Friday, 24 August 2012

Astronyms, part 2: Soviet/Russian Stations and Oddities

This is part of this series of posts on the history of spacecraft naming.

With Soyuz pretty firmly settled as the standard Soviet spacecraft, and the Moon already claimed by the US, Moscow turned instead to developing long-term space stations, orbitting in the relatively calm shallows of low Earth orbit. This would, after early problems about as bad as those experienced by the early Soyuzes, eventually lead to a line of stations with longevity to match the Soyuz line, plus lots of interesting names for me to investigate. I'd also like to briefly mention a couple of the more interesting planned designs that never made it.

Salyut and Almaz
(Space stations. In space service 7 June 1971 to 25 June 1986, and 4 July 1974 to 25 February 1977)

A Salyut (left) and Almaz (right)

Meaning 'salute' and 'diamond' respectively. Using similar bottle-shaped hull structures and most of the same internal hardware, the sciencey Salyut & military Almaz stations were intentionally designed to look the same to a casual observer (even now, I'm not sure if I should split this description properly in twain), so that secret military things could be secretly tested under the cover of civil scientific development. The Salyuts were part engineering experiment (testing how a long-term orbiter could work) and part science lab, but their name is all political. For such "civilian" stations, 'salute' is a pretty damn military name. Perhaps it was a cunning double-bluff to help conceal the Almaz class a smidge more. It's also easy to see the patriotic whiffle in having an orbiting salute for the Soviet Union (and the same salute, in a more mocking manner, as it passes over the West). 6 stations of this type were launched, but 2 failed before they could be crewed. Neither failed station was officially called 'Salyut', and the 2nd was given the bogus designation Kosmos 557, to pretend it was just a generic satellite.

[EDIT: Evidently, the Salyut stations were originally named Zarya ('dawn') stations by their designers. A late change to Salyut because of a radio callsign clash meant Salyut 1 was launched with Zarya still painted on the hull. 'Dawn' would have linked back nicely to 'East' and 'sunrise', though as mentioned under my bit about the International Space Station's modules, I am currently a little confused by this cluster of Russian near-synonyms.]

Almaz, meanwhile, borrowed an existing code word from the Soviet space program, as noted in part 1 of this series, for an additional layer of secrecy. For more secrecy, all the Almazes were named as if they were part of the Salyut series of missions, as Salyut 2 (failed before it could be crewed), Salyut 3 and Salyut 5. The purpose of the station was to provide reconnaissance the way spy satellites do, but before it had been proven that automated satellies could do that job. The Americans had a similar plan, their Manned Orbiting Laboratory (a similarly misleading name, but more openly described as a military project), but this was cancelled when automated spy satellites showed they could do the job cheaper, as computers became a thing. The Soviets stuck with the Almaz idea about a decade longer before making the same decision. Almaz is interesting too in that it's the only known people-carrying space vessel to have been armed, with a 23mm (or 30mm, some say) cannon for killing other satellites. As I said, 3 of these stations were launched, the first one failing.

As a post-script, modified Salyuts were eventually used as the core modules of Mir and the International Space Station. Diagrams of each are included below for comparison, but note that they're facing the opposite direction. The most obvious changes are the bigger solar panels and the multi-ported docking wossname. A pair of unused Almazes have also been bought by a British company, with the hope of using them as part of a tourist station. I am not optimistic about this.
Mir Core Module
Zvezda module, ISS

(Space station. In space service 15 March 1986 to 15 June 2000)

Mir, final configuration, with Soyuz and Progress docked at each end.

Now here we have an interesting name. The translation is usually given as 'world' or 'peace', which brings to mind the idea of world peace, which is nice. But why does one word mean those two fairly different things? My Russian is a little rusty, but Google Translate reckons the same word also means 'kingdom' and 'pax'. A surprising amount of Russian was influenced by Latin (tsar, for example, is said to derive from Caesar), and I'm going to wildly hypothesize that the Russian 'mir' was understood in a similar way to the 'pax' part of the  Pax Romana (although the Romans themselves didn't call it exactly that), an enforced peace, a state peace, where peace stands more for order and perhaps even obedience than general non-violence and cooperation. In other words, I'm suggesting the Soviet implication with this name might have been just as nationalist and patriarchal as Soyuz and Salyut, but misunderstood in the English-speaking world. Or I could be talking shit and they really did only have happy, nice, friendly sentiments when naming Mir. Any Russian-speakers who know better, please educate me.

[EDIT: Two further translations of 'mir' are 'society', and, derived from that meaning, a form of rural village. A source I can't find again right now hinted that the space station may have been named after that last meaning, with each of its modules analogous to the individual homes of a village. A similar vision has come up more recently with ESA's talk of a 'Moon village'.]

Mir is also technically interesting, as the first multi-modular space station, with a bunch of additional sections attached to a modified multi-ported Salyut core. [Salyut 6 and 7 each had extra TKS modules added, but only one at a time, limiting their potential to expand.] This made Mir much more useful and adaptable and it stayed in service for years. I remember, as a young teen (maybe 1997 or 1998), having to go to some boring thing with my parents and entertaining myself by reading a Time article about how the station was on its last legs. The descriptions of panics over leaks and near-collisions with Progress cargo ships were especially vivid, and were probably the first stories that made human spaceflight seem like a real thing to me.

The modules added to the Mir core were Kvant-1 and -2 ('quantum'), Kristall ('crystal'), Spektr ('spectrum'), Priroda ('nature') and the Stykovochnyy Otsek ('Mir Docking Module'). The first 5 follow a sciencey sort of theme, which makes sense, given the researching nature of the station. The Mir Docking Module, on the other hand, may have been Russian-built, but was only attached to allow US shuttles to dock there more easily and appears to have been named in the bland US style of the '90s (to be discussed in part 5).

I could go on forever if I look at every design study that was never realised. Instead, I'm going to limit myself to only vessels that were built and tested (but never crewed) and/or that I find exceptionally interesting. [Edit: Updated and expanded.]

Originally a Soviet competitor design to Soyuz, the Transportnyi Korabl Snabzheniia (TKS or 'transport supply vessel') had a two-component layout more similar to the Apollo CSM. It was initially conceived as part of a lunar mission (much like Soyuz was), and then more fully designed in concert with the Almaz station design, as its standard station crew ferry (just as Soyuz was paired with the Salyut design). But then all of the Salyut stations of both types were instead standardised on the Soyuz, and no TKS ever operated independently with a crew. Some were operated independently by remote, and some were docked with various stations, at which time they became occupied modules of the larger structure. The TKS consisted of a simple conical crew module, the Vozvraschaemyi Apparat (VA or 'recovery vehicle'), and the large, tubular, solar panel-winged Funktsionalno-gruzovoy blok (FGB or 'functional cargo block'), which carried support and mission equipment, docking gear and, unlike the Apollo service module or Soyuz equipment module, was pressurised for crew occupation. It seems neither half of the TKS, nor the whole vessel, was ever assigned a proper name. Confusion over translation has apparently led to the VA being known incorrectly as Merkur in the West - perhaps because it was the first Soviet conical crew module, in the pattern established by Mercury?

TKS's role as a station module has been more noteworthy than anything else, with 1 serving as a module of Salyut 6 (the first ever added permanent module on a station, though never occupied, as it docked only after the last crew departed), 2 serving consecutively as modules as Salyut 7 (these were actually used by the crews), 4 serving as major Mir modules, and 1 currently serving and 1 planned as ISS modules. The TKS-derived Zarya module of the ISS was actually the first module of that station in orbit, before the Salyut-derived Zvezda core module. The VA component was not used after Salyut 7, and the FGB component has transformed significantly over the years.

