is a major theme of SF; see, e.g., Ringworld.

  • Since I write what is, essentially, peacetime military SF—as in it's about fighting after a war—I thought I'd point y'all to a site about the topic. The guy who writes it is a Marine NCO (I don't know if he ever mentions what rank he was). It's got a lot of stuff for writing any other fight, since the focus is small-unit tactics.

    Also, another good exercise for writing fight scenes, and I know this'll sound weird, is Halo. Get a few hours of that baby under your belt and you'll know a hell of a lot about tactics (especially on Legendary, where good tactics are all that stands between you and more spawns than a salmon run). It helps they make the thing so detailed.

  • It's weird, I actually despise the sort of person who despises TV/movie science fiction as such, but it is hard to deny that the current samples of the field are pretty subpar. I mean, Battlestar Galactica and Firefly are about as SF as it gets; the current crop makes those look like unadulterated Heinlein. Sanctuary, for example, is about as SF as Edgar Rice Burroughs, and that man made Lovecraft look like a stickler. Then again, they are cancelling Eureka (or did they already?), so there's a plus. As I said somewhere else, I liked that show better when it was called Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius, since it actually took its technobabble slightly seriously.

    Which reminds me, why does Penguins of Madagascar have the only respectable technobabble in television today? Again, technobabble is not the enemy, bad technobabble is, and far too much science fiction nowadays has simply ignored plausible dialogue.

  • Yeah, I said it: avoiding technical talk is implausible in a show about people and their ship. Screw "the detective in a cop-show doesn't pause to explain how his revolver works"; if the detective needs to consult ballistics, or has to take his sidearm to a gunsmith, you bet your ass the workings of the gun are discussed.

    Even Firefly has it, when things go wrong—only, because Whedon is a bimbo, they get it wrong. "Catalyzer on the port compression coil"? Come on, Whedon. We both know your joke of a spaceship is not powered by antimatter-catalyzed inertial confinement fusion—it would be shaped quite differently if it were—and that's the only respectable engine that uses both catalyzers and "compression".

    Plus, it would be more correct, in a ACICF engine, to talk of "the coil on the port catalyzer" going wrong, and then discussing that preventing compression. After all, antiprotons—the catalyzer in question—are held in magnetic bottles, which may well involve things that might be called "coils", and the addition of antimatter allows inertial confinement fusion to achieve far higher temperatures more easily. But again, Whedon neither knew nor cared about any of that (also, if you lose antiproton containment in an antimatter-catalyzed ship, well, bad things happen).


'Alienist' Means 'Psychiatrist'

Isn't that weird?

On aliens.
  • Why do people insist that aliens in SF should be utterly bizarre? You know, methane-breathing hive-mind clouds of silicon that communicate by blinking lights and reproduce by budding in the flesh of passing astronauts?

    Two things. One, the Weak Anthropic Principle (the Strong AP is, in my opinion, largely bogus) may be interpreted as meaning that humans are right in the middle of the road, biochemistry-wise. A number of aspects of terrestrial life appear to be the only option, or one of a very few similar options. We would need more samples to speculate further, but it really does seem that the laws of physics restrict life to something very like our model, at least under conditions remotely comparable to ours.

    And two, and vastly more importantly, SF is shit you want people to look at. I'm sorry if that's confusing, but for the aliens in the story to be interesting, they must interact with humans. If the biosphere they come from is vastly different from that of Earth, you may have gotten around that "conditions remotely comparable to ours" thing, but guess what? Your story's gonna be restricted to the portrayal of a rousing game of "sea lion and squirrel" ("We have nothing at all to do with each other—and it's fun!"). People whose conditions are not remotely comparable do not interact.

  • The ane-ue had an interesting point, a while back, in a comment on one of my Avatar rants. Namely, that Pandora, being a moon (a forest moon...of a gas giant, inhabited by cutesy noble-savage aliens with rhinarium-type noses...), probably spends a lot of its time in its primary's shadow. And, she suggested, that might be why so much of the life there is bioluminescent.

    Apparently it's actually because Cameron's a diving buff—actual justification for something in a film? Please, King of the World's got shit to blow up. I myself think that "science fiction" may almost be held to consist of coming up with those justifications, so you can guess my dismay at the current fashion of "nothing explained ever" so-called SF. For example, my felinoids' fur is iridescent, except for their stripes—the stripes are pigment, but the coloring is structural (that's sorta the reverse of pheasant feathers, look at the stripes on one sometime). That probably wouldn't pose any camouflage difficulties anyway, anymore than it does for pheasants, but it's helped by the fact most of the plants on their homeworld are themselves iridescent, thanks to having multi-layered cuticles, like some seaweeds.

