Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Point Proven

Dear readers, you disappoint me with your obviousness. I write one article with 'sex' in the title, and in just one day it shoots up to become my #1 most popular post in the whole blog, outstripping even the slow but inevitable growth all the trekkies gave me on my post condemning the Abrams movie, which has now been knocked down to second place. And I haven't even had any helpful suggestions out of you lot yet. What do I pay you for?

I guess I'm not the only one whose mind is overly swayed by reproductive instincts.

Sunday, 29 July 2012

Sex is Stupid

I've mentioned before that I used to have some serious problems with sex and romance. Then things improved, but not drastically. I've spent some wonderful time with some wonderful women, but at the risk of sounding sorry for myself, that was pretty much all thanks to dumb luck and/or hard work on their part. I am not a natural at this sort of thing, I never have any idea where wooing begins and my ability to do it on purpose pretty much doesn't exist. Some people get shy or nervous, but at least they know what needs to be done. To me, the whole process remains a mystery, despite years of analysis. I don't "just do" what seems to come naturally to most people.

A new thought has gradually been building up in me though, in reaction to a few things, and while I'm still fuzzy on some of the details, the core of the thought is very clear: The instincts behind sex and romance suck, and I'd gladly accept celibacy in exchange for not experiencing those annoying urges anymore. Sex itself is quite nice, and I'd be happiest with occasional optional sex without the constant urges. But instead, I get constant urges without much sex, the crappy polar opposite. I'd get so much more done if my mind wasn't always wandering, and I could certainly do without the stupid things that my sex drive makes me think, say and do.

Complicating things further, I've also recently realised that I am not at all suited for or interested in a happily-ever-after relationship. I've spent something like 95% of my life single, it's very much what I'm used to. Relationships make me uncomfortable, make me feel trapped and overburdened. That may not be reasonable at all, but it's how I always feel, after the initial excitement dies down. I'm just sorry I couldn't learn that without practical experience, making a nuisance of myself to past partners.

So now I'm trying to work out how best to deal with all this crap for the next couple decades, or however long it takes for my sex drive to die out. Thankfully, the adolescent years are done with; I'm sure I'm not alone in remembering nights where lack of sex felt almost physically painful and sleep never seemed to close in fast enough. Evolution is a cruelly clever process. But I digress.

I'm trying to list and weigh my options. Many of these possibilities have weird social stigmas attached to them, which can add extra complications, but I'm not going to worry about those for now. What other people accept is not relevant if I haven't even figured out what I'll accept yet. I'm also assuming throughout that baby-making is not an option, so this is just recreational sex.

1. Rely on pr0n. Speaking from experience, this doesn't work. Granted, you'd struggle to survive a celibate decade without it, and after the '00s I have now seen all the porn. All of it. But while it gives some temporary relief, we're just not evolved to be solo creatures and there are always instincts clamouring for some real company. Until they can simulate that, this is not a decent option.

2. Bite the bullet and settle down. Those who know me well will agree that I'm not a bullet-biter. Besides, monogamy just doesn't appeal to me at all, and even spoils the appeal of the reliable source of sex it represents.

3. Polyamory. Nice in principle; I like the idea of exploring and keeping my options open, without cutting out the nice emotional stuff. I don't have a "type" or any specific fetishes, and I'm not a full Kinsey zero, so I like the idea of being able to try new things with new people. On the other hand, if I had the ability to induce not just one partner, but several at once, I wouldn't be writing this in the first place.

4. Random flings. Like polyamory, but over too quick. I may not appreciate long-term stuff, but I do still enjoy getting to know people. On the plus side, this seems to enjoy wider public acceptance and should be easier to organise, if you aren't me. I'm also given to believe that this becomes less of an option with age, which is something I happen to have been accruing. (Having botched my randy young bugger years, this seriously annoys me.)

5. Prostitution. Random flings that are virtually guaranteed, if you have money. I don't have money. My research team informs me that I could spend anywhere between half and five times my monthly income on a single session with a prostitute, making it a completely moot option.
5.a. Be a prostitute. This would solve the money problem. But I'm not actually sex-mad, I don't need it all the time, and so I'd have a problem having to give it all the time, especially under pressure of refundable contract.

