Log in

end of an era

Today I went to Comic-Con International (known to most people other than those who put it on as the San Diego Comic-Con). I walked around the dealers' room, bought a couple of things, said hello to a couple of friends, and returned home. I probably won't go back this year.

And I probably won't go back in any future year. Traveling from Riverside is a bit inconvenient, and would require things like cat-sitting arrangements; and hotel rooms are expensive and hard to come by in con week. There's a good chance this is the end of my relationship with this particular con.

On one hand, I don't entirely regret it. There's a reason I'm only going to be there one day. I don't go to panels or events any more; the convention has shifted to mostly running events set up by publishers, filmmakers, and the like, which mostly don't interest me, and I'm told that seeing many of them requires getting into line a couple of hours ahead and waiting, which really doesn't interest me. There are booths I look in on in the dealers' room, but the crowds are so intense that just walked from end to end is painful. The most fun thing about conventions for me is being on panels, but Comic-Con's programming staff no longer puts together panels; they just schedule things that other people have put together for them—and I don't have connections with people they would want to schedule. For myself, I can do everything I want to do at con in an afternoon.

But on the other hand, I do regret it, in a deeply nostalgic sense: It was at Comic-Con, in 1984, that C and I first spoke with each other at any length. We might not be together now had I not run into her in the lobby of the old convention center. I suppose we have a truly fannish relationship . . . and my life would have been immeasurably poorer without it. So thank you, Comic-Con, and best wishes.


Two days ago I made my second trip to Riverside to look for apartments. C's sister-in-law's mother kindly spent the afternoon driving me around, and we looked at around a dozen places, at most of which I talked at least briefly with the rental office. This was a lot more productive than my first visit, where I only managed to see five places in roughly the same time, relying on walking and buses.

Finding a suitable place has been a challenge! I selected places to visit by finding them listed online on any of half a dozen rental listing sites; but some of the places I visited had no actual openings, or nothing available until much later in the year. There were also several complexes in an area that C's sister-in-law recommeded to us, but that's 45 minutes from UC Riverside by bus, which C says is too stressful to deal with. And those areas also are more spread out, in a way that assumes you drive everywhere.

However, I just spoke with a manager at the place we liked best on the first visit, and she thinks they're going to have an opening shortly, and have several more coming up. This place, and the best of the places I visited this week, both are willing to do credit checks at no charge, and then accept applications (with fees, of course) if we pass. So we've completed the forms, assembled the many pieces of paper, and I hope to send this all in within the next hour, after some scanning.

The ideal date for us to move in would be 25 August; that would let us do the initial settling in before the first thing C has to do at UC Riverside as an incoming student, and it would give us a month to get organized before actual classes start.

Wish us luck!


A few days ago I had a dream in which I was picking a name for a location in a roleplaying game, and I decided to call it "Sadler Wells." Then I woke up and it occurred to me that "Sadler" was the surname of Sarah Manning's foster mother on Orphan Black. . . .

cast of characters

When I was writing GURPS Social Engineering: Back to School, I learned about St. Trinian's. This started out as a series of cartoons that inverted the moral tropes of British boarding school fiction, portraying a school where all the girls were bad, and indeed openly bad. Shortly after the cartoons stopped appearing, the first of a series of films appeared: The Belles of St. Trinian's. Among other things, it established the trope that the headmistress and her brother were both played by the same actor. Much more recently, a roleplaying game based on it came out: Hellcats and Hockeysticks, set at "St. Erisian's."

This sounded like fun to me, so I invited several of the women in my gaming circle to play wicked schoolgirls. I gave them their choice from a set of largely pregenerated characters, for which they got to assign the last two of twenty skill points and choose names. And here's what I got:

Samantha Derbyshire ("Sam"): An American exchange student sent over to learn proper British horsemanship. Cheerful, friendly to almost everyone, a bit too touchy-feely for British reserve. Character class: Horsey Girl. Best skill: Veterinary 3.

Sabina Ivanova: A Russian exchange student from a crime family, with a strong sense of payback and a habit of alluding cryptically to her grandfather. Character class: Mafiyya.

Tanqueray McCleary ("Tank"): A chav from the North. Her mother wasn't sure who her father was but remembered what she was drunk on during Tank's conception. Extremely dangerous in a fight. Recruited for her abilities on the hockey field. Character class: Hockey Girl. Best skill: Games (Team Sports) 5.

Tora Takahashi: A Japanese exchange student from an old aristocratic family, now fallen on hard times for reasons she was unable to discuss. Educated in traditional arts. Character class: Samurai. Best skills: Art 3, Games (Team Sports) 3.

Pansy Winterrun: Comes from an upper middle class English family; gives hints about her uncle's role in intelligence. Speaks in a "girly" voice and appears naïve. Character class: Sweetheart. Best skills: Drama 3, Social Studies 3.