    Also, I think I mentioned it before, but my felinoids don't have a rhinarium. The skin on their noses is more like a bird's cere, and the nose isn't quite the same shape as a cat's.

  • Related to Avatar, while European colonization of the New World obviously gives examples of contact between wildly disparate cultures, only an idiot uses aliens for that sort of simplistic White Guilt narrative. Look at the real history: the Aztecs had it coming, the Apache and Sioux gave as good as they got, and it was only the kindness of the US government that the Comanche still exist (much higher-class horse-nomads than them have been dealt with much more harshly by the people they raided; let's just say Romania did not provide the Turks with a reservation, although Basarab Vlad III did give them, ahem, a forest).

    There's a reason we remember the Long Walk and Trail of Tears as atrocities: they were. But, because learning the details is hard, people too often generalize from them to the assumption that every time force was used against Indians, it was wrong. That is not the case. A lot of Indians made a substantial proportion of their living raiding, and that raiding often at least as nasty as the European barbarian raids of the Dark Ages.

  • Not really alien-related but why do people insist on space prisons? Ask yourself, "do this civilization's spaceship-engines function by expelling an exhaust?" If the answer is yes, then they won't have off-world penal colonies, space-colonization is too expensive. If they run out of room to keep their criminals? Guess what, their civilization would've long since perished from the sheer body heat of the population, there's a lot of room on an Earth-sized planet.

    Now, conceivably, less-than-spotless people might be selected for a dangerous colonization effort, and people might be offered a chance to work off debts as an incentive to join projects, but you're not gonna have penal colonies. You think prison's bad, try putting one on a nuclear submarine, because that's what a spaceship is.

    The one exception is, you might get incredibly dangerous prisoners, deposed tyrants and the like, moved off-planet to try and neutralize their power-base and prevent rescue attempts, and so on. But you're still likely to have them moved to normal prisons, just on other planets, and I'm not sure that, even then, it wouldn't be too much trouble without reactionless drives. And hey, killing tyrants is usually preferred anyway—hanging Saddam was a big blow to the Iraq insurgency, but he would've become a rallying point for all kinds of trouble if we'd just carted him off to Gitmo or something. The same may be said of Qaddafi, though Qaddafi wasn't within a light year of as nasty as Saddam was.

  • Here's a question: why do aliens in SF never react to humans' sexual advances as they would to bestiality? Since that is, from a biological perspective, what it is. Are writers afraid to consider why we taboo bestiality? Generally speaking when a person is afraid to question a taboo there's one of two things happening; he's either afraid he won't be able to make a case for his standard, but still wants to keep the standard, or he's afraid that the standard will be found to apply to other things he had not previously tabooed.

    So either SF writers are too chicken to be the guy who says there's no basis for forbidding bestiality, or they're afraid that the taboo on bestiality will cut into their little fetishes. If that seems harsh, please remember Heinlein's incest-fixation and Niven's rishathra (which isn't exactly bestiality, it's just only justifiable by assuming humans have many behaviors in common with bonobos—which they don't): SF writers are kinky sons of bitches.

    It's a moot point to me; not only do my aliens react appropriately, but I do know the case for the bestiality taboo. Then again I don't get my ideas on sexuality from people with a vested interest in removing the nuclear family as a counterbalance to the power of the state and the corporation.

  • Avatar-related again, why is it always Native Americans people base aliens on? How about African or Australian aborigines? Or any of the various tribes of Southeast Asia, or the Pacific Islands? Nobody's ever had Polynesians in space, to my knowledge. And nobody's ever done European tribes, either, and those are probably in many ways the best-studied—come to think of it East Asia technically has tribes as well, China is the Hua and Japan is the Yamato (God only knows what the Koreans' real name is, it's not Han).

    The one exception I can think of is probably accidental: the Kzinti are essentially Zulus. Highly warlike, extremely loyal to their leaders, proud of courage to the point of forbidding even the showing of fear—all Zulu traits. Only I don't think Zulus were one of the African peoples that ever ate their enemies, I think that practice is more coastal.

    Actually come to think of it, the only Indians they ever rip off are the Plains Indians. Leaving to one side that those are not all one thing, either—the Sioux were much less nasty than the Comanche, for instance—or the veracity of the versions they use, come on. There's much more interesting Natives on this continent. The Apache, for instance, can stand toe-to-toe with the Sioux in the Proud Warrior Race department, and Navajo culture's probably the most thoroughly studied in the country (mostly since, y' know, nobody wants their land, so they're still there). If the Hopi factions of Friendlies and Hostiles don't immediately suggest SFional possibilities to you, you're no son of mine.

    Oh, wait, also, the Elites, in Halo, are actually based on a non-Native American tribe. Namely, the Dorieis.

