Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Coarse summary

Life's been hugely chaotic recently. Crazy-busy work as the kids prepare for exams, certain lovely lady-persons moving up to Joburg, complex roleplaying games planning, etc. So I'm full of blog thoughts, but haven't had time to write much. Here at least, as promised, are my closing thoughts on the conflict transformation course I did last month.

In short, it got better. The facilitators never really improved and kept mismanaging time horribly, mostly wasting it on overly-elaborate metaphorical games that could be neatly reduced to a single sentence without losing any meaning. But, ignoring them, it was pretty good. The guest speakers were all excellent, generally relying on a more traditional and more informative lecturing format, and I wished we'd had more time to hear from them. One even gave us each copies of a nice textbook on African socio-economic inequalities that he'd co-written. Our visits to the Apartheid Museum and Constitution Hill were also great, and I can definitely recommend visits to both.

But the real value of the course, for me, was in what I learned from the other participants. Working in the thick of real conflicts (with plenty of stories of beatings, imprisonment, confrontations with police and assorted intimidation), they had far more insider knowledge about the state of their states (some of which, like Malawi, I hadn't even realised had any conflicts to deal with), as well as on the practical side of dealing with such conflicts. The facilitators found their main use in simply prodding us all along, getting everyone to discuss different aspects of their own experiences, and we had much more to learn from each other than any other source. Even I got to teach them something a little useful, as many weren't aware of the continuing racial inequality in South Africa. Most seemed to assume that everything here's been perfectly hunky dory since 1994, and were surprised at the complex, messy reality we've got instead.

I'd also like to point your attention to some of the main, active organisations my co-participants were from, as they're doing hard, important work in their respective countries, and could use some more publicity. At the very least, make yourself aware of the core problems in their countries:

Monday, 24 October 2011

On the Facilitation of the Utilisation of Bullshit


I was offered a great bargain on a peace-building (or conflict transformation, as they call it) course and leapt at it. Today was day 1 of the 5-day course, and these are my initial, unprocessed thoughts. I'm tired, grumpy and a bit disappointed, which will likely colour my assessment.

First, it was certainly professional enough. I've had far, far worse. The venue's nice (not their fault the weather's so shitty hot), the manager took interest in my vegan needs (though someone fucked up communicating that there'd be me and 2 vegetarians, so it was dumb luck that lunch was edible), and the course materials are all decent quality.

What annoys me, more than anything, is how incredibly dull it's been. I'd been a bit fearful, expecting something really challenging and well out of what I'm used to (I haven't formally studied anything like this in 5 years, nor worked in it), with towering intellectuals mocking my inexperience as they passed around concepts that I could barely identify. Instead, it's been piss easy. The other participants are all bright enough, and mostly more experienced than me - almost all are from other African countries, where conflict is more real and pressing - but I get the impression that nobody's taken it as seriously as me, and that a few even view it as some sort of holiday. And the two main lecturers, or whatever the term is, the only speakers we had today, frankly aren't up to my standards. When I asked challenging questions, rather than opening things up for discussion, they were more eager to railroad us back onto their prepared lesson. There were scheduling problems, and I blame it on the wanky time-wasting activities they gave us in place of serious teaching. Badly communicated activities too, so that half of us didn't actually get what they wanted from us. It's all a bit baby-level.

I'm hoping, though, that this was just the first day intro crap. Tomorrow, we're getting a real professor (head of my old Politics department, though he only arrived after I'd left, so I've never met him) and then a tour of the Apartheid Museum, which should at least be more interesting. Then I'm GMing my regular weekly WFRP game immediately after that, so I hope the heat doesn't kill me.

I'll report in again at the end of the week. I hope it's good news.

Saturday, 22 October 2011

Alice Who? A Review

It's been a slightly crazy couple weeks for me, with all my usual patterns jumbled up, and next week is going to be even worse, as I'm off on a course that I'll write about later.

One recent thing I did that I felt worth writing about was a dancey performance wossname I went to, for my friend Kobie's birthday. It was Alice Who? This Ain't Wonderland, performed by a bunch of Uj dance students at the Uj Arts Centre. This is at the Kingsway Campus, where I spent 4 years studying and am technically still currently studying (though the last time I went in for academic reasons may have been as far back as 2009), and yet this was the first time I'd set foot in (or even at all near) the Arts Centre. I watched them build it, I think in my 2nd and/or 3rd years, and I still couldn't have told you a thing about what was inside there. The theater part of it, it turns out, is quite nice, retaining the bare concrete look of the rest of the buildings, but still managing to look a bit sophisticated and clean.

The performance itself was pretty fucking cool. I don't think I've paid to watch dancing ever, not because I have anything against it, just that I never have. But this was visually amazing, with colour and movement and shit all working together seamlessly, and it impressed the pants off of me. Totally worth the cost (and cheaper than some movie tickets). I think, with all the conveniences of modern 3D animation and other technological wossnames (you may have noticed, I'm a bit out of my depth on the technical details), you'd still struggle to make something look as impressive and enchanting as the "simple" movements of just people alone. It was simply really well planned and executed, by someone who'd thought very hard about how the end result would appear to the audience. The dancers themselves were also obviously really good, to pull off some really complicated shit and make it look effortless. I have nothing but praise for the dance side of this dance performance.

The only weird bit was the plot. Be warned, spoilers will follow, though this isn't really the sort of thing you watch for the plot. From the title, you should have guessed that it was a variation on Alice in Wonderland, but it seems I got a totally different interpretation of this modified story than anyone else. Officially, and it seems everyone was just happy to take this as given, 'Alice Who?' was a drug tragedy, with the White Rabbit representing drugs and with Alice slipping between reality (where she had some vague relationship trouble) and "Wonderland" (where interesting things happened).

I can kind of see how you might have read it all that way. But bear in mind that it was entirely wordless, and so there was plenty of room for interpretation beyond the obvious, physical stuff (which, remember, was all dance, not the clearest form of communication). I got quite a different plot, and I think I can show that my interpretation fits the performance far better than just, "Alice is on drugs, drugs are weird, plus there's bad stuff."

The core of my version is that Alice represents Africa (not because the dancer playing Alice happened to be black, though that doesn't hurt the metaphor), and the whole performance is about the place of Africa in international politics, and how the continent remains under something of a post-colonial yoke, abused and controlled by the world's great powers. My first big clue was the White Rabbit, who was fairly neutral and disinterested in the original story; he was just trying to sort out his own life, and Alice kept following along behind him. In this version, he was distinctly sinister, giving Alice/Africa small treats, but clearly also someone to worry about. And compared with the other players, the White Rabbit was quite subtle, almost a background character, not yet very clear to Alice and so poorly understood. Clearly, I thunk to meself, the White Rabbit here can only represent the expanding influence of China.

After that, the rest all fell neatly into place. The Queen of Hearts and her entourage clearly represented the US (or perhaps the West, more broadly), dominant, powerful and arrogant. This American faction was divided into two groups. The first, the Queen and her burlesque dancers (I don't recall them from the original story, but you never know with Lewis Carroll), represented the misleading attraction of the US. Pretty on the surface, maybe, with its Hollywood glamour and American Dream, but beneath that, simply brutal, executing prisoners like some tinpot dictatorship and thinking nothing of completely dominating Africa. The other half, the break-dancing/capoeira Playing Cards, stood for the military-industrial complex. Aggressive, dangerous, mechanical. Couldn't have been more plain. (The fact that Alice can so easily knock the cards over is perhaps a reference to how flimsy American might has proved to be in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq, suggesting that Africa is only dominated by American interests when it allows itself to be.)

Then there were the guests at the Mad Tea Party. Fun, vibrant, silly, but ultimately powerless any time outsiders butted in. This whole party represented the way outsiders see Africa; a bunch of traditional dancers and tourist-pleasers, good for movies like The Lion King or Born Free, good for nature documentaries made by old white men, but not to be taken seriously as real political players on the international stage. Alice can distract herself in the tea party mentality for a short while, but soon reality (the Queen of Hearts) arrives and shows how unfeasible it is for Alice to pretend she belongs at the party.

Finally, there's Alice's boyfriend back in "reality." In fact, he is the fantasy, standing for the rose-tinted view many modern Africans have of pre-colonial African culture and politics, with a manly man in charge who Alice needs to make her complete and happy, but who was really mostly a paternalistic, despotic mess in most historic cases (Shaka Zulu being a prime example). And sure, some parts of the old boyfriend/pre-colonial culture might have been nice, and it might be worth looking for the same qualities in someone/something new, rather than just taking a cookie-cutter culture from elsewhere in the world. But that doesn't mean the old boyfriend/culture wasn't also bad in enough ways that it's better for Alice to move on now. Her pining for a false past distracts Alice when she should be focusing on the Queen of Hearts and White Rabbit, and she suffers as a result.

A masked ball starts up from nowhere, standing for the secrecy, indirectness and two-facedness with which a lot of international relations happen. The Queen and White Rabbit, openly hostile before, are happy to play nice so long as the masks are on, and there's no immediately obviously risk to Alice. But, of course, it really is all quite nefarious underneath the metaphorical and literal masks.