(Skill values range from 1, Beginner, to 5, Master. I haven't bothered to list top skills lower than 3, Professional. Skills tend to be broadly defined: Veterinary includes riding and training horses, Games (Team Sports) covers hand to hand combat, and Social Studies includes seduction and reading people.)

We had a lot of really lively roleplaying and some vivid demonstrations of just how much outlawry St. Erisian's girls are capable of. It was a great game and all the players would like to have another someday.

Courtship Rite

Donald M. Kingsbury's Courtship Rite has just been announced as this year's winner of the Libertarian Futurist Society's Hall of Fame award. Courtship Rite is one of my favorite science fiction novels and in fact one of my favorite books, so I'm delighted to see it getting this long delayed recognition. At the same time, I anticipate online comments wondering why it got the award, or suggesting that if it can win then any science fiction novel could win.

I don't think that Courtship Rite is libertarian in the ideological sense, or that Kingsbury identifies himself as a libertarian. But Prometheus Awards haven't been based on that in a very long time, if ever. What's important, rather, is that their themes should be relevant to libertarian ideas, and in some measure congruent with them.

So what in Courtship Rite is relevant to libertarianism?

I don't think of its imagined society, that of the planet Geta, as libertarian. In fact, one of its crucial institutions, the custom of calling in people of low standing to commit suicide and be butchered and eaten during times of famine, could plausibly be described as a form of welfare state: It's a form of insurance against disaster, and participation in it seems to be compulsory. It's a really interesting and different society, with its own internal logic, but it's not a utopia in any sense—nor, for that matter, a dystopia: It could be called a xenotopia, a place where things are strange and different.

What is the interal logic? Kingsbury is a mathematician, and Geta is based on a mathematical concept: optimization. It operates in several different domains. Getans seek optimization biologically, through marrying people with high kalothi (which I take to be an altered pronunciation of "quality," meaning something like "inclusive fitness") and through the ritual suicide of people with low kalothi. They seek it culturally, through values and customs that enable biological optimization. The sympathetic culture within the novel, the Kaiel, seek it organizationally, through voting rules that favor those who best serve the welfare of other people—an analog of a market economy as described by the First Welfare Theorem—in contrast to their rivals, the Mnankrei, who seek a position of monopoly through deceptive and injurious methods. Finally, they seek it ethically, through standards of good conduct that allow individual kalothi to reveal itself.

Kingsbury envisions all these optimizations as taking place in a decentralized, emergent way, through the operation of rules and customs at a low level that enable his society to arrive at good solutions, rather than as being imposed from the top down by philosopher kings, central planners, or bureaucrats. And that model is very definitely libertarian in spirit.

At another level, Kingsbury's Getans have a profound sense of independence, which lies at the basis of their personal ethics. They respect people who are resistant to coercion and compulsion. For example, no Getan is considered fully adult whose body is not entirely covered with scars, burns, and tattoos, requiring the cultivation of tolerance for pain and stress. But this doesn't make them "rugged individualists": Their culture teaches that the person best able to survive is the one best able to form bonds with others. And this is dramatized in one of the novel's major plots, the one that gives it its title: The quest of the maran-Kaiel, a family within the Kaiel clan, for a third wife, and its surprising outcome. (In fact, going by the traditional humorous definition—a tragedy ends when all the characters are dead, a comedy when all of them are married—Courtship Rite is a true comedy.) To me this conveys a genuinely libertarian spirit: One that values relationships with other people, so far as they emerge from mutual consent and work to mutual benefit.

I'd also note the novel's other plot, a political one. This is in two parts: First, the external struggle of the Kaiel against the Mnankrei; but second, the question of policy for the Kaiel after the external struggle ends, and the struggle for power that surrounds it. In effect, the Kaiel's technological and organizational advances—including the rayvoice, their name for radio, and the skrei-wheel, which seems to be a version of the bicycle—have opened the door to world domination; the question for them is whether to go through it. Kingsbury's concern with that question, and his sense that power is a dangerous temptation, are congruent with libertarian at the deepest level of anything in Courtship Rite.

I'd add that there are many things to value in this book beyond its relevance to libertarianism. I've said that it's a xenotopia, a story set in a strange society; I think Kingsbury does a brilliant job of getting the reader into the mentality of that society, in a way that's not merely interesting but moving. The scene where Oelita the Heretic, the woman the maran-Kaiel have been assigned to court, accepts the god she has spent her life rejecting is one of the most compelling I've read, in a way that makes sense only because Kingsbury did so well at getting me to grasp how Getans think and feel. I don't think of the Hall of Fame Award solely as recognition of a libertarian work, but also as recognition of a brilliant literary work that deserves to be better known.


