Sunday, 3 November 2013

Back to the Front

In the pattern of the last two seasons of our Star Trek roleplaying campaign that I run for the Joburg crew of the USS Dauntless, this is the now-traditional inter-season post. It's pretty damn late, considering we ended the last season at the end of July, but better late than stuck in Pretoria forever. (Because I'm leaving Pretoria! Huzzah!)

The third season (confusingly but officially known as season 1 of the Edge of Apocalypse sub-series; a million points to the first person to correctly guess the title I've already picked for the next sub-series) focused on the Dominion War, in parallel with Deep Space 9's 6th season. This ongoing war storyline was a major shift in style for the episodic and peace-loving Star Trek franchise, but it was handled really well and ended up fitting perfectly. It contrasted starkly with the awkward and largely pointless Bajoran religious plot thread the series had tried to mangle in from the start.

It's hard to judge how well my plots have fitted into the grander scheme of the war, but then it wasn't quite meant to. The pressed convicts left over from the earlier Maquis sub-series were intended to go off on sneaky covert operations, a Dirty Dozen in space. They've been doing Starfleet's odd-jobs and dirty work, using an even older, clunkier starship than the one they stole acquired back in their Maquis days. I sent them off to subvert diplomacy and snatch up psychopathic telepaths; I had a big blob creature swallow their ship; I threw swarms of Jem'Hadar at them, and even occasional Tribbles and Borg. Oh, and Hobbits. In return, my players blasted whole mountains to lava, re-introduced dread diseases and stoically kept their old clunker in combat against terrible odds, fighting (and winning) til their ship was no better than scrap.

Pac-amoeba wants delicious subspace field

I was also impressed at the improving quality of character roleplaying I'm seeing. We've been at it for nearly a year now, so I guess everyone's quite familiar with their characters. In fact, our next scheduled session, the start of the next season, will be a day short of the campaign's first anniversary.

The next season starts from an interesting cliffhanger. Our crew, while sneaking around behind enemy lines in the Gamma Quadrant, have had their ship shot out from under them and then the Bajoran wormhole leading back to the Alpha Quadrant vanished before they could flee through it. I look forward to seeing how they get out of this mess. If they do, they get rewarded with a shiny new Intrepid class starship, which will be nice.

We're also getting a new venue, moving into the shiny new DeeTwenty gaming club, because it's awesome [EDIT: I no longer associate with DeeTwenty and can not endorse it in any way]. This does imply some cost per player, but technically we've been putting the cost entirely on whoever our host has been up til now. And it's not like it's very much, especially once you account for the free coffee and myriad other activities the club offers. I'm planning on going there regularly for Monday night roleplaying, monthly Skeptics in the Club, Sunday morning Attack Wing, and whenever the generic boardgames sessions end up happening (I guess any time we feel like it?). There's also been some initial talk of getting a Warhammer group set up, which could get me back into that. And those are just the things I actively intend to get involved in, not the impromptu whims. So there's plenty I'll be squeezing out of my membership fee.

But I digress. Space. The final frontier. Getting back to it. In a couple weeks. It'll be great.

Sunday, 20 October 2013

The Science Defiant

This is Star Trek in-universe conjecture, because I don't feel like doing my grocery shopping. Non-geeks may not pass this point.

The Defiant class made sense, but only in its very specific context. In Kirk's day, Starfleet had a slightly more military feel, especially during the last couple decades of the 23rd century (the Movie era, all-red uniform years), because of pressure from the Klingons and Romulans. But Starfleet's best ships were good matches for the best Klingon or Romulan ships, their captains and crews were more broadly trained, and the peaceful Federation was generally much more appealing to neutral parties. By the end of the 23rd century, it was clear that the Federation was becoming dominant, and everyone was forced to reign in their paranoia and mistrust, even Chekov. On the scale of grand strategy, the multi-purpose Starfleet explorer vessels outclassed the dedicated warships.

In the early 24th century, this philosophy is more thoroughly embraced, culminating in the Galaxy class, a master of all trades, well suited to supporting the ever-vaster Federation in every conceivable way. Romulan and Klingon attempts to keep up any sort of arms race during this period seem mainly symbolic, with little real conflict left. The Cardassians start a long-lasting scrap, but there's never any sense that it's considered more than a well-contained and distant border dispute to the Federation (except from the point of view of the frontier colonists living out there).

Then the Borg arrive and Starfleet freaks the fuck out. One Borg ship wipes out 38 of theirs in one battle and Earth is almost lost. Panic! Build warships!

Wait, it's five years later, maybe the Borg aren't coming back, let's slow down the arms race again. What's this? The Dominion? Yet another vast and powerful aggressor that can pop up on our borders with ease!? And their ships, while not crazy Borg powerful, are still clearly more potent than Starfleet's best, and they're available in swarms. Panic! Build lots of warships!

In the short term, dedicated warships like the Defiant class and the Klingons' vessels clearly did make a difference during the Dominion War, holding the line. But the bigger picture is that both the Borg and the Dominion were ultimately tamed by brains, not brawn. The smaller, general-purpose explorer USS Voyager took on the entire Delta Quadrant, Borg and all, almost entirely solo without giving up on the chance to explore as it went, and even the USS Defiant itself was frequently diverted from pure combat duty into more exploratory missions in the Alpha and Gamma quadrants, even as the big war raged. And the Federation was the better for it, despite the Defiant being poorly designed for non-combat work compared with most Starfleet vessels. Even if a purely martial version of Starfleet had been able to defeat the Dominion through force alone, that would no longer be the Federation, but the Terran Empire.

So what do you do with all the shooty Defiants after peace breaks out? A good parallel, I think, is what happened with all the leftover high-performance aircraft and rockets built for World War 2, after that conflict ended. Much of it was scrapped or sold, but a lot of the fastest, most powerful planes found uses in science and engineering, with organisations like NACA, which means those old weapons ultimately fed directly into the success of NASA. The same happened again at the close of the Cold War, with NASA inheriting a wide selection of fantastic (for the time) aircraft. Even today, NASA continues to use surplus and modified military aircraft for their non-military flying. Similar things occurred in the USSR and elsewhere too.

So, picture a Defiant class rigged for high-performance research. On the one hand, it makes a good testbed for new technology, with an over-powered warp core offering plenty of extra juice to run experimental systems. Half the tech brought home by Voyager would have needed further research and development before adoption by the rest of Starfleet, notably the quantum slipstream drive, and it would be wasteful to dedicate an entire large Galaxy or Sovereign, or even a medium-sized Intrepid, to such a specific task. The small, efficient Defiant makes a much more sensible testbed for specific systems, in much the same way that the dinky little Oberth-class Pegasus had been used as a testbed for Galaxy-class technology decades earlier.

On the other hand, how many subspace anomalies have wrecked slower, more delicate vessels? Or nearly wrecked the comparatively big, tough Enterprises? Conventional low-powered science vessels, like the Oberth and Nova classes, are great for most research projects, but sometimes you need something tough, powerful and yet expendable for particularly challenging conditions. For example, the Enterprise-B struggled to survive its encounter with the Nexus, and while the more potent Enterprises-D or -E would have had less trouble in the same situation, you'd also be risking a much larger crew, probably including hundreds of civilians. The smaller Defiant class, with its tiny crew but powerful systems, could get the same jobs done, with less risk. Just ditch some weapons and combat sensors and replace them with specialised research sensors and any other gear appropriate to the situation, and you've got exactly the right tool for the job. The word 'modular' comes to mind.

Not the right way to do it.

Both of those roles also play into one of the Defiant class's big limitations, its relatively short endurance. Sure, the warp drive and replicators can keep the crew alive for ages, but it lacks the comforts and amenities that give larger Starfleet vessels their psychological durability on long 5-year missions. It's just not a proper explorer. If instead you're just sending your science Defiant out to perform specific short-term research missions as the need arises, and you can keep it based at a big starbase or station in between research projects, then there's no problem. You could use the starbase's facilities to custom tweak the Defiant before each and every project, optimising its research potential. This also means that it could be reconfigured with reasonable speed back to full combat potential, as needed, and used for routine general-purpose patrols of local space until someone finds something interesting for it to study. Its high warp speed would also make it a fair diplomatic courier or emergency first responder, though these are both short-term, ad hoc roles.

