Tuesday, 18 November 2014


If memory serves, I first found the SA Skeptics group on Facebook in late 2010 or early 2011. It was really exciting for me, as some friends and I had only discovered organised skeptical activism a few years earlier, including things like the Skeptic's Guide and SkepChick (which I still love and follow), I really wanted to get actively involved in it somehow, and the prospect of connecting with like-minded locals seemed so full of potential back then.

I wouldn't say it was a total waste of time. I met plenty of very interesting people, I went to the local Skeptics in the Pub for a few years, and I learned a lot. It's how I fell into my guest host spot on Consilience, and all sorts of gaming geekery branched off from that. But I think we all, the local skeptics, are very aware that we don't actually fucking do anything, especially compared with some of the big shit that the Americans and Brits and Australians get up to. It's true there are some productive pockets (like Quackdown), but mostly it's just people sitting around talking crap.

And that was alright, while it was good crap. Sadly, it didn't stay good. The Facebook group grew and grew over the years, but it didn't grow very healthily. I took it on myself early on to take sporadic race and gender snapshots of the membership. I wish I'd bothered to record them all properly somewhere, but since it was recorded in the group discussions, I assumed it would be retrievable. If you've ever tried to dig through several months, never mind years, of FB crap, you'll know that's only marginally true. So, pending an archaeological dig, I'm afraid I have no hard numbers to show. On the other hand, it was all a bit informal anyway, and on yet another hand, their pattern was pretty fucking clear: We were lily white and mostly male, and this only got worse over time, as the total group size grew and grew.

And as the group got more white boyish and less intimate, disagreements turned into shouting matches more often, people with serious science backgrounds lost interest, leaving more room for a growing sub-population of real nutcases and very rightwing assholes. There was always an undercurrent of digressions into economics disputes, but mostly it was a science group, interested in science. Now, any mere mention of race, gender or class triggers a flood of bitterness about the mere idea that any form of rebalancing and equality might be a good idea. There was honestly, literally a claim, put forward very earnestly and persistently a month or so back, that black people don't float in water. And that was one of the nicer head-desk threads. Mostly, it's become hateful stuff about how non-whites are inherently inferior, women should quit bitching, poor people should stop being lazy, etc., etc., et-fucking-cetera.

It wasn't a sudden change all at once. The first big clue that the place was out of control was the appearance of outright stereotypical conspiracy theorists, of the secret world government, Moonlanding denying, everything-is-a-lie variety. These occasionally wash into any skeptics' group, I imagine, but shouldn't be able to thrive there. But throve they did. Taking this as an unstated signal, a lot of people in the group just started going off about whatever the hell bugbear they felt like ranting about, and fuck what anyone else thought. It was always an arguey place, unsurprisingly, but they were generally reasonable-ish debates, where some standards could be demanded. Not anymore. Apparently nobody's in control there, and nobody gives a shit about reason, evidence, logic, science, or society.

The last is perhaps not strictly a skeptical issue, but I have argued before that it is central to skeptical activism (as opposed to merely doubting shit in private). I've also personally tended to associate skepticism with Star Trek (no doubt starting with the SGU rogues drawing similar associations on their podcast), and Star Trek has always been about actively trying to make society better. You know the kind of thing that gets shat on by some assholes these days as "social justice warrior stuff".

Call me crazy, but I like to think I can and should be trying to make the world better, and skepticism has seemed like an amazing and vital tool for that (as well as a sub-goal, I guess, a means and an end) ever since I was first introduced to it.

So, I'm out. That group can burn itself to the fucking ground, while I seek out greener pastures. I hope the remaining sensible folk I've left behind can successfully migrate too.

I think the root of the problem was that it was a group started by wealthy white boys, who kept inviting wealthy white boys, who invited wealthy white boys, etc. I don't think this was done consciously - privilege is seldom conscious - and there were certainly exceptions. I tried my best to bring in a lot of those exceptions, and many of these people found the place so hostile that they, er, preferred not to thank me. The end result seems to be the bubbling, over-entitled cesspit we see today.

Any more functional skeptics group, it seems to me, would have to be more inclusive from day 1. I'd love to join such a group, but I'm not in such a big rush this time. I've had more than enough of people for a while. People make me fucking tired and shouty.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

The Joy of Games

In June 2013, I discovered TableTop, and lo, it was glorious. At a time when I was feeling kind of bad about myself and sinking further daily, it gave me something really positive to float on. The notions that games are fun, that games are social, that gamers form an inherently friendly community through the games they share, these were all nice, happy thoughts. And getting exposure to lots of interesting new games (plus reminding me of a few forgotten ones) was also handy. It's true that I was playing things already, with both my Warhammer roleplaying group (which was probably actually trying out Torg at the time), and my Star Trek roleplaying group (which was still doing Star Trek back then), and a few months later we'd also start up a new Forgotten Realms/Pathfinder roleplaying group. Roleplaying games are my favourite, because if I stop paying attention and doodle flaming penises on the map, it's "in character".
(Insert penis here)

TableTop took me back about a decade, to a time after high school when we (my usual general gaming social circle) went through a big board games phase. My friend Damon's dad has been gaming since the '70s and has a literal walk-in pantry stuffed to capacity with games you can't hope to buy anymore (plus many that have recently been re-released). We had a couple duds from that collection, but also so many amazing ones, in addition to a few games from other sources. Balderdash was a frequent favourite (and anything with French maritime horse food is definitely a fake). Cosmic Encounters rings happy bells, though I don't actually remember how it goes. Source of the Nile was amazing. Kremlin was exciting and challenging. Diplomacy was similarly engaging, though its slower play put off some people and the need to engage other players non-violently utterly confused others. Acquire was cool, though it did once cause us to have to clean an entire lounge and sort through a (not kidding) cubic-meter pile of Magic cards to look for a missing tile that was actually just trapped inside the box lid. And there was always our favourite fall-back, the "What are we going to do?" game. For a while, though, board games became infrequent, which was a pity. TableTop coincided with us getting back into them, so that was nice.

Our Warhammer roleplaying group had, by then, already established a monthly board games evening (I believe Scotland Yard, Shadows Over Camelot and the Egyptian temple-building one were all popular choices). The Star Trek group would eventually squish into what is now DeeTwenty, and the first month or two of DeeTwenty were centered almost entirely around board games. Separate from all this, my friend Ali, as serious an expert on board games as I've ever met, started introducing me to a few more new games (Dominion stands out most clearly), and also showed me Shut Up & Sit Down. While TableTop is great, its higher production value and numerous guests mean there's not a lot of it to enjoy. SU&SD does things cheap and cheerful, using a mix of videos, podcasts and blogs, and so manages to cover way more games, way more frequently; as a general review source, it's clearly more valuable. It's also noticeably more British, and now it's even got meaningful connections with the Blessed James Wallis.

While I'm punting good reviewers, there's also the Nearly Enough Dice podcast, which is probably the least professional of the three I've linked, but makes up for this with great enthusiasm and joy at what they play. Also, they cover roleplaying games way more, which suits me well.

This year's Icon also captured the fun of games nicely, and there are a few other little cons in Joburg that look increasingly promising. I've probably played as many new games in the last 2 years as in the whole decade before that. Video games have been a thing too: I've made my fortune in EVE, I've come second in a Tekken tournament, I can beat both Civ 2 and Thief without resorting to petty combat, and so on.

As Bill Nye claims that Carl Sagan said, when you're in love, you want the whole world to know it. Games are great. Humans have known this for millennia. So I really like it when more people are playing more games. It's fascinating and horrible to read about the sexist nature of early roleplaying; I kind of abstractly knew it wouldn't have been good, but that detailed history is well worth a read to get completely clear on it. My own entry to the hobby wasn't much different, and it wasn't until I ventured from my white-boy high school crowd to join my first "grown-up" group that I had my first regular games with players who weren't male or straight (and I don't think it's entirely coincidental that this more inclusive campaign was Star Trek). Even today, I don't think I've ever been in a game with anyone who wasn't Europeanly white, and the male-female ratio remains badly lobsided.

It's a bit fucked up, really, considering (1) there's no good reason such a cheap, open-ended, adaptable, easy hobby shouldn't appeal to nearly everyone, and (2) the only actual reason it hasn't is that there were shitty historical roots that have yet to be fully scrubbed off. I wish I knew a good way to help fix this, other than to say: Non straight white rich males, you should really get into roleplaying en masse; it's great. [EDIT: Maybe Felicia Day's thoughts are more useful here.] Board games seem more balanced (I think?), and video games are by some counts now more popular with women than men. In my anecdotal experience, wargames of the sort that roleplaying games originally spawned from remain mostly a wasteland of white dudes.

This makes the recent squall of angsty boys and paranoid middle-aged men (or is it the other way round?) trying to steal the term 'gamer' from the rest of us with the GamerGate shit so much more annoying. And to me, it is mere annoyance, fortunately, because I'm a small fry white dude, not a prominent person of any other description, so I'm not worth threatening. I can't imagine what it must be like to feel endangered and also have the added insult of having your love of games, your identity as a gamer, undermined like this. I don't think anyone who loves games and wants others to love them would have any good reason to associate with that spiteful plop of douchebags, and I hope for everyone's sake that they just fade away soon. The rest of us have games to play.

