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Month: December 2002

Jolson sings!

British Pathe has put all their old newsreels online. You can download lowres versions for free; they sell higher res versions as well. Kind of a cool glimpse into the world of British newsreels. I really like the Lucky Dip feature, which displays the info for 20 random clips.

You say tomato

According to the Washington Post, the CIA is torturing prisoners in Afghanistan. The best quote from the article: “‘If you don’t violate someone’s human rights some of the time, you probably aren’t doing your job,’ said one official who has supervised the capture and transfer of accused terrorists.” Fun stuff. Reportedly, the CIA has also turned prisoners over to various countries for interrogation, including Syria. Last time I looked, Syria was not near the top of our friendly powers list.

I believe that these tactics have made it easier to carry out operations against Al Qaeda. No question at all. Information is power.

I also believe that these tactics are flat out wrong, because I think that sometimes we must sacrifice efficiency for the sake of our values. Or, if you like, for the sake of those human rights so casually dismissed above.

Bill Whittle wrote a piece on gun control, which many conservative bloggers linked to with great relish. It is burdened with a great deal of irrelevant anti-European sentiment, which I find ignorant and superficial. I could write an entire post on the ways in which his snideness about France trivializes the substantial and noble risks taken by the French resistance during World War II.

However, he said one thing in particular which I think is exceedingly relevant here. Those who would defend the use of torture in our conflict with Al Qaeda would do well to consider it, and how it relates to the matter of torture, rather than simply waving the matter off with some comment about how much more efficient this strategy is. He’s talking about the dangers of totalitarianism here: “Try and understand this about Americans like myself and others who can look such horrors in the eye: We are not going out like that. Get it? We’ll put up with handgun murders if we have to, but we are not going down that road.”

That’s a reasonable statement. Yes, handgun ownership may result in deaths. He’s thought about that and he thinks it’s worth the price. Freedom is worth some sacrifice.

Now think about that in relation to torture. Is it worth giving up our ideals in order to keep ourselves a little safer? Is safety more important than knowing that we are not the kind of country who tortures other human beings?

You can have a pretty serious argument about that. I know what my answer is. Yours may be different, and I don’t think that disagreement here is insane or unwise. It’s just different priorities. The important thing is not to pretend that there’s no possible debate, and that the tradeoff is inevitable. This is not a question to be handwaved.

Phatic extropians

Charlie Stross and Cory Doctorow collaborated on a short story entitled “Jury Service,” which has been serialized on The whole story is up now. Fun reading for geeks. Not entirely deep, though; I’d kind of have to classify it as what eluki bes shahar calls phatic text.

I.e., it’s very comforting fiction. To a certain class of extropian geek, reading this is like drinking a glass of warm milk. The story is in service of the extrapolation: Huw is secondary to the cool transhuman technology. I am, alas, not compelled by Huw — I’m compelled by what happened to him.

This is not a bad thing per se. Science fiction (as does most genre literature) has always had an element of the phatic to it; it’s part of the outsider culture that revels in the knowledge of difference. There’s a body of knowledge to science fiction reading, in that fans can be expected to know what a hyperdrive does (or what cyberspace is) without a lot of explanation. Elements of that shared body of knowledge serve as phatic signifiers, letting the reader know that he or she is in a familiar place.

Some books also progress beyond that, adding new elements to the vocabulary. Larry Niven invented the flash crowd. Daniel Keyes gave us the concept of enhanced intelligence. H. G. Wells gave us the Moon. There’s an importance balance; the comfort of existing elements provides a base on which to build the new. Phatic text is a necessity, in fact.

The interesting thing about “Jury Service” is that it’s extropian phatic text. It’s not at all clear to me that the extropian concepts inherent in the story are really part of the common memes of science fiction just yet; I think Doctorow and Stross are changing that with this and other similar stories. See also, of course, the father of extropian SF Neal Stephenson. I suppose, come to think of it, that Vernor Vinge is the grandfather. Bruce Sterling is the dirty old uncle, and any metaphor which resorts to a dirty old uncle should probably be put out of its misery around now.

Is this just cyberpunk? No. It differs from cyberpunk in that cyberpunk was not a product of technologically savvy authors. The stuff I’m talking about is informed by the cyber, and has not a whole lot of punk in it. The story of how Gibson wrote Neuromancer on a manual typewriter is legend, and it says a lot about the differences between the cyberpunk ethos and the extropian ethos.

Sterling reinvented himself as a tech-savvy writer pretty early on, mind you, but I’d argue that this really was a reinvention. Note that the top ten nonfiction book list in Cheap Truth #4 is more interested in social sciences than in geek cred.

So, yeah; phatic text, but perhaps not phatic in the usual ways. I’ll have to think more on this.

Edit: Cheap Truth,. not Cheap Trick.

Have yourself a merry

I am enjoying a little post-festivity relaxation; of late, I’ve desired more alone time, so this is working out very well. Mom’s headed back home to beat the storm, and my brother and his wife are relaxing at their place, two doors down from me. Whoops, he’s come up to borrow DVDs and play some Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. Sadly, the game does not provide Christmas music; I was hoping, but then again, it’s not as if I ever told my Playstation what the date is.

I am deeply pleased with my gifts this year. My brother got me this coffee table (or at least, that’s what I’m going to use it for); also, a tremendously cool calendar. Be sure to look at the detail shots, and note that it has birthdays for all the major figures in the field.