I'm sure some Defiants might stay on dedicated combat duty, just in case, but in general a starship class's ability to stay in service is tied to its potential to adapt to new needs. For the majority of highly specialised Defiants (including, let's argue, the USS Dauntless) to remain useful when compared with the rest of Starfleet's multi-purpose vessels, they would need to de-specialise and show their value in other roles, like engineering and science.

I get the context in which the Defiant class came to exist, but such an un-Starfleet design philosophy always bothered me. Now I think that I can live with it, post-Dominion War. And my personal mental comfort is clearly the most important consideration. As such, I now need to go get some groceries.

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Ad fuck-off far-away Astra

I've been having some trouble with internettery lately. I blame living in Pretoria, which is why I'm not there right now. Point is, I could complain lots more, but instead here's my belated report on the USS Dauntless expedition to Sutherland. Any day now, I might even finally get around to letting you know how my Icon module and SFFSA mini-con talk went.

First, Sutherland is far to go by road. I believe that was the furthest South I've ever been down the N1. It was 6 of us in a 17-seat buslet, plus 2 charter drivers. They were disappointingly unlike the charter pilots of Cabin Pressure, but we didn't crash, which is nice. It's hard to accurately describe a drive like that without giving it its own essay, but bear in mind it took us 16 hours to get down there, then 15 hours to get back, with only 17 hours in Sutherland, and half of those Sutherland hours spent sleeping - and only about 4 hours actually touring the stuff we went there for. It was a lot of travel for such a short visit. On the other hand, Apollo 11 spent 6 days travelling for just 3 hours on the Moon, so by pure time efficiency, we beat NASA.

There were 2 reasons to go on this trip: the people and the sights. Both were worth it. Special credit has to go to acting MCPT Jay and his mom for organising the whole thing flawlessly. But all the Dauntless crew are fun, and it's just a pity more couldn't join us. On the plus side, we were joined by two Cape Town crew members, who were cool and accounted for two thirds of the Starfleet uniforms worn during this visit.

(They would have had only half the uniforms, as I took mine down too, but annoyingly forgot to pack a belt, without which those pants simply won't stay up. And without pants, the top half becomes silly. Still, I think my Dauntless cap and Skeptic's Guide tshirt made a perfectly adequate combo.)

It was great being there with people who appreciated everything about the place and who each had something to teach. We killed quite a lot of downtime with games too, which seems like a very Dauntless custom. Playing Star Fluxx in the back of the bus by torch light was the sort of fun you couldn't possibly plan. Commodore Swart's custom radio service was also pretty damn amusing, but we only got half the audio book of Physics of Star Trek, half of some stand-up, half of the Onion's audio world atlas, etc.

(Insert 'Unseen Force' joke here.)
Then there was the place. Sutherland is small. Without rising much up the surrounding slope, you can take the whole town in with one glimpse. It also felt pretty regimented yet run down at the same time. Sort of the opposite of the Shire. It felt very different to any place I'm familiar with. We didn't see much beyond the hotel (which, for any vegans wanting to travel down there, had fuck all for me to eat except baked beans on toast), and that doesn't bother me much.

What we came for was the South African Astronomical Observatory.

Up on the highest point around, there's a flat-topped hill. From below, the white bulk of SALT is obvious, and from some angles there are a couple smaller things visible next to it. But when you follow the winding road up to this little plateau, there's a whole forest of stout, white tubes and domes spread across it. It's all open and windy, with an amazing long view way off to distant smaller hills.

We got 2 tours that day, a daytime tour of the big telescopes, focusing on the technical and historical side of their construction and use, and then a night-time star gaze. The day tour was cool, as wandered among the big white lumps. We were taken inside the oldest telescope there, built in 1938 but still in great nick, and then in to the innards of SALT, largest optical telescope in the Southern Hemisphere. I knew its main mirror was big, but I was actually staggered when I first laid eyes on it.

However big your screen is, it's not big enough to really capture the bigness of that mirror.

The night and day tours were too different to call one better than the other, but the night tour was certainly amazing. We were kept off the top plateau, since real astronomers were working up there (it was a Saturday night, but when you have to book your slot 18 months in advance, you're probably not too picky, and it's not like there's much else to do in Sutherland). Instead, down at the adjacent visitors' center, we had a guide aiming a pair of smaller but still massive telescopes at the sky for us, on a tour that started with our neighbouring planets (first time I'd seen Saturn's rings directly, plus at least one of its moons) and moving outwards to neighbouring stars, globular clusters, nebulae and even a neighbouring galaxy, which looked way clearer and closer than I would have expected. And the whole time, there was the lovely sprawl of the Milky Way to simply stare into.

Having read for so long about all this stuff, both on the ground and in the sky, it was great to finally put my own eyeballs on them. It was all pretty rushed, but not so much that I felt cheated. It was like having just the right amount of desert, even though you can see a whole table left to gorge on.

The little visitor center there was also interesting, but we didn't have enough time to absorb it all fully. I think it would be great for (and was presumably designed for) school tours, with a wide variety of basic science displays (including assorted fossils) and a fair bit of interactive crap.

Over all, it was a great trip, with a great crowd. I was a bit subdued due to travel fatigue and lingering work stress, so I might not have seemed that excited, but it really was great.

The following week was a bit rough, and not for the reasons I expected. I expected to be tired, lacking sleep, and maybe a bit resentful of the loss of all my usual weekend activities, but none of that came up, noticeably. Instead, my car's tyre got a big blob of tar melted to it while parked at the airport over the weekend (causing the noises I described in my previous post). This weakened the tyre enough that a week later it burst, happily only while I was going really slowly; I do a lot of fast highway driving these days, so the odds of it popping at a really dangerous time were pretty high. I was also woken at 03:00 on the Monday/Tuesday night after this trip by someone trying to break into my room. No harm done, but it wrecked my nerves for a few days and probably threw my sleep pattern off worse than the whole crazy weekend stuck in a bus.

Sunday, 6 October 2013


Just got home from a major weekend away; very tiring, very rewarding. Saw the SA Astronomical Observatory at Sutherland and got to peek through some pretty big telescopes at some pretty amazing sights.

I'll do a full write-up soon, but first I thought I'd better officially record that I heard some pretty alarming bits-falling-off noises coming from my car as I left Joburg for Pretoria. I can't see anything obviously wrong and it drove well enough the rest of the way. But if I'm mysteriously engulfed in a ball of flame on the way to work tomorrow, then that might be why.

Tomorrow morning is going to be painful in so many ways.

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Back to the blackboard, please

I have officially decided, I need to get back into teaching. And not just after school tutoring, but back in the deep end. Proper, committed teaching. If anyone has any leads about teaching jobs in Joburg, let me know.

I've spent 6 and a half years expecting that I'd eventually get a development job, and feeling like that would be my true calling. Now I've got such a job, and it's a wank. The people who can afford my skills are the ones who least need them, the ones who I feel least deserve them. You can't, it seems, make a living from saving the world.

Except in teaching. I originally got into that as a supplement to my development experience, but the more I've looked at it, the more I see good education as the core of good social development. I'm never going to get rich teaching, but I wasn't aiming for that, and it's not like my current fancy-pants economist job is paying well.

Amazingly, a better place for me than my current office
And I know teaching; I've got nearly 5 years in my pocket so far, and I know both the government and IEB physical science syllabuses backwards, plus a smattering of stuff unique to the International Cambridge syllabus. Not least of all, I like teaching. It's chaotic and dynamic and challenging. It's hard, but a good hard, a worthwhile hard. By contrast, I've just spent 3 days making a single small value chain graphic look pretty enough by the boss's finicky standards.