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Infogram Test: Spacecraft Stats

I wanted to try making something with Infogram, so I reached for the ready stats I had waiting in my Astronyms series. My first attempt looks like so:

Sunday, 28 September 2014

Astronyms, part 7: Private Space Vessels and Future Probables

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

At the time that I publish this, there is only one privately-funded spacecraft that meets my standards for being a real, actual thing. It's always tricky writing about the future, because you'll inevitably be wrong. This is why I've held off on this part of the series for years now. But we've reached the point where some clear progress is visible just over the horizon and it should be a busy 2 or 3 years. Even if only half of these make it to space, that's still a huge spurt. I'll update this as history unfolds. Hey, Future Me, how's that history looking so far?

It's also weird that it happens to be convenient to stick the future possibles in the same post as the commercial vessels. I'm not suggesting this should be a default pairing, we just happen to be sitting at a point in history where I can mention both in the same breathe and be sort of half accurate.

There is currently only one example of a non-government funded spacecraft. It's arguably not all that important to draw this public/private dichotomy, but you could argue similarly against a state-of-origin system of organising my list. Even in the non-capitalist states, there were companies building rockets, not government officials. Every single NASA launch is, in some sense, a commercial exercise for someone. And the companies publicised as most independent, like Scaled Composites and SpaceX, use various government-derived expertise and resources. It happens to be handy to me, from a writing structure perspective, to follow historical distinctions, but ultimately physics is all that really separates one vessel from another.

(Space plane. In space service 24 June 2004 to 4 October 2004)

Definitions are pretty important when talking about SpaceShipOne. Operationally, it's very similar to the X-15, and it similarly made it to space officially, but only suborbitally, by a tight margin (though less tight than X-15). It was also privately funded and built, but still within the US, so it's not too awkward to file it among American stuff. So, yes, technically, by some definitions, it's of socio-historical interest. But I think it's even more interesting from a pure engineering perspective. It's also the root of the USS Rutan's registry number. It's only a pity that Rutan himself tarnished his otherwise lovely heritage by becoming a cranky climate change denier.

It's not a great name, but it is a little memorable, at least. It may have been Rutan's first spaceship, but it was far from the first ever, so it's not the most inspired or appropriate name. The unconventional lack of spaces between words annoys some, and is (not unreasonably) cocked up by others, making it things like 'Space Ship One' or 'Spaceship One'. Personally, I look forward to the development of some new carbonyl-carrying compound called spaceshipone.

The unusual aircraft that carried it up to launch altitude, White Knight, had a more interesting name, though it appears to have been given that name mainly because it was painted mostly white, which is still slightly uninspired. White Knight was later renamed White Knight One, when it was decided that SpaceShipTwo would be carried into the air by a White Knight Two. I can appreciate the symmetry, but I'm less joyous about changing names after the thing's not even carrying SpaceShipOne anymore. The inconsistency with the spaces between words also rubs me the wrong way too, but these are nitpicks.

SpaceShipOne's flight profile was pretty similar to the X-15's suborbital flights. It got carried to altitude by White Knight, then was released and fired its rocket, which lifted it up over 100km. Then it fell down again. The genius part here was the wing-feathering system, which hinged the whole tail boom assembly vertical, essentially turning the vessel's angle of attack at right angles, so that it would do a slow, controlled belly flop into the atmosphere, rather than a fast (and hot) nose-first dive. This meant it didn't need such crazy re-entry heat protection. Then it transforms back and lands as a normal glider. Although it was designed to be able to carry up to three people, per the X-Prize rules, it only ever carried a single pilot at a time.

The one and only SpaceShipOne flew several glide tests, as well as three suborbital flights, before being retired.

And then we have the future probables, in order of, as best I can tell, scheduled first space flight. If 100% of them make it into space, then the number of different spaceship classes on my list will have increased (from the 17 total in 2012) by nearly 50%, in approx. 10% as much time as it took to create the first 17 designs.

[EDIT: Adding New Shepard]

New Shepard
(Drop ship. Due to begin space service maybe 2020ish? in 2017)

I admit I'd skimmed over articles about New Shepard while I was originally writing this post, and assumed it would never amount to anything, mainly because so little has been released about it. Looking more closely, that may simply be because it's been kept very secret, for some reason. Turns out they've already built and tested quite a lot for this design, though nothing in space yet, so it's potentially quite interesting. Unfortunately, it's hard to say anything specific, because there's close to  nothing known about it.

The basic design is a two-module thing, vaguely in the Gemini arrangement, but with a stubby dome-ended sausage shape that makes it look more like a dildo than any other crewed spacecraft I know of [seriously, look]. The really big, uncrewed propulsion module serves as the complete launcher, from ground to apogee of a strictly sub-orbital flight. The stated function would be space tourism and quick research. Both modules then make powered landings, much like the Dragon V2/Falcon first stage combo aim to, though the Crew Capsule module also seems to have parachutes for emergencies. A scrap of a suggestion has been revealed that a New Shepard-derived, biconic crew module could use a totally new two-stage launcher for orbital flights, with the first stage and crew capsule recovered, even more similar to the Dragon V2 plan. However, I'd like to see the initial New Shepard working before giving much credence to plans for the step after it.

The name New Shepard is a reference to Alan Shepard of Mercury 3 and Apollo 14. I like that well enough, though the 'New' bit throws me every time I look at it, as if there ought to have been a previous vessel, the old Shepard (in the fashion of New York or New Berlin). They had a similar theme of historic rocket-related people when they named the initial uncrewed test rig for the Crew Module's powered landing system Goddard, after Robert Goddard. I'm not clear if Goddard was strictly an in-atmosphere test unit, or if it represented an earlier design for the Crew Capsule, but it was definitely more of a curvy cone, like a featureless Dragon V2, than the current dome shape. Two subsequent test units appear to have gone unnamed. The PM-2 test version of the Propulsion Module was destroyed in a test flight. The next one, a full-scale Crew Module without known name or code (I'm going to put my bet on CM-3?) [EDIT: sort of half-officially termed the "first developmental test flight"], was used for a successful launch abort test. I don't normally focus here on test units and boilerplates, but they did seem to set it up in this case by naming Goddard individually, so I'm curious if that practice stopped then, or merely waits to be learned among all their other secretive secrets.

[EDIT: It's very possible I'm getting something wrong here, because in this post, Blue Origin talk about still having Propulsion Modules PM-2 and PM-3 under construction after the first developmental test flight, with an implication that that flight used PM-1. I'm not certain how this fits together with the earlier destroyed PM-2 test unit.]

[EDIT: It's since come out that successors to New Shepard - an orbital New Glenn and an extra-orbital New Armstrong, each named after other US astronauts - will primarily be launchers, not crew vessels, though they may have crew modules mounted on them.]

Dragon V2
(Drop ship. Due to begin space service in 2017 2018)
Dragon V2
[EDIT: Assumed start date changed to 2017 and moved to after CST-100, because it's contractually necessary that they go into space - with people, my criterion for entry on this list - in that order.]

[EDIT 2: Nope, turns out that's not contractually required after all, so it's still up to NASA to decide who gets the first crewed flight opportunity.]

Dragon V2 is the people-carrying cousin to what is now sometimes called Dragon V1 (though most people still call that one simply Dragon, and there are actually two variants of it, one for NASA and one for other users). For the sake of clarity, I will add the V1 suffix here. The smaller Dragon V1 is a pure cargo carrier, similar in function to Russia's Progress, and both have been used for space station resupply. But from the start, there was talk of a people-carrying Dragon. The initial concept art for it looked barely different from the cargo version, but when the actual form of it was finally revealed, Dragon V2 ended up looking quite a lot bigger and sleeker. It consists of two modules: The capsule, which contains nearly all of the vessel's systems, including thrusters, and the 'trunk', which is a disposable cargo bay with solar panels on the outside, similar to the Dragon V1's trunk section.

[EDIT: Note that emerging common usage, both from Musk and the media, is the informal name Crew Dragon, as opposed to Cargo Dragon.]

Dragon V2 would be just another space condom if it weren't intended to be re-used for multiple flights per capsule. It will be able to land by landing rockets and/or parachute, and then should be patched up and relaunched, perhaps 10 times each. By my definition, that shifts it into the drop ship category. There are parallel plans to make the Falcon launch rockets partly reusable too, presumably because of the introduction of the Contracts system. Dragon V2 was chosen together with CST-100 to carry astronauts to the International Space Station for NASA, and it will be interesting to see if it sees any other use. Long-term plans have spoken of another descendant of Dragon V1, called Red Dragon, for a Mars sample return mission, and there are even vaguer suggestions of some sort of enlarged Dragon variant as the mobile homes used by Mars One.

The origin of the name was apparently the song "Puff the Magic Dragon", which was somehow a reference to how critics thought the spacecraft would fail to ever materialise; I kind of get it, but it's not the most obvious leap. Still, it's a pretty cool, traditionally mythological name; it works. The people-carrying version was not originally going to be called Dragon V2; instead, early references to it used the name DragonRider, which I think would have been much cooler (if oddly spaced). As Red Dragon also illustrates, it's quite easy to construct themed variations around the basic Dragon name, so to instead fall back on mere numbered variants seems lazy and uninspired. V2, really close to V-2, also brings to mind the unfortunate military origins of space rocketry. I find it hard to believe that a whole group of professional rocket designers weren't aware of that, so I have to assume it's at least a partially intentional reference. There has been no indication that individual Dragon V2s will get unique names. I have not yet found any clear indication of how the Falcon rocket family got its name.

