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The end of American Exceptionalism

November 9, 2016 Comments off

For years we non-Americans have tried to tell Americans that, no, the USA is not special; what goes wrong elsewhere in the world goes wrong in the USA too. All sorts of bigotry has always been part of US society, especially pervasive sexism and racism.

Dr. King tried to tell the USA about the check of the 13th Amendment that bounced. He got told not to rock the boat by white moderates (“Letter from a Birmingham jail”), and assassinated.

Black Lives Matter tried to point out the pervasive police violence based on colour. White moderates whined about protests being too confrontational, telling a black athlete that taking a knee during the playing of the National Anthem before a game was ‘politicising sports’.

Women who tried to talk about the pervasive sexism in popular culture got death threats.

And when pointed this out, the white moderates either poo-pooed it, or said that despite all that, they still believed that ‘this great Country’ could be made to work. It was the very theme of the Democratic Convention.

That is, if they did not silence us by pointing out we did not live in the USA.

And then white USA went and elected Donald Trump.

Have you now finally woken up, my white US progressive compatriots? You’re not better; you’re not a Shining City on the Hill. By pretending, instead of fighting, you have thrown your black, female, non-straight and non-cis comrades under the bus, and now your chickens have come home to roost.

Your racist, misogynist, homo- and transphobe fellow citizens have done the closest thing to electing Hitler since 1933. The time to stop splitting hairs is past, the time has come to SHUT THE FUCK UP, listen to your threatened fellow citizens and RESIST.

Today, november 9th 2016, American Exceptionalism died, and any pretense at white moral superiority was buried. That at least, is a positive from Trump’s victory.

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Categories: English, Politics

If you can think of it…

August 1, 2011 Comments off

…Someone has made porn of it.

This is known as  Rule 34.

Charles Stross, being the net-savvy author that he is, was of course sure to use this someday. And so he returns to the ‘twenty minutes into the future’ setting of his earlier novel ‘Halting State’.

The last time we met Liz Kavanaugh of the Edinburgh police force, she was working a case involving missing persons and high finance surrounding an online gaming company. Today, she has been passed over for promotion and moved sideways in the organisation, and she is now in charge of the department monitoring the seamier side of the Internet and investigating crimes that have a connection with it.,

The other characters we meet are Anwar Hussein, a small-time criminal trying hard to stay on the straight and narrow for the sake of his children, who gets a job offer that is entirely above board, and yet still too good to be true.

And we have the mysterious representative of ‘The Organization’, who is tasked with setting up a sales and distribution network for counterfeit goods produced in back yard synthetics fabrication units.

A good techno-thriller starts with a plot. Charlie knows how to do this, and from the moment a colleague calls in Liz for a scene that looks like an accident in auto-eroticism, Charlie works his way through a well-constructed plot that ends with a high “Holy Shit!” quotient.

But plot is not enough. Charlie gives us interesting characters as well; people we care about. Liz’s character traits may make her look like a role-model for a PC protagonist, and yet she jumps the bounds of the archetype, coming alive for the reader. Anwar is touching in his dedication to his children and in his bewilderment at his predicament, and the operative is a chilling psychopath.

We get a kinky, and sometimes squicky look at the seamy side of the Internet tomorrow, and an interesting speculation how spam, fraud and countermeasures might evolve. We get it in Charlie’s inimitable clear, lightly sardonic style. And as a bonus character we get Charlie’s hometown of Edinburgh, described so lovingly that we can almost hear the murmur of the hurrying masses in its streets.

‘Rule 34’ is almost without weak spots. About the only thing really springing to mind is the persistent use of the second person singular as authorial voice, which may put off some. If you managed to get over it to enjoy ‘Halting State’, it will be no problem here either. Of course it is not High Literature, but then again, neither does Charlie pretend it is.

If you like a good thriller, this is a definite must-read.

Categories: Books, English, Science Fiction

Math for fun.