The name Zvezda ('star') is surprisingly interesting in Soviet space naming, considering it never actually got used for anything, until the post-Soviet ISS module by that name. The name is clearly spacey enough (perhaps a bit too obvious for my taste), but also likely refers to the Red Star of the Soviet flag and air force roundel. There was a planned 'fighter' version of Soyuz, the 7K-VI, intended to go by that name while defending Almaz crews, but that was scrapped before the first Almaz had even been launched. At around the same time, there was a plan for a Soviet Moon base, also named Zvezda. That plan died a slow death, stuck in development for decades, until rising military money-hogging killed it.

Lunar Soyuz
The earlier parts of the Soviet lunar landing program were also worth mentioning, if only to wrap up the remaining major Soyuz variants. The closest to successful was the Zond ('probe') unoccupied version of the Soyuz 7K-L1, intended to fly some cosmonauts around the Moon without stopping to kick it. It wouldn't have been much better than a cheap publicity stunt and proof of concept, similar to Apollo 8. A few non-human Zonds succeeded in flying by the Moon. Then there was the Soyuz 7K-LOK, a larger lunar orbiter, intended to be the command module for the dinky little LK (Lunnyy Korabl, or 'moon ship') lunar lander module, mirroring the US Apollo two-ship system. There was also the Soyuz A-B-V ('A-B-C') idea, a three-ship orbiter (no lander). None of these ever amounted to anything, once Apollo "won" the Moon.

Shuttles Challenger (left) and Buran (right)
Lastly, there was the quite successful, should-have-been-crewed, space plane Buran ('blizzard'), a blatant copy of the US space shuttle. It made only a single automated test flight into space, without any crew, before the Soviet Union collapsed and the whole thing was cancelled. The choice of name is especially nice, making a virtue of the vessel's bright white upper heat-resistant tiles, as well as connecting it to the frankly stupidly cold climate of Russia. Buran had also been the callsign of cosmonaut Anatoli Filipchenko.

The gliding, winged part of the whole system was more broadly identified as the OK, the Orbitalny Korabl, meaning orbital vessel, and there were actually more OK hulls laid down than there were of the American OV shuttle hulls, most of them non-flying test articles. Apart from OK-1K1, the Buran itself, there are three others of interest to me. OK-GLI was Buran's equivalent of the atmospheric glide test shuttle Enterprise OV-101, but it was modified with four tail-mounted jet engines to allow it to get itself airborne from a conventional runway takeoff, without needing an equivalent of the US shuttle's 747 carrier plane. This test jet had no name, but is noteworthy as the only one of its family that was ever actually piloted. GLI is easily identified at the rear by its extra engine nacelles, and at the front by its black cheeks right up to cockpit level. OK-1K2 and OK-2K1 were both mostly completed and would have been the 2nd and 3rd Soviet/Russian shuttles to actually get into space. Sources conflict on 1K2's name; it was either going to be Burya ('tempest', which fits the windy weather theme) or Ptichka ('birdy' or 'little bird'). It's also been suggested that Ptichka was actually a nickname for all of the OKs collectively, which seems more likely to me. OK-2K1 was named Baikal - unlike the uncertain 1K2, this name was actually painted on its side - after Lake Baikal; this was also the callsign of cosmonaut Boris Volynov, who had retired as the Buran program was starting up. Work had barely begun on OK-2K2 and OK-2K3, and I don't believe any names for them were ever properly established.

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Putting My Arse Where My Mouth Is

If nudity offends you, or is somehow too illegal for you, leave now. This is a serious political piece and I've taken the trouble to hide all legally-questionable nudity behind clearly labelled links, so don't say I've been inconsiderate or deceptive. Seriously, I don't want the nuisance of Blogger sticking my whole blog behind a stupid interstitial page, just because some busybody feels we all have to stick to their personal standards and isn't afraid to abuse the Report Abuse button. And that's ultimately what this post is about: Freedom of expression and personal choice. If you disagree with me, I welcome your feedback, but not your tattling, snitching, grassing, etc.

Anyway, to more interesting matters.

About a month ago, a female friend of mine posted a link on Facebook in support of GoTopless Day (this link contains naked breasts), held on Sunday the 26th of August, which is part of the GoTopless campaign, the key point of which is that it's unfair to apply different laws (or the same law in different ways, in some cases) about how covered up male and female chests have to be. If we want to be fair, they argue, then women should have just as much right to go bare-chested in public as men.

I completely agree with that core concept. If we claim to value gender equality (which we do here in South Africa, and which the US, where GoTopless originates, also seems to), then that needs to apply to all laws, not just the ones that a select group of people are comfortable equalising. And yet, I can post all manner of topless males here, from the artistic to the silly, and nobody's going to accuse me of spreading smut. Consider the following photos of me and some of my male friends, and ask yourself what exactly would make them so much more dangerous or revolting if we were all replaced by females, dressed and posed the same:

Any woman in South Africa who publicly looks like we look there stands the risk of being charged with public indecency, which is quite vaguely defined (though more specific, and more clearly biased, here) and may face a fine (R500, I believe). Even if she gets away with a warning from the court, it means she has a criminal record. For dressing and acting like we have above, but with one X chromosome too many. A criminal record. Like a murderer or rapist.

Of course, it's much easier for my friend to make that demand on Facebook, being a heterosexual female. As soon as I add my support, my motives are immediately in question, because surely I just want to ogle naked lady-boobs? Well, sure, they're often nice to see. But it's not just about that, and I don't think that's even my primary motive, because I support this right for all women, whether I find them attractive or not. To take the most extreme example, the person I least want to see topless is my dear old grandmother. But even she, I have to admit, should have this right, or none of us should (and I see no good reason why none of us should). It's also worth remembering that a right is not a requirement; not all males go topless all the time, so there'd be no expectation that females should have to too.

But what if I'm just saying all that as a gambit to get prettier women naked? It's not unreasonable to question my motives, no matter how earnestly I speak or write.

The conclusion we came to a month ago was that since my support can't be assumed to be genuine and serious from my word alone, I could/should make a more significant gesture to show how serious I am. And the obvious gesture is to get my own clothes off in solidarity. It took some thought to decide exactly how, though. I'm not opposed to full nudity, it's really not something that bothers me, but that might be too far for some to manage in one step, and I get that this is about equalising current laws, not completely overturning existing "decency" laws. But I can't just bare my own chest, since the whole point is that there's no big deal about male chests. I conducted a very small, informal survey, and it's surprisingly hard to get agreement on what a male can show in public that's equally "naughty" to a female showing breasts in public, according to both SA law and informal social norms. Someone suggested I flop only my scrotum out, but I think that's still too much of an overshoot. The closest male compromise I could find to female breasts is - and I freely admit this is still an awkward, uneven analog - the buttocks.

Here then are my pretty white arse cheeks, officially on public display for the first time, in support of gender equality, for whatever that turns out to be worth.

[This link contains my naked buttocks.] - Me in my natural environment. I'm glad that it shows all the details, nearly every spot, hair and squiggle - "warts and all," to borrow Oliver Cromwell's instruction to his portrait painter - because, in addition to showing how serious I am about this, I think a failure to be realistic about our bodies is part of the problem. My arse is not abstract or imaginary (probably the greatest line I can ever remember writing), and nor are any woman's breasts. These are real, present things, and to pretend otherwise is just silly.

[This link contains my naked buttocks.] - On the other hand, a blurry, detail-free shot like this illustrates the point that the basic form - a round mass of flesh - is pretty damn unremarkable, and it's only our arbitrary social conventions that dictate that a buttock is considered taboo in any way. Does the addition of a nipple to the same basic form make a female breast so much worse, when we've already demonstrated that male nipples are easily disregarded?