[EDIT: I just found out, the Falcon rockets are named after the Millennium Falcon. So it's broadly the same sort of name-origin as Enterprise and Voyager (and Columbia(d), kind of), and pleases me similarly.]

[EDIT: Musk continues to lean on scifi roots for his ship naming, with landing barge-drones named after ships from Ian M. Banks novels. Being nautical and not astronautical, that's not strictly within the scope of my series, but still fun to know.]

[EDIT: There is apparently a campaign to have the first crewed Dragon V2 named Serenity, similar to the campaign that got a shuttle named Enterprise.]

CST-100 Starliner
(Drop ship. Due to begin space service by 2017 2018)
CST-100 Starliner

CST-100 won the greater share of NASA's space station people-ferry business, with the remainder going to Dragon V2. The whole point of CST-100 is be a short-range, large-crew Apollo clone, with a conical crew module leading a stubby cylindrical service module. Like Dragon V2, each CST-100 crew module should be reusable up to 10 times, though they will land exclusively via parachute. They really have just recycled the Apollo design for this one. Unsurprisingly, development of CST-100 was ahead of both Dragon V2 and Dream Chaser at the time that NASA announced their final selection, and yet they've retained the latest date estimate for their first test flight.

The name does not satisfy me. CST stands for Crew Space Transportation, which is immediately far too literal for my tastes, and the 100 is a reference to the 100km Karman Line. I don't see why that's there, except perhaps to give the illusion of a heritage of 99 previous designs? As alluded to under the Dream Chaser entry, much has been made of the safety and reliability of the Apollo heritage, so I presume they're trying to keep people focused on that aspect as much as possible. If individual CST-100s are getting unique names, none have been revealed yet.

[EDIT: The official name of this one was changed to CST-100 Starliner in September 2015. Starliner is a name intended to reflect Boeing's commercial airliner names, the 307 Stratoliner and 787 Dreamliner. I don't think that's much of a real naming heritage, but rather a contrived marketing decision, considering the dozens of Boeing airliners between the 307 and 787 that had either a different naming scheme or, more frequently, no name at all. This fits very well with my earlier interpretation of the CST-100 code as an attempt to paint Boeing's design as tried and true, a venerable tradition, far more trustworthy than any of these young Johnny-Launch-Latelys. Same marketing guys picked the name Starliner for it, I guess. That said, I do actually like the name Starliner. It's not inappropriate, especially for something intended for a routine, dull use like station ferrying, and it sounds kind of pretty, regardless of any cynicism in its origin. I'll actually be happier if they drop the silly CST-100 bit and start refering to it as simply the Starliner.]

CST-100 is supposed to be able to be launched using one of several rockets, including the same Atlas V as Dream Chaser, the same Falcon 9 as Dragon V2, and the same Delta IV (though perhaps not the Heavy) as Orion. They're not picky. The Delta rocket family got its name from its predecessor, the much more exciting Thor rockets, when the name of one variant, the Thor-Delta, mutated enough that the Thor part was dropped, leaving only the Delta. [EDIT: It has also been announced that the Starliner should be compatible with the proposed Vulcan rocket, which is unsurprising as Vulcan will be a unified hybrid of Atlas V and Delta IV systems. Vulcan got its name in a pretty stupid public voting process, where 3 pretty terrible names were proposed and none got much attention. So ULA decided to ride on Leonard Nimoy's coat-tails instead, throwing a 4th option in late, which apparently won. It's a good enough name for a rocket, though I foresee some confusion between the names Vulcan and Falcon, operating so close together.]

Orbital Vehicle
(Space condom. Due to begin space service in 2016 2019?)
ISRO's Orbital Vehicle

This is probably the least-discussed spacecraft on my list, partly because not much is known about it yet, as it was only recently announced. And yet, the plan is to have it actually in space relatively soon? We'll have to see. If successful, it will add India to the people-in-space-putting club. The design is described as being similar to the old Mercury, but if initial drawings and descriptions are accurate, it'll be closer to Gemini Apollo, with two three crew and a separate service module. It is, however, a fairly distinctive new shape.

I hope to fuck that I get to update this entry with a better name than Orbital Vehicle soon. All other more creative options aside, India has rich and ancient mythologies to draw decent names from, so simply following the American/Chinese mythological naming pattern should be able to produce a better name than fucking mud-lame Orbital Vehicle. However, considering it will launch aboard a rocket named Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle mark II, I am not filled with confidence in their spacecraft-naming ambitions.

[EDIT: Without much fanfare, this one's actually progressed a lot further than I knew. An uncrewed crew module performed a suborbital test flight in December 2014. The final design (see diagram above) is a little stockier than I originally reported, with space for 3 crew, not just 2. The crew module now more closely resembles the shape of the Dragon V1, with a tiled surface that brings to mind Orion.]

(Space plane. Due to begin space service in 2015 2016 2020?)

Currently undergoing a much more extensive series of atmospheric test flights than SpaceShipOne had, SpaceShipTwo is clearly a scaled-up version of its predecessor, designed to operate in the same way, using the same technology, but now also with a bunch of passengers aboard. A larger carrier plane, White Knight Two, fills exactly the same role as White Knight One did. All the published claims talked about SpaceShipTwo getting people into space by 2014, a decade after its predecessor, but it seems unlikely it'll meet that deadline, and emphasis has since been shifted towards ensuring safety, which I approve of.

There's not a lot more to say about the class name, other than that it at least gives a clear sense of the design heritage. More interesting is that they're building more than one of this design (and more than one of its carriers), so individual vehicle names are also a thing. The first two off the production line are named VSS Enterprise and VSS Voyager, direct references to the USS Enterprise and USS Voyager of Star Trek, but with VSS standing for Virgin SpaceShip. As a Trekkie, I'm in favour of these names being used, and Enterprise in particular has been used so often that one more can't really hurt; it'll be nice to finally get one into space. Voyager was also the name of one of Scaled Composites' most interesting aircraft, so they have some of their own connection to that one. [EDIT: See explanation of second vessel's renaming, below.] The current official plan is for 5 SpaceShipTwos to be built, so it'll be interesting to see what names the later ones get. Defiant doesn't quite seem to fit the commercial space tourist vibe.

[EDIT: VSS Enterprise has just been destroyed in a crash during a test flight. It never reached space.]

[EDIT: Some doubt has been cast on the second vehicle being named Voyager, perhaps complicated by the loss of Enterprise.] [A trademark application has triggered speculation that they might call it VSS Unity. I will comment on this if it is confirmed.] [The official unveiling of the completed vehicle confirmed that it is now officially named VSS Unity. I've read through all the speech transcripts from this event, and there is no clear explanation of the choice of name, beyond a vague sense of "hey, we should all get along and be groovy". I can't argue with the sentiment, but I do like my naming explanations more concrete than that. I notice the name is written as Un1ty on the actual nose of the vessel (compare with the I on Enterprise's nose), but this seems to be just artistic licence. All other official sources spell it with an I.]

The White Knight Twos also get unique names, with the first called VMS Eve, with VMS standing for Virgin Mothership, and Eve being Richard Branson's mother's name. The next is due to be called VMS Spirit of Steve Fossett, after the aviator with links to both Virgin and Scaled Composites, and in the same form as Spirit of St. Louis. A third is planned after that, and it seems a safe bet it will also be named after a person with company associations.

[EDIT: Adding Interplanetary Transport System]

Interplanetary Transport System
(Drop ship. Due to begin space service in 2021?)
Interplanetary Transport System spaceship

We've known for years that SpaceX aims to send people to Mars, and they've gradually slipped out small hints about what was originally called their Mars Colonial Transport vessel concept. September 2016 saw them publicise far more in one go, detailing the overall plan for what is now named the Interplanetary Transport System - though to quote Elon Musk, "We're thinking about names. The names thing is really hard."

ITS (or whatever) is a deceptively simple monster. On the pad, it looks like it's only got two stages, a launch vehicle with a spaceship mounted on top. However, even just that simple pair would be the most powerful rocket ever flown, carrying the single most massive spacecraft ever. Add to this that each Mars trip would need to be supported by a series of refuelling flights by equally massive tankers up to the spaceship in Earth orbit first, and it really is a complicated, multi-stage system. They just don't launch all the stages at the same time.

It's all still fairly new and vague. I expect the physical design will change, and the schedule will most certainly slip. The first Mars landing is roughly scheduled for June 2024, but it's not yet clear what the test flights before that will entail, nor at what point they'll change from uncrewed to crewed test flights. (I'm not even clear whether this thing even technically requires a crew.) And from my point of view, one key change will be the adoption of more formal names, not just for the whole system, but for its components. So far, they're just refering to the major bits as the launcher, the spaceship and the tanker. I hope they come up with a good naming scheme.

But we do at least know that their first crewed spaceship to visit Mars is to be named the Heart of Gold, after the Hitchhiker's Guide vessel. This fits well with Musk's habit of drawing names from pop scifi. [I'd also like to suggest the name Botany Bay, if Musk wants to add to his supervillain reputation.]