I discovered Atomic Robo a year or two ago, and quite liked its combination of pulp tropes with quirky humor and historical references. More recently I learned that it was available online, and I've been following it there.

In the current issue, the second of "The Temple of Od," Robo complains, "This is why I hate sci-fi wizards."

The story is set in 1938. High fidelity sound systems first came onto the market ca. 1948; the shorter expression "hi-fi" dates to 1950, and Forrest J. Ackerman coined the expression "sci-fi" in 1954. Atomic Robo could not actually had said that.

This is the sort of small historical error that persistently bothers me; it's like the scene in John Birmingham's first novel where a navy officer in World War II sees energy weapons in use and describes them as "lasers," a word that was coined in 1960. It seems to be slightly more distracting when, as in these two cases, it reflects ignorance of the history of technology. . . .


I received some iTunes credit as a Christmas gift, and I've been using it slowly. But it occurred to me today that I hadn't listened in many years to the film soundtrack of my very favorite musical, Cabaret. And there it was, available for download. So now I have it and I've listened to it twice, and I find it's still my favorite musical.

At a very basic level, I like the "cabaret" aspect: the catchiness of the songs and their strength as vehicles for performance. The harmonies and rhythms are well set up to capture the listener's attention, or at least mine.

I like the element of political and moral satire. In particular, I like the bit of political commentary disguised as bawdy humor in "Two Ladies," a song about polyamory:

"I sleep in the middle—"
"I'm left—" "and I'm right."
[all] "But there's room on the bottom if you drop in some night."

At a deeper level, I like the film's basic irony: The many scenes of decadent cabaret patrons living for sex, drugs, and drink, and harming only themselves, and then the pure voices of clean-faced young people singing "Tomorrow Belongs to Me"—and the camera pulling back to show the Nazi armbands.

And I love Sally Bowles final performance on the title song, with its summing up, "Start by admitting from cradle to tomb/It isn't that long a stay."

It seems to me that all of these fit together, but I can't describe how this works analytically, or not yet; maybe it will come together after I've thought about it more. But I'm happy to have it again.

A word from Brecht

This is one of Bertholt Brecht's most famous poems, "Die Lösung" ["The Solution"]. It seems apropos:

After the uprising of the 17th of June
The Secretary of the Writers' Union
Had leaflets distributed in the Stalinallee
Stating that the people
Had forfeited the confidence of the government
And could win it back only
By redoubled efforts. Would it not be easier
In that case for the government
To dissolve the people
And elect another?

more GURPS writing

I've heard that my next GURPS book, an unusually long one, is ready for final review. I've proofread a copy with the art and pullquotes in place and the index completed. I have one or two minor changes to e-mail in by Monday morning, but basically it looks good. As always, the SJ Games production staff have been very supportive.

This isn't primarily a rules-driven book, but I did a little research for it.

Brexit! Brexit! yay!

For the most part, my feeling about politics is summed up by Tom Paxton's line "The news is all bad, but it's good for a laugh" (from "Get Up, Jimmy Newman"). For example, I've watched with equal dismay the slow advance of Clinton to the Democratic nomination, like a pursuing monster in a classic horror film, and the eruption of Trump like a radioactive kaiju from the ocean depths to seize the Republican administration from a field of less bad candidates. So I've watched the UK's advance toward the Brexit referendum without much hope. The polls showed opinion swaying back and forth, but hovering around 50% for both sides, which made it seem likely that Remain would pull ahead. And then there was the shooting last week of Jo Cox, a Labour MP who was opposed to Brexit, followed almost immediately by various people saying that Brexit supporters were racist, fascist, and/or violent. (Nothing like condemning an entire group for one person's actions.) The situation didn't seem very hopeful.

And then last night the counts started coming in, and they showed Brexit definitely in the lead, well beyond any possibility of statistical error. The final count ended up at 51.9% Leave and 48.1% Remain, a margin of 3.8%, or over a million voters. That was a big surprise, and for once a favorable surprise.

My political sympathies have long been and still are internationalist; I'm in favor of the free movement of goods, people, capital, and ideas. The original project of taking down European trade barriers struck me as admirable. But I was in favor of that because it enables free competition and economic freedom in general. What Europe has now is a massive regulatory bureaucracy that's actively opposed to economic freedom. It's kind of like the difference between the original constitutional guarantee of free interstate commerce, and the use of the Interstate Commerce Clause to license federal regulatory agencies. It rather seems to me that the European Union has learned entirely the wrong lessons from the United States.

And the whole enterprise has been attended with a sense of inevitability: Yes, this is the wave of the future, and nothing you can do can stop it. Well, maybe that's so. But I'm glad to see a lot of people saying No to the inevitable.