[This link contains my naked buttocks.] - And finally, the face to very closely match the butt. Part of the problem specific to female nudity seems to be that too much of our society is content to treat the female body as just a series of body parts, to be viewed in isolation. That's pretty dehumanising, and I would argue that there's a self-reinforcing relationship between this and the idea that females have to keep those virtually disembodied parts hidden, rather than requiring people to treat the whole female as a full person. If your only way to concentrate on face is to hide boob, then having to hide boobs makes them seem more different and distinct, making it harder to disregard boob, so that your only way to concentrate on face is to hide boob, etc. As I say, self-reinforcing and dehumanising. Rather just collectively get over it.

Am I advocating that all men hang their butts out for this cause? Yeah, if they like, I suppose. I'm not trying to start a movement, but I'm not going to panic and cry if anyone else repeats this exercise. I certainly wouldn't be the first of my friends to be bare-bottomed (or more) in public. This started out as just an interaction between a couple of friends, a personal gesture of support, and it's only here now because it's a gesture that relies on a certain degree of public performance.

Let me pre-empt some of the criticism I've already seen from more conservative types.
  1. "I don't want to be topless!" - Ok, don't be. Nobody's arguing that it should be compulsory, just that it shouldn't be prohibited either. It doesn't do any harm, so let other people live their lives how they like.
  2. "Aren't there more important issues to deal with than toplessness?" - You're fucking right there are! But on the one hand, if this is such a trivial issue, then why oppose it? And on the other hand, no degree of pointless, petty rules-mongering is acceptable. Yes, it's worse to say that women aren't allowed to vote with men than to say they can't get topless with men, but neither is fair or just. We can aim to fix all injustices, not just the massive ones. You can't end apartheid every day, as it were.
  3. "What about the children?" - What about them? Children don't have all your baggage and preconceived notions, they'll adapt quite well to whatever social norms they grow up around (this link contains naked breasts). And would you rather have them grow up around tolerance or discrimination?
  4. "It'll cause rape!" - No. Rapists cause rape. And I have worrying news: Rapists rape people in all states of dress. But if revealing attire really did correlate with the incidence of rape, shouldn't we ban bikinis and low-cut tops too? In fact, just to be completely rape-proof, why not go full Taliban on women and make total skin-covering compulsory, for their own safety? I don't think it's true that clothing and rape correlate, send evidence to the contrary if you have it, but that would be the logical implication if it were, once you start dictating what specific anti-rape precautions people must take.
  5. "People who want to get naked should go stay in nudist colonies!" - I don't want to go quite as far as comparing that with the Group Areas Act, since skin colour is completely non-optional, but it is pretty fucking arrogant to say that different people with different customs aren't allowed to live and practise those customs where you are, just because the mere thought of it offends you. But never mind full nudism, just focus on toplessness: This is already widely accepted in your area, it's just unfairly gender-biased.
  6. "Get your mind out of the gutter!" - I should also point out that going topless (or bottomless, for that matter) does not automatically mean you're after sex. I usually do it when I'm hot or uncomfortable, for purely practical reasons, but there are more dramatic non-sexual reasons (this link contains a topless woman but doesn't show much) for it too. And sure, sometimes it can be about sex. But not always, is the point. Regardless of the reason, if we allow it for males, we should allow it for females too.

Two closing thoughts. First, it's worth pointing out that GoTopless is a Raëlian Church (this link contains naked breasts) initiative. I don't think that undermines the inherent value of it, but I will insist on making it clear that I think Raëlism is whale-shit crazy. Not more crazy than talking snakes, people holding up a solid dome sky, magic underwear or invisible wish-granting beardy men, but still whale-shit crazy.

Second, in digging through a decade of old photos for the ones I used here, I was surprised (not completely surprised, but still surprisingly surprised) at how many photos I've accrued of friends' hairy balls. Perhaps getting comfortable with nudity is just a matter of practise.

Saturday, 18 August 2012

Fury at Marikana

We sometimes forget that police are only human, same as the rest of us. One of my older relatives happens to have been friends with a guy who was a cop stationed at Sharpeville back in March 1960, and it's illuminating to get an insider's perspective of what happened there. In short, the 20 cops there were completely shitting themselves, with up to 19,000 angry people only one flimsy wire fence away from them. They were all terrified, but the officer in charge insisted that they weren't allowed to withdraw indoors and had to guard the fence in some sort of ridiculous show of force. It was almost inevitable that one of them would panic, and panicky people with guns are a shit combination. The rest is now standard high school history.

Of course, understanding the cops' fear and panic does not justify the violence that came from it. The protesters were justifiably angry and justifiably unwilling to tolerate the presence of a police force that served primarily to oppress them, but even if their demands had been nonsense, if they'd arrived in their thousands and angrily shouted that all plus signs should sound more pepper, it would still have been wrong to open fire on them. This is because the core function of the police should be to protect the general populace. Maintaining and enforcing a narrow definition of "order", like well-armed nannies, is only any good if continued disorder is clearly against the public interest. When people rise up in a great mass, then they've chosen disorder for a reason, and that reason needs to be dealt with maturely, not shot at until it goes away. It's easy, in hindsight, to see why the villainous apartheid government had no interest in mature engagement; they weren't interested in serving the general populace.

(Out of interest, this cop who was my relative's friend apparently quit the police immediately after the Sharpeville massacre and became a nervous wreck of a car mechanic instead, still only in his early 20s. He was only human, after all.)

52 years later, and we have another, fairly different massacre by the police at the Marikana mine. Not all the facts are in yet, but it's different in a few obvious ways. First, the cops there weren't nearly as badly outnumbered, with something close to even numbers of cops and striking miners. Modern cops are also much better equipped, with body armour and a variety of non-lethal devices. Second, this wasn't a sudden one-day event, but had been building up over at least a week. This meant the cops had much more time to prepare a response and diffuse the situation peacefully, but also seems to have given them more time to get scared, jumpy, paranoid. This is because, third, the miners here hadn't been quite as peaceful as the residents of Sharpeville, with several incidents of violence and murder, plus lots of posturing with sticks and other cheap melee weapons. I can't condone that. But I also can't accept that 3,000 people all murdered only 6, or even that most of them would have, given the chance. They are all human, after all.

Fourth, media coverage was better this week, and the massacre itself was well documented. I don't feel like linking to the videos here, because it's just horrible to watch. If you feel you need to see it first-hand, it should be easy enough to find on various news sites. In summary, a group of (I'd estimate) 50-100 miners came rushing down the small hill where they'd been camped towards the police and, with about 100m between the two groups, the cops opened up with a barrage of live rounds, several using R5 rifles, directly into the group of miners. It's clear from the video that, with the speed at which it all happened and all the dust that was quickly kicked up, nobody could effectively aim at any specific targets, and with the sheer number of bullets flying, most of those miners were hit and at least 34 are now dead and 78 injured.

Again, not all the facts are clear yet, but there are a few possibilities. As far as the miners are concerned, it's possible they were genuinely attacking, somehow deluded into thinking that a long history of missile weapons trumping melee weapons in headlong charges wouldn't apply to them. It's also possible that they thought they could just scare the cops off without having to fight. Both would be stupid decisions with the full benefit of hindsight, but it is possible that they felt cornered and desperate enough to be stupid, since the police had earlier openly threatened that they'd not tolerate the miners' presence any longer. And it's possible they were just going to put on an angry song and dance for the news cameras, symbolically undermining the police presence. I don't know which of those is true, or even if it was something else entirely. And if I, with the benefit of multiple replays from multiple angles while sitting in the comfort and safety of my own home, can't even begin to guess, then I can't see how the cops could have known any better in the few seconds they had to react. I doubt they would all have been thinking the same thing, and there may have been similar ambiguity among the miners about why they were coming down the hill.