(Space condom or drop ship? Due to begin space service in 2021 2023)

As recently as 2 weeks ago, I was still ignorant enough that I couldn't tell any difference between CST-100 and Orion; I thought Orion had been completely cancelled along with the Constellation Program, and that CST-100 was simply a surviving proposal for Orion's design. Some elements of CST-100 may have come from Boeing's earlier Crew Exploration Vehicle bid to the Constellation Program that ultimately saw Orion selected instead, but that's where the relationship seems to end. I am uncertain to what extent both companies' partnership as the United Launch Alliance might have had any effect on these designs. While CST-100 is designed almost solely for space station shuttling, Orion is mainly intended as an explorer out far from Earth (though its official description does grudgingly accept that it could also be used as another station ferry, if nothing better is available).

The one thing they explicitly do have in common is an intentional recycling of Apollo's basic design, especially the conical command module. Orion has a more complicated-looking service module, which has learnt from Soyuz to add some solar panel wings, although even those are funny-looking umbrellas in early artwork, then replaced with the same windmill strips as the ATV cargo vessel, once that was announced as the new basis for the service module. With years of development still to come, and a much less clear end goal for it than Apollo had, the final design may still vary a lot.

The crew modules of CST-100 and Orion look externally very similar, when separate from their more distinct other components, especially in uncoloured diagrams, and the easiest way I've found to tell them apart so far is counting windows. CST-100 has a single, big, square window and some smaller round ones. Orion has two big, square, recessed forward windows and two smaller, square, sideways windows, more like those on the Apollo CM. Orion can then be distinguished from Apollo CM because Apollo had its access hatch (with its own small, round window) between the two forward windows, while Orion seems to have the forward windows close together and the access hatch around the side. Orion also has a ring of little indentations (for thrusters?) around the nose that both CST-100 and Apollo CM lack. [EDIT: Distinguishing between them has become a step trickier, as Orion has now gained a silverly looking extra layer of heat shielding, which makes it look even more similar to the silverly looking Apollo CMs that went beyond Earth orbit. The shape of the tile pattern underneath the metallic coat might still be visible, in good enough images, which may also help with distinguishing them.]

Orion was originally going to launch on the Ares family of rockets, but Ares was one of the many cancelled parts of Constellation. Instead, Orion willwas initially launch[ed] on the Delta IV Heavy, and then on the planned (and hopefully eventually better named) Space Launch System rocket, a sort of kind of Ares replacement. [EDIT: It has now been formally proposed that the SLS be named the Cernan rocket, after the Gemini/Apollo astronaut. I'm really not sure why him, of all possible astronauts.]

The name Orion comes from the constellation Orion, a name shared with the Apollo 16 LM and still the only constellation I can reliably identify in the sky. That's nice and spacey enough, and it made more sense when it was part of Constellation. Perhaps they had a constellation naming theme planned out, with each vessel of the class named after a different one? Perhaps that's just my wishful thinking. The related Altair lander (a less obvious Apollo LM descendant) would have carried a similar astronomy theme with its name, before it was cancelled.

[EDIT: I should also point out that Orion has had two official bland, descriptive, abbreviated names too, neither of which I approve of. When it was first requested under Constellation, it - and competing designs - began as the Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV). When Constellation was cancelled, the Orion CEV was renamed the Orion MPCV, the Multi Purpose Crew Vehicle, presumably to pretend it would be super useful for lots of stuff besides that lame exploration stuff that had just been cut from the budget. It made sense to distinguish between Apollo CSM and Apollo LM (though in hindsight, maybe one of them should have just had a totally different name from the start, like the Orion-Altair pair would have had), but since the Orion crew module isn't planned to pair up with another vessel design also called an Orion-something, it seems unnecessary to tack those extra messy letters to the end of a perfectly decent name.]

[EDIT: The first uncrewed, unnamed Orion has now successfully been to space and back once, which in a way puts it ahead of all the other future probables on this list so far. Even so, Orion is still unlikely to get a crew into space this decade.]

(Space condom or drop ship? Due to begin space service in 2023)

Eventually, Soyuz will have to retire, right? Probably, who knows? Russia has had plans, on and off, to replace that venerable condom since at least the '80s, if not earlier. Will this one finally be the one to do it? Maybe. It's far too early to say. Initial plans look like a hybrid of traditional Russian and American space condom designs, with a roughly similar layout to Orion. It's supposed to be a reusable drop ship, probably.

The name Rus isn't official at all, it's little more than a rumour, but that's kind of unavoidable with a design that may or may not be abandoned and replaced. Officially, the design pictured here is called the Perspektivnaya Pilotiruemaya Transportnaya Sistema (Prospective Piloted Transport System). But that's boring, so I'm going to look at the name Rus instead. Rus' is interesting and complex, referring to a somewhat fluid historical region and the people thereof. Among many other things, it is the root of the word Russia, and so it fits well with the nationalisty pattern of Soviet and Russian spacecraft.[EDIT: In 2015, Energia made a big effort to distance the PPTS design from the name Rus, with a public naming contest that drew tens of thousands of votes. While it wasn't the most popular name by the public vote, the naming committee decided in early 2016 that the most appropriate name would be Federatsia (also transliterated by some as Federatsiya), which translates as federation, refering to the political structure of the Russian Federation, and I can see their point. Most directly, it continues the pattern of Soyuz, with the spacecraft name reflecting a direct link to the state that operates it, and less directly there's the broader theme of generally nationalist names that goes all the way back to Vostok. There is also talk in that second press release of naming individual vessels after the 80+ subjects (provinces, roughly) that make up the Federation, which would be an interesting change in Russian spacecraft naming. I think that's more likely to become a reality if Federatsia ends up being a reusable dropship. The obvious hurdle with that is that if each vessel flies 5 times (half the rumoured 10-flight maximum lifespan), you'd need around 400 flights to accommodate all of the subjects' names on one vessel each. If Federatsia could keep up the 4 flights/year that Soyuz has been pushed to, it'll take a century to fit them all in. The naming committee also said they prefered to save the more popular names (including Gagarin) for some future, unspecified vessel designs.]

Rus Federatsia was originally going to be launched by a new Rus-M rocket, sticking to the Russian pattern of vessel and launcher sharing the same name. But Rus-M has been cancelled, and now the plan is to put Rus Federatsia on top of an Angara A5 instead, breaking the pattern. Also a geographically-inspired name, the Angara is a river in Russia. [EDIT: It is also possible that Federatsia could launch on the planned Soyuz-5 rocket.]

(Space plane. Due to begin space service in 2015 2016 unknown)

Of everything on this list, this is the one I'll be most surprised to see ever actually getting into space. It has a long history of delays, no huge sponsors, and it doesn't offer much performance - less, in fact, than the purely demonstrational SpaceShipOne, and only one seat more than X-15 offered. There is a bit of a historical trend of proposed spacecraft (both commercial and governmental) faltering completely after similar delays and struggles. The only really interesting thing about Lynx, the fact that it would be a single-stage vehicle, with no carrier plane or launch rocket needed, could either make it more cost-effective (and thus more likely to fly), or too under-powered to achieve much (and thus less likely to fly).

The name has no clear explanation that I can find, except perhaps that it has an X in it. In fact, it began development with the name Xerus, which I believe is a genus of squirrel. I guess that's more X-centric (pun!), but maybe they thought people would be more familiar or comfortable with a name like Lynx? I have no idea what to make of this. Insufficient data.

[EDIT: Lynx is officially indefinitely on hold. My money continues to say that this will never fly, especially since the people who actually wanted it to fly have left the company. I leave it here for reference.]

Dream Chaser
(Space plane. Due to begin space service 1 November 2016 2017?)
Dream Chaser

NASA ruled out several options before selecting CST-100 and Dragon V2 as their new station crew ferries, and the last, most developed proposal to be ruled out was Dream Chaser. Officially, currently, NASA does not intend to use any Dream Chasers, though that is under some dispute. We'll see how that goes, but I'll be a little surprised if NASA's decision is reversed. Regardless of that, ESA has already got its own plans to test a slightly different Dream Chaser variant of their own. At this time, this is the only design on my future probable list with a specific first flight date released to the public.

As a lifting body space plane, Dream Chaser represents the sort of simple DC-3 kind of design that the Space Shuttle Orbiter was originally conceived as. I think it's fair to say that this form of spacecraft is now understood nearly as well as the simple space condom form, so I don't quite buy the argument that copying the Apollo CSM is necessarily the easiest or safest option. The longevity of Soyuz might seem to back that up, but the Shuttle wasn't exactly a flash in the pan either, relatively speaking. It all depends on the particular design, construction and operation of each vessel, much more than on the design heritage it happens to have.

[EDIT: An internal NASA document on the issue suggests that they basically don't sufficiently trust Sierra Nevada's management. And it seems they really, very, super-super trust Boeing's management, which is why CST-100 gets the bigger slice of the commercial crew pie. To my amateur eye, it looks a little like a bureaucracy fetish, but I suppose there has to be more to spaceflight operations than just the vessel.]

[EDIT: The uncrewed cargo variant of Dream Chaser has now been officially hired by NASA as a station supply ferry. This might give the original crewed variant more of a chance to get into space too, but nothing about that step is confirmed yet. The cargo variant (formally called the Dream Chaser Cargo System) differs in that it has folding wings to fit inside of a launch rocket's fairing, it has no windows, and it has a disposable extra cargo module (possibly with solar arrays) hanging off the butt. Launching it inside of a closed fairing does make the aerodynamics of launch simpler, and it gives the vehicle a bit more protection, but on the other hand, the folding wings are another moving part that could go wrong. On average, I'm not sure if it's a worthwhile change, but then I'm not a rocket engineer; it will at least be interesting to see if any cargo variant changes are carried over to the crew variant.]

