Friday, 23 December 2016

Star Trek Conception: A Narrative & Puzzle-driven Roleplaying Game

I've been kicking around ideas for an alternative Star Trek roleplaying game system for years now, with little solid progress. Work keeps getting in the way of my train of thought. But this time, I think I've really got something solid. Find below version 1 of the rules booklet, standard blank character sheet, and introductory adventure (for GM's eyes only):

Star Trek Conception (The rules, 15 pages)
Standard Character Sheet (1 page)
Sample Episode, titled "Keep It Down" (2 pages, Spoilers, do not read if you're not the GM)

"I cast Magic Missile!"

The rules might make more sense if you know the background process of how they came to me.

Step 1 is that I've stolen some ideas from Fiasco. Specifically, the bit where the game is divided into scenes, and that's about as low as the game's resolution goes. No rolls for individual actions, no splitting hairs about exactly how awesome your stats are. Just the story, unpredictable and organic, yet still clearly made from the players' choices.

You could run a totally GMless Star Trek game with little more than this loose structure, but I think an important part of any Star Trek episode is the central mystery or puzzle to solve in each episode, and it's useful to have an impartial GM who can prepare these ahead of time. I tried coming up with an automated mystery generator, but it didn't seem like a satisfying solution. I may add that in future updates, if I ever find a good way to handle it.

So instead, step 2 is acknowledging that this is a GM-led game, though hopefully it leaves fairly little for a decent GM to do, beyond initial setup and verbal description.

There are some dice rolls to be made, and I'll admit that they aren't as elegant as the plot-generating rolls of Fiasco. They're just simpler plot-resolving rolls, pretty similar to the Warhammer speed combat house rules I proposed back in June. In the case of Conception, I think I've gone even further, with just a single roll representing the whole scene, rather than a condensed number of rolls per character, as in the Warhammer.

And then the other big thing I noticed (let's call this step 3) is that Star Trek is always about ideas, concepts, beliefs, points of view. Sure they've got piles of technology, but that's not what the show was ever really about. We mock the episodes that use easy technological solutions to deus ex machina a major problem away, and we venerate the episodes that dig deeply into human emotions, ambitions and principles.

To reflect this, I've made personal ideology a major part of the rules. How things turn out is directly affected by what your characters believe. This was something we originally played around with in a Planescape game, years ago, where each player was required to formally define with their character's core beliefs, and these served as both roleplaying guidelines and a way to add dice modifiers. I have something similar in mind for Star Trek, except that where belief literally reshapes the universe in Planescape, in Star Trek it should be viewed more as shaping personal intention and action in a more abstract way. On the other hand, where personal beliefs were just modifiers to normal gaming statistics in our Planescape rules, for the Conception rules, personal ideology effectively is your major set of gaming attributes. It's much more qualitative than quantitative, which is something new for me.

We've tested the rules out once, using that sample episode I prepared, and it seemed to work well enough. Character depth was lacking, but this is not surprising whenever a new game starts up. Of course, I know this wasn't a perfectly fair test, since I already knew both the outcome I wanted and how to play that to my very familiar group of players. Blinded testing would probably reveal some useful flaws I could correct, so if anyone does have feedback after trying these rules, please do let me know.

Thursday, 15 December 2016

How Many People Did Neil Armstrong Kill?

To answer the title question: I don't know. It's not clear to me if anyone knows the answer to that question for certain. It's quite likely that Armstrong (yes, first human on the Moon Armstrong) did kill people, and yet there's no clear (public) record of it. Very few sources even seem to want to report it, only noting slightly euphemistically that he flew combat missions in Korea, and then they rush off to his later, cleaner exploits.

That's kind of weird. The actual violence tells us something about Armstrong, but the whitewashing of his background arguably tells us more about ourselves.

To spell it out clearly, he was mostly involved in ground attack flights, for example bombing anti-aircraft guns (which would likely have killed the people firing those guns), so that later bombers could pass by unimpeded (and possibly kill more people with their own bombs). This is what Neil Armstrong did before he became an astronaut.