6. Serial monogamy. A polyamory conga line. All the feeling trapped of monogamy with the hard recruitment effort necessary for polyamory or flings.

7. Swinging. Monogamy pretending to be polygamy, or vice versa. I guess if I lucked out and happened to find a partner who was already into this and already had a nice network built up, it might work for me. Except that might also exacerbate my commitment problem, since I'd be dependent on that one partner to access everyone else, perhaps. But if I had to get a partner into it first and still pick up other couples, it'd be a nightmare.

8. Fuck buddies. This has always sounded like the greatest idea ever to me, apart from spaceflight, vaccinations and the ability to carry the internet around in my pocket. Most of my friends are very attractive, and why shouldn't sex be just a fun pass-time, a game to share and enjoy, then pack away at the end of the day and forget about until some other time, when everyone feels like it again? It really should be that simple, and it pains me to admit that maybe, possibly, perhaps, it might not be possible. And again, it's all the fault of instinct. There's a very high chance that sleeping with someone will cause you to develop romantic feelings for them. Some people are better at shutting that out than others, but generally it's bound to sneak up on most of us, which makes some sense from an evolutionary point of view, for a social species like ours. Daddies who immediately abandon mommies may get more chances to breed than those who at least stick around to help with the pregnancy, but their offspring will each have a lower chance of survival. So this has the potential to get more complicated than intended. (I've also seen it go the other way, where massive annoyance suddenly springs up from somewhere. But I don't know how to explain that.)

9. Beg. Instead of putting in effort to make a real connection with someone, one person at a time, I could just throw myself out to the world and say, "Available for shags, apply within," and see if anyone bites. I've never seen it work, and even with my pretty head, I'd be surprised if partners fell into my lap very often, because I don't go out of my way to appear attractive.

10. Total celibacy. Not just relying on porn and masturbation, but cutting all sexual practices out of my life completely. I can't even imagine this in practice (see point 1), and yet I'd be ok with it in principle. I suppose some sort of surgical intervention could make it feasible, but that seems drastic.

Overall, it seems like I have a problem. Instinct and culture are against me, and I'm lazy. I may also be inconveniently picky (despite my openness to new things); for example, a woman on a dating site I occasionally use utterly wrecked her opportunity to offer me free sex, when she insisted on yammering on about her homeopathy and energy healing. I guess everyone has their turn-offs.

Have I missed any options? Have I misjudged any possibilities? Is there an obvious solution that I'm not seeing?

(EDIT: Also note this little bit of follow-up.)

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Be like Sally Ride

Doctor Sally Ride, one of my favourite astronauts, died yesterday of pancreatic cancer, aged 61.

I got used to hearing Dr Ride's regular promo recording in most episodes of Planetary Radio, and it amused me that her name is coincidentally in the lyrics of Mustang Sally. It's also easier to like her because she had a real science background, not a military one, as so many astronauts do. But what really made me like her was that she used her status so damn constructively. I have no data on how successful her Sally Ride Science company has been, but the concept alone is praiseworthy: Getting kids excited about science at a young age. And it looks like they've not held their punches with topics the US sometimes struggles to accept, like climate change and evolution, so it's serious science they're promoting.

Her earlier association with the Center for International Security and Arms Control is also such a pleasant contrast with the distasteful military associations most other astronauts have. A bunch of them had gone to war and killed people, and there she was, looking for serious, intelligent ways to prevent war and not kill people. Much more sensible.

A lot of  astronauts retire to lives of comfortable tedium as "industry consultants" or some similar-titled position, which I gather usually means something like a PR pawn and/or political leverage pawn, with or without some actual engineering work to keep them occupied. Not many of the famous, big-name astronauts have used their big names for much good, and it's hard to suggest anything significantly better than promoting world peace and science education for kids, especially for under-encouraged girls.

You'd struggle to intentionally design a better role-model. Hopefully many will have already followed her lead naturally.