Suddenly, the single, subtle White Rabbit turns into swarming dozens of White Rabbits, now directly confronting Alice and dominating her directly. This does not end well for Alice. I'd surmise that this was meant to be a prediction that eventually China's presence will stop being subtle and indirect, once all the political dancing is done, the US/the West is out of the way and China can swoop in directly, taking what it wants without any serious resistance.

As I say, I'm apparently the only one who read the plot that way, but I think it's so much deeper and richer than anything the Uj Dance Company likely had in mind. I think if anyone was putting together dance shows as deep as I imagined this one to be, and as well performed as it really was, then I might do this sort of thing more often.

It also suggests there's much, much more that could be done by the PhD dancers.

Sunday, 25 September 2011

How much for the Tomcat?

Sometimes you just want to put together a mercenary air force and take over the world. It's an idea I've had since I was 13 or so, and I've long wondered about the real costs of it. Strike Commander gave me some rough, ballpark figures to start with, and more complex games (notably EVE) have given me a better understanding of the economic complexities of such hardware purchases. But on a whim this weekend, having missed the Joburg Slutwalk due to a sudden call into work on Saturday, I sat down to do some research and look up the prices of modern jet fighters of the last 20 or 30 years (plus a couple only expected to enter service in the next 5 to 10). And it turns out, that's pretty complicated.

Here's a table of the best comparisons I could work out (mostly from Wikipedia, but with occasional deeper searches when something didn't add up very well), but as I'll explain, even this is a terrible over-simplification:
Types: F - conventional fighter
FC - carrier-capable fighter
FV - vertical take-off and landing fighter
Note 1: The Cheetah cost is as a second-hand sale price, not a first-hand production price. I think the same is true of the Kfir cost.
Note 2: The F-16IQ unit cost is definitely wrong, as this is the unit cost of a package deal, including weapons, accessories and spares. No aircraft-only cost was available. I include it only as a place-holder.
If you're not already a bit of a wing nut, then that may not mean an awful lot. But to me, there are a few significant patterns, even in this condensed summary, most of which are common sense. Most dramatic of all is that inflation is a bitch; the older designs are waaaaay cheaper, because the last time anyone paid for them was a decade or more ago, when you could simply get more per US$ than you can now. Consider the F-5, the Kfir and the $8.9M that South Africa sold its old Cheetahs for: These are all relatively ancient planes, and so their price tags, while high when they were new, look tiny now. One clear enough comparison is between the F-14A Tomcat and its replacement 30 years later, the F/A-18F Super Hornet, with roughly the same dimensions and performance, but at 2.5 times the cost.

But the timing of sales is even more complicated than just how old the design is. The Israeli Kfir and the South African Cheetah, both conversions of the Mirage III, are close to identical (the Kfir is marginally better), manufactured around the same time (the Cheetah was a more recent conversion, but converted from Mirage airframes of the same age as those used to make the Kfirs), so their material/technical value should be about the same. But because the Kfirs were sold over a decade earlier, they went for half the cost.

Second-hand planes, like those former SAAF Cheetahs, obviously also go for far less, and Wikipedia mentions a small number of Russian-built MiG-29s and Su-27s, very good designs even if they're older models, going for less than $10M a piece. But that can be a serious false economy, since airframe fatigue (the structure of the plane getting weaker through over-use) is very dangerous and it's usually not considered worth the expense of rejuvenating an old airframe, compared with the price of buying a whole new plane.

But there's also an economy of scale factor: The development cost is the same whether you buy 1 plane or 1,000, and the manufacturer normally has to include that development cost in the unit price one way or another, so large production runs make for cheaper individual planes. A moderately old design, like the F-16, can still be technically quite good and so still in production years later, and the fact that so many have been built means that development costs are spread over a larger number of aircraft, and so the unit cost even for a first-hand plane is relatively low. By comparison, the F-22's unit cost has exploded as the total number of planes ordered has plummeted; a similar phenomenon has pushed the F-35's unit cost up stupidly high too, considering it was supposed to be the lighter, "cheap" sidekick to the F-22.

(I wish I could find the unit cost of those F-16IQs intended for Iraq, to see how it compares against the cost I've got listed for the F-16C it's based on. Researching the costs of bombs and missiles can be a future project, and that would shed some light on what that IQ package is really worth.)

Another unsurprising pattern is that planes intended to do complex things cost more. The carrier-based aircraft are always more expensive than their land-based counterparts, and for some nice, clear examples, look at the MiG-29SMT and MiG-29K, the Rafale C and Rafale M, and the Su-27 and Su-33, all pairs of land fighters and their naval conversions, respectively. (The F-15A and F-14A, reasonably similar in capabilities, demonstrate the same effect too, even though they weren't even manufactured by the same company.) Vertical take-off capability also costs a lot. The Sea Harrier FA.2, for example, is about as old as the F-16C and has a similar price tag, and yet is quite a lot less capable, apart from the vertical landing thing. Even the older F-16A is better than the Sea Harrier in many respects, and yet the price difference between them ain't much. Both of those patterns are clear in the F-35s, where the conventional A-model is the cheapest, the naval C-model costs more and the vertical-landing B-model costs more still.

An interesting point is that Russian planes seem to have gotten far cheaper in recent years. While they used to be roughly the same as their Western equivalents (compare, for example, the F-15A or C with the Su-27, or the F/A-18C with the MiG-29SMT), they're now offering more or less the same capabilities for almost half the price (e.g. Rafale M or F/A-18E vs. Su-33; also F-22 or possibly the Chinese J-20 vs. Su PAK FA). There's always been a claim that Russian/Soviet technology (especially their radar and avionics) was almost always inferior to the Western equivalent, and yet that didn't seem to affect their relative costs much before, so I'm curious why there's been such a sudden, steep plummet. I'm not sure if the Russians are undercutting like crazy just to stay busy, or if they're using slave labour, or if they just have some exchange-rate advantage at the moment. One potentially relevant case was Algeria's returning 15 MiG-29SMTs to the Russian manufacturer for being defective and sub-standard. You almost never see that happening in this industry.

There's also an inherent margin of error in those prices that my table's glossed over. Not only are there different variants of the same fighter (e.g. F-16A and F-16C), but there are sub-types of each of those, and sub-sub-types ("Blocks," in the American parlance), and myriad optional extras, and if you've ever tried to buy a car you'll have some idea of how complicated it can be to compare two cars of apparently the same model, when they've been rigged with a full selection of different options. And this is before we get into external equipment (extra sensors and weapons and such), and before we start looking at how some countries replace sub-systems in their imported planes with locally-made alternatives. At a wild guess, I imagine that even if my table was corrected for inflation and purchasing power, you'd still get a variance in unit cost for each plane of perhaps ±10%. As an extreme example, the Black Hawk family of helicopters seems to have a price range all the way from US$5.9M to US$10.2M, depending on which bells and whistles you want; helicopters are usually much more modular than fighters, though, since they care less about staying aerodynamic and fast.

Unfortunately, even if I had the exact maths to adjust for all of those considerations, I'd still have trouble accurately ranking those fighters by a common cost scale, since these are built and sold by private companies, who are free to make their prices up as they go along, and while they might plummet the price to under-cut the competition in one case, they'll happily inflate it to raise their profit on exactly the same product in another case. A fine example of this is the Gripen. The SAAF (and therefore the South African public) has clearly been ripped off, because while the Gripen is a decent, modern plane, it is by no means the very best, even in its (very, very lightweight) class. It's a great aerobatic plane, but it just can't carry much or fly very far.

In 2008, Sweden was buying them for US$30M each, and while exported fighters usually cost more, that at least gives us a sense of what Saab considers the "basic" sales price of the Gripen, probably quite close to the manufacturing cost. Outside of Sweden, the price has been roughly double that, up to about US$68.9M in a 2002 bid to Poland that was ultimately won by the F-16C, with the cheapest foreign unit cost I could find being a 2007 hire-purchase of second-hand Gripens by Hungary for US$54M each. The SAAF Gripens, on the other hand, have a unit cost closer to US$90M, which was settled on way back in 1998. Because we're stupid.

The difference seems to be that in Hungary (and Poland), there was serious competition from Lockheed's F-16 (perhaps because Lockheed already has a lot of European/NATO F-16 customers, so they stand to make more there on maintenance and upgrades if they can sell those services as a shared group discount package), so Saab had to make a deal and take a "loss" (on planes they'd already sold to Sweden once). In South Africa, it was much easier for BAE Systems (acting as a subcontractor of Saab) to just bribe a bunch of our government officials, as Saab has now admitted, blocking out any other competitors and leaving Saab free to charge us as much for the Gripen as we'd pay for a far more capable aircraft, like the F-16E, F/A-18E or Rafale. Hell, for US$90M a pop, we could have carrier-capable planes without sacrificing anything else. And if we'd gone to the Russians, we could have had all that twice over. If our government officials weren't bribed, then they were incredibly shitty hagglers. Even if you want to argue that we needed some new fighters (and I wouldn't argue that at all), it's clear that we fucked up the purchase.

So the bottom line is this: If you want to start a mercenary fighter squadron, take your time, shop around, let the manufacturers know they'll have to compete for your business, buy in bulk as much as you can (both to help push down the unit cost and because you never know when your supply of spare parts might be cut off in the future) and don't take fucking kickbacks.