I don't think this is the defining activity of his life, if such a thing even really exists. We all mainly know him as the Moon guy, but we also get that this wasn't his whole life. Most people would think of him also as a scientist or pilot, and those who've done their homework would be more specific and call him a naval aviator, test pilot, engineer, and academic. Some might focus on his family life, or his religion, or his media presence. But it doesn't take that much thought to go beyond purely "Moon guy". So why the resistance to also giving him the title of "someone who has probably killed people"?

This is something that's bugged me about many astronauts. Quite a lot of them have military backgrounds, and more than a few have shot people. In most sane professions, that's something that keeps you from getting even the first interview, and yet NASA considers it a virtue instead? We put these people up on pedestals and expect kids to regard them as rolemodels. (Are we hoping the kids will never find out about the violence? Or that they will?) When the first astronauts were hired, it was widely considered damning that most of the early ones were having a lot of sex with a lot of people (oh noes!), and yet not damning in the least that they might have ended someone's life on purpose. That's a pretty fucked up set of priorities.

I've responded to this by doing what any sane, well-adjusted individual would do, and spent several days scanning through every single astronaut/cosmonaut/taikonaut profile page on wikipedia (plus other sources, notably, where greater clarity was needed) to build up a spreadsheet that categorises all of them by the level of violence they're known to have embraced. Below is the google docs version of that.

The first column with the H's denotes whether they're known to have killed non-human animals, mostly through hunting/fishing. I had a hunch early on that there might be a link between that behaviour and violence against human animals.

The second column gives the person's violence level, on a scale from 0 to 3. 0 indicates no known violence; 1 indicates military employment, with no known actual violence; 2 indicates participation in violent activities, but uncertainty about whether this actually killed anyone or not; 3 indicates definitely actually killing someone.

The fourth column supplies a couple additional notes, clarifying context.

This analysis is mostly only good for spotting major incidents of publicly documented violence. Statistically, it is probably missing all manner of bar brawls and sexual assaults, and it's not inconceivable that someone on this list could have covered up actual murders. But I just don't have evidence for most of that, so I only go with what I can confirm with reasonable certainty.

A separate sheet, in the same format, records space tourists separately from the working spacecraft crews.

There's a lot to process there, even summarised down to this table, so I also put columns 2 and 3 in graph form:

Violence level 1 deserves quite a bit of explaining. It makes the most consistent line in the graph, especially in the early years. The military origins of human spaceflight (and spaceflight in general) are no secret. Very few nuclear-armed missiles can't trace their origins somehow back to the V-2, and most human-carrying rockets were either originally weapons, or were designed by the same people who also designed weapons. The governments that funded putting things (human or otherwise) in orbit knew very well that they were mainly doing it to cover up development of military satellites and nuclear bomb launchers. This intention was naturally kept secret at time, which is why the cultural narrative about spaceflight is so distorted, but it's well-established historical fact today, if you take the time to learn about such things. (I'm enjoying Teitel's Breaking the Chains of Gravity, if you're looking for an introduction to the topic.)

This was also the only real reason that military pilots were chosen to be the first astro/cosmonauts. The same essential skills could be found among civilians, especially during the earliest spam-in-a-can phase, when the spacecraft required no pilot, and the human inside was really just a big guinea pig. So why insist on military crews? Because they'd be working with classified military technology all day long, and Dwight Eisenhower personally decided it would be simpler for NASA to only recruit crews who already had established clearance to work with military secrets. The Soviet government made a similar choice, and it seems China has more recently done the same, all for pretty much the same reason: Military space travellers aren't extra-skilled, they're just less likely to sell your secret weapon designs.