It may be hard getting a foot in the door, since I don't have a BEd or PGCE (yet), but I'm hoping to get into a school in 2014. I'd like to make the change even sooner, but I doubt many schools will be hiring new people for the last couple months of the year.

So, if anyone has any leads about teaching jobs in Joburg, let me know. I'm most experienced at Physical Science (all grades), but I reckon I can pick up the English syllabus quick enough too, and I have enough background that I could probably handle History too, if pressed.

Sunday, 29 September 2013

Relief, please

The good news is that I'm surviving. The bad news is that I'm still in Pretoria. I really, really don't like Pretoria, and I like it less every day. The only thing I can say I like about it is that cars in town actually stop and wait for pedestrians to cross the road, which my years as a Joburg pedestrian had taught me never to expect (since I started driving, I have always made an effort to give pedestrians the right of way myself, often shocking Joburg's pedestrians). Apart from that, I don't think much of Pretoria drivers. There basically aren't any of them within the city bowl, yet they still manage to crash into each other regularly and as soon  as they're over the rim, on the highways around the edge of town, they turn into vast numbers of speeding, aggressive arseholes.

And don't even get me started about the work I do. Worst research project I've ever been involved in, wasting 2 months of my life. Approximately half of that was literally completely wasted, with work thrown out and never used for anything ever again.

Weekends are now vital to me. I've been developing a big, convoluted analogy between emotions and electrical capacitors, but the short version is that some relief is essential. I'm buying a weekly six-pack, which is unusual for me, and cramming as much fun into my weekends as I can manage. I have to. But that also means I'm just plain wearing myself out. I need some days off to simply do nothing at all, all alone, and get my oomph back. This week, I get half a Sunday of that. I think 3 weeks ago, I took a full Sunday. Before that, my memory gets fuzzy. It's not really enough.

And this next weekend is going to be crazy-busy (in a great way) because the USS Dauntless is mounting a group expedition down to Sutherland, to see the pretty sky and telescopes. We're going by bus, which may be a little gruelling over that distance, but I've been wanting to go for years, since I first read up about the place in my first year of teaching (it was also partly covered in my first ever guest hosting of Consilience).

Otherwise, DeeTwenty [EDIT: I no longer associate with DeeTwenty and can not endorse it in any way] and its soon-to-be-public venue is looking to be the great center of my life's happiness (apart, obviously, from visiting Byron and  Moxie at my parents' place). It's a damn fantastic idea, and you should throw all your money at them. Now. Go. Throw digital cash. Then play games with me and/or people you like.

Monday, 9 September 2013

Good, Bad and Geeky Places

It's been suggested that I've been far too miserable the last month or so. I'm inclined to agree. It's been suggested that I should try to cheer up or do something to fix my situation. I'm inclined to agree with the latter, but because of that, I'm not happy to accept the former. I may reach a point where it does me more harm than good to be unhappy with my new status quo, and then I can look at ways to cope with it better, but in the mean time, unhappiness is good. It keeps me motivated to aim for something better, like Joburg. Apologies in advance to anyone who finds my grumpiness unpleasant, but you can't have your literal chocolate Sham until you've cleared all the metaphorical broccoli Sham off your simile-like plate.

But it's not all grim with me. Weekend visits to Joburg are a poor substitute for actually living there, and I keep running short on time for everything, even completely missing some events, but it's never bad to see friends. It adds even more motivation to get my life back on track, so that I can have more happy fun time with them. It's a carrot and stick thing, I guess.

And it's kind of fantastic to know that I have too much fun stuff waiting for me. How crap would it be if I was miserable and lonely and bored in Pretoria, and didn't have anything to look forward to in Joburg either. In terms of roleplaying groups alone, I need a 4-day weekend, so I can carry on with my own Star Trek and Warhammer campaigns, fit in the other complex stuff planned for my formerly-usual Thursday group, and also start off with a new D&D campaign run by Damon White (a name that will soon be revealed to be of broader relevance to this post) just like the ones he used to run in the old days.

Particularly exciting among the good times this past weekend was the meeting to learn about Owen Swart's new project, a dedicated geeking venue. Unlike geek shops, which kind of want you to buy stuff above all else and tend not to have very comfortable gaming areas, this venue is intended to be a place to gather a fair-sized mob and get some proper gaming done in homely comfort, but without actually hogging someone's home while they're trying to sleep. It's a damn fine idea, which immediately reminded me of Babylon White, the residence of the White family, friends of mine since early high school. Bab White always fulfilled a similar role, as the Whites were up at all hours, very hospitable and unusually well stocked with games of all descriptions. The big difference here is that you don't need to be a family friend of the Swarts to enjoy Owen's cunning new plan. (Also, nice coincidence with the names there.)

I will certainly report more as I learn it.

Monday, 19 August 2013

The Fuck Has Happened to August Too

I don't like being a development economist. I've been mostly moping for 2 weeks, physically and emotionally worn out. It's been a difficult month, even with all the pieces falling together surprisingly neatly in the end, especially finding a really nice place. But now, after my first relaxing weekend since this began, and with the pounding war drums of the BSG soundtrack rumbling in my ears, I feel resolved to let it be known that I'm quite sure this isn't the job for me. It's a tricky admission when you're trying to avoid a reputation as a quitter, but I'm not simply giving up. I'll do this job professionally until I have all my dominoes lined up for the next step. (Besides, I stuck out the last job for 3 years, which ain't bad commitment at all, considering it never paid my bills.)

There are a few reasons. The first and most obvious I noticed was that I'm largely cut off from my friends. I've spent enough of my life feeling (though, fortunately, seldom really being) friendless and alone that the idea of voluntarily isolating myself from my social circle seems completely perverse. Quite a few people have told me I'll meet nice new people in Pretoria, and that may be, but also fuck that! I have excellent friends back in Joburg, friends I've invested years in, and I don't want to treat them as disposable or replaceable. I'd finally built up a fantastic social life, with all sorts of things to do through most of the week. Not big things, mostly, just small, fun things to keep life worth living. Now I have to plan well ahead just to be able to pop back to reality for my single weekend event. I used to have 2 regular (in fact, far better than regular, they were fantastic!) roleplaying groups, and now I have none. (I have one Pretoria friend, and I think she's annoyed that I keep complaining that I have "nobody" here.)

Adjunct to this is the increased stress and danger of the driving. Driving within Pretoria is probably much safer than driving within Joburg, because nobody fucking lives here, but the damn N1 between the two is crap to have to drive regularly. The 6 rises and falls along its length mean you have to concentrate deeply on your car's momentum the whole time, especially when you've got a little Corsa like mine. And people drive so shitly along it, perhaps partly because of the challenges of the rises. You can see ample fresh skid marks near the top of each, as someone's come rushing up too fast behind a sluggish truck or something but not seen it til the rise was crested. (The alternative N14, while flatter, is worryingly scattered with burnt-out husks of cars every time I follow it, possibly reflecting its lack of street lights.)

But I digress. My sole point there is that it's not just the extra travel time I face now, but shitter, more stressful travel too. Not a nice way to bracket all my leisure expeditions.

But another, less immediate reason I don't want to be a development economist is simply that I don't like the job. I've been monitoring my thoughts on this very carefully. I was initially worried about impostor syndrome undermining my life for me, but it's actually been quite the opposite. The work is piss easy. I get frustrated that others are going too slow for me, that I'm stuck twiddling my thumbs for hours waiting for information I need, and then completely unchallenged when the work does reach me. Working from home or at least somewhere comfortable, that might be tolerable (not anywhere near ideal, just barely tolerable), but instead I'm trapped in a silent, blank room behind a blank desk for 9 hours at a stretch. Some people like constancy, but I actually prefer a variable schedule and even some travel, adventure and new scenery, so long as I'm based in the blessed confines of Joburg more often than not.

