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.