July 7, 2011 2 comments

(2011-07-10: Fixed a few spelling errors and a maths error: of course the short edge is half the hypotenuse, not half the long edge)

Given that the subjects of this post are usually in English, it is time again for an English blog post. This time it’s about math and Role-Playing Games.

I recently acquired the Core Rulebook of Traveller, specifically the new Mongoose edition, because I am still looking for an entertaining SF system. Traveller looks like it might fit the bill, so I’m familiarising myself with the rules and starting to do some design work for a one-shot adventure to run, to see if it works out OK in actual play.

The nice thing about Traveller is that it gives you a lot of tools to create your own setting. The starting point is the sub-sector map, where you draw out your worlds and their features and relations.

Now, this is a hex map, and I had been looking for some time for Linux tools to create hex maps. Unfortunately, they are rather thin on the ground. So why not do it myself? Using the Traveller rules, I could create a sub-sector with worlds, bases, starports and trade routes fully automatically, and with a bit more effort I could even draw up the map automatically, since the Traveller map symbols are standardised.

So here’s the first snag: I haven’t done any trigonometry since my school days, which is a long way in the past, and I wasn’t good in the subject to begin with. So, the first step is to find out how to calculate the size and position of a regular hexagon in a Cartesian space.

Turns out this is rather simple. See the diagram for illustrations: for a hexagon with edges of length a, the distance from the origin (the centre of the hexagon) to a vertex is a. The distance from the intersection with the edge and the nearest vertex is, of course, b=a/2 (the segments to the vertex and to the edge form a right triangle with angle 60∘, therefore the short edge is 1/2 the hypotenuse), and the distance from the origin to the centre of an edge is c=a*sin(60∘). Knowing that, we can calculate the x/y coordinates of every vertex (code example).

After that, the Cairo toolkit gives us the tools to draw a hexagon. First we use the move_to method to move to the first vertex, and then we just iterate over the list of vertices and do a line-to to the next vertex, ending with a close-path call to draw the line from the last vertex back to the first one. Of course, we have to do a bit of translation to transform the normal Cartesian coordinates into a page-oriented axis system with the origin at the top left and the positive direction of the y-axis downwards.

All that remains is to calculate how big the hexes are going to be on the page. Since the odd hex-columns are 2a wide and the even columns are offset and only 1a wide, the total width will be (1.5*(number of columns)+1)*a, and the total height will be (2*(number of rows)+1)*c. If we don’t mind the last column to be cut into half-hexes, we can drop the +1. Solve for a, and you have the optimum edge length.

Now it’s only a matter of iterating over the row and column numbers, calculating the origin for every hex based on the row/column coordinate, calculating the vertices as above, and then drawing the hexagon. Voila: 1 empty map to go.

I hope this was clear.

Categories: English, Games, Role Playing

The Most Dangerous Enemy 11: The Enemy at the Gate

May 10, 2011 Comments off

This is a neat little interlude chapter, wherein Bungay quotes a reporter giving an eyewitness account of a dogfight and the subsequent reactions from the public.

It works to give us a whiff of period atmosphere, but that’s all it does.

Neat, but could have been cut with no loss at all.

The Most Dangerous Enemy 10: The Defenders

April 13, 2011 Comments off

Faster than a speeding bullet! Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound! Is it a bird? Is it an aeroplane? NO! It’s Keith Park!

‘The Defenders’ is dedicated to the major personnel fighting the battle on the British end: Hugh Dowding and his immediate subordinates Keith Park, Trafford Leigh-Mallory, Richard Saul and Quintin Brand.

Air Marshall Hugh Dowding

Dowding gets comparatively little attention. Bungay does dwell on the shabby treatment he received, especially regarding the constantly moving date of his retirement. The manner of his actual retirement is treated without the usual drama other writers engage in, that of calling it a palace coup by Air Vice Marshal Sholto Douglas in concert with Leigh-Mallory. This, as we shall see, is merely a minor sop to the opposition.

Air Vice-Marshall Keith Park

Park gets built up to almost saint-like proportions as the ideal leader, beloved by his men, a visionary who understood what Dowding wanted and executed it almost perfectly. This is outright hagiography; reinforced by a completely unneccesary emphasis on Park’s Christian faith.

