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Sunday 27 November 2016

NaNoWriMo Thoughts - Relating

So there's no romantic subplot (or main plot) in my NaNoWriMo novel.

I've heard it said many times that every story has to contain romance. At least a touch of it, somewhere. Depending on the content of the story, this can seem very bolted-on; a character that exists solely for the purpose of the main character to moon over and eventually reunite with, an immediate and irresistible attraction between two main characters that are otherwise basically unsuited for each other.

I tend to write with the notion of romance and romantic relationships as an option, rather than a necessity. What this means is that if I want to explore human emotion, I get to do so without it being framed in the same old parameters.

It's long been my theory that a lot of relationships in media  - books, films, comics, TV - a lot of them are what people think we want relationships to be, and not what relationships actually are. There's precious few examples of people just existing around each other comfortably. There's plenty of whirlwind romances and petty jealousies and all of that other good stuff - hell, if one was taught about romance strictly from the media, you'd be forgiven for thinking that no lasting relationship can survive without raging arguments and at least one experiment in infidelity.

The thing is, we have non-romantic relationships with far more people at any one time than we do romantic - most of the time. We just know more people that we're not into like that. They're the ones we work with, exist around. Until we cohabit with people we are in a relationship with (one or more, that's right poly people, I haven't forgotten you), we tend to live with people we aren't madly in love with, too. Given how fucked the household situation is in this country, the classic model of getting married young and moving into your own little place is more and more becoming a pipe dream anyway.

So why not explore their importance? Why not explore camaraderie, friendship? Sympathy and empathy without romantic subtext? Someone caring about someone else, and that being enough?

That hasn't actually been much of a challenge.

Each of the characters relate to each other in a different way. Captain Drake is fiercely protective of her people, like an older sibling. Corporal Lachesca (SHE GOT A PROMOTION) and Private Jian are joined in grief by the loss of a friend, though Jian has a far easier time in expressing their feelings than Chex does. Emway Callista-Raus dislikes people because they are messy, but she finds some of them infectiously easy to get along with. Engie gets along with literally EVERYONE. Sandy feels that her two best friends in the entire galaxy are on a totally different level to her, and wonders if they are ever insecure about anything. Lieutenant Colonel Cadenza nurtures an air of calm control, which very occasionally cracks when in the presence of people like Captain Drake.

I read through the story and I don't find myself wishing that there was more romance. I find myself wondering if someone else would wish there was more romance.

But then I suppose that is what fanfiction is for.

Saturday 19 November 2016

NaNoWriMo Thoughts - Dramatis Personae

So while the last two blogs on this topic have been about topics relevant to my National Novel Writing Month project, this one is about the characters.

I decided to go with a variety of focus characters, and stick to their traits and points of view. No omniscient third person. Three of them actually military personnel - two commissioned officers and one enlisted soldier. An actuary, who runs numbers for military  purposes. Finally, a scientist, whose invention literally gives the title to the book: the Bridge.

Lieutenant Colonel Amber Cadenza is a living legend. A defensive genius and a strategist without compare - behind her back, they call her The Line, because you don't cross it - what she lacks in raw magnetism, she makes up for in reputation alone. Tall, a little stooped, grey hair, sallow and gaunt - her left eye is a cybernetic replacement. She could have had one that looked just like her natural right, but instead decided to go for a very obvious augmetic, so everyone would know it was there. She is not given over to displays of emotion, but those that are closest to her know that it is a deliberate, professional decision, not a flaw of psyche. Nobody really knows where she is from, but if asked, she'd reveal that her place of birth was a small orbital station right on the border between the Republic of the Empty Throne and their aggressors, the Empire Sanguine.

Captain Forenza Drake talks loud and acts louder. Strong in every sense, she is a born soldier, who thrived on every step of the ladder all the way from boot camp to Captain. Broad shouldered, tautly muscled and solidly jawed, she has a ready smile, grey-blue eyes and dark hair almost always razored short. Her enthusiasm and fearlessness is infectious, and nobody who has gone to battle by her side is left without a strong impression. War runs in her blood, and she listens to it closely at all times. She's the daughter of a very influential council member, something she'd far rather forget; as such she's spent a lot of her life moving around the Republic, seeing a lot of the worlds that she fights upon.