Saturday, 21 July 2012

ScopeX 2012: It also happened

I believe I've been to 3 ScopeX telescope and astronomy expos in my life. The first, probably in 2002, was a family thing and I didn't pay too much attention to the expo itself. The second time, in 2010, I went with my friend Nali, who won first prize in the raffle and got a nice, big telescope. It was also the first time that'd I'd intentionally met my friend Jane in person, who'd only been an online and coincidental background person before that. She didn't win any raffle loot, but did get to meet me in person, which some would argue is better.

I missed ScopeX 2011, which wasn't well advertised, I don't think, but struggled to miss this year's one, as the Consilientists mentioned it and it was also promoted via the Star Trek fan club I vaguely belong to. But I struggled to get myself there, as I caught something at Icon (I can't believe I forgot to mention the traditional annual Icon lurgi epidemic!) and didn't feel much like getting out of bed or out of the house. This meant I missed all the interesting morning lectures. Who the hell schedules things for the morning, anyway? I can understand scheduling things for the whole day, so that you take maximum advantage of all possible space-time. But given a choice of morning and afternoon, why morning? I also got a wee bit lost getting there, because the entrance was concealed and I missed it. But I'm hoping there'll be useful summaries of what I missed in a future episode of Consilience.

As for Interesting Stuff™, there were the usual big, expensive telescopes, the sundials and other equipment that doesn't mean much to me with my current budget. SKA and SANSA had small booths that didn't offer much (I claimed some nice posters for work from SKA), operated by some very bored people. I don't know if I was there at a particularly quiet time, but the whole thing had a very library-like atmosphere, the polar opposite of the noise and confusion of Icon, and the booth people aren't exactly engaging. This makes little sense, as they actually know things of Interest™, while your typical comic sales monkey is just going to fill your ear with crap about their (so not necessarily your) favourite superhero's ongoing saga.

There were some guys demonstrating a Foucault pendulum, which brings me fond memories of Bill Nye. But it's not too suitable for showing to short-term visitors. The action takes hours to unfold.

I got a good look at the demo of a dinky little digital microscope (which I happen to know costs as much as the big, heavy, pretty Rogue Trader book I bought at Icon last week), and it almost seems like cheating compared with the microscope I got as a kid, with its LED lighting instead of a reflectly mirror and a nice, clear monitor showing what it's focused on instead of a single, pokey eye-piece to hunch over.

I also entered the raffle, with a chance to win a camera (meh), a bigger digital microscope (awesome, but I think I'd have to donate that to a school, so that it really gets used) or a star spotter wossname (which would mean I have Nali's next present sorted?). In the end, what I actually won was nothing except a valuable lesson about gambling.

It's worth noting that ScopeX is held at the SA National Museum of Military History, which is not the most education-oriented museum I've seen, being little more than a collection of old military vehicles, though some are pretty neat. The sole surviving Me 262 B-1a/U1 jet night-fighter is especially interesting, as one of the earliest radar-equipped jets, a major technological combo that we take completely for granted today. Fighters built without both of those are now considered slightly odd and archaic; we don't even use the word "night fighter" to describe any modern aircraft anymore. But even if you're not interested in the technical side of it, it's still a lovely thing to look at, as is the old Dak outside.

There's a shop attached to the museum, selling old camo gear (stock checks must be hard) and books about things blowing up and people getting killed and Hitler and stuff. They missed a bit of an opportunity, with the astro crowd in, to put their small collection of astronaut patches on prominent display. It's not a great set, and it includes some junk ones, like the apocryphal Mercury patches, several different Apollo 11 patches (excluding the correct Eagle one) and even a very silly Sputnik 1 patch. I considered getting a reasonably good and correct Apollo 10 patch, but didn't feel retailish enough.

ScopeX is a lovely day out, very relaxed and calming. But I think it's almost certainly better with some combination of friends, proper scheduling and piles of unwanted cash. Assuming the last two are impossible, remind me to invite more people next year.

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

"No god up here..."

Rebecca Rosen has an Atlantic article about the intersection of religion and space exploration. It's an interesting list of oddities, alright as a fluff piece, but I think it makes a big mistake in assuming that astronauts are all serious scientists (among whom atheism is naturally pretty common). Instead, most astronauts are military pilots and engineers, and even secular pilots are traditionally pretty superstitious. (I've seen a similar piece before - possibly this one - about the weird non-religious superstitions astronauts are known to practise, including the Soviet/Russian "pissing on the launchpad bus" ritual.)

