The Area of My Expertise

There’s an old post on Charles Stross’s blog about how many people you need to maintain given tech levels.  Comments there are closed–the post is from midsummer 2010–so I’m going to talk here about something I saw there.

Most of the discussion goes way over my head.  Metallurgy, chemistry, electronics: none of these are stuff I’m good at.  But one commenter hit right in the middle of one of my specialties, that being fiber technology.

He says something along the lines of, “We don’t need silk and rayon and nylon and all that; cotton and wool and we’re good to go, maybe data on a few synthetics in case there’s something there that eats cotton or wool.”


First: if you’re going to take only one plant fiber (and he’s ignoring the fact that he already mentioned hemp), linen is a vastly better choice than cotton.  It doesn’t deplete the soil nearly as much, is vastly easier to harvest, process and spin, is stronger, and has desirable qualities such as “doesn’t kill you if your linen garment gets wet on a chilly day”.  About the only downside of linen is that it’s hard to dye, and our ancestors spent literally millenia using linen for the plain next-to-body layers and wool for the bright public layers (in areas where they were using sheep’s wool rather than silk, alpaca, camel…).

Second: Yes, you really do need silk.  For all the things you’re not using rayon for, or did you think you were going to make your lightweight backpack out of wool or (linen) canvas?  Silk is a polymer, essentially plastic manufactured in bug guts rather than in a big tub.  Its big drawback is the amount of work it takes to make it useful, and that’s not tough (for the values of “tough” that a society contemplating interstellar colonization must consider) to automate.  The food silkworms require, mulberry leaves, even comes from a plant that produces useful human food too.  And silk is great for all sorts of things, including clothes that are warm without being bulky and fabric that takes dye easily.

Third: You need synthetic fibers for things other than clothing.  Rope, fr’instance.  And also that lightweight backpack, though you might sensibly choose to make that out of the organically-manufactured silk rather than the industrially-manufactured synthetics.

I think what we have here is a case of someone assuming that the fiber is a simple field, because it’s something that low-tech people and women do, and making further, reductive assumptions therefore.  It’s irritating.  I mean, I don’t know much about metallurgy but I don’t claim we can get by with just copper and iron, either.

Yet More Equations

I think I’ve come up with a way to rewrite The Cold Equations so that it makes the point the original author was actually going for, rather than pointing out that bureaucratic stupidity is just as stupid as, and more likely to get people killed than, regular stupidity.  I’m not sure, but I’ll post it if it works out.


Reading Steve Stirling’s The Protector’s War again, and I don’t know why I didn’t notice this last time through.

On page 93, Eilir’s horse, a mare, is Celebroch and Astrid’s is Asfaloth–logical, these two are Tolkien freaks.  On page 95, the horses are respectively Undomiel and Elessar–presumedly meaning that Astrid’s is a stallion or gelding, as I can’t see her naming her animal with the wrong gender, except that in Dies the Fire, where the horses are introduced, they’re both mares.  Page 97, Astrid’s horse is back to being Asfaloth.  Grn.

I’m fine with him having issues with horse gender; it’s the kind of detail that can easily slip through.  But given such distinctive words as Celebroch, Asfaloth, Undomiel and Elessar, would not a global search-and-replace have made sense?

A Genre Term

On rec.arts.sf.written, they were trying to come up with a good term for “modern horror/fantasy, female protagonist with some sort of unusual power(s), likely with a complex personal life and a willingness to Break the Rules”.  Exemplars are Buffy, Anita Blake, Dead Witch Walking et sequelae, the vampire books with Sooky Stackhouse, Robin McKinley’s recent Sunshine.

The best candidate so far?  “Witchfulfillment”.

I love smart people.

Serenity–The Real Review

Now that my seething hatred of Joss Whedon and all his works has subsided a bit, I’m going to actually review the movie.

Setup: Malcolm Reynolds fought on the losing side in a civil war.  Eight years later, he has a rundown ship, with which he and his crew take on not-very legal jobs on the outskirts of the society that beat his side.  Two of the crewmembers are fugitives from the government: a doctor and his little sister, who was experimented on by a Top Sekrit Project to produce a telepathic supersoldier.  The experiments suceeded, in that the little sister is very dangerous and telepathic, but she’s also a whack job on a fairly regular basis.