Private Alejandra "Chex" Lachesca is a career soldier, who signed up because she knew that somebody had to, and is making the best of it. Her sense of humour has been described as sick and dark, and her tight friendship with Private Roscoe Gunnarsen - whose own tastes verge on the morbid - only helps to reinforce the image. Her large family is heavily involved in the military. They hail from the world of Vayete, a stunning planet of natural beauty and breathtaking architecture. Most citizens of Vayete - Chex and Roscoe included - are bedecked with tattoos, in a tradition that goes back to the Emptying of the Throne.

Strategic Actuary Emway Callista-Raus knows people, and she knows numbers. She's an expert on the application of statistical analysis to warfare, and utilising the facts and figures that result to provide insight into proper strategy. Numbers make sense; everything fits together, even the more esoteric elements. It all makes sense. Certainly, a lot more sense than people - who frustrate Emway eternally. She has an air of anger, simply due to her frustrations at social convention. She is an Orbiter, pale, well-used to microgravity, and thrives under the strictures of hierarchy and order.

Professor Sandovar "Sandy" Marsh has a gift of her own. Her work on the mechanical and chemical operation of the brain has led to her development of the Marsh Bridge - or as she prefers to call it, the Bridge - which was initially an attempt to grant human beings senses and capabilities that didn't so much replace or augment those they already possessed, but added to the already sizable inload. Socially shy but confident with familiarity, she hails from the Throneworld; previously the core world of the Totality that the Republic had emerged from, it was the Republic's capital, the jewel in the crown of a government built on egalitarian ideals.

All of them are joined in an endeavour, along with a short-strength battalion of troops, an equivalent number of scientists, engineers and medical personnel, and the ship's crew of the Rex-class cruiser Strong Right - the endavour: to make the Bipedal Personal Tank Unit a reality.

As such, they all know each other.

The Lieutenant Colonel has a significant respect for Captain Drake. Forenza reminds Amber of her when she was in the officer's academy. She even likes her, though she finds her headstrong attitude a cause for concern. Chex is one of her soldiers, and she has a great many of those to command, but she does her best; knowing their full names and where most of them come from, in her opinion, is a basic sign of respect for soldiers ready to die on her word. She finds Emway to be reliable, if not a touch alien - though she sympathises with the lack of warmth, she wonders if it might not actually impede her work at times. As for to balance the paradox of the inventor and co-developer of a war machine without peer, who balks at the sight of blood? If Drake is Amber fresh out of the academy, then Sandy is Amber from childhood, wherein bloodshed was a refusable notion.

Drake worships the Lieutenant Colonel. A true legend. She is everything Drake could ever hope to become, though she does take issue at how prosaic the commanding officer can be. Having spent time around Chex and the other members of her platoon, she enjoys their dark sense of humour - Captain Drake was never adverse to mixing it up with the troops. She almost has a reputation for doing so. At first, Emway grated on Drake's nerves, if only due to her apparent influence over a military operation after never having fought a single battle, but having to work together smoothed out that particular relationship. Sandy confuses Dake. How could someone have the guts to invent the coolest piece of equipment ever, but be afraid to say boo to a goose?

Chex sees Amber Cadenza as some immovable monolith, the fixed point in the galaxy around which her personal universe is beginning to spin - and if the Lieutenant Colonel is the fixed point, then Drake is the shining star. Very fond of her fellow soldiers, Chex can't help but love the Captain. She hasn't had a lot of contact with Emway, but would probably find her cold and surprisingly trusting of her mathematics in the face of real trouble. Sandy is almost like a younger sister to her. She's done a great thing but is scared of it, and Chex wants her to take pride rather than feel doubt.

Emway has a distinct respect for Lieutenant Colonel Cadenza, as much for her composure and her dedication to the solution of military problems as for her reputation. There is a humility and sobriety there that simply doesn't exist in Captain Drake - who exhausts her by virtue of her boundless extroversion. Chex is a soldier - and her job is to make sure that soldiers do THEIR jobs effectively. As for Sandovar Marsh, she hopes that the scientist has the fortitude to see her creation to its greatest potential conclusion.