Oh, and to answer the question in the title, you probably can't have any Tomcats. Apart from a small number in museum collections, the US literally shredded all the ones they had, just so that none of their components could be smuggled to Iran, the only other Tomcat operator in the world, despite the fact that the US has blocked Iran's access to F-14 spare parts since 1979. If Iran can still put an estimated 20-odd Tomcats in the air after 30 years without spares, then I doubt they really, urgently need what the Americans shredded, but what's done is done. (And you're unlikely to get any of the Iranian Tomcats any time soon either; they seem to rely on aircraft cannibalism and local substitutes to keep any going at all, and if they keep that up, they could well have up to 10 still flying in another decade.)

[Edit, 23/11/2011: More details are now available on the Iraqi F-16IQ purchase. It seems they were offered French Mirage F1s as another option, at US$55 million a piece, and this is described as roughly a quarter the cost of the F-16s, so the US$233 million in my table above, while insanely above the cost of any other F-16, is probably correct. It's worth noting that, while Iraq initially cancelled the F-16IQ purchase on the basis that they had to buy food for almost a fifth of their population instead, they have now pressed ahead with the deal anyway (the Iraqi people weren't hungry after all?), still opting for the insanely priced F-16 over the cheaper Mirage. And I thought South Africa's Gripen purchase was a prime example of deeply unethical government corruption.]

Thursday, 22 September 2011


Why live? What's the point?

I've had some problems with depression before and asked myself exactly that, but it's been a while for me. And now it's come back to me, not through my own concerns, but through the concerns of two others. I think it's worth looking at for both of their sakes.

The first person's concern is that there must be a god (specifically, the christian god) or there's no point to life. This is as full of wild assumptions as it is worrying, but the main thing I'd like to focus on here is that this person blatantly thinks our lives are not inherently valuable, that we are only any good in terms of our utility value to some hypothetical invisible magic man. If we can't do shit for him (who, I remind you, is supposed to be omnipotent), then we serve no function and our lives are worth nothing. If this person could be convinced that there is no god, the implication follows, then there'd be nothing at all to stop us from killing each other, killing ourselves and generally descending into chaos, despair and ultimately total doom. This is false for two reasons.

First, and most simply, that's clearly not what we want. Humans are social creatures and by and large we're happy to live and let live, and even to help each other, build each other up and cooperatively build massive cities and states together, regardless of faith. The suggestion that we'd all descend into chaos without christianity is automatically refuted by any functioning non-christian society, of which there are plenty. (And the same applies no matter what religion you substitute in for christianity, so clearly religion is not a crucial factor.)

Second, more abstractly, shifting our inherent value into some god's inherent value doesn't actually answer the question of what the value of existence is actually worth. If our lives are worth nothing, then what's this god's life actually worth? Carl Sagan said something similar about the age of the universe, as it relates to the existence of any god. If we ask what came before god and the answer is "nothing," then surely it's simpler to just say that the age of the universe is finite. And if the answer is "god has always existed," then the simpler answer is that the age of the universe is infinite. Why focus on a single entity within the universe when what you're really asking about is the universe in general? Something similar applies here. Why worry about the value of a single entity's life (this god thing, for example) when you're really asking if life in general has value?

So not only is this religious person's assumption pretty far from being right, but the whole approach to reaching that conclusion isn't even a very good one.

The other person's worry is simultaneously more and less concerning. It's more concerning in that it stems from clinical depression, which is not nice. But while it's more directly risky, it's at least more rational. This person's sentiment can be summed up as, "If there is no absolute value to living, and I don't feel like it, then why bother?" Which is a fair question, far more deserving of a serious answer than the god nonsense. It doesn't presuppose any magical, made-up, extra shit. That doesn't necessarily mean it's correct, but at least it's a sane start.

I would argue that it's definitely a valid argument, up to a point. If we value freedom, then control over our own bodies and minds must certainly be one of the most basic freedoms we recognise. And deciding how and when and why to end your own existence is one possible expression of that freedom.

At the same time, though, we should also value the living, not in the blinkered "pro-life" sense, which puts the not-yet-living ahead of the actual living, but in the sense of appreciating and caring for each other. On the one hand, this means we should be concerned for those who want to end their lives. Some may have thought it through clearly and sanely (those with unavoidably painful and terminal diseases, for example, have a reasonably fair claim to euthanasia), but we know full well that a great many will also have come to that conclusion because they're not wholly sane. Even something as mundane as depression, which I wouldn't describe (in my amateur opinion) as an insanity, definitely skews your judgement and ought to be treatable. So until we can be certain that death really is the kindest option, we owe it to each other to obstruct suicides.

On the other hand, this valuing of the living means that those contemplating suicide need to seriously consider the effect they'll have on those they leave behind. It's hard to think of a good way to say good bye forever, but there are also clearly bad ways of doing it: Unexpectedly, sneakily, messily, dangerously, etc.

But there's more to life than merely placating others, and more to it than merely remaining medically alive. There must be something to keep us going, something to drive us and get us out of bed in the morning; something to overcome our negative emotions and general apathy, and onward on to whatever it is that marks the difference between life and living for us. Imaginary gods fill that void for some, which you may be surprised to hear I find... problematic. For most, though, I think it's largely sexual and parental instinct that push them unconsciously along. An awful lot of behaviour can be explained, not completely but at least partly, as forms of mate-seeking or fending for offspring. I know this applies to me; I operate under the illusion that obscure, semi-private bloggers get shown a lot of unexpected but pleasing nudity (and I haven't been entirely wrong), and in the past I've always shown massive increases in proper productivity (not "for my own amusement" gaming productivity) when I have a specific lady-girl to impress. I've also converted my breeding instinct into an idea-spreading instinct, because I value my memes more than my genes, and I express this through my teaching/tutoring and my writing, plus my small contribution to the skeptics' movement.

But what about those for whom none of those standard motivations seem to apply?

I'm sure there are other possibilities, but I only have my own experience to draw on here, and what springs to my mind is something some dead, old, white guy once said, or alternatively two things that my mom used to tell me. The former said something poetic about humans needing a combination of both love and work to get by. That's kind of what I'm getting at, but it's a bit vague. The latter gave me two apparently contradictory instructions as the "most important rule" I should try to live by, and it took me a long time (and perhaps some dead, old, white guys) to figure out how they fit together. The first instruction was, "First the work and then the play," a parental thing about cleaning my room before playing in it and messing it up again (incidentally, I've now streamlined that process by simply never cleaning my room and thus having everything ready at hand to play with). The second instruction, given to me on my very frightening first day of school, was, "The most important rule is to have fun."

The only logical way I've found to follow both of those instructions, those Laws of Shambotics, is to have fun while working. That's true enough in the limited sense of earning a living; I've done boring and unpleasant jobs and couldn't stick with them. But I prefer to take it beyond that, defining "work" as anything that takes more effort than vegetating in bed, whether it's going out for a night on the town or moving house or driving grandparents to doctors' appointments. Anything that's "work" must come before you can play. Even going out to see friends for something hopefully fun still takes the effort of getting off my arse and dressed and into the car. And while a lot of that might seem trivial to many people, depression makes the smallest effort seem insurmountable. (And failure to achieve what you intellectually understand to be trivial only makes you feel worse, compounding the problem. And don't even get me started on how shit it feels when people who don't know what it's like - probably don't even know you have a problem - give you additional shit for this failure.)

But! The most important rule is to have fun! My great epiphany was in realising that the instructions work in parallel, feeding off each other. Not only is that initial work necessary to get to the fun playing stuff, but the work must also be fun, or at least must be made fun. Years of roleplaying helped, and now I sort of LARP my way through the day. Looking for an unknown address isn't tricky driving and time wasted, it's a voyage of discovery. Putting myself out in the dark pit of dating despair isn't making myself socially and emotionally vulnerable, it's an opposed charisma check (that both sides are hoping to fail, oddly). Sending out CVs isn't a depressing chore, likely to end in many outright rejections before there's even a single interview, it's LFG, it's the endless, aimless nights in random taverns that must occur before the group of PCs happens to meet up together by chance for something more exciting.

It don't mean all of this completely literally. I don't stop before every task to figure out an acceptable geek analogy; it's just an attitude thing, a willfull attempt to put a more comfortable spin on the uncomfortable. With practice, it becomes an unconscious habit. And of course it doesn't always help, but it's something. It's a way of framing the world in a way that makes it more appealing and thus worth living in.

And that, I think, is largely all the big secret is: Perception. Change your way of looking at life and you can make it either worth living or not. This is not an easy thing to just change overnight, especially if the chemicals in your brain aren't helping, but it certainly can't change if you yourself are the one unwilling to let it.

Now, I know how fucking miserable it is to be told to just "cheer up," as if it were a single, little switch to throw, so I'll simply leave this picture here, for no particular reason...