It is true that military pilots are more likely to have fast jet experience, but it turns out that this experience doesn't necessarily translate to spacecraft flying skill any better than other types of piloting experience. And as spacecraft got bigger over time, and crews expanded beyond just the pilot, they started needing people with completely different skill sets, and that's where we start to see the military test pilot fall slightly out of favour. The Soviets were the first to embrace civilian crew, and today many of the most experienced Russian cosmonauts have no military background at all. The US followed along later, mostly during the shuttle years. Yet despite a growing list of purely civilian spacefarers, that line of military ones remains pretty solid too. And it's still because rocketry is considered, first and foremost, a military area of interest, with secrets that need to be kept from "tha baddies".

Violence level 1 is also complicated, because I certainly wouldn't say that everyone at that level is definitely equally violent. It encompasses everyone from those who are trained and willing to use some awful weapons, but simply never got the opportunity to use them, all the way to those who are technically military employees, but whose work is clearly non-violent and may never even contribute to violence, such as medical professionals. It's tricky to find a neat dividing line between the two extremes, though. A test pilot or weapons manufacturer may never actually use their weapon on anyone, but they are clearly developing it so that someone else can use it to kill people later on. So are they morally suspect or not? Senior commanders of military units may never go anywhere near the combat area, but it's hard to argue that ordering people's deaths at a distance is an ethically positive thing. And even logistics support people are indirectly responsible for deaths, when the food they deliver gets eaten by the guy who will go off to kill people. Delivering food clearly isn't violent, and yet if that food wasn't there, the guy doing the killing couldn't have hung around long enough to kill anyone, and the logistics people know that, which is why they deliver the food. It wasn't a coincidence that they fed the guy, it was part of a plan to kill people. So it's hard to draw a very clear, solid line between "good" and "bad" military employees. I think it's much simpler to view the whole military as a killing tool, and to be at least suspicious of anyone who works as part of that tool.

But that doesn't make my astronaut list that much clearer, which is a slight annoyance to me.

Violence level 2 is something I'd really rather not have, because it's ambiguous and imprecise, but unfortunately that's the best level of detail currently available to me. I'd much rather know for certain who is definitely level 3, and who can drop back to level 1. Unfortunately, around the time of the Apollo program, astronaut biographies started getting sanitised. Where fighter pilots had previously been very eager to boast about the people they'd killed, competing as if it were a sport, that publicly went out of fashion, and so it was no longer reported as clearly. We know for certain that John Glenn shot down 3 planes, possibly representing 3 dead pilots, in addition to the unrecorded number of people he killed in ground attacks. (That distinction in how much they valued - and thus recorded - air kills versus ground kills is noteworthy.)

At some point, the US military public relations people realised that a lot of the public didn't want to hear the gory details of war, didn't want to know how the sausage was made, and perhaps there was also a counter-intelligence argument for not boasting your war successes too openly. And so every published combat record from the Vietnam War onwards merely reads that the person took part in "combat operations" or "flew combat missions". That euphemism could mean anything from blowing people up, to helping others blow people up, to flying in circles aimlessly for hours, just so long as it's done within an area where fighting is happening. So, for my purposes, I'm stuck with level 2; some people put at that level may never have done any direct harm at all, but at the very least, we can say with some certainty that they made an effort to try to kill people. That willingness to be violent, I think, counts for something.

(I also wonder if there's something similar with column 1, the hunting thing. Has hunting become less popular than half a century ago? That would fit increasing urbanisation trends. Are animal-killing astronauts as common as ever, and the PR people just keep that off their official profiles now? Or describe it with euphemisms that I'm not spotting, like "hiking" or something? Maybe. I still think there's a general inclination to kill, whether humans or non-humans, that should produce a correlation, but the unexpected big void in column 1 makes that hard to check. Good news if it's a realistic void, at least.)

