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.

Saturday, 9 July 2011

Silver Linings and Suchlike

Let's get into some proper posts, shall we? Sometimes it's hard to classify things as either good or bad news. But I'd like to take a creative crack at it.

First, the bad news: This. Some Icelanders are claiming invisible elves are pissed off with them over some major earthworks. Elves. Iceland isn't supposed to disappoint me with literalist fairy tales. Sure, they've got a bad habit of killing whales, and that needs to stop, but they also gave me EVE Online, the bestest MMO of them all (which is feeding far more Icelandic mouths than whaling ever could). And yet... Elves. Not only is it crazy to believe there are invisible elves that nobody could possibly find (and yet we still know they hate avalanche barriers and love crappy folk music?), but if it is true, then presumably these elves would qualify for citizenship and so should be engaging with the duly elected authorities directly, rather than sabotaging state equipment and hiding from their responsibilities as voters. There is no way that this story reflects positively on Iceland.

But! Good news: People are angry and shouting at each other. In this case, it's a kerfuffle within the Skeptical community (summed up here) over what constitutes sexism and sexual harassment. I'll lay out my hand right now: Rebecca Watson was right to object to a pick-up attempt under those circumstances. Richard Dawkins was wrong to belittle her objection, no matter how right he is that Islam is generally bad for women. At best, I'd say he's so devoted to putting down religion that he couldn't see past the opportunity to knock Islam a (perfectly justified) bit. But realistically, I think he just didn't get Watson's complaint.

And now it's become a free-for-all, skeptic vs. skeptic. Emotions are flaring and names are being flung (particularly names like "misogynist" and "feminazi" and, cruelest of all, "irrational"), but the good news is that it is getting discussed and progress will certainly be made. It is the fiery crucible of wossname that shapes  superior new behaviour and burns away the nonsense (or, through natural selection, breeds hardier nonsense). But whatever comes from this, it's better that it's being addressed, rather than kept quiet. I can't abide suffering in silence. It's self-censorship.

What's bothered me most has been the male reaction. A lot of the male arguments have looked suspiciously similar to the anti-affirmative action arguments I see from racist whites here in South Africa. True equality, they argue, means we must be absolutely blind to all differences. Sounds sweet, but really what they're saying is that we should ignore the fact that historical biases have placed them in an unfairly advantaged starting position that others will struggle to compete with, which they can take advantage of to perpetuate de facto dominance. It sickens me.

But what I'd really like to see coming out of this debate now are some serious practical suggestions (use the comments form below, please) that we can use to level the gender playing field for a rousing game of Call of Cthulhu (because fuck sport metaphors).

(Edit: Thanks to darling Sita for helping me get the background image looking just right. She managed more in under 20 minutes than I did in 2 days.)

What's Norwegian for "Ah, fuck! Fuckfuckfuck!"

My weekend travel plans were foiled by a cracked fuel pipe. I missed an hour of my two-hour shift at work yesterday trying to stop the 40l that I'd just fucking filled into the tank from gushing out all over the parking lot, then running from garage to garage, sent away by nice enough people telling me that they just didn't have space or were out of the relevant part. When I got back to work, I stank of petrol and looked just like someone who stinks of petrol.

And the worst part of all is that this long car trip was to go spend the weekend with a lovely lady.

(Lesson worth remembering: Petrol turns the glue on duct tape to slippery, useless mush.)

Today I spent the morning with my dad, being all technically competent and shit, and the pipe has now been temporarily patched, plus I replaced a dead bulb in the tail light and got my windscreen squirters working marginally better again, so technically, my car is now working even better than before, although I can't say I trust the patch to hold for very long.

But where was I? Ah, yes, a proper introduction.

My goal with this blog is quite simple: To be interesting and fun to read. That doesn't mean it'll all be happy, giggly stuff, sometimes you've got to get a bit serious, but I also want to give some space to things that make me happy. Mostly, that's sciencey stuff, usually do to with astronautics, or really geeky stuff (I won't go into my weekly roleplaying too deeply, but it may feature), or perhaps even some new music I've found or some such. The angry shouty stuff will be mostly skepticism-related, education-related or political, so we all have something to look forward to. I have a slight mania for list-making, which should be apparent here from time to time.

Professionally, I've ended up in education. I used to do full-time teaching (of physical science), but that sucked, so now I do after-school tutoring (of physical science), which is much more fun, but pays insufficiently. What I'd really like to do is get some work in the field I actually studied for, which is this. It doesn't help that I don't often take much initiative; this weekend's intended expedition was quite out of character for me.

Also, look here: It's a peg-legged elephant!

Thursday, 7 July 2011

Den bit där det börjar

After years writing solely for my own amusement, for the amusement of my friends and to shout angrily at quacks and creationists and other mean people (sometimes jumbling all three of those into one big mess), I've finally decided I should get around to hoisting some of my scribbles onto a blog, for a wider audience. It may not be necessary, it may not be popular, but what's the harm in trying?

I'll get around to something more serious (perhaps a proper introduction) later, as I'm quite tired now and will be away this weekend, fjord-hunting in Pietermaritzburg.

For now, though, some credit. My lovely background picture is Leaving Gudvangen by boat on the Nærøyfjord, a photo by Pricey, whoever that may be. My thanks, Pricey.

The Nærøyfjord, you will be interested to know, is part of a larger system of fjords, all of which ultimately connect with the big Sognefjord, the largest fjord in Norway. Since this Sognefjord cuts a third of the way across between the North and South of Norway (and since presumably most Norwegians live along the coast), they've had to build enormously long bridges over the fjord in two different places just to carry electric cables. The Nærøyfjord is also notable as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Gudvangen, the village referred to in Mr Pricey's photo title, is where the fjord begins (or ends?), and it seems like a nice enough place.

 The banner picture is stolen borrowed from Jasper van der Meij, and originally showed marginally more zebra than I needed.

(Edit: I'm also quite annoyed that I can't seem to find an easy way of setting the font size anywhere between too small for my half-blind friends to read, and this ogre size.)