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a question of semantics

As I finalize GURPS High-Tech: Electricity and Electronics for publication, I'm looking at a puzzling minor nuance of the rules. Some books and years back, I provided a classification of Musical Instrument specializations based largely on the Sachs-Hornbostel system, so that players could choose the appropriate skill for their character's instrument and figure out what other instruments it could transfer to at a penalty. In this book I've been doing the same for, obviously, electronic instruments.

For some instruments, it's the same skill; you play an electric guitar similarly to an acoustic guitar, or an electronic organ like any other keyboard instrument. The differences can be covered by familiarity penalties, for which GURPS already has rules.

Where I needed new specializations was in instruments where the basic movements were entirely novel—for example, the theremin, which you play by waving your hands at two antennae. But it turned out there were several different control interfaces! I originally had Gestural, for instruments that worked by body capacitance like the theremin or the ondes Martenot, and Tactile, for instruments that worked by touching contacts like the trautonium. But one of my playtesters pointed out the stylophone, where you touch an electrically active stylus to contacts. (Interestingly, it was used on Bowie's "Space Oddity.") Was this a different skill? It seemed sort of akin to Keyboard; but it's not identical, and I had Tuned Percussion for instruments like the xylophone and the glockenspiel, rather than calling them Keyboard. And it was different enough from the trautonium (where you slide your finger along a wire, pressing it against a metal plate) so that I didn't think they could be subsumed in the same category. But what to call this one, if not Tactile?

One option was just to use the names of the instruments—Theremin, Trautonium, Stylophone—the way I used Lute or Horn. But most of these names are seriously unfamiliar! Another, which I think I may settle on, was to describe the control input on the device: theremins are Antenna-Based, trautonia are Slider-Based, and stylophones are Contact-Based or Stylus-Based. On the other hand, I could use the instrument names and put the control surface into the short definition.


This morning I sent in my revisions to the current version of GURPS Templates Toolkit 2: Races, a guide to designing "races" in GURPS and writing them up. For this purpose, "races" includes animal companions, vehicles defined as Allies (one of the options under the rules), robots, self-aware software, and spirits and other supernatural beings, so there was a lot to cover. This book is being fast-tracked for quick release; page layout has already been done, and changes had to fit within the existing pages, so new wording had to be tight.

We've reached the official end of the playtest for my other book, GURPS High-Tech: Electricity and Electronics, and I'm going to be spending a couple of weeks going over it for issues ranging from new content to style consistency. This is getting more normal treatment and a later release, and it's a less central book; about 80% of it is a huge catalog of gear for adventurers, though there are also new rules for a number of things relating to the subject matter.

Last month was busy!

as the crow flies

Yesterday afternoon I went out for a walk, part of it along the large street that curves along the railroad tracks that run by us. There were two crows sitting on the tracks, and then one of them took off, flew upward, and then plunged down over the street, and up again over the buildings on the far side, in a huge aerial U. Then it reversed direction and flew back.

As I was walking back up our street at the end, I saw a crow, possibly the same one, doing a similar U-shaped flight over that street.

All this was a pleasure to watch; the maneuvers were really dramatic. It looked as if the crows (or the same crow in two places) were flying like that for the sheer joy of flying; and also as if they were showing off their aerial prowess.

a feast unknown

One of the things I do as a copy editor is to correct typos and other spelling errors. The paper I'm now working on—a study of genetic defects in animal models—had an unusually memorable one:

Mouse breading and care.


Not long after we moved to Riverside, C and I discovered that Ralph's carried cartons of cashew carror ginger soup. That sounded appealing—all three named ingredients were things we like—and we tried it and have made it one of our recurring quick lunch dishes.

Just last week, I was at Trader Joe's (I go there every few weeks for various specific purchases) and I saw that they had their own brand of cashew carrot ginger soup. Well, I've generally had good luck with them, so I bought a carton, and today we tried it.