With that all clarified (I hope?), I'd like to point out a national distinction: Almost all the level 2's and 3's are American. It's possible that the Soviets/Russians simply never admitted that some of their cosmonauts had combat records beyond the few from the Second World War, but I think that's unlikely. The far more obvious explanation is that the Soviet Union didn't go to war nearly as often as the United States. From 1945 to 1990, the Soviet Union may have supported or encouraged or sponsored conflicts, but very seldom participated directly in any major way. The decade-long Soviet-Afghan War was the one big exception, and it is a little surprising to me that no cosmonauts seem to have emerged from that. Post-Soviet Russian conflicts have been much more numerous, but generally less intense and less persistent, mostly related to resolving post-Soviet borders by force. The Americans, on the other hand, have been incredibly violent for most of the last 60+ years, with heavy involvement in some of the biggest contemporary wars. Korea. Vietnam. The Gulf War. The US wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. And always lots of smaller conflicts in between as well, with the possible exception of the Carter years. The Syrian civil war is probably the first time since the 1940s that the Americans and Russians have had comparable participation in the same conflict. Beyond the three main spacefaring countries, the most violent source of astronauts is France, with some noteworthy anomalies from Belgium and Vietnam.

Analysing and explaining all of this is a huge, textbookworthy topic of its own. My sole point for now is that it shouldn't be surprising if few Soviet/Russian military pilots had ever actually seen combat. This is even more true for Chinese taikonauts, as China has been remarkably peaceful for decades.

I think it's also important to avoid excessively monolithic thinking. Not all Americans (or Russians or Chinese) are the same, not all NASA administrators are the same, there has to be some room to consider individual and local quirks. One interesting example is that it was NASA that convinced the Russians not to take any guns to the International Space Station, and not the other way round.

The implications of this are worth debating. Does it mean that Americans are the Klingons? That soldiers are or are not responsible for their wars? I don't think this small data set is enough to be sure of too much, but it does get you thinking, I hope. The main reason I bring it all up here is to illustrate one point: Combat experience is not needed for good astronauts. Killing people doesn't make you handle spaceflight any better.

And so it's weird that NASA has evidently chosen to hire so many astronauts on the basis that they've killed before. It means that someone once sat down and wrote that in as a job requirement, a positive trait for potential recruits to have. I doubt they worded it exactly that way, but they didn't do it that many times in a row, hiring several dozen candidates with combat experience, purely by coincidence. If nothing else, they haven't viewed it as a negative trait.

To be clear, I'm not saying all of the non-military spacefarers are uniformly and perfectly good people. Some, I'm sure, are dicks. But they're dicks who haven't killed anyone, which is a better starting point. As an example, Schmitt's position as first purely civilian American astronaut is spoiled a little by his current deeply unscientific views on global warming, which he insists on publicly espousing. That's not really a violence-related thing, but it does definitely dent his reputation - but less than if he'd shot someone, I think. Of course, some really are great; it's hard to criticise my two favourites, Ride and Jemison, for example. They weren't just non-violent, they actively worked to make the world a better, safer place. Jemison is still at it today, and Ride's legacy will hopefully continue on. Even some of the level 1's seem to have a lot of genuinely positive traits going for them; I'm fond of Hadfield and Cristoforetti, for instance, to the point that I strongly hope they wouldn't ever have pulled a trigger, if they'd been told to. But realistically, I have to concede that they probably would have. And I think that's one of my big conclusions here: If you join an armed organisation that deals primarily in violence, then your choices are automatically suspect to me. Either it means you accept violence, which is bad, or that you're so blind to violence and its consequences that you really shouldn't be trusted with anything more dangerous than a plastic spoon. If you actively oppose violence, your alternative solutions may not work, but at least you've chosen not to kill anyone.

I'm not certain I can draw anything else much more conclusive from this relatively surface-level analysis. I think there's enough unsettled about all of this to warrant a full PhD thesis, if anyone is looking for a topic.