Dream Chaser would launch on an Atlas V (a descendent of the type that launched the Mercury orbital missions) for NASA, or potentially an Ariane 5 (which gets its name from Minoan mythology) for ESA.

The name Dream Chaser was apparently passed between a series of related proposed designs, and it's literal enough that it's clear what the designers were thinking with it (much clearer than the "Puff the Magic Dragon" link), but it's still interesting and creative enough. It's a literal description of a sentiment, not of the actual vehicle. Individual vehicle names are also planned, but remain unannounced. Rumour says the first atmospheric test Dream Chaser is called Eagle, after the Apollo 11 LM. We'll have to wait and see. [EDIT: One source claims that the first spaceworthy Dream Chaser was initially named, in internal Sierra Nevada discourse, as Ascalon, after the name sometimes given to the weapon used by George the dragon-slayer - which would be a clear jab at their SpaceX competitors. Supposedly this was later cleaned up to the much more neutral Ascension. However, none of these names - Eagle, Ascalon and Ascension - have ever been made officially public, and the evidence for them being used unofficially or internally by the company seems scant so far.]

[EDIT: Second to drop off the future possibles list, Dream Chaser will still fly, but only as an uncrewed cargo ship. The crewed version has been quietly dropped from all official plans.]

Thursday, 18 September 2014

Being Skeptical of Gender

I have seen among sexists two broad approaches. One is an emotive, shouty, obviously obnoxious sort, which clings to little more than lame cliches and bible quotes for a thin facade of support, but which is generally content to just lurch around unsupported and angry. The other appears more calm and rational, and likes to use "facts" and "studies" (with heavy emphasis on the quotation marks of sarcasm) for support. I am dismissive of these, because that is little better than the way creationists and quacks like to abuse the occasional stray study that they can bend to their purposes.

A series of recent Facebook arguments exchanges of views have reminded me of how often I see the following pattern:
Dude comes somehow into discussion on gender matters, sides in favour of discrimination, claims that research backs him (usually him) up, may or may not provide links, and then acts as if everyone else is anti-science and illogical for not agreeing.

The ones who can't even provide links to the research they claim are pretty easily dismissed as noobish noobs. The ones who provide links are worth looking at, but not by a huge margin. There are two reasons I can think of to be dismissive towards even the study-linking sort of sexist:

1. We don't need no stinking research. As a serious skeptic, that's not a small thing for me to declare, but I got the idea from no lesser skeptic-of-note than Steve Novella, who has made a similar point a few times, usually in relation to race and racism. He has pointed out that we reject racism as an ethical judgement call, not because the science says 'be racist' or 'don't be racist; if we found clear evidence of one race being seriously different from another, would we decide that this justifies being mean to each other? Or is being good to each other regardless of a few fiddling differences better? It may reflect the appreciation for Star Trek that Dr Novella and I have in common, but we both seem to feel that neither pointy ear nor skin colour nor lumpy head should cause us to treat anyone differently. Similarly, I feel the same applies to reproductive organs. I'm sure you can find a study that says that testes make you smarter (or dumber), but I don't really care; I don't want to live in a society where that sort of broad generalisation is the beginning and the end of how individuals are considered. Generalisations have their practical uses, but they should be tools, not straitjackets.

(1.b. On a related but less important note, while the people pushing this kind of research usually like to paint themselves as neutral and "just following the evidence", it is pretty obvious that they're only ever following the evidence in one direction. I have yet to see such a person post a link opposed to what they believe and say, "Oops, looks like my preconceived notions were wrong, I recant". This is not the proper way to use science, it is cherry picking and starting from a conclusion. The same may be true in both directions, but I'm not sure. I was on the fence myself, saw evidence from both sides for a few years, and eventually found feminism more compellingly supported.)

2. I question the research. All of it. I certainly wouldn't say it's all rubbish, but we should be pretty skeptical of it by default. First, when these things are dragged out, they're usually lone studies, not clusters of mutually agreeing research. One paper proves very little. Second, there is reason to be cautious of false positives in even well-regarded research. This does not mean that all of science is junk; this caution is supposed to be there, it's part of the full scientific method. Until something has been checked to pieces, we shouldn't embrace it too tightly. And telling people they have to be second-class citizens because of the research is an exceptionally tight embrace. Even if you disagree with my point 1 (that the research shouldn't matter anyway), you'd better be damn fucking certain that you're not condemning people for a dumb reason like a dodgy study.

(2.b. I have my own little hypothesis about why there's such a glut of gender-related studies for sexists to cherry-pick from. It's because of lazy and/or nervous and/or inexperienced young researchers, grad students and the like. Splitting your sample into boys and girls is, culturally, such an easy, obvious way to get an independent variable for virtually any human study, even if there's no good a priori reason to look there. It's a variable that's seldom going to be reported wrong (by the researcher or the subject), it doesn't take a lot of creative thought to come up with it, supervisors probably don't feel too much pressure to advise against something so simple and doable (even if they don't expect the results will actually be useful; junior research is viewed more as a teaching tool than as "real" research, even if it subsequently gets published), and there's a fair enough chance that you can wring some small pattern out of whatever your dependent variable is (even if that pattern is false, see point 2 above). Then you can have a degree and start thinking about more serious research with more meaningful variables.

I could be wrong about that, but if any young student is looking for a more interesting hypothesis to test, feel free...)

My point is this: Being a good skeptic is not a matter of playing Simon's Research Paper Says. Evidence is good, science is great. But there's more to science than single studies. Scientific consensus is about big patterns revealed by many, many studies over time. This is where we got evolution and climate change and the relativities and a thousand other major theories. But those are factual claims, not subjective judgements about what we need to do to make the world work for us. They are descriptions of the status quo, not policy statements about how and why to either keep or remove the status quo. We can use science to help us make better policy choices, but we also have to think for ourselves.

Sunday, 7 September 2014

Picking Sides

About a month ago, I started on a post about the Gaza/Israel mess, but as often happens I didn't get it finished. The central idea behind it has had time to mature, though, and I think it may have broader use. I doubt it's an original idea - in fact, I'm certain it isn't - but it's always nice to come to a realisation on your own.

The idea is this: In destructive conflicts (there can be such a thing as constructive conflict, e.g. the peer review part of the scientific method) between big, vague, general groups, it's most useful to isolate those who perpetuate destructive behaviour. Isolating these people and dealing with them is much more useful than the usual way of framing conflicts, i.e. Side 1 vs. Side A, which usually have little real connection with the root of the conflict. When we pick sides, it's important to start by picking which sides we will accept as even worth picking from. If you let others pick the choice of possible sides for you, then you've already lost all meaningful choice.

The reason for this is that the majority of people on each conventional side are usually not actually inclined towards destructiveness. Perhaps it's my Star Trek-fuelled idealism here, but I think it's a fair bet that most people, most of the time, just want to get on with life and don't really want to tear down those they disagree with. More cynically, you might come to the same end conclusion by saying that sheeple aren't good at taking the initiative, or something like that; it's not really my thing. But the bottom line does hold either way, with plenty to back it up, not least being the fact that this cooperative behaviour is the foundation of all human civilisation, regardless of geography, ideology or time. If we couldn't mostly get along, we'd mostly have to be hermits. Vast cities prove human goodnitude.

So when you do see major violent conflicts breaking out, it's worth remembering that it's almost always a minority conducting the violence. It's traditional to talk about whole nations going to war, but that's not really true. We say "Germany" fought in World War II, but only around a quarter of the German population (an unusually high fraction) were in the military, and not all of those will have fought. Many will have been in support roles, as cooks, engineers, admin clerks, and so on, and not every official combatant actually does fight. We say "the US" fought in the 2003 Iraq War, but only about 0,06% of them actually went there, and again not all will have fought. And the same applies to every nation in every war that I've ever heard of.

Dividing a conflict horizontally into State A and State 1 makes little sense. We should instead divide vertically into the non-problematic majority and the problematic minority. The problematic minority, of course, wouldn't like this, because the cover of being part of a larger community, of supposedly doing what they do for that community, is how they get away with being shitty to others. Nation, state, tribe, clan, people, etc., all offer very convenient concealment for shitty behaviour on a large scale. If I kick you in the shins, I'm a dick. If I kick you in the shins because you hurt my friend, a lot of people might doubt whether I'm the dick - but I still kicked you, I am still being a dick. And if I kick you repeatedly in the shins because you are part of a group that hurt several of my friends... now it starts getting messy and it's hard to separate out cruder, ancient instincts about in-groups and out-groups. But I am, unquestionably, still kicking you in the shins, whatever my motives. And I would suggest that kicking people in the shins is never the sort of behaviour we should routinely accept.

By encouraging people to stop supporting the destructive elements on "their side" (and accepting that these sides are artificial constructs, not natural inevitabilities, and thus changeable), those engaging in destructive behaviour can be better studied and understood, and then corrected without the need for bullets. Hopefully, minimum fuss, maximum happiness for all. I'm not saying any of this is likely to be easy - if it was, I would have no cause to write all this - but it's much easier than a bullet to the gut.

