Saturday, 11 November 2017

The least worst thing about Trump

There are plenty of bad things to say about Trump, and he keeps working* hard to produce more. He may not end up being the worst US president of all time (Jackson set a very low bar, for one easy example), but he's easily got to be the least qualified, least suitable they've ever had. I want to be clear that I'm no Trump supporter, and that this post is not at all a defence of the man. There's just so much to hold against him; I won't bore you by listing it all here, when so many other sources have been doing that for years already. But there's one thing that (mainly American) commenters regularly bring up, when they want to illustrate how awful he is, which I have a little trouble with: Bone spurs.

It's a matter of public record that Trump evaded the US military's draft during the Vietnam War, first through educational deferments, and then through a medical deferment for bone spurs in his foot. That diagnosis doesn't seem like a very compelling excuse, and it's easy to use that to say that he's a coward. And he almost certainly is. I don't think that's bad. This isn't the neolithic, we don't need a big strong manly man to be village chief and protect us from fearsome monsters we don't understand. Today we understand there are no unknown monsters left in the wilderness, it's just us against ourselves now, and the remaining violent manly men are the monsters among us. In 2017, leaders who fear violence are the most sensible, sane, useful choice, provided they extend their caution over all of us, and not just selfishly over themselves. We want more of that sort in office, and pushing in the exact opposite direction seems like overkill.

So our instinct to mock and reject cowardice of violence is outdated, and can even be harmfully counterproductive.
Many people far better than Trump have proudly been cowards.

The issue is complicated, I'm aware, because Trump's draft dodge represents additional things, beyond simple, sensible aversion to violence. The fact that he got away with it, when thousands of others without his wealth couldn't, highlights the unfair class and race exploitation of the draft. Plenty of far more deeply convicted pacifists were forced into war (or jail) because they couldn't afford the legal and medical experts needed to fend off the system they lived in. And since then, Trump has shown that he's not at all opposed to other people having to live with violence and death, so long as it's far away from him. He may be a coward, but that doesn't make him a man of peace. He's clearly something of a hypocrite in this area.

What's maybe a little weirder is that the US right wing is nominally the pro-war side of US politics (though there are plenty of pro-war Democrats, to muddy that divide), and it ought to be incongruous that Republicans would select a draft dodger as their chief. Perhaps that's why critics keep throwing this criticism at him, hoping it'll turn his supporters against him? If so, it clearly hasn't worked, and instead it will almost certainly make life a little harder for genuinely anti-violence US politicians for years to come.

It's a weird situation. His draft dodge attempt may not be praiseworthy, as it was for most others. But it still doesn't seem entirely as awful as it's been portrayed over the last couple years. Would we really be happier if history had gone differently, and a young Trump had been handed a gun and told to shoot people? (Army duty certainly didn't make Hitler into a better person...)

I'm inclined to say this particular criticism works out somewhere close to neutral, in the end. I think it was a perfectly acceptable, rational personal choice at the time, but he's not used his privilege since then to pass that sane option on to others. I wouldn't say avoiding the draft necessarily makes him good, but I also can't easily say that it makes him awful. It's the 965 other far more valid criticisms of him that make him awful (including his subsequent hypocrisy), and this one specific bone spur criticism is kind of unnecessary. It's one of many things I will be glad to be rid of when he finally goes.

Wednesday, 8 November 2017

Teacher's Bits: RoboRally for teaching transformations

I've been thinking for a year or so that RoboRally ought to be an excellent tool for teaching the mathematics of transformations. I've already drawn a connection in class between the motion of computer animation (in games and movies) and the geometric transformations we've been learning, and many of my grade 9s get that link quite clear in their minds. But for other students, computer animation is a form of change they're not too used to, or haven't looked at closely enough.

RoboRally's step by step motion gives a good look at similar transformations, and at a slower, more deliberate pace. Players need to think through each move, one at a time. The direction a piece is facing is also relevant (which makes rotations important), which isn't so in many other boardgames. In chess, for example, non-pawn pieces seldom care what direction their previous move came from, they can just go off in whatever new direction they like, instantly changing facing. And pawns, at the other extreme, are too directionally limited, with no chance to rotate at all. But the robots in RoboRally must be intentionally rotated, if they want to change direction. There's also the hope that exploring transformations will help to solidify students' grasp of Cartesian planes in general.

And better still, RoboRally is fun. The time pressure, the competition, the risk of blowing up or crashing off the edge, the lasers (pew pew pew), all make the simple act of moving a lump of plastic from A to B more exciting and compelling.

To make it most useful for my grade 9 maths class, I modified the rules and made it a team exercise. I stripped out any optional extra rules, to keep it as simple as possible, and I also replaced all of the cards and tokens with pen & paper, to reduce the chances of my game components getting damaged or lost. But the biggest rule change was replacing the random draw of order cards, with a free choice of translations and rotations, so long as they are accurately written in the correct format, as used in normal exercises.

This retains the two major sources of conflict in the game: Unpredictable, unexpected clashes between different robots' preset plans, and accidental errors in one's own planning.

The first draft version of the rules summary and worksheet. (Click to embiggen)
I found time today for one test game, and while some of the kids were initially uncertain about a lot of it, one or two practice rounds cleared that up, to the point that they were almost all really into it by the end. The winning team were some of the kids who started the game complaining the loudest that they didn't get it. In the final round, they were laser-focused and knew exactly what they were doing. Some of the others, who were very confident early on, learned a series of lessons about how easy it is to accidentally write down the wrong sign when there's time pressure, and they rolled confidently off the edge of the map into the oblivion beyond.

I've seen plenty written about the gamification of learning, and I think a lot of it isn't really suited to older students (who are nominally my main focus), so I haven't explored that much. But as I seem to have a long future of teaching juniors ahead of me, I'm starting to think that I'll have to give gamification some more thought.

Saturday, 7 October 2017

Response: Space for Women at the Gaming Table

Droke-Dickinson's short post at Women at Warp, titled Space for Women at the Gaming Table got my interest up a little, enough that I left a comment on it. And while someone there may eventually reply to that, I wanted to pick at my own questions a bit.