Since I don't like ending on a hanging thread, I do have a couple little notes on smaller things I picked up on while writing this:

My recording of Joe Walker versus James Halsell is worth explaining a little. Both were involved in fatal vehicle accidents, but I've marked Walker as level 1 and Halsell as level 3. Walker's collision appears to have been a genuine accident, certainly not something Walker wanted or could have predicted or controlled. Halsell, on the other hand, intentionally drove drunk, knowing full well what that entails. That's not anyone's fault but his own, and if that caused him to speed, or if he would normally speed while sober too, then the blame still lies with him.

Linnehan's involvement in the Marine Mammal System is as laughable as it is tragic. What these veterinary quacks do to dolphins and sea lions is simply cruel (whether you accept war or not), and if we're supposed to value fighting in wars (which I clearly don't) then surely this should be viewed as a cowardly technique anyway.

There's a fairly unsurprising gender split, with relatively more women in level 0 than men, and none confirmed in level 3.

The space tourists, even less surprisingly, are all level 0. I did briefly wonder whether Shuttleworth might have been conscripted into the South African army (I wasn't sure whether he was young enough to have missed the conscription years), but it's apparently fairly widely known that he skipped the country to avoid that. Elon Musk did the same, which is part of the reason it disappoints me that he now wants to feed rockets to the US military. That's kind of hypocritical.

Mark Kelly is an idiot. After an assassination attempt on his wife, former member of Congress Gabrielle Giffords, the two of them remained pro-gun. Kelly himself has dropped bombs on people (I have him at level 2 above), but it's not unheard of for the physical distance between pilots and their targets to lend them some very unrealistic emotional distance. They don't often actually watch their victims die, from way up in the sky. But you'd think that when 6 people die, including a poor fucking little 9 year old girl, and his own wife is horribly injured, along with a dozen others, then surely he'd get it? Surely he must, however briefly, have drawn the connection between what he did and what Loughner did? If he did, then it was a very weird connection he drew, simply calling for the mythical "bad guys" to have their gun access restricted, while he and the "good guys" kept theirs. (I'm pretty sure there's a fair bit of psychology or cultural anthropology research that could be done on these people.)

This has been a pretty grim, disheartening post to research and write, so let me end on Leland Melville's official astronaut portrait. It's hard not to be happy about this.

Saturday, 12 November 2016

Lessons from a Lebanese Family History

It was my grandfather’s funeral yesterday. I’m typing this at the desk he made for me. I’ve had a few family history-related thoughts swimming through my brain for a while, and seeing so many relatives (some for the first time in decades) has brought these all to the front of my mind.

My dad’s side of the family have clear roots in Lebanon, with migration to South Africa a little over a century ago. The history of Lebanon under Ottoman rule is well-documented elsewhere, and I’m far from an expert on that. But the short summary for now is that the Ottoman Empire was divided into lots of population zones with differing religious and ethnic identities, and most of these were run feudally, with peasant farmers taxed by local authorities, who passed on wealth to regional authorities, who in turn competed to send the most wealth to Istanbul. The competitive nature of this system meant that the peasantry were generally treated pretty poorly, coerced into paying up as much as possible, sometimes through violent means. One story goes that people started building their homes with the smallest possible doorways, because Ottoman cavalry were less likely to dismount to advance indoors and cause trouble on foot.

There were also local conflicts between religious and ethnic groups, sometimes intentionally stoked by the Ottomans to break apart any unity against their rule. One particularly violent internal conflict in 1860 had my ancestors very much on edge, and not long after that, the opening of the Suez canal completely upended the economy, smashing trade routes that had been stable for centuries. This economic shift led to more pressure from tax collectors, unwilling to set their goals lower. By the end of the nineteenth century, Lebanon was not the best place to live, so many families uprooted and travelled halfway around the world to make new lives. The Lebanese Diaspora is pretty varied, with most settlement in the Americas, Australia, mostly Central Europe, and all over Africa (taking advantage of the Europeans’ Scramble for Africa that was going on at around the same time), but I’ll focus solely on my own ancestors moving to South Africa.

