Monday, 30 June 2014

Astronyms, part K: The Kerbal Kondoms

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

Kerbal Space Program is one of the best incomplete things, up there with the Mona Lisa and Wales. Apart from being both very fun and very educational, offering a chance to safely mess around with spacecraft of your own, it also offers a chance to mess around with spacecraft names of your own. Astronyms are not just for the superpowers any more!

The main thing I've learned about this from playing Kerbal is that it's not as easy as it might seem. Creativity is one challenge, and logic and order are another. Trying to find a naming scheme that combines both is a little bit of a tall order; not impossible, but tricky. It's especially tricky when you're naming rockets before testing them out, with little sense of which ones will deserve the coolest names. The throw-away sandbox nature of the game also inhibits a lot of good naming. What's the point of giving a design your best possible name if you're going to replace it with something else in a day or two. (This was especially true after they introduced the Science mechanic, with its unlockable tech tree to entice you away from older designs.)

On the other hand, I can get through as many new designs in a month of playing Kerbal as the real spacecraft builders have managed in 50 years, and I'm one of thousands of players, who've all only been playing for a few years, at best. Between us, we're bound to have a lot of lame, rushed, spur-of-the-moment ideas. The real spacecraft builders haven't really got that excuse.

I can't say I've looked too deeply into other players' naming habits. A lot seem to go for purely descriptive designations (like Orbiter or Moon Lander), rather than flowery monikers. A lot of others like joke names, especially ones that cram the letter K in places it doesn't belong (e.g. Kerpollo 13). There are just so many players out there that I can't summarise all their naming styles here. If you are a Kerbal player and you feel you either have a clever naming system to share, or just one especially amazing spacecraft name, then feel free to explain it in the comments. [EDIT: I totally get the logic of the naming system mentioned in here, for example.]

My personal system has evolved a little over time, but I'd say it's probably most similar to the Soviet/Russian style. This is because the game doesn't easily lend itself to naming subcomponents separately, so it's default to treat the whole thing, from crew capsule to main engines to side boosters, as a single entity. This is essentially the same as the Soviets putting the Vostoks on Vostok rockets, the Voskhods on Voskhod rockets and the Soyuzes on Soyuz rockets. There is a facade of simplicity to it. I'm also inclined to give missions with the same (or pretty similar) designs sequential Roman numerals after their names (I don't know why Roman numerals, I just do things), and sometimes letters after that to show sub-missions or relaunches of failed missions, especially those that never even got off the pad. This helps with both save-file admin and gives a nice clear sense of which designs I've invested more time in. It's kind of fun looking at the gradual evolution of vessels sharing the same name; much like the Soyuz family, an awful lot can change from the maiden flight to the latest incarnation.
Zirconium I and Zirconium II illustrate how a few smallish changes (mainly just going for more symmetry and more solar panels) can hugely change the look of a design.

I have lost most of my records of old names, as I didn't bother to write it down, only took a few screenshots and frequently deleted the whole program and started from scratch. Below is a rough overview of what I can say with high certainty.

The First Ones
I'm not 100% certain when I first started playing KSP, but the oldest install file I seem to have in my archives, from August 2011, is for version 0.8.5. My initial naming scheme was completely messy, as I was very much still figuring everything out and focusing more on getting rockets that firstly wouldn't immediately explode (things were really rough before the invention of support struts), and then if they survived could possibly just barely creep up over the top of the atmosphere. It was as hard as fucking rocket science back in the early days! I have no records of any names, but it's fair to assume they were mostly nonsense, joke names, a reflection of my toddler-like approach to the whole game. Eventually I could hit escape velocity going straight up, but had nowhere to go, and they hadn't added timewarp yet, so testing to see if I'd really escaped was a matter of leaving it to run in real time until either the ship or the program crashed.

From the Empire to the Mün
Things got serious with 0.12 and the sudden appearance in the sky of the moon, Mün, a teasing destination just out of my reach so far. If I'd been Goddard up to this point, fucking about with little direction and slowly learning things among the playful explosions, then 0.12 was the start of the serious Space Race, a time when explosions were no longer amusing. And my captured German scientist, ready to hand me a fantastic starting design on a silver platter, was trydyingtolive, who just happened to have made the first youtube tutorial on Münlandings I opened. His recommended build was probably the only time I seriously tried to distinguish between the vessel and its launcher, as the lander design I stole borrowed from him became my default one for ages, even though the launch system under it kept changing well beyond recognition.
The final stage of Sigmar slows Ranald's descent, giving way to my first ever successful Mün landing!