1. How does RPG Trek differ from TV Trek?

Droke-Dickinson's post doesn't really focus specifically on either Star Trek or roleplaying games. Rather, it's a post pointing out how many possible entries to the hobby there are today, and how those entry options compare. And I can't fault this, as an introductory post.

But I'd want to go beyond that, to focus on what new players can expect from these games. If you're at Women at Warp, you're presumably already a serious Trekkie, so you'll want a game that gives you an appropriately Trekkie experience? If so, proceed with a teensy grain of caution.

I'd say there are two major differences to be aware of: Imagination and rules.

The rules thing is probably easier to anticipate and explain, though I will waffle about it for a greater number of paragraphs. Games have rules and structure, in order to function. TV shows and movies do too, but they don't work the same way or have the same goals. The structure of a show exists to tell a good story, for the narrative (we know the whole cast won't die within 5 minutes of the start, no matter how realistic that might appear to be), but also to fit within production and budget limits (few series can afford to actually film in weightlessness, for example).

Roleplaying games can have rules and structure for all sorts of reasons, but the three most widely discussed are probably narrative, simulation, and gaming. Narrative is not unlike the story-telling of a novel or series or comic or opera; it's about reigning in the chaos to form random events into a coherent plot. Simulation is about making the gaming universe realistic, or at least internally consistent and adequately predictable (so that the narrative and gaming goals become feasible). And gaming is about giving the events of the story some achievable, discernible target for the players to succeed or fail at reaching; this is normally presented as part of the challenge to be overcome in the narrative aspect.

We know the TV series can get more than a little sloppy with realism/simulation, and in-universe technology and physics is bent and retconned whenever the writers need it to be something else; that's actually a long-accepted tradition in all human story-telling. A roleplaying GM could do the same, for the sake of the narrative, but this then bumps up against the simulation aspect of the game, making the game universe less consistent, and this may in turn affect the possible options for the gaming aspect. For example, it might be dramatically exciting, this episode, when the chief engineer manages to transport the detonator out of that one torpedo roaring towards a vulnerable target, tense seconds before impact. But what does this imply for next time? Can't all torpedoes just be neutralised this way? Can't the crew program their computer to do this automatically in future, with superhuman speed and minimal shield adjustments?

But that's actually not an awful problem to have. It can be dealt with, and it implies that the GM is setting interesting challenges, and the players are getting creative at solving them in smart, unexpected ways.

Worse, I find, is when a game leans too heavily towards the gaming or simulation aspects, and forgets that it's supposed to be Star Trek. There have been a number of different official Star Trek roleplaying game rules published over the decades, plus plenty of unofficial ones, and the official ones tend to focus mostly on the things that can be most easily quantified. And gamers have spent decades quantifying violence. So, in most iterations, the rule books have several whole chapters devoted to combat (weapon stats, ship stats, ground combat rules, space combat rules, etc.), and maybe a couple pages on how to use science and diplomacy. The rules may allow for a compelling Picard speech, but they don't exactly encourage that. It's like they've never seen Star Trek.

The rules may also simply not be very good, as with any sort of game. I have yet to try the new Star Trek Adventures rules that came out this year, but I can say that all of the previous versions I've tried were mediocre, at best. The old (1980s) FASA rules were alright, though seem dated now. The Last Unicorn rules (late '90s) were dumb, but very easy to gloss over and ignore. And the Decipher rules (early '00s) were a crappy, cumbersome rip-off of the d20 system used for D&D 3rd edition, which makes little sense, as it was legal and encouraged to simply adapt the d20 rules to whatever game you liked. This was done very successfully for roleplaying games based on more violence-oriented scifi, such as Stargate, Star Wars and Babylon 5.

In particular, I've found two specific things that make Star Trek roleplaying rules tricky. First, hand phasers. When any moderately equipped civilian (and certainly 9 out of 10 hostile opponents) has the ability to casually reduce a whole blue whale to a glowing cloud of loose ions, then the traditional roleplaying game designers' obsession with the minutiae of a wide selection of different weapons and armour becomes pointless. Second, many games like to reward good play with increasing levels and increasing skills. But this is a poor representation of what's seen on screen. After 7 seasons, Picard gained the ability to play the flute, and to tolerate children, not unerring technical skills and immunity against disruptors. Improvements in professional skills are slow and realistic on screen, while some games want to make them sudden, major and obvious. That works fine for D&D, but in Star Trek I have not found that to be a fun or useful change, and it has even ruined the story-telling, once it gets out of hand and the players notice their characters are becoming godlike.

Luckily, all of this can be contained and resolved by the other big difference, imagination.

Imagining is the heart of roleplaying, and that can be both good and bad (mostly good, I think). Series and movies are easier, in that their writers have done all the hard work of preparing the story, and the cast and crew have brought it to life. But in a roleplaying game, that's all on the players. A good game will help the imagination to flow easily and naturally, and once you get used to it, it's far from difficult. But still always remember that it'll take some thought on your part, every time.

And in return for that minor effort, roleplaying offers something that TV series and movies can't: Choice, freedom, options, the ability to vary the story and its outcome. Roleplayers aren't a passive audience, they are participants in and directors of their own story. That alone is the main appeal, for most players.

And beyond that, relying solely on imagination opens up an infinite selection of story options. With no budget limits, no casting limits, no special effects limits, and no physical limits (other than needing to get to work in the morning), you can include or exclude whatever you like. Star Trek has been very creative and expansive, it has shaped the public perception of scifi enormously. And yet there is still plenty a TV show can never do. But within a roleplaying game, go nuts! Literally anything to the limits of your imagination.

The ability to imagine the rough edges of a game away, to smooth out awkwardness from unrealistic or boring rules, also depends on imagination. We can suspend disbelief, if we can imagine how things are supposed to be. We can even figure out which rules to completely disregard, if we can pre-imagine them getting in the way, and re-imagine how things can instead work more smoothly. Of course, this distracts from the more fun sort of imagination, and it becomes hard work if you have to spend the whole game mentally adjusting what the dice keep insisting you should be seeing. It's something games designers should rely on sparingly.
My approximate, subjective graph of Trekkiness vs. Fun of various existing Star Trek games. The same can be used as a guide for figuring out what you want from your roleplaying games. What ranges along each axis do you want to aim for?