So, to sum up (gosh, that's a lot of semi-complete thoughts to try and process), life's a piece of shit, when you look at it, but you don't need imaginary gods to make it worthwhile. You don't even need real gods. You don't strictly even need real people to enjoy your life, though the way we're evolved, as social creatures, it does usually help. Your happiness, your self-worth, the value of your life and living, these are all things inside your own head. If they're not working for you, then you need to address it. I don't deny that therapy, drugs and good friendships are also important if you're properly depressed, because brain chemistry is not something to be underestimated. But for most people, the value we give ourselves is really all we can be sure of, and if you can't give yourself a respectable dose of self-respect, without first having to prostrate yourself before others, whether real or imagined, then you should be worried about yourself. Value your own life. Value the lives of your fellow sentients. And try to have fun. It's all we've got.

Monday, 5 September 2011

Bigotry is Gay

We like to talk about the issues here. Issues, like hairs, are important even when they're just lying there. And we put a lot of futile effort into removing both from existence. And I've dated stylists of both. (Have I?)

My close, personal friend (in the Hollywood sense) Diaan raised an important issue the other day, and it got me thinking. Bullying is bad. I was bullied a lot in school, especially around grades 6 to 9. I "toughened up" against both the verbal and physical bullying, to the point that I could probably have taken a punch better as a 13 year-old than I could now, but it came at the cost of making me even more anti-social than I already was. I was incredibly lucky to make some great friends in high school, but anyone beyond them was problematic. (Try compounding the awkwardness of reflexively flinching when pretty girls reach out to touch you, with the embarrassment of them laughing in your face as a result.)

Luckily, in my case, I'm fine again, 10 years later, or at least can't see the scars so clearly anymore. But Diaan makes an excellent point: Bullying is unacceptable behaviour and blaming the victim is worse. And when it does go from bad to worse, it can go really fucking bad. So consider a phenomenon I've noticed increasingly at work: Blatant homophobia. Kids (all male, from what I've seen) use "gay" as an insult and dig into anyone identified as homosexual fairly viciously. The former is not unknown to me, we used to use the word that way when I was in school too, mostly because we didn't know better. After enough experience with sex, relationships and other people, most of my peers stopped saying things like that. I do still know one or two people my age who use gay as a synonym for uncool, but these are not people I'd describe as ethically deep to begin with.

But the more elaborate stuff? Is it just an attempt at wit, without any real feeling behind it? Or is it something more serious? That's harder to judge from just the snippets I hear. Obviously I feel I should say something about this to them, but it's hard to decide what's appropriate if I can't really judge the extent of the problem accurately. If they're just lightly fucking about, not really intending to cause harm, then giving them a lot of crap could chase them in the wrong direction as they try to rationalise why my shouting at them was the real crime. In that case, a casual, dispassionate bit of advice seems wiser; treat them as adults, and even if they don't act like adults yet, so they've at least got a better idea of what's expected of adults. And if they are intentionally being cruel and homophobic, then a quiet "don't do that" is unlikely to be sufficient.

This, I think, is a problem that belies all attempts at dealing with bullies. You have to first understand the nature of the bullying, and then determine how best to deal with it based on that. And that's damn tricky sometimes. Perhaps that's part of the reason bullying has become accepted in so many schools (and beyond); it's easier to rationalise it as "character building" than to do the hard work of investigating and understanding the problem properly. And so things spiral out from there, I guess.

What particularly worries me is when I can see the younger kids learning their homophobia from the older ones. That's clearly a point to leap in and intervene, but how exactly? I don't want to give the younger kids any basis to imagine the older ones are somehow being cool and rebellious, but I still need to get through to the older ones. It's a horrible juggling act. Any clever advice?

Thursday, 25 August 2011

Consilience #24: Featuring Me!!!

I'm audible! The Consilientists asked me to be a guest host on their podcast, and I think it went pretty damn well for my first time trying anything like this. I struggle to even get skype working, but they have some really nice new equipment, which made it hard for me to screw up too badly. Even so, somehow (I reject the "I pulled the cable out" hypothesis, on the basis of shut up!), the last few minutes of my voice went missing. This included that week's skeptical scifi quote, which I'd volunteered from Doctor Who (putting down vitalism: "What's life? Life's easy. A quirk of matter. Nature's way of keeping meat fresh."), and my plug of this blog, so nothing big. Oh well.

I'm really pleased with the rest of it, though, and Angela, Mike and Owen were a lot of fun to record with. I was a little uncertain near the start, and it didn't help that we'd only just found that Lake Nyos story, so I didn't know as much about it as I'd have liked, but once we started on the stories I was more familiar with, I think my voice clearly gets more confident and the facts I made up on the spot seem more believable.

You can find the file and the show notes here:

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

My Foundation

I'm uncertain where my interest in science fiction started. It probably grew slowly and in bits. For example, I know the first few Lego sets I got were spacecraft, which I soon adapted into mecha when I saw some early anime with space cowboys, and I was a big fan of cardboard box ships (with special attention paid to drawing on the most complex - yet surprisingly standardized - control panels I could). Something quite early in my childhood must have set me down that path, but bugger me if I can remember what. I know I really liked TNG when it first came on TV here, but I know I liked TMNT more. Thundercats, Galaxy Rangers, Bravestar... The seed of scifi was clearly in a lot of the stuff I watched, and yet you'd struggle to find any solid science in any of those. Hell, the Wild West theme, still lingering from previous generations, was more blatant in most of those.

I do know when I made the transition to completely serious, grown-up scifi. Aged 13, we made our usual weekly visit to the Boskruin public library. I'd pretty much used up anything even vaguely mature in the kids' section (I had annihilated their whole collection of Asterix and Tintin books in under 3 weeks a couple years earlier), and so started tentatively exploring the grown-up books. Eventually I'd settle around the non-fiction shelves, with books about planes and shit, but I was still a fiction reader back then. I don't know where I got the name Isaac Asimov. Perhaps I grabbed a book at random, perhaps I'd heard a friend mention him, perhaps my mom (not a scifi fan at all) or a librarian had suggested it. But I remember being vaguely intrigued by the blurb on the back, and then seriously intrigued by the time I was a few pages in. And it was all thanks to Air Power.

(See, now it's all convoluted and I lost my build up of narrative, as I digress to explain some unexpected side wossname. Perhaps if I pretend it's intentional, readers will do the hard work for me and keep the bit about Asimov in the back of their minds, while I explain the Air Power connection.)

Air Power was my introduction to politics. As a flight sim fan, I was originally excited by its carrier airships (which are still fucking awesome!), but the game's campaign of conquest soon had me even more immersed. You could opt for a straight military conquest of the whole fictional country of Karanthia, but there were other, subtler methods too. You could use diplomacy to convince individual towns to join your side, and different towns wanted different things from you. If you picked on one religious town, other religious towns would be hostile towards you. Taking out a bandit headquarters would earn you lots of new friends, but would also alienate those secretly in league with them. Secretly in league!

I had just lived through the end of the Cold War, and when I lived in newly-reunited Germany from 1991 to 1993, my first teacher had just been reunited with her family in the East. And then I'd lived through the end of Apartheid; by a funny coincidence, I accompanied my parents when they went to vote in the '94 election at the very same Boskruin library, and spent hours and hours outside making myself sick on the roundabout, while a queue of hundreds or thousands marched slowly past me. But I didn't see the excitement in any of this until Air Power gave me my first taste of what it was like to shape these events myself. Before that, social change was just a thing grown-ups did in the background, but in the game it was suddenly something I could accomplish, and without having to resort to violence every step of the way. After that, I had very little understanding of real politics, but I was keen to learn more.

(Now let's hope they remember the Asimov connection...)

I believe this was the cover art of the version I read, but
frankly, all scifi cover art looks the same, so who knows.
I doubt I would have enjoyed Asimov's Foundation without that seed of an interest in politics that Air Power gave me. If you haven't read it, you're bad, go away until you have, but the Foundation series is built around psychohistory, the idea that social flux can not only be measured, but predicted and even manipulated, in the same way that physical changes can be predicted by physics, chemistry, etc., and manipulated by engineers. I had no clear opinions on these matters at the time, but it was definitely more than enough to get me thinking in an interesting new direction.

The following year, my friend Davie's older brother, John, started varsity and I heard reports of him studying politics (along with philosophy, I believe, which was a mysterious, serious affair in my young mind). That was the first I'd heard of that being a real thing-you-could-study. And it sounded really cool; not something I'd consider studying myself (mostly because I didn't consider studying anything til right near the end of high school), but still a cool wossname.

And then it fell out of my mind for a long while. I stopped thinking about the rest of the world and turned inwards, worrying about girls and failing maths and having religion and abandoning religion and whatever else it was that concerned Teenage Sham.

When I dropped out of aeronautical engineering (which I'd rushed into without much thought), I took advantage of the university's career counselling service, and while that was fucking useless (thanks, Myers-Briggs!), I did happen to spot a flyer for the politics department among all the business management crap the counsellor was pushing on me, and it re-sparked some interesting thoughts in me. And so, a few months later, I was enrolled in a BA Politics at the Rand Afrikaans University (now the University of Johannesburg, or Udge). And it was all wrong. I had a timetable crammed with social sciences (politics, development studies, sociology and anthropology), and 3 out of 4 were telling me, "You can't change things. You can't even predict them. So just observe and comment after the fact. (And in the case of the very post-modern Anthro courses, you shouldn't even want to change things, you evil colonialist!)"