Most people seem to agree that I probably asked much too little for my salary. Clearly I've been an oppressed, under-paid mass for too long, that I've gotten used to peanuts. My mistake, and lesson learned, but it doesn't help the situation either.

But I've done dull work, in dull settings, for much less money than this before. The tipping point to the nature of the work is that I just can't give a shit about it. I may have fluctuated in my choice of specific career a lot, but I've been absolutely certain since high school that I wanted to help people, make the world better. It was the addition of Isaac Asimov, Star Trek and punk into the mix of my general upbringing that did it, I think. This current job may sometimes help people indirectly, as successful economic development sometimes can, but I find it hard to believe managment really aims for that. I contractually can't write any details of my work, but it's all tedious corporate shit, not what I'd call real development. It's the sort of stuff you can pull income with in this field, but I don't believe we're really adding value to society (which was exactly my experience the last time I tried a job like this, over 6 years ago). To put it slightly more technically, I am a firm believer in bottom-up, rather than top-down development.

I'm nearing 30. I've likely got another 50-60 years ahead of me, at least 30-40 of which will have to be filled with employment. I'm not getting stuck down a depressing career path for that long by failing to act now.

What would I rather be doing? NGOs! Abso-fucking-definitely working for NGOs. And I still definitely see education as the absolute most vital long-term development goal (almost more of a meta-goal, really), so an education NGO seems the obvious choice for me. Find me one! Find me many! All I need is a foot in the door, and I can do a world of good. This is my goal for 2014. (P.S. Make sure it's based in Joburg.)

Thursday, 1 August 2013

What the Fuck Happened to July!?

I had so much to write about over the last month, and always some combination of lack of time, energy or will to do so.

The last 12 or so months have been shitter than average. There have been ups and downs, but the downs have been pretty bad and I'm just tired now. So it's perhaps not the best time to have to move to another city and start a whole new career path, but I'm kind of stuck with that now.

That's not to say I'm unhappy with my new job - I'm most grateful to Alison and Leila for helping me get a foot in the door - but just that I'm in a generally bad mood because of life in general. I'm sure I'll make a fine development economist, and I really couldn't see myself cycling through the annual education routine over and over for the rest of my life. But I'd finally gotten really on top of teaching and felt like I knew what I was doing. Learning a new thing from not-quite-scratch again seems a little daunting. Leaving behind my social life is extra painful, and I'm not quite sure how I'll cope with that.

And that's why I've been silent for a month. Plenty to go back and report on belatedly, but in a week or two. For now, I just need a vent and a chance to breath.

Sunday, 30 June 2013

Hear Inaudible Darmok!

It's funny to think that 5 or 6 years ago, I couldn't even have begun to imagine giving a decent talk to a crowd of strangers. I could eventually stand up in front of my class of familiar peers, but even that always made me feel awkward. Today, after the fiery forge of teaching, I couldn't give a shit about audience size, type or demeanour. Once you've stared down 60 bored teenagers with whom you don't share a mother tongue, in the last lesson on a Friday afternoon, trying to convey the mostly-unobvious reasons that atoms behave the way they do, there is no more challenging public speaking task left in life.

So it's perhaps appropriate that my first public talk to mostly-adults will be about the challenges of communication. Of course, since I'm speaking officially as an officer of the USS Dauntless, at Science Fiction and Fantasy South Africa's Star Trek MiniCon, I won't be looking at conventional  terrestrial human communication. Instead, I want to look at how talking to aliens might go, once we realise that they're unlikely to have much in common with us either physically or psychologically. And rather than just making shit up out of thin air, I'd like to look at what we've learned about communication with non-human animals here on Earth, as a rough, general analogue for extraterrestrial communication. This has some important limits, which I will address, but I think the basic idea should be good as a crash intro to how much we take for granted about humans-only language and interaction.

So, use your human eyes to detect the squiggly absences of EM radiation in the part of the spectrum you're accustomed to detecting visually from the monitor ahead of you, and take note of the brain-sounds these squiggles denote within your shared social context, to interpret the space-time coordinates of this talk of mine, and the MiniCon in general:

The Star Trek MiniCon (which will also feature a talk by the Dauntless's dauntless leader, Owen Swart, plus lots of other fun stuff; see links above) will be from 09:00 11:00 onwards, on Saturday the 20th of July, at the Marie Curie Theatre (digression here for the awesomeness of Marie Curie), Wits Medical School. I believe I'm scheduled to start my particular waffle, titled "Inaudible Darmok," at 12:25.

I don't see it spelled out clearly anywhere yet, but I'm pretty sure entry to the con is pretty cheap too.  Entry for the whole day is R70. So that's nice, right?

Friday, 21 June 2013

Burning Daylight: Best Icon module ever...?

I mentioned a few months ago that my second Icon module is due to be played this year and the Icon 2013 brochure is FINALLY available here.

My module, 'Burning Daylight', is being run in Slot 1, which is much less impressive when you know that means Friday morning, probably the session with the fewest players in attendance. On the other hand, those who do drag themselves out of bed early and/or take a day off work just to play it can probably be taken to be the more serious and dedicated players. And there's always the option of buying the module to play with a group of your own assembly during a later slot. Just bug the people at the registration desk about that.

I really don't want to give away much more plot than the brochure blurb gives, and that (for those unable to access the pdf) says:


Few accusations will spread fear as fast.

Suffering a witch to live is one of the greatest crimes in the Empire, not only because of the witch’s own evil, but because letting them continue that evil shows one is also corrupted by the forces of Chaos. Having survived war and ill fortune, situated uncomfortably close to the cursed county of Sylvania and just down river from the dead city of Mordheim, the town of Krugenheim now faces a threat from within. Accusing the wrong person - and letting the real witch escape - would be disastrous.

I will add that this is a pretty talky scenario, by necessity. Warhammer is among the more vicious systems as far as combat is concerned, and since many of the player characters are simple townsfolk, not mighty adventurers, they'd get torn to shreds in minutes if I'd leaned too heavily on the fight scenes. This doesn't mean you should assume everything will be safety and bunnies - where'd be the fun in that? - but if you want to make the best of this game, leave the dungeon-crawl mentality at home and come prepared to get deeply into character. I've tried to carefully craft some good ones for you.

As an extra bonus for anyone who happens to read this, here is an extra map, not included in the module itself because it makes virtually no difference to anything, showing the location of the town of Krugenheim within the Empire. That's the site of my little story.
Krugenheim: The bright red dot just East of center, incorrectly labelled as 'Krungenheim'

There's one other semi-related thing to mention. My 2008 module, 'Lead the Way', was about US Army Rangers in a near-future debacle, set in 2018, and in the text I went out of my way to explain why I'd gone with realism over representativeness in choosing to make all of the player characters male. In particular, I used the phrase, "The US Army Rangers do not currently allow women to join their ranks, and I don’t believe this is likely to change within the next 10 years." [EDIT: In hindsight, I regret writing it that way; inclusive, representative gaming is clearly more important.]

It's recently been announced that all branches of the US military are going to be required to scrap  sex-based restrictions on combat roles by 2018, with the Rangers due to start training female members in 2015.

This is why I don't do near-future stuff very often.

Thursday, 20 June 2013

Frost is Dead

The cat named Frost (a.k.a. Sir Frostalot, Frosteefreedeeleefroodeleefroo, Stumpy, Nothing But Trouble, and briefly as a kitten before we got him "Cracker") was hit by another car this morning and killed.

Not much more to say, I suppose, since few of you ever met him, and fewer still would really care that much. But it's my fucking blog.

He was a bit dim, but very fucking tough for such a small cat. Born in late 2010, he'd been under general anaesthetic over a dozen times. He ate poison mushrooms as a kitten and had to be rushed to have his little stomach pumped. When he got neutered, he ripped his stitches out and almost bled to death (and rushing to deal with that lead to my largest ever speeding fine). He was viciously attacked by one or more evil neighbour cats 3 or 4 times, with deep bites and scratches all over. And he was hit by cars twice! We've had 2 big, tough dogs killed by cars along this same stretch of road in the 1990s, neither lucky enough to survive a single hit. Frost was mighty.