In further support of this, I think it's pretty well established that the opposite is definitely true: It's much easier for the dangerous minority to have their way if they can convince the majority to let them off the leash. We see this with pre-war propaganda, where nationalism is pumped up and the Enemy painted as demons. One example I remember seeing clearly splattered through the media was the US build-up to Iraq in 2003, a period when the US media was especially heavy on the nationalism and anti-Iraq sentiments. It seems to be happening on both sides in Ukraine too, by which I mean two sides are being constructed, by media prodding, out of previously peaceful neighbouring communities. Heaps has been written on war propaganda in many different wars, but the common pattern is that these conflicts don't boil up from below, from what ordinary people want; they're imposed from above, from what an aggressive minority wants. Take that away and you have lots of people who just want to get on with life.

Of course, not all destructive conflicts are of the violent sort. You can destroy without having to hit things. Apartheid worked that way. Sure, the state had violence as a backup, to force compliance with the shitty racist laws if anyone tried anything too bold, but the shitty racist laws were the bulk of the apartheid system, and divisive propaganda helped again to keep people thinking in terms of two big sides. Racism in general doesn't even need formal laws, let alone violent application: Just treating someone like shit and systematically encouraging others to the same is already destructive enough.

And how did apartheid end? Not through the A vs. B, side-against-side conflict that had been fostered for decades, but by the reversal of that, the peaceful acceptance that actually we're all pretty much the same underneath, and the whole division thing was the stupid idea of a stupid, selfish minority. It's fair to say that things haven't been perfectly resolved since then, but the fall into all-out civil war that many predicted or even hoped for, never happened. Those with destructive tendencies were reframed as a side of their own, distinct from the new, big side shared by everyone else.

The post I didn't get around to finishing was going to say something similar about Israel and Gaza, about how a rejection of those who want to keep resorting to violence as a solution (in spite of 60-odd years of clear evidence against this) by both Gazans and Israelis would do more for peace there than any weapon, treaty or religious belief could. It'd be a really tough nut to persuade, but I see no other feasible solution. The majority, I'm quite sure, would get behind that if pressure not to could be stopped for just a while. Instead, they're constantly told that they belong to one faction or the other, and that the opposing faction opposes them and there is no other choice. That's the message that has to be stopped.

In a more mundane (but excitingly modern and cyberspacey!) example, the shittiness I posted about last month, the harassment of online feminism, also seems to fit the same pattern. It's increasingly clear that a few shitty people are actively trying to be destructive, and part of this is the use of propaganda to frame feminism as anti-men. Speaking as a male feminist, that's just silly. The ass-hats want us to think in terms of men vs. women, because big, vague sides like that give them just as much cover for their shitty behaviour as nation-states give to shitty killers in war. Their behaviour is reprehensible, nobody would stand for it if they just came out and did it, so they first get people on their side by smearing the legitimate, reasonable positions of those they dislike, and by building up a big, false them-vs.-us narrative.

Feminism (or anti-sexism), of course, is not anti-man, any more than being anti-apartheid was anti-white, or being against the First World War was anti-Franz Ferdinand or against whatever country you lived in that wanted you to bleed for them in the trenches. These bullshit stories are the cover, the excuse, the illusion needed for shitty behaviour to go undetected.

I know rational, intelligent, educated people who honestly believe in a dangerous feminist conspiracy. They've never quite managed to express what the agenda of this conspiracy is, nor what evidence there is for its existence. I've not encountered any myself, but I know there are also those who fear the ever-murky gay agenda, also the end result of a misbegotten division of humanity in gay and straight sides. Anti-war protesters throughout history have been accused of secretly being enemy agents, not just by blood-thirsty warmongers, but by otherwise normal people who've bought into the them-vs.-us crap. The apartheid government was very happy for people to believe that die Swart Gevaar would get them in their beds. Joe McCarthy felt similarly about the Red Menace. Abigail Williams wanted all of Salem to believe in the immediate threat of witches.

All of these make it harder to identify and deal with real problems, and that's the point. As I said at the top, the sides we should be dividing things into are 'destructive' and 'other'. But, in normal societies that are mostly cooperative and good, natural selection would quickly pick off the destructive individuals who couldn't hide their bad behaviour. The challenge for the rest of us is to spot the ones who've become very good at convincing us that they're on our side.


A pre-emptive clarification:

I can foresee my main point above being misunderstood in one crucial way: Rejecting dubiously-allocated sides as a way to end a destructive conflict does not preclude the recognition of these sides in post-conflict reparative efforts. Or more simply, affirmative action isn't racist (for example). If harm was done systematically (which is not necessarily always the case, but is fairly likely in larger, more sustained kinds of conflict), then it's reasonable to think that it can be systematically undone. Harm is bad, which is why we don't like war and bigotry. But the opposite of that, unharm, begoodment, is generally good. Acknowledging past divisions does not turn unharm back into harm, and refusing to acknowledge them can hamper unharm.


A small afterthought on dismissive insults:

The destructive minority likes to encourage as many people as possible to disregard anyone suggesting constructive alternatives, and part of that is encouraging disparaging, dismissive labels and insults. They call us peaceniks, doves, cowards, and mean these things pejoratively. They say we're lovers of whatever group they're against, and mean it in a weirdly sexual, angry, pejorative way. Sometimes they flirt with ironic and sarcastic pejoratives, such as the recent 'social justice warrior'. Their ideal trick, however, seems to be to turn whatever we call ourselves into an insult: If 'pacifist' or 'feminist' are widely perceived to be dirty words, then fewer people will want to be one, and the destructive minority wins a little more. The way to undermine such negative labelling, I think, is to proudly wear these insults, embrace them and claim them as your own, while demonstrating the best possible example of what they should stand for.

Thursday, 4 September 2014

You Are Other People

My physiology lacks a way to simultaneously laugh with mirth and sigh with despair. But if I could ligh/saugh like that, I'd do it every time I saw someone complain about "those damn ideologies". It reveals a huge lack of self-awareness, if not a total ignorance of what ideology is and what it does.

I can't remember clearly, but I might have posted something vaguely similar once before, about how people complaining that all 'politics' is inherently bad have misunderstood what politics is. But while you could argue that politics does necessarily involve competition over ideas and resources (though that's not necessarily always a bad thing), I think it's hard to argue that there's even a kernel of necessarily-badness about the concept of ideology.

All an ideology is, is a set of beliefs about how the human social world works, and how to respond to this. The trickiest bit in there is probably the word 'belief'; we all believe things, and I do not mean dogmatic blind faith here, I mean the broadest sense of accepting things to be a certain way. This includes the whole spectrum of sane to crazy beliefs, from "I exist" to "I do not exist". It may be true that some specific ideologies are especially crazy and encourage a lot more crazy beliefs, but this is insufficient to say that ideology as a mental tool is entirely and inherently broken. As a science fan, I'd argue that it matters more how you come to your beliefs than specifically what those beliefs are.

The second bit, about what to do about reality, is also tricky, as knowing what to do is hard. Steve Novella made a great point in an episode of SGU a few months ago, along the lines of "there are no true grown-ups". By this I believe he meant, we're all raised with the assumption that someone, somewhere knows what the fuck is going on and has all the answers, but in reality everyone is mostly making things up as they go; older, established ways of doing things are just the ones that have worked often enough in the past, not necessarily the ones we'll need in the future. Everything has to be guessed and improvised to some degree, because none of us has perfect knowledge or perfect understanding. And the bigger and more complex the issue, the less likely it is that any one person can follow it all. Something as vast and messy as a whole human society is horribly tricky to get a mental grip on (though this does make things very interesting). Bottom line, though, is that the difficulty of knowing what to do with reality does not invalidate any and all attempts to do something with reality.

It's hard to see how any person who isn't totally, medically brain-dead could fail to have an ideology of some sort. So I think what people mean, when they say they hate ideologies, is that they hate other people's ideologies; I have yet to see one who hates their own ideology. Many, I reckon, are not even conscious of their own ideological biases. Others are perhaps afraid to commit (publicly or at all) to any positions, and resent or fear those who can. And many, I'm sure, have been upset (rightly or not) by one or two specific ideologies, and have falsely extrapolated their displeasure out to the entire continuum of human ideas. I'm sure there are other explanations, as well as some mixing between them.

So it's a silly thing to say. Don't be that sort of silly.

I had one other thought while writing this: It's easy, especially as you get older, to be amused by people who want to advertise how craaaaaazzzzzzy and weird and different they are. There's some immaturity to it, it's often quite superficial, there's a high probability it will somehow involve fish. But I'd like to hypothesise here that maybe this is an important stage in the maturation process, and that people who skip it are more likely to "hate ideology" and similar effects. I'd presume the mechanism would be something like, if you take the time to focus on your own weirdness (however limited that may be), it gives you an opportunity to learn to accept that you are not always normal, you are not the gold standard against which all others should be judged. It's one possible way to learn that you have your own biases and peculiarities. Failure to explore these should make it less likely that you learn these lessons.

I'd be curious to know if anyone's seen related studies already.

Saturday, 30 August 2014

No More Damsels, No More White Knights

I'm getting annoyed. This is a pity, as it's been a great week, with some great chemistry lab practicals (I made aspirin!), a victorious early return to my kids, and general goodness. And then some ass-hats had to be wrong on the internet. Now I have to fix everything.