I think today of all days, Population: One gets pictures. Follow the link to find my brother and his wife (all together: “Awwwww.”); the Christmas tree; and my mother’s clever Lincoln Log set that comes in a ballpoint pen (my gift, and I am smug). They are clickable, if you want the full monty.

Happy holidays.

Signifying nothing

I’m a geek. I’ve finally given into the desire to make Population: One even more full of cute little Web gimmicks; namely, we’re PHP-based now. If this means nothing to you, you ought to ignore it, which is generally good advice around here. Unless I’m talking about politics; all that stuff is Holy Writ.

Anyhow, I abashedly admit that I made the change simply so that I could implement the random quote you’ll see over there on the right of the page under the Search box. There. See it? Yeah. It’s random.

On the bright side, I can now make the blogrolls PHP-based as well, which means they won’t be dependent on the whims of your browser’s JavaScript implementation. Not that anybody’s complained but I’ve always felt a little shady about that.

Time to ring some changes

Funniest damn thing I’ve read in a while. Excerpt:

Madame Galadriel, famous Elf Queen,
Had a forbidding realm, nevertheless
Is known to be the wisest woman in Middle-Earth,
With a wicked pack of cards. Here, said she,
Is your card, the drowned Wizard,
(Those are the grey robes that were his garb. Look!)
Here is Eowyn, the Lady of the Horses,
The lady of battle.
Here is the man with many colors, and here the Staff,
And here is the one-eyed Sauron, and this card,
Which is blank, is something he searches for in your pack,
Which I am forbidden to see. I do not find
The Uruk-Hai. Fear death by Nazgul.
I see crowds of people, talking about a Ring.
Thank you. If you see dear Master Gamgee,
Tell him I bring the mallorn myself:
One must be so careful these days.

Oh, oh, the original thread has even more brilliance.

Engel Engel burning bright

I picked up Engel, the new D20 game from White Wolf, over the weekend. Wait, that’s not true. It’s actually from Feder und Schwert, a German gaming company, and White Wolf’s Sword and Sorcery Studios is publishing it over here. Also, it’s not a D20 game per se: it doesn’t have the D20 logo, so strictly speaking it’s just an OGL game that happens to use the D20 mechanics. But they’re not allowed to say so. In Germany, it was apparently published with the D20 logo and also had a set of Tarot-based mechanics, which we don’t get here. Have I mentioned lately that WotC’s licensing scheme is somewhat complex?

Anyhow, it’s a pretty cool setting. It’s 2654, plagues and disasters have traumatized the Earth’s biosphere, and the Lord of the Flies dreams horrible insects into life. Only the Angelic Church — led by an undying Pope — stands between the wreckage of Europe and the demonic hordes. But five orders of angels have been sent to assist humanity in this hour of need.

Technology is outlawed, but still pursued by the secular leaders of Europe. Feudalism has returned. The Church is the most powerful institution in Europe, but by no means the only center of power. Feder und Schwert have avoided the trap of one-dimensional settings; it’s not just the Church against the baddies, and there are those who are not aligned with the Church but are also not evil.

I like the images of a drowned world in a dying age. In some ways, it’s very Dying Earth. The world is clearly near an end, battered and bruised by centuries of pain, and everyone finds their own way to avoid thinking about it. Some resort to decadence, some resort to the Church, and some find peace in surrender.

The translation is top notch; some Euro game translations (Agone comes to mind) have great ideas weighed down by turgid English, but Engel flows very well. The prose strongly conveys the feeling of the world. The excellent maps probably helped a lot there; the endpapers are a map of flooded Europe, and they really drive home the sense of a world less than once it was.

There is a strong metaplot, some of which is not revealed in the main book. I think it would be pretty easy to ignore it completely, though, so I didn’t find it objectionable. Feder und Schwert is one of those companies that wants to tell a story with their RPGs, though: they’ve published Engel graphic novels and CDs. It might well get in the way of the game at a later date; be warned.

I think using the D20 mechanics was a good choice. Most of the book is background, which doesn’t hurt because the D20 rules are simple to explain and mechanically solid. I would have liked to have seen the Tarot-based system, but I’m sure I’ll find a recap of ‘em on the Web eventually. There’s very little divergence from the basic D20 model here. Engel uses the same classes as does D&D, plus five more classes for the angels themselves. Angelic powers are treated as skills (a really nice touch), but you fuel them with your own hit points (another nice touch which makes good sense in the setting).

On the down side, there are very few sample monsters. This is a pretty serious lack; sure, you could adapt any D&D monster pretty easily, but I kind of want a good set of adversaries in a stand alone game. Since campaigns will likely center around angels, we need to know what they’re combatting. In general, in fact, there’s a lack of information about the Lord of the Flies. He’s around, he’s doing bad things, but what exactly? Well, that’s murky.

There is, by the by, a big secret at the heart of the setting. I’m going to cut that off into the extended entry, for the sake of anyone who might want to play the game. I do think that if you’re intending to be a player (rather than a GM), you don’t want to know this, and I am generally pretty casual about such things.

Overall, it’s a buy with the caveat that the backstory of the world is not complete. I think the promised book on the Lord of the Flies will complete the backstory sufficiently, and I’m willing to wait for it on that basis, but I could be wrong.