Astronauts, being public figures, are also chosen as much for their public presentability as their technical skills, and the religiousy Americans are less likely to accept an explicitly atheist astronaut, while astronauts from places like Saudia Arabia and Israel were virtually guaranteed to be explicitly theists. It's actually pretty hard to find one who is clearly and unambiguously a self-described atheist (and, awesomely, a skeptic, in Fuglesang's case). This was exacerbated in the US, early on, by a NASA press conference where John Glenn made astronauts' private lives, including religious affiliation, a major part of their public faces (this is covered well in Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff).

One thing I'd point out that the article forgets is that if you look at the astronauts killed on missions or in training, they're almost all identified as non-atheists (though it's always hard to be sure what someone really believes deep down). Even in the Soviet Union, there's evidence to suggest Gagarin was probably some sort of religiousy wossname. And yet, he was still among the premature dead, killed in a crash in 1968. Clearly, even if one religion or another is true (which seems unlikely), it's not much help: There's no major statistical divergence between your chance of being a religious astronaut and your chance of being a dead astronaut. I think there's even a slightly better chance of survival for atheist astronauts, though that's likely just a meaningless quirk.

Astronauts are cool, they have a cool job, I wouldn't mind being an astronaut. But they're pretty much just the eyes and hands of greater, Earth-bound minds. I exaggerate there for emphasis, and some astronauts are serious scientists in their own right, but the average astronaut has more immediate concerns, like not screwing the proverbial pooch and returning to Earth as a rain of literal ash. More qualified scientists design their vessels and the experiments they carry, and their beliefs are better informed and more likely accurate, as they actually study the universe, not just facilitate that study. If some astronauts (or PR officers, perhaps) insist on splashing pointless voodoo on these rockets, that's silly and a pity. But it doesn't mean that religion belongs in space, and it certainly doesn't stand anywhere near being proof of the validity of religion. I'm moving off this rock as soon as they'll let me, and I'll be very annoyed if my fellow colonists drag a whole lot of superstitious nonsense along.

Sunday, 15 July 2012

Icon 2012: A Pretty Good One

There are three High Holy Festivals in my year:
  1. Shamsmas (14 September), my birthday.
  2. Kweznuz (24-26 December), a linked string of the small nuclear family xmas eve at home, the big wider family xmas day at some relative or another's house, and my friend Nali's Day of Goodwill/Boxing Day lunch, known as Secularsmas.
  3. Icon (a Friday, Saturday and Sunday, normally around mid-July), the big annual gaming and geekery convention in Joburg.
This weekend was Icon weekend, and I am most enhappified by it.

Of those three festivals, Icon is perhaps the most exciting for me. Like Shamsmas, it holds some actual meaning for me, albeit an entirely subjective, personal one. Kweznuz, on the other hand, isn't about anything for me, it's just a standard tradition, a thing that is done because it is done.

And like Kweznuz, Icon is a big social wossname. Shamsmas used to fall partially within the annual ARS parties that I shared with my friends Arran and Richard, and that was pretty social, but it hasn't always been there (the last was probably in 2008) and it didn't always feel properly Shamsmassy, however fun it was. More commonly, Shamsmas has been a time when people (including me) are busy with exams or work or whatever, so it's tended to be more private, a celebration largely inside my own head, which other people occasionally pass through (literally, by means of a shrink ray). My 21st "party", for example, was watching Galaxy Quest with pizza and beer and 3 or 4 close friends. It was a great night.

And I get neat loot on all three occasions, but there's something slightly different about Icon loot, as it's bought with my own money and is purely a personal indulgence. Gifts from friends and family are obviously thoroughly appreciated, especially since most have figured out how much I like books (only missing Mostly Harmless from my Hitchhiker's Guide trilogy, for example...) and geeky tshirts in black or red (L or XL). But reciprocity is complicated and it's nice to just do something purely selfish as a special treat. And keeping it attached to this annual rite keeps the treat special and rare. Taking what you want, whenever you want it, has its own appeal, but kind of ruins the excitement of gifts, both from yourself and from others.