Only development studies suggested something very different: Not only could we change society, but we have a responsibility to. In hindsight, it was just about inevitable that I'd go on to do my honours in dev studies, the subject I knew almost nothing about when I signed up for it, because I left that registration to the last minute, just like the engineering before it, and hated for the first year. And now I'm sort of, kind of, vaguely doing my master's in it too. But this is the first time I've sat down and worked out just what led me here. Hopefully that'll help me get this damn thing moving again.

And there you have it: I'm trying to replicate Asimov's psychohistory, so I can win at Air Power, and as a side effect of this, I may make some genuine progress in some real social development. Won't that be nice?

Sunday, 21 August 2011

The Road Botherer

So, I finally went and did the big road trip to Pietermaritzburg that I mentioned in the earliest posts of this blag. I had fun at my destination, but I thought I'd just throw out some thoughts about the drive itself, while they're still relatively fresh in my mind. That was the longest single drive I've yet undertaken (near as damn to exactly 1,000km in total, when I seldom do more than 50km is one sitting) and it was quite different to my usual driving experiences. If you do much long-distance driving yourself, then most of this may seem a little tame to you; if you haven't done this, try to learn from my mistakes, lest ye be kill'd on thy own first attempt, should ye happen to encounter similar conditions.

The first thing I noticed was how incredibly fucking long the trip was; this was an illusion, because I'd only covered my first 100km when I had that thought, and really had no sense at all of how much I still had left to go. The next 200-300km are all a bit of a blur, filled mostly with memories of making up silly songs and singing them in silly voices ("O! I once was a very young lad... At a point in time chronologically prior to now," etc.), before running seriously out of steam and carrying on driving much longer than I should have. I kept thinking, "Right, time for a break," only to miss all the convenient stopping points along the way. They don't give you too much warning.

It also doesn't help that you find yourself stuck in a very limited mental pattern after a while, where the whole universe is one of 4 steps:
1. Constant velocity in the left lane.
2. Acceleration to pass a truck that's starting to slow down at the bottom of a rise. If truck is already near the top, probably don't bother. (I was still passing trucks in my sleep that night, so repetitive was the action.)
3. Check distance travelled so far, do a bunch of mental arithmetic around that number and distances predicted on signs.
4. Swear at some asshole in an expensive car who thinks common courtesy and/or the law doesn't apply to those who've wasted more than a certain amount on buying a fancy car.

Noticing other things outside of those 4 takes a real effort after a while. The few things that routinely got through my skull after that pattern settled in were mostly sudden shock wossnames, like roadkill. I saw a dismembered goat leg pass under my car at one point, I think near Bergville. I also took in general changes in landscape and flora, but not closely enough to predict good places for rest stops.

Van Reenen's Pass was interesting, being probably the only interesting-driving section of the whole route (apart from the N12 in Joburg, which I know well and enjoy). On the way down there, the pass was lovely and bright and sunny, and more experienced drivers got annoyed with me for not rushing through at illegal speeds. Which was a damn shame, as I'd much rather have taken my time and enjoyed some lovely views.

And then on the return trip, Van Reenen's Pass was solidly misted up; I couldn't see more than 20m ahead of me a lot of the time, and so people were mostly less keen to drive up my arse, except for one: A police car came screaming up behind me, with no indication that it was an emergency (no ligths nor sirens), while I was already a bit over the speed limit, and sat right on my tail for about a minute, before veering sharply into the left lane (marked as a truck lane), clearly intending to overtake me. Just as he did so, a truck came into sight in that left lane ahead of us, no more than 20m ahead and moving far slower than us. Stupid cop couldn't possibly have seen it when he pulled away, but even when he must have seen it, he showed no sign of wanting to slow down. If I hadn't hit the breaks and made a space for him to pull in front of me, he would have had a choice between ploughing into me, ploughing through the trees and ramming right into the back of the truck. It later turned out that there was a police station about 500m further up the road, and that's apparently what he was in such a crazy, non-official rush to get to.

The last time I did that route was probably November 2001, my matric holiday, when I went down by bus with some friends. But I don't remember that at all (In the Army Now was the en route movie) because a nasty virus made me sleep and vomit through the whole holiday, and I have only about 23 minutes of memory from the whole week or so we spent down there (Summary: playing AD&D, going to the cinema to watch the first Harry Potter movie without actually being aware of the movie, buying cheap Black Sabbath CD, playing Tekken 2 at the local arcade, burying friend at the beach and giving him sand boobs. Not bad memories, just very few of them).

Before that, there were several family holidays down to the coast, and it's funny how many landmarks along the route have stuck in my brain since 1980-something. There's the knobbly hill (looks like erosion has turned it into a cone with a pillar sticking out the top, with a dome on top of the pillar), the little flat-topped hill I always thought was Table Mountain (Durban and Cape Town were the same place to me until I was about 5 or 6, but this hill is also waaaaay inland, I think just across the Gauteng-Mpumalanga border), the approach to Harrismith from the North, and the pines around Pietermaritzburg. The only bit missing from this particular trip was the bit where you get to shout, "I see the sea!" as you mistake some hazy, distant hill between nearer hills for water, and then the actual first sighting of the Indian Ocean. But I was ok with skipping out that step on this particular voyage.

I'm glad I did this trip for many reasons, but I'm specifically glad I drove myself down there, as it was a great experience. I've learned a lot about how this long-distance stuff is done (take more breaks, and then even more than that) and it's always nice to push your personal limits and get out of old comfort zones. But where shall I go next?

Monday, 8 August 2011

Sham Science

This post serves as a sort of introduction to a longer piece I have planned for later on. I feel that I should make my credentials as a science educator clear, because they're a teensy bit complicated. Let me start by saying that I have no formal education qualifications at all; my degrees are in the social sciences. I do have some experience as a real, full-time high school teacher, which I recorded at the time in my first attempt at a blog, and while that was a horrible experience in many ways, I learned so much from it. I've joked in the past that it was my own, real Kobayashi Maru; looking back at that Sham Science blog, I get flooded with emotion, like some sort of war survivor. I feel a bit panicky, just thinking about it.

(To be fair, it wasn't all bad: I really enjoyed working with some of the more engaging students, and there's little more fun than having a whole chem lab to play with, completely unsupervised [my first ever batch of thermite melted a hole in my office floor], and how many people can say they've repaired a van de Graaff generator?)

A lot of real, decent teachers have sympathised with me, although I don't think most really understand just how bad Landulwazi Comprehensive School is. It's the worst school I've ever been to, and even the nearest neighbouring schools (it's a densely packed area, so there are several within a very small area) were all far better in most respects. There were problematic teachers who shouldn't have been working there, but from what I could see, the real problem was mismanagement by the school's authorities, by the education department's district office, and by the government more broadly, none of whom ever asked the buck to stop anywhere near them. I felt bad for the colleagues I left behind there, especially my friend Eric, who got in there the same way I did, but who didn't have an "easy" escape like I did, and so stuck out the whole 2 years of his contract. But I feel even worse for the kids who went there. I'm still in touch with several of them, and they're really very bright, friendly, good people, who just happen to have been robbed of a decent education. I hope they'll at least make the most of their tertiary education opportunities.

That said, I wouldn't want to suggest that teachers at other schools don't have a hard time. Anyone who tells you that teaching is an easy job, or that it's essentially just a part-time job, really doesn't know what they're talking about, and I might even be tempted to break my pacifism to slap them really hard. Compared with a typical white-collar job, teaching is nightmarishly difficult and never ending. I can't look at anything these days without reflexively trying to build a lesson plan around it, and it used to be worse; I used to mentally rehearse whole lessons for hours in my head, going over every possible question that could be raised, no matter how unlikely, and how I'd respond to it. It's not the sort of work you can easily switch off and forget after business hours end. And compared with any normal office job, teachers make peanuts. Even private school teachers, the cream of the crop (usually), don't have it much better than a typical mid-level desk jockey. So I have nothing but respect for those who take their teaching work seriously, and nothing but sympathy for striking teachers, who know full well that they're going to have an even harder job when they go back to work, catching up on lost hours, and yet who feel forced to push for higher pay anyway. But I'll cover my general pro-labour position another day.

After I quit teaching, education was still the biggest blob of experience on my CV, and so I've found it hard to escape. I've been working for the last year as an after-school tutor, mostly for rich kids (unsurprisingly), and it's so much more fun for me. Obviously teaching small groups of 1d3 kids is going to be easier and more sociable than a whole class of 50-4d10 (attendance is a big problem). The language barrier is also hardly ever an issue anymore and I almost never have to wake up before noon (I'm not a morning person). The biggest problem I have now is that there's no way I can make an independent living off tutoring alone. The pay per hour is good, by teachers' standards, but there just aren't enough hours in the day, since we're filling the after-school gap, and many kids chop and change their hours on whims, so I get work cancelled at random all the time.

But that's how things am. I would hardly call myself an expert teacher, nor an expert on education systems, but I can at least claim that I'm familiar with the reality of teaching in this country, and I know what the biggest obstacles are. I may not be a real teacher, but it's still a job I take very seriously.