Fucking shit drivers. Only 1 out of those 4 ever stopped and told us what happened. Today's driver didn't.

I've got dozens of photos of Frost with cone collars and stitches and missing fur and pipes sticking out of his head. He had no tail for the last 2 months and was still fairly incontinent. He was a wreck, often. But always a lovely, friendly, soft, little boy regardless.

Saturday, 8 June 2013

Out of Darkness

I'd like to formally extend my personal thanks to Abrams and co. They clearly read my critique of 2009's Star Trek: The Star Trek and went out of their way to make Into Darkness a movie I could happily watch. As I wrote way back when, the single biggest problem with their 2009 attempt is that it pretty thoroughly shat on Gene Roddenberry's ideals. This new movie goes the complete opposite direction, thoroughly embracing Gene's Dream, and I can only assume they made this change purely for my benefit. So, thanks.

Of course, I've still got a fine selection of technical quibbles, but this time round I'm happy to enjoy dissecting them as amusing gaffs, rather than feeling they represent a general pattern of intentional disregard for what came before.

I had an extra great time because I went to see it along with a large gathering of the crew of the USS Dauntless, with about half of us in uniform. I'll post a couple photos once I've had a chance to filter out the best ones (free sample included below).

Our mighty commanding officer had put out a press release, which a couple smaller outlets took note of, and we spent a good 30 minutes or so before the movie parading up and down for a camera crew (for some documentary? Nobody really explained it to me). And we may even have had a little recruiting success (results still pending).

Also, this happens to have been only the second 3D movie I've seen, and the first since early 2009, when I saw Coraline in that medium. I'm still not sold on it, but it was ok.

Monday, 3 June 2013

Resist the Competitive Roleplaying Hegemony

I've said before how much I love my annual Icon expedition, and I've hinted that I've made a mysterious and awesome contribution to this year's games. I've been going there longer than I went to any one school, longer than I've stayed at any one job, and longer than I've known some of my best friends. So I know what I'm talking about when I say that Icon's insistence, year in and year out, on having "competitive" roleplaying games is not helpful to anyone. This isn't a complaint against Icon specifically, as I know other local conventions run things in pretty much the same way, and I've seen at least one example - in this excellent analogy by Johnny Nexus of Critical Miss - of a similar problem with a UK convention. I just happen to know the example of Icon SA best.

There are two lines of argument against competitive roleplaying. First, roleplaying games simply don't lend themselves well to objective measures of success and quality. You can make roleplaying games with clear winners and losers (see "Kobolds Ate My Baby!"), but it'd get awfully boring if that was the way the plot was structured every single time (see "reasons for not playing Kobolds Ate My Baby! all the time"). Roleplaying is a form of improvised story-telling, even when it's most heavily weighed down with formal rules for everything (see "extensive list of games I don't like"), and as such it's necessarily going to be a very different experience for different groups with different GMs. Not only will everyone do things differently, but every such difference will also make the whole game beyond that point into an increasingly different scenario, which means it becomes even less meaningful to try to compare the experiences of different players playing nominally identical characters in different groups.

Rating someone's roleplaying or GMing prowess based on small number of brief encounters is pointless. It's a completely subjective matter, tested under completely uncontrolled conditions, using a bad test. Most of the ratings are little more than personal preferences, a popularity contest. Loud players playing loud characters and those bold enough to make sure you definitely know how to spell their names have an obvious advantage over the meek and the good players trying to play meek characters well. One of the few slightly more objective measures I've seen rates GMs on how well they appear to know the rules; I object to that one on personal style grounds alone, as I take great pride in consciously avoiding use of the rules except where unavoidable, to keep the flow of the game going more smoothly. Many players have enjoyed that style, but if they tried to objectively and honestly answer that rating, they'd be within good reason to mark me quite poorly. So is it really a good way to measure GM quality, even if it is technically objective?

It's also always carried out so poorly. I've never seen a public explanation of the rules of the competition, it's never properly explained in person, if at all, and the judging process is pretty opaque. I do NOT subscribe to the conspiracy theory that the organisers' friends always win, but I don't believe that the winners are necessarily really "the best" either, because of the silly assessment system and the piss-poor organisation. I don't think there's anything sinister or malicious afoot, I think it's just a shit idea, run by people who traditionally have pretty piss-poor organisation (see "getting Icon mugs and tshirts delivered on time", "opening Icon doors on time", "getting Icon modules released on time", etc.; seriously, go read my Icon article from last year and bathe in the list of small and mostly acceptable flaws).

So it's just a terrible idea.

But maybe it's a popular idea, no matter how misguided? Well, perhaps among those who win, or seriously aim to win, but I know for a fact that competitive play is a significant barrier for those who don't care for it. It actively chases potential players away. For one thing, the good people at the sign-in table (who generally do their job well on other counts) have historically tended to get a bit pissy with anyone who doesn't understand the competitive system (even though there's no clear, public explanation of it) or anyone who explicitly says they don't want to play competitively. I don't know enough about the organisation of the event to say whether this is because they're just low-ranking slave labourers doing their job (and thus can't be expected to do much about it), or if we are speaking to people with some authority (who should thus have no excuses), but either way, it's not the friendliest or most constructive approach. I'm not saying it's always that way, it varies from sign-up person to sign-up person, but it does give the impression that they've forgotten who the paying customer is. This like-it-or-fuck-off attitude alone has chased some of my fellow players away from convention play for good, which is damn pointless shame.

A marginally trickier problem is that of enforced splitting up. Some of us like to play with people we know, whether this is just two people sticking together to join a group of strangers (and I can see there'd be some extra brain-power required for the admin of this, but not that much; we are only talking about 50 or so players at most), or a whole regular group wanting to celebrate the convention together, as a special occasion, by running something a bit different together; this latter thing is usually called "buying the module". Convention organisers seem to hate these people, and competitive play has often been used as an excuse to fob them off. You can't play together in a competitive module, because the rules say it's got to be random players (and never mind that randomly ending up with the same person in your group would be considered perfectly acceptable) to prevent cheating. And you can't buy the module while the "real" competitive groups are playing it, in case you use it to cheat (as if knowing the plot a few minutes in advance would make you a better, more popular player?). It's just paranoia; the people asking to be excused from the competition are the ones who care about it the least, not the (probably entirely imaginary) ones so desperate to win that they'd try any dumb trick to get an edge.

To be clear, I quite like the random groups system myself. It can be quite fun and exciting, and occasionally you meet some great new people that way. For example, I originally got into Star Trek roleplaying through my friend Richard's random introduction to Jason Green, back at GenCon 2000, and that's had several huge effects on my life and hobbies over the last decade. But the point is that not everyone wants to do totally random groups every single time. Even I like the familiarity of friends, especially friends I don't see so often anymore, for at least some of my modules.

There should be no harm in letting half the players go off in one corner and be competitive, and the other half go off to the other corner and play casually. But it's such a massive fucking uphill struggle every fucking year just to get the organisers to concede that non-competitives even exist, let alone have a right to play in a different style.

I think the reason this hasn't changed in over a decade is that there's a problem of player organisation. The competitive roleplayers are pretty much a coherent, organised group by definition, because the system requires them to be and rewards them for it, so their voice is clearer and more uniform. The non-comps are inherently disorganised and isolated from each other, so even though we probably out-number the hard core of comps, it's much harder to make the organisers listen to us. Perhaps someone should start a petition or a poll, just to give us a better idea of what the true numbers are like. The trouble again is that the players who've been put off by excessive compulsory competition in the past are the ones who'd be hardest to find and get involved in such a poll, because they don't want to associate with conventions anymore.