So Icon isn't the best of the three, but it is the most exciting to me. It also manages to be far more full of tradition and ritual. Shamsmas has the Ritual of Mom Recounting What Was On TV When She Went into Labour With Me (it was Dallas). Kweznuz has paper crowns and bad jokes from crackers and, more recently, the annual Secularsmas Interesting and Unusual Reproductive Biology Lesson (a.k.a. the "cock talk") from a certain Wits philosophy lecturer.

But Icon is full of rituals. There's the Ritual of the Early Morning Queue of Shouting, the Ritual of the Friday Ticket Buying, the Ritual of the Saturday Smugly Passing People Who Haven't Got Tickets Yet, the triple Rituals of Buying, Carrying Around and Drinking Free Crappy Coffee From the Blessed New Icon Mug of that year, the Ritual of Being Slightly Underwhelmed by the Selection of Things to Play and Buy, the Ritual of Signing Up for a Game, the Ritual of Getting Annoyed with Loud Players at the Next Table Who Confuse Fun and Skill with Volume and Loudness, the Ritual of Not Being Sure When to Go Home Until You See Half the Building Already Sealed Up, the Ritual of Orbiting through the Recreation Center Over and Over More to Kill Time Between Sessions than to Actually Find Anything, and the Ritual of Being Dismissive Unto Magic Players (who clearly deserve it).

Adding to the feeling that this is a special event are some unusual occurences, things that don't normally happen, but which always crop up at Icon. There are the cosplayers, whose general costumey presence I can remember at Icon from before cosplay was a word anyone used in polite company or at all. There are the people who hit each other with sticks (padded). There are the stalls full of games and comics and shit, only unusual sights anymore because of their cramped closeness. And there are the regular faces, people I hardly ever see in the real world, if at all, but who I'm guaranteed to see every single year at Icon. I barely know most of them and can't name many of them, but their faces are as familiar to me as paper crowns at xmas lunch. This weekend, for example, I played a boardgame with a guy I sat next to at my very first convention game back at Wits Con 2000, and played a Dark Heresy module with a couple of guys who I'd once gotten chatting with at Gencon 2000 (as our Icon was called back then), while we were waiting for the start of a module. I don't know these people at all really, and I see them as seldom as I see my dentist, but I can still place them instantly, even if we've all grown beards and they've started going bald. (For comparison, trying to picture my dentist, all that comes to mind is the face of a guy who plays Magic; I'm reasonably sure my dentist doesn't play Magic.)

So how was this year? Pretty good, as the title may have given away. The roleplaying I did (the Dark Heresy module, with Ork PCs) wasn't great and I missed the games I was expecting to be better (let us try to remember well the lesson of the Ritual of People Fucking Around Trying to Decide What Game to Play), but I got to try a bunch of new boardgames and got free raffle tickets for doing so, so I might actually get to own one or more of those games (Update: My sources say we didn't win anything). We started with Infiltration, a pretty clever game of breaking in and stealing shit. It could be easily re-purposed for any sort of thiefy game, but they chose to give it a slightly cyberpunk hackery type of paint-job. It's quick and fun and you can play it a lot before it gets boring; we did about 4 whole games and only stopped because we thought we had other things needed doing (we didn't). Then there was the Big Bang Theory Party Game. I've seen 1.5 episodes of that, but you don't really need to know the series to follow the game, and it's a nice bit of silly fun. Limited re-play value though, after you've seen most of the "quirky and amusing" card titles more than once each. Possibly good as a drinking game? And then finally we played through most of a game of Rex, a spin-off of Twilight Imperium. I'd played it once before, a month or so back, and I'm also quite familiar with Twilight Imperium proper, but nobody else had, so it was a slow learning process and a pretty slow game (though lightning-fast compared with TI) when everyone was already starting to mentally wind down for the evening. I don't think we got to see the best of that game, under those conditions, and we ended it prematurely. Meh.