Friday, 5 August 2011

Obituary for a Stranger

The guy I wrote about previously has apparently died. I bring it up because it seems he was a decent enough guy, from the very little I've gleaned about him, and I want to make it clear that my thoughts on how other people should have reacted to his calamity is separate from my ability to appreciate the importance of his life, even as a stranger.

What do I know about this John? I know the woman he dated, which doesn't reflect (in my head, at least) that well on him. But then I only knew her a long time ago, when she was young and foolish, so I'm prepared to give them both the benefit of the doubt and say that she's probably matured and he was not so silly to get involved with her. I also know he ran a very interesting-looking organisation, dedicated to the narrow but important issue of keeping cops from driving like cowboys. That's good, but what really impresses me is the emphasis they seem to put on empirical evidence - clearly someone at least partially after my own heart. And that's the complete sum of what I know about John.

I say any death is a loss; I'm generally against people dying, and this case is no exception. Donne's little poem sums this thought up nicely, but I realise none of this carries the same strong emotions I'd have if it were someone close to me. That, I think, is normal and unsurprising. I don't think false emotion would be appropriate, just as much as complete indifference would be wrong.

What I certainly won't do is recant my earlier claim; my friend should not have publicly invoked every random crazy superstition in John's name, especially now that I know he was quite keen on the empirical approach himself. It seems almost disrespectful (and this specific claim is just my own interpretation, possibly missing many key facts) to besmirch his legacy of rationality with a big, blotty stain of other people's stupid at the end; fear and blind panic - however understandable - are not the way to save innocent lives from wreckless police driving, and they're not the way to save someone in hospital either. But even if he would have done the same foolish thing for someone else, I still stand by my claim that it was the wrong thing to do. We should be better than that.

Friday, 29 July 2011

The Importance of Being a Bastard

I upset an old friend this week. She posted a FB status about someone in hospital, and in addition to asking for general emotional support, she called for prayer and positive energy. I objected to the latter, which caused some froth of defence from her other friends (mostly along the lines of, "You have no right to say that prayer doesn't work!") before my post was deleted.

Thing is, this isn't just a grouchy atheist being skeptical for skepticism's sake. I had good (I think) short- and long-term reasons for addressing it right then and there. In the short term, I understand her urge to do something, but sometimes we face problems that we literally can't do anything about. If your reaction to that is to abandon all rationality, abandon your principles and start relying on magic wishes instead, then there are necessarily going to be negative consequences. I reckon they include:
1. Should things go badly, you take on guilt unnecessarily, because you "didn't do enough" (ignoring the fact that you shouldn't have assumed you could do anything in the first place).
2. The pressure to do enough of this nonsensical stuff while you still can will only add stress unnecessarily.
3. In the long term, publicly encouraging others to share this nonsense with you will only spread the nonsense further. And we needn't look further than the hyper-religious parts of the US or most islamic countries to see where the harm is in that.

It's also important to note that it isn't just my opinion that prayer and other such wishful magic is bullshit; we have fairly conclusive evidence. Either it doesn't work, or the deity in charge was enough of a dick to let hundreds of random people die, just to prove a point about testing faith.

On a grander scale, though, I think it's important to stick to our principles in times of crisis, or what good are they? It's easy to be a fair weather rationalist, long before and long after there's trouble, and easy to panic and invoke every crazy, impossible hope when things go bad. But it takes some courage or determination or blunt stubbornness to stick to your principles when they start to seem a bit inconvenient. To be clear, I'm not advocating never, ever changing your principles - I've been wrong too many times to believe that - but there's a difference between dropping a belief on a whim (or cramming in lots of contradictory beliefs), and being convinced that it was wrong and something else must be right.

Does this mean we must all be completely stoic and Vulcan in the face of tragedy? Of course not, we're Human and we have emotions, and these are as important and as they are unavoidable. But if we let our emotions rule us completely, we're in trouble. But as necessary as our emotional side is, it's the rational side that'll see us through trouble, and so we need to learn to defer to it when we absolutely least want to. And we need to remind each other of this, even/especially when we're too emotional to want to hear it. It's not nice, but it's important.

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Blog Title Unavailable

I'm quite an amateur naming enthusiast, by which I mean I find names and the concept of naming things to be endlessly interesting. People's proper names are interesting because there's all sorts of history and genealogy buried in them, even if the people who gave the names (usually the parents) were unaware of it. My own name, for example, tells you fuck all about me (which is an important point that I'll get back to, so keep it in mind), but it does say a lot about the context I was born into. My first name, Christopher, and my middle name, David, belie my religious heritage: Plainly christian, with a West European twist. Christopher, "bearer of christ," is about as explicitly christian as you can get, and David, "beloved," is a major jewish name that christians also like quite a lot. Of course, that doesn't tell you an awful lot about me, since Western European christian influence covers an awful lot of the world.

My surname, Sham, on the other hand, is much more interesting, I think, because it's a bit rarer. To the best of my knowledge, my lot of Shams got their name from Lebanon, where it's Arabic for "North." So I could be reasonably re-named Messiahcarrier Beloved Left. Left? Yes, left, because left and North are the same thing in Arabic. And there's a pretty good logical reason for it. Imagine you're a sailor in the Mediterranean or you're crossing the Arabian desert, or somewhere else that offers few landmarks. The absolute minimum navigation aid you can rely on is the Sun rising in the East (and setting in the West, but presumably you do most of your travelling by day, so the rising Sun comes first). So East is your primary direction of reference, West its backup. Next least complicated thing after that? Stick your arms out perpendicular to your East-facing face and you get two more cardinal points: Left hand is North, right hand is South (which, incidentally, is Yemen, i.e. same as the country at the southern end of the Arabian peninsula). Makes some sense; can you explain why English calls those four points North, South, East and West? Or why we normally give North primacy over the others?

The Shams are apparently the most numerous Lebanese family in South Africa, which isn't too surprising, considering my ancestors got here before most other Lebs, back in 1890-something, having tried out Bermuda and Australia along the way in their escape from Ottoman persecution, and then bred like catholics. But I'll save the full genealogy lesson for another day (by which I mean night, because I can't be bothered to wake up before noon). There are also unrelated (except in the sense of all being of the same species) Shams from India, China and I think Malaysia. Quite a few of these live in the US now too. So there are actually plenty of Chris Shams in the world (including all the Christines, Christians, Chrisanthumums, etc.), and quite a few Christopher Shams just in Joburg alone (relatives I've never met, I don't think).

So being Chris Sham doesn't really tell you much about me. Not only is it not a unique descriptor (unlike my ID number), but the information it does give you (fascinating though that may be) is only about my ancestors' lives, not mine. When I finally get my PhD, I can stick Dr in front of my name, and that'll be the first thing actually about me, achieved by me myself, that my name will include.

Nicknames, on the other hand, are more personal. There are thousands of formal nicknaming traditions, but mostly they're just coincidentally convenient descriptors. In some cases, they're practically compulsory, like fighter pilot call signs, but even that tradition varies from service to service. In the South African Air Force I've seen pilots both picking their own and having them applied by others, while in the US Air Force there's a fairly firm policy that you never pick your own call sign, and anyone who tries to is likely to get saddled with an especially ridiculous one instead. Obviously formal organisations are more likely to have formal rules, but the same general patterns govern all nicknames, it seems. In any society (that I've seen so far), sometimes you'll be allowed to pick your own, but if it's too over the top or silly, then nobody's going to use it, and it may be twisted into something nasty to use against you. More often, though, other people just assign you nicknames. Sometimes they fit really well, sometimes they don't but they still stick.

I have two nicknames that I willingly use, neither chosen by me. My first, Sham, is my surname, used by teachers in lieu of Christopher as a way to tell apart the various Christophers in class (there were usually 2 or 3 of us). For a while that was mutated into Shamwich, Shampaign, Sham&Tomato, plus endless other consumables, but in the end only Sham outlasted high school. My second, Spatula, is a reference to a weird habit I had throughout high school of digging through cutlery drawers when visiting friends' homes. I know I usually went for the biggest knives and the mallety things (unless there was something really unusual and complicated in there to play with), so I'm not exactly sure how we settled on Spatula, but whenever we LANed after that, that's the name that was typed in for me, until I'd learned to do it myself, at which point I just carried on with Spatula because I hadn't any better ideas. And now all my friends (at least, those connected to me via high school friends) call me Sham, while all my online gamey type stuff is done as Spatula.

I've had other nicknames that I've rejected; as far as I know, they've fallen into disuse, but who knows what people call me behind my back (in front of my back, it's usually something equivalent to "big meanie" or "sexy beast"). At the start of high school, there was some older kid who somehow decided that my nickname was "Druggy" and kept that up for at least a few years; funnily enough, I think that guy went on to become a chemical engineer. Then when I was teaching, the kids referred to me (among the names I'm aware of) as Jesus (because I had a beard), Newton (because I taught science) and Mlungu (because I was the whitest thing within 20km). They also called me Mr Sham, which freaks me out; it's a cliche, but that's my dad's name!