Let me close by making a prediction: Competitive roleplayers, maybe even one or two of the organisers, who read this will get all defensive and insist that it's more than a mere popularity contest, that casual players are just sore losers or an obstruction to good admin. Allow me to suggest instead that such people try to see it from a different perspective and imagine what the current system would be like if it didn't suit you, as I've described above. Perhaps talk to your friends and fellow players who you know don't pursue competitive play and see what they think about it all. And rather than merely defending the status quo, see if you can instead suggest ways that we can make the system work for everyone, to encourage even more people to join us, not less. It shouldn't be that hard.

Sunday, 2 June 2013

Retconning the Enterprises

It's been a stressful week in a stressful month in a stressful year. For a bit of relief, a quick, easy post to vent about something completely unimportant that bugs me regardless of its triviality: The registry numbers and classes of the various Starships Enterprise.

The original USS Enterprise NCC-1701 was reasonable enough, though it would have been nice if they'd clearly defined a decent meaning for NCC, or better still, made up a meaning first  and chosen some other letters to fit it. Maybe Star Fleet Registry (SFR), if you don't mind splitting up the word Starfleet, or Star Ship Number (SSN), or Starfleet Commissioning Number (SCN) or some such. Trying to work out NCC in reverse has not worked well at all; the best anyone's managed is the odd-seeming Naval Commissioning Contract. And while we're at it, the USS abbreviation is dodgy too. It's obviously there as a hangover from an early assumption that this would be a show about Americans in space, but now we're stuck with the awkward prefix of United (Federation of Planets, please just infer this bit on your own) Star Ship. It's hard to say today if USS rolls off the tongue easily because it's a good combination of sounds, or if we're just so used to it now. UFS (for United Federation Starship) seems close enough to me.

But USS Enterprise NCC-1701, Constitution class, worked well enough. Then they sank it.
Voom... Boom! Zoom! Doom.
The replacement should have been something shiny and new, but some production and marketing people were too fucking worried about brand recognition. So instead we got the USS Enterprise NCC-1701-A, also Constitution class. Virtually identical to its predecessor, it was the starship equivalent of conveniently bringing back a dead-but-popular character through improbable circumstances. The -A suffix just messes up the registry numbers, and I struggle to believe that people were especially devoted to the number 1701 until the late '80s, when Star Trek IV and The Next Generation both insisted on re-using it with letter suffixes at the end. In other words, we were taught to love the number, it probably wouldn't have emerged naturally. It's just a fucking number! Being attached to names I can understand, but not arbitrary numbers. It's also left quite a bit of uncertainty about what other ships should or shouldn't get letter suffixes. There have been dozens of re-used names (often creating additional clashes, but that's a different complaint), but hardly any other examples of re-used registry numbers with letter prefixes. What exactly does Starfleet require for a number to get recycled?

Re-using the Constitution class was even more dodgy, as this was a 40 year old design at the time, and the Enterprise-A was retired (quite reasonably, considering its competition) after only 8 years of service. This means that it was either newly built in spite of the fact that this was obviously a terrible waste of resources, or (and this is the official story) they took another Constitution class vessel (the USS Yorktown) and told it, "Sorry, other vessel, but screw your own slightly less illustrious name and legacy. You're the spare Enterprise now."

I don't like it.

If I were in charge, back in 1980-something, I would have replaced the first Enterprise with the USS Enterprise NCC-2001, positioning it as the second Excelsior class starship to be commissioned, after the USS Excelsior NCC-2000. The Excelsior was clearly superior, it was shiny and modern, and making the new Enterprise of that same class would have suggested progress and reason, rather than pointless and unhelpful sentiment. Making it second of its class (probably; Starfleet registry numbers have always been unpredictable) would repeat things nicely, as the previous one was second of the Constitution class, and the 01 at the end offers a little visual similarity too. It even fits retroactively with Enterprise NX-01, the ship much further back in history, from Star Trek: Enterprise. But I have issues with the name and number of that ship too, including its potential clash with the conjectural USS Dauntless NCC-01.

Next in real-world order was Next Gen's NCC-1701-D, but it's also obviously established that there were a -B and a -C in between too. The -B really was an Excelsior class, 9 years later than it should have been. Then -C was an Ambassador class, -D a Galaxy class and eventually -E a Sovereign class.

If it had been up to me, though, I'd have blended what we know as the -A and -B into one ship, an Excelsior that replaces the first Constitution. This would have zero effect on the plots of existing series and movies. Sulu could still take command of Excelsior, Kirk could still retire in 2293, and Harriman could take command in the same year, after the -2001 gets a bit of a refit. Easy.

Then the -C would need a registry number somewhere in the Ambassador class range, perhaps NCC-10701, keeping the 01 at the end, and even looking more similar to -1701, while sitting only just beyond the USS Ambassador's registry of NCC-10561 (which isn't strictly canon and could be adjusted to -10700 or something very easily). The Enterprise-D could instead be numbered NCC-70701, just beyond USS Galaxy NCC-70637 (which was only numbered in canon years after the series ended). And the -E could follow the USS Sovereign's NCC-73811 with NCC-73901 or something, since the Sovereign's number also wasn't fixed in canon. But these could all have been sorted out from the start, if only someone had thought of them.

So that's my ranty vent for the weekend out the way. If I got to retcon the Star Trek franchise, I'd apparently make Star Trek: Nemesis a pretty shitty movie about the adventures of the crew of the UFS Enterprise SCN-73901. Because a rose by any other prefix and registry number would smell about the same.
Crunch: More or less smart than the self-destruct switcheroo?

Friday, 24 May 2013

Consilience #66: Kill All Jedi!

I'm audible for the ninth time. Not only is this 2 episodes in 2 weeks for me, but it also makes a hat trick with #64, the last episode before the hiatus. Time to lay low for a while. There were horrid problems with the recording process, and several times someone (always me, now that I think about it...) got cut off and reduced to staticky garbling. As a result, we had to cut the episode short and Owen and Sue each lost one of their news pieces. Hopefully those can be covered in future episodes.

There is no traffic anecdote. My navigation was 100% spot on for a change, and the route was comfortably (but not suspiciously) easy and clear of traffic. I'll try to cock something up next time.

You can find the file and the show notes for #66 here:

Friday, 17 May 2013

Consilience #65: Resurrected!

I was as surprised to see him here as he was.
I'm audible for the eighth time. After a wee bit of a hiatus, Africa's number 1 (one) science and skepticism podcast has returned. I think we got back into our best possible um-er-ah vocal stride, but I do feel that we were a tad short on detail, and I was definitely not as deeply prepared as I'd have liked. I'm quite sure I didn't get the explanation of Einstein's "beaming" sufficiently accurate.

You'll note also that I abandoned my new Citation Needed segment. I wasn't entirely happy with it to begin with, and the big hiatic gap kind of made it impractical to carry on. So it's out for now, but if you have suggestions on how to make it run more smoothly, or for a better replacement segment, I'm non-literally all ears.

Now, the traditional traffic anecdote. A large part of the hiatus was that Owen moved all the recording gear to a new house (and then eventually decided it would be most practical to store himself and all his stuff with the recording gear). I went to this place for the first time on the Saturday before we recorded, and had no problem finding it, even though it's another part of Joburg I have zero prior familiarity with. And yet, somehow, on the Tuesday we recorded, I still managed to get myself lost for a while. At least that time Owen & Sue let me into the house when I arrived, so silver linings everywhere.

You can find the file and the show notes for #65 here:

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

A Good Future, Today

(If you hate Star Trek, skip this post. But then you might just need to skip my whole blog.)

[EDIT: I can no longer endorse the Dauntless, nor honestly suggest that it meets the ideals suggested below. I'm only leaving this here because I don't delete my blog posts. However, there are better STARFLEET chapters that you may wish to consider instead.]

Take a look at this slightly aged but well-made video:

Doesn't that just make you want to rush off and find your nearest Starfleet recruiter? Good news: That's me! Let me recruit you, in my official capacity as Recruiting Officer of the USS Dauntless. Free red shirts for anyone with no first name.