I'm sorry to say it was a big disappointment! In the first place, it was much more watery, without the creamy texture we were used to. But worse, it was a lot sweeter; it tasted almost like carrot flavored candy. We actually agreed to pour it down the drain and come up with something else for lunch.

So it's back to the usual brand, Pacific. I'll pick some up on my next grocery run.

strange visitor

Yesterday there was an unexpected knock at our door, and when I answered it, I saw a woman with a clipboard. I asked what I could do for her, and she said she was there to give us a phone.

I didn't recall having ordered or requested a phone, and neither did C, so I asked why we were getting one. She explained that some branch of state government was delivering phones to people in economic need, such as people who received Medi-Cal or Social Security.

Well, I said, we do both receive Social Security, but we already have two cell phones and a landline, and we really have no use for any more.

She started telling us about things we could do with a phone, including making emergency calls and playing music. But everything she named was something we already had devices for—often several of them, as with playing music, where we have half a dozen or so. I asked C if she had any use for another phone, and when she said no, I said that we really had no use for another phone and didn't want one. Give it to someone who actually doesn't have a phone, I said.

The woman seemed quite baffled that we would turn down something free, whether or not we had a use for it.

further news

Over the past week or so, my two current projects for Steve Jackson Games have been officially unveiled. GURPS High-Tech: Electricity and Electronics is a guide to the evolution of electrical technologies, from Leyden jars to 3D printers, with a catalog of lots of devices that player characters might want, or that might be cool features for a Patron's or Enemy's HQ. GURPS Template Toolkit 2: Races is a complement to the previous volume on occupational and cultural templates; it covers the racial template, meta-traits, and zero-point features, and adds a couple of new traits—probably the most important is Signals, which allows turning things like light flashes, color changes, electrical pulses, or pheromones into the equivalent of speech for exotic aliens.

GURPS Template Toolkit 2: Races is being fast tracked, going directly to final draft edit without a formal playtest. I've just sent in my review of the edited final draft, with a couple of small proposed revisions and some copy editing; now it goes through page layout, and if all goes well it well be out in a month or two, I think. I'm hoping it will be useful to a lot of people.

GURPS High-Tech: Electricity and Electronics is going through a standard playtest—more accurately, a peer review—and playtesters are being recruited now through the SJ Games Web site. I'm glad to see this happening; I did a lot of research (one of the things I like best about writing for GURPS!), but I'm sure there are people who know more than I do about current technology, or can provide more accurate figures on things list cost and weight.

I have thoughts about further projects, but I'm going to hold off on discussing them with anyone at SJ Games till these two are reaching the final stages.

modest proposals

I see that the proposal to abolish student loan debt is gaining a lot of popularity with the Democratic Party. On one hand, this seems to be mainly a huge subsidy to the upper middle class, who are likely to have attended more expensive colleges and to have higher student loan debt—which of course is exactly what a public choice theorist would predict as a likely real result of government policy, so much of which is created by the upper middle class in the first place. On the other, it's going to be a big hit to the financial system, and to people who have funds in the financial system as a source of financial security. In fact, it's effectively a net transfer of wealth from middle-aged people and retirees to their adult children. It seems to be exactly the "abolition of debts" that James Madison thought the Constitution would protect us against as an "improper and wicked scheme."

So I had two thoughts on ways to mitigate the harmful effects of such a proposal:

First, declare that cancelling a loan is legally a taking of the creditor's property for public use (a loan being an asset to the lender). It therefore must be paid for at fair market value with public funds. That may already be legally necessary, and the question of raising taxes to pay for it may simply not be coming up.

Second, to avoid subsidizing the privileged, set an upper limit on the amount of loan debt that is affected. Make it, say, $40,000 (or $10,000 for each year of a four-year degree). That will work just fine for anyone who went to a state university (which includes some extremely good schools such as the University of California); but it's a fraction of the likely debt of someone who went to an Ivy League school. Statistically it's going to be a lot better at targeting the working class.

nobody tells us anything

A minor news item I saw earlier today mentioned some upcoming event that was going to begin under the reign of Emperor Akihito and end under that of Naruhito. I hadn't heard anything about Akihito's reign ending. A quick search revealed that he's planning to abdicate on 30 April of this year, and that his son will take the throne on 1 May; this will be the first such succession in more than 200 years.