2. How does this affect player inclusion?
Bad rules will keep anyone away, unfortunately. Nobody likes grappling with obscure, messy, confusing rule systems as part of their fun recreation.

And for new players, that's an even more important consideration, because a tedious, annoying or cumbersome first impression won't get a lot of new people to come back for more. This is especially true for new players with no other gaming background, and thus no established sense of what a tabletop game can/should entail. Tabletop and mobile gaming may be becoming more popular, but I've got a hunch there's a socio-economic pattern behind that. If any industry expert has the international stats, I'd be interested to see them, but I can say that the pattern is still pretty damn obvious here in South Africa: Roleplayers are, for the most part, still white people with money. It's not an absolute divide, but it's definitely not a negligible one either.

Roleplaying games ought to be the easiest sort of game for just about anyone to get into. The physical infrastructure can be reduced down to any sort of random number generator (though dice aren't that hard to come by, or even make), and some paper and pencil. It can even be reduced to no physical tools at all, with sufficient imagination and a decent memory; at this point, it is reduced to the games of pretend that children everywhere play. But the formal rules and written records are supposed to elevate it to something more enduring and grown-up. And that shouldn't be so damn hard to spread far and wide, across cultural, age, and gender divides. But shitty, hard-to-follow rulebooks don't help.

The balance between narrative, simulation, and game, and how imagination moderates and enhances these three, is a pretty complicated set of considerations to discuss. It's easy to say that greater imagination is very useful, but it's not so easy to turn that into the instruction "have a better imagination"; it doesn't work that way. But I can at least point out ways it can go wrong.

To me, the biggest trap is sticking too rigidly to what's seen on the show, or what's written in the rule books. It's certainly good and useful to be able to borrow, adapt or outright plagiarise canon content, to turn it into something of your own. But you don't have to stick to what others have created, at the expense of your own creativity. If you were making a new official canon production, I'd urge more caution here, but within the far more casual confines of you and a few friends, you only need to justify your changes to each other, not an audience of millions of strangers.

There are all sorts of ways worrying too much about sticking to canon can hem in your creativity, but I think the major self-imposed limit is the urge to stick to times and places the series have already shown. I've done this myself with roleplaying games, and we see the same pattern with nearly all of the many fan-made movies and series. Even the canon series and movies have started falling into this trap, rewinding back to known periods, rather than jumping ahead into the uncharted future. I do understand it; it's comforting to stick with what's already known. Mapping out the vast unknown can feel intimidating. But having tried both, I can say that I find it a lot more fun and satisfying, in the end, to make the extra effort to map out somewhere/somewhen fresh.

Similarly, don't stick to the rules too rigidly. As I said, the earlier versions of Star Trek roleplaying games tended to heavily over-emphasize violence, and I once made the mistake of following the rules' authors too deeply down that rabbit hole. It wasn't a conscious choice, I just kept turning to the rule book for new ideas, and my players kept turning to the rules to guide their own options too. This resulted in a game that was eventually no longer recognisable as Star Trek at all, but rather some war game more similar to the boring Rebels-vs.-Empire battle bits of Star Wars.

That's not to say that war has no place in Star Trek; the series are full of examples of it. But note that their war stories are seldom about the actual fighting, so much as they are about the people, causes, consequences, and attempts to find peaceful alternatives. My mistake was that I would have enjoyed telling those sorts of stories, but I let the limitations of the formal rules funnel me towards the scenes of violence only, and I didn't use my imagination enough to look beyond that. Similar traps wait in all roleplaying games, if you're not aware of the possibility of the rules limiting how you see the game.

The broadest rule, I suppose, is that you can do whatever you like, except when you forget that you can.

Once you've accepted that, I believe you can make a game that any players, of any backgrounds and preferences, will find enjoyable and welcoming. You don't need to make your players fit uncomfortably into a game that alienates them, when you can instead make the game fit around them and their entertainment needs. Just keep this in mind, and remember that including real people is more important than strict deference to fictional characters and their fictional world. Exactly what that'll entail will depend on the individuals you're playing with, so I can't give a universal prescription. But I'm sure you can work it out yourself.

Tuesday, 12 September 2017

Unpacking the Starship Biko

In late 1992, the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "A Fistful of Datas" first aired. It was a fun, silly, low-stakes family episode (if you ignore that the plot revolves around a series of murders...). It did not deeply alter the Star Trek franchise, nor did it carry any especially deep message. It was fine.

But it was the first episode by then-new writer Robert Hewitt Wolfe, and it was probably he who wrote in dialogue references and a short appearance by a small starship named the USS Biko. The ship was named after Steve Biko, who was killed 40 years ago today. And that is significant, if nothing else, as the most direct reference in all of Star Trek to South African apartheid. Just one little ship's name.
USS Biko approaches USS Enterprise, in orbit of Velociraptor VII

The Star Trek franchise has a long-established reputation for being against racism and oppression. So it may be a little surprising that they never tackled as ripe a target as the apartheid system directly. But not completely surprising. On the one hand, the US had its own civil rights progress to make, and American audiences might have needed a lot of catching up on the specifics of the South African situation. (Although, counter-argument to that: Is it really easier to flesh out sufficient details of an entire interstellar alien culture from scratch, in the same amount of time?)

On the other hand, there's the (more convincing, I think) point that Star Trek has always made moral arguments about the real world through analogy. Getting along with lumpy-headed aliens isn't really about aliens, it's a way of saying we should get along with each other here on Earth, regardless of superficial differences. That gives writers more room for creativity, but it also lets the audience be less defensive and more open to new ways of looking at the world. You might feel you already know the politics of Realcountrystan, and it would be difficult to shift your opinions on that in direct debate. But when you're unwinding at home, ready to enjoy the tale of the three-nosed inhabitants of Analogy World 3B, you might be surprised to learn how the other side sees the same politics, without even realising you've been led into considering this.

So it's fair to say that Star Trek addressed apartheid and similarly oppressive systems in indirect ways (for better or worse). The Biko was only allowed to slip through the cracks because it was such a minor, indirect reference.

