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the math

A meme that seemingly has been going around in the past few days is to object to the Senate election outcomes as "undemocratic" because they don't reflect the "popular vote." There are things to be said about this in terms of Constitutional law and political philosophy, but I won't discuss that here. I just want to look at the arithmetic.

The figure I've seen cited is that 55% of the "popular vote" went to Democrats. There were 35 Senate seats in play. Now, 35 x 55% = 19.25, which rounds to 19. As of when I write this, Democrats have taken 23 seats, and two remain undecided. So in terms of the "popular vote," Democrats have about four more seats than they're entitled to. I would be interested to see which Democrats are prepared to cede the two undetermined races to the Republicans, and which four of the Senate seats they won they're prepared to surrender, for the sake of democracy. Clearly the Republicans are underrepresented in proportion to the "popular vote"; they got only 10-12 seats, which is a lot less than 45%.

that familiar feeling

In this weekend's session of my Mage: The Ascension campaign, one of the players came up with the idea of discrediting an adversarial character by creating faked evidence that he had sexual relations with dead bodies. This led to roughly half an hour's discussion of necrophilia and other deviant practices and of ancient Greek cultural history (there are legends of Achilles raping a dead Amazon), along with puns on "necromancer." It was like being back in San Diego with some of the ruder players in my circle there—not something I had expected to see up here, with a new group recruited from available players. Apparently they thought it was unusual, too; seemingly even the previous session, which involved a player character seducing an older woman from the Technocracy, was not the usual thing. But I don't think I did anything major to bring it about, other than allowing the players to roll for such ventures when they suggested them; I thought I had entirely accepted the idea of running a campaign without "adult" themes.


In tomorrow's election, our Congressional district is in the still somewhat unusual position of having two minority candidates: Mark Takano, the Democratic incumbent, looks to be Japanese and middle-aged, and Aja Smith, the Republican, is young and black. Smith's Web site also makes a point of her being a military veteran. Takano is predicted to have a substantial lead. But over this weekend, the mail brought two different pro-Takano advertisements, both emphasizing how much Takano had done for veterans during his Congressional career—which looks like an attempt to undercut one of Smith's selling points, especially since I don't recall seeing it mentioned earlier in the campaign season. I wonder if Takano is less certain than the polls suggest he ought to be?

it is accomplished

Today the statement for one of my credit cards arrived. It showed $0.00 balance and $0.00 payment due. That gives me a sense of accomplishment! Now I can focus more fully on paying down the other one.

in which I have an adventure

C and I decided to go down to San Diego this week, originally for her father's birthday (he's in his nineties). This changed when he decided that he was ready to have the memorial for his wife, who died in mid-2016. C and her two siblings decided that it would be better to have it sometime close to his birthday, to minimize travel costs, and made the arrangements; C's part was finding a minister (through the hospice that cared for her mother) and writing a short biography. The military cemetery offered them a time on Friday; C's father's birthday is on Sunday, so they had a day in between for recovery.

But given cat sitting costs, I couldn't afford to stay down from Thursday afternoon till Monday afternoon, so I decided to attend the memorial and come back on Saturday (with C's agreement).

Normally I would have taken the Coaster to Oceanside and gotten onto the Metrolink line to Riverside. Inconveniently, Metrolink was doing track work, and the Oceanside track was closed! Some research showed that I could come back by Greyhound, starting in downtown San Diego and ending up in San Bernardino, where I could catch a local bus for Riverside. The Greyhound part of the trip lasted 4 hours and 45 minutes, which seemed a bit long, and cost $35, a bit pricy, but both were manageable.

I found out when I got the ticket that the reason for the length was that I had to get off in Santa Ana at 2, and then catch another bus at 3. The hour interval was actually a bit reassuring, especially when the bus on the first leg ran twenty minutes late; I sat down to wait the other 40 minutes. Then 3 o'clock came round, and no San Bernardino bus! So I went in and asked, and learned that the bus I was waiting for still hadn't left Los Angeles, and I had the prospect of arriving at least an hour late.

Inspiration struck: This was also a Metrolink station, and I was able to ascertain that a train for Riverside was scheduled to leave at 4 pm. I called the information number for Metrolink (following an Amtrak agent's helpful suggestion) and learned that the train was indeed running. Of course, it meant that I wouldn't be using the rest of my Greyhound ticket, but at that point it was a sunk cost; for spending a modest amount more (it turned out to be $5), I could get to Riverside not much later than I had expected to get to San Bernardino, and quite a bit earlier than I was actually likely to get there. So I ended up taking Metrolink, ending up nearer home, and having a more comfortable trip into the bargain.

But I must say I'm glad I learned the principle of ignoring sunk costs, so many years ago. That and having a cell phone let me do this with a calm mind, and perhaps do it at all.

filthy California

Starting in 2020, the California state government is imposing a limit of 55 gallons per person per day of water use on households. I've been looking for exact dates and for details on which areas it applies to; but for now, I'm assuming that it will apply here in Riverside on January 1, 2020.