In all seriousness, if you enjoy Star Trek, and science fiction in general, and even more generally all the nice things science gives us, then you should really consider signing up with the Dauntless. It's a Star Trek fan club, but that doesn't describe it well. Liking a TV series isn't the only thing we have in common, as our members share a lot of other interests and activities. I originally got involved with them through the Gauteng skeptics and Consilience, as there's some big overlap between those communities. All the Skeptics in the Pub/Park meetings I go to are full of Dauntless crew. Real science is a key interest for most of us, and there's even a big expedition we're planning for the end of the year out to Sutherland, looking at all the big telescopes.

Then there's gaming. Our Joburg region in particular has a well organised collection of people who're into miniature wargaming, CCGs, board games, paintball and, on occasion, roleplaying games. The other regions have also dipped into these sorts of things, a bit less, but probably only because they don't have as many members.

We also do some useful, constructive stuff. The Joburg region has a big blood donation day every couple of months, down in the South East, and I keep meaning to organise a second one for the North West of Joburg, so hopefully that'll be a thing soon enough, especially if we get some more members on this side of the world. And the Cape Town region is currently leading the charge, putting big Joburg to shame, on collecting supplies for the SPCA. Really, our good works are only limited by our members' time, money, energy, skills and social connections, so we could potentially do a bunch of other useful things too, with sufficient planning and imagination.

The underlying theme of it all - the sciencey stuff, the fun and games, the stuff that's useful to society - is a desire to push, step by realistic step, towards the idealistic future presented on Star Trek, because it's a good vision, one worth wanting to emulate. It's a world made better by science and reason and getting shit done without crushing jackboots. All these little activities, small things we'd likely want to do anyway, give us a way to express that ideal and do something small but practical to make it real, a centimeter at a time.

None of it's compulsory or obligatory. It's just a nice way of associating with like-minded geeks who're comfortable being geeks. We have ranks, but that's not about control and authority, it's just a fun way to acknowledge your contributions and participation. To add flavour, the whole club is represented as a starship, the USS Dauntless (a name with a rich legacy), which adds a bit of a subtle roleplaying element to all our interactions, and the rank thing fits with that nicely. It's better than just clicking 'Like' on Facebook, because you actually get something out of it, but it's all fun, easy, voluntary stuff, so you need never feel trapped by it. You have almost literally nothing to lose by joining, since Dauntless membership is free.
And we're saving up all of our non-fees for a club house just like this!

The Dauntless is also just one chapter of a larger network of Trek clubs called STARFLEET International, and we're so far the sole chapter in the entire Africa & Middle East region. STARFLEET membership does have a small cost, but that's separate from basic Dauntless membership, and isn't necessary for most members. Again, everything's very casual and easy with us. STARFLEET as a broader organisation does lots of good and interesting things (I'm an especially big fan of their online learning system, Starfleet Academy), but it has two components that bug me: The Starfleet Marine Corps and the Chaplains' Corps. In other words, the subsections for fans of violence and religion who share a preference for strict order and hierarchy. Presumably these are a product of the gun-totin', god-fearin' segment of STARFLEET's predominantly US membership base, and maybe the Federation's principle of tolerance can be applied to including them, but they do seem to have completely missed Roddenberry's ideal of peace and reason. Luckily, both corps are minorities within the global membership, and have effectively no practical effect on the Dauntless's activities, so it's easy to ignore them.

So, join the crew of the USS Dauntless today, and boldly go where you want humanity to go in future, and have a good time doing so.

Sunday, 28 April 2013

The Fear of Politics

At least once a month, I spot someone blaming something on politics, suggesting that politics is inherently dirty and bad. This is one clue I use to tell if someone's going to be incredibly tedious to talk to, because it reveals a serious lack of understanding of what politics actually is. I'm sure you don't want me to think of you as tedious and ignorant and cynical and smelly, so let's all clear it up.

Politics is a process that can be summed up as the means for determining "who gets what, when, where, how and sometimes why." It's inevitable and natural and useful, and it emerges any time that groups of people form. The bigger and more enduring the group, and the more competition for resources, the more pressing this process becomes. We can all agree that the shit we like (food, housing, interwebs, sometimes clothing) doesn't just appear out of nowhere. Someone's got to procure or produce it, and this has been true during (and before) all of human existence. Figuring out who has to do what to make sure this actually happens was tricky enough for early humans, because life was shitter and shorter, and one bad winter meant a fairly immediate choice between only feeding yourself, or risking starvation by sharing food with Occ, who offers you only long-term survival advantages.

In a modern society, it's way more complex, as we have billions of people's economic activities interwoven by several different threads, performing way more tasks to provide way more products and services. This is mostly good; I like my microwave food, my microwave, my internet full of porn, my warm bed, my sturdy house, etc., but I don't want to have to make and maintain all these things myself (except my porn; 99% of it is just pictures of me anyway). But it does mean we each have a lot more to consider when judging the impacts of who we do and don't share our world with.

There's also the issue of laws. I quite like not being stabbed in the face, and I think it's a good idea that we all agree not to stab me in the face. It's such a good idea that I'm willing to agree not to stab any of you in the face in return for you not stabbing me. We can make that a law. But this gets complicated too, partly because of the growing complexity of a growing total population, but mostly because we all want different things, and we're good at convincing ourselves that we're in the right. If a starving young street starfish takes a crust of bread out of Bill Gates's rubbish, is that theft? What if he takes it off his plate instead? What if he adds jam too? How about a jacket to keep warm? How about that diamond-encrusted monocle, so he can afford to eat and stay warm without having to repeat this exercise over and over? How about the home entertainment system too, so he can get by for even longer? At what point is it too much? Deciding this legal matter becomes a matter of politics, because even in the most oppressive autocracies, unbearable or unenforceable laws can't last long.

So that's all that politics is: The meta-system by which these social systems are set up, sort of analogous to how the grand system of evolution produces a huge variety of individual biological systems. You might complain about the shitty pectoral fins evolution's stuck you with, but you can't realistically exit the system in protest. It's inevitable, but not inevitably bad. The products of politics may not always be what we want, but if we had no way of getting involved in politics at all, we'd all have to be loners, totally dependent on ourselves and nobody else.

I think some people maybe get confused between the words 'politics' and 'politicians' (by which they probably actually mean only government officials and electoral candidates, an even more limited definition). But that also reflects plain cynicism. Yes, there are plenty of examples of corrupt politicians, but that doesn't make them all corrupt. What's more, what result would you expect when you start taking it for granted that the people you're handing the reigns to are going to be selfish cocks? It's defeatist, or even self-defeatist, to cling to the notion that all politicians are necessarily corrupt. Holding politicians, both in and out of office, accountable for their public choices is an essential part of a functioning democracy, and has obvious-if-trickier use in non-democracies too. Part of this is simply trying to keep on top of what is and isn't factual truth, and this is the point where politics and skepticism can overlap nicely, even though some skeptics are loathe to go there.

I like to think that most people already know most of this, even without a politics degree. None of it's really complicated or counter-intuitive, and a huge portion of our brains' processing power is evolved to think about exactly these sorts of social interactions, so at least some of it should come instinctively. I would hypothesise that most of the defeatist cynics could accept intellectually why they're mistaken, if you really press them on it, but that they're just too overwhelmed emotionally to cope. This overwhelmingness most likely comes from an inability to handle the scale to which global politics has grown. Our Dunbar's-scale social instincts can't be expected to work properly for a society of billions, and any significant time spent pondering this is likely to produce some major mental incongruity between instinct and intellectual understanding, which leads to a shutdown, a refusal to acknowledge the problem.

I may not be right about the causes of this cynicism, but I think the cure is the same either way: Quit yer bitchin' and do something constructive for a change. If you don't see how you could possibly make a difference, then either shut up and accept it, or learn how to do something sensible and constructive (I'd prefer you aimed for the latter). Politics is not magic, it's not something that just happens by itself in a dark box. It's people talking to other people, and if you could follow this post up to here, then you've got at least half the skills needed for that, so stop being so afraid of politics.