Why that name? I can't say for sure; almost nothing is known about this ship or the thinking behind it. The rest of this paragraph is speculation only. It's possible that another writer or member of the production staff suggested the name, but for now, the most likely source of it is Wolfe himself. He was a UCLA student in the 1980s, the decade after Steve Biko's murder, so I guess it's conceivable that he was exposed to some student-level anti-apartheid activism there. Perhaps the simpler explanation is that Cry Freedom (1987) had come out a few years before this episode was made; it's quite likely that Wolfe saw that and learned about Biko then. Maybe it was a bit of both, or neither.

Regardless of who chose the name or how they came to hear of Biko, it's fairly clear that Star Trek and Steve Biko fit well together, with common messages of equality, peaceful coexistence, and mutual support and development. Both embraced admittedly vague alternative forms of socialism, and rejected Soviet-style communism. Biko is also especially well known for his particular emphasis on self-improvement through education, which suits me very well, and also fits well with the Starfleet ideal of constantly learning and striving to improve and expand. It's worth reading his writing in more detail, to go beyond this very vague introductory comparison I've drawn here. But I think it's really no stretch at all to see why he might stick in the mind of a Star Trek writer.

I think it's appropriate (though most likely a matter of dumb luck, due to available stock footage) that the Biko is an Oberth-class science ship, making a routine supply run. A science ship fits better with Steve Biko's pro-education stance, and is immediately far more appropriate than anything overtly dumb and violent like a warship.

Friday, 18 August 2017

How to deal with neo-nazis without becoming a violent fool

It looks like the American news cycle is going to give us another 3 and a half years that will include regular infusions of nazi-like people poking themselves into public life. It's obviously bad that they want to be racist and fascist, and it may or may not be useful that they're now exposed to the light of day, rather than festering away in secret. But one thing that's going to keep bugging me a lot, every time, are the well-meaning but badly misguided opponents of nazism who keep going on about punching them. This response is dumb, at best.

I am not the world's supreme authority on deconversion techniques, nor on conflict resolution, but I have had more than the average amount of undergraduate and postgraduate training in this sort of thing. It was one of the main things that got me interested enough in politics to get a degree in it, though I subsequently went in other directions. But I do definitely know just enough to recognise that the total amateurs calling for violent rage don't know what they're talking about at all. To highlight this point, note that by far the most common reference they are relying on is the Indiana Jones series of movies. I haven't counted yet, but I'm pretty sure that the fictional pedophile colonialist thief main character in those movies actually kills a lot more non-nazis than nazis. In fact, brutal violence is that fictional character's solution to most problems. So let's start by agreeing that this and all similar works of fiction are dumb role models for real 21st century behaviour. People who believe otherwise need to grow up, quickly.

Another popular gambit people seem to be relying on lately is saying that anyone who fought against Germany in World War 2 (or at least the British and Americans, in some perspectives I've been given) somehow proves that violence against nazis is good, great, wonderful. This argument is a smidge superior to the totally fictional Indiana Jones, I will concede, but it still lacks an astounding comprehension of how history actually happened. Even if you think soldiers are fighting for a good cause, they're still functionally only there to kill other people. Arguing that they were doing a good thing is tantamount to arguing that war is a good thing. And you know who argues that war is good? Nazis. They fucking loved war, and many of their current neo-nazi followers have a similar veneration of all things violent and military. You know who hated war? The average non-nazi. This is a massive topic we could digress into for years, but give Spike Milligan's war autobiographies a read sometime, or any of the hundreds of similar accounts, and see how a typical person in the middle of that mess felt about it all. War is entirely shit, there is no good side in it, no true good guys, and World War II in particular was an unusually brutal and wide-ranging slaughter on the largest scale humans have ever seen. It's not a period in history we should be aspiring to, because it is beneath us, not above us. Saying you want to beat people is the first step in the cycle of escalation to war that humans have witnessed a million times and never fully learned our lesson from.

There may, I will very cautiously concede, be scenarios in which an innocent person must be rescued and ad hoc violence (by that person or third parties) may be needed to improvise their rescue. But that is a world away from sitting in your underwear at home, cold-bloodedly typing into Facebook that you think we should all plan ahead for beating groups of other people, as a routine and default action, to make them do what we want. That kind of statement is the statement of a bad guy. Don't do that.

Now an interlude: This, experience tells me, is the point where I am accused of being a secret nazi sympathiser, or of not caring about their victims, or of being the unrealistic one for thinking anything short of total violence can work. I've even been accused, for the first time in my life, of being a "moderate". (I have burned a thousand bridges, with friends and strangers alike, over my strong political convictions. Accusing me of excessive moderacy is just an indication that one doesn't actually understand the words one is using and/or doesn't know me at all.)

So let me address these concerns, before spelling out a more constructive path.

I do not support nazis, racists, fascists, sexists, homophobes, or meat eaters, among others. These are all examples of deeply immoral choices, which all share the trait of personal enrichment as part of a privileged group at the expense of another, more vulnerable exploited group. Choosing to be one or more of those is a terrible mistake. But making that choice does not void a person's most basic human rights (which EVERYONE gets, even if they're a dick), it does not absolve the rest of us from our full set of moral duties, and it does not turn any human being into a mindless automaton who cannot or should not be reasoned with. Talking people out of their bigotry is hard. But beating it out of them is close to impossible AND it drags us down to their level. The reason we don't like bigots is that they try to force others to their will, often violently. There must be some pretty major cognitive dissonance to want to use the same method to make them stop that.