All of this is a very convoluted way of arguing against Google+'s "serious, consistent names only" policy. I'm happy to give my full legal name, as well as the grown-up, serious name I put on job applications (the shorter Chris), but those are not very good labels for me. Parents give their children "nice" names in the same way that people try to choose good nicknames for themselves, and the rest of the world is going to react to them in much the same way: Accept them if they aren't too wank, ignore them and replace them with something clearer/easier if they are, or take the piss out of them if they're really too preposterous. However it plays out, human names are surprisingly similar to cat names: Almost never the same at birth as at death. Google+'s policy of setting names in stone is exactly counter to normal human behaviour. And perhaps giving people the freedom to replace their parents' choice of name with their own (the way the rest of the onlineyverse does it) is still folly, but at least you can claim a new name as your own, should you feel so inclined.

Now add in the much more serious fact that there are plenty of very good reasons to want to post on Google+ under a pseudonym, especially for those who face persecution or legal restrictions. Heaps of good examples exist. Google+'s policy still permits all sorts of nefarious fraud, with people pretending to be other people, and just screws over those with delicate RL identities and craps on the self-expression and social realities of everyone else. I am not my name, I shouldn't be chained to it against my will. Google don't really seem to understand what names are for.

(You'll note that, for a post all about how keen I am on names, I've only covered my own names so far. That's because this is a very wide field, especially once you stop limiting it to humans, and I think I'll rather explore it slowly over time, rather than trying to cram in everything all at once today.)

Saturday, 23 July 2011


I'd call myself a fan of post-apocalyptic fiction, but it's wearing a bit thin lately. The format is pretty simple: Something destroys human civilisation as we know it, including most of the humans, and then the survivors have to rebuild somehow. The beauty of it, for me, is that it lets us dissect society and play around with the norms we'd otherwise take for granted, at least as much as speculative fiction allows.

Sometimes it's nukes that get us (as in Mad Max or Fallout), sometimes it's nature (Waterworld or that more recent global warming movie I never saw), frequently in the last few years it's been zombies (way too many fucking zombies!) and at least once it was dragons (in the not at all original, yet still oddly unique Reign of Fire), but the structure is seldom very different: Either the disaster has just happened (which gives some overlap with more conventional disaster movies) and there's a mad panic to survive one minute at a time with social dynamics changing drastically with every new character to suddenly appear or suddenly die horrifically; or it's a disaster that happened long ago, and we get to see the conflict(s) inherent in the new societies that have emerged from the ruins, with battles playing out on a grander scale over longer periods.

So the basic plot structure is fairly predictable, but that's not what bothers me. What bothers me is that too often nothing interesting is done with it. Perhaps it's because my first serious scifi was all Isaac Asimov, but I sort of expect speculative fiction to speculate a bit beyond the bleeding obvious. We can all assume that if a zombie plague starts spreading that people would get crazy and bad things would happen. But what does this tell us about humanity and society and shit?

Compare (with vague spoilers) the Will Smith movie, I Am Legend, with the comic (and now also vid series), The Walking Dead. In the former, the lesson is that Will Smith makes zombies and then has a shit time unmaking them, so... science is bad or good or Fresh or something? Nothing more profound than that. In the latter, we get to see all sorts of different things: Betrayal, stupidity, courage, selfishness, selflessness, complete insanity. And, more interestingly, all of this leads to an amazing variety of different outlooks and approaches to the situation, reflecting very well the reality of human society. A friend of mine complained that he found a few scenes in Walking Dead to be superfluously gratuitous, but I think that misses the point: These scenes were entirely within the normal (if uncommon) range of human behaviour, and Kirkman would have been remiss to gloss over them just because they're unpleasant. If we don't like what we see in the post-apocalyptic mirror, then it's not the fault of the apocalypse, but of our own real, present human failings. That's the point.

(You might complain that it's unfair to compare a movie plot, with only 90 minutes to fill, with an ongoing comic series that has way more time to expand on minor points or add wholly new things. In that case, I encourage you to read the original 1950s book, I Am Legend. They could easily have kept it more or less the same, and yet the original ending is far more profound even than the best parts of Walking Dead.)

But back to that point: Dissecting society with nukes or zombies or whatever is not only fun in a kicking down sandcastles way, but it also shows us things about ourselves. Mad Max 2 (clearly the best of that trilogy) shows us how reliant we are on the power we wield over each other and how we all abuse that power; the villagers with their monopoly of the only available oil and the raiders with their more direct physical violence. Dawn of the Dead (both remake and original) messes with all sorts of quirks of individual psychology, which under normal circumstances probably wouldn't be more than annoyances, but which are thrown into vivid clarity in a major crisis. Battlestar Galactica takes a different approach in each incarnation: The original was fun in several ways, but was rubbish as a post-apocalypse story as hardly anyone seems to care that all 12 of their homeworlds have been wiped out (possibly because they're in a galaxy crawling with lovely human colonies around every other star, making the quest for Earth seem a bit pointless), while the new series hits it really well, exploring several angles (including the idea of the shitty compromise colony that all the Mad Max clones always assume survivors would be perfectly content to occupy indefinitely). Even light-hearted post-apoc stories can act as interesting dissection mirrors (weird mixed metaphor there). Shaun of the Dead twists the Dawn of the Dead amplification of individual quirks even further, showing us how even incredibly mundane behaviour, taken out of its normal context, is far more odd than we tend to treat it. Zombieland also does a surprisingly good job of picking apart our entertainment norms.

I'm not suggesting that all post-apoc fiction should be written by PhDs in psychology and sociology; this is still art, not science. But good art, I'm told, should make you think, even if (or especially if) it can't provide the answer itself. And too much of the time I'm finding I'm not even being asked to think anymore. The post-nuclear sub-genre is now full of Mad Max clones which all assume that anyone left alive has to be either be a harmless, helpless peasant in need of Our Hero™, or a vile, evil raider who can't possibly be reasoned with and who only deserves to be killed by Our Hero™. The Book of Eli is perhaps the worst offender of that sort, blatantly copying the look of Fallout 3 almost exactly, but with even more 2-dimensional characters (even the personality-free blank slate who is the player-protagonist gets more depth in the opening 15 minutes of the game than Eli gets in the whole movie) and a pretty lame conclusion. And zombies... well, they're just a blurry cultural thing now, not even a genre or sub-genre, just some brain-eatin' self-referential joke.

Now, it could be that there have always been bad examples of post-apoc fiction, and I simply only know of the newer ones because nobody kept the old ones in circulation (a completely valid argument in the case of good vs. bad music back in the old days), but I think there has definitely been an increase in production of this stuff over the last decade or so, and the percentage quality yield has declined as a direct result. 

I fell into the same trap myself, trying to run a game of Fallout P'n'P roleplaying set here in Joburg (and I went in with a great technical understanding of the subject, having published academic work on weapons of mass destruction), so I know how hard it is to really think deeply about these things and produce something either original or clever, let alone both. But if you are writing something post-apocalyptic, I encourage you to push yourself and consider what you want your audience to see in the mirror you're creating for them. What you do from there is your own business (that's how creativity works, right?), but please at least try to be aware of it.

[My friend Jamie, budding novelist and great 3D animator/graphic designer (available for hire, very reasonable rates), has pointed out a major, major point that I knew but completely left out: This post-apocalyptic mirror doesn't only show us the bad, but also quite clearly the good. The heroes' actions remind us of the good things we're capable of, and the different visions the survivors have for their rebuilt worlds reflect what they (i.e. we) find important and worthwhile in life. Of course, that doesn't have to be purely positive; the conflicts between individuals or factions in these stories reflect our similar real world inability to have all of our contradictory hopes and dreams fulfilled simultaneously. This may be partly why I disliked the conclusion of Book of Eli so much: Even if we accept Eli's vision of what'll make the world better as legitimate and not a cheap cop-out of a "twist" ending, then it's still one that I find personally very disagreeable.]

Thursday, 14 July 2011

Chris Roberts is a Witch! Burn Him!

This Cracked article, published this weekend and apparently accidentally duplicating a similar AV Club one from a year earlier, reminded me of a similar one I wrote up on Facebook back in February, which I feel is worth reproducing here, with some slight improvements.

There was a time, about a decade and half ago, when it was pretty common for people with shiny new PCs to have a copy of the Creative Labs demo CD that included 3 or 4 games: Syndicate Plus, Ultima VIII, Wing Commander II and Strike Commander (I think some versions of the CD left off Syndicate for some reason, perhaps because it was the only one not made by Origin Systems). The point of the CD, I believe, was to simultaneously demonstrate how froody Sound Blaster audio could be, and to promote Origin's selection of games, as a sort of free sample to get you to buy their upcoming sequels.

But I digress. Chris Roberts is a witch.