But similarly, it's hard to be sure what the cops were thinking. Some blasted away like mad, while some didn't seem to fire at all, standing in place stunned or ducking for cover. If there were any warning shots fired by the police, they were drowned out by the lethal ones. After a while, someone started calling for a ceasefire, which not all the cops were quick to adhere to. There was reportedly a total of 2 or 3 minutes of major gunfire, so there must have been more shooting beyond the footage I've seen. And I'm also told, though haven't seen it myself, that there's footage of one cop vomiting, possibly from the stress or the shock or the gory aftermath. There's a lot of unknowns in that, but it seems clear enough that the cops were surprised and not well coordinated or disciplined enough.

I would like to suggest what I feel is a likely course of events: The miners rushed down the hill. The surprised cops shat themselves and opened fire in panic. Over 30 people died. That is all.

There's been a lot of talk about who fired the first shot. It's not clear in the footage I've seen. I'm not sure it matters in the big picture. The vast majority of miners clearly didn't have guns, hadn't had guns all week, which means any shots from their side, whether accidental or posturing or intended to harm, would have come from a small minority and the reaction against them should have been equally limited. Opening fire indiscriminately on the whole crowd was guaranteed to kill innocent people. Similarly, there are claims that grenades were thrown at the police, but nothing explodes noticeably on the videos, and even if a dud was lobbed, it couldn't have been lobbed by all 50+ of the miners. More likely, I'd guess someone threw rocks. And if the miners definitely didn't shoot first (or perhaps at all), then the police simply shot first and thought later.

Absolutely none of that is behaviour I'm willing to tolerate from my police service.

I can understand the fear those cops must have felt, but it doesn't excuse a blind-panic massacre. At worst, those responsible should be charged with murder, and at best, they should be sacked (if they don't break down and quit first, like my relative's friend). They clearly can't do the job properly.

This is not to say the violent strikers are forgiven. They allegely killed 6 people directly and thus bear at least some responsibility for the deaths and injuries of many times as many more, whether they sparked the massacre on Thursday or merely swayed the situation towards it. This minority really needs to face the courts, and the rest of the miners should seriously consider turning their violent colleagues in, partly to earn public trust and partly because it's the right thing to do. And while I can understand their need to show some symbolic strength by talking big and carrying those sticks and knives around with them, it further depletes the public perception that they're the victims getting fucked over, and it gives the bad seeds the impression that their violence is widely accepted, which it shouldn't be. But I don't think either of those steps are likely to be taken now; they're too full of fear, anger and testosterone.

At the same time, I do sympathise with the majority of striking miners who refrained from violence. They earn no more than R4,000 (US$500) a month, which is not a proper living wage, especially for what is undeniably hard and dangerous work. I make about the same - though working far fewer hours and in relatively luxurious surroundings; I have a chair and a window with a nice view of trees - and I can't live independently on that (I'm lucky enough to have parents willing and able to help me out; this is rightfully their internet I'm writing on). If I had even one dependent to pay for, as many of the miners (many humans in general) do, it'd be a total joke of a salary. The miners' demand for a real salary, <sarcasm>to make as much as those terribly overpaid professions like teaching and firefighting</sarcasm>, is perfectly fair, especially when you consider that Lonmin, their employer, had a net income of US$321 million last year. They had 27,800 employees. My accounting is rusty, but isn't that over US$11,000 net income per employee, or more than 11 times the increase the miners were asking for? So the money is definitely there. Where does it go? You could look at Lonmin's CEO, Ian Farmer, who pulled close to US$2 million from Lonmin in one year, or over 300 times as much as the miners who do almost all the real work in this mining company. I wouldn't put all the blame for the workers' shit salaries on Farmer alone, though. That wouldn't be fair, I just picked the CEO first as an obvious example of a big boss. There's a whole bunch of those overpaid shitheads to pick from.

A lot of people on all sides have done horrible things here. But I think the greatest part of my fury is reserved for the senior ranks of the SAPS and the government officials above them. I may not be an expert on policing, but I do happen to know a thing or three about conflict resolution, and the SAPS has shown no interest in applying or participating in anything more than bullying people into "order". And I don't just mean this week at Marikana. Heavy-handed "shoot to kill" policing has been actively encouraged and there's been a big push to re-militarise the SAPS away from the civilising changes of the late '90s, coming down from the highest levels of government. As public protests (mainly over service delivery, which I've been meaning to write about in detail for months now) have become more frequent, so have the stories of police employed to do little more than suppress the protests, sometimes crudely and dangerously, occasionally lethally, not to mention the almost routine police corruption at all levels, from junior cops harrassing random pedestrians for bribes to the most senior police officials pocketing huge kickbacks. I sometimes feel the whole rotten institution should be disbanded and rebuilt from scratch with all new people, chosen for different traits (e.g. not being cowboys) and trained in a different direction, but there are other factors that need fixing first, or that'd just rot too.

My point is the senior police should either be broadly trained and competent enough themselves to think of something smarter than "threaten the angry crowd of thousands who've been saying they're willing to die for their cause," or they should at least have the resources and humility to bring in someone who can have those super-challenging creative thoughts for them. I could do it if pressed, but I'm really far from being the most highly-qualified conflict resolution expert. Why wasn't someone far smarter than me put in charge there?

This may have degenerated into a bit of a ramble, but I'm pissed off. It's bad enough that people suffer and get killed, but to see it defended on the news as 'necessary' and 'legal' and in any way acceptable is infuriating. To return to the top, though, we sometimes forget that we're all human, we all fuck up. I can put myself in the miners' shoes, I can put myself in the cops' shoes, I can see how they might have done horrible things without trying to be horrible. I struggle more to sympathise with the Lonmin executives and SA government and SAPS officials who caused the whole fuck-up in the first place, and I think that difference is interesting and important. The conflict on the ground was something very real and tangible; we can all imagine being shit-scared or desperate, we all know how irrational these base emotions can make us. But I can't imagine coldly making my fortune by ripping off thousands of other people or giving orders to crush the people I'm paid to care about. I'm not a perfectly nice guy, I'm also only human, but perhaps those sorts of things are not among my normal range of evils. I hope they're not.

Fuck it all. Let's at least learn the right lessons from all this.

(EDIT: For late readers looking for a more up-to-date picture of what happened, I've found this to be an interesting read.)

Thursday, 16 August 2012

Astronyms, part 1: Soviet/Russian Condoms

This is part of this series of posts on the history of spacecraft naming.

Way back in February 2012, I started working on a post intended primarily for my friend Jordan, after we'd had a brief exchange about the naming of the Mercury capsules, because of a thing he'd posted about the 50th anniversary of John Glenn's first orbit. I set out to write a brief summary of the history of spacecraft naming conventions, examining how changes in names have reflected changes in goals and attitudes, but it got out of hand and so it still isn't finished, even though I'm really only looking at names and even though there have  been less than 200 human-crewed spacecraft, most of which have not been individually named. Now I've decided I'd better break it into smaller chunks and release them once a week or so as I learn more.