And of course, obviously, priority one should not be the comfort of nazis, but the wellbeing of their (intended or actual) victims. It's inaccurate and a little insulting to suggest that I don't have the well-being of these people at the front of my mind. So far, everyone who's accused me of this has been lily white English, with a bit of Afrikaans thrown in. These are not cultural heritages that are squeaky clean of abusing others, and they're not known for having been routinely badly abused themselves (except by each other, by coincidence). I've got my British ancestry. But I also have half my ancestors who were oppressed by the Ottoman Empire for centuries, and when they came to South Africa, were also oppressed by the early apartheid laws, for about a generation. I have not personally been oppressed (I've been privileged my whole life, without question), but it's ridiculous to say that I'd willingly be on the side of the oppressors, knowing how my ancestors (and just as much, the much greater number of my non-relatives) starved and trudged and bled and suffered. My entire academic and professional career has been centered around making people's lives better, not worse. I definitely don't always get it right, but I'm still far ahead of literally supporting bigots (and possibly also ahead of the typical, neutral jobsworth who makes a fair living but isn't really in the helping others business, professionally). I'm very lucky to have paying work that is so constructive to society in general. (I've got a vague hunch that people in the arts & entertainment field are more prone to getting thin-skinned over this; I like artists, I don't think they're wasting their time, generally, but I can see that they might doubt their self-worth in unfair ways, and twist that into doubt of others.)

And finally, perhaps most crucially, we need to pick apart the idea that hitting people will change their minds more than anything else, especially rational discussion. Correction: That previous sentence should read "the really fucking dumb idea that hitting people will change their minds". And this is a big obstacle right there: How to convey to someone that they've embraced a very dumb idea, without alienating them, and pushing them into embracing it even tighter, rather than admit that they've made a mistake? Obviously, I should make clear, it doesn't help at all to tell them that they're dumb stupid idiot fools. Nobody responds well to that, and it usually isn't true anyway. Smart people make dumb choices; I've made plenty and I'm at least moderately intelligent. The more important thing is the ability to move beyond these mistakes.

At the same time, we mustn't lose sight of the fact that this is a really dumb idea. It used to be widely held, in some parts of the world, that pain and physical violence helped to encourage learning and good behaviour. But this was definitely totally wrong, and there's a good century or more of research pointing in exactly the opposite direction. Pain is bad for learning. Physical violence begets more physical violence and other forms of anti-social behaviour. Operant conditioning (like the electric shock training forced on the Project Mercury chimpanzees) gets some basic, coerced behaviour through the application of pain in the short-term (which is why it was sufficient for Project Mercury's very limited needs), but it's shit for actually teaching anyone anything on an intellectual level. Hitting people just doesn't work.

Interlude over. What does work? How do you teach people things they don't want to hear? As a teacher, I can summarise it for you this way: It takes a decade or more of stressful struggle and argument and pushing and discomfort, and it requires the application of many different techniques to achieve many separate parts of the whole desired result. If it were easy, I'd be out of a job, and this post would be totally unnecessary.

So I totally understand the desire for an easy quick fix. It's frustrating enough for me when I have to push algebra into a bored grade 9's head when they'd rather be playing games. And nobody's life is in immediate, urgent danger in my classroom, usually. But wanting a quick fix is not the same as actually having one available. Beating people is definitely not it. Pretending otherwise helps nothing.

So here's what you can actually do that'll be useful: Talk to people.

To be clear, this doesn't mean any of the following:
  • "Love them." Fuck that, don't abuse the concept of love in such a silly way, whether you mean it seriously or mockingly. You don't have to be full of flowers and little bunny toes to convince someone of the simple idea that it is wrong to oppress others. Arguably, you should naturally feel angry that you have to explain this at all. But one thing I've learned thoroughly from teaching is that losing your temper is a completely useless way of convincing anyone of anything, and nobody will buy fake expressions of "love" or other forms of sucking up either. Instead, do your best to be calm, neutral, but devoted to your better principles. You don't have to hate or love someone to explain something to them; you have to play a role that will get them to listen. If you can't do that, step away.
  • "Let them get away with their intolerance." I struggle to understand how people get stuck on this misunderstanding. We don't accept, for comparison, robbery, but we sane, normal people also don't accept that the police or private citizens should mow down suspected robbers with machine guns and chainsaws and no legal due process. There are options in between "nothing" and "murder", and it's my contention that people need to get more familiar with these more sane alternatives. If you're unwilling to accept that premeditated violence is not an ethical choice, then I say you should step away, and leave this to better people.
  • "It will be easy." As I've already spelled out above, changing people's convictions is far from easy. If you want quick, easy-feeling solutions, then this isn't something you should get involved in; step away.
  • "Let's sink hundreds of hours into angry, pointless online rants and arguments with faceless strangers." Not all talk is equally worthwhile. Focus on people you can engage with best, the precariously balanced fence-sitters, and don't try to rush the hardest challenges just to satisfy your own ego. Direct confrontation with hardcore true-believer neo-nazis is something best left to expert professionals (psychologists, psychiatrists, diplomats, and other conflict resolution experts). The best most of us can do for people that deeply twisted is to help channel them towards professional help. Otherwise, it's reasonable to step away.
  • "Nazis don't deserve to suffer." Choices come with consequences, sure. And depending how you do the moral maths, you might even conclude that physical pain is a morally justified punishment for really shit choices, like nazism. My position is that I don't care much what they deserve, I care what the rest of us deserve. And I say that we all deserve to be the better people, who do not have to sink to their shitty level. And I say that we all deserve a solution that will actually work and make the world better; whether you like it or not, the evidence says that beating people in the street will not work. So I don't care if you're robbed of the (somewhat sadistic) chance to cause pain; its not important that you get that chance.
How much talking you can do, who you can talk to, and how useful you will be, are all difficult things for me to predict. Everyone is different, and there's some element of luck to this, because it's hard to know exactly when is best to confront someone. But remember this: Being bad at convincing people of things is not a moral failing, it does not make you a bad person. Just do your best, encourage your friends to do their best, and hopefully our combined efforts will add up to enough. On the other hand, I think it is a moral failing to want to harm others, as a first choice of default reaction to what we all agree is unacceptable behaviour. Telling everyone to rush out to beat people in the street probably does make you a bad person. And grabbing at the violent option, just to feel like you're doing anything at all, may be natural and understandable, but try to accept that it may actually make things worse.