A lot of good friends also made it there, including people I haven't seen at Icon in years and years, some travelling from as far away as Nigeria (granted, Arran's travelled from as far away as Nigeria for the last couple years already, and has been going every year for at least as long as I have, if not longer, so that was less surprising). It was good to have the old high school crowd more or less gathered together again. One noteworthy exception was Damon, who can be properly excused for missing this unplanned reunion, because he was at TAM, buying me skeptical loot.

Oh, yes, loot: I went a bit crazy and spent way more than I'd planned to, grabbing the Dark Heresy core rules, the Rogue Trader core rules and a RT campaign book, Lure of the Expanse. Having had nothing to eat or drink all of Friday but a single lone banana, and with a break in the middle of the unsatisfying Orks module, I must have cracked and blindly forked out heaps of cash. I'm glad to have these books, so no real buyer's remorse; I just hope I don't need that money for something else soon. It would also be nice if the stores started stocking more than just 3 or 4 big roleplaying brands and let us try some new and varied stuff. There's also this year's Icon mug, which arrived at the con a day late again and printed badly again, so I hope they don't stick with that manufacturer in future. My own mug is entirely satisfactory, at least.

And finally, we discovered an interesting new thing: Nemesis. Someone's taken an idea we've been discussing in our regular group(s) for years now, of digitizing the fiddling admin side of face-to-face, table-top roleplaying, without taking away the real interaction, and attempted to make it a real, working system. It looks like it has potential, and the guys behind it seem really smart and passionate, with some clever, novel ideas, so we've signed up as play-testers, and I'm sure they're still looking for more volunteers for the next month or two. Also, they gave us nice tablet satchels and lighters, which count as additional loot.

As usual, I don't think I'll go to Icon Sunday, but I'm thoroughly glad I did Friday and Saturday.

Sunday, 1 July 2012

Consilience #52: More me, bordering on the habitual

A pretty inaccurate artist's rendition of Shenzhou 9 (right)
docking with a dinky little version of Tiangong 1, missing large bits.
I'm audible for the fourth time now. With Mike and Angela on reproductive leave, Owen's been the only "real" Consilientist on duty for the last few weeks, with a trickle of guest hosts filling the empty microphones. I was actually supposed to help out with two previous episodes (#49 and #50, if I recall), but I had some last-minute problems on both occasions, and so my contribution was limited to just some material I'd written for #49 that Owen and Sam found useful. Episode 52 was then also postponed by a week, as it was just me and Owen, and he had a last minute problem of his own getting in the way.

I should point out that I was deeply ashamed to notice after the episode was released that I'd called the first series of Soviet space stations "Salyuz." I know it's Salyut. I've spent ages just memorising these names (in chronological order), never mind all the time reading up on their details. But I think I had Almaz in my head at the same time, as I wasn't certain while we recorded whether I should draw attention to the distinction between the two similar classes of station, and maybe the Z slipped in from there. Or perhaps it's because it sounds closer to Soyuz, also with the Z?

You can find the file and the show notes for #52 here:

Anyway, Episode 52 is good and you should listen to it, but I feel obliged to talk more about #49, especially the stuff I contributed (the Teaching Angela to Appreciate History segment and the news about Nanocthulu lovecrafti). I was disappointed that they made no mention of Snoopy the lunar lander module of the Apollo 10 mission, since the pairing of that with the Charlie Brown command module seems brilliant to me. But more than that, there's a whole extra bunch of history to be explored down that path, about how NASA and Charles Schulz were in cahootz, after the Apollo 1 disaster. Perhaps a bit too much to cover in that one brief segment, but at least a taster might have been good. How's Angela supposed to get interested in history if she's never inspired to look beyond the most immediate facts we present? Huh? On a briefer note, did you know that Snoopy is the only LM sent into space to survive (even Armstrong and Aldrin's Eagle was destroyed after use) and is still out there somewhere right now? Nope, I bet you didn't, because that fun factoid was also cut. But don't worry, I've got a post in the works that'll cover way more than you ever wanted to know about astrohistory.