Out of all of the scientific staff aboard the Strong Right, Sandy has the most contact with the upper echelons of the military. She is confused and humbled by Amber Cadenza's praise and belief in her work, and puzzled yet enthused by Captain Drake's infectious spirit - though the weight of what her work has done to the former troubles her. The simple respect of the soldiery is appreciated, though, and Chex has been one of the many that have expressed as such. Emway is the reason why her work could happen at all - but the distance created by a mathematical solution handing her the tools to do the job means she sees the Strat-Act as working on a different level to her entirely.

They are of course not the only players in the game. The war isn't ever fought solo. They are surrounded by friends, colleagues, rivals and supporters, even in the little sealed universe that is the Strong Right.

But they are the core, and I kind of love all of them.

Sunday 13 November 2016

NaNoWriMo Thoughts - Rewriting The History Books

It is only recently that the common abuse method known as gaslighting has come into the public eye as being as prevalent and controlling as it really is.

If you aren't sure what gaslighting is, then - for a grossly simplified example, and please don't think I am trying to trivialise the effect this has on people - imagine the episode of Star Trek where the Cardassians are trying to mentally break Captain Picard. The constant demand, telling him there are five lights, when there are only four.

(It's from Chain Of Command, a two-parter from Season 6 of Star Trek TNG. You can find a clip of it right here. Warning, it is a bit traumatising.)

The purpose of the method is to try and convince Picard that his senses can't be trusted - that his sanity isn't quite what he thinks it is. The point isn't to make him think that there are five lights. The point is to make him see four lights, but accept without question that there are actually five, because that is what he is being told by the Cardassians responsible.

This is in itself a reference to Nineteen Eighty-Four, a work that every single one of you should be familiar with. If you aren't - go and read it, right now. It is important. George Orwell's writing is vital to understanding how the world works. Anyway. In Nineteen Eighty-Four Winston is given exactly the same treatment, except it is fingers rather than lights, and instead of the evil and bastardly Cardassians, it is a fellow human being - O'Brien - that is ravaging his grip on reality.

Gaslighting is this, except the way it is deployed in an abusive relationship is different. It is subtler, more low-key. Fine details are adjusted, just slightly, by the abuser. (You'll note I am not putting any labels on this relationship. It can happen between most anyone.) Those details are at odds with what actually happened, but after dispute and repetition - eventually, the abused capitulates and accepts the version of events that the abuser is setting forth. Even if they know that it isn't how it happened.

It starts off as, perhaps, being a case of not wanting to argue the point. They just see it differently. We can both be right. That's fine. That isn't often where it stops, though.

It turns into something a lot nastier, because after the first success, the abuser knows that they can do it - and so they turn it to their advantage with confidence. All of those times where you had a valid complaint or greivance, the abuser can turn to make YOU seem to be the one in the wrong. They weren't deserving of your wrath. You're out of control, clearly. You have these terrible temper tantrums. That isn't what happened, why would you make that up? And so it goes. (It actually makes me kind of angry just to type this stuff knowing that it has happened to people I care about. And hell, it may still BE happening to some of them.)

In the end, the goal is the same. It is just achieved under the veneer of care. No Room 101 in this gaslighting, and no Cardassian brig with four lights. Just a place where you are meant to feel safe and welcome, which is being twisted to the ends of the abuser.

Recognising shit like this for what it is, is really important. It's something you can often only pick up through experience, but when you know - you know. It means that at first sign of it happening, you stomp it out quick or you walk away. And if you see it happening to someone you care about, hell, maybe even someone you don't care about at all, you tell them.

How does this tie into my NaNoWriMo project? Well, in this form, it doesn't. I just thought I'd give you a rundown because I love you all and I want you to be safe from this kind of fuckery.

Now from the personal scale, we move into the macro. Cultural hegemony.

It's a bit of Marxist (the political one, not the funny one) philosophy that involves the worldview of those in charge being made to be the worldview of those who aren't, regardless of validity. Cultural hegemony is a massive part of Nineteen Eighty-Four - hell, Winston works for the department that actually goes back and rewrites all the newspapers.

There's a difference between a cultural hegemony and an authoritatian society. The latter doesn't care if you believe it - it is here to make sure you do what you are told. You can think whatever you like, as long as obey the law. It is easier for the powers that be if you DO go along with it, mind - but if you just toe the line, you're one less head they have to crack with a rifle butt.