  • I wonder, speaking of Africa and Native Americans, why don't aliens ever believe in witchcraft? I regret to inform you that you only disbelieve in it because the Catholic Church told you to; penalties for witch-hunting were imposed by the Council of Paderborn in 785 and that of Frankfurt nine years later.

    It might be maintained that a highly technological society that could get into space wouldn't be superstitious, but I cordially invite you to step into a bookstore in this society. Notice the section consisting entirely of fourth-rate mysticism and quasi-Gnostic mystagoguery (often perjuriously labeled "metaphysics")? Is it really so hard to believe that, in a society that never had witch-hunting declared a heresy, those sham gurus would set up as witch-smellers rather than faith-healers?

  • It is perhaps occasion for some dark mirth, but I wonder how much of people putting up with BS aliens—the Na'vi, Xenomorphs, aliens who not only have sex with humans but children with them—is because they don't know anything about science? Several times, pogo-sticking through the minefield that is "talking about abortion on the internet", I have come across people who don't know the difference between fertilized and unfertilized ova—that is, between a haploid gamete and a diploid zygote. Which is, uh, 9th grade bio class, guys.

    Please, please, please, find a sensible program for advancing science education—I mean one that's not married to bad fiscal or other policies, of course—and give them as much assistance as you can. If it helps people make better informed political choices, that'd be nice, I guess. But I'm really just hoping they won't sit still for codswallop baffle-gab passed off as science fiction.


November Sucks Even Outside Election Years

Omitting the fact that the US presidential campaign season begins in June the previous year at the latest.

NaNoWriMo, which is either an Orwellian state agency or the shorthand version of a really long manga title, begins today. I don't, NaNo I mean, and not just because they're not remotely unyuu enough to use Hinaichigo's sentence-endy word (nano?). It's just you have to start your novel to do it, and I can't leave off working on mine to start another. Also I'm more or less congenitally incapable of writing a story in under 100,000 words, and routinely need twice that. I like stories that sprawl a little, sorry.

I don't know if I disapprove of NNWM (as we are not talking, I will use acronyms, thank you—and if you read it aloud, kindly use the NATO radio alphabet), at least not absolutely. Because it's me, I'm going to list the flaws first. An ordered list counts them automatically!
  1. Comparatively unimportant but not all long-form prose fiction is novels, and in fact, virtually all of it that's worth reading isn't.

  2. Simply setting length as the standard.

    Even accepting that we lump all long prose into "novel", novels, novelas, and novelettes are all one thing, while short stories are something radically different. Everything in a short story points to a particular event—they have only one rising action, climax, and denouement—while a novel contains multiple rising actions, climaxes, and denouements. The structure of a novel is fractal, as the work as a whole also contains a structure like that.

    This is a flaw firstly because whether one has written a "novel" (here, again, meaning "long form prose fiction") is not length, but structure. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is a short story, but it's as long as a short novel.

  3. Secondly it is a flaw because NaNo-ers will write filler to get their word-count up. Paying by the word makes sense for magazines, since they have pages to fill, but did you know they used to size poetry by the inch? Yep, poetry—which makes prose look like duct-tape in the pretensiousness department—was sold by the inch, like twine. Should we really be using that as the standard?

  4. Relatedly, the word-count standard does, in fact, reward people with a verbose style, and some people write better in a spare one.

    Modern English style is in dire need of red-shifting, in general. I don't have the statistics by me, but hasn't there been a spike in skin-cancer? Maybe it's the currently popular ultraviolet prose that's to blame.

  5. A lot of people just use NNWM as an outlet for their urge to write. Which, for most people, is fine. But some people really have what it takes to write well, and it's never a good idea to let talented people feel that their ambitions are satisfied, unless they actually are (in a way that benefits the rest of us—guess what, your talents are irrelevant to anyone else unless the anyone else can benefit from them).

    We need more good writers out there, folks, and I don't know if it's a good idea to make them feel like they've "won" until their books are really in print.

  6. Relatedly, apparently, publishers hate this time of year, because silly people—90% of whom, viz. Sturgeon's Law, should just be using NNWM as a private outlet for their creativity—send in their NaNo work as soon as it's done. Apparently, like, in December. Without rewrites.

    Yeah, know what, the other writers don't need you making the publishers cranky.

Wow, so, six problems. I'm as surprised as you that that's all the negativity I could find.

On the other hand, though, there is one thing, one big thing, to say in NNWM's favor. The thing does get people to shut up about writing, and write. And that, of course, is how you do it. Very Zen.

I think I'm gonna have to write a little every day this month, though not on a NaNo project and not toward an arbitrary 50 kiloword target. But writing every day in a month ain't a bad idea.