The Shams set out in the 1890s, apparently spent a short while living in Bermuda (no idea why there), and then several years in Australia, before settling in the southern African European colonies in the late 1890s (which then became South Africa in 1910). My grandmother’s side, the Leichers, came a few years later, and this family had planned on only a temporary migration, saving up enough to re-capitalise their old farm. But the group of them who returned got there just in time for World War 1, and the Turkish rulers were especially brutal in this period. The starkest examples of this were the Armenian, Assyrian and Greek genocides, but my relatives caught part of it too. Crops were simpy confiscated, farming became unsustainable, and starvation was widespread. Trudging on foot, begging for meals, they set off back to Beirut to try to sail back to South Africa. Of the Leichers who returned to Lebanon, only one boy (Joe, around 11 or 12 years old) survived to rejoin the South African family.

I am the product of refugee immigrants. When I see people today moaning about refugees and other foreigners, all it makes me think is that, a century ago, they would have been refusing to help my family, and it was probably the same sort of moaning, a century ago, that left poor little Joe Leicher to fend for himself in an unfamiliar city, in a state that more or less wanted to kill him.

Of course, in South Africa, things weren’t all rosy either. My grandfather was born in 1925, and he was legally classed as ‘White’. This was still a new advantage to have, as his parents and older siblings had been classified as ‘Asian’ until a 1923 court case “upgraded” them – and ultimately also me. (If nothing else, the flimsy flexibility of this racial definition shows how subjective and nonsensical it all was.) If you know anything at all of South African history, it should be pretty obvious that re-classification as white was a huge advantage. Prior to that, British colonial authorities were just as shitty to non-whites as the later apartheid authorities were. They were barred from a number of jobs, barred from owning property, barred from decent schools, barred from political processes, and subject to harassment by police and paramilitary forces. Many Lebs had been in the habit of lying and pretending to be Greek, as it gave a slightly better chance of being hired. (Apparently many Chinese immigrants similarly pretended to be Japanese to gain their “honorary white” status, at least temporarily). My definitely-undoubtedly-white British mother wouldn't have been legally able to marry my dad if that 1923 decision had never been made, which would have made my subsequent existence pretty unlikely.

The big book of Leb family history that I got this from presents the 1923 case as an early blow against apartheid, but I have trouble reading it that way. It looks to me more like my ancestors were climbing over other oppressed groups, foot on face, to lift themselves to a higher status. If there was a plan to help share this status change with other groups, it never went anywhere, but I don’t think that ever was the plan. In the generations before mine, for every relative I can name who opposed apartheid, however passively, it’s not hard to name two or three others who were (and still are) hugely and unapologetically racist, especially against black South Africans. I don’t know if the Lebs very quickly forgot what life had been like before 1923 (I get the impression that few Lebs in my dad’s generation are even aware that many of their own grandparents and parents weren’t officially born the same race as them), or if white schools trained that hatred into them, or if anti-black racism had already been common among them (somehow) before that, or if it was some sort of disguise mechanism that went too far, trying to fit in better among “real” whites by making a noisy show of putting down non-whites. Perhaps it was a combination of several of these factors. At least in my generation, that prejudice seems far less common.

To be clear, there’s never been any doubt that I’m white. Legally, I’ve never had even a flicker of a question about it. And socially, school bullies were apparently never well-informed enough to question whether Lebs should count as real whites, they just knew it made me something different from them, their default target group. But I’ve probably had just as much bullying over my Scottish origins as my Lebanese origins. More people have worried (worried!) that I might look somewhat Jewish than that I actually do look Lebanese. I have always had all the privileges our society affords an English-speaking white male, enough that I could write an entire post on that topic alone.