Air Vice-Marshall Trafford Leigh Mallory

The words used for Leigh-Mallory’s description are of a different class altogether. ‘Character assassination’ comes to mind. Unfortunately, instead of dwelling on the actual facts in the ‘big wing’ dispute and Dowding’s eventual retirement, Bungay engages in an ad hominem attack, calling Leigh-Mallory’s fitness for commanding a Fighter Command Group into question because he never flew fighters himself (unlike of course Keith Park, who was simply a dashing fighter pilot, darling), and using hearsay evidence furnished by none other than Keith Park as to Leigh-Mallory’s intentions of getting Dowding sacked. Yes, a real trustworthy source there.

Air Vice-Marshall Richard Saul

Never mind that as someone who flew a BE.2 in the run-up to Bloody April 1917 might have a very good idea of what attrition would mean in an air battle. No, Leigh-Mallory was definitely less capable a commander because of that, unlike Richard Saul of 13 Group who flew…wait, Richard Saul also flew observation missions in that selfsame BE.2, and also never commanded a fighter squadron. And yet this does not stop Bungay to praise him as a capable commander. This is, to say the least, illogical.

 

This chapter is one of the most infuriating pieces of crap writing I have ever had the displeasure to read.

The Most Dangerous Enemy 9: Eagle

April 11, 2011 Comments off

This chapter opens with a rumination on the complexities of planning a battle, and launches the ‘cock-up’ theory.

In short: battle plans fail because somewhere down the line a cock-up is made. Those whose plans prevent the most cock-ups win. Cock-ups may happen due to 5 identified (by Bungay) factors:

  1. Ignorance. Missing knowledge about the enemy, his dispositions, or the battlefield.
  2. Uncertainty. Factors beyond control, such as weather.
  3. Complexity. The more complex a plan is, the more scope for cock-ups.
  4. Equipment. The wrong equipment at the right place and time, or the right equipment at the wrong place and time.
  5. The opposition. Too many battle plans do not figure in the reaction of the enemy, or depend on certain reactions only.

I have a major problem with this theory. As Bungay himself admits, no cock-ups at all cannot be prevented. Yet his whole theory depends on battle plans foreseeing every eventuality and planning for it. History, however, shows that great generals do not try to plan for every contingency, but make their plans flexible enough to change them at a moment’s notice once a cock-up happens. ‘No battle plan survives contact with the enemy’ after all.

Witness for example Montgomery’s plan to take Caen and the surrounding airfields: when early in the invasion this failed, he switched to a strategy of continuous offensives to contain the Germans on his front, keeping their Panzer divisions mostly away from the American part of the front. Monty may insist that this was his plan all along, which makes him a vain and arrogant twit, but a close look at what actually happened shows that in actual execution he was able to be flexible and adjust his battle plans on the fly to overcome the inevitable cock-ups.

What’s worse is that Bungay admits that this sort of flexibility is important at the onset of his chapter, and then starts expounding on the philosophy of complete prevention. This is sloppy thinking, to put it mildly.

That aside, Bungay’s analysis of the weakness of the plans for Adlertag, the opening offensive in the Battle of Britain, is another well-written piece showing just how confused the Luftwaffe planning was. After reading about the various plans made up at all levels, and the complete inability of the high command to turn out a cohesive battle plan, it leaves one to wonder how the Eagle offensive even got off to a start in the first place.

The Most Dangerous Enemy 8: Sealion

April 10, 2011 Comments off

Much has been written on the viability of Operation Sealion.

Bungay does not much more than summarise the history of the plan as it made its way through the various German organisations. This includes the pessimism and general obstruction of the Kriegsmarine, and the almost foolhardy optimism of the Luftwaffe.

It also dwells a bit on the rather half-hearted planning efforts at the highest level (OKW) and ends with the fairly well-spread assertion that Sealion, if it had been attempted, would have amounted to little more than an enormous gamble that might have paid off.