The plot revolves around River, the sister; as the Operative sent to retrieve her says, “You had ‘key members of Parliament’ here, and you put them in the same room with a telepath.”  She’s discovered a secret that the government doesn’t want known, that being that they killed 30 million people on a colony planet, essentially by accident.  They put a drug in the air supply that was supposed to make people calm and passive…and it did, so much so that all the colonists just sat down, stopped eating and starved to death.  Except, of course, for the small percentage who became utterly mad, psychopathic flesh-eating Apache/zombies.  (The Firefly universe is essentially a western, and in this western the Indian-analogues really are going to eat you alive, rape you to death, and use your skin for leather.)  In the end, the crew manages to get evidence of this atrocity out to the public in general, at the cost of several crewmembers’ lives.

I have already mentioned how angered I was by Wash’s death, so I am not going to go into it further except to state that I wonder what it is about Joss that has made him decide that no happy relationship can go unpunished.

Granted that the diagram we’re shown of the solar system they inhabit is inside the head of a young lady who is not precisely sane; still, River’s the type who would have that sort of thing accurate even while her fantasy teacher is stabbing her in the head.  We must assume that the clearly-out-of-scale system circles a large, young, hot star with a habitable zone several dozen AU in radius, starting much further out than Sol’s.  I still suspect that the orbital dynamics just aren’t going to work.

We also have to say that the colonists left Earth before developing their terraforming technology; otherwise they could have fixed whatever went wrong.  As there is no evidence of FTL travel, there’s plenty of time for the generation ships to figure this stuff out on the trip.

Next: Miranda and the Reavers.  Explain again how the death or madness of 30 million people was covered up?  I didn’t quite get it the first time.  Not to mention that Miranda is shown to be out on the edge of nowhere, but it looks like a Core planet in terms of buildings and so forth.  Perhaps it was settled on the sly for the express purpose of testing this drug, with a population drawn from those willing to leave their old lives behind in return for comfort?  Plus, if it’s a drug that made the Reavers mad, how can they make new ones (Bushwhacked)?  Maybe they start secreting the stuff themselves; maybe it really is psychological.

Mr. Universe.  How can a character be a problem, you ask?  That’s exactly it: he’s not a character.  He’s a plot device.  I didn’t care about him, and in the words of Wash “Curse your sudden yet inevitable betrayal!”

River’s final fight with the Reavers was wrong, wrong, wrong.  I am willing to buy that she could take several dozen zombies, even in a space that small.  What bugs me is that she did it starting from what was, for her, the worst possible state: already grabbed.  These (5 or 6) guys should have been chewing on her ankles even as they pulled her away from the door, and someone who weighs less than a hundred pounds has to have a fighting style heavily based on Not Being There–which River does, as witness the bar fight; the one time she gets grabbed, from behind, she kicks the guy in the head to make him let go.  This isn’t going to work on Reavers, who beat PCP users for not noticing when they’re hurt.

That being said, the movie rocks.

It’s got all the things I love Joss for: great characters, great interaction, nonstop action (in the sense of “interesting things happening” rather than “stuff blowing up”) and interesting visuals.  All these little plot nitpicks?  Didn’t occur to me till after the movie.  Even when I was so furious I could hardly see, I wasn’t thinking about the movie as a movie.

Agh Agh Agh Agh Agh

I have just read, in a totally unrelated context, what I must presume to be a spoiler for Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, which I have not yet read.

This is not some little baby spoiler, either; this is “a major character being killed by another major character we thought was on the same side”.  Gah.

There was no way I could have avoided it, either–who bloody knew that a thread on D&D alignment would contain random Harry Potter spoilers?

My motivation for reading the book has just decreased, and I think it’s gone below the critical threshold.  I rather disliked …Order of the Phoenix;  I’m not interested in wading through 1500 pages that’ve been spoiled.


An Empire, grown too gross in dignity,
In far-off systems our scene is laid,
Was riven by an inner mutiny
And racked by Rebels who with blood had paid
To seize the plans most secret to their foes,
And in star-crossing ships flee battle’s field;
This evil power, bringer of great woes,
Could kill the very planets; all must yield.
Therefore, a princess carries home the plans,
With agents of the Empire fell and grim
Upon her track; and she vows, if she can
To relight freedom’s torch that they would dim.
So set the stage, and so our scene will play,
So long ago, and very far away.

A Couple of Shorts

RIVER: If you go there, you will die.


This Is Just To Say
I have given back
the merchandise
that you hired us
to steal

and also
I am returning
the money
you paid us

Forgive me
you didn’t
tell us
it was medicine