None of it is strictly news. Feminists spoke some truth, ass-hats got in a fuzz about it, and rather than trying to rationally object and converse and learn, they insulted, threatened and abused. Nothing fucking new at all, I'm afraid.

What's bugged me has been the number of my friends who've rushed to support the obviously wrong side in this matter. I don't think my friends are ass-hats themselves, but they seem to have some strange ideas about false "balance" and have bought into certain common misogynist narratives.

The balance thing is easy to address. One side is calling for a more fair and just sort of society. The other side is responding with threats of rape and murder, or (at best, for a very limited definition of 'best') simply suggesting that actually we shouldn't make society fair and just. Even if the former side is not getting things 100% right, even if they're making a lot of mistakes, it's still not hard to pick the right side.

There is room for improvement on the feminist side, but that doesn't seem to be what the false balance gambit is pushing for. Mostly, the aim of it seems to be to want to shut people up, not to help them make their points better. It is not a constructive effort.

And if someone really didn't want to pick sides at all, I'd expect them to be more silent on the matter, not louder and angrier. I do not believe that those calling for balance really want that. Not the ones I've seen.

The other thing that's bugging the fuck out of me is the use, pejoratively, of terms like 'Damsel', 'White Knight' and 'Social Justice Warrior'. I have only seen aging white folk (of non-impoverished backgrounds) use these, and I don't think its a coincidence; it's textbook privilege shit. The gimmick seems to run like this:

1. Complain that feminists have no evidence to back up their claims.
2. When someone presents evidence:
2.a. If they are female, accuse them of being a drama queen, an attention whore, a Damsel in Distress. Reject everything they say out of hand.
2.b. If they are male, accuse them of being a White Knight, out to defend those who neither want it nor need it. Reject everything they say out of hand.
3. Complain that nobody's willing to talk to you calmly and rationally.
4. Repeat until 6 = 7.

The demand for evidence is a decoy, a red herring. They don't actually want the evidence, and so when they're presented with it, they try to shut it out, to deny its validity. The pejorative use of Social Justice Warrior is the ultimate expression of this, the attempt to shut up anyone who tries to make any positive action, on the false premise that anyone attempting this is actually as big an ass-hat as the ass-hat who caused trouble in the first place.

Too many of my friends have used the phrase, "I am a feminist, but...". It's eerily similar to the classic "I'm not racist, but...". Don't do it. If you really care about equality and goodness in society, you'll avoid loaded terms like Damsel and White Knight. They only ever play into the hands of misogynist ass-hats, they have zero constructive use. Honest, fair, meaningful discussion is not possible while those intellectual traps are still in play.

Saturday, 16 August 2014

RP Gad a Y?

I have way too much on my plate. I'm doing varsity chemistry pracs full time for the next two weeks (this was only supposed to happen in "October or November"), which means I have to catch up on the lessons I'm missing with my matrics (just before their prelims!) on the weekends. I finally have a quiet moment now, so I thought I'd unwind a little with something fun and easy.

I know little about the background to RPGaDay, I just see it popping up in my feed(s). The idea seems to be that a daily roleplaying-related personal history question is asked, and you stick your daily answer up on your social medium for others to admire. Most of it is necessarily going to lead to nostalgic anecdotes and similar self-indulgence, but like all history, it can still be damn interesting to those with an interest in it.

I will break with official format for this post and simply answer all 31 questions in one go, because I've got too much shit to do the other 30 days.

1: First RPG played?
A diceless, rulesless, settingless improv thing that Davie spun together for us one day in class. It was end of term 2 back in grade 8 (1997), and we had the unusual mercy of a free lesson. We were up in Miss de Abreu's class in Blue Block, and Davie asked a bunch of us if we'd like to try some sort of game. We had no distinct characters, the vague setting was something sort of fantasy-ish (I remember it had clearly borrowed elements from Ultima VIII) and random results were obtained (fuck knows how exactly) from some "dragon dice". This may have been the only time I've ever actually seen dragon dice, but the name was burned deep into my brain so that 17 years later I have absolutely no doubt that's what they were. There was not much plot, I remember few details other than explosive red crystals, but I was hooked enough that a short while later I had joined my first real group playing my first real game.

That game was hosted at an internet club near my house (Club 42, which I only now realise may have been an Adams reference), which I always found really uncomfortable for a variety of reasons. It was AD&D 2nd Edition, GMed by Richard, and I played a Gnome who owned a duck named Bob. I remember few details of this game, and this causes some jealousy when other players recount in great detail everything that happend to every character (all names recalled) in their first ever game.

(Suddenly, it makes sense why I'm so strongly in favour of the write-everything-down option offered by sites like Obsidian Portal.)

2: First RPG game-mastered?
AD&D 2nd Edition, the Dragon Mountain box set, co-GMed with Tyler in 1999. Tyler phoned me out of the blue one day, which was rare enough, to say that his parents were going away for the weekend, could he stay with me, and by the way, let's GM this campaign together. We spent all weekend studying the thing, got together a group (the usual group, inevitably, little changed from 1997) and then only ran 2 or 3 sessions. I forget why it stopped. Exams? I still have Tyler's box set, borrowed just before he left the country. I should run it sometime.

3: First RPG purchased?
AD&D 2nd Edition Player's Handbook (the black version), second hand from Tyler, for I think R200, in 1999. A year later I bought my first dice, another year later I bought Kobolds Ate My Baby! My initial purchase rate was very low, as my friends all had plenty of material we could use, and I wasn't GMing.

4: Most recent RPG purchase?
I've bought a few things in the last few months, and my memory's a little fuzzy, but I think absolute most recent is the 1st edition of the Star Wars d20 core book, the one that heavily over-emphasizes  Episode I, because II and III hadn't been released yet and people still weren't certain that the new trilogy sucks. We played using this book back in 2002ish, and had a lot of fun; it was my introduction to the d20 system. I bought this second hand copy from Outer Limits, partly because I have uncontrolled collecting problems, partly because I thought it might be of some tangential use in Gail's game, and partly because I knew I wanted to borrow elements from its starship combat rules for my Star Trek d20 (now Next) house rules.

5: Most 'old school' RPG owned?
I own copies of several D&D books from before they settled into the uniformity of AD&D 2nd Ed., and it would take some long analysis to determine the oldest schoolest among them. The oldest core rulebook I have is the 1983 revision of the Basic Set.

6: Favourite RPG I never get to play?
Hmm, tough call. I miss Jamie's original, perfect Delta Green campaign; we've tried several times since, but never quite recaptured it. Very much like the Men in Black franchise, a huge amount of the enjoyment was the excitement of peeling back comfortable reality to discover a terrifying, fascinating unknown. After the first movie/campaign, that's almost impossible to replicate, because there isn't sufficient comfortable reality left, and too much of the unknown is known. So in a way, I may never get to play that game (in the same way) ever again.

If we count games I've never technically actually played, I'm also still super-duper-ultra keen to finally give Reverse Dungeon a try. My mom bought it for me in 2000, and I was waiting for the perfect chance to run it, and that chance still hasn't come. Who's keen?

7: Most "intellectual" RPG I own?
Planescape (the core box, plus many, many expansion books). The D&D meta-setting that incorporates all other settings by default (even Dark Sun, if you know how) is easily abused as a giant monster-of-the-week dispenser, but was written to be so much more. It's supposed to be like the first season or two of Sliders, where any wild idea you like can be made real and experimented with to its most fascinating limits. If you get it wrong, however, it's like Sliders season three, where any wild idea can be turned into a flimsy excuse for a bland shootout action scenario, with a couple cardboard oddities decoratively hanging off the ceiling.

8: Favourite character?
My problem here is poor memory, so it may not be coincidence that I'm picking a current character, rather than an ancient one. On the other hand, Ploon Kloovs is also a character that I've run for much longer than most - exactly a full year on Thursday. I've mostly played in shorter games (or GMed) and so seldom get the fun of watching a character grow and change from the inside. And Ploon has definitely grown; a Chaos altar on Limbo added a full 30cm to his height! Ploon is also just fun, pure and simple. He lets me unwind and not give a shit about reality, which is surely what we play for. My other favourite would be the late Sto Kalb'asi, but she will be mentioned in a later answer.

9: My favourite dice?
I mock other roleplayers for dice fetishes and superstitions, but I'm still very protective of my original set, purchased at WitsCon 2000. They're of the small-sized variety, which is not too uncommon, but still distinctive enough that I can isolate them easily, and all in shades of red or purple. I also still keep them in the same small-sized red dice bag I bought with them, and the whole thing is stashed inside my larger Cthulhu dice bag, along with assorted lesser dice. (Though among the lesser dice, I must note the Famous Five die and the Biggles die I've kept with my roleplaying dice for years. They're a great icebreaker; probably the first non-greeting thing I ever said to Scot, when he gave one of them a roll, was, "You got Dick!")

10: Favourite tie-in novel/game fiction?
Hmm, not sure I have such a thing. I got a Warhammer novel and a 40K novel, and never finished either. If PC games count, then undoubtledly Planescape: Torment, which was actually how I discovered the roleplaying setting, rather than the other way round.