Often, an authoritarian society with a real view of control and a significant means of achieving it will try and engage in cultural hegemony. Things given a touch, an edge, to make their own particular values and culture primary over all others. It is rarely something that can be made perfect, in this day and age, but it can be made well enough that it sits as a veneer over the everyday information that people absorb as they go about their lives. If nobody has the wherewithall to question it, then it starts to become the truth.

Don't believe it can happen? Well, here's a few examples of exactly why it can.

The Mandela Effect is another trending thing. This has been documented all over the place. The number of people who truly believed, not just kind of thought but truly believed, that Nelson Mandela had died in prison - and were surprised to see that he hadn't - is astonishing. Likewise, the number of people who blot out the K in Chick-Fil-A, or think the Bearenstain Bears were actually the Bearenstein Bears. All of these things are (or were) commonly held misconceptions that people genuinely believed were the absolute truth. Each of them is small in its own way, but an indication that actually, the truth can be bent out of shape.

Here's another experiment. How many states of matter are there? Three, right? Solid, Liquid and Gas - we're all taught that in school, and we're shown the examples with ice-water-vapour. Except - there's four that we can see every day of our lives and a lot more that we know exist. That fourth common one is plasma, and you see it every day if you go out in sunlight, every time there is a lightning storm, and every time you look at a neon sign. You only learn about these later on in one's education - because you can't really absorb the complexity of a lot of things when you start learning about the sciences - but then, what if your education ends there? You spend the rest of your life thinking there are only three states of matter. As the vast majority of the human race do.

I'm not saying that not teaching middle-schoolers about Bose-Einstein condensates is an attempt to cynically manipulate their worldview to make them a more malleable populace. I'm saying that what we are taught in school is often taught in stages of complexity, and that if further complexity isn't reached, then the rest of our lives are spent being convinced that the simplified version is the whole story. That is if we are taught the right thing at all. I was taught that Pluto was a planet, after all. Even if the actual scientific or objective fact of a matter changes, unless that filters out to the perspective of others, it won't change the views of the people.

These are all ways in which people's worldview can be knocked aside from objective truth, but let's face it, they aren't exactly government sponsored - and the actual information available counters the beliefs in question. As a thought experiment, though...

What if, one day, someone tells you they were reading their bible and they had taken great comfort in Jesus feeding the six thousand? And you think, wait, that's meant to be five thousand, surely. And you go and look up the bible passage online, because hey, not everyone actually owns a copy of it anymore. And sure enough, there Jesus is in the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke AND John, feeding the six thousand. You frown. That doesn't sound right. So you go to the library to take out a bible there, to check up. They're awaiting new stock, apparently the last one was recalled. You wait a week, take out the new one, read up on it. Yes. Six thousand. Right there, Luke chapter nine. Oh. You seem to remember your gran's old bible saying something different? But the overwhelming evidence... and sure enough, in ten years, your grandkids are making jokes at Christmas dinner about you making enough food to feed the six thousand.

(As an aside there is a second feeding in the gospels of Matthew and Mark - the four thousand. I bet that's something you didn't know. So depending on who you ask, Jesus fed either five or nine thousand with loose change. In terms of scale, that's almost doubling his efficacy.)

Now imagine that same principle, but applied to history, and applied to every example of the culture of those in power. Imagine the criticism minimised, the failings sidelined or palmed off on something else. Imagine all the strong contentions against the way of life they profess being written out of history. Imagine the aggrandisation of everything that proves they were right all along.

Imagine that taking place over decades, centuries. Imagine it being so prevalent that it is in every schoolbook, in every historical reference. Imagine it being so quiet that nobody questions, and so accepted that nobody fights, nobody even thinks to fight.

I could at this point make a snide point about Capitalism and Communism - about the dirty work done to the term Feminist up until recently, and how the word Patriotism is used to mean Nationalism in certain circles.

But then we don't live in the kind of culture within which the leaders and success stories want us to believe the same things as them, do we?

This blog here is about people validating their life choices by being incredulous when others don't agree with them. This blog here is about why we don't learn about politics in school. This blog here is about how people's general beliefs about money are kinda wrong. This blog here is about how our conception of what success is has been shaped by our monetised society. Finally, this blog here is about how wealthy folks worry that we think like they do, so they defend themselves first, and others second.