One final bit of family history worth sharing also concerns my grandfather. I didn’t know this story at all until about 3 years ago, when he felt I needed to focus better on sorting out my teaching qualifications. In the late 1940s he had gained entrance to study mining engineering at the University of the Witwatersrand. He did well in his first year there, but the family still wasn’t wealthy, and funds ran out. Attempts to find a bursary failed, because at the time most of these were reserved for war veterans. And so his studies just had to end. He always regretted that, and consequently always placed great emphasis on education, ensuring that my dad would get his engineering degree (and later an MBA), as well as supporting both of my aunts’ tertiary studies; today they’re both PhD’s, one specialising in education. A strong emphasis on education carried on into my generation, and I think that the 7 Sham cousins have between us 10 or 11 degrees so far, plus who knows how many other qualifications. I have little doubt that all of this shaped my own interest in becoming a teacher.

So it’s been disappointing to see a couple Lebs opposed to the pro-education goals of the Fees Must Fall movement; unsurprisingly, there is overlap between those opposing it and those who are openly racist. Imagine what my grandfather might have achieved in the ‘40s if he’d had the benefit of fully state-subsidised tertiary education to allow him to finish his degree. Imagine how many other Lebs (not to mention literally everyone else) have been held back in life because they couldn’t afford to study. I still have cousins today who’ve been stopped from studying for purely financial reasons. (Now imagine your entire racial group of millions of people has that same problem, with no wealthy cousins to help them out; sympathy ought to be your natural response.)

Family history is an interesting thing. I think it’s often abused to try and force unity for unity’s sake, a way to increase exclusivity, while I’d rather use it as a way to learn from past mistakes and make the world better, more inclusive. I don’t really care if anyone identifies as Lebanese or not; most of us haven't ever been near the place anyway. And I don’t miss my Jidoo because he was Lebanese, I miss him because he was my Jidoo, and now nobody will cook for us the way he did.
Billy Sham
1925-03-08 to 2016-11-05

Thursday, 6 October 2016

Teacher's Bits: 14-body solar system diagram

While looking to plagiarise other people's diagrams of the solar system (using nothing more complicated than a googly image search), I realised how many old and outdated diagrams are still out there, showing 9 planets. The internet never forgets, so that's not too surprising. But what actually bugged me is that all of the newer diagrams now only show the 8 full planets. This, to me, seems to have missed the point. We added more stuff, we didn't take things away. And I couldn't find a nice, simple diagram of the orbits of the 5 confirmed dwarf planets either. (There are also plenty of astrology-woo versions floating out there, all with at least one major error on them.)

So, I made my own, now available for public use and plagiarism:
Click to embiggen, save to save.

This is a very rough, rushed version, with as few details as possible. Consider this a template for anyone to borrow and improve on however they need to. For my grade 8s, for example, I plan to add label blocks for them to fill in as we discuss them all. Future versions might have proper colour images pasted over the simple circles (printer access permitting) - though there's also something to be said for letting the kids colour them in themselves. And I'd really like to make (or copy) a version that shows the more interesting eccentric orbit shapes of the outer dwarf planets. You could also add asteroid groups, the Kuiper Belt, the Oort Cloud, whatever suits you.

The main thing I've learned by drawing my own version: It's not difficult to do a simple version, but doing it neatly is the real challenge. I used paint.NET's standard circle-drawing tool, and it's a pain.

Saturday, 16 July 2016

2016 Local Elections - Joburg party summaries

With the 2016 local government elections coming up soon, I've been thinking through my options again, and thought I'd make my basic reference list public, in case it helps others to reach a decision. This is obviously just a super-abbreviated summary of the parties contesting the Johanneburg municipality, my way of trying to keep track of who's who. A lot of these parties have shared origins, and can be hard to tell apart. In particular, if you want some African socialism, you're spoiled for choice.

I've marked parties with a * if they have a candidate standing for my ward, just for my own reference. To see who's standing for your own municipality and ward, check these lists from the IEC. They're not the nicest format, but not impossible to read, if you're patient.

Sadly, a lot of the smaller parties haven't taken advantage of online publication, making it hard to find out anything about them. And maybe that suits some of the smallest ones, with no need for them appeal to anyone outside of one or two wards. But since I still technically have the option of giving them my proportional representation vote, I'd definitely prefer to know if they're preferable to any of the larger parties, even if they weren't planning on getting my vote.