I should possibly explain right from the start my personal system of categorising spacecraft. I recognise 5 categories: Space Condoms, Space Planes, Drop Ships, Space Ships and Space Stations. These are defined primarily according to how they land on the surface of a planet or moon. I'm also only interested here in vessels that have an onboard pilot and crew, not drones, probes, satellites or automated/remote-controlled tourist carriers.
  • Space condoms are single-use, disposable vessels; you use them once, hope they protect you, and then you throw them away (or put them on display in a museum). It's a perfect analogy, and most of our spacecraft so far have been of this type.
  • Space planes are reusable vessels designed to fly and land like conventional aircraft using some sort of wings. Pretty obvious. We've had some success with these, but they come with a lot more complications. Vessels that land as helicopters, which haven't been successfully tried yet, would also fit in as a subtype here.
  • Drop ships are reusable vessels that can't keep themselves flying aerodynamically, but can still safely land and get launched again. The Apollo LM was arguably an example of this, arguably, and some future designs like the Dragon V2 are supposed to be able to operate like this one day. (Hypothetically, the Intrepid class, relying on antigravity generators to stay airborne, would fit in this category.)
  • Space ships are those intended to get you from A to B, so long as neither A nor B involve landing on a planet. You could sub-divide these further into interplanetary, interstellar, intergalactic, etc. But we've never had any of these at all. (Hypothetically, the Galaxy class, unable to land or fly atmospherically, fits this category. Its emergency-landing saucer section may be considered a space condom.)
  • Space stations also don't land (on purpose), but are different because they're not supposed to leave A (where A is some constant orbit), with only minimal thrusters to support station-keeping. We've had more of these than space planes so far.

With those basics cleared up, let's look at some Mother Russian spacecraft. Today we'll be limiting ourselves to space condoms, which make up the bulk of Soviet- and Russian-produced spacecraft.

In the Soviet/Russian system, each class of vessel gets a name (e.g. the Soyuz class), each mission gets a name-number combo (e.g. Soyuz 11), but there is (almost) never any unique vessel name, and the radio call sign is attached to the crew members, not the vessel, with each cosmonaut assigned a personal call sign (often something bland like a type of stone or constellation, e.g. Almaz, meaning diamond, or Antares, a star), and with each vessel referred to by its commander's call sign (so, also Almaz or Antares in this example). The other crew members are known by both their own personal call sign and as subordinates of the commander's call sign (e.g. Antares-1 on one flight can be the same guy as Eridanus-2 on another flight; on yet another flight, Eridanus-2 can be someone else, but Eridanus-1 will always be the same cosmonaut and Antares-1 will always be the same, other cosmonaut). Russian call signs stick with each commanding cosmonaut until retirement, and are then recycled to a new cosmonaut, so there can be a few called Almaz are not [were never] recycled, [until Misurkin took over the Altair callsign from Padalka on the Soyuz MS-06 mission].

[EDIT: There's also the GRAU index, a standardised coding and recording of all Russian military equipment. Soviet and Russian spacecraft and rockets fall under this system, and so all have GRAU numbers, which would make looking them up super easy if you have a copy of the GRAU index in a language you can read. GRAU numbers usually start with a number and then a letter, and then there can be further numbers and lettes after that to tell apart sub-variants and sub-sub-variants. The Vostok spacecraft was designated 3KA, while the latest Soyuz TMA-M is 11F732A47.]

[EDIT: The designation Kosmos, followed by a number, occasionally comes up with Soviet/Russian spacecraft too. It's their generic term for anything they put in orbit, a catalogue of things they put in space that aren't important enough (or which they don't want anyone to assume are important enough) to get special names of their own. It's unusual for this to apply to something intended to carry humans.]

The class names are all quite interesting and political. They are:

[EDIT: In hindsight, I noticed I'd put a lot more detail into the write-ups of the spacecraft in parts 2 onwards than I did into these ones, so I've come back to add stuff.]

(Space condom. In space service 12 April 1961 19 August 1960 to 19 June 1963)
Vostok 3KA

Meaning 'East', or more accurately the Vostok 3KA variant, as the Vostok 1P, 1K and 2K versions didn't carry people, the 2K satellite version later being renamed Zenit ('zenith'). [EDIT: It's since been revealed that the design was actually intended as the uncrewed Zenit from the start, and the crewed Vostok was actually considered a variant of that.] This name was a pretty explicit "Fuck you!" to the West, shouting ""Hah hah! The East got to space first AGAIN!", after the initial headstart with Sputnik 1. The whole series of unpiloted missions preceding Vostok 1 were known in the ignorant West as Sputniks 4 to 10 (meaning 'satellite'), while the Soviets dubbed the Vostok 1P, 1K and unpiloted 3KA missions as Korabl-Sputnik 1 to 5 (meaning ship-satellite). Some of these also carried dogs, but unlike and like Ham and Enos of Project Mercury, they had zero control over their craft.[EDIT: To keep this post consistent with the Mercury post, I'm counting the non-human occupied Vostok missions as much as I count the Mercury chimpanzee missions; all of these had the capacity, in principle, to carry humans, and both condoms were equally capable of operating uncrewed. The full list is as follows:
  • 1K #2: Korabl-Sputnik 2, carried the dogs Belka and Strelka, a rabbit, 2 rats, 40 mice and an unspecified number of flies into orbit
  • 1K #3: Korabl-Sputnik 3, carried the dogs Pcholka & Mushka into orbit, but was intentionally destroyed to keep it from landing outside of the USSR
  • 1K #4: unnamed, carried the dogs Zhemchuzhina & Zhulka on a suborbital trajectory, due to a third stage malfunction. This was the first successful use of a launch abort system on an occupied vessel
  • 3KA #1: Korabl-Sputnik 4, carried the dog Chernushka, several guinea pigs, mice and "other specimens" into orbit. Some of the mice and guinea pigs were placed inside a humanoid dummy, which was ejected and landed separately
  • 3KA #2: Korabl-Sputnik 5, carried the dog Zvezdochka and a dummy
  • 3KA #3 to #8 were Vostoks 1 to 6, with one human crewmember each]

As a neat bit of convenience, all of these Soviet/Russian space condoms are launched on rockets - all part of the R-7 rocket family - that approximately share their name, so the Vostok 3KAs were all launched on Vostok-K rockets and the latest Soyuz TMA-Ms MSs get launched on Soyuz-FG rockets. Unlike the US system of naming rockets and spacecraft separately, this makes it really easy to know what pairs up with what, and it streamlines the entire naming process, but it does slightly obscure the relative differences between rocket variants. I don't think it makes a massive difference either way, though.

The design of the 3KA was very simple and practical. The dude inside was seated in a spherical descent capsule, probably the most solid pressure-vessel shape, which contrasted with the US's cone-shaped re-entry modules (which have the advantage of not needing a second cone-shaped adaptor around them to streamline them during launch). Attached to the back of this was a second, jettisonable module made up of all the equipment that would only be needed while in orbit. This modular vessel design stood in contrast to the all-in-one-hull Mercury design, but after Mercury this splitting became a completely standard feature of all subsequent space condoms. If you're going to dispose of the whole thing anyway, then you might as well make the landing parachutes' job easier.

Three occupied 1Ks were launched, only two successfully, and one of those two was intentionally destroyed by mission control before landing. Eight occupied Vostok 3KAs flew once each successfully.

(Space condom. In space service 12 October 1964 to 16 March 1966)

Voskhod 3KV (top) and Voskhod 3KD (bottom)

Meaning 'Sunrise', and again should properly be called Voskhod 3KV and 3KD in full, to distinguish between the first vessel (which is pretty much a Vostok 3KA with a different interior for more seats and a back-up retro-rocket stuck on the front) and the second (which is the same, plus a jettisonable, inflatable airlock for the first ever spacewalk). The name is in the same theme of giving the West the finger, cleverly sounding as similar as it looked to the Vostok class, but with a slightly more nuanced and poetic touch.

The Voskhod spacecraft was launched on a Voskhod rocket.

Only one of each Voskhod variant went up [with humans], once each, both times successfully. [EDIT: Another 3KV, named Kosmos 110, went up successfully with the dogs Veterok and Ugolyok, after the human flights had ended.]