This was not too long before I started writing this series on astronyms, and my mind had already been soaking in the real historical stuff for ages at this point, so it was inevitable that my naming would turn to something more sensible and ordered too. And following the early American tradition, I went with something mythological. But being geeky, I went with geeky mythology, naming vessels after the Warhammer pantheon. And so it was that my first successful flight to the Mün was made on the stolen borrowed trydyingtolive design, which I designated as the Sigmar rocket, carrying the Ranald lander. As I say, the Ranald was an excellent design for its time, and incredibly easy to plonk on top of virtually any launch rocket, making as good an orbiter as a lander. 0.12 was simpler times...
One of the few successful non-Ranalds I built in this period was the simple but high delta-v Rhya series, which could nearly hit the Sun (which wasn't actually hittable back then)

The Podcaster Months
With 0.13.3, I seem to have started from scratch, perhaps due to version compatibility issues nulling my previous collection of designs, possibly because I just ran out of Warhammer gods. Either way, something made me start naming my spacecraft after my favourite podcasters, starting with the SGU's skeptical rogues. Some designs weren't too successful...
Bob I eagerly launches itself in several wrong directions, before I even get to throttle up.

...while others were surprisingly awesome.
The Rebecca III rocket plane

It was in this period that I independently stumbled on what other Kerbal players now know as asparagus staging, with outer stages sharing their fuel inwards to inner stages. The advantage of this is that external tanks have their own engines underneath, and so aren't simply dead weight - but unlike conventional side boosters, the central engine doesn't have to drain its own tank until the side tanks have fallen away. The result is that whatever reaches orbit has the maximum fuel available to shift the minimum of mass; it's perfect for general purpose launchers. I had a series of horribly complicated rocket-piles, all named The Bugle, that helped me explore this kind of staging.
The Bugle IIb: When it didn't immediately blow up, it could be incredibly successful and efficient

Unfortunately, the game's assembly hangar was buggy as hell back then, and successfully putting all those bits together correctly was an exercise in keyboard-snapping frustration. It was also difficult to judge exactly what modifications would be worth the extra mass of more engines and more fuel. The launch tower also got in the way a lot, limiting the maximum horizontal diameter I could expand into. I frequently pancake-flipped into the ground when one little SRB clipped the edge of the tower on lift-off.
The Fuckyouchris lander was able to demonstrate the asparagus staging's usefulness to a modified Ranald design.

The Trekkies
I got stuck with 0.13.3 for a long time, and mostly reverted to just fucking about, trying to make ever more complex and powerful designs. But with no new parts to help me along (I never mod), things eventually stagnated. I tried naming my ships after the complete list of captains of the starships Enterprise, starting from Archer, and I believe I eventually got them all, but few were memorable.
Well, maybe memorable in some ways... (Kirk II)

Much like the US in the '70s, I lost interest in Moon landings, since there was nothing I could do once I got there. I mucked about with some weird experimental stuff, including this Trek-inspired twin-nacelled thing, named Icarus (jokingly named after the Daedalus class)
It barely made it to orbit and could do fuck all once there, being far too oddly weighted to control effectively.

And then, nothing again for a while, until my friend Scot started getting heavily into the game earlier this year and getting me interested again with his tales of success, as well as showing me the excellent edumacational videos of Scott Manley. I upgraded to a newer version with EVA and finally had a little more reason to go back to the Mün, though still not much more reason.
The lamely-named but robust Arrow series, got me to the Mün several times, using new pieces and a lot of old lessons learned in the Ranald-Sigmar days (Arrow Vb)

Buying Minimus
Finally, after years of using only the demos, I finally had both the income and the will earlier this year, and paid for the full beta version. I've since been going mad launching towards the many new celestial bodies, and sciencing the hell out their sciencable stuff. The Science mechanism was a genius addition, and as I said earlier, it sort of forces you to constantly upgrade and improve your vessels as new tech gets unlocked and old destinations get over-researched. To find enough names for this new flood of potential ships, I opted for a slightly lazy but fairly useful and still interesting-seeming scheme: I name each new design after a different element, in ascending order of atomic number. The little Hydrogen I was little more than a firecracker, worse than some of my initial 0.8.5-or-so designs. I'm currently in the middle of trying to assemble the modular Ruthenium I interplanetary explorer, up in low Kerbin orbit, while the now-aging Scandium Ib probe has flown out beyond Eeloo's orbit and is continuing out of the solar system.
Space traffic!

Having a pre-scripted list of names like that takes a lot of the thought away from the naming process, which is easier, but I've found it a bit uncreative and unsatisfying. My exceptions have been my Kerbin-orbitting space station, Mendeleev Station, a couple of unplanned moonbases converted from crashlanded landers (Panic Base on Mün, Thud Base on Minimus), and my non-space jets, now that I have the horizontal hangar to play with. Those get especially ridiculous names, like Thundermuffin, Swoopbugger, Resplosion and Bumblebug. I really enjoy coming up with those, and if my current save game corrupts (as I suspect it may already have), then I will certainly go back to an unscripted naming scheme. Loose themes are nice for guidance, but the freedom to make the name and the shape and/or purpose match up is worth the added 2.14 seconds of thought it'll take generate something a bit original.