I was also a little surprised that they kept in my comment that Nanocthulhu looks more like an Insect from Shaggai, without knowing why I'd said that. The short answer is just that it looks insecty, rather than humanoctopoidy. But if you search for images of these Mythos creatures, you'll note that there's virtually no agreement about their basic form, let alone detailed features. The only reason the pictures of Nanocthulhu brought the Insects from Shaggai to my mind (apart from the general Lovecraft connection) are two pictures I'd seen that kind of agree with each other and which I happen to like.

The first, which is clearly not a big stretch from Nanocthulhu, is by John T. Snyder and is from the book Delta Green: Countdown:

The second, which I love and is probably why the Insects stuck in my mind so clearly, is by Alex Loob and was used as the main convention art for Icon 2006:

Firefly: Die Bruinjasse

I have no idea how much African history Joss Whedon knows, but I think it's fairly unlikely that he knew much about the the Second Anglo-Boer War while he was making Firefly. This is funny, as he managed to replicate it quite well in the war that forms the bulk of the series backstory. He claims to have based his plot on the US Civil War, and the Wild West visuals flow nicely out of that. But he changed enough that the comparison doesn't really stick.

The Independents hadn't been established Alliance members who split, like the Southern States opting to divorce themselves from the Union they'd been part of all along. Rather, the Indeps were those who'd physically left Alliance space to find new worlds of their own. This makes them more similar to the Dutch settlers who eventually became known as the Boers (literally, farmers), who left the Cape Colony after Britain gained control of it (similar to how the Independents left the Core planets behind to the Alliance) and went on to found the Natalia Republic (conquered by Britain in 1843), the Orange Free State and the Transvaal Republic (both in the bag by 1902), as well as half a dozen brief little micro-states. A huge clue to their motives lies in the name Orange Free State.

The Alliance, therefore, was not acting to maintain its own historic territories, as the US was in 1861, but was instead aggressively invading neighbours to take their stuff and tell them what to do, same as Britain did. It's easy to see why Whedon changed things in that direction: The underdog is easier to get behind when it did nothing to provoke aggression and is instead just picked on by a big meanie. I'm not sure I'd call the Union "good guys," but I find the Confederates even harder to sympathise with, not least because of the slavery thing. (That's something Firefly skirts around, refering to it from time to time, without dipping either side in it too obviously. Slavery is just a generic Bad Thing.)

Of course, there are bits of SA history that don't match up with established Firefly canon, like the People Who Were Already There. The Boers were only the innocent underdogs in relation to the British, but before that, they'd cut - with a fair bit of bloodshed - their free republics from various African nations that were there decades or centuries before them. The Independents, on the other hand, seem to have been the first to land on their virgin worlds.That might make for an interesting bit of fanfic, a future comic or, dare it be dreamed, an episode yet to be made: Conflict on a Rim planet between settlers who'd arrived in different groups at different times, the early ones who'd initially struggled to conquer the wilderness on their own, with virtually no support from the Core, but still built up significant numbers over the decades, versus the the latter ones who'd arrived with fewer people but better tools and outside connections. If we're using SA history as a guide here, then the war with the Alliance would have been merely a brief hiccup in this longer local conflict.

In fact, that's something about the Firefly 'Verse's history that could be expanded on more generally: Who arrived where, when, and what effect did the order of these things have on the eventual power relations we see in the show. In particular, how did the really early settling of the Core worlds happen? Serenity portrays a single colony convoy departing Earth together, but was that an accurate depiction (considering it came from River's mind), and was it just as simple when they arrived at the other end to set up? If so, then how did the initial conflict arise between the Alliance and the settlers who went out to settle what would become the Independent worlds? Was it anything like the history of the Cape, where there were actually multiple waves of colonists, with different agendas and not much interest in helping each other?

It'd also be neat to see more about the initial formation of the Independents as a coherent group. The Transvaal and Orange Free State teamed up pretty quickly in 1897, but they were just two adjacent states with a lot in common, a single clear opponent and not many other options. But a dozen separate worlds, on far ends of the 'Verse, with probably much bigger cultural divides? Seems like a more interesting challenge.

We'll probably never get conclusive answers, but it's interesting to think about it all, and as I say, always good fodder for future stories, be they official or fanfic, Firefly-related or other.