(Space condom. In space service 23 April 1967 to present)
Top row: Soyuz 7K-OK(A), Soyuz 7K-OKS, Soyuz 7K-T, Soyuz 7K-TM
Middle row: Soyuz-T, Soyuz-TM, Soyuz-TMA, Soyuz-TMA-M
Bottom row: Soyuz-MS

Meaning 'Union', there are actually 8 9 [main] variants of this long-serving super-class: Soyuz 7K-OK [in both (A) and (P) sub-variants, for active and passive docking partners, [plus a one-off observer variant with no docking capability for Soyuz 6]], Soyuz 7K-OKS [also known as Soyuz 7KT-OK], Soyuz 7K-T [which included a one-off solar panel sub-variant for Soyuz 13, as well as the 7K-T/A9 sub-variant for docking with Almaz stations], Soyuz 7K-TM, Soyuz-T, Soyuz-TM, Soyuz-TMA, Soyuz-TMA-M, and Soyuz-MS. Frankly, it's not much of a cataloguing system, but I don't think it was planned so much as gradually evolved, as plans fell away and new requirements emerged. There are probably more major differences between the earliest 7K-OK and the latest TMA-M MS, than there are between Vostok 3KA and Voskhod 3KV, and yet I've still lumped the Soyuzes all into one big pile instead of splitting them apart as I did with Vostok and Voskhod. The name 'Union' was less of a West-shaming one and more of a Soviet-boosting one, referring quite plainly to the Soviet Union, since it was pretty clear they weren't referring to the Union that beat the Confederacy.

[EDIT: I'm trying to gradually translate all the letters attached to each Soyuz variant, and my rough guide so far looks like this (if a knowledgable Russian-speaker wants to steer me more accurately, please do):
OK - Orbitalny Korabl - orbital vessel, orbiter
S - Sistema - system (in MS; not sure about earlier variants with S in)
T - Transportnyi - transport, or sometimes inaccurately ferry, indicating primarily station service
M - Modifitsirovannyi - modified (I'm not sure if this also applies to the second M in TMA-M)
or M - Modernizirovannaya - modernised (in MS)
A - Antropometricheskii - anthropometric, because of a NASA request for expanded crew limits]

[EDIT: I count two Soyuzes where the vessel itself received a name of its own. Soyuz 19 was called Soyuz (to match the American Apollo of the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project), and this was in place of the usual crew call sign. Soyuz TMA-21 used the crew call sign Tarkhany, but was also named Gagarin, in celebration of the 50th anniversary of Yuri's flight.]

[EDIT: In a naming policy shift that I don't yet know much about, the crew of Soyuz MS-04 were permitted to name their own vessel for the first time in Russian spaceflight. So while their crew call sign remained Olimp, their vessel got the unique name Argo, which they have explicitly stated is named after the vessel from the myth of Jason and Argonauts.]

The basic design was a 3-module hull, with the spherical re-entry module of Vostok replaced with a bell-shaped one in the center, with a much longer equipment module (with solar panel 'wings') behind it, and a spherical orbital module in front of it, to give the crew more room to work in and to serve as a docking point with other spacecraft. There are also a bunch of Soyuzes that were never put into service (including ones for their aborted Moon-landing project) and an unpiloted cargo version, the Progress class, is pretty much exactly a Soyuz minus the people facilities. It's generally agreed that the Chinese Shenzhou class is another Soyuz variant. There have been several different subtypes of the Soyuz sub-family of rockets that have carried the various Soyuz space condoms into space.

Two of the earliest Soyuz flights ended horribly, with their crews killed. Soyuz 1 crashed to Earth with a faulty parachute, because of incredibly stupid engineering short-cutting. Soyuz 11 had successful docked with Salyut 1, making it the first occupied space station, but on their return to Earth, the Soyuz suffered a fatal decompression when the orbital and descent modules separated. Since then, the Soviets and Russians haven't lost a single person in space, though there have been a couple of Progresses lost recently. [EDIT: Two Soyuzes did have launch failures, but both capsules with both crews actually survived. A Soyuz 7K-T, known by the informal, unofficial mission code of Soyuz 18A or Soyuz 18-1, had a staging failure when it was already in space, so the mission was aborted. Later, Soyuz T-10A (or T-10-1) suffered a fire on the launch pad and the escape system launched the crew capsule free shortly before the launcher exploded. The T-10A re-entry module was later re-used as part of Soyuz T-15, probably the only Soyuz to fly twice, though only once to space.] [EDIT: I keep finding more bits. Apparently, Soyuz 5 experienced a dangerous re-entry incident, but survived.] [EDIT: More bits. Soyuz TMA-1 had a somewhat dodgy re-entry, but then both TMA-10 and TMA-11 both experienced similar near-disasters to the Soyuz 5 re-entry fuck-up. It's hard to judge if the TMAs were just abnormally lucky to have no fatalities, or if it's a compliment to the Soyuz design that even with such major malfunctions, it still brought everyone home.] [EDIT: Soyuz MS-10 had a launch failure, as yet unexplained. Both crew escaped and survived. Details pending.]

Combined, the Soyuz class vessels are by far the most numerous Earth has produced and yet, flying only once each, still flew 21 missions fewer than finally got as many missions into space as the 5 space shuttle orbiters, in September 2017.

By variant, they flew:
Soyuz 7K-OK (23 April 1967 to 19 June 1970): 8 flights, 1 fatally destroyed.
Soyuz 7K-OKS (22 April 1971 to 30 June 1971): 2 flights, 1 fatally destroyed.
Soyuz 7K-T (27 September 1973 to 22 May 1981): 26 flights, all successful [except for the safely aborted Soyuz 18A].
Soyuz 7K-TM (22 December 1974 to 23 September 1976): 3 flights, all successful.
Soyuz-T (5 June 1980 to 16 July 1986): 14 flights, all successful. [Additionally, Soyuz T-10A exploded non-lethally on the launch pad.]
Soyuz-TM (5 February 1987 to 10 November 2002): 33 flights, all successful.
Soyuz-TMA (30 October 2002 to 27 April 2012): 22 flights, all successful.
Soyuz-TMA-M (7 October 2010 to 7 September 2016): 5 20 flights, 3 all successful.
Soyuz-MS (7 July 2016 to present): 1 15 flights, 13 succesful, 2 still in orbit. [MS-10's launch was safely aborted following a first stage failure, without reaching space.]

So that's 113 143 flights, with 2 3 failures that reached space, 1 major pre-flight failure, 1 failure below space, and 2 incomplete. It seems likely Soyuzes will still be with us for the rest of the decade, serving perhaps beyond a full 50 years in one form or another.

I reserve the right to add the list of cosmonaut callsigns to this post at a later date, but frankly they were chosen for their unremarkableness and they were pretty successful. If the point of this exercise is to explore the motives behind names, then we're done. If we want to look at the meanings of names, we're wasting our time in this case, since the meanings are intentionally of random words.

[EDIT: I finally broke down and did the cosmonaut callsign list.]

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Quick and dirty Spelljammer for D&D Next

Spelljammer is one of the more interesting and original setting and rules expansions for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, but it hasn't been officially supported for over a decade, since the 2nd edition of the game was replaced with the 3rd. Often summed up as D&D in space, Spelljammer gives a means and possible motives for a standard dungeon-crawlin' adventuring party to fly a ship (like, literally, a boat, though often an oddly shaped one) out into space by magical means to have nautical-themed space adventures.

That crash-summary really doesn't do it justice, as this relatively simple mechanical change has a huge effect on the scope and feel of the game, especially with a GM who knows how to use it. It opened up doors for whole new races and gave great new depth to some older ones. And since its core is just a relatively simple rules mod, it should be easy enough to adapt it for a different set of rules. This has already been done (unofficially) for D&D 3rd Ed., and I ran a game a couple years ago that spent a couple sessions toying with that. Or more specifically, this:

The Dragonfly-class spelljammer my group hired from some Githyanki pirates in Sigil to rescue a party member who'd swapped bodies with a time traveller from the Illithid homeworld in the distant past. I thought we'd better start simple.