How much of a restriction is that?

I measured our bathtub. If I fill it, it holds 50 gallons.

We have a low-flow shower; I found an estimate of 4 gallons/minute for such showers. So that's about a 14-minute shower.

If we both bathe/shower, we have no water left for washing dishes, or cooking, or even flushing the toilet. We have a low-flow toilet, which uses an estimated 1.6 gallons per flush, but of course low-flow toilets are susceptible to clogging, and it can take up to five flushes to clear ours out when it does.

I'm not sure if the state will be able to track our laundry use; we use a laundry room in our complex, rather than having out own machines. But apparently one load of laundry uses about 40 gallons. So on any day when we do laundry (apparently it's supposed to be one load at a time, which is really wasteful of time), if the limits are applied, one of us will have to go unbathed.

We drink bottled water, but there's shaving, brushing teeth, and so on. . . .

I have to say, California is going to be a really unpleasant place to live if these restrictions are applied. Not as bad, perhaps, as having homeless people shit in the streets of San Francisco, or outbreaks of hepatitis in San Diego and Los Angeles, but I think we're going to have Third World standards of cleanliness before too long.

you gotta love it

A couple of months ago, I visited the local Social Security office to apply to start receiving payments in December, when I turn 69. They said that it was too early for their system to process my application, and asked me to call in October and make an appointment. I called today, October 3, and found that they were already booked up until October 30. That's bureaucracy for you, I guess. . . .

looking at the ballot

My voter's guide for the upcoming election has come in the mail, and I'm going to comment on it with a screen for those who want to avoid politicsCollapse ).

game mechanics for hiring spies

One of the player characters in Tapestry, Kenbash Nergul, a ghoul woman, has decided to put part of the profits from the recently completed voyage into recruiting a group of spies. So I've started looking at how to represent this. GURPS has published rules for describing and setting up organizations (in GURPS Boardroom and Curia), but I think I'm not going to use them, both because they're optimized for creating big organizations, from a platoon or a high school up to a multinational corporation or a research institute, and because they treat the organization a bit impersonally: the founder owns the organization and the organization is the focus of the loyalty of its personnel. I think this may be more like Sherlock Holmes and the Baker Street Irregulars or Charles Xavier and the (original) X-men, which seems to call for a less arm's-length model.

So first off I'm going to want to look at how big an organization Nergul wants, and what rate of pay it's going to offer. If she hires nixies (much less conspicuous in a nixie city!), typical pay is $650/month for a professional, $325/month for a tradesman, $162.50/month for a laborer or a common servant, and down to $65/month for an irregular laborer or petty criminal (a true "Baker Street Irregular"). Ghouls will work for less—they're a race of scavengers who can eat food a prison kitchen would throw away, and enjoy it, and food is the biggest part of cost of living, about 75%, so ghouls can get by on half of normal pay—but they'd typically be better suited to a different mission profile, so that would have to be taken into account.

Finding suitable employees would call for a Search roll. In GURPS terms, this will be a Search for hirelings. The standard roll would be Nergul's IQ, +1 for city size, -2 if (as seems likely) this is a dangerous job. Nergul can substitute Leadership, Streetwise, or Savoir-Faire (High Society) for IQ. If she's using IQ or Leadership, there's an additional -5 penalty for looking for hirelings who need to keep their jobs and professions secret. She can't substitute Administration (there's no Thieves' or Assassins' Guild!), Current Affairs (anyone in those professions who gets into the news is automatically disqualified), or Propaganda (Nergul certainly doesn't want to advertise). She can get bonuses to the search for offering unusually high pay, but I'm going to ask the player to roll vs. Nergul's Miserliness if she wants to do that.

Another option would be for Nergul to find a go-between, and pay finders' fees, but that would cost money (Miserliness again) and also give away information Nergul may not want to reveal.

Presumably this is going to be a continuing relationship, which raises the question of loyalty. For an employer-employee relationship, this is determined by a reaction roll (three dice, with higher rolls being better). Nergul will get a modest bonus for Status, a modest penalty for Odious Personal Habit (she chronically smells bad, largely from her overt professional as a tanner and furrier), and possibly a large bonus for Social Regard (Feared) if she chooses to approach the relationship that way. She can get a bonus for paying more than the standard rate (again, see Miserliness!) and she can get +3 if she can make a Body Language roll to assess the attitudes of her prospective employees. A typical result would be Good loyalty. She can substitute an Influence roll based on Leadership, or possibly Savoir-Faire or Streetwise, with success meaning Good loyalty; this would indicate relying on management skill. She might want to cultivate a persona with a Quick Contest of Leadership+3 against the average IQ of her employees, to play a suitable role in front of them; that would give +1 to reaction or Influence rolls.

Addendum: A further option would be for her to make a "cultivating a persona" role to get into the mental space of being a spymaster, probably with a Quick Contest of Leadership+3 versus average IQ of her spies. If she wins, she gets +1 to the reaction roll, or to an Influence roll as long as it doesn't also use the Leadership skill (no double counting!).