And that, I think, is the main lesson of this entire series for real rocket manufacturers, operators and astronauts: Good names are important. Don't neglect naming, and don't lean too heavily on pure descriptive utility. Whatever else you can say about space, it is pretty; embrace the prettiness.

Thursday, 19 June 2014

Sham, When the Talk was Given

This time last year, I was preparing to give a talk on xenolinguistics, which I honestly don't know that much about. The talk itself was not a massive success, for two reasons, I think:

First, audience interaction. I'm used to very interactive teaching and GMing, and I was geared towards bouncing ideas around with the audience. But the vast (perhaps overambitiously large) lecture hall didn't lend itself to that, and neither did many of the audience members until after I'd finished talking. I'm not sure how it felt to everyone else, but it seemed quite flat and dry to me as a result.

Second, my ideas were admittedly not that clear. Or rather, I had a clear central idea, but bundled it in too much other junk, dozens of small samples of non-human communication, in an attempt to give sufficient practical examples to back up what I was saying. This might have worked alright with sufficient audience interaction to twist and shape all the junk in a practical direction, but oh well.
Explaining abstraction abstractly may also have been a mistake.
A third obstacle, though one I predicted and found unavoidable anyway, is that it's quite difficult to judge how high to aim a random public talk. Too simple, people get bored. Too challenging, they get lost. But when they're all at different, unknown levels? How can anyone aim effectively for that? I'm sure it can be done, but I haven't figured it out yet.

The reason this has popped back into my head now is that I saw this great article by Ian Bigost (it opens with a long, detailed summary of the TNG episode 'Darmok'; if you've not seen it yet - Ali - then rather watch the full episode first instead), which goes in a slightly different direction from where I went, but still hits exactly the core thing I wanted to focus on.

A fairly common criticism of the alien communication in 'Darmok' is that it doesn't actually seem to make sense, that it doesn't seem like it could ever be a practical, day-to-day language. But that's exactly the point of it. The writers didn't sit down to create another whole language suitable for human tongues and brains, completely from scratch. They just wanted to open enough of a crack into something very, very foreign, to give us a taste of just how foreign things can get. We have to take it on disbelief-suspending faith that, somehow, it can work, and then move on to the intended mental destination: Thinking about how we'd wrap our heads around something that alien if we ever encountered it in reality. Because in reality, we often run into things that very obviously are really there, happening, and which continue to work fine whether or not we've figured them out yet.

Feynman had an analogy about science being like trying to figure out the rules of chess from scratch, merely by seeing the pieces move, which fits here nicely too. 'Darmok' only shows us the end product, the movement of the pieces, the sounds the aliens make. Figuring out what it all means and how it came to be that way is the challenge it represents. Trekkies who write it off as unworkable are committing the same error as those who write off the warp drive as inherently impossible: A strange mix of the argument from ignorance with failure to distinguish between fiction and reality. (The whole point of science fiction is to explore what-ifs and could-bes, not to definitively map out reality for practical use.)

So, my core idea: All communication is representative. Something stands in for something else. There is absolutely no reason that the words we're used to, or in the way we're used to them, or discernable words at all, should necessarily be the best or only way to share abstractified concepts. I think Bigost's article is worth promoting for illustrating, better than my talk did, exactly this point. It's a pretty basic idea, but no real non-human communication can be possible without it.

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

Happy Dark Times

I must be far behind; not only are there all the things still left over from 2013 to write about, but at the very least I also owe an update for the 4th season of Edge of Apocalypse, the USS Dauntless's Joburg Star Trek roleplaying campaign I ran earlier this year. The short version of that, for now, is that we finished the Dominion War phase, and will move onto new things later. But first, as we've found the CODA rules break badly at high levels, I want to convert us to a d20 alternative, borrowing from Prime D20, Star Wars d20, Spycraft and other variants. And as a playtest of this, we'll be popping back to the Original Series era for a quick mini-campaign there.

What have we done in the mean time? We've roleplayed, of course. Gail has run an excellent Star Wars campaign, The First Sparks, set in the Dark Times era. It is a grim world of perilous adventure, and I was really excited to enter it, because I loved the Dark Times comic series so much. Much like the characters in that comic, several of our characters initially had a pretty hard time figuring out exactly what their place in the new Empire could be, and it was interesting play through that.