D&D Next is the public playtest of what is due to become 5th edition, and my group have been taking part in it. I like it so far, it's simple and streamlined and doesn't wank over combat so much like 4th ed. did. But I'd like to see how well it works beyond the standard Tolkienesque medieval setting the developers have (quite naturally) focused on. So I thought I'd try mashing it up with old Spelljammer for a couple of sessions.

A couple rules changes are necessary, and this is my summary of those. I'm only covering the bare essentials of conversion for now, so that it's playable but I don't waste days or weeks of effort making a perfect fit for rules that aren't set in stone yet anyway. I'll post an actual play report once we've had a chance to try it out, and if anyone else tries this, I'd be interested in your feedback too. I'm working with the 13 August 2012 D&D Next test pack.

Casters & Spelljammer Rating
How fast a ship goes, its ship's rating (SR) is derived from the magical ability of the magic caster sitting in its special spelljammer helm. For the D&D Next rules, assume this works the same way it did in the Spelljammer rules of old, with the following modifications:
  1. Add up all the caster levels a character has, both arcane and divine, to calculate SR; ignore any levels in non-caster classes.
  2. Using a spelljamming helm counts as using all non-cantrip/orison spell slots for the day until you've had a long  (8 hour) rest. Cantrips and orisons, the sub-level 1 Minor Spells, being both weak and unlimited, are still available to the caster. (I think this should keep things balanced, placing a significant cost on space travel, while allowing mages to retain some usefulness in off-ship encounters without having to schedule a long nap every time they stop.)
  3. Characters without any caster levels but with a magicky Specialisation (Acolyte, Magic-User, Necromancer) gain an SR of 1 that cannot be increased by any means, while operating within a crystal sphere. They are unable to spelljam in the Phlogiston at all. Characters with one or more caster levels gain no SR benefit for having these specialisations.
Ship Vital Stats
Some of the core ship stats can go unchanged, others need rejiggling, as follows:

Built By / Used Primarily By: Stays the same, though obviously a lot of races aren't available for Next yet.

Tonnage: Stays the same.

Hull Points: Stays the same, I think. Some seem a little low for such large vessels, so this will be something to test more thoroughly. (EDIT: There are a few options for calculating to-human-scale HP here listed under 'Ships in Wildspace', but I feel those are overly complicated for a quick conversion like mine, so I'm going to take a wild swing and offer the following crude conversion formula: New HP = Tonnage x Hardness - see 'Saves As', below. This should keep things roughly in line with the revised heavy weapon damages I suggest below, although it might make the duplicated use of Hardness redundant, especially for metal ships. See Edit to 'Saves As'.)

Crew: Stays the same.

Manuevrability Class: Stays the same. I also think it might be appropriate to give ships with an MC 2 or more grades better than an opposing ship Advantage to at least some combat rolls, but I'm not sure what. I'll have to play with this a bit more and see what goes in testing.

Landing - Ground/Water: Stays the same.

Armour Rating: 20 - old AR = new AR.

Saves As:  No equivalent of item saves in Next, and since the 2nd ed. rule this is based on is totally defunct now (and was a lame rule to begin with), I propose borrowing the Hardness rule from 3rd ed. (see PHB table 9-9: Substance Hardness and Hit Points, and look for the best match to your ship's Item Save material type). For those few who missed 3rd ed., Hardness is basically how much damage is ignored per hit by iterms made from different substances. (EDIT: In this case, only use it for saving against non-combat damage, since Hardness is also already built into Hull Points.)

Power Type: Stays the same.

Ship's Rating: Stays the same, plus new caster rules above.

Standard Armament: Stays the same, I guess, except there are no siege weapon rules in Next yet. GMs should improvise. I haven't seen any official siege weapon stats in 3rd or 4th eds, so my best guess is to borrow damage rolls from FantasyCraft's table 4.24: Siege Weapons. This should be at the right scale for individual character damage, but then the standard Hull Points definitely seem too low, even with Hardness added in. (EDIT: Alternatively, there's this table of weapons, specifically for Spelljammer.)

Cargo: Stays the same.

Keel, Beam: Stays the same.

Crew Rating: A slight simplification, there are now only three ratings, Green, Average and Trained, ditching Crack for now. Green crews give a Disadvantage to the ship's Initiative (and any other ship-handling checks the GM thinks appropriate), Average crews have no effect, and Trained crews give Advantage to Initiative (and whatever else the GM likes).

EDIT: You can read about our initial attempt at playtesting these rules here.

Saturday, 11 August 2012

In which I say nice things about my friends

Anyone can be your friend. You just need to hang around them long enough.
 - Will McKenzie, The Inbetweeners

I have some fantastic friends. Loyal, smart, funny, interesting, generous, gorgeous, creative, talented and accomplished: They've all got several of those traits, and a surprising number have them all and more. If I could fake modesty, I might wonder aloud how I managed to gather such a fine collection. But even admitting that I'm a pretty fine fellow myself, I also have to admit that I'm still pretty damn lucky.

My ability to make new friends is about as non-existent as my ability to get laid on purpose, in that I have no idea how it works in practise and can't initiate it on my own. Fortunately, it's much easier to make friends by osmosis and I've met lots of great people without ever setting out to, and even being distant and guarded at first. And once someone's been officially filed in the 'Friend' category of my brain, I have trouble ever thinking of them as anything less, perhaps because I have a bit of a twisted, optimistic, cartoon understanding of how friendship should work, with no sane reason ever enough to want to permanently give up on them.

Reality's gradually taught me that things might sometimes be otherwise. The least unsettling is that sometimes people just grow apart. That's not so bad; I can still have fond thoughts of someone and wish them all the best even if they're far away and we haven't had anything in common since childhood or whenever. David Mitchell has a slightly extreme but more or less valid perspective on this:

But then there are occasionally people who decide they no longer want anything to do with you ever again. I think "forsake" is the right verb for that action. It's taken me decades to get used to the fact that some people don't assume the inherent permanence of friendship that I do. Sure, I have and/or cause fights with people, sometimes very serious fights. But nobody's perfect, especially me, and I can't accept that inevitable, healthy conflict over specific issues voids the value of the good times and the general nice feelings we share. Apparently, there are people who... I don't know. Can't drop a grudge? Aren't willing to risk any conflict? Weren't even invested in the friendship in the first place? I don't know.

One other twist is that I think I might be unusually bad at judging how much to invest in active friendships. Sometimes I lean towards Cable Guyian over-enthusiasm, sometimes I worry unreasonably that my very existence might be too much of a bother to burden someone with, and sometimes I'm just negligent, for various reasons. I suppose everyone strays into those things, especially the over- and under-enthusiasm bits. I just feel, in a very subjective, evidence-free, anecdotal sort of way that I'm extra bad about this. (Huh. Writing it out like this, maybe I'm too harsh on myself. Typical stupid me!) Seriously though, I do sometimes wish people would spell out exactly what my friendly duties are. And I guess I could let people know what I want in more specific terms; let me begin by saying I miss getting thoroughly drunk with fun people and that I lament the so-called "grown-up" turn a lot of my social circle has taken recently. But that's maybe a topic for a later post, if not direct personal communication with the relevant people.

The advent of online friendship is probably also worth writing about, since future generations will probably just take it for granted. It used to be that you had to physically bump meat with people before becoming friends with them, except for the odd and little-respected pen pal hobby. Then, in the early years of the onlineyverse, you could meet interesting foreign people from all over, but probably only if you already had something in common, and if either of you drifted away from the sites you both used (forums, mainly), the odds of keeping in touch plummeted. The main advantage of social networking sites, when they were finally developed into useful and distinct things, is that they gave us somewhere to keep track of all these distant, disembodied people, even when we change specialised online habits and hobbies and hobbits.