People calling us to beat nazis worry me, but I am still pretty optimistic. They're asking for something stupid, but I don't think they're generally stupid people. They're calling for something bad, but I don't think most of them are bad people. We're all opposed to nazis because we all agree that what nazism wants to do to people is wrong; having a bad idea of how to counter nazism probably makes you a decent person with a bad idea, rather than a bad person. And ultimately, luckily, I don't think most people calling for this violence will ever actually do it. The ones I know best are nerdy, lazy cowards, shouting at social media because they feel powerless; they're very unlikely to form vigilante gangs and go roaming the streets, looking for fights. I don't think many of them would even really know where to look for their local neo-nazi group. But I do worry that their message will provoke others, elsewhere, to do stupid things. And I know they can all actually do the talking and convincing thing better than I can, if they put their minds to it.

Friday, 7 July 2017

There are no Starfleet marines, it's a very dumb idea

It's not too hard to see how the concept of a Starfleet Marine Corps might have been dreamed up by several fans over the decades. Star Trek's central exploration organisation, Starfleet, was originally presented with several superficial parallels with the real US Navy, because it was a convenient common reference point for American audiences and writers, steeped as they are in their militaristic culture. And from there, it's not a massively imaginative leap to propose other parallels, never seen on screen, like assuming that there'd also be Starfleet marines to match the US marines (who are officially a branch within the US Navy).

But this is a silly assumption. Those superficial similarities between Starfleet and the US Navy (little more than their rank structure and some basic procedural terminology) were never meant to imply that Starfleet was a military organisation, let alone an exact mirror of an older Earth military organisation. They're conceptually closer to NASA with phasers, not to a military force with warp drives.

But more importantly, there shouldn't even be any Starfleet Marine Corps, whether related to any historical military parallel or not. It would be such a massive misinterpretation of what Starfleet is for, and of what Star Trek is all about. I will now rant in a semi-structured way for several paragraphs to explain why.

First, at the broadest scale, Star Trek is about humanity being better than we used to be. War, violence, and organisations devoted purely to spreading these (a.k.a. militaries) are exactly the sorts of things the show has always presented as the horrible side of modern humans, which have been largely done away with in the future. In that sense, marines don't fit the tone or message of the franchise. If you like the optimism and hope and sense of mutual respect that most Star Trek tries to convey (i.e. if you're a real Trekkie who's actually watched the shows), then you shouldn't want it to be about people whose sole job is to kill.

Second, Starfleet isn't a military organisation. It has a partial, sporadic defence role, compared by Gene Roddenberry to the US Coast Guard's role, but that's secondary to its real goals of exploration and peaceful contact with the galaxy. In canon, there is a Starfleet Diplomatic Corps, as well as numerous science, engineering and medicine divisions. These aren't little side growths of the main thing, they are the main thing, and it's their personnel who populate starships and do the primary work of Starfleet. Similarly, the character of the United Federation of Planets, the state that operates Starfleet, is a peaceful, engaging and supportive one. The Federation wouldn't burden itself with a division (either under Starfleet or autonomous) who do nothing but kill.

It's true that there is a Security division within Starfleet, and they do often go lightly armed (by 23rd/24th century standards). But security officers are not soldiers, they're more like police. Their emphasis is on preventative measures and criminal investigations, with phasers set to stun. (They also have a long history of perishing first on away missions, mostly from things no space marine, nor anyone else without a full name, could survive either.)

We do see Starfleet Security growing larger and more dominant in the period leading up to the Dominion War, but this is presented as a dangerous aberration, not business as normal. DS9 was quite clear that we should fear and reject the militarisation of what ought to be simply a policing service, and reject the militarisation of society in general. The Federation suffers until it re-learns this lesson.

The Dominion War in general was not written and presented as an argument for staying heavily armed and aggressive. It was clearly an anti-war story, about how the Federation's failure to fully understand and engage with the new unknown (the Founders), and its resulting descent into fear of this unknown, could lead to runaway escalation, out of anyone's real control. It was a beautifully crafted mess, entirely believable, and ultimately still reinforcing the core principles of Star Trek idealism. Unfortunately, I notice a lot of fans didn't seem to take away much more from it than "Woo! Lots of ships! Pew pew pew!" This may be related to why some of them want there to be Starfleet marines too.

This is broadly true of any portrayal of war in Star Trek, but the Dominion War is easily the biggest and most compelling example. These wars are not failures of the concept of diplomacy, they are failures to enact diplomacy intelligently and with earnest vigour.

(And while I'm on that, but digressing, I'm baffled by people who think that Section 31 should be accepted as a functional, normal component of the Federation. DS9 explicitly and overtly shows them to be a malfunctioning cancer within the Federation, a hangover from more paranoid and irrational times. Their methods are unacceptable, and their self-selected goals are questionable at best. I can see how they make for exciting story-conflict, shaking up the stability and happiness of main characters. But so does a murderer; doesn't mean we should give them an official salary and a fancy uniform to do their murders in. Section 31 ought to be reviled and rejected by any competent Starfleet Academy graduate, and fans ought to be led to view the concept that way too. Partly, it bugs me that people misunderstand the character of the Federation badly enough to want to keep Section 31 in it, and partly it annoys me that people can't see that this would ruin Section  31's story potential anyway. They only work as interesting antagonists because they're not supposed to be there.)

Some have pointed me towards the MACO organisation, to suggest some sort of support for the concept of Starfleet Marines. But this is a terrible argument, in a few ways. First, the one thing the whole series of Enterprise managed to show quite consistently was how terrible things were in the bad old days before the Federation. 22nd century Earth is better off than we are now, but they still lack a lot of what eventually makes the Federation close to a proper utopia. United Earth was bad at working in space, and they made a lot of dumb mistakes, leading to some pretty big disasters, the Earth-Romulan War being their biggest. That series never got around to showing us exactly how that war unfolded; we just know it shook them up badly for over a century after, and pushed United Earth and its neighbours to enter into the United Federation of Planets. Avoiding another such war was a founding goal of the Federation. The smaller Earth-Xindi conflict that saw the introduction of MACOs to the series was a (somewhat badly written) analogy for the post-9/11 War on Terror, which younger readers may not realise was mostly a load of crap. It was a knee jerk reaction of mindless, unfocused violence, and the MACOs symbolise that exactly (though it's unclear if the writers consciously intended this).