In any case, her employees are going to function as a Contact Group, defined by the class of skills they provide. How good those skills are will reflect her pay scale; how trustworthy the employees are as a group will reflect the loyalty roll, from Bad (unreliable) to Good (completely reliable). If she hires them full time, they'll be available on a 12 or less; otherwise, on a 9 or less. At this point, Nergul will have to spend character points. Perhaps she can talk her associate Gansukh (a male ghoul with impressive stealth and survival skills, whose player left the campaign a year or so ago) into sharing the point cost with her. In any case, the Contact Group advantage gets us back to the heart of the organizational definition rules, so I can work out some suitable organizational statistics indirectly.

making sense

A week or so ago, I took a look at Charles Stross's blog, and found a guest post by Graydon Saunders that mentioned his new book, Under One Banner, the fourth volume of his Commonweal series. It took me a couple of days to track it down, but eventually I remembered that I bought the first three volumes through the Apple Store, and took a look—and there was volume four. Since then, I've been reading it, a chapter or two at a time, partly because of time pressure, and partly because I need time to think about what's happened in each chapter.

While this is classified as a fantasy series, it has one very science fictional feature, at least: The kind of indirect exposition that John W. Campbell pushed for in Astounding Science Fiction. The classic example of this is Robert Heinlein writing, "The door dilated," not given you a lecture on how his future society has irising doors, but just expected you to see it and envision what it implies. This has been a standard device for conveying setting for a long time, but it looks to me as if Saunders also uses it for the foreground story quite a lot; if what's happening doesn't spring right into your mind you will have to think about it for a while. I'm sure I didn't get everything on the first readings of these books.

In a different scheme of classification, the one proposed by Northrop Frye for prose narrative, what sort of "fiction" are these? I think I would say that while there is characterization and biography, the primary emphasis is on ideas and themes and intellectual problems (another way these books are science fictional), which in Frye's terms is characteristic of the anatomy and the confession, as opposed to the romance and the novel. And the ideas are projected out into the fictional world, more than inward into the characters, which I think makes this an anatomy, or Menippean satire (note that Frye's analysis of these categories isn't quite the same as mine). Theoretically this is the genre of Gulliver's Travels, Candide, and Alice in Wonderland, and of Stranger in a Strange Land, but none of these is that much like the Commonweal books, which makes me think that maybe "anatomy" isn't the right category after all.

As for Saunders's ideas, I'm pretty confident that he would not call himself a libertarian. However, I see several themes that are of interest to libertarians. First, he's portraying a society that is intensely concerned with consent and with preserving the possibility of consent, after emerging from a span far longer than human history in which the world was dominated by a succession of Saurons who did what they liked with the less powerful. Second, he establishes that this society's military policy is one of defense and excludes conquest as a goal, which is akin to the idea that "force may be used only in retaliation and only against those who have initiated its use"—even if the level of force is very high, close to the "nuke 'em from orbit" level. Third, this volume has one passage that very lucidly presents the Austrian economists' concept of "cost" as the most valuable thing you have to give up to get the thing you want, and that makes it clear that the characters are aware that everything has a cost. Finally, there's a running contrast between the industrial society (or aspect of society), which focuses on gaining wealth through producing it, and the military society (or aspect of society), which focuses on gaining wealth through fighting for it—an idea put forth by Herbert Spencer, one of the nineteenth century's main libertarian theorists—and the Commonweal clearly is an industrial society and regards force and battle as unproductive expenditures that need to be minimized, but can't be set to zero if the Commonweal is to survive. So these books have a lot of intellectual interest to me. (At a simpler level, they're in that comparatively rare category of fantasy with democracies, republics, or anarchies, rather than monarchies or aristocracies, and I find this interesting and would like to see more of it.)

These themes also resonate with an idea I've played with in past campaigns: The political implications of superbeings. One of my GURPS campaigns, Sovereignty, envisioned a world where the high-end supers, the analogs of Superman or Doctor Doom or the Hulk, were legally sovereign states, because they were powerful enough to fight with territorial sovereign states and win; so, for example, Superman might live in apartment that was legally the Kryptonian Embassy. Saunders's highest-level sorcerers, the twelve on the first page of the short list, might just as well be called superbeings; for one thing, they can only exist by transforming themselves from biological into metaphysical entities, which is a lot like a superheroic origin, though under more conscious control, and for another, they really are powerful enough so that only an army can meaningfully threaten them. Perhaps the most optimistic thing about the Commonweal is that it's a world where armies CAN threaten such being; the early days of the Commonweal involved its forces either killing the surrounding dark lords, or inducing them to make peace, becoming what are called Independents. A lot of the major characters are Independents, and their portrayal is interesting and complex.

I have less urge than I used to to read science fiction and fantasy. But the Commonweal books are doing interesting and different things, and I'm getting a lot out of them.