Maybe it's just me.

Saturday 5 November 2016

NaNoWriMo Thoughts - Power Armour

Hands up if you know me.

Hands up if you know I have a huge crush on the concept of power armour.

Mostly the same amount of hands up, then.

Introduced to us as a concept back in the very early 20th century, power armour is a scifi staple. It runs from the improbable and highly fantastic, through to the more feasible and realistic. In movies, the contrast is visible in The Edge Of Tomorrow (essentially primarily just harnesses that increase lifting power and reduce recoil) and Iron Man (incredibly advanced and packing more bleeding-edge technology than your average Cyberpunk novel).

It's great stuff. A combination of protecting one's own soldiery and also allowing them to carry and manage heavier weapons, it is surely the military hardware of the future. A singular part of war is the capacity of a soldier to carry their equipment, which again would be amplified by power armour - though the commensurate increase in logistics would probably counterbalance their usefulness to a point.

So, why don't we have squads of MJOLNIR-equipped Royal Marines stomping all over the place?

Quite simply, there's bits of the technology that holds us back. We need certain things, certain kinds of technology to be available and widely researched in order to construct true power armour. There's a lot of similar projects in development right now that are similar - just take a look here for some examples, notables include Cyberdyne's HAL-5 and the Honda ex-legs project. Most of them take on the visage of the exoskeletons that are prevalent in the near-future presented in The Edge Of Tomorrow, though are far less advanced than the equipment presented in the book it is based on by Hiroshi Sakurazaka, All You Need Is Kill. (The novel comes highly recommended, by the way. Track it down.)

I'm not a scientist or an engineer. So my opinion, as always, needs to be taken with a pinch of salt. With those cards on the table, what do I think needs to happen to let us get on the board in terms of power armour?

The two primary issues, in my eyes, are power source and control mechanism.

In order for such armour to be useful, it needs to be able to perform with high responsiveness for a short period of time, and with low responsiveness for a long period of time. Military life is often described humourously as "hurry up and wait". It takes less energy to just move from one place to another, to get rom Point A to Point B and carry some things on the way - but far more time is going to be spent doing that, than in the middle of a fracas, which would require a lot of energy.

The idea of a small generator being attached to a fighting suit is less feasible than a suit being fitted with capacitors to be charged from an external source. So what is needed is capacitors, high capacity, quick to charge, and capable of variable output. There's a lot of study going on in this area. It's just a difficult balancing act - capacity and charging efficacy both come at a cost of weight and bulk, and finding the happy medium between them would be the solution. Where to put it on the suit, too, is a consideration - though just for balance purposes, I would think a distributed network of capacitors around the legs and hips.

The existence of the Formula E racing league - fully electrical cars tht can run at 140mph for an entire race and are recharged from glycerine - is proof that there's a lot that can be done with straight electrical power. If it can be monetised, it will be developed. Given that the new Renault electric car's battery is rented to the user rather than sold, let's face it - monetising is already happening.

The control mechanism? ...well that's a little harder.

If you want a suit of armour that can exert several tons of pressure at your command, you need to make sure it is going to go where you want to - that it isn't going to exert that pressure on you or on its own structure, and that there's going to be as little a delay as possible in transmission of command and execution of command.

Having it strapped to you, and reacting to pressure cues, is both simple and risky. The HULC system developed my Lockheed and Ekso Bionics uses footpad sensors that feed back into a microcomputer. This is great if all it is doing is moving at the same time as your legs and holding a backpack. A full body suit? Far more complicated.

Until we can get electronic control systems to the point where they can transfer motion commands from, say, a body suit to a limb possessing at least 8 actuators with accuracy - and allow for subtle variantions of motion, and ALSO allow for tactile and haptic feedback - well, Iron Man is beyond us. It's just not something we can do.

That's not a forever problem, in my opinion. That's a now problem. It just needs work.

In my National Novel Writing Month project, power armour features heavily. Even in the unspecified highly-futuristic time of the novel, it is a relatively new development. That is more down to efficiency of cost and training than anything else - but still, I hope it can demonstrate the complexity of such a system.

Keep dreaming, folks.