Second, it is now explicit canon that MACO was fully disbanded with the foundation of the Federation, and viewed as unwanted and out of date. The failure of certain former MACOs to integrate into the new Federation Starfleet illustrates just how bad a fit they were for the new Federation era, even in the earliest years. The later centuries of the Federation would be far more alien to the MACO concept. I agree that MACO is a good analogue for a marine-type force, and this only serves to further show how poor a fit such marines are for the Federation.

I have a hypothesis that many of the fans who want there to be a Starfleet Marine Corps are less influenced by the series (except perhaps parts of Enterprise and the shooty pew pew scenes from later seasons of DS9), and are instead re-imagining Starfleet in their own heads, through the combined filter of random bits of Earth history, possibly some unrelated scifi series and movies (many of which feature fully militaristic space navies and some form of space soldiers or marines), and (most crucial of all, I would guess) the many Star Trek games.

Violence is generally more easily gamified than diplomacy or science, and a great many of the more recent Star Trek video and tabletop games have focused on ship combat or infantry combat. I might write up a full survey of this in future, but it shouldn't be too controversial to point out how many Star Trek games have nothing to do with the core activities of the series. And while I think these can still be fun enough games, and I play most of them myself, I think this confuses some fans about what Star Trek is actually trying to be about. I get the feeling that some people are a lot like General Trelane (retired); they like the shiny buttons and ceremonies of militaries, and they think the violence is just good fun. They don't want to acknowledge the harm of it all, and a few even get seriously hostile towards anyone trying to spoil their fun.

I'm especially annoyed at the existence of a marine division in the Trekkie organisation I belong to, STARFLEET International (SFI), which has its STARFLEET Marine Corps (SFMC). STARFLEET is a great fan organisation, I enjoy them, but SFMC is a very strange sort of parasite organisation. Since they have no canon basis for existing, they seem to attract a very separate membership set from the core SFI membership. I've been in multiple SFI chapters since 2012, both badly run and well run ones, and I've seen all sorts of people as members. And my informal assessment so far is that the kind of people who take SFMC seriously and want to participate in it are not interested in the nerdy, geeky science and politics sorts (like me) who participate in regular SFI. It might be some sort of left wing, right wing divide, now that I think of it, but I won't commit to that guess yet. But I digress. There seems to be no logical or canon reason for SFMC to exist, and no love for it from any regular SFI members I've spoken with. Yet it persists, and I think this is more about money than anything else. I suspect SFI would risk losing a huge chunk of membership fees if it cut off SFMC. And presumably SFMC gets a convenient facade of legitimacy and community from wearing the Star Trek and SFI labels. But it bugs the fuck out of me, and I wish they'd leave, or better still, "repent" and join the nicer side of Trek.

Star Trek is idealistic and optimistic and consciously non-violent, by design. The existence of phasers and photon torpedoes raise interesting questions about this ideal future, but they do not invalidate it, and neither do they validate the worst human impulses to band together to kill. The notion of a Starfleet Marine Corps is dumb, because it ignores all of the narrative, aspirational and inspirational conventions of Star Trek. Including marines would fundamentally spoil the stories being told, and they would spoil the social purpose of telling these stories. If you want to get together as a group and kill people, you clearly need to watch a lot more Star Trek.

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Teacher's bits: Overview of the Space Race

My grade 9 history class is covering the Cold War this term, and one lesson needed to focus on the Space Race. This was a problem for me, because I simply have way too much of that inside my head. I love this stuff. I kept trying to think of ways to focus on only the key essentials, but I always slip into massive digressions that would easily fill a whole lesson on their own. Left unchecked, I'd happily discuss nothing else all year. And my grade 9s are especially chatty and unfocused, so they'd normally have a million questions, digressing totally off topic.

So, I needed to script an unusually tight lesson plan, forcing myself to stay on topic, with a set of pre-planned slides to illustrate what I was talking about, and specially asking the kids to write down any questions they had to ask me afterwards, rather than interrupting my flow. That's not my usual style at all, my normal teaching is very similar to my game mastering style (intentionally; it was the public speaking foundation I began with), with a very improvisation-friendly skeleton of key points to hit, however seems most appropriate to the audience of the moment. I've tried scripted, rehearsed lecturing before, and it didn't suit me very well. But for this topic, I felt I had no choice.

In practice, I felt it went fine. It wasn't nearly as deep as I would have enjoyed, but we weren't doing this for me.

So, for anyone else needing a lesson plan on the Space Race, here is my approx. 30 minute overview lesson, emphasizing the technological roots it had in World War II (the topic we covered in term 1), and mostly covering achievements in human spaceflight. I was especially glad I happen to have read Breaking the Chains of Gravity last year.

I've also freely thrown in a lot of technical names, especially of different rocket types, but that's not something the students need to worry about. Much more import is the general flow of broad trends and national goals.

Images are mostly taken from Wikipedia, though I've combined a few into collages.

(The format is slide image [click to embiggen], slide title as caption, and then the discussion points that go with that slide.)

Origin of rockets

  • Gunpowder rockets invented in 13th century China.
  • Used for centuries as entertainment and as a simple weapons.

Artillery example
  • After WW1, Treaty of Versailles included a specific rule against Germany owning any artillery guns.
  • Artillery was one of the most important types of weapons for killing at long distances (10+ kilometers; bombing Cresta from Concord).
  • But the Treaty of Versailles didn’t mention rockets at all, so the Nazi government hired a group of amateur rocket scientists to develop rocket artillery.
von Braun (suit)

  • Leader of the German rocket scientists was Wernher von Braun.
  • They were mostly interested in exploring space, but were happy to take the army’s money to build weapons instead.

  • In 1942, they finally had the V-2 rocket ready.
  • It could carry a bomb 300km away (more than halfway from Joburg to Durban).
  • Small number of scientists couldn’t make thousands of weapons needed for war, so concentration camp prisoners were used as slave labour to build V-2s.
  • Up 60 000 slaves worked in a hidden underground factory, called the Mittelwerk.
  • Around 9000 people were killed by V-2 attacks. 20 000 people died working at Mittelwerk.

first photo of Earth from space, 1946
  • V-2 was also the first human machine to go into space. A test launch in 1944 reached 176km above sea level.