We also shot a lot of things. I don't often go out of my way to play dumb characters, but with a super-intelligent Gnome less inclined towards combat in my other weekly game (D&D for Awesome People), I felt like something different: Geshi. He's a bit thick, awfully unwise, not all that tough, but an amazing shot. I found him quite hard to play, really. Gung ho seemed to be the best model, but there were times when that would clearly have fucked things up for everyone else, and I didn't want to lean on that all the time, so I held back. There were also times when I could see what needed to be done to push things forward, but couldn't quite justify how Geshi would have come to the same conclusion. Of course, the times I did let Geshi do something obviously foolish were fun, in their own way, but possibly only for me. It reinforces the "make sure it's playable" guideline of general character creation.

The other characters were fun too. Owen's Wookie (always a fun species) was played with remarkable dedication to the character's limited vocab. Shaun's two-brained Cerean provided the perfect balance of rational, calm, sensible intelligence against... pretty much the entire rest of the party. And it was quite fun watching Alex and others gradually coax Brad's Mon Calamari jedi ever closer to the Dark Side, or at least away from respectibility.

Gail kept the game running for a really long time, too. January to June, with hardly any weeks skipped, is a serious feat of endurance for even an experienced GM, and I think she's definitely beyond Noob GM status now.

On a technical note, we were using the Saga Edition of the Star Wars D20 rules, which certainly flow smoothly. After the messiness of Decipher's CODA rules and the sheer bulk of the Pathfinder rules we use for D&D, this minimalism was very distinct. I wouldn't hold it above the simple-yet-efficient Warhammer 2nd Ed. rules, though, and I felt some parts of it were a little broken, such as the guaranteed hit Autofire rule, which left Geshi's sniper build pretty pointless.

On the plus side, we finally (in the very last session) got to try out space combat!
Pew Pew Pew!

Geshi, not entirely by accident, was brilliant at that. But the fragile little TIE Fighters fell too fast for us to get a really good sense of how the space combat system has developed in this edition.

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

The Grr Crutch

Stephen Fry did a great doccie on his own manic depression, and one of the things I learnt more about from that was the concept of self-medication. I was loosely aware of it before, but he shed some more nuanced light on it. In general, the shit you do to make yourself feel better in the face of serious mental illness (in lieu of proper treatment) can be lumped together as self-medication. I'd always worried that I might fall into alcoholism (of which there is some family history) or comfort eating (just because it's one of the few ways I normally ingest anything), but neither seems that likely anymore. My laziness about shopping is enough to trump both.

My parents always accused me of being a PC addict, but that's never been true. They simply misunderstood that computers are a metatool for doing other, normal things with. They wouldn't accuse me of being a reading addict or a social interaction addict or a movie addict, and yet those are the things the PC offered me. I might once have thought I was a gaming addict, possibly, but it turns out I was mostly just filling empty hours with easy entertainment, and now that I'm much busier, I play far fewer games, with no apparent withdrawal.

So how have I coped with depression and anxiety, without proper medical assistance? Anger. Righteous fury. It occured to me tonight that I self-medicate by allowing myself to get cross and criticize the fuck out of people. If I have anything close to an unhealthy addiction, that's it.

This is not to say that all criticism is bad, or that nobody should ever get angry. This is something that can be channeled in positive ways, and I like to think I have managed some good with it. But that's the trap; no villain ever thinks they're the bad guy, they all believe they're doing the right thing, with ends justifying means. And this is the risk with angry shoutiness: How do you tell when you've crossed the line into unreasonable, unproductive and purely self-serving, if you've already excused yourself from self-doubt?

And self-doubt is exactly what I'm usually trying to escape. Freeing myself to say whatever I feel like, blindly trusting myself instead of second-guessing myself, feels great. Mere material stimulants, whether booze or sex or chocolate peanut butter, seem so irrelevant by comparison. They can make me feel nice, but they can't make me feel like I'm worth anything or contributing to anything good. Shattering a creationist's crapiscles or condemning racist bile lets me unleash most of my comfortable strengths, including my word-good-using-ness and my ability to spot flaws in arguments. But it also lets me feel like I have a place on the moral high ground, or at least that I'm doing something to support those on the real moral high ground, thus earning myself a bit of moral medium ground.

Trouble is, firstly, I haven't always kept this restricted to 'worthwhile' topics. Shitting on purely subjective choices I disagree with has given me similar thrills, but without being anywhere near as defensible; sometimes I'm simply making innocent people feel bad about themselves. And second, as Phil Plait and others have pointed out, the brute force sledgehammer of direct, aggressive debate is often not a good way to actually change anyone's mind. It may technically result in a logical win as per formal debating rules, but few people are actually persuaded in that way, so it may not be as helpful as I'd hoped.

Another probable risk is that it makes anger itself too appealing to me, and I do sometimes worry that I slip into rage too easily. I've been stewing all day over a variety of problems, and it just feels shit.

The one thing Mr Fry was not clear about was the way to get clear of self-medication habits and live a better, happier life. I may have to take a ferry to France instead.