11: Weirdest owned?
In an industry that strives for weirdness and novelty, that's not much of a useful question. But I think the book I have that fits in least with the rest of my collection is The Goblin Fair, an obscure OGL adventure for D&D 3rd Ed., which I picked up for only R15 when 7th Generation Gaming was clearing stock in 2007. What makes it odd (for me) is that it seems to be aimed at young kids; it's very gentle and simple about how it wants you to slaughter your foes. I know intellectually that some kids roleplay, but I didn't until high school and it's still a mostly grown-up thing to me, and most books reflect that too.

12: Old game I still read/play?
Oh, all of them! If it's simply about reading old stuff, then any of them, all the time. Half the reason I buy older books is to steal their lost secret knowledge. The oldest stuff we still play is a mix of AD&D 2nd Ed stuff (though mostly using Pathfinder rules at the moment) and Warhammer (1st Ed. campaign with 2nd Ed. rules).

13: Most memorable character death?
Ploon dies all the time, but it never counts. I have two real character deaths that rank about equal, for different reasons. First was the Reverend Sandy Spurgeon, a Call of Cthulhu character, who died on the Starkweather-Moore expedition. Without wanting to give away any spoilers, this was back in 2002 and I still don't hear the end of it, because Scot's character, West, also died in the process of trying to save Spurgeon from... something. And while I'm reasonably sure the something would have gotten us either way, the complaint I still hear at least once a month is that I had said I'd take home the book-sized player handout (an actual fucking novel, literally) and read through it, but I sort of slept through some parts of it (because it was 03fucking:00!) and sort of missed an important clue. Oops.

The other was Sto Kalb'asi, mentioned in #8, my Bothan spy in a Star Wars game perhaps a year later. It was easily one of our best campaigns ever, things were exciting and fun, but half the fun came from intra-party conflict, which is risky. Scot's Jedi and Brendon's Sith channelled this in a good way, leading to one of the most compelling character-driven RPG duels I've yet seen. But Sto's sneaky espionage ways became unpopular after the revelation of Sith infiltration. When we got stuck by red tape on a Hutt planet, the other characters seemed to be making no progress, so Sto decided to negotiate privately with the Hutt (I can't remember why, I thought I had a special angle somehow). What I didn't know was that the others decided this would be a good way to sneak a bomb up to the Hutt's face, while also ridding themselves of the dubious Bothan. Long story short, they blew me up, nowhere near the Hutt.

(Honourable mentions also to the time in Damon's first Star Wars campaign when we all died by stupidly charging into automatic blaster fire, the time in Jamie's Delta Green when we all died by
stupidly charging into automatic gun fire, and the time I ran Jonny Nexus's ultra-realistic First World War trench warfare scenario, where everyone died by following orders to charge across no man's land at the Somme.)

14: Best convention purchase?
Kobolds Ate My Baby!, at Icon 2001. It's honestly not the greatest game ever, but it's fun. More importantly, it got me to risk solo GMing properly (after the initial attempt with Tyler and Dragon Mountain) and it did so in a fun, easy way. With so few rules to worry about, I could focus on the content, and on learning from my mistakes. Without it, who knows what different path my roleplaying habit might have followed.

15: Favourite convention game?
"Please Don't Feed The Natives", Call of Cthulhu, Icon 2008. A fairly standard zombie scenario that I GMed. What made it great was that everything just clicked beautifully. I assigned the characters to mostly unknown players, and they all fitted perfectly. The one tricky character I gave to my only known player (Nali), and he handled it perfectly for me. And then the destruction and horror of the scenario unfolded beautifully, "organically", with hardly any pushing needed from me. It all worked and everyone had a great time. These are the rare moments Jonny Nexus spake of, when he explained why we put up with all the times that roleplaying doesn't work properly.

16: Game I wish I owned?
Something that captures BattleTech properly. I want something that lets me smash around in a giant mech, without the hassle of full miniatures rules that the official BT roleplaying requires. Considering the complexity of mechs compared with other vehicles (and considering how even simple vehicle rules are often dodgy in many systems), this may just be a pipe dream. But it is my wish.

17: Funniest game I've played?
All of them, eventually. It depends much more on the crowd than the game. Some things written explicitly for "funnyness", like Kobolds!, can fail dismally, especially in the hands of a bad writer. Others, meant to be super ultra serious, like Cthulhu, are normally filled to the brim with absurdity and all possible flavours of humour.

18: Favourite game system?
Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, 2nd Edition. It is objectively the best one.

19: Favourite published adventure?
A very tough call. Anything by James Wallis, most of the old Warhammer 1st Ed. stuff. Beyond the Mountains of Madness. Horror on the Orient Express. The starter adventures in the Delta Green core book. The common thread seems to be investigative, low-combat, heavily moody stuff. I look forward to finally getting my copy of Alas Vegas.

20: Will still play in 20 years time?
Yes I will. Next question.

But seriously, it could be anything, and it depends if we mean which system or which edition of a system. The latter is obviously stricter and more likely to be broken.

21: Favourite licensed RPG?
Stargate. It captures the feel of the series well, and the rules don't suck, and it allows for a lot of interesting expansion beyond TV canon. I can't think of another licensed RPG that gets all 3 right. None of the official Trek RPG rules are great. The Serenity/Firefly and BSG games have shit rules and I don't feel they captured the essence of either. The Star Wars games (both d6 and d20) are pretty good, but I always feel they've over-powered the Jedi (relative to what's seen on screen in the 3 movies, not relative to other characters in the game). The first Babylon 5 game had awful rules; the second (d20) version might have been decent, but we only tried it briefly. The Buffy game had weird rules, but wasn't bad. Men in Black was fine for a quick laugh, but not sufficient for anything long-term, due to thin content. Stargate is the only one I have zero doubts about.

22: Best 2nd Hand RPG purchase
See question 3, as a springing point to all further purchases. More than half (more than three quarters?) of my stuff is second hand. It's a matter of geography. Hardly anything roleplayish gets imported to South Africa, and retailers hold very little stock of what they do get, and somehow always seem to get the stuff that won't shift, so they're stuck with it for months or years, reinforcing their excuse that they can't afford to import things that they can't sell. I've had some luck importing things directly (through Amazon), but usually that works out much cheaper second hand anyway. What I purchase has less to do with what I want than with what I can find.

23: Coolest looking RPG book
The shiny metallic look of Spycraft 1st Ed. was genius. It's very simple, it's not even really shiny or metallic (which is actually better!), but it puts a very clear sense of sleek modernity in my mind. I'm not sure exactly how it was printed, but there's something special to it that you won't be able to see through a screen. That's my answer for over all look. If I were to pick out individual bits, then the art for Planescape is often amazing to me, though collectively it can get a bit busy.

24: Most complicated RPG owned
Pathfinder. It's not really that complicated, but I avoid complication and that's about my upper limit. (The answer might have been Babylon Project, which looks pretty messy, but I never bothered to understand its rules well enough to judge.)

25: Favourite RPG nobody else wants to play
Perhaps it's a relative problem, but I can't think of any such game in an absolute sense. My gaming circle is wide enough, and I'm patient enough, that eventually we get to try everything.

26: Coolest character sheet
Exam pad + pencil. I have never found an official character sheet that didn't frustrate me in some way; some more than others, some hardly at all. But none of them win, none beat plain lined paper, except when I'm in a rush. The closest I've ever come to declaring a character sheet sufficiently worthy is the extended 4-page Warhammer sheet.

27: Game I'd like to see a new/improved edition of
Warhammer. I'd like 4th edition to be 2nd edition again, please. There could be a couple small tweaks, but it's basically already all it needs to be, and 3rd edition is shit. More realistically, some of the neglected, interesting D&D campaign settings officially updated to 5th Ed and then expanded with new material might be nice.

28: Scariest game I've played
In hindsight, Jamie's Delta Green again. We (or I, at least) did genuinely do things out of adrenal panic. It wasn't scary per se, but it did make me react as I would to real danger (if I was a jewish female FBI agent with an inappropriately big gun). It was... immersive. (I like to hope I captured something similar with "Please Don't Feed The Natives" and a few other games, but it's harder to judge from behind the GM screen.)

29: Most memorable encounter
My memory is poor on specifics. But there was that Star Wars game where we were Rebels who had infiltrated a party at an Imperial governor's home or some such. Brendon and I went snooping, and the very first door we open leads to a guards' barracks, absolutely full of stormtroopers polishing their blasters, playing poker and otherwise turning to see what uninvited troublemakers have just barged into their room. We were on the verge of starting a suicidal gunfight, when I suddenly thought of pretending to be bored party guests looking for some fun; hey, can we join your poker game? We have piles of cash and we're not very good! We walked out of there a few credits poorer and many, many hit points more alive than expected.

30: Rarest RPG owned
My own house rules have had limited distribution. I also have Shaun van der Berg's Katra 'ul, still in playtesting, if we're talking about whole systems, not just variants, that someone other than me made. For commercially published stuff, I'm not certain, but I think perhaps my Babylon Project probably wasn't that widely sold, but was it less widely sold than dinky little Kobolds!? I have insufficient data. I also have a lot of D&D and Warhammer stuff from the '80s, and I'm not sure how rare those have become, even if they were originally common.

31: Favourite RPG of all time
The one I play with good friends and good cheer. Systems geekery is amusing to a point, setting preference is obviously purely subjective, but ultimately the whole point of the whole hobby is to enjoy spending time with other people. If you're missing that, you've missed the point of playing.