Captured von Braun, Korolev, Bumper
  • During last months of WW2, Allies rushed to grab Nazi technological secrets, including von Braun’s scientists and rockets.
  • Von Braun chose to surrender most scientists to USA, moved there.
  • USSR only caught a few scientists, but got most of the rocket test facilities. Moved these to USSR.
  • USSR research headed by former political prisoner, Sergei Korolev
  • Both started trying to improve on German designs.

Basic rocket science jargon
[A technical interlude to clarify some very basic rocket science terms, without which, a lot of this discussion doesn't make much sense.]
  • Suborbital flight: Up, into space, and then down again. Relatively easy for smaller rockets.
  • Orbit: Go up, move sideways fast enough that you don’t come back down again. Much harder, needs much more powerful rockets.
  • V-2 could only do suborbital.
  • Rockets have at least two main parts to them: Launcher and payload.
  • Launcher is the flamey bit that moves the payload off the ground and into space.
  • Payload is the thing on top that will do the job you want it to do (could be bomb, communication satellite, observing (spy or science) satellite, crew capsule)
  • A human isn’t that heavy, but air, water, food, temperature control, radiation protection, control panels, seats, windows, etc., all add mass.
[Sub-interlude to explain why 1957 was an especially crucial year for spaceflight]
  • 1957 was declared the International Geophysical Year, when scientists from around the world would cooperate on major studies of the whole Earth. Leaders of the USA and USSR both saw this year as an important opportunity to get research satellites into orbit.
  • If the international community considered research satellites normal and legal, then it would be far easier to sneak some military spy satellites into orbit too.
Soviet headstart, Sputnik 1, Sputnik 2, Luna 1, Luna 2, Vostok 1
  •  Korolev developed V-2 technology into very powerful rocket called the R-7, much bigger than any Western rocket of the time.
  • R-7 could carry nuclear bombs hundreds of kilometers away.
  • Also powerful enough to put satellites in orbit. Science satellites could study the Earth and space, but could also be spy satellites to watch other countries’ militaries and find their secrets.
  • R-7 launched:
    • Oct 1957: Sputnik 1, first ever artificial satellite.
    • Nov 1957: Sputnik 2, first satellite to carry an animal, the dog Laika. Laika died within hours due to overheating.
    • 1959: Luna 1 and Luna 2, first successful probes to the Moon. Luna 1 flew past the Moon, Luna 2 was intentionally crashed into the surface of the Moon.
    • 12 April 1961: First human in space, Yuri Gagarin, on Vostok 1.
    • Several other “firsts”.
  • R-7s are still used today.
US headlines

  • Western reporting on Soviet launches was often ‘alarmist’ – very fearful, emphasizing lack of US ability to keep up, and implying huge risk of unstoppable Soviet nuclear attack, falling from the sky at any time.
  • Soviet media published less about their own setbacks.
US response, X-15, Mercury
  • US companies had already been working on spacecraft since von Braun and the V-2 were brought across, but American public and politicians suddenly demanded much faster results.
  • Research on the complicated X-15 rocket plane was largely ignored, in favour of the simpler, smaller, quicker to build Mercury capsule.
  • But early on, the US didn’t have a rocket powerful enough to put the Mercury capsule into orbit, so they just launched suborbitally on the weaker Redstone nuclear launcher, basically an enlarged V-2. The first US astronaut launched a month after Gagarin.
  • Even when they put Mercury capsules on bigger Atlas rockets the next year, and got Americans into orbit, it still wasn’t as much or as high as the Soviet R-7 could manage. Vostoks kept doing more than Mercuries could.
  • Americans remained fearful. President Kennedy declared the US would win the Space Race by putting humans on the Moon before 1970.
US progress, Gemini, Apollo-Saturn IB, Apollo-Saturn V
  • With the Moon target, US rockets and spacecraft kept getting bigger.
    • Mercury was upgraded to Gemini, and then the two-piece Apollo set.
    • Redstone and Atlas were replaced with the larger Titan II nuclear missile, and then the much larger Saturn IB. In the late 1960s, US launchers were finally bigger than the Soviet R-7.
  • For the Moon missions, Apollo needed the biggest launcher ever, the Saturn V.
  • Neil Armstrong became the first human to set foot on the Moon on 20 July 1969. 12 Americans on 6 Apollo missions until 1972, got to walk on the Moon.
  • ...and then US pretty much decided they had won the Space Race, and there was no longer any money to return humans to the Moon, let alone any deeper to Mars, Venus, or other planets.
Soviet N1, Salyut 6 station and a Soyuz
  • The Soviet Moon launcher, the N1, equivalent to the American Saturn V, was a failure. It crashed and exploded on every test launch. With no huge launcher, the Soviets couldn’t send any people to the Moon.
  • The new Soviet Soyuz spacecraft was also too unreliable for the first few years to be sent to the Moon (though it was later fixed and is still in use today).
  • Without the technology to reach the Moon, the USSR changed its goal from Moon landings to long-term space stations in Earth orbit. The first space station, Salyut 1, was occupied for 2 weeks in 1967. More space stations followed, and today’s International Space Station still uses some of the same components as the original Salyut stations.
  • Arguably, the sustained Soviet/Russian station operations have achieved more in the long run than the quicker US burst to reach the Moon and then stop.
  • After the Moon Race ended, both sides felt less sense of competition, and were finally able cooperate. First ever international docking, in 1975, between Soyuz 19 and Apollo 18.
  • After the Cold War ended, cooperation increased, with US space shuttles visiting the Russian Mir station during the 1990s.
  • US, Russia, Europe, Japan and Canada cooperated in assembling the enormous structure of the International Space Station, starting in 1998.
Proposed Deep Space Gateway lunar station

  • Plans for international Moon station, Mars missions? 
Chinese, Indian 21st century spacecraft
  • Several other countries have developed launch capabilities (SA sub-orbital launches in 1989/1990), but the only other launches of humans so far are by China, starting with Shenzhou 5, in 2003.
  • USA refuses to do space missions with China, so China built its own stations.
  • India also has partly developed crew capsule that could carry people a few years from now.