Of those games, Strike Commander is most interesting to me right now, because it was furthest from fantasy and closest to reality, very technologically conservative and set in the not-too-distant-future year of... 2011! And scanning through the game's fictional future-history, it's amazing how much they got right. As I'm sure you'll agree by the end of this, the only possible explanation is that Chris Roberts (head honcho behind Strike Commander, as well as the Wing Commanders) is a witch, who somehow magically predicted the future, and used this amazing ability to write the plot for a game. If you have any doubts, consider the following:

1. Perhaps the core prediction of the whole game was the rise of the private military company (PMC), freelance mercenary companies that have always existed, but which have become unusually common and successful since 2003, when the US used them to heavily supplement their regular forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. The game also correctly predicted that these mercenaries would be given sweeping legal exemptions, making them less culpable than members of official national militaries. The only major thing the game got wrong about this was the idea that there'd be mercenary fighter squadrons flying around, in addition to the old-fashioned land armies. In reality, the starting capital for that sort of aviation thing is stupidly high, and even the biggest PMCs today operate, at most, a few cheap transport planes and helicopters.

2. The second general prediction that the game relied on was that decreasing availability of oil would be one of the major sources of conflict of the early 21st century. An easy one, perhaps, but still a definite hit.

3. In the game's fictional history, the US invades Iraq to destroy Iraqi nuclear weapons (which, in the game, actually existed). However, things get messy when US forces kill a lot of innocent civilians, leading to an anti-US backlash in the Middle East, which sees a lot of non-combatant Westerners killed in revenge and as warnings to others.

3. To reduce US dependence on foreign oil, drilling in Alaska is increased, causing significant environmental damage and pissing off environmentalists. Attempts to stop this are overruled by the federal government.

3. NATO forces engage in operations to stabilise Eastern European conflict areas that would previously have been under undisputed Soviet influence.

3. A major fuck-up in the world economy due to US banks' excessive bad debt.

3. The Vatican, driven more by public relations than religious conviction, loosens its ban on birth control. In the game history, this is implied to be a general acceptance of birth control, whereas in reality it's barely been a shift at all so far (they now permit it for married couples with extreme medical risks, with special permission and more silly hats than usual). But it counts, really!

3. Mauritania has a civil war. The details are a little off, but more importantly, who the fuck even knew Mauritania existed? The Wikipedia section on the country's history between 1991 and 2000 is only two lines long. I'm sure Chris Roberts was as surprised to learn of its existence as anyone else, when his crazy voodoo ritual revealed its future to him. Also, its capital is Nouakchott, which is a pleasing noise to make.

3. Conflict in Egypt and Libya. It starts with a Cairo kerfuffle (threatening the tourism value of the pyramids), then there's some conventional serious fighting Westwards towards Libya.

3. In the game, very few advanced aircraft are presented; nothing that wasn't already in widespread service by 1995. This fits with the post-depression setting, where the apparently unceasing progress of the 20th century has hit a wall. It also saved the game developers from having to include in-development aircraft in the game that might never have actually gone into production; a wise choice, considering how common that is in the real aviation industry. It would have made the game immediately less realistic (and thus harder to suspend disbelief of) if they'd put it on the market and the very next day, Boeing or Lockheed had announced the cancellation of one of the aircraft designs central to the game.

But I digress: Strike Commander did include 2 potentially risky aircraft, and managed to do so with remarkable accuracy. The first, the F-22 Raptor, was supposed to become the US's standard #1 super-duper fighter by about 2005, but in the game they're rare as all fuck, hardly any to be found. And in reality, they're proving equally elusive, with far fewer in service than any past estimate had guessed, and with production due to be capped at 187 (compared with the 750 originally ordered and the 1,200 F-15s they were intended to replace).

The second plane, the YF-23 Black Widow, was a competing design for the same contract as the F-22. It lost. Only 2 were ever built, and by the time this game was being made, they were already on their way to becoming dusty museum pieces. So why include them in the game? Why assume that even one would still be flying in 2011? Again, Roberts is a witch, who was able to foresee that in 2004, one of the two old YF-23s would be restored to working condition, to serve as the basis for a proposed new fighter-bomber. Only possible explanation.

Of course, the game had some significant misses too (or perhaps they're just not hits yet), but as you'll see, there are far fewer of those than there are hits:

1. Corporate sovereignty and open corp warfare. Unless I've missed something, no corporation has openly declared itself independent from any national laws, and they certainly haven't been hiring private armies to invade and destroy other corporations. If modern CEO #1 wants modern CEO #2 dead, he still does it the old-fashioned sneaky way, and not by hiring fighter planes to shoot down CEO #2's private jet in mid-flight. That said, there was a report on the news a few months ago about a coalition of companies trying to organise a private anti-piracy navy, to supplement the national navies currently patrolling the Somali coast.

2. There wasn't a massive secession craze after the Soviet Onion broke up. In the game, even more bits break off of the USSR, including Siberia, Scotland and Wales leave the United Kingdom, Quebec and British Columbia declare themselves independent of Canadia, and crucially, at least 17 states splinter off from the US. It's hard to call this anything other than a total miss.

3. South American conflicts feature heavily in the game, but in reality that continent has been pretty quiet for the last decade or so. Colombia's been as rough as ever, but that's about the worst of it.

3. In earthquake predictions (always popular among psychics), the Big One was due to hit California in 2000. That's obviously not right, although there was a 7.1 quake in October 1999, which is not terribly far off, date-wise, but that was apparently the only major quake there between 1994 and 2003.

Still-pending prophecies for 2012:
1. South Africa-Zimbabwe border dispute leads to open war. The first chance the South African Air Force gets to bomb something since Angola, and we hire outside contractors instead. Makes sense. On the plus side, this must mean Zimbabwe can afford shit again next year! This may also count as a hit in that the increasing militarisation of South Africa in recent years has included a return to military border patrols to regulate illegal immigrants; this may well get out of hand in 2012. It may also count as a partial hit if we consider the massive number of Zimbabwean mercenaries who've been messing around the continent recently.

2. Hijacking of nuclear weapons, used to bomb Ireland out of existence. Yep, that's what I'd nuke if I could. No, wait, I meant to say Grahamstown.

So there you have it. Irrefutable proof that Chris Roberts is a witch. Or, possibly, that Origin always put a lot of thought into the back-stories to their games and were able to make decent educated guesses, and that with the benefit of hindsight and a strong bias in favour of finding proof that the game history must match real history (not to mention glossing over way more misses than I've included above), it's hard not to make it look like an unusually accurate prediction.

Or, you know, witchery. In which case, I look forward to the invention of the jump drive and the foundation of the Terran Confederation.

Monday, 11 July 2011

In Which I am a n00bcaek

It's not been a great weekend; I missed 5 or 6 different appointments and parties and such, including my big weekend away, all because of the car breaking. But I managed to keep a relatively cheery disposition throughout, not wanting to let things out of my control get me down too badly. And then I got scammed last night, and my remaining hope sank; given full control over a situation, I still fucked it up, in a really stupid manner.

I've mentioned EVE Online before. It's a really great game, partly because it's just a massive PVP free-for-all. Nobody in the game ever has to be nice to you, and in fact the great majority will gladly kick you when you're down, if they can get away with it (or even if they can't). The fact that players work together cooperatively at all (let alone in massive alliances, thousands big) makes this a fascinating social experiment, even more interesting in that regard than one of my other favourite games, Diplomacy. But the point I'm convolutedly aiming for is that cases of physical violence in EVE are probably far outnumbered by cases of cons, scams and thefts. The variety of possible tricks is enormous, and I fell for one or two early on (none serious, unless you count my ship getting blown up by pirates as serious; there's a point where clever cons and violent vikings overlap), so I learned a lot very quickly and I'm much more familiar with the theory behind scams now than I was 3 years ago.

And last night I fell for one anyway.

I got an email from, asking me to confirm my application for an account there. It looked legit enough, with merely a "click here to activate your account" link and not asking for any further details. But it was addressed to "zhang," who I am not. And I hadn't applied for it. And I do not legally, artistically or nautically own any Blizzard products, and so wouldn't have wanted to apply for it.

The scam seemed fairly obvious: Guy applies for account on my address (and presumably also many others at the same time), relies on me to stupidly follow the legitimate confirmation email's request to "press button here," and sets the password on the account himself so that he can abuse it selling gold or whatever shitty excuses for in-game scams they have in WoW, with Blizzard unaware that he's the same guy they banned not two days ago for the same infractions. Simple, elegant, and probably reasonably effective, if you have a long enough database of random emails at your disposal. It certainly doesn't help that the confirmation email doesn't include, at any point, an option along the lines of "No! Abort! Cancel, cancel, cancel!"

So I had figured out the scam easily enough. The correct solution would have been to immediately delete the email and deny zhang access to the account he'd created. Presumably Blizzard automatically purge unconfirmed accounts after a while, and if not, oh noes I can't play WoW. Very easy.

But clearly it's been far too long since I last played EVE (55 days and counting *twitch*), because I did something stupid instead. I thought I'd be fancy and confirm the account, then swoop in to claim it for myself, probably deleting it immediately, just to show zhang I was onto him and could outsmart him. This did not work. Obviously zhang had used his own password for the account (which I expected), but I couldn't get past the "I've forgotten my password" page, because it requires your address (check), first name (check) and surname (fuck). The confirmation mail cleverly only sends you your own first name, assuming you know your surname if you're really you. There is a surnameless account option, which I probed, but apparently my zhang has a surname.

So zhang won this time. The real loss to me is very minor; virtually nil, I hope. But as a matter of principle, I don't like letting scammers win. Especially not when I can clearly see the con right from the start.