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Atlas Tugged

I mentioned that my Star Trek roleplaying group is on a break, and since things will be pretty damn different when we pick up again, I thought it was a good time to re-assess what ship they have. The small vessel with minimal crew works really well for roleplaying purposes, because it pushes the player characters deeply into the action with minimal effort, but it's not the only option. TNG did really well to stay focused on the main cast, despite the Enterprise's crew of approx. 1,000. Babylon 5 pulled off the same narrow focus even with a total population of 250,000 on the station, and potential billions more once its focus shifts to long-term plots on specific planets. There are tricks for giving the main cast all the attention while also giving them lots of minions, peers and general cohabitants, which can be used for roleplaying plots too. I really like the small-ship format (see Firefly, Cowboy Bebop, Futurama), but big ships can be fun too. From a roleplaying point of view, Rogue Trader demonstrates that nicely, with thousands of dedicated "peasant" crew to shovel babies into the ship's fusion furnaces and things like that, and surprisingly few NPC crew anywhere near as competent as the player characters.

I prepared my players a list of appropriate starship classes for which I already had the CODA-system rules, including the option of retaining the same ship they've been using all along, and asked them to vote amongst themselves for the one we'd be using next season. There's no consensus that anyone's reported back to me yet, but we've still got another month or so to prepare.

So that's all pretty neat, but hardly a story worth reporting to the entire intarwebs. What I really wanted to write about was a campaign idea I got from my list that won't fit my current plans at all well, but which could still be fun and interesting; feel free to steal this idea if you like it. You'll note my list includes the Atlas-class tug, because I have stats for it and it isn't a completely impossible and inappropriate option to include. But I'm under no illusions that the group will find that an especially appealing choice. It fluffs up the list a little, but by the standard stats, it's unarmed, it's fragile, it's not at all geared to science and exploration, it only carries a crew of 3 and it can just barely hit warp 8. Most of its systems are devoted to the specialist task of tugging other, more important starships around.
Tug and "more important" starship, to scale

Why would anyone want to run a game with one of those? You're not going to get a serious shooty pew-pew starship combat game with one, even with heavy modification. (Well, maybe with some creative modification; I was surprised every single episode at how much combat oomph my players were getting out of their little science ship, not too much larger than this Atlas-class tug.) But, you don't need to throw tugs into heavy combat (in any setting, not just Trek) to do interesting things with them.

Think about what a tug is and what it does:
  • There'll be a lot of routine "harbour" work, escorting in visiting alien ships, carrying diplomats, explorers and merchants. A great opportunity to introduce plot hooks to draw the players into those sorts of activities, even if only unofficially and tangentially.
  • There'll be some salvage and retrieval of wrecks, which creates opportunities for the players to board them to "make appropriate salvage preparations", whatever that might entail, and even supposedly friendly vessels become mysterious places when abandoned. After all, why were they really abandoned? Who's been there since? Is anyone still around? Perhaps there's some pressing safety concern too, the space equivalent of an oil spill, to add urgency to things.
  • There may be competition over legitimate salvage rights, or conflict from wreckers and pirates, trying to illegally snatch ships away from the players. I can easily picture the Ferengi filling both of those roles, simultaneously.
  • There could even be an occasional search and rescue mission, when dedicated rescue boats aren't available or lack the raw power of a tug. Saving lives can be just as dangerous and exciting as ending them, which is kind of sad, but makes for compelling stories.
  • If necessary, an innocuous tug might get away with some interestingly nocuous activities of its own, perhaps as part of a smuggling ring. The Soviets used fishing trawlers for espionage and it's not a huge stretch to see a tug in the same role, given an enemy who won't shoot first and not even bother to ask questions later.

And that's just off the top of my head. Clearly, there's a lot more potential for drama with a tug than there might first appear to be, given an appropriate context. And as I say, it doesn't have to be Star Trek. The New England coast in the 1930s almost literally screams out for a Call of Cthulhu tug story; just think of the non-boat things they might be called on to pull into port. A Firefly game, or perhaps Eclipse Phase, could work even better for a tug game than Trek, with their realistic portrayals of isolation in space, with scavenger fringes and limited resources; there were even a couple of Firefly episodes that touched directly on these ideas already. The rivers of the Empire might pose narrower navigational challenges, but I've learned that they're just as interesting for players to explore, and the River Reik would lead plenty of different tuggable vessels past the players' home village or town. And I believe tug-like vessels aren't completely unknown in Spelljammer either.

The only major concern I have is that the players would have to accept that they couldn't keep any ships they salvage. I can picture some of my own players eagerly drooling over the giant dreadnought they'd just dragged home, like a jack russel that's gotten hold of a huge branch. If players don't want to play the tug campaign, if they want some sort of pirate game or something else instead, then that should be openly discussed and adjusted to, but if they do want to play the tug game, then they need to get comfortable with their tug, and with having to give up anything bigger that comes their way. The GM can smooth this along with a clear idea of who in the setting has the authority and power to remove excess ships, and what (if any) reward they'll give in return.

If I were going to run this for Star Trek (just since that's what gave me the idea in the first place), I can see two very similar things I'd do with it. I'd either go with the original Kirk era, with most of space considered a wild frontier, even within the Federation's borders, leaving a tug relatively isolated and independent, or I'd skip ahead a century to just after the Dominion War, when space is better explored, so there's probably more trade going around, but things are still much more chaotic than they were in the peaceful TNG era, before the war stirred things up. One of the only things I liked about Star Trek IX: Insurrection, was the first scene onboard the Enterprise, where they show how stretched Starfleet has become, with so many ships lost to combat and so many new post-war duties to add to neglected pre-war duties. From a tug crew's point of view, that means waiting for Picard to save the day for you is just as fruitless as waiting for Kirk would have been in the TOS era; they've each got their own excess of adventures to deal with, and you're usually going to be a very low priority for them.

Stick your tug at some remote outpost that's halfway along the route between two more interesting and populated regions, and wait til the traffic starts flowing through, with shiploads of fun and adventure in tow.

[EDIT: I'm a slight idiot, having forgotten the USS Dauntless (1861), from my list of Dauntlesses, which wasn't much of a Dauntless, but which was a tug. It's worth mentioning that it was apparently also used for general river patrols, which seems like a good excuse for getting the players' ship out into space without having to give them a particular mission. Certain stories work better that way, with the action only introduced later on, when home is too far to be much help.]

Sunday, 21 April 2013

Frost pissed!

I've been increasingly grim and glum (and glim and grum) the over the last 2 weeks, as Frost's prognosis after his accident never seemed to get any better, with the doctor himself getting pretty damn emotional and gloomy. On top of that, someone vandalised my car, permanently bending open the passenger door to steal absolutely nothing. I've been pretty stressed and we were supposed to decide this past Friday or Saturday if it was necessary to euthanize the poor little bugger, and luckily the vet felt that we should give him another couple days, just to be absolutely sure. The main worry was the bladder, which had shown zero sign of functioning. Some spinal damage had definitely occurred (and his entire tail had to be amputated as a result), and there was a concern that all nerve connections with the bladder had been cut, so that he could neither voluntarily (as before) nor involuntarily (i.e. incontinently) urinate. So even though the rest of him seems fine again, mostly, there could have been that one dead component that would still kill him.

And the great news today is that Frost pissed! And took a huge shit too! Huzzah! I can't say yet how voluntary it was, but the fact that it happened at all is an excellent sign, and he may even be home by Wednesday. I doubt he'll ever function 100% right again, and as I say, he's got no tail no more. The wound from where his tail was cut off initially failed to close, because there wasn't enough skin for the stitches to hold together, and he had a massive open hole there instead, but that's already half the size after one week of regrowth, and frankly, this cat has survived so much shit in only 2.5 years that I think he can manage this too. Three cheers for scientific medicine! I should get him a red shirt, though.

Normally blogging will resume shortly.