I hadn't seen anything about it in American news media, which seem to be totally focused on our own internal political squabbles. On one hand that's a case for paying more attention to overseas news sources, but on the other, why wasn't it in the news as soon as the announcement was made? Or am I just not looking at the right sources?


The Libertarian Futurist Society has just announced its choice of finalists for best novel of 2018. After a lot of debate in the screening committee on several procedural issues, we ended up with our customary five finalists:

Causes of Separation, by Travis Corcoran, is the sequel to his The Powers of the Earth, which won last year's Best Novel award. The first volume was the build-up of tensions between Earth and the expatriate colony at Aristillus; this volume is the actual war, and it's very effectively told—Corcoran has the trick of putting you into the mind and the emotions of people engaged in combat. It's ironic, in a novel whose protagonist is an anarchist, but I feel that one key scene, where Mike Martin, thinking the war is lost, appeals for the lives of the lunar colonists, shows him as the True King in the mythic or fantasy sense; that scene does more to make him a heroic figure than anything earlier in the books.

The Kingdom of the Wicked, by Helen Dale, was a surprise for me, but a happy one: The trial of Yeshua ben Yusuf in an alternate timeline where Rome developed advanced technology and experienced an Enlightenment leading to free markets and the abolition of slavery. In the same way that The Lord of the Rings can be seen as hard science fiction based on comparative philology, this can be taken as hard science fiction based on legal history, with its exploration of what form classical liberalism might have taken in a society based on paganism and Roman law rather than Christianity and common law. Dale makes ingenious use of the Gospels in putting her story together and brings many of their characters to life. I'm seriously debating whether to rank this one first or second (after Corcoran), for the sheer interest of the author's theme.

State Tectonics, by Malka Older, is the third in a series that began with Infomocracy. I couldn't bring myself to read the first volume; the title put me off, with its clumsy portmanteau of info- (from information, which ought to be split as in-form-ation) and -mocracy (from democracy, which ought to be split as demo-cracy). Having read the third one, I find the prose style fairly appealing, with loan words mixed into its future English, but I'm less happy with the characterization; the viewpoint characters are women from multiple cultures, but I found it hard to remember which was which or see any cultural differences between them. And I don't think this is remotely libertarian; its concern is with who should exercise political power and how, with a scheme involving division of the world into local governments of 100,000 people each, but all autonomy seems to rest with those voting units, not with individuals—there's no suggestion of any concern with how to limit political power. I expect to rank this below No Award.

The Fractal Man, by J. Neil Schulman, has the opposite problem. It's clearly libertarian, and clearly science fiction. In fact, it's very focused on the libertarian science fiction community of several decades ago, in the way that "The Number of the Beast—" is focused on science fiction or the Divine Comedy on medieval Italian politics. But I don't really feel that it works as a novel, because it lacks meaningful conflict or suspense; its protagonists advance from victory to victory and empowerment to empowerment. It was like reading the sort of fanfic that's been nicknamed "Mary Sue," even if the Mary Sue character is not so much the author as one of his oldest friends, now no longer with us; it was an effort for me to keep advancing the pages to the end. I expect to rank this below No Award.

The Murderbot Diaries, by Martha Wells, is actually a series of four novellas, which the judges decided to classify as a single work of novel length. At this point I've read the first and fourth volumes. I expect to read the other two before I vote; based on what I've read so far, though, I'm not expecting this to be my top choice—I don't feel enough involvement with the protagonist to get caught up either in the action or in the internal conflict. Wells's writing is adequate but I can't anticipate ever wanting to read this series again (whereas, for example, I've read Corcoran three or four times already and expect to go back for more in the future).