I've always been slightly taken aback when I notice that a new and unknown person has started showing signs of becoming a friend. But it's even odder to me when it happens online now, because it's so much more sudden and blatant: "Bob has sent you a friend request." Really? Who the fuck is Bob? Friends are nice, but aren't you supposed to at least know someone before becoming friends? But of course, the old offliney words don't really fit properly, as we never had a word for the act of hanging around someone who seems vaguely interesting, in the hope that mere association will develop into friendship. But my initial surprise aside, I've met some fantastic people online like this. Or rather, they've met me, as I'm still no good at initiating things. But it is easier after that, since friendship is not fundamentally about any of your meat lumps except for the one in your skull, and that's all that shows online. (And I have some lovely skull-meat.)

On review, this post seems a wee bit sterile to me, since I've intentionally left it free of specific examples. I have a million friend-related memories I could have thrown in here, from the distant, fuzzy half-memories of Golliwog Nursery School, through the eternity of subsequent academic settings, to the strange vivid hours rolling polyhedrons for thrills, in a million fictional places in games, on screen and in our imaginations, and ultimately always the best memories that are just of happy thoughts people have stashed in nondescript corners of my mind. But if you were there, then you already know what I'm talking about. And if you weren't, then it won't mean enough to you to matter.

In summary, friends good. Let's all be friends and not be not-friends. The practical prerequisites do bear further discussion, though. Also, more beer.

Thursday, 9 August 2012

Consilience #57: Me, a trilogy in five episodes

Call that a mohawk? I had one easily 30cm high,
without needing performance-enhancing gel!
I'm audible for the fifth time. I've heard several sources recommending that the way to make a good podcast is to record five full episodes and then throw them all out, before starting to record any intended for public consumption. So I guess I'm now officially qualified to cast pod in a reasonably un-shit way. Disregard anything I say in this Consilience and all the ones I was in before it, and I'll be super awesomely good in the next one (presumably #63ish, judging by emerging patterns).

As always, Owen and the Meadons were good fun, and I got to meet young Carl too, who seems to be smaller than the average human. I may have to consider getting him stilts for his birthday, in about 10 months' time. It was a little odd not being the one to bring the astronomy/astronautics stories for a change, with the landing of Curiosity being an obvious headliner and the Brahe history segment also out of my hands. I intentionally avoided space stuff to compensate.

Also, travel anecdote: On the way home, I ended up parallel to a high-speed police chase, with a cop car (peculiarly without lights or sirens going) chasing a small, white car, which had reversed out at speed onto the main road in front of me, kicking up dirt from the pavement as it launched off it, then swinging 90 degrees and zooming off, with the cops on its tail. Oddly, a block later I passed a second cop driving serenely in the opposite direction, clearly not interested in participating in any chases, perhaps not even aware of it.

You can find the file and the show notes for #57 here:

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

Podcasts Yews May Enjoy

If there's one thing that's kept my brain from turning to mush since I left varsity, it's podcasts. I was last a full-time student in 2006, and it was sometime in 2007 that my good friend Damon discovered podcasts and started sharing them with me, manually, on a little 256MB memory stick, since the internet back then was like a post-apocalyptic world several generations after the apocalyptic event; it had developed some good places offering good things, but getting between them was still awkward. (This cumbersome analogy sponsored by my dread of how bad Mad Max 4 will be.)

I couldn't tell you Damon's exact podcast genesis, he may not have given things to me in the order that he discovered them. But I do know that the first two podcasts I ever heard are still my favourite two today. They are The Skeptic's Guide to the Universe and The Bugle.

The Skeptic's Guide (or SGU) wasn't the very first skeptical podcast, but it was an early one and it's grown into the absolute, objectively best source of science and skepticism news and opinion that can be poured directly into your ears. The three Novella brothers are all wonderful humans, all very different from each other, but all so well-informed and articulate and fun. Rebecca Watson is equally awesome (if I had been told she was their sister, Rebecca Novella, I wouldn't have been surprised in the least) and she's certainly served her initially intended function of making the show suitable for all genders. Evan Bernstein is less exciting to me, but he's not actually a negative element and I'd be sad (if only due to sentiment) to see him go. And if you go back far enough in the archives, you'll find episodes that include the late Perry DeAngelis, who was a much more aggressive sort of fun. They do an annual meeting and live recording of the show in his name now.

The whole show is expertly made (and it should be, with over 360 episodes recorded so far) and they've found a perfect balance between serious education and reporting, and light fun and silliness. If you don't love listening to the SGU, then I have to reject your friendship and gifts of dangerous animals.

The Bugle ("Audio newspaper for a visual world"; "Fuck you, Chris!") gives me similar emotions and memories, but looked at objectively, it doesn't have much in common with the SGU. The Bugle is a British news-mocking show, similar to the Daily Show or the Colbert Report, but more British. Its two hosts, Andy Zaltzmann and John Oliver, are first and foremost stand-up comedians, though far better suited, I think, to the podcast medium. John Oliver (which was coincidentally the legal name of my matric maths teacher, though he went by his middle name of Tom instead, which in turn was the name of The Bugle's first and most Scottish producer) is also a regular on the Daily Show and carries over a lot of that show's sarcastic, ridiculing style to The Bugle. Andy, on the other hand, is unique. I've never seen anyone who can so effortlessly make up the biggest possible lies, except perhaps the insane Spike Milligan, and his record-breaking puns are masterpieces. I can't easily compare Andy to any other comedian.

The net result is like having the Goons (or the Pythons, minus visuals) present the news to you through performance art. And I don't just mean "funny," because then I could have said it was like having any old comedian read you the news. I mean it's intelligent and insightful AND funny. And being smart makes it even funnier. Their creative numbering system means they're officially on episode 203 now, and yet I have 254 episodes of theirs in my collection.

But apart from those two, there's not much correlation between when I first heard a podcast and how much I like it. Consilience, for example, is still relatively new and yet I can definitely list it in my top 3, and not just because they let me talk about spaceships. They copied the basic model of the SGU, and I think that's worked well. It's not as professional and refined yet, but it's still good to have more of the same, but covering (usually) different topics. The hosts have been a bit varied recently, due to Meadon-spawning season, but the core trio of the Meadons and Owen Swart works well. I feel like I'm the weakest among the guest hosts so far, but at least I don't have Danny Kopping's fucking painful sense of humour. One decision the Consilientists made that distinguishes them from the SGU, and which I approve of, is to be completely open and natural about "naughty" words, primarily fuck. Think of it as a step in the same direction as Penn & Teller: Bullshit. It's the only SGU policy that really annoys me.

Let me also briefly mention Skeptoid and Planetary Radio.

Skeptoid is another old-ish skeptical podcast, but with a very different model. Instead of a longer news and interviews show, its lone host, Brian Dunning, just does quick (5-10 minute) crash-examinations of the evidence surrounding a single claim or phenomenon. It's very useful for getting the basics in a rush, which makes it useful for sharing with random people when you're discussing that specific thing with them, but it's not as "filling" as the longer shows and I find something a little bit annoying about Dunning's manner of speech.

Planetary Radio is the official podcast of the Planetary Society, established by Carl Sagan & friends, and currently headed by Bill Nye, who regularly appears in the podcast. You should now already be completely sold on it. It's very professional and a bit more formal than the SGU, but light-hearted enough, and has probably the most highly-degreed set of hosts, with multiple PhD's and I think only the main host, Mat Kaplan, having less than a master's degree. Unfortunately, I have to admit that astronomy just isn't always the most exciting topic for a purely audio show, and it's not always easy to be as engrossed by it as these excellent, hard-working hosts deserve.