African Christian Democratic Party* (ACDP): Anti-abortion, anti-gay, anti-condom, pro-business, pro-death penalty. Just doing their bit to make the world shitter.

African Independent Congress* (AIC): The ones who didn't go very far to distinguish themselves from the ANC when they split off. Originally formed on the single issue of local border placement between KZN and the Eastern Cape.

African National Congress* (ANC): The ruling party, nationally and municipally.

African People's Convention (APC): PAC splitters, and thus also Pan-Africanist socialists.

African People's Socialist Party* (APSP): APC splitters (so also PAC splitter-splitters), not to be confused with the American organisation of the same name. There's some he-said/he-said between their leaders over who's the power-hungry monster, and who truly wants to help the people.

Agang South Africa (ASA): With a history of being poorly organised, they've never made much of an impact. Pretty vague policies, considering the level of experience it started out with; I'd say more or less pro-business.

Al Jama-ah*: An oddity. Islamist party who believe they shouldn't participate in secular law-making, but want to influence it by "having a voice". Feels like cheating to me, but they're only cheating their own rules, so I don't care.

Azanian People's Organisation* (AZAPO): Another socialist party with a Black Consciousness element.

Bolsheviks Party of South Africa (BPSA): Vaguely Leninist, with pictures of Soviet guns on their facebook page.

Building a Cohesive Society (BACS): Often when a party opts for a name that's a whole sentence, with verbs and everything, instead of a couple key words, it's because they're aiming for some clever acronym. What's BACS? Apparently, well-meaning amateurs who could really use a good proof-reader. No clear ideological leaning (apart from some prominent feminism), more of a loose collection of community-building projects.

Congress of the People (COPE): Capitalist ANC splitters. Lots of history of in-fighting.

Democratic Alliance* (DA): The official opposition. Beige as fuck on the outside, pro-business on the inside.

Economic Freedom Fighters* (EFF): Anti-capitalist ANC splitters. Lots of history of out-fighting.

Freedom Front Plus* (FF+/VF+): The party for openly racist whites.

Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP): Zulu monarchists.

International Revelation Congress (IRC): Religious monarchists. I think their logo might have plagiarised the R100 note.

Operation Khanyisa Movement (OKM): Political branch of the Anti-Privatisation Forum.

Pan Africanist Congress of Azania (PAC): Originally ANC splitters (which makes the APSP splitters from splitters from splitters), back in the '50s, over the issue of whether the ANC should be purely Africanist, or aim for multiracialism.

Patriotic Alliance (PA): Anti-crime party led by former convicts. No idea how genuine they are.

Patriotic Association of South Africa (PASA): Party for what it terms "marginalised minorities", i.e. anyone who's neither black nor white.

People's Civic Organisation (PCO): Looks like a very localised party, with an urban service delivery agenda.

Prem Peoples Agenda (PPA): The agenda of the people named Premram Sookmungal. Can't find a damn thing about this.

Socialist Party of Azania (SOPA): AZAPO splitters. Regular unsplitting talks have yet to work out.

Truly Alliance* (TA): Truly what? Protectionist, mostly non-white-minority focus.

Ubuntu Party (bleh): The ridiculous Ancient Aliens & Free Money party, which refused to clear away their posters after the 2014 elections, so they just hung there, fading in the sun and the rain, for months. Their claim at the time was that they were too broke to pay anyone to collect all the posters. I see someone's beamed down more cash to Tellinger to waste everyone's time again this year. Can't tell if this is a direct scam, or just a crooked author's self-promotion scheme.

United Democratic Movement* (UDM): The christmas tree party. Social democrats. They originally formed in a somewhat unusual and interesting way, and have steadily achieved very little since then.

United Front of Civics (UFC): Gauteng branch of the United Front, which is